When I was perhaps nine or ten, I was in martial arts. Our sensei was a very nice, very mild man of Vietnamese heritage. He was very small, perhaps only 5’1″. He had a rather mousy, almost rattish face that could have looked incredibly scary had he not always worn the same placid, kind smile. He was wiry and thin, small, whiplike and careful. He would spar people of any level, and was very adept at making them feel as though the sparring was teaching them something, not just inflating his ego ridiculously.
One day we were both in the ‘office’ of the dojo (school), and some moving crews were coming in with new mats. A large, burly worker carrying a box about five times my size (9 years old, remember) barged through the door and shouted, “Incoming!”
My sensei, this gentle careful man whom I had never seen raise his voice or act suddenly without measure, hit the floor and threw himself under his desk, slamming his back to the metal bracing against the wall. I was so scared by his sudden movement that I too sat down abruptly and skittered into the closet across from him, knocking a gi down onto my shoulder and lap.
We looked at each other, he and I, and I blinked a few times. He looked at me and realized I had followed him, believed that if he was reacting there had to be danger. Panting, eyes wide, he sat there for a long moment. Then he drew a deep breath and looked away. When he looked back at me, he winked. Suddenly I knew everything was okay.
He climbed out from under the desk, and I stood up and hung back up the gi that I had knocked down. My sensei went off to deal with the delivery man, and I heard him very gently ask him not to use that phrase in the dojo again. The man was a little belligerent, and my sensei very quietly said, “I would prefer not to fear the Viet Cong in my dojo, sir.” It was a powerful moment that stuck with me for years, and I still remember it so clearly.
The thing is, we survivors, we have the same sorts of war wounds. We are not afraid of artillery shells or invading soldiers, true. But we are afraid of hands that touch and suddenly hit to subdue. We are afraid of smiles, and lies. We are afraid of what is said to us, about us, around us, because sometimes we have tried to speak our truth and been denied even the basic human decency of belief and support. We are afraid of the back seats of cars, an unlocked bathroom door, the particular smell of a particular brand of aftershave. We are afraid of a hand on our shoulder, a touch on the back of our head, the intensity on a man’s face as he orgasms.
These are our little war wounds, the thousands of tiny things that startle us. They are not without legitimate cause, not matter how much we wish to dismiss them. Our war wounds have made us cautious, but they have also made us more resilient. We are at times unfazed by the things that would bother others. We are also at times disproportionately bothered. Because something touches one of our painful war wounds, and we recoil.
Now, I suppose I must drop the “we” from my statement, if only to acknowledge that this problem is mine, and I’m not hiding behind some coalition of support I have no proof of. I overreact at times; it isn’t right and it is something I’m working through. When you’ve been to some of these dark places, it’s all too easy to forget that you don’t need to protect yourself with quite so much tenacity; that you don’t need to lash out to protect yourself or assume the worst of an innocent comment. In my world there have been times when there were no innocent comments.
As well, I am conditioned by life to trust my instincts, to see the monsters under the bed. I am not paranoid; they are out to get me. By they, I mean the abusers. The smiling liars. The so-called friends who take our tearful explanations of what has been done to us and turn them against us.
The average person might react mildly to some social slight, the clever twist of words to make them look bad in the eyes of another. They might brush it off. They have not my war wounds. They have not seen how those simple words can utterly destroy a social life, destroy a case with the police for prosecution of a predator, destroy a relationship with deceit. The average person hears “Incoming!” and assumes someone is tossing a book bag or moving a desk. My sensei flung himself under his. The average person hears, “No hard feelings, right?” and thinks of bad sitcoms and lost basketball games. I think of the humiliation of a rape kit and being told it wasn’t “real” rape.
We are wounded fucking soldiers in a war very few give a shit about or care to see. Because if they saw us, saw what we go through – if they gave us slack for withdrawing when someone makes a rape joke or snapping at someone when they use some psychological trick like “for your benefit” or “because I know you can do this” – if they let us slide on these things they would have to acknowledge our wounds. They would have to admit all that’s happened is real, and affected us. Isn’t it easier if we just *snap* get over it? Isn’t it the better thing to do, to be normal again?
We aren’t “normal” any more than my sensei was. We have seen things people shouldn’t have to see, had things done to us that people shouldn’t have to experience. Look me in the eye and tell me that your opinion on a rape scene in a movie would never be changed if someone forced his penis into you. I doubt you can.
But there are some few, some blessed few that are willing to try and see. They’re rare because frankly, it’s not pretty over here. They don’t understand exactly, they can’t, and for fuck’s sake I hope they never do. But they try, and they attempt to understand. They reach for us and shelter us and give us their understanding.
Today this post is for one of those people. He has seen my war wounds and he respects who I am. He has read these words and he watches me flinch and roar and understands why I do. He wrote this for me, and I’m sharing it with you in part because I need other people to know there is some possibility of understanding. In part because this is such a hopeless place to be, feeling so alone and misunderstood and isolated, and this is some glimmer of hope in my life that it doesn’t have to be that way.
He wrote this after I showed him this blog; the writings I keep neatly away from almost everyone in my life outside of the computer. I keep them away because they do not want to see or I do not want them to. I keep them away because it would either hurt their innocence, or because they would cling to their ignorance. I gave him this to read, to understand, and he wrote this.
Not lightly asked
Nor lightly given
It is a map
A violent country
The despairing mountains
The shadows hiding monsters
The treacherous footholds thought safe
The cool lakes, the safe places
Too few. Too few.
And the thin line
A lifetime’s journey
The roundabout lane
Now moving forward
Brave, firey Thunderheart
I see her clear
The fire in the thunder
Now a flickering candle
Now an inferno
The things that violent country
And I stand at the border
Between her country and mine.
Shoulder my pack
Raise my candle as well
Let us travel together
Through the treacherous ways
He calls me Thunderheart.