b a r e

writing is healing. ask me anything.

Tag: childhood

Influence

All around you, all the time, is language that is absorbed into your brain. Advertisements telling you “you’re lacking, buy this” or “you’re unhappy, buy that.” The voices of your parents, alive or as ghosts. Those are particularly hard to ignore. They adhere to your insides, leach into your bloodstream. Contaminate. The voices in your mind. The echos in the very back. The broken records that blend in with background noise. That we don’t even realize are there, are guiding our boat, are triggering the storms. So many intrusive messages you didn’t choose, you never had a say in.

But what about the ones you do get to choose. The facebook group posts. Are they angry? Are they distraught? All of their voices march into your head. Onslaught. Their cries of pain, their desperation, your brain soaks that in. What messages are you letting in? The company you keep. The friends and the ‘friends.’ Do they complain constantly? Are they victims of life? Or do they have hope? Do they believe in humanity? Do they seek out ways to improve, to help others, to evolve? Look around you. Make conscious choices. You might not have had any control over the world around you as a child. But you are no longer that child. You get to decide your habitat. You pick the decorations, the furniture, the art on the walls of your mind.

The anchors you cling to from familiarity, only you get to decide when to let go. The knives you’re squeezing in your hands. Only you get to pick when you’re ready to set them down.

What are you going to choose?

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half-sister, my sister

29 years later
we meet in person after all of this time
I remembered you, a faded memory of adoration
then we found each other online
and you recounted your tales of pain
now finally we’re together
once again you recount your story of woe
you suffered, you suffered, but you survived
we share the same cruel father
our torture presumably the same
this devastation is your signpost
upon which you hang your identity
it’s familiar because I once did the same
‘Look at me, world, see what I overcame’
a badge of courage and strength
giant chips on my shoulders as warnings
to set the stage for all relationships
you want me right there with you
marching and holding the bloody flag
I am conflicted because you are a dream
a mythological creature I hoped to see someday
I don’t know what I thought I’d find
But I want our connection to be more than the past
I don’t want to keep reliving the pain
comparing scars triumphantly
I feel discomfort, unease
a part of me pulling away
I have spent so much time dismantling the past
I healed, recreated, renamed, rebuilt
I want to focus on now and moving forward
into health and happiness and ease
I don’t want to walk backwards
the road to the light was…uphill
I like it better here, I can breath again
I don’t know if you would join me
the intensity you live doesn’t say

Sisters

So much damage, for so many years, to both sides. Knives cutting and cutting. Never backing down. Never surrendering for a moment. Both egos completely dedicated to winning. But we were really both losing. It was easy to judge. My ego loved feeling justified anger, justified superiority. All of it masking a desperate need for closeness and love, while ensuring anything but. Years of cold war went by. Mom liked to leak information to both sides, double agent, hoping for an opening, for possible reunification. Summarily rejected over and over. Ego likes to twist the state secrets into judgement induced superiority. But there’s an emptiness. And a shame. A dark, dirty, embarrassing guilt that flows under it all. And always that longing. Longing to finish each other’s sentences, to laugh at inside jokes that only we know, to hold each other close and give and receive comfort from someone else that really does understand completely, because she was there when no one else was. We saw the horrors together. We escaped together. Each of us so strong, pulling in our own directions. Trying to pull the other one with us, but it wasn’t working, it forced us further apart.

Finally, an opportunity to try again. To hopefully put past pain aside and try to find each other’s hands to hold. To hopefully reach out and be received with love. To reunite. To recombine. To join forces. I think we have always been connected, despite distance and silence. Even apart we were moved by the same music. Our paths meet again, now parallel, healing.

My sister / My daughter – Part 1 of a series

Dear Sister,

I am so, so, so, so sorry. There are no words that can possibly ever come close to describe how sorry I am. Our mom says we were monsters. I was a monster. I expertly studied and executed what our father demonstrated. When it came time to engage, the lever that controls all emotion was pulled down to the off position. I was calculating, cruel and efficient. I analyzed your weak spots and sliced with precision. I was good at it. I enjoyed it, the skill and expertise. I did not think about the consequences. I acted, concluded, then went back to whatever I was working on before. I was actually surprised, and somewhat annoyed, by how long it took you to “get back to normal.” I had no idea what I was doing to you. I didn’t actually understand you. I never bothered to try. I only knew my boundaries, and operated with those in every situation. It took years of confusion, of making people uncomfortable, and of offending people, before it suddenly dawned on me that other people have different boundaries.

But that’s not what this writing piece is about. This is about two girls trying to establish order after the tyrant was exiled. Two strong and stubborn leaders fighting for dominance and control. Two rulers angry over the non-compliance of the other. We were children (she 10, me 12) taking on adult roles, using the tools our parents taught us. And those tools were violent and sadistic.

This is about accepting responsibility for my actions. This is about guilt, and figuring out how to release it. I was awful. But I was a child.

This is about reframing. I have happily looked down on my sister as an example of all the things I have overcome and decided not to be – victim, martyr, high on justified anger and anxiety, drama seeking, pathetic. But it’s not that simple. She is a strong, capable human being who is using different tools to survive. And truthfully, at this point, after over 5 years of little to no contact, she’s a stranger. Think about how much I’ve changed in the last 5 years, I am a completely different person. She is too. It has been so easy to make her the bad guy. It’s so easy to make people the bad guys. And so much more complicated to see them as they really are, complex creatures worthy of love and respect.

have a mother’s day

I am deeply ambivalent about today’s hallmark holiday. Even with this beautiful girl sitting in front of me so full of life and love, I am flipping through the list of ways I have hurt her or failed her. Thank goodness she’s so resilient. But mostly, thank goodness I’m not my mom. She showed me over and over that I was worthless and undeserving of respect. She chose everyone and everything over me. She took my childish worship for granted. She whines that she loves me, she misses me, but her “love” is limited and unhealthy. And it hurts. Sure, you miss me now, now that you’re old and lonely. Her neediness makes me angry. What about when I needed you. Yes you feel guilt for so many of your choices. But I remember your face when you first made those decisions. Completely unapologetic, proud even. Ugh, stop, I don’t want to waste my time dredging up the ugliness again. I forgave you long ago, not that you’re off the hook, but that I chose to not carry around my resentment anymore. I set it down, and decided to accept you just as you are, limited, selfish, OCD, and not welcome in my life except when I feel like I can handle your immaturity and disconnectedness. And I decided to look at my current life with relief and gratitude. This is Motherhood 2.0 – my turn. I get to create a new mother/daughter relationship. In this version, the mother is present for her daughter, listens to her, treats her like a complete human being and shows her she believes in her. This time when the mother makes mistakes, she admits them and apologizes for them, and doesn’t make excuses and doesn’t laugh about the pain she’s caused. This time the daughter is able to ask for her needs and get them met. This time the daughter knows how much she’s loved both in actions and words, over and over. And this time the daughter has a very loving and supportive and fun and safe father who would never harm her, never torture her, not in a zillion years. I am so lucky and so grateful for my family. We are imperfect. But we are good people. Sometimes I forget that I’m part of the good. Sometimes it’s helpful for me to look back at the bad, and see how much I am not that, not by a long shot. Then I can go through my list of successes instead – and realize that I am a part of making my child’s life good.

the voices in my head

In my head lives an overly cautious granny. She is scared of everyone and everything. And she thinks she needs to warn me about every bad thing that could possibly happen. She’s about 5 feet tall, wears a sign that says, “The End Is Near!” and rings a loud bell to get my attention. “You are going to fail!” she yells. “They are better off without you!” she screams. She’s trying to help, thinking that if she gives me the worst case scenarios I will be able to come up with a plan now, rather than be surprised when it’s sprung on me. “He/she is going to betray you!” she wails. “You will never get better!” she howls. I can’t take it anymore, her words are carving bloody grooves into my soul. I want to reject her. Kick her out of my head. Beat her up. But that only makes her stronger and louder. How do I get rid of her? I can’t, she’s a part of who I am. So what do I do. In my head, I go into the room she’s in. I help her out of the sign she’s wearing. I gently take the bell out of her hand. She’s suddenly nervous, what is her purpose if not to warn me. I put my arms around her and give her a big hug. And I say, “Thank you for trying to protect me by warning me of the most horrible possible things. When I was young and in danger, you were an important part of my survival. But I’m not in danger anymore. I have a stable and loving home environment. I have many precious friends what love me and adore me and would do anything for me. I have positive and constructive tools in my tool bag that have worked and continue to work. I no longer need dire, apocalyptic warnings.” I let go of the hug and invite her to sit down on a comfy couch and relax. And I give myself permission to return here again in case she sneaks off and dons the sign and bell again. Then I exit with the knowledge that I have the strength to create my life in a positive and healthy and loving way.

Note: This writing piece is based on a life-changing visualization process I learned through the book, Finding Francesca, by Stephanie Correa.

Describe an event that changed your life forever

My life has been peppered with life-changing events, like signposts on a long and windy road. The first, and possibly biggest, was my parents’ divorce. It was only once we escaped that I realized a brutal and terrifying childhood was not normal. My understanding of my life and the world was turned upside down, and so many objects were thrown loose. It was exhilarating, the drama, the freedom. I was encouraged by therapists to let it all out – and so I did, everywhere and to anyone who would listen. I realized my story had value, like currency. In exchange others would share their struggles. And I was able to connect with many on levels deeper than the usual shallow exchanges. I was free, I was wild. I was the bad influence many parents wanted to keep away. But not because I did anything illegal or immoral – quite the opposite. Due to my mother’s neglect, my younger sister and I had to take care of ourselves. We were and continue to be very responsible. Many parents didn’t like me because I spoke my mind. Because I didn’t keep to “my place” as a child. I was honest, too honest. My eyes were open. Perhaps I was disrespectful. I didn’t see, nor wanted to acknowledge, arbitrary boundaries. There were also many parents who adored me, who figuratively adopted me and became one of my surrogate moms. Sometimes (often?) I liked them better than their kids. I connected better with them, I felt like they understood me. Memories fade, and I no longer remember the details of time spent with them. But they gave me guidance, acceptance and love that I so desperately needed. I carry them with me in my heart, even today. And I am forever grateful that they were placed in my path when I needed them.

not my mother

This burning anger. She’s keeping me waiting again. She doesn’t respect me. She is actively insulting me with her behavior. She’s pissing me off! It’s not my mom, this time. It’s my 5 1/2 year old child. She’s driving me crazy…being developmentally appropriate. I have mapped my childhood years of neglect and rage onto my baby. How do I stop? How do I not get pissed when she stalls or procrastinates or ignores me or refuses to do what I tell her to? I try to remind myself, “she’s 5, she’s only 5.” That helps, a little. But I still have this timer in my head, this schedule. I feel like I’m always failing to follow it, to keep up with it. My husband gently suggested allowing more flexibility into the schedule. “We don’t have to eat right at 6pm.” He’s right. My schedule times are kind of arbitrary. Self-imposed requirements. I picked them, so I can adjust them. What happened to my ability to be flexible? I had it when I was teaching. “Overprepare, but be flexible,” was my motto. But with my child I just want to get through each item on the checklist. Check it off, move to the next item, efficient. Except that it’s not working. I’m not enjoying any of the to-do’s. And I’m sure she can tell, sense it. How do people enjoy these lather, rinse, repeat duties? I guess maybe they can recognize how fleeting this is in the long run. Before I know it, I won’t get to nag her to get in the bath already. I won’t get to cradle and rock her in her towel afterwards. She’ll be showering all on her own. Before I know it, I won’t be arguing with her at bedtime over which books to read and which songs to sing. She’ll wave to me, “goodnight,” and head upstairs on her own. She’s only this sweet, adorable age for a little while. This is what I need to remember. Also, she’s not my mother.

I really need a happy summer memory right now

I know there must have been some happy memories when I was a child. But I don’t remember much. I remember holding a sparkler for the 4th of July, and it burned a hole in my sock. Everything around that memory is a grey blur, no substance. I don’t like the heat anymore, it wears me out, weakens me. If I go to the beach during the day, I hide in the shade…of an umbrella, a lifeguard tower, an air-conditioned restaurant nearby. But at night, the beach is a completely different world. I have many wonderful memories of attending beach bonfires. If I’ve gotten there before sunset, I get to watch the sky darken slowly, burst into brilliant beautiful colors, and then wink into darkness. The wood crackles, the heat is comforting, the smokey smell merges all the memories together. The sand is between my toes and all over my clothes. I’m dirty but I don’t care. There are hot dogs on hanger wires, and marshmallows too. And conversation between good friends as the fire light dances across our faces. I feel at peace. I feel solid. I feel real.

What is your birth position in your family? Does it impact your mental health? Why?

So, as the story goes, when my little sister was born I tried to climb into her crib to kill her. I was one month shy of 2 years old. Of course I have no memory of this. But it was enthusiastically rolled out at social events by my mom. I can always count on her for embarrassing stories. Is that who we become when we get old? Just a collection of stories?

I was always faster and stronger and smarter growing up. I felt good about that. But it wouldn’t be a competition if there wasn’t more than one person. And competition definitely took place. Scholastic success was always easy for me. I don’t remember if she struggled. I was articulate and enunciated perfectly, she smeared her words. I was always taller. Even now, when we’re both adults, I’m 3 1/2 inches taller. And I loved it. She won in other areas, she hit puberty first. And she loved to rub that in my face. Boy we were mean to each other. She would claim to have a better voice, a soprano to my second alto. I have better nails, she was a nail biter for so long that her nails are wide and squat. I was proud of that. We both talk incredibly fast. In fact, if you don’t know us well, you’d be hard pressed to determine which of us was talking to you over the phone. We actually tricked a friend once, on purpose. She was prettier, but I was smarter. And did I mention I’m taller.

I don’t have many memories of our early years. But when I’ve babysat young sisters close in age and I watch the way the older one treats the younger one, I feel shame. Something inside me tells me I did that. And even though it’s clearly human nature, I still feel guilt. We tormented each other, but I was perhaps a little better at it. She was definitely more sensitive, the wounds I inflicted years ago are still festering. That’s her choice, she loves to hold onto pain and wave it around like a flag of glory. I won’t take responsibility for her pain. And she hates me for that.

It’s been over 4 years since we stopped talking. 2 weeks after my daughter was born. Our “on again” lapse was tenuous at best. Basically a reconciliation about a year earlier for my wedding, heavily driven by my mom’s desire to live in an alternate reality where we’re a tight-knit loving family.

Well thanks to my dad’s death, and my sister’s need for a new drama/stressful project, plus her poverty/debt/greed, we’re back in communication. The estate lawyer, and more importantly, my husband, said to “walk away” from dealing with the mysterious trustee, who my sister now says should never have gotten any of his money. She’s on a mission, filing criminal charges. Let her have her crusade. I’d never be able to talk her out of it. No one could. She keeps texting me, updates and steps she’s taking, but also how stressed and anxious she is. Oh woe is her, look how she’s suffering. When my mom called me up to tell me what my sister was going to do, she was all riled up. I had to talk her off the ledge, I said to her, “he’s dead, why do you want to dig him back up?” I mean really, why waste another second on him. Let him fade away till even his memory is vague. Indifference is what he deserves. He’s gone, he no longer exists, it’s glorious. Why bring him back?? One of today’s texts from my sister says, “Hate that it came to this. That even after death he makes me sick.” Oh what a victim she is! How about instead you take responsibility for the choices you are making. Up to and including how you think and feel about what’s going on. Not everything needs to be a nuclear meltdown.

But maybe she needs that. I remember when I needed intensity all the time. It made me feel alive. I invited all sorts of brilliant but toxic/destructive people into my life. I enjoyed them thoroughly. The stings didn’t warn me to run, they were familiar and comfortable and understandable, and they produced endorphins. Yes, I got high off of cruelty, both giving and receiving. Somehow I justified it, believed I had it all under control. Do I miss it? Only theoretically. I don’t have the time or energy for drama anymore. What little energy I can scrape together is for myself, and my family (husband and daughter).

I feel like I haven’t really answered the question. Yes, birth order matters. I was looked up to (literally), copied, followed around. And it made me proud (and sometimes pridefully annoyed). And when my sister finally found her own power, was she embarrassed of the esteem she had had of me, and was she resentful of my position. I’m sure of it. Into our young adult years I was our mom’s favorite. I’m sure she knew it. And my damaged mom, overflowing with guilt for decisions she’s made and our resulting childhood, clings now to the only daughter that will throw her crumbs. Hint, that’s not me.

It’s complicated, but also simple. We all just want to feel important. We want to be listened to. Why couldn’t we be kind to each other – our parents didn’t model that behavior. Even after years and years of therapy, it took my auto-immune disease to humble me, and my teaching experience to learn to understand and love all kinds of personalities, and then, most importantly, my husband’s sweetness and honesty, to melt my ice fortress.

And now, it’s my daughter’s temper and impatience and stubbornness that is teaching me just how hard it is to break old behavior patterns. But that story is for another post…