We Don’t Talk About That

we don't talk about that

It usually starts in childhood.

The son learns to play the clown whenever the topic of conversation begins to make his father uncomfortable. The daughter of divorced parents learns that mentioning the other parent has a tendency to end in tears, so it’s better to simply keep quiet. At school, any mention of financial struggles in the home leads to ridicule, so any words that would reveal the truth are instead swallowed. Even when the home environment is one that welcomes open dialog, the reactions of those outside the home often reinforce that it’s not considered polite or acceptable to bring up issues of death, disease or discord.

 

“We don’t talk about that,” becomes the unspoken vow of secrecy that follows most of us into adulthood.

 

As we grow and become more aware of the very real threats that exist, we continue to remain silent. Convinced that merely speaking of the thing that frightens us will give it the power to manifest. And that as long as we refuse to say its name, it does not exist. That which will not be named is relegated to the shadows where it can grow and influence without notice.

The husband, sensing a growing distance in his marriage, makes the largely unconscious decision to press onward without comment, believing that addressing the issue would only make it more formidable and would upset his wife. The mother becomes increasingly concerned about her child’s mental health but brushes away the unsettled feelings by telling herself that this is a normal part of growing up. The boss, increasingly demanding of her employees, steadfastly refuses to discuss her increasing fears of failure.

When something becomes off-limits to talk about, it only grows in power.

 

There’s a strange thing that happens when something is banned. Any parent of teenagers knows that the surest way to get them to act is to forbid them to do something. And we are not so different when it comes to banned trains of conversation; the prohibited becomes more powerful as we begin to fill in the gaps with our fears and our imaginations. Because the dialog still happens, only we are simply listening to ourselves.

The adopted child internalizes the implied rejection, assuming that it must be because she simply isn’t enough.  The young man begins to drink to try to escape his feelings of inadequacy because he’s learned that men aren’t supposed to express weakness. The  matriarch elects not to disclose her cancer diagnosis to the family after envisioning the tears that the revelation will cause. After all, isn’t it better to spare them the pain?

 

“We don’t talk about that” implies that your feelings are wrong, misguided.

 

In our modern culture, we value rational thought and have a tendency to dismiss feelings. We see them as animalistic, base and unsophisticated. We push them down. Shove them aside. Pretend that they do not exist even as we berate ourselves that we shouldn’t feel the way we do.  We feed our shame and in turn, it tells us that we need to hide our true selves.

Meanwhile, the suppressed feelings bubble to the surface in the form of increased blood pressure, recurring headaches, panic attacks or IBS. We seek answers in doctor’s office’s, self-help books, online support groups and endless therapy in pursuit of the root of all our problems.

And often it’s found in the dark, in the shadows. By finally bringing light to that which we do not talk about.

Because of instead of causing it to grow, talking about those things that scare us serves to bleed them of their power. Once we name it, bring it to the surface, it no longer can control us.

 

It’s only when we talk about it that we can begin to release it.

 

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In Perpetuity

“Mom, what does ‘in perpetuity’ mean?” I asked from the backseat as we drove by an intown San Antonio theater advertising Rocky Horror Picture Show Friday 10 pm  with the unfamiliar words posted beneath.

“It means it keeps repeating, going on without end.”

“So they show that same movie every Friday? That’s dumb,” I concluded with the assurance of a know-it-all 8-year-old. “Who would want to see that?”

Me, it turns out, since once I was a senior in high school, I visited that theater more than once to watch the movie and enjoy the theatrics in the spirited audience.

I guess I didn’t know everything when I was 8.

Or even when I was a senior in high school.

Because when I was a senior in high school, I thought someone could overcome their past just by wanting it badly enough.

I saw my parents’ divorce and vowed that it would never happen to me. I felt left behind by my dad and was confident that my boyfriend (later husband) would never leave my side. I witnessed the power that worry held over my mom and swore that I would be more carefree.

My boyfriend felt the same. He looked at his father with disgust and proclaimed he would never follow in his footsteps. He was fully aware of the alcoholism in his genes and promised that he was stronger than its pull. I saw the intensity in his eyes when he renounced his childhood and swore he would chart his own path. And I believed him.

 

I didn’t yet understand that it takes more than intention to escape the replays of the childhood patterns. I didn’t realize that old wounds, long since buried, would spring up again with new players filling in for old roles. I wasn’t aware how many of my actions and behaviors came from past experience rather than responding to some present stimulus.

I didn’t yet comprehend that our childhoods have a tendency to play in perpetuity unless we find a way to stop the feedback loop.

And it takes more than desire to stop the pattern.

 

My biggest childhood wound was a fear of abandonment. I was fully aware of this fear, yet I didn’t exactly address it in the best ways. When my dad moved across the country, I convinced myself that I didn’t need a dad. I could take care of everything myself. When I had several friends die, I decided to push the others away before they could leave. In school and work, I set myself apart by always being willing to take on the extra tasks and responsibilities; I made sure I was too needed to be rejected.

But none of those really mitigated my fear of being abandoned; they just made me think they did.

In fact, the only way I got over my fear was to finally face it.

And, as it turns out, the fear of abandonment was worse than the abandonment itself.

 

One of the strongest memories I have of the end of my marriage is from one night shortly before he left. From what I knew, he was in Brazil on a work trip. He had been experiencing uncontrollable hypertension for months and, on a rare call from Brazil, stated that he had also come down with some gastrointestinal bug. He sounded miserable, alone and scared. Two days later, I anxiously awaited his call from the Atlanta airport, where he was supposed to arrive that morning. I tracked the flight online, noted its landing time and waited.

Hours went by.

Calls to his phone went straight to voicemail. Repeated checks of the website verified the flight time and safe landing. I paced the hallway, gripping my phone in my hand. The dogs paced with me, their nails clicking on the laminate floor. I sat down at my desk and tried to find a number to call in Brazil. I paced again when the anxiety-fueled tremors grew too strong. I had images of him alone in a hotel room, too sick to get help in a foreign country. I felt impotent. Helpless. I paced again. I finally located his out-of-state office’s number and called his boss. He sounded surprised to hear from me.

Minutes later, the phone rang. It was my husband.

“I’m so sorry you were worried, baby. My flight’s tomorrow.”

“Are you okay?” It was all I could think to ask, my legs giving out beneath me.

“I’m fine,” he chuckled,”But I need to let you go now. It’s too expensive. I can’t wait to see you tomorrow.”

I wonder where his soon-to-be other wife was when he made that call?

 

That afternoon was my dress rehearsal for abandonment.

I experienced the real thing two short weeks later.

With my dad by my side.

My parents working together.

And my mom putting aside her own concerns for the care of her daughter.

 

I realized four things in those early moments after being jettisoned from my marriage:

I was never really abandoned in my childhood.

After really being abandoned in adulthood, I was strong enough to survive.

Accepting help doesn’t make you weak; it makes you real.

And the way to protect against abandonment is by letting people in rather than by keeping them out.

 

After facing spousal abandonment and thriving, I’ve even been able to find some of the hidden gifts.

 

It’s strange how life continues to present us with lessons until we are ready to learn.

A tutorial in perpetuity until we are ready to listen.

 

 

 

No One Said it Was Easy

I read a post this morning that reminded me of a particular experience in my life.

For just over a year in my mid teens, I volunteered on the oncology floor of a children’s hospital.

Upon arrival each Sunday, my job was to open the playroom to the kids on the floor that were able to make the walk down the hall. Usually three or four of them would make it, pulling IV stands behind them and adjusting the masks strapped across their pudgy faces, swollen from steroids. All of the toys in the room were made of hard plastic to withstand the constant washing in bleach solutions in order to prevent the spread of infection. I had to watch carefully to make sure that after any toy was handled, it was carefully sanitized and dried before being returned to the bins or into another child’s waiting hands. You realize how much toddlers change their mind when each decision requires a two-stage sanitization process!

After the playroom was closed for the afternoon, I would pack up a cart with toys, games and puzzles and make my way down the hall to visit with the kids who were too ill to make the trek to the playroom. I would sit beside them on the beds and assist with puzzles or challenge them to a Nintendo game on their TV. With the kids undergoing bone marrow transplants, our visits had to occur through glass panes, the toys left outside for the nurses to carry in.

Although some faces were familiar from week to week, the oncology floor was a revolving door. Some kids were only there periodically for treatment. Others traveled to San Antonio for special care and then went back to their home hospitals. On the good days, the kids would be released with the hope of remission.

And, of course, many never made it out at all.

Those kids, with their scarf-wrapped heads, bloated or emaciated bodies and blistered lips, were powerful. Their bodies may have been broken and frail, but their spirits were stronger than any I’ve ever seen. I would watch them walk down the hall with only the slightest sharp intake of breath to indicate their pain before breaking out in a huge grin at the sign of the playroom.

Many of these kids had never known life without cancer. All they knew was days of pain, some more and some less. They grew skilled at navigating the endless cycle of hope and bad news.

And through it all, they accepted.

The first one shocked me.

“Miss Lisa. I’m not gonna see you next week.”

“Oh, why’s that?”

“I’m gonna get to fly with the angels!” exclaimed the three-year-old girl, her face lighting up and her hands clasped beneath her chin.

I was taken aback. My initial reaction was to deny. Or to become sad. Or to distract her with something else.

But then I looked at her. And decided that I would let her tell me what to do.

“Flying with the angels sounds lovely. What do you think it will be like?”

We chatted for a few more minutes, the girl telling me all about her angels, until her mom came back towards the room. The girl leaned in and whispered, “I can’t talk about the angels when my mom is here. It makes her sad.”

I gave her a hug and left the room. I wasn’t surprised to see her picture on the memory wall the following week.

She was the first, but by no means the last.

“I need to give you an extra-big goodbye today cause this one’s for real.”

“Do you want me to tell the angels ‘hi’ for you?”

“Take care of the other kids for me.”

They were always right.

Each one came from a child between the ages of 2 and about 8. After that, and they reacted more like adults.

I watched those adults too. Often when I entered a room, the parents used that time to take a little break. I would see their posture fall as soon as they passed the threshold of the room’s door as though the strings on their puppet had been suddenly cut. They would sob, letting it out after holding it in for their kid. They would talk with each other and with the doctors, desperately looking for a way to make their kid okay.

But the kid usually was okay. Not physically, but in spirit. They knew when to fight and when it was time to let go. Much like my first experience, many of them would volunteer that they felt they needed to protect their parents and siblings.

“Tell my mommy I’m going to be okay.”

“I’ll have the angels. My mommy won’t have them.”

“Will you give my brother my teddy bear when I’m gone?”

What the kids sensed but had no words for was that they had acceptance. They were not fighting against what could be. What should be. All they knew was what was.

What the kids sensed but had no words for was that their parents were trying to find acceptance. To try to understand why their baby was being taken away so soon. They were fighting against the unfairness of it all. They were mourning the loss of their child and of the person he or she would become.

It was tragic to witness the adults.

So I focused on the kids.

And, in so many ways, their lives were terrible. All too brief and filled with so much hurt.

But they didn’t dwell on that. Didn’t waste energy on saying that it was unfair. They didn’t hold back their giggles or their grins.

Instead, they shared their spirit with each and every person they met. They became the angels here on earth.

During periods of loss and struggle in my own life, I have thought back to those little angels and tried to remember their lessons of peace and acceptance.

To all the families who have lost children due to cancer, my heart goes out to you. I saw your pain but I cannot imagine its depths. I hope you have received the gift of an angel from your child, watching over you to make sure that you’re okay too.

Childhood Lessons From Unlikely Teachers

Childhood is a time where every encounter and every experience contains a lesson. Here are ten of my favorite childhood lessons and the (sometimes shocking) teachers that related them.

Lesson: Acceptance

Teacher: Selling shampoo to naked people

How it went down: I grew up in an environment where nudity was acceptable. From a young age, I learned that the human body, in all its variations, was natural. I was taught that nudity could exist apart from sexuality and that an unclothed body was not a source of shame or embarrassment. I first appreciated this lesson one summer in early high school when I spent a few days selling shampoo to patrons at a nude sauna at the Oregon Country Fair. I was at the height of teenage insecurity about my appearance and my body. Yet, when standing alongside hundreds of other exposed bodies, my anxieties about my own form dissipated. I realized that I had been accepting others yet judging myself. I have generally had a positive relationship with my body and my weight and I believe that it is because of my early experiences with nudity. On a side note, somehow people wearing nothing but socks appear to be even more naked than those entirely in their birthday suits:)

Lesson: Tolerance

Teacher: A variety of churches, synagogues and temples

How it went down: I was raised in a fairly liberal Methodist church yet I had friends from just about every religious background imaginable. I spent many a weekend at their houses and would attend religious services with their families. It was not uncommon for me to attend a youth group activity with my own church on Friday, visit the synagogue on Saturday and end the weekend with a Catholic mass. As a child, I was accepted at each church and my questions were welcomed and answered thoughtfully (I always had plenty to ask!). I was probably one of the only kids to go to catechism and Hebrew classes even though I was not Catholic or Jewish:) Later on, my mom’s experiences led me to be exposed to the wisdom from the East as well as from the Native Americans. I had friends that were Buddhist and friends that were Baptist. I learned to respect the beliefs and I learned something from them all.

Lesson: Patience

Teacher: Two very different parents

How it went down: My parents could not be more different. My father is an introverted engineer and my mother, an extroverted counselor. And me? Somewhere smack dab in the middle. As a kid, it was sometimes difficult trying to be understanding of each of their temperaments when they were so different from each other and from me. I had to learn (yes, kicking and screaming!) that my way was not the only way and that I needed to be patient with each of them. My mom often says that we choose the parents we need. Yeah, I certainly needed lessons in patience and often still do!

Lesson: Curiosity

Teacher: Books

How it went down: I was an only child who didn’t need much sleep. To preserve their sanity, my parents instituted an “off duty at 9:00 pm” rule when I turned three. As a result, I needed to find a way to entertain myself alone in my room before I was ready to go to sleep. After learning that a xylophone is not an appropriate nighttime toy (who knew?), I turned to books. I started out reading along with records (dating myself here!) until I could read independently. I soon discovered that entire worlds were available to me through the pages of books and that I could discover more with every page turned. I also learned that the Pizza Hut reading incentive program could earn me a free pizza a week:) I’m still an avid reader and questioner, always on the lookout to learn something new.

Lesson: Consequences

Teacher: A hippie music festival

How it went down: By the time I was in high school, many of my friends and classmates had begun experimenting with alcohol and drugs, often to tragic ends. I was never tempted because I had seen the reality. For most teenagers, they only see the glamorous side of drinking and drugging – the movies, the ads, the parties. Because of my time spent camping at a hippie music festival every year, I was exposed to the realities from a young age. I saw the fun parties but I also saw the effects the next day. I witnessed lives spin out of control from one summer to next as festival-goers fell to addiction. The lesson went beyond the effects of drugs and alcohol; I learned that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that every choice has a consequence.

Lesson: Goal setting

Teacher: A Cabbage Patch Kid doll

How it went down: Like many children of the 80s, I was enamored with Cabbage Patch Kids. I was given my first as a gift from my mom, but I soon lusted after a second. My mom smartly chose to make me purchase this one on my own. For months, I saved my allowance while visiting the intended purchase on each trip to the store. I would be tempted by cheaper toys that I could purchase with the amount I had saved yet I was encouraged to hold out until I had reached my goal. That lesson has served me well in life. Although now I see that doll as a waste of money, the ability to work towards a goal is priceless.

Lesson: Compassion

Teacher: A young girl with a profound disability

How it went down: I spent two summers in middle school volunteering at my church with a group of preschool-aged children with special needs. One little girl was the most severe. She had PKU, a genetic mutation that prohibits the body from breaking down an amino acid correctly (this is what the doctors are checking for when they do that heel prick at birth). Her abnormality was undetected and, as a result, she had a very high fever that caused extensive brain damage. I spent two years paired with this child. She was difficult to work with. She would screech and kick. She ripped my earring from my ear and left scratches on my arms. She would hit herself repeatedly and fail to make any eye contact. Even through all of this, I connected with her. Over time, she began to show signs of interaction with me and with her environment. To this day, one of my favorite moments is when she gave me a hug on our last together. She taught me to respond with compassion and empathy rather than fear or aversion.

Lesson: Imperfection

Teacher: An art teacher

How it went down: I was always a high-strung student with perfectionistic tendencies. I would cry when I received a 98, berating myself for failing to earn the final two points. I had an art teacher throughout much of high school that had a policy of never giving a grade higher than a 95. His rationale? Art can never be perfect. True. And neither can life. There is a freedom in embracing the imperfect that I first learned in that tempera paint scented classroom. Of course, I would still cry if I didn’t earn a 95:) After all, I’m not perfect…

Lesson: Adaptability

Teacher: My many “adopted family members”

How it went down: After my parent’s divorced, my mom and I were the only blood relations in the entire state of Texas. Instead of bemoaning this fact, we simply made family. We have a friend who joined us for holidays and trips. I would assimilate into other households for other celebrations. Our definition of family was flexible and fluid. I have used that lesson in my own life, not only with family but with adapting to any situation. You can complain or you can change your perspective and your circumstances. The latter seems a lot better to me.

Lesson: Perseverance

Teacher: A bicycle

How it went down: I’ve shared before about my struggles with riding a bike. Even with my father’s expert tutelage (he was like the Lance Armstrong of the neighborhood, only without the performance enhancing drugs), I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I turned 10. Go ahead and laugh, I know you want to:) My parents would not let me weasel out of this task, even though I tried. It took tears, threats and bribes (two banana splits!), but I finally learned how to pedal without falling over. Even more importantly, I learned the value of hard work and determination and that true failure only comes when you do not try.

I am thankful for these childhood lessons and childhood teachers. It’s amazing what we can learn from others even when they may not know that we are studying.

Mom: A Mother’s Day Tribute

Mom. Such a simple word, yet so loaded with meaning and memory. It’s where we all come from. It’s what we simultaneously yearn for and yet try to escape from. My own mother often jokes that the umbilical cord is never fully cut. It just stretches to accommodate.

There’s some truth in that.

Although I’ve only been able to admit that more recently.

For most of my childhood, it was just my mom and I. She worked long hours (Five Ways You Know You’ve Been Raised by a Therapist) so that we could stay in the house and I could stay in the same schools. That consistency provided early security that gave me roots from which to grow. We were close. Sometimes too close. A perimenopausal woman and a hormonal teenager can be quite the powder keg at times!

She tackled a lot as a single mom. She and my dad had purchased a VW Vanagon when I was little. That blue box on wheels became home base for my mom and I as we started our traditions of camping at Lost Maples every Thanksgiving and spending weeks at the Kerrville Folk Festival every summer. I learned the importance of layering against the cold and staying wet in defense of the heat. I learned how to play miniature golf on a closed course using a croquet set (The trick? Spanish moss in the hole so that you can retrieve the ball). I learned that it’s important to secure the screens against the racoons and that butane curling irons let a self-conscious 11 year old girl fix her hair even while she’s camping. I learned the joy of being silly as we played our kazoos on the drives to the campgrounds and invented crazy dances (don’t even ask – not putting the pumpkin dance on YouTube:) ). She instilled in me a love of nature, simple laughter and of quiet escape. I am so thankful to have had those experiences and to be able to continue them forward. Only without the kazoos!

The van:) Notice my fashionable early 90s plaid flannel in the heat of a Texas summer!
The van:) Notice my fashionable early 90s plaid flannel in the heat of a Texas summer!

She didn’t always have it easy raising me. I was a willful child, prone to impatience and peppered with perfectionism. Some things don’t change:) She did a great job of adjusting her parenting to fit me rather than trying to get me to fit into some standard mold. I may have to only mom who had to get onto her kid about the importance of NOT doing my homework (I would beg to leave some of those camping trips early so that I could get back to my work)!. She knew that I pushed myself hard enough (or even too hard) and that her usual role was to encourage me to ease up, not to push me further. At the same time, she recognized those situations where I needed some encouragement and she would not let me weasel my way out (Vanilla, Please).

Yet still, I spent most of my life trying to separate from my mom, as though I could not find myself while till securely tied to her. That’s the thing with moms – we need them but we don’t always want to need them.

Several years ago, my mom prepared a gift for her own mother. She obtained photographs of the matriarchal line in the family going back 7 generations. She worked to size and crop the images to provide uniformity and then mounted them in a long rectangular frame, each woman’s face peering out from a separate oval cut into the tawny mat.

It took my breath away. That line of mothers and daughters. Beginning with a woman that I had never met yet whose lineage I carried and ending with a picture of me. Each daughter a product of the mother before.

Many of those closest to me have lost their mothers, either through death, distance or dementia. Some had their moms for much of a lifetime, some for only a number of years and others never met them at all. Yet they all still carry the imprint of their mothers on their hearts.

They have taught me to be thankful for my own mother. To be grateful for the moments and memories we share.

She is my biggest cheerleader when things are going well and my biggest supporter when my world collapses.

I love the relationship I now have with my mom. I need her and I’m okay with that. Love you, mom:)

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