For the past few weeks, I’ve been having the same dream.
I’m not even sure what to call it — a bad dream or a nightmare. It’s not something I’d like to remember. It’s not something I want to keep thinking about. But the fact that it keeps seeping into my sleep consciousness is frustrating to me. It’s easy to push things out of my mind when I’m awake. But when I’m asleep, I have no control of what comes through, and no ability to push it away.
The beginning is always the same. I’m in a car. My father is driving. My mother is in the passenger seat. We’re driving through some neighborhood I can’t recognize. There are lots of bare trees. Small houses. Everything is quiet. It’s not the nighttime, but the sky is gray.
No one speaks. My father keeps driving. After a few blocks, he turns a corner and stops in front of a house. My mother gets out of the car. I watch as she steps up to the front door and walks right in. The light in the house is on. I can see a few small beds in what I would have otherwise assumed was the living room. Two children run up to my mother, and she grabs one and lifts her up.
I turn and ask my father what’s going on. He tells me this is where she works now; she takes care of the children. My father continues to drive, repeating the same line over and over again. I want to scream, but I’m frozen.
I always wake up at that point, experiencing the same panic as I imagine I would be experiencing in the dream. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I get angry. Most times, I lay in bed physically frozen as my mind races between the dream and my reality.
It’s something I thought I would be over by now. The guilt for leaving. Not just leaving, but leaving my mother behind. Leaving her to hurt other children. Leaving without saying a word about what she had done to me and others.
I didn’t press charges. I didn’t call the cops. I didn’t have her put in jail. I let her remain free. Free to hurt others. Free to get away with all she had done.
In the dream, I could have spoken up, but I didn’t. I could have told my father to stop the car, to turn back and save those children before it was too late, but I didn’t. I froze. I said nothing. I did nothing.
The guilt hangs over me. I don’t recognize it all the time, but it’s there. I feel like I can’t move forward with the knowledge (and lack thereof) of what I’ve left behind. I can’t save anyone from her. I chose to be selfish and save myself.
Last week, my therapist asked me what it would take to make me feel accomplished. I told him my expectations were entirely unrealistic. I didn’t tell him what they were — my grandiose goal of making sure no child is ever abused by their mother. That can never happen, and surely not by anything in my power.
Today, my therapist asked a similar question, but this time he focused on what would make me feel complete or purposeful. It was in that moment that I realized it wasn’t about my impossible expectations; that’s not what was bothering me at all. I started to cry, but I couldn’t find the words to tell him what was in my head. I couldn’t tell him how badly I beat myself up over leaving my brother behind. I couldn’t tell him I was too weak to stand up against her. I couldn’t tell him about the guilt that was eating away at me for years.
I couldn’t tell him that I would never feel complete until I knew my mother could not hurt another person ever again.
All I could do was cry.
And the guilt stays with me, even in my dreams.