To Reach for the Font

To Reach for the Font June 13, 2021


I wish I had a brave person to show you, but I don’t.

There’s no one here but me.

I wish I had a happy story to tell you, but I don’t.

I only have mine.

I have not been very well this spring and early summer.

Trauma is a real illness. It’s not all in your head. Being traumatized actually physically injures the nervous system and changes the brain’s chemistry; these injuries are called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Acute Stress Disorder. I have trauma, and I’ve made no secret about that. I developed PTSD from the spiritual abuse I grew up with and the fallout from leaving my family; later I had PTSD from being raped, and from living in LaBelle with dangerous neighbors all around for years. In the past several weeks, surrounding the events involving getting a restraining order and it not being enforced, I seem to have developed Acute Stress Disorder from living in LaBelle and the situation involving my menacing neighbor and her hallucinations. I haven’t been well at all.

I already talked about spending a weekend in a hotel because of the neighbor’s harassment. I’m afraid I haven’t gotten better since then.

Yesterday I went to the grocery store to get a few things I’d forgotten, and to get some cash to take Rosie to the pool. But when I got back, my neighbor was standing on the edge of her lawn again, waiting. This is a game she sometimes plays for attention when she sees my car is gone, forcing me to walk within a few feet of her while she stares or calls me names or films me or makes threats. The more times I drove around the block waiting for her to go inside, the wider she grinned and the more she enjoyed the panic she was causing me. After awhile, she’d gathered another neighbor to herself and was pointing to my car and laughing. She tells the neighbors her fantasies about me and Michael so now several families on the block think we’re neo-Nazis abusing our daughter. It scares me to death.

Rosie ended up going to the pool with her friend’s mom instead of me. I couldn’t go into my own house, so I went for a drive. When the meat from the grocery trip went gray I threw it out and kept driving. Every time I thought about going home I got so sick I couldn’t cope.

I stayed away for hours, in between panic attacks.

I’m good at driving now, so after I got tired of driving back and forth between Steubenville’s libraries I took the freeway along the Ohio river. It’s really very beautiful on that stretch of the freeway. I will never be able to see this desolate place as good, but I could almost be tricked into liking Northern Appalachia if only ever had to see it from the freeway.

I ended up in the small town of Toronto, Ohio, where I realized the panic was too severe to drive any further, so I went to the Toronto library.  When the library closed I didn’t want to get back in my car, so I went to the church whose tall bell tower I noticed when I was at the library. It’s a church named after Saint Francis, a comfortingly ordinary Catholic church, a barrel vault with a crucifix at the front, a Way of the Cross on the walls, and abstract glass in the windows, a nice organ, nothing outlandish or out of place. I went inside just to have a cry in the in air conditioning, but then the organ began playing for the vigil Mass– and then I stayed there automatically until the vigil Mass ended. You’re not supposed to leave Mass. Besides, it was Saturday night, and my mind was buzzing about the Sunday obligation.

My hand instinctively went to the font as I left, just as it’s instinctively gone to the font every time I’ve left a church since I was a toddler. There was holy water there, for the first time since last March.

I was rested after Mass, so I went back to Steubenville. But as soon as I got to Steubenville I panicked again. I drove around until well after nightfall. I was going to try to sleep in my car, but my car was too hot. In between panic attacks, I found myself praying psalms. “Preserve me Lord, I take refuge in You. I say to the Lord, You are my God. My happiness lies in You alone.” All without believing it.

Around and around downtown Steubenville.

He has put into my soul a marvelous love for the faithful ones who dwell in this land,” I recited to myself as I wished my neighbor to the pit of hell. “Those who chose other gods increase their sorrows. Never shall I offer their offerings of blood. Never shall I take my name upon my lips.

Up the back way to Wal Mart, into the closed library parking lot for another cry, and back downtown.

“O Lord, it is you who are my portion and cup, you make my lot secure. The road marked out for me is my delight. Welcome indeed the heritage that falls to me.” Crying until I had to park so I wouldn’t get into a crash. “With God at my right hand, I will stand firm. By his wounds you are healed. Our Father Who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” 

The prayers got more and more fragmented as I went along, and then I just cried.

There was only one place I could think of to go, and that’s the Friendship Room. I parked there and watch people drop off donations and collect supplies for hours. Then, at nearly midnight, I went to the porch to ask for help.

I only wanted to use their phone to tell Michael that I was still all right, relatively speaking. But somehow the next thing I knew, I was sitting inside with one of the volunteers, using the bathroom, drinking a bottle of cold water. And then we started to talk.

I cried and held my head and told them what a failure I was. I told them about how hopeless and dangerous it is to live in LaBelle. I said I was a bad, horrible, awful, selfish hypocrite because all I wanted was to abandon the poor and go live in a suburb if only I could afford it. I told them about the constant nervousness and all the terrible people and broken people I couldn’t save. I told about my neighbor psychologically torturing me to the breaking point, the fact that she told the judge at the restraining order hearing that the cancer had gone to her liver, which meant she was dying all alone, and I was such a monster that all I could think was it wasn’t nearly fast enough.

I talked about the little boy I tried to help, the boy I practically raised for a summer.  I had to cut him off from ever coming to my house again because he was hurting Rosie’s mental health. He’s a full-time juvenile delinquent now, running around the neighborhood picking fights; he never stays a whole day at school but wanders off when he wants to. I assume it’ll only be a few years before he’s picked up and sent to the real jail where he’ll spend most of the rest of his life, and there’s nothing I can do.

There’s nothing I can do about anything.

The Friendship Room volunteer patiently listened to the traumatized woman ranting at him at twelve-thirty in the morning. Then he said, “Do you know what a Christian is? A Christian is someone who needs God.”

I cried again.

The volunteer told me about all the hopeless people they meet downtown. They often can’t do very much, but they can listen and make that person feel welcome. And they’ve seen firsthand again and again how feeling welcome can be all that’s needed. It can empower people to fight to change their lives, and sometimes they do succeed. Sometimes listening and welcoming is all we can do. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes we can’t even do that, but we can pray for people behind their back.

The subject turned to the poverty in Steubenville. The volunteer said he estimated that between six hundred and a thousand people in Steubenville are living in “third world conditions.” They had housing, but at least some of the utilities didn’t work because the landlord wouldn’t fix them or they couldn’t afford to pay the bill.  Bad enough to not have running water to drink and bathe in, these people couldn’t even flush a toilet. I nodded and remembered that the utility problem is why there are so many horrendous house fires in winter in LaBelle– because people get their gas shut off and try to stay warm with an old fashioned electric space heater in a badly wired rental house that isn’t up to code. The fire starts in the walls when they fall asleep, and they don’t wake up on time. I hadn’t known that until I lived here.

The volunteer said he didn’t know any of this himself until he began working with the poor downtown, met these people personally, and heard their stories. He’d had no idea.

People sometimes talk to me as if I’m an expert in things that happen to poor people and suffering people and how we can help. I’ve written a book on it. But I feel guilty because it’s not as if I’ve studied poverty. I just lived it for a bit, and got trapped among other people living it. And it made me angry, so I wrote about it. And now you know. And you can tell somebody else, and they’ll know. And if enough people know and get angry, we might make a change.

Knowing, seeing, welcoming, getting angry, getting traumatized, talking about trauma out loud when you’re not supposed to…  maybe these are powerful things after all.

Maybe the Christian vocation is to know, to see, to welcome, to try to help, to get angry and traumatized and talk out loud when you’re not supposed to, to sit in church because of something about a Sunday obligation when you can’t find the strength to go to church for any other reason, to reach instinctively for the font even when there hasn’t been water for a year and a half, to babble psalms about a marvelous love when you’re so scared and furious you wish your neighbor dead. The Christian vocation is to need God.

After talking to the volunteer, I felt better than I had all day.

I drove home.

My neighbor didn’t come out to taunt me at one o’clock in the morning. I’m not sure how I’ll get OUT of the house the next time I need to, but I’m safely IN the house now. We’ll take it from there.

I wish I had a brave person to show you, but there’s no one here but me, and the One Who is everywhere present and filling all things.

I wish I had a happy story to tell you, but I think it’s important to tell you this story I’m living in, so you can help others. And so that you can know you are not alone.




Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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