So from my last letter it is apparent that I’ll have some resistance from within me if I try to talk to you about my mom. And maybe that’s for the best for the purposes of these letters. I’ve explored that topic’s darkness thoroughly and I don’t think it’s necessary to describe it’s every bitter detail to convey to you the significant role my mom played in forming the persons I am today. I do want to say that I, the author of this piece, have forgiven Mom and can see where the things that were done and said were born out of her damage and her brokenness – even if the others within me may not be as reconciled to this as I am.
I think it is important for me to redeem this aspect of my life and let myself love Mom in a way that honors her for all the good she did despite the other. Because as a single mom in the 70’s with no help from our father or from the government and working for less that two dollars an hour in a field where she was regularly disrespected, objectified, sexually harassed and even stalked, Mom raised two young daughters in a clean home with food, heat and music. I was never spanked or physically punished or made to feel physically unsafe or in danger of being harmed in my home. I had regular dental care and eyeglasses and had a fashionable, although limited, wardrobe. Mom attended every school event and extracurricular activity in which I participated and although I did not know this until she died, I fully believe, without any doubt, she loved me to the best of her ability and sometimes beyond.
This is my favorite picture of my mom. When I was a child I would look at this picture and think “this beautiful kind looking woman is my mom” and found a sense of comfort in this. Not in a conscious way, of course, but in a child’s self-soothing fantasy way, if that makes any sense.
I remember Mom telling me many times over the course of my life that I reminded her of herself. It was only after she died and I had a chance to see the secret life she kept hidden for so long that I fully realized how hard she worked to hide her real self from others. And that realization, while so very very late in coming, is helping me put my childhood into a different paradigm and reconstruct from there. Today, in terms of my relationship with Mom, my biggest regret is NOT that my mom didn’t love me the way I needed while I was growing up but is instead that I, not knowing what I know today, wasn’t able to love her the way she needed as she was growing old. I’m glad I had those weeks I spent taking care of her in the nursing home before she died. I’m grateful I stayed mostly present throughout that time and was able to remain steady and consistent for her when she needed it the most. I’m thankful to have those memories despite the taint of her impending death throughout them. I wrote about Mom after visiting her grave for the first time after she was buried and I think that time, while writing about it, was the first time I really cried from the feeling of her missing from my life; despite the weeks that had passed since her death. If you’re interested in reading that original post, you can find it here.
I think, as I consider my current mindset and my intentions to move forward in a way that promotes a healthy approach to living every second well, I’m going to work hard to just summarize the darkness from the part of my life that is Mom with this one letter. Not to dishonor her memory or place shame upon her in order to justify my own past egregious behavior and the path of destruction behind me, but to provide you with a description of the mental illness I battle today and the events of my yesterdays that brought me to the place on the path on which we have met. And from there, I think I’ll leave grace and forgiveness as a place marker for Mom in the story of me. There is no more space, time or energy left in my journey to carry this darkness with me and I appreciate the opportunity to share this last discourse of it with you. Sometimes in sharing a piece of darkness from our journey with someone else it can be transformed into light to illuminate our path and perhaps the path of another. And what a beautiful redemption that would be for my story of Mom. I hope that from this letter you find the little strings of light I’ve found that have helped me make sense of my journey in a way that helps you make sense of yours; as that would bring me a joy in having exchanged this energy for good so that it may rest…maybe for all of us.
I’m enclosing in this letter a journal entry from a couple of weeks ago. I surprised myself when I found these words because suddenly I had the ability to explain what it felt like to be me in a way I’ve always needed but could never do for anyone; much less myself. But suddenly I could… And as I wrote these words, I was also reading them also. And my explanation was revealed to me one word at a time, by me to me, as I read what I was writing. My existence is truly surreal.
My Mother Told Me So
It all started with me being to told to “act like a good girl.” From a very young age, I have been living life as if on a stage; pretending to be me. Acting like a good girl; with “good” clearly reinforced as something I was not but could only pretend to be.
From the time I was three years old, my mom was essentially my only parent. She was the one who, very successfully, provided me with the basic necessities a developing human needs to grow and survive. So, as my therapist has helped me understand about the chemistry and development of the young developing brain, my mind keyed in on pleasing Mom, by “acting good,” as a basic need for survival. This was not an accurate wiring or instruction set for my developing mind, as I’m certain my mom would have provided for my physical survival no matter what. But I believe my developing emotional side, or inherent social need to belong and be accepted, was responsible for creating this errant chemical wiring prior to my developing any higher level logical thinking that would have recognized it wasn’t needed. And from there, to put it mildly, things just went kinda wonky.
I have come to think of it like a complicated computer program (since that is my trained profession). If you have an error in your second line of code it may not show up or cause any problems at all as you test your program in the very beginning. After 200 more lines of code it will start causing small “quirky” errors but nothing serious and you’ll just overlook them and hope they don’t show up again. But once you start testing after 500, 1000 and even 20,000 or more lines of code, you will start seeing more serious errors that really threaten the integrity of the whole program. And finding a line 2 error with this much code is almost next to impossible, so you write mini programs (or routines) that take the errors and correct them; a bandaid solution for what is becoming an increasingly unstable system. An your unstable system with its bandaid-ed parts may actually limp along for quite a while in a full production setting if everything else is well written and otherwise mostly sound. But at some point, with that error in the fundamental second line of code, as the environment and data needs change, those bandaids will fail off and that program is gonna blow the fuck up.
From an early point in my life through present day, anytime something traumatic has happened to me in my life (with traumatic having many definitions in the workings of my mind), I have splintered off into a new role and just “acted” out a new me, being good. It isn’t that I want to be fake, or the center of attention (as one is bound to appear if pretending to be someone they’re not) or that I want to reinvent myself into someone different over and yet over again. In fact, I was never aware I was reinventing myself. I just thought I was changing my mind about everything, all at once, all the time and that I had a serious impulse control problem because I was constantly doing things I didn’t want to do. I, quite simply, just thought I was “bad.”
I also explained my “quirkiness from the error in line 2” as blackouts from stress when I wouldn’t remember days at a time or would wake up with messages written to myself on various parts of my body in sharpie or find responses to (regrettable) text messages I didn’t remember sending or (even worse) find the person lying next to me. I just thought I was a really shitty bad person – a perception that I had since the beginning of my having any perceptions at all. It seems almost impossible, on the other side of my understanding of how my mind has been operating these past 45+ years, to believe I never realized what was actually going on but I’ve come to fully understand what is meant by the expression “reality is just a construct.” Because yes. Fuck yes, it is!
Up until recently, I have had only one definition of me that I believe has always been genuinely authentic. In this authentic definition (or “version”) of me, I’m somewhere around 5 years old and my name is Little One. I get in trouble a lot. I’m angry and I’m scared. I carry an almost tangible weight of the guilt and shame of dirty secrets I can’t quite remember but for which I’m ever alert for being discovered. I act out and I like to scream, punch things and make myself feel pain. I hit myself on the head and everything I touch is slammed, squeezed and slammed as hard as possible. I cannot do simple math. I am impatient and sometimes I’m borderline cruel with animals. I cannot remember the fundamentals of driving and have to remind myself that “green means go” and “white is on right” as I drive along perpetually lost. I have no aptitude or patience for computers and technical gadgets. I don’t like to be around others and will always be hidden or in the process of seeking a place where I can hide. I have the appearance of having an underbite from (what I believe) are tightly clinched jaws and my brows are always furrowed; giving me the appearance of looking out and upward from under my forehead like I’m fixing to head butt anything and anyone that gets in my way. Little One has a very distinct appearance and personality. Despite this distinctiveness, up until recently I thought Little One was just a very weird mood I would get into once in a while.
For obvious reasons, Little One isn’t well equipped to handle the traumatic events for me in a way that represents me well. As an exchange in assuring my survival, my mind has learned how to help me by responding to sudden adrenaline bursts (my fight or flight instinct) with a character change; pulling up a different version of me to handle the situation – effectively allowing me to flee while still keeping Little One hidden. While this initially made me feel like a piece of fraudulent histrionic shit when I was figuring this out in therapy, my (very kind and very good) therapist helped me see that this was learned as a young child and programmed into my mind as a basic survival skill, like running away or jumping to avoid an incoming threat. I do not consciously deploy this “switching” skill in the moment but my mind decides for me a switch is needed and takes over and does the thinking for us to keep us safe.
So for the most part, throughout my life, I’ve kept myself safe or “good” by acting out good characters and switching up characters as needed to survive interactions with others and be seen as “good” from their perspective. And for many years I was able to pull this off without a lot of people noticing when I got confused or failed to stay in the right character for the right persons or situations. And sometimes “I” would lose days and sometimes weeks and even months; experiencing a strange sudden sensation of awareness that time has passed without me and I am waking up from a dream that I can’t really remember and then realizing it wasn’t a dream at all. These times, I have learned, are when I have switched from a character or “alter” with whom I share a extremely low (or no) level of co-consciousness.
When I “wake up” from these absences, I’m left scrambling to try and piece together what has happened, how long I’ve been gone and what I need to know in order to not let anyone know that I haven’t been there. And amazingly, in the past when I was piecing together the information I needed to resume my conscious participation in life from the driver’s seat (as opposed to the trunk), I don’t remember ever wondering “where the hell did I go” and “who the hell was here while I was gone?” Instead I remember an overwhelming sense of shame for having been absent and fear of being discovered as a fraud; another example of a constructed reality that defies all logic and blithely somersaults over every possible explanation in order to arrive at the solid landing of “I am bad and that is the reason for everything.”
But as scary and disorienting as my “blackouts” are to experience, the most confusing and embarrassing moments have been when I’m suddenly Little One. And I know when I am Little One because I am still present and experiencing being me but I am no longer in control of myself. Instead I “watch myself” speak and behave with the emotional IQ of an angry young girl who, from what I have been told and the little bit I can remember, had some serious signs of trauma and the behavioral issues to go along with it. I am, as I learned at reunions, responsible for deposits of pencil lead still present in the skin of my early childhood schoolmates. Apparently I was a very stabby 5 year old.
Today, when I am suddenly shocked, frightened, angered or otherwise triggered into Little One, my behavior will be that of a 6 foot, 200 pound, stabby 5 year old who has 49 years worth of pent up fear and rage within her. And when in the midst of shear rage, much to my adult embarrassment from the passenger seat, I will speak in the angriest adolescent voice imaginable. This is, I have hypothesized, one of the reasons for my anxiety in public and resulting years of agoraphobia. I am, quite literally, scared sometimes to go out because I’m worried people will piss me off and, if Little One shows up in response, I’ll either be stabby and punchy or yell at them like a child.
I honestly worry more about the “punchy” side of Little One because she hasn’t gotten stabby with sharp objects since the pencil incidents from grade school. But her words become extra sharp and mean in order to get others to back off and leave her alone so she can hide and, if not yet threatened to the point of speaking in an adolescent voice, the words will sound like mine. It still hurts my heart to think of some of the things I’ve heard come out of my mouth while Little One was in the driver’s seat and my children were the ones she was trying to scare away. I am so grateful to her for letting me ride in the passenger seat beside her, for never getting punchy with my babies and for listening to me when I tell her get away from my children and others. It’s just very recently that I’ve realized that, despite being in the passenger seat, it is me who is directing Little One to disconnect from others, to disappear, to take some Xanax, to put her head on a pillow and to sleep. Little One always, no matter what, always needs a nap. And when the nap is over, I wake up in the driver’s seat once again.
Litle One, c. 1976
This is a grade school picture that always made me feel guilty because in it, I was caught being the real me and therefore not “good”. I remember being given the picture packet in class to take home and being worried my mom would be mad at me for ruining the picture. I imagine the photographer told me to smile and then settled for this clenched jaw grimace. Is it just me or do my eyes look stabby?
As I mentioned early, like all of my parts with whom I have co-consciousness, up until very recently I thought Little One was just a mood I would get into sometimes. It was an equally upsetting and helpful breakthrough in therapy when I realized Little One was an alter and, for the first time, switched in and out of a dissociative state in front of my therapist. I normally wouldn’t have kept my appointment with her because I was in the “mood” that always meant I should go home and take a nap, But I/we decided to go in and let her see me/us in that mood and it was a life changing moment. When I walked into her office, I remember feeling like I as being fake as my mouth said “I’m Little One” and felt the flush of shame for being seen.
I remember feeling so odd as I walking into the inner office and had to tell myself where we normally sat and remind myself that the therapist was a friendly; that it was ok, that I was safe. I remember feeling so uncomfortable as my therapist introduced herself to Little One and spoke to her directly while I listened and fought the other voices telling me I was faking it. The experience was, quite frankly, terrifying as, after my therapist had spoken to me as Little One for most of the hour, I suddenly felt my stabby tantrum throwing “mood” leave me and my therapist told she saw the physical change occur. But as upsetting and humbling as that experience was, each breakthrough that teaches me something about mysel(ves) that I didn’t know before brings me a little further out of the fog of cognitive dissonance and constructed reality and one step closer to finding the integrated Me. And for this reason, I welcome any number of painful, confusing and humbling breakthroughs.
As a result of not having a sense of self throughout most of my life, I haven’t had a moment when I have felt truly authentic and real, except for my brief appearances as a raging child who needs a nap and must stay hidden. I’ve been playing the part of me being a good girl; like my mother told me to every time we were to be in the presence of anyone else. Each time I have been forced out of one of my roles or imaginings of me, I also splinter off from any pride in what I had done well within that imaging. If it has a good thing about me that I have done or become along the way while in that role, it is left behind as part of the role I was playing; as I am inherently bad and therefore couldn’t do good or be good. In other words, I have carried forward all of my shame as being authentically a part of who am and have left behind all of my pride as the props and by-products of the roles I was playing when the source of the pride was created. I was so dedicated in carrying forward shame from my “performances,” sometimes I would even take on the shame of others who wronged me and felt bad for them because, obviously, had I been a real good girl and not a pretend one, they wouldn’t have to feel guilty about wronging someone who didn’t really deserve to be treated right. In other words, I felt guilty for making them feel guilty (which they probably didn’t in most cases) because I didn’t consider myself worth their guilt! Even as I write this, I struggle to keep this in focus as it is so far outside of what seems logical.
In lamenting the loads of shame I have brought forward, I am not claiming to not have my own legitimate guilt to carry. Because even when filtering out the shame that wasn’t mine to own, I am still left with a load that feels insurmountable in clearing on my way to my exit from this life. I have not worked through this guilt and shame but I have worked through the logic that allows me to acknowledge and accept it as mine without letting the sheer magnitude of my catalogue of “People I have fucked over” lock me into the paradigm of believing I am genuinely and fundamentally the bad person I’ve always thought I was. And the logic all boils down to a variable that has remained fairly constant as I’ve worked through the “proofs of my madness” over the past couple of years: Authenticity. When not authentically connected to anyone at all, even one’s self, it is impossible to experience true connection and therefore empathy. Characters playing a role have no loyalty to their supporting actors once the play is over and I have coldly disregarded and discarded genuinely kind, loving and invested people when they no longer served the purpose of supporting a pretend me. I have been, much to my horror, a textbook narcissist; unintentionally but realistically all the same. Maybe, if I run out of time before I am able to make my amends to those to whom they are most certainly owed, my story will somehow reach them and they’ll know karma found me in a way that made me a better person before I left, that I am genuinely grieved in knowing how horribly I treated them and I can only pray they will forgive me for the hurt that I have caused them in this life.
While I may not have the time to open all of my boxes and reconcile all of my wrongs in the time I have left, I am old-testament-drop-to-my-knees-and-throw-dirt-on-my-head-while-wearing-a-sackcloth grateful that I am being given the chance for meaningful reconciliation and atonement for the things I have done to hurt the hearts, lives and feelings of my children. Throughout their childhood I considered myself a great mom because I was very intentionally expressive in my unconditional love and approval of them; an obvious reflection of what I never received but always needed from my own mother. However, despite my good intentions and confidence at the time that I was doing right by my children, I have become increasingly aware of how significantly they both struggle as a adults as a direct result of things I said or did and decisions I made impacting them while they were growing up. But the process overall has been bittersweet; because you see, one of the greatest joys of this has been giving myself permission to believe the two children I carried and gave birth to are truly mine! My disconnect and cognitive dissonance in denying my own reality was so well tuned, I had managed to put doubt into my own mind about whether or not I was really my children’s mother – because they were so good; they couldn’t have come from me, they deserved better than me, I should feel ashamed to even try to claim them as my own. My mother told me so…many times in a variety of ways since I had become a mother. But my heart swells each time I let myself really believe now. These incredible, kind, beautiful, caring, genuine and GOOD humans are from me! My heart, my heart…my chest cannot contain my heart!
I’ve taken this writing sabbatical so that I can study myself and find a way to capture the thoughts and the things I have to say in a meaningful way. Even if nothing becomes of what I manage to extract from the whirlwind that is my mind as I navigate this intense existential experience, I know instinctively that I need to make space in my mind before I can continue healing and in order to make space, I must write. And as a bonus to clearing out space for healing, I will also become more efficient in my healing as writing gives me documentation and more clues and breadcrumbs to find my way back to myself when I get “lost” and I won’t lose so much precious time retracing my steps and rediscovering the same things over and over.
I’m not sure yet how I will extract these stories and actually find the creative flow that will allow me to write in a way that is stream of consciousness and unedited; as that will be the only way I will be able to keep up with myself, regardless of my fast typing skills! But I know in my heart I’m in the perfect place to figure it out and get started on whatever it is that I need to do to get the river of words flowing. I’m here on the beautiful coast with the emerald waters and white sand; watching the sunsets, walking on the beach and allowing myself to be in quiet contemplation in a place where no one knows me. This has allowed me some much needed space to avoid circumstances where others project upon me and the temptation to project back to them. It’s giving me a chance to dig a little deeper and become acquainted with my parts and the memories they carry and the trauma (or reason) they became a part of me.
As I recently described it to my sister, this integration of my Self is the biggest intellectual undertaking I can remember ever having taken on; a huge logic puzzle with (sometimes shocking) emotional booby traps. For years I’ve mourned the loss of my career and the years spent in higher education to build that career. Now I can see those were not lost but are my craftsman’s tools; more essential to my survival now than when they earned me the really nice income I enjoyed before that car accident and TBI that left me a little short-handed on my “stage crew” and…well that’s a whole other story. But with smoke from my brilliantly exploded career still hanging vaguely in the sky behind me, my education in systems and systems integration and experience in project management on point, I’m navigating this part of my journey like a boss. My biggest failures from the past have become the perfect keys to unlock the doors through which I must pass in order to master this life and this existence. How beautifully poetic is that shit right there?