The Weight

He was never tasked with picking us up from anywhere and truthfully I don’t remember if on this occasion, we were coming or going. What I do recall was, he couldn’t see the road. Katie and Reid were oblivious in the back seat of the Isuzu looking small, bright and cute. Katie was wearing a purple hooded, Spring jacket and lavender corduroys just big enough for an American doll. She would never reach 5 feet and to this day gets mistaken for a kid. The curls dangling from her side pony declared she was the baby. There was never a question our father adored her. Before she could speak she’d expressed a palette for exotic foods, going fast and having a charming daring streak; all traits our father shared. When she’d reached furniture monkey age, she’d make her way across the room grasping the rocker, a make-shift lobster trap table and the sofa with chubby, determined fists all to request a bite of sardines and Tabasco on saltines. He’d laugh tears both because she was impossibly adorable and no one had ever seen a toddler work so hard for tinned fish. “Oh! My Baby Face!”  If you want to see a living definition of joy, look at my sister. Both she and my father have a distinct, slightly devilish laugh which always made me simultaneously curious and cautious. His nickname for our brother is Bummer. In the same ways Katie could become distracted by her own excitability our brother could get sidetracked by his blues. He’d been born a preemie and had to live at the Shriner’s hospital on and off the first year. He fit in a shoe box. Our mother barely looked pregnant while carrying him and probably smoked. Her doctor was a yogi with a playful ease about him and would tell her to anti-stress. He also made thoughtful eye contact with me, as if he could see me, which no other person I knew then could do. He made her drink beer to slow her contractions and stop labor from coming, which she said probably bought her an extra month. Reid came 4 years after me. At first I insisted we send him back to Jesus but quickly adjusted and took over as big sister once his lungs finished growing. Anyway, I declared them mine for a hundred reasons. There was never a question I was assigned to be their watch-keeper. No one dumped them in my lap like some burden. I saw them come into the world, had figured out some important do’s and don’ts and felt like I should probably keep an eye out for them. My hunch was right.

Realizing he couldn’t see where he was going, he pulled over. The truck had the pancake syrup smell which I’d grown to use as a warning to pay attention. It was unconscious; my heart would start beating inside my belly and somehow my ears, eyes and skin would open higher. We were just outside an overpass next to some off-road construction. The hi-way was flanked by banks of white pebble, rock walls dotted with weathered hay bales. Across the 6 lanes was the little blue box building where we dropped off the electric payment and if you kept going down that side there was the gross chain restaurant that smelled like warm potatoes and old coffee. Eventually you’d hit the CVS plaza which also had our old dentist and the Carvell’s. When we moved to the second house on Park Place, Tattro would come by with the all the guys and along with my dad they’d clambake the living room. The biggest guy with the long braid, goggles and leather vest would take us on his motorcycle to pick out an ice cream. Across from the CVS plaza was King’s Department store where mom had worked cutting blinds. Next to that was Mezzaluna, the birthplace of casomorphins. One night after driving home with their pizza box warming the tops of my legs I’d declared that when I grew up I’d eat pizza every night for the rest of my life. You said it too. It’s now the funniest joke I’ve ever told.

Katie and Reid followed our father up the side of the road walls. The part closest to the overpass was still partially grassy. The hay bales were bigger than my sister but she tried picking them up anyway. We used them for target practice at Meme’s so the whole notion wasn’t entirely crazy but I just kept picturing my brother and sister falling backwards down the steep hill into rushing traffic. I paced between gesturing to retrieve hay, watching our father attempt to sober up (or drink more? there was a thermos and he was perched against the bumper) or looking into passing windshields for a helpful face. To the best of my knowledge no one ever heard about this particular pit-stop.

The recurring dream went like this: we’re inside Papa’s grey box car, the responsible one which smells like peppermint and new car and gives me migraines. It’s moving down the hi-way to Cumberland by my will and the three of us are floating around inside the cab. I’m trying to take the wheel but can’t get inside my body long enough to be in control. We’re passing by the exits and I forget the number we need. I can’t make us safe but it’s all I want to do.

Safety is an illusion anyway. At some point I gave up trying to stave off real dangers and took up a battle of my own. It wasn’t a declaration or acceptance of powerlessness, but instead an active avoidance. It gave me something to do besides facing the reality of how much danger there’d been. I re-tell the snapshots in bite sized memories even to myself.Being any size other than small indicated a lack of self-possession,  financial and sensory gluttony and something about sleaze. Weight became this symbolic burden of all the real things I feared; losing things I never retained and not wanting to stop and mourn them in front of a potentially invalidating audience. Sobriety is not a guarantee of encountering an authentic person. We each find unique ways of hiding from ourselves and each other; my father drank, my mother worked and saved. I favored going hungry. Compulsions and pathologies are never groundless though we’ve been enculturated to prefer partitioning the mind from the body. Isolation is a genius marketing tool.Division is the politician’s best friend.

There were reasons my father drank himself into parallel dimensions while my mother nursed abandoned babies and befriended ‘transvestites’ long before it had social currency. (Her name was Kathy; she wore Levi’s cut-offs, Dr. Scholls, carried  a purse full of unfinished crossword puzzles and had a full-on, Magnum P.I mustache. She and my mother would chat like any other pair of girlfriends on the sidewalk in front our project block. Kathy would also sometimes be the recipient of a frozen lemonade, along with the other kids, if the ice cream truck stopped by on a full change-bucket day. She ate her treat with dainty, furry hands and endearing, child-like gratitude.) There were reasons they both worked 7 days a week across multiple jobs while using night time for hunting, planting or sewing. There were reasons my mother insisted she just keep going and avoided having surgery until one of her major organs fell out. Hi. I’m your bladder. You should stop now. We all carry things we’d prefer to avoid mostly because we don’t know what to do with them; like 3 kids, genetic cellulite, feelings, socially unacceptable personal histories, rejections, failures, losses. I notice there are some things we carry which we’ve yet to name, things that feel disturbing but we don’t know how to explain it or who to try and describe it out loud to. We fear the weight of shame on top of the weight of pain.

Everything I never eat is one less thing I have to carry or pay for; like memory or sin. Compassion and forgiveness made it possible to take the first bite; the bites that made my hair grow back, turned my on ovaries, shed the lanugo and allow me sleep through the night. To my west coast neighbors it’s not considered anything for a grown woman to maintain a body fat percentage under 20. Three cheers. Go you. You could lose more. I may be slightly and forever irked by the reality that we even dare have opinions about each other, considering life. The truth is I’ve found myself in a current state of ambivalence; give in, pull through. It tuns out, the same reasons we once used to hold on are the ones we rediscover and use to let go. untitled-48

 

6 thoughts on “The Weight

  1. It’s interesting how the baggage we carry can be different and yet the same. Baggage is baggage and that overwhelming sense of being responsible for another person(s) is somehow unknowingly placed on us by the ones around us, whether they were aware of it or not. You have a wonderful way with words.

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  2. This is just amazing. It’s really profound when someone writes things how they were, rather than the socially acceptable script. And you can tell it’s real because the cover stories we use are never this complete and detailed and they never connect humanly the way this does.

    When I was in my early thirties – a decade before I went no contact – I consulted a domestic violence specialist therapist about my visits to my parents, which disturbed me on several levels: It disturbed me how they treated me, and it disturbed me more that I kept going back on regular visits despite that and despite my traumatic and isolated childhood, and it disturbed me that I seemed to have this subconscious fantasy that on *this* visit everything would suddenly be hunky dory, and that it would be like waking up and realising it had all been a bad dream. I remember she drew a diagram partitioned into four – different aspects of the self, and the one that perplexed me then was “the hidden self” – the other three made sense. She also said to me again and again, “If you could just stay with your own feelings, then a lot of this would work out better for you.”

    Back then I actually had real problems identifying and expressing feelings around the abuse and neglect fallout. In everything else I was emotionally literate but this one area escaped me somehow. She’d say, “How did that visit feel for you?” and I’d say, “I wish they’d treat me decently.” And she’d say, “That’s not a feeling, that’s a statement, here’s a feeling wheel, can you pick from that?” and I knew what the words on that meant and could apply them to other situations, but with this situation I just went into this brain freeze and articulation of my feelings about it were actually locked out. Isn’t that a trick and a half! So that was my hidden self, the one I got to know when everything started spilling out ten years later, when the faceless nightmares suddenly came with faces and memories and I got diagnosed with CPTSD. But back then, I couldn’t get to, “Well, I feel cheated, I feel lonely, I feel sad, I feel angry, about how my family treated me as a child and how they’ve treated me ever since.”

    I’d been conditioned to ignore my feelings around abusers – like you say, to say anything would just pile additional shaming on top of the pain. It was very effective and long-lasting conditioning. I had to do a lot of reasoning because I couldn’t work with feelings, and of course reasoning goes around in circles a lot while you’re trying to see both sides of the story and work out what is spin, this side or that or both sides? Feelings, now that I have access to those particular ones around that kind of situation, are actually so much simpler. It’s a warning bell, it says, “I am now uncomfortable.” And that’s a cue to take action, not to sit there second guessing or pretending it’s not real. It actually is really simple when you see feelings as useful information for how you should act. Revelations like “I feel uncomfortable around these people, and actually I don’t have to have them in my home.”

    It’s kind of forehead-smacking territory, isn’t it? Did you have aha moments like that in understanding what had gone on in your early life? How much was hidden from you at the start? How did you manage to find it?

    It’s always so ridiculous how obvious things are in hindsight, when you can actually see them.

    In your piece above I found that reaction to smell you describe very evocative – the “red alert” trigger. It’s an awful feeling to be in so much danger around people who are supposed to be looking after you. I had similar feelings when being a passenger to my father (and in many other situations, which taught me again and again as a kid that I could not rely on others). He wasn’t alcoholic (interestingly his brother was), but he thought the rules of physics somehow didn’t apply to him and that he was the best driver in the universe. The last time I drove with him he was going around blind corners on a country road, on the wrong side of the road, and when I pointed it out to him he’d say, “Don’t worry, I’m a good driver, nothing has ever happened to me.” …have you ever seen that bumper sticker, “Denial is not a river in Egypt”?

    Wishing you a super-decent day!

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    • Hi Sophie. Your comments and questions remain a welcomed and thoughtful gift. First, I’m sorry for what you had to experience but glad you had what sounds to have been a good therapy and a boatload of personal resilience. The diagram you describe sounds a lot like Johari Window which is so wild because I actually posted about it on a different social media this morning. Those parts unknown are tricky and yes I can very much relate. As I was reading your comment I was thinking about the heightened senses of children in dysfunctional or unsafe families. Given what I’ve come to understand about our powerful neurological programming to attach to our parents it makes sense that we’d have a near impossible time calling out their behavior bad, going no contact or acknowledging they hurt or scared us. Our ego views relational separation or rejection as death so until we can form a healthy secure of self (and an engaged accessible frontal line) outside of the family we cling, linger and revisit again throughout our life in some cases because, unless we’re a narcissist ?? we might always doubt our self worth?? It struggle to abandon higher brain thinking for corrective emotional feeling. I don’t know. That’s my wonder. I worked with adults who’d suffered horrific abuse from parents and they still expressed a longing for relationship even if they’d committed to staying away or their parent had passed away. And then 1000 variables for personality, biology and circumstances.
      I felt responsible from a very strangely young age. And would agree the gifts of adversity are indeed compassion and gratitude, although I connected more with compassion after making all my giant grown up mistakes haha. I love my parents and truly believe they did their best. As for the ah-has and forgiveness that’s a whole new post! Haha. I hope you’ve had a fantastic day too!

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    • ps: I assure you this happened. I don’t say that to further expose truth but rather to affirm my reality and writing. Yesterday there was some post about life in poverty which had supposedly gone viral on HuffPost (which is its own tragedy) and the author stated in fine print on another site,it was made up. People were taking it as poverty gospel. I was a little heated. Fiction is fine but not when it’s sold as fact. There are already too many thoughtless misconceptions about poverty. Ok ok I’m done 😉

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  3. That’s fine, a good rant like that is a wholesome thing! 🙂 I tend to jump up and down when I’m ranting in real life, must be those Italian genes.

    It’s really interesting reflecting on what you’ve said in your longer initial response above. I am now getting why organised support groups around certain types of trauma are a really good idea for people trying to climb out of these things. As a young person I had two options – tell cover stories and turn a blind eye to all that stuff, or actually open up about it to friends and typically wear out the friendships! It’s like leprosy in a way. (In hindsight I also think that the friends I had early on tended to have judgemental and punitive streaks in them too, which my friends these days do not… you know, learning to make real friends etc. But still, when you’re young and you get a chance to talk about this sort of thing with someone you tend to bleed an awful lot all over the carpet because there is so much to deal with and you’re only just starting to deal with it. It was so consuming for me that I found it hard to get off it once I had started and then I felt like a leper.)

    Your profession is a gift indeed for people trying to find which way is up (provided they get a good example of the profession!).

    That thing about separation equating death on one level is so interesting. (Cue people’s first romantic breakups and lots of pop song themes!) I’ll tell you something ironic though. I kept diaries as a teenager and became very aware on a rational level (the bit that wasn’t broken and was getting lots of exercise) that the things my parents were doing were objectively wrong. I also had a bit of existential re-parenting when I discovered the gospels and the ethic in them, and that was also telling me my parents were really wrong about how they went about things. I had an awakening, and my sense of self was radically rearranged at that time by a belief in a just and loving God who treasured me and wanted to help me grow as a person, and who could see all these injustices that were happening in my family and the wider universe and who didn’t twist the truth. So I was very intellectually aware of that and very outspoken about it, at high school, even though my personal feelings weren’t all functional on that level and tended to express themselves by proxy, when other people were in similar situations – then I could have steam coming out of my ears on their behalf. And indeed, I left home at 16 because of all this, it was just untenable. But after that is when the rot set in, I think. I was feeling so guilty and so rotten and like I was a bad person. And then within a year I wanted to reconcile with them, you know that old fantasy – now all will be good. Had I had enough other support at that time I think I might have resisted that idea, but one of the things about dysfunctional families is that you tend to grow up very isolated, with very few supports. The university therapist was not enough, they didn’t replace an entire support network of positive people, and you can’t buy those things on e-bay! 😉

    And all through the quarter century I tried to reconcile with my family, my memories were getting suppressed again in order to let me do it…

    Here’s a really apt verse from a song by someone with funny sunglasses:

    You think it’s easier
    To put your finger on the trouble
    When the trouble is you
    And you think it’s easier
    To know your own tricks
    Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do

    And also in PS to my cup of tea type epistle, all the very very best with your writing endeavours spreading their wings further. They will! Right time, right place sort of thing. Not only is your stuff as objectively good as Frank McCourt’s, but it is also very constructive and instructive, as well as being ripping poetic prose. I just got distracted when epistling due to other half coming in! 😉

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