My Happy Mother’s Day

Hi, Nicole.

There are people in the Adult Alienated (or Estranged) Children community who believe we (the parents) should apologize to our adult children for “our roles” in the estrangement.  It’s a sentiment that sticks in my craw for many reasons, but I understand it thanks to a woman named Margaret.  She had an epiphany one day about “her role” in her abusive relationship.  Her role was merely being there as a target for her husband’s abuse.  Having a role in it doesn’t mean we caused it.

The purveyors of this philosophy suggest it’s a way to open the door for some hopeful someday potential reconciliation.  Well.  Isn’t that optimistic?

I don’t believe we’ll ever reconcile, because when you decide on a course of action or attitude, you’re married to it for life, and changing your mind would prove too embarrassing after you’ve gone to extreme pains to gain a following for whatever your anger du jour happens to be.  I think you’ll remember the confusion among the family members in trying to figure out whether J was your BFF today, or a pariah to be vehemently bashed.

All that notwithstanding, I realize I do owe you an apology, despite how many times I apologized in the past for things other people did that I tried to fix or help you recover from but couldn’t because I was just a bystander, not a participant.  In fact, I owe you many more apologies, so I’m giving them to you now.  It’s part of my Mother’s Day present to myself this year.  You don’t want me there to say it to you in person, so I offer this, in public black & white:

Dear Nicole,

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I couldn’t heal your heart.  I’m sorry I couldn’t be the everything, the enough, to fill the gigantic hole in your heart and soul left there by people who should have loved you but didn’t.  The people who should have cared about you, protected you, defended you, fought for you, held you, nurtured you, taught you proper things and the right ways to be in the world, but harmed you instead when you were so young and I wasn’t there yet.

I’m sorry I wasn’t a part of your life sooner.  I’m sorry your biological mother left that opening for someone else to walk into.  I’m sorry I didn’t know your parents when you and your brothers were born, because God knows I would have intervened, and your life may not have unfolded as it did.

I’m sorry your father used you and your brothers as targets for his explosive anger.  I’m sorry he conducted most of his terror campaigns and physical abuse when I was out of the house, and swore you to secrecy to protect himself from prosecution after I turned him in when I saw those first cuts and bruises.  I’m sorry the steps his command and CPS enforced weren’t enough to wake him up and get him the help he really needed so he might actually understand he had a serious problem.  It might have stopped more of what he did behind my back.

I’m sorry he used you as pawns to get to me because he knew better than to ever lift a finger toward me.  I’m sorry he wants you to hate me because he is so filled with bitterness and fear that he can’t tolerate other people’s joy, and he feels too threatened by the truth of things he’s done to want me in your lives as a potential reminder.  If you’re not exposed to me, he doesn’t have to worry.  He forgets that we all loved how much he made us laugh, that not every moment was about his rages.  Everyone has good parts.  I always remembered his.

I’m sorry your extended family didn’t listen.  I’m sorry they instead circled the wagons to protect one of their own from the truth that he was abusive, rather than working with me to make him stop and support you in what you and your brothers knew was happening.

I’m especially sorry that your grandmother was so consumed by guilt about her husband’s abuse and her own parenting that she became determined to deny the truth of what her son had turned into, and made me the enemy so she didn’t have to face it.  I’m sorry she believed that having you and your brothers turn against the one woman who had the guts to stand up to your father and a heart big enough to love you all was preferable to encouraging you to understand how strong I was to have been able to do it, and give me the respect I deserved and the continued relationship with me that you all deserved.

I’m sorry I couldn’t run away with you to Chicago.  But I’m glad I showed you Chicago and Milwaukee and and Niagara Falls and Union Station in DC.

I’m sorry I tried so hard to “make” your father step up and be the parent I believed he could be and that you all deserved.  I never believed that could go so wrong; I always believed he had it in him, and I’m sorry for that, because I was wrong.  I’m sorry you never got to be a Daddy’s Girl, because I know how desperately you wanted that, and I’m sorry that turning on me wasn’t the final thing that could make it happen.

I’m sorry I didn’t understand much sooner that all he needed was someone to be there so he could have his final tour, and never intended to stay once he retired.  If I had, I might have done what he asked and stayed with you in Moyock while he completed that final tour.  I can’t say for sure, but I think it might have outed him to the family much sooner, and they’d have been much more supportive of us and things would be very different now.  But I felt at the time that you’d have been devastated when you realized what it meant that he left us there for a three-year tour in another state.

I’m sorry I was sick.  And I’m really sorry your father used that against me to try to make you believe I was weak.

I’m sorry I wasn’t your biological mother.  If I had been, and if the Universe would have still put the four of us together, I’d have taken you away to a safe place of unconditional love where your father couldn’t hurt you.

I’m sorry my best wasn’t enough to change things more than they did.  While we may have lived in nicer houses and neighborhoods and you got to do things you wouldn’t have done otherwise, it didn’t remove “The Problem.”  I wish I could have made you understand that if I left, I couldn’t take you with me because I wasn’t your biological mother.  It would have meant I’d leave you alone with your father, and that I couldn’t do because I knew what your lives would turn into if I did.  I don’t regret staying, because some things worked out in positive ways they would not have otherwise.  But I’m sorry it apparently only prolonged the inevitable and kept us walking on eggshells for far, far too long.

I’m sorry I can’t change the past or take away your pain.  If I could, I would.  You all deserve joy, and while you can find happiness, you will never know the freedom of having had a happy childhood of love and acceptance for being exactly who you are.

I’m sorry I lost the war.  I’m sorry it was a war.  It was disguised as a decent family in nice homes with kids in good schools with many pretty things that good families have.  But it was a war between demons and angels, where the prize was acceptance and the punishment was rejection, and you and your brothers and the bond we worked so hard to have and to keep were the casualties.  You had no choice but to follow your hearts and hope someday you’d win what you wanted so dearly.  I’m bitterly sorry for all of you that you can’t get blood from a stone, and I’m sorry that will take you so very long to learn.

I’m sorry, as all parents are, for my mistakes.  I know I made them, because all humans do.  What I’m glad for is that I made it right when I caught them, to the best of my ability, so you at the very least knew what integrity looked like.  But I wish I hadn’t made any.

I’m sorry I wasn’t perfect.  No parent ever is; even if kids came with handbooks, parents would fail to use them properly and only recognize that in retrospect.  Failure and imperfection are built into parenting.  If there were a Master Plan, I’m sure that would be a part of it.  It’s how kids learn.  It’s just that some lessons are much more painful than they ever should be.

I’m sorry I let you down.  I fully believe that while we were living together you never thought I did; as you got older, you saw and understood much more about what our lives were all about, but I know you always resented that I couldn’t fix so many things I know we all wish I could have, and that I didn’t take you away from it.  My hope – for you, not for me, because my role in this is over – is that someday you will understand more of what’s possible and what isn’t for someone in the position I had.  It will ease your heart to understand that I truly meant for only the best and I worked as hard as I could to achieve it, but that some things really are impossible.  In 12-step groups, they say that expectations are planned resentments.  I had too many of myself and of your father that I was wrong to have kept for as long as I did.  I am really sorry for that.

I’m sorry for the times I called you out, because I know how much you hated it.  There were times I let you come to your own epiphanies, but sometimes I tried to force them.  That was wrong.

I’m sorry I can only go so far in what I can take responsibility for in the dissolution of our family.  I remember – I will never forget – how many times you told me and I heard you and your brothers, and even your grandmother, tell other people that I was the glue that held the family together.  I was.  I know that.  But there are times, especially now, that I wonder if I should have done things differently and let the chips fall where they may.  Maybe we wouldn’t have held out hope for so long that your father could change, which hope crumbled before the ink was dry on his final Navy paperwork.  Hindsight is supposed to always be 20/20, but when I think about the “what ifs,” to me it’s still muddy because of how violently you all reacted when he left.  I think if I had abandoned the family at any point before you all rejected me, you’d have resented me a lot more.  I think you’d never have gotten over that.  The way it all ended, you got to do the rejecting rather than the reverse, which I think gives you a certain kind of strength, and a power you never felt you had.  I also think it allows your heart to stay hardened so you believe you may never be hurt in that way again.   But I think if you allowed yourself to remember what I did right, and how much of it was right, you’d realize you are allowed to love whomever you choose, and not everyone will hurt you or run away.  This could help your heart to understand:  It’s OK for you to believe I never did and I never would, because I proved it.

There are people out there, especially in your family, who would be happy to think I’m miserable on Mother’s Day, but I’m not.  I loved the cards and letters and gifts you gave me, and I still have all of them.  Sure, I used to cry when I looked at them, but the truth is that I did that more when I was living with you than I did after we all parted.  While your father and grandmother demanded that I “BE THE MOM” and do it like Donna Reed did, they never let me forget that I “WASN’T YOUR MOM” and how imperfect at it I was.  I still have the poster board you made for me, made from cut-up photo albums, where you placed baby pictures of you and your brothers in my arms, after I’d said so many times I wished I were your bio-mom because I felt like I was.  THAT made me cry.  Good tears.  The sadness was in how your father never wanted you or me to feel as connected as we really were.

But now I get to look back and know how many things I did right, and I know how hard I tried to make your lives better, and I know for a fact that in many, many, many ways I did.  It is unthinkable for many people to consider stepping into a monster’s den and protect the others living there from the beast.  I did that.  What I knew was that 1) I wasn’t equipped to do it alone; and 2) I couldn’t legally take you away, and I refused to bail.  I exposed you to unconditional love, and you all knew that then, and if people didn’t want you to believe otherwise, you’d allow yourselves to remember that now.  No, I wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t have to be.  What I was was present and loving and generous, and I fought like a tiger mom against people who harmed you.

Being with you made me a mom, you’ve heard me say that and seen it in print hundreds of times throughout your lives.  So I always will be a mom, and no one – not you, not your father, not your grandmother, not anyone, ever – can take that away from me.  And despite all my mistakes and imperfections and failings, I know I did my absolute best, and I know I did a good job.  You may hate this, but the many good and positive things you’re doing now are a direct result of the things I taught you and brought into your life.  I get to have that, too.

You want your heart to be hard, and I know that.  But because I still love the girl I raised, whose heart I know so well, I hope that someday you will allow yourself to remember you had a loving mom – one that you prayed for, and one the Universe delivered.  It doesn’t matter whether you ever tell me that, but it will help you love the children who enter your life, whether in your job or avocations, or ones you give birth to or adopt.  Anyone can be a mother, but no one can be a mom without a heart open to love.

You always got that from me.  I know that.  YOUR heart will begin to heal if you can allow yourself to know it, too.

And in future Mother’s Days, the children in your life will thank you.

With love,

Your MOM

PS — I’m sorry I caved to your father’s torment about it and gave away my treasured piano, that you used to love to play for Jack the Dog so he could sing.  So this year for Mother’s Day, I bought myself a keyboard.  And this one, I’ll keep.    🙂

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Dear AJ…

You can’t see me right now, sitting on my couch, hand working my mouth, squinting out tears, and you may never see that I’m writing about it, because I may never tell you.

I’m working on a story right now.  A story for a new newspaper that I’m excited to write for, a story that’s close and personal and special to me for a lot of reasons.  My first published byline in over a decade.  I knew it would be challenging.  I never knew it would be this difficult.

See, the story is about the widow of a Navy SEAL, who spent more than 30 years as an elite fighter’s wife.  She bought a ranch and is turning it into a place for Special Operators to decompress after deployments.  It was a vision of her late husband’s.  After he died in 2010, she couldn’t stop thinking about it, and she knew it was the right thing to do.

I knew it could get tricky for me because it would bring up a lot of Navy memories, talking to her.  I knew it would be interesting having a conversation with a guy named Matt, because if you were to go back far enough in time, we’d have both been in uniform and I’d have been calling him “Commander” or “sir.”  He’s another SEAL.  He volunteers on the ranch.  Super nice guy.  Amazing human being.  Scarred for life by what he did on active duty.

I knew it’d get dicey because I’d be looking up stats on divorce and PTSD and suicide, because it goes with the territory, not only for SEALS, but for all vets returning from over there.

What kills me is knowing you’ll be one of them.

As part of my research tonight, I’m looking at pictures from an issue of  National Geographic magazine, which covered combat veterans who are being treated at a place called the National Intrepid Center of Excellence.  It’s a special unit of Walter Reed Military Medical Center near where I used to work when I was on active duty at (what was then called) National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  I took your dad there for his eye surgery when we were in Annapolis.  You may remember that.

AJ — there are many, many things I can do.  I can put on a brave front.  I can have a poker face and smile if I need to when my heart is breaking.  I can send upbeat LOL texts and grinning emoticons when I’m screaming inside.  But I can never.  EVER.  Stop being your mom.

I can never not see you when you were three, and you smiled all the time.  When you ran to me when I walked in, jumped in my arms, wrapped your arms around my neck and buried your face in the curve between my neck and shoulder and I could feel your breath on my cheek.  I can never not hear your little boy giggle.  I can never forget the times you cried and I held you until you stopped.  How many questions you had.  How much joy you had.  How much joy you brought me.

All those years in between then and now, when you knew with certainty I’d always be there, that I always fought for you and that I always would, the confidence you had that I’d never let you down.

But this, I can’t fix.  This, I know I can’t change.  Not any more than I could have changed any of your decisions after you went to New York and decided not to leave.  This is the one thing that, given the option, I’d give my life to have you decide not to do.  But I know the Universe doesn’t work that way.  And you deserve to have a mom who is proud of who you are and the choices you make.  Even this.  So I give you that instead.

I wrote you a letter last year, telling you how proud I was that you’ve chosen this life path.  I’m repeating it because I think others who read this should know this about you.  I told you that you’d be the person others would count on for strength and comfort, because you have always cared about people, and because you’re honest and you’ve always had integrity.  People sense that.  They gravitate to it.  Your sense of humor will spread smiles in times when misery is at its worst.  People will trust you.  People will like you, just like they always have.  I’m repeating it because I wish that saying it a thousand times in a thousand different ways will make it real for you when you doubt any of what we all have always known about you.  Your soul is who you are, and that will never change.  You are a light in the darkness, and you always have been, and no matter how much anyone else ever tried to make you not believe it.  I’d have known it if I merely met you briefly on the street, even if you hadn’t become my precious, precious son.

I have thought of that throughout the crafting of this story I’m writing for people you will never meet.  But the people I’ve met in the process know all about you.  When I tell them you’re going into the Army, they all know what I feel when I say it.  Because they have all been a part of this war.  And they are all parents.

There really is no way to describe the combination of emotions that battle for a winning spot when I think about this and share it with others.  I can name them, but that doesn’t do them justice.  They are only words, and you are a man getting ready to don a uniform, who was once a little boy who hugged me through smiles and tears and hopes and heartaches and sleepy nighttime dreams.

I’m proud of you, AJ.  And I’d give anything on this earth for one last hug before you go.

“Them.” And “Us.”

Isn’t there always a “them?”

Scenario I:  Oh.

It’s them.

Scenario II:  *sigh…*  Them again…

Scenario III:  Just look at them, will you?  Tsk.  *insert dramatic eye-roll*

I have a “them.”  It varies with my mood, if I’m totally honest about it, but there is a consistent group that goes along with my post about a cookie.

It’s the group that doesn’t know you — and by “you” I mean the all-of-us who fall into this category – has never met you, doesn’t even know you exist, and wants goes to pains, usually great ones, to make points I would love — and I mean really lllloooooooovvvvvve, with great gusto and can’t you just hear the Jersey acerbity — to pick apart.

You know the ones:  “Ewww!  I would never eat that!  How grossity-gross-gross gross!  It has ***chemicals***.”

GASP!

And you (we) think, Dear God, I eat that.  And really, I kinda like it.  Chemicals?  Huh.  I never knew.  Doesn’t really bother you that much.

Does it?

But the demon seed has been planted, along with a little guilt fertilizer.  Jeez, if only I could be as healthy as her.  As them, those people who eat good stuff like that.  God, what am I doing to my poor body?

The seed grows as you cringe-gulp when you realize what might be in that frappuccino that’s in your hand, heading for the dashboard cup holder on the way home from the office.  You try not to spit when you tongue the last of the crumbs from between your cheek and gum – that – did lunch have ***chemicals***  in it, too?  Probably.  You try to shake it off.  However, the next thing you know, you’re in Barnes & Noble, forking over 25 smackaroos for the latest Clean Eating recipe book and looking up the nearest organic market on your iPhone while you’re waiting to check out.

Let’s ponder for a moment, shall we?  Let’s.  Because not so fast.

Miss “Look At ME, I’m So Healthy” (subtext: and you’re a moron because you eat that crap)?  Let’s ponder her.  Or, rather, them, because there are so many of her ilk these days.

Let’s put aside the fact that she is much more than likely, unless she and/or her spouse or partner are crafty living-off-the-land types, sitting on a chair made out of manufactured products whose carbon trail and environmental footprint would leave a dent the size of a nuclear bomb.  Created and shipped from some Godforsaken overseas factory, where the just about (or actual) slave labor of desperate and starving workers go home after an 18-hour day to gruel made from “fresh, organic” vegetables pulled from the ground, the likes of which Ms. Healthy has never seen.  I’m exaggerating a little, but maybe not so much.  There are articles, people.  There are articles.  We can all find them.

Probably more likely, whatever they’re eating is contaminated by the waste of their employer’s plant pouring into the ground, water and air these workers ingest in obscene amounts on a daily basis and don’t earn a decent living for their efforts, because they don’t have a choice.  And Ms. Healthy typed that proud little post from a computer made in exactly the same way.  Inside her air-conditioned home (think about similar items comprising most of the products that created and fill that home) or office (same thought).

Am I going too far?

OK.  Then, this: Ms. Healthy stood in a shower that morning as she beamed about what a fit lifestyle she lives, under water that most likely isn’t pure, untreated well water. Could be.  If so, good for her.  Otherwise, consider her chemicaled from the outside in, whether she likes it or not.  Let’s not even consider the pipes her water travels through, what they’re made of, and how and where.  We’re getting to the largest organ of the human body: The skin.  But I’m not done with Ms. Healthy’s morning toilet yet.

Fiberglass shower stall?  Shall I, or can you picture in your mind where we could go with that?  I think you can.

Oh, natural tile in her shower?  I’ll help you out, but I think you know where I’m headed.  Right-o:  Quaries.  I’m linking you one of the pretty ones, even though it, like all the others, gouges a giant scar into the planet by workers whose conditions are not vastly better than the plastic-making people.  And just what comprises the goop that sticks those tiles to Ms. Healthy’s bathroom walls, do you think?  Mud?  Well, sort of.  Read a package of mastic or thin-set, if you never have.  Or, here.  You can check it out online.  So handy.

Shall we move on?

She uses shampoo.  And conditioner.  And soap.  Shaves her healthy legs and underarms with a plastic shaver with manufactured metal blades.  Dries off with a manufactured towel washed in detergent, in a dryer with a dryer sheet.  I’m thinking I’m not breaking anyone’s heart if I don’t provide links to how these products and/or their containers are made, what’s in them, and whether or not they’re animal tested.  You’re welcome.

She then steps out onto a manufactured rug, then heads to her manufactured (or excuse me, possibly her “natural tile” sink) and mirror and medicine cabinet under a lighting fixture with watt-incandescent bulbs– natural products all?  Right again.  Far from it.

Ooh, but maybe Ms. Healthy has opted for the “more energy efficient, thereby saving the planet” light bulbs – which are recommended in some areas to be sealed in metal containers for disposal if they die or break, because of the – MERCURY — they contain.  (But they save larger amounts of mercury from being released into the environment from coal burning to power electric plants, etc., etc.  I know, I know.)  Either way, if one breaks, one hopes Ms. Healthy evacuates all pets and small children, turns off the A/C, closes off the room for five to ten minutes, and God help us, doesn’t vacuum it up.

Moving on.

She then uses any possible combination of the following products – on her skin:  Moisturizer, antiperspirant, foundation, eye shadow, liner, mascara, blush and lipstick.  Mascara obviously doesn’t enter the body, but I go back to the above, regarding container, packaging of the container, the ingredients and potential testing on living creatures.  Hair blown with a plastic dryer – with electricity – does anyone use mousse or gel anymore? – and probably brushed with – say it with me – a plastic brush.  Maybe a little hairspray, maybe not.  Depending on her age, she may have hair au natural, but hmm, wonder what her stylist uses.  Then she spritzes with cologne.  If she’s lucky, she didn’t chip any polish on her acrylic nails or glitter pedi-toes.

I guarantee you that she did not loom her own cloth from alpacas in her yard, and sew her own clothes with road kill bone needles and gut sinew thread.  She wears shoes, I’m sure.  Is there a cobbler in the family?

Onward.

She glides over synthetic floors to her kitchen full of modern appliances, manufactured cabinets, and there – a choir of angel sings as she opens – TA DA! – her manufactured refrigerator cooled with chemicals* just like her air conditioning, because let’s face it, who among us has root cellars anymore?  *OK, it’s not Freon cooling the home and fridge these days — well as much, anyway — but would she drink these things or feed them to her offspring?  I’m thinking probably not.  She’s all about healthy.

Anyway — She opens her fridge, and there!  There they are, all the healthy, organic, pesticide-free products, sitting on their tempered glass and plastic shelves, in all their little plastic, synthetic, manufactured box-paper containers that she carried home in her little Earth-friendly shopping bags (yes, the ones without the lead, of course).  The produce that was maybe was, maybe wasn’t picked by migrant workers, and shipped over asphalt roads in big rig trucks.  The rigs she passes in her car on those same roads on her way to her steel and concrete office.

The things she giddily boasts about consuming whenever the opportunity arises.

Because she is one healthy, environmentally conscious lady, and damned proud of it.

Maybe next I’ll tackle those peeps who brag about the gym.  Protein shake, anyone?

Eat the Fucking Cookie

Eat it.

And screw guilt.

Because that cookie — that one right there in your hand, beckoning you with its crumbs and its sweetness — was made to be enjoyed.

And you deserve to enjoy it.

Two words:  Anne Lamott.  Click it.

A few more:  Your thoughts about what you do can poison whatever you put into your body, and whatever you try to do to fix it, as surely as eating arsenic.  It’s a quantifiable, scientific fact.

To qualify what I’m saying, and to hopefully defray any guilt about feeling guilty, I’m not saying to eat the whole box.  And I’m not condemning anyone.  I’m opting for the cliché that life really is too short to not enjoy a stupid cookie.  Health specialists also explain that denial can lead to binging.  Don’t do it.  Have a cookie.  Figuratively and literally.  Have one.

We are bombarded 24/7 with what we’re doing wrong, and how we’ve been wronged by others, and how everyone is wronging everyone else.  Fear surrounds us.  It’s on billboards, radio and TV ads, in magazines and newspapers that tout drugs and law firms and insurance companies, and it’s there every time we open social media.  Do this.  Don’t do that.  Dear God, look at you, you’re killing yourself if you do X and Y and Z.  We are perpetually reminded of how much we’re doing wrong.  Well-meaning, but enough is enough already.

Think of milk.  Meat.  Eggs.  Butter.  Remember 15 or 20 years ago?  Oh.  My.  God, do NOT ingest these things anymore, because you’ll die if you do.  Hardening of the arteries, heart disease, cholesterol.  New forms of margarine were sweeping the market.  Lo and behold, here we are, and now it’s margarine that will kill you with its polytrimonosolneutroglutimates (I just made up that word to make a point), so honey, put down that Blue Bonnet and run to the nearest dairy for the real stuff.  In fact, archaeologists are now scratching their heads about things contemporary medical science attributed strictly to modern conditions, that ancient mummies also suffered.  Wait, what?  Sorry we were wrong all those years.  Oops.

If yoga’s not your thing, don’t do yoga.  If you’re not into running, that’s fine.  If you don’t want to contemplate your navel, that’s perfectly all right.  Meditation isn’t for everyone.

What I’m saying is that finding joy is about finding yoursPatch Adams is an underrated genius, because his philosophy needs to be taught to everyone from birth — it’s about joy, my friends.  Joy.  When we have that, everything else falls into place.  It does.  We can help ourselves the most by finding that however we can.  And to not beat ourselves up if we can’t.  Yet.  The fact that we want  to is a beginning.

There are so many brutally wounded people in the world who I wish I could send to Patch Adams for an intensive in unlocking the things these people weren’t given from birth by the people who were responsible for their upbringing.  The gift of freedom to be able to laugh and be carefree.  Our injuries are very real, and the pain of them can lock us into feelings of desperation to just have  the freedom to enjoy what others do without thinking about it very much.  You can run all you like, you can practice asanas forever, you can try all you like to clear your mind, but watching videos of babies laughing or dogs at bath time will do more for you in 15 minutes than all that other stuff combined.  Ask Patch.  He knows.

Trust me, as a person with my own challenges with emotions, I am not here to minimize what anyone goes through, because I know what it feels like to struggle with trauma.  What I’m saying is that we are made to feel responsible all the time for buying into someone else’s idea of what’s good for us because they want to sell a product, philosophy, idea or self-image that has zero to do with what will actually bring us joy as unique individuals.

Sales pitches aside, those Facebook posts of the champion runners signing up for their next marathon and pictures of the latest happy family occasion can make us feel like we’re less than as we sit on the couch with the TV on in the background, all by ourselves.  Again.  But what may be behind those smiling, medallion-holding and warm and fuzzy group shots, and the latest admonition to quit smoking “or else” could be the same pain we all have, whether we’re dealing with dysfunctional families (because many of them are as well) or demons borne of childhood sexual abuse.

So we deserve the choice to do what we do — and do that without feeling guilty for not doing what others are doing — until we’re ready for something else — because we will be at some point.  It’s human nature.  We are hardwired to seek homeostasis, and someday, as we regain ourselves, we will inevitably find it.

And we

Deserve

That

Cookie.

 

 

Commando Gentleness

If you’ve read more than one of my posts, I think it comes across pretty clearly that I’m a very intense person.

It bothers me sometimes, because I am also a person who is very private — or I have been until I decided to start semi-publicly sharing my experience.  I don’t like to call attention to myself, despite that I have been in some very public positions, reporting for newspapers for a living with my name in the byline, and running a live stage theater company.

I’m fine talking to people.  I’m OK mixing and mingling.  I’ve even been on the stage, and loved being in character when I was.  I was about to start a local stint in standup comedy (story for another time).  What would surprise many people who don’t know me well, and even some who do, is that I suffer from crushing insecurity.  It’s probably why I had designs on Broadway from a very early age.  Insecurity and Broadway?  Exactly.  I give you Robin Williams.  Along with some of the actors I know locally and every performer who inspires audiences in ways most of us can only dream of, but die a thousand deaths the minute the lights go out and the backstage door shuts behind them.

Many artists are intense in some ways, because somehow, deep inside, we never feel we are enough.

Losing my kids proved that to me.

Not to the conscious me who knows I was a SuperMom because I had to be with the needs they had and the father who lived with us, the part of me that knows I did far more right than I ever did wrong.  That conscious part is very secure in its awareness that having them removed from my life in the ways they were was nothing I could control.  I did not leave them.  I did not chase them away.  They didn’t leave because I did anything wrong.  I know that.

It’s the part of me that always had to prove it was worthy that bore the brunt of this epic, catastrophic failure.  It never entered my mind that we wouldn’t share a future.

In the last few days, I’ve reached a point I’ve read about, where “Something Happens” and you know it’s time to take action and move on.  My healing and recovery were stalled.  That happens.  I was never the type to wallow, but the peace I’d find was fleeting.  The small joys would never last.  It was like some black, deep, secret part of my psyche was terrified that if I tried to carve out a new life for myself, it was a betrayal of my loss, and that if I started something new it would fail, because this — this — the thing I invested so much of myself in for so long, the biggest thing, the most important thing, the thing for which I gave up everything else — this — was the biggest failure of my life.  If I could lose that when I worked so fucking hard, who the hell did I think I was to dare to imagine that anything else I ever did wouldn’t collapse in ruin as well.

Well.

The best thing to tell someone like me — a “prover;” someone who thrived on pressure because I demanded of myself that I’d take it because so many thought I’d crumble; the person who got through boot camp when people were taking bets on how soon I’d quit; a person who moved alone to Washington D.C. because it scared me to death and people didn’t believe I’d do it; the one who took blind leaps of faith and refused to believe I wouldn’t be caught by a Higher Power’s hand (and always was); the one who heard “you can’t” so many times I was determined that I would; the one who dived in head first and raised three kids who weren’t “mine” when so many told me I shouldn’t — the best thing to tell that someone is “you can’t get through this without meds.”

Forgive me — my ass.

I believe what happened was hearing it from “A Professional” ignited that “you can’t” synapse that always somehow triggered my “the hell you say” response, and for the last two days, the crushed and wounded part of my brain has been spewing out page after page of “Remember, chickadee, this is who you really are.”

It’s scary as you can’t believe to put that out there in writing.  Any of this, actually.  Because as Robin Williams so poignantly showed us, the inner critic is always the worst.  Mine is diabolical.  That inner voice is vicious and relentless.  It makes me wonder if the more wrathful it is, the more intense the listener becomes in proving to him- or herself that it’s wrong — even if we rarely believe it is.

I have absolutely no idea in the Universe how to be gentle with myself.  I’ve never done it.  There were people in my childhood who were very, very tender with me and my sister growing up, but none of them were in my immediate family.  Loving and kindness and softness seemed to be somehow instinctual with my own children, though.  When someone asked me the biggest thing I learned from raising them, I realized it was how to treat my own (I still cringe at these words, I’m sorry) “inner child” when it came time to do that work.  If it hadn’t been for my kids, I’d have been completely lost.

My intensity, I think, completely prevents me from being some mushy version of a sweet mommy to myself.  Ever.  I’ve been embarrassed by my loud laugh, saved at one point by a local actress who guffawed unabashedly at one of our shows when there was hardly anyone in the house, when I realized, hey, she doesn’t care!  Chagrinned about my intensity at times, relieved by celebrity chef, Rachael Ray, God bless her heart, who shared with Reader’s Digest once, that she wanted to be just like her mother: “She was loud and fierce, a great piece of work…”

I control it very well in public, but in here I let my sometimes potty mouth fly, because I was raised in New Jersey, and there, dropping the F-Bomb is an art form.  (I always loved the reactions of people who never heard me use it before, especially on active duty: “um, you could catch flies with your mouth gaping open like that, sailor” — *wink*.)

In here, I’m following Brene Brown’s admonition to be embrace vulnerability.  Maybe not the ideal form of gentle, but for me, it’s authentic.

Terrifying, difficult, but real.

Maternal Pearls, Not-so-Ancient History, and Easter

If you’re a Parental Alienation survivor, especially a mom, I highly recommend Bernadette A. Moyer.  She’s way past where I am in the healing process, and writes a lovely blog.  She has a Facebook page associated with it, which you can link to from her blog.  Many survivors of this experience love her to death.  I’m a huge fan.  She gives me hope.

It’s Easter Sunday, 2015.  I’m alone.  For the first time in my entire life, I’m at my own home, all by myself, except for my cats.  (If you and I are going to spend any time together,  you should know they are Sugar — a brown tabby and very needy and clingy; Spicey (with an “e” before the “y” on purpose) — a black and white tuxedo, huge and a total momma’s boy; and Mercedes, a Maine Coon mix who is, as you can surmise by her name, a Diva.)

Surprisingly, I’m fine with this arrangement today.  No tears, no loneliness at all, which shocks me.  Honestly, it’s a relief not having to be anywhere.  I’m surprised it’s not bothering me, because you’d think this would be a day you’d long to be with family or friends, or sadly nostalgic about the days when at this hour in years past, there were amazing food smells coming from the kitchen, colored eggs were lined up in their box in the fridge, and kids were picking jellybeans from the bottom of plastic grass in baskets before dinner.

Instead, I’m thinking about the future.  When I was a teenager, I was lamenting a breakup, and my mother said, “Look.  You can decide to stay miserable about this, or you can think five years down the road.  Will this be a big deal then?  If not, think now about how you’ll feel then, and adopt that attitude now.  It will save you a lot of grief.”  She also applied this wisdom to regrets and major decisions.

Dang, she was good.  One of the best maternal pearls I ever got.

It’s easier to do with some things than others, but I have applied that advice many times over the years, and it has worked like a magical charm.  When it comes to losing our children to alienation, though, it falls flat, doesn’t it?  Five years down the road, we should be anticipating more celebrations with our kids.  More milestones.  More holidays as they grow older, and come home, like I’ve gone home for Easter year after year, and took my kids with me on many of those occasions.

In my email in box this morning were two of Bernadette’s posts.  One was “Navigating Through Estrangement;” the other was “Finding Joy in Each Day,” and started out “It was Easter 2013…”

The Easter post described how her travel plans were thwarted when an early spring storm engulfed the area in snow, so she relaxed at home and enjoyed the beauty outside.  The other, posted this morning, describes her journey through estrangement over the last SEVENTEEN YEARS.  Hers began in 1998.

She describes the stages very well, from the first “don’t contact me anymore” through becoming whole again.  How in “Stage 3, Denial,” she was in therapy twice a week and beginning anti-depressants.  She also shares, in “Stage 4, A Different Kind of Life,” that she would be “…fine years 4 and 5 and then have a complete breakdown in year 6.”

My twice-a-week therapy occurred twice.  Once in 2008, when I became so physically ill, I thought my chronic Hepatitis C had finally come to do me in.  When my primary care physician and five specialists she sent me to see for further tests said no, the Hep C was under control, this was anxiety making me so sick, I found an anxiety specialist to explain to me how a person who had never had a nerve in her body could have something like this happen.  The next time was after my ex, my children’s father, had jauntily walked out on all of us for a job in another state, cheerfully announcing at dinner one Sunday that he was leaving in three days.  That was October, 2010.

My daughter kissed me off in January of 2011.  My ex took my sons to where he was living in Virginia Beach in August of that year.  The last time I saw them was the summer of 2012.

Two days ago, I was told I need to be on antidepressants.  I was crushed.  And I refuse to do it.

The Saturday before Easter 2012, a Navy fighter jet crashed into an apartment complex across the street from where my sons were living with their father.  My ex, a former Navy Boatswain’s Mate and then with a civilian contractor, was working on a barge in the middle of a local waterway when it hit the news.  I frantically tried to reach my sons; my ex turned his boat around and raced home to bring them to me at my condo, about ten safe miles from the danger zone.  We dyed eggs and I made Easter dinner a day early.

At that time, both my sons wanted to return to Annapolis, Maryland, where we had all been living before their father retired after his 23-year Navy twilight tour — and left before the ink was dry on his paperwork.  We had all lived in this area prior to our move to Annapolis.  I owned a condo here that I had rented to a friend during that tour.  I moved back into it in January of 2012.  There were still packed boxes in every room as we were dissolving Easter egg dye pellets in vinegar.

I looked around at these boxes and thought about how I had broken my foot on moving day, my right foot, of course, cast up to my knee, crutches, scooter, and had delayed the delivery of my household goods until two weeks before this Easter conversation with my sons.  I sighed.  I was their mom.  “If you want to go back to Annapolis,” I told them, “I’ll make arrangements.  We’ll go.”

They were ecstatic.  Which incensed their father.  Naturally.

And, obviously, or you wouldn’t be reading this, it never happened.  I must have sensed in some way that it never would.  While I was obtaining an apartment in Annapolis and registering my youngest son back in his former Annapolis high school, I took them both on trips that summer that I had always wanted to make with them.  Disney with my older son (my youngest didn’t want to go because his father was so angry about it); the Grand Canyon with my youngest.  Meanwhile, my ex was making arrangements to move back to his home town in Upstate New York and swore my sons to secrecy.  He never told them he was planning on taking them with him.

While I was living between two states and getting sicker as the summer wore on, my older son moved in with friends in anticipation of my permanent arrival, and I was going broke paying for lawyers to try to thwart each new legal attack my ex was dreaming up.  In August, he told my youngest that they were going to a family reunion on Labor Day.  I learned about it by accident, when a post by a New York relative popped up on my Facebook feed, telling my youngest she couldn’t wait to see him.  He never told me he was helping his father pack a U-Haul, and argued with me about how wrong I was that if he went up there, he’d never see Annapolis again.  So I had to let him go.  I figured he’d let me know when his father started balking about driving him down to Annapolis himself after the reunion, and I could go get him.

By September, my son wasn’t speaking to me.  Our texts and conversations ended when he was sending me questions about child support and my medical insurance.  So I knew.  I fought it.  I lost.

The next time I heard from him was right around Easter last year, when I got a strange phone call from a college recruiter saying he was applying there.  I texted him and said if he called me, I’d give him the contact info.  I never expected to hear back, but my phone pinged almost immediately.  It’s been a tenuous, on-again, off-again communication ever since.  He called me once about his high school graduation and sent me pictures because he thought it would be uncomfortable if I went up there.  Now he’s planning on going into the Army.

I heard back from my older son on his 21st birthday, when he responded to a text I never thought he’d answer.  He had disappeared and hadn’t answered any others; I learned from a friend in Annapolis in October of 2012 that he’d gone to his father in New York and decided to join the Navy.

Today, my daughter and youngest son will undoubtedly be feasting with their extended family in New York.  My middle son is on a ship in the Pacific Ocean, very likely participating in rescue efforts related to the effects of Super Typhoon Maysak, which has been threatening the Philippine Islands all week.

I think about Bernadette and her Easter two years ago, and how 2013 was my first without my kids since 1999, except for the one year, 2002, they spent it in New York with relatives.  I was in touch that year, though, and we shared it in cards, letters, gifts and giggly phone calls.  The last couple of years, I’ve been with my family in Delaware, trying not to act like I was as devastated as I was.

It feels bizarre to me to map my progress in emotions, but that’s what we do when we’re on this road.  Alienation makes somehow “normal” what others can’t fathom, while they’re dining on ham with loving families in the seats around them at the table.

To feel peace while we know that is progress, whether it’s finally enjoying a surprise Easter snow storm, or sitting on the sofa with a laptop out, typing out for others a bit of this history, and how I really am OK this Easter Sunday, knowing along with Bernadette that I survived the convoluted and painful path I’ve been on these last few beginning years of this journey.  And that five years down the road, I’ll be even better.

 

 

Me Time, Like a Boss

… or … “Input Overload.”

I’m working on an analogy for what it’s like to tell a person with Complex PTSD that “Happiness Is A Choice.”

Responding with “fuck you” really grates on my own personal philosophy, because I really do believe our own thoughts can lead us places we feel better, or places we don’t feel good at all, and who wants to be attacked for spouting a pop-psych catchphrase anyway.  It’s just rude.  Besides, it doesn’t educate anyone.

So I think maybe something like “telling someone with PTSD/CPTSD that “HIAC” is like telling someone with a bleeding, crushed and broken nose that they can will it back to wholeness if they just want to bad enough.”

It really is just about the same thing, because it’s bullshit.  You can take this to the bank:  NO ONE who has a severe emotional injury enjoys it.  They don’t want it.  They don’t like it.  No one.  It hurts, it interferes with joy in a major way, it disrupts lives, and it feels horrible.  It’s like living with a beehive in the middle of the living room ceiling, and you pray to God all the time that the right breeze won’t come along and piss off the Queen.  Any of us who have this would run to the shed for a reciprocating saw to hack off a limb for the magic wand that would fix it as instantly as just wishing the symptoms weren’t there anymore because we choose happiness instead.

You cruise along feeling OK for a couple of days, then WHAMO, no idea in the world what triggered it this time, but the next thing you know, the cascade of thoughts and feelings you’d give anything to get rid of tumble around you like whitewater.  The best you can do is fight to keep your head above it till you’re back in the next pool of still water.

After a devastating third appointment with a new therapist yesterday, I realized by something she said (validated, actually) that I’m a murder victim.  Figuratively, of course, but if you Google the right set of words, you will learn that having survived living with a sociopath (which people usually do just barely), “soul murder” pops up regularly as a thing these people do.  When your life, accomplishments, dreams, joy, and the person you have always been have been deliberately and systematically chipped away and stripped away for over a decade — and you realize you “let” this person do it, God save us all — life afterward is never the same as it was before.  I’m speaking about the effect my ex’s actions had on all of us by sharing the effect it had on me.

I lay in bed last night thinking about things this new therapist said, and I suddenly realized it: “I’m a murder victim.  That’s what he did.  That’s why this is so impossible to fathom.  It’s the same as trying to figure out why Ted Bundy did what he did.”  I’ve known this, of course, but last night it really landed.  It was a watershed moment.

As an admin in an online support group for parents who are estranged from adult children due to parental alienation, I took issue slightly with the author of an article about emotional injuries.  She is a life coach trained in holistic techniques (which I wholeheartedly support), but she is not a psychology professional.  That always raises alarm bells for me anyway, but she was stating that (paraphrased) “it’s not the emotional injury that’s giving us so much trouble, but the way we view the emotional injury that causes all the problems.”  Which is categorically incorrect from a neurological standpoint.

I have no problem with her statement if she’s talking about your “average” trauma that happens to everyone – the death of a beloved family member or pet; divorce; breakup; bankruptcy; job loss.  But tell this to a combat veteran, a long-term abuse survivor, or someone who has never heard the term “emotional injury” before the days PTSD and CPTSD were recognized for what they are, and they’ll likely laugh her out of the room, or be triggered by what amounts to another form of victim blaming.  I.e., “you’d get better if you wanted to; you’re just not trying hard enough.”  (But pay for my program, these people profess, and I’ll prove it.)

(Post-publishing note:  I am not in any way suggesting that this author’s viewpoint or these techniques are worthless.  In fact, they work very well for many people.  In the links shared below, researchers explain that deliberately and consciously focusing on positive thoughts and experiences is part of the process of re-programming an emotionally injured brain.  My point(s) reflect the pat application of “simple” fixes for severe emotional injuries can be detrimental and frustrating, depending on the severity of the injury.  I am also describing my personal experience and the experiences of others who have had similar frustrations.  This is a process, not a one-shot deal.)

Severe emotional injuries cause very real and measurable changes to brain chemistry and how the brain is wired.  It doesn’t function the way it did before the injury.  I think what this author might be trying to do is a version of helping people understand that these broken and damaged neural pathways can be overcome.  Richard Boyatzis does an amazing job of explaining how neural programming works and how it can be worked with, consciously manipulated, and changed for the better.  His research findings go very well with Neuro-Linguistic Programming, and advances that are being made in trying to help the severely damaged brains of combat veterans.

But you can’t just “think” this into happening by a quick and easy attitude adjustment.  Just like a person recovering from severely broken bones needs rehabilitation and physical therapy to regain the ability to function normally again, people with the kind of damage done to their brains by a campaign of terror, even if it’s “only” been in their living rooms and bedrooms for a number of years, can’t just make their C/PTSD symptoms disappear by deciding it’s over, so I’m done now.

I used to think it could work that way, because, by God, if anyone can do that, I can.  I’m the hard worker who refuses to let obstacles stand in my way.  Solution oriented.  Task oriented.  Detail oriented.  I blast through problems like a speeding locomotive, and piss on the wreckage of what tried to hold me down.  Challenges?  Pff.  I “can’t?”  WATCH me.

It’s very humbling to have reached a point I’m (figuratively) kneeling on the beach, vomiting seawater and choking on sand, falling over when I try to stand up and charge back into the waves for another round of championship bodysurfing during a hurricane.  I don’t recognize this me.  I don’t like this me.  I’m sure the amazing therapist I saw when a spate of doctors told me “anxiety” would say this is part of my problem.  It’s this me, precisely, she would say, that I need to help the most by being supportive and understanding.  Would I yell at a woman emerging from the waves about what an idiot she is for swimming to the beach from a shipwreck?  (Confession: I do tend to use the word “moron” when I see people on the news being rescued from floods when it’s been on TV for days, “turn around, don’t drown!”)  Or would I run over help her up?

Igh.

To be honest, I’d probably want to smack her upside the head for getting on an ocean liner in the first place, because, hello, everyone has been talking for weeks about the storm at sea that was coming.  I was warned.  Numerous people told me not to get – or stay – involved with this man, because he creeped them out.  There is something wrong with this guy, they said.  I didn’t see it, I knew all about abuse, so I could handle what he was doing to his kids.  I could stop it.  (And I did.)  No, they said, you have too much going on with your own health, and this will be too much.  “It will kill you” came from more than one person in the healthcare and mental health professions.

But I never saw what he was doing to me.  I got on that ship.  I got on.  I rode that sucker through rogue waves and death-defying winds, and I stayed on that deck until he blew the vessel up, never understanding that while I was manning the helm, battening down the hatches, he was rigging the whole thing with explosives.  Until here I am, covered in sand, a soggy, gagging mess.

It wasn’t worth it.  Oh, sure, there are blessings I’d never have experienced if I hadn’t done it.  I can list them.  I have listed them.  I’ve shared them with other people on numerous occasions.  I am the first person to look for silver linings – that’s one of the things he couldn’t take away from me, thank God – and I always find them.

Unfortunately, the experience also took its toll.  And it’s a big one.  Sitting in my new therapist’s office, thinking we were going to talk about how I start over from Ground Zero when I’m on this unfamiliar roller coaster of paralyzing emotions I’ve never had before, and hearing, “no, I’m sorry, you don’t understand – you’re suffering from major depression.  This is Complex PTSD.  This is serious.  The reason you’re struggling so much is because when you’ve been knocked down for years upon years by wave after wave, eventually you get tired and you can’t get up on your own anymore” – well, it kind of takes your breath away.

I have done myself (another) grave injustice, because I have watched people with great, loving relationships and strong support networks get better and be well, and I have felt so frustrated that I’m not doing as well as they are.  (My “support network” consists of myself and three lazy but loving cats, and I’ve bashed myself mercilessly for not being able to create one for myself – don’t even ask about my extended family; they’re of the “Jesus, get over it already” ilk.)  I did myself a tremendous disservice by buying into my own philosophy that “just choosing” to be happy will make this all go away, not understanding somehow that it will take time – precious, precious time, and lots more of it – for my brain to rewire itself.  I can be compassionate of others who are suffering, but I was beating myself up for not healing fast enough, all the while telling so many other people, “healing is on YOUR timetable, and it happens when it happens, you can’t push the river.”

I attacked healing from this life experience like I went after every other crisis, problem, issue, illness or cosmic curve ball that ripped the rug out from under me.  The list of modalities I’ve used is long.  Until I got smacked with a two-by-four in the therapist’s office yesterday, I don’t think I’ve realized this really is, as she said, a BFD (that’s “big fucking deal” to the uninitiated).  That time, grace, gentleness and self-compassion are better balms sometimes than beating a problem into submission, despite that I’ve been telling other survivors about self-love for so long.

I’m really sorry, Self.  You deserve much better than that.  Especially from me.  Sometimes being a challenge-crushing badass isn’t what’s called for.  I get it now.

I’m turning off the constant stream of input, and shutting down my laptop, except to share how this goes, this “all about me, now and let’s try to do it right this time.”

For anyone else who has been devastated and overwhelmed and frustrated that “just” [whatever the going motto has been for you] hasn’t worked (yet), welcome to a validation of your journey.  And thanks for sharing mine.