Venom and Phantoms

-Considers how childhood abuse lays foundation for further abuse

Please be forewarned that content might include
details of abuse and potentially triggering language.

It isn’t something I ever enjoyed, not even as a child–a haunted house, that is.  I don’t understand the allure.  Why would anyone pay to visit an autumn House of Horror where hellish-looking, mummified actors are there solely to scare the living daylights out of you?   

One thing not so frightening in those seasonal venues, though, was the decorative webs drooping from ceiling corners.  The gossamer silk strung by real spiders must be difficult to replicate on the cheap.  Fat cotton fishnets brushing across bare skin don’t evoke the sticky shudder of freshly-spun spiderwebs, nor do their chunky, knotted strings drape or clingily enshroud like the dusty lace of authentic cobwebs.  Not to mention, why do they bother putting an oversized fake spider in the net?  If it’s a “cobweb,” doesn’t that mean that the spider is gone?

Having grown up in an area where rundown, hundred-year old clapboard homes with narrow, hidden stairways and damp, cobwebby cellars are not uncommon, I’ve been my share of “haunted” houses.  My grandparents’ vintage row-home featured a creepy, arachnid-filled basement just off the kitchen.  A spry Irish prankster who got a thrill out of startling little girls to tears, my grandfather was one of those people who refused to kill innocent spiders—even indoors.  I cringe at the recollection of inching down the slippery industrial-gray painted treads to the clammy basement, where moist dust and grainy concrete met to make a skeevy carpet on the bare floor.  As I ducked under intricate, cape-like networks of cobwebs on the low-ceilinged descent, my heart simultaneously ceased to beat and thundered within my chest.  Although the single bulb suspended at the bottom of the flight did cast a kiddie-pool sized glow onto the cold cement ground, it didn’t radiate a circle of light wide enough to unmask any spiders or high enough to unveil their webs.

Recently my significant other – also a spider lover — was away for a week.  The day he left, I did a deep cleaning, taking occasion to open windows and let a cross breeze flood the house with sunlight-charged crisp spring air.  Like Julia Roberts in the movie “Sleeping with the Enemy” reshuffling alphabetized cans in the pantry, my open-window frenzy broke the rule of law the burglar-conscious man of the house had imposed.  As I broke open those windows, I felt all at once guilt-ridden, daring, and free.  The haunting imprint of my childhood abusers’ shadow on my soul sullies my perception of my own motivations.  “It’s your fault,” the pedophiles would say, deflecting accountability for their criminally deviant sexual acts.  Their poisonous accusations injected paralyzing shame, confusion, and guilt deep into my conscience. What’s benign and a basic right to some – unlocking and throwing open windows – had sneakily become forbidden fruit. 

I had enabled so many cords of intimidation and lines of criticism to be cast that I’d become entangled in a web woven with someone else’s ideals–losing my own sense of autonomy in the process.

On cleaning day, wind whistling through wide-open windows lofted floor-length curtain panels pooled along the baseboard, exposing unswept areas underneath.  Feathery swirls of diaphanous dust danced in ripples across my just-cleaned floorboards.  “You’re lazy,” my thoughts lectured, “you missed a spot.”  “No,” I mutely replied.  “It’s understandable that there’d be some dust hiding.”  I sensed child aspects rising out of a stance of slumped shame as my spirit tried to absorb driblets of self-compassion.  I’d caught myself questioning and correcting every little thing I did–doing someone else’s dirty work.   I’ve been the proverbial frog in a boiling pot who’d too easily transitioned from the affirmation-free culture of my childhood to the emotionally abusive environment I find myself in in adulthood.

Like veils concealing true inner self, cobwebs from childhood have cloaked my thoughts–quashing self-compassion and suppressing self-confidence.

The netting of harsh words I took in as my own has been a seemingly substantive ceiling hindering my ability to see my way up and out of circumstances.  Shame-laden criticism currently flung my way feels so familiar and fitting that I hadn’t considered I might not deserve it.  Until, that is, the spider left the web he’d spun. 

I peered outside the window at dawn; my gaze froze at casing corner.  Beaded dewdrops deposited overnight delicately balanced on a formerly clandestine lead wire to a web woven in the dark.  As the sun rose, the outline of the web — its intricate, hypnotically concentric form – became clear.  That deep cleaning didn’t just tidy my house, it also refreshed my thoughts.  Just as raindrops highlight silken fibers on covert spiderwebs, the dew of self-kindness I applied served to saturate and lay bare a once desiccated maze of criticism that didn’t belong to me, but the personified spider who’d fashioned it.  Similarly, the light I let in shone on cobwebbed projections from long-gone abusers.  Like a kid keeping her head low to stay out of the path of wrath of an alcoholic parent, I had acquiesced to put downs—accommodating, and therefore enabling the emotional abuser.    The soul-crushing double-bind that corrupts my self-concept and forces retreat into robot mode: 

I have to be perfect; nothing I do is ever going to be good enough.

With the light of wisdom, the healing dew of compassion, and an occasional breath of affirmation, I hope to stand tall and transcend the scepter of ghost-like, dead-and-gone abusers and their taunts, cruelty, and lies.   With a renewed stance, I’ll be less likely to ingest the venom of the spiders currently in my life.  As I resist, they too, should soon be phantom, former abusers.  And my house could then be free from haunting thoughts and every entangling web.