HAPPY BIRTHDAY


motheranddaughter“The woman who bore me is no longer alive, but I seem to be her daughter in increasingly profound ways.” – Unknown

Today would have been my mother’s 83rd birthday.  And, Friday marked one year since she passed away.  As I have shared in this blog before, her passing was an event that did not hold much significance to me at the time because I felt I had said goodbye to her many years before.  Despite that, this past year has left me with the need to do a lot of reflection to help me come to terms with my feelings about this complicated relationship in order to begin a healing process resulting in forgiveness and transcendence from decades of trying to love someone who was fundamentally incapable of experiencing or giving authentic love.

This is a journey I did not enter into willingly.  In fact, I had my mind all made up when I learned that her life was nearing its end that I was relieved and ready to move on to the next phase of my life – a life without having to look over my shoulder and wonder when the next onslaught would occur.  I welcomed the freedom that came from knowing that the hurt, the humiliation, the constant anxiety about when she would next strike out would finally come to an end.  When I got the word that she had died, I texted my best friend to let him know and he immediately called me in bewilderment, wondering if he should console me or plan to take me out for a celebratory toast.  He gently prodded, fascinated by this highly unusual circumstance of someone losing their parent and not immediately  kicking into the rituals of mourning, honoring, etc., and asked “How do you feel?”  Of course, he knew that the feelings would be complicated.  He implicitly knew that I would be struggling to find words to make sense of the emotions, even in my own mind.  At the time I was quite laissez faire about the whole situation, resolved that I was ready to start anew.  I had prayed for an escape from the grip she had on me and suddenly my wish was granted and now I had the time and space to react and redirect myself.

In the year since my mother’s passing, I have had a metamorphosis of sorts.  In my own way, I have undergone a process of grieving and realigning myself without the force of my mother’s mental illness driving an undercurrent in my life.  Despite the fact that I had terminated my relationship with her nearly 7 years before her death, I was still struggling on a daily basis, balancing my indignation and my guilt while continuing to fear her wrath, her scorn, her outbursts intended to try to regain a connection with me.  She patented the art of attempting to have bad behavior rewarded with attention.  It took great resolve and discipline to not take the bait.  As an adult child, I still yearned the love of my mother and wanted nothing more than to wake up from a seemingly bad dream and find myself in a fairy tale, basking in the glow of love showered upon me by my mommy.  I never lost the wish, the unwavering desire to curl up and be loved and nurtured in a way that I understood was a gift meant for other little girls, simply not me.

As I worked through the process – one that I intentionally pushed to the background to be a backdrop to everything else that was going on in my life – I began to see answers and understanding emerge around me like giant thought bubbles bursting over my head.  I knew when I began the journey of healing that I would never truly understand my mother.  I acknowledged, albeit reluctantly, that her actions and behavior would never make sense to me.  I did not have all the puzzle pieces.  I was missing huge chunks of her history that informed who she became as an adult.  I did not understand the demons that she confronted as a young child and had no way of understanding the role they played in the destruction of her life.  I never had a clear sense of the roots of her mental illness.  All of that, however, was intellectual masturbation because none of it mattered in how I felt.  And, frankly, for the better part of my adult life, I spent my time trying to understand, trying to solve the equation.  How I felt was always secondary.  I knew I was a victim of her illness and I knew that our relationship was ultimately detrimental to both of us.  I woke up one day and realized with crystal clear certainty that we were better off without each other than with.  And I walked away.  As my therapist has explained to me so many times, I nearly erased myself from existence by abandoning the most primal and pivotal relationship in my life.  I annihilated myself by rejecting my mother.  And, at the same time, I gave myself life.

I have struggled over the past year to find my way with this.  Life has presented me with seemingly unending complications to derail my focus and challenge my own mental stability.  I have struggled with my own purpose, my intentions and my truth.  Losing my mother without ever closing all the loose ends left me with a complicated web of questions and emotions that I knew I had to tackle when I was ready and in my own unique style.  No one – absolutely no one – could help me make sense of it.  I was living an experience that not a single person I know has ever experienced.  I was alone on an island left to sort out a big giant tangle of ropes in hopes that, when untwisted, I would be able to toss them out to pull in my raft and return the land of others.  I had hoped that by whacking through this mess I would suddenly feel differently, look like everyone else and be able to return to life feeling more complete and more connected.

It’s been one year and two days.  367 days of quiet contemplation.  8,808 hours of attempting to locate a lost piece of myself in order to better fit into my world and begin to blend in with everyone else.

Guess what?

I failed.

On the bright side, I am beginning to forgive my mother.  I am finding ways to have compassion for her and understanding that hers was the road less traveled – and not in a good way.  No one would ever sign up for the cruise that she took in her 82 years. No one would willingly leave the earth with a scant few by their side, having more regrets than joy.  Four marriages, three children, four grandchildren and her passing was barely noticed.  I feel sad for her.  I grieve for a life that was lost to an illness left untreated and an unwillingness to relent and accept that perhaps the darkness that she lived with was not simply the way it was meant to be.  I take no comfort in my righteousness that she deserved what she ultimately received.  I wish, I truly wish, I could have made a difference for her.  I wish I could have saved her and brought her to my island.  I tried so many times to heal her with my love, thereby, hopefully, healing myself.  However, it was always short-lived.  She thrived on chaos and manipulation.  She needed to break things down and then attempt to put them back together in order to feel like a savior.  She needed to be a victim and find blame in everyone else.  She did not know what it meant to forgive.  She only knew how to hold a grudge and suffer as she exhausted limitless mental energy feeling anger and resentment, ironically usually targeted towards those she most frequently hurt.

For me, today, I am learning to get beyond all that and am starting to understand the impact of her life and her behavior on me.  I am not a victim of my mother.  I am a product of my life experience and it is my choice to continue down the pathway she led me or to take a detour and find my own lane.  She is not a compass for me – a fact that pains me greatly because I believe so deeply in the power of motherhood and the role we play in guiding our children to their own paths while standing by to guide them to another and another as they need us to.  Nonetheless, my mother is all around me.  She shows up in my life in the form of other people that create struggles for me – the narcissists that invariably make their way to me; the angry, damaged and pained individuals that sniff me out falsely seeing me as a safe harbor.  I am simply not that port and I am learning to accept that about myself.  My job is not to rescue anyone but to provide an atlas built from my own painful journey.  I am not a walking support group and I have come to accept and, in fact, insist, that I am not here to be pitied or protected or, quite frankly, understood by anyone because we can never truly understand the complexities that make each of us unique.  Instead, I am here to give love, receive love and hope to leave a legacy that includes inspiring and empowering others to live a more meaningful life.  And, for that, I thank my mother.  Without her, I am not sure that these lessons would have made their way to me.  I am not sure that I would have the courage to look at life the way I do.  I have no certainty that, without my mother, I would have broken down and been rebuilt in a way that provides me with my own brand of power.  I am not perfect and I struggle to make sense of things every day but I feel grateful to have the opportunity to tackle life and connect the dots in the way that I do. As with many things in my life, I would never go back and change history.  It all informed my place today.  The road could have been easier and my choices could have been better but it is all about the journey.

This morning I talked to my best friend again and shared with him a piece of my truth that has crystalized for me.  I have spent so much of my lifetime trying to adapt myself to fit into the world in a way that would enable people to understand me better.  I have twisted myself up so painfully trying to blend in and make sense in other people’s worlds.  However, today, my own gift to myself on my mother’s birthday, I committed to allowing myself to be me.  367 days after my mother left the earth I am finally becoming the person I am meant to be.  And, after 45 1/2 years of life, I know I am just getting started.

Happy Birthday Mom.  I wish you could have gotten to know me.

SHAMELESS


“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

My journey into the dark valley of vulnerability has been quite an interesting adventure.  I certainly did not book this trip completely without apprehension and, frankly, did it despite many deep reservations about how I would be able to tolerate the trip.  It has been a bit of a rough ride with some ups and downs but, I am beginning to see my way to a comfortable resting place where I can shed my cloak perhaps once and for all.  I have surprised myself in many ways including the recognition that much of my apprehension around allowing myself to be vulnerable was intellectual rather than emotional.  I have had a mental block masking an open heart.

All this searching I have been doing to both understand my capacity for experiencing vulnerability as well as to understand the roots of my blockages has had me winding down roads and turning corners allowing me to discover many more perspectives.  I feel like a young student soaking in as much information as my brain can tolerate.  I am constantly learning and this knowledge is bringing me power.  Last week, my new hero, Brene Brown, gave another TED talk, this time on the subject of shame.  This is a topic that interests me immensely because much of my life has been veiled by shame.  Shame has served as a huge obstacle in my life and, remarkably, I have not spent much time exploring it.  In her talk, Brene talked about the year following her breakthrough speech on vulnerability, which she readily admitted might have been the craziest thing she had ever done.  She, in her estimation, recklessly stood before 500 people and told them how afraid she was of vulnerability and, never for a second anticipated that millions more would be catalyzed by her words once the talk hit You Tube.  Her big a-ha from all this was that vulnerability is not a weakness.  In fact, she suggested that when you see vulnerability up close, it actually looks like courage. Pretty powerful stuff.

Last week I was sharing with a close friend my journey with this blog and my lack of perspective on how what I write impacts other people.  We all have our own lenses and sometimes it is really difficult to see the world through anyone else’s eyes – no matter how much they try to describe the picture they see.  He told me that he thinks what I am doing is brave and, not surprisingly, I did not see it that way.  I was extremely flattered by his comment but, in reality, I do not see courage when I feel the pain and struggle.  It feels hard and feels unpleasant.  It is the same way I have felt about vulnerability.  It is hard work to allow yourself to feel vulnerable – to expose yourself and be open to what might be coming your way.  However, to those around you, it is unbelievably courageous to watch as you open yourself up and allow yourself to feel and experience the world in a way that many choose to avoid because it is simply too risky and too painful.  The ability to take an emotional risk such as saying I love you when you are not certain if the sentiment will be returned is so brave.  The  confidence that comes from allowing yourself to be exposed with tremendous uncertainty of how you will be received is quite an accurate measurement of courage.  It is being truly honest and authentic and not fearing the consequences.  That is bold.  So, despite the fact that my perspective and humility refuse to allow me to see myself as courageous, I can appreciate where my friend was coming from and I acknowledge that this work is not easy.

When opening up the subject of shame in her most recent talk, Brene talked a bit more about vulnerability, crediting it as the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.  For someone like me, that is pure gold.  I live for innovation, creativity and change – and I struggle terribly to try to achieve any of it.  I have spent so many years locked behind doors, preventing me from unleashing my creativity because I could not be honest with myself. I was always creating a false, altered story that allowed me to avoid exposing the ugly underbelly that I feared I would be rejected for.  Over the past few years as I began to embrace some of my truths and become more accepting of myself, the veil began to lift and creativity started to flow.  This blog is the absolute evidence of that.  What I realized when listening to her talk was the role that shame has played in my inability to be open, even with myself.  The reason for me being locked behind the big steel doors that I caged myself in was because I felt shame.  According to Brene, shame is the ultimate focus on self and is the corollary of guilt.  When we feel guilty about doing something wrong, we might say that we are sorry that we made a mistake.  When we feel shame, we are thinking “I am sorry that I am a mistake.”  We feel inadequate and worthless and have no ability for compassion or love for ourselves because we do not believe that we are deserving.  Brene calls shame “the swampland of the soul.”  Put on your galoshes, walk through and find your way around.

Thinking about shame this way has been revelatory for me.  I do not think I feel shameful any longer.  I cannot begin to explain how major of a statement that is for me to make.  To have moved past something is seemingly impossible in my mind. It often feels like I will be burdened with my baggage until I take my last breath, focusing my energies on strategies to manage through it rather than move past it.  Yet, I believe, without reservation, that shame is not part of my current story.  It has been a sad truth for most of my life where I struggled to feel accepted and not feeling safe enough to admit that I was damaged and came from a very damaging place.  That is not my story today.  If empathy is the antidote to shame, then empathy is what I feel most of the time.  I empathize with myself and others who have struggled with their demons, addictions, weaknesses.  I have compassion for myself and understand that I am not defined by what has happened in my life but what I have done with it.  I remember writing a blog post not that long ago where I acknowledged that I struggled with forgiving myself.  I am beginning to feel that, perhaps, for the first time, I am prepared to cut myself some slack.

Last night I was talking with someone about a mutual friend who tends to complain about everything around her.  She is a bit of a downer and I find it tiring to listen to her steady dialogue of discontent, finding ways to put a negative spin on even the most positive experiences.  My friend and I talked about tactics for shutting down that type of behavior as opposed to indulging it or engaging it.  Negativity can be contagious.  In fact, it is much more easily spread than positivity because it requires a lot of work to be positive.  As someone who has made more than her share of snarky, cynical remarks about people and life, in general, I recognize how easily the words slip from my mouth.  I acknowledge how often I was perpetuating darkness rather than shining light to lift people up.  In fact, I also know how cynical I was of people who spent their time trying to bring lightness into other’s lives.  They were being brave and open and honest while I was hiding behind darkness to prevent myself from being seen and my shame being on display.  During the discussion with my friend, I thought a lot about the messages I want coming from me.  I thought about how I can be more intentional about being positive and trying to respond to negativity with positivity, thereby creating a force field to deflect the negativity.  It seems a bit superhero-ish but I believe it is a pathway to true happiness.  I knew, in that moment, that I could not change this other friend and would prefer to not harp on her unhappiness.  Instead, I needed to turn inwards and understand how I could counter it with my own positivity.

For many these are lessons that may have long ago been learned.  For others, like me, the doors are beginning to open and new opportunities and explorations are beginning.  And still, for some, they remain locked and closed off, struggling to find the pathway to trust themselves and others enough to let go and be vulnerable.  No matter where you are in this process, it is important to keep moving forward because it is worth the trip.  And, now that I like to write personal notes, I’ll send a postcard from my next destination!