A year after my mom passed away, my brother and I sat down to do the laborious work of going through the boxes of things she had kept over the years. There were four large boxes full of keepsakes: letters, photographs, newspaper articles, notes written on scraps of paper and works of childhood art created by Patton and me. We quickly found ourselves immersed in memories attached to feelings of joy, admiration, grief, dismay and even anger.
These boxes opened up both the wonders and the wounds of our childhood. For us, like so many, these two are in an inextricable knot.
We found our father’s license to minister and sat in silence over the absurdity.
We found elementary school report cards, noting the teacher’s observations that we were not okay.
We found dozens and dozens of letters from our maternal grandmother and aunt expressing veiled concern for our well-being in their attempts to skirt under the ever-watchful eyes of our father.
We found at least 20 Valentine’s Day cards our father gave to our mother, expressing love and devotion that surely meant nothing to her in the face of all the pain and suffering he caused.
And we found our own notes and letters – written to one or both of our parents from early childhood into adulthood.
It was uncomfortable for me to read these letters and see more clearly than ever before the work I was committed to as a child and young adult – the work of holding my parents up when they were down.
And they were almost always down.
There were hastily written notes of love and encouragement from my teenage years attached to gifts of money from me to my father. Even though I presented them as such, they weren’t really gifts. My father expected me to hand over to him much of what I earned through odd jobs, babysitting and house cleaning with my mom.
Mom even kept a note I wrote late one night in high school…hastily on a scrap piece of paper apologizing to my father for getting angry with him when he wrecked the car and didn’t have the means to fix it.
As we sifted through Mom’s boxes, I came across a letter I’d written to my parents when I was 11 and in sixth grade. This was the year that my father’s money-making schemes truly failed him, as the women’s clothing store he’d opened the year before (named Kaysie’s…for the love) was upside-down financially before it even began, and dad’s work ethic wasn’t such that he could or would ever turn it right-side up.
And the creditors came calling.
They’d had enough.
I can’t say that I blame them. My father accrued massive amounts of debt throughout his life and then ran away from the consequences… dragging his family with him as he ran. This instance of bankruptcy was the first of three for our family.
Why people continued to loan him money is beyond me.
Of course, with bankruptcy comes repossession, and the bank repossessed our house.
Our beloved Archwood house.
Here’s the letter I wrote:
I actually don’t remember writing this. I don’t remember thinking that everything would be okay. I don’t remember feeling grateful for all the things my parents had done for me, and I certainly don’t remember thinking they were moving us for my own good. I don’t remember telling my parents that “I can take it if you can.” Instead, I remember feeling afraid and angry.
Reflecting on it now, I realize it wasn’t so much the loss of the house that broke me. It was the loss of the neighborhood. It was the loss of belonging somewhere. But mostly it was the lie my parents told me in their attempt to soothe my pain – this was happening for my good and God was in control of these events that so clearly were the fault of my father.
Once we left Archwood, we never gained a true sense of belonging again, and their lie made me believe that God was responsible for that. We were displaced emotionally as well as physically for the rest of my childhood – moving no less than ten times over the following six years. We finally landed in Colorado my senior year of high school, and it was there that I felt the sense of belonging I’d been searching for ever since the loss of the kudzu-covered green belt I’d spent so much of my elementary years exploring and running to for my sense of calm. Living in rental houses, apartments, the empty houses of strangers who were traveling, and a random one-bedroom cottage for a month in California – shuffling our ever-diminishing stash of possessions with us as we moved – doesn’t exactly cultivate a sense of belonging. We were received with love and kindness almost everywhere we went, which I know is more than many in similar circumstances ever get, but when we lost Archwood, I lost the sense of who I was in the world and struggled to find it again for the next 15 years.
Also, with this letter I embraced a lie of my own that I’ve struggled to disentangle myself from ever since.
The best version of me is the only acceptable version of me.
I took it upon myself to present to my family a strong front. I kept my emotions in check, I stuffed the pain of loss, displacement, neglect and loneliness, and I turned instead to positivity, chronic busy-ness, levity and false hope in order to protect my parents – and worse, to protect God – from the “bigness” of my true feelings.
And I chose to believe my parents had my best interests in mind.
But they didn’t.
They had survival in mind.
I knew this deep within my core and so reasoned that I needed to be one less thing. It became my mission to be small for the sake of my parents.
Only I’m not small. In fact, I can swallow a room with my essence if I’m not careful.
At the age of 49, as I read the letter I’d written as an eleven-year old girl, I was no longer able to hold back the bigness of my true self – the despair, fear, panic and rage I’d really felt when I wrote it.
And these emotions swallowed me.
This has been happening a lot lately.
In therapy, I was finally given a term for this experience of overwhelm from the big feelings associated with the pain of my childhood – emotional flashback. These flashbacks are different from what others describe experiencing when dealing with PTSD. There isn’t a visual component for me. I’m not reliving a particular moment in my memory. The reel isn’t replaying in my head. Instead, a tidal wave of emotions I can’t associate with a particular instance washes over me. Being unable to connect these feelings with a moment in my past makes me feel out of control. Not my favorite feeling. Then there are the times when something painful in the present triggers an emotional flashback, and I find myself caught in the tension between the present and the past. This is the worst of it because then I feel I’ve lost control over both.
My therapist is slowly and very patiently showing me that the path to healing is to embrace the eleven-year old I left behind when I wrote that letter… with all of her big, painful emotions and her sense of loss over the necessary move. And to embrace the three-year old who felt responsible for easing her mom’s constant state of overwhelm. And the eight-year old who felt it necessary to watch over her little brother and fill in the nurturing holes in his life our parents could not or would not fill. And the six-year old who thought it was her job to stop her father’s drinking, to stay vigilant in his presence and ever-watchful for signs of danger, and to motivate him to make something of his life.
To nurture the child in me is to let go of my attempts to continue to control the state of my being and to present more than the parts of me that feel safe enough and together enough for others to see.
It is my work in therapy and my work with God – trusting in the end that He is with me, was with me (in the pain He did not create) and loves whatever version of me I make available for Him to love.
This work is so very hard to do.
But as I do it, I find that my hold on the lie I have believed is loosening. I don’t have to always present my best self. Or maybe I’m learning to redefine what my best self is. God has been kind to place safe-enough people in my world that love me despite my big-ness, despite my brokenness. In fact, I’m beginning to see that they love me because of those things. When I let them love me, I let God love me. And that is my best self.