Too Many Monkeys On My Back

The actual title of this should read “The Fraud That I Am or Too Many Monkeys On My Back.” This was the title of a piece my mother wrote describing how the horrors she experienced during the war, continued to haunt her.

My mother considered herself a fraud because her outward persona was one of confidence, reasonable behavior and self-sufficiency.  But out of nowhere, the deep-seeded fears of her past would take over involuntarily in different situations. Because she considered herself a no-nonsense type of person, why couldn’t she control her responses to some stimuli that made her fearful and would bring on panic, she asked.  When she wrote the piece in the early 80’s, she said that even 50 years following the trauma, she would still wake up in the middle of the night physically exhausted from running and hiding from the Russians in her sleep, sweating, heart racing, and gasping for breath.  Little things like not being able to open a door, or a cabinet could bring on one of these episodes.  Not being able to open a door to the sane person she said, is nothing, it only takes a bit of time and patience, but to my mom, it would bring panic that the door was locked and she could not get out. She was trapped, and helpless.

She remembers one day shopping for groceries, cart full, ready to check-out, and without consciously realizing why her heart was racing and she was sweating, she subconsciously became aware that someone nearby was speaking Russian.  That was enough for panic and irrational thoughts to take over with the overwhelming need to flee.  She had to fight the urge to abandon the cart and run out of the store.

In today’s world this would be typed as a classic case of PTSD!

Another symptom of trauma for my mom was a change in routine.  Since my brother and I moved away from Sewickley and after my dad died, mom loved to stay at home and she did not like the idea of traveling.

Grandma visiting her grand kids.

Grandma visiting her grand kids.

So when asked to come for Christmas or come see your grand kids, the idea of leaving her sanctuary was very frightening. After all she was going by plane to one of her children’s homes and she realized she should feel safe. But panic would still set in, with sleepless nights and fretting about leaving home. She did realize that this came from the fear she experienced while traveling from prison to prison, to labor camp in the middle of Asiatic Russia, then to freedom by way of foreign lands.  A spec of dust in the middle of nowhere, as she called herself, was trying to find her way to somewhere safe. My mother’s fear of being lost was profoundly traumatic.

I do remember when we went on vacations growing up, the car trip always resulted in us getting lost and mom and dad fought about how to get back on the right road. Mom was the one with the map and I’m sure she froze and could not function to get us back on the right roads. After my dad died and mom was on her own, she would not venture out of her comfort zone around town, only going by car to stores she knew.  Any trip further was usually out of the question.

My husband Alan would logically try to explain that to visit us in Chicago, all my mother had to do was get on Rt. 79 in Western Pennsylvania, get on the Turnpike and drive west.  A running joke ensued that to go anywhere “just get on Rt 79…”  The logic was there but in reality she was unable to comprehend the idea of taking such a trip. The trauma from this fear was something I did not comprehend for a long time.

My parents' home in Sewickley, PA.

My parents’ home in Sewickley, PA.

Her home and her community were her security blanket.  She did say that she was proud to live in a country where no one would bang on the door in the middle of the night to arrest her and take her off to prison.

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