VALUE ADDED


ImageI had one of those dreams the other night that startled me awake and left me feeling cold. It was incredibly realistic featuring major characters from my life and the events in the dream, while disturbing and unpleasant, were entirely plausible. I woke up wondering if what I believe to be true about those closest to me are, in fact, realities or scenarios that I create to maintain the relationships.

As I grow older and try to tinker with my thinking and behavior, I find that there are certain fundamental characteristics that are virtually impossible to change. Yet, I will always challenge this thinking as I struggle to identify which of MY characteristics are the ones that should be kept around and which should be put out to pasture for retirement. Aspects of myself that I believe are positive and valuable often don’t interact well with others and create challenging dynamics. I generally turn inwards and look at what I can change in myself because I long ago realized that I cannot try to or expect anyone else to change for me. I am the only one I can truly influence and shifting my thinking and behavior is generally the best path for me to take. But I often wonder if I am continually exorcising parts of myself that were worthy and relevant for the sake of maintaining relationships or accommodating others. I like to believe that the universe will guide me in ways to understand myself better and guide me in my journey of self-improvement but, as a human, I often get lost in the weeds and lose sight of myself while I am busy looking at and taking care of everyone else.

As a child, being highly insecure and emotionally abandoned, I developed a belief that I had to somehow win or earn the love of others. It was never as simple as someone likes me and therefore they want to be around me. I always had to up the stakes. I had to prove value. With my family, I would always be the dutiful daughter or sister. Whatever anyone wanted, I would deliver. I was at their beck and call. My needs never came first because I had no idea what my needs were. I never luxuriated in those thoughts. My primary objective was to survive and be loved and I would do whatever it took. I suppose, perhaps, I was meeting my needs because what I needed was to be loved so I was working to achieve that. With my friends, I found myself bribing them. Either I would hand over prized possessions or do them favors or simply make myself indispensable. If they needed me and saw that I brought value, they were less likely to toss me aside. This, of course, all coming out of the mind of an immature girl who didn’t understand real social dynamics. Because of much more than the trauma I experienced as a child – because of how I am hardwired – I knew only one way to interact with others. I put myself last.

When I went to therapy as an adult, I learned to find words to describe how I operated. I called myself a chameleon. I changed my skin to adapt to my surroundings in hopes that I would blend in and survive. I had few opinions about what I liked or disliked because I never took the time to figure that out. I was too busy jumping on everyone else’s bandwagon so they would accept me. I didn’t gain perspective on who I was as a person because I could shape shift myself into whatever you needed me to be. This worked well for me professionally because I could take nearly any job and figure out how to do it well. I was so moldable and so incredibly adaptable to any situation. And, on the inside, I was lost. I developed a series of relationships, both romantic and platonic, where I was a tool. I had little control over the dynamics and simply allowed myself to be led around, obeying all the orders and incapable of making decisions. What right did I have to choose? I took what I could get and smiled about it. And I became empty, perpetuating the cycle of behavior because I was always looking for something to fill me up and did whatever I believed I had to in order to make that happen. I simply could not see how destructive and demeaning the pattern was.

As I have grown older and matured, learning more about the roots of my behavior, this is one of the areas of my life I have spent a great deal of time thinking about because it’s a featured element of my personality. On the plus side, I have managed to extract some very meaningful elements that I am quite proud of. Conversely, I, unfortunately, still carry many remnants of that girl who felt like she had to win love. I have managed to harness the power by showing gratitude. I am almost neurotic about acknowledging others who do things for me. I take great pride and pleasure in this element of my life because I am modeling behavior that I believe is at the core of who I am in a very powerful and meaningful way. While my gratitude is completely authentic, I do admit that I am still surprised when someone actually goes out of their way to do something nice for me without being asked. Because of my roots, this stills feels sadly unfamiliar. I take responsibility for my part in that because I have learned to expect little from others and even control situations so that I limit my ability to be disappointed. I do all the nice things and never expect anything in return. I go out of my way to take care of others, and rarely ask for help, trying hard to avoid any situations where I need to rely upon others to help me. Yes, I’m still broken.

But things are different for me nowadays. I still demonstrate many of the same behaviors as when I was a child but they are packaged differently and they are processed differently. I no longer believe I have to buy the affection of others but it has become second nature to me to go out of my way and do things that are so above and beyond what is expected. This is a source of pride for me and has become my calling card, my signature. I don’t do it for everyone but, for those I care most about, there are few boundaries. And therein lies a bit of a landmine for me. I do take pride in this part of who I am and I worry that I create a dynamic that gets taken for granted. I begin to feel obligated and, even those closest to me become oblivious to my good-naturedness and start to develop an expectation. I become the catchall. I am always there.  Always available. I am the trusted resource – something that has become a bit of a double-edged sword for me.

Admittedly, people confuse me. As much as I can observe and analyze behavior and dynamics from afar, I have great difficulty in understanding people when they are up close, under my nose. I lose the gift of perspective. Just when I think I have someone figured out or feel confident about my feelings, things shift and I am once again trying to gain my footing. It is those times that I rely upon my core skills, my rudimentary behaviors. Show value, be grateful. I never trust that just being me is enough. I always have to take it one step further. And, sometimes that is a great thing and makes me very special and magical. And, sometimes it is very, very bad.

For me, the challenge is to really see people. The closer you are to me, the harder I struggle. My husband, my children, my close friends. There are no boundaries. There is a connective tissue that runs through these relationships that prevent me from separating myself. I often cannot see if they are taking me for granted and, generally, I really don’t care. Until I do care. And when that bell has been rung or that switch has been flipped, I am changed. It hurts me to my core and feels like betrayal. You have taken the gift that I so generously offer and have abused it. It’s not always their fault and I have to monitor that closely. And, in truth, I know that I can never unring that bell.  I can not unknow what I have figured out.  I struggle to overcome being taken for granted because it cuts so deeply. It is so jarring when I figure it out and the pain is extraordinary. The signs are usually all around me and I ignore them but the neon billboards tend to shine more brightly and the noise gets louder until I am forced to pay attention. And then, I’m done. I break. I’m finished. It is time to move on.

This is a cycle of behavior I am trying hard to improve by doing things differently. By being more present and aware. By not allowing myself to fall into those traps of ubiquitous compliance. By demanding more from others. By expecting more in return. But, I cannot change who I am at my core. I cannot stop being the little girl who was programmed to comply in order to be loved. I can intellectually evaluate my relationships and the situations surrounding them to try to make better decisions but I simply cannot change the essence of me. I will continue to seek out those who appreciate me for who I am and love me for my quirks. I will continue to try to avoid those who don’t appreciate all that I bring to the table and take advantage of my kindness and generosity and emotional availability. I will not be hardened or change my innocent vulnerability because that is part of what makes me special.

And I will not be taken for granted.  By anyone.

DAMAGED GOODS


damaged goods“No amount of soul-searching would fix my past. There was no magical Band-Aid I could stick on my heart, no special glue I could use to make myself whole again. I had shattered to pieces like a fragile vase on concrete; some fragments could be roughly cobbled back together, but many of my vital parts had simply turned to dust, pulverized and scattered by the first gust of wind.”
― Julie Johnson, Like Gravity

I am all hard edges.

Corners and pointy angles that poke you if you get too close.  Like furniture in a house with a baby, I have bumpers and pads strategically placed to cushion my sharpness.  To soften the blow.  You can bump into me but you probably won’t get hurt.  You probably won’t feel a thing.  You probably won’t notice my severity.  Unless, you take the time to peel back the foam, untaping it from my surface.  Unless you go in – all the way in to get a close up look at the grooves in my wood, the distress of my finish.  If you venture down deep, head into that exploration, if you are brave enough to look under the hood, you might find a sharp object.  It might jump out at you.

That would be me.

I like to fool myself into believing that I am soft and squishy.  Like a rubber ducky or, perhaps, a sweet plush toy.  But, alas, I am less mush and more solid.  Harder than soft.  Rough and tough.  Yet, fragile and impermanent.  I’ve been broken apart, rebuilt, refinished, then scraped and scratched all over again.  My bumpers hide many of those scars.  You need to use a zoom lens – move in real close and look really carefully to see those scars.  And, only if I let you.

I appear like an open book but am a diary guarded with a titanium steel lock.  You can’t just walk up and approach my surface and attempt to remove my shield.  You cannot simply strip my wood without first gaining my express consent.  And I offer this rarely.  I am guarded, vigilant about protecting my contents.  Even after I have offered you the key, permitted your entry, validated your parking, I might change the locks.  Switch up the game.  Change my mind.  Retreat to my corner.  Go into hiding.  I might pick up my marbles and head on home.

After all, I am damaged goods.  I’ve been broken apart.   I’ve been rebuilt and refinished.   I’ve been scraped and scratched.  Again…and again…and again.

And again.

Damaged goods sit on the discount shelf.  They are sold “as is”.  No returns.  No exchanges.  You get what you get.  Damaged goods come packaged only with a single disclaimer.  You knew what you were buying.  You better really want it.  It’s up to you to fix it.  We take no responsibility.

Damaged goods often get tossed away.  They’re written off as a loss.  Forgotten about long before the new merchandise even arrives.  Damaged goods become an after-thought.  A nuisance.  An eyesore.  They need to be dealt with.  We are the sad puppies.  The last one’s selected.

I am all hard edges.  Trying to be soft.  Trying to let the foam and padding adhere itself so when it comes time to pull it away, it leaves a residue.  A reminder that softness was there.  A muscle memory.  An assurance that I am more than just sharp lines and angles.  That my corners which jut out and protrude beyond their appropriated space are not as menacing as they appear.

Inside a fire quietly burns, in hopes of melting away those hard lines but often looking more like an all-consuming inferno.  A flame that oxygenates and destroys all that crosses its path.  The forest before me is unknowing, unaware of what is headed their way.  My furnace burns hot, fired up each day to keep the engines running yet mindlessly overheating, sending sparks, leaking fumes.

It is inexplicable how I sit from my perch, my lofty vantage point and watch as the demons escape.  I see them scurrying about, wreaking havoc at every turn.  I observe them and tell them to settle down.  “Quiet yourselves!”  Yet they ignore my urging, my prompting, my coaxing.  They are relentless.  They are imps who want only to run free and cause maximum devastation.

Of course they do.  They are part of me.  Part of my damaged goods.  Part of my hard edges and sharp objects.  Part of my mindlessness.  My foolishness.  My weakness.  They cause me shame.  They make me angry.  I become apologetic.  I am, far too often, paralyzed.  The imps take over.  The demons rule me.  They prey on my damage.  They confiscate my vulnerability.  They devour me whole.

I am damaged goods.  I’ve been broken apart.  Rebuilding is harder and harder.  My tools become dull.  My acuity weakens.  My exhaustion becomes great.  Sometimes I just close my eyes and need to sleep.  Not to examine and process and explore and excavate and suffer.  I want to rest myself in hopes that I will regain my strength and mend my tattered wares.

I am all hard edges.  Desperately seeking a soft cushion to meet up with my corners, to protect my angles.  A netting to cover my wood to prevent the scratches, to avoid the scrapes.

I am a little girl, roaming around inside a woman’s body.  Living inside her brain and trying to understand her thoughts, her words, her ideas.  Trying to live up to the expectations.  It’s Freaky Friday.  I need my body back.  I don’t have a manual for this vehicle.  It’s a little scary in here.  I hide out, finding dark corners and safe spaces where no one can find me.  No one can get too close.

I seek safe harbor.  Alone.  In the quiet.  And then, just when I think I’ve tucked myself away, protected myself from the elements, created a world where I can exist in my solitude, someone walks in.  Uninvited.  Unannounced.

And he loves me.

ORPHAN


girl at side of the road“Not belonging is a terrible feeling. It feels awkward and it hurts, as if you were wearing someone else’s shoes.” – Phoebe Stone

I have been pondering a conundrum all day today. Technically, by definition, I would be considered an orphan. Both my parents are dead and the dictionary defines an orphan as “…a child who has lost both parents through death…” Despite the fact that I am an adult, I am also still someone’s child so the definition applies to me. The puzzling part for me is  how I might have defined myself before my parents died. Could I still be an orphan with two parents very much alive but whom had emotionally abandoned me? Upon further investigation, orphan is also defined as “…a person or thing that is without protective affiliation; not authorized, supported, or funded; not part of a system; isolated; abandoned…” Those words certainly apply to my life. Yet, I struggle to consider myself an orphan because I worked hard to mask it all and lived a pretend life that seemed just fine to those on the outside. From the looks of things, all was normal. I had my own room, food, some clothes and was able to bathe daily and show up at school presentable. I was not the rough, scruffy, debilitated child we all think about when we think of orphans – at least not on the outside.

My family life was challenged.  Despite having two siblings, we never really lived in the house together.  My sister, significantly older than me, was sent away to live with my aunt and uncle shortly after I was born.  My brother, five years older than me, was deeply troubled and he dropped out of school and left home at 16. I was too young to understand anything they were enduring or to recognize how truly dysfunctional this was. So, I was alone and had to brave my own path. I studied hard and focused on going to college. My objective was to stick it out in my house, a place where my father had left then returned multiple times but was a complete stranger to me. And my mother often regarded me as an intruder – an interloper into the life she wanted, a burden she reluctantly carried. With all the chaos around me, I fantasized about my escape and finally packed up my car and left for college armed with my milk crates full of my vinyl record albums and boxes bursting with cherished books. I imagined driving off into my future where I would be liberated of all the painful memories and embark upon a new journey filled with freedom and serenity. But, of course, I failed to understand that, in fact, I was an orphan for whom such fairy tales don’t come true. Orphaned children don’t have the anchors tethering them and, instead, they fear that they might simply drift away, lost forever. Orphaned children don’t enjoy the luxury of being loved and nurtured and, instead, struggle to find pride and confidence to carry them through their lives. Orphaned children are stressed and overwhelmed. They have attachment issues – they attach too much or never at all. They do not have the skills to navigate the complexities of relationships because the only thing they understand is abandonment. They are alone and they are scared every single day.

It has been nearly 30 years since I left my home in Queens, NY to go away to college in upstate New York. I left home foolishly believing that I was leaving all of the pain behind me and would have the opportunity to start a new life for myself. Escaping the abuse from my mother, who had long since emotionally abandoned me, seemed like the clear pathway to emotional salvation. I recognized that very first time I defied my mother – the day I looked at her and began to peel away the mask and illusion of the loving woman only to find a hard, cold, sad and broken cadaver – was the day my mother disengaged and left me at the side of the road. Like an unwanted animal, she practically tossed me from her car and drove off, never looking back. Metaphorically, of course. Time and again, as we battled and brawled, I was left feeling that young girl sitting on the grass alongside the road, confused and afraid, wondering what would become of her. The pain my mother inflicted brought me back to see that scared girl, desperate for someone to come to pick her up. Then I realized that no one ever would.  For, she was invisible. She was voiceless. Her cries were only heard inside her head. She had no way of letting anyone know that she needed help, that she needed to be rescued, that she had been orphaned and was destined to sit beside that road until, possibly, her legs were strong enough to allow her to walk the long distance to find shelter. The masks hid her fears and pain. The veneer covered the fact that she was all alone so that nobody could lend her a hand. I watched her over my shoulder each time we drove by that road, through the arguments and the rejection and the silent treatment when I had committed some unknown crime for which the punishment was isolation in the hole. I was relegated to walk around my house being ignored by own mother, having her pretend that I simply did not exist. And it was always my fault. It was always my doing. It was always deserved. I made her behave that way. I brought it upon myself. I was made to see that little girl, scared and alone while my mother laughed and drove by even faster.

Ironically, when I packed my bags to finally leave for school, I had to listen to my mother’s sobs, her relentless reminders about how she was being abandoned and being forced to worry about how she might get on without me. At the time, I did not realize that she had secretly tucked away, underneath the books and the vinyl, a set of knives that would jut out when I was not looking. Randomly, I would feel the stabs and watch the blood flow but never truly understood where it was coming from. I struggled to understand why I couldn’t fit in with the other girls who were rushing sororities and going to parties and falling in love. Unbeknownst to me, they could see the blood dripping from my hands and ran away, not wanting to take on the task of bandaging me up and nursing me back to health. Who would? I was unaware that others could so clearly see carnage of little girl who had been run over one too many times by 18-wheelers who swerved a little too close to the shoulder when she stepped out in the darkness of night to see if, perhaps, today might be the day that she would be rescued. Others were afraid of me. They didn’t exactly know why. My masks were transparent.

Fortunately, I grew up and the wounds began to heal. When I was ready, I disconnected from my mother to try to break the cycle of abuse. Slowly but surely, the little girl shirked off into the woods where I could no longer see her when I drove down the highway but, of course, I knew she was still there. Every now and again, I tried to find her, ready to offer her a soft bed, a cup of tea, a pair of slippers to warm her feet. I looked and looked. Sometimes I would wander through the woods, getting nicked by the prickly bushes but I would not give up. Occasionally, I would catch a glimpse of her but she would run away, afraid to reveal herself – worried that her scars were too gruesome. She was afraid that her pain was too deep. She had lost her words. She had lost her sense. She would run away and I would return to my car and drive off, hoping that the next time she would feel more safe and come out to let me help her.

So, I guess, there really is no question, no mystery, no puzzle to solve. I am an orphan. For both my mother and my father could not provide the love and care that is required when you choose to bring a child into the world. They were not suited for the battlefields of parenting. They were not capable of loving something other than themselves. They were not even able to love themselves. Perhaps, in their own way, they too were orphans. Perhaps their souls were lost in the woods and they walked through life as zombies, searching for brains to nourish themselves to regain the strength to become human.

I still feel that little girl inside of me. Some days she is screaming so loud, begging to be rescued. Occasionally, I will see her and she reminds me through her strong gaze, through her longing looks, of her pain. She shows me that she is broken and she pleads with me to fix her. I have lots of tools and I have lots of love. But, I do need reinforcements and I am still trying to pull together my team to go into that forest and find her. I want to heal her. Right now, it is still mostly a solo mission. Every once in a while I let someone else sit in the front seat while I pull over and head out on my search. I let them see that there is a little girl lost in the woods. But, one day, I will let them see her face.