“I can either choose to be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of a treasure. It’s all a question of how I view my life.” – Paolo Coelho, Eleven Minutes
My memories from childhood are very spotty. While I don’t spend a good deal of time trying to summon up those memories, there are times when I would like to reflect back to experiences to help me process my current state. I try to find connective tissue between the things that occurred when I was young and the experiences I have as an adult. And I fall short so many times. Instead of visual memories, I have emotional and visceral reactions to experiences in my life that are so tightly connected to my experiences from childhood but I don’t always make the associations. Because I find difficulty in summoning up a specific memory or experience, I am often left to dissect and analyze my feelings in an attempt to draw an inference and understand its origins. This is ironic and unfortunate for someone like me who works tirelessly to memorialize all events in my life and create a mental scrapbook that I can revisit when I want to reflect happily or even force myself to address the pain and difficulties. Very little, in my adult life, has been lost which provides me an abundance of material to draw from when working to improve my life. Regrettably, the foundational elements prove to be missing puzzle pieces.
It is hard for me to admit that I was abandoned at a very early age. No, I was not orphaned or left at the side of a road like an unwanted dog but, even worse, to some extent, I was emotionally exiled, left to fend for myself. My father did physically and emotionally abandon me as he disappeared from my life before I went to kindergarten and, while he would come back in and out of my life over the years, I was never able to form a proper bond with him. He scared me and made me feel very uncomfortable. I never felt his love and, mostly, saw him as a monster who hurt my mother and I felt a fierce sense of protection over her, despite the fact that she, as a result, turned her pain on me and unleashed it with the force of a violent storm. As a result, attachments are complicated for me. Anyone who gets too close to me knows that I waffle. I am always ready to bolt – to flee the emotional connection that I so desperately crave yet am so terrified to surrender to. I close myself off in order to protect myself when I am most vulnerable and, in those times, let no one get close to me because I cannot risk being hurt or letting myself get too close to the fire. I do not trust that others will keep me safe. Not because they don’t care about me or because they aren’t protective of me. They can’t keep me safe when I won’t let them wrap me in the protective blanket they so readily offer.
I’ve been traveling a lot lately and, during my travels, I have been listening to many audiobooks. Reading has been a fundamental part of my life since I was very young and a lot of my understanding of the world comes from hearing other people’s words. I learn through the connections they make with their own lives. I am a voyeur, trying to find associations in others that help me to make sense of my own place in the world. In two of the books I listened to – both autobiographies – the authors spoke of their very nurturing and loving childhoods and the space and security it gave them to explore parts of themselves that they might otherwise not have been able to. They were bold and adventurous and were able to take risks knowing they had a safe place to return to should they tumble and fail. I listened to their words and had two distinct thoughts come into my mind each time I heard them. First, I was acutely aware of how I did not understand their experiences. They were so unfamiliar and so counter to how I had come up in the world and I envied them. Second, I thought about my own children and hoped that this was how they might describe their experience growing up. I hoped that they would characterize themselves and their lives as having felt protected and nurtured and knowing that they always had a safe harbor. That is always my hope for my children and it is a lost hope for myself.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps I can still create that protective space for myself.
This past week I was on the road. My life was all airports, meetings, hotels, rental cars, sleep deprivation, lots of coffee and delicious meals, wearing high heels and a layer of fatigue and exhaustion that takes days to recover from. Usually when I travel, I am delighted to be focused on all of the experiences that help to move my company forward and to spend time with my business partner, who also happens to be one of my closest friends – someone I only see when traveling. I generally relish my experiences away from home because they allow me to live my “other” life, the one where I get to hang out with my friend (even if we are working, we always sneak in a little bit of fun), let my mind focus solely on the business at hand, enjoy experiences that make my mind grow and watch opportunities unfold. This was a great week of meetings and lots of amazing opportunities were unfolding before us but I was not feeling my normal “other” self. In fact, for the first time in a very long time, I recognized that my dual persona – my home self and my work self – were struggling with each other. Typically, the moment I step foot onto the concrete curb of the airport, I shut down one part of myself and begin to journey into my other self. I leave the kids, the bills, the responsibilities behind and jump happily into my work life. I enjoy the anticipation of all that lies before me and bask in the glow of excitement of seeing my friend and others that I might encounter while on my journey. But this time I felt lonely and homesick from the minute I swung my leg out of the car. I didn’t want to go. I was disoriented and detached. It felt like I was being forced out into a cold dark night to begin to traverse a path that was winding and confusing and I had no interest in traveling. I forged ahead and sought refuge by texting friends and trying to keep myself connected to my home life rather than fully escaping to the other world of work. And, as a result, I left myself in a complicated state of ambivalence.
I marvel still, at 47 years old, how our early years both soothe and haunt us throughout our lives. For me, I regularly find new ways in which I am forced to overcompensate for missing elements of my development and, equally, I cherish how some of my seeming shortcomings provide me with a resilience and fortitude that allows me to brave overwhelming complications. I don’t break. I have cracks. I sometimes stumble. I often feel wobbly. But, I never break. Just when it seems like I am going to break, I recoil, regroup, and throw myself back out into the elements and prevail. Always. Inexplicably. Unquestionably.
With people, however, I have a harder time. I am forever in a wrestling match with my emotions. I struggle to enforce appropriate boundaries. I allow myself to be manipulated and influenced by others when emotions are involved. I am volatile and uncertain, constantly challenging myself to test new skills and toughen up. I desperately crave intimacy and seek it out, strategically and thoughtfully. Yet, on the rare occasions that I let people into my life and allow them to get a close look under the hood, I find myself so exposed and vulnerable that it terrifies me. That which I need the most, scares me the most. I am continually brought back to the emotional state of that little girl whose father walked away and whose mother abused her. I lose perspective. I sometimes run scared. I wall myself off. I lock myself away in fear that history will continually repeat itself. And, sometimes I create situations that seem to replicate my early experiences, all self-induced. Then, I run off and hide in my safe place which isn’t so safe because I am all alone and even more terrified than when I am vulnerable and exposed and in the arena doing battle.
When I got out of the car and stepped out into the rainy morning at the airport last week, I forced myself right into the closet, shut and locked the door and threw away the key. I was hiding from everything that was scaring me. I thought I was protecting myself from the demons on the outside when, in fact, I was trapping myself, unsafely, with the demons on the inside. My life, over the past 6 months or so, has been incredibly difficult. I have faced off against challenges that dared to break me. And, as a result, I have been emotionally unraveling, seeking shelter in any way that I can and not in any of the ways that I should. I have walled myself off from those closest to me in protection because I am most vulnerable to them and am acutely aware of my irrational anxiety of betrayal or abandonment by any of them. So, seeming like a cliché, I beat them to the punch and continually stepped away, swaddling myself in a blanket of loneliness that felt like a protective layer, insulating me from the elements. During my trip, I had moments where I knew I was so far away from even myself. I had these odd moments of looking at myself in the mirror and seeing ugliness reflected back at me. I felt no love towards the person looking at me from the other side of the glass. She looked sad and old and unattractive. And, at various points throughout the week, I was consciously aware of my discomfort with my physical self. It was an odd sensation and a clear indication that I was not comfortable in my own skin.
For me, this abandonment issue is insidious. The word floats through my head constantly. I see its letters jumping around in my mind, weightlessly bouncing up and down, taunting me – daring me to dance. It is my kryptonite. And it knows it. We face off regularly in a sword fight to the death and, without fail, it always wins. I have yet to find the proper weapon or to hone my skills to effectively defend myself. Fortunately, I magically re-emerge again and again and go back to the battle. Every now and again, however, I have little epiphanies that make me stronger and arm me a bit more skillfully for the fight. During my trip this week, amidst my disconnection and dissatisfaction with myself, I had a conversation. It was random yet remarkably powerful in ways that I did not realize at the time. It was early one morning and I was sitting on the couch talking to my friend, recalling a memory that I was surprised I had not shared before. It was a wonderful memory of me and my husband and a time that seemed perfect and safe and wonderful. And, unbeknownst to me, a little switch went off in my head like they sometimes magically do. I was completely unaware of this until I got home. It was several days later, at the welcomed completion of this trip that the months of turmoil, complication, confusion and fear washed over me. I was fully embroiled in all of the emotions and energy required to manage it and it was if I let out a giant sigh. I walked outside the terminal, with my bags in hand seeking out my familiar black car. My phone was dead. I could not reach my husband to let him know where to find me and, in the wee hours of the morning, I prayed that he would figure out where I was and rescue me from the bitter cold that I was woefully unprepared for. I stood at the curb willing him to me, desperately needing to find solace in the familiarity of my car, his face, my home. Of course, he did find me and when I finally returned home, so very late after countless flight delays, for the first time, in so very long, the messiness, the chaos, the bills, the responsibilities did not assault me as I walked through the door. What I felt was a sense of peace and safety. I felt like I had opened not only the door to my home but the door to myself. Every sleepless night on my trip, I wished to just find a safe space to feel secure and loved. And, albeit corny and trite, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I realized, “there’s no place like home.” For reasons, I may never understand, I was able to just unlock the door and let myself fall into the waiting arms of my husband and breathe. I exhaled in a way that I have not in so long. In a way that no one could teach me to do.
I have learned many things about myself over the years. I have unraveled many tangles and solved many mysteries. Yet, I am still humbled by the complexities of my inner self and the layers and layers of trauma I have experienced. Just when I believe I have cracked the code, a new lock presents itself and another door needs to be opened for me to get further down the path. I have learned to not feel ashamed of my brokenness and, instead, navigate it like a disability. It is part of who I am and something I can never change. I can only work hard to grow and evolve and hope that those who love me will work with me, even though I know, as my husband and I discussed last night, I make it incredibly difficult on them. But I know I am worth it. Because, at the end of the day, while I may have been kicked to the curb like an unwanted pet, I am, in fact, a magical creature who is one-of-a-kind and radiates the most amazing energy onto those I love.