Saturday, November 17, 2012
I feel unexpectedly calm on the drive back to my hometown, Honaker, Virginia, tucked deep in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. From my house in Atlanta, it's a 6½-hour trip -- but it's also almost two decades in the making.
I'm going home to tell my truth.
I was 18 when I fled there -- the same age my father was when he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. We both ended up scarred by his war.
My father returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder. He spent much of my childhood locked in his room strumming his guitar, moving between the deepest depression and unspeakable rage. Many times, he threatened to kill himself.
I learned to tread on delicate ground, doing anything and everything not to provoke him, but this dance caused me to become a profoundly disturbed little girl. I acted out in school, engaged in self-mutilation, and couldn't make friends. When teachers asked how my weekend went, I couldn't fathom answering honestly. I felt my classmates and I inhabited completely different worlds.
I didn't know it at the time, but I also was exhibiting symptoms of PTSD.
I always dreamed about telling people in Honaker the truth about the way we lived day after day. But my mother was convinced no one would understand, and assured me that only God could help us. She also said if people in our community found out how sick my father was, they might come and take him away. She whispered the words "Vietnam" and "PTSD" on the rare occasions she spoke them at all, a clear indicator that these subjects were never to be mentioned.
So we didn't tell a soul, not even our closest family members. And our secret became like a cancer inside me -- a mass that grew bigger and bigger.
It would take 31 years and a decade of therapy before I could confront my father about what happened and find some semblance of peace and understanding. In November 2009, I asked if I could call him for 30 days straight to ask him some questions about Vietnam and how it had affected our family. I wanted to know who he was and to figure out what happened to me back then -- and to do these things, I needed to hear my father's story. Three years later, I turned our conversations, along with my journal entries during that time, into a book called "Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD," published last month.
The book brought me a lot of closure, and sharing my secret made me feel more at peace. But there was still something missing: I wanted to tell the people in my community the truth -- face to face -- like I had imagined doing as a child.
Sharing my story would give me a way to reconnect with people who had known me since I was young -- but who hadn't known the true me at all. I wanted to stand in front of them and tell my truth, and I needed them to hear it.
So I am on my way home, to a book signing at Honaker Community Library, having no idea if anyone will actually show up. I've agreed to let a CNN video journalist Evelio Contreras accompany me.
As we head north, the flatlands become rolling hills, and by the time we pass Knoxville, Tennessee, mountains loom in the distance. When we reach Virginia, the peaks have closed in around us, and we veer off the interstate to take a series of winding country roads to reach my parents' house. The mountains are on every side of us now. Since my childhood, I'd grown to hate them. I associated the mountains and the entire town with the secrets I was never able to tell.
But my calm prevails, and not having flashbacks on the drive home is an encouraging sign. Maybe, I think, I'll be able to revisit several places where I experienced trauma as a child. It's important to me to try to change my negative perceptions.
When I finally arrive, my parents come out to the car to welcome me. Mom hugs all over me and tells me I am still her little girl. Dad's perfunctory hug is all I expect. There's a huge spread of food on the table inside, and Mom is asking me if I want 10 things at once, and dad is asking me all about the book. Evelio turns his video camera on, and I start to feel completely overstimulated. I'm exhausted not only from the drive but from a week of radio and TV interviews and book signings. There's been little down time for the past seven days, and it's starting to catch up with me.
I ask Dad to play and sing the song he wrote about Vietnam at the book signing tomorrow, and he says no. I can play the CD, he tells me. I didn't expect this. I am hurt -- and angry. I tell him that it's going to look odd if he's at my book signing and I play a CD of him singing when he plays his guitar and sings his song everywhere else in town. Mom chimes in and says my father might not even go to my book signing on Sunday -- that he has told her he isn't going. I am furious. This doesn't even make sense. My father has said he likes the book, and he's selling it to people out of the trunk of his car. I take deep breaths to calm myself.
Mom then announces that we all have different sleeping arrangements for the night, and she will be sleeping with me. My heart drops. This morning on the phone she told me I could sleep upstairs and have the whole floor to myself. I need privacy. I need space. I tell her that I love her but want to sleep alone.
She puts me in one of the guest bedrooms downstairs. But I'm anything but alone here. I count 33 photographs on the walls and in display cases; 21 of them are of me. There are 20 dolls in the room, their beady glass eyes staring all around. My father's tall wooden gun cabinet stands in the corner, with the head of a lion carved into the top center. The lion's mouth is open, revealing its razor-point teeth. Sixteen guns are inside the case, most of them rifles. I stare at them as I undress and wonder: Which one did he take to the river all those times he threatened to kill himself?
Sunday, November 18, 2012
I'm up at 6:30 to tend to my dogs, Arthur and Duma. Dad and Mom are awake, and I ask Dad if he'll come to my book signing today. He still will not commit. He hands me two copies of my book to sign--- one for a friend and one for Mamaw Presley, my mother's mother.
I go back to the guest room and lock myself up for awhile to write. Alone is still where I'm most comfortable. The whole house is overstimulating to me. There is too much furniture, way too many knickknacks, too many pictures, too many porcelain dolls, too many deer heads mounted on the walls.
I leave my room when Mom says she wants to show me a comment on Amazon about my book. "Look what this girl in Australia wrote," she says. "She says your book makes her feel normal -- and that all daughters of Vietnam veterans should read it."
I smile and feel connected to my mother for an instant. Then the feeling goes away. I put my feet flat on the floor like my therapist has taught me and try to imagine myself connected to the earth. Little Duma jumps into my lap. I practice my breathing exercises as I pet him.
I find myself pacing the house. It's hard to sit still. Dad is playing the guitar upstairs -- I can hear it everywhere I go -- and Mom wants me to look at her scrapbook. I want so desperately to want to look at her scrapbook, but I'd rather not. I force myself to look.