Hypodermic needles were my first fear. The doctor’s office became home to my nightmares. Sharp objects became my first obsession. My first compulsion was to hold a sharp object against my chin—GI Joe’s scuba knife, a Fort Apache spear, or Galahad’s tiny sword—grit my teeth, and count.
When I was 13, I needed a booster shot. In the weeks before it happened, I developed a new obsession: glass. I collected sharp pieces of glass from the roads and sidewalks. I collected rusted bottle caps. I collected sharp stones. It had never occurred to me before, but what if a sliver of glass gets caught in a car tire, gradually sinks deeper and deeper into the tread, and finally causes a blowout on the freeway? If I didn’t keep filling my coat pockets with the dirty little “hazards” I plucked from the ground, someone might die in a car accident.
When I was 19, I rolled out of a moving car and ran as fast and as far as I could. It probably saved my life. If it hadn’t been for the two black eyes, the gravel embedded in my head and back, and the painful wounds beneath my hair, I would not have recalled much except rolling from a moving car and hearing a chilling scream. I desperately wanted to remember something else. I wanted to remember something else every time I panicked without reason and pulled my car to the side of the road, every time I blinked away the images that lurked along the dark edges of my brain, every time I told the story of how I’d rolled out of a car and mysteriously wakened entangled in an electric fence.
I remembered being alone.
I was still alone six months later when I made my first cry for help, written on the block wall of my dormitory room in my own blood: HELTER SKELTER. Two weeks later, the dormitory supervisor, the dean of students, and a therapist sat across an office from me.
“I was drunk,” I said, having second thoughts about publicizing my trauma on the wall. “It was just a bad joke,” I stammered. “I just wanted to show everybody how much pain I can take.” Thus did I refuse their possible offer of help, and subsequently got kicked out of the dormitory. I didn’t even get the chance to tell them my evolving tale about my heroic fight against multiple assailants, how I was pushed from a moving car, and that I had a vision of a mysterious woman who chased me through the woods and into a cattle fence.
After flunking out of college, I became obsessed with that dubious vision, so obsessed that I scoured my subconscious to record my nightmares—along with every related memory—and sent my records to Dr. J. Allan Hobson, Director of The Laboratory of Neurophysiology at Harvard Medical School. He wrote back, impressed with my level of detail, and encouraged me to write more. In order to maintain that good impression, I obsessively policed my thoughts. One day, however, an unexpected image popped into my head: Barney Rubble. I couldn’t stop him. If I dreamed about The Flintstones I would look silly to Dr. Hobson! Sure enough, Barney Rubble appeared in my dream that night. I had to be honest: so Barney Rubble appeared in the dream records on Dr. Hobson’s desk at Harvard Medical School.
Once, just to get Hobson’s opinion, I included a brief addendum to my dream records. I wrote about the self-harm I inflicted upon myself almost a year after my traumatic night. Mysteriously, it was the only thing that brought me relief from anxiety. I described my actions in details graphic enough that nearly 30 years later, my therapist—sorry Rita—nearly wretched. I qualified my description to the doctor with an admission that self-injury is a terrible thing, though it enabled me to dissociate myself from physical pain. He called it “self-hypnosis” and urged me to add more details.
He told me to write about it “without apology.”
It took me 30 years to be that honest. There were no multiple assailants—just one predator. I was alone, drunk, and naive enough to take his offer of a ride. He sexually assaulted me. When I resisted, he beat me. Then he started driving to a more secluded place. I jumped from that moving car. A woman screamed. I ran as fast and as far as I could.
The first time I wrote my imaginary version of that story, in September of 1984, a needle was embedded in my wrist. It was there for many reasons: to prove I could take so much pain that no one could hurt me again, to provide the endorphin rush needle injuries gave me for days afterward, to face my greatest childhood fear. Most of all, however, the reason that needle was stuck in my wrist was to quell my deep sense of shame: I deserved it. But I didn’t.
I could have done no better that night—a skinny, drunk, 19-year-old—than jump out of that car and run away. On that terrible night in 1983, running was enough.
In 2017, the truth is enough.
About The Author:
My name is Craig Boyer. I am currently a mental health practitioner at Catholic Charities with 15 years of experience working with youth living with mental illness. I am a published author and advocate. Author of “The Devil and a Pocketful of Glass: The Journey of an Obsessive Compulsive”