I have a friend who has an astonishing memory. She remembers everything – kids in her 2nd grade class almost 40 years ago, minute details of events in her twenties, and even what she had for breakfast this morning. We got together a few months ago and were talking about old times – we played basketball together, back in the days when I wasn’t too short to play – and she said something that intrigued me. She said, “I know you didn’t have an easy time growing up.” We weren’t that close – certainly not close enough for me to reveal any details of my life, easy or not. I let it go and the conversation moved on, but those words stuck with me.
For any of you new to this blog – hi. I’m an introvert. I think about things. A lot. I can think about something for decades before I come to a conclusion or any kind of decision about it. Most of you also know that I have been in and out of therapy for the past 20 years or so. When MoC had the strokes, I called an old therapist – one I always had a connection with. I had to be strong; I had to be stable; I had to have my shit together and I didn’t have time to waste trying to build enough trust so that I could deal with my issues. I had to deal with it then, at that moment. And so I went back to therapy and dealt with all of the emotions and insanity that come up when trying to cope with an aging (and dying) parent.
That was two years ago. After MoC’s death, I kept going to the therapist, dealing with all that her death entailed. But there came a point when it was mostly dealt with. I’m always going to miss her. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about her. The difference is that those thoughts now make me smile and remember happier times, rather than dwelling on the sadness. I’m cool with that and I know MoC would be, too.
I believe, strongly, in communication. I can spend as much time talking about a situation as I can thinking about it. Yes, decades. In all my years of therapy, there has been one subject I have rarely (if ever) discussed. In the 8 years of this blog, I think I have mentioned it three times – always briefly and never, ever with any kind of depth. As an extension of communication, I believe that we are only as sick as the secrets we keep. This isn’t such a secret, really. There is nothing I can reveal that would be shocking or even interesting. It was just something that I chose to ignore, but the older I get – and as patterns repeat themselves – I believe now that I ignore it at my peril.
If you asked my cousins in Hell, or any of my extended family, they would tell you that my father was a great guy. He was kind of quiet, but funny. He was always willing to listen. He was kind and empathetic. He was creative and artistic. He was intelligent but not a snob. All of those things are true, but they are only one side of him. I think some of those folks might be surprised to know that my father was also temperamental, impatient, caustic, condescending, rude and sometimes violent. Or perhaps they wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t know. I never asked them.
One of my sisters said that once he was dead, she never thought about him again. The other sister said that, if one of them had to die at that point, she was glad it was him and not my mother because she wouldn’t have wanted to deal with him for another 20 years. Those may seem like harsh words from both of them, but it isn’t harsh. Those are the just facts.
Now I need to back up and point your attention to the quote at the end of this post. Saturday night, I transcribed those words from a cd that my therapist gave me. It’s from a talk by a local therapist, given in 1989 or 1990. The main idea of the lecture is that we all have a little kid inside us and that recognizing that child is important to how we deal with our lives as adults. Because that age, around 5 years old, is a crucial time in our lives. It’s when we learn to deal with people, to handle our emotions, to go out into the world and interact and become part of society.
I have listened to that lecture at least 50 times. Each time, I hear something new. And each time I listen, I realize that there are things I need to look at – things that have kept me from reaching my fullest, most contented self. My therapist gave it to me over a year ago. And for a year (okay, ten years, but who’s counting?), I have thought about my early life, my beginnings.
When I was five years old, my father had a heart attack. He was off work for a couple of months and money was tight so when I started kindergarten, my mother went back to work. Three simple events that don’t seem that complicated on the surface, but they shaped my entire life.
Because at that time, my father also lost his mind. I am sure there are factors that I did not and still do not understand, but I believe something in him snapped. I also know that at that point, their marriage was in trouble. My childhood is largely blank. I have huge, huge gaps that I can’t fill in. I simply have no idea – it’s gone. What I remember most is being afraid. I didn’t want to be noticed, because that most likely meant I was going to get my ass beat – either by a sibling or by my father. But I also needed to be noticed, because I thought I was forgotten and that no one really cared whether or not I was there.
The most effective way to get noticed was to get one of my siblings in trouble – and usually that was my brother. That stopped for the most part when I was about 7, because my brother endured the worst beating of his life – and having the entire contents of his bedroom destroyed – because he got mad at me and stuffed a wad of paper in my mouth and I told on him. At every family gathering, that goddamn story comes up and I want to cry every time. I wish he would shut the fuck up about it. I tell myself he is 52 years old and he should be over it by now. But really, I want him to be over it because I blame myself. And as much as I tell myself that I was 7 years old and I couldn’t have known my father would react like a lunatic, it doesn’t help – because I did know.
My sisters (and my brother) can tell you about the time he got angry that our rooms weren’t clean and so he took everything in the rooms and dumped it in the backyard. I don’t remember that. I do remember the time he decided to teach the dogs (Afghan Hounds – big dogs), to stay away from the kitchen table. He did this by piling pots, pans, old dishes, utensils, anything he could think of, on the table and calling the dogs. When they came in, he knocked it all over. I remember the time he was pissed off because he couldn’t find the current phone book, so he picked up the metro area Yellow Pages and ripped it in half. I remember the time he broke another dog’s paw because my dad slammed him into the wall while trying to house-train the dog. I also remember walking by his bedroom later and seeing my dad sitting on the side of the bed with his head in his hands.
My sister can tell you about the time my father beat me with a belt over something I said to my mother. She says he caught me in the doorway of our room and whipped me, but I wouldn’t cry. And because I refused to cry, he didn’t know when to stop. Finally, he just threw me into the room and I landed on my bed (just inside the door) and he stormed off. She said part of her was cheering me on in my refusal to let him know he was hurting me, but the other part of her wanted me to cry so that he would quit. I don’t remember that at all. It’s gone, like most of the rest of it. When I was about ten, I copped an attitude (I know, weird, right?) and he berated me in the middle of a restaurant. He told me that he didn’t care if I hated him, that he didn’t care what I wanted or what I thought, that I would show him respect … and on and on and on. I don’t remember everything he said. What I remember is thinking that he meant every word of it. I still think that.
I can’t solve the riddle of my father. What I think now is that he was a miserable man, but I really don’t know what made him that way. Maybe his mother, maybe some traumatic thing that happened to him when he was a kid. I’ll never know and I don’t even think it matters. What bothers me now is what kind of lessons I learned that I didn’t realize I was learning.
I learned to appear as though my emotions shut off when I have to deal with confrontation. I learned the best defense is a blistering verbal offensive. I learned to go deep inside myself and hide, so that hurtful words can’t touch me. Mostly, though, I learned the art of selective recall. It was as essential to me as breathing back then. To this day, I have a terrible memory. I can’t recall a conversation ten minutes after I’ve had it, especially if that conversation is an argument.
And somewhere, amid all that chaos, I learned that if I forgive (and forget), it will keep a temporary peace. What I did not know then is that forgiveness isn’t about forgetting – and it is not about the other person, either. Forgiveness is for me, not for anyone else. Forgiveness just means not feeling resentment. It is a powerful tool, but it doesn’t mean the other person is absolved of guilt – and that’s where I got confused for years. Okay, decades.
Near the end of the lecture, Dr Molton talks about getting to know that little kid inside us all. I’m an adult now – intellectually I know how to control my emotions and how to deal with people in a respectful, beneficial way. But that little kid still freaks out occasionally and derails my plans – because that’s what she knows and what she expects to happen. It doesn’t have to be that way. By taking this time, these decades, to think about everything that made me who I am, I can now be who I want to be.
My father didn’t beat the good out of me. He didn’t scream it into submission, either. I still believe that he did the best he could with what he had to work with, but I also believe he had piss-poor coping skills. That doesn’t exonerate him. It simply means that I no longer have to be weighed down by his inadequacies. His inadequacies are not necessarily my inadequacies. We are all on a journey. I’m not sure he ever even started on his and I know mine will probably never be finished.
Everything has to do with perspective. Everything has to do with how you look at something. Everything has to do with, not what happens to you, but how you see what happens to you. So tonight I want to talk to you about the perspective of the child and the perspective of the adult – they’re very different.
It would appear that as we reach about the 5th year of our lives we come into consciousness. That is, we emerge out of the shadows, the mist, the fog of our infancy and early childhood into some kind of new understanding of things. We experience an awakening. We begin to sense how things fit together.
We begin to realize that for the first time, we have to meet and interact with strangers. We begin to understand that these strangers are going to do and say things to us that perhaps our family would never say to us. They’re going to call us names and they’re going to develop their own opinions of us. At about age five, then, we come into an understanding of ourselves that is critical, that is challenging, that is frightening, that is very, very new.
One of the amazing things that happens about this time is that the child begins to put together some sense of its own destiny. As dim as it may seem, we begin to sense that not only are we having to understand today, but today has a kind of prophecy in it – that today is talking about tomorrow and the next day and the next day. We begin to develop what we have come to call in the last few decades a “script.” We begin to understand that there are things about us that seem to be a part of what is called our destiny. As these things seem to emerge in our minds, we begin to depend on them and after a while we even begin to look forward to them and then somehow in the intricacies of our mind and the subtleties of our behavior, we begin to perhaps even set it up to get what it is that we have decided is ours. – Warren Molton, PhD