(ETA: This is me musing about not-so-happy childhood things. With metaphor.)
How to tell whether it’s an anxiety attack, whether it’s an asthma attack, whether it’s a spiritual attack:
Lesson one: It is always a spiritual attack. This is what a pastor tells me when I’m seven. We live in Lawrenceville, near a shallow creek that I cannot visit, and we’re always church-hopping — until now. It’s a large church, the kind that broadcasts its sermons on television, and my mother worries that a camera will immortalize her while she’s blowing her nose. After service, my parents force me onstage during an altar call. I carry a beanbag doll that I rescued from the Salvation Army. Frightened, I hover behind the pulpit, choking on excess mucus, the pastor’s words escaping with the air.
It’s always a spiritual attack, repeats the pastor, who is now my pastor.
One day turns into many days missed from school. I can’t go there, I tell my parents. I’m sick.
It’s a lactose attack, says my doctor. My father thinks she’s a quack. He takes me home and has me drink milk and eat cheese, conjures a self-congratulatory smile. See? he says. And then he calls the pastor, or a pastor, or my pastor. I’m never quite sure which, or whom.
It’s a spiritual attack, says my father. We pray, and later I vomit.
I am hardly in school when I’m seven. When at recess, I try to follow a girl named Brittany because she wears hair ribbons, ribbons dense and packed as a poodle’s coat. I find them fascinating.
Brittany does not find me fascinating, nor does she find my orphan baby doll fascinating.
It’s got beans inside, I tell her.
Your head’s got beans inside, she tells me. She runs away.
Later, the shoves and punches come, my body wriggling beneath the violent hands of older boys that I do not recognize. I come home from school, crying, upset that I’ve been spiritually attacked. My mother lends me her bible and her kaopectate. My father lends me his albuterol and his collection of wheat pennies. Coins line the bathroom floor. I breathe, then not breathe, and my mother runs the shower at full temperature, my father gently nudging my face toward the steam. I wheeze in, wheeze out, long gasps, tired gasps, spiritual gasps. The air doesn’t like to come. Satan makes air distant.
There are hospital visits, but never school. I won’t allow school. Satan won’t allow school. Jesus won’t allow school. It’s almost as though we have a pact. I stay home, puke green stuff, struggle to breathe, press in the stomach of my beanbag doll, spin pennies across my dresser. These are my days, and I’ve come to accept them.
Lesson two: It is never in your head, unless you are possessed by a demon. This is the news my father brings home from a pastor. He applies the spiritual logic to me, a bittersweet syllogism. Later, there are people. Later still, there are hands, on me. Later still, I am on the floor, pressed down, surrounded by the elbowing sound of tongues. I am sobbing, not from Jesus, not from Satan, but from hands.
Lesson three: You are not praying hard enough. We are back north, and our new pastor tells us this from the podium of a high school auditorium. Church bulletins crinkle in the hands of the parishioners, hands that grate against the hum of the spiritually dead microphone. The air is never still in this place, and I struggle to catch it.
I am seven. I am gasping. I am sinking. I am fighting the hands, the godly hands, the demonic hands, the hands that pry and shriek and grieve against my face. I am dead, but I am not dead.