CW: Anonymity is so inconvenient sometimes. I can’t, for instance, tell you the actual state motto of the 9th Circle of Hell. “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here,” while appropriate, is actually not nearly as morbidly satisfying as the true state motto. If I ever write a memoir of my experiences in Hell – or, better yet, find a way to channel its traumas into some kind of a black-comedy stand-up – the title will simply be the unadulterated state motto. Some things are just too darkly ironic in and of themselves to be able to be embellished by even the most skilled satirist.
That said, the aforementioned “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here” is appropriate enough as a placeholder that any post I write about the 9th Circle of Hell from now until eternity probably warrants a content warning. Keep that in mind. This post is a darkly ironic reminder that trauma really does affect everyone, whether they grew up in Hell or married into the family.
Given my can’t-quite-talk-about-it-but-use-your-imagination childhood, years of bullying at school, multiple experiences of institutional abuse in the state, and the toxic shame of a bully-in-my-brain that for many years convinced me that I was to blame for all those things, I associate the 9th Circle of Hell with abandonment prominently among its many betrayals. In my nightmares, I am forever not just trapped in Hell, but all alone in Hell as in my childhood.
When I started dating, before I met my Partner, I added a few additional examples of how the 9th Circle of Hell could brand me permanently unlovable. There was the series of guys who weren’t awful, but who all either refused to date me or quickly dumped me because just a hint of what went on in the 9th Circle of Hell, the fact that I might have “bad genes,” or some combination of the two, weren’t worth whatever I personally brought to the table. There were the ones who took it a step further: who couldn’t handle confronting that institutional abuse could exist, so chose to tell me that I must either be making it up or too stupid to find the help that “surely existed” before they exited to ensure their safe world view wasn’t perturbed. There was the one whose parents insisted they’d disown him if he “shackled himself to a girl with a subhuman animal for family.” And, of course, there was the guy who saw my past as a plausible justification for the abuse he himself loaded on me. Whether kind or cruel about how they explained it, in the end every relationship I had prior to my Partner ended in some way because no one wanted to marry into the 9th Circle of Hell.
Neither my Partner nor I really view “marriage” as anything other than a legal document to ensure transfer of guardianship and monetary assets should the worst happen. Commitment that hinges on a piece of paper to make it real isn’t really commitment. Neither of us are religious. I grew up with strangers in Hell feeling free to come over at restaurants, to point out that my sibling’s disability stemmed from some crime committed by myself and/or my parents, and to demand that we repent before we caused further affront to God. He grew up with the kind of Southern Evangelical relatives who would have been the ones walking over and saying those things to me if we’d happened to meet at the same Applebee’s. (His parents aren’t like that. That is why they are the only ones in his family we will visit.) Yet, we said traditional Christian vows in our very understated, non-traditional legal binding of our assets:
I, Lavender, take you, Partner, to be my husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.
To my Partner, the words captured commitment better than anything he could write. To me, no words of any kind meant anything until they had survived the same Hell I grew up in. This year has proven he meant the words.
I wish I knew if that is a good thing given the cost. The 9th Circle of Hell can break anyone. Trauma can break anyone. It doesn’t have to be childhood trauma. It doesn’t have to be being personally attacked. It just has to be a situation of real danger to life or personhood for yourself or someone you deeply care about, in which there is no way to fight back. It just has to be any overwhelming and terrifying experience that leaves you feeling helpless. If you are trapped in the 9th Circle of Hell social services web and don’t feel helpless in the face of the constant threats to life and limb of those under its so-called “care,” then you are either one of the perpetrators or you’ve willingly chosen to blame the victim to avoid having to face the horrible facts. My Partner is neither a perpetrator nor a reality denier, which means he’s a trauma victim by default.
If I needed any further proof of that, his response to the 9th Circle of Hell’s latest betrayal would be enough. If it wasn’t clear from my last post, I am not in a good place. My Partner recognized how dissociated and despondent I was and promised me he would handle sending the necessary Hail Mary letters trying to find some emergency placement. He knew I was dangerously not okay, and he was trying to protect me.
He apparently hasn’t been telling me that he, too, is in need of someone to protect him. He’s been trying to protect me from a Hell that I know well there is no protection from, and he’s also not okay. When I recently woke up from one of my inevitable nightmares, I discovered my Partner trembling in front of his laptop at 4am. He’d been up all night trying to send those emails. He was so overwhelmed thinking about what had just happened and the “stakes” of the emails he was trying to write that he couldn’t function. I know that feeling all too well. I don’t want him to know it, too, but it’s clear the 9th Circle of Hell has taught him.
He’s also been having panic attacks, nightmares about the things we’ve seen and heard during the course of the abuse investigation, hypervigilance every time the phone rings because it will be a new crisis, guilt, feelings of uselessness, and thoughts that maybe he needs to see someone about SSRIs for his own “depression.”
He seemed surprised when I suggested that maybe he is starting to show signs of PTSD. His associations of PTSD are all of my trauma responses – dissociation, time loss, toxic shame, abandonment issues, rejection sensitivity – such that he kind of forgets that those are not the only types of PTSD responses. (In fact, my types of trauma responses have only recently even been acknowledged to be PTSD responses. What he’s feeling is more classic, and Complex PTSD is still only an unofficial diagnosis.) He also seems to feel guilty that he is being affected by the 9th Circle of Hell at all, given that I’ve lived through this type of institutional abuse crisis repeatedly – and with layers of childhood trauma and other screwed up experiences on top of it – while he’s just been through a scant few months of it by comparison. He always tells me not to downplay my trauma, but apparently he has been seriously downplaying his so that I won’t add to my time disorientation in Hell the fear that he’ll abandon me because of it.
In my nightmares, I’m always permanently trapped, abused, and alone in the 9th Circle of Hell. But, I can’t picture my Partner ever abandoning me in waking life. He always apologizes after any disagreement, even when there’s a solid case to be made that I’m as much (or more) to blame for it as he is. He says that by doing so I will always know that – while I might be still traumatized by the present-day 9th Circle of Hell – I’m at least not back in my childhood version of it. No one ever apologized for hurting me back then, so every time he voluntarily apologizes to me now, I at least know I’m not alone.
I’m not alone in Hell, but the cost of my Partner’s apparently unshakable willingness to stand by me seems to be that he’s becoming traumatized by it, too. He says I am not to blame for the abuses of the 9th Circle of Hell and that I’m worth its cost. The bully-in-my-brain looks around at everything that has happened just in the past few months and scoffs “no one could ever be worth the cost of being broken by this place.”