Dear Extended Family,
Here is what you didn't know, the reason I don't make it home very often is because the angry kid in me still carries a great deal of resentment that no body noticed that my home life was really bad.
My parents were alcoholics.
I wasn't supposed to let anyone know. Something bad might happen if people knew. My Dad could lose his job if they knew. I couldn't be the reason that his whole career could end.
I remember my Dad telling me that when he went to visit my Mom in rehab the first time she went, that she "got him locked up too." The grown up part of me knows that is not how it happens, but as a kid hearing that I worried that they would lock me up too. You see, by that time (I was twelve) I was drinking and my parents knew. I didn't want to get locked up too.
I couldn't ask for help. I couldn't be the reason my parents would get in trouble. I worried that if other people got involved we might be taken from our parents and that seemed way scarier than just keeping my mouth shut.
And yet in every way my young unconscious could, it screamed for your help. I am not certain I could have gotten in any more trouble than I did and it all just went unnoticed.
You would think that after growing up and starting my own life I would not feel compelled to keep family secrets, but the difficult thing about growing up in a world with secrets is you grow up not knowing who to trust.
It's not even so much who you trust, but you learn to not look outside for help. You grow tired of waiting to be saved.
Then by the time that you've grown up, there doesn't seem much sense in showing the ugly side to those who chose not to see it. You figure if they cared, they would have cared back then.
Growing up with secrets keeps you alone and separate. That was never what I wanted. I wanted to be a part of the huge family that took up several pews at our church. I wanted to be seen and loved.
I am doing my best to forgive all of you for not seeing me. I am doing my best to forgive you for not knowing what you could have done to fix any of it. I am doing my best to forgive myself for choosing to carry this anger for as long as I have.
Heading home next week is bringing so much stuff to the surface. I am ready to let go of my hurt.
I am ready to move back into the flow of my life where I don't have to re-feel all of these wounds. I am ready to get my dad buried and stop reliving so many sad yesterdays.
This weekend I watched the movie The Judge with Robert Downy Jr. I had no idea that this movie would tug on my heart the way it did.
Watching this movie made me think of my dad. The movie even ends with Willie Nelson singing. One of my fondest memories of time with my dad was singing Willie Nelson songs while we followed the Rhine River through some of the most picturesque little towns in Germany. It was one of the only tapes he had in the car, so we listened and sang Willie for many, many hours up the Rhine and then back down the Rhine.
Listening to my dad sing was then, and will always be a great comfort. He was not the best singer, but you could hear his heart in every note. It was like eating meatloaf and mashed potatoes, just pure comfort.
My dad died the week before Christmas this year. He had been sick for several years with no signs of doing the things he needed to do to get better.
While I had written and spoken to him at length over the years, the minute he was gone hundreds of things popped into my head that I wish I had talked with him about. I had been mad at him for choosing to kill himself a little bit more each day. I had been mad at him and tried to distance myself for what was coming.
I know he loved me. I know he was proud of me. But no matter how much you prepare, there is always so much more you wish they had said. I wish I had video taped him telling me he loved me. I wish I had video taped him telling me that he was proud of the woman I had become.
I know he would have written or video taped it if he had known for a second that there was ever any doubt in my head. I didn't ask because that would have forced us to deal with the fact that he was dying. That being said, I am sad I won't ever get to hear him rattle on with those long speeches about what he thought I should do or those tender moments right before we hung up when he would say "I love you Mel." Then he would blow kisses into the phone which was so unbelievably corny, until you realize you won't hear them again.
Losing a parent hurts, like deep in ways you cant begin to fathom. There will be so many moments when I will wish he was strong and healthy and by my side. But he wasn't strong and healthy. Losing a parent before they get sober is heart breaking. He was small and weak and unable to take care of himself. I didn't like seeing him dying. There is a smell to those who are slowly dying. I didn't want to smell that. It was easier to be thousands of miles away.
Losing a parent before you get your shit together as like a real grown up sucks too.
There will be a day when I am being interviewed about the work I am doing and the books I have written and he would have video taped it and mailed me a copy because he was so proud. There will be moments when I will holding my grand babies for the first time and he won't be there to tease me in all of my glowing happiness.
Next week I fly home to see my sister & my Mamaw and to lay my dad's cremains to rest. Full military honors, surrounded by tons of family in my very small home town. I can't believe he won't be there to pick me up. Just surreal to think through why I am going home.
The Judge was a really great movie. Anger, cussing, sibling bullshit, messiness and love, just like real family life.
I have given my mom a bad rap for decades. She was the focus of my anger that my life was so fucked up. She was obviously supposed to be the damn grown up of the two of them.
Having had to make some difficult choices myself over the past few years, I finally found a place in my heart where I could see her again through my own eyes as a mother. I am blessed life has smacked the shit out of me enough to allow the hole in my heart (& head) to open and really accept her love back into my life. I am very grateful to have reached a place in my life where I am meeting my mom as a grown up and not as an angry teenager.
It has taken most of my life, but now that I am here, it feels really freakin wonderful. Now that I can look back without so much pain and anger. Now that I am learning about emotional pathology I have so many more questions and thoughts about what we share as women.
Here are the ones I needed to get out today:
I think my mom grew up thinking she was going to do something with her life. I wonder if she, like me felt destined for something big?
I wonder who stole that from her?
She was growing up in a time when women started working outside the home. I think she wanted to be something so she could show everyone she was worth it and worthy. I think, like me, she wanted to prove she was enough.
I also think she wanted out of her house and out of that little town.
I don't know what she saw in my dad. From time to time I have known him to be a big dreamer. There is an allure to being with a dreamer & buying into their plan.
I do believe that he was drunk when he proposed to my mom. As this didn't end up being a deal breaker with her, I have to assume she thought she could fix him. Lately, I have begun to wonder how bad her life must have been that my dad looked like the answer to a prayer.
She got pregnant very early in their marriage. They were married Aug. 1, 1970 and I was born Aug. 12, 1971. I feel like she blamed me for keeping her from getting to see the world and get a job and start her life. In some of her worst parenting moments she hurled ugliness to me that she wished I hadn't been born.
I do not think all of us are made for parenting. For far too long I was very pissed that I got two selfish & damaged parents, but then I became a parent and learned how very hard it is to juggle being my own person, being a wife and being a mother. It is exceptionally hard to juggle when you find you do not like one or more of the balls you are juggling. There just isn't enough time to fix your own shit, let alone your spouse's.
How many times in her 20 year marriage did she try to fix her marriage? How many times did she try to just focus on saving herself. When the hell did she carve out time to recharge? How many times did she just want to give up? Just what the hell did she envision old age with him was going to be like? Why didn't she leave him? or did she & I just don't know?
Many days my head is full of questions I want to ask her. I am writing them down in hope of finding time to get to know her, really know her, like I do my girlfriends.
I am very blessed she is alive and hoping she will help me understand who she is.
"I realized that I had suffered through many indignities rather than ask for what I needed or wanted, out of fear that if the person got upset, I could get hurt. it was a pattern I learned as a child. It was an ingredient in my pathology. It was, I believe, the reason I stayed for nine years in that physically abusive marriage."
"In medicine, pathology is the study of the causes of disease. In human life, pathology is the disease; the stuff going on beneath the surface, handed down or passed on to you, the family stuff that you can see and feel even though no one ever talks about it." page 24
While my marriage was not physically abusive, it was emotionally abusive and I stayed for 16 years because I didn't recognize that I was continuing to allow myself to be hurt. My pathology was that I was not good enough and thereby didn't deserve happiness or ease.
"...but the mental conditioning about the person I was created a lasting impression. The principle of cause and effect meant if it was happening to me, I somehow caused it. When people treated me badly, somehow I deserved it." page 65-66
I have spent most of my life feeling I deserved to be treated as less. That I wasn't smart enough. I felt I was flawed. I was told I was difficult. That I was too emotional. That I could'n't make a decision. That I made things harder than they needed to be. I grew to believe that every bad thing that happened in my life was my fault. My fault either through my choices or my inaction. This was the expressed opinion of my second husband who was the smartest and most well read man I ever knew. He was another person confirming my worst fear, that I was not good enough.
"Neglect. Physical, emotional, and psychological neglect cripples more children than any hip-hop line notes ever written. It is a form of passive abuse when a person responsible for a child's care and upbringing fails to safeguard the child's emotional and physical well-being." page 66
When you make it to adulthood alive, you tell yourself that you won't end up like your parents. I remember my dad actually telling me when I turned 25 that he never really believed I would live that long.
You won't do to your children, what was done to you. I was 28 years old before I allowed myself to accept that I did want children. The lie I had been telling myself was out of fear that I would end up hurting and neglecting my own children. For most of my teens and twenties, I told myself that the only way to not continue the cycle was not to have children. The cycle ends with me.
It came as quite a surprise when I told my husband of 5 years that while I had told him at 22 that I adamantly did not want children, I had changed my mind. This became a bit of a problem as he was 10 years older than me and already had a child from a previous marriage. He did not want to be that old dad who was like 75 at his kids high school graduation, so he gave me a deal and a deadline; I could have as many children as I could before he turned 40. Two years to have as many children as I could. I had to stop nursing our first child shortly before his first birthday to allow my body to cycle once so I could get pregnant as quickly as possible. I delivered our second child, 58 days before he turned 40!
Then began my love affair with my children.
After giving birth to my second child, I gave my notice at work and became a stay at home mom, then home school mom, who was very devoted to loving and paying attention to my children. I enjoyed my days playing with them, reading to them, listening to their stories of what they were playing or what they were building. I couldn't stop watching them. They were the coolest, neatest little people ever. I didn't know it then, but I also spent my nights protecting them with my very presence. I was and am afraid of things that happen at night. (In some later post, I will address my nocturnal wanderings to verify my children are alone and safe and in their beds peacefully sleeping.) Nothing bad would happen to them if I was there. With every fiber of my body, I wanted them to know they mattered and were plenty good enough.
While this act of looking back and sorting through memories and feelings is hard work and puts me on a roller coaster emotionally, it feels so good to have some of the pieces falling into place in my mind. Each piece that fits into it's place is a little bit more of the fog lifted. Even when the images and feelings are not pretty or happy, just having another puzzle piece fit, it helps me see where I came from.
"I was a neglected child. There was a persistent and consistent ignoring of my need for nurturing, encouragement, education and protection." page 67
I am a child of neglect. I did not feel wanted. I grew up feeling unloved and unloveable. I didn't feel seen, valued or worthy.
My parents were a disaster when they were sober and completely dysfunctional when they were drunk. I remember a few snapshots in my head when my dad was laughing or smiling, but not a lot of them. I remember him singing.
I don't remember my mom being happy except for when she came to my school dressed up as a clown or witch or when she cooked. I also remember her smiling when she watched her shows; Fantasy Island and Hart to Hart. I remember sitting next to her or on her bed while she did her hair and make up in the morning watching tv with her. She had a whole dresser of girl stuff; make up, mirrors, tweezers, hot rollers and hairspray & perfume. She had an awful (and comforting) way of humming and singing the little bits of songs she remembers over and over again while she got made up.
For the most part, however I felt like I was a "problem that needed to be fixed" a "burden to be endured" and a "responsibility to be ignored." page 67
I remember hating my parents. I remember feeling such guilt wishing they would die. I held a fantasy that if they did die, then I would be adopted by a loving family who wanted a daughter. I remember praying they would stop drinking. I remember praying they would love me. I remember feeling very guilty for wanting more than the shitty hand I had been dealt.
"I can also say that I was almost 30 years old before I realized that I was insane, and 50 years old when I actually became sane. I spent 20 years discovering patterns and solving the puzzles that I inherited. Today, I understand that each of my family members contributed to my soul's purpose. It didn't feel good back then, nor did I know it until much later, but who I am is a function of who they were in my life. I realize that my story, my history, was a divine set up to usher me into who I would become." page 67
I have felt slightly insane for the past 15 years trying to deal with all of the emotions and pain being a mother has brought into my life. My children have brought forth all of my fears and worries and memories. Some of my fear and worry has been replaced with calm as I accept that as I learn better, I do better. But I have put a great deal of pressure on myself to do better than my parents did. When you wait until you are in your late 20's and make a conscious decision to bring a child into the world, you can't fuck up. I have felt so much pressure to always do the right thing by my children. To guide them, to urge them, to protect them and to accept them as they are and in their own time.
A big part of the pressure is that I didn't have a good example to turn to.
"I remember confiding my pain and devastation to a friend the first time I broke up with the man who would become my third husband. She tried her best to help me pull myself together. In the midst of our conversation she asked me, "What would your mother say to you? What did she tell you about how to make it through a broken heart." "I realized that not one of the women in my life had ever talked to me about anything I would face as a woman. I had learned about my menstrual cycle from a friend the day it started. No one ever talked to me about boyfriends or for the matter , how to be a friend. I got no instruction at all about my body, my mind or my heart." page 53
I didn't have heart to heart talks with my mom or dad. They didn't prepare me for life at all. Instead, most of what I have learned or read about parenting and relationships was recommended on Oprah or Dr. Phil's show (until 4 years ago when I stopped being able to afford cable tv.). I am grateful that I had a dvr and could wait until my little darlings went down for a nap or to sleep each night and I could steal time to learn to be better.
Now I am blessed to have created a family of women to help guide me through some of life's milestones. I am part of a family of women who share the hard earned wisdom of surviving. I am getting the instruction now on how to be a woman and a grown up. It is interesting when my "not normal" runs into this circle of women. It is fabulous to have a reality check that I am good enough and deserving. It has reinforced in my mind and heart that as parents we must always say the words. Our children may not choose to hear them, believe or accept them, but we must say the words to them. You are a blessing to me. You are strong, capable, smart, caring, worthy, loveable, needed, and a good friend.
I am finding comfort in fitting my broken bits & pieces together and then being able to sit back and realize how brilliantly "textbook" my pathology is. The anger I carried around at my mother's distance and anger and drinking is gone. Replaced with such an overwhelming sense of peace as I come to understand her role in my life. Because of the work she has allowed me to force us to do over the years, I have been able to understand where she came from and why she didn't have more to give me than she did.
The desperate feeling of wanting my father's love & attention is disappearing. I spent so much of my life focused on my anger with my mother, that I didn't see how badly my relationships with men were shaped by my drunk and emotionally & physically absent father. I was a daddy's girl.
I remember hearing from my maternal Grandmother, that my mom was too.