Finding My Father

I never knew my father, and I had little hope of finding him.

My mother alone held the truth, and it was, at best, clouded by her schizophrenic filters and distortions. She was pretty sure his name was Frank, that he was a professional basketball player with whom she’d shared a blind date and a bottle of wine. Frank had no idea I was conceived, and I assumed that he would not welcome my finding him, if I ever did. I still wondered through the years: what does he look like? Do I look like him? Did I get my writing ability – or my health challenges – from him?

Throughout the years, I’ve used the internet to look for any clues, and I have come up with nothing. I searched as recently as last year, and then I gave up. By now, he would be at least in his 70s, if not older, and he could very well be dead.

In February, I began a search for more information on my mother’s family tree. In truth, I was looking for more than any family tree could tell me: I wanted to feel connected with my family roots, to understand more of where I come from and the meaning of my life. I knew on some level I would not find that on Ancestry.com but still continued my search for immigration, birth and death records.

I looked up various records for all the family I could find, and at one point, I stumbled onto something curious: someone had posted my mom’s high school graduation picture on his family tree. I didn’t recognize his name, and I sent him a note asking how he knew my mom. Since I’d found no living relatives to date, I was curious. I had no idea whether this person I contacted was family, a distant cousin perhaps, and if his being family would be a good thing. My family was an entity I needed to approach with great care, given the history of abusers and mental illness I knew of from my mother’s stories.

Several days later, I got a message back from “Larry.” He said he’d met my mom on a blind date, dated her in 1957-58, and that he’d loved her and wanted to marry her. He said it was the biggest mistake of his life that he missed that opportunity.

Honestly, at this point, I was a little intrigued but not terribly so. My mom dated a lot of men, and a few had asked to marry her. I didn’t much like my mom’s boyfriends, and I didn’t know what he could tell me that I didn’t already know. However, he said he had things to tell me about my mom, and I was about to shut down my free trial membership to Ancestry.com, so I gave him my email address, “friended” him on Facebook, and I let go of my ancestry search for the time.

Now Larry is 75 years old, typed in all caps, and didn’t write a lot of detail in his messages, so over subsequent weeks, I gathered clues about who Larry was and what his significance was to me. It came in layers, and each layer made me rethink the previous understanding I’d had of what he’d said and who he was.

First impression: Larry was one of my mom’s boyfriends in 1957-58, which would have made her 16-17 years old. He’d posted her senior picture from high school on his Ancestry page, so I assumed that confirmed that they’d been together in that time period. How sweet, I thought, and dismissed any chance that he would have much I wanted to hear.

Next layer of the archeological dig:  Larry sent me a note that he felt a shock after seeing the color of my hair. It’s a lot like his, he said. At this point, I started to feel mildly confused: who is this man, and why was he shocked about our similar hair color? They dated 10 years before my conception and birth. I let this comment slide.

Next layer, a few days later: he messaged me on FB to say I look more like his child than his own children do. Now at this point, Larry finally got my full attention. I had to ask: are you saying you think we might be related? I was under the impression that all of this information was dawning on him as slowly as it was dawning on me, or just a step ahead of me.

It took another day or two for him to respond: he’s looked at his records, and he was in Pennsylvania on business trips 1965-67, not ’57-58.

With that message showing on my computer screen, I stopped and felt my reality shift beneath me. Here’s someone who could possibly be my father. That would mean my mom’s story was either the best she knew; a mistake on her part; or a lie to keep me off the track. And any of these possibilities could be true. If she had intentionally avoided Larry and a future relationship with him, it might be his best recommendation yet: my mom married a couple of awful men, and she often missed recognizing the good people and subsequently alienated them because of her paranoia.

At this point my husband, John, and I talked about the situation. John was the first to note that no one puts a picture of an ex-girlfriend on his family tree unless he thinks they may have created progeny together. It began to dawn on me in little snippets of phone conversation and emails and Facebook messages: Larry had known about me because he visited my mom once after I was born; my mom never told him I was his, and he also didn’t pursue the line of questioning about who the father of the baby in the next room might be; and shortly after I was born, my mom moved away. By the time I was five years old, she had been married twice and changed her last name one more time for good measure. In the age of the internet, my mom would have been a challenge to locate; before the internet, finding her would have been nearly impossible.

As our conversations continued, it turned out, Larry tried to find my mom over the years. He mentioned that he searched for her and even spoke to my grandmother in the mid-‘80s. Now I realized that not only did he know Mimi had had a baby and that he’d wondered about his role in that, but that he’d also tried to find her. My story about my father shifted with each revelation he made. He was in love with my mom. He wanted to marry her. He regretted not asking her to marry him, not asking her whether he was the father. He tried to find her. He posted a picture of her on Ancestry.com, hoping.

All of this blew my assumptions about my father and about my mother’s story out of the water. A powerful current of emotion ran beneath each unfolding bit of story.  All day, I thought about this new person in my life, looked at his pictures and noted we have a strong resemblance, pondered my mother’s story and motivations for telling it and the implications for the future with this new person. I ended every day exhausted.

We ordered an home DNA test through Ancestry.com. It would tell us if we were related, and it would also show us any DNA matches to other people who might be relatives.

“I hope you’re my daughter,” he told me the very first time we spoke on the phone, the point at which we I had to pause and look at the phone. I didn’t know him yet to know if I wanted him to be my father, but I was moved that someone in the world had actually had that thought. And at this point in the conversation, I thought he was someone who was just as surprised as I was to consider we might be connected. It looks pretty obvious from this vantage, but we were still turning over the puzzle pieces on the table, let alone putting them together. To his credit, Larry was probably moving cautiously about what he revealed. He didn’t know if I was his, and he didn’t know how I would receive his speculation that he might be my father. When he looked at my pictures, he was looking to see if I was his child. With the unfolding revelations, I began to see what had been working in his mind for all these years.

I sent a quarter teaspoon of saliva to the lab for testing. My stomach flipped and flopped constantly over the next several days: was Larry my father? If he was my father, I realized, I would probably have different questions for him than if he were just my mom’s old boyfriend. Larry’s wife supported him and was excited for him; John was both excited for me and protective. Both John’s and my dreams were filled with father images and hopeful anxiety about the results. We spoke in code around Isaac: we’d found someone who might be a relative, we told him. Telling him I’d found my father would wait until we knew for sure.

Larry and I messaged one day, and he said, “I’ll claim you regardless, if that’s what you want.”

I hate to admit I was so slow on the uptake, but I was still putting the pieces together. I still hadn’t figured out that this man knew I’d been born and wondered from that moment if I was his; that he’d been waiting for 45 years to find out; that he’d wondered for nearly half a century if Mimi’s little girl was his. I still hadn’t figured out that Larry had been, on a level that is deeper than DNA, the father who’d always wanted me. He was the father who regretted not being there with my mother and with me. I have “adopted” friends as family before: “Gramma Joan”; my “sisters” Sarah and Laura Lee; Kathy “Mom,” my foster mother. I, of all people, should know that family of the heart is profoundly family, and a DNA test cannot reveal who those people should be.

I cried as my heart let it in: I have a father who loves me, regardless of the DNA test. I told him that I would be honored. I wrote back saying that I would take him as my father, if he wanted to take me as his daughter, regardless of what the test results showed. “I was already there,” he said. Yes, he was. He’d been “there” for 45 years, and I just needed a couple of weeks to wrap my head around who he was, what I meant to him, and what he meant to me. It took a little while for the story in my head to surrender to the story that was dawning in my heart.

We had several more weeks to wait for the test results to come in. But my anxiety about the test passed. It didn’t matter: I’d found my father.

My mom died in 2006, shortly after Isaac was born. I’d become an orphan at that point. I was both freed from the complications of loving a schizophrenic parent, but I was also more adrift without her.

I’ve now been given a rare gift: the opportunity to be a daughter again. The first time around, I took it for granted. It wasn’t until my mother drew her last breath that I realized it: every day of my life, my mother had breathed, and with each breath, she loved me.  There was an eerie silence in that absence of the familiar sound of her breath and her always-present attention on my life, the attention only a parent can give.

And now there’s someone else, for whatever period of time we have together, whose love has followed me from a distance and cared for me, and I have the honor of being a daughter to that someone now.

We spoke on the phone yesterday, and at the end of the call, he said, “Love you.”

Love you, too, Dad. I’m so grateful to have found you, and I’m so grateful that you were looking, too.

 When I first wrote this, the DNA results were not yet in. They have come in. I’m choosing for now not to reveal the results because they aren’t relevant one way or the other to whether Larry is family. Happy Birthday, Dad! Love you.

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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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