I woke up and it was November. My mother’s birthday was quickly approaching. So, what’s so stressful about that, you ask? Picking out a birthday card, I answer. Ugh.
I like to think I am something of a diplomat. Which is to say, I don’t like deliberately hurting anyone’s feelings; however, I’m not one for direct dishonesty, either. Which makes birthday cards for my mother and father an absolute nightmare for me…
I just can’t buy any of those sickly sweet, mushy cards (although I am, at heart, a very mushy person. Hello. Drama Queen, remember?) But to say that stuff about my mom would be lying. I just can’t do it. Maybe that makes me a bad person but I just can’t give her a card that writes about how supportive she’s always been, how she’s always been there when I needed her. It’s bullshit and she’d know it. She’d eat it up, but she’d know it. So, I have to hunt and hunt and hunt – until I find one that says something about how I love her and I know that she loves me. That much is true.
I do love my mother. Loving someone doesn’t mean that you have to like the things for which they stand.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean what happened was right. This photo was taken three and a half years ago. It’s my mother, my sister, my son and me – on my wedding day. We all have on smiles, there is no denying that…but even on that day, they aren’t happy smiles. You don’t even have to look close to tell they are largely for show.
That’s legacy. It’s a legacy of hurt, humiliation, doubt and mistrust. It’s a legacy born into a family with rampant, undiagnosed mental disease. It’s a legacy born of the society in which the alcoholic cover-up started.
Generations before I was born, my shame began. And it continued right up until the day I got help.
Dr. K: “You, Margaret, are bipolar (okay, it probably wasn’t THAT direct, there was a good deal of “psychiatrist speak”, but that was the gist. Bipolar disorder, type II)
The only thing I remember thinking or feeling that day is, “Thank God.”
I had always suspected that I was different, that something wasn’t quite right. Finally, I had an answer. Yes, an answer which opened more questions – but it was the beginning of a path. A reason to hope. More shame for my family.
Each day since that day, I have worked a little more to rid myself of the shame. The truth is, I believe it manifests itself in the bulk I carry on my body. It grew as I grew. Only now am I beginning to understand that it grew as my understanding of the shame grew, as my ability to cover it up grew. And when I couldn’t cover it up any longer, THAT shame kept the cycle going and my body growing. The cycle of shame goes hand in hand with the cycle of abuse.
Now, I’m not here to tell you that I was abused in the physical or sexual understanding of the term. I wasn’t. And for years, I didn’t realize that what I went through was abuse; years after that, I discounted it because it wasn’t physical or sexual torture.
From Alice Miller’s book “Thou Shalt Not Be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child”: “There are many people who have gone hungry all their lives even though their mothers were conscientious, saw that they got enough food and enough sleep and were concerned about their health in general. That these people were in many cases deprived nevertheless of what was most crucial for them does not yet seem to be understood, even among professionals. It has by no means become common knowledge in our society that a child’s psychological nourishment derives from the understanding and respect provided by his or her first attachment figures and that child-rearing and manipulation cannot take the place of this nourishment.”
I think it’s important to share all of this now because I think there are many people out there who struggle with the need to recognize and address the abuse in their lives because our parents have told us, our families have demonstrated to us, our churches have preached to us and our lives have taught us – that if we don’t have marks, it isn’t abuse. And, further, if an adult treated us in some fashion that was uncomfortable, it was for our own good.
Yes. I see levels of abuse. I KNOW that there are those in this world who had or are having childhoods with abuse way beyond any of which I can comprehend. I struggled with this issue when I started to work with incarcerated youth. I have seen in their lives, heard in their words, things the likes of which I didn’t really know happened in the world – much less in this country. They have been through horrors that I pray I will never see. I thought, “what RIGHT do I have to be upset about what I have been through when it can’t even COMPARE to what happened to these kids?”
God answered me, speaking through some beautiful, amazing people to get His message through.
It can’t compare. Abuse is abuse. There is no reason to compare them; there is only reason to stop them. A small fire or a big fire…they both need to be extinguished, we don’t allow it to rage unchecked, allowing it to consume everything in its path.
As it is with abuse. We have a need – and an obligation – to face abuse head-on when we recognize it. We need to meet it where we find it and let God use us to stop it. Before it grows. Before it spreads. Before it eats up any more lives.
In my family, abuse took many forms. Psychological humiliation, spiritual vampirism, neglect. I watched as three generations of women couldn’t admit that there was something wrong. Strong, independent women who couldn’t admit they needed help. Members of two of those generations still won’t admit it.
When I sought and accepted help, when I accepted an unpopular diagnosis, I was treated to displays of tempers, gnashing of teeth and assurances that if I just got happy, I would no longer need the medicine and I would lose the weight and not be fat anymore (another cardinal sin in my family).
And how was this miracle supposed to be accomplished, you might ask (I did)? Well, the chain of events, apparently, should go something like this…
1.) I get ahold of myself and “do what I need to do” to lose weight (mind you, I was being STRONGLY pushed toward bariatric surgery at this point, not to mention EVERY new diet pill that came along. I didn’t want them but mom sure wanted them FOR me.)
2.) Once I lost the weight (by whatever means necessary), then I would be able to find the “right” man. One who would be able to take care of me (as it was, by this time, obvious I couldn’t take care of myself).
3.) Once I was happily married and a stay-at-home mom waiting on my husband and children, I would be pronounced “happy” and no longer need medication for *stage whisper* THAT!
So, just to recap, I have bipolar disorder, a medically recognized, physical challenge, which will *magically* be cured by falling in love with the right man and losing weight.
When you stop laughing, I’ll tell you that I believed it. I believed it for so long that it almost killed me.
I tried diet after diet in an attempt to lose weight. The problem is that the barriers to weight loss weren’t physical. I would lose some and then gain it all back, plus.
In the same way, I tried man after man in an attempt to find that elusive “right” man. What I didn’t realize is that there is no “right” man when you don’t like yourself. But no one can say that I didn’t try…and I did some dangerous things in the name of trying.
And then God sent Bryce to me. The ways in which he has saved my life are incalculable.
The Bryces of this world…our children…they are the reason we need to meet and address all kinds of abuse head-on.
He has nothing of which to be ashamed. He has done nothing wrong. A different kind of mother, a different kind of woman, MY mother, couldn’t understand that. The force of the legacy of shame is so powerful that it transcends generations without most people seeing or understanding. I had done nothing wrong but I still live with the shame of the past.
I’m not most people. I see the way out. I’m not all the way there yet – and the bulk of my body is a visible sign of that. The weight I carry a heavy reminder of the shame I’m attempting to fling away.
Recognition. Awareness can help you get out of the cycle. In my life, having someone ELSE call it abuse was where it started for me. Now I can break the cycle. Bryce will have his own demons – some of my making – as he grows. But I will do my best to be sure that he does not carry the shame.
My mother didn’t know. She didn’t recognize and she wasn’t aware. I have tried to share what I have learned. I have tried to do it in a non-threatening manner. She isn’t ready or doesn’t want to hear or understand. I am sure it frightens and disturbs her. She isn’t ready to face the shame. Shame which wasn’t hers when it was originally thrust upon her.
I will never forget the things she said to me, the ways in which she tore me apart. But I am putting myself back together and I will be stronger than I would otherwise have been. I will, one day soon, God willing, become a person I can love. And it started with her. She loves me and I love her. That much I know.
That’s how I offer her grace. That is where I find the strength. God has given me the understanding to accept that she was unaware. The wisdom to know that she may not now or ever be strong enough to accept her role in the abuse. And that’s okay.
I don’t have to let it eat me alive inside. I can get rid of it like “yesterday’s” junk as I “give up all hope of a better past”. She no longer controls me. God and I can handle that task.
And as far as grace? Second chances? Each time I pick up the phone and call her, I’ve extended grace I once thought was beyond my ability. Actually, it is beyond me…but not beyond me and God together.
So, I took God with me and went shopping for a birthday card for mom. One that said “I love you”. She should have received it by now – I think I will call her…