I think it’s important for survivors to know that life experiences that aren’t shitty exist and if not sustaining, can at least reoccur. Unfortunately this post will not be about that, at least not right away.
In the past two months my house’s sewage pipe has gotten clogged twice. We caught it early the first time, my husband going into the basement bathroom while I was taking a shower upstairs, then running up yelling about stinky water coming out of the toilet and drain. So we called my father in law and the city – both of which luckily will check a part of the line where we live for free.
My father in law’s drain unclogging tools were powerless on a main line. The city gave it a shot and said it wasn’t on their end. So we called RotoRooter, paying close to $500 for a main line unclogging and a diagnosis – flushed baby wipes, probably from before we bought the house. A second piece of information was that they couldn’t give us a typical six month guarantee it wouldn’t happen again. This was because our house had what is called a double trap – an antique U-shaped pipe as part of the main line – essentially a larger version of what you see under sinks and toilets to keep sewer gas from coming up. Seems that a hundred years ago they didn’t put them under each fixture like they do now, but had just one in the main four inch sewer pipe leading out of the house.
A different RotoRooter guy came out a few days later with a sewer camera, showed me the rusty insides of our cast iron pipes, told me it was bowed, that our whole sewer system was on the verge of collapse, and it would cost $15,000 to fix correctly now, $30,000 if we waited until it broke. This was of course terrifying to hear, and, I soon learned, wholly inaccurate. He worked on commission and had most likely quoted me the dreaded “woman price,” complete with accompanying scare tactics. We were advised by everyone else we spoke to just wait and see if there were any more issues. And to remove the double trap when we could.
So we were careful with the system after that, didn’t use fluffy toilet paper or large wads of it or flush anything we shouldn’t be. All seemed well. And then it happened again.
Day before yesterday we went downstairs and realized that some time after midnight our basement had turned into a pumpkin. A slimy rotten smelling one. This sewage flood was much worse than the first one. Half the floor was covered in an inch or two of fetid water. We were initially stunned and confused as to how it had happened, thinking it was a leak. It had rained overnight, but we had corrected the rain-related leaks and anyway this definitely didn’t smell like rain. Then we saw that our shower stall looked like an overturned port-o-potty and we knew.
Somehow we were the luckiest form of unlucky at that moment, because who the heck has someone they actually want to see show up unannounced at their house right when something like this goes down? Probably nobody. And yet this is right when a plumber for our new heating system stopped by to bring a cap for our chimney. He got to see our horror and hear me cursing and apologizing for cursing and then cursing more, because apparently how I deal with stuff like this is to say “shiiiiiiit” a lot while looking at actual shit and shaking my head.
He quickly inspected everything, walked the perimeter of the house (I thought to get fresh air), and then let us know an additional piece of information only professionals with experience working on old houses would probably know: our gutters, which funneled into terra cotta pipes, were likely somehow connected to the sewer. This practice is now illegal for obvious environmental reasons, but apparently it used to be commonplace. I had actually suspected this because my father in law had corrected a previous basement rainwater leak issue that by removing one gutter from its pipe, but I couldn’t prove it. That pipe had been so badly damaged that you couldn’t see down it well enough to tell if it went anywhere.
Our plumber also surmised that due to the volume of water these gutter pipes weren’t connected to the sewer through a separate line, which is usual in these situations, but tapped directly into our main line, before the trap.
I would try to draw a helpful diagram in case all the stuff I just wrote seems incomprehensible, but I’m afraid that with my draweig skills, that might only make it worse.
Anyway, bottom line is we learned that not only were the contents of our toilets and sinks and showers going down this one four inch pipe with a kink in it, but all the leaves and debris washed down from the gutters were going there as well.
We had apparently had just enough rain overnight plus our own usage for this to be a problem. How this wasn’t a continual problem a hundred years ago or for the previous owner, I still don’t know. That part is still a mystery to me. I’m no plumbing expert, but this whole concept strikes me as an obvious recipe for courting disaster.
After the plumber left us, promising he’d be back in the morning to correct the issue, my husband and I did the only thing we could do: he wet vac’d the floor and I sorted our basement belongings as contaminated/not contaminated. We spent three hours cleaning. After that he left me to clean out the shower stall itself (which I did with frequent breaks while I tried not to puke), because he had to go pick up his own birthday cake. That’s right.
His 34th birthday party was that night. Luckily it was at his parents’ house and not ours. We took off our rubber gloves and boots, grabbed changes of clean clothes, went over there, told them what had happened, took showers, and then ate lobsters and cake with his family. It could not have been a more surreal juxtaposition or more welcome reprieve.
Yesterday the plumbers excavated and removed the offending trap, plopped it in our driveway where it currently still sits, stinking like the biohazard it is (is it ok to even put this thing out with regular trash?!).
They then replaced it with PVC andcemented it all back in. We had our house back. This morning my father in law installed normal above-ground downspouts for the gutters. Aside from some items that had to be thrown away or washed, it’s like it never even occurred.
But I realized in the middle of all this that something interesting had happened to me. My husband’s parents had come over in the morning to make sure it was all okay. His mom had brought snacks, offered financial help. His aunt next door gave us keys so we could use her bathroom while it was all going on. His sister and brother in law dropped by with encouraging words and cinnamon rolls.
I also saw a photo of us that his other aunt texted us. It was a pic of me kissing him on the cheek after he blew out birthday candles the night before.
And here’s where it hit me, a thing I’m still struggling to explain. Anyone who has followed my blog knows my story. I left home when I was 17 to escape abuse, my parents, the cultish isolating church teachings they believed. Then in the middle of overachieving to outrun the past (which I was pretty successful at), I developed PTSD, went to counseling, and started letting it all hang out, making decisions that would have once been unthinkable, including getting a divorce from the “nice guy” husband I’d been with since I was a teen. I also went gung ho into spearheading a homeschool abuse survivor’s movement, only to burn out and have my work thanklessly snatched and erased by other survivors adamant that I was a mean girl and a narcissist because I didn’t agree with where they were coming from or going with it.
In the years since, I have learned a lot more about trauma, how it runs downhill like water in a river delta or untreated spreads like measles, much of it flowing through controlling bullies and frenemies of all ages, professions, and appearances, but plenty carelessly transmitted by people who seem nice but are just passing through, looking for entertainment or the path of least resistance. Banal school of hard knocks type stuff that has really knocked me on my ass over and over again.
These things could individually and collectively make me inclined to be a cynic and a recluse if I let them and indeed sometimes I wonder if they kinda did.
I never moved back home to Cajun country or my culture like I thought I would. It’s been almost eight years and I’m now too Southern for Boston and too Boston for New Orleans. I’ve got a house and am married into a Vietnamese family here now, but I am not Vietnamese enough to live Vietnamese.
I try to put down roots without actually liking to have to have roots at all. Roots are what let you get hurt. I’d not have had to deal with this shitstorm if it wasn’t my house.
I wonder sometimes if I’m hardened or broken, too tough or a pile of mush. If I myself am like this sewage system that’s unlucky and badly designed and has failed enough that it cannot be any longer trusted to make crap go smoothly.
But I know what I actually am is disillusioned. And by that I mean so many beautiful tapestries and systems I got attached to along the way have fallen to reveal realities that are much less pretty to look at underneath. It can be hard on my morale. I can also understand why people tell these stories, put these covers and masks up to cover what is, so we and they don’t have to bear to look at and smell it all the time, so some can get away with their own bad behavior and some can have the saccharine joy of living a lie that seems sweet. But it is still bad for most people to not know what flows beneath them, to not be prepared.
So I’ve tried to be prepared.
Whenever someone has said “blood is thicker than water, family is everything” or other such platitudes about women and survivors who support each other or marriages that are unbreakable or hard work always paying off, I’ve thought is that it was bullcrap, a fine and inaccurate sentiment ready to be proven horribly wrong, like soulmates or God or the idea of praying for rain to bring a harvest.
I hadn’t felt like I was one to get my hopes up about togetherness and intimacy and collaboration and all that stuff anymore. Loyalty felt halfway dead, an old wives tale, a pickpocket’s charade. I was honestly so scared when I first fell in love again. It hadn’t been planned. He was just supposed to be a fun and sexy post-divorce fling, nothing more.
And yet here we were, four years later, literally shoveling shit together with our wedding rings on, and I realized there wasn’t one human in the world I’d rather be there next to.
I also saw that as soon as they knew there was a problem, we were surrounded by his family. This can feel a bit invasive for my tastes at times but they didn’t come at it with fault-finding or power-tripping disguised as concern, which is what I’m most used to and wary of in interactions with elders.
I could tell that pure caring was the motivation even though most overheard conversations were not in my language. I could close my eyes and just feel it though, the silent way human warmth and love can transcend everything. Even our plumbers were in a good mood, high-fiving us when it was done.
And that’s what us survivors need most often I guess. Not some spell or oasis or safe space, no bubble of perfection, or nihilistic embrace, or exhortations to just suck it up and deal with it. Not some big reason to make it all worthwhile, superpowers to staunch the greater wound, or ability to heal anyone else. Just the propensity to notice when you find a little piece of heaven while wading through bad news and hella stinky high water.