“To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow – this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert
I have a tattoo on my ankle that I had inked right before I turned 45. Ironically, the thought of getting a tattoo turned my stomach and I never understood why people would permanently mark up their bodies. Yet, almost overnight, my position shifted and I felt an even stronger urge to imprint on my body something that was so overwhelmingly important to me. Perhaps it was the fact that I was in the midst of a powerful journey to discover my own truth and had just suffered a hairline fracture in my ankle (resulting from some foolish sparring in a karate class). When I was back on my feet and thinking about the significance of the injury – it was the first bone I had ever broken because, for the first time in my life, I was getting in touch with my athletic self – I had no doubt in my mind that I needed to symbolize the shift in my life. I wanted to honor the movement towards a new space in my life. I implicitly knew that the tattoo could only say one thing “Truth.” I settled for a Chinese symbol and am reminded every day how powerfully important truth is in my life.
Writing, for me, is a form of truth-telling. It is, for sure, a healing process – an attempt to declutter my mind. I write to sort out all of the experiences and related emotions that sit heavily in my mind, often blocking me from clarity. I write to expel toxins that are cleaner and more palatable in the written form than as random musings in my head. I write because I have to. When I am not writing, I get backed up and weighed down. Because the process allows me to find and convey truths about myself, the absence of it somehow robs me of my authenticity.
As a relatively private person, it is challenging to find opportunities to shed the blankets of lies that were the hallmarks of my life growing up. When I share my stories and reveal the truths about where I come from, I feel lighter and the healing process continues. I vowed not to perpetuate the sins of my parents and the only way I can insure that I don’t step into the traps left behind by them, I need to transform myself with full transparency. And that takes effort and courage and requires an endurance for pain that often seems beyond my capabilities. Writing feels like a safe shuttle to move me towards my destination but I know that, by doing so, I am shedding my cloak and letting the world see the shards of glass that surround me from the shattering blows I endured day in and day out for so many years. And that can feel a little bit uncomfortable.
I’m not entirely sure why I have exhausted so much energy trying to convince everyone that I am ok. I suppose it started as a shield to prevent anyone from looking any deeper because I was not prepared to reveal how broken I was. Then, as I became more accepting of my truth, the act of convincing others helped to enable me to believe the tales I spun about how I had healed and figured everything out. My brand has been that of a survivor. I have prided myself on my ability to rise above the storm and escape with only a few minor cuts and bruises. Nothing that a band-aid and some rest can’t fix. I should be able to go on and lead a normal life. My life should look just like everyone else’s. I could fall in love, get married, raise kids, have a career, make a home for us, have friends and be joyful and fulfilled. I have always assumed that if I wove this tale artfully and set my intentions to create this existence, it would come to be.
Those were not truthful words. Instead, just a load of bullshit. Here’s the truth.
My life sucked as a kid. I was born into a marriage that was destined to fail before it even began. My parents met while my father was a police officer walking a beat in the Bronx and my mother was a secretary. It was the 1950s and they were both married to other people at the time. They engaged in a very indecent affair that, for my mother, was exciting and validating because she was always living in the shadow of her decidedly more attractive and more acceptable older sister. Her rebellious self was pissing off her parents – Orthodox Jewish immigrants – and her insecure self was winning over someone else’s dark, handsome husband. My mother’s sole desire as a young adult was to escape her home life and she accomplished this by settling for the first Jewish boy to come along. She would satisfy her parents and seek refuge. This began a series of impulsive acts that would lead her down a path of destruction, taking out all who got in her way. My mother made choices that served her needs at the moment and did not have the emotional capacity to examine or understand the impact of her actions. She behaved like an adolescent through much of her life but never more so than when it came to affairs of the heart. Her neediness for the acceptance of men to validate her and attempt to erase her deep insecurities overshadowed everything else in her life. This rose to the top of her needs hierarchy, resulting in neglect in anything that did not drive her towards fulfillment of these objectives. At the age of 18, right after she finished high school, her parents threw her a beautiful wedding and she married a man she never loved – and probably never expected to. It met her needs at the moment and, until something better came along, she was willing to make that sacrifice. My mother was never formally diagnosed with any specific mental illness but she clearly suffered from some type of narcissistic disorder, resulting in erratic behaviors for which she was incapable of any remorse.
My father, born in Italy, emigrated to the United States as a young boy with his parents and younger brother and sister. They were traditional Italians who valued family above everything and worked hard to create the American dream. My father, a high school dropout, ended up in the military and, upon release, found his way to the police academy along with many of his fellow veterans. Being a police officer in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s was both exciting and revered and he quickly adopted the lifestyle. He also married young and he and his Italian wife started their family right away, bearing a daughter and son. My father was a handsome man and had no problems attracting women. Between his good looks and the cop lifestyle of drinking, gambling and philandering, it was no surprise that he ended up engaging in an affair with my mother who was quite taken with this man who was so very different from the world she came from. Their entanglement was exciting and taboo and built on lies and indiscretion – the unfortunate building blocks that formed the foundation for my family. As I uncovered the truth of my parents’ early life together, I never clearly understood how they met and ended up with each other. In fact, it was only when I was much older did I learn how their relationship began and that it produced a child. forcing them to make decisions which would shape the lives of those of us who came later. So began the lies. The lies that created more lies and, ultimately, destroyed all of us along the way. When both of my parents died several years ago, they left behind, collectively, five children, five spouses and an array of grandchildren, all of which were encompassed in the pile of lies that could fill the fiction aisles of thousands of libraries.
My sister – the product of their affair – became the unwitting pivotal story point in my family and, in many ways, her existence was the lie that held us all together. Her paternity was continually called into question as my mother created different stories, depending upon what she needed or wanted and how it could work to her benefit. The questions around her conception, while most of us ultimately knew the truth, became part of our family dynamic. This lie was the strongest element of our family. And, we all knew that, had my mother never become pregnant, my parents might never have ended up together and our family might not have existed. Throughout my childhood, I tried to piece together all the confusing and contradicting facts that I discovered while eavesdropping on conversations or searching through my mother’s private drawers in her bedroom. Like a sleuth, I was searching for facts to help me understand this life that never made sense to me. While other children were flipping through photo albums and were regaled with their parents’ love stories, sharing how their families came to be, I was searching for the missing clues to piece together the puzzle of my family. Conveying a sophistication inappropriate for my age, even as a young child, I inherently knew our story was filled with lies and I relentlessly sought out the truth. Regrettably and, perhaps, understandably, the adults in my family carefully manufactured alternate realities to preserve their lies in order to protect themselves but their efforts wore thin over time. And, I felt like a puck being knocked around the ice as I was swatted away when I went seeking out answers to the questions that would help me understand my truth.
By the time I was born – 14 years after my sister’s birth – my family was deeply shrouded in a fabricated life that was designed to preserve the truth from escaping. My father was a full-blown alcoholic, numbing himself from the guilt and shame that distanced him from his close-knit family and my mother had become a sociopath, physically and verbally assaulting her children for reasons I will never understand. She needed to maintain control and worked tirelessly to preserve her fictional existence. Anything my siblings and I did to jeopardize that was met with wrath and fury. In fact, as one would expect with someone as disturbed as my mother, there was no clear path to avoid her ire and, depending upon when she felt vulnerable or depressed, we could come under fire for no reason at all. Add to that the instability of the alcoholic who did not suspend his philandering after meeting my mother and the result is terrifying. And no place for any child to be raised and be expected to escape unharmed.
I am no longer trying to convince everyone that I am ok. Because I am not. It has been 47 years since destiny brought me into the life of people who were consumed with lies. For many of those years, I perpetuated the lies and tried to blend into the crowd. But, in truth, most people don’t look like me. Most people don’t share my history. Most people cannot understand or empathize with what I have endured. Many people think I am cold and distant or uncaring and elitist. Others who have taken the time to get to know me and have pushed to unpeel some of my layers recognize that I am kind and loving and overly protective of myself and those I care about. At my core, I am simply trying to get from day-to-day and survive the truth of who I am. I strive to move beyond and live a wholly authentic and honest life and, yet, until I shed my own shroud, I will still be living someone else’s life instead of my truth.