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A Writer's Journey: One Daughter's Healing Process


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Final document presented as completion of my Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Studies at the Vermont Academic Center in Montpelier, Vermont--part of Union Institute & University

I do not consider this a finished product. It is merely the beginning of a larger body of work.

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A Writer's Journey: One Daughter's Healing Process

  1. 1. A Writer’s Journey: One Daughter’s Healing Process Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts at Vermont College Faculty Advisor: _______________________________________________ Maida Solomon Robin L. Bernstein July 28, 2009
  2. 2. Abstract My last study is a search, internal and external, for my creative place in the world. As searches often go, the path turned out to be different than I originally imagined. While exploring my own writing voice, I found myself immersed in the interconnection of my childhood and adult experiences. The journey became one of healing in addition to finding my own voice. This is a studio study of my creative writing. My process essay comes first, laying the foundation for understanding what follows. My creative writing, in its variety of forms, is separated into three sections: child, child/adult, and adult. The first section is comprised of three vignettes—three reflections of memories from my childhood. The second section is a single piece written in the voice of the adult unable to separate from the emotions of the child. The final, and largest, section is the voice of the adult. This section includes memoir, personal essays, blog entries, and an occasional poem. Together, they are the substance of my healing process: a writer’s journey.
  3. 3. TABLE OF CONTENTS Preface.................................................................................................................... v A Writer’s Journey: One Daughter’s Healing Process......................................1 Introduction................................................................................................1 I Must Speak...............................................................................................3 I Must Write................................................................................................6 I Must Read.............................................................................................. 14 I Must Heal............................................................................................... 22 Conclusion................................................................................................ 28 Child..................................................................................................................... 31 Gymnastics .............................................................................................. 32 Homemade Clothes ................................................................................. 36 Did You Wash Your Hair?...................................................................... 39 Child / Adult........................................................................................................ 43 She Arrives .............................................................................................. 44 Adult .................................................................................................................... 45 Biological Side Effects ............................................................................ 46 Standing in the Hallway......................................................................... 49 Out of the Hallway................................................................................... 54 I’ve Lost my Earmuffs ............................................................................ 57 Strange Pains .......................................................................................... 59 Too Tired to Write ................................................................................... 63 Thoughts on my Experiment................................................................. 64 iii
  4. 4. Avoidance of Good .................................................................................. 69 Persistence .............................................................................................. 72 Heartbreak Salve .................................................................................... 75 Goodbye to March ................................................................................... 78 My Body is Not a Temple ....................................................................... 81 My Body Screams ................................................................................... 82 Morning Walk .......................................................................................... 83 Dead Leaf or Emerging Bud?................................................................. 84 Works Cited......................................................................................................... 86 Annotated Bibliography.................................................................................... 88 Study Bibliography.......................................................................................... 103 Appendix: Eulogy for Eldora Johnson .......................................................... 105 iv
  5. 5. Preface I arrived in Montpelier in the fall of 2007 eager to be a writer. I threw myself into the community, perfectly comfortable with my decision to join Vermont College and excited to get started. I happily attended study exploration sessions. I showed up early to faculty lectures. I cried through every culminating presentation. Then, about two days into residency, I was blindsided by a paralyzing fear. I was skipping along, singing, “Look at me! I am a writer!” when I tripped right over the word “artist” and fell flat on my face. Amy Cook was giving a presentation on art and photography. The entire, overarching concept of artist left me curled up in a ball on my thin, foam mattress in my cinderblock dorm room. Sure, I had come to own my place as a writer, but don’t you dare call me an artist! As is my way, I knew this could not be ignored. My fear was screaming at me, shaking me by the shoulders, “You will pay attention to me!” I started to share what was happening to me and allowed other students and faculty to suggest ways I could approach my fear. Sure! I could study it! My first study was entitled “The Identity of the Artist.” Patricia Burke guided me in the nuances of writing annotations as I read books on creativity, spirituality, meditation, and, of course, artists. I listened to how other artists described themselves and their work, and the mystery surrounding the word began to lift. I allowed myself to integrate the term v
  6. 6. into my world. I also spent a good deal of my first study attached to my digital camera, delighted with the new vision it provided me. At my next residency I presented a seven-minute movie of some of my photographic “stories” set to music, proudly proclaiming at the end that I, too, was an artist! My second study was a natural progression and continuation of what I had learned in my first study. I knew I wanted to delve deeper into my writing, yet I did not want to stop my exploration of photography. To show how far I had come from my first residency, I requested to work with Amy Cook. Together, we designed “Photography & Personal Essay.” I experienced a tumultuous six months of study, during which my partner began renovating our home (herself), half of my coworkers resigned, a new acting president was hired, and after assisting my board of directors during their massive strategic planning project, I learned via a listserv email message that they had decided to eliminate my position. Throughout one of the most stressful periods of my life, Amy sent me constant words of support and encouragement. I just kept reading, one book after another. I found that when my energy for writing waned, my energy for photography would take its place, and vice versa. My two creative outlets fed and supported each other, both giving me the variety of expression that actually helped me pull through the study. My presentation at the following residency was a multi-media production of the yin-yang relationship of my creative endeavors. I read my personal vi
  7. 7. essays, accompanied by slideshows of my photography, and allowed each to inform the other. When faced with defining my culminating study, I knew it was time to give myself the space to truly explore my voice as a writer. There were many classic books I had always wanted to read, and I wanted to see how they would, in turn, inform my own writing. So, awash in the nurturing energy of Maida Solomon, I left Montpelier on “A Writer’s Journey.” This journey started out with the sad passing of my maternal grandmother a month after I returned from residency. Being with her the week before she died was a gift I will always cherish, and writing and delivering her eulogy was my first act of speaking my truth to my family. Witnessing my own mother’s response to the entire process and having my aunts and uncles witness me as a separate adult became integral to my study, as did one uncle’s honest assessment of my mother’s behavior: “She’s nuttier than a fruitcake!” Slowly, this journey became more internal than external. Childhood memories arose unbidden, regardless of what I was reading, and I struggled to put them into writing. Then a former coworker’s innocent book recommendation created an entirely new path of study: narcissistic personality disorder. While I was exploring many classic stories, I was also learning new terminology to reframe my own past. Armed with a clearer understanding of my mother’s mental illness, at least as I defined it, I found the courage to begin sharing my writing with vii
  8. 8. others. I researched blogging and designed my own site. I experimented with online writing and the immediate exchange of ideas. To my delight, I even had strangers find my site and comment on my writing! The result became a virtual dance between the reactions of the child I was and the adult I am trying to be. What follows is a personal account of the journey I took, followed by my creative pieces. The process essay is the foundation, informing the reader of what is to follow and how it came to be. The creative writing is separated mindset: child, child/adult, and adult. There is no formal ending because this journey has no end. Just as when I arrived in Montpelier to find myself staring down an unknown fear, I am unable to turn away from that which offers me growth. Adulthood—and education—is a lifelong process, and this is just the beginning. viii
  9. 9. A Writer’s Journey: One Daughter’s Healing Process Introduction I begin at the end and complete my study at the beginning. I quote from the last book I read during this study, Breaking Out of Prison, written by the first faculty member I met in this program, Bernice Mennis: Individuals are born within a family, in a certain time, place, culture, world. Everything shapes us. The question is not whether we are pine seeds or acorns, milkweed or burdock; that, really, is out of our control. The question is how who we are is shaped by different environments—which environments foster the individual’s growth and which stunt, which allow for diversity and which insist on a monoculture of standardized forms and shapes. (27) I am a writer. I am also the product of my birth and the environments that have shaped me. My journey is inseparable from these facts. The path of this study has been shaped by the variety of books read, the changing environments encountered, and the questions asked—some by me, some by my advisor. I consider the result open-ended because the reading, the questions, and the journey will continue. Ask me to do something, and I instinctive have a dualistic response. I will either resist—thinking Why me?—or comply, assuming I must fulfill the request perfectly or risk losing your approval, if not your love. This is 1
  10. 10. the response of my inner child, the part of me that has never grown up: shy yet rebellious; deeply hurting yet playful; resentful of responsibility yet begging to be loved. In order to accomplish anything as an adult, I must negotiate with this child. It has become a dance, weaving and twirling, dipping and lifting. We take turns leading sometimes, and my life changes course accordingly. Or, as my partner likes to ask, “Who’s driving the bus today?” My creative process follows this same pattern: resistance and procrastination dancing with deeply felt urges to write, passion for all genres of writing, and a life force within me that believes it needs to be heard. For me to succeed in writing, to complete a piece of personal work that is viewed by others, I must step out of the shadows and stand side-by- side, adult with child, visible in the light of day. Both of us are excited and terrified by this notion. Surprisingly, I am a logically-minded person. I love order. My work life consists of spreadsheets and files and checklists, everything accounted for, everything in its place. It provides a sense of safety. It creates an illusion of solidity from which I can venture out into the untethered realm of creativity. My creative writing within this study is born from essentially one place: my past. To fully understand, it is indispensable to know that I am an only child. I have no one with whom to compare experiences, validate memories, or share the heavy burden of growing up with a mentally ill 2
  11. 11. mother. There, I said it. During this study, I have come to believe my mother suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. I have heard no official diagnosis. I have no credentials of my own to back up such a claim. I have only forty-one years of life, my own memories, and the information gleaned from a myriad of books. This is still a tenuous assertion because the guilt I feel as an adult is circling with the growing awareness of the child. The internal dance will continue, but I now stand firm in this claim. My mother is mentally ill, and this is a vital aspect of my study, my creative process, and my life. Yet, this study is not about my mother. It is about me. This journey is about the courage to face the truth and the determination to learn to write about it. This study is about healing, my healing. I Must Speak Soon after my last residency, my grandmother died. Over the previous year or so, while she lived in Oregon and I lived in Maryland, we spoke sometimes a couple times a week. Prior to her passing, while she recuperated in the hospital after a heart attack, I was able to spend a week with her and her children: my mother and my uncles. I stayed by her side as much as possible. We laughed as she joked with the nurses. I held her hand at night as she tried to sleep. On my last night there, we looked into each other’s eyes and said good-bye. In her presence I always felt special. I 3
  12. 12. was her first grandchild. Even when I did not conform to her standards of living, she had found a way to accept the diversity of me. During this period of time, I spent any available alone time reading Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. It was a nice escape from the realities of my life. Niffenegger’s creative novel, a love story involving a man who involuntarily pops back and forth along the timeline of his life, provided an easy story within which to lose myself. The themes of time travel, loneliness, and solidity versus emptiness ran parallel to my experiences of wandering through memories, losing my grandmother, and being among my family. The female character in the book makes an interesting observation, “The compelling thing about making art—or making anything, I suppose—is the moment when the vaporous, insubstantial idea becomes a solid there, a thing, a substance in a world of substances” (284). I find my form of art, the act of putting thought into written word, to be compelling. Since I am drawn to write about myself—my memories, my ideas, and my feelings—it is as if I become more substantial by doing so. I become more of a “substance in a world of substances.” During the week my grandmother was in the hospital, my mother and her siblings and I stayed at my uncle’s nearby farm. One day as I was driving with my mother back to the hospital for a family shift change, I brought up the subject of preparations for Grandma’s service. Although I have attended remarkably few funerals in my lifetime, I felt prepared to 4
  13. 13. write and deliver my grandmother’s eulogy. I knew my mother had delivered her father’s eulogy many years earlier, so I was not sure what she had in mind for her mother. I asked an open-ended question, and to my surprise, my mother turned to me and asked if I would be willing to do it. Naturally, I agreed. So, the writing portion of this study began with a piece I would deliver to both family and strangers. It would be my voice, my presence, and my substance standing before an assembly and speaking my truth. I imagined that it would be difficult, except it wasn’t. The words came naturally, the images of the piece easily accessible. I did a short research project on the Internet about what eulogies are and what they commonly contain, and then I opened a new file and wrote it in a single sitting. Much of my writing comes out that way because I spend so much time, sometimes months or years, weighing pieces in my head, playing with the words and speaking them in my imagination. Most of the edits and revisions have already occurred before I ever sit before a computer. As it turned out, my two trips to Oregon and spending extended time with my mother and close relatives provided something critical to my study: perspective. Observing my mother and the way she behaved around her siblings and her dying mother was a challenge because I have often been embarrassed by my mother’s behavior. Even as a young child, I knew instinctively that something was “off” somehow with her, but I internalized it as embarrassment and shame. My grandmother’s passing provided the 5
  14. 14. environment that shaped the focal point of my journey: to finally understand, to accept that something really is wrong with my mother and to begin to see that all the baggage, guilt, pain, and mourning that goes along with this journey is not entirely mine. In conversations with my uncles, I received validation. They, too, knew that something was not right with my mother, although they each had their own level of understanding and acceptance of this truth. I listened to their stories of frustration and anger at their older sister. I heard their agitation with her. I watched them leave a room in disgust. As a result, for the first time I felt a connection that I had not known existed to this part of my family. As an adult, I was finally included in the conversations that I had missed out on as a child. Perhaps all the years of feeling like something was wrong with me could be set free with the knowledge that instead something was actually wrong with her. I returned home with a different interpretation of my relationship with my mother, and it became a part of everything I would read and write from that point forward. I Must Write Why am I a writer? I know no other way to be. I love words. I love the rhythm words make when well composed. I am in awe of authors who can create sentences that make me want to sing them aloud to everyone around me. I do not yet feel confident in my ability to create lyrical prose in 6
  15. 15. the same fashion as the authors who inspire me—Jeanette Winterson, Maya Angelou, Virginia Woolf—but I do feel confident that my thoughts, my experiences, and my life lessons have value to others. I believe I am meant to write and share my work with a larger audience. While I am steadfast in my identity as a writer, I usually falter when someone asks me, “What kind of writing do you do?” I typically want to answer, “Um, I just write.” Not a very awe-inspiring response. My hesitation is born from the fact that 99.9% of what I write is in the first person. Writing has long been a tool I use to move me through difficult periods of my life. This may also be why it has taken me forty years to even admit that I am a writer. My hope for this study was that by reading a wide variety of literature and allowing them to influence my own writing, I would come to find a comfortable place of my own. Whether or not I accomplished this is hard to for me to ascertain. I have no doubt that writers from different countries and time periods influence, if only briefly, my language style. I am a bit of mimic. However, regardless of what I read, I seem to stick to what I know: myself. I write about what I think and feel, how I react to a book, what a book makes me think about or talk about or shy away from. Instead of finding a comfortable place of my own, this study confirmed that I was already in a comfortable place. The books I read over the past nine months are inseparable from the events that inspired my writing. My life 7
  16. 16. informs how I respond to a particular book, and the books I read inform my view of the events of my life. About a month after I wrote and delivered my grandmother’s eulogy, my job in Washington, D.C. was eliminated. For the first time in twenty years, I was unemployed. I was faced with the question, “If I am not working, if I don’t have a job, a title, then who am I?” Around this same time, I was enjoying a happy hour with former coworkers, regaling them with funny stories of my mother’s wacky behavior in Oregon, when one of them suggested a book to me. The book I never remembered, but she explained that one chapter referred to a condition called narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). She said I might find it interesting based on the stories I was telling about my mother. It was another turning point, a serendipitous moment that would finally locate the missing piece of the endless puzzle that was my mother. I began to research NPD on the Internet. I ordered books on the topic. Memories of my childhood began to rise unbidden. I decided to write them as clearly and innocently as I experienced them as a child. I did not have a name for this style of writing, short intense pieces with no planned beginning, middle, or end. My faculty advisor and I called them vignettes. I didn’t write with an outline or follow a timeline. I simply wrote stories as they appeared before me, images I had been carrying around my entire life. Putting them into written format gave them weight and substance, and it also relieved me of having to carry their weight myself. It was like setting 8
  17. 17. down a burden and then opening it up to look at it, except I could not look too long. I found it exhausting to write them, and I usually had a few days of shame attacks after I completed each one. Putting the sad and scary truth into form left me feeling extremely vulnerable. After a few of these pieces, I turned away. The purchased books arrived and collected dust. I continued to keep a list in my phone of key phrases that would trigger particular memories I might want to write about later. I just wasn’t entirely ready yet. Instead, I focused on the action of waiting. I had the luxury of not having to work for a month or two until I found out if a couple of major job opportunities would come through. In the meantime, I let myself sit with the discomfort of not knowing. I found myself full of thoughts and ideas and began composing personal essays in my mind, at least what I thought were personal essays. Here again, I do not easily define what it is I do. I make up speeches in my head, commentaries on things both trivial and serious, and I write them down. Are these essays or memoirs? What is the difference if I call them a story versus a vignette? Does it really matter? I spent a lot of time online, connecting with other students, past and present, via email and Facebook. In this online world I became curious about this concept of a blog. I learned that a blog is similar to an online diary. There are a variety of free services that offer predefined templates so anyone can create their own Web page in minutes and begin to “post” to it. A post is like a diary entry. Each post can be defined as open to the 9
  18. 18. public or completely private or accessible only by a specific set of people. Each post can also include photographs or videos about anything that interests the author. Some people have blogs about a particular topic, so their entries are more like articles with links to other information. Some people have blogs about their families. Some people write about anything and everything. Some people even blog about how to be better bloggers! Eventually, I turned to my partner and asked what she thought about me putting some of my writing online. Up to this point, I had never considered making my writing available to the public. With my partner’s encouragement Robin’s Corner ( was born. I found two things that made blogging especially interesting. First, readers could comment on my posts (if I gave them permission to do so). This made the process interactive. If I chose to ask questions in my blog, then readers could post a comment in response at the end of my entry. I learned that authors are generally encouraged to post their own comments responding to their readers’ comments. Also, readers can add comments responding to each other. Depending on how many people read a particular blog and choose to comment, an online community can form around a blog. Nothing of that sort happened to me, of course, but I did have some loyal readers, and it was a wonderful feeling to receive immediate feedback. Secondly, blogs have the option to create a “feed” or “RSS” which is often defined as “Real Simple Syndication.” This means that readers don’t 10
  19. 19. have to remember to go to a Web site every day to see if there are any new posts. They can “subscribe” to the “feed” and have new entries delivered to them automatically. There are various ways to do this. Most simply, fans of a blog can sign up to have each new entry delivered to them via email. However, if some people like to read a number of different people’s blogs, this can quickly fill up their email in-box. Alternatively, readers can select a “feed reader” service which gathers all the new entries to all the blogs they like to read. This way, they can go to one place, either within their Web browser or by logging on to a specific online service, and browse through all the new blog entries from all their favorite sites without having to go to a bunch of separate sites. Another aspect of subscribers is the whole new topic of “readership.” As the author of a blog, I had various ways of knowing how many people were subscribed to my blog. There is a sense of legitimacy associated with larger subcriber numbers. (I maintained approximately six or so. I’m not entirely sure.) At this point in my writing career, I felt this was a dangerous trap. I am still working on using the word “success” less frequently and hoping not to be so reliant on other people’s positive feedback to feel good about my own work, but at the same time putting my writing in front of anyone’s eyes feels like a helpful risk. At the top of Robin’s Corner I wrote the following description: As a young child I was frequently subjected to my mother's unique brand of punishment. I was sent to stand in the 11
  20. 20. corner—on one foot. After an hour or so, she might happen to walk by my room, notice me, and tell me I could switch legs. I think sometimes she forgot about me altogether. Today, I am turning around, facing out from the corner. On one leg or two, sitting, standing, or dancing, I am allowing myself to be seen, heard, and perhaps remembered. Creating this site was an act of immense courage. I had no plans to publish anything directly about my mother, but just to write this description carried a risk. If or when my mother found out about it, I would most likely have to endure her dramatic and vengeful reaction. In order to take this step in my writing, I had to be willing to fight for it, to stand up for myself, and most importantly, to believe in it. I had to believe that sharing my writing was more important than hiding from my mother’s wrath. In the introduction to Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough? : Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, she describes the most basic of human experiences: Our relationship with Mother is birthed simultaneously with our entry into the world. We take our first breath of life, and display the initial dependent, human longing for protection and love in her presence. We are as one in the womb and on the birthing table. This woman, our mother . . . all that she is and is not . . . has given us life. Our connection with her in this 12
  21. 21. instant and from this point forward carries with it tremendous psychological weight for our lifelong well-being. (xvii) I am conscious of the fact that, in our culture, to speak ill of my mother, of any mother, is particularly taboo. Motherhood is an exalted and cherished institution, some say. I have witnessed the instinctive nature of friends and family members to explain away, excuse, and minimize the realities of my childhood. More precisely, while others may accept and acknowledge the horrors of my experiences, they are still compelled to protect my mother at the same time. They are worried about the power of my words to devastate her. I understand their concern. Yet, I will speak again in a different way. They are worried that the truth of the child has the power to devastate the parent. I worry about this, too, but not in regard to my mother and me. I worry that withholding the truth of my inner child has the power to devastate me as the parent, the adult in the relationship with myself. I have reached a point in my life where I can no longer avoid, ignore, repress, reject, or negate the obvious role my past plays in my present life. Nor do I want to do so because when I pay attention to myself I am rewarded, supported, and validated. Writing and publishing on my blog gave me this support and validation almost immediately. I shared what I noticed about my reactions to life, the feelings in my body, my thoughts on faith, and, to my wide-eyed surprise, people commented. I connected my blog posts to my Facebook 13
  22. 22. page, so my online friends would be aware of what I was doing, and some visited my site. I posted the address of my site on another writer’s blog, and strangers—even a published author—commented on my writing. Suddenly, I had a very small, but very real audience. This bolstered my confidence and inspired me to challenge myself. I gave myself the assignment to write on my blog every day for one week. More than the writing itself, I found the interaction with the readers to be my reward. Some gave me support; others kept me honest when I jumped to conclusions that might not be correct. It was a difficult task to maintain, and I wrote about that, too. At the end, I shared how I felt about the entire process and forced myself to look at it in a positive light, rejecting my long- held habits of embracing only my perceived failures. Overall, it was a wonderful experiment in finding my voice and learning that people other than my closest loved ones are interested in what I write. Eventually, I stopped writing new posts as I put more focus on the reading I was doing, but I believe the blog will continue to be an important tool in my evolution as a writer. I Must Read One of my goals in this study was to read some works of classic literature, pieces I believed most people had read at some point during their education but I had somehow missed. I wanted the chance to allow these classics to inform my own writing style. 14
  23. 23. One in particular was Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. I reveled in Maugham’s strong descriptive style and the main character Philip’s wildly fantastic and dramatic internal world. Having lived most of my life feeling a victim to my own emotional upheavals, I easily rode the highs and lows of Philip’s coming of age. At one point in the story, Philip stuns himself by his sudden realization that he doesn’t believe in God: Faith had been forced upon him from the outside. It was a matter of environment and example. A new environment and a new example gave him the opportunity to find himself. He put off the faith of his childhood quite simply, like a cloak that he no longer needed. (123) I related to Philip with my newly found belief that perhaps the shame of my childhood belonged to my mother and not me. My deeply engrained negative image of myself, as I had learned it from my mother, might possibly be shed “like a cloak.” Philip’s liberation continued, “Suddenly he realized that he had lost also that burden of responsibility which made every action of his life a matter of urgent consequence. He could breathe more freely in a lighter air. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did. Freedom!” (124). I continue to dance with this concept of freedom. How do the effects of my mother’s narcissism imprison me? How can I live free from my mother’s illness? How does my writing unburden me? Or does it? 15
  24. 24. After reading Maugham, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, I longed for a different genre. I turned to memoir, a style of writing closer to my heart. My next selection was somewhat random, but as I’ve learned throughout this study, nothing is truly random. I began reading Deborah Layton’s Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple, and on page four I read, “Being a good obedient daughter seemed incompatible with having questions and doubts.” I knew immediately that Layton’s book would hit closer to home than I could ever have imagined. Reading her story of the deteriorating madness of Jim Jones was both captivating and horrifying. When Layton finally confronted Jones via radio that she intended to leave Jonestown, she was subjected to the brutal force of Jones’s psychosis: Are you so ignorant to believe anyone will want you? I am the one who saved you. I took you into my heart, my mind, and my confidence. You are my soldier, my creation. Do you think you would have been in a position to even have these thoughts if I had not taught you? It’s been under my tutelage that you have blossomed, through my eyes that you discovered this world. . . . You’ll rue this day forevermore. I will never allow you to forget . . . What . . . What is your little mind saying? That I cannot? Have you forgotten my powers? They will haunt you forever. (262) 16
  25. 25. My visceral reaction to this book brought up childhood flashbacks of my mother’s rages, cruel and demeaning. I knew I had to begin writing my memories again and return to the books I had purchased on narcissistic personality disorder. It was time to face the heart of my journey. I started with Eleanor Payson’s The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists. From the very beginning, I realized I had found my answers. The author was describing my relationship with my mother. Every other explanation I had come up with over the years to understand the core of my pain paled in comparison to the precision with which NPD described my life: For countless generations, the average person has been encountering and coping with individuals who suffer from character disorders—one of the most significant, yet least understood, of these character disorders is the narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). . . . The relentless need for the narcissistic individual to command the majority of another person’s resources will eventually deplete the energies of the healthiest individual. . . . The inevitable impact on the individual in a relationship with an NPD person is a dangerous erosion of self-esteem. (1) Payson gave me the foundation for a deeper healing. I was no longer floundering for the illusive explanation for my mother’s behavior. It was 17
  26. 26. right there in black and white. I finally stopped dog-earing the pages and underlining every sentence. It all made so much sense. Having educated myself on the effects of narcissistic personality disorder, I returned to reading memoirs and novels related to a child’s experience. I started with Daniel Tomasulo’s Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir. Tomasulo deftly merges serious parts of his childhood with hilarious life stories, but more importantly to me, he courageously writes about how group therapy triggered his understanding of narcissism in his family. In the following dialogue he finally speaks up in a session about his problems with another group member named Lulu: “So, it is more than just her breathing. It’s as if she attacks me, robs me of being who I am when she jangles her bracelets and breathes funny. When she draws attention to herself, it’s as if I don’t exist. Everything is about her, she doesn’t really know or care about me or anyone else in the group; it’s only about her.” “So, around Lulu . . .” Jackie prompted. “I feel invisible, yet I am unbelievably angry. It’s as if I am split between having to shut down, keep quiet, and get depressed, or get crazy and act out all over the place.” (139-140) In the session, Tomasulo makes the connection between his reaction to Lulu and his childhood experiences of both his mother and grandmother. I could have written the very same words about my mother. The dichotomy of “her versus me” is a very real sensation, one I still 18
  27. 27. experience today. Do I stay silent and wither with depression or do I confront and look like a crazy person? Slowly, as I continued to read, I started to notice an underlying theme. As I read stories about abused children, I also heard the children’s inner faith, their instinctive determination to survive. Augusten Burroughs is one of my favorite authors. I love him for his outrageous humor and for his willingness to tell the truth regardless of how shocking it may be. However, his latest book, A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of my Father, is purely Burroughs the serious writer, devoid of the humor in his other collections. Being a person who handled my childhood abuse by becoming invisible and turning against myself, I am always awed by those people who had something in them as a child that fought for survival. After Burroughs’s father found him kneeling beside his bed, secretly praying for God to take his father away, Burroughs left the confrontation with a new outlook: I didn’t know if it was because of what he said or just that I was getting older, but I soon stopped feeling God standing right beside me everywhere I went. . . . I stopped asking God to protect me. I came to think that maybe God was what you believed in because you needed to feel you weren’t alone. Maybe God was 19
  28. 28. simply that part of yourself that was always there and always strong, even when you were not. (163) A similar passage stood out in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. August says to Lily, “You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside” (288). Do I have this part of myself? Yes. This is the dance. When faced with the most difficult of confrontations, having to stand up for myself, the child inside me runs. How do I access the part of me that is always there and always strong? I start with baby steps, with practice, by stepping forward into my deepest fears. To look at my life partner and tell her how I feel; to show her the real me, open wide and vulnerable; to show my truest emotions even when she may or may not understand them, even when she may not even want to hear them, I must find this part of myself and let it be stronger than the frightened child. This is my ongoing dance, my daily struggle to be true to myself. Next, I began to notice the different voices of the authors I was reading. Even in the realm of nonfiction, sometimes describing the most awful of circumstances, authors can express themselves in heart- wrenching beauty. Lucy Grealy, in Autobiography of a Face, recounts enduring weekly chemotherapy injections for two and a half years as a young girl. Here she 20
  29. 29. writes about using the public bathroom while waiting to see her doctor, facing one of the two stall doors she has selected: Some weeks I stared at it dumbly, thinking only of what was happening back in the waiting room with my mother, how many more rows of knitting she’d finished. Some weeks I thought of the impending injection, or I simply continued with my fantasy life: the pony express rider seeks relief in the town’s saloon, the alien ponders the wonders of waste disposal. Some weeks, especially when it was hot, I thought of nothing and only listened to my urine hiss into the water below my legs as I leaned forward, pressing the coolness of the inscribed metal against my forehead, and wept. (17) Grealy’s ability to write from the voice of the vulnerable child broke my heart again and again, and I knew instinctively that it was important. Grealy combined the personal story of memoir with the beauty of written language to create images that sink to the core of the reader. This was a voice I admired and aspired to. I listened to the powerful, poetic prose of Maya Angelou in Letter to my Daughter as she remembers when she first allowed herself to believe in the idea that God loved her: That knowledge humbles me today, melts my bones, closes my ears, and makes my teeth rock loosely in my gums. And it also liberates me. I am a big bird winging over high mountains, 21
  30. 30. down into serene valleys. I am ripples of waves on silver seas. I’m a spring leaf trembling in anticipation of full growth. (162) Angelou’s passion for words always inspires me. Each time I read this piece, I was transformed into the images—melting, rocking, soaring, and swimming. One short passage can provide so much! Having read the beauty and heartbreak of other nonfiction writers, having seen the threads of survival among so many sad stories, it was time for my wake up call. Reading and pontificating won’t get a paper written. Noticing yourself in other stories and sharing your angst with your therapist doesn’t make you a better writer unless you use the knowledge by actually writing. I Must Heal Writing about my daily experiences and my responses to them is a healing tool for me. In turn, as I heal I have more to write, and I believe that to share this writing is passing along this healing to others. For the first time in my life I am creating a positive spiral as opposed to the negative mental spiral I have spent most of my life fighting against. I experienced my first complete breakdown during my third year of college. It was the culmination of twenty-one years of living under the secret tyranny of a mentally ill mother, combined with the experience of my first romantic relationship. The result was a spotlight into the emptiness of my being. I had absolutely no self-esteem, no sense of self 22
  31. 31. beyond what my mother had created. I consider that hospitalization the turning point from the end of my abusive childhood toward the beginning of my recovery as an adult. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of that point. I have lived nearly as many years in recovery as I did in the midst of the confusion and abuse of my childhood. This year also marks another milestone. I am completing the Bachelor’s degree that was put on hold when I was hospitalized. Of all the books I’ve read during this study, McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough? stood out like no other. It gave me the validation I craved, the information I desired, and the tough talk I needed. I no longer have any doubt that I am the daughter of a narcissistic mother. I did not grow up with a sense of being loved for simply who I am. I was an extension of my mother, to be defined and shaped by her needs, not mine. Having never had my own needs met in childhood, I have spent a lifetime consciously and subconsciously trying to have them met by everyone in my adult life—indeed, feeling entitled to have these needs met by others. So, I felt my world shift when I read the following: When you have successfully completed the acceptance part of recovery, you realize that no one can really meet your childhood needs. . . . The part of life when you were entitled to that kind of maternal nurturing is gone. You are willing to grieve the loss but fully understand that you can’t go back and 23
  32. 32. get it and you can’t make it happen now with someone else. Remember, as an adult, you are not entitled to this. You are responsible for yourself, now willing to accept this accountability for your own needs and to find a way to meet them. (143) My chest tightens every time I read this passage. I want to scream, “WHAT?!? What are you talking about? Of course, I am entitled! My partner is my partner for exactly that reason, to love me and nurture me and protect me! That’s the way it works, right? What happens to me if I truly can’t go back, and I can’t make it happen now with someone else? Are you saying I’ll feel empty and miserable my entire life?!” See, the last sentence of that passage, the one that begins “You are responsible for yourself. . .” is addressed to the adult me, but my inner child reacts so strongly and immediately to the earlier sentences that I have a hard time taking in the end. Here. I’ll practice. I am responsible for myself. I am now willing to accept accountability for my own needs and to find a way to meet them. I am responsible for myself. I am accountable for my own needs. Responsible for myself. Accountable for my own needs. Responsible. Accountable. I don’t know how this makes others feel to hear this, but for me, this is mind-blowing stuff! Not that I haven’t been told this before. I just wasn’t willing to hear it. I can continue to process the sadness and disappointment over not having a mother who can relate to me or see me or understand 24
  33. 33. me, but beyond that I have to now become the mother I need for myself! I have to be able to account for my own emotions. I have to be able to respond to my own needs. Suddenly, I see all my interactions in a new light. Then I find myself sitting on the foot of my bed after a long and tiring week, watching an episode of “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” on MSNBC and listening to his Special Comment. He is looking right into the camera, directing his speech to President Obama, but looking into my eyes. I am spellbound. He praises our President for releasing the Bush Administration torture memos, but in response to the President saying there will be nothing gained by laying blame for the past, he says, “Mr. President, you are wrong.” I actually stop breathing. I am wide-eyed and slack-jawed as Olbermann continues to explain in historical context why those who tortured, those who gave permission to torture, those who created the environment in which laws against torture could be surpassed, must be prosecuted. He finishes his special comment by saying: Mr. President, you have now been handed the beginning of that future. Use it to protect our children and our distant descendants from anything like this ever happening again—by showing them that those who did this were neither unfairly scapegoated nor absolved. It is good to say ‘we won't do it again.’ It is not, however...enough. 25
  34. 34. I sit there, stunned. He is asking the leader of our country to respond appropriately, to hold others accountable for their actions. Responsible. Accountable. I cannot separate myself from this; I am part of this whole. We are interconnected. If I learn how to be responsible for myself and accountable for my own needs, will I be contributing to the health of my nation? Is that what Olbermann is trying to do? I do not pretend to understand politics or the inner workings of my government. I do, however, believe in the holistic nature of the universe. This is no accident. I can feel it in my heart. Olbermann might have been responding to our nation’s leader, but he was also speaking to me. He reaffirmed the path I am on. He provided for me the image of a calm, thoughtful, and assertive response to an intolerable situation (for him, anyway), and I am grateful. This is a year of anniversaries and turning points. I have more of a sense of self than at any other time in my life. I believe that as I am guided and supported, my life, in turn, is connected to the whole. I must believe that as I heal, so do we all. I once had a therapist say I am tenacious about my own recovery. While I have fought chronic depression my entire adult life, I have always found a way to avoid losing the battle. Today it is a matter of constantly observing myself and using my automatic defenses, my instinctive 26
  35. 35. responses, as material for writing. Writing is now integral to my own healing. This interconnectedness is undeniable. Much of my time is spent observing, both my surroundings and my responses to them. This initiates a multitude of essays in my mind. My mind is always writing. I see a tree with new spring leaves budding and notice a dead leaf unyielding to the cycle of nature. I see myself in this dead leaf, and a new essay is born. I believe the healing nature of the statement “neither unfairly scapegoated nor absolved.” It has become a mature and supportive push behind my writing. I do not claim that my mother is the cause of all my pain or problems in my life, nor do I absolve her from the immense influence she has had on my psyche. Therefore, as I put my memories into written format, I am giving substance to my healing process as well as my creative one. I am shedding light on dark memories, I am revealing the depths of one child’s confusion and pain, and I am offering the opportunity for growth for myself and for those who feel a connection to my story. I reject the notion that I have the power to annihilate. I abandon the belief that I am responsible for my mother’s—or anyone’s—feelings. If hearing my truth causes her pain, then it is hers to deal with. She is accountable for her own actions, just as I am accountable for my own. I refuse to continue to minimize my experiences, my talents, my ability to succeed, in order to give credence to the idea that what I gain, she loses. Instead, I am trying to live my life within a system of interconnectedness. I 27
  36. 36. am attempting to stand up for myself, to speak my truth, to say who I am regardless of whether I find acceptance, rejection, or worse: no reaction at all. Conclusion In closing, I return to Bernice Mennis’s Breaking Out of Prison. She says, “We are all deep wells covered over with heavy stones” (27). I agree. This final study has been an exhausting one of working to move my heavy stone and plumb the depths of my well of talents. My mantra has become the word “and.” My life will no longer be “her versus me” or this choice over that choice. I am learning to soften my edges and not view my world in either/or relationships. I can say I write essays and memoirs. I write privately and publicly. Some faculty members in this program have told me that they often have a difficult time coaxing their students to write about themselves within the context of their academic study. I seem to have a hard time not doing it! Taking a step back and writing about what I have learned is one of the hardest things for me to do. When I first tried to conclude this essay, I wrote the following poem, inspired by Rumi’s poem, The Guest House: 28
  37. 37. The Journey May I remember to be grateful for all the guides in my life. May I find a way to welcome them all. If I feel like dying, then I am still alive. And what more is there? How much time does any one of us have? I must remember any time I spend shrinking in fear, limiting the fullness of my being, is one moment lost. I am here for a purpose, to be fully who I am, to dance through the darkest of nights, to stand tall in the light of day, to enjoy the journey. 29
  38. 38. From the context of my goals for this study, I have learned much. I am neither intimidated nor self-conscious about classic works of literature. I have found the confidence to submit my own writing for public viewing. And, perhaps most valuable, I no longer need to categorize myself. I am a writer, and the form my writing takes may wander, as does the path of my life’s journey. I am eager to see where each will take me. 30
  39. 39. Child 31
  40. 40. Gymnastics If you asked my mother today, she would probably tell you that, when I was young, she thought I was going to be the next Nadia Comaneci. She’s been telling people this story my entire life. If you tell her that Nadia started at age six, she will reply that I started classes at five. She saw my talent and started me as young as possible. I remember some of the classes. I remember being so much smaller than all the other students. I didn’t even fit between the uneven parallel bars and had to sit out during that portion of class. During vault practice, I ran with all my might toward the springboard, but I didn’t weigh enough to make it spring. It was hopeless trying to get over the vault, but the coaches encouraged me to keep trying. So, I kept running, jumping, and smashing into it like a brick wall. It was humiliating. I think about it now and I envision Goldie Hawn, in the movie “Private Benjamin,” repeatedly trying to climb the wall in basic training, crying in the rain and being yelled at by her commanding officer. When we trained on the balance beam, I was assigned to the practice beam, the one just a couple inches off the floor. Balance beam was my favorite. It was the only apparatus that matched how I felt. Even in floor exercises I felt like the mat was so huge and overwhelming, and I hated the feeling of everyone watching me. During balance beam, we all practiced at the same time, and I got to step-dip-step-dip my way across the lowest 32
  41. 41. beam and turn at the end with a flourish. I used to practice at home in our garage between two strips of masking tape on the cement floor. Unfortunately, I think my mom said something to my coaches one day, and when it came time to assign students to the various beams, I was told to work on the mid-height beam, the one several feet off the floor. I was terrified. We were asked to hop along on one foot, and I was scared I was going to miss the beam and fall. In fact, I did. I scraped the side of my shin on the wooden beam on my way down and was taken to the clinic for ice. I don’t remember what happened when my mom picked me up that day. I do remember what happened when I came home after a different practice. I think it was earlier in my career, because I remember being among other girls my age. We were practicing handstands all at the same time, and our teacher would count out loud to see who could stay up the longest. One day I found that perfect spot. It’s a physical memory for me still, a sense of perfect equilibrium. Somehow, on that one day, I found it, and I knew I could have stayed up there as long as I wanted. The goal in class was to make it to a count of ten. If you made it to that nearly elusive goal, you got a special construction-paper award from the teacher. This was my first (and only) one! I remember running through the front door so excited to show my mother. I stood with anticipation as she read the little colored-circle award with its magic marker explanation of what I had accomplished. I waited eagerly for her praise, but instead she lifted her 33
  42. 42. eyes to me with a stone cold face, pointed to the floor beside me, and said, “Do one for me.” I shrunk inside. I knew it was a fluke and I would not be able to repeat it. I also knew I had no choice but to take off my coat and try: futility in its most basic form, the earlier accomplishment lost. I did not understand then, but my achievements would never be good enough unless my mom could take credit for them. She made me practice for hours every day at home while she yelled corrections at me. “Straight as a board, Robin! Your legs should be straight as a board!” I would work to exhaustion because she wouldn’t let me stop until I performed a particular exercise perfectly, and then again and again and again. The good news is that by the time we moved back to the Washington, D.C. area, I was no longer in gymnastics. I don’t know how I manipulated my way out of it unscathed, but my gymnastics memories are inextricably connected to the time we lived in Seattle. Since I remember things not by my age but by school years, that time was from pre-school though second grade. Now, here’s the interesting part. I did some Internet research: in the summer of 1976, when Nadia stunned the Olympic gymnastics world by scoring a perfect ten in seven separate routines, I was eight years old. That was the summer between second and third grade. No matter how I look at this, my mother could not have known who Nadia Comaneci even was until after I had quit taking gymnastics. This life-long story that I have been 34
  43. 43. repeating is all part of her fantasy life, her rewritten history based on her unquenchable desire to be important. Sharing this now is part of rewriting my history, my rebirth, using the facts as I remember and learning from them. 35
  44. 44. Homemade Clothes Until the time I was around eight years old, my mother used to make my clothes or alter purchased clothes creatively so that I could wear them longer than usual. We weren’t poor as far as I knew. We lived in a huge modern house that backed to a canal that led out to Lake Washington. We had a boat! We weren’t exactly living on Spaghetti O’s. Anyway, I wore a lot of thick polyester pants with elastic waistbands and jeans covered in multi-colored patches with three-inch orange fringe at the bottom to make up for how short they were on me. (This was the early 70s. Orange fringe wasn’t that unusual.) When I was really young, my mom used to select and arrange my outfit each day. I don’t ever remember questioning this or even thinking about protesting a particular selection. I simply did what I was instructed to do. However, early one morning as I stepped from my bedroom into the kitchen, my mother looked at me horrified. She pointed to my lime green polyester pants and said with all the emotion normally reserved for a natural disaster, “You have those on backwards!” I stood frozen in fear, looked wide-eyed down at my pants and back up to her thinking, “I do?” She demanded that I return to my room and put them back on correctly with the instructions that “The seams go in the front!” Mind you, I was probably only five or six at this time. I padded back into my room, took off my pants, and examined them. They had the 36
  45. 45. aforementioned elastic waistband, no button or zipper or tag to determine front from back. They were perfectly pressed so that if I lay them on my bed they fell easily onto one side, legs aligned one atop the other. I held them up, turned them around a couple times, and guessed which was the front. Dressed again, I gingerly stepped back into the kitchen hoping for breakfast, but that was not going to happen yet. “What is wrong with you?” my mother began. “Why won’t you listen to me? I told you ‘Seams in the front!’” I obviously had guessed wrong, but now I was really scared. Her raw, bony hands were shaking by her sides. I wanted to do this right, but I was too timid to ask her what she meant. I retreated back to my room before she could continue, determined to figure this out. I took off my pants again and scrutinized them. Lying neatly on their side, each pant leg had one edge that was folded fabric pressed into a tight crease. The other edge was slightly fuzzy where she had cut the fabric and sewn the pants together on the outside. The problem was I didn’t know the difference between a crease and a seam. I thought the fuzzy side looked worse, so I put the pants back on with that side to the back. This time I tiptoed into the kitchen with my hands clenching each other behind my back. She was clearly in a rage now. She stormed toward me and slapped me full force across the face. My hands came undone so I could catch myself against the side of the kitchen cabinets, but I said nothing. Even at that age I knew not to say anything during those 37
  46. 46. moments. She stood over me screaming, “You ungrateful bitch! Say it with me! ‘Seams in the front! . . . Seams in the front! . . . Seams in the front!’” I repeated back obediently, tears in my eyes, waiting for permission to leave. “Now get back in there and don’t come back out until you have them on properly!” I don’t have any memory of my next visit to my room, but angels must have been helping me because I did finally return with the fuzzy edges in the front. I still didn’t know what a seam was, but I was finally allowed to eat my breakfast in the stone cold silence of our kitchen. Another disaster averted. 38
  47. 47. Did You Wash Your Hair? Being an only child, I always had my own bedroom and my own bathroom. One might think that gave me the luxury of a lot of privacy, but one would be wrong. My mother was the master of turning the doorknob first, then knocking on the door as she swung the door open. This was a natural action for her, harboring no concept of invasion or intrusion. In her mind, there was nowhere she was not allowed to be. During the time I was about eight to ten years old, we lived in a townhouse in Springfield, Virginia. My bathroom was at the top of the stairs between the door to my room and the door to the master bedroom. Once, as I was stepping from the shower, my mother threw open the door and scowled at me. I stood there dripping on the bathmat gathering my towel together around me. “What?” I asked shyly. Her words roared in the small room, “Did you wash your hair?” I was stunned into silence by the absurdity of her question. Of course I had washed my hair. She took a large aggressive step forward, her voice filling with menace, “I said, ‘Did you wash your hair?’” “Yes,” I replied as I, ever so slightly, leaned back away from her. “Don’t lie to me!” she bellowed. I was terrified. How could I prove to her that I had washed my hair? It hung in dark, wet clumps around my shoulders. I vainly pointed to the matching bottles of Fabergé Organics shampoo and conditioner. How could 39
  48. 48. she know that I measured each one carefully with every use so I wouldn’t run out of one before the other? “Look,” I said hopefully. “The tops are even still open.” “Anyone could open the bottles. That doesn’t mean you actually washed your hair. Look at you!” She clamped her iron hands onto each side of my head and wrenched my face toward the mirror. “Your hair is still in a part!” I had no answer. There was no answer. My hair was always in a part. I had heavy, dark hair that always fell into a natural part, hair I must have received from my father’s Jewish family. My mother, on the other hand, was of fair-haired German and Scandinavian descent. She would spend hours each day trying to make her dull, fine hair look full and alluring. Our eyes met in the mirror, the truth passing silently between us, but I was a child and did not understand what that truth meant to her. “You’re a liar!” she screamed. “You’re a filthy, dirty liar. What do I have to do? Do I have to wash you like a baby? That’s exactly what I’ll do!” She released my face, sunk one hand deep into my hair, then dragged me out of my bathroom, through her bedroom, into her bathroom, and tossed me into her tub. She turned on the tap full-force, and I sat there watching the cold water rise around my legs as she continued her litany. “I can’t believe I have to do this. Look how big you are, and I still have to wash you like a baby. I’ll show you what washed hair looks like. Washed hair doesn’t have a 40
  49. 49. part, you lying little baby!” The shampoo suds ran down my face as she punctuated her words by digging her fingers into my scalp. She scoured my head with her fingernails, and I sat there as motionless as I could, my skinny, preteen body being pushed and pulled by her angry hands. When she felt she had finished, she dragged me, naked and dripping, in front of her vanity mirror. I cowered as she stood behind me, yelling into my ears, “Does your hair have a part now?” I could feel my hair in the same wet clumps around my shoulders. I slowly raised my head. Her face was just above mine in the mirror. “Well?” she screamed as our eyes met again in the mirror. I looked at my hair and saw my usual part. My heart leapt! She would have to admit that I was right. Right? But my mother continued to glare at me. I leaned toward the mirror, my hair framing my face, and I examined the part. Suddenly I saw it, one small clump toward the back of my head looked like it had fallen to the wrong side. I reached for it under the scrutiny of my mother’s eyes. I’ll just correct this small piece, I thought, and she’ll have to apologize. But it wasn’t just hair that had fallen the wrong way. It was traitor hair. This small section withheld loyalty from both sides of my head, a tiny blockade in the pathway of my part. As I stood there holding this long, thin section of hair over my head, I realized there would be no apology. I let it drop along with my arms and my head and answered with resignation, “No.” 41
  50. 50. Here was one of my first lessons in the varieties of truth and reality. I had washed my hair and I had told the truth, but my mother found a way to alter my version to match hers. By agreeing with her that my hair did not have a part, I was resigning myself to being a liar in her world. Her truth was the only one I could survive in, so I began to distrust my own. Maybe I hadn’t washed my hair? While I considered that clump of hair as abandoning me in the moment, I can see now that it was a small, saving grace. It allowed me to hold on to a small strand of my own reality and tell her with honesty that my hair was not parted, even as the two of us were staring at the pale white line down the middle of my head. 42
  51. 51. Child / Adult 43
  52. 52. She Arrives She arrives, five-foot-two, swimming in a man’s-sized button-down shirt over a skin-tight sweater, with a cigarette burned almost down to the filter in her right hand. I lean back as she approaches the group, twirling, arms wide to greet everyone, hugs for those known and unknown, unaware of the burning embers between her fingers. She has no concept of how others are feeling. She smiles, hugs, laughs. She tries to be silly, tries to be witty. She seats herself in the center of the group as we all attempt to return to what we were saying earlier. I watch her through sidelong glances, careful not to catch her eye and engage her attention. She grins awkwardly as others laugh together. Her hair is unnaturally blond and hangs stiffly, coarse from too much processing; her breasts are unnaturally large on her small frame; her teeth are, simply, not real. Mothers are mirrors to their young daughters, and I have lived a lifetime being terrified of this reflected image. Let this not be me! 44
  53. 53. Adult 45
  54. 54. Biological Side Effects Let it be known that I firmly believe there is a direct correlation between the increase in hormones coursing through my body once a month and the increased number of times I bounce off walls, trip up the stairs, or stumble over seen or unseen objects. Forget the stereotypical menstrual side effects of irritability, mood swings, or bloating. Quite simply, I am a danger to myself (and others). This phenomenon can typically be tracked by a trail of purple bruises down my arms, around my hips and along my knees. I misjudge the distance and size of desks, tables, bedframes, couches, countertops, and walls in general. Perhaps the hormones change my eyesight or somehow make hallways and doorframes narrower than usual. I'm not sure of the precise cause. All I know is I have lived in the same house for five years, and for about one week each month I can be seen on any otherwise ordinary morning careening off my bedroom threshold and barely catching myself with the side of my face pressed against the hallway wall. So, I beg you, please do not toss me your keys, a remote control, or a stuffed dog toy, for it will surely bounce off my fingertips at least once as I fumble to catch it, resulting in me losing my balance and crashing into the nearest corner or entirely to the floor. Do not invite me to try yoga or a new exercise stretch, because I will not just fall but I will take down anyone else around me. Yes, we own a Wii Nintendo gaming system, and this 46
  55. 55. month I have the bruises on my shins to prove my grace in video bowling. Did you know it was possible to bruise your shins on a hardwood floor? And, really, don’t bother hiding the scissors from me. I am more worried about envelopes, baby gates, and the ever-dreaded doorstops. I simply cannot be held responsible for the inevitable results of their being in my vicinity. Of course, the upside is that if you are a sucker for slapstick, I am quite entertaining. But while I’m on the topic of biological side effects, I would also like to discuss my theory about depression and hair. If you are one of those people with a propensity toward depressive episodes, here is my advice to you: shave! Shave as much as you can. Take it all off! I understand that many people complain of hair loss due to depression, but I’m talking about something else. I don’t know if anyone has done any official studies on this, but I am convinced that my depression is stored in my strands of hair. The more hair I have, the more depressed I am likely to be. I used to wear my hair long, and the longer (and bigger) it got, the worse I felt about myself. Now, I can hear what you might be saying, “Maybe you don’t look good with long hair?” Okay, that’s a valid point, but I think there is more to it than that. Why do we immediately relate to a friend having a “bad hair day?” Why do we usually feel better after a haircut? And why do I feel lighter after shaving my legs? If I could afford it, I would have one of those hair removal places take everything off. Leave me my eyelashes, eyebrows, and anything attached 47
  56. 56. to my scalp. You can have my chin hairs, my mustache, and the stray hairs on my collarbones. Basically, take everything from my nose down. And don’t forget the few on the tops of my feet and my big toes, too. Is this too much information? I’m sorry, but we’re talking about my mental health here! Does anyone agree with me? Seriously, I have respect for all you “natural” women out there, but if I don’t shave for a week, it’s not my appearance I’m worried about. It’s like every strand of hair is weighing me down, collecting all my negative thoughts, convincing me of my pure ugliness, worthlessness, and how I’m better off staying in bed. But! When I see all the tiny, dark bastards slide down the drain with the sudsy water, my vision clears, the sun shines brighter, my clothes fit better. Well, maybe not the clothes part, but it feels that way! It’s my own battle against the Dark Side, and they are always sending reinforcements. So, I say, take up your Daisy, your Venus, your Schick Quattro, and get to work, ladies! This isn’t vanity we’re talking about. It’s a war against the soul-stealing stubble. They’re evil, I tell you! They warp your mind. Remember, I am with you. I will wield my razor as my own light saber against the evil forces, . . . um, just as soon as I finish my period. 48
  57. 57. Standing in the Hallway Have you ever heard that saying, “God never closes one door without opening another?” Or I’ve heard it said, “When one door closes, another always opens.” I don’t know exactly how it goes, but a friend of mine and I turned it into our own image. We picture ourselves having walked out of a door, the door “God” has just closed behind us, and we find ourselves standing in a long hallway full of closed, locked doors. We turn our heads upward and gesture at the ceiling, yelling “Now what?!?” Our favorite saying to each other when one of us is going through another of life’s damned transitions is, “Standing in the hallway sucks!” Somehow that makes us feel better. We know our friend understands our experience, waiting for that next opportunity to open up. It does suck. It tests our faith (if we had any to begin with). It makes us question our self-worth. It causes an otherwise rational person to jump at the first thing that appears, even when that thing is clearly a test of our resolve because it’s so obviously wrong for us, but we have to because we just can’t take another single solitary moment in that hallway! And it truly is a solitary experience. Even if everyone we know is going through the same thing, we all have our own hallways. Standing in the hallway is a solely internal process. Mine includes a constant knot in my stomach, tightening of my chest, and internal fistfight. One part of me is whining, “How did I get here? What’s wrong with me? Why is this 49
  58. 58. happening again?” Another side of me is smacking the first part upside the head, “Quit your sniveling! This is for the best. You hated where you were. You asked for this, remember? Something better always turns up, right?” Then, the first part digs deeper and explains how miserable I am, and how no one will ever want me, and can we just go to sleep now? Can you see how this escalates? Being alone in my head is a scary experience, believe me. This time I am in the hallway of my professional life. I’m wearing a suit, ready for an interview. This is my first hallway experience in this arena of my life. I have not been unemployed since I left college. The weird part is that I don’t wear the suit the entire time. No, I don’t stand there naked! I keep changing my clothes, because I keep asking myself what I really want to do next. Hence, the “don’t jump through the first door that opens” warning applies here. Unfortunately, I seem to be spending too much time in my pajamas lately. My challenge is simply to keep smiling. Smile and say “Hello!” to everyone. Be visible. Speak. Maybe someone will come walking down my hallway, someone I wouldn’t ordinarily consider speaking to, and they will invite me to join them as they walk through a door I hadn’t seen before. I know I just messed up my solitary hallway image, and now, for those of you who just imagined some grimy hotel that rents rooms by the hour—you know who you are—I am not trying to pimp myself out either. (Even if my image isn’t consistent, I would like to keep my analogy clean, thank you 50
  59. 59. very much.) I’m trying to stay open to new opportunities. Standing in the hallway is nothing but opportunities. I have now been through the extensive interviewing process for two separate positions, months of waiting and multiple interviewing visits. Both organizations called my references. The first one, after I interviewed with six separate people over three months, announced their new hire in their newsletter, but never followed up with me in any way. The second one, who invited me to interview for a newly formed position before they even announced the job publicly, mailed me a poorly written, grammatically challenged form letter saying that they had selected another candidate. No phone call. So, I am imagining the doors in front of me being opened, just halfway, and people greeting me with smiles and compliments, and as I step forward—slam! I wait stunned, and then look down to see an envelope being slid under the door at me. Okay, still in the hallway. So, the truth is I don’t even like wearing suits. I don’t have to be in sweats or pajamas all the time, but I prefer to be comfortable when I work. I like having the flexibility to set my own hours. I am happy when I am helping others do their jobs better. So, I may not be looking for a job anymore. I think it’s time to leave this hallway. There is a big, bright window at the end, with the sun shining brightly on the other side, and I’m climbing through it. I’ll probably get my foot caught in the windowsill and 51
  60. 60. fall into a bush on the other side, but I have decided to stop asking for a job and start creating one. I have worked in small business offices since I was fourteen years old. I am a master of organization and efficiency. I enjoy doing the parts of business that most people try desperately to ignore. I can design an intelligent timesheet spreadsheet that automatically shades out weekends as you change the monthly date. Isn’t it the small things in life that make us the happiest? I excel at making tedious tasks easier. I have something to give people! Now there has to be a market of businesses that would be willing to invest a relatively small portion of their consulting budgets to bring me in and make their offices more efficient. My fees will pay themselves back when the organizations need less time from other consultants and their own staff can spend more time on programs instead of administrative action items. It’s win-win all the way. I am the clutter-clearer for office closets! How's that for a tagline? And then I wonder if I’ve been standing in the hallway too long and maybe they’ve painted recently and the fumes are getting to me. Is this all a fantasy to distract me from the discomfort of rejection? Rejection from being let go, and rejection from not being selected. Well, stop sniveling! If you want to be a consultant, you better get used to rejection! Right? Truthfully, I do believe that we are always taken care of, whatever the situation. Waiting is painful and sometimes ugly, but new growth 52
  61. 61. begins in the dark and dirty earth. We are experiencing the change from winter to spring. The ground is still hard and cold, but underneath it, seeds are germinating. Oh, how we want the winter to end! We have had enough of the frigid winds and ice scrapers. We want to trade our awkward, clunky boots for flip-flops. Yet, I believe in the solidity and fluidity of nature. I am part of nature. My season will change, eventually. If I am patient and vigilant, soon there will be no more hallway, no walls. The door that just closed behind me has placed me before an open field of endless possibilities, fresh, green, and growing in the sweet, spring sunshine. To hell with the hallway! 53
  62. 62. Out of the Hallway Mixing metaphors is an annoying habit of mine. However, since I said in my last post that I was going to stop asking for a job and start creating one, I have decided that I need to start challenging myself. First challenge: write a post every day for one week. Considering the fact that the next seven days will include travel to Las Vegas and a family wedding, this should be fun. Today, I received my first rejection email. I submitted "Biological Side Effects" to a women's magazine, but they didn't take it. Humph. The message simply said "Thanks so much, but we don’t have a spot for this in an upcoming issue." Rejection? Yes. Annihilation? No. Here is my chance to practice my new behavior! I could take this message and run the old direction. They hated it. My writing sucks. I suck. Why was I so stupid to even submit it in the first place? I do everything wrong. Give me a shovel, so I can dig a hole to die in. Right. Now, that's what I could have done. But this is the new me. This is the woman who is tired of waiting around. Tired of standing in the corner, the hallway, the lobby. I am the woman who knows her worth. My essay was funny! She didn't say she didn't like it, she just said they don't have a spot for it. They want their essays to fit one of their monthly themes. In my fantasy world, they would have read my essay and, while wiping away their tears of laughter, said 54
  63. 63. "We have got to find a place for this one!" Enter reality. It doesn't work that way. Okay. It was a lark. It was exciting to do. It was my first submission ever! I have other work to be doing, you know. Let's not take this too seriously. There is a place in this world for my essays. This place and I just haven't found each other yet. I know I have an audience (beyond family and friends) who are seeking me. When I am ready with my work, they will find me. Right now, we are all walking around blindfolded, waving our arms in wide circles around ourselves. Is this right? Should I go this way? Are you my mommy? So, I bought myself a rough, black coffee mug that has the following quote on it. "Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. . ." (Max Ehrmann) Go ahead. Read it again. It's worth it. My favorite part of that quote: no doubt. No doubt! Do I know how I will financially support myself this year? No. Do I know what my final project will look like before I graduate this summer? No. Is everything clear to me? Clear as mud! Is everything unfolding as it should? No doubt! I believe this deep in my core. Not to say that I am not crabby, bitchy, grumpy, and sad. Not to say that I don't pick, push, poke, and generally test the patience of my partner daily. This process makes my skin crawl, but I believe in it. Hopefully, I will learn to sit with it more gracefully as I go along. 55
  64. 64. Yes, I am still metaphorically in some kind of hallway. Doors have certainly been closed behind me, in front of me, and all around me, but the lesson is to practice new ways of responding. I am still envisioning a verdant green, flowering pasture, instead. I will not let this take me down. I will own my value, speak my truth, and try really hard not to let people negotiate my consulting fees down to unreasonable levels. Day one down. Six more to go. . . . 56
  65. 65. I’ve Lost my Earmuffs Last Friday the temperature was rumored to have reached the 60s. This past weekend we received at least a half a foot of snow. Isn't Spring fun? I had a consulting job downtown today, which meant leaving the warm security of my home and walking to the Metro station and then from the train station to the office. It was thirty-two degrees and "breezy," and I had no earmuffs! The result of this tragedy is that I had to wrap my fleece scarf up around my ears and pull my hood up over my head. With my full-length black wool coat, this makes me look like a caped Hobbit, especially with my fuzzy trimmed snow boots that are a size too big for me. How does the saying go? "In like a lion, out like a lamb?" In grade school I always thought it should be the other way around, "In like a lamb, out like a lion." I thought the lamb represented the fluffy, white snow, and the lion represented the warm, yellow rays of sunshine. Considering the current environmental concerns and my tenuous, transitional stage of life, I feel like this weather is both lion and lamb—and so am I. While I have a tendency to view things in extremes, I am feeling an affinity with this quandary. Is there anything wrong with being both the lion and the lamb? I've found I can write deeply personal and powerful vignettes about my childhood experiences with my mother, and I can also 57
  66. 66. write moving and amusing personal essays about my current life experiences. Can I accept both the lion and the lamb? Maybe it is time to stop judging the differences, the changes, the broad ranges of emotion. Perhaps they are all valuable, they all serve a purpose. Again, this is practicing new behavior. I could be hating the cold and lamenting my lost earmuffs. I could be wallowing in being a victim or abandoning myself to negative self-talk and the resulting downward spiral (no guarantee that won't still happen either). Yet, today, at this moment anyway, I choose to see the possibilities. March is a month of great changes: physical, environment, energetic. My personal history is replete with major life events in March. I used to dread this time of year, but I am seeing it differently now. This is a period of growth and transformation, sometimes messy, sometimes painful, sometimes with freezing cold ears. The upside is that March eventually becomes April, and April eventually becomes May. Spring flowers are on their way. The happy ending to this story is that my lovely partner picked me up at the Metro station after work so I wouldn't have to walk home. All I ask is that you remind me of the upcoming flowers the next time I'm shuffling the city streets in a frigid wind without my earmuffs. 58
  67. 67. Strange Pains Do you believe that our life experiences are held in our bodies? I believe there really aren’t a mind and a body, but one whole mind-body. Don't worry. I won't get too woo-woo here. It's too late in the day for that right now. I just want to mention an odd experience I had today. First, you need a little background. As an infant I developed (among other things) pyloric stenosis, which basically means the valve that lets food pass out of my stomach grew shut. In other words, I vomited a lot. Whatever I was fed came right back up. I can only imagine how scary this must have been for my first-time mother. To correct the situation, I underwent surgery. They apparently have cool, new ways to do this now that minimize the scarring, but this was back in 1968. The result is a horizontal scar about two inches long just under my rib cage on my right side. I have many other stories that involve my childhood, mostly sad and painful stories, and I believe they are all related to this first one. The fact is that this tiny scar is adhered to my rib cage. As I've gained weight over the years, this little slice stays stuck. If I press it with my fingers or try to massage the area, I actually feel mild pain, like a pulling of skin but on the inside. Who knows how much scar tissue is actually in there and what else is caught up in it? 59
  68. 68. So, the reason I bring this up is that I had an odd sensation today. I was leaving my part-time consulting job and reading an email on my phone. I was delighted to hear that another prospect was asking to hire me, and as I was walking, I started to feel a strange pain in my midsection. I continued a brief email exchange and set a time to consult over the phone, and I started feeling a pulling, burning sensation, just like my infant scar, but on my left side. It was as if the scar tissue was trying to tear away. My first thought was—and here's the progress—that I am separating from the poor, victim child. I didn't immediately think I was having strange female heart attack symptoms or that I had some heretofore unheard of tumor. I actually associated the success of a new client with the painful feeling of separation. The physical sensation was my body responding to an emotional growth process. I have long believed that this scar tissue harbors much more than the remnants of my originally diagnosed disorder. I imagine a spider web of scar tissue spread throughout my midsection, and the white spindles contain the trapped emotional responses to my early childhood traumas. Now that I am reaching a serious turning point in my life, I believe these tendrils can no longer hold. I am tearing away from the me I've been holding on to for so many, many years. It is certainly not comfortable. It's actually physically painful. It's a tearing of flesh. It's worse than ripping away a scab before your wound is fully healed. No, wait. It's actually just like ripping away a scab 60
  69. 69. too early, and you find that barely formed pink tissue underneath, the not yet fully-formed skin, but the vulnerable soft underlying flesh. Hey! It's like baby's skin! I think this transformation period of my life is about releasing my damaged infant self. Pulling, tearing, cutting her loose. I don't need to carry her around anymore, the crying, the whining, and the vomiting (metaphorically, of course). I believe the mind and body are irrevocably connected. As we grow emotionally, our bodies must change as well. I have no idea what the final form will look like. I don't have any idea who the future me will be. Perhaps listening to my body more will assist me. What I do know is that in the middle of this whitewater river ride, I feel like things are going to be all right. It's time to accept nourishment in my life. Truly accept it and digest it. It's time. Online Comments: ohwow said... I discovered your blog from Write to Done. I love the way you describe the pain as "It's actually just like ripping away a scab too early, and you find that barely formed pink tissue underneath -- not yet fully formed protective skin, but the vulnerable soft underlying flesh. Hey! It's like baby's skin!" and your discovering that the physical change is linked to emotional pain from such a young age. Pain is really hard to describe but I had a really clear idea of what you were writing about. You might really like a book called "Awakening Intuition" by Mona Lisa Schulz. She writes a lot about the connection of physical pain and emotional pain. March 6, 2009 10:54 AM Groffy said... 61