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. 


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.


Finding True North

How does a person rediscover her True Voice and inner compass when she has negated it for years, learned that it was a vulnerable and seemingly irrelevant Voice, and simply learned to ignore it?

Well, I don’t know about everyone else, but in my case it was a pretty ugly process.

In my childhood, my mother used my expressed feelings, flippant comments and even my carefully-chosen thoughts as weapons. In schizophrenic rants that often commenced in the middle of the night, she repeated things I said almost as a mantra. You want, you want, you want. All you ever do is want from me. I quickly learned not to say what I wanted. But even worse, I learned that even wanting itself was bad. It didn’t help to have a broken heart and wish for more nurturing; it was better simply to deny it.

When I was 13 and entered foster care, I lived with two very kind, sweet Christian families. I had become an evangelical Christian myself at that point, and I heard from many different sermons and Bible lessons that what I wanted was sinful. It didn’t matter what I wanted. What God wanted for me was the thing that mattered. This made perfect sense to me at the time, and no doubt (and in all fairness to the teachers I listened to at the time), I saw their message through the only lens I had at that time: the human heart is deceptive, needs to be surrendered entirely to God, and therefore, I didn’t have to listen to it. Again. Perfect. I thought of the worst thing I could possibly be when I grew up: a minister’s wife. That was something I couldn’t stomach. So moved on to the next worst thing: a missionary. Yup, I was pretty sure God wanted me to be a missionary. I seriously considered that option for several years of my teens and early 20s. 

However, the human heart has a way of beating its truth despite the clogged arteries feeding it. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. I found moments of beauty and joy in music and art and writing, but those things were mere luxuries, I thought. They weren’t saving the world from hell, and they just made me feel good. What point did that have, I wondered?

I wondered, too, why I ate entire boxes of cookies, trays of brownies, quarts of icecream in one sitting? Why did I stick my finger down my throat in such violent self-hatred? It all seemed quite mysterious to me.

Fast forward many years to becoming a single parent. I’d long-since dropped the evangelical belief system, and I no longer binged and stuck my finger down my throat. But remnants of the self-denial still clung to me. Now my reasons seemed just as valid, if different: I have a child to care for and to support. Listening to my heart’s needs will just take me down the path of financial ruin and self-indulgence. I don’t have time and energy for that stuffMaybe later.

I had continued, for the entirety of my 20s and most of my 30s, to work in situations that were uncomfortable to me. I dated men I didn’t feel good with. Surely, I was the problem, I thought. I took responsibility in my life for everyone and everything that didn’t work. If I could just contort myself enough, I could fix the problems in other people and in situations that were unworkable. It was the magical thinking of childhood, carried into adulthood. Surely, if I am good enough and say things the right way, my mother will love me and stop hurting me.

Parenting, while excruciatingly difficult, cast a spotlight on the dark, lonely place my heart inhabited.

Seeing my child and loving him awakened me to the child I had once been: I had deserved my mother’s love and care. I didn’t deserve abuse. My heart should have been cared for and heard. My mother’s abuse had not stemmed from my horrible heart: it had come from profound mental illness. I saw that message in my son’s sweet face, as if a written message from the finger of God.

Having so little left at the end of the day of parenting and working forced me to finally value my precious little self. I had nothing else to throw at emotionally unavailable men and work situations that sucked the life out of me. I actually grieved this for a while: I so badly wanted to run around and seek out empty wells for a sip of water. I just couldn’t do it. I was too tired at the end of any given day to do it any more.

Slowly, from a sad and lonely place, I started to see that the things that fed me, things like music, art, good friends, writing, and satisfying work were not luxuries. They were the very things that would put fuel in the tank of my personal and familial RV and keep it trucking. 

Eventually, after fingers down my throat, a bad marriage and subsequent divorce, jobs I couldn’t stand but did anyway, and lots of co-dependent contortions, I found my compass somewhere in the baggage of my self. I had a heart, and its needs stopped being inconveniences and dreams I acknowledged only when I slept. I have a heart, and I hear Her today. She has wonderful things to say.