I grew up in the ether. My parents and their parents grew up in the ether. It was a sweet, seductive haze that created the hypnotic apathy required to survive as pain free as possible. The ether anesthetized us to the truth of the brutal cruelty weaving through our family history. As long as we lived within the ether denial was possible. The brutality of mental illness, addiction and intergeneration abuse was invisible while we breathed the numbing mist around us.
Growing up in the ether, I never knew that my uncle was abusing my aunt, that my grandmother’s hospital stays were due to psychotic breaks rather than “exhaustion” or that what my father did to me in the dark of my bedroom was wrong. No one spoke of these things or acknowledged them in any way. Their long-term inhalation of the ether allowed my parents and prior generations to live their lives without actually seeing large portions of it.
Instead they carried on, wrapped in their ether induced denial, as if all was a jolly dream. We went to church, celebrated holidays and went on summer camping trips as if there was no nighttime raping or behind closed doors punches being thrown. The ether did its job, leaving us all with a smile on our faces and a story of strong family love.
I don’t know why the ether’s siren song was not as strong for me as it was the rest of my family. It worked in my childhood. I never saw my father as a rapist. I was blind to anything being “wrong”. I thought he loved me. The ether would not allow me to blame him, but it did allow me to blame myself. If anything was amiss it was because I wasn’t a good girl. In retrospect, I think that was its downfall.
As my belief that I was an utter failure as a daughter grew, the ether became stronger and heavier around me. That was the only way to keep me in numb denial. I reached adulthood and ventured out into the world. I wasn’t able to successfully master relationships or a career. I watched my family go through their days with quiet, fluid movement. Why did I struggle while they were so peaceful?
I searched my life for the source of evil, but every rabbit trail circled back around to me. The ether wouldn’t allow me to see any source of my problems other than myself and my being evil to my very core. Depression rose up to swallow me whole.
I lived in the ether with my failure and depression for years, looking for ways to rid myself of my evil nature. I wandered through the intoxicating haze, trying to find relief or absolution. But I found none. My hope that I could ever be made good gave out. I wanted to die. It seemed the only escape from a life of perpetual failure.
As I was planning my demise I stumbled across the borderlands of the ether. For the first time I realized there was an outer edge to it. It had an end!
At first I was angry that my family had never told me that the ether had an end. Then, anger was supplanted by curiosity. I stood at the edge for months, watching people live in clear, clean air. There was a clarity to life outside of the ether, things were not made fuzzy by the numbing haze. People were animated, rather than restrained. I saw more emotion in those few months than I had all of my previous years. Was that a good thing? I wasn’t sure. I’d never lived with that kind of a vibrant emotional life.
As I stood watching, my depression continued to grow. In fact, observing life outside the ether seemed to magnify it at an alarming rate. I felt like the ether was suffocating me. Every day was a struggle just to breath. The air on the other side of the misty haze seemed so clear. But in the ether, I felt like I was trying to suck air through mud.
I reached a crisis point. Breathing in the ether became impossible. I was a fish flopping and fighting on dry ground, its gills furiously seeking water to draw in. Staying in the ether meant death. But life outside of it was a terrifying unknown. Do I stay and die? Do I go and hope to survive in a new, mysterious existence?
Desperate for air I flung myself out of the ether, into the clean air. Lying on the ground, catching my breath, I felt memories begin to pour into my brain. My ears were overwhelmed with the arrival of a thousand different screams, moans and cries of terror. The taste of bile and blood filled my mouth. My entire body throbbed with pain.
The price of breathing clear air was a clarity of vision. I no longer had the gift of denial. Instead, I saw the whole horrible truth of my life and the lives of my family.
It took me months to even be able to stand up under the weight of the truth, to soothe the pain enough to be able to draw a breath without feeling like I was setting my lungs afire. I was no longer numb. But I was free.
Sometimes the pain was overwhelming. I tried to go back into the ether several times in order to staunch my bleeding wounds. But I had too much truth in me now. The ether wouldn’t numb me anymore.
I’ve tried to go back into the ether and convince my family of the truth. But they cannot see it when they’re living in the haze that clouds their vision and dulls their perception. I can’t lure them out of the ether. They see my bleeding wounds and can’t begin to understand why I would choose to live with pain rather than existing in the blessed peace of the ether.
I can’t deny that there is excruciating pain outside of the ether. The pain is the price of living with the truth. Now, I feel the pain of knowing about my abuse, the pain of my abuser’s betrayal of my love and trust and the pain of knowing my family has chosen the ether over me. But I also feel joy, peace and relief. I now understand that I’m not evil and the abuse was not a punishment for who I am, or who I am not.
So I stand out here and help other survivors who make the choice to step out of the ether. It’s a very painful thing at first, to see the truth. It’s a blinding white light to people used to living in darkness. Some are unable to tolerate the pain and return to the ether. But they often have to resort to numbing drugs or alcohol to quiet the truth that bucks against the ether.
The rest of my family still lives in the ether. Sometimes I stand on the edges of the mist and watch them. They carry on as usual. Without me, as if I never existed. The ether has swallowed their memory of me. I, though, will never forget them and the sweet scent of an ether filled life.