Run. Or nothing. Or both.

I went for a run tonight at 11:00. Running helps correct problems with muscle imbalances and posture in my legs, problems that cause pretty serious pain when unaddressed. I had fallen off the running for a while because of work and parenting. Tonight I decided, fuck it, I would make the time. So I did.

It was a short run, maybe 12 minutes. The weather’s gotten nice. People leave their windows open. From out of a house right before my turnaround point I heard someone crying, very upset, sounded like a child.

A few months ago my older daughter (at the time, my only daughter) went through a nasty tantrum phase involving hitting. She’d get mad, then she’d hit, or kick, or pinch, or headbutt – do something to hurt me or my wife. I would deal with this sometimes by letting her hit me – if I was standing, it didn’t really hurt. It hurt her hands to slap my belly at least as much as it hurt my belly. She’d burn out her energy then we’d talk about consequences and move on, getting her back to bed.

Sometimes I would hold her arms. I would especially do that if she started hitting while I was laying down, because I didn’t want her to hit me in the face. That’s not just to avoid discomfort but out of real fear of injury – at 18 months she accidentally jabbed me in the eye with a sharp finger nail, cutting the cornea. The injury was minor but painful and resulted in a permanent tendency to occasionally recurring intense eye pain.

One night I held her arms to keep her from hitting me, at about 1:30 in the morning. She’d wet the bed, I think. I forget the initial cause that led to her being awake and furious, but there it was. She was awake, furious, hitting. I held her arms, by holding the cuffs of her pajama shirt sleeves so she couldn’t swing at me. She strained at the shirt and howled “NO DADDY, YOU’RE HURTING ME!” as she fought to get her arms free.

Not long before my run, there were two very upset crying children at my house. Not as intense as the tantrums with the hitting, but still, crying, shouting. Bedtime often involves crying at our house. That’s the phase we’re in. More generally, Kids just cry sometimes, it’s part of how they communicate. Children crying is a normal part of life. I put my shoes on and ran right after my kids went to sleep.

I thought about all this as I ran past that house with the open windows. I tried to make that all I thought about.

I had an unpleasant childhood. It wasn’t all unpleasant, but the unpleasantness was big. And I don’t like to talk about it. I have talked about and am able to, but it’s not fun. If I had to pick a single sound that would sum up my childhood, it would be the sound of crying.

I often felt unsafe as a kid and especially so when at home, and I worried about my siblings’ safety. There were times when I did feel safe, though. Under certain conditions home could be safe. So I learned how to read the weather, so to speak, to see what the conditions were. I think kids who grow up like that have issues with reading the signals around them, or rather, with knowing what is and isn’t a signal – what means safe/unsafe and what doesn’t tell you either way. The crying thing is part of this. There also just a great deal of crying in my house.

I have a lot of bad memories that are conjured up by the sound of children crying, especially when the sound comes from sorta far away, like hearing it through a wall, or overhearing it in someone else’s house from out of their window. But it’s not just or not primarily a matter of memories in the usual sense of memories – incidents, stories. It’s way more a matter of a kind of gut level response. That sound says “danger.” I hear it sound and my fight or flight reflex kicks in. During that, I have bits of various memories of course. But order is not like this: hear crying, remember incident, begin to feel unhappy. It’s like this: hear crying, tense up and feel unhappy, and have bits of bad memories as I tense up further and feel more unhappy. It proceeds from the gut upward, not from the head down. From that agitated place I then think thoughts, speculating based on what might be happening with the crying, which feeds back into the spiral of unpleasant reactions on my part. All of this happened on my run tonight, and to a lesser extent again as I typed this out.

I’m pleased to say that I worked off a lot of the reaction in the short few minutes running home. Exercise helps a lot with this kind of thing (I’ll probly do some pushups when I finish typing this); it can help reset my nervous system, so to speak, when I get agitated like that (like this). I’m also much more adept at dealing with this, as I’ve had a lot of practice and a lot of counseling, and I’ve done a lot of healing.

A friend told me that whenever she travels she brings a spare pillow, a feather pillow with half the feathers missing, that she wraps around her face. She covers her eyes while she sleeps. She mentioned this in passing in another conversation, this was after we’d talked about our childhoods and moved on to more mundane topics. When she told me about the thing of covering her eyes I said “oh I do the same thing, though I use a sheet, and I need to have my whole body covered, or I feel exposed.” She said “it must be our upbringing.” I never drew that connection before. I texted one of my brothers – “random question. do u cover yr face when u sleep? I do. jus curious.” He wrote back that he did. I called him later and we talked about it. We do the same thing. I told him about my conversation with my friend, and how she said it was because of our upbringing. He said that that made sense to him and he’d never thought of it before.

This friend and I connected over our childhoods, but we connected before that. There’s a kind of kinship or connection I feel with people who grew up similarly, a common sensibility or way of being in the world. I regret that other people have similar experiences but that sense of connection is powerful. I think it’s part of how abuse survivors sometimes find each other and then get into fucked up relationships with each other. That’s not what I’m talking about in my life, though.

I have a friend who I mostly interact with by cracking jokes. This friend also had an unpleasant childhood. We’ve talked just a little about it (just enough that we know each other had unpleasant childhoods). In one of our rare moment where we weren’t being rude/vulgar/hilarious, I mentioned to him that I have sometimes thought about how differently I plan and hope for my kids to grow up compared to how I grew up. My bad experiences were an integral part of how I became who I am. My emotional but also my ethical wiring came largely out of that. And like I said there’s a special sense of connection that goes with that experience. This means that I hope to raise my kids in such a way that they won’t quite understand some of my key formative experiences and at a certain level won’t relate to or be in the world the same way that I am in the world. I said this to my friend. He said back to me that he preferred to think that through parenting we would become different people than we were, that parenting could be a healing experience.

I have a lot of bad memories. I have a lot of good memories from my childhood too, but I don’t like to talk about those either. The problem is that all of my good childhood memories are only one or two or three degrees of separation from bad childhood memories, and all of my bad childhood memories are only one or two degrees of separation from truly awful memories. So I mostly don’t like to get into childhood memories. When I do, I usually end up feeling bad.

For some time now my older daughter has asked to hear stories from my childhood. So I tell her stories. They’re appropriate stories, positive, pleasant stories. I tell them in ways that highlight pleasant things, and things she likes (like animals, and poop). She likes that I tell the stories basically the same way but with some variation and she likes to participate in the retellings (today she asked me to tell her friend a story “tell her about the roller coaster!” and as I told it she jumped in, “tell her about the music!” “tell her about the high hill part of the roller coaster!”). As I tell these stories I carve out good parts of my childhood and break or at least weaken some of their associations with the bad parts. Tonight I thought about that and I remembered what my friend had said about parenting being healing, I thought about all that as I left the sound of crying behind on my run home.