It’s six months since my friend Antoinette died, and I think it’s probably okay to ‘tell her story’ now. I mean it’s not likely that breaking confidentiality is relevant. The chances of someone who knew her discovering I’ve ‘told’ are about one in ten million, so I’ll take my chances. Her story relates to things I’ve learned about trauma – that it’s a relative thing, and can be ‘subtle’.
I still do remember how shy and sensitive she was in her twenties. I didn’t know at the time that she’d already had an unreasonable amount of traumatizing experience. She only told me about those hidden parts of her life – the wounds – two years ago. I did suspect, though, that her mother was a controlling one. She came across as a rigid, perfectionistic person, and not surprisingly, her children behaved very formally in her presence – almost as if there were a police officer in the room.
As Antoinette and I were normally together in other contexts, the difference in her behavior with her mother was quite noticeable. So I was not surprised when she told me a few years ago, that when she was young, her mother regularly slapped her face whenever she ‘stepped out of line’ – by mother’s standards.
Antoinette always felt as if she was nervously looking over her shoulder as she lived her life. Her mother was not affectionate, and demanded order and cleanliness. I imagine she was living out her own childhood traumas, having been through the second world war in Europe. The most positive thing she ever said to Antoinette was when she was dying. She said, “You were a good girl.” Like a concession.
So Antoinette spent her life always trying to be good and kind and innocent – very ‘Christian’. She tried to stop all ‘wrong’ thoughts. So for her, when a young woman came onto her sexually, and she had no idea what to do, she experienced this as traumatizing. Even as she told me about it perhaps a year ago, she cried. She still assumed it meant there was something ‘bad’ about her. Back then, in the middle of her shock, and dealing with guilt, lo and behold her ‘perfect’ parents split up. Her father joined a cult and constantly hammered her with his beliefs. She had no mental defenses – having lived her life largely in fear and insecurity – and became an even more vulnerable person.
Poor Antoinette had also been the victim of an extremely ‘permissive’ phase in education, so graduated from high school unable to do fractions or percentages – or even typing. In the seventies, in her late twenties, she sat in my back yard and confided in me that she generally had a hard time finding jobs because of her skill deficit.
She was grateful in her early thirties when Ben fell in love with her, and became beautiful, sweet Antoinette’s protector. Shortly afterward, her parents died, and she began to hear voices. Ben took his terrified wife to a hospital, where she experienced her first admission, and received a diagnosis of ‘schizophrenia’.
For the next few decades Ben was her rock as she was in and out of hospital. To add insult to injury, in her forties she had a major heart attack, and quadruple bypass surgery. Can life be unfair? You bet. Ben died of cancer about seven years ago.
She landed back in the hospital, and from that time until her death in April, she was on a variety of anti-psychotic medications, shots, and fifteen minute visits with her psychiatrist every six to eight weeks or so. As with most conventional psychiatrists, he was in the ‘chemical imbalance’ or ‘biology’ club. So in all those years she didn’t receive talk therapy. She needed some.
Over the last few decades at home, she never left the house unless someone came to get her, help her down the stairs, to drive her to a mall or a doctor’s appointment. With little physical activity, she gradually gained weight until she was over 200 pounds. She was less and less able to get around, often losing her balance. Toward the end, she was often unable even to get to the bathroom fast enough. She was essentially immobilized by her anti-psychotic medications, chronically terrified that the voices might come back, or that she might be hospitalized. And we’ll never know if Antoinette, could have learned to live with her voices like countless people around the world have done.**
If Ben had not left her well taken care of financially, she might have been among the homeless we so often see, with shuffling gate, perhaps talking to an imaginary being. She didn’t choose her state. Like all of us, she was once an adorable, innocent baby. But life conspired against her, to all intents and purposes. Life can be more unfair to some, than to others. And we are not nearly as far from the street ourselves, as we like to think we are.