Haunted House

Tree Spirits

Detail from Tree Spirits by Sid Boyum. Photo by Callen Harty.

Trigger warning: Sexual abuse, trauma, triggers

Decades later, this is what trauma can look like.

The other night there was a conversation happening and given that it’s getting close to Halloween the talk turned toward haunted houses. I’ve never been much for haunted houses, horror movies, or similar kinds of things, so I wasn’t very active in the discussion. As the conversation continued a memory suddenly came back to me. Someone said something that opened up a door in my mind and brought up an image of a haunted house in the basement. It wasn’t the kind of haunted house that we were talking about, with organized tours featuring ghosts and goblins. It was a private haunted house that I was told I had to try. I remembered that there was a leaf to a table propped up on something so that when I walked up it and got to the half-way point it suddenly dropped down and scared the heck out of me with a loud slapping sound and the loss of balance and control.

That’s all the detail I could remember, but as I was thinking about it my breaths started getting shorter and I started getting incredibly anxious. There was something deeper there, something scarier, but I didn’t know what. I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe at all and I had to step away because the anxiety started to consume me. I went upstairs and out the door into the rainy night and tried to slow down my breathing. I happened to glance at my Fitbit and saw that my resting heart rate, which is normally in the low sixties or even upper fifties, was up to 109. I focused on my breathing and tried to bring myself back down, and after a couple minutes the anxiety had started to dissipate and my heart rate was dropping again. The rain and the intentional breathing helped.

The thing is the entire house that I grew up in was a haunted house for years, especially that dark and cold basement, but also other rooms where I was repeatedly molested as a boy. I have been trying to process the other night, trying to remember something, anything, from that homemade haunted house. Had something happened there? After the plank dropped did I walk around the corner into something scarier? Was there another incident of abuse that I had forgotten and buried deep within me? Was the memory of that haunted house just stirring up other memories and bringing it all to the surface? Was my mind making a connection that I couldn’t see? There were too many questions and no answers. I didn’t know. I don’t know tonight. But something about it is apparently haunting me still.

This is the thing with triggers and trauma. You never know when some little unexpected thing might bring the trauma back to you. This one was a relatively minor event, but there have been times when something happens that is debilitating to me. I can go into a sort of emotional paralysis. Other times there might be flashbacks. And, of course, everyone’s triggers and traumatic memories are different. What might cause me to struggle to breathe might not affect another person at all, and something that might not affect me might send a friend of mine into a tailspin.

Still, I want to know. I want to face and to know all the details of what happened to me as a child, so that my adult self can take care of the little boy inside of me who was so traumatized so many years ago. As I was driving home the other night I started thinking about what had happened and I started to cry in the car. After a minute or so I let go of the wheel and put my arms around myself and told that little boy that everything was all right. Sometimes you have to let go of the wheel. Sometimes you have to face the ghosts of your past in order to move fearlessly into the future. Like a haunted house it can be scary, but you can come out on the other side.

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About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Both are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he has been an actor, writer, and director since 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events.
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