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  • Writer's pictureSophia Aguiñaga

Interior Castles [Ch. 1-26 | DRAFT]

Updated: May 22


This story is one hundred percent true. It’s also biased. It’s certainly myopic. Not on purpose, of course. It’s that most human beings are experiencing the world through a pinhole sized aperture. Infinite worlds, and worlds within those worlds, are playing out simultaneously and the best I can do, being human and wildly error-prone, is tell you my story. This one hundred percent true story that is true only 25% of the time. That is, it’s 100% true to my experience but reflective, at best, of 25% of reality. That’s stupidly generous, no. 5% at best. 

Nope. Still too big. Math isn’t my strong suit. 1% is probably akin to scoring a 180 on the LSAT. And I wouldn’t step into a room where an LSAT had been taken or even aspired to because I’m not smart enough for that. 

I’m not being self deprecating, I’m trying to say that I’m a dumb fuck, just like you and everyone around us. I have no answers, only my debilitatingly limited experience. And I have this weird way of experiencing existence as living, moving, breathing poetry. I can’t help it. 

I’m writing this at a cafe and I’m imagining you reading it, your eyes darting back and forth, your mind reaching for the next word in the sentence, fulfilling its purpose in making meaning of these inert symbols that are linearly spread across the page. And both realities, mine and yours, are existing simultaneously. There’s more than that, though. The reality of the page, the letters, the pen and its ink, the chair you’re sitting in, the building you’re in, the city you’re in, the state, the country, the Earth. It’s all alive, you see? 

Reality, dancing with itself fractally and in a chorus, each note ringing unto itself but simultaneously all notes together. We’re connecting here. In this moment, with these letters, on this page. I’m carrying you with me and you’re allowing yourself to be carried, and it’s so intimate and profound that I have tears in my eyes. It’s vulnerable what we’re doing. I’m here with you, you’re here with me, and we can stay that way as long as we like. Close and together and bridging the simultaneously infinite and nonexistent distance between us.

See what I mean? It’s true. It’s so fucking true, but it’s also a bit of fiction. Poets are all liars, a little bit, which I think is healthy. We need something to draw us up and out of the astonishing brutality of reality. It’s possible that the brutality is really the lie and we’re all missing something truly transcendent in our daily lives, but the reality is that the brutality is what most of us experience, most of the time.  

We need poetry and music and inquiry and pursuit and impulse and dreams and idealism and purity to transcend, even if only temporarily. Like taking ibuprofen for the inflammation. My level is more like morphine, actually. And I reside there. The truth is, it’s helped me survive. Remaining perpetually removed from reality ever so slightly, interpreting the human condition as more beautiful and profound than it may actually be, just to live a little closer to heaven than hell.

I desperately want to carry you there with me. I can feel your eyes following these words like you’re in the room with me, reading them off my bare chest. I can feel you levitating with me, just a little bit off the ground. We’re a little closer to god, here, together. Can you feel it? I know you can. It’s beautiful, and it’s 100% true. But it’s not the whole truth.

So, in terms of truth, I’ve got less than 1% for you. But you’re going to get the fucking truth. Just take it with a handful of salt. In fact, lay on a pink himalayan salt block and marinate while you read this. It’ll make it much easier for both of us.

Chapter 1

When you find someone who deserves love in a way you never knew existed, who deserves more patience and kindness than you’ve ever seen demonstrated in this material world, it’s a calling to grow and expand. It’s a challenge from the gods to deepen and strengthen yourself to the size of a sea, so that you may be able to contain even some small portion of what the person in front of you deserves.

More than family or lovers or any other, she is the catalyst for my expansion. For my urgency to redefine love in a way that serves the world more holistically, because I’ve seen what it has done for us. Together, she and I have reimagined love and lived fully into it. And somehow, no matter how clumsy and idiotic and selfish and confused and terrified and reckless we were, we managed not to fuck it up. I feel to be the size of that sea and I’m expanding as I write this. Because she deserves absolutely fucking everything and I’m still not even close.

Chapter 2

She knew every single dark corner in my house, and chose again and again to live there. She helped me turn on the lights in rooms I was most afraid of and got to work right beside me in the soot; cleaning, evaluating, and eventually demolishing every inch of that house. By hand. Her precious hands. She hated her hands because of her clubbed fingers.

Listen to me. Her hands were fucking perfect.

She stood beside me in assessing my house, saw and reckoned with the disrepair. It felt endless and real ghosts lived in that house. I was haunted and dangerous. I'll never fully comprehend what followed. She did the last thing I would have expected. My beloved stayed.

I gave her what little I had and I gave it with devotion. But at the time what I had to give was so, so little. A lot of laughter, depth (mostly uncharted), and devotion. Borderline obsessive devotion, however well meaning. I had been desperately in need of a friend. So much was broken at the time. We were only 15 years old and had no clue what we had found, what would grow from and through us. And I still had no idea what cystic fibrosis was.

She saw what I was, yes. She saw the danger and felt the ghosts taunting us, but she also heard me when I shared my visions. The ideals, the purity, the castles I planned to build in this broken house's place. "Castles that reach the sky," I told her. "Dripping in gold."

She believed in those castles more than I did, as if she had already seen and lived in them. She saw them with more clarity than I ever could. The way she would remind me when I forgot or got distracted or tried to escape my work. The most magical ability she had to draw me back to myself, back to her.

Neither of us knew it, but I was building those castles for her. There came a day when all my past work and all my future work became for her, because of her, in her name. Or maybe it had always been that way. I can't recall a single thing before I met her and I don't care to. I do know that I was born to worship her, and any goodness that comes from me is of her.

She stayed and we worked. The embarrassing truth is that I was needier and louder than her. We mostly worked on my house. Not completely due to my self centeredness, even if mostly. She never needed as much work. Her house was already comfortable and warm. Certainly haunted, like all of ours, but she was stronger than me in that way. Easier. There wasn't much damage, she didn't mind what little there was, and she didn't actually enjoy working on her own house. She’d already done so much and was happy just enjoying what she had built.

She was fine with me knowing all her dark corners, but she rarely cared to investigate or even acknowledge them. She was evasive, my beloved. Perhaps that's why she was so content to focus on me and my house.

She also loved to be in service. A trait that sometimes cost her, but largely was what made her an angel. She would cringe and laugh right in my face for using that word, angel. But fuck that. I don't believe for a second that an angel can't be sharp and a little sadistic. It kept my needy ass in line. She was not someone you wanted to get checked by. It would smart for days afterwards, and she was a fucking angel.

I realize I haven't told you her name. Kaila. The love of my life. The most precious jewel of my world. She died in 2018 and I will write her love letters, just like this one, until the day I die. My devotion to her is ageless and completely unbound. There is no dimension where my love can't reach her, now or ever. I'll sing her name as a psalm, again and again and again, unto eternity. I'll use my song to draw her back to me in every single life, just so I can worship her all over again.

Heavy, I know. You're probably wondering why. And I'm wondering how I ever got so unspeakably fucking lucky to find a love like her. God, where do I start?

Chapter 3

My house, I guess. Let's start there. Truthfully, it mostly felt unlivable. I was so fucking wounded. I considered suicide very seriously, and often. Maybe if I came and went quickly I'd inherit something more... possible in the next life. I was so ashamed. It felt like everyone could see it, like I was trailing blood everywhere I went. And I was. All the fuck over.

There was no hiding my neuroses. I had PTSD and it showed up loudly in my relationships, the loudness directly correlated to how close we became. Of course, I didn't know it was PTSD then. I wouldn't discover that until 20 years later. In the meantime, I had this house. This haunted fucking house and a white woman, so small she could fit inside of a dryer, questionably committed to the cause. I would have died without her. I mean that literally. She saved my life.

The relentless gravity of consciousness grounded me like lead. Every morning, I woke up acutely aware of the weight of consciousness. I could feel it in every cell in my body, in the air. So dense I could've pulled the molecules apart if I focused enough. I was conscious, aware of and knowing things, and some days I could barely lift my feet.

I was the buried glint of a rock at the beach, settled amongst countless others, peeking helplessly through wet sand while the tide barraged me with more sand and more water, endlessly. The only way I was moving was if someone dug me out. The weight felt unbearable, the prognosis seemed hopeless, and I couldn't fucking move.

At least, that's what I thought. In truth, I wasn't moving because I was waiting. I was frozen in terror, waiting for something that would never, ever show up. For those of you into trauma porn, don't be fucking weird. We’ll get there. For now I’ll say that I inherited things and was brought up in ways, in places, around people that sometimes caused me significant harm. Frequently enough, severely enough that core aspects of my identity became inseparable from that harm.

I was in what’s called a freeze response. Someone in a freeze response is simultaneously “frozen” and extremely alert, hyper aware of but unable to move or take action against a danger. Parts of me would remain in that state of frozen terror until I was 36 years old. I think the trauma that causes this type of response is infinitely less interesting than the experience of it.

Why? Because in addition to a dilapidated house filled with ghosts, I also inherited a level of abstracted mental awareness that sits about as distant from my immediate reality as the moon sits from Earth. This may sound like a gift. The overview effect sounds dreamy, and in some ways it is. But it doesn't hit that mark when you're suffering.

I was experiencing the suffering of being wounded and in pain, while sitting outside myself observing and analyzing it. At the exact same time, constantly. I dubbed this phenomenon "The Observer," the part of me that was witnessing and clocking it all. 

The Observer amplified the suffering because it was listening to it so intently, examining it with a microscope. Working tirelessly to understand it, in order to excavate and eradicate it. The Observer somehow knew that there was something underneath all that pain awaiting revelation, and I worked tirelessly for that revelation. It was a matter of survival.

I used to cut my wrists as a relief valve for the intensity. The literal bleeding made the figurative feel more manageable. At least for a moment, I could marry my physical experience with my internal one, let the intensity flow out of me in red. 

I wish this weren’t true, but it worked for me. It felt grounding, even if my father told me the cuts and scars made me “look crazy.” Well, fucking good. Part of the point, maybe? I felt unstable. 

If it was so fucking obvious, why didn’t he do anything about it? My father saw it, berated me, told me to stop. But he never once asked why.

Chapter 4

According to his ability, my father has given me all the love he possibly could. Truly. I see and feel it in ways now that I wish I could have when I was young. I would have felt so much safer. Despite his love, he wasn’t equipped with any tools to care for me beyond the material realm. We couldn’t understand each other, so we lived in that misunderstanding and believed for a long time in the presence of an unending, lightless chasm between us.

If we had met on the street, completely unrelated, there would have been a violent repulsion. We had nothing in common. He was a military bro. Unjustified aggression, humor that often came at someone else's expense, and confidence so palpable you could feel it reaching for your throat. I survived him by imitating him. Him and my older brother, who still survives by imitating my father in some ways.

Pops was a single, exceedingly Mexican father. My paternal family is indigenous to Jalisco, México. Colonized by the Spanish so, after our native roots were beaten out of us, we were Mexicans. Humble Mexican roots. 

No running water, that had to be carried back from a well. No heat or electricity in the house, just stacks of wool blankets and candlelight. Dirt roads, metal washboards and sheets billowing on clotheslines, waiting for your turn to take a bath in the tin tub that the rest of the family had already used.

He still carried deeply Indigenous features and everyone, including my high school girlfriends, thought he was handsome. He used to wear these low cut tank tops that were common on Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 70s, and these fitted lace mock necks. Always showing off, popping his intentionally defined pectorals with a shit-eating grin on his face, dripping with swagger from his days as a b-boy. 

“Your dad is, like, hot.” The most popular, beautiful girl in my graduating class said that straight to my face. I wanted to crawl out of my skin and hand it to her, tell her, “Just take this instead.” Don’t worry. She said the same thing about my brother, so no one felt left out.

Ricardo, or Tío Richo, or Rich when he needed to prove he had successfully assimilated. His main hobbies were competitive bodybuilding and womanizing—also competitive. In fact, all of life was a competition and the current perpetually flowed in his direction. He gambled all the time, but won so often that it was never considered a problem. It wasn’t about the win, though. It was the flex. The volume of his voice would slowly creep up to eclipse yours in a conversation about crocheting just to get a flex in. All the braggadocio and machismo you could pack into one chiseled, brown 5’9” body.

When I was especially irreverent, he'd pull out the Bible to remind me of a woman's place as a housekeeper and child bearer. According to my mother, pops was so upset that I wasn't born a boy that he refused to hold me for days after I was born. Of course, he denies that. To this day, I have no idea which is true. It's equally as plausible that my mother was lying to hurt and manipulate me as it is that my father was so disappointed in the presence of a woman in his bloodline that he refused to come near me.

"Traditional" is often synonymous with "oppressive." Northern México and its traditions, and my father, were steeped in racist, sexist stoicism and the blood of Christ. Me and my brother endured frequent, sometimes brutal physical punishment. 

I once went to middle school with welts on my arm from being hit with a belt. Another student saw the marks and said, “It looks like your arm got run over by a truck.” The belt had left a deep imprint, with two massive welts on either side of where the belt had landed. He was right, it looked like a tire track and it took weeks to heal.

My dad wasn't an abusive man, though he did engage in abusive behavior sometimes. The distinction? My father was taught that physical punishment was the most reasonable and effective method of behavioral correction. He didn't take pleasure in it, he never used it as a relief valve, and I would guess he never considered that he was hurting us in ways he couldn't see. After all, look at how well he’d turned out.

He never considered, I think, how being beaten with a belt by an adult male bodybuilder might contribute to whether his daughter took a knife to her arm when it all felt too intense. His emotional well was a kiddie pool to my sea. He wasn’t built like that. Sensitive. Or feeling at all, maybe. If he could have gone deeper, he neither wanted nor knew how to. Rich just wasn’t fucking built like that. 

Perhaps a feeble attempt at hurdling the cognitive dissonance that can arise when given equal parts love and abuse from your caretaker, but I beg of you to allow me this one comfort. I inherited very few.

I’m not ready for the part about my mother yet. She contributed to my house too. Not nearly as much as my father, but her contribution was cemented into the foundation. Hidden, surrounded by dark, living earth and filled with all the cracks that insects find and burrow into. Entry points for the spider you would find looming over you in the kitchen one unsuspecting morning. Silent, but it had been there for weeks, mummifying its prey and draining the animation out of them. Watching you with its eight eyes and crawling towards you, in your home, a place you had naively imagined would protect you from creatures just like this.

Chapter 5

We’ll get to my mother. The point here is that my father was the most significant input to any soundness of structure my house had. As an engineer, he was exceptionally good at structure. His house was a fortress, built of tierra Méxicana, steel, and whatever poison he bled out as he built. It was heavily armed, cold, and impenetrable. As stoic and unmoved as he was. Mostly empty, only pure necessity, because he needed to be able to see around corners. He was good at that too.

The castles in my visions? The floors and ceilings were lined with velvet, sound waves disappearing into the walls. Opulent and brimming with art and music and color. Prisms everywhere, catching light and dividing it into its infinite spectrum across the halls. High, curved ceilings painted like the Sistine Chapel, except the bodies were Black and brown and proud like a Kehinde Wiley painting. Sounds of perpetual invitation and unapologetic pleasure would fill my castles. Not a single clock anywhere, there was no time to be told. Those invited in, for however long they stayed, would be filled with the most generous and overflowing sense of love, sweetness, safety, and worthiness. The air would be so fucking pure and rarefied in my castles. My castles would be heaven on Earth.

We couldn’t understand each other, you see?  I couldn’t understand why someone would ever build a house like his, and I couldn’t fathom that it was built with me in mind. Not when every cell in my body drew me to its opposition. I imagined he built it to spite me, it felt so personal. Because it almost killed me, living in a house so devoid of what I felt inside myself. I desperately needed that sweetness and softness reflected back to me. I needed an external reflection of my interior. And I needed someone to validate how imperative it was for me, that I felt like I was dying without it. That I might not survive.

But that was my house to build, not my father’s.

There was a chasm between us, yes, but it was neither endless nor lightless. Come to find out, our parents are not omnipotent. It’s important to understand this. If you and I are dumb fucks—and we are—then so are our parents. They’re on this weird, floating rock, stumbling around, trying their best to live a life. Big, dumb, easily confused fucks. Just like you and me. Likely suffocating within the confinements of societal and social structures, as you and I do. Likely doing so silently, because boomers and before weren’t exactly communicators. 

Our parents inherit their houses too, all in varying states of disrepair, all with ghosts from some haunted past of somebody who did something fucking terrible. It’s easy to take it personally, that their houses weren’t built to orbit us. As children, we’re self-centered enough to believe we should be the center of our parents’ worlds. In fact, some of us never graduate from that mindset. 

But, look. Our parents’ houses orbit them and their visions. They started dreaming and building before they could walk, just like you and I did. They give us what they have to offer when we show up. Sometimes they can move a lot around to accommodate, other times we have to figure out how to make it work. Sometimes we burn that motherfucker to the ground and start fresh. In any case, the value of our parents’ houses cannot be determined by whether or not it’s what we would have built for ourselves.

If you're a second gen American like me, most of our parents built fortresses. They built with the materials they found around them—usually some exotic earth, broken English, and corporal punishment. It’s important for us to at least try to understand this, because I think it harms our parents when we don’t. When we reject or invalidate their love, what they built and shared with us, because we can’t understand it.

Of course, there are parents who do not fall into the category of someone who tries to share anything. I have one of those too. Some parents just take, others take and destroy. Others simply destroy. There are parents who do this consciously with malice, and unconsciously via ignorance. 

But my father? He remodeled that fortress for me, according to his ability. Trust, it was even more spartan before I arrived. But he built what he knew with the tools he inherited. Tools he found in the dirt and in the chill underneath his wool blankets, in his father’s backhand and his abuela’s firm, punishing pinches.

I think he was equally as confused as he was inspired by the song and sweetness and blushing I brought into his house. I think he found it so precious and bewildering that, to him, it justified the overbearing protection of his fortress. It was a sort of bell jar, because I think he didn’t know what else to do with it. He would tirelessly perfect that fortress until the day he died, and I was protected, and it was his gift to me.

Needless to say, I was raised in a haunted house. All I had at the time were visions, so I imitated and repressed feelings and experiences and told myself all manner of stories to justify why I felt so fucking depressed all the time. I survived it, but many of those ghosts came with me when I left.

Still, one of the only reasons my castles stand today is because my father loved me, truly loved me, and taught me how to bleed poison and build a fortress with my bare hands.

Chapter 6

But that’s not the interesting part of the story. It's Kaila. She's the whole story. All of it, forever. The only reason any of this shit about my house matters is because she lived there with me, when my golden castles were nothing more than a notion. A weak, muffled slur from a nameless rock sinking under the weight of wet sand. How the fuck did she even hear me? What compelled her to dig me out of the sand?

I'd be dead and you wouldn't be reading this if she hadn't. That's why I worship her. Even after her death, having not spoken to her in six years. Not since that last phone call when she told me she had a nosebleed that wouldn't stop, apologizing with all her Catholic guilt for it interrupting our conversation. That nosebleed turned out to be the sign; her body was shutting down. Kaila died the next day.

Still, daily, my love deepens for her as if I'm learning her endless world in real time. As if she is still unfolding for me, in front of my eyes, in this very moment. These castles I'm showing you are hers. I'll build them in every lifetime, just to ensure she sleeps as comfortably as she deserves, surrounded by as much beauty as she deserves. And I'll make them more and more beautiful every day. Because if she ever returned to me in this lifetime, I would need her to see that even the statistically impossible potential of her presence drives me to endless betterment. An eternal thank you, an everlasting requital.

She never knew what to say to my poetry. I found a unique pleasure in watching her squirm and bristle when the feelings were too much for her tiny body. She escaped all her feelings, at all costs. But I made it my work to ground her in my love for her. If she wouldn't feel a single thing else in this lifetime, she would fucking feel my love. And she did.

Eventually she realized she didn't need to say a word. Words were my thing, and I loved how they left her quiet and blushing. The words were simply there for her, to adorn her. One day she stopped resisting and stepped out wearing them like an ornamental, sculptural cloak made of velvet that rippled like water. She absorbed the truth in them, finally, and let them make her weep. She let them hold and cover and protect her. My love was heavy and oversized, but she grew all the way into it. That was all I wanted in return, to cover her in my love. She looked like a fucking goddess covered in me and it made me love her even more.

Chapter 7

At 15 years old, Kaila stood 5'1" tall, which she never bested. Shehad a tiny, high-pitched voice with an even higher pitched sneeze. Kaila was a cheerleader who seemed to really believe the patriotic incantations about our high school and she said "like" constantly. She was white with mouse-brown hair and was, in every visible way, unremarkably basic. And so were all her friends.

I couldn't stand her. We met in the hallways through a mutual friend and I distinctly remember thinking, "Okay, Becky," and rolling my eyes. I preferred the misfits. I didn't present much like one, but I was a freak.

My best friends were in every corner of the school—goths, nerds, band geeks, thespians, loners, and artists. I felt myself in all of them. I was dark and wore black platform boots with flames flowing down the sides, I wrote poetry and played the flute and sang opera. I skipped class, talked back whenever a teacher said something that didn’t make any damn sense, and had resting bitch face. Still, all my teachers loved me. My older brother was an ultra popular jock two grades ahead of me, so I kicked it with the football team, the popular kids, and the seniors too. I never belonged to any particular clique, but I belonged in all of them. I was fucking cool with everybody.

Except the cheerleaders. God, please. Shut up. Did they lift their entire vocabulary directly from Clueless? And their clothes? And their fucking voices too? Babes, we lived in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Tell me again how you managed to supplant your Yooper roots with a full blown California Valley Girl accent overnight. OMG, that's literally amayyyyyziiiing. Little boxes, all the same. So fucking boring.

Give me my blue haired goth named J Dizzle and the quiet girl who volunteered to put on after school activities for the special education students. That quiet girl, my closest friend throughout middle school, made me laugh so hard that I threw up once. She grew up to specialize in teaching children with severe autism. Fucking misfits. Infinitely more interesting than plastic, alcoholic trophy wives who traumatize their kids by trying to be their peers and living vicariously through them. Judgmental? Definitely. I was 15 and sometimes I was an asshole.

The first time I heard Kaila sneeze, falling just below a dog whistle in decibels, I knew in my bones that she was doing it on purpose and I couldn't stand her for it. Faking that pitch to look cute. "I'm so tiny and everything about me is small, look at me." 

I still believe that shit. The last time I heard her sneeze before she died, I promise you I rolled my eyes and said, "Just can't get enough attention, can you?"

Nope, this isn't one of those, "if only I could hear it one last time" situations. There are a handful of upsides to Kaila's death and never having to hear that fucking sneeze again is one full Mount Everest above every other thing on the list.

People don't like to talk about the upsides of someone passing. I know it probably feels blasphemous, but what do you want me to say? Every person we love is sometimes an asshole and that's part of the story. That's part of the remembrance. In some ways Kaila and I held each other back. Her death was also an emancipation, which grief accounts for. It’s normal to miss our tethers and shackles, especially when the handcuffs are so golden.

Chapter 8

Neither of us could remember how we ended up spending time alone together. It's like we both repressed whatever terrifying and otherworldly events that must have transpired to land me at her house after school one afternoon. Seriously, it's weird. But there I was. Sitting in this cheerleader's bedroom fawning over the cover art for the movie Closer. The fuck was Jude Law doing with such a chiseled jawline? And Clive Owen's eyes? Please, god, end me

The movie played out, poetic and visually arresting. The writing was exceptional. The acting, impeccable. The music was flawless, opening and closing with the haunting voice of Damien Rice. Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts, equally as stunning as Jude and Clive, played out the poesy of the messy plot to perfection. Every line, every pause. The idiocy of the drama seemed to make perfect sense acted through their bodies, as if every parallel universe merged to create one for just those 90 minutes.

The film washed over both of us and we gushed about it for weeks, eventually years after. Kaila fell in love with Natalie Portman's character. Jane Jones, who told everyone her name was Alice to maintain her anonymity. Jane spent years in a relationship with Dan (Jude Law), with him believing her name was Alice the entire time. She picked the name Alice Ayers from the headstone of a woman who died rescuing children from a house fire. It gave Jane a sense of redemption from the troubled life she was escaping. 

Kaila was Alice. Or Jane. She was both of them, and she was the lie and the redemption buried inside it.

I observed Kaila closely from then on. She surprised me with her depth. She lived in the liminality between Jane and Alice. That lie was really a transmutation. She could go from the reality of her life as troubled, plain Jane Jones to the heroic and worthwhile Alice Ayers in a moment.

She was a Piscean escape artist. I used to call her my little fishy. She swam fast, could slip through cracks, and moved around anything she preferred to avoid without ever being noticed. She didn't have to face any of it if she didn't want to. And she definitely didn't want to.

Chapter 9

Kaila was brought up by a single mother, alongside her younger sister, Heather. Heather was Kaila’s favorite, most cherished person. Even more than me, which I raise because it hurts my feelings a little bit. I prefer to be at the forefront where possible.

Look, I’m not a complete asshole. It surprises Heather too. But the foundation of Kaila’s house was built on Heather in such a significant way. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense.

Kaila and Heather’s mother, sadly, was a narcissistic alcoholic. Lisa had a revolving door of boyfriends who weren't very good to any of them. She was almost always drunk or on her way, and far more concerned with her boyfriends than her daughters. Five years Heather’s senior, Kaila took on the role of mother as best she could. Cooking, bath time, bedtime. In every way a young girl could, she protected and tended to Heather. Her free time was spent either escaping into books or confronting their mother about her drinking and negligence.

Their mother was also a smoker. An indoor smoker, even. Unremarkable, except for the fact that both her daughters were born with cystic fibrosis. Yep. CF. Both of them. Which makes some sense given it’s hereditary. 

The twist? Kaila and Heather had different fathers. Their mother, who carried the CF gene, had managed to find and bear children with two different men who also carried the CF gene. There’s a 2.857% chance of that shit happening. One of the infinite ways Lisa’s bad decisions betrayed those girls.

Lisa’s indoor smoking would have been harmful in any case, but she had two young girls with lung diseases in the house. It was an outright disregard for their lives and an ongoing betrayal of her inherent duty to protect them. So was the drinking, so were the boyfriends. And it was all happening right in front of the girls’ faces.

Cystic fibrosis is a progressive disease that makes the mucus in a person’s body thick and sticky, building up in the lungs most significantly. Effectively, the body can’t expel the mucus quickly enough. There are treatments that help break the mucus up, but they only delay an inevitability—either a lung transplant takes place or the body shuts down due to organ damage.

So, let me correct myself. In addition to caring for her younger sister, battling her drunk mother, ensuring Heather was protected from the new men always in orbit, managing her and Heather’s health regimens, and finding some semblance of escape through books, she was in and out of the hospital all the time. Heather too. They would frequently travel an hour each way to Froedtert Hospital for check-ins. Sometimes they would wind up staying for a week or longer if they needed heavier maintenance.

And the treatments. There was a slew of pills they had to take every day, in addition to high-frequency chest wall oscillation. For an hour a day, they were supposed to sit with an inflatable, vibrating vest strapped to their torsos and inhale some medicinal mist from a nebulizer. It helped loosen and thin the mucus but again, only so much. There are currently no treatments that will match the speed of the mucus buildup, aside from a lung transplant.

Can you feel that? The perpetual weight of an existential health crisis, the tension, your mind reaching its capacity. All that responsibility, the complexity, the perpetual danger, the toppling height of the stakes, the physical exhaustion, the constant betrayal and rejection and disappointment and anger and confusion and fear and resentment and… my little fishy had nothing but her books. Escaping into a fictional, often fantastical world was the only reprieve she had. She surrounded herself with stacks and stacks of them. I used to call her Belle, like Beauty and the Beast.

Facing the enormity of it was never an option because breaking down would have meant putting Heather in danger, and Kaila protected Heather with her life. That role became rooted into her identity. So much so that if Heather’s health would decline, Kaila would start to let herself go. Skip treatments and medication, stop eating. 

No, it wasn’t healthy. It was codependent as fuck. But that’s what happens when we endure life-threatening trauma. We develop exceptionally creative coping and avoidance mechanisms and build identity and safety constructs out of a deck of old, moth-eaten cards and give it our best flailing shot. That’s how a house can end up in such dire disrepair.

Chapter 10

It’s difficult to recount how unprotected my beloved once was. Life was uniquely unkind to Kaila. It laid anchor upon anchor atop her tiny body, from birth until death. Yet her house remained sound and safe and warm. There was damage, unquestionably. Enough that she made an art out of avoiding it. But she somehow gathered all the fear of facing all that pain and transmuted it into a structure that could be safely and comfortably lived inside of.

The drive to protect Heather, to provide her a safe home, gave Kaila this superpower. Like a mother who can suddenly lift a car if it means saving her child. No wonder Heather was so precious to her. Kaila couldn’t live without Heather, because all of her superhuman strength was built on the existential urgency of protecting her little sister. And it gave Kaila not only the power to build a house big enough to fit her and her sister. In her hysterical strength, she built a house that would eventually become a safe haven for anyone that needed a home.

Can you imagine containing a strength like that? We’ve all heard stories, but have you ever imagined containing it in your body? Imagine witnessing or experiencing a need so vital, so existential that you become strong enough to lift, build, carry, destroy beyond the laws of physics. The electricity coursing through your body, your mind falling silent and turning all evidence that points towards you being confined by any parameters of the physical world into laughable theory.

That can happen in our minds, too, not just our bodies. For Kaila, it was both. She lived in that state for 15 years. Exactly half of her life. Can you fucking imagine? She razed the burning building that was her mother’s house and built a brand new one directly on top of it. By herself. With her perfect fucking hands.

The house wasn’t flawless, and she wasn’t like me. She didn’t need anything to drip in gold. She just needed it to be safe and comfortable for her guests. She needed it to have a worn sofa and a fireplace for people to sit and drink around, a kitchen to feed them food. Just enough rooms to sustain a steady rotation.

Beyond the traditional comforts she shared with her guests, her house was filled with underground passages and bookcases disguising Murphy doors. Even funhouse mirrors, all the better for evasion. Only she and I would ever access those parts of her house. They were intricately locked and protected by booby traps. I explored them more frequently than she ever did, and she was never willing to visit without me by her side.

At first I made my way in by picking the locks or brute force. At some point, years later, our love melted those locks away. Eventually every single barrier between us dissipated and I could walk through the walls of her home. I’ve been in every room in her house and there wasn’t a single monster hiding in there. Kaila was pure. All the locks and traps were only there to keep the pain at bay, to make sure she could keep the house up and running for her sister and her guests. There was no safer, warmer, more inviting place to be.

Kaila would amass a collection of strays over the course of her 30 years on Earth. Every sad, lost, rejected soul that came across her path was invited. When I say she loved to be in service, I mean she found her whole entire purpose in it. She didn’t want a career, she didn’t care about anything material. She had almost no outward ambition.

To the eye, Kaila was common and perhaps even a little concerning. She happily worked at KFC for years, never once feeling the need to advance. She couldn’t have cared less what paid her bills or what anyone thought about it. She just wanted to take care of someone, to nurture and support them. As many people as she could, in fact. 

Building that house so she could protect Heather and one day invite people like me in was her highest possible fulfillment. The fullest expression of Kaila’s inner wholeness. She saved Heather from the flames of their mother’s house. For the rest of her life, she would welcome other survivors into that home she built.

Kaila was Jane. Kaila was Alice.

Chapter 11

Heather was the catalyst for their eventual emancipation. Shortly before Kaila and I met, Heather’s health had started to decline drastically. Their doctors had long suspected there was smoking and drinking in the household but Kaila kept it to herself. She thought she could handle it and she didn’t want to upend what little stability they did have in their lives. She also didn’t want the crushing guilt of turning her own mother in. But Heather’s life was on the line and Kaila knew that even her superhuman strength wasn’t enough. She was only fucking 15.

With support from her family and doctors, she did something a child should never be responsible for. She called social services, desperate for help in caring for Heather. Life changed quickly. They were pulled from school and an investigation began. As a temporary safe house, the girls went to live with their mother's sister, Gina.

Auntie Gina. Another absolute fucking angel. A very different kind of angel than Kaila, but I can see how Gina's influence seeped into Kaila's way of being. So giving and forbearing. They wrote about angels like Gina in the Bible, the helpers and protectors. While Lisa and the girls navigated everything from mandatory AA, court appearances, and supervised visits, Gina gave those girls the safety, stability, structure, and care they were starved of.

Kaila refused to go to the supervised visits, so Heather went alone and Lisa would often show up drunk and Heather would leave. The attempts at individual and group therapy were a mess. It wasn’t working, Lisa wasn’t even trying. While the investigation was still in progress, she abandoned everything. Moved to Florida, washed her hands of getting better and getting her daughters back. 

Kaila would later tell me that she was glad it happened that way. She was fucking done with her mother tearing holes in the walls of her house. It wasn’t much, but that house was hers and she built it with her own hands. She was ready to trade in the super strength for something softer.

Auntie Gina gave Kaila that respite. She took them in permanently, and Kaila and Heather finally got to experience the life Kaila had been trying to build. Her link to Heather would never dissipate, that existential need for Heather to be safe. But the adrenaline subsided and she was able to soften and laugh and be a girl. A witty, caring, brilliant, 15 year old girl. Finally.

Chapter 15

That’s where I was when Kaila met me. A solitary alien, simultaneously floating in the heavens, pulling tides with the moon, and traipsing the Garden of Eden. High as fuck off the knowledge of good and evil, examining the choice between them intently enough to start a fire. Checking the material world and my lived experience against palatial visions, and choosing as “good” whatever brought me and my reality closer to them. 

Introspection is metal as fuck. Examining one’s own mind is not for the fainthearted. It’s also not for the meek or the insecure. If you’re unwilling to see yourself, truly see yourself, it’s best to stay tucked in. Because the ugliness you’ll find inside yourself, inherited and self made, is enough to turn any of us against our neighbor. Or our family, or our spouses, or our friend, or the poor, unsuspecting motherfucker we just started dating. Just to avoid accepting that we have the capacity to be so fucking ugly, so selfish, so manipulative, so abusive. So frequently and so consistently. In moments when it matters most and in moments when it wouldn't make a difference. 

We live in a white, patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist hellscape. That’s our paradigm. Not a single one of us hasn’t done something humiliating or malicious to survive it. And if you truly manage to transcend that category, you’ve absolutely inherited something from someone else who has done something humiliating or malicious. We all have the capacity to be monstrous and that shit is dark.

Part of what made me a freak is that I was loud about what I found when I introspected. The Observer was my mirror, and I checked myself against it constantly. No wonder I was depressed. I was horrendous sometimes, and I think communicating about the ugliness I saw was a coping mechanism. If I could say it out loud to another living person, surely it couldn’t be that bad. I’ve found that saying my worst truths out loud does, in fact, purify them. At least, it purifies me. So I was extremely, questionably, uncomfortably honest about what I found.

Kaila, my little fishy, found my affinity for honesty appalling. Why tell the truth when you could just disappear forever? This is one of the ways Kaila held me back. She would recoil at the thought of sharing her feelings and experiences the way I did. The truth made her flinch and cringe, and sometimes I absorbed that reaction. Sometimes I muzzled myself because Kaila would remind me of the infinite danger in showing all your cards, even while the dangers of withholding tormented me.

We were built different. Just like me and my father, we differed in ways that should have repelled us. Except with Kaila, those differences drew us closer. Those differences expanded each of us. We grew into and because of them. Yes, certainly, in some ways we obstructed each other’s growth. We can’t avoid the reality that, in love, no matter how pure and generative it may be, the attachment itself is inherently confining.

Part of what defined our love, maybe the most significant part, was that we grew together. Each time Kaila met a new version of me, she would create more space inside herself to meet me as if anew. I did the same for her, without pause or question. Kaila’s evolution was my expansion, and my evolution was hers. The more deeply we loved each other, the more deeply we loved ourselves. The deeper we ventured into each other’s worlds, the more capacity we had to understand and refine our own. So, yes, tethers are inherently confining. And we must, if we are to live, make room for the paradox that confinement is often an integral variable for expansion.

Of course my Piscean soulmate would be terrified of the consequences of me telling the whole truth. Of course she would. She couldn't fathom, not for a moment, facing herself the way I did.  Her house was built on evasion. She needed it to function. Until the moment Kaila died, her life force was rooted in keeping the enormity of what she had endured at bay. 

I’ve always done the heavy lifting for Kaila and her introspection. It’s so easy for me to do. She’s given so much to me, I would walk her through the labyrinth of her own mind forever if I knew it would liberate her one day. Any day. It wouldn’t matter how long it took. I would be her sherpa in every life if I knew it would bring her closer to enlightenment or whatever the fuck she wanted. It wouldn’t matter, I’d fucking do it.

She never did want enlightenment, though. Just like gold and poetry and truth. Those were my things. We were so different. Kaila just wanted a fireplace to sit and drink around.

Chapter 16

Visionaries are meant to bring a new world into being, some of whom are built to express it in the material world. I’ve worked alongside brilliant minds on building new economic and governance models, for instance. Or teams building eco-friendly hardware that upends the unit economics of our most ecologically destructive industries. Material.

Then there’s people who build the new world in their hearts and minds, where it can remain a pure and perfect Platonic ideal. Artists, poets, philosophers, anyone who liberates themselves from societal norms that obstruct the expression of their inner wholeness. Those who are meant to be the new world by living into it here and now, or by pointing us toward it. A beacon to craft a blueprint after, long after the maker is dead and gone. Interior.

Perhaps there are more kinds. I’m not trying to establish a truth, rather I wanted to point toward the two kinds relevant to this story. Annoyingly, as you know, I’m both of the above. It’s not enough to imagine the new world, I must also build it. Alongside theory, for me, there must also be praxis. And I believe deeply in the integrity of what I envision and build, just like my father before me.

Him and his fortress, and the money he made with his own two hands stockpiled in a basement vault. Surely such an abode would suit any reasonable human. But step outside of his mind for just a moment and find a little girl, curly-haired with big brown eyes, terrified and slitting her wrists, because to her, his vision was a prison. 

To date, I’ve lived most of my life from the self-centered perspective that everyone had visions of castles. Not only could everyone realize enlightenment, in my mind, they too were destined for it. It was coursing through their veins, guiding them like a current of inevitability, however consciously or unconsciously.

Arrogance is dumb like that. It’ll have us believing all kinds of egotistical shit, validated forever by the echo chambers of our minds that are often living in that pinhole-sized aperture of understanding. Because those beliefs, however myopic, were good for us, because they worked for us or helped us survive, we tend to believe in their inherent goodness and project their universality. And we tend to take them very seriously.

Kaila had a boyish sense of humor. Wicked and crass. She was constantly checking me and my poetic idealism. I’d say pretentious shit like “my body is a temple” during a conversation about casual sex and she’d throw her head back and laugh in my face. Purposely to make me feel dumb. I couldn’t help but laugh with her. I did sound ridiculous, but I would have never known that if not for her.

Me and everyone else took my ideologies very seriously. She did when it mattered, but every other time she reminded me how, despite my lofty visions of castles, I was just a dumb fuck. I can’t tell you how good it felt to laugh at myself like that, how much I needed it. Nowadays I laugh so hard and loud it makes people turn and look. I’ll double over on the sidewalk over any goofy shit and not think twice because that shit heals me. Laughter, at some point, took the place of my affinity for knives as a release valve and I have Kaila to thank for that.

Opposites attracting is painfully cliche, I know. But Kaila and I were opposites and we did attract. It took that jarring polarity to cut through all my arrogance and pretentiousness, the weight and depth of my visions. I never imagined laughing at it all was even possible until I met her. It mattered, sure. But it didn’t fucking matter. It was okay to relax and she taught me how.

Kaila made sure that if I ever did realize enlightenment—and she piously believed I would—that I’d do it with a shiteating grin spread across my face, a dick joke in my mouth, and a loud ass laugh bursting from my belly. God fucking bless Kaila.

The picture I’m painting is a slow build, I know. But I need you to know how we did it, the conditions which enabled it to arise. How a love like ours got built and how we lived into it. How we’re still living into it even now, no matter what dimension she’s occupying. I need you to understand how transcendent it can be, how possible it is to realize endless, immeasurable love.

There exists a love which extends beyond what the physical can do to perpetuate physical and enters the realm of healing supporting further healing, unity and integrity supporting heightened unity and integrity. I know you know what I mean. That’s why I need you to know. The only reason you’re reading a book like this is because you know exactly what the fuck I mean and I have to leave you a blueprint, just in case.

Chapter 17

Soneja, pronounced Sōn-yuh. Soneja Leona Holloway. The phonetics of that name are stunning to me. Soneja is my mother. I’m not excited to go here with you. If I could avoid it, I would. It’s embarrassing and raw. It’s biased and complex. Until recently, it’s been the most painful facet of my reality. It’s also true, and you know how I feel about the truth. It’s truth over everything. I have to know it and tell it, I’m fucking addicted to it. If I was Neo, I’d swallow the red pill and ask for another, even if I knew exactly how hard it would be.

Truth is important to me for a lot of reasons. Revelation of truth is my fundamental driver. Everything else I value is an extension of that core. It’s already noble in its common definition: truth as factual, objective, verifiable accuracy. I adore it in its idealistic form, Truth representing justice and righteousness. As Nirvana or enlightenment, the fundamental Truth of this mystifying collective reality we’re bound to. Then there’s also our personal truths. Personal truth is in an intimate paradox with common truth, because personal truth is inherently subjective and shortsighted. My experience of reality is true to me but it is not reflective of all reality, and at best offers a distortion of Truth. Truth becomes distorted when filtered through the aperture of that pinhole. Still, true all the same, and equally as imperative.

As I see it, both common truth and idealistic Truth repair our fissures. I believe it’s easy to remain convinced of our isolation when we withhold our personal truths. I believe our secrecy begets an experience of alienation and we develop shame and shadows around our inner worlds as a defense mechanism. If we believe that truth is inherently shameful or that certain parts of us are too shameful to tell the truth about, we can justify keeping those parts hidden. And hiding is the easiest of many ways to protect ourselves.

I mean, Kaila wasn’t wrong. Showing all your cards is dangerous. Big ups to Brené Brown for making vulnerability trendy or whatever, but the definition of the word vulnerable is “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” I’m going to build on Brené’s narrative a bit here, because I think it points us to something exceptionally potent. 

Brené has said, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.” This statement makes the assumption that telling the truth is inherently vulnerable, and it’s a correct assumption. Her narrative focuses on vulnerability as the release, but what she’s illuminating, fundamentally, is truth-telling. Why would telling the truth make us susceptible to physical or emotional harm? Why, precisely, would we need to employ courage to do something as universally righteous as telling the truth? What would compel us to hide our truths away in the shadows of our interior worlds, cloak them in shame, and force ourselves to speak and live lies? What exactly is that lie aligning to that makes us believe it’s safer? That lie is a reference point for something major—it’s aligned to implied or explicated norms and expectations that are considered safer than the truth.

While it shouldn’t be, telling the truth is dangerous. In this paradigm, the truth makes us exceptionally vulnerable. And this paradigm, as a reminder, is a white, patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist hellscape. These constructs are inherent to every aspect of this paradigm, axioms that all forms and expressions are checked against.

You and I, everything we say and do and think, are being checked against the norms of violent white male progress via extractive capitalism. There’s more nuance to the paradigm than that—ableism, heteronormativity, religious supremacy, etc.—but that’s the core. The core, as Walter Mignolo called it, is “the logic of coloniality covered up by the rhetorical narrative of modernity.” 

This is all to say, while infinitely divergent ways of being exist, expressions of humanity that mold to the baseline narrative of violent white male progress are consistently given more power and considered more true than others. And, as enforcement, there are violent social, material, and psychological consequences for deterring from this baseline. The further one diverges, the more dangerous it becomes. This means that any divergent expressions must fight for their existence and validity, oftentimes at great risk and without notable effect on the paradigm itself. 

Remember, too, that this paradigm is axiomatic, so much of it is unspoken. It’s the air we breathe, the water we drink. We’re born into this world, immediately tapped into the collective consciousness, and we begin absorbing it. In the womb, through our mothers, and when we finally meet the outside world we develop an awareness that any parts of us that deviate from this baseline are unsafe. Then we begin living a life, and that baseline is implied and explicated and reiterated in our family dynamics, media, school curriculum, music, movies, social dynamics. It’s reaffirmed over and over again. We’re swimming in it, and eventually we all experience that danger directly and personally.

This makes truth-telling a necessarily calculated risk. So, yes. I’m clocking the potential ostracization, humiliation, rejection, sometimes physical danger. Still, the torment of withholding, the shame and shadows I’ve found myself hiding in have proven infinitely more dangerous. So, here I am. Admitting a lot of embarrassing shit to you based upon my all-too-serious belief in The Muse, The Observer, and a marvel of a discovery: truth is transmutation. 

When I’ve been lucky enough to transcend the shame of my most unapplaudable thoughts and behaviors, it feels like peeking out above a storm cloud to see that the sun has never stopped shining. Almost every time I’ve broken through the clouds of shame by telling the whole truth, at least one person was on the other side, beaming like the sun, telling me they too have felt or experienced something similar. And we are both healed by seeing ourselves in each other. Or maybe they’ve never experienced anything like it, and instead the warmth of their sun is compassion and receptivity. And we are still both healed by expanding ourselves to hold a more nuanced appreciation of another’s reality without judgment. 

It doesn’t always go this way, no. I wish it weren’t so dangerous to tell the truth in this paradigm. There is a unique and transcendent joy that can be found through the truth, through authentic and unfettered self expression. In a kinder world, authentic expression wouldn’t be synonymous with vulnerability. In a more just world, that joy wouldn’t be under perpetual systemic attack. But it is, at least for now. So I’ve had to practice and fortify myself to step out of those shadows. I’ve made those calculated risks and sometimes been deeply hurt, had my physical safety threatened, or been ostracized.

I’m doing it now, with you. I’m making the bet with you, on this page, while we levitate a little bit off the ground. Because the dark corners in our houses can be portals through which we access connection, healing, and love. But those portals can’t ever open if we don’t tell the whole truth. And I want to carry us there, because I need it. So, bear with me. As all seeds to sprout, my story begins surrounded by dark, living earth. This is the foundation of my haunted house.

Chapter 18

Surrounded by the cold, stoical walls of my father’s fortress, I felt very alone. No, that’s wrong. I was alone. It was a fact. Emotionally, I had no one to connect to in that house. The only way I managed to feel included was by manufacturing it. I acted like I was one of the boys so my father and brother would be more comfortable with me. No one ever asked for that directly, but as a child we pick up on cues for what safe, acceptable behavior looks like in our environments and we imitate that. If every time you cried your bodybuilder father threatened to give you something to cry about, you might stop crying. You might learn to flex instead.

In that environment, I learned that love meant imitation as opposed to authentic self expression. I learned that it was more important to make men feel comfortable with my existence than to have my needs heard, let alone acknowledged or met. So, I felt out of place most of the time and it was hard for me to create or discover my own identity. I believed that I was a bro, just like my dad and brother, because I had to be and it was all I knew. I displaced the parts of myself that didn’t fit that mold and filled the gaps with more braggadocio. I buried those parts of myself somewhere I thought no one could find them, hid them away in the dark corners of my house, coiled with stories of shamefulness and unworthiness. I buried them in that fissure and the pain of that burial was gnawing at me constantly. I wasn’t developed enough to see or understand it, but I felt it.

The main semblance of respite I found was my mother. At least, it was the one I believed in and valued the most. I say semblance for a reason. It was nothing more than the appearance of respite. Remember the spider, mummifying its prey? Well, that’s what we’re talking about here. You may have imagined I meant that metaphor poetically. It’s an incorrect assumption. I was the mummified prey, and you can guess the role my mother played. I was better off in the steel fortress, because at least it kept the spiders out.

I was like a ping pong ball, bounced haphazardly between my mother and father. A judge ruled that we should live with my father full time, which is an uncommon ruling. I still don’t know the details of why. According to my mother, she was a victim. My father is generally thrilled to malign his ex-wife, but he now struggles to remember exactly what erratic behavior made it obvious to the courts how unfit she was. I don’t know the official reasoning, but I can guess.

Courts generally try to keep children with their mothers, but it was decided that my mother wasn’t fit to keep me and my brother more than every other weekend. That was the schedule, but my mom was inconsistent. Some weekends she’d cancel. Others she’d promise to pick us up in a couple of hours, we’d pack our bags and be ready to go, and she would never show up. We might not hear from her for another week or two. 

I can guess at what she was choosing over her children, because there were plenty of weekends we did end up at her house and one of her boyfriends would be there. She wasn’t an alcoholic, but she did drink a lot. And smoked weed, eventually with both me and my brother. Some time after I graduated high school we became her plug and, honestly, those were some of the most fun times I remember having with my mom. Blazed and laughing our asses off at Kevin Hart saying something stupid. Acting, with all the skill and fervor of Viola Davis in Fences, like love was in the room with us. Because this was the same woman who stole my social security number to take out credit cards, never paid them off, and ruined my credit by the time I was 11 years old. Let me be clear—love was not in the room with us. The scene of laughter and inebriated bonding was a mirage, which I still have to remind myself of. Wave it away and you would find something much darker, more nefarious.

When I did see my mother, I was sometimes on the receiving end of physical affection. I almost wish I hadn’t been, because of what those crumbs did to me. And they were crumbs. Hugs and kisses are generally perceived as an outward display of love. Love being internal, you can’t see it with your eyes. So, what if the outward displays of affection aren’t actually coming from a place of love? What if they were coming from a place more corrupt and how would you know?

I don’t think you would know. Not at that age. Not when the person hugging you was your mother. Not when your mother was the only real model for tenderness and affection that you’d encountered. Not when you so desperately needed a soft, tender place to land after enduring the confines of a steel fortress in which your survival depended upon supplanting the need for tenderness and affection with chauvinism and shit talking. I don’t think you would know, but I do think you might feel it.

I thought the crumbs were leading me to love, but they led me to an eight-eyed, eight-legged, predatory spider. This is why I didn’t want to come here. This is why Kaila and I had to tear that whole fucking house down. This is why nothing could stand on top of that foundation, not without rotting from the inside. That haunted house was filled with spiders, all offspring of my mother. They were hiding everywhere, venturing out to hunt the moment things were just still and dark enough. It was a nightmare. In my formative years, I didn’t know there was another option, so I lived there, slowly being eaten alive. My guests couldn’t manage to leave without being bitten, and they were lucky if that was all.

It might sound like I’m criticizing my mother, but listen to me. I’m not. I’m telling you the fucking truth. I have deep compassion for my mother. When I consider how tragic her upbringing was, I can’t manage to feel anything beyond sorrow, love, and compassion. Truly. I don’t judge or blame her, I’m not even angry. The reality of how she behaved toward and conditioned me is simply this: she was a spider and I was her prey.

My mother taught me that to receive love meant to be extracted from until you were in deficit. Once you were in deficit, you simply gave more. She taught me that to give love meant to endure the pain of being in deficit. I also learned that any mention of the deficit or the pain was a betrayal of that love. Sound familiar at all? Surely to some of you. That was my relationship with my mother, who was a narcissist. Not like an Instagram diagnosis or the “fuck my ex” kind. A real one.

Because I couldn't understand the love my dad gave me, I didn’t have any other reference points for what love looked like. I understood hugs and kisses, though. Those are pretty universal. The most significant acknowledgement and validation of my tenderness that I received came through my mother, which worked in her favor. Between me being starved for affection and her inconsistency, I developed an anxious sense of waiting for her, anticipating her arrival and the love I believed she offered. It only came when she needed to dip into my well, which made me dependent upon her for it in a way that was easily abused, which was her intention. She would siphon that affection off of me whenever she needed a hit she couldn’t get from a man or weed or her favorite red wine.

It came often enough that I never felt properly abandoned. It came infrequently and sporadically enough that I developed an addiction to it. I believed in its scarcity, felt the terror of its inconsistency, and sooner or later I became desperate. I would do anything for it. I learned that being fed off was normal. I even eventually believed it was enough. I could survive on that one-way street if I needed to, and I did need to. That was my only option as a child, entirely subject to the whims of my parents. And you know how kids are. Our developing minds tell us simple, oftentimes illogical, but exceptionally powerful stories about what’s happening to and around us.

My primal, biological ache for my mother told me my mother was inherently good, that she was benevolent. In my mind, I fashioned a beautiful pedestal for her to sit upon. This wasn’t a conscious choice, it was inherent. I worshipped the archetype of The Mother, magnanimous and omnipotent. Soneja relied on that pedestal and used it to manipulate me for over 25 years. She preyed on that power dynamic. In my mind, she was a queen and I was a peasant. She validated this in countless ways, both physical and emotional, when I misbehaved. Misbehaving, of course, was constituted as expressing a version of myself she couldn’t easily manipulate or extract from. And she made it clear that anything beyond what she was giving me was an ask borne of the most egregious selfishness and greed.

See what I mean? Spider, prey. Being conditioned in this way was so traumatic for me that part of me froze in terror and stayed that way. For around 35 years of my life, part of me would live in a room devoid of doors and windows and light, waiting for my mother to crawl out of the corner and feed off of me, mistaking that feeding for affection. Playing incessantly a story that I was worthless—proven by the lack of interest either of my parents had in connecting with me—and that if I could only just give more, I might prove myself lovable. It was pitch black in that room, because I never knew when Soneja might return and indicate, for a moment, that perhaps, maybe I was worthwhile.

I developed a terrible fear of the dark. After sundown, I used to walk with my back against walls until I could make it to a light switch. The dark felt like limbo to me, waiting for my mother, for her affection anxiously and obsessively. Whenever she did come, it validated both the reward of waiting and my worthlessness. Because she always, eventually came back, waiting made sense. But she always left without connecting with me or caring for me, without pouring anything back into me. Surely because of how worthless I was. That loop played out again and again, and it became a foundational aspect of my truth. I was in that room waiting for love, but it never came. My mother told me she loved me, so we called this love. And as a little girl, I needed to believe my mother loved me. The idea that my mother didn’t love me seemed impossible. This had to be love, it was a matter of survival.

I experienced this conditioning as torturous. Imagine for a moment being locked in a small, lightless room waiting to be fed. The ticking of a clock on the wall was the only sound you could hear aside from your own breath. The food would come eventually, but it was unpredictable and sometimes it would take so long you’d be on the verge of starvation. Your body and mind would be weak, and even if all someone brought you was a crust of bread, you’d devour it like a steak dinner. Only to be left again in this pitch black room, to contemplate why and how you ended up in this room eating these crumbs. That crust would simultaneously be your torture and your fulfillment. 

Reality might become distorted in that room. The clock’s ticking might slow down, it might get louder. You might start tracing the walls with your fingers to remind yourself that you exist. You might escape into dreams of a world perfected by the very thing you were being deprived of. You might decide to live in that dream world. You might lose your mind in that room. In that nightmare of a room, if you spent over 20 years there, something inside of you might snap.

My father wasn’t feeding off of me, nor was he withholding anything. He simply didn’t have anything to give in this realm. Because my young mind couldn’t fathom omnipotent and benevolent beings such as my parents depriving me of my needs through their own will or deficit, I developed the story that I was a monster. I told myself I was unlovable, that I wasn’t worthy of having my emotional needs met. I believed that I had managed to fuck up so royally in my infancy that the conditionality and absence of my parent’s love was justified. 

I have done everything in my power to turn most romantic relationships in my adult life into some version of this dynamic. Me in a dark room, waiting, converting crusts of bread or sometimes no food at all into a Michelin meal. Confusing a lover’s feeding for love. 

Luckily, magically, I haven’t actually ended up with any outright abusive partners, so most people haven’t been willing to play those dynamics out with me. Big ups to a deeply traumatized mind on being willing to do the heavy lifting, though. Projection is a hell of a phenomenon, right? Hallucinations, basically. Here’s where the PTSD came in. Every time I entered into a relationship, I would experience a flashback. Explicitly romantic relationships. 

Freud probably has some ideas on why it was only my romantic endeavors, but Freud was also sexist and racist and way too coked up for us to trust what he says to the degree most do. I think he was sex obsessed, possibly because he had his own trauma with sexuality. I think, personally, it’s not nearly so complex nor perverse. 

Chapter 19

For me, the tension I experience in romantic relationships is reflective of a desire to return to my origin. Yes, in the material world that would mean my parents, most especially my mother. I was in her womb where we were one and then, through the bloody, violent, and terrifying process of birth, we became two. The act of birth is a simultaneous emancipation and abandonment. 

Our mothers create us from their own cells, they house us alongside their organs, we develop in the most intimate possible setting one can be in, literally as part of our mothers. We live as them during that time, because we are our mothers while we’re developing inside of them. And part of us is also materially made of our fathers. There is no separation. And then, one day, violently, bloody and screaming, we are banished.

I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with that banishment on material and spiritual levels. Spent even more time wishing desperately that I could go “home,” a place which remained elusive. Surely, unsurprisingly, I’ve deeply associated that “home” with my mother and father. Why could I not manage to return to the same level of closeness with my parents that I had when we were one? How could they leave me so alone and isolated in such a maniacal world when we were of each other? Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, where is my home if not with you, if not as part of you?

It’s where we fucking came from and we won’t ever be able to return to that place. And neither of my parents seemed to care. I could barely get them to acknowledge me past their neuroses and self absorption. I was of them and they weren’t even interested in me—not beyond my father’s material duty to keep me alive and my mother’s feeding schedule.

Being born might be our first, possibly most traumatic rejection, even if it is an emancipation. It could so easily be confused for rejection, especially when we enter a paradigm as unwelcoming as this one. For a time, I was committed to finding my way back to that womb and imagining that a lover who reminds me of my mother or father might lead me there. Not consciously, but yes. I have largely partnered with people who exhibited traits similar to my mother or father, either physically or emotionally. I’d bet some of you have a similar story, and I think it’s fine.

I think it’s because sex is the closest thing to that level of intimacy we can access once the womb is no longer an option. Fuck Freud. Just because sex organs are part of the equation doesn’t make sex the focal point. See what I mean? Freud was just as myopic a fuck as you and me. His pinhole aperture orbited his own experience of the world and couldn’t possibly tell us the whole story. His theory is reductionist, as is mine, as is yours, all of us reflecting less than 1% of reality.

So, we can all relax. It’s not about sex. It’s about safety and comfort and acceptance and belonging. It’s about wholeness and self actualization. It’s about wanting to go home, to return to ourselves. Especially the parts of ourselves this paradigm deems inadmissible. There is the initial fissure, the separation from our parents. Then there are the fissures this paradigm demands of us; the parts of ourselves that deviate from the baseline, which we are required to violently separate ourselves from in order to survive the paradigm. 

It’s about repairing the fissure by returning to a state of wholeness, the state we were in before our parents banished and gave this brutal world access to us. It’s about the likelihood that we identify love first through our relationship to our parents, because they are our material origin. Even those of us who never met our parents, there often still remains a sense of searching for an understanding of that origin. It’s about recreating and attempting to heal those dynamics through our most intimate bonds.

I like Jung more than Freud, though he was just as racist and sexist. He dropped some fire when he said this, though. “The dream is the small hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul, which opens into the primeval cosmic light…in dreams we pass into the deeper and more universal truth and more eternal man, who still stands in the dusk of original night in which he himself was still the whole and the whole was in him in bright undifferentiated pure nature, free from the shackles of the ego.” 

We were birthed from that moment of singularity, that moment of absolute purity, when we were at one with our origin. To experience that purity, we are drawn to revert, return, regress. Imagine returning home after being lost in a dark, deep wood for so very long. Finding the light of your own front porch after searching and fearing and falling and breaking. Purity awaits us in that light, it beckons to us.

Look, I think we were made in god’s image. I know some of you are bristling at that because maybe you don’t believe in god. I’m not religious myself, but it doesn’t really matter what I mean when I say god. Whether you believe in god(s) or not, no matter which god(s) you do or don’t choose, the statement stands. We are of our origin and we could not be separate from it because we were once at one with it. 

We are an extension of our origin, so even if you’re atheist, we were once our birth mothers. I bet you look somewhat like your mother. Probably your father too. A cat has kittens and couldn’t give birth to a lizard; the cat can only birth something in its likeness. Nature is super consistent with this. So, whether we are children of god or dust of stars or both, we are the thing we came from. And I believe that many of us spend our lives unconsciously trying to find the pieces of ourselves that we’ve been forced to part with and then find our way home.

There’s a reason I’m talking about houses so much. I’m talking about home. I’m talking about the fact that I believed for most of my life that if I could just find the pieces of myself I’d buried in dark corners and make my way back to my mom or dad’s house, I’d be okay. My PTSD flashbacks were, effectively, me searching for my mother. I rejected what my father offered me because I couldn’t understand it, and believed my mother’s house was where I would be safest. Because, however excruciating, it offered me something I could understand and absorb.

I think our parental and sexual relationships offer a portal that others cannot, because our other relationships, quite simply, aren’t as materially intimate. I think we try to find people who give us the impression they could help us heal. I think we look for our puzzle piece, however cliché. Someone who could fit into the unique gaps that were created when we separated from our origin, someone who reminds us of the parts of ourselves this world stole from us.

This “someone” is inevitably modeled, to some degree, after our parents. Either in their likeness or their opposition, because our parents are our most significant reference point. So, don’t be like Freud. Don’t make it weird. It’s actually pretty beautiful. Sex, I believe, is a ritual we use to enact the rapture of reunion, the absolute ecstasy we would feel if we could manage to repair our fissures. It gives us a small taste of the remarkable relief we would feel if we were able to put ourselves back together, find that front porch, and be welcomed home.

Chapter 20

Now, I’ve been intentional in saying only part of me ended up in that dark room. Some parts of me had remained intact. Thank goodness my PTSD wasn’t triggered by every relationship. It was only the part of me that sought acknowledgement and meeting of my emotional needs, and there was a threshold of vulnerability that needed to be met. Because of my years “acting as if” I was confident and equanimous, I eventually embodied it. Machismo and braggadocio kept me afloat. Despite that dark room, most of me existed beyond it and I believed in myself to an impressive degree.

That’s a wildly misleading framing. Embarrassingly, I was arrogant and even a bit bitchy. Arrogance is a type of mental structure that can surround and hide the most debilitated and nonfunctional parts of ourselves and still have us walking around feeling entitled and superior. I don’t recommend it for a lot of reasons, but the solidity of arrogance gave me a ladder out of that dark room. 

I did have a lot going for me. There were enough buoys to latch my arrogance onto—intelligence, sense of humor, decent looks— that I managed to stay above water. I had to develop a sense of entitlement as an equal and opposite to the depth of worthlessness and unmet needs I was hiding. Finding a way to consistently meet my needs was a matter of survival, and in this one, individual, lone, solitary, companionless, singular way, the patriarchy gave me something. 

I walked around with the entitlement and arrogance of a man, in a man’s world. A specific man, too. My father. The handsome, self-made, cut as fuck bodybuilder my high school girlfriends used to fawn over. The one who saw the Mexican earth, imagined an impenetrable fortress, and built it with his bare hands. The one who carried himself, with his family on his back, from poverty to wealth. A wild, unafraid man who bled poison if someone dared to fuck with him or his. The one who, with everything in him, honored his duties and responsibilities. I inherited the confidence of a man who believed in no part of himself as a victim of outside forces. He was the fucking force, backed by tangible and ever-growing evidence.

Rich functioned on a different level. All his intelligence and charisma and good looks meant he could have whatever he wanted in life. The current was flowing in his direction, always, and he never once took it for granted. My father was born at the end of a rainbow, into a pot of gold and spent his life carting buckets of that gold between his mystical birthplace and those of us in need. I can’t remember ever hearing him complain. He loved doing it, because it was the fullest expression of his inner wholeness. He showed me and my brother the way and drew us a map. 

He tried his best to beat any bifurcation out of us, not because he was evil but because it had worked for him and he sincerely believed it would help. It didn’t help, he could have skipped that part but I don’t blame him. I know he believed that too was love, because that’s what he was taught. Mercifully, he had other tools. He also carried us when we inevitably lost our way or didn’t believe in ourselves enough to make it all the way there. He’d do anything he could to get us to the end of that rainbow, and he’d walk that path on our behalf until his legs gave out if he had to. I couldn’t see it then, that this was love, because of my own pinhole aperture. But then I met Kaila and because of her, through her, my aperture expanded. 

I expanded to see and identify love everywhere so I could feed it back to her. Because of Kaila, because she saved my life, because I had to expand for her, my vocabulary in love grew and grew. Suddenly, I could hear and speak my father’s language. It was devotion, and I could finally understand how much love he had in his heart, how austerely he tended to the duty assigned to him. I could finally see that my father’s inability to express emotion to me wasn’t correlated to his love for me. I saw how selfish I had been, judging him against the archetype of The Father that existed in my mind and ensuring he knew how inadequate he was when checked against it. How myopic I had been to only see what love meant to and for me. 

More and more, I could see what love meant to and for my father. I could, at last, see what staggering goodness must be emanating from a person’s core for them to be driven and fulfilled by such a pure devotion. I fucking love my father, accounting for all his flaws and countless mistakes. However imperfectly, my father loved me with the strength of steel and the protection of poison. 

That's partly why I’m such a bad bitch. I inherited that shit. It took me a while to live into, but even in high school there were hints of it. I used to write philosophical essays for fun, then give them to my philosophy teacher for us to bullshit over during lunch period. I was flexing, Mr. Kletizien knew it, and we had a fucking blast. Mr. Kletzien changed my life by giving me that time. He once called me wise in feedback on one of my essays and I absorbed it like it was nectar from the gods. My enormous ego took it seriously, believed it, and ran with it. Thank goodness my outlets were as wholesome as they were, because you wouldn’t want someone with unsavory intentions walking around believing in themselves as much as I did.

While I was undeniably insufferable, it was a means to be seen, to my needs finally being met on my own terms. So what if I was loud and believed in myself too much? So what if I was demanding and imperious? So what if everyone knew it? I believed anything was possible, the way my dad did, and I believed I was entitled to it. It was my inheritance, after all. That current of good fortune was coursing through my blood, so it was true. Anything I could dream of was possible. My material sense of worth spoke with its chest, and that was something.

Yet still, the arrogance was a guard for something unbearably vulnerable. That is, susceptible to attack. Hidden in that dark room was my emotional sense of worth and that dark room was surrounded by landmines as far as the eye could see. Everywhere the light touches, lain in a design as intricate, refined, and intentional as a mandala.

The triggers were seemingly endless and they were both obvious and elusive. With anyone who was emotionally unavailable, it was fairly straightforward. Someone gave me crumbs of affection and I was right back in that room, especially if they gave it inconsistently. Assuming I was attracted to the person, that’s literally all it would take. I’d have a flashback. 

The details of my flashbacks are enormously embarrassing to recount. I ask again, please be gentle with me. I still feel some shame around this truth, but I’m betting on you and the bridge between us. I’m taking the risk because I’m trusting you to hold it with me, gently, without judgment. I know not all of you can or will offer that. Some of you will judge me anyway, and I’m willing to accept that. Because at least one of you will see yourself in this story and hopefully find some small healing. I’m telling this truth for you. For both of us. I believe in my heart that you’ll benefit from that whether you judge me or not.

In my flashback state, I’d respond as if I was in a dark room waiting with terror for a spider to come feed off of me. I’d behave as if I was a little girl waiting for her mother to simultaneously torture and relieve her. I want to be clear. In this scenario, being tortured was the relief. I wanted the spider to come, I needed it. I was addicted to it. And all my lover had to do was leave. No, not leave the relationship. Just to go home or something.

The moment they turned their back, that exceptional vulnerability creeped in and I was fucking susceptible. The walls in that room were closing in on me. That clock was ticking loud, in slow motion. I couldn’t see anything and every noise sent me into hopeless anticipation, praying and dreading that it was my spider. I’d send off a text and almost immediately begin counting the minutes from its timestamp. 5 minutes, 18 minutes, 33, 46. “It’s now officially been 3 hours and 12 minutes,” my mind would chime. Just to let me know that it had been that long, and that I still had no idea how long it would be before they would return. Before my utility could once again be proved, before I would once again be allowed to serve my purpose. 

It’s dramatic, I know. My heart is racing as I write this because it’s so visceral. It’s heartbreaking and terrifying to acknowledge how malleable young minds are, how they’ll cope with their surroundings by standardizing and even idolizing nearly any kind of treatment a parent or caretaker gives them. 

This is why I needed the morphine. It’s why I need us to levitate like this while we talk about it. It’s why I used to cut my wrists. I couldn’t fucking take the torture. I needed it, but I couldn’t take it and I had to let something out, even if it was my own blood. It’s why I wanted to die. My sense of worth, my purpose was so braided with being fed off of that when I wasn’t being tortured, I questioned why I existed at all. I questioned, also, whether a life like this was worth living. I doubted as a young girl that life had any alternatives to offer me and if it was to be this painful, I knew I could only take so much. 

Chapter 21

We’re not done talking about this, I just need to rest a bit. Poesy is my morphine. It’s okay if you need it too. This shit is dark. I barely survived it. Kaila met me in this state. Wounded, reactive, blind, and begging. I had my visions and they gave me some sense of purpose beyond being my mother’s personal buffet. But I needed, desperately, for someone to help me believe in and build my castles. Kaila needed to help someone believe and build. I needed someone to protect and support me as I sought to heal. Kaila needed someone to defend and support. She needed a life to save. We were fucking perfect for each other.

I could write the length of a thousand Bibles and still not come close to expressing how outlandishly lucky I was that she chose to nurture, defend, and support me. The words do not exist. Not known language, not utterances. No sound the human body could make could describe it. The closest thing I’ve found on this Earth is the sound of the wind whipping. And even then, it’s not quite that. It’s the sound the wind whipping is trying to make, as if the wind is a singular voice where a chorus ought to be. It points towards something perfected and astounding, but so much is still missing. So much is yet to be built.

This is why I had to expand. Because Kaila deserved more love than the material world had available and I had to fucking build it for her. My father’s daughter, I’m dramatically motivated by devotion. I traversed the globe, collecting love in every place I could find. Turning over rocks, mining earth, diving underwater. I presented love to her like a proud cat presents its spoils. I presented her with what I found again and again, happily prostrating.

She never asked that of me. The opulence of my love made her extremely uncomfortable. She just wanted me to sit by the fireplace with her, but I couldn’t help myself. No display of love even neared the depth of gratitude I felt for her. I don’t care how it sounds, how obedient I am to her. I was never done and I’ll never be. 

I’m desperately in love with her. Do you understand? I don’t care if it’s a prison of my own making. I will live and die in this prison and never, ever, not for all eternity be done. I don’t want to be. To expand in love for and because of her, to offer the excess to you is the fullest expression of my inner wholeness. I will carry the ever-increasing weight of my love for her, expand endlessly if it means her world might weigh less in sorrow. Yes, still, even while she is dead. Because maybe it can reach her, wherever she is now. If there is any remote chance that it could reach her now or ever, I have to try.

I know how desperate I sound. With clarity, I know it. Desperation has been branded into my hide. That’s the lot I inherited, but I’ll never feel ashamed of it. All of my love has a bit of desperation in it. It’s that morphine that I need. It’s how we’re levitating like this right now. I swallowed a double dose of the red pill, earnest as I was, and I had to figure out how to fucking take all this truth. I’m a little bit in love with you, too, reader. I need to be. You are more beautiful to me than most people who perceive you. Because, in my desperation, I need you to be that beautiful to counteract the harshness of your and my truths. To save both you and me from it. I’m elevating you and our interaction because I desperately need reality to reside a little bit closer to god. You and me and all the world. 

That desperation was also the impetus for my evolution. From what I can tell, evolution tends to be inspired by existential necessity. My need was existential and it still is. And Kaila fucking met that need. I don’t know if it’s possible to overstate how foundational that is. I would have died without it. I’ve said that multiple times, partly because I question whether you believe it, whether you really, truly believe me when I say I’m only alive now because Kaila dug me out of the sand and carried me home to be her pet. I’d be dead if Kaila hadn’t chosen to love me.

She was the first person to demonstrate patience and interest enough to learn and see me without me commanding it. She was never impressed by my performance. She found it entertaining, but she didn’t care how loud I was. She was never going to respond to that shit. She checked my ego constantly. There was no temper tantrum that was going to shake her. She was such a mama. She had boundaries in all the right places to keep me in line, and she gave me what I needed so easily that I never even thought to test them. 

She seemed to have exactly what I needed, inherently. It flowed into me with the soundwaves of her voice and laughter, it seeped into my skin when she held me. She was the first person, ever, to care enough to navigate my landmines. Fast little fishy, I don’t think it was very difficult for her. She’d spent a lifetime evading things that could cause her pain. Hell, she probably floated over those landmines. She didn’t always understand them, she couldn’t always identify what they were protecting, but she devoted herself to learning that treacherous mandala to reach me and my emotional sense of worth, deactivating what she could along the way.

It took time to develop, but Kaila approached and loved me as if I belonged to her. I had never felt something so miraculous. I had never felt the loving, attentive eyes of a human truly see me and celebrate in what they found. She wanted to know every detail. She let me pour out every truth I’ve ever wanted to tell, heavenly and horrific, and she delighted in how much healing it brought me.

She kept me as her pet and I was exactly where I belonged. There was no one else before her, not during her, and no one else since has come close. Let me not exaggerate. Plenty of other people have loved me and a handful have accessed me through the clearings Kaila made in my mandala. But to be seen by Kaila’s eyes, to be witnessed by her specifically? Waves of love are coursing through my body just thinking of it.

There was a thaumaturgy in the way she perceived me. She would listen to my visions of castles then feed them back to me, and it was as if I was hearing of them for the first time. She bypassed my arrogance and tapped directly into the emotional sense of worth that needed bolstering. It was as if she was asking me, “what could you possibly need arrogance for when your visions and your ability to realize them are simply true?” She forced me, solely by seeing and believing in me, to ask myself whether I was truly as vulnerable as I believed. She was a mirror and the reflection she showed me was a wildly lovable, irrepressible force.

I hope it’s becoming more coherent why I love her the way I do. Why I always will. I’ve barely begun to tell you about her and it should already be clarifying. She gave me love, real love, and there’s no linear way to tell you how that impacted me. How it seemed to flow directly to the places I needed it the most. She gave me love in a way that I could understand it, for the first time in my life. She was so fucking devoted and she never left my side. 

Countless times, my precious, beloved, darling fishy sat beside me in that dark room while I waited for a spider to come feed off of me. While experiencing a flashback, my behavior would be compulsive. I felt like I was sleepwalking. So, I’d often witness myself doing something I didn’t actually want to do. The behavior felt against my will and better judgment. The compulsion would override everything and suddenly I wouldn’t be able to turn the wheel at my will. I’d mindlessly walk to my dark, windowless room and wait, and behave as you would imagine a tortured person might: panicked and desperate.

Sometimes she pulled me out of the room, sometimes she sat and held my hand while I was fed off and then gave me aftercare. When I would suffer the shame of having let it happen, when I’d turn into a manipulative monster to draw the spider back in, she’d patiently sit beside me and ask me what I was doing and why. She’d point out how self harming it was and she’d walk with me while I played events back to try and understand them. I would have been blind without her, because I couldn’t see myself when those flashbacks took place. I didn’t black out, I was conscious and aware, but I couldn’t control myself and the pain underneath the flashback was so immense that I couldn’t get close enough to see what was happening with any clarity. I knew it was unhealthy. I knew it hurt. I knew I didn’t want it to be happening, but I couldn’t understand it or figure out how to stop it.

No matter how humiliating my findings, Kaila never once judged me. I would weep and she would hold me. I would write and she would read me. I would obsess and analyze and she would listen. And we would make each other laugh. I expanded Kaila too. I don’t know if she was the size of a sea or not, but loving me caused her to expand. She would create more and more room inside herself to hold whatever parts of me she was witnessing, new and old, clear and unclear, harmful and helpful, idiocy and brilliance. 

Whatever she found, whatever she heard, whatever she witnessed, she simply gave me more space and more love. And I would fall more and more in love with her every moment. I clung to my moments with her, stretched them out to last years. I needed to reside there, always, because this was love. I felt it. It changed me. I grew to love all the world more, including you, because Kaila was in it. Through her, I began to heal. Through her, I began my practice in love. A practice that has changed all reality for me. A practice that has brought me closer to heaven than hell. The practice of love saved my life, and it was Kaila who offered me that opportunity. That’s why I’m her pet. I love her like a dog loves its owner and I will never leave her side.

Chapter 22

I’m so grateful to Kaila for sweeping away what landmines she could before she died. I never fucking wanted them and I hated that they were there, because they hurt people. My visions of castles were borne of a very simplistic urge. Like Batman, my favorite superhero, I vowed something simple yet powerful. After his parents’ death, the Caped Crusader declared war on all criminals. He would avenge his parents’ death, but their death was only the catalyst. Vengeance wasn’t his purpose. His purpose was the war, which he devoted himself to. A “war on all criminals” was a delusionally grand objective, which was partly the point. Batman needed a purpose that could outlive him and all his pain, a purpose that propelled him beyond his darkness. He needed a purpose to know that he was worthwhile, to justify the perpetual ache of his existence until he finally collapsed one day. I needed a purpose in the exact same way.

My mission? Eradicating, inside of myself, all obstructions to love giving and receiving love rightfully. I refused to allow myself to subject others to the harm I’d been subjected to. I had endured enough pain and carried the weight of its consequences long enough that I couldn’t bear the thought of passing that onto others. My purpose was the eradication of all obstructions to love. My purpose was enlightenment. A goal beyond myself, so lofty and abstract that it could propel me through my entire life. Like Batman, I needed something stronger than myself, strong enough to pull me into each coming day by the allure of its impossibility. Something to keep me alive.

I went through a phase of hating the parts of myself that could cause harm to others. There was sometimes debilitating shame about the fact that I couldn’t control those flashbacks. What those landmines were protecting was so painful, so untouchable, that I couldn’t even map my mandala. I had no idea how many landmines there were, where they were laid, how they got there. I could hardly look at them, because the pain they were protecting, the shame, the rejection, the banishment, the bleeding, aching wounds they stood guard around were simply too painful.

Still, I had The Observer and I had The Muse. The Observer gave me enough distance from the pain to take notice, to at least bear witness to what would happen when a landmine would go off. The Muse gave me the words to understand it. So, I experienced the trigger, had my flashback, dealt with the consequences. Then I played it back, analyzed it, and wrote about it. All of it. With excruciating honesty, just like I’m doing now. 

I slowly, over years, began to better understand the landmines, what might trigger them, what dangers awaited when a landmine went off. I picked up that there were patterns in my reactions. It didn’t give me the power to override them, but at some point I began to at least see them and acknowledge that they were causing harm to people who tried to get close to me. People I loved, who I never, ever wanted to hurt. People I desperately wanted to be close to. But those landmines made it too dangerous for both of us.

Thank fuck that I eventually became aware of their existence, because the anger, desperation, sorrow, manipulation, and terror that came out of me when I got triggered incited an emotional bloodbath. I hated myself for what came out of me in those moments. I still feel a sharp regret when I reflect on some of my past behaviors. 

We’ll get to the details. I’m still afraid to tell you everything. I’m afraid you’ll judge me, I’m worried you’ll think I’m a bad person. I’m scared that you’ll hear about the parts of me I’ve hidden away in dark corners and validate the stories I developed as a little girl in that dark room—that I’m a monster, that I’m not worthwhile, that I’m beyond saving. I’m afraid you’ll hear the coping mechanisms I developed and hate me for the fact that most of my coping came at someone else’s expense. I need you to know that I never wanted it that way.

I had no idea what those landmines were protecting, not consciously. But I knew I didn’t want to hurt the people I loved, I couldn’t bear it. The work of clearing those landmines was urgent. So, however painful and shameful it was to observe myself, I devoted myself to my mission: eradicate and supplant the parts of me that could cause harm to others. The only way to do that was to figure out what the fuck was raging inside of me and put an end to it.

Kaila supported and protected and loved me while I did that work, from the day we met until the day she died. Even on her deathbed, which she laid in for over a year, she never wavered. We used to joke, saying that I was a psychological surgeon and she was my surgeon’s assistant. I’d analyze and write, and write and analyze, relentlessly, obsessively. Sometimes 20 or more pages a day. The intensity of my suffering demanded my attention. It was existential. My crisis is what gave me my superhuman strength. Write or die. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, because I needed to understand. It rings true to this day, even though the existential threat has been alleviated. Still, I must write. Still, I must tell the truth. It’s my only way out of this. 

So, here I am. Telling you the truth. 

Chapter 23

I don’t think about Kaila often anymore, which is brutal to put into print. I feel her constantly, but somehow she went from being the cornerstone of my life to existing as temporal waves of grief, loneliness, and detachment combined with bewilderment and sorrow. The waves flow in and I become unavoidably aware of her absence in my life. It’s almost as though it builds up from the days I forget.

But I can’t remember her every day. I need to be able to function. Sometimes, for hours, all I’m able to do is weep and remember and face-off with her absence. The physical space she used to occupy is empty. Emptiness is nothing, carrying the weight of the potential for absolutely anything. Anything at all, within and well beyond our imaginations, including my Kaila.

The weight of the potential of her existence, particularly when coupled with the memory of her existence, is heavy as cement. Because her potential was realized on this Earth, in my life, in our love. Her potential was realized, and that realization saved my and Heather’s lives. But then Kaila’s potential was expended. It expired at 30 years. And what’s left is the potential of 31 years, 32 years, 33 years... Potential that will never be realized, that has been gaining momentum since her last breath. Potential that I carry with me each second I exist beyond the moment her breath stopped on November 2, 2018.

So, I don’t think of Kaila often at this point. The void is not meant to be reckoned with constantly. We have to shower and put on pants and shoes each day. We have to say please and thank you and give the impression that we respect societal norms. We have to gather all the water sloshing around in us, threatening to seep out at every turn, and behave as if we’re solid, functioning beings. We have to pay bills and exercise, file our taxes and feed the dog. 

Facing off with the void is a practice in grief and acceptance, holding everything that is and could be alongside what is not and won’t. It’s a muscle to be built through training and conditioning, otherwise you won’t last a second in that ring. The void has home field advantage too. It’s all around us and in us and we are of it and we can’t escape it—so we’re in its house, on its terms. Forever. That’s why I can only think of Kaila so often. I’m getting my ass kicked by writing this book. Man, fuck the void. I’m so sick of its shit. Give it a rest, you relentless fuck. 

Inhale. Exhale. I digress.

Luckily, now and again, there’s laughter and brimming, mostly when I get to tell someone a story about her and her antics. There’s also a quiet undercurrent of peace, a neat and perfect knowing, almost as if wrapped and bowed. Kaila, my sweet fishy. 

We used to muse about the idea of being a part of each other. We could feel each other like a phantom limb, even at a massive distance, even in different countries. We suffered each other's pain, we lived each other's joy. We read each other's thoughts by feeling them in our own bodies. 

I once wrote to Kaila that she swims in my blood flow. If you had a vial of my blood and took a microscope to it, you’d find her there, swimming alongside my blood cells. And I believe I lived in her, that I nestled directly underneath the very same lungs that would fail her one day, that I bolstered them with my own breath. My breath became her breath, her heartbeat became my heartbeat. Flesh of my flesh, no. This wasn’t what I was looking for in my parents. This was something… better, bigger. More enduring, because we had chosen each other and built it, we had progressively granted each other such deep and intimate access to our interior worlds that seeds sowed and we grew within each other. And we did it looking directly into each other's eyes the entire time. This… hallelujah. This was love.

My undercurrent of peace comes from that neat and perfect knowing that there is no separation between me and Kaila, even now. Even in death. We grew entwined like tree roots do, and our sustenance became one and the same, we lived through and because of each other. Some of you may hear this as the trope of two becoming one, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I believe that’s possible, if two people so desire it. I believe it comes with its own set of advantages and hindrances. However, Kaila and I never did become one. We remained autonomous, which felt imperative to the health of our particular love.

We built something remarkable through endless communication, blinding candor, crossing boundaries and wading through the detriment of it, learning lessons again and again and again, and tending to each other every step of the way. Out of an immeasurable and virtuous desire to see each other’s inner wholeness be fulfilled, out of devotion to understanding ourselves and each other ever better, a  perfected balance emerged: she was mine and I was hers, yet we remained our own. Bound, infinitely, but perpetually prepared to release each other if it meant betterment for either of us.

When Kaila died, I was in possession of a number of gifts from her. Tender, deeply sentimental things. Things that carried memories and stories. Trinkets, books, jewelry. Letters, notes, text messages. Like most people might, I considered keeping them as a memorial. Maybe I would build a small altar for her or comfort myself by reading through texts now and then. 

But I couldn’t do it. I needed to know that I wasn’t holding Kaila back as she transitioned into whatever phase of existence and consciousness she was headed to next. I couldn’t bear the thought of tethering her to this world, this life with my grief. Why, so I could obsess over old texts and weep while I held something she had given me, grasping for her and being unwilling to release her and our love?

The strength of our connection is transcendent. I believe I could tap into her right now if I wanted to, bring her back to the present and keep her right here with me. And I believe she’d stay right by my side, happily tethered, if I asked that of her. I could carry her ghost with me the rest of my life and we’d both find comfort and joy in it. But my love for her wouldn’t permit me to hold her back. 

Within 48 hours of her death, I had deleted all of our text and social media messages, burned all but one of her letters, and threw out all but two of the gifts she had given me. I had to do it quickly, if I had waited any longer I would have never done it. I needed her to be free of me, free to move and evolve. I too needed my freedom. We needed to evolve beyond each other. So, as much as I hated the reality of the necessity, I let my beloved go. I released every hold I had on her, I relinquished all the power I had to bring her back to me. I don’t know where Kaila is now, but the love of my life is gone, and I made sure of it.

Chapter 24

It’s a good question as to how. How did we arrive at that perfected balance? Part of why I’m writing this is to understand it, because there was something elusive and transcendent in it. When you’re building something you’ve never seen built before, something you aren’t even aware that you’re building, it’s trial and error. It looks and feels a lot like failing most of the time. We built our love on purpose, because we couldn’t live without each other. I made her brave and she made me safe. We knew we had to do whatever it took to stay close, and get closer. But we had no idea what it would transform into. Love was our shared destiny, because the fullest expressions of inner wholeness became entwined. Love, real love, was the only way we’d ever get close enough.

How it happened is nonlinear. It’s this whole book, from beginning to end, in no particular order. And all of it is equally important. Our wound-filled backstories, dreams, peccadillos, embarrassments, and truths. All of it. We haven’t talked yet about death, though. Death was a third party in our relationship from the moment we met. It never left our side and, eventually, we both welcomed it.

I’ve always been in the habit of calling attention to realities that people prefer to believe are imperceptible. People are funny. We don’t often talk about the things that scare us, as though silence will protect us from them. But in reality, many of us are living our lives under the thumb of the things we fear. Those fears dictate our thoughts and, consequently, our actions. We like to believe certain aspects of our interior worlds are hidden, private, secret. But our truth spills out all over in the words we choose, the body language we hold, the tone in our voice. I’ve always picked up on those sorts of subtleties and, for better or worse, called attention to them.

Death was like that for me and Kaila. Sometimes I’d sit and read with her while she did one of her treatments. Her tiny voice vibrating, her tiny body shaking, wrapped inside her vest while she inhaled that mist. It looked so big on her, she was so fucking small. And in this image, me sitting cross-legged across from my tiny best friend while she warded off drowning inside her own body, there is a third entity. A shadow-like figure, maybe a cloud. Diffused but present. It didn’t sit directly over us, but off to the side, like a whisper from another room. That whisper was death. 

I know, it probably sounds creepy because you’ve seen movies about shit like this. Some dark entity in the corner of the room, lurking. But death doesn’t lurk. Death has massive main character energy. The reason it’s in the corner is because we put it there. The reason it sounds like a whisper is because we’ve got on noise canceling headphones. Again, fair enough. The void really is not meant to be reckoned with constantly, no matter how strong you may be. Sometimes you need a bit of a silencer, to detach and rest. But many of us try to avoid facing off with the void entirely, so in the corner death stays. Until it comes for you or someone you love, and then you have the nerve to act surprised.

Bear with me, I know this probably isn’t what you want to hear. There is no fault in death. I repeat: death is not evil and it is not a tragedy. Not even close. It’s as common as the sun rising and setting. It never leaves us, closing in tighter with every second that passes, and we fucking know it. Death, or even the threat of death changes people in just as stark a way. Fears, defense and coping mechanisms pop up. Death carries everything from abandonment issues to existential crises in its handbag. 

And, if you ask me, death is innocent in nature. It’s just doing its job. Be mad at the meter maid all you want, but your time was always going to be up at some point. We only think it’s evil because we project our fear onto it and allow ourselves to believe that death is something we are victim to. So, we tuck it in the corner and tell ourselves it’s a tragedy if it ever happens to us or anyone around us. Because death is the void’s most aggressive representative. It demands that we reckon with everything that is and could be alongside what is not and won’t. If we can buy into the narrative that we’re victims, we can justify never reckoning with the void.

But it isn’t so tragic, not really. How could it be, when it will happen to me and you and Kaila and everyone else? Every single body will expire, so isn’t it okay? We certainly can’t stop it from happening. Tech billionaires, quit being so weird. Living forever sounds exhausting, and the desire for it comes from living under death’s thumb. Letting fear of death run the show. 

When death eclipses me, I believe my biological drive for perpetuating my organism will resist it. That’s how any organism is built. But in my mind and heart, I believe I’ll be grateful. Because this was always going to be part of it. It doesn’t make sense to fear the one thing we have in common with every single facet of existence on Earth. And, you know, energy is recycled. So, realistically, whatever your belief system is, we’ve died and been reborn in different forms multiple times. I believe there is a very material expression of the concept of reincarnation. It can be mystical, perhaps, but it’s reflected and proven in material reality. And I find there’s a safety in knowing it happens to everyone and everything.

Kaila did this and she was just fine. She was. She’s gone now, yes, but she survived death. Everyone before us has survived death. Animals, plants, water. Animate and inanimate alike, everything is formed, eventually decomposes, and forms again into something else. Everything makes it through that portal, whatever it is, wherever it leads to. I can survive it too. 

I know, everyone’s pathway there is different. It’s fair to be frightened by the process of decomposition. Kaila’s was inarguably excruciating. Her bodily functions shut down eventually. She was exhausted constantly, couldn’t use the bathroom as normal, eventually she couldn’t even walk. At some point while she was in hospice care, she took a photo and texted it to me. I distinctly remember responding with something like, “lol thanks but why is it so blurry?” She said it was because she couldn’t hold her hands still anymore.

I’m not trying to romanticize death, please don’t misunderstand me. Death isn’t fair. Its process is often brutal, scary, and painful. It comes at different times, in completely different ways and there is no perceptible reason for why. But it’s consistent in that the final destination is the same for everyone—life ends. After the process, we’re dead. And I think that offers us something significant—but only if we’re willing to pull it from the corner and invite it to read with us. 

I’m the kind of weird motherfucker that’s gonna do exactly that. And Kaila was relieved when I did. She had spent every moment of her life with death in her peripheral vision. If you’re able-bodied and relatively healthy, death is in our shadow. It follows us, but it’s not actively confrontational. You can live life, largely, without having to look death directly in the eye until it takes you or someone you love by surprise. When you live with a life-threatening disease, death does not hide behind you. It’s within your vision, constantly, and that presence doubled when her sister was also born with cystic fibrosis.

So, I acknowledged death as the third in our relationship. I asked her endless questions about CF and her treatments. I went to hospital visits with her and asked her doctors questions. We talked often about the likelihood that she would die before me, but also how wild it would be if I died in an unexpected way. How it’d be even wilder if she died in a way completely unrelated to her CF. 

We took death out of the shadows and Kaila was so grateful for it. At the end of her life, she told me I was the only person she felt comfortable talking to about her experience of death. She felt her family and other friends put the burden of their grief on her. They couldn’t look death in the eye with her and she felt obligated to make them feel better about her dying. 

Kaila needed a safe place, where she could release her guilt for dying slowly. A safe place to access what laid behind the guilt others laid on her, which was her experience of dying slowly. And I would give that to her, for as long as she needed. We made friends with the inevitability and welcomed it in. With me, Kaila was able to share how terrified she felt, how humbling it was, how much she sometimes looked forward to her death. Her fear of no longer mattering and being forgotten, her worries about the people she was leaving behind. 

There was the physical experience. She described every stage of her body’s decline to me in excruciating detail and I helplessly listened, wishing with every cell in my body that I could do something to help her. I was wordlessly grateful for how kind and generous her hospice nurses were. 

There was also the metaphysical experience. She once told me that she could sense spiritual entities hovering around her and she was afraid because she couldn’t tell if they were good or evil. So, I said a prayer and surrounded her in white light to protect her from evil and I promised she would never be alone as she made her journey through death’s portal. I would read to her or chant and meditate when she was feeling anxious. I have no idea if it worked, I didn’t believe in whatever god I prayed to, no. But it made her feel safer and I would do anything, anything at all if it would lighten what she was carrying.

Do you see why I had to let her go? I had to expand, to become bigger than my beloved’s death. I had to protect her. I had to hold and cover her as she made her transition. From the moment we met, I had been working to become bigger than her inevitable death. My Kaila would be defended and protected when she needed it most, just as she had defended and protected me. So, I grew even further in love by looking death directly in the eyes and saying, “You’re coming with us, motherfucker.”

I grieve her death, yes. But to this day, I don’t feel it was a tragedy. I suffer from Kaila’s loss, deeply. Her death, however, was always coming. Mine is too. So is yours. It’s not a threat, however threatening it may feel. Death is not a threat, it is a promise. And Kaila and I accepted that promise and transmuted it into a blessing, from the day we met until the day she died.

When I ask myself whether I loved her enough, the answer is a full-bodied yes. Did I give her enough? A chorus of yes. Did I say everything? Every last word poured out of me and into her, again and again until words became obsolete and all that was left was quiet, silent understanding. And I had absorbed hers just the same. The last conversation we had before she died, we talked about this explicitly. We praised each other for going this deep, opening this wide, expanding this far for the sake of the relationship. For the sake of love. My beloved told me that ours was the only relationship she felt truly comfortable leaving when she passed, because she knew everything was on the table.

And I am so glad we did, because I carry no regrets, not a single one. And it’s partly because death reminded us. I don’t think someone has to have a life threatening disease to access this. This is about throwing “vulnerability” into the fiery pits of fuck all and saying, “I’m telling the whole truth.” It’s about refusing to let our actions, our relationships, our capacity for love to be dictated by our fears. I fucking refuse it. Because I’m going to die someday. 

Death, when we bring it out from the dark, is a reminder of our freedom. If I’m going to die one day and so are you, who gives a shit what you think of me? Who gives a shit what I think of you? What exactly do we have to be afraid of? What cause would either of us have for shame or embarrassment when, in an unknown short or long amount of time, neither of us will even be here anymore? 

Tell the fucking truth. Yes, it can still be dangerous in the paradigm we’re in. I promise, my goal is not to romanticize this, nor to conflate complex identity and social constructs that impact us all to varying degrees of severity. Please don’t misunderstand me. I just mean you will live and die infinitely better if you choose truth over fear. So even if you find only one other person to tell the whole truth to, which is what I did, you can access a love that transcends fear. And that shit will change you. 

If you step through that portal, the one hidden in the darkest corner of your house, you will become a better, happier, more compassionate person. You will experience more joy, pleasure, and fulfillment. A liberated love can save lives. A love unfettered can change the world.

And look at me now, telling the whole truth to a bunch of strangers because I’m fucking riddled with idealism. See? You have so much to look forward to. 

Chapter 25

A few nights ago, I was lying in bed and became overwhelmed with grief and guilt. I imagined my mother reading this book, her reading the way I’ve described her to you. I imagined how hurt she would likely feel. Maybe even betrayed. Because, in reality, I believe with every cell in my body that my mother tried. I believe she gave me and my brother her best. I believe she always has. I believe our strange dynamic inspired her to aspire towards betterment.

And, I broke down. I hate the narrative you’ve received, my mother as a spider. That’s the truth, but it’s not the whole truth. That was my experience of my mother, but that’s not who she was. Like you and me, Soneja Leona Holloway was a multifaceted creature.

I’ve seen photos of Soneja as a little girl. She wasn’t a spider. She was holding a stuffed animal and had a shy, hopeful grin on her face. Her eyes were bright and she looked similar to me. Our eyes are very similar. Her eyes are big, brown, and captivating. She looked full of love, sweetness, and possibility. As a teeneager and in her early 20s? She was painfully beautiful, even used to do modeling. I showed some of her modeling photos to my friends in high school and they got in the habit of singing, “Sophia’s mom has got it going on.”

For better or worse, both my parents were beautiful. Soneja was popular and had a fantastic sense of humor. Her laugh was contagiously loud, something I inherited. I inherited so much more from my mother than trauma, but I can’t talk about that without talking about what my mother inherited. 

My maternal lineage is largely elusive. I only really know what my mother has told me and, as we know, memories are broken at best. They are biased as all hell and don’t reflect all of reality. I don’t believe my mother always tells the truth, either, so I’ll share what I have available. 

I do know that we didn’t spend time with my mom’s side of the family. Why? Because houses matter, and the one she came from was as haunted a house as they came. The houses we’re raised in have an incredible impression on the houses we decide to build for ourselves, if we decide or can manage to build one at all. I know, some of us wander. Some of us can’t stand

the idea of a home because the ones we came from were so terrifying.

As for the house my mother grew up in, the ghosts she inherited? The whole truth is important here. My mother inherited a myriad of ghosts, demons, and boogeymen. Many of those boogeymen weren’t apparitions, they were the people who raised or had access to her as a young girl. 

If you ask me, my mother didn’t really grow up in a house at all. She did have a literal house, but in terms of family dynamics? She may as well have been assigned a doorless dog house in the backyard. And my mother was confined to that place unless she was needed for something. The reality of the things my mother was needed for is grim. She wasn’t a spider, no. But being raised by one, I imagine she found herself behaving very spider-like at some point.

My mother was raised in a utilitarian way, by a dark-skinned, Black father and a light-skinned Black mother. Jackie was his name, Sheila was hers. My mother was needed for help around the house, serving as an emotional punching bag at times, and something else that I struggle to share openly. 

My mother was raped continuously by Jackie as she grew up. Sheila, from what I’ve been told, knew about it but denied it and called Soneja a liar if it was ever brought up. Jackie abused them both in physical and emotional ways, and Sheila never felt powerful enough to protect herself or her daughter.

I don’t know much about the houses Jackie and Sheila grew up in. The only thing I do know is that my maternal great grandmother was murdered by her husband. He used to beat her relentlessly and apparently, one day, he hit her in the head with an ashtray and it killed her. 

Their children, Sheila included, were in the next room when it happened. Days later, one of the kids told an adult that they hadn’t seen their mother in days, that they had heard her scream at some point and hadn’t heard her since. That adult came over to check on things to find an awful stench building in the house. They opened the door to a bedroom to find the husband weeping over his wife, and his wife was laid in the bed. His wife was dead. That was Sheila’s mother. That was the house she inherited.

I don’t know what age Sheila was when that happened, how long she lived in that particular house. But it’s not hard to imagine that the ghosts and boogeymen ran that house. Those children were never safe. They were separated and sent to different family homes, but had carried with them a mass of ghosts. I don’t know anything about Jackie’s ghosts, but it’s clear they were there. 

People with ghosts behave as if haunted, because they are. Some people are probably born boogeymen, sure. Some people probably have a truly wicked nature and how they are nurtured wouldn’t make any difference. But I do believe most people who behave harmfully have an inherently innocent nature and are raised in houses filled with ghosts, which begets malformed understandings of and capacities for giving and receiving love.

I know, because that’s what happened to me.

Chapter 26

Now, I wasn’t there for my mother or father’s experiences. Still, even if I had been right alongside them, experiencing the exact same things at the exact same time,  we would have different stories to tell. So, here’s where the salt comes in. Have you been marinating like I asked? I hope so, because I’m not confident either of my parents would agree with what I’m about to say. Mayyyyybe my mother. Heavy on the maybe.

I believe that what happened to me is what happened to my parents. I believe what happened to my parents is what happened to theirs. My parents, and theirs, grew up in haunted houses, just like I did. Like mine, their perception of and capacity for love had been deeply malformed. They gave and received love based on what was given and received in the haunted houses they grew up in. Along with a host of mental, emotional, and physical coping mechanisms designed to survive and make sense of the hauntings. 

We are nurtured by the ghosts in the houses we are raised just as much as we are by our parents. Sometimes, depending on how debilitated our parents were rendered, the ghosts do most or all of the nurturing. That’s why it’s impossible for me to judge either of my parents. I used to see them as villains and me as a victim, but that’s not the truth. In reality, my parents were not villains. Had they caused me harm? Yes. Was I isolated, unseen, unappreciated, neglected, and abused? Yes. Unquestionably. So much so that I developed acute PTSD and spent many of my adult years living in flashbacks of the harm I’d experienced. 

But, if I believe that what happened to me is what happened to my parents, then likely they spent many of their adult years doing what I did—repeating the patterns that had been impressed upon them by whoever nurtured or had access to them, believing it was the right way because it was the way they had been taught. And they, like me, had to believe this was love, every helpful and harmful facet of it. 

People rarely reckon with how existential and alarming it is to be a child. They’re scouring their environments and interactions for models of how to survive. This notion of childhood innocence, to me, is absolute bullshit. It’s a fairytale we tell ourselves to romanticize the intensity and violence of childhood. I remember what it was like. My biology and psychology were developing at a rapid pace, and I was scouring everything and everyone I came in contact with for evidence on how to stay alive. This isn’t just my personal experience or a theory. This is how the natural world operates.

A new organism is born into the material world, and the first thing it must do is figure out how to feed itself, such that it doesn’t risk death. The primal, biological drive to survive is the foundational and primary motivation of any organism, from the single cell to the mammal. In most cases, and especially in a mammal’s case, the new organism’s capacity for mobility and communication is incredibly limited and the need for survival is urgent. Being alive is fucking existential, and even more so when you’re a child because you don’t know where to find what you need or how to gain access to it.

Humans are interesting creatures. Most of us pretend we’re so enlightened that we’ve transcended the animal kingdom. The truth is, we are hairy, smelly mammalian beasts. You don’t have to like that fact, but just consider it at your next waxing or laser hair removal appointment. Mine is in a few weeks. I’ll joke with my technician about being a werewolf, we’ll huff and puff at the smell of burnt hair, and I’ll go back in another seven weeks because the hair just grows and grows. And I’ll continue to shower and wear deodorant most days and I’ll wipe whatever leaks from my nose when I get sick. The maintenance required to mask our mammalian biology is impressive. Humans are animals, so a human’s baseline functionality, our core operating system is that of an animal. 

The human brain contains hundreds of billions of cells interlinked through trillions of connections, and it’s the orchestrator for our biology. While some think of the mind as something more abstract, as it is not material in the way that the physical body is, the same brain that orchestrates our body is the orchestrator for our mind. The mind is an experiential expression of our biological experience. It serves the function of interpreting our biological experience to facilitate survival. Identifying food, for instance. Picking up on cues from surroundings and interactions on how to locate and secure that food, perhaps prepare it. How to identify danger and defend ourselves against it. 

What’s important to understand about the complexity of the brain is that it directly correlates to the complexity of our minds. Because our brains and the connections within it are so complex, it makes for highly complex interpretations of our environments. Oftentimes those interpretations are creative in a way that is unprecedented in the animal kingdom. There are multiple variables at play. If any of those cells or connections within our brain are malfunctioning, it would hinder our mind’s ability for interpretation. 

I bring all this up because it’s important to understand that, however complex a system the human brain is, the core function orbits survival. That’s true at every stage of a human’s development, and that development exists, mostly, to better survive over time. That capacity peaks and declines over time, of course, but the primary goal of survival remains.

Most adults project innocence and resilience onto childhood. We see the mind of an infant as a blank canvas, innocent, yet to be impressed upon. Theoretically, the infant is pure of any agenda. But the infant does have an agenda. It’s survival. Every existing organism’s design is optimized for survival based on its mechanistic capacity and needs. The most imperative survival mechanisms are even stored in our DNA, so when an infant is born, the canvas is far from blank. On that canvas is painted a mechanistic drive for survival and a playbook on how to do it.

Survival is also the driver for evolution, and that survival tends to have “at all costs” parameters. Each version of an organism is designed to better protect and sustain itself than the last. You know this. Nature is ruthless. Even plants have defense mechanisms, plenty of which will cause you significant harm or even kill you if you threaten their survival.

Human beings are no different, even if we have built an arguably civilized society around ourselves. Survival is the purpose of our biological systems, and not a single one of us is free of it, no matter what stage in our development we are. My goal is not to diminish the beauty and opportunity of childhood. I’m just trying to ground us here.

Because this delusion of childhood innocence, coupled with a tendency to romanticize the past, leads to a failure to understand how complex and urgent the lives of children are. I would argue the lives of children are more complex and urgent than that of adults. 

We’re talking rapid physical and mental development, a staggering communication deficit, constant introduction to new stimuli and environments, and a truly alarming vulnerability to whoever is responsible for their survival. Fucking yikes. Add in adults who try to maintain your “innocence” by telling you little to nothing about the harsher realities and consequences of your experiences, who diminish the role your urgent drive for survival plays in those experiences, and who are impressing their own survival mechanisms upon you while offering you little to no agency in it all.

If you ask me—acutely aware that you did not—childhood innocence is a delusion rooted in a desire to not know what we now comprehend as adults. To return to a time when our aperture of understanding was limited by a not-fully-developed brain, when the reality of survival’s role in our environments was veiled by a lack of articulate language, and an abundance of energy to lend towards resilience. I understand the desire, I do. But children, given the state of development they’re in, are clocking absolutely fucking everything. More so than adults are. 

The survival mechanisms we are programmed with during our childhood developmental stages become the subconscious mechanisms by which we perpetuate our survival into adolescence and then adulthood. Once those mechanisms are in place, we operate on a sort of autopilot in terms of survival. That’s why it’s more difficult to change in our adulthood; our biology believes it has learned most of what it needs to survive and protects the programs it believes to be necessary to our survival. That’s why we may become defensive when someone calls us on our unhealthy relational habits—our mind perceives anything that questions our survival mechanisms as a threat to our survival. That’s why, even when we want to change certain aspects of our behavior, even when we’re desperate to, it can sometimes feel impossible. The more formative those tendencies are, the more our body and mind associate them with our survival, and the deeper they are stored in our subconscious mind in order to protect them. Take breathing, for instance. We couldn’t stop breathing long enough to kill ourselves if we tried. We physically cannot drown ourselves, unless we weigh ourselves down, and our bodies will fight until the very last second to stop it happening. That’s the power of the subconscious; it can and will literally override our conscious intentions if it believes those intentions to go against our survival. It’s not just about will power; we’re fighting against our biology and that motherfucker is a literal beast.

Both children and adults are humans, and all humans are animals. Animals are hardwired with very mechanistic drivers that we ought not to disassociate from or overlook. Understanding that hardwiring is absolutely essential to understanding how and why our minds interpret stimuli the way they do. That interpretation is key to understanding how we develop even the most abstract concepts, including concepts like love. I repeat this because it could not be more important. The mind, however creative and elevated, is an extension of our biology, a tool intended to aid our mammalian body in facilitating survival.


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