What do healed wounds look like?

I didn’t anticipate this part of parenting:  abuses I suffered as a child re-emerge as my own child passes through the ages that correspond with my age at the time of those abuses.

When he was three months old, I recalled my aunt’s story: she’d been visiting my mom, and my mom slapped me across the face for spitting out my food. That story made me sad before my son turned three months old. When he reached that age, however, I was newly horrified: I could not imagine slapping my three-month-old child. His body was fragile, and his spitting out of anything solid was merely a reflex (and I would not have given him food at that age because he was too young). I saw the abuse through new eyes.

Now that he is almost eight, I have a new wave of memories emerging. My mother was hospitalized for mental illness three times when I was around Isaac’s age. The first two times were for days and weeks, respectively. The last time lasted over two months. Each time she “disappeared,” my heart broke. I cried for her every night. I missed her, my pets, my toys, my home, my routine. I see my son now and can’t imagine what that kind of loss would do to him. He is learning to use a “Rainbow Loom,” where he makes bracelets for himself and his friends. I remember learning to crochet in the children’s home where I lived during my mother’s longest hospitalization. It is a poignant parallel.

What does healing look like? I used to think that healing meant I would no longer feel emotionally charged about events of the past. However, I’m discovering that this is not the case, at least not yet. This stage of healing looks like this:  I am fully present (perhaps for the first time) to the pain that was too overwhelming to experience 35 or 40 years ago. Then, I had to shut it down. Now, I can feel it. I can look the pain straight in the eyes and open my heart to it. I open my heart to that little girl who was so profoundly abandoned and abused. I hold her in my arms and let her cry it out. It was painful stuff, and she deserves a witness now who can validate her experience. Yes, Honey, that is awful stuff. I’m so sorry you had to feel such pain. I am with you now.

As I do this for myself, my heart is more open to my son. Because I don’t shut down my own pain, I don’t have to shut his down, either. In learning to be a present and compassionate witness to my own experience, I can be a present and compassionate witness to his. This is what healing looks like for me. 

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The women who went before

My great grandmother was a slave, her daughter and granddaughters prostitutes. It is quite a legacy and one I have worked with in my life to heal and to turn the tide for generations that will come after.

Just over a week ago, I attended a workshop for a kind of work called “Gender Reconciliation.” It’s essentially a healing work to help the genders find compassion and common ground for healing the wounds between them. It was deep work, and I found myself reconsidering my ancestors with different eyes. Rather than seeing myself as the sole daughter of a single-parent schizophrenic, I looked back to the women who went before, and to the larger cultural (and even global) context that held us all.

The first relatives I know of were my great grandparents, John and Mary. They came from Poland. She was 17 when they married, he 27.

The family story goes that Mary’s parents sold her into indentured servitude in Poland when she was five. She remained there until she met John, moved to Ohio and then Pennsylvania, where she gave birth to five children.

Human trafficking has always bothered me immensely. I have pondered the intense pain of the wounds people have suffered throughout history and continue to suffer into the present. For some reason, I failed to put together the current situation with my reaction to it and the fact that my own great-grandmother was sold by her poor parents in order to support themselves. One little girl, over a hundred years ago, who lost her parents. She learned by living a harsh reality that she was not a treasure. She was a commodity.

She met my grandfather, the illegitimate son of the Polish ruling class. He was intelligent but frustrated: he should have had power, based on his ancestry. Instead, he was a laborer. The frustrated ruler met the slave, and they formed a match made somewhere shy of heaven.

Their youngest daughter, Rosie, grew up Roman Catholic. She was pretty, but she also saw ugliness daily in the interactions between her parents: her mother resisted having sex with her husband, and rape was a common experience in their home. So common, in fact, that she relayed the information to her own daughters later.

Rosie was pregnant at 15, giving birth at 16 to my aunt, Rose Marie. She married a man who was in love with her, not the father of her first child. She had my mother, Mimi, next, then her last child, my uncle, Jan.

Rosie told her children that she divorced Chester because he once “kicked her in the ass.” She was having none of it. She was scrappy and could be as mean as she needed to be. She divorced his ass, and she supported her children as a hairdresser and a prostitute.

She never expressed shame or embarrassment. She was glamorous, stunning even. She proudly used men for their money, and she eventually taught her daughters to do the same: both my mother and aunt prostituted for stretches of time to support themselves. My mother and aunt told me stories about their childhoods, the pedophiles in the family, their mother’s abuses and neglect, that created a deep sadness and sense of hopelessness within me. The men would use us, and the women could teach us only to use them in return. For me, it was a bleak history that could only point to a dark future.

In Gender Reconciliation work, I learned some perspectives through which to reassess some of this history.

  • First, both the men and the women were deeply traumatized and victimized. The wounds were vicious, deep and frequent. Little girls were not treasured, protected, cared for. Boys and men were treated as animals: they had no higher function than what their genitals and wallets could perform. Souls and hearts were empty words, not precious aspects of our fully human selves.
  • Second, I am not alone. My single story (which I’ve focused on extensively in my book and this blog) is part of a global context. There are many others in the world like Mary, Rosie, Mimi, Rose Marie and myself. I may end the cycle of abuse for my family line, but there is more work to be done.
  • Third, there is hope. Gender Reconciliation exists, and it is a growing hope that the abuses can stop. It is possible that the mutual using can stop, that we can hear the pain each gender experiences. We can change because our stories change us. We can no longer abuse the human being who has become a sacred person in our eyes.
  • And lastly, what I have learned on a very personal level is that my power and my healing come from fully owning and being a compassionate witness to my own story and for letting all of it become the material from which I contribute to the solution. I will continue to write. I will continue to listen. I will continue to feel all of the pain because, in allowing myself to feel the pain, I am also free to feel the joy of being alive and no longer being a slave to my family history.

For more information on Gender Reconciliation, go to http://www.genderreconciliationinternational.org.

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Pain in my back pocket: exploring the wilderness of resentment

Periodically, the Universe drops a Big Fat Lesson on me. I got one of those Lessons this week.

Nearly everybody knows or at least has heard that carrying around resentment against others doesn’t harm the object of that resentment; it hurts the person who does the carrying. I knew this. I tried to let go, but the resentments just simmered inside me. I could not seem to find the emotional resources to release the resentments. I have a few of these types of relationships: people have harmed me, whether intentionally or not, and I walk around with the pain of that harm still accessible. I have not processed it and released it. Instead, I’ve fondled it; packed it away; then pulled it back out to fondle again in the right moment. I’ve tried prayer. I’ve tried writing (endless, endless writing). I’ve tried ritual. Nothing has worked to help me truly release it.

I ran into one of those people recently. He’s someone I felt harmed me and others, and while I walk around being pleasant to him, I feel this bristling each time I see him. I can’t believe he could be so blind about the way he treats others and hurts them. It’s an on-going situation. We’ve had extensive conversations about it, and the communication we were able to have did not resolve anything. He couldn’t see my point. I could see his, but I didn’t agree. 

When I saw him, I thought to myself, “I am really tired of walking around like this, feeling this tension every time I see him or the other people like him in my life. I don’t want to feel this. What’s going on here, and how do I move on?”

I tried on a thought like a new jacket, to see how it fit, what that life might look like from a new vantage: I considered that I could take each person, each time I see them, at face value. Hmm, what would that be like? And why has that not been possible so far? 

The answer came: the resentments I carry serve the purpose of reminding me of danger. They are self-protective: they are like the signposts on the road that remind me of dangerous curves ahead; landslides imminent; icy conditions. My resentments’ role is to keep me alert to danger.

The key to releasing them, I suddenly, clearly saw, was to trust. I would have to trust in myself: that I have the ability to assess, in the moment, who stood before me and the situation we were in and to determine at that point what to do. I would have to trust that I could say “No,” when I needed to. Or I might have to say, “Yes, but….” or, “Maybe. Give me a little time to think it over.”

I saw that my distrust of others stemmed from a much deeper distrust of myself. I have spent most of my life trying to please others, doing the things they wanted me to do or the things I thought they wanted me to do, and so I could not trust myself to take good care of myself. I could not trust myself to carefully assess a situation before walking into it. I could not trust myself to speak my mind, to ask for or simply state what I needed and wanted. And so those resentments formed the barrier that I could not previously trust myself to maintain: a healthy sense of myself and my role in any given situation. 

I could see it – suddenly, clearly see it – because this has shifted. I can trust myself. I don’t need to hang onto a sense of misery in order to make good choices for myself. I am living in a way that is deeply present to myself and to others. I pause before I make decisions, and I know myself well enough and understand organizations and other people well enough to know what I need and to trust that I will be able to speak up if I need to. I pray, and I listen to the feedback the Universe gives me. 

The resentments are melting of their own accord. I no longer need to keep pain in my back pocket to keep me from falling back into step with unhealthy people and situations.

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We need our power to survive the wilderness, but…

I received a post-holiday newsflash to myself the other day. It came in the form of that Inner Voice that always speaks the Truth of what I’m thinking or feeling. It said, “I am the kind of woman who gets beaten.” I’m going to need to give you a little background to explain that.

I got married almost four years ago to a kind, intelligent, gentle and caring man. John has never been abusive or intentionally discounted my feelings.

I, on the other hand, have had a life-long habit of abusing myself and discounting my own feelings, and in the safe space of my marriage, I have come to recognize that and work on healing the pattern that eliminated my own needs and wants from the equation of what to do in a day.

It has not been entirely easy for either John or me. I was angry with him, mostly because I was making decisions about what to do about division of labor based on my assumptions about what he wanted me to do. It was not a fair situation, and it took a lot of fits and starts for me to wake up and smell the coffee I’d made. I had to stop blaming him, and I needed to learn 1) to identify what I needed and wanted and 2) express what I’d identified.

One small example: we had company this holiday season, and we were in the mad dash to complete preparations for the last wave of family to arrive. We knew some family were arriving sick, and we needed to finish making the beds in order for them to crash. However, there were multiple other agenda items, like food prep, and I needed to stay on task with those. So when John said, “Do you want me to help you make the bed?” I said, “No. I would like you and your dad to make the bed while I finish this.”

It might not sound like the most liberated statement, but for me it was. I was saying that I didn’t want or need to be making the bed. I needed to continue doing the task I was involved in that moment.

And a short time later, I had the thought, “I am the kind of woman who gets beaten.”

It was no coincidence.

In my household growing up, I learned young not to say what I wanted or needed because that was a direct path to being identified as a problem and being beaten back into the quiet and the shadows. My wants and needs were used as direct ammunition against me to demonstrate how selfish and ridiculous I was. I didn’t tell anyone what I wanted or needed for years: it was better to figure out what others wanted and to make that happen for them. It seemed safer.

It was a useful strategy for some years, but it has some obvious limitations for happiness and satisfaction in life, let alone emotional intimacy.

So I’ve dug my way out, with the help of some loving and supportive friends, family and my husband. I’m finding my power and exercising it.

But…the cellular memory of abuse is still there. It arose in that spontaneous thought that, “I am the kind of woman who gets beaten.” In my history, this kind of strength and visibility is exactly the kind of thing that makes me a target.

One day at a time, I’m moving forward and owning the power of my own voice. I’m also listening to the awareness that arises from my past that this kind of thing would have gotten me beaten in my childhood, and some women are beaten for less in their marriages or relationships. And I will observe that this is different. I will breathe in that I can be powerful. Today, I have the courage to feel the fear, and do it anyway.

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Survivor’s Guilt in the Wilderness

Wilderness places are brutal. They can kill you. They can kill your travel companions and leave you to carry on.

I live in Boulder, Colorado, where we just survived the Flood of 2013. It was what they called a “1,000-year rainfall,” with about 20 inches of rain over just a few days. The flooding wiped out streets and highways, flooded basements, swept some homes off their foundations, and killed several people in the area. Boulder residents are still recovering from the shock of devastation that killed people, destroyed some properties and left many of us with no visible damage whatsoever.

In the flood, one woman attempted to rescue another who had been badly injured. She dragged the other woman through the waters, but she could not pull her up the crumbling bank to safety. “Let me go,” the injured woman said. She did. The woman who was able to scramble up the bank survived. The other woman did not. 

I recently spoke with one of my friends from high school. We both had traumatic childhoods and lived in foster homes. We speak about once a year. I am always intensely curious to hear how she’s doing: her life is full of drama and pain. In my early 20s, I helped her when her boyfriend beat her up and left her with broken ribs. Later, her husband died, leaving her with an autistic son to raise alone. Now her creepy family still haunts her and expects her to support them financially. She has invasive medical procedures every few months to stay alive. 

Why are some of us saved from the flood waters and some not? Why do some of us never get beyond the traumas of a difficult childhood, and some of us do? Why do those of us who move on feel such profound guilt – at least sometimes – that we made it, and others did not?

I felt ripples from my childhood experience during the flooding in Boulder. I’m okay. I made it. I’m shaken inside, but I and my family are amazingly, miraculously, gratefully okay! I feel the ripples of my childhood experience each time I speak to that friend from high school and see how her past still cripples her. Why did I find some measure of freedom and what I call health – when she did not?

I don’t find that there are many good answers to “why?” I don’t know if it’s even a relevant question, though it’s a compulsive one.

I am devoid of deep philosophical answers in the face of this stuff. I find that I can say a heart-felt “Thank You” to the Universe that I have the life I have. I also find I have a need to let go of any sense of superiority, though it’s hard. My friend may be just fine in her life. Some people whose basements flooded weren’t traumatized in a deep way, though they were inconvenienced. There are mysteries I don’t have the answers to. Someone else’s suffering may be less, though their material loss was great. Some people’s suffering may be profound, though their material losses were relatively small. And I need to get out of my head where I’m obsessed with anyone’s suffering – my own or someone else’s – and live the life in front of me. 

Social media makes this really challenging. I can get sucked into the suffering of the world for hours at a time. I feel guilty to look away from the untimely deaths, the hungry and abused children, the addicts whose flesh melts off their stricken limbs, the melting of our glaciers and the death of our coral reefs…

I have to stop sometimes. I have begun to learn that saying “Thank You,” and letting go of my superiority are the beginning, but that the level at which I can engage and truly make a difference is very, very small – and very, very important. There are only so many people I can hold as they cry. There are only so many people whose eyes I can look into deeply as they speak of their suffering. There is only so much I can hold and process and still live my life. And yet it is essential that I do so, as I am able. 

And, one foot in front of the other, I walk my path. I make my way through wilderness times with very little answer for the difficulties of it. But I feel the breeze on my sweaty face, or the touch of my son’s hand as it slips into my own, or I share a meal with the companions who are still here. I soak it all up because life is short, and the bitterness and the sweetness live side-by-side here. 

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Invisible in the Wilderness

We just returned from a family vacation, where we visited the site of my time of homelessness in 1980.

Our goal was to visit my husband’s distant relatives in North Carolina, but we chose to land in Newport News, Virginia for both the vacation options (the ocean and beach, historical sites) and this little bit of family history for me. My mother and I spent nearly six months homeless in Virginia Beach and Norfolk. I hadn’t been back there since I was 11 years old, some 33 years ago.

On our first full day of vacation, we drove our rental car to Virginia Beach, and we used the public parking facilities at the Sundial Inn – the motel my mother and I had lived in together for two months as guests of the State of Virginia – as our base of operations for our trek to the beach.

I sat on the crowded beach watching Isaac launch himself into the ocean surf and John try to keep up with him. They were joyful, and the warm sun, soft sand and my book made me happy, too. I looked up and down the beach I’d combed as a girl. I combed early in the day or late:  I’d owned only one pair of blue jeans then, no shorts or bathing suit, so I hadn’t joined the summer revelers in the heat of the day at the beach. Even in the heat, I often wore my hoodie (which didn’t have criminal implications in the early 1980s), hands crammed in the stretched out pockets, as I walked the streets. Being homeless, I always wanted my most precious clothing and items on me: I didn’t know if, when, or how we would have to move again.

Now, at nearly 45 years old, I only carry what I want with me. I don’t buy the souvenirs and junk food because I choose not to. In 1980, in this town my mother hoped would be a “fresh start,” I didn’t buy souvenirs and junk food because I couldn’t. Being a tourist in 2013, I had the klout every tourist has: my money bought me shelter and food; it made advertisers and shop owners cater to me. In 1980, as a homeless and abused 11-year-old, I was invisible. I was dirty and poor and not buying anything.

The time my mother and I spent in Virginia Beach was pivotal for me and my mother. Until then, she’d seen me as her little girl, and she’d protected me as best she could. As I grew into a pre-teen and began to look more and more like an adult, my mother began to see me and treat me as more of an adult. I was no longer her little girl to feed and nurture and protect: I was an imposition, an imposition with a decidedly selfish intention and a growing ability to contribute to the family’s needs. In reality, I had no tools to earn money. The best I could do was to scour the ground with my eyes for loose change and cigarette butts for my mom. Even now I’ll see an unsmoked cigarette on the ground and think, “Mom would have been happy to have that one.”

On our little 2013 vacation visit to Virginia Beach, I looked around with fresh eyes. I wondered who I might be seeing who wasn’t just a typical tourist on the streets. I wondered if any of the children I saw that day were children like I’d been so long ago.

I was invisible in 1980. I didn’t go to school long enough that year for teachers to see my suffering. No one on the streets noticed my emotional pain from my mother’s long schizophrenic rants and occasional hitting. No one saw that I was hungry or had no clothing to change into. My mother couldn’t see that I was still a little girl inside, one who needed her help to learn how to care for herself.

I learned to live invisibly. It seemed that since there was nothing I could do to alleviate my suffering, the best thing I could do was to ignore it. And since everyone else seemed to ignore my suffering, it also seemed like the grown-up thing to do.

The gift I give myself today is to pay attention to myself, in a way very much the same as the way I pay attention to Isaac. I pay attention through journal writing, creating emotionally-driven art, noticing what situations work for me and what situations do not – and changing what I can to make them better. When I am tired, I rest. When I am hungry, I eat.  For many years, I had to use something, anything, to make the discomfort of being me go away. I used food in many forms: excessive food; excessive food and purging; restricting food and the subsequent high of being thin and “in control”; I used smoking to tamp down my anger at the injustices of life; I used spending to make me feel happier when there was nothing in my circumstances I could see to feel happy about; I used romantic relationships to distract me from feeling lost and alone.

Today, I’ve put the addictions down. I’m paying attention. Isaac has taught me through his own need to be seen and cared for that I, too, am a child inside who needs to be seen and cared for. My mother didn’t teach me how to mother myself, and yet now it is my turn to do that job. I’m no longer invisible to myself, and for that I am grateful. Image

Me in Virginia Beach – June, 1980

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Responsibility in the wilderness

In my last blog, I ended with the realization that I was responsible for my own life. It didn’t matter what cards I’d been dealt: I was responsible for how I played them.

In victim mode, I’d frequently thrown up my hands in despair. It’s too much. I can’t do it all. I’m overwhelmed. There is never enough. Those words were my mantra, and I believed them.

There was some truth there: I had a lot to learn, and I had a lot to do to recover from my childhood. I needed to learn how to listen to my inner voice and limits. I needed to learn to manage money. I needed to learn how to find work that inspired me (and even to learn that that was relevant) and how to work at a job, even when things got tough. That meant learning communication and negotiation skills, as well as knowing when it was time to leave. I needed to learn how to make choices about housing and work and money, not out of desperation, but out of sustainability. I needed help with very real physical and psychological issues that came from abuse, neglect and not knowing how to eat well, exercise sanely, and get enough sleep. I didn’t know how to keep a neat house or even that it was important for me to care for myself by having one. I didn’t know how to negotiate the on-going relationship with my schizophrenic mother: I felt drawn toward helping her, toward trying to get her approval and simultaneously repelled by her and her on-going abuse and insanity. I didn’t know how to choose romantic partners or friends well.

Phew. That was a lot. And the truth of the matter is, it was beyond me to do alone. So how did responsibility fit with that?

If you’ve ever managed a project of any size, you know that a project often entails many people, working together toward a goal. A good project manager doesn’t do everything herself: she finds the right people to do the right aspects of the job, and she makes sure that things are on-track. Ultimately, she takes the brunt of the blame or the glory for the success for how the project turns out.

A life of recovery and healing is much the same: each of us is the project manager who takes the heat or the praise for the end result. We need to assess the scope of the project, and we need to call in the right people for the right tasks. We don’t need to do it all alone, but we instead need to learn what we can do by ourselves and what we really need help with. 

For me, that meant getting into treatment for an eating disorder shortly after my friend Judy said, “Lora, you’re responsible for your own life!” I needed professional help to get out of the pit of despair I was in. I had to stop moping around, hoping that someone would recognize that I needed help and come rescue me; I needed to fess up and ask directly for the help I needed.

I used my therapist, a mentor, wise friends, the internet, classes and books to learn skills. I used 12-step groups for compulsive bad behaviors that kept me from succeeding. Sometimes I had to pace myself: I didn’t always have the money or the time for everything I wanted to take on. I had to learn to trust that what I had was enough, for today. The more I trusted, the more I realized I got what I needed for the day. It might not be enough to fill the gaping hole of my emotional, physical and spiritual needs for all eternity; but it was enough, for today.

 

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