Divorce and Childhood Trauma

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When we think of childhood trauma, we think of poor neighborhoods, inner cities, desolate rural areas, or other economically disadvantaged countries. Trauma sounds extremist. But, The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not those other people, they were us. Researchers looked at 17,421 middle-aged adults with jobs and good healthcare living in California; seventy-four percent were college educated.

Divorce can and does set the stage for children and adolescents to experience chronic, unpredictable toxic stress, otherwise known as childhood trauma. And, divorce happens every day, it is ubiquitous it sometimes seems. It can be the loophole kids fall through even when they have good, healthy, loving, responsible parents. The stress caused by a family splitting can last a short time and cause one adverse childhood experience or it can set the stage for a cascade of negative experiences that change a child’s ability to deal with stress for a lifetime, setting them up for both immediate learning and psycho-social consequences, as well as chronic physical and emotional health conditions later in life.

It’s losing a parent in body, mind, and/or spirit. It’s being split between loyalties to one parent against the other, essentially handicapping their mind, psyche, and emotions. It’s trying to carry on as you always have when the world as you’ve known it collapses and everyone says, “They will be fine. Kids are resilient.” It can come from the parent introducing a new significant other and just moving on like nothing has happened. It can come from one or both parents being devastated and just barely making it through the day.

The good news is it’s not divorce, per se, that can cause real harm to our kids; it’s losing their secure attachment to one or both parents that can cause the real damage. The single greatest thing you can do for your kids if you are getting a divorce is to keep them connected to you (stay close even if you are the one to move) and to help them stay connected to their other parent too. This means fostering the attachment to the other parent. Yes, the one who is hurting you more than you thought possible or you are so angry at that you can’t look in their general direction.

The second most important thing you can do for your kids is to be kind, supportive, and compassionate to their other parent. Healthy, happy parents parent healthy, happy kids. The more turmoil, stress, hardship you cause for the other parent, the more of all of that you will cause your child. This is the case even if it looks as though your child is happy when they are with you. They will be their best self for a while, until the threat of you leaving subsides. Helping them deal with their sadness, anger, locked down emotions will bring the whole family out of the abyss and back into the sunshine of life. This is good for your kids and consequently is good for you too.

“Together, the two discoveries – the epidemiology of the ACE Study and the brain research — reveal a story too compelling to ignore:

Children with toxic stress live much of their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on learning. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamine, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement.”

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-ellen-stevens/the-adverse-childhood-exp_7_b_1944199.html

What Do We Owe Another Person?

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Relationships, in all the various forms from acquaintance to family, are they contracts written in the air between us but rarely communicated out loud? When we enter into a friendship, relationship, or even marriage, what do we owe the other person? Is there a difference in expectations at the beginning or the end? It seems universal to begin with our best selves. It can be intoxicating to meet someone new, a kindred spirit who says, “Yes! I feel exactly the same way!” It’s balm to the soul really; all our best qualities are coaxed from hibernation for a magical moment, day, or a season of connection with another human being. If we’re really lucky, the fairytale love of family, friendship, or the melding of body, mind, spirit lasts a lifetime—forever is our greatest desire.

Being held in another’s bubble, translucent colors swirling all around, creates a force-field, an invisible protection from an ending we can see from inside no matter how far off the ground the bubble has risen above our ordinary existence. We say, “Not this time…this time it’s the real thing, it’s forever. The End came in all the other stories but this one will be different; it will be the happy ending that my dreams are made of, eternal love.”

Alas, forever, eternal, the real thing is more rare than anyone would like to know. Family bonds can be broken or sometimes they were never forged, friendships move on, the one you thought was lovely turns out to be just a few more dates, and marriages fall apart too (even when there is no obvious end.) As a girl, I wanted to hold fast to each person who entered my life, to hold on to the magical feeling at the beginning, but as a woman who has lived through too many endings, I now know endings are part of a life well lived. An ending says there was a beginning that was magical, there were vistas and valleys, rivers with rocks and grasses and wildflowers and we were meant to surrender to the current, to let go when it’s time to let go.

Rarely do two people agree when to hold on and when to surrender to the flow of change. The unconscious or very conscious (as in a marriage) contract with another to care for each other is pulled back out for review. Unlike the feeling of euphoria in the beginning, the ending isn’t always our best selves—more is required. An ending brings an entirely different set of emotions to the forefront: sadness, disappointment, desperation, disbelief, depression, anger, entitlement, vengeance and rage. This person that you thought would be by your side forever has made a different decision and that can be devastating depending on the depth of the bond forged in a different time and circumstance.

Whether we are the ones left or the one to leave, what do we owe each other? And in the case of a marriage, this person who you once loved and who once loved you, a person who made you feel connected to humanity and understood, who shared a magical season with you, what do you owe this person? Do they deserve vengeance, your wrath, a slammed door because something in them whispered that it was time to let go? Are we trying to keep them bound to us by anger and revenge? And even worse, when we want to let go, is it fair to withhold peace and kindness, blame their bad character for our change of heart just to assuage our own guilt for breaking the agreement to love each other forever?

It seems that far too many who go through endings or even divorce unconsciously, try to destroy the person who once gave them all they had, who also wished upon a star that it would last a lifetime, and who is also devastated that it did not. And far too often people use their children as the weapons of destruction, rationalizing that they are the better parent or that the other person is trying to destroy them or take their children away and they are only protecting themselves. Everyone feels threatened and makes decisions from that awful place.

What is this behavior? What do we think is going to come of it? Do people think it will lead to their own happiness? That robbing every spark of light and joy from this person they once loved, in some cases their child’s other parent, will somehow bring love and light to them? Do they think it will lead to that feeling of euphoria, the winner mentality, they once felt when they were in the vicinity of this person they once cherished? Do they think they will receive more love from their child if the other parent is destroyed? It makes no sense whatsoever, but it happens every day in every community.

What do we owe another person? We owe them kindness. Yes, all the feelings are there. Yes, you can say a million F-bombs with their name attached. Yes, you can be devastated, but to hold another person in contempt for simply saying it’s time for me to go is a childish tantrum that can have deep, unconscionable consequences for everyone involved, especially when there are children—which is all too often the case. This is also true for the one who leaves but projects all the guilt and contempt they hold for themselves onto the person who once said they would protect their heart with love.

We can hold on until we know for sure it’s time to go, but once that happens, when we’re absolutely sure there’s nothing more to be done, the contract in the end is kindness to this other human being in front of you. Let go so you can go on with your life to find another, to search for what’s beautiful in this world, to experience magical moments again. Letting go and being kind allows the other person to do the same. And if there are children, happy parents parent happy children. We are all living within one ecosystem.

What we put into our world, we will get back. Isn’t it better to receive kindness? Isn’t it better to leave another life better than you found it? Isn’t it better to treat others, especially the ones who loved you, the way you want to be treated? Kindness is the foundation of our humanity and it never depends on anyone else but ourselves. xo

 

 

 

Magic Can Be Found in the Darkest of Places

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This is one of my favorite sunflower pictures. I was in Upstate New York at Old Stone Farms, an inn near The Omega Center. It was a healing journey that August after getting my family (all five) through a cataclysmic transformation that left me emptied of who I was, am, and would become. My kids would be away from me for two weeks; an incomprehensible amount of time in any scenario but especially this one. It was a nightmare I desperately wanted to wake up from. I couldn’t wait for them in the house where there had been magic a lifetime ago, moments ago.

Through the poisonous fog and acid rain, I reached out toward the only thing I could do – write. Despite my past career in marketing, a graduate degree in business, and an ambition that used to propel me through the narrowest of passageways, my soul gently told me to write books about people, everyday traumas we unintentionally inflict on each other, and relationships starting with the parent and child, my dad and me. I traveled thirteen hours by car, airplane, train, and a night in Manhattan to get myself to a memoir workshop where Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, would be speaking among others. I spent five days at this lovely inn, mostly numb in my exquisite room, a blend of old and new. On the door was the word Spirit.

The ones who managed the inn were soft and loving, made me feel like I belonged right there on the other side of the country from home. They checked in on me when I didn’t come to dinner. “Are you okay? We were concerned about you. Can I bring you something?” the woman asked. Equestrian therapy, massages by a goddess (a young single mother with a singing voice like an angel and a spirit for listening), walks, yoga, reading, seclusion filled my days until it was time to move to the more austere Omega Center for the five-day writing workshop.

This photograph, half blue sky and the other a dense forest with a bright, golden sunflower in the center, reminds me of how far I’ve come. Writing was but a seed three years ago, it was the only direction I could go, and now my book is in its final stages of being completed. I have walked through the darkest forest and come to the other side where blue sky and bright clouds can be seen again.

This trip was magical and not in a euphoric, picture-perfect sense like life used to be. It was magical because I was on my knees like I’d never been before; because I allowed sadness to overtake me and because I allowed the kindness and concern of others to envelop me at a time when I couldn’t meet them at that place. I could only receive and say thank you. It was magical because there was love. It was the love you feel for someone who has done something brave and courageous, it was the love I have for my girls. I allowed myself to love and care for me, for maybe the first time in my life, and it made all the difference.

Father’s Days Gone By

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The day is heavy as it is when it starts off with rain. Water hangs in the air, I can see it but my coat remains dry. Sage pulls on the leash, eager to go for a walk after being housebound too many days due to a cold I can’t seem to shake; the kind that renders you voiceless for days. The neighborhood seems abandoned, not even a car drives by.

Halfway down I hear barking from across the road but keep my head down shuffling thoughts of Father’s Days gone by. This is heavy too. My default expectation is stuck on everyone-all-together; it’s my favorite place. The BBQ, my children’s father, dad, grandfathers, father-in-laws plus our counterparts and children mixed in, is the perfect day. Things have changed since that day. I’m going to see my dad today and how grateful I am I can, yet the pin drop of euphoria from that other day in the past keeps me stuck.

Sage pulls toward the barking and I notice one gentle soul walking his small dog, which is now running across the street. His owner walking slowly behind. We both wave and smile. The man has white hair, lines that bend up toward the color of the ocean under the folds covering his eyes. He is wearing trousers and a Nordic sweater.

“She doesn’t like to walk with the leash, but then runs away when she sees other dogs or cats,” he says. I walk toward him so he can catch her. He is a sparkly one, maybe in his mid to late eighties. This man has been loved but he doesn’t wear a ring.

“You got her now?”

“Yes, thank you for waiting,” he says.
“Hope you have a really great day.” I wanted to wish him happy Father’s Day but I decided against it just in case. He’s the kind of person that draws you in by their gentle energy.

“Have you been to the Tall Ships?” he asks just as I’m about to continue down the hill.

“I haven’t yet, but I’ve seen the pictures,” I tell him. “It looks amazing.”

“Well, it’s not as good as last year. The ships from Argentina and Mexico and Germany didn’t come this year. Last year it was much better,” he tells me.

“I wonder why they didn’t come?”

“I’m not sure. Last year I went and talked to some of the captains and the owners. There was a woman from Germany who owned this great big sailboat. She was quite amazing. And it was great to talk in German as well,” he says as his voice trails off. Anyway, the parking is not great and the access is hard. I would save your money this year,” he warns.

“Okay, well thank you. I’ll take a look when I drive by later. You have a really wonderful day.” I smile as much as I can to show him kindness, that I see him.

“Thank you, you too,” he says with a wide smile. I continue on for a few steps and then turn around to walk backward so I can watch this beautiful man continue back to his home. I gather as much love from the universe as I can hold and send it all to him. I wish I could follow him, listen to his stories, and give him a hug. I wonder if he’s alone or if he has kids, where in Germany he’s from, how he got here to North Tacoma. I wonder if he’s thinking about past Father’s Days and if he has a favorite.

I continue on my walk feeling blessed to have been touched by someone who is closer to heaven than me, who lived well, who was loved, who lets his little dog walk without a leash.

The day feels  lighter.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 8)

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Once they leave with their dad, my house is devastatingly still and silent but for the sound of Sage’s nails clicking the hardwood floor on the way to her bed. I fall onto the couch for time-lapsed hours not sad or relieved or depressed. I feel nothing like someone who just returned home from Normandy, France the summer of 1944. My eyes are open to see my family room with beautiful paintings, purchased at art walks and festivals, of mountains and rivers that hang on every wall, yet I see nothing. I listen for sounds of walkers and runners outside on a Sunday afternoon but hear nothing. Even my mind is still of its normal scrolling and replaying of past events, hypocrisies, and transgressions. I can’t feel my heart beating or blood pulsing through veins. I’m not sure I blink or swallow saliva in my mouth. I’m not sure I’m breathing. Darkness overtakes me, and my house, but I can’t move my arm to pull the string on the lamp next to my body. I’m in a void between the vigilance of fighting for all I have left in an apocalyptic world and the smooth, white light the child in me associates with goodness, purity, protection, God. I stay here until Sage nudges me from my trance hours later, reminds me I need to still take care of her. I get up, turn a light on to chase the darkness away and feed my only witness.

Slowly, I make my way through the empty rooms of my now oversized house in the darkness. Yesterday we occupied every room, the lights twinkled, the house vibrant, alive, and the happy sounds of my children filled the playroom where puzzles and American Girl dolls and dress up clothes gather dust, next to the boxes that remain unopened from our move back home from Sun Valley. I will my legs to step up each stair until I get to the second floor, then scuff bare feet on the beige carpet toward the bathroom. The playroom remains dark now, play a luxury we used to have. I don’t recognize myself in the mirror. This person is emaciated. She has devastated eyes that don’t seem to open like they used to, she can’t choose to smile, she has more lines than the person I used to be. She looks old but for her dark hair. I don’t have the energy to do anything more, not even to wash the mascara smudges from my face. I fall into the king-size bed with the same clothes I woke up in. I occupy a quarter of the space. I sleep on the edge, dreamless and dead to the world I used to belong in. Just go to bed has become a mantra when there is nothing more to do or say or figure out.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 7)

Learning to fly the summer before sixth grade…

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“Hey, let’s go over to the other side of the lake with the guys,” Lisa says.

“Yes, let’s go. Do you want to go too, Janna? I think Jason likes you.”

“Sure,” I say, very unsure of what we are going to do over there that we can’t do right here. And unsure of what “likes you,” means, but I agree to follow nonetheless To be included in the group feels like lying on an air mattress with the sun shining on my face, splashes of cool water on my skin. I can’t remember when the last time someone asked me to come along. There is no way I would say no.

“Let’s go guys,” Monica calls. Eric follows Monica, Nate follows Lisa, and then Jason follows me. We walk the trail through the tall grasses and trees, over fallen logs and cross makeshift bridges covering small streams that funnel into Lake Annette.

“So, where do you live,” Jason asks.

“I live in Federal Way. How about you?”

“I live in Auburn,” he says. We keep talking as we make our way around to where our camp counselors can no longer see us. It’s easier to think of him as just another kid, like a cousin, when I don’t have to look at him. Monica, Lisa, and their companions have disappeared into the forest while I was preoccupied with keeping up in the conversation.

Jason and I reach the spot we all decided to venture to and sit down on a rock to wait for everyone to come back. Jason is almost as tall as my dad and a little heavier than the other two boys. He has light brown hair and a sloped chin. He seems kind of nerdy except he likes to talk about how great he is. The girls and I did a lot of collective eye rolling at the campfire last night. It occurs to me that I’m the only sixth grader in our group of eighth graders. He sits down inside my personal bubble but I don’t want to move or he’ll think I’m weird. I am weird, maybe awkward is a better word, but I’m trying really hard to not to let anyone here in on this secret. Everyone knows this at my school. It’s nice to just be one person in the group for a change. Jason asks questions and I answer while looking into the lake for fish or dead branches to hold onto or the Loch Ness Monster. There are long pauses while he thinks of new questions to ask. Where did Monica and Lisa go?

I haven’t been this close to a boy that actually wanted to talk to me, let alone spoken to one since Kevin in the second grade. Boys don’t like me—and neither do girls for that matter. I’m always the last one to get picked on a team in P.E. Dodgeball is the worst and most played game. The boys love it and are always the captains. I’m the last one picked—literally last—and then I stand in the very back with a bull’s eye on my head. Boys don’t want me on their team, they want me on the other team so they can practice their power shot. They certainly don’t “like me.”

I’m so busy thinking of what to say that I barely notice he’s moved his arm behind my back, scooted a little closer. “Are you warm enough?”

“What?” I turn away from the lake to find his face two inches from mine. Reflexes jump like a doctor tapped my knee.

“Are you warm enough?”

“I’m fine…” I say as I adjust my place on the rock, try to move further away without him noticing. The familiar dread sneaks up on me despite blue sky and big puffy clouds. Where is the Loch Ness Monster anyway? I feel like a deer on alert to rustling in the bushes.

“I really like you. You’re pretty cool,” he says. I look back into the murky lake for an answer. You make every hair on my body stand on end? In one motion he leans into me, drops his head down and puts his mouth on my mouth. I freeze like Bambi seeing hunters for the first time. The motor buried deep within starts trembling. His lips are touching mine and then his front teeth hit my front teeth. I can feel air coming out of his nose. There’s no air coming out of me. I forget to breathe, I forget where I am, and I forget that I can choose to move my body. My inside-self leaves the scene to figure out what I should do. I haven’t even seen the “Birds and the Bees” film at school yet. That’s sixth grade, next year. I had no bloody idea this is what was coming. I’ve been set up.

He scoots even closer to me. Just as I start to close my mouth to say that I think we should go back, his hand pushes my head forward and his tongue touches my tongue, stretches to my tonsils. It’s like a garden slug in my grandmother’s flowerbeds—slimy, thick, slow. The ones I pour salt on and watch curl up into a slimy ball. His tongue is writhing just like Morton’s has been poured down his throat. Peanut butter and jelly bubbles in my esophagus.

Instincts take over, my spirit reenters my body, and my head is yanked back by invisible forces. I am freed of the slug in my mouth. Luckily, I didn’t bite it off or throw up. That would have been harder to explain, embarrassing. “Um…we better get back to the camp. It’s probably getting close to dinner,” although the sun is still shining overhead. I put my hands on the rock and get up in one rapid movement like I’m doing a back handspring—if I could actually do gymnastics. I don’t wait for a response or even register his reaction. I want to wash my mouth out with the bacteria-laden lake water but secretly vow to spit this slime into the bushes as soon as it’s physically possible. Until then I hold it in my mouth. Mine has gone dry anyway.

“Wait,” Jason says. I stop to wait, to play it cool like I’m not so repulsed by what just happened that I can’t think straight. I concentrate on not letting his saliva drip out of my mouth.

“I’m waiting. I thought I heard Monica and Lisa, but it must have been a deer or something.” We walk back to camp in half the time it took to get here. I lead again. This time there’s no chitchat. I go straight into my tent and start reading my book, safe by myself inside my sleeping bag. When Monica and Lisa come back I tell them about what happened with Jason, at least the version of what could have happened if I were two years older than I am—not a kid who fell into a rabbit hole.

“You know, Jason is really nice but there’s another guy I like and so it was kind of weird.”

“Oh, tell us about this other guy,” Lisa says, her eyes sparkle, forgetting about her new backpacking boyfriend’s friend. Who knows what her at-home boyfriend is doing on the weekdays.

“He’s going into seventh grade next year. He has light brown, feathered hair. He lives in Kent and he’s really cute,” I say picking up details as I go. “I feel really bad about Jason. Will you tell him there’s someone else?” Words come out of my mouth like I know what I’m talking about. Being a reader helps everything, including instructions on getting through the most awkward of situations. Or maybe it came from watching General Hospital last summer. I’m learning how to do and say things like other people do and say things, like the characters in the books I read, television shows and movies I’ve seen. I’m learning how to watch, listen, and mimic my new, older more mature friends. I learn how to orient myself to the one who knows how things work.

“I will,” Monica jumps in. “It’s kind of weird that he just up and kissed you without warning.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t like that. That’s totally gross.” Lisa adds.

“Yes. You’re supposed to wait for signs that the other person likes you too, right?”

“Yeah, he definitely didn’t follow protocol.” I don’t say any more. In only twenty-four hours in backpacking camp I’ve learned it’s better to let other people fill in the details about what I’m thinking. The less I say the better. Just smile and things usually work out.

The Life Reshuffle…

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Divorce was the nightmare I didn’t remember in the morning until I was shoved into the front seat of the big screen called my life. It felt like being kicked out of the tribe, it felt like death — the death of my husband, my own death, my family, my community of friends, my home, my life projection, of my family’s collective innocence; it’s the death of every single thing I understood about who I was and what my life consisted of past, present, and future. Every memory, experience, decision, conversation, and even thoughts had to be reshuffled through this new reality.

The world you thought you lived in crumbles before your eyes yet no one else can see it. There is nothing to hold on to. The ones who haven’t been there don’t know (just like I didn’t know) and the ones that have, well most can’t look too closely at something that caused complete destruction once upon a time. This is called the hero’s journey, a spiritual transformation where the person you thought you were is hurled into the abyss to disintegrate. You didn’t get to choose your path because who the hell would choose that?

But, once you accept this new reality, you allow yourself to feel your broken heart, you finally get some choices once again. You get to choose to stay there decimated by the aftermath or fly out from the ashes like the phoenix of Greek mythology. The one glitch in the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ argument is you get to choose how long to stay under the fray as well. It has been said that the phoenix can remain in the ashes for up to 1,400 years. It’s only been three years for me. It took forty-five years of layers to become the person I was before the earth spun off its axis, it might take some more time before I’m ready to fly once again.

You don’t realize those layers of certainty were holding you up until you are shaken to your core. It’s okay to start again. Grace and compassion and love for who you are, what you’ve been through, and the journey ahead is required. And, who knows, maybe at the end of this life there will be a special room with fancier snacks and a view for those who’ve had to fly through the abyss. Maybe. xo

“Divorce is far more than simply a change in family structure. It’s a reorganization of your entire life. Your entire self. It’s a massive transformation. A time when everything is called into question and nothing is certain. It’s also an opportunity. A crack in the bedrock allowing a change in course, an alteration of spirit. You can stay at rock bottom. Or you can choose to build.”

https://www.divorceforce.com/article/5-things-you-don-t-understand-about-divorce-until-you-ve-lived-through-it-by-lisa-arends

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 6)

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I’ve been taking care of our life without this guy for at least three years and I can continue to do it without dragging him along, heels dug in. I can let go of him and do what I know how to do—love and care for my girls, hold on to them. Good riddance.

This understanding fills me and I run faster and deeper into the trees, through mud, and over logs. Control and empowerment give me temporary strength. Time stands still. I can do all the life things without him. I can take care of my girls and pets and house even with the leaks and moss and the weathering from the rain. I have and I can.

As if a breeze of confidence calls my subconscious from the deep ocean within, doubt leaks inside my ship. But what if he’s hiding money, I hear another voice call to the surface? What if he disappears altogether? What if he leaves you with nothing? What will you do then? You’ll have to get a new house and they’ll have to change schools and get new friends—or worse, they won’t have friends. What if you have to leave your girls every day to go back to work? Remember how much you used to work, how hard it was to stop at the end of the day, the weeks spent traveling from New Jersey to Chicago and Sacramento and Denver? How will you hold on to them if you’re consumed with putting your life back together? You know how this will turn out, the voice says.

I’m a hard worker, loyal, passionate, and have lots of experience—I can get a job. But, I also know for sure I can’t work like I used to work and take care of my girls like I’ve been able to take care of them—by myself in the suburbs where my kids have their friends and activities and school. Any major change after this year will be a final blow. I can’t pick them up and move them without serious repercussions to their fragile psyche—they are experiencing trauma just like I am. The only thing more traumatic to a kid than divorce is the death of a parent and right now it feels like there’s been a death without the balm of love and kindness that surrounds a family in loss. I can’t even summon the wherewithal to hold myself together, how will I prove myself at a new job AND keep them together? Bang! The thunder stops me. My stomach seizes because I know the guy I’m married to is capable of leaving me with nothing. He doesn’t care. He’s gone.

This terrifying path starts to track like a Survivor course: my kids are abandoned by their father who lives in Florida now, I resume my career, we are pulled further and further away from the life we know. They feel emotionally abandoned by their mother. They see him once a year and have a stepmother (or stepmothers) who doesn’t want them around, scares them and doesn’t let them close to their dad; they are untethered in this world and start to rely on only themselves. They turn inside out and their true selves—sweet, curious, and trusting—disappear into the world. They fall down the rabbit hole of statistics on children and divorce: they can’t deal with the stress so they leave their body and turn against themselves (and me), they’re angry and distraught, school becomes too hard, they have issues with peers, get bullied, start smoking pot and drinking beer or Jack Daniels with Coke in a red plastic cup to belong; they sleep with boyfriends to feel connected, smile and shove who they are so far out of reach, they don’t remember who they once were, they marry someone only capable of loving themselves, they don’t remember their light, or worse they give it all away because it doesn’t seem worth holding on to…

I stop walking because I can’t be in this nightmare, use my muscles, and breathe at the same time. I am me now, reeling from the disaster called my life; I am my younger self trying to hold on, and I am my girls. Is this just the beginning? Will I lose my girls like I lost my parents—shells discarded from a long ago ecosystem scattered hundreds of miles by the rhythm of the tides?

I see myself on a deserted island after the storm that raged for days and I am pulled under fifty-foot waves, black and white, charcoal and gray, resurfacing for seconds of breath until I am washed up to the shore choking, barely breathing, lost, alone, wrecked. Am I destined to be left on a deserted island, unworthy of rescue? Will my girls be by themselves, repeating the story because their father left them and their mother was decimated by the aftermath?

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 4)

 

Morgan

They leave. The room is quiet again, the faint sounds of adult voices carry from the backyard. I want to forget this night. I get my blue satin nightgown with white lace stitched to the seams out of the drawer, slide it on, and get in bed to hide under the crumpled covers. I pull the clean sheets and blanket all the way up to my nose, even though it’s twice as hot in my bedroom than it is outside. I go to sleep thinking about meeting Penny tomorrow. Penny is my stepdad’s parents’ old mare who I get to learn how to ride. My mom showed me pictures of her. She’s dark brown with a slightly darker mane and tail. She’s as tall as my dad, double my size. My mom bought me a white cowboy hat with a blue feather in it to wear.

No matter what side of the growing fault line I am on, I no longer feel safe in my home, in my room, in my body at not quite ten years old. My awareness is growing and it doesn’t feel like a blessing. I am naked, stripped of the innocence childhood is supposed to insulate until we learn to protect ourselves. My innate goodness is not valid at my mom’s house or at home with my stepmother—I’m the stepchild, the ‘guest’ on the invitation to the party. “Be good, stay out of the way, do what you’re told or there will be consequences.” These are the rules. The consequences feel dire: your parent could leave you or die or not come back for you.

I feel uncoordinated and heavy, too big and awkward and at best invisible; I am a burden to those who are assigned to take care of me. I am a burden to my dad, to my mom, to my stepmother, to my stepfather. I understand I am expendable and to ask to be listened to, to be loved is too great a risk, the answer I get could splinter my illusions. My only option is to wait on the good deeds of those who are responsible for me at any point in time—to be happy with what’s rationed.

As if breathing in the smell of rain on sidewalks or dust on a lonely road can fill you with what you need to know to survive, I learn to not need anything or anyone, to arrange myself to stay hidden and silent, to stay out of the way so that I don’t attract attention. I learn to do whatever I need to do to hold on tight, never expecting anyone to hold on to me. If it is to be, it’s up to me.

 

“Good morning!” my mom chirps from the stove. She’s making scrambled eggs and toast, sliced peaches wait on the table covered in yellow cotton, with a sugar bowl, a vase of pink roses, and a crystal pitcher of squeezed oranges all arranged in the center. “We’re going to Pep and Artie’s house today. Pep said he’ll have Penny saddled up and ready for you to learn to ride.”

“Me too?” my brother asks.

“Yes, of course, Jeffrey. We might be able to get Pep to give you a ride on his tractor too.” Jeff’s face lights up on the word tractor. He likes nothing more than to play with his cars and dump trucks in the dirt, roads excavated in every direction.

“What should I wear?”

“Jeans and tennis shoes will be fine. I think we’re going to stay in the arena today.” I’ve never been near a real horse before, only the one when I was little that had springs and rocked back and forth. It was my favorite.

“She’s a natural,” Pep tells my mom as he holds the lead and old Penny saunters in a circle around him. “She’s going to be a great rider, I can tell.” In fact, I am a horse girl. Who knew? I can’t get enough and Pep is the consummate teacher: patient, kind to me and his beloved horses, always welcoming and positive. By the time I’m in eighth grade, my mom and stepdad have ten acres on the same property as his parents and aunts, in a house they had built while living in a camping trailer for a year. Most days I will walk the mile long dirt road to Pep’s barn while my mom is doing payroll at her job in town. I can disappear on the back of a horse, into the puffy clouds that float so close to the sun.

Summer after summer Pep teaches me how to have confidence in my ability to care for another, how to keep myself from falling, how to stand in my own power. Every summer, Pep teaches me about grace. Learning to ride a horse is at the top of The Things That Saved Me list. I learn to lure the horse with a bucket of oats and put the lead rope over its neck and nose. I pull Bay Boy from the grass he grazes, brush and groom his dusty coat. I coax the bit into his mouth, wind the bridle around his head and ears; eventually I am strong enough to heave the saddle above my head by myself, cinch it tight around his belly, wait and cinch it tighter before I shove my foot in the stirrup and lift myself onto his back to a higher vantage point than normal life. Pep teaches me the signals his horses know so well: lean forward or back to go faster or slow down, tap the left or the right with your heel while gently moving the reigns held in one hand to one side or the other to make a turn, pull back or right or left on the reigns for corrections or changing direction. He teaches me how to post when the horse trots, eventually riding in an English saddle. My stepdad’s father teaches me how to fly on the back of a horse through the wheat fields that surround their property, through gates held by barbed wire and the Walla Walla River, through the wall I am building to protect myself. Every summer I will spend my time wondering when I can ride again. “Tomorrow?” And, I will spend the rest of the year figuring out how I can get a horse of my own.

“It won’t cost too much. We can just pay someone to keep it in their barn, buy a little hay. I will do everything. Pppllleeeaaassseee can I get a horse?” I will beg my dad long after I am supposed to be asleep, while he tries to watch the eleven o’clock news.

Please Hold On To Me: A Memoir (post 3)

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It feels like I’ve barely survived a natural disaster of calamitous proportions, seeking refuge from bitter winds, torrential rain, plummeting temperatures. My house a shelter, the last safe place. Although I’ve never been directly affected by hurricane winds and flooding or had my house crumble in front of me, I imagine those shattering situations to be better than what’s happening right now, regardless of how soft my couch feels, how lovely the vacations, or beautiful the view. All I’ve ever wanted is to go through life’s ups and downs with the person I love. I imagine we could get through anything, even a natural disaster, holding on to each other and our children but that is no longer the case for me.

It’s supposed to be us taking on the world, not us taking on us, as it’s been all too often in my life. The person who promised to hold my heart, and I his, changed his mind and got on the last flight out. I am left holding onto everything we built together – except his business but he credits only himself in that endeavor. I am ever grateful for the life we chose together and all that has been bestowed to me but I would trade it all to joyously raise my girls with the man I love and who truly loves me.

My parents were divorced. It was my dad who got full custody of my younger brother and me when I was almost five. The actual event was barely a drizzle raining down from Seattle skies. It wasn’t their divorce per se, but the constant drip of stress and smaller traumas that slowly poisoned my childhood, eighteen years summed up with one word.

For my generation, whose childhood spanned the 1970s and 80s, divorce is hardly remarkable. It happens so often; forty to fifty percent of couples break apart, a number that rose exponentially from less than twenty percent in the 1950s. Divorce is old news, hardly worth mentioning anymore. From the outside it’s just a light dusting of snow on the lowland hills, only a change in seasons – short-lived and life resumes once everyone is settled. “When are you going to move on, Janna, it’s over,” said one of my closest friends at the time, like I had food poisoning six months ago and keep making myself sick for attention. What? Although well-meaning, I’m sure, my friend’s comment speaks to our collective naivety of what it means to be forcefully extricated from the life you live, and imagined you’d live until your time here on earth is done. In the game of Life, you go back at least twenty spaces. I don’t have to choose my career path again, thankfully I took the college route, and I already have three pink pegs in my blue car, but I do have to go back too many spaces to be counted as a mere setback.

To say divorce is unremarkable negates the impact it has on one million kids per year whose parents try to start life over, ending their connection to each other and often times to their family. If it’s your parents, your kids, your life, it’s shattering. Many times, the parent who doesn’t have custody feels the immediate heartbreak most acutely, the children not quite aware of what’s happening and the parent with custody can briefly forget within the routines of parenting, respite from the ache. A lack of awareness is a blessing and a curse. In my case, it was my mom who was pushed out and then gave up on being a parent to look for solace in new bonds and a new life free of guilt and shame and loneliness. But in most cases at that time and now, it’s the dad who is kicked out of the tribe – first in moving away from the family and then by emotional bitterness setting him up for failure in holding the connection to his children. Ultimately it’s the child, millions of kids, it was me, and now my three girls who lose the most.

We all have the one thing we say we will NEVER do, ever. We will do whatever it takes to avoid this horrible thing we experienced as a child. We will bound to the top of snow-covered mountains or crawl through a waterless desert, navigate the greatest storm in a rowboat but we will never let this one thing happen. This was my thing – never, never, never will I get divorced and put my kids in a situation where they question the love of either of their parents, where they have to grow up faster than they are supposed to. “Really, God? This is where I am going? This path right here despite it all?” I look up into the gray clouds to ask these questions daily. I am incredulous. My only solace is that maybe within our one tragic-awful-catastrophic-heart-shattering-calamitous-no-way-never thing is where we ultimately find wisdom, acceptance of life and ourselves, grace. Even so, it doesn’t seem fair but who am I to argue? I have to concede that this life is my life and, yes, I must move on as best as I can.

When I was young I felt responsible to hold onto my dad, my only available parent, but I was just a kid. Our deepest need is to be attached, to belong. The only power I had was to sit quietly and wait for him to hold on to me until I couldn’t wait anymore, I had to grow up despite the conditions. This one gut-wrenching year when my own marriage fell apart gave me the gift to go back in time to parent myself through my dad’s three divorces and loss of his fourth wife from cancer, to give myself what I’d desperately needed as a kid – to be held onto by both parents. This time I did have the power to change the trajectory for my girls. I had the power to hold them close so they didn’t have to choose to hold on to their parents or to grow up – two essential imperatives hardwired from the beginning and should never be mutually exclusive. It was my responsibility to hold onto my girls, and despite every raw instinct to keep them safe from the person who was hurting me more than I thought possible, it was my responsibility to keep them connected to their dad. No one, not even me, can replace a parent.