When the Levee Breaks

When the Levee Breaks

By Dianna Hatfield Clemenson 2018 All Rights Reserved

First Chapter from the forthcoming book Witness to Grace


Have you ever cried so long and so hard that your shoulders shake and your breath heaves? Cried so hard that your gut clinches and you feel like puking? Have you cried until your eyes are so swollen they’re nearly closed? Your chest aches so much that you fear you’re having a heart attack. Your hands tremble and can’t be calmed. You can’t make sense of your feelings, but you understand the phrase “scared to death” in a whole new way. Have you ever cried like that?

I hope not.

I hope not, because I know how that feels.

I had cried many times in my life, but that sticky August day in the early 1980’s brought sorrow unmatched by anything I’d ever experienced. Crying was frequent in my younger years. Then, when it all became too much to bear, I practiced not-crying. I practiced not-crying so often that I became an expert in not-crying. That seemed like a way to cope with the chaos and violence all around me.  Turns out, it works for a while, but a time comes when you can’t hold it all in, can’t pretend the tears don’t exist.

That time came for me when I was about 19 years old. I went to a neighborhood free health clinic for bronchitis or something. Apparently, they had begun screening for depression at all intake appointments.  They explained what depression was and said I had it. They said that medication and counseling could help.  I was confused.  I didn’t feel sick in that way.  I felt like I always felt.

I understood counseling though.  A High School counselor saved my life a few years back.  She helped when I had no one else in the world to turn to, so, counseling must be a good thing.  Turns out, the counselor taught me, that the way I always felt was that I wasn’t feeling.

“Tell me about some of the times your mother was supportive or nurturing.  Tell me about a positive memory you have of her, maybe a special time you and she spent together.”

“What do you mean?”

Connie leaned forward, lowering her voice to a near whisper.  Slowly she said “Tell me about a time you felt close to your mother.  What did that feel like?”

It seemed that the awkward silence drug on for long minutes.

Finally I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t think of anything or anytime.”

“Well, surely you can remember something. How about a holiday or a picnic? Maybe she comforted you when you were scared, or rocked you in a chair…read to you at bedtime…

Her voice trailed off.  She seemed frustrated.  (I was also an expert at reading other’s feelings.)

My sister sometimes read to me at bedtime, before she ran away, but Mother never did.

The sun streamed through a window, in a straight line, like a spotlight. I sat for a long time, watching dust fairies dance in that spotlight. I couldn’t figure out what was going on and my mind wandered to other things.  Maybe the dust fairies were here to sprinkle fairy dust and make the past go away. Maybe the counselor won’t make me come back if I can’t answer her questions.

The silence lingered on in that sunny room.

Finally, a muddled thought began to form. A scene from the TV show, The Waltons, popped in my head. A rocking chair, reading at bedtime…Very slowly, it dawned on me: a person should have fond memories of a mother’s affection. I had given up hope for her love and nurturance so long ago that I couldn’t remember any such yearning. As I tried to puzzle together confused thoughts, my stomach tightened and I broke out in a sweat. What the heck? I started to feel sick.

I threw out the only memory I could find.

“Well, once on a car trip back to West Virginia I was cold and she let me sit in the front seat, close to the heater. She fiddled with my hair, tucking it around my ear. That was nice.”

Something shifted when she sat back in her chair, letting a small sigh escape.  I blew out a breath, one I didn’t realize I was holding.  I’m not sure what shifted, but something changed in the room. Her face was half grimace and half fake smile. Her eyes looked sad. I can’t remember what else she said, or asked. I suppose my body started to process the thoughts my mind started producing.

I felt dizzy and queasy, like I was on a small boat in a storm. A wave of sorrow washed over me. Relentless waves of nausea and a toxic jumble of flashing memories pounded my body and soul. Years of repressed emotional pain and physical neglect began to seep from my body through tears, sweat and jagged breath.

And then I cried like that, for a long time. When that levee broke, I began to float toward a new and frightening world of feelings and emotions. I was a little dingy drifting out to sea, about to experience a tumultuous journey that battered my psyche, and eventually brought me back to myself.

Dianna Hatfield Clemenson 2018 All Rights Reserved





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