When I was growing up, the story that my inner child learned about my family was one of perfection: we were the perfect family. My parents were perfect, our house was perfect and perfectly clean, our food was perfect, our health was perfect, and I, as the only child, also had to be perfect. Unfortunately, none of this was true. Even more unfortunately, however, my inner child believed that it was true, and I spent years trying to wear the mask of perfection and wondering why my feelings didn’t seem to agree with the Family Myth.
As a child, I learned very quickly what was acceptable in a perfect household and what wasn’t. “Negative” feelings were never acceptable. We were perfect, so there was no need to feel sad, angry, or depressed. Excessive joy, on the other hand, could be “too loud” and inappropriate, so that wasn’t really acceptable, either. What was acceptable was the bland numbness of stuffing all of my feelings into a closet somewhere, leaving me ready to face the world with a placid mask that was designed to show everyone how calm, quiet, and simply perfect my life must be.
One of my earliest memories of our familial bliss was when my dad hit his head on a window and needed stitches. Back then, stitches were big, ugly, and black. He looked like Frankenstein with that big line of stitching across the middle of his forehead. He looked scary to me. He thought that was hilarious, so he purposely scared me multiple times. But of course, he was only kidding.
Most of the time, my dad wasn’t kidding. He would explode in rage at the slightest provocation. I had no doubt that I had really screwed up something when it happened, but I never really knew what it was I had done. I tried very hard to avoid setting off the volcano, but the eruptions came anyway when I least expected them. I remember playing in the living room once, where he had fallen asleep. I wasn’t being noisy, but something I did must have awakened him. He charged me from the couch, and my heart nearly stopped. I thought I was going to die right then. Fortunately, he never did anything. Dad wasn’t physically violent like his mother was. He always told me how lucky I was not to have abusive parents like that. Of course, I agreed with him. We were a happy, normal family. This is what “normal” looked like.
When I was six years old, I played a game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” with a male cousin. We were curious. We were intrigued. My mother caught us, however, and I learned a big lesson that day: “good” people—perfect people—do not get naked with members of the opposite sex. My mother saw fit to call my aunt and uncle, my grandmother, and my father into the room so that I could be appropriately shamed before them all. And I was very ashamed. I learned that sexual feelings were not okay. Better hide those. I still couldn’t help masturbating, but at least I managed to feel very guilty about it.
My tween years were difficult. Dad spent two years in Germany (he was in the army) while my mother and I stayed behind on the rural farmland they had bought to retire on. When Dad returned, it was obvious he wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay married. No one was happy, and both of my parents became more embittered. But perfect people don’t divorce, so they came to a sort of truce eventually. I was just trying to figure out what I could control in my life, which wasn’t much. We lived three miles from a small town in Texas, and I couldn’t drive. There were no kids close by. I was on my own.
I did develop the family sense of perfection at this time, however. My parents were always right, so whatever they thought was the right thing to think. Anyone who disagreed was “an idiot,” as Dad would say. So by age 13, I felt pretty secure in my own superiority. I made better grades than the other kids and knew infinitely more than the teachers did. I didn’t have many friends, though.
I was also fat during these years. It turns out that you can’t be perfect and fat at the same time. I ate what was given me to eat, but it was still my fault that I was fat. “She has such a pretty face; it’s just too bad she’s so heavy.” (These conversations always referred to me in the third person, even if I was standing right there.) Or my favorite, from my perfect mother, “Do you think if we put all three of them [my fat cousins and myself] in a bag, that any would fall out?”
I was schooled daily in how to be perfect. For a perfect kid in a perfect family, I sure heard a lot about my imperfections. I never could seem to do anything correctly. My mother, on the other hand, was the perfect housekeeper. All knick-knacks were kept under glass; otherwise, they might gather dust, which we were highly allergic to, she said. (It doesn’t seem to bother me now.) Weekends were for cleaning, and clean I did. Many times. She made me vacuum the whole house three times in a row because I “missed some dirt.” I never saw the dirt I missed, but she did. My inability to see the dirt must have been due to some imperfection in myself. There were a lot of those.
Perhaps to compensate for my imperfections at home, I was very perfect in school—annoyingly so. But some experiences in junior high made me humble. The principal gave me a heart-to-heart talk one day that really changed my attitude. It had never occurred to me that my arrogance was hurtful. In my heart, I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I began to change after that. Over time, I became more accepting and open. Maybe I wasn’t right all the time. Maybe no one was.
During these years, my mother found a new religion. She likes to be in control, and the near-debacle of a possible divorce probably pushed her over the edge. She didn’t find God, though. In spite of being raised a Baptist, and retaining all of the “moral principles” of the Southern Baptist Church, she was never really interested in God. She never prayed. She never referred to God. Doing so would have taken attention away from her. Instead, she found a religion that could direct attention to her: nutrition.
After years of Shake ‘n Bake, Lucky Charms, and Wonder bread, my mother decided that sugar and white flour were the Devil. Our bread had to be 100% whole wheat, our rice had to be brown, and a good dessert would never again darken our doorway—unless it was a Snickers bar. My mother loved Snickers bars. Those became an exception because they have high-fructose corn syrup in them instead of sugar. Somehow, that was okay. Oh, and except for pizza, too. Pizza may have a white crust, but it was… well, it was my mother’s favorite food, so it was okay. Our vegetables did not have to be organic, though. Frozen vegetables, she maintained, are better for you than fresh vegetables, organic or not. There were a lot of rules, really, and they changed depending on which article she had read recently in Prevention magazine.
Dad and I adapted to this new religion as best we could, and it apparently wasn’t all bad, because I did lose weight. By high school, I was slim and attractive again, at least according to my mother. Any compliment paid to me was as good as a compliment paid to her.
In high school, I became very good at conforming to my parents’ mask. I studied hard. I had no social life, and few really close friends. I knew that dating wasn’t really an option in my house; there was too much risk of physical contact that way—and that was the path to shame. I basically did whatever my parents wanted and dressed the way they thought I should dress. My mother always went shopping with me to pick my clothes.
As a perfectly smart child, I was expected to graduate Valedictorian of my class. I did not, and this failure could not belong to my family, so it was projected onto the school itself: it was rigged in favor of the Superintendent’s child, my parents declared. Although I was initially upset by this “failure,” I soon came to breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe I didn’t have to be quite so perfect.
College allowed me the first real freedom of my life, and I began to separate from my overly protective parents. I began to figure out who I was as a person; in the past, I had always been told who I was. For the first two-and-a-half years, I lived either in the dorm or in an apartment by myself. It was heaven. I could just be with my own thoughts.
In my junior year of college, my Dad lost his civilian job—he had retired from the army some years before. Since my Dad had still been working on the military base doing what he did in the army, this meant he had to find a job in the private sector. There were no good options in the country, so my parents began to move to Austin, where I was attending college. Since they were paying for my education, this meant that I would be living with my father again while he found a job.
It didn’t take long for my anger to show up. Everything about living at home again frustrated me. Dad threw a frozen chicken across the room when I said I wanted to be a vegetarian. Dad berated me for protesting the first Iraq war. I tried to share some of what I learned in classes, which contradicted some of the things I had always accepted as true, which prompted Dad to scream at me and tell me that now that I was going to college, I guess I thought I was smarter than he was.
These events just confused me. Dad had always been rageful and would say hurtful things, but in the past I had not thought much about the substance of his words. But now, as a young adult, the things he said did not make sense. I decided I would only discuss “safe” subjects with him, which narrowed the list pretty sharply: computers, science fiction books, and airplanes (which he adored, but which bored me to tears).
In my twenties came the first real breaks in the Family Mythology. I moved in with a man at 22—mostly because it was better than moving in with my parents again—and then I married him at 24. He couldn’t stand my parents, which was a new perspective for me: weren’t they perfect? How could he feel that way?
In retrospect, it is not surprising that my husband and I attracted one another. We were both only children, and he had cut off his parents before I met him (he was 17 years older than I was). He told me about his parents, and I had to admit they sounded pretty toxic: a rageful father and a passive-aggressive, controlling mother. At that time, I thought cutting them off completely was extreme, but I respected that it was his decision. As I began the slow process of understanding how similarly toxic my own parents were, however, I developed more compassion and understanding for his experience.
Awareness did not happen overnight. But during these years, I realized that I couldn’t be in the same room with my parents for more than ten minutes without becoming seethingly angry.
On a number of occasions, I tried to express my feelings to my parents—I felt belittled, disrespected, and unheard. And they responded as they always had: “No, you don’t. You don’t feel that way. We don’t mean it that way, so you can’t possibly feel that way.” Or, to use my mother’s favorite phrase whenever I objected to something she said to me, “Don’t get your panties in a bunch.” As you might imagine, their assurances that I couldn’t possibly feel what I felt did not help me to stop feeling these things. Instead, I became angrier.
Still, they let me know that my anger was completely unjustified—after all, there was no reason to be mad at them! They had no problems. They were tranquil. They were perfect. So the message was clear: if I was angry, there was clearly something wrong with me. I believed them, but it didn’t make my anger go away.
In my late twenties, I began to visit healers who commented on the amount of sadness and grief I was holding inside. This made no sense at all to me. I was happy. I didn’t feel sad or depressed. Yet, they would work on me, and I would cry. I felt it then. One actually asked me, “Who did this to you?” I had no idea what she was talking about. I had perfect parents. They couldn’t have done anything to me. What was all this?
In my mid-thirties, my husband and I moved to Oregon. My parents did their best to get in the way of this move, but I actually liked the idea of having some distance from them. When we got here, however, my life changed completely.
Within a short space of time, I met Ahnna, who quickly became my best friend. Before long, we realized we were more than friends. We realized we were in love. That was hard. I was always gay-friendly, but I knew that in my family being a lesbian was not what was expected of me as a perfect child. I struggled with internal homophobia I didn’t know I had. I knew that my parents would disapprove, and my own inner child had internalized that for herself. I had to re-evaluate my life. Had I always been a lesbian? If so, how could I not have known this? And the answer came: because you didn’t want to know it. Ouch. This is when my blinders came off.
I left my husband, which I knew had been inevitable even before I met Ahnna. She was just the catalyst for my leaving a marriage that had ended years before. Still, it was hard. I didn’t want to hurt him. I also didn’t want to hurt me—and that was the Next Hard Thing. I had to tell my parents.
When I called my parents, I said I had left my husband, but I didn’t say much more than that. My mother hated him, and now she felt she could fly to Portland and bring me home again to move in next door to her, so she came pretty quickly. When she met Ahnna, whom she thought was just a friend, my mother thanked her for “giving me my daughter back.” Oh, boy…