Hard Lessons

To paraphrase a Bruce Springsteen song, life has been giving me some hard lessons lately, about pain, loss, disability and hope. Years of chronic pain, my mother's death, my hearing impairment and other serious medical problems have sorely tested me. When I finally found a doctor who took my pain seriously, he asked me why I had checked "suicidal thoughts" on my new patient questionnaire. I told him, "I have 30 years ahead of me if I live as long as my mother did. I refuse to live in pain for another 30 years."

In all that I've learned and written since then, the most surprising discovery has been my ability to remain optimistic about my life and my future. If you hear despair, anger, frustration and fear in what I post here, please don't turn away. All is not dark, and eventually a glimmer of hope will light the path ahead.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Is Growing Older an Oxymoron?

At the fitness studio few days ago some acquaintances and I found ourselves in a conversation about the aging process. One of them talked about having to be realistic about decreased mobility, flexibility and energy. Once again, Jean's mouth opened before her brain could catch up. I heard myself say, "The older I get, the more frantic I get about doing everything I want to before I just can't do it any more. I take on more and more challenges because if I don't do it now, when else will I be able to do it? But at the same time, all that effort wears me down."

The woman who had started the conversation isn't someone I'd choose as a friend. I have nothing against her, she's a good person, a hard-working person, etc. etc. but neither is she a comfortable person for me. So I was a bit surprised when she nodded and said, "That's exactly how I feel."

So the lesson here is: Is "growing" older an oxymoron? Am I growing, or am I declining and losing ground? Am I learning and growing closer to God, or am I shrinking, losing competency and grounding in reality? My mom had Alzheimer's. I know it's a risk for me and sometimes I have to ask myself, "Is this the start of the end? Will I even know when the end of my sound mind is coming close?"

After all that navel-gazing, I can only conclude that I must stay on my course to learn and do and love and grow all I can while I'm able, and trust that God will take care of me when I can't do it for myself any more.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Touch Me Not

I was in my late 40's the first time I heard the term "touch-me-not". I was about to leave on a 4-week overseas business trip, just two weeks after 9/11. A caring coworker came up to me and said, "I know you're a touch-me-not, but I'm going to give you a hug anyway." After she hugged me, she told me to take good care of myself. The strange thing about that post-9/11 trip was that I felt safer in foreign countries than I did in my own country. But that's another story.

About 10 years later I met a woman - first a coworker, then (and now) a friend - who's a hugger. I'm surprised she didn't hug me farewell and give me another hug as a greeting every time I took a trip to the restroom. Spending time with her as the beneficiary of her many hugs finally got me comfortable with hugging.

My parents weren't demonstrative, so for a long time I assumed that's why I was a touch-me-not, but lately I've realized there's more to it than that. The "more" is this:

For an incest survivor (or for this one, anyway), there is no such thing as safe, loving, non-sexual touch. Every touch has the potential to inflict pain, shame, or both. Perhaps if I'd realized that earlier in my journey of growth and healing, my life would've been easier, happier, or more comfortable. I believe that many of the very stupid decisions I made about relationships arose from my confusion about the meaning of touch. I still feel ashamed about making so many mistakes, but get some comfort from understanding more about the thinking (or not thinking) that pushed me stumbling over rocky and dangerous roads.

Monday, April 28, 2014


Some of the hardest lessons I’ve learned (and need to learn) are sequelae of the physical, verbal, and sexual abuse I experienced in my family of origin. I’m one of an army of the walking wounded, but far more high-functioning than some survivors I’ve encountered in the past few decades. After 20 years of talk therapy and psychopharmacology, I no longer have flashbacks and seldom have nightmares. I don’t dwell on that part of my personal history, but it does come back to haunt me, often in the form of anger. The anger can be triggered by external events that would anger anyone – violence, carelessness, neglect, injustice, idiocy, etc.  – but I seem to have an inexhaustible supply of my very own anger, and it’s fuel for the fire in my head.

When I was in my 20's, a psychiatrist asked me if I was angry about something my estranged first husband had done. I answered that I was never angry about anything, not even my traumatic childhood. So I've been storing up anger for a very long time.
For much of my life, I believed that I deserved what I got as a youngster. I never quite grasped exactly what I’d done to bring it on. I strove to be perfect – a perfect daughter, sister, friend – in the attempt to prevent attacks. Most of the time, my father’s manner was distant - he was usually absorbed by his own thoughts and by his rocky relationship with my extremely difficult and unpredictable brother, K.
As I grew older, I wavered between the teenaged conviction that everything was my parents’ fault and the suspicion that there was something wrong with me that invited attacks, something inborn that I would never be able to change.
I said my father was distant. As a small girl, I would have done – and did do - anything to get his attention. Drawing him into my bedroom was the surest way to do that. I fantasized that he was my husband and that one day we would run away together and live happily ever after, no longer burdened by the rest of our family.
And really, Dad was the least of my problems. I loved him and needed him. K. was the big problem, the enormous one, the elephant in the living room. Despite my continued efforts to be the family peacemaker, I just could not find the right words or facial expression or gift or concession to defuse or stall my brother’s moods, paranoia or fury. I did try to tell my parents what he was doing to me (and sexual abuse was the least of it), but soon gave up. Dad was aghast that I would say such terrible things about K., and Mom told me to stop the histrionics.
When K. chased me with a knife, I would run for cover, sometimes outside in the neighborhood and other times in my bedroom or a bathroom – any room with a door that locked. I used babysitting money to buy two slide bolt latches for my bedroom door and installed one towards the top of the door and one towards the bottom. If I could get in there fast enough and slide at least one bolt, I might survive K.’s kicking feet, or the knife stabbing into the hollow core door. My parents were somehow able to ignore the gashes in that door, and Mom forbade me to lock my door at night in case the house caught fire. I told her I would jump out the window. I don’t remember her ever testing my door at night to see if it was locked.
Once when I was hiding in the downstairs powder room located in the front hallway, K. kicked a big hole through the drywall that separated his foot from my body. I didn’t think to photograph the hole with my Brownie box camera. If my parents shrugged off such obvious evidence of K.’s violence, what use was it to complain to them? I knew they wouldn’t protect me, and I’d get an “ignore him and he’ll go away” lecture. As far as I could tell, ignoring K. was even more dangerous than engaging with him. When I left home three months after my 17th birthday, our house was damaged and so was I - the walking wounded.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Personal safety

Earlier this year, I had a sort of epiphany. I realized that at least some of my personal and work struggles might be the result of my insistence that my way is the right way. My refusal to consider anything else, and my indignation when anyone challenged that belief, had been using up a ridiculous amount of my ever-dwindling time and energy. So as hard as this was for me, I pledged to myself that I would stop trying to prove a point that meant nothing to anyone but me. I would stop fighting with anyone who said, "But what about this?" And within a few weeks, I realized that my life (personal and work) life was going better. A lot better.

That improvement has kept me going since then. I won't claim that I've been a perfect angel. As Popeye said, "I y'am what I y'am." but I'm so much better off that I wish I'd figured it all out sooner. It's possible that I had to go through the hard stuff no matter what, but since I only have today to live, and maybe tomorrow, I'm just going to go on.

But...I also wonder how I came to be so ridiculously dedicated to advancing and protecting my own needs and desires after spending the first few decades of my life letting other people walk all over me. Perhaps that's the answer. I may have been overreacting to those earlier experiences. Was that wrong of me? Maybe, but maybe not.

I was thinking about all this as I drove home today after working hard to be sweet and cheery all day with coworkers and customers who were not being sweet and cheery with me. Sometimes I get a sly sort of "screw you" satisfaction out of that, and sometimes I just don't have the energy for it, but these days that sweetness and cheeriness doesn't feel so much like I'm allowing myself to be violated.

Which may be, at the end of the day, what this lesson is all about. As I was driving along through the pastoral beauty of our rural if impoverished landscape, I suddenly remembered two childhood incidents, and those memories reminded me that I'm not the one who failed to protect me from violation. In fact, I fought against it, but the adults around me chose to ignore it, probably because dealing with it was too big a job when they were already dealing with a Really Big Problem: my brother.

So, about the two memories of my brother's assaults that I reported to those adults (my parents). Memories that I usually keep in a mental cupboard with a big padlock on it. The adults pooh-poohed my reports. I was being histrionic, I was exaggerating, I was confabulating. Even when there was physical evidence to the contrary.

One time when we were alone in the house after school. my brother became furious with me for something I don't even remember and chased me into the front hallway. Just in time, I locked myself into the downstairs powder room. For what seemed like forever, K. screamed and pounded on the door.  I don't remember exactly what happened next, but I do recall that at some point, my parents wanted to know why I'd allowed him to kick a huge hole in the wall between the hallway and the powder room. I was astonished when I saw that hole. I might have gone on wondering if I'd hallucinated it, but when my parents divorced and sold the house, there was quite a production over getting someone in to repair it so it wouldn't deter prospective buyers.

The other time, my brother cornered me in the kitchen when we were again alone in the house (as usual, Dad was off on some business matter and Mom was working her 2nd job). K. kept grabbing at my breasts and went into a rage when I refused to bare them to him, so I ran out of the kitchen and up the stairs towards my bedroom. When I turned left into my room, I saw that he was holding a kitchen knife. I dove into my room and locked it behind me. With babysitting money, I'd bought and installed 2 slide-bolt locks on the inside of the door, so I was fairly safe then (though I have to wonder why my parents allowed me to keep those locks - what if the house had caught on fire and trapped me in there?). I heard him hammering on the door and screaming at me, so I crawled into my closet, shut that door, and waited for everything to be quiet (which it rarely was in that house). It was only later when ventured downstairs to see if any dinner was on offer (never guaranteed after hours of parental drinking) that I learned what K. had done while I was shut in my closet. He had stabbed the knife several times into the hollow-core door. Again, my account of this incident was discounted. I must have done something terrible to make K. do something like that. It was my fault that the door had to be replaced.

Well, my mental cupboard is full of stories like that. I guess the reason the stories (not just stories, but the memories of true events) came back to me today is that they show how my personal safety and integrity were so severely disregarded at a time when a minor child ought to be able to rely on her parents for protection. At least inside her own home, in the company of her own brother. So those events may help account for why my personal safety and integrity are of such paramount importance to me now, at a time when an aging woman ought to be able to feel safe in her own life.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Why, God? Just tell me why.

A dear friend of mine is dealing with a serious health problem. When she talks about it, I can feel the pain and panic in her voice. It's all too familiar to me.
I don't know how to fix it for her any more than I know how to fix my own health problems. I feel extremely fortunate to have achieved the level of functioning I have now. And even now, the specters of more pain and more disabilities lurk around every corner.
I wish I could wave my magic wand over my friend. I hate to see her in so much distress. She is such a good and smart and capable and funny and special person. It's just not fair that she should have to carry these  complicated and heavy emotional and psychological and physical burdens. Sometimes I want to ask God, "Why are you letting this happen? Just tell me why."

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Healing Process

Many years ago, a mental health provider advised me to "trust the healing process." In other words, go with the flow. That advice made me want to scream, and it still annoys me. I've been trying to analyze and solve my own and other peoples' problems, and second guessing what other people are thinking and what they want from me, for about 30 years. It hasn't worked well for me. I need a road map for the healing journey. I want it all spelled out, chapter and verse, with detailed instructions and guaranteed results. Although I do know that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I still struggle with this matter of trust. I suspect that this is one of the lessons God wants me to learn in this life. The problem is, I've already used up 60 years of that life. The fewer days I have left, the more precious they become. I clearly need to work harder on this. Or maybe not work on it all...

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Until I turned 50, I never had a sense of my own mortality. My elderly mother had been reminding me that she wasn’t going to live forever, but somehow I thought that she and I were both immortal despite the fact that I was morbidly obese and troubled by a host of health problems. I had undergone more surgeries, medical procedures and treatments, and taken more prescription medication, than my mother had in her entire life.

In the years that followed that milestone birthday, I lost a lot: my job, my 90-year-old mother, 100 pounds and my old lifestyle. At the same time, I learned there is truth in the old saying, “You’re only as old as you feel.” That truth wasn’t always rejuvenating. I often felt lost and confused. I had attained an age that was unimaginable to me as a 20-year-old. Other than perfunctory contributions to 401K and IRA funds, as a young woman I had made no plans for my middle and later years. That might be just as well, because in truth, my expectations for myself at age 20 were far smaller than my expectations are now, as I hover on the edge of my 60th birthday.

A few years ago I told a young coworker that I was 56 years old. Now I don’t remember why I shared that information with him, but I hope I never forget Garrett’s response: “You are not 56!”

I offered to show him my driver’s license. He shook his head and said, “You don’t act like you’re 56.”

Although for much of my life my mother had admonished me to act my age, I took Garrett’s comment as a compliment. One benefit of being 50+ is that I care a lot less about what other people think of me, not because I want to act outrageously but because I want to be true to myself, because I trust myself enough now to worry less about the mistakes I might make, and because I know I will learn from them as they happen.

Friends, family, and business associates who’ve known me for 10, 20, 30 years tell me they’ve been surprised by my new lifestyle. I shut the door on a high-paying, high-stress, mostly sedentary business career that sent me all over the globe as I worked 70- to 80-hour weeks and ate myself into obesity. I joined a fitness center; took a low-paying, lower-stress, part-time retail job; wrote and published five books; and recently joined the board of directors of OutsideIN, a new non-profit business that provides jobs and training for chronically unemployed workers who rely heavily on public resources for their survival.

My non-profit work pays me not in monetary income but in what Mom used to call spiritual income. Although we welcome volunteers of any age, I believe I have far more to offer now, at 50+, than I did in my youth. It’s work that draws on all my past work experience and allows me to use my unique talents, some of which had lain dormant for decades. It also requires me to stretch and learn new things. I’m especially happy about that because I believe that the moment we stop learning is the moment we’re ready to go home forever.

The photo below shows me at the fitness studio wearing a favorite t-shirt. Its imprint describes my new identity at 50+ years. One of the most surprising things about being 50+ is that I’ve evolved from being a fearful, pessimistic Miss Rainy Day, to an upbeat, optimistic Little Miss Sunshine. Even as the aging process challenges me, often slows me, and sometimes pains me, I wake up every morning eager for the new day. Perhaps time is becoming more precious to me as my fund of new days dwindles, but for now I’m going to go on believing that I’m immortal.