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.

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.