There was something wrong with my kitchen faucet. The cold water only trickled out, eventually declining to a steady drip.
My water heater temperature is impressively high, a fact with which I took no issue for years, partly because I love being steamed like a tasty crab in the shower and partly because the intense heat makes dishwashing more hygienic; apt, considering our dishwasher is old and unreliable. Thirty-five years old, to be exact. Okay, it’s me. After being washed and rinsed in near-boiling water, my dishes are bound to steam dry on the counter in a few seconds flat. It’s a fabulous compensation with only one downside. My hands are made of flesh and they cannot abide constant burning.
The faucet went awry in the midst of a particular trying period. Everything seemed to be breaking. Over the course of a year or more, I’d had electrical and plumbing issues in virtually every segment of the home, often repeatedly. For about a month, I had running water for only a few days. Let’s just say I was distinctly grateful for a bucket and the rainwater barrel I had jerry-rigged in my backyard. Every time something was fixed, another issue was discovered or soon after wreaked unexpected havoc. A pipe started leaking, another crumbled into dust, the outlet in the kitchen was sparking, another wouldn’t work, the well pump died, the main water line busted, the main water line busted (yes, twice), the well house breaker kept tripping, the various water leaks damaged the kitchen floor, a wall, cabinets…It felt like an endless rendition of “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” One thing led to another in constant pursuit. No resolution. Sheer madness.
I longed for the golden days of toilets that flush. So when I got water back on, I didn’t particularly care that the water pressure was lackluster and the cold water had gone on strike. I just carted water from my bathtub to the water filter in the kitchen so we had drinking water. Then I washed some dishes, while burning the hell out of my hands. It was unpleasant but I was satisfied by something being better than nothing. It became normal in short order.
Months passed. Whenever I washed my hands, I’d rush to do so quickly, before the hot water rushed through the pipes and scalded me again. Sometimes I’d end up screeching and cursing. At one point, I tried to locate the temperature setting on the ancient water heater. I believe it rusted off sometime in the 80s. I told the property management company, but they had a similar perspective as my initial one, somewhere along the lines of “We have bigger fish to fry…your house is falling apart.” I tried to fix it myself and realized that I had no idea what I was doing, couldn’t tell what the real problem was, and risked a water-less kitchen again. I was scared to move on it. Scared and worn out.
So I got burned. Again, and again, and again.
Six weeks ago, it was replaced. I stared at the marvelous strong stream of water, a mix of delicious hot and cold, a delightful warm, and smiled. It was marvelous, like being able to flush the toilet again.
The next day, I washed the dishes. I turned on only the hot water and burned myself repeatedly before remembering I had cold water.
Later, I washed my hands. I turned on only the hot water and burned myself repeatedly, crying out in pain, before remembering I had cold water.
The next day, I wet a washcloth to clean my table. I turned on…you guessed it…only the hot water and scalded myself.
Some hours afterward, I burned myself while cursing loudly.
Then again. And again, and again, and again.
Water is supposed to be helpful, to wash, to nurture, to cleanse.
My mind had learned that water in the kitchen burned. I gave in. I changed my habits to accommodate that belief. Once it wasn’t true, it was difficult to remember that water didn’t have to burn, shouldn’t burn, and I had access to water that wouldn’t.
Trauma is a habit breeding ground for our brains, just like my water faucet. In an instant or over the course of many weeks and years, we learn what to expect from life. We learn what it gives and what it does not. We learn what the dark means: being mugged. We learn what a joke is: disguised cruelty. We learn what a specific scent will lead to: violence. We learn what a father is: absent. We learn what family is like: unsafe. We learn what vulnerability brings: pain. We learn what loud noises mean: death following. We learn what relationships amount to: betrayal. We learn who we are: rejected. We learn what loved ones always do: leave. We learn what hope actually affords: deeper agony and despair.
We learn that all the good things only bring all the bad things, and all the bad things stay; and the bad things are the real things and there is nothing beyond them and we must act accordingly.
This is fear.
Fear teaches us…and fear blinds us.
Fear compels us…and fear cages us.
Fear protects us…and fear harms us.
Fear tells us truth…and fear lies to us.
Fear says we are wise to keep up our walls; there is only darkness and more pain on the other side. Fear screams doubt. Fear rages against hope. Fear says there is no cold water. Only heat, only pain, only burning, only destruction, only weeping, only agony.
While I’ve written on the necessity and good of fear and the beauty of honoring it for our survival and safety, that is only a part of the story.
Because even once we are safe, fear tells us we are not. It keeps screaming long after the sirens have lapsed, the bruises have faded, our tears have dried, our trembling bodies have stilled, and sometimes, even after our hearts have ostensibly healed.
Fear draws us back to the past and forbids us from anticipating the future with hope. It relegates us to an event or events. It labels us defunct. It calls the world dangerous. It tosses out blanket statements, stereotypes, and hardheartedness. It demands walls upon walls and a cage around our most profound hurts. What we don’t consider is all the ways it keeps us from the very things we most desperately desire and truly need. The ways it cripples the best parts of us, cloaks our brightest selves, and diminishes our capacity to live and love ourselves and others well in the only place we’ll ever have: now.
Not long after my water was fixed, I was overwhelmed with fear about the future, haunted in the present, and plagued once again by ruminations of the past.
A gentle person said, “You are afraid so often.”
I replied, “I am scared. What can I do?”
He answered, “I love you. Let me love you.”
How do we respond to the thing that was our best advocate in the moment(s) of danger? How do we deny that which we know is seeking to keep us safe? How do we negate the truth of what we’ve experienced? How do we go beyond the wall of doubt into something we’ve never seen or experienced?
By entertaining the thought that there is something else besides scalding water. By summoning our courage to expect it. By moving toward the opportunities to feel the warmth. By gentle reminders that water is good. By drinking it. Letting it wash over our insides, glide into each thirsty cell, pulse through our blood vessels, and fill us up.
Raise a glass with me.