A Mother’s Love-Hate (or, More Tales of a Narcissist)

Every now and then, this meme makes the rounds on social media:

mother meme

For many people, what it says is probably mostly true. Most mothers love their children, and many try to do so unconditionally, accepting and loving their children for who they are. But not every mother loves unconditionally. Some mothers love very conditionally, criticizing their children when they don’t measure up to their standards. Some mothers cannot accept the children that God gave them, preferring to remake them in their own image. And some mothers are so mentally ill that they are literally incapable of loving in any kind of healthy way.

I’m a mother myself, and my own mother falls into the mentally ill category. For many years, my experience of my mother was one of confusion, frustration, and anger. I could barely spend ten minutes in my parents’ presence without becoming seethingly angry. I thought something was wrong with me. They certainly thought so. It took a long time to understand what was really going on.

I understand that my mother suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, and this brings with it a whole host of toxic behaviors that simply felt normal to me. But the most difficult piece of her toxicity was the splitting. Ultimately, this is why I had to cut off my parents.

The Golden Child vs. The Black Sheep

Photo by Böhringer Friedrich

Photo by Böhringer Friedrich

I was an only child, so I didn’t have to compete with a sibling. I’m not sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I tend to think that if I’d had a sibling, I would’ve lost him or her, too, so maybe it’s just as well.

As the sole child of a narcissist, my mother could only see me as an extension of herself. Therefore, I needed to have all of the qualities that she liked about herself. This aspect of me is The Golden Child, or the “All-Good” person. When I was the Golden Child, I was her. She couldn’t separate us in her mind. No loving devotion was spared for the Golden Child. The Golden Child could do no wrong, and woe to those who disagreed with that assessment.

Unfortunately, the image of me as the Golden Child often conflicted with reality. Perversely, I insisted on becoming a very different person than my mother. I had my own likes and dislikes, my own ideas and opinions, my own beliefs, my own personality. So the Real Me was at odds with the Golden Child. How could I be both things? Of course, I couldn’t.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), splitting is defined as “A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.” In other words, you’re either all good, or you’re all bad. The actual gray area where most human beings live is not an option for someone who is a narcissist or who suffers from borderline personality disorder.

So, some days—some minutes—I was the Golden Child. But then I might do something to reveal my Black Sheep side, the part of me that was the shameful, disgraceful failure. Failure, in this sense, meant that I was not behaving “correctly” and that I was not fulfilling my mother’s fantasy of who she wanted me to be. On any given day, this fantasy could be a moving target, so you can imagine how often I might find myself exiled to Darkest Black Sheep Land, for no discernible reason.

The Golden Child is Thrown Under the Bus

After spending many years being confused by my mother’s irrational splitting behavior, a series of events solidified my status as Black Sheep and eventually led to my enlightenment about her mental illness. The first event was that I left my husband, and then I moved in with and later married a woman. This did not fit my mother’s fantasy of who I was supposed to be at all, so the Golden Child part of me began to disappear at this point. My mother was so upset by my lesbianism that she avoided me. She would not come to our wedding, nor was she interested in visiting.

The second event occurred a few years later:  I had a baby with my wife. This child physically came from me, so this was a genetic grandchild. Suddenly, my mother wanted to visit.

My parents visited us five times over the course of the next two and a half years, and each visit was worse than the one before. One thing was clear:  my relationship with my mother had changed. I was a Black Sheep, all the time. The Golden Child was now my daughter, whom my mother saw as the new, better extension of herself. In fact, she said as much. I mentioned to her that I was disappointed that she did not send me a birthday card one year, and she replied, “Out with the old; in with the new.”

My mother had thrown me under the bus.

“Saving” the New Golden Child

When my parents visited, it became clear that my mother only had eyes for my daughter Wren. They came to help us with a move to a new house, and at that time I became seriously ill. I had a high fever that developed into pneumonia, and the morning after my parents arrived, there was something really wrong with me. My lips were blue. I was trying not to pass out.

My mother did nothing while I sat in distress; she just held my daughter and told my father to get me some orange juice. I couldn’t speak for myself. My wife finally saw what was happening and asked my father for her cellphone so she could call 911. He hesitated. She had to ask again. My mother said I was fine and just needed some juice. My wife asked for her phone again. My dad finally gave it to her.

The paramedics came and diagnosed me with tachycardia, which meant a first-class ticket to the hospital’s cardiac ward, later followed by a cardioversion. Before the EMTs took me out of the house, I remember vividly feeling that my mother secretly hoped I would die, and then she could have my daughter. I didn’t imagine that feeling. My wife told me later that after they took me to the hospital, my mother closed the door and said, “What’s for breakfast?”

I could see that my mother wanted my daughter to herself and that she had found a new Golden Child. This also meant that I, the Black Sheep, was in her way. She began to thwart me in every way possible. Whatever I asked her to do regarding my child, she did the opposite. When my daughter was old enough to talk to, my mother began to whisper things in her ear, about “mean old mommy” and “good Granny.” My daughter, who was confused, began to act out. After the last visit with my mother, it took about two months to get our family back on an even keel again. I realized that this kind of “divide-and-conquer” behavior from my mother was only going to get worse. I couldn’t have her visit and then spend months trying to put my family (and my emotional state) back together again. So I ended my relationship with my parents.

Embracing The Black Sheep

One of the last times I spoke with my mother, I really saw her. I was having a “fierce discussion” with her about my child and how certain things were just not okay with me (like jerking her by one arm, a tactic she’d used on me as a child, which resulted in frequent shoulder dislocations). I used “I” language (I feel that…), and I kept my cool. But I also stood my ground while I spelled out my boundaries. No one had ever really done that in our family, and the person who emerged during this discussion was fascinating. My mother screamed and literally spit venom. I had never seen her act like that before. Then she’d stop and cry, and I could see that she was in pain and really just did not know how to deal with me. I also understood that, truly, you cannot reason with a narcissist. She just wasn’t capable of it. I was at a dead end.

I am probably forever The Black Sheep now, if not worse. The Big Bad Wolf? Who knows. But that is her perspective. It’s not the truth. The truth is that I’m a wonderful, fallible, healthy, and happy person. My children are neither Golden Children nor Black Sheep. They are who they are. They’re wonderful people, and I’m privileged to know them.

I always tell my children that there is nothing they can do, say, think, or feel that will make me not love them. To me, that’s what unconditional love looks like. I do my best to give it to them, and to me. I deserve it.

Why Do I Feel Angry?

My grandparents were angry, my parents were angry, my ex-husband was angry, and I myself sometimes feel unreasonably and even uncontrollably angry. So I get angry people. You could say I’ve made a lifelong study of it. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Anger Has 3 Primary Expressions

why do you feel angry

Kids feel angry, too

To understand anger, it’s helpful to understand how differently people can express it. Anger can be expressed in any of these ways:

  1. Violent, externalized anger
    This is what most people envision when they think about anger. This kind of anger may be characterized by yelling and screaming, maybe even hitting or verbal abuse. This kind of anger is the scariest and most upsetting, but what is really happening is that the angry person is unable to deal with whatever is troubling them, so they try to “get rid of” the bad feelings by directing them onto others.
  2. Passive-aggressive behavior
    Passive-aggressive behavior is an expression of anger, except no yelling or arguing is involved. Instead, the passive-aggressive person gives the appearance of agreeing with what you say or what your stated goals are, but then they passively undermine you by consistently doing the opposite of what you want or thought you both had agreed upon.
    Passive-aggressive behavior is the perfect mask for “stealth anger.” It is so effective that passive-aggressive people often believe—even insist—that they are not angry. They do not see their behavior for what it is and are typically unaware that they are doing it.
  3. Depression
    Depression is the opposite of #1, in that this form of anger is directed inward. Instead of directing their anger onto other people, the depressed person directs it onto themselves instead. By taking it all onto themselves, the depressed person may resent that they have effectively martyred themselves in this way (instead of communicating their anger to their loved ones in a healthy way), which may make them even more depressed over time.

Anger is Masking Deeper, Scarier Feelings

If you or someone you love frequently expresses anger in any of the ways listed above, please know that the anger itself isn’t the real problem. Anger is a symptom, which is why simply releasing the anger occasionally (by exploding, going into a dark depression, being more passive-aggressive) doesn’t work in the long run. In order for the anger to be managed, the underlying feelings have to be understood.

Anger is a defense mechanism, really. It’s an attempt to keep you emotionally and maybe even physically safe. This often doesn’t work very well, but if you approach it from that understanding, it begins to make sense. Your inner child is trying to protect you from feelings that, from his or her perspective, are even scarier than feeling angry.

So, what kinds of feelings might be behind the anger? Here are a few of them:

  • Anxiety
    Some people are naturally anxious. It may be biology, it may be upbringing (perfectionist parents, for example), or it may be some of both. We live in an increasingly complex world, and a mundane task for one person may feel completely overwhelming to another. If someone feels like they “have to” do something that makes them anxious, anger is likely to make an appearance somewhere along the way.
  • Frustration
    A frustrated person is likely to feel angry:  angry that they aren’t heard, angry that they “have to” do something that makes them uncomfortable, angry that they are faced with a scary challenge that they aren’t sure they can handle.
  • Lack of Control
    No one likes to feel like they are out of control, but of course, everyone is. Nevertheless, it’s a terribly scary feeling. Think of a child, raging against the forces trying to control or constrain his or her spirit. We all understand this, because we know somewhere inside that we are free, so what’s with all of this “behave” nonsense? The two-year-old child having a tantrum is really no different than a grown-up expressing their own frustration at being out of control.
  • Guilt
    Everyone does things they aren’t proud of, but one of the ways in which we protect ourselves is to avoid feelings of guilt for what we have done, because they make us feel bad about ourselves. Avoiding guilt doesn’t work, of course, so a guilty person will either start trying to give away their guilt to someone else in the form of anger, or they will stuff it inside and let it fester away as depression.
  • Fear
    Everyone is afraid of something, but sometimes certain fears can rule our lives. For example, the fear of failing or the fear of appearing “stupid” can make people behave in angry ways. What are you most afraid of? Be honest with yourself, and ask your inner child. He or she knows the answers.

Anger Isn’t “Bad”

Part of what makes anger so difficult to understand is the huge amount of judgment that surrounds it. People who “get angry” are judged to be “bad people.” Now, it is true that angry people sometimes do bad things. Anger puts blinders on good judgment. But many people assume that someone who is really angry has no right to be, which is the same thing as saying, “You shouldn’t feel that.” This is like telling someone whose parent just died that they shouldn’t feel sad.

All feelings are messengers, and anger is no exception. What is your anger trying to tell you? What are the underlying issues behind your anger? Discover and begin to deal with those, and you will have begun your healing.

The goal in life is not “never be angry.” This is unrealistic. You are going to be angry. Some days, you might even be really angry. It’s just a feeling. What’s important is how you deal with and express this feeling.

Learning New Ways to Cope

If anger has been the first emotional door that you open, then it’s going to take time to learn to open other doors. There are a number of strategies you can adopt to help you along the way. Knowing what lies behind your anger will help you find the right strategies for you. For example, I gradually came to understand that I’m not an angry person—I’m an anxious person. Stressful situations make me very touchy because I’m having a hard time coping. Once I understood this, I could take steps to lighten my own load. Below are some ideas for helping you manage your anger.

Reduce anxiety

When you can, avoid the things that make you feel really anxious. If you can’t avoid some of them, then at least try to minimize how many of them you have to deal with at one time. Ask for and accept help. Lighten your load! Give a voice to your anxiety. Treat yourself to some “me time.” Give yourself a gift every day. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It could be a walk, a cup of coffee, a few minutes with a video game. Just whatever makes you feel happy and relaxed.

If too many things are making you anxious, talk to your doctor. Homeopathic solutions may help, or you may need a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication. There is no failure in getting help.

Say and act what you feel

This is a two-part solution. Part one is to understand how you really feel—not how you’re supposed to feel, not how you should feel, or not how you’d like to feel. How you really feel. You may not be accustomed to knowing. It’s time to find out. If no one had any expectations of you, if you had no obligations whatsoever, how would you feel about a given situation?

The second part is to speak what you feel, and wherever possible, act what you feel. In life, there may be some constraints on what you can do. You might like to take a trip around the world, but your family might need you to keep drawing a paycheck and take junior to soccer practice. Life is compromise, after all. But if you say “no” too often when you feel “yes,” or you say “yes” too often when you feel “no,” then you are making yourself miserable and breeding resentment, which makes you angry.

Make healthy changes, slowly

Make a list of the things that cause you stress, that you don’t enjoy, or that you may resent in some way. Look at the list and pick one easy thing you can change or get rid of altogether. Maybe someone else would like to pick up the gauntlet. Or maybe the world won’t end if you stop doing it. Let it go, and remove it from your to-do list.

After a few weeks, come back to this list and see if there’s something else you can change or offload. Try to work with the easy things first. Over time, you may discover that you have made incremental positive changes that make you feel happier and less stressed. By doing this slowly, you also give yourself a chance to adapt to change, which can be stress-inducing in itself. Life isn’t a contest. You don’t have to change everything overnight, and you shouldn’t try.

Take responsibility for your feelings

No one else is “making you angry.” That’s a cop out. Other people may inadvertently do things that just happen to trigger your anger, and all of the feelings underlying it, but no one else is making you angry. You are choosing to react angrily to the input or actions of others, and you’ve been doing it for so long that it’s a habit, which means it doesn’t feel like a conscious choice to you. Nevertheless, you are the one who is choosing to respond with anger. Own it.

Switching gears from anger may seem impossible at first, but it can be done. Once you realize that you are being triggered by something that makes you feel a) anxious, b) frustrated, c) controlled, d) guilty, e) fearful, f) all of the above, then you can name that trigger and you can name your historic response to it. And then you can change it.

Let’s say you your spouse asks you to do something, and you feel angry as a result. What is the real reason you are angry? Do you feel controlled? Does it feel stressful because it’s “one more thing” you have to do? Are you afraid that you won’t be able to do it well? When you can identify what’s really going on, you can give a voice to that and respond in another way.

Don’t live in the past

No doubt people in your past have betrayed you, wronged you, or even egregiously hurt you. But when you think about those events, you are effectively reliving them, which means you are reliving the pain. This only harms you, not the person who wronged you.

Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
~The Buddha

When these memories and feelings come up, gently release them. Resolve to live today, in the present moment. The memories of past pain cannot harm you anymore if you do not want them to.

Forgive yourself and others

You know this already. I barely need to say it. But so often, we hear this, and we secretly think, That’s too hard, or even, That’s impossible. It is neither of these, but if you believe it is, then it will be so for you. There is huge power in simply stating to yourself that you have decided to forgive yourself and others. Just saying, “I am deciding to forgive” is huge. It may not really feel complete in a day, a month, or even a year, but it will put you much farther down the road than you think.

So much of anger is resentment. You may resent others for controlling you or putting constraints on you or even doing actual harm to you. You may also resent yourself—what else is guilt?—for something you have done or something you are. Resentment becomes hatred and hatred bubbles out in anger at some point. Let go of all resentments and guilt. If you do this, you will magically transform your relationships with others, and with yourself. You can do this. I believe in you.

Find and accept help

You do not have to heal on your own. In fact, having a catalyst will help you heal much faster. This person could be a therapist, a counselor, or a close friend. Whoever it is, it should be someone with whom you feel completely safe, and with whom you can be completely honest. A good catalyst will tell you the truth, gently, and listen with understanding and compassion.

Life is a journey, and so is healing. There is no perfect way to do either, except for the way you are doing it. Whatever path you feel you may be stumbling along is the perfect path for you. And that’s okay!

A Closed Door to the Past

close door to past

There was nothing left to glean from all this revisiting. No more knowledge, no more insight, no more wisdom to be mined.

Brighthill is proud to bring you a guest blogger, Rashi Starlight.

When I was writing up my notes for a pentacle class a few weeks ago, I was pondering how it would be to get out of balance with each element. It wasn’t until several weeks later that I realized that I was living my life way out of balance with Spirit. I was too much in Spirit, and so obsessed with working out issues that it prevented me from connecting with Deity. More importantly, I was so out of touch with myself that I became mentally isolated from my entire life and found it impossible to find joy in the now.

I became so intent with working out feelings from the past that I started forcing myself for go farther and farther back and basically reliving every wound, every slight (real or imagined) that I ever felt. I constantly thought about past relationships, past tricks, childhood slights, how much I dislike my parents, blah blah blah blah… After I spent days forcing myself to “face” and “deal with” every emotional ache and pain that I had experienced in high school, I finally understood that I was just torturing myself for no real reason. And that I was being outright stupid.

And hence, the title of this post and the picture of a CLOSED DOOR. I was in meditation, in the throes of yet another episode of angst from some forgotten bully who was mean to me 30 years ago, when suddenly I said, “This is nonsense!” So, I forced myself up, took off my clothes, and lay in the tub under the shower praying to see what the point of this all was. And it came to me…there was none. We live in an Oprah, New Age world where every pain, every sorrow needs to be beaten into the ground with hours of talk and years of therapy. I did all this and paid my dues, and it came to me that I was done. None of it mattered.

I could spend endless hours reliving everything in my past (which wasn’t that bad, in the big scheme of things) or I could just say, “ENOUGH!” I had enough of process, of reliving trauma, of trying to make things worse or better than they may have been. There was nothing left to glean from all this revisiting. No more knowledge, no more insight, no more wisdom to be mined. I do not consider myself to be wise, enlightened, a “survivor” or whatever modern terminology applies to dictate what you should be. But I know that I have seen, dealt, and grown. It can all be put into permanent storage now.

So, underneath the soothing water of the showerhead, with my Walmart candles lighting the bathroom, I decided to shut it all off. I visualized a door slamming on all this baggage. Mom, Dad, high school, probation, old shames, and unrequited love no longer mattered. Nostalgia no longer matters. The door on the past is closed. Slammed, with great force.

Having never had one, I don’t believe in “a-ha! moments,” but I can say that this was definitely a shift in perspective. I was ready to enter the world of the living and the world of now. I felt lighter, happier, and motivated to do things for the sake of doing them, just because I wanted to. I finally understand that to overcome life challenges, you have to actually overcome them—not relive them over and over, hoping that some nugget of insight will come down from the sky to instantly make you a light being. I experienced pain and lessons, and I learned about what makes me tick and what makes me go down a rabbit hole of despair. Now I just want to do my thing and live my life again.

I remember some awful pop song from the 70s where some confessional singer kept saying, “These are the good ol’ days.” All of the different phases of my life, before “enlightenment,” were happy. I lived in the now and had fun. Some disastrous results occurred, but what the hell? I had tons of “good ol’ days,” and I was sad because I should be having them again. All the things were aligned:  great dogs, my coven, the workshop that I teach, a cute apartment, boxes of art supplies, and my friends who are really my family. The only thing that was in my way was the past. My quest to know myself got lost in a ghost land of half remembered despair that I felt I needed to heal.

Now I see that the healing comes in acknowledging, learning, and closing the door once and for all. These are the good old days!

My Father’s Inner Child

DadI realize now what a profound impact my relationship with my father has had on my life, but in my youth it was harder to see. I certainly knew that my relationship with my father had broken in some way, but since neither of us knew how to fix it, we just lived with it. And now we are completely alienated, in part because he never healed his own inner child wounds. Instead, he has continued to relive them.

My father was born in 1941, a classic “war baby.” He was an accident, born to two people who were too much alike and who, once the war ended and they were thrust together full-time, couldn’t actually stand one another. My father’s father, Pete, left home when my dad was 8 years old. My dad never saw Pete again until much later in life, when we located him at my instigation. Pete was nine months away from death at that point, and we learned from my father’s newly met half-siblings that Pete had always told them that my father had died. Ouch.

I get why Pete left and never wrote or visited my father. My grandmother’s father must have suffered from narcissistic personality disorder, because she had many of the traits herself. She had a wicked temper, and she struck her children until they were her size and wouldn’t take it from her any more. She was smart and highly manipulative. I think she liked to stir up drama and bad feelings for the sheer fun of it. Mind you, I love this woman. She has her good side. But her bad side was pretty hard to live with, even as grandchildren. We always understood the pecking order:  who was the favorite and who was trash. God help you if you were on her bad side. So I can understand why Pete stayed away, although it’s not an excuse.

My grandmother was unusual for her generation because she worked outside the home. One of my father’s early sitters used to lock him in the closet all day and tell him that if he told anyone about it, that the spiders would get him. He is still terrified of spiders to this day. Eventually, his mother did find out, and he didn’t go back there again.

At some point, though, my dad was on his own. My father is a good cook because he has been doing it since he was probably 8. He started to cook because he was hungry. My grandmother wasn’t home, and even if she was, that woman just didn’t cook. So he experimented. First, he tried the dog food, as cereal. Even with milk, it was awful. He tried his hand at pancakes, made from flour and water. Not terribly tasty. Over time, though, he figured out how to provide for himself. He had to.

My grandmother remarried when my father was probably around 11 or so. This was a good thing. My Papa was a quiet, kind man, and he adopted my father and gave him his name. My father bears it proudly. Papa was the only father he ever really knew. He was very different from Pete, however. Papa must have really loved my grandmother, because he put up with a lot. His method of dealing was to remain silent and to avoid stirring the pot. Everyone walked on eggshells around the sleeping dragon that was my grandmother’s temper, and Papa was no exception. He was a wonderful man in many ways, but he tolerated her abuse toward him and the children rather than speak out about it.

All of those early years of living on military bases during the war must have been formative, because my father was always interested in the military. So it wasn’t surprising that he went into the Navy after graduating high school. I believe that the military gave him the sense of family, discipline, and cohesiveness that he had never gotten at home. After a tour with the Navy, he tried his hand at being a musician, one of his biggest passions. But musicians don’t make a great living, so he enlisted in the Army, hoping to start a family soon.

My parents met when my dad was passing through Alabama for training. For my father, it was love at first sight. My mother was a good-looking woman, and she has a certain charm to her. After knowing each other for precisely six weeks, they married, and my mother left her job to travel to New Mexico as a new bride. When I asked my mother if she loved him when she married him, she replied, “I don’t know.” I believe her truth is that she has never loved him, but she thought she was heading to a better life with a nice house filled with nice things. She envisioned a man who had the drive to become an officer and do really well. Unfortunately for her, my father had no real ambition, and he always took the easiest route. I think he was just afraid to fail, and his ego couldn’t handle that.

Due to my grandmother’s constant belittling of him, my father had no self-esteem. One way in which people cope with that is to become bombastic and to avoid ever being “wrong” in any way. The mere thought of my father being wrong about anything was enough to send him into a rage. He had his mother’s temper. It would come out of nowhere, and it was always triggered by old inner child patterning. In his fantasy, my father saw himself as supremely competent and intelligent, as someone who knew better than anyone else ever could (he often said if he could just run the country for two weeks, he’d set everything right). My father could not cope with challenges to his authority, either, but that’s just what he got in my mother.

My mother told me that in New Mexico, it became apparent that my father expected her to cook and clean and do everything for him, as though she were June Cleaver. He would run the house and do all the thinking for both of them, and in her view, he treated her little better than a servant. This did not last. As I’ve written elsewhere, my mother is a textbook narcissist, and my father had unwittingly married his mother (as evidenced by the mutual loathing shared by my mother and her mother-in-law). My mother was not going to submit passively. She let him know, in no uncertain terms, that this would not fly, or she would be gone. My mother, when roused to a temper, is a fearsome thing, and my father’s fear of being abandoned overrides everything else. He lost the battle, and he ultimately lost the war.

After five years of marriage, I came along. My father was disappointed that I was not male, but he loved me very much in spite of this shortcoming. In my toddler and preschool years, I was a Daddy’s Girl, no question. He loved to play with me, and he could be a lot of fun when he was in his happy place. My mother, bless her, did not know how to play or be emotionally present at all, so it’s not surprising that I preferred my father’s company to hers. But this aroused my mother’s jealousy, and at some point, she began a campaign to undermine my father in my eyes. It wasn’t conscious, but it played out what I believe is her contempt for men, and my father in particular.

For my father’s part, it became obvious after awhile that I was going to be the only child he would have, so he funneled his desire for a son into me, and just began to treat me like he would a son. We talked about science, and he tried to involve me in his RC airplane hobby (which, I confess, bored me to tears). He really did his best, but I was always aware that I would’ve been so much better if I’d had a penis.

When I was 9, my parents bought a ranch in Texas, as a retirement property. Dad was looking forward to finishing his 20 years in the military, and this was his answer. But he still had some time to go, and buying this property meant that when he was stationed overseas in Germany, my mother and I would remain in Texas, where mom now had a job in order to afford the property. My father left us when I was 10. Aside from two one-month visits, one per year, I did not see him for two years. When he returned, I was 12, skidding into puberty, and not at all the same person that he left. My mother had changed as well, but my father had changed a lot.

When my father returned, I was so excited to see him at the airport. I was waiting for a great big, excited Daddy Hug, like I always used to get. He didn’t give me one. He didn’t seem very excited to see me at all, in fact. Honestly, I felt ignored. I couldn’t understand what had happened. He didn’t seem to care at all that I was there. Some fathers physically abandon their families. But from that time forward, I felt emotionally abandoned by him.

The period following my father’s return was the worst of my childhood. I was 12 going on 13, a truly difficult time in so many ways. But we all had to learn to live together again, and my father was acting as though he wasn’t sure he wanted to be married any more. He started smoking again, in secret, and lying about it. My parents fought daily. My father didn’t seem to like me. I couldn’t do anything right. I had begun to care about coiffed hair and makeup and nail polish, and if I didn’t want to muss my nails, he just got angry about it. Who was this person? I often asked myself. (Looking back, I wonder if the problem was that I was now becoming, unmistakably, a woman, and his deep, dark secret was that he just didn’t like women.)

I don’t know what happened for my father in Germany. Had he met a nice (not mentally ill) woman? Had he had an affair? Had two years of separation given him the space to express himself in ways that he could not within the joyless confines of his marriage? I will never know the answers to these questions. All I know is that I prayed that my parents would divorce, and that I would live with my mother.

In the end, my father’s fear of abandonment and my mother’s fear of being economically deprived (she had grown up in poverty) must have won out. They remained together, physically. But emotionally, the landscape had changed again. My mother had always shown a certain contempt for my father, but now it had grown exponentially. My father reacted to this contempt with periodic bursts of rage, no doubt fueled by frustration (it’s not like my parents talked about their issues). My house was ruled by passive aggression, and my mother ruled the roost. There was no compromise here. We catered to her whims and needs, and when my father flew into a rage, my mother and I entrenched, united against him.

Three is a difficult number, because when you have a threesome, it is easy to fall into “us” against “you.” The “us” may vary, or in the case of my family, it might not. Mom was always the center of the family. If my mother disapproved of me, my father was in lockstep with her, always fearful to upset her. If my father misbehaved, my mother would summon me to her side to disapprove. It was the worst kind of toxic dynamic, and the one who probably suffered the most from it is my father.

My dad feared being abandoned by my mother, as his father had abandoned him, but the truth was that my mother had abandoned him emotionally long, long ago. In fact, she had never really been with him. Because my father had not healed his sense of abandonment, he unwittingly visited it upon me, as well. The rift that opened when I was 12 never really closed.

As I grew into adulthood, my father tried to regain some of our old easygoing intimacy. He’d talk to me about some things. But for me, there was always this uneasy feeling of détente, as though we were carefully and quietly skating around the mammoth sitting in the middle of the room.

For one thing, conversation with him has never been easy. I found that I could not truly express myself, who I was inside, to him. The few times I attempted it, I unleashed his rage. For example, one day at 14, I confided that I had a crush on a certain boy at school. This boy was mixed race. My father exploded, “I ain’t having no black grandchildren!” My respect for him plummeted further as I thought, “You have no say in that.” I never again talked about my romantic interests with him.

Later, in college, I tried to talk to my father about something I’d learned in history class that I found very interesting. But what I was saying began to conflict with his highly conservative beliefs, and once again, he exploded. He ridiculed me, saying that I was “becoming so smart,” which had been a source of pride until that moment. I lost more respect for him as I realized that being educated was fine as long as I always agreed with and validated his worldview. Of course, I can see now that this was an inner child reaction. His inner child heard, “You are wrong,” and he couldn’t deal with that. So he took it out on me.

Many incidents such as these taught me that there were only a few “safe” topics of conversation with my father. We could talk about science fiction books and movies or computers. Airplanes were always a safe bet, too, but that topic had a soporific effect on me. Yawn.

In short, my father and I had nothing to talk about. There was nothing real that we could talk about. If I revealed the inner workings of me, he did not want to hear it (neither did my mother, but it was far worse with my father; my mother, at this time of my life, identified with me and would make more of an effort). If I revealed my true self in any way, it was the wrong thing to do, and I regretted it instantly. As a result, my father did not know me. We were strangers.

I look back, and I wonder where the playful daddy of my early childhood went. In part, I think he was worn down my mother’s joylessness and contempt for him. When he had his post-Germany crisis, he opted to remain in the prison that he built, and he became more and more depressed over time. Both of my parents suffer from long-term, clinical depression, but both came from a background that stigmatized mental issues, so it was never acknowledged.

In my thirties, I began to live my life on my own terms. I left my husband, married a woman, and proceeded to have children. I no longer cared what my parents thought about it. This broke what was left of my relationship with my mother, and I became her enemy. When I gave birth to my daughter, all of her motherly affection was transferred to her, and she actively tried to turn her against me (at age 2), just like she had done with me and my father. To make a long story short, things got so bad that I chose to cut off my parents. It was the only way to save my marriage, my children, and my sanity. My father was collateral damage.

I recognize that my mother and my father are a package deal, so it isn’t possible to cut off one without cutting off the other. And in our toxic dynamic of three, this resulted in my parents teaming up in a united front against me. My father has lost so much of himself that he responds according to my mother’s toxic dynamic.

My father’s worst fear is to be abandoned, and we always manifest our worst fear. I felt emotionally abandoned by him, and now I have physically abandoned him as well. It is sadly ironic.

It does make me sad to know that my father can’t be a part of my life. Sometimes I wonder if he will outlive my mother, and if so, what then? I could reach out to him. How would that go? Or he may predecease my mother, and there is an end to it.

My father is not a bad person. He has many unhealed traits. The rage, the fear of abandonment, the bombastic, in-your-face need to be “right.” But inside is a funny little boy, very creative, smart, and talented, who never learned to value himself just as he is, who has never appreciated his real worth, and who has never really experienced the love and intimacy that he craves. That, for me, is the real tragedy.

Shame and Blue Fingernails

overcome sexual shame

“Prostitutes,” by
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

On my thirteenth birthday, someone gave me blue nail polish. It was bright, it was bold, and I loved it. So naturally I painted my fingernails with it.

When my mother saw my fingernails, she told me to remove it. I had been allowed to wear pink, apricot, and red nail polish for years, so this made no sense to me. Why? I wanted to know.

My mother, who was from Alabama and had a very broad southern accent, said, “It makes you look like a Ho-er. Do you know what a Ho-er is?”

The two-syllable word sounded like someone who hoed for a living, but given her tone, I supposed that was an incorrect guess, so I shook my head.

“It’s someone who sells themselves for sex.”

Ah. She meant a whore. So the blue nail polish made me look, in her eyes, like a common prostitute. The red nail polish did not, but the blue did. Right. Glad we cleared that up.

My mother taught me a wide variety of ways to be ashamed of my physical body. Of boys, she said, “Tell them to keep their peter in their pants.” Of marriage, she said, “Boys like sleeping with girls, but when they want to get married, they’ll look for a virgin.”

But more than words, my mother transferred her feelings and energy on to me. What do I mean? I believe very strongly that people never have to speak a word on a subject, but they will still convey their prejudices, judgments, personal issues, and shame on to their children as a sort of energetic imprint. The transference is unconscious, of course, but we are all psychic beings, and we pick up on it. So, my mother also taught me that the body is dirty, that pleasure is sinful, that self-denial is righteous, and that the male of the species was not to be trusted.

My parents married after knowing each other for a mere six weeks. I do think, in 1965, that my father was pleased to find such a wholesome virgin who seemed so very charming and who was certainly attractive. My father is a sensual man, and he loves the pleasures of this world, particularly food, wine, music, and, yes, physical pleasure. Unfortunately, he married someone with the opposite sensibilities.

I know my mother was powerfully ignorant of her sexuality when they married, because to a large degree, she still is. The Encyclopedia of Sex, A-Z (with pictures), which occupied our family bookshelf mostly collected dust until I started poking through it when no one else was at home. It was greatly informative, but I had the nagging feeling that the lot of it was dirty, and I probably shouldn’t really be reading it at all. Which didn’t stop me.

The same is true of everyone’s first real sexual experience:  masturbation. It was the sort of thing I really wanted to do, but would promptly feel incredibly dirty and ashamed of after the fact. Mom had done her job well.

I was 18 when I first had sex, in college. I think I pretty much had to be out of my parents’ house in order for that to happen. In high school, the fear of getting pregnant and the attendant shame was enough to keep me in line. But in college, I found a degree of freedom, so I began to explore. The only problem with this sexual exploration is that, even then, in the back of my head, it always felt like my mother was watching—and disapproving.

This was borne out when my mother, who didn’t understand the meaning of “privacy,” was rummaging through my underwear drawer and found the condoms. She held one up. “What are you doing with this?” she asked. “Being safe,” I replied.

And then she cried for a week. No, seriously. She cried for a week because I was no longer a virgin.

This pretty much sums up why I’ve never had an honest conversation with my mother since I was probably 7 years old. Nothing good ever came of it.

But where did all this shame come from? In her Southern Baptist mindset, a male God had created men and women, told them to procreate, made it fun to procreate, and then told them not to do it too much or under the wrong conditions (of which there are many), or, if they did, then they were supposed to feel really terrible about it and beg for forgiveness. In this worldview, the body is the enemy. It is to be conquered, held in check, cleansed, made worthy even though it cannot actually ever be worthy.

I didn’t know it then, but I am aware now that there was sexual abuse in my mother’s household. I do not believe it was visited upon her directly, but it was certainly visited on probably at least two sisters, and my mother was aware of this in some way. My mother’s abhorrence for the physical goes beyond mere toxic religion.

The body is sinful, she thinks, and it is inherently dirty. She puts everything up her nose except cocaine, because she believes that there should not be mucus there, ever ever. It’s dirty. Her house is so clean you could eat off the floors. All knickknacks are under glass so they won’t get dust on them. Animals are dirty. She regards them as vermin, and they are not allowed in the house.

And as for sex? Well, let’s just say I feel sorry for my father, and I wonder how I got here.

Of course, she did her duty. And she wanted a child. A single child, because the physical trauma of giving birth to one was overwhelming. She had a rough time. I probably should have come via C-section. Her body was her enemy. I was not breastfed. And she spent years trying to persuade various doctors to remove her female organs. She finally found someone who would. Out, out, damned ovaries!

Poor Mom…

Shame is a human concept. The rest of life on this planet does not have shame for who they are or how they feel. The body is a vessel for the spirit that is to be cared for and enjoyed during its short journey in this realm. To feel shame for one’s body or anything else is to say that God (however you care to define the Divine) simply did not know what it was doing. That the Creation is flawed. The only thing flawed here, often, is the way in which we think of ourselves.

I think that shame arises from areas of cognitive dissonance. While the perpetrator of abuse may convince themselves (and the world) of their moral superiority, all the while knowing that they are actually out of integrity, the victims of abuse convince themselves of their moral inferiority and badness in order to make sense out of what is occurring. And social rules are used to create scapegoats for society’s shame. If a woman became pregnant out of wedlock, then she can bear the brunt of everyone else’s shame, and then individuals won’t have to look quite so hard at themselves and how they are out of integrity. It is so much easier to throw stones at someone else for their sins than to address your own…

Shame is a concept whose time has passed. Its only purpose is to keep people down, to disempower them. And it is particularly terrible when the person doing the disempowering is—you. It is the worst kind of self-abuse.

Our society gives a lot of lip service to the word “Freedom,” and I think few people even really know what it means any more. But if you want to be truly free, then you must release your shame. Love yourself, love your body, love your feelings, love your pleasures, love your passions. Be you, gloriously. And wear blue nail polish.

Lessons in Humility

hs graduationI have known many people who have poor self-esteem, and it certainly has a negative impact on their life. The worse their self-esteem is, the more negative the impact becomes. This is why learning to love yourself is so very important.

That being said, I have also known a number of people who appear to have the opposite problem:  their self-esteem and their ego are bigger than Alaska. Are they narcissists in the textbook sense, or are they just arrogant and unpleasant to be around? Does it matter?

The interesting thing about the latter group is that, uniformly and paradoxically, they tend to suffer from worse self-esteem than many. It just doesn’t look like they do.

My father made up for an amazing lack of self-esteem by being bombastic, arrogant, loud, and opinionated. He wasn’t able to have what I would call an adult conversation with anyone. Truly. He stood always ready to drive his opinions and points home with a sledgehammer. If you happened to agree with his opinions, you’d probably get on all right. If you disagreed, then God help you. My father stated on more than one occasion—and he truly believed this—that if “people” would simply see his brilliance for what it was and elevate him into a position of authority (President, perhaps), then he would fix everything within the span of two weeks. And he really believed that he could, and that he would. All he required was the authority and power granted to a tyrant.

Growing up with the certainty of “rightness” all around me (my mother really was a textbook narcissist, so they were in lock-step on being superior to everyone else), I was in danger of becoming equally hard to take. My social skills were practically nonexistent. I think my saving grace was that I had a capacity for kindness that both of my parents lacked. But even so, by the time I was 13, I was no fun to be around.

If you are raised in an echo chamber that tells you how wonderful you (and by extension, your family) are, how smart you are, how much smarter you are, and what an idiot everyone else is, well… You start to believe all that nonsense. If your teachers are “idiots” (according to father), then you must have nothing to learn from them. What could they possibly teach you, the Bearer of All Knowledge? Indeed, no one on earth can teach someone who already knows everything. This is a bad place to live.

I was a fairly intelligent kid. I was not the smartest person ever born. I was not the cleverest. I was not the most talented. But my Family Mythology said that I had to be, because my parents were. I had to reflect their Greatness back to them. Failure to do so would reveal cracks in their armor, would allow those nasty feelings of unworthiness to come into their consciousness, and this had to be prevented at all costs.

As my father’s attitude and disrespect for others began to manifest in me at the horrible age of 13, a kind, quiet man stepped in and probably literally saved my life. He was the principal of the very small, rural school that I attended, and he called me into his office one day. He spoke kindly to me. He said that he knew I must be frustrated, since the school’s resources could only provide so much, and I was bored. And he said that my attitude toward some of my teachers had become disrespectful, and that this was not okay, and, worse, it was actually hurtful. That surprised me. It hadn’t occurred to me that my disdain for the teachers was hurtful. I didn’t actually mean to hurt anyone.

And because this man was so kind, so compassionate, and so forthright with me, I began to cry. I started to see that I had behaved very badly. I began to understand that my teachers were doing the best that they could for me, and that I needed to be more respectful, and gracious. And grateful. And I began to change.

I did change, over the years. But I did pay a price for my early arrogance:   I was ostracized by my classmates for a time. They really piled on, and that hurt. If that’s what it looks like to be the “smartest” and best, then I’d have to say it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it to place yourself on a pedestal above other people. Pedestals are very lonely places. Life happens in the crowd.

I have come to understand the most important lessons in life. You have to live with other people, who may not agree with you. You’d better show some respect, or life will be very hard. Other people’s feelings may not trump your own, but they still matter, particularly if you care about them. And I don’t know everything. If I thought I did, I would have stopped learning years ago. And that would have been a terrible tragedy.

I owe a lot to that school principal, wherever he is. A single compassionate conversation can change a life. Coach, wherever you are, this one’s for you. Thank you.

When Gift-Giving is Toxic

Gift that feels badAs we skid headlong into “that time of year,” when giving gifts is more of an obligation than anything else, I thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss the toxic aspect of gift-giving, and how it negatively impacts a relationship.

To be clear, I just want to state that there is nothing inherently wrong with giving or receiving gifts. If you are giving from your heart, out of the pure desire to give to another, then God bless you. Please do so. That is what giving gifts should look like:  given from the heart, without any attachment or expectation bound up with it. In a way, that is sort of the function of Santa Claus, and perhaps his appeal, as well. The gifts are freely and miraculously given, and the jolly old elf doesn’t even expect (nor does he get) a thank you in return. According to the legend we have created, Santa does it for the pure joy of giving, and nothing else. No wonder he is so well loved.

But then there are the other kinds of gifts, the kind of gift that feels bad, the kind that aren’t really gifts at all, and some of them are, quite frankly, massive burdens. You know what I’m talking about. They are passive aggression wrapped in bows, hateful commentary provided “because they love you,” or an imposition of someone else’s preferences for you. Or, maybe it’s just a lavish opportunity to “outdo” you with all the money “they” have. Whatever the reason, the end result is that the gift makes you feel bad. And that is toxic.

No matter what dynamic is occurring in the push-me/pull-you of the relationship, it is important to understand that it is probably largely unconscious on the part of the giver (or the receiver, which I’ll get to in a minute). The person who gives hurtful gifts probably didn’t do any plotting with the ultimate goal of hurting you; unconsciously, they are just trying to “win” a power struggle that has been going on between you, and “gifts” are a perfect weapon.

If a person gives you a gift that has an expectation attached, then it is a toxic gift. For example, giving you a gift membership to a gym that you don’t want and have no intention of using is toxic. This “gift” may keep on giving when the expectation that you go to the gym and work out regularly becomes a frequent topic of conversation. The gift-giver feels, because they spent money on you, that they are entitled to badger you about a choice they wish you would make. As a result, you may feel bad about yourself, and you may (rightfully) resent this person’s intrusion into your life and personal decisions. Gifts of this nature may require extreme boundary setting on your part. And if gifts like this regularly come from the same person, it is entirely within your right to start refusing them—kindly, if possible.

Some gifts, like in the previous example, may be calculated to hit you where it hurts. People who have personality disorders, or traits of disorders, often use gifts to try to control other people. In the gym example, the gift-giver may think, “She’s too fat. She needs to exercise more.” This may or may not be true, but if the person believes it to be true, then their “gift” is actually an attempt to make you do what they want you to do.

My mother was a classic toxic gift-giver. One year, she bought me a set of cutlery, but apparently she made the mistake of letting me choose my own style—which she didn’t like. The next year, I received a set of dishes that she had chosen—and which I didn’t like. The greatest Battle of the Gifts was waged with her mother-in-law, however. My mother found many things to dislike in my grandmother’s home, and her method of dealing with it was to give my grandmother something new to replace her old things. For example, cutlery. One year, my mother gave my grandmother a new set to replace “her old, ugly set.” My grandmother was wily and passive-aggressive herself, and that set of cutlery quickly disappeared into a black hole, never to be seen again, but her “old, ugly set” continued to appear at the dinner table. My mother complained bitterly about this on a regular basis and actually had the chutzpah to ask my grandma to give back the set if she wasn’t going to use it.

Of course, gift-giving is a two-way street, and the motives of the gift-giver may be quite pure and innocent—until the receiver gets hold of it. I read a column in Ask Amy once that described a daughter-in-law who dutifully attempted to buy a gift for her mother-in-law each Christmas. One year, the mother-in-law began to give the woman a “do not buy” list, so the daughter-in-law took care to avoid the items on the list. The next Christmas, however, her gift from the previous year appeared on her mother-in-law’s “do not buy” list. This is textbook passive-aggressive behavior, and you can’t win that war.

I had a rough time buying gifts for my mother as an adult. I tried buying her clothing (she loves clothes). But they “didn’t fit right,” “were scratchy,” the “wrong color,” or a bad choice in some other way. There was always something wrong with everything I bought her. I began to ask her what she did want, specifically. One year, she handed me a catalog and pointed out a pair of diamond earrings. Fine! Easy. I ordered them; I wrapped them; she opened them—and promptly found a “flaw” in them. I heard about that “flaw” for months. And then I started giving her gift cards…

No one can control you through their gifts without your consent, of course. If you are the giver, have no—and I mean zero—expectations. Don’t expect gratitude. Don’t expect joy. If you get them, then yay! But if you don’t, know that their inability to be happy or to receive has nothing to do with you. As long as you gave from your heart, then you’re good.

Likewise, work on being a good receiver. Even if you don’t like the gift and would never choose it, a simple and heartfelt “Thank you” will suffice. Even if the gift feels thoughtless or hurtful, give the giver the benefit of the doubt. If the gift feels toxic and you have previous experience of toxic gifts from this person, then you can be gracious and set your boundaries at the same time. If the relationship is valuable to you, it may be time for a heartfelt discussion.

But really, when it comes down to it, the most important gifts in the world are the gifts of Love, Time, and Presence. They don’t need gift-wrap, and they never go out of style. No one looks back on their life and thinks fondly of what they received for their 25th Christmas. But people do look back on their lives and remember the good times spent with loved ones, the times that people shared together, the times that loved ones were engaged and present with them.

I’ll leave you with Fab Wisdom…

I may not have a lot to give
But what I got I’ll give to you
I said, I don’t care too much for money
‘Cause money can’t buy me love

 

Brainwashing and the Inner Child

Brainwashing through mediaI was interested to see this interview pop into my news feed today, about how a filmmaker’s father changed after listening to right-wing talk radio for a number of years. I had to read it, because I could relate. My own father’s personality underwent a change after years of being steeped in Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, so I was curious to understand what Jen Senko had experienced.

There were many similarities in our stories, although it has to be said that my father was never a Democrat, and he was never terribly tolerant of minorities. He always had a rage in him, but it lay at rest more often than not, and his views thirty years ago would not have been considered extreme. I grew to become a different person, with different beliefs, and while he wasn’t happy about many of my beliefs, we had a sort of détente, in which we agreed not to discuss any of it in order to keep the family peace.

Brainwashing Through Media

My father has always been addicted to media, particularly TV, and this grew worse with the pervasive availability that cable TV offered. Round-the-clock news meant that my father could indulge in round-the-clock fixes. He had a TV in every room of the house, all tuned to the same channel so that he could move from one room to the next freely, without missing a word of the news cycle. When FOX news came along, he self-selected the voice that echoed his own, leaving behind the likes of Dan Rather or Walter Cronkite, who, it must be said, no longer really exist in any form.

It does not matter whether one is conservative or liberal, since these are political labels, and I believe that politics are irrelevant in that they are part of the illusion. None of this is real. What is real is Love, and how we treat one another. What is real is that we are not separate; we only believe that we are. Political labels are additional faces of a separation that does not exist.

Jen Senko uses the term “brainwashing” when talking about what happened to her father, and I believe this is an appropriate usage in this case. My father has undergone the same thing. You cannot listen to hateful diatribes against “them” and not be affected by it. It doesn’t matter who “they” are, either. They can be liberals, conservatives, commies, terrorists (so hard to pin down who is and who isn’t), gays, minorities, the 1%, the Muslims, the Jews, the Christians. Whenever someone tries to stir up your emotions against another human being, dehumanized in a group label, then they are attempting to brainwash you. They are attempting to kindle your anger. If your anger is stirred often enough, it will become hate. And when you hate, you are easily led to act in a way that probably goes against your own stated interests, morals, and beliefs. This is the function of propaganda:  to lead you into willful blindness.

My father has an aggressive, in-your-face personality that makes him hard to like, much less love. Underneath, however, there is an insecure little boy who has incredibly low self-esteem. I have seen that boy many times. That boy is capable of being silly, enjoying his food, capering to music, and having fun. I really love that little boy. Over the years, however, he has gradually disappeared. The more Dad listened to people who told him whom to hate and why, the more his anger was invoked, the more self-righteous he felt, the more that little boy slipped away into a long, long sleep.

Propaganda Makes You Hate

When the ego is certain that it sucks, it will try to find ways to validate itself and to reassure itself that it does not suck. The most unhealed way for it to do this is by elevating itself above others. If you can be better than them, then you don’t have anything to worry about, right? But alas, when you start to separate yourself from them and them and them, it becomes very easy to hate them. And this is when human beings start to behave as less than human.

All propaganda, all brainwashing, needs you to hate somebody. It needs you to rally with a given side against a common “enemy.” It will stoke your anger, yes, but also your civic pride. It will stoke your sense of belonging to the “right” group. It will make you feel joyful for being among “the elect.” It is the elect who will save the world from them. At this point, you have all the elements required for a fascist ideology. Let’s get them and save ourselves!

Of course, it doesn’t need to be this way. People who live to control others by brainwashing them to their “side” are indeed pitiable. What misery, to live secretly believing that you have no worth if you cannot win people to your “cause,” which ultimately exists to validate a fragile ego. People who want to be brainwashed to a “cause” are secretly looking for somewhere that they can belong. They want a family; they want to be accepted; they want to be told that they are okay. They want to fit in, somewhere. And of course, everyone wants to fit in with the “winners.”

The Inner Child Seeks Validation

In my book, Discovering Your Inner Child: Transforming Toxic Patterns and Finding Your Joy, I write that everyone’s inner child basically wants three things:

  • To be safe
  • To be validated and heard
  • To be loved

In the case of my father, he has been searching his whole life for validation that he is okay. His overriding need to be “right” is just an extension of that. His inner child literally cannot stand the thought that he could be “wrong.” But no one is right, and no one is wrong. That’s the big secret…

The answer to all problems is always Love. LOVE. Righteous anger may feel good in the moment, but that’s a fire that has to burn itself out, lest it burn down the house. You cannot hate someone without anger. But as with all emotions, anger is just a messenger. It’s telling you something. That anger really isn’t about them. It’s about you. It’s about all of us. Maybe that anger is just saying, “I really want to be heard. I want to be treated like someone who has something to contribute.”

When we start to look at our feelings and take responsibility for them (my anger belongs to me, not them), then we can start to address the real issues. Then we can start to take our own power, instead of giving it away to someone else who just wants to use our anger for their own purposes.

I love my father, and I miss the little boy in him. I miss the person who could express joy. The person who sees enemies everywhere is no fun to be around. But I can offer him Love, even from afar. I forgive him, and in so doing, I forgive myself. I hope he can forgive himself one day and rediscover his child heart.

When You Wish

Alpha Capricorni

Photo by Mike Peel,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The universe whispers. It’s whispered to me since before I was born, of the grief that echoed in my mother’s body from the death of a child born a year before me. It whispered that she yearned for me, and so I was born two months early, yanked into a shattered world. At first I thought it was only my world that was broken, but I came to realize that the whole world is shattered, like glass. Some pieces will cut you and become buried so deeply that you have to dig them out. Other pieces fall quietly, reflecting colors and light. Sometimes, when you look at a piece of shattered glass just the right way, in just the right light, a flame rises up that seems caught in it. I saw that flame in his eyes, in one flickering glance.

When the world is shattered into a trillion fractals, it seems impossible that two pieces which fit together would ever find each other, but I remember what day it was:  September 18, 1974, ten days before my fifteenth birthday. I remember because that was the day I put away the last journal of my childhood and started a new one. I wrote, “I saw the most beautiful boy today. I think he’ll kiss me one day.” I wished on a star for him to love me. And he ran away every time he saw me. It was a long time before I believed in stars again.

His name was Jonathan. We were at school together, in Connecticut. A small, private school with few places to hide. I trapped him once or twice. I set my girlfriends scheming. The result was always that I was embarrassed, and he was mortified. But I was entirely transfixed by him. I had an unshakable belief that he would belong to me one day. I confided this to Sally, my dorm roommate.

One Sunday evening, Sally concocted a game. We had all returned from our weekends away laden with care packages of snacks from home. The train had been late, so we missed dinner. As was customary when this happened, we opened our packages and shared them in a pile in the middle of the room. As we rifled through the pile, Sally filled a hat with slips of paper. She instructed us to name which boy we liked. This took awhile because each time a boy was named, we went through the list of his faults as well. “You like Scott? You mean the Scott with no butt?” Or, “You’d kiss Eric? You know what I saw him eating for lunch?!”

By the time it was my turn, I wouldn’t say his name. In fact, I was feeling rather sensitive. It felt like an unkind game. I thought it would be safer just to be quiet, but of course I had confessed too much.

“She loves Jonathan,” Sally announced.

“Which Jonathan?” the cry rang out, all titters and giggles.

“Jonathan Katz!”

“He mooned Erica’s mother when they were coming back to school from a game the other day,” one of the girls announced. “He and the Battista twins. They’re a bunch of hooligans. I don’t know what you see in him! And he’s so short!”

“That’s why his butt reaches the back window so well!” someone else chortled.

I thought, “He’s short?” I’d never noticed. I’d hidden in stairwells, memorizing his laugh. I’d watched him fell teammates playing soccer. I’d fallen off a tree stump gazing at his grin. But I’d never noticed he was short. I was sure he had noticed my shortcomings, though. My uncontrollable hair, my nonexistent bust—oh, and the crutches. That yank into the world had saved my life, but not my ability to walk. But no matter how imperfect I felt I was, I couldn’t reconcile the thought that he could never love me with the whisper in my heart that said he most certainly would.

“Take one!” Sally commanded, pulling me back from my reverie. I looked around at the other girls. Everyone in the circle held a slip of paper except for me. “Come on, Mrs. Katz!”

I took the last slip to a chorus of teasing laughter.

Sally put the hat on her head, Mistress of the Ring. “Whatever that paper says is what he will be to you.”

One girl started laughing immediately. She’d already looked. “He will be your worst nightmare,” she read.

“He will be a good friend,” read another.

“He will be your ex-husband,” read a third.

“I want to know what Mrs. Katz got!” said the girl sitting next to me. She was already bored with the game.

“Yeah, what did Mrs. Katz get?” Everyone looked at me.

Reluctantly, I unfolded the paper in my hand. I felt the blood rise to my face so violently that I was lightheaded. I couldn’t speak.

“What? What?” the girl next to me demanded. She finally took the paper out of my hand and read, “He will be the father of your children.”

“Oooooooooo!” heckled everyone in unison. Someone threw a Jolly Rancher at me. “She gets all the candy!”

“Or all the Katz scratches!”

Everyone broke into uncontrolled laughter while tears burned my eyes. It wasn’t just that they were teasing. It didn’t feel like a game to me. He didn’t feel like a game to me. I felt so trapped in my longing that I could barely breathe. I pulled my crutches to me and got to my feet with as much dignity as I could muster. I left the room, locked myself in a toilet stall, and cried. In the midst of my tears, I pulled a quarter out of my pocket and scraped a heart into the paint. By then, the girls were ready to go to bed and knocked on the door, impatient with me.

When I returned to our room, Sally was not there, but the slip of paper was. It was carefully laid out on my desk, peeking out from under one of my notebooks. She had scrawled “SORRY!” on my note pad.

No one else apologized to me for that night. No one ever asked how I was, or why I was crying over such a silly game. But the next morning, and many mornings thereafter, the heart in the bathroom stall grew. Someone traced a bigger heart over my small one. And someone drew a bigger heart over that. There were probably fourteen of them, rippling out from the one I drew by the time the stall was repainted.

I kept that slip of paper for much longer than I realized. I carried the same backpack even after I left Connecticut and spent my senior year at a school in Atlanta—oddly, the same city where Jonathan, who was a year ahead of me, had ended up at university.

One day, I heard his voice again. I thought I was dreaming, but it was persistent, and it was definitely not the universe whispering. When I turned, I saw him, hanging half out of the passenger’s side window of a car that was stopped at a light. He was shouting my name loudly across three lanes of traffic. Our eyes met, and I felt that flame. It was deep, and it was hot. There wasn’t time to say anything more. The light changed, and he was gone. I sat on a bench outside the sandwich shop where I had just bought my lunch and cried. After a time, my brother appeared beside me.

“Your girlfriends said you were sitting down here crying,” he said. “What was in that sandwich?”

“I just need to go home.” I was 18, but I had not been allowed to learn to drive. My brother, who was two years younger, drove us an hour back and forth to school every day.

“It was Jonny, wasn’t it? Doesn’t he go to school around here? You have to go home because you saw him? Did he even see you? What? Did he finally look at you?” He couldn’t keep himself from laughing.

I nodded. Tears were streaming down my face, and my nose was running. He offered me his shirt tail to wipe my face.

“You’re insane. You know that, right?”

“Yes, I do. Don’t be an asshole and rub it in.”

He got up and indicated the open door to the car, which he’d parked illegally at the curb. “Asshole at your service,” he said. “Let’s go home.”

I stole a campus directory. I tried to call him. I never let the phone ring long enough for anyone to answer. I dragged the phone and the cat into my room and dialed the number fifteen times in three hours. And then I cried. Because I wasn’t brave enough. Because there was no way to get to that place I felt in my heart. It was the end. Stars and slips of paper held no magic after all.

After graduation, I packed my luggage to travel to California. I didn’t plan to return home. I also didn’t plan to take that old backpack, but there were a few things I simply could not leave behind. And there, in a pocket meant for a key, I found the slip of paper, that secret yearning I had hidden there so many years before. I read it once, twice, twenty times, before I could let it go.

I burned it on the patio outside my bedroom. It was a beautiful night. A thousand stars I no longer trusted burned in a sky that was much bigger than I would ever be. The flame released the paper, and the ash flew up, but I could not release the flame inside of me. It became deeply buried, and I grew up around it.

Years later, I heard Jonathan had married and his wife had given birth to twins. I was steely by then. I’d moved on. I’d been in a relationship for many years myself, a relationship I was trying to end by having a passionate affair with a married man. I needed to get away from both men, one of whom loved me and shouldn’t, and the other who had resorted to violence against me. I took money I’d inherited and moved to Oregon without telling either of them. And there I lived, quietly single for twelve years. I tore at the fabric by dating a few times, but it just made me feel more lonely

This time I shouted to the universe before she whispered to me. “So, I just never find love. Is that it? That’s my lot in life?”

If you keep insisting you know what love looks like, you will never see it, came the confusing answer.

And I surrendered everything I thought I knew. I had no idea how powerful this message to the universe was. I fell in love. With a woman. Asha. She became my wife. We began living the life that happens when flame reflects flame. And I forgot about Jonathan for a long time.

Decades of using crutches was wearing on my body. I continued to work, but I started to suffer chronic pain in my arms. I was in a manual wheelchair at first, caring for our infant daughter. It was hard to admit that even the manual chair was too much. I needed a power chair, and we needed a bigger house to accommodate it, along with the second child we planned.

We found a big house, bigger than we ever thought we’d need. It had six bedrooms and an in-law apartment on the lower floor. We fell in love with it and risked everything to buy it. When our son was born, I was 48 years old. I was driving a minivan with two child seats in the back. I was running my own business. I was living the life I’d always dreamed of. I was spinning on an axis of joy. I wanted for nothing. And then the universe started to whisper again.

The social networking algorithms popped Jonathan into my feed as someone I might know. The first time it happened, I said to myself, “Yeah, I know you. I don’t think you want to know me.” I clicked the X that was supposed to make the suggestion go away and not appear again. That worked for awhile, but we had too many friends in common. The algorithm triggered again. And again. One day, I gave in and went to his page. There was that grin, the fire-blue eyes, a little less hair. Okay, a lot less hair, but still my Jonathan. He was in a relationship. For the first time in decades I had to swallow back tears. I turned my computer off and left the office.

There was a torrential rain that day. The windshield wipers couldn’t keep the rain from blurring my vision. And then I realized I was crying. Lyrics to a song on the radio—a song I had never heard before that moment—melted me completely. I was sobbing. It was a deep, body-shaking grief. I had to pull over.

I’m 15 for a moment, caught in between 10 and 20 and I’m just dreaming, Counting the ways to where you are…

A wellspring of grief had opened in my heart. I couldn’t avoid the feeling that Jonathan and I had unfinished business. I decided to write to him. I was prepared to weather his silence, his rejection, his anger. What I wasn’t prepared for was his actual response.

He wrote that the way he’d treated me had always weighed on his conscience. He explained that his older brother had been disabled by a genetic disorder that ran in his family. In high school, he had begun to live his life for his brother. He became the sports star, the achiever, the golden boy his brother could never be. He spoke of love so deep that I felt it in my own heart. When he got to the moment where it fell to him to make the decision to discontinue his brother’s life support following a surgery, I was broken so wide open that all I could do was sob. “I’m sorry,” he wrote. “It was too much for me that you had a disability, too. I couldn’t handle it. I was a coward. Thank you for giving me the chance to say I’m sorry.”

***

“He wants to come for a visit,” I told Asha over drinks one night.

“Ready to stop running, is he?” Of course she knew the story. She’d watched me shift as the truth came out.

“He’s searching,” I said. “He’s lost a job. He’s losing his home. He thinks that’s all he is. I think he needs us.”

“Right,” she smiled. “It’s all about him.” She saw something I didn’t say. It was impossible to hide the “fifteen-for-a-moment” side of me who might finally have him in the same room with me voluntarily. “Are you sure you won’t need help climbing down the trellis outside the bedroom window in the middle of the night?”

There’s nothing quite like being married to your best friend. “No, Honey. On this, I pinky swear. You are stuck with me forever.”

He brought me some things, including a newspaper clipping from the local paper about a play he starred in and I stage-managed—one of the many ways I finagled to be in the same room with him on a regular basis. He was also forced to talk to me if he forgot his lines. It made me blush to remember what a silly little girl I had been.

He chuckled at me. “Wait, wait! That’s not all. I didn’t even know I had this. I found it when I was looking for the picture.”

He handed me a playbill for another play we had worked on together that year. I had handwritten a quote from the play, and addressed it directly to him:

 Dear Jonathan, “…to be remembered if only by someone, for awhile, is a form of immortality, is it not?…”

I signed it, Love, Mindy. My former name. I stopped breathing for a moment. I had certainly written it. I didn’t remember giving it to him.

“Where in the world did you get this?”

“I don’t know. I’m pretty sure one of your girlfriends gave it to me.”

“I can’t believe you kept it all these years.”

There were a lot of awkward silences those two days. I had seen his psychological prison and now he was seeing my physical one. I’d warned him that I was no longer walking on my crutches, but I know the reality was shocking. Sometimes the children interjected themselves into the moments we couldn’t speak. Once, when Jonathan was sitting on a stool in front of our bay window, lost in his own thoughts, our seven-year-old daughter, Wren, perched herself on his lap and occupied herself looking at his hands.

“You’re not wearing a ring. We love you. You could marry us,” she said, full of the childhood innocence of how things can work. We all teared up—Jonathan, Asha, and I. “Why not?” Wren persisted. “Don’t you love my Mom? She loves you.”

“Wren, stop!” Asha and I said together.

“You could be our daddy. We don’t have one.” The memory of that slip of paper came back to taunt me. I wanted to crawl under a rock.

I felt like my past and present with Jonathan was being nailed into the same coffin. “So, this is the way it ends,” I thought. “I am everything he loathes and fears. We won’t even be friends.”

I brought him a glass of wine the last hour we spent together. We were alone in the house, and sunlight was pouring  through the picture window in the living room. My cat had crawled into his lap. His hand shook when he took the wine from me. When I saw that he was crying, I got out of my chair to sit next to him.

“What is it, Jonathan ? Didn’t you get what you came here for?”

“There’s so much love in this house,” he said. “I’ve never been in a home like this. I don’t want to leave, and I don’t know why.”

Tears sprang into my eyes, too. “I don’t know whether to be complimented or insulted.” The truth was, I felt ugly and old, and it still mattered somewhere deep in my heart that I couldn’t be what he wanted.

“It’s not you. It’s just that being here I realize how I haven’t been present in my life. Not for myself. Not for my kids. I keep wondering what you saw in me.”

“I don’t. I wonder less now than I ever did. Now we all love you. You have all of us, if you ever need that.”

“I might,” he said.

The sun shone, the cat purred, and we sat quietly, holding hands, until he had to leave.

There are some connections in life that you can’t break by walking away, and there are some doors, once opened, that can never be closed again. Jonathan returned to a life which had been a safe place to hide but was now a jungle of confusion, and I was left with a feeling of incompleteness in my once-complete world. It took us awhile to admit this to each other, as though if we didn’t say it, it wouldn’t be so. But it was. Nothing was the same.

***

“He’s writing you again, isn’t he?” Asha asked me one night a month later.

“Yes. I didn’t think he would.”

“Not quite as comfortable in his hidey-hole, is he?” She’s pretty unflappable about these things.

“His hidey-hole is a crypt with a street address,” I said. “He uses therapy as an intellectual exercise. He needs people. He needs love. He needs us.” And then, unexpectedly, I began to cry. “It’s like I can’t get comfortable in my own skin anymore.”

“Invite him to come back.”

“I don’t think he would ever come back.”

She laughed at me, “I don’t think he can stay away. Look, ask him or don’t. It’s up to you. The kids love him. We have the apartment downstairs. It’s possible we need him as much as he needs us, you know.”

“I love him.” It was the first time I had ever said it to her. “It’s so ancient in me. I feel like he’s mine, like I can’t just leave him out in the cold anymore.”

“I know,” she said. “I feel it too, because you do. So invite him back.”

I went to my computer to write to him, only to find that he’d written me to ask if he could stay with us for a week in September—the week of my birthday. He wanted to build some ramps so I could get out of the house in my power chair. He could not forget my prison. And I could not forget his.

In late August, there was a storm, a rare tornado that touched down briefly not far from his house. His heart was stormy, too. He’d broken off his relationship. It was the last tether he had besides the phone in his hand.

He texted me, “I’m sitting outside in all this wind. I don’t care if it blows me away. I’m in the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life.”

I texted back, “Don’t wait. Just come here now. Stay as long as you want.” And then I said a prayer for the wind to blow him home to me.

To my surprise, the next morning I awoke to an email. He wrote, “I changed my plane reservation. I’m coming in on the 18th. I’d like to stay for six weeks, if that’s okay.”

***

On September 18, 2012, ten days before my fifty-third birthday, Jonathan walked into our house again. It was eleven-thirty at night. Of course I had been waiting for him, staying with the kids while Asha went to the airport to pick him up. A full moon hung low by the window and cast a milky shadow across the floor. I got out of my chair and leaned against the kitchen counter as soon as I heard the car pull in. It isn’t easy for me to stand anymore, but I intended to give him a hug—the kind of face-to-face hug that most people take for granted.

He saw me standing. I felt suddenly shy that I had done it. He knew I stood up for him. I could see it in his eyes, which for once were fixed entirely upon me. He walked slowly and purposefully toward me across the kitchen floor. And he kissed me.

Thirty-eight years to the day that I wrote in my journal, “I think he’ll kiss me one day,” across time and space, improbability and impossibility, the star remembered.

Whatever happens now, he’s home.

The Denial of Physicality

your body temple god

Sculpture from a temple at Khajuraho
Photo by Henry Flower

Last month I wrote about how you aren’t really your body. It’s an old theme of mine, and it’s absolutely true. Your body is the vehicle for your spirit, but it isn’t the entirety of you. That being said, however, you are in a body now, and it is definitely a huge, important part of you. Your body is what keeps you grounded and connected to all life here on earth. Your body (and therefore, you) is physically part of the ecosystem and the completeness of the organism that is our planet. Your body is sensual, experiential, primitive, and wild. And the denial of all this has been the prevailing thought of modern civilization, with incredibly damaging results.

Many of the world’s monotheistic religions have demonized the body over the years. It was naked in Eden, so we had to be ashamed of it and cover it up. Female power and desire and its capacity to reduce the male to his wild, sexualized state was scary and became “sinful.” The body wants to lose control, but the mind suffers the delusion that it IS in control. Sexuality is highly problematic. Eventually, the once-revered Goddess became subservient to her male counterpart, who lost his wife. The body became a source of shame.

Some psychologists have argued that our love/hate affair with our bodies is rooted in the knowledge that our vehicle will die one day. We don’t want to be reminded of our mortality, so we try to avoid thinking of ourselves as physical beings. Most people retreat into the world of their minds or, more accurately, their egos. As we are constantly being reminded of our physicality, however, we have come up with some pretty strange ways of avoiding dealing with it.

The Inner Child’s View:  The Body and Self-Loathing

My mother was the modern marketer’s dream. She grew up impoverished, in the Southern Baptist tradition, where the body was definitely not beloved. The body was to be overcome or transcended in some cerebral, faith-driven way. As a result, she expressed an amazing amount of self-loathing toward her own physical form. My birth was traumatic for her, and she literally did not rest until she found a doctor who was willing to remove her reproductive organs, nearly twelve years later. This had the added benefit of no longer bleeding once a month, a painful reminder of just how physical we are.

But it was the little things about her body that seemed to drive her mad. The slightest congestion of her sinuses was something to be attacked. She dragged us both to allergy specialists for many years. I endured weekly allergy shots (which did nothing other than waste my Saturday mornings), and she gave me antihistamines daily, as a sort of prophylactic measure to ward off potential allergies. (As a result, I have a phenomenal resistance to just about every drug on the market, so when I do need something, I need pills strong enough to make normal mortals hallucinate.)

My mother also had the notion that her nasal passages should be clean. Cleanliness is next to godliness, and heavens have mercy, the body is just not a clean thing. Neti pots, nasal sprays of all kinds…heck, she put everything up her nose except cocaine. But if Prevention magazine had recommended it, she certainly would have. And that’s the thing. Our whole society has bought into this weird notion that our bodies are somehow immature teenagers who are incapable of taking care of themselves. We think our sinuses should be clean, our intestines should be clean, and our vaginas should be cleaned out with a vinegar rinse that smells of spring. I mean, seriously? Deodorant, perfumes, and mouthwash also play their roles in denying the fact that we exist in carbon-based, excreting, sometimes smelly bodies.

The popularity of the character of Mr. Spock is hardly surprising in this context. I love Star Trek, too, but let’s get real. Spock is the Ego Wet Dream. Always logical, always in control, never distracted by emotions or sexual feelings… unless he is in the midst of Pon farr, the time when the body and its hormones take control and logical thought becomes impossible. Poor Vulcans, there’s just no balance for them.

But balance is possible for us. We have just forgotten. Our current antibody/antiphysical mindset is responsible, no doubt, for a great many ills, including sexual predation and psychosis stemming from the conflict between our “evil” bodies and our own physical desires and needs. I suspect that many a warped sexuality grew out of this conflict.

We are Part of This Earth

The primary damage that the elevation of the mind over the heart and body has inflicted on us is the belief that we are not part of our natural environment, that we are somehow separate from the natural world. After all, if you deny your physical essence, then you deny that you are part of the ecosystem and the great web of life. I think the fundamentalist tendency to disbelieve evolution and think of man as somehow separate and “greater than” the world around us is rooted in this denial. If you hate your own physical form, then it cannot have arisen from the same processes that produce the world around us.

As I become more and more grounded into the earth and become more in tune with the animal spirits, they are showing me what modern man has forgotten. We have a primal nature, a wild nature. We feel and sense the world with more than a mere five senses. Our connection with spirit is not something that simply occurs in the stratosphere somewhere; it occurs here on the earth, even deep below the earth, as well. Sexuality is not just an occasional joyride or inconvenient feeling. It is creativity; it is love; it is power; it is a joining of spirits; it is a sacred bond.

My body is not a temple of shame. It was not created to tempt me constantly so that I might prove myself worthy of the love of an external god. Rather, my body is a temple of my spirit, and of the spirit of the entire universe. My body is a cell in the organism of the world. I am connected with all life, and I have a duty to respect and protect the other cells in this greater body.

We are pack animals. We need each other, but not just other humans. We need our animal brothers and sisters, the plants and the trees, the moving rivers that flow like veins in the body of our mother, and the great oceans that are the womb of all life.

It is time to ground yourself in the energy of the planet, to experience your spirit in its physical form. Cast off your shame and any self-loathing that lurks in the far corners of your temple. Inhabit your body fully. Be present in it, feel in it, get lost in it. After all, you’re only here for a relatively short time.