Monday, March 26, 2012


I hobbled through life for many years as an emotional cripple. I loved with everything I was capable of, and sometimes it was enough. And sometimes it was not. But in those days, it was the best I could do. And in those days, I was aware of my emotional disability, and I was grateful that I could not have children.

In my early 30's everything changed. I wanted to grow. I wanted to become more fully me. I just didn't know how. Well, that isn't quite right. I knew that in order to effect meaningful change in my life, I needed to develop new, adult coping mechanisms. I just didn't know how to do that. I looked to the people in my life to learn how and made a very poor choice, landing myself in a same-sex relationship with a friend-turned-lover that was both physically and emotionally abusive.

And within months for embarking on that relationship, people I loved started dying. Four people in two years: my grandmother, my mother, my mother-figure, and a good friend. I went from an emotional cripple to an emotional quadraplegic. I couldn't cope. I understood the grieving process intellectually, but didn't know how to walk the path. Paralyzed, I huddled in on myself for a couple of years waiting for something, anything to change. And then it did. The woman I was involved with finally realized what I'd known after 6 months into our relationship, and broke things off.

Within two months I was in therapy. Something in me found the resolve to seek professional help. I wanted to understand myself, understand why I'd chosen an abusive relationship with a woman when I'd never tolerated anything of the sort from a man. And I wanted those adult coping mechanisms, damnit!

Therapy was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was 18 months of shoveling shit out of the barn in my head. Many times I wanted to quit, but I didn't, because I knew that if I stopped, I'd never start up again. It was just that painful.

But oh so worth it.

When I went in to my first appointment I told my therapist that I wanted help developing new coping mechanisms for today and tomorrow, and that I didn't want to revisit things deep in the past. I was very adamant about that. I was also very wrong.

In order to develop adult coping mechanisms, I needed to recognize the genesis of the ones that weren't working for me. And in order to determine why I'd chosen to remain in an abusive relationship with a woman, I needed to understand my relationship with my mother and how it shaped me, emotionally.

For years I'd blamed my being an emotional cripple on my father, a Viet Nam Vet whom I'd never liked even as a toddler, and who was physically, mentally and emotionally abusive all through my childhood. And while, certainly, his style of "fathering" was damaging, it was my mother's "mothering" skills, or lack thereof, which shaped my emotional landscape.

My mother was adopted. It's something she never got over, that very fundamental abandonment, and the onotological angst (Who am I? Why am I?) haunted her. She was herself an emotional cripple. She wanted closeness but feared it. She pulled with one hand and pushed with the other. She married to get away from her evangelical parents, and children were an accidental by-product of that choice. She didn't want children, and she didn't want motherhood. She hated keeping house and by the time I was five I was doing dishes and laundry, dressing my younger sisters, changing diapers, etc. I feared her temper. I kicked her once and she told me if I did it again, she'd break my leg. I believed her. She actually chased after me with a bullwhip once. When I was injured, I was afraid to go to her for care, because she was so impersonal and rough. But she had a wonderful voice and she told good stories and sometimes she was warm and loving. My best memories are of her playing with my hair.

She and my father fought, often violently, and after really bad fights one of them would disappear for a few days. But one day -- one day she went away and didn't come back.

And that was what crippled me.

See, children don't understand the world, but as children, we do try, and we make the best sense of it we can. In the absence of explanations that make sense to us, we connect the dots and come to our own conclusions. We make up our own meanings, our own stories, and we live inside them.

From a child's perspective, a mother is someone who loves you always, no matter what, and will always be there. From a child's perspective, when Mommy leaves you, it's because there is something wrong with you. When my mother left, my sisters and I made it mean that we were unlovable and unworthy -- that there was something wrong with us, something so wrong that even Mommy couldn't stand to be our mother. We internalized it and forgot the story we'd made up. We lived it.

And I took up the mantle of mothering. I thought that it was my fault that my sisters didn't have a mother anymore, so I took it on, as best I could. As best as any nine-year-old could. My father re-married and I took on my step-sisters, too, since their mother, like my father, was all too eager to offload parenting responsibilities so they could go play.

I became an enabler, a rescuer, a fixer. I became controlling and manipulative.  I craved peace and harmony, and to my young eyes, the familiar, the status quo, was the closest I could come to that.  I developed skills and coping mechanisms designed to perpetuate those conditions. It was a comfortable, if miserable existence. In therapy, I learned to call it what it was, neurosis. Jung said that neurosis is "the suffering of the soul which has not discovered its meaning" and that pretty much says it all.

So in the course of therapy, I discovered the story I'd made up about the little girl who was unworthy of her mother's love, and I learned to comfort my inner child and nurture her (instead of everyone else). I let go of my strangle-hold on my old ways of being and opened up to learning new tools and ways of being. I worked out my mommy-issues and my daddy-issues and took ownership of my life, my relationships, my emotions, thoughts, and attitudes. I fully inhabit me.

I'm emotionally and psychologically adult now. I am capable of loving and being loved without building barriers to protect myself from fears of loss and abandonment. I've buried three more family members in as many years and come through those experiences feeling enriched, and at times, transformed.

My biggest challenge so far has been dealing with my youngest sister, whose mental illness and refusal to accept the help and care she needs had challenged the limits of my ability to cope. Today she's in an institutional setting, the enforced structure of which seems to be giving her the basis she needs to examine and rebuild her life.

I'm facing a new challenge soon, the challenge of mothering my son, and I feel confident that I am up to it.  Finally, at 44, I think I'm grown-up enough to be a good parent, to raise a child without fear of perpetuating the emotional and psychological issues that have plagued my family. And what a tremendous feeling it is!


  1. Mother is the name of God on the lips of children. Do you see?

  2. A beautiful narrative. Thank-you for this...I share many traits with you...and have been in therapy for many years. I finally found out this year (I am 44) that I have traumatic brain injury, which is why therapy did not help me to move on...I will enjoy reading of your adventures -- I had my son when I was 36, but had not yet worked out my issues, so ...well, you can imagine...


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