Yesterday, I came home with my arms scratched up and my dress torn. We went to the vet’s, you see, and the kittens yowled all the way there and all the way home and Minji peed herself from fear and is now living in our guest bathroom, refusing to be touched.
I had a list of things I’d promised I’d get to, but instead, I took off my torn dress and dove into a pair of worn pajamas and cried myself to sleep. I’m so tired. I said. I’m so upset and I don’t know why.
This morning I woke up to three kittens surrounding me, like a summoning circle; the yowliest tucked under my chin as if to apologize. I got up. Minji still smelled of the pee she would not let us wash off, but I didn’t mind. When you love someone, you don’t mind the smell, or if they hiss and scream when you touch them, or when they claw the air out of fear. Minji has anxiety, just like me. Minji is still coming down from a breakdown I should have seen coming but didn’t. I fed her a tube of Churru and told her I was sorry, I didn’t see my breakdown coming either, and it’s okay if she smells of pee and doesn’t want to be touched right now.
Yesterday I messaged my boss telling her that things hadn’t gone well at the vet’s so I was strung out and wouldn’t work all weekend. She said, “Okay,” and I think she meant it, but my anxiety yowled the entire time that she didn’t, and that if I kept showing my weaknesses then my company would eventually get rid of me. One day you’ll wake up to your own replacement, my anxiety said. I started to cry. I cried so loud that I couldn’t hear my anxiety anymore, couldn’t hear Minji still growling from the guest bathroom, couldn’t hear anything other than the sound of wind roaring in my ears and my choked sobs as I fell into the black.
I slept through half of online church today, waking up only in time for the sermon. To make up for it, I took tons of notes, while the kittens curled up around me, purring in unison. They say cats purr on each other to relieve stress. Some cultures believe cats ward off against evil spirits. Perhaps this was a sort of exorcism, an inter-species soothing, a child trying to calm its mother.
I keep the cats in my room when I do anything now. They sleep in the closet beside my desk-slash-Murphy bed. They sleep in front of my electric guitar. They sleep most of the time, waking only to jump on my lap and inspect my screen before jumping down again. I wonder if they know it isn’t good for their Mama to be alone, but she doesn’t really want to be around humans right now? During video calls, the cutest of the kittens–Jinnie–curls up on my lap and snuggles close whenever someone’s stressed-out snap makes me wince.
I don’t take anything personally. Everyone is stressed. Everyone is burning out. Quarantine was hard, but somehow this limbo version, this GCQ, is harder, and everyone is feeling it. I don’t take anything personally, but I am also a trauma survivor with a broken response. Every snap, every shut down, every “That’s not the point.” or “Not right now.” or “Wait, someone else is talking.” makes my anxiety yowl louder, until she is a vicious cat in a guest bathroom, smelling of old piss and not wanting to be touched. Until she is too loud and broken to ignore, to muffle and hold down with the full weight of my reasonable adulthood.
I woke up at nearly 5PM today. I smelled of underarm sweat and my face felt crusty with drool and leftover mascara tears. I cleaned up. I sorted out my net connection. I did a “surprise” Facebook Live for work.
An officemate messaged that she was going crazy. I said, Me too. But no big deal.
Key events, dates, conversations I recollect through outfits worn, accessories chosen. Maybe that’s why I tend to overdress: not to be remembered, but so that looking back I would have something to remember.
A tulle-and-lace ballerina dress, after all, is harder to forget than jeans and a nice top.
My brain, I imagine, is a lot like a photo album, a collection of shapes and colors and patterns, of visual elements, the right combination of which unlocks the corresponding memory.
Max Factor lip gloss, an orange bohemian top, capri jeans, and red paisley headband equals my first high school party, where we had mock-tails at a now-closed resto-bar in Greenbelt and watched the late screening of the film Jumper.
Bad perm, tinted Nivea lip balm, and off-white mini-dress with a green lace-up neckline and puffed sleeves (trimmed with green chiffon ribbon embroidered with white and pink tulle flowers) equals the day I met my now- best friend. It was in Friday Youth Service. I was sketching instead of listening to the sermon. My now-best friend wore a black tank top and bell-bottom jeans.
Blue, long-sleeved shirt and black jeans (second hand), with gold leather ballet flats that were falling apart and stage makeup from Arabian Nights by David Ives equals the night I admitted to that boy from college that I had a crush on him. We sat on the stairs near Telengtan Auditorium. I cried the entire time. He kissed me on the cheek and thanked me and said he was sorry that we could never work out.
(He walked me to my car. In the dark, in front of Li Seng Giap, he grabbed my arm and asked to kiss me on the cheek again. It felt like goodbye. It wasn’t. I would be in love with him for three more years.)
When most people see my mother and I together, they’re always quick to say I look just like her. Never mind that I’m shorter than she is by an inch. Never mind that I’m of stockier, less curvy, more boyish build. Never mind, even, that most of them have never seen my father, or else haven’t seen him long enough to recognize, in my face, his strong, square jaw and slightly menacing smile.
(There is a reason why I use my eyes, not my mouth, to smile.)
Despite all that, most people aren’t wrong: I do resemble my mother, the same way that a married couple tends to resemble each other after years together. We have the same expressions, the same twitch of the mouth and scrunch of the nose. We favour similar styles of hair (except mine is usually a crazy color). We share shoes and clothes and bags.
In short, we’ve been constantly together long enough that we’ve learned to mirror each other. Or, rather, as a daughter, I’ve learned to mirror my mother. And this goes beyond appearances: we share the same workaholism, the same obsessive devotion to our jobs, the same tendency to cram every waking hour with something to do until we inevitably crash and spend a whole day in bed eating junk food.
Even if our personalities appear different at first blush, they are rooted in the same tendencies. I am my mother’s louder, more brightly-colored copy, but in a lot of ways I am still a copy.
Except for one thing.
Mine is a visual memory. Except when it isn’t.
The song Fly Me To The Moon. A loud baritone with a rough rasp. A man shouting. These do not equal specific memories, but they do bring to mind specific years with a specific person.
I remember growing up with my father like a CB radio shifting between stations. He left our house sometime between me being three and four, and I don’t have many visual memories of those years except for what I can reconstruct from photographs. But I remember the sounds of him: his baritone crackling of static from when we would talk on the phone. The edge of irritation in his voice when I would disagree with him. The sound of his roar, which could render me from hyperactive child to deer in headlights.
With age comes visual memory. Now, I remember Dad with Baclaran plaid shirt and blue wool jacket (lunch date), with coral Bench long-line shirt and white peasant skirt (big argument at fifteen; he refused to speak to me for what felt like a year), with different green dresses when things started getting good again (first good Christmas, second good Christmas, college graduation).
But those early memories, through the fog of childhood and repression, are all audio. They don’t exactly trigger anything so much as fill me with a sense of resignation. By now, I am used to them. Because I hear them every day.
I hear them in the sound of my own voice.
One of my friends has a mother who sings. I listened to her on Facebook Live recently.
My friend claims little resemblance to her mother. Most days, I would agree. If you squint, you can see the outlines of the daughter in the face of the mother: the shape of the eyes, the turn of the mouth. But it is nothing like the carbon copy-paste of my mother into me.
My friend admits that she more closely resembles her father. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen her father, but my friend is mostly honest, so I’ll take her at her word.
In music, we learn that there are tones and there are overtones. Tones are the sounds you intend to play, the notes on the sheet music, the clear do re mi fa. Tones you can hear.
Overtones, though, are different. They are the notes under the notes, the ghost of a harmony. You don’t hear overtones so much as feel them, bubbling up the longer a note is held in the air. They’re the reason why some combinations of notes go together and others, instinctively, make you wince and send a shudder up your spine.
You could say that tones make the melody, but overtones make the music.
When my friend’s mother sings, I hear the daughter in her overtones. I hear my friend cracking her bad dad jokes in our weekly work calls. Or the way she siren-wails “Whaat’s happeniiiiiing?” when our brains both turn to mush in sync.
In the mother’s calm post-set spieling I hear the rapid-fire, nervous patter of the daughter’s MANCOM reports. The mother’s advice to “Wash your hands, wear your mask,” delivered in sing-song, becomes the daughter’s frequent use of musical puns.
The more I hear my friend’s mother’s voice, the more I think her daughter looks like her. It’s as if the subtle overtone ringing in my ears clears my vision, so that I can see more than just the ghost of a resemblance: the same nervous smile, the same self-conscious laugh-lines, the same way of both looking and not looking at you when they speak.
My mother and I have the same accent. For some reason, our English sounds trans-Pacific, somewhere between Hong Kong British and Singlish and Australian. My mother met my father in Australia, when she lived there for six months. When we visited, last year, her friend drove us up to North Head, where they would go on group dates, sitting in their cars overlooking the ocean, drinking and acting like American teenagers in those old movies.
I was only in Australia for six days. My accent is more heavily Filipino-flavored, unless I focus on clipping my consonants and rounding the vowels, or unless I am really nervous, when apparently I turn British.
I look like my mother, then, but I don’t sound like her. The more I hear myself, the more I see my resemblance to my father: the same raspy baritone, the same loud and boisterous laugh, the same blood-freezing roar.
My mother and I are both mezzo-sopranos, though her range goes higher than mine and mine stretches wider than hers. If I focus, though, I can mimic her singing voice, but only just.
People have mistaken me for her on the phone, but perhaps that is because the crackle of phone static disguises that which is patently obvious to me: our overtones are too different. Mine aren’t hers.
After all these years, my dad’s voice still fills any room he’s in. Even if he doesn’t talk as much as before, by the end of any day spent with him my ears ring with the familiar echo. Even if I out- and over-talk him.
Perhaps, it’s because I out- and over-talk him.
A final confession: my resemblance to my mother is not accidental. The clothes I grew up watching her wear to work eventually found clones in my closet. I followed in her literal footsteps, first borrowing her heels then eventually buying my own, so that even the sway of my hips would match hers. I wore red lipstick to meetings because that was what I remembered from her makeup bag.
For years, we even parted our hair on the same side.
I’ve taken great pains to look like my mother, and even more to act like her. When I face her old colleagues, it is a point of pride that they say, “Oh my goodness, she reminds me exactly of you, Melanie.”
That is, until I speak.
No matter what I do, close your eyes and you’ll hear someone else’s overtones.
I look like my mother. But, I guess, I will always sound like my dad.
Last Christmas, I was in the car with my mother. We were driving to my godmother’s house in a part of the Metro people consider more or less one of the ends of the earth. We start driving through this stretch of road that I’d made my way down many times–with my band, on the way to solo open mic nights, to meet my org-mates–and I started hyperventilating.
That stretch of road is near a university. Three (or four?) actually, but really, I was only anxious about one. I’d forgotten that my godmother lived near that university. That back in highschool when I thought it was my “dream school” and was seriously considering enrolling there if I’d passed the entrance exam, it was suggested that I move in with that godmother on weekdays so it’d be easier to get to classes.
I even owned a button pin with I Love ________ on it.
I passed that entrance exam, but ended up going to Dragon U because, well, I got a scholarship and who can pass up a free education?
Anyway, back to Christmas. Back to me, shaking, suddenly finding it very hard to breathe as we made our way through that long, traffic-filled stretch of road. As more and more trees came into view. As familiar fences surrounded a familiar perimeter. As my mother struggled to understand what was wrong but also we both knew what was wrong.
Trauma is a funny thing. Sometimes, you don’t know you have it. I think with older wounds, older scars, the trauma response looks a lot like instinct. That’s what makes it so hard to root out, to correct. That’s why I’m on mood stabilizers–to steady my emotions long enough for me to dig up all that old junk and process it, to replace unhealthy responses with healthy coping.
New trauma, though; new trauma announces itself. New trauma doesn’t even try to hide behind reflexes, doesn’t whisper in your head so much as shout. New traumas voices are louder than others. New trauma looms so large you sometimes catch yourself physically hunching over as if to shield yourself from a shadow monster only you can see.
That Christmas, driving down that stretch of road, was new trauma. Because that road brought up memories that I hadn’t managed to forget yet. Things I was still blaming myself totally for, because that felt like the “adult” thing to do: shoulder all the blame for a familiar life that had fallen apart.
New trauma sounded like this: “You say you care about people, but you’re so bad at showing it.”
By now, new trauma is somewhat old. The wounds are no longer fresh. My therapist–who I last saw two weeks ago on Google Meet–says I’m healing up nicely, the way a doctor would assess a broken bone. I recently got my first freelance project as a consultant (am writing this blog when I should be finishing my strat plan). I’m better.
Somewhat old trauma sent me a message three weeks(?) ago. Or rather, somewhat old trauma sent it at the beginning of May, but I only thought to check three weeks ago. See, I had put somewhat old trauma on my Ignore list because I promised them I would not try to contact them, to beg them to come back, when we imploded. Back when somewhat old trauma was new trauma, I would have begged to have them back. Because I needed their approval. Because I looked up to them. Because I was the right hand they trusted to help build their empire.
Because they were my family. Not by blood, but as I don’t really put much stock in actual blood relation to be honest, then they might as well have been the real thing.
Because I loved them. Or thought I did. A few weeks after I left (or they left; it’s hard to find the most exact descriptions because nothing sits quite right) I processed what I was learning, now that they were gone. It was the first poem I’d written in I think over a year.
I used to write poetry a lot more (you might remember, if you’ve been following this blog long), but I stopped after one fateful workshop when somewhat old trauma eviscerated my work over the praises and warm suggestions of the rest of the participants. I found myself tripping over the words in my defense until I said something that accidentally offended our host, causing a firestorm of rage that I did not know how to put out.
After that day, my poems became shorter and shorter until they stopped entirely, like a well running dry.
I regret writing a letter to that Youtuber mostly because I wrote it in the middle of his video, and in the end he said he didn’t want people to send him emails asking him if they’d been in an abusive relationship, because he didn’t want to read the details. I didn’t ask him if I’d been in an abusive relationship, because I don’t think I was. Abuse has this ring of intentionality, and I know that somewhat old trauma did not mean to hurt me.
I wrote to the Youtuber to thank him, because of something he’d said in his video. It was something like, whenever he was rejected by a new love, he would hear his abuser in his head saying, “You’re very good at making people fall in love with you, but you can’t keep them happy.”
When somewhat old trauma was new trauma, I would hear this: “You’re very good at making friends, but you’re not good at keeping them.”
Those were the last words they ever said to me, delivered via phone call made by the host of that ill-fated workshop, a person whose anger I later on realized I also feared. A person I later on realized I wasn’t really friends with so much as I tried to please them so they wouldn’t ever disapprove of me and rage at me and leave.
Old trauma is a funny thing; it bleeds into the fabric of your life, influencing new trauma.
Therapy, I guess, is like bleach. It gets most of the blood out, and while there is still a shadow of a stain it doesn’t spread anymore.
It’s been eleven months since that phone call. Three weeks ago, somewhat old trauma messaged suggesting we mend fences. I didn’t reply. If I could get out of quarantine long enough to drive down that same stretch of highway, I know I wouldn’t have any trouble breathing.
I regret writing to that Youtuber. I should have put a trigger warning on my email, chosen my words more carefully instead of word vomiting. I hope he doesn’t read it, and it gathers dust wherever email gathers dust until it is lost in a massive Gmail purge. But I will share with you what I wrote at the end of the email.
I wrote thank you. Thank you for making yourself vulnerable, for speaking your truth. And by speaking that truth, making me feel like someone understands.
I shouldn’t have sent that email. But I don’t regret writing this blog and I won’t regret posting it because this, my dear reader, is a message for you. If you have gotten this far. If you have read to the end and recognize the voices that say mean things. The difficulty breathing. The difference between old and new trauma.
If you have been down that stretch of road, same as me, know that I understand. That you are not alone.