We broke into pieces slowly, like an uncovered cake drying out for weeks on a counter. I’d say the crumbling began after he’d admitted to starting the fire in our apartment. It took a while to accept it as truth given the erosion of safety I’d been avoiding most of my adult life. I’d been brave enough to examine portions of the past for the sake of putting meat back on my bones; though most of that first recovery was spent in re-feeding, learning to hold eating utensils again, taking bites of real sandwiches without gagging or crying. As my marriage eclipsed into fragments of memory all my prior, unsorted, history resurfaced in the glaring Gulf Coast sun. How I ended up moving from the White Mountains to Florida is another story but it turned out to be an appropriate place to die and get reborn. Pink flamingoes, sequins, Parrot Heads, eternal summers; nothing of substance and no reminders of seasonal traditions to heighten the sting of failing at love. I spent the first Christmas at Busch Gardens riding roller coasters with a beloved auntie I hadn’t seen in decades. I’d lost 20 lbs., my ability to sleep and most all rational thinking. The waking panic showed up the first day of the new job; my chin had erupted in acne since I was now chain smoking after being quit for over 6 years. Add divorce, moving to a new state, starting a new job and walla! I was hideous and meeting hoards of new people everyday including the fancy hospital president who looked like a cartoon superhero with his former beauty pageant, 8 foot tall, capped-tooth sidekick (incidentally she was bulimic; her face framing layers couldn’t hide the chipmunk cheeks from a schooled pro), nursing staff and a full caseload. On top of that there was this new disease sweeping the nation called the Swine Flu. I had to sign umpteen legal waivers to avoid taking all the inoculations but still spent the first week getting one needle stick after another. Every sickness known to the human race was being graphically reviewed with me by nurses who couldn’t understand why I was crying. I’d call my boss before each vaccine for assurance that it wouldn’t ‘give me anything’ or have uncontrollable side effects and she would, as she’d done for years when we worked together in Boston, laugh out loud and tell me “You’re fine! You’re fine! You’re fine!” I’ve always found it helpful when people can laugh at my crazy and still hold me in integrity. The honesty helps bring down my anxiety. I’d been praying about it; negotiating with God that I’d return to the field, take the grown-up hospital job, even wear heels, if He promised never to leave my side.
It’s not that I forgot I was a hypochondriac, control freak with social anxiety it’s just the effects were dampened by the preoccupation of trying to get my husband to love me. During those 12 years I shifted at least some of my compulsive energies onto him, my 4 jobs and whatever new expectation his mother might have for us. Following a series of elective surgeries she suggested I become her housekeeper since it was obvious we needed the extra money. She was still giving Pal a clothing allowance, which I later discovered went to free-basing. Not being good at math worked to everyone’s advantage; it never made sense why we didn’t have anything, but I’d never had anything before, so I assumed it was normal or additional proof that I was stupid and worthless. Since I still didn’t have a driver’s license I was also directing energy towards mapping out destinations before iPhones. Sometimes I even smiled and thought my life was pretty great. We’d opened two pizzerias with money from Pal’s inheritance, took trips with his family, established routines, made friends and filled several photo albums and scrapbooks with camping trips, weddings, funerals, inside jokes and birthday cards that said ‘I love you’. I’d done a good job of constructing an admirable reality. There was no mention of everything missing from our relationship; fighting about dates that never happened, rejected advances for affections, a steady stream of criticisms, insults, and a warehouse of hidden addictions to bury things he never wanted to face. Our albums were like Facebook, I only posted the good stuff. As such, the divorce came as a surprise to many, including my siblings who’d come to idolize him. Not Pal. Everyone’s best friend, the super nice guy. And you moved to Florida? Gross.
I went from being contained, muted, invisible, stocky, dependent and compliant to suddenly having a ‘real’ job, a driver’s license and a size zero pencil skirt. People could see me but I didn’t know who I was yet. I hadn’t claimed ownership of me. That was the real danger probably the whole time. I remember it vaguely the first few weeks of college, still early in my first recovery. I’d gained all my weight back in my face, bum and hair. People stared at me and I hated it. When you’re a skeleton no one sees you, let alone views you as a sex object. Nutritionists prepare you for setting boundaries with food but not with people; both dangerous at first. Other looks were more familiar, though equally distressing evaluations about my clothes or hair. In 5th grade a classmate wrote a story entitled: The Day Liz Stuck Her Finger in the Electric Socket. So, she’s not winning any writing awards but she did paint the picture. I’ve tried over the years to work with it but it’s a willful animal. When I was little my mother would peer over my nest and say, “Good morning Ishka Bibbles. Who are you? What did you do in your sleep? You look like Wreck of the Hesperus.” I liked those nicknames because they helped me picture the tangle of swirls above my forehead in a poetic sort of way. My life is regimented, predictable, consistent, except for the beast on my head. Often people tell me it’s beautiful. Some days they say ‘nice shirt’ instead.
I hated my own reflection, how bright it was in Florida and how I could see all my skin, every pore, every hair, every vein. I hated the short days when the census was low and I got sent home early with time to think about everything I didn’t want to think about. I hated getting asked out. I hated bathing suits and everything underneath them. Pal rarely touched me. We had a therapist who mentioned something about a schedule but all that accomplished was making something I thought it was now okay to want, feel on par with scrubbing a toilet or taking out the trash. One of my new friends compared marriage to Sea World and divorce to the open ocean; swim free wild dolphin! The possibilities of your life are endless! Oh that’s nice. I think I’ll beach myself, thanks. The endless possibilities part felt overwhelming. There were too many choices, too much shit to wrap my head around and I was attempting to fix it all at once. That’s what I always did to feel safe; fixed, cleaned, labeled, intellectualized, smoothed things out. I ran past my real feelings, wants, needs, ideas and just said or did whatever I thought would inflict the least amount of pain, discomfort, conflict or danger. Why yes, please rape me, preferably quickly. I’m guessing if I stop saying no this will feel less like actual rape and more like a blurry, unprotected question. Here, allow me to jump in your lap as a willing volunteer so the other children, likely to mention any of this ‘silly nonsense’ which could lead to more drinking, fighting, screaming, are not picked and also I’m the oldest and will just handle it like I handle everything else. Yes, I like the purple suede skirt and matching neon floral blouse you picked out for 12 year old me who’s actually dying inside having to be seen anywhere in this get-up but we’re poor and I’ve already heard that ‘beggars can’t choosers’. Yes, I’ll help you raise your accidental children. Yes, you didn’t really mean it. Yes, I’ll make dinner again because you’re having an existential drunken crisis and proclaiming you’re leaving the family to pursue your unfinished music career again. Yes, I like everything you liked for me. Yes, I’ll say the right thing to make you feel like a less terrible, selfish, hurtful person. Yes I’ll rescue you from the devastating consequences of your bad choices by lying and pretending I’m fine. Yes, I’m chronically happy. Yes, I don’t like any of this but I’m still complying to avoid any conflict at all costs which is most often the creation of my own life. Yes, I’m terrified. Yes, I’m hiding It. Yes, I don’t know where to begin. Oh and thank you!
Enter the 12 Steps. Step 1: Your life is has become unmanageable. Yes, it was. Why haven’t we met before? Oh that’s right, I refused to consider you as something I needed because my father had the drinking problem, not me. Yes, but you’re codependent. Oh… Right. There are two sides to every coin and I was now ready for change. Do you know why the Steps are so fantastic? They give you something to do besides controlling other people, or creating new obsessions to fixate over. They also stop you from running straight into the arms of your next bad choice. Let me rephrase that, I still ran straight into the arms of my next bad choice at first, but the Steps were like a safety harness and only let me go so far. Imagine a child on a leash secured to a clothesline. The clothesline was my sponsor, the leash was the Steps. When parents have their own unresolved histories it creates gaps in what they can share through parenting. I could only learn what they each knew with regard to navigating life. The rest of the spaces got filled with an eating disorder, perfectionism, accomplishments and my decision to be compliant as part of protecting anything true or real about myself. All the normal vulnerabilities that come with being a growing child, which in healthy circumstances are met with compassionate, informed, constructive witness, I hid, believing those resources were unavailable. The few times I recall my real self or voice escaping, my environment reminded me I was in the middle of a storm so I’d best keep my coat on. As I aged, some of me became an educated, grounded, competent, creative, self-sufficient adult, while other parts of me remained ignorant, frumpy, insecure, whiney, and maybe a helpless, frozen child. The normal world doesn’t expect to encounter a voiceless pre-teen inside the body of a 30 something woman. So naturally, the first time I found myself making out with a hairy chested grown up adult male I had a flashback, instructed him to go, cried hysterically and didn’t leave the house for 24 hours.
I didn’t have the skills for being confidently on my own in the world yet. My mother’s concept of teaching independence was casually encouraging us to “fend for yourselves” before leaving us unsupervised while she worked multiple shifts. It wasn’t a big deal. We ate a lot of cereal, watched Fuzzbucket, built massive pillow forts and more often than not our father wouldn’t disrupt the Fruity Pebbles party until long after we’d locked ourselves into a bedroom or closet for the night. Always one to remind us of silver linings, my mother says we all turned out fiercely independent which is something east coast people tend to pride themselves on. Indeed. I added the neurotic part, but she thinks it’s only because I became a therapist instead of a journalist, which is what she told people the first two years I was in college. My father’s concept of teaching independence was an open invitation to do any drugs we wanted to try, with him first. There were no questions off limits in our house. I appreciated watching Woodstock, Gandhi, Imagine. My parents care passionately for civil rights and equality. Legalize it, don’t criticize it. I’m glad to have been saturated in every kind of music genre imaginable. I don’t, however, recommend getting stoned with your father on Christmas. Maybe skip that one. The thing is, I love my parents for what they taught me; all 3 of them have strong, unique personalities with intentional beliefs and values. My mother’s taught CCD for over 30 years. My dad taught us how to plant a garden, hunt, fish, be frugal, survive in nature and provide for ourselves. I like that my mom sewed, used cloth diapers, baked homemade bread and forbade us to drink soda and eat what she called ‘crap’ which was mostly anything we didn’t grow or catch ourselves. (Until their divorce but then there was no food and I’d pretty much stopped eating by then anyway.) I love that my father insisted I read every book in my schools libraries; Canterbury Tales, the entire collected works of J.R Tolkien, Steven King, The Chronicles of Narnia, a Charlie Brown Encyclopedia set that I won from selling candy bars. He’d quiz me on what I read to be sure I understood not just the text but the subtext, the side text and the index. When we ran out of books he brought home journals and made us read those too. While I was never a fan of NOVA it probably enriched my life to conceptualize the size of the growing universe more than once; enriched my life or gave me migraines. Both. Eye roll. Those were all good, great, beautiful skills and lessons, but like one of my mother’s intricately woven patchwork quilts, through no intentional fault of anyone’s, there were pieces missing. That was my work. Filling in the blanks meant opening the blinds.