The Box in the Basement
Last night I watched Awful Normal, a powerful documentary by Celeste Davis (available through iTunes). Perhaps you've seen it. It documents the filmmaker's decision to confront a family friend who sexually abused her and her sister a quarter-century earlier. The result is a powerful testament to the way childhood sexual abuse impacts everyone involved; and how powerfully children are affected when they are forced to pretend that everything is okay -- or "normal," to borrow from the film's title – when it's anything but.As parents, we teach our kids that feelings are important: that they have a right to their feelings, no matter what those feelings may be, and that their feelings will help to guide them through life. When children are told to ignore what they are really feeling and to behave in a way that feels abnormal or wrong in order to meet the needs of an adult, they start second-guessing the feelings that have been guiding them so intuitively until now. Should they listen to their own feelings or should they listen to the adult voice in their head that is trying to over-rule those feelings? Which voice should they trust? Which voice should they obey? What happens to that child when they realize that the voice of the adult is misguided or wrong; and that they have to look out for themselves? How does that feel?
So overwhelming that you may not even register the degree of overwhelm at the time.
Navigating Normal (or a Reasonable Facsimile Thereof)
It's when you're making heartfelt, conscious choices about raising your own children, thinking about what they're feeling and the choices you want to make as you move from one parenting stage to the next, that you remember what it was like to be that kid.
The lid on the box in the basement can start to wriggle off. The box can begin to block your view of the people sitting across from you at the dinner table.The first step, for me, in trying to starting to deal with the box was to make peace with the person and the times. My mother's health problems (she was severely affected by bipolar disorder) prevented her from being the kind of mother she tried so desperately to be (connected, nurturing, calm, happy, involved). And the seventies were, after all, anything but the age of enlightenment when it came to speaking openly about mental illness, let alone confronting its impact on the children of a mother who was really struggling. The next step involved making sense of the major events that occurred during my childhood and adolescent years and how I reacted to them: the choices I made and how each affected the person I became.
I'm now in the life reno phase. Using architecture as a model, I've started rebuilding some parts of the house that are going to need a powerful foundation if this building is going to weather the sunshine and storms of the next 45 years. (I just turned 46 and my two grandmothers each lived into their mid-90s or beyond. That's the goal I've set for myself: to thrive into my 90s.)
I've become much more proactive about managing stress because stress is a trigger for the seasonal affective disorder and the bouts of depression that I've struggled with in the past.
I've become much more effective at advocating for myself. (I honed these skills while advocating for my kids – just one of the many gifts motherhood has given to me.) The mere fact that this item didn't show up at the end of my list shows how much progress I've made.
I've confronted my life-long nemesis – the bully in all her assorted forms – and I've put her on notice that she no longer has a place in my life.
I'm doing more of what I love and connecting with all kinds of people who share my passion for making the world a better place for everyone's children.
I'm developing a more holistic view of what it means to be healthy. (I've even finally found a way to work out and have fun at the same time.)So why am I sharing all this with you? In case you're on a similar path and you'd like some company.
This is, after all, hard work. There are times when it is tempting to haul that box out of the basement and bury it the backyard -- or haul it to the closest dump. But all you'd end up with is an angry replicant of that same box. The only way to neutralize the contents of that box is to work you way through it. Writing and tapping into other creative forms of creative expression can be tremendously helpful as you mentally sort through its contents. So can talking with others who are working through the same process. Ditto for connecting with the right therapist. Doing so helps to normalize the experience by reminding us that very few people have a perfect childhood, just as none of us are perfect parents or flawless human beings.
The more we plug away at this, the clearer we become about who we are and how we want to live our lives. That allows us to feel good about what the future holds for ourselves and kids as we continue to grow together as a family.
I saw an old couple bein' visited by their children
and all their grandchildren too.
The old couple weren't screwed up,
and neither were their kids or their grandkids.- H.I. McDunnough, Raising Arizona