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.