Friday, November 30, 2018

How I'm Still Here by Duane L. Herrmann

Content Warning:  Abuse and Suicidal Thoughts 
Image:  A black and white photo of a little boy wearing a dark shirt with light details.  He has a slight smile.  He is against a plain, white background like an old yearbook photo.
I am dyslexic with ADD and, now PTSD.  The latter I specify as “Domestic” PTSD.  It is not the result of a battlefield experience, except the battlefield was the home in which I grew up.  By the age of two my mother made it clear to me that my existence had ruined her life.  I wanted to end my existence then, but couldn’t figure out how to do that.  By age eleven, I had learned several ways.  I narrowed them down to the least painful and the most assured of success.

I thought it would be ideal to simply go to sleep and never wake up.  I had no way to obtain sleeping pills, so my next thought was gas.  Our house was heated by propane from a tank in the back yard.  The tank was much smaller than the house and our stove was in a very large, open space.  I could not imagine there was enough gas in that tank to fill the entire house.  So, I stayed alive.

I was convinced, by her constant screaming and hyper criticism over minor things (such as the way I shut my lips, swallowed, walked, and even slept), and others such as being forbidden to talk, think independently, or be angry, and all the work I did was wrong, that my mother wanted to erase me.  I mentally and emotionally fought to stay alive.

In school, I could not learn to read.  The letters were confusing and I couldn’t tell the difference between words like:  "on" and "no", "was" and "saw".  The summer after second grade, I walked a mile to the end of our road where a retired school teacher lived.  She taught me phonics.  I thought she was crazy as she held up flash cards with squiggles on them and made outlandish noises with her mouth.  Even more outrageous, she wanted me to make those same sounds to match the squiggles.  I eventually succeeded.  Two years later, in the fifth grade, I read fifty books.  I’ve not stopped.

I’ve wanted to write stories for as long as I can remember.  There was no one for me to play with except my mother, and many times she preferred to read the newspaper.  I wanted to be as important to her as the newspaper.  I began to make stories when I was three or four, but I couldn’t write any down until after I learned to read.  Of course, also during all this time, I was working.

My mother put me to work when I was two and a half and she didn’t want to bother feeding my baby sister.  She gave me that job.  Soon I ran away from home for the first time – nearly half a mile across the pasture that separated our house from Granma’s.  I continued that until well after I’d left home for college.

When my sister could eat solid food, my mother insisted that I help her dress herself.  That remained one of my jobs until I left home for college.  In between, I was given responsibility for all other household jobs.  As more babies were born, I had to care for them, too:  feeding them, changing diapers, etc.  By the summer I was 13, I was left at home with the responsibility to take care of the house, garden and farmyard animals, my two little brothers, and meals for our father, while our mother went out of town for summer school.  It was the happiest, most peaceful summer of my life.  When she came home, Dad put me on a tractor to help him farm.  We farmed several hundred acres of our own plus a few other farms until he was killed several years later.

All this time, school was a sanctuary.  No one screamed at me there, and teachers were grateful that I sat quietly in my seat.  I was nearly the youngest in the class, I didn’t act childish, I couldn’t talk to the other kids (I had been forbidden to talk when I was four), I was simply content to sit.  I struggled to do the work.  Teachers over and over said, I wasn’t trying hard enough.  They had no idea how hard I tried.  No one knew what dyslexia was, nor ADD.  No one knew what a Hell my home life was (more than once I was forced to swallow my vomit and I received a concussion for not washing dishes fast enough).  No one had any idea how many distractions there were in the classroom to claim my attention.  School was a daily, hourly academic and social struggle.  I passed the eighth grade only “provisionally.”

In high school I had two episodes where I lost connection to the physical world.  Walls in my high school moved and changed colors.  I could barely manage to go from class to class.  It took all of my effort to get dressed in the mornings, especially difficult was tying my shoelaces.  One day after I got off the school bus, I collapsed in the circle of pine trees in our front yard.  They whispered me to sleep.  When I woke up, buildings were solid and stable once again.  The next time I began to feel disconnected, I deliberately took a nap in the center of those trees and came back.

That summer, my father was killed and my mother emotionally collapsed inward like a black hole.  The pressure was off me.  The farm equipment was sold and I managed to negotiate my senior year, then left home as decently soon as I could.

I didn’t know I was dyslexic until decades later when my aunt discovered she was, then recognized the signs in my son and myself.  He and I both also have ADD.  I didn’t know about the PTSD until the son of a friend was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.  I was shocked.  Didn’t everyone feel this way?  Apparently not.  Doesn’t everyone’s childhood crowd into their daily life so much so that you are still there and the screaming is still going on?  I guess not.  I thought everyone had to close their eyes while reading to let the letters sort themselves into words.  Nope.

In spite of all this, my urge to write, and my determination to write, have been so strong that I have continued my efforts.  I still can’t spell some certain words, but I have several word books (with certain words underlined) which I keep within reach at all times.  I have continued to try.  I have more failures than successes, but the successes add up.  I now have so much published that I am amazed.  I have a list.  It began with six small publications.  That list is now nearly twenty pages long!!!  Without the list I could not remember what I’ve done.  When I look through it, I am amazed each time!

I haven’t counted the number of items I have published, I did for a while.  Now I only count books, languages and countries.  It amazes me every time.

My  mother died a year ago.  In her last week, as her body rapidly failed, she twice reached her hand out to touch and hold my hand.  That was more affection than she’d ever shown to me.  It was the first time I knew that she cared for me.  When she was bedfast and unable to function, I was able to step aside from my pain and see the life she suffered.  It was generational, starting with the too-early death of her great grandmother.  Loss and pain kept falling on each next generation.  I was simply born into her pain.  Understanding that has helped ease my pain and I am learning new things about myself.

Don’t give up!!!  Don’t let other people stop you!  Keep at it.  You can do it!!!
Biography:  Duane L. Herrmann, internationally published, award-winning poet and historian, has held a variety of teaching and other positions, now  retired. His history and poetry have won awards and are translated into several languages.  His sci-fi novel:  Escape from Earth, has just been published.  His full-length collections of poetry are:  Prairies of Possibilities, Ichnographical:173, and Praise the King of Glory.  His poetry has received the Robert Hayden Poetry Fellowship, inclusion in American Poets of the 1990s, the Map of Kansas Literature (website), Kansas Poets Trail and  others.  His history, By Thy Strengthening Grace, received the Ferguson  Kansas History Book Award in 2007. Collections of short stories and historical articles, and dual language collection of poems, are forthcoming. These accomplishments defy his traumatic childhood embellished by dyslexia, ADD and, now, PTSD.

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