Past trauma

I am in so much pain.

I remember my first experience with trauma. It was the day before Thanksgiving – Wednesday, Nov 24, 1993. I was 18 (a freshman in college) and was in my dorm room with my 2 roommates Eugenia and Amy, packing my bag to go home for the holiday. Over 20 years later, the image is as crystal clear as it ever was – I was reaching into my suitcase, on top of the chocolate brown vinyl couch, looking towards the window, and the phone rang (back then, it was a rotary). I answered it and my best friend from high school, Tanya, was on the other end. She informed me that Sean had hung himself, and that’s the moment when my entire perspective on the world changed.

Sean and I were in the same circle of about 8 close friends since we were 15. We were the misfits – hyper smart nerds, band geeks, social outcasts. The group of us found each other and were quite content to watch movies at each others houses, go out for french fries and ice cream, and in general avoid the popular-snobby scene. Sean and I became especially close friends over the years. He was a crazy smart fiery redhead who ran track and field, and it wasn’t a surprise when we started dating as Seniors. I remember how delighted his parents were when he took me to the winter “Holly Ball” formal. They took pictures, and then – when he forgot to give me the bouquet of white roses he had purchased, they drove to the school parking lot (during the dance) and put the flowers in his car so that he could give them to me afterwards. I was his first girlfriend, and after we began to date I discovered he’d had a crush on me for years.

We dated for several months, and then eventually I broke it off a few months before we graduated. I don’t remember anything terrible leading to our parting… it was more a matter of that we were teenagers, still finding our way, exploring, and about to go off to college. Sean was disappointed when things ended, but we remained close and continued to spend time together with our motley crew of misfits. We all went off to college – me to MIT to major in Computer Science, him to UMass Amherst to double major in Math and Physics. We kept in touch and had planned to get together Thanksgiving weekend, the first time we were all to be home after leaving for college. Apparently, Sean came home for the holiday a day early. His mom found him in their basement, hanging from his belt.

After that, it was hard to care about anything. There were only a few weeks left of the semester. I had finals to study for, papers to write. This was MIT – there was no extra time to grieve, only time to work. I would stare at my books and think “Who gives a shit? Sean is dead. These pages don’t matter.” I couldn’t move through all the work I had to do and was lucky that the merciful administrators agreed to give me incompletes in some of my classes so that I could finish up over the break. The next semester began in late January, and I slogged through, managing to do scrape by in everything except Differential Equations (I got a D), which I would have to repeat later. I didn’t really date, except briefly a sweet man named John Rusnak, who tried to comfort me, but I just couldn’t open to any sort of connection. I went for some free counseling at the Med Center, but when I wanted to continue therapy (not for free), I was told by a relative that I only thought I had problems, that really I didn’t have any real troubles, and that most doctors were quacks. My brother got irritated when I would talk about my pain and criticized me for “needing so much attention.”  I was truly alone.  The fight drained out of me and I didn’t pursue counseling.

By September of 1994, it had been 10 months, but I was still broken. I got all C’s in my classes that semester. My father told me that I would have to do better eventually, which I found offensive and hypocritical (he readily admits to mostly getting Cs when he was at MIT in the 60s). The pain softened but never really went away, and I proceeded to put white roses on Sean’s grave every Thanksgiving for years. Recently I found this poem that I wrote sometime in the year after Sean died. Forgive me. Poetry is not my forte.

First kisses are special
Do you remember ours?
We were in the pool, sitting on the steps, your arms around me.
I knew what you were going to do.
Don’t you remember?

We had just gone to a formal dance
You brought me white roses and held my hand on the dance floor
Don’t you remember?
Please tell me you remember.

It was our first date
I remember how nervous you were
Please, I beg you – can you remember?

I’m sorry, guess I’m not being fair
I know you can’t remember
I know you can’t even respond

Sometimes I wish I didn’t remember,
Because then it wouldn’t be so hard
Then I wouldn’t wonder
Why you can’t still be alive.


I wish I could say that Sean is my only ex-boyfriend to have killed himself.

Tom Brooks came into my life in my mid-20’s. Tom was from the ghetto in Sacramento. To say Tom was ‘rough around the edges’ was an understatement. Tom smoked too much, drank too much, stayed up too late, had a red hot temper, a brilliant mind, and a heart full of optimism and lust for life. Tom and I became the best of friends, 2 peas in a pod – dancing together, laughing together, staying up late discussing the meaning of life. The sexual chemistry between us was undeniable. We would talk about it at times, but every time Tom would tell me that he needed to be “free” and, while he loved being with me, he couldn’t settle down with any one in any way. He was adamant, militant even, on this point. Regardless, we couldn’t stop ourselves, and we became lovers. I knew it was dangerous, but still – I reached for the fire. After a couple of months, I admitted to myself that I was in love with him and that he and I were on a path that would only lead to an explosion. So I told him. We met at a B&O Espresso (our favorite coffee shop) and I said “Tom, I love you. I know that you need to be free. We have to end this because I want more and I know you don’t.” Tom got very angry with me. I remember clearly how his mouth turned into a hard little “O” and his eyes became squinty. His tongue literally shook inside of his mouth with his barely controlled rage. He said “How dare you put this on me. You knew what you were getting into.” I cried and told him that I was not asking for anything more, that I needed to end things _because_ I knew he didn’t want more.

Tom and I didn’t talk for a few months. Eventually we reclaimed our friendship, and then during the summer of 1999, because we just couldn’t help ourselves (the fire drew us in), we became lovers again. This time, I was different. I still felt deeply connected to Tom, but I couldn’t love him in the same way after he had expressed such anger in my moment of vulnerability. In September Tom went on a 10 day backpacking trip, during which time I went on a date with a new guy named Jerry. He came back from his trip and spent 4 hours making me a special dinner (my first experience with home made Mexican mole). He said “Holly, while I was out in the woods I laid in the grass, looked at the sky, and all I thought of was you. I want to be with you.” To which I responded “I’ve met someone else.”

Tom took it in stride and we stayed friends, best friends in fact. He continued to hold a bit of a torch for me, but gave me space to continue seeing Jerry and didn’t pressure me in any way. After over a year, Jerry and I broke up and I went travelling. Tom sent me off with this note –

To my dear, lovely, sweet, gorgeous, sensual, very sexy, very smart, and wonderful Holly –

Dignity and villainy, courage and terror,
We have these all in our bodies from the moment of our birth.
We don’t get better or worse until the moment of our death,
We stay the same, exactly as we were created…
Let yourself not worry about what’s right and what’s wrong,
Just be free from fears, vanity, greed, insecurity, jealousy, and evil.

Be happy! Live your life to the fullest!!!
Drink sweet wine, listen to beautiful music, kiss gorgeous and sensual women.
Be in love! In love with the “self”, a man, life!
Don’t think about tomorrow, be in the present.
Time flies so quickly, life is so short…

Thank you for the sweet evening that we had yesterday!
Have a great trip to Europe.

with love,
your Tom
March 2001

When I returned from my travels, I had a new boyfriend, Sean (apparently I have a thing for Sean’s). Tom was perhaps upset that he had missed my window of single-hood between Jerry and Sean. Even though I had a boyfriend, and even though Tom and I had not been together as lovers in 2 years, Tom showed up one day in September 2001 with a diamond ring. He said “Holly, I offer you all that I am and everything that I have for as long as I live. It is our destiny to marry and have 5 children. Marry me.”

The story unravels from there. I said no. Tom got mad and began to do too much speed. I began to fear for my safety. At one point, Tom basically threatened to rape me. He kept calling me, berating me, saying “I offered you all that I am and everything that I have, and you walked away. How could you do that to me?” I still cared about him and continued to try to get help for him.

Eventually, many of our close friends advised me that I was too close to the situation and that, because he was so angry with me, it was not in my path to be the one to help him. So I distanced myself. Tom lost his job, almost became homeless, and bounced in and out of rehab. Years later, he got sober. By then, I was married to John. I saw Tom in public from time-to-time, but John feared for my safety and didn’t want me to get too close. Then, a few years after that, Tom killed himself. Apparently he was having a bit of a breakdown and tried to check himself into Harborview for evaluation. They told him that he wasn’t sick enough to be given a bed and sent him away. He went home and asphyxiated himself.


There are other traumas in my life that I won’t go on about in detail. There was the miscarriage (in between Isabella and Melanie) at 10 weeks. I bled out chunks of my dead baby for over 20 full days. There was the time when I was 20, wanted to meet the 30 yr old half-brother my father had always denied was his, and then was told “There is no statute of limitations on child support. If you validate this man, he may come at us for back child support and then you could be responsible for us losing our home. Do you want us to lose our home?”. I went ahead and met Greg anyway and was then called a “family traitor” for years. There is more, but it’s too tiring to go on.

Of course, this isn’t really about Sean, Tom, my miscarriage, Greg, or other traumas that I haven’t even mentioned. At the moment, everything comes back to John. Here’s the kicker – all of these traumatic events mushed together still don’t equal the trauma of losing John.

I am in so much pain. I ache for him. Every day I get sucked into a vortex of darkness and despair. The ache only grows as, day after day, John is STILL NOT HERE. My limbs have been ripped off, and 6 months later, I’m still bleeding. I could not have ever imagined a pain this enormous. I often feel so full of hurt that it’s as if I’m choking on it or as if I’m going to vomit it up. But – I can’t vomit it up. I cannot put the pain into a cabinet and close the door. There is no where to run to where this pain will not follow me. I loved John, truly and unconditionally. We had a family together. He completed me. John was my forever, and I wanted to grow old with him. I always thought it would be like that Death Cab for Cutie song – “I’ll Follow You into the Dark.” –

Love of mine
Someday you will die
But I’ll be close behind
I’ll follow you into the dark

No blinding light
Or tunnels, to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight
Waiting for the hint of a spark

If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark

Catholic school, as vicious as Roman rule
I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black
I held my tongue as she told me, son
Fear is the heart of love, so I never went back

If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark

You and me have seen everything to see
From Bangkok to Calgary
The soles of your shoes are all worn down
The time for sleep is now
It’s nothing to cry about
Cause we’ll hold each other soon
The blackest of rooms

If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark

I’ll follow you into the dark

I’ll follow you into the dark, by Death Cab for Cutie (youtube)

As in the song, I used to like to dream that, someday, when John and I were old and led a full life, we would die peacefully together. It didn’t happen that way.

My only comfort is in my beautiful children and my incredible community. I can say, without a doubt, that my friends and family have saved me. I tread water in my ocean of grief and it is only because I reach for the beams of light of all of you that I do not drown. Thank you.

One thought on “Past trauma

  1. Oh Holly! I had no idea you’d had so many run-ins with traumatic events in your life prior to losing John. If you’re ever interested in talking about PTSD, I am open to talking about it anytime, anywhere. <3!


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