Out Of The Rubble, Into The Reconstruction

My happy place

A few months ago, my sister sent me a journal so I can practice some narrative therapy. Narrative therapy helps an individual become an expert in their own life through telling the stories they have carried around. Putting the stories of your life into writing gives meaning to your experiences and influences how you see yourself and the world around you. When my sons were younger, I used my blog as a form of narrative therapy to help me rearrange my negative perceptions about their struggles and create a better path forward for all of us. More recently, I’ve used blogging to tell stories from my childhood as a way to validate those experiences and increase my own voice and messaging around those pivotal events that shaped who I am. Through these exercises, I’ve begun to understand myself more fully. I am more aware of why I am the way I am and more capable of making adjustments in areas where I’m not fond of the trajectory I’ve taken. The process is helping me have greater self-compassion because I understand that my fears, coping mechanisms, and judgments didn’t originate in a vacuum. These behaviors arose to protect me. Now that I understand why they existed in the first place, I can begin to jettison habits that once protected me but no longer serve me .

One thing my sister and I have challenged each other to do is start some reconstruction. We are creating lists that outline what we like so we can recreate ourselves fully as the people we actually are and not the people we were told we were. We are rewriting our stories. That may sound odd or even disingenuous but, when you have spent your life in a pattern of reaction borne out of the fallacy that you are not an expert on your own self, you need to start with the basics to reclaim your identity.

Today my sister threw a gauntlet down. She sent me a photograph of a page where she has started listing things she knows she likes. To keep things equitable, I too started a list. My criteria? Things that make me happy or give me a sense of hope and possibility. Here’s what I have so far:

  • sunrises
  • dogs
  • a sunny day in the mountains
  • medium roast espresso
  • attending concerts
  • puzzles and word games
  • all types of travel, including long road trips
  • writing
  • cheese
  • smelling lily of the valley and lilacs
  • long, hot showers
  • deep conversations about faith, life, death, philosophy, space, current events, politics, or anything that avoids the pointless drivel of small talk
  • skiing, camping, hiking, cycling, kayaking, snorkeling, being active out in nature and not in a gym
  • documentaries and foreign films
  • anything with the flavor of passion fruit
  • the color of a green apple
  • lectures presented by experts in their field
  • Coca Cola and Bugles
  • the Buffalo Bills
  • hammocks
  • Wes Anderson films
  • wool socks
  • satellite radio
  • flip flops
  • down comforters

I will keep adding to this list in my journal as items come to mind. In the meantime, I know that being bold enough to enumerate here these items is the first step reclaiming my story. I know who I am. I know what I like. No one knows me better than I do. And I’m finished letting others dictate to me who I am.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

If you were raised by dysfunctional parents, you have a few choices when it comes to raising a family. Many children from dysfunctional families decide not to have children of their own because they feel they could not be good parents because they had no good role models. Some adult children from dysfunctional families decide to have children of their own because they figure they learned early how not to parent and know they will work hard to do better for their kids. Some people from dysfunctional families are so broken themselves that they don’t realize they are broken. These are the dangerous ones. These are the ones who have children and treat them the way they were treated because they are incapable of doing better. They are the ones who keep the cycle of abuse rolling.

The most difficult part about being a child of the third type is that those parents rarely change. They don’t often wake up. They aren’t capable of seeing their offspring as anything other than an extension of themselves, even after they are grown. They talk to their grown children as if they are still children, and if those adult children push back and assert their right to live their own chosen path, their parents chide, blame, belittle, boss, and gaslight to try to remain in control. An adult child of parents like this may acquiesce and continue to remain under their parent’s control or they may break contact to become free. Neither option is optimal because staying in an abusive relationship hinders personal growth and cutting ties can alienate the adult child from other family members, leaving them feeling orphaned and alone. An adult who has healed from childhood abuse may be able to find a middle ground, to find a way to stay in contact with their parent while maintaining their independence and sanity, but only if they are sufficiently healed. If they have not, they continue to leave themselves open to derision and abuse.

I have spent years trying to get right enough with myself to make my own choice about how to interact with my parents. I have for years now felt in my heart the only way I will be able to heal and become the best version of myself is to leave these relationships and negative patterns in the past. It’s difficult to do because if you walk away from aging parents, society will chastise you. Even the best intentioned of friends will try to convince you to stay because children owe it to their parents to take care of them. I just don’t think I can walk that road. There are worse childhoods than the one I had. This is true. But just because your childhood didn’t find you locked in a room, starving, and completely neglected doesn’t mean you weren’t left permanently scarred.

The question is will you allow yourself the space to heal those scars or will you remain tethered to your past, unable to move forward? I think we’re getting close to an answer.

Limitless

Let’s go back to the beginning when my identity was fluid and limitless

The best part about being where I am in my therapy journey is that many of the hardest moments of discovery and realization are behind me. I’ve faced that I was emotionally abused by people who I thought were looking out for me but who never were. I’ve digested the fact that I spent my entire life thus far trying to measure up to expectations that had nothing to do with me. I’ve mourned the loss of what might have been if the actors in this play were different. I’ve also grieved the loss of opportunities I was incapable of accepting in my past because of who I was at the time. I’ve accepted that it is unlikely that my relationships with these people will ever be anything other than what they have been or what they are now. I understand that many of the choices I made in my past were made to keep me safe rather than move me forward. I acknowledge that while I can’t go back and make anything different, the pressure of the sadness, isolation, and rejection I experienced hardened me into something stronger, more resilient, and better than I might have been otherwise. All of this is to say that I’ve done the work. And, while I’m sure I will continue to peel other layers from time to time, I think I finally have a pretty good handle on what triggers me and why it does, along with how I can do better for myself going forward. Progress!

My sister and I have been talking about this a lot. When you grow up being told who you are rather than being allowed to explore and follow your heart and interests, it’s a bit like arriving at adulthood wearing someone else’s cast-off, ill-fitting, moth-ball-scented coat. It’s as if you came into the world naked and instead of getting to choose your clothing, you got handed this ratty old coat and because it was all you were allowed to have you used it to cover your nakedness and protect you from the elements. Now, though, with so much work behind us, we understand that this coat is not ours. It was never meant to be. And even though we’ve been wearing it for years, we didn’t realize until recently that it never suited us and we didn’t like it in the least. It simply was what was, something we were forced to wear when we didn’t know any better and weren’t better equipped to advocate for ourselves.

Now, though, now we get to start over. We’ve arrived at the fun part. We’ve ditched the coats, throwing off the mantle of what we were supposed to be according to someone else, and we’re standing here asking ourselves what we would like to wear in its place. It’s both exciting and stressful. Like a puppy let loose in PetsMart, we’re overwhelmed by the options. There are so many aisles to explore, so many shiny things to distract us as we try to figure out what most appeals to us. The only thing I know for sure that I want is to be a better mother to myself. I want to give myself love and acceptance and to feel comfortable in my skin. I want to feel safe and unconditionally loved just as I am right now. And after I get comfortable with that reality, then I will start figuring out who I am, what I want, what I like, and what I am willing to put up with.

The other day after therapy, I was driving home and the word “limitless” popped into my head. Limitless. I started to think, for just a moment, that maybe this is where I am at. If you remove the obstacles that have kept you boxed and trapped and there’s nothing holding you back, maybe, just maybe you are limitless. I’m going to need to sit with this because this is big.

Walk This Way

Mondays are my therapy day. On Mondays when I do some EMDR, I spend most of the rest of the day exhausted, filled with thoughts, and emotionally raw. Today was that kind of Monday. So, while I am still processing some of what I worked on in therapy today and plan on writing more about that soon, for now my brain needs a little break.

One thing has recently become clear to me in this journey I am on. When you’ve spent your life kowtowing to other’s wishes, plans, and ideas for and about your life, it takes a lot of effort to step away from those people and bring your subservience to an end. I thought for many years that I could extricate myself slowly and deliberately from relationships with those who were holding me back without affecting other people in my life. It was a ridiculous thing to ask of myself, but boundaries can be difficult to negotiate. If you are trying to extract yourself slowly, you are likely doing this because you are looking out for someone else. You don’t want to hurt anyone. You don’t want to ruffle feathers. You don’t want to cause trouble for someone else. But what is the cost to you when you are acting against your best interest to make situations easier for someone else? Sometimes you need to choose the nuclear option and immediately disengage without worrying about the fallout because that is the fastest way to get yourself safe. Besides, once you decide to be free, you want your freedom to begin now and not eventually. The hardest part for me about walking away from people who don’t and can’t have my best interests at heart was the feeling that I had to explain myself to others by answering their questions. Why wasn’t I speaking to my parents? Were things really all that bad? And then, one day, it hit me. I don’t owe anyone an explanation about the steps I take to protect myself. I am on a break from my relationships with my parents while I get my head in order, and that is all there is to say about that.

Freedom from negative relationships and abusive cycles is not a luxury. It’s not a frivolous thing that you should put off because you don’t want to trouble anyone or make anyone uncomfortable. Taking steps to secure your mental peace and physical well-being matters in the short and long term. And if that means you have to block contacts and upset a few people, that is the price of taking back your life and your power. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it or talk you into doing the “right” thing (which is only the right thing for them). Look out for yourself. The people who care about you will understand. The ones who act troubled or inconvenienced by your choice have done you a favor by identifying themselves. Don’t give them another minute of residency in your brain.

Life is short. If you’re lucky enough to be able to discern what is holding you back, jettison it. And then walk on.

The Roads We Can’t Ever Travel

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

On a good friend’s recommendation, I started watching Maid on Netflix yesterday. I finished all ten episodes already, if that tells you anything about the quality of the show. It is about a young, single mother trying to make her own way after leaving an abusive relationship. The characters are raw. Their lives are complicated and difficult. They have mental illnesses, chemical dependencies, financial struggles, and broken dreams. It’s painful to watch, but that is exactly why it should be seen. It’s a poignant reminder of how little we know about the lives of those outside our own circle.

In a time when it seems everyone is on edge and no one seems to notice or care about anyone else, when everyone is quick to anger and judgment, this is the kind of show we need to see. It’s a lesson in our common humanity. If you watch the show and it doesn’t make you a little softer and kinder to your fellow humans, watch it again. It’s time we get our heads back on straight. The pandemic has taken a lot of out of us. We’ve been isolated, stressed about our survival, our lack of freedom, our health. Maybe it would be a good idea to recognize that we are all struggling.

As I’m writing all this pontifical, pie-in-the-sky bullshit, though, I am realizing that I need to be honest with you too. There’s another reason this show grabbed me the way it did. It’s because a large part of it is about surviving emotional abuse, the abuse that has no outward scars so people don’t believe you were injured. There’s plausible deniability in emotions. Well-meaning people tell you to your face that the people who hurt you over and over didn’t mean it. They tell you that you’re being dramatic. They tell you that because they are fortunate enough not to understand what it’s like to have someone close to you manipulate, terrify, and crush you. The show is about deciding to put your mental health first and making the difficult, conscious choice to let others deal with their own demons while you face your own. It’s about using your outside voice to proclaim to the world that you want something for yourself, and you’re ready to believe you deserve it. While watching these characters interact, I saw my life. I saw their struggles and nodded my head. But I also saw their strength, and for the first time I am seeing my own too. It feels good to be at a place where I can like myself for both my beauty and my imperfections.

We don’t know what anyone else is going through. What we know is filtered through our own lens. Tread lightly. Be gentle with others if you can. It’s been a little rough on this rock recently. We can’t know the roads others are on, where they lead, or why they wind the way they do. We can’t help others read their map or give them directions. We can’t ever travel their road with them. We’re not meant to. We have our own road on which to focus and that one deserves our full attention.

Out Of The Ashes, New Growth

It occurred to me today that I have next to no memories of the day I graduated from college. I have a fuzzy recollection of lining up to head into the arena where the ceremony was held. I have another vague memory of sitting with friends, but that memory is based solely around photos I took that day. I don’t actually remember sitting with my friends or taking photos. I can’t tell you which of my family members were there. My parents were recently divorced. My sisters were 20 and 17. I don’t know if we celebrated with dinner somewhere or if I spent time with friends and their families or if I spent the day with my boyfriend. It strikes me as odd, though, that there are no clear or warm memories of that day for me. It seems like the kind of day that many people might remember. An auspicious occasion. I was the first in our family to graduate from a four-year college. It feels like it passed as more or less an ordinary day.

My husband remembers his graduation day. His mom and dad hosted a graduation breakfast for him and his friends. It was near Christmas and his birthday, so his mom had a Santa come to the breakfast. After the ceremony, his parents hosted Steve and some of his friends at a graduation lunch at their favorite college restaurant, the Rio Grande, known for their potent margaritas (limit 3 per customer). At the lunch, his mom had a clown arrive with balloons. Later, a belly dancer showed up and performed three songs for him in the crowded restaurant. He has told me he wished it had only been two songs (enough for his mom to get her money’s worth), though, because three was a bit much. Still, his accomplishment was celebrated and cemented with specific events that he carries with him and always will. It was a fun day for him.

Today we were at Luke’s last cross-country event of the season. There were some teenagers walking near us. One of them, noticing all the parents at this meet at one p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, remarked to his friends, “I wish I had a supportive family.” That comment struck me. I told Steve that young man has a gift he doesn’t realize is a gift. He has self-awareness at a young age. I didn’t realize until my mid forties that I didn’t have a supportive family when I was growing up, at least not supportive parents, to be sure. If you are young when you realize you don’t have a supportive family, you can work to piece together a supportive family of your choosing. You can work to change your narrative for more of your life.

I have done a lot of work trying to piece together memories from the first eighteen years of my life. I don’t have many, but the ones that stick with me and have to do with my parents are predominantly negative. I do have positive memories of my life growing up, but those have to do with friends or my accomplishments. My fondest wish as a parent was to create positive memories with our sons that they would have with them their whole lives. I hope someday they will remember their birthdays, graduations, and other important milestones. I hope they will also benefit from the little things, like dinner as a family every night and deep conversations on long car rides. I hope they will look back and not just know they had a supportive family, but feel the power of that support each and every minute. Moreover, I wish every child had a loving, supportive family because every child should travel through life with at least that.

“Never underestimate a cycle breaker. Not only did they experience years of generational trauma, but they stood in the face of this trauma and fought to say ‘This ends with me.’ This is brave. This is powerful. This comes at significant cost. Never underestimate a cycle breaker.” ~Author Unknown

“You are not the darkness you endured. You are the light that refused to surrender.” ~John Mark Green

I Am The Tortoise In This Scenario

The hare is so much cuter than the tortoise, though

I’ve been in and out of therapy for forever. Okay. Seven years, but it feels like forever. And I’ve been mostly in therapy during those seven years except for a few months when I thought I didn’t need it any longer and turned out to be wrong. Today during my weekly session, I proclaimed once again that I am tired of this process of working to get my head right. I want to be finished. Like yesterday. I declared that I would like to be well-adjusted now, please. My therapist, being the gentle, thoughtful, patient woman she is, reminded me that maybe what I need to focus on again is self-compassion. Recovering from emotional abuse is a process, and I will likely be going through that process for the rest of my life. That is to be expected, and it is okay.

Is it, though? I’m having a rough time swallowing that pill. Although I intellectually understand she is right and even understand that every single person is messed up in their own special way and battling for inner peace along with me, I don’t like this answer. I function best with deadlines, and the notion that perhaps I will be more well adjusted by the time I get to the end of my life, at a time yet to be determined, is a bit too open ended for me as far as deadlines go. I am working on managing expectations because I understand that is a good way to live but, damn, that is also difficult for me. And I work every day to give myself grace as I struggle, knowing that being raised without affection, positive messaging, and unconditional love causes lifelong damage to a person’s psyche. I am defensive, dismissive, and distrusting not because I was born that way but because these were the mechanisms that protected my fragile sense of self and kept me safe. They served a purpose. And now that I understand I am safe and these reactions are no longer needed, I would like to get rid of them sooner rather than later, thank you very much. It’s just not going to happen that way.

So I have been thinking about this all day, and I realize I need to reframe this issue. If I am going to be making slow progress on this, I need to accept it and relax and settle in for the long haul. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. I’m not the hare. I’m the tortoise. In the end, it will all work out. Right now it might feel like I am losing the race, but if I keep plodding along, not taking anything for granted, I will win. Will it happen on my ideal timeline? Apparently not, because if it could happen just by my willing it out of sheer frustration, I would be there already. So a tortoise’s pace it is. I will know I have achieved my goal when I no longer need my protective shell.

Uncaged And On The Loose

“I was wild until I was tamed by shame. Until I started hiding and numbing my feelings for fear of being too much. Until I started deferring to others’ advice instead of trusting my own intuition. Until I became convinced that my imagination was ridiculous and my desires were selfish. Until I surrendered myself to the cages of others’ expectations, cultural mandates, and institutional allegiances. Until I buried who I was in order to become what I should be. I lost myself when I learned how to please.” ~Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Opening myself up to the world (or in this case stunning Positano)

You often hear that people, around the age of 50, come to a place where they run out of fucks to give. (I’d apologize for using that turn of phrase, but that would be giving a fuck and I am working on not doing that.) People who have run out of fucks have stopped worrying as much about what they look like or what the neighbor’s think of their yard or how their opinions and choices and goals and dreams might upset others. They put down the baggage others have handed them, and they pursue their interests because their life tank is dipping below half full and they don’t know when they will hit empty. For most of my life, I’ve known that getting to the end of my life only to realize I have lived someone else’s life would not be an acceptable outcome for me. Still, I was conditioned from early childhood not to be a bother, not to stand out, not to choose myself, not to believe I mattered at all. So these two ideas, to take up as little space as possible and to live my life my way, have stood in opposition. The former has been my default setting since I was 3 because my parents taught me that if I wanted to be acceptable to others, I had to capitulate and do what they wanted. I learned that to be loved, I had to leave myself behind and be the me others could tolerate.

My parents chose themselves before they hit midlife. They chose themselves by ensuring that their progeny didn’t get in the way, that we fell into line, that we behaved and developed in ways that suited their wishes and caused them as little discomfort and annoyance as possible or else suffer the consequences of their displeasure. I learned I was meant to be a good girl and a blessing to them. When I spoke out, when I tried to assert myself, I was told I was foolish and labeled a selfish, self-centered, spoiled brat. This is how I became caged. I’m estranged from my parents now so I can heal and find the inner strength to live my life out loud, as the badass, indomitable woman I am and have always been deep inside. There are days when I fall back into old patterns and feel guilty and cruel for putting space between my parents and I because I know they are confused by it and because I am reminded by others that I am breaking a societal norm by turning my back on them as they near 80. But I am learning how to be my own person and prioritize my mental well being, even if other people don’t understand or approve. It’s absolutely okay to carve out a life for myself on my own terms. No one else has to sign off on it or agree. And, oddly enough, for the first time I am feeling the rush of confidence that comes with moving along my own path. There is power in relinquishing control of the state of others’ feelings. There’s strength in allowing others to weather their disappointment because it means I am finished disappointing myself.

I am working every day to step out of my comfort zone. I’m practicing asking for what I want rather than being told what that is. I’m practicing hearing my own voice say aloud what is in my heart. I’m practicing calming my mind and letting it know it doesn’t have to protect me anymore because I am safe now; I am brave, strong, and awesome exactly as I am and no one can prove otherwise to me. I’m practicing having a choice, or many choices, about how to proceed. And, yes, I am practicing too how to be at peace knowing others are unhappy with my choices. After a lifetime of trying not to make waves, I am learning how to break them, to rise above the surface and revel in my own agency. I’m practicing not giving a fuck in situations where others would tell me how to live my best life. As Glennon has advised, I’m done asking others for directions to places they’ve never been. They don’t know what they are talking about.

Yeah. This probably sounds selfish, and I’m am okay with that too. It’s about time I began advocating for my self and acknowledging my right to do just that. I will see those who truly love and accept me in the future. As for those who would prefer I stay caged in your expectations? Hasta la vista, baby.