Last week I referred to a landslide, a great forcing up of new perspective, but I wrote about only a piece of it.
It’s too much to look at at once, a view too big for the eyes and mind to see. And this act of learning to see myself—with no filters, with honesty, with compassion—has taken decades. How on earth to capture it in a single post? In a month of posts?
And, perhaps more pointedly: Why bother at all?
I excavate my self-excavation in the hope it will support others who have lingering doubts about their worth, their path, who have shame about their flaws and faults and weaknesses. Because I’ve been on this road of forgiving myself for being human so much longer than most.
That process started for me when I was 9 years old. I remember so clearly the first time I failed my mother, the first time she was crying with a pain I didn’t understand. I laid in bed next to her, telling her empty stories of the fourth-grade filmstrip I’d seen that day—native women cooking insects in banana leaves over a fire, babies at their breast—in an attempt to fill the dark and terrifying void I felt expanding between us with something concrete. My mother, whom I needed so desperately, disappearing from me with every tear that rolled down her face.
The logical response to that was, of course, never to have emotional need for anyone ever again.
::insert thumbs-up emojii::
I spent the first half of this year finally attacking the book I’ve wanted to write about my mother almost since that moment. I knew she was a good story. I knew it would be a book that could help people. I knew that I wanted to make her the heroine, and show her for all her brilliance and dynamism and power, as well as tell the story of her pain.
And, apparently, looking at my relationship with my mother as a story was a mode of brilliant self-protection. And so, a journalist and writer was born.
It’s no surprise I knew I wanted to be a magazine editor since fifth grade, magazines being these beautiful, ever-renewing promises to become the person you are holding in your mind’s eye, your best idea of yourself. I instantly recognized those shiny parcels of paper as being vehicles for identity and self-creation—even though I certainly didn’t have those words for it yet.
I wanted to grow up and be untouchable, successful, beautiful. And I wanted my mother to wake up every single day of my childhood and young adult life and see that she could begin again. That her life was amazing, even with its many heartaches. That her children were in some small way meaningful rewards for her sacrifices. That her worth wasn’t attached solely to her broken dreams, gone forever.
I wanted to hand her a shiny idea of who she really was to me, and have her open it up and say “Yes.”
Hindsight being the miracle worker that it is, I therefore should not have been surprised that the book I wanted to write about my mother all these years was not going to be at all possible to write.
Because the book I had been writing since I was nine was a fairytale. I had been mentally crafting the story in which everything turns out all right and that her struggles and absences didn’t wound me. A story in which I come across as a heroine and a teacher, able to be bigger than my mother’s pain, able to precociously forgive her every time she hurt me or I was invisible to her, able to process her complex adult loss and grief as a child, and be a minor miracle myself.
A book in which she was the amazing ball of energy, creativity and ideas she was. A book in which our intense love for each other (and our completely unhealthy fusion, her “engulfment” of me) was unusual and acceptable, honorable even; not the fraught psychologic territory it is. In working on the book this winter, I stumbled across the term “engulfment” in an article about being raised by a parent with borderline personality disorder. I cried for two days afterward, completely undone by having to let go of my determined daughter’s perspective, and finally let in that every. single. thing. I have struggled with (and continue to struggle with) as kid and an adult has threads that tie back to being her daughter.
That’s not the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to talk about my bravery and big heart and achievements and how my successes were simply a reflection of her amazing self. She was an incredible mind and personality. I wanted to tell the truth and forgive her and celebrate her all at the same time.
And I can still do that, yes. But not at all the way I had mentally scripted as the only possible way to survive all that pain. Pain I by and large didn’t feel.
But I’m feeling the pain now. And oh, my god, it is drowning me, sometimes galumphing up behind me and throwing me down on the ground with no external trigger. And then I am lost, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for a day, wondering how it is that I think I deserve to exist—a mind-blowing agony with no root in reality. The onset of this deep pain is giving me an intellectual perspective into all the times I felt utterly blank in my life when I was threatened. This is the pain I was blocking. And any and every time I had to face the feeling of not being enough to love, of not being smart enough to keep pain from knocking on my door, of foolishly allowing myself to need anything, from anybody, the gates of disassociation would come slamming down, without any conscious input from me. The part of me that hurt would just be: gone. And into my rational mind I would go. Where I could be bigger, stronger, more rational, and simply need less from everyone around me.
This is why when, over the years and years of loss and disruption my life has had (really, quite a lot, though please, by most measures no horrific tragedy) and people pay me a compliment by telling me how incredibly “strong” I am, I want to disappear.
Strong wasn’t my choice. Strong was my survival.
I had no idea I was so lonely for so much of my life. But I know now, in those moments of historical emotional recall.
I understand that a lot of people can’t understand twenty years of therapy. I know a lot of people ascribe to the “leave well enough alone and leave it behind you” theory of adaption. I know that so much I write here is probably just absolute nonsense to many.
But I was born with a questioning spirit, deeply curious, and then add to that I was the daughter of two brilliant, creative and interesting people who had deep-seated internal flaws that kept them from being able to get they love they needed from each other. Even though there was a real connection there, that kept them together, despite their abiding unhappiness. (They tried to break up, and discovered that the life they’d built was bigger than their individual grief. But I’m still not sure I would wish that equation on anyone. It was a very hard dynamic to grow up in, and left me pretty hopeless about relationships, making the wrong choices, not knowing how to do the complicated and beautiful dance of supplication that the best relationships have. I was taught that to win is what matters above all, to be the most right, to sacrifice everything for that empty prize.)
I am the highly tuned empath I am because of those flaws and failures of theirs. And I treasure that aspect of my personality. And blame is a pointless and empty posture: We all do the best we can, and that’s all we can do.
But, to my mind, it’s even more honorable if we try to really know ourselves and constantly be in a mode of neutralizing our emotional triggers. To be connected to others in a way that allows for their flaws (“I see your pain”), but that guides them toward self-actualization (“You are not just your pain; I see you, all of you, the need, the ache, the dreams, the wants”). To see people not merely as agents in our life, with a role to play for our happiness, but as their own sovereign nation, with goals that may or may not coincide with mine.
I’ve written before here how this blog is my church, and the more and more I write here, the more I understand why.
My faith—in humanity–lies in all our abilities to be resilient and forgiving, to be detached enough from our own needy desires that we can approach and love and understand other people as very much in their own independent struggle. It lies in the idea that each of us really does want to do and be the best we can, but it’s so easy to get lost. My faith is about being open to pain, even as it lances us, because there are lessons inside it that bring us closer to whatever base truth there is to be had about conscious existence: We are all meant to be exactly who we are. There is no better or other or should have.
And our single most important moral responsibility is to come to know and accept our flaws and weaknesses, and to come to know and accept our friends’ and loved ones’ weaknesses, and then overcome them by being even more open.
To walk forward into the world and say “I will,” “I can,” “I love,” and to not allow ourselves to self-delude, to blame, to shrink away. To let our souls be big and daring and do the work they are meant to do.
And all of that is the beautiful, and yes, ironic, gift my mother taught me. Through forgiving her all the days of my life, she taught me to separate from myself just enough to see others more clearly. She didn’t meant to hurt me. And I didn’t mean to wrap myself up in a fairy tale about what it was really like to be her daughter, the huge emotional battle of seeing myself as separate from her, to forgive myself for failing her, to forgive myself for hating her, leaving her.
She did the best she could. And died angry and confused and withdrawn.
I’m doing the best I can. And I will die at peace with all I have uncovered about who I am and what I have learned about the deep beauty of forgiveness and knowing that I control nothing in this world.
I still don’t like that truth, but that’s what faith is, after all: giving over to the powers that are bigger than you, and tending your own beautiful patch of garden and making it as rich and productive as you can, for the greater good, the good that is bigger than you.
In the end, we can only be exactly who we are.
May each of us be brave enough to submit to this simple truth. And may each of us find our peace within it.
I know I’m trying. My mother never found her peace; her damage may have simply been too big to allow her to work through it.
As for me, the question of whether I’ll be able to forgive myself and finally merge my weak and broken with my strong and loving into a single identity remains open. But I’ve been getting closer for 20-plus years. When you consider the lifespan of the universe, 20 years doesn’t seem like much.
But in the meantime, I’ve fallen in love with that universe and also fallen in love with humanity’s many weaknesses. And I believe that will, in time, allow the most wounded parts of my consciousness to fully love myself, as well.