The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Narratives, Trauma, and My Childhood Dog

My wife told me that her version of the story starts here:

We’re sitting in the car, driving to my dad’s house. We’re passing the Walmart and the AC is fighting the Vegas heat, the stifling air quality two days after the Fourth of July. She takes my hand. “I’m sure it’s fine,” she says, then grimaces. This is a validating aha moment for me at the time—she has doubts. Later, she says she regretted the words the moment they were out of her mouth. But what if it’s not fine?

But for me, the story doesn’t start in the car.

As a writer, I like to start in the height of the action—I would open this story with me standing over the body.

But that’s not where my real version of the story starts. The one I tell myself on long walks and long nights like a lullaby.

No; the story starts with Ziva.

Ziva came to me as an awkward looking Dutch Shepherd puppy as I was finishing the fifth grade and embarking on the terrifying journey that is middle school.

She stayed with me through panic attacks and psychosis, self harm and delusion, lost chances and bad breakups, my parents’ divorce and leaving school several times over.

When I’d attempted suicide at seventeen, my best friend’s mom, a psychiatrist, told me I had to hang in there because Ziva would never understand why I left her.

So I hung in there.

Ziva, however, passed in the spring of 2019. I had a lot more, or understood I had a lot more, to hang in there for by then, and hadn’t felt like I’d been just hanging in there for years; no cutting, no attempts. I was in the relationship of my dreams and surrounded by people who loved me.

But one morning, a few months later, Ziva came back to me in a dream.

In the dream, I was in my childhood home. My dad’s house, at the time, in reality. Ziva entered through a burst of white light.

I understood in the dream that she was dead, but in the grips of sleep, believed that she had come back to visit me. She wagged her tail and spun around. I gave her lots of scritches and told her all of the things I could want to say.

But Ziva kept looking back at the white light she’d come from, antsy. Like she was trying to tell me something. Maybe that she had to go again. I let her run back into the light. I woke up.

That morning, it became clear no one had heard from my dad in some time.

That morning, we were in the car. “I’m sure it’s fine.”

That morning, I stood over the body, and wondered if something in me had already known.

I tell myself the story a lot.

Ziva. The messages with my mom. Why were heat sensitive packages piling up propped against Dad’s unopened front door for days? Why had he not put the trash bins down at the curb on trash day? Sitting in the car. Knocking. Using my spare key to open the door. Thinking that I am the only one with a spare key. Mom, now his next door neighbor, was thinking of checking on him when she got back from an errand. I have the key that was hers. Yelling for Dad in a house where I am the only thing living. “Hey, Dad! Anyone home? Daddy!” Walking back out, down the stairs, swearing I will not hand the key to anyone else who’s not a professional.

It’s not fine,” I tell my then-girlfriend, now-wife through the passenger window of her car. She’s confused, not having gathered from my demeanor that it’s not fine, though I’m not making much sense verbally. “There’s this thing in my dad’s bed. It’s not my dad. But… I think it used to be.”

I had left the door open behind me, the key more about blessing than physical entry. The smell wafts out of the house. She gets it.

Calling my mom. How do I tell her? She is out at lunch with Grandma, on break from considering puppies at an adoption fair. Calling 911. “No rush, I guess.” Enough firefighters for a calendar, who just keep offering me water while I try not to puke on the lawn. Police, and a report hand written at my mom’s kitchen table. What can I say?

I call my best friend in the bathroom. “My dad’s, kinda… dead. I think he’s… been dead, for a while now.

Grandma tells me, “Oh, Hannah, I just knew something wasn’t right. I just knew it wasn’t right when he didn’t put the trash bins out that week…”

The coroner. “You look really young,” she tells me over and over.

Twenty-one,” I say, unable to think of anything else.

And a counselor who is so high empathy I think she might now be having a worse day than I am.

First we have to identify him,” the coroner is explaining to my mom, as we fill in details.

You can’t just…?

It’s not… really… a visual thing.

Well, what about fingerprints?” My mom loves crime shows. She knows how they ID a body at various stages.

This isn’t really…” The coroner is trying to be gentle here. She looks at me, the known witness. “This isn’t really a ‘fingerprints’ kind of situation. Do you maybe know who his dentist was? For the records?

My mom has a white knuckled grip on my hand. The volunteer counselor looks like she might cry.

After the coroner leaves, my mom examines a picture she took of my dad in his youth, in a collage frame in her room. He is victorious, standing on a rock at the end of a long hike, arms thrown to the sky. Yosemite at sunset is the backdrop, their favorite beautiful place, the place they met, lived, worked, and fell in love.

Cheers,” my mom says to the sky, to the picture of Dad, holding up her gluten free beer. Some of Ziva’s toys still line her floor.

I think parts of the story have been compromised by time—my private game of telephone. Other parts, by flashbacks, by nightmares, by hallucinations—all blurring the narrative.

Sometimes I try to change it. I don’t start with Ziva. I go back to the day my father almost certainly actually died. Ten days earlier. We’re sitting on his couch. I’m in the neighborhood to bring in Mom’s mail and check on a few plants while she’s on a trip with Grandma, pick up a few items I left when I moved out.

I visit with Dad. We sit on his couch. He says he has a headache. We talk about anything. He says he doesn’t think that anyone really kills themselves. Evolution wouldn’t allow it. Depression is what kills them. The parasite that pulls the trigger—that’s not you.

But that adds up to the beginning of a very different story.

My father didn’t kill himself. I shook the pill bottles on his nightstand, all as full as they come. I looked for a note and found nothing. I found his guns stowed safely in his closet.

No, my father had a heart attack.

And I cannot quite bring myself to tell the story that’s not so neat, that has false leads. I always come back to starting with Ziva, with the narratively neat omen.

But that’s not how life works.

In one of my writing projects, a character with PTSD seeks and gets a chance to watch video footage of one of the most traumatic events in her life.

It’s re-traumatizing to watch, but she’s obsessed with what details the following flashbacks, nightmares, time, retellings, and additional trauma have blurred.

When asked if seeing the “truth” made her feel better, she says it’s complicated.

I understand that. The sequence is definitely something born of my own emotions.

I wonder what I would do if I had the same opportunity.

Really, I know I could never resist. I know it would be traumatizing all over again. I know my final answer would be it’s complicated.

Still.

I have three basic PTSD nightmare templates that seem to cycle on a loop, though inconsistently.

In one, we’re moving, or buying a rental property. In any case, we’re touring a house, sometimes empty, sometimes model home. Either way, there’s always a bed in one room with a corpse in it. And it’s never addressed in the dream, really. A sigh of, “We’d have to get a biohazard team in again… the ozone machine…” as if we’re fixing a plumbing issue.

In another, someone dies, and it’s dramatic but often off screen. It’s emotion based, a montage of the trauma, grief, and logistics to follow. Pro se probate court and handling of possessions, telling people, paperwork, and the talking, talking, talking. I’ve been through the process enough. Dad. Later, Grandma, too, lies, lays, all too still in her bedroom, but it’s been minutes, not days, and family talks around her.

In the most common dream, though, I’m talking to my dad. Sometimes someone else, but most often him. Sometimes he prods me to remember something. Sometimes, it hits me all on its own. “You’re dead,” I’ll remember, often aloud, in the dream. And he’ll immediately decay, turning into the ten day old version of his corpse.

I can run down the templates easily. I’ve done it so often, my best friend had a nightmare identical to the third version, though they never met my father, dead or alive, just heard about a hundred versions of this dream. They woke from it once in the way I’ve woken from it a hundred times: bolting upright, in a cold sweat, panting, shaking, and desperately trying to scream.

Narrative therapy is supposed to address these stories we tell ourselves. And stories can be therapeutic. After that long, awful day, nausea fading to the realization I’d had only a smoothie that morning, when offered any choice I wanted—“You found your father’s ten day old corpse today. You can pick the restaurant.”—I chose Panera, because that’s where I used to go every Tuesday, for the local National Novel Writing Month meetup, to talk and write and eat and get lost in stories like the rest of the week hadn’t happened, which always made it feel safe.

And by editing those stories, we edit our outlook.

There’s a lot of potential I see here, as a mentally ill writer.

Change the narrator—cue empathy.

Change where it begins—add context.

Change the focus—change the moral of the story.

Change where it “ends”—add hope.

Changing your fate is a common theme in fiction.

I don’t feel like the story I tell myself really has an ending. It fades into other thoughts at various points. Probably for the best.

But soon enough, I always find myself back at the beginning: with Ziva.

The Notebook Universe (Delusion)

My wife and I went to the dentist recently (a thrilling start to any story, I know).  I was just in for a routine cleaning, her for the first of a series of more involved appointments.  But that day was just an exam for her, and, finished before I was, she sat near me and made small talk with the hygienist while I made garbled sounds around the vacuum, water, and polishing tools.

At some point, while I was—understandably—distracted, she had an idea, and, with nothing else to write on, jotted it down in the back of my nearby notebook, sitting with my things on the counter.

But I didn’t notice this. 

Flash forward a few days, and I—somehow for the first time—noticed the note.  A mundane investment strategy to look into.

The thing was that I didn’t write it.  Or I didn’t remember it.  But there it was, in my notebook, in my pen’s ink.  Not in my usual handwriting, I was pretty sure.  

And reality broke.

I showed it to her.  “I can’t remember writing this,” I kept saying, distressed, convinced I had left myself a note I had no recollection of.  It was not on my next page in line, it wasn’t dated, the page wasn’t numbered, it wasn’t in my table of contents; at the moment, it just made no sense to me.  

A friend was over; I was just with it enough to insist we didn’t have this conversation in front of him.  We didn’t.  

She thought at first that perhaps I was upset she’d used my notebook without asking.  But she grasped quickly that this wasn’t a roundabout way of communicating I was upset; reality was just broken by the surprise, something that occasionally breaks my concept of real.  The unexpected twist in reality.  I had no problem with her using my notebook.  

She explained that she had written it.  Several times.  The dentist’s office story.  But I couldn’t grasp this.  My mind was already off in the alternate universe it was building without me to explain this, while ignoring all easier logic.  In this reality, everyone had Their Notebook.  Like you had fingerprints or a social security number.  And only you could write in your notebook.  I don’t know how this formed or why this made more sense than her borrowing mine.  But in this world, this meant that she had to have written this note in her notebook, but, due to our deep connection or legal marriage or something, her notebook had, in a way, “hacked” my notebook psychically, transporting notes between them.

That wasn’t so bad, but my mind was spinning with possibilities.  Did that mean that anyone could get into my notebook from a distance?  I didn’t want literally anyone in my notes.

And I was off investigating locks and privacy measures (which apparently stopped psychic transports). She let me.

Reality slowly returned as I tried to focus enough to make sense of Amazon reviews.

(In the end, I did decide that a bit of security—against real dangers—wasn’t my worst idea, and got a fire and water proof accordion style folder—a type I’d been considering using sometimes for my notebook and pen and loose papers anyway.  We already have a fireproof safe for important documents, but nothing portable.) 

So went the notebook universe.  Would’ve been a cool story premise.  (I did end up writing about a non magical stolen notebook shortly after, this time about an existing character with actual privacy concerns.)

But, thankfully, I grasped within hours that the premise wasn’t reality. 

And so episodes go.  

Flash Memoirs From My Notebook in 2020

I started to worry about living today.

I was worried before about surviving.

Food.

When will it run out? Where will it come from? At what cost? At what risk? For how long? Who will it feed?

Water. Soap. Medicine. Toiletries.

Today… 

Will I pretend everything is okay enough that I can write? Read? Crochet? Make a font, make something fun to eat?

Even some of the worst apocalypse novels are told via diary.

What if I run out of yarn and electricity and paper and pens and books?

Before I run out of food?

… 

I dream about Dad a lot, dead or alive.

It’s not usually really him, if dead.

Sometimes it’s Mom.

Sometimes it’s Grandma.

I think about the email he sent my mom about fleeing, about the box in his garage with outdated first aid gear.

And he said, “It’s irresponsible not to be prepared,” about living and dying both but— 

Bold words from a man who died without a will. 

… 

Sometimes Dad’s alive in my dreams but I know he’s not; sometimes I dream about the grief itself. 

I fall asleep in my bed; I wake up standing next to the body again. 

I zone out in my room, snap out of it in a flashback, standing next to the body again.

Standing next to the body again.

And again.

… 

How do I tell Mom I’m finally starting to fall asleep with my eyes closed, that I jump just as much when startled but I’ve never screamed, that when I blink in daylight it’s usually okay, that white linens aren’t as frightening now, that I went into the bedroom while my girlfriend was sleeping without thinking, that I don’t sleep on the couch as much?

If I talk about getting better, she’ll say the same, “It should’ve been me,” and I’ll say:

“That’s a noble game,” or, “But it wasn’t,” or, “But I’m glad it wasn’t,” or, “No, Mom, it really shouldn’t have been you.” 

Mom’s never seen me cry over it and she’s not going to. 

… 

I’m still trying to think my way out of that room.

There’s a dead bird I’ve passed on my walk at the curb for a few days now and I keep thinking I’ll walk the other way or not look and then I don’t, and it’s decaying into liquid, decaying, decaying, and I think of Dad, and how I thought I wouldn’t sit with Grandma’s body, either. 

… 

Morning. It’s sun warmed, bright, sunlight patches on light carpet, sunbathing cats, warm fur, stretch, purr, yawn. Smells like sunlight on light dust. Sun, sun, sun.

… 

My walk—everyone else is in pairs—you can tell who dragged whom. It’s almost cold out. Crisp. Fresh. No hot pavement scent yet.

… 

Brunch. Clear glass bowls of chopped fruit still wet from washing. A few flowers remain alive in the vase. Stripes of sun through the blinds on the tablecloth. Sweet strawberries and Nutella, the crunch of toast. My best friend is bedheaded and in pajamas. My wife to be is dressed in black. We all talk and laugh too much and too loud. 

My fiancee and I cook dinner together. Evening slats of sun. The broiler, the frying, the oven, the stove—hum. It’s hot. Everything smells delicious. She is so beautiful. The potatoes are colorful, the pork chops shaping up to the right hue.

… 

Today’s the kind of mental health day where you listen to Evanescence and hope for the best. Time and space happen to me strangely.

It’s 9:30 AM and I’m nonverbal, and it feels like I shouldn’t be—it’s too early, too much of a problem. Nonverbal, like drunk, happens at more like dinner. But I woke up like this, and I don’t drink.

… 

My dearest fiancee,

It is May 2020.

The world is ending.

And you have asked me to marry you.

… 

It’s late afternoon, hot, dry, the sun just starting to cast long shadows. The pool water is cool and clear, has to be eased into, but refreshing. Mom is drinking white wine out of a Dixie coffee cup. All of the neighbors are in their pools too, cannonballs and voices carrying over. My mom and my best friend and my fiancee and I splash each other, blow water through pool noodles, throw a ball around. Everything smells a little like chlorine. My fiancee and I lay on the bed in the afternoon and cuddled and talked about the future earlier. Later, we all eat dinner still a little wet, but in dry clothes, and pick at desserts knowing we’ll sleep well. All the people I love are happy. We talk about the engagement. The AC isn’t too cold. The food is good and plentiful. I stepped out of the pool and started dinner wet and still in my underwear. And life is good. 

… 

I have started to hallucinate a golden retriever puppy regularly. Her name is Farrah. 

The smell of heat on pavement. Sweat. Water getting warm in bottles. Swings creaking. Gas station snacks eaten on the side of the parking lot in a patch of shade. Kids yell in the distance. My best friend’s voice. The chime of the gas station door opening and closing.

… 

I woke up from my first dream where people were just… wearing masks. How weird is it to adjust?

I wake trying to scream and batting at a corpse that isn’t there. 

… 

The Christmas tree with rainbow lights. Wrapping paper, stockings, pillows, blankets—everywhere. The fireplace is on. Games and snacks line the table, brunch abandoned. Instrumental Christmas music plays. I lie in the pile of wrapping paper and blankets wearing my Santa dress, head on a bathrobe gift, my wife next to me, my best friend next to her. We laugh. Mom is close by. I’m home. It’s Christmas morning.