Have you ever been in a boat or even on a bridge or near a pool and looked at the water and assumed you know how deep the water is? I know in my experience, the water is usually deeper thank I think it’s going to be, especially if I can see the bottom. Standing – or more accurately, treading water in to 8 feet of water, I discover that 8 feet of water is much deeper than it looks from the surface.
Someone recently suggested to me that because they don’t observe me cry or demonstrate typical indications of emotion that I don’t feel as deeply as others. That is such a hard thing to hear. Not only because it isn’t true but because it is another wound. I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime dealing with people not knowing what drowning looks like.
Sometimes I feel like my adult life has been all about making getting my head above water so I can gasp for breath. Sometimes I feel like my loved ones have been sunning themselves on the beach or, in some cases, they have dumped a bucket of water over me while I silently sink further and further beneath the surface.
In any case, my tipping my hat toward the movie Spinal Tap, I put together a list of 11 times (I have many, many more) when I felt I expressed my feelings and my feelings were either completely ignored or smothered by the bucket of selfishness and abuse by someone else.
1. If I were a psychologist, I would certainly give some weight to the fact that I spent the first week of my life – a fragile, vulnerable and pre-mature newborn – in an incubator away from my mother and anyone else in my family. My mother had flat-lined after hemorrhaging from delivering me. The focus – both at that time and in the story-telling in the decades since – has always been on my mother. I don’t know anything about my “birth story” other than that I was six weeks early and that my dad is the one who selected my name. That’s all I know. That and that I was born around 3am and weighed around 5 lbs. I don’t know how anyone felt about my being born, if they were scared about me being so little, if my mom took an ambulance to the hospital, if she craved any particular food during pregnancy, how my brother or sister reacted to a baby entering the family — nothing. The story is completely focused on my mother and her near-death experience. I know more about her seeing a field of purple flowers and being told to “go back” than I do anything else.
2. When I was a little more than 2 years old, we moved from California back to New York. I know it might seem hard to believe, but I remember being in the car when we drove over a bridge over the Irondequoit Bay in Rochester. I remember asking my mother, “Where are all the seals?” since I had grown accustomed, in just two years, to seeing seals any time we saw water. After all, we lived in California. My mom’s response was, “Maybe they’re sleeping.” This represents the approach, I believe, my parents had toward anything that were concerned might be problematic. In other words, “Elaine might get upset if she realizes we don’t live in California any more and that she’s not going to get to see seals. We don’t want Elaine to be upset. Let’s not tell her that we’ve moved away from California and now live in NY. Let’s certainly not tell her that she’s not going to see seals in the lakes and streams here in NY.” And therefore, “Let’s ignore how Elaine feels about seals and about moving.”
3. I didn’t choose to play the violin. I would have liked to play the trumpet or even the drums. But my mom, to this day, loves to tell people how she grew up in a house with a brother who played the drums and she was not going to have anyone playing drums in her house. My brother started playing the violin – probably because we had an old violin from my grandmother – and therefore my parents deemed that I, too, would learn the violin. There was no choice. I “had” to play it and took lessons for 10 years. Even when I asked about taking an additional instrument, the only one they would approve was the piano – and that’s because my sister had learned to play it. I finally stopped playing after I went to college.
4. I never got to choose my own hairstyle until I turned 14. And that was after I finally refused to go with my mother to get my hair cut. I started letting my hair grow on its own and began using my own scissors to try to cut my own hair to let it grow long. Even though I succeeded in getting to let my hair grow long, my mother was very vocal about not liking it or long hair in general. Another well-known story growing up was that my mother had long hair when my dad first met her and the next time they went out, my mother had cut it off. He expressed to her that he liked her long hair and she made a point of telling him that it was her hair and she could do whatever she wanted with it. Interestingly, I never heard my dad express that he liked long hair. (I can only assume he learned not to say anything to contradict my mother).
5. Around that same time I began to become very invested in my own faith journey. I started memorizing scripture and studying the Bible a lot – on my own, because I was interested. I remember coming downstairs from my bedroom to the family room where both my parents were sitting watching tv. I had just read something in the New Testament which made me so excited I wanted to tell them about it. (I wish I could remember what I had read of why I was so excited!) I told them about it and neither one of them turned their head, turned off the tv or interacted with me much at all about it. They gave a “that’s nice” kind of response, and that was it. I remember feeling deflated. And as my high school “career” continued and I would get punished for getting home “late” from youth group (where I was literally studying the Bible), I felt wronged and misunderstood. I felt my parents didn’t know me and didn’t appreciate what they had in me as a model student, a morally compliant child and were willing to discipline me simply for not conforming to their routine and schedule of things. Meanwhile, they were late for everything – church, family gatherings, etc. But I watched them fabricate stories or exaggerate circumstances as explanations for why they were never able to get anywhere on time.
6. My first semester freshman year at college, I made what I thought was a sound financial decision and that was to temporarily drop out of college because I did not have enough money continue going! I was planning to take the opportunity to do overseas missions and then work and save up money to continue college. The short story is that although my parents weren’t paying for my semester, they made it very clear that this was absolutely unacceptable. They sent me letters (which I believe I have since destroyed) laying guilt trips on me for thinking that way and told me that I was an ungrateful child for not appreciating all that they had done for me. Their letters included their sad story about how when they first got married (so, like 1960), they had money saved up to buy furniture but then my dad totaled his car so they had to take the money they had saved to buy furniture and buy a new car. This was their explanation for a lifetime of debt and why they could not help me financially with college. My parents were very good at making life miserable and by the time I was 18, I had been repeatedly humiliated and discouraged from being independent, so, I signed on to take out tens of thousands of dollars of debt in college.
7. After deciding to stay enrolled in college, I wanted to go to seminary to become more educated about theology and philosophy and the way people think and believe. The short story is, my parents weren’t supportive of that and instead encouraged me to earn a living and then give my money to support someone else doing missions. (Meanwhile, when my brother expressed this thought – which he didn’t ultimately pursue – they took pictures of him behind the pulpit at our church.)
8. When my dad was sick and in the hospital or even at home, all I ever really wanted to do was cry and let him that I loved him and that I was so sad he was dying and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to fashion for myself a life without his participation in it. Unfortunately, not only did my mother make it clear that nobody was supposed to “bring him down” like that and therefore we were only permitted to discuss encouraging things or plans for the future, even my dad avoided these conversations with me. One night, the doctors told me and my mom that he only had a few days left and they encouraged us to talk with him about plans for the future to help him rally and get through (which he did – he recovered and didn’t die until 10 months later). I tried to talk to my dad about going to a movie together – just the two of us. But he wasn’t interested. He said he was interested in doing things if they included time with my mother.
9. After my dad died, I went to Alaska for 5 months. I told my mother that I did not want her to come and visit me. She had already been to Alaska (the previous summer, with me) and I really wanted time away from everyone and to be by myself. I sent her a birthday card in June and I expressed what a grand time I was having and that I had seen the mountain, Mt. McKinley, aka Denali. (When my mom and I were in Denali National Park the previous summer, we didn’t get to see The Mountain. It is only visible about 25% of the time due to the clouds and weather system surrounding it.) I wrote about how it was an incredibly moving experience for me and that I felt I’d had a spiritual experience. My mother’s response was to send me a letter letting me know that she had purchased tickets to fly out and would be staying at one of the hotels in the park because reading my letter made her realize that she wanted that experience too – for herself. In hindsight, it is an early indication of my ability to write a compelling and persuasive letter, eh? But I had made it clear that I didn’t want her to come out. I shared about how powerful that experience was for me as a birthday gift – in the birthday card – to my mother. I couldn’t tell her I felt she violated the boundary I had communicated so I certainly couldn’t express how I felt that, like a vampire, she seemed to think that she could obtain and possess me and/or my experience. That feeling I had when I saw the mountain, that was mine. She wanted it for herself.
10. I don’t even know how to begin sharing examples from my time with Steve. He flat out lied to me many times. That alone erodes the trust we have with someone. Perhaps the most damaging interaction with him wasn’t when he became violent and physically hurt me but a year or two earlier when I expressed to him that I was feeling sexually dissatisfied and what I would like more of (what I wanted him to do) to feel sexually satisfied. His response was to ask me if I had ever heard the joke, “What’s the secret to making a woman cum?” I said I hadn’t heard that joke. He said the answer is, “Who cares?”
11. On a date with Reuben (about 3 years after my divorce from Steve), he was here at my house. We were supposed to watch a movie but he was sort of aggressive at making out on my couch. My body was certainly responding to being touched and things got hot an heavy. I made it clear to him, however, that I did not want to have sex. It is very difficult to talk about (especially because I continued to date him for another two months) but the truth is, he didn’t listen and I don’t know if it is accurate to say we had sex that night or that he forced himself upon me that night. If it’s the latter and not the first, I can totally identify with all the feelings of guilt that women experience despite it being an assault and therefore they were victimized and therefore shouldn’t blame themselves at all. Intellectually, I know I shouldn’t blame myself. But emotionally, it’s painful to think about. It’s scary to feel those feelings.
I don’t expect anyone else to “fix” these things for me. I didn’t share any of this as an excuse for how or why I behave or don’t behave or communicate or don’t communicate the things I do. This is just my attempt to continue to save myself from drowning and to keep gasping for air.