Caterpillar: Who are YOU?
Alice: This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. I -- I hardly know, sir, just at present -- at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.
I used to be much more high strung. I used to be much more scared. Terrified, even, if we're being honest, which we are. Terrified of everything but unable to show it at all. I used to worry much more. I would become preoccupied with details and how they would affect my world. One such preoccupation stands out in my mind, and I always go back to it, poking at the thing as I wonder at the why of it.
My sister and I lived with our dad and our uncle, his brother, in a small blue house when we were very young. Our mother had given up custody of us when she'd found that working 4 jobs and raising three girls alone was to her brain like an axe would be to a cantaloupe... She had to give us to him, or she didn't know what would happen. She didn't know what she might do. So my older sister and I were taken away by our dad (my sister's dad. We weren't acknowledging then, when I was hardly more than a toddler, that we didn't know who mine was,) and our mother disappeared for close to a year. We didn't hear from her then at all. She needed to be free from us completely, and so she was.
She would not want us back for almost nine years, at which time we would go happily. Little did any of us know how well that would turn out...
There was rust-colored shag carpet in the living room of my uncle's house, and roach clips in the ashtrays on the coffee table. Our (her) dad did the best he could, and our uncle tried hard to help. Still, there were unreasonable expectations (answering the phone, "Hello, Ournamehere residence, how may I help you?" at four years old) because two single men had no idea what to expect from two small girls. We all did our best. It turned out okay for the most part. We were okay.
I remember that at some point in those years, I developed the habit of sitting on the cement stoop out front of the house for hours, the concrete cool through my shorts, staring up at the hunter green leaves of the beautiful old tree that dominated the yard. The tree we couldn't touch. It was infested with red ants and they would sting you, so we could not have a swing or a tree house, or any of the things that good-natured old giant would have been so well suited to. We could not so much as brush against it, let alone climb its gnarled old branches, lest we come away with stinging welts and nothing but a grumbled I told you so for our troubles.
I don't remember when I started counting the leaves, but I do remember very specifically never being able to get beyond 77. It wasn't that I couldn't count higher - of course, I could - it was just that I would get so far and become positive that I'd missed one. You see, the leaves all had to touch each other. I had to move from one to the next by way of them caressing each other above my head. And so I would sit there with my arms around my legs, counting, following tenuous lines of contact between each part of this tree that had become my friend, and suddenly find myself convinced that I had missed one leaf. So I would start over.
This went on for hours.
I just didn't want any of them to be left out. I wanted them all to know they mattered, that I saw them.
I think I was 5 or 6 years old when this started. It eventually morphed into a habit of counting in my head when I would find myself under stress - which was often. I would count by multiples of three, five or seven. I also started keeping very close track of my conversations -- when it was my turn to talk, I would count the words that I spoke, then count the letters in the words. I would divide the letters by the words and that is how many times I would blink the next time my conversation partner was speaking.
It was a lot to keep track of for someone so young, but it was my way of distracting myself.
From what, I still don't know.
My sister and I were not abused, though I recognize this sort of obsessive compulsive behavior as similar to the way someone who has suffered in some way would cope with the trauma. There is a similar parallel between my sister's sweet and childlike nature and the mannerisms of a person unable to mature due to some kind of deeply rooted infliction. The only trauma I can see is being separated from our mother, who was obviously in distress and unable to deal with the pressure of being a parent.
And so, I cannot see why I developed this habit of counting so obsessively. I cannot see what it helped me cope with. I do know that I was only able to force myself to stop doing it a few years ago, and now I don't do it at all. I also know that for most of my life I lived in constant fear of everything, unable to show it lest I disappoint or let someone down. In those days in the light blue house, I had my sister to look after, the both of us to raise. If I made our father unhappy by being weak, maybe he wouldn't love us and he'd give us up, and then where would we go? Childish, yes, but... It was the logic.
Perhaps that's where it all came from, where it started. Not that it matters now, I just find myself musing lately about things that happened so long ago. I can't help but marvel at how my life has turned, morphing into something entirely different than my early years would have lead me to believe possible. Just when it seemed I would careen down the same terrible path, winding up broken and breaking at the bottom in the same way my mother did, I find myself instead on level ground, looking around in surprise with new eyes. And I wonder at the luck that got me here.
Alice: But I don't want to go among mad people.
The Cat: Oh, you can't help that. We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.
Alice: How do you know I'm mad?
The Cat: You must be. Or you wouldn't have come here.