Every Line is a Scream

Abuse, Art, and, Alchemy

Kelly Sundberg
Sep 10, 2019 · 11 min read
Illustration: Louisa Bertman

My new therapist asks me why I’m seeing her.
“Because I have PTSD, and I want to be normal again,” I say.
She asks what the symptoms of my PTSD are.
She asks how often I have nightmares.
“Every night.”
She asks what other symptoms I have.
“Do you think you stay awake because you are afraid to fall asleep?” she asks.
She asks what else.
She asks how often I’m disassociated.
“Almost all of the time.”
“Are you disassociated now?”
“Yes,” I say.

My parents have an electric fence around their garden to keep the deer out, but the deer are starving, and once they get into the garden — once they taste a tomato — they will endure the shock of the electric fence again and again to get back to that sweetness. Well-intentioned neighbors feed the deer apples to spare them the fence, but the deer can’t digest the sugar, so they starve even more.

A year ago, I published a memoir about why I stayed too long in a violent marriage. I received a six-figure advance, published the book to critical acclaim, and women wrote me and told me that I had changed their lives (men, too, wrote and told me that I had changed their lives). Still, nothing changed in my life. I kept waiting for that alchemy — the magic of waking up redeemed — but it never happened. Maybe I am too attached to my suffering to be redeemed.

I have never been able to figure out if I write my story or my story writes me.

After my husband hit me, his apologies were so sweet. I craved them. A starving woman knows nothing but craving.

All things rotting smell sweet as they spoil.

To be redeemed is to be compensated in some way for your suffering or to regain possession of what you had before the suffering. I can never be compensated enough, can never regain what I had before. My heart is inalterably different.

When therapy didn’t fix me, I turned to magic. Had my tarot cards read. My astrological chart read. Talked to a clairvoyant. Prayed in a labyrinth in New Mexico. Bought crystals. Smudged sage. I did every white lady witchy appropriation that I could find. I don’t know if magic is hope or desperation, but I know that I am desperately hopeful to wake up normal someday.

After my book was published, my ex-husband wrote a public statement and accused me of being the abusive one. He claimed that I had pulled a knife on him. There was some truth to that. I had grabbed a large knife, backed into the corner of our kitchen, and held it to my stomach. I begged him to leave me alone, said that I would stab myself if he didn’t.

He calmed. “Kelly, give me the knife,” he said. I gave him the knife, hand trembling. “You’re fucking crazy,” he said. “You just pulled a knife on me.”

The day of the Kavanaugh hearing, I was driving to Indiana to do a reading from my book. Turned on the radio. Cory Booker told Christine Blasey Ford that he believed her.

“I believe you,” he said.

How much power is in those words? So many people didn’t believe me. My own parents didn’t believe me. I pulled over to the side of the highway and sobbed.

Believe me. Believe me. Believe me.

The next day, a woman came to my reading. She had flown there from Illinois just to meet me. I knew who she was. We had exchanged emails. Her sister had been murdered years before by her abusive husband, and the woman told me that reading my book had helped her understand why her sister loved him.

I never cry at readings. I am highly sophisticated at the art of disassociation, which is both the trauma survivor’s curse and blessing. Still, that day, during the Q & A, someone asked me what the hardest part of writing the book was. I said that the hardest part was writing about the good moments — the times when he was sweet to me. I started crying, right there in front of everyone. I could see the woman looking at me with tears in her eyes too.

She hugged me after the reading, looked at my face for a long time, then told me that I reminded her of her sister. Later, I had a drink with my friend Lisa at a dive bar. I wondered what it was about me that had reminded the woman of her sister. Lisa said, “She told me what it was. She said that it was because, despite everything you’ve been through, you are still sweet.”

I started crying again, right there in that dive bar. I was so tired; I have been tired for too long.

Folks associate the word “triggered” with fragility, and I know that I am not fragile. Still, in the time since my book was published, I have been intensely triggered. Writing it, I thought, would be cathartic, and it was, but I am able to see now that I was disassociated during much of its creation. At the end of the book’s creation, I was writing in a mania, staying up until 4am, then curling on the floor by my desk and sobbing. I was almost always numb, but at times, the pain would break in. I would gasp at how much it hurt; still, the pain was such sweet relief. Numbness, too, is a burden, and I would rather feel.

No, I’d rather be numb.
No, I’d rather feel.
No, I’d rather be numb.

The emotional alchemist asks me what is going on in my life. I have called her rather than my new therapist because the alchemist is cheaper, and she helps me more immediately. I tell her that I have broken up with a man I have been sleeping with — that I wanted a relationship, but he didn’t want that label with me. She asks me what would have been different with the label. I have to concede that nothing would have been different, that I already got as much as I wanted from him. She tells me that maybe I am too attached to labels.

The emotional alchemist taps into energy and shifts emotions; she alchemizes feelings. I have a PhD, and I am aware of how irrational this sounds. There is no amount of convincing that I can offer to make this process sound real, but I know that I feel the shift — the alchemy — and she knows things that I am incapable of telling her because I don’t even know them myself. She roots around in there — in my psyche — feels for what is broken. This time, it is abandonment. She says the word “abandonment” when she finds it. I start crying again; I am always crying.

Abandonment. Abandonment. Abandonment.

I left him, but he abandoned me long before I ran out the door with nothing but a suitcase and a duffle bag full of our child’s Legos.

When they didn’t believe me, my parents abandoned me too.

The first time the emotional alchemist rooted around in my psyche, she found horror. Her voice quieted. “It’s horror,” she said with respect and reverence and concern. An entire genre of film is rooted around the concept. The women are always screaming.

Horror. Horror. Horror.

I will never again be a woman who hasn’t held a knife to her own stomach in order to save her life.

The man that I broke up with because he didn’t want a relationship with me is kind. He is younger than me, and he wants a life that looks different than mine. I know rationally that I want a life that looks different than his too, but in the meantime, we have been good to each other. No one has ever touched me with such gentleness. The last time that we had sex, I wept afterwards. I tried to explain it to him. “To be touched with gentleness after having been touched with so much violence makes me feel raw.” He looked sad for me. I didn’t know how much I craved gentle touch. A starving woman only knows craving.

My abusive ex-husband is, by all accounts, happily remarried and has two babies. I am still alone.

This is a peculiar form of gaslighting.

Just after I defended my dissertation, and before my book was published, I impulsively got a tattoo. It was no fault of the tattoo artist, but it was not what I wanted. Then my book was published. My book was born into a world of collective trauma that mimicked and reflected my personal trauma. I wanted to start over on my own terms, wanted to start with a cover up of the tattoo. I messaged a tattoo artist, Kat, whose work I admired. I told her my story and asked for her help. I sent her my writing. She wrote back that she didn’t usually take cover ups, but she also didn’t close the door entirely. I was persistent and gave her total artistic freedom with no size constraints. I knew, somehow, that I needed this, and that I needed it to be from her.

The emotional alchemist asks me to give myself permission to feel worthy of being loved. She asks me to say this out loud. I cannot. My voice stops in my throat. Instead, I say, “This is very hard for me.”

“I know it is,” she says, “but you need to say it.”
“I give myself permission to feel worthy of being loved,” I say. I am crying again.

In Kat’s studio, she approached me with her design. It was stunning. She had meditated on my story while she drafted this large-scale minimalist tattoo. There is an all-knowing eye in the middle for wisdom and protection flanked by the figure of a guardian angel with wings. On each of the wings are circles that symbolize giving and receiving.

Palo Santo and a Dark Moon Intention candle burned on a small table beside her. She asked me to lean forward, and the needle entered my skin. She was gentle with the needle, would stop regularly and wipe the blood with a damp paper towel. The coolness of the towel such relief on my burning skin. We worked for seven hours. She told me that my left side is receiving, and my right side is giving. I felt more pain on the right side, pulled away from her in those moments. I know I have a very hard time giving — or trusting — or loving.

When the needle hit the same point on my spine where his fist once slammed, I began to quietly sob. Kat said nothing, just offered me a tissue. I remembered his fist, remembered the crack, the shock, the pain. I felt it all again in the needle, and I sobbed. I was in my body. Present. Remarkably, there was no disassociation.

Though I was sobbing on the outside, I was screaming on the inside. I pictured him standing in front of me, and I screamed.

You stole my life from me. You stole my life from me. You stole my life from me.

The needle traced lines where his fists had once created bruises. Every line was a scream. Every line of my book, too, was a scream. All this time, I thought that I had been crying, but I was screaming.

Believe me. Believe me. Believe me.
. Abandonment. Abandonment.
Horror. Horror. Horror.

I didn’t tell my parents about the tattoo. Didn’t want to risk their judgment, but this past summer, I spent Father’s Day with them in Idaho. There is so much regret in my father’s eyes; I know that he believes me now. My mother and I sat in a hot spring, and she saw the tattoo. She didn’t judge. We have had to learn how to love each other despite this history between us.

“It’s a guardian angel,” I said. I hadn’t had a guardian angel when I needed one, but as my mother and I sat in that spring and stared into the mountains where I had backpacked with my father so many times before, I remembered seeing a deer a couple of summers before. A doe. She stopped and looked at me. She was plump, definitely not starving.

I whispered “goodbye” to her when she left.

As we neared the end of the tattoo, Kat told me, “I know exactly when it’s going to hurt, and you are going to feel it emotionally, but I will get you through it.” When that time came, she said, “It’s going to hurt, and I need you to lean into it. Let whatever comes out come out.”

It did hurt. I leaned into it in the way that turns hurt into such exquisite pleasure. This is the life that I’m left with. There is nothing that can be done now. I heard Kat crying softly behind me. It was painful and terrible and beautiful.

He colonized my body, but I’m taking it back now. He will never hurt me again. I will continue to sit on my therapist’s couch, to work with the emotional alchemist, to have my tarot cards read, to scan my horoscope every morning. I will continue screaming instead of crying. I will never be redeemed — can never return to who I was before — but I will become something new.


I have felt the hints of a sweetness that doesn’t lead to starvation. I carry my guardian angel on my back, and I know the alchemy is coming.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Kelly Sundberg

Written by

Kelly Sundberg’s memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl was published by HarperCollins in 2018. She is currently working on a collection of lyric essays about PTSD.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Kelly Sundberg

Written by

Kelly Sundberg’s memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl was published by HarperCollins in 2018. She is currently working on a collection of lyric essays about PTSD.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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