My mother was in a transitional generation, the girls who went to high school in the mid-fifties and rocked to Elvis and Buddy Holly. They wanted to go to school but there was also the pressure of family and children. They knew some women went to college and there were somewhat glamorous careers like executive secretary, school teachers and librarians –if you were really smart maybe doctor or lawyer but many schools didn’t even allow women into those fields. Scientists had the door open a smidge, after all, the work did have traditional ‘womanly’ chores like making solutions, cleaning lab ware and the long hours, tedious experiments aspect. Even in the 80’s, when women were thriving in scientific research, there was a very low glass ceiling.
So, I saw my mother as awesome, she worked as an executive secretary at Ratheon and later a legal secretary at the Supreme Court, she used the dancing ball Xerox typewriter and could type zillions of words a minute. She wrote in shorthand and could take dictation. Basically, she was one of the women on Mad Men. My dad was a construction worker and a very heavy drinker. He felt humiliated by her ‘work’ -the priest blamed my mother for his drinking and told her to get on her knees to pray for him. When I was in high school my father had drunk his way into unemployment but had enough friends to get disability. His therapists told my mother to quit her job as she was emasculating him. When we talked on the phone, it was clear my mother didn’t agree but was powerless to fight back. She quit her job and settled into the berated homemaker again.
To put my world into perspective, TV offered a pretty accurate portrayal for many of us girls and women: Archie Bunker and Maude, were archetypes of our mothers and for us, it was were That Girl and Mary Tyler Moore. Basically, the world was your oyster if you were pretty and single but if you were married and working you were a pushy bitch. Equal rights and women who wanted to be paid the same as the guys doing less? Not gonna happen. My aunt demanded a salary working in her husband’s office, he refused and she quit -he hired someone –who was paid a salary. My aunt never complained and carried on. So, leaving a dysfunctional, dangerous home to join the Marines at the time, was a smart move for me.
I was amazed at the world outside my immediate family and how we appeared from outside looking in. My sisters were pretty and popular cheerleaders, my Dad often compared them to Barbie dolls. They were not beaten or threatened, but knew his rage and were just relieved they were not the focus of my father’s anger. No one outside the family saw his anger, many of our friends envied us our father, he seemed cool. But, my father’s drinking buddies, men from work seems to know. One of my friend’s father was a construction worker and told me I was welcome anytime and if I need a place to hide from my father… I acted stunned and assured him I was well-loved! I’ve learned that it is the mantra of abused children “I am loved.” After all, I was the oldest and I never complained –it was my role and obvious to me that I deserved my father’s rage, his life was so hard. And I was absolutely convinced I deserved it. My role as whipping boy had long been established. I was created on a summer evening and was the reason my mother had to drop out of school and my father drank. I was the shame-maker. Also, an embarrassment, so I totally understand why no one saw me. In fact, not being seen was a sanctuary. I ran away from home once and returned two days later to discover no one knew I was gone. What I never believed was it was the end of me… childhood a phase in my mind. There was a world outside my home where I could find salvation. If I could get one message out to young people it’s that you will one day be in charge of you. Don’t commit suicide, don’t drink or do drugs. Just put your head down, study hard, learn and thrive -you are making your future. The Marines offered me the safety net I needed and taught me discipline and worth. I left the Marines after three years feeling like Mary Tyler Moore and I had a husband -score!
College was as much fun as I expected, what I didn’t expect was my Marine Corps husband wanted Edith, the good wife, and not Mary Tyler Moore. My ambitions were an irritation, something I might grow out of and I stubbornly carried on with school. Then, he got cancer, I switched majors to biology (unnecessary but I would learn that later) it gave me a feeling of control to be able to understand the doctors and pronounce the big words. Art and poetry somehow seemed unseemly and frivolous, wrong again.
Oddly, I was strong and successful back then. I got a job at NIH after graduation in an infamous lab that was so busy all I had to do was put on a harness and pull that plow, cash my checks, be a caregiver for the husband with a brain tumor –who had been reduced to a five-year-old in a 35 year old body.
The ancient broken codes of programming in my head were starting to effect my life. I over reacted, I had a short fuse, I was driven. I was a little eccentric to my friends. I was a risk-taker, I drove the beltway to work daily and drove like I was in LeMans. One day a speed trap was set up for me, two VA troopers and two Maryland troopers on the Bethesda side. I was given a royal roasting by the Virginia troopers who informed me that scraping me off the beltway was not on their wishlist, I was feeling bravado until they informed me that I would probably take someone with me, I could kill children and I was worse than a drunk driver! Ouch. Message received.
I bragged about the event, especially since I was only given a warning. I wonder how they knew a citation might have lit a fuse that would have caused me to drive faster and angrier. But, they reached me, the next day I saw them and I waved. I was going the speed limit. The idea of hurting someone else was what got through to me, I certainly didn’t care about myself. Looking back, I now see the unravelling that had begun. But, it was the 80’s I wore a red leather miniskirt and spiked heels like Madonna. When Connie Chung showed up one Saturday to interview the head of our lab, she was shocked when he wanted me in the background working as he was interviewed. She suggested that I put on a lab coat but my hair was shaved short on one side and spiked on the other –then there was the long rat’s tail… no, not ready for prime time. I think they used our friend, an elderly man from China. I bragged about that too. Now, I still laugh at this memory. I was a size 2 and what I wouldn’t give for that red leather mini skirt again! I’m not sure I’d get any use out of it other than making a pillow from it.
There were a few friends who saw the razor edge I was walking, the blood on my feet. They tried to stay close and they did catch me when I fell. But my fall humiliated me, I ended up turning my back on them and getting another job in a new lab, where I made new friends who did not know about my fall from grace. But, after a year I felt the seams unravel as the grief moved to the front. To avoid more shame, I moved home to NH, my second major life mistake. I moved back to live with the crazy-makers. To keep things real, my first adventure back home was to break my coccyx, which was one of many on target life metaphors I’ve been gifted.
What no one –especially me understood was the anger that fueled me was nearly out of energy. I never knew it was my fuel source. I believed I was happy and a survivor. I had a ton of energy, I was a little ‘wild’ and I did outrageous things. I was also popular. Even when I started to unravel, everyone wanted the old me back. To say I had a short fuse is an understatement. When my mother showed up at my husband’s funeral, it shocked me -I hadn’t spoken to her in years. She had told me that while she didn’t love me, she did love my husband and his dying made her too sad to be in our lives. I was hurt, that hurt like a knife and the hurt added a nuclear rod to my my anger. After the funeral, at a restaurant where she thought it was safe, she announced that my father sent his love. I exploded. What I said was nsfw. What I had told no one was he had already told me what he thought. He called me drunk the day after my husband died and forbade me to come home, told me not to expect sympathy -I no longer had a family. No one pitied me.
Then, two weeks after my husband died, my father dropped dead, face first on the kitchen floor. He was immediately nominated for sainthood and my mother began her pity competition with me. I returned home to a family that seemed to think I deserved my lose, since God was obviously punishing me. I was trapped in a bed on my broken butt wondering my my beloved husband had suffered so horribly and died so young and my father had not suffered other than the glory days I had taken from him. I basically refueled my anger, until I moved in with a high school friend and found my way to a job in Boston.
It’s odd looking back on those long ago days. I see a clear chemical reaction to everything I did. Stimulus -> Reaction, no incubation, no filters… and this is cPTSD. Now, I enjoy the time I take to analyze, consider outcomes, ponder paths to take and often just shrug it off. None of those things were possible for me then. My first husband often told me that I did not burn bridges, I napalmed villages. Now, at the most, I move from the offending village and find a better community -a metaphor, obviously. I am now capable of smiling, walking away, confronting in a calm manner, knowing the monkeys don’t belong to my circus and simply revealing in my own life, it’s more than enough! Just being able to speak my mind to those I either dislike, to know some are not worthy of my energy and to know my real energy -not anger, is valuable, too valuable to waste. Bliss.
When I sit down to write, I am surrounded by fictional characters, not ghosts from my past. When I now encounter situations that I realize would have caused war and charred battlefields, I appreciate my self-control and normal reactions. It’s a lot like losing weight or so I imagine losing weight would feel like -goal for 2017: Me and getting healthy, all important ingredients to a writer’s life.