It’s a little long, and hastily written in one sitting.
I’ve never said a lot of this publicly before. In a lot of ways I am a very private person. I know, that seems paradoxical – I’ve been spouting off on Twitter since 2008 and have had a blog where I scream into the void for longer than that. But there is SO much I haven’t shared.
I had this awesome dog. His name was Jake. He was 120 lbs of dog that didn’t really know how to dog. He didn’t bark for a year after he was adopted. My (then) husband and I heard a howling sound coming from outside and looked at each other and said, “Jake?!” In hindsight, he was a super easy dog. And I treated him with the same burdened frustration that I was treated like as a child.
One day I was in the kitchen where he wasn’t allowed, and he came around the corner to see what was going on and I yelled at him. I felt like I was watching myself in the third person and had a sudden realization that I was treating him how I was treated as a kid. I didn’t know how else to do it. Yes, he was just a dog, but I had an innate understanding that this is how I would treat my own children, and I refused to allow myself to be inflicted upon others that way. I wasn’t all that self-aware at the time, but looking back that was definitely a glimmer of the beginning of my waking up process.
I felt so bad as I watched him slink out of the kitchen knowing I made him feel badly. It was then and there that I decided that having children wasn’t for me. I told my husband about my decision and at the time he seemed OK with it, but turns out, he wasn’t. I don’t blame him – the rules changed in the middle of the game. He responded by getting a girlfriend before ending our relationship, and that’s his baggage to deal with. It set me free, and for that I am eternally grateful.
I’ve spent the better part of the last 7 years picking apart the wreckage of my life (most of it with the help of a therapist), kind of like how the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigates airline crashes. They rebuild airplanes piece by piece until they understand what happened. Part of me is frustrated that I continue to tell this old story, that I can’t seem to move on from the last 7 years. But they are me, and I am them. As time passes, they help put things into perspective for me, and that is invaluable.
Like tonight. I’m sitting here reading Hillary Clinton’s book (which is DAMN good, BTW), and she talks about how her mother grew up in an incredibly neglectful environment but was still able to raise three children who never felt unloved, and how remarkable that was. I agree. I took a break after that and opened my favorite TIME-WASTING-FEELINGS-AVOIDER, Twitter, and saw this article:
I’ve long said that trauma is passed down from generation to generation.
My mom had a stroke 18 months ago. She was 64, retired from a state job, living independently, and seemingly the happiest I’d ever seen her. I’d always known she was a ticking time bomb. My mom is an alcoholic (that is also generational, and is why I also no longer drink). She hadn’t been to the doctor in 20+ years. The Christmas before her stroke, as my gift I’d asked her to transcribe some of my favorite recipes of hers on cards that I could put in my recipe binder, that way I’d have them in her handwriting. It was as if I knew what was going to happen. I always assumed that my mom would have a heart attack in her 60s since both of her parents had multiple early heart attacks. Nope, she just had a disabling stroke that affected her left side (she’s left handed) and now lives in an assisted living home.
I’d been bracing myself for the day that something finally happened. My therapist helped arm me with tools – have family call the local police department for a welfare check, you don’t need to be the one to find her (my dad found her laying on the floor. I can only imagine…) My therapist used to ask me how I wasn’t mad at my mom and my answer had always been because I didn’t really have one. I recognized as a kid that other people’s moms treated them differently than mine did. When I played sports she would drop me off at games and drive home only to turn around 20 minutes later to come pick me up. She wasn’t involved. I ended up living with my dad full time by the time I was 16. Frankly, by the time of her stroke, we didn’t have much of a relationship. I’d go have dinner with her once every couple months and tell her about my life, but one thing that stands out for me is that I know NOTHING about my mom. NOTHING.
I visited her a few months back and wheeled her outside in her wheelchair so we could sit in the sun and she could feel the breeze on her skin. This is something I still relish after being hospitalized for 6 weeks back in 2010. That feeling never gets old, and I want her to have it too. I sat on a bench next to her and said that I didn’t feel like I really knew her. She scoffed and said, “Well I’m your mom. Of course you know me.” But I told her I didn’t. I don’t know much about her childhood, and what I do know I’ve learned from my aunts and uncles. She asked me what I wanted to know. I felt sad because it felt like there wasn’t enough time to get to know someone who didn’t want to be known in the first place. It was then that I looked at her and felt it.
“Did something bad happen to you as a kid?”
She quickly denied anything happened, brushed me off, and changed the subject.
This summer I spent a weekend with my dad helping him rebuild the deck on his cabin that got torn apart under heavy snow loads last winter. I watched him do what I’ve always known him to do – set something down in the most ineffective place and waste a ton of time and energy looking for things. (To which my therapist wondered aloud if he has ADD when I told her this story…It’s probably also why I am crazy organized.) But the most shocking part of that was the way he spoke to himself. “You idiot. You left the hammer upstairs. You should have grabbed nails when you were in the garage. You’re so dumb! What were you thinking!”
It was as if I was watching the ghost of my grandmother whisper into his ear and hear her words come out of his mouth. That is how she spoke to him as a kid. It was so obvious to me now.
My parents did the best they could with the tools they had, but trauma is generational. It’s only because I’ve done SO MUCH work that I can even see it from the outside like I’ve been able to this summer. My mom’s parents were both in WWII, my grandpa was an Air Force pilot and POW and my grandma was an Air Force nurse. They never talked about the war. My dad’s mom was an Okie from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. I don’t know her well enough to tell her story, but she was not a nice person. I see her trauma in ALL of my aunts and my dad.
I had no idea at the time how deep the tentacles of trauma reached in my life, and not just the inherited generational trauma – I have plenty of my own. At the time I made the decision to not have kids because of my interaction with Jake, all I could understand right then is that it was like looking at the surface of a lake and comprehending that, yes, it was a lake. It’s only been over time as I’ve learned to be able to articulate and name my feelings that I’ve also explored its depths. The lake is three dimensional, in other words. And more is revealed all the time. That night in my kitchen changed my entire life and kicked off a self-quest that seems never ending. This past year is when things have really started to tie together and coalesce in my recovery. It’s why I can sit here tonight and share this story like it’s nothing and you are all close friends, where a year ago this would have been one of the secrets I kept.
Jake + Hillary Clinton’s mom + Intergenerational trauma.
There you go.