A Skeleton in the Closet

I grew up believing my family was an ordinary one.  Nobody was particularly out of ordinary, so I thought.  My father was not an alcoholic nor an addict.  My mother was not a chain-smoking suicidal woman.  My brother didn’t smoke pot nor join a band.  I didn’t have an eccentric spinster aunt.  It was a quotidian kind of dysfunctional family.  Then I saw a play,  August, Osage County.  After the curtain, I turned to my friend and said, “That’s a terrible family.” And then I added, “That’s my family.”

Every dysfunctional family I saw on stage had a secret everybody knew about.  They lock it up in the closet and pretend it is not there.  Children born into the family can’t do anything but inherit it.  Adults may think kids don’t know about the skeleton in the closet.  We know. We see the ghosts lurking in the hallway, hear them whisper, and feel the cold air when they pass through us.  We grow up with the ghosts and adults tell us again and again that there is no such thing.  Silly child.  So we start to believe it’s us.  The dark shadows and crazy voices are inside of us.  We become the ghost of the family secret.

So I started to drink early, chain-smoked, cut myself, ate and vomited.  I started to live by myself when I was 18 and moved further and further from my hometown until I reached to the other side of the globe.  I’ve become an eccentric divorcee.

After several decades, funerals started to happen.  Older generation was dying out and they wanted to talk about the skeleton.

The irony is that I knew about it.  Nobody told me but I just knew it.  It’s silly to believe you can keep secrets from a highly sensitive child.  They just didn’t know I knew.  Once they knew I knew, they talked, and talked, and talked.  He said, she said, he said she said, and she said he said.  Everybody told a different version of the story.

So I found out that my family was not an ordinary family.  It could be the one in Yoknapatawpha County, could be in Tennessee Williams’ play, and definitely August, Osage County worthy.

Nothing was wrong with me.  It wasn’t me.

Fortunately, after decades of therapy I was able to be the shaman who could navigate between the worlds of the living and ghosts.  I listened to the stories they told, and returned them a story with a new and much gentler narrative, transformed it into a story where there was no skeleton in the closet.   Adults could talk about their feelings, how they loved and hated, how they got hurt and survived.  The mistake they made and how it affected their lives, lives which are running out ever so quickly.

I am not a ghost anymore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My own very personal storm

In Frozen, Olaf, the funny snowman, gets his own personal flurry to prevent him from melting in the sun.  Some of us were born with our own personal weather system. Having dysthymia is like having a personal weather which might not be so cute as personal flurry.

If your baseline is dysthymia and you have recurrent major depression, your life probably sucks.  A gloomy day is a good day and before you take one breath, voila! you are in a storm of one kind or another.  You can’t breathe, you barely can keep your eyes open.  You can’t see clearly.  You always walk against vicious winds.  Hail, lightning and heavy rain overturn what you know, and knock down what you hang onto.

You see your friends and wonder why they can move so easily; why they can read in the torrent of rain; why they can laugh in the sand storm without feeling choked while you taste the deadly ash of volcano eruption in your mouth even though you close your mouth so tightly shut that your face start to hurt.

What is wrong with me?  Am I weak?  Am I lazy?  Am I stupid?  Or what?  I am trying to do what they do as hard as possible, and still I can’t catch up.

What I didn’t know was my friends lived in a different land, where everyday was a normal weather day: sunny with some cloud, and slight chance of rain.  They have storms, but after a couple of days, it returns to normal sunny days.

What I didn’t know was that it takes a courage, endurance, and focus of athletes of extreme sports for us just to live a day in such a severe internal environment.

Once in a while, I experienced a beautiful day with blue sky as high as eternity and it scared me because if I would ever enjoy the weather, if I would ever even slightly believe it was real, then I would be punished multifold.  The storm shall follow and strike me down, on hands and knees, with my face in a gutter.  So I held my breath, close my eyes tight, and made myself hard.

So if your personal weather sucks, it’s not your fault that you can’t move gracefully.  And your friends who live in a normal weather land could never imagine how it is to be you. (They won’t survive in your personal weather.)

I hope you will find your way to change the weather.  It is possible.  After decades, I’ve changed my weather.  Everyday is just an ordinary weather day and it’s beautiful.   Even when a hurricane hits me, I now know it will pass and that I will breathe easily tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ordinary People

“What do you want to be?”  I asked my date.   We were just shy of 20 years young.

“I want to be an ordinary person,” the young man said.

“???”  I didn’t get it.  When you are a teenage boy or girl, don’t you want to be an outstanding, extraordinary, prominent person even when you don’t know in what.  Somebody but an ordinary person.

Several decades have passed since and I had a chance to see the boy again at a class reunion.   I told him I now understood what he meant by being ordinary and appreciated him for his wisdom at such a young age.

“Did I say such a deep thing?”  the boy, now a man in fifties, said.

I should have chosen this ordinary guy instead of a succession of overgrown permanent teenagers, who were exciting and extraordinary in not necessarily good ways as a partner.

I am not outstanding, extraordinary or prominent, but I think my life was nothing but ordinary.   After decades of turmoil, now I find myself living a very ordinary life with absolutely no drama.  And I am mostly content with my ordinary life as an ordinary person. Then once in a while, I look back and say to myself, “It was fun.”

It must be just a state of one’s mind.

 

Lifeline

I have never been prescribed meds for anxiety.  I have had severe anxiety but it was always a precursor or aura of major depression.  When I experienced anxiety attacks, I was already on the way to major depression and almost immobile.

I am one of the lucky few.  After years of psychotherapy, a straightforward generic SSRI and Crossfit have been working for me and I haven’t experienced a major depression for several years.

Still every night for a couple of seconds before I fall asleep, I feel anxiety.  It’s about nothing and everything.  It’s about being.  Suddenly I have a hole in my chest and I feel like I am being sucked into the hole in my chest into a heavy black mass of nothingness.  I know if I allow it happen, I will lose my sleep and fall straight down to the bottomless depression.

So I reach out and hold the tail of my dog sleeping next to me, as if it were a lifeline.  My 80lb 12 year old mutt’s tail is thick and feels substantial, warm and alive.  I feel tethered to his life.   And I fall asleep.

 

Yearbook

When I went home to attend my father’s funeral, I found my junior high yearbook.  I recognized faces of girls I haven’t seen for many decades.  One by one, they came back to life in my memory.  I knew those teenage girls.  They looked exactly as I remembered.   I turned pages looking for my photo.  I couldn’t find it.  I felt confused.  I was sure I was in the yearbook.  I started back from the first page.  Page after page, the faces of girls got clearer in my memory.  I still couldn’t find my face.

On the third try, I finally found my name under a photo.  She was a beautiful teenage girl.  I didn’t recognize her because I had been told I was an ugly, unattractive, miserable creature no boy would love and I believed the image the fucked-up mirror reflected.

Did I look ugly to you, Dad?  Or did I threaten you?  Did I look ugly to you, Mom?  Or did you also believe what Dad saw?

Anyway, it’s too late.  I lost my chance to live the life of a pretty girl.

Then I became a plain looking highschool girl.

When I remember my highschool years, I am cast as that unpopular girl with long hair hiding half of her face, Violet Parr in The Incredibles, believing that she is invisible.  My best friend is that popular girl who dates the football team captain.

I started having drinking problem while I was in highschool.

A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to attend a highschool reunion.  One guy, who was neither the football team captain, nor an academic high achiever, told me that I had been his crush in highschool.  I was like, WTF.  “You were a beautiful and intelligent girl,” he said, “and I admired you.”  Shit, I didn’t know.  I knew he liked me, but I did’t believe anybody would like me.

So I lost my chance to live a life of popular girl in highschool.

When we are surrounded with distorted mirrors, we believe the distorted images they reflect.  I wonder what it would be like to have a mirror on the wall that always tells me I am the most beautiful girl in the world.  I guess that would also fuck me up in a different way.

I still can’t believe 100%, but I think I am freaking gorgeous as an old gal of certain age.  It took me almost half a century to feel unugly.

“You are a catch,” a male friend of mine recently informed me.   “Really?” I said.  “Yes, you really are a catch.”  I believed him.

Nightmare that didn’t happen

This is a nightmare that didn’t happen.  I was about 11, sleeping in my room.  The door suddenly opened and my father came in.  He was yelling something and he threw things, talking to himself.  I hid under the comforter.  I heard him walk around in my room, talking to himself, throwing stuff.  Then he left.

I waited.  I waited for my mother.  I waited for my mother to come to check on me, comfort me.   Minutes passed.  Nobody came.  I fell asleep crying.

I woke up in the morning.  I found my stuffed animals were on the floor.  One of them, a stuffed kitty my friend gave me, was almost decapitated.  I didn’t understand.

I quietly went down the stairs, expecting my mom at least to explain what happened.

Nothing happened.

Nobody mentioned anything.  Mom was cooking breakfast.  My father was reading the newspaper or whatever.  Nothing happened.  I ate my breakfast and went back to my room.

That was the nightmare that didn’t happen.

But I remember that I sewed my stuffed kitty’s head back by myself, crying, saying to myself again and again, “My friend gave it to me.”

Decades and years of therapy later I confronted my father and asked what it was about.

He didn’t remember.

My mom came to me to tell that she had no idea and asked, “Your father didn’t hit you, did he?”

“No, he didn’t,” I said.

It doesn’t matter.  It was not my father’s unpredictable rage that marked me.  It was the absence of my mother.  I learned that nobody would come for me.   I didn’t want to be the scared little girl, so I became my father.  “You have a temper just like your father,” my mother used to say.

Now I have many friends who are fathers.  When I saw their daughter perfectly safe with their father, not hiding from them, not tensing up at the sight of them, remaining soft and smiling, I wonder how they do.  It is a dream that didn’t happen to me.

About Diagnosis

It is useful to have a trail map when you hike unknown territory. It will save you from getting lost at dusk or falling into an abandoned well. When I become familiar with the territory, I’ll know the trail is not the territory, and I’ll start to communicate with creatures in the woods.

DSM V is merely an incomplete and tentative trail map of the vast and unfathomable territory of our psyche.  I hope your therapist is willing to communicate with creatures in the woods without getting lost.

birdy