I’ve dedicated the last decade of my life to reclaiming my personal power, each step on the path made visible on this blog in the hopes that others might also find their way into a healthier, happier, more effective life.
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
It’s been an extraordinary journey, one I hope will never end as long as I’m breathing.
At the heart of personal power is our ability to choose.
I’ve always been aware of how uncomfortable I am choosing for anyone other than myself. For years I wasn’t able to choose effectively for myself; nothing in me wanted the power to choose for others. Hand-in-hand with this part of my experience is an automatic, knee-jerk stubbornness and opposition to those who try to choose for me or anyone else. It’s been a longstanding family joke: Don’t tell me what to do!
I’ve never been friendly toward this kind of authority.
As a parent I was unwilling to take on the role of a policewoman. I wanted my sons, as teenagers, to use their excellent brains and make their own choices, then deal with their own consequences. As I raised them, it slowly dawned on me the choices I made as a mom, though I always believed they were in the best interests of my sons, might have been wrong for them. I began to realize how much time we all spend in frustration over what those around us should and shouldn’t do, including our kids. I decided to stop discussing what others should choose. I still noticed the commentary in my head, but I got better at not letting it out of my mouth.
One day, I looked at my eldest son, who was going through a bad patch, and heard myself say, “I want the best for you, but I don’t know what that is.” I recognized that was the truth, and felt humbled. It broke my heart to see him struggling and unhappy. I would have done anything to have “helped.” But I didn’t trust my motives. Of course I knew what I thought he should do, but was I looking for him to feel better or for him to make me feel better? I couldn’t be sure. I just wanted things to be better. Wanted it desperately, but I also wanted him to figure out how to help himself.
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I’m very aware of the word ‘should.’ I cut it out of my writing. I cut it out of my thoughts and speech. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a toxic word. I don’t apply it to myself and I don’t apply it to others. It never fails to appear when I’m arguing with what is or have otherwise stepped out of my own rightful power and am trying to control a situation that’s not mine to manage. It also shows up when I’m being mean to myself.
Now, suddenly, I find myself in a position of needing to make choices for a loved one who at this moment is not able to choose for themselves.
This is not like choice-making for my children. Kids are pretty resilient. I knew I would made mistakes as a parent, and I did. But I could always choose again. With small children, there’s a long future in which to reconsider, make new rules, learn in real time. I wasn’t uncomfortable with it. As they grew up, I gave them more and more power to choose for themselves and stepped back while they experienced the consequences of their choices.
Now they’re adults, and it’s harder. Now I really have nothing to say about their choices as men in the world. It’s not my business. Some of their choices are, to my mind, tragic and self-destructive, and I’m afraid for possible consequences. I’m afraid for my own pain and grief if some of those consequences occur. But I accept the only power I have is to love them and make sure they know it.
And making choices for an aging loved one is different again. The fear I’ll do it wrong is terrible. I’m working in a lifetime context where I never did do anything right, so I’m fighting that old dynamic every minute while I calmly go about gathering tools, resources and information. I know I’ll do my best and I’m confident in my own abilities and the strength of my love and intention, but choice is dynamic. It takes time to choose, observe outcomes, consider what could be better, and choose again.
I don’t know how much time I have. I don’t know how much time I want.
Working with a frail, injured, confused senior feels brittle. I may not have time to manage choice and outcome. Not only that, but when I choose for myself if I’m unhappy with the consequences I only have myself to blame; I bear all the outcomes, which is as it should be. But if we must choose for someone else, they must experience the consequences of our choice. And that’s a heavy burden for me. I feel enormous pressure to choose well, to not make anything worse, while at the same time I can’t see choices that will make anything much better.
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As I struggle with all this, mid-term elections have occurred and the final votes are being counted. The news is full of debate, discussion, and violence revolving around limiting choice and forcing “choice.” As always, I cannot get my head around people who think it’s okay to impose their ideology on others. I support freedom of personal choice (as long as it doesn’t harm others) in most circumstances. I wouldn’t impose my beliefs or choices on others. The idea is appalling. But I also don’t accept anyone has the right to restrict my access to vote or what I do with my reproductive ability. I refuse to comply with such imposition, even if it becomes law. You might as well arrest me right now.
A conversation recently took place at the pool facility where I work between a woman of child-bearing age and a male senior. She asked him why he thought it was okay for him to decide she couldn’t get an abortion when the choice was personal and had absolutely nothing to do with him. He said such a choice would hurt his feelings.
This drops my jaw. I don’t know whether to let rage catch my hair on fire or laugh. It hurts his feelings when people make choices incongruent with his belief system and ideology? Or it hurts his feelings when women are empowered? Or it hurts his feelings when he can’t control what others choose? Or he feels entitled to never have his feelings hurt?
Wow. Just wow.
Choice. It’s so easy to say to others, or to think, they should do this, or this, or the other. So easy. But I never wanted to run the world. I only wanted to be in charge of myself. Now a loved one needs me to be there for them, and I will be there every step of the way, giving it my best, just as I always have. But it’s not fun. I don’t want the power. I accept I’m the right one to have the power, but I never wanted it. How can I possibly know what’s best for another human being? How can any of us have the arrogance to think we know what’s best for everyone in every circumstance, let alone anyone in any circumstance? At times I can barely choose wisely for myself, let alone anyone else.
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I’ve been thinking about authenticity during the last couple of weeks.
What, exactly, does it mean?
Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as the “quality of being genuine or real.”
It seems simple enough, until one pauses to think about what “real” means, especially in the current cultural and political context of “alternative facts” and disinformation.
Recently I went through all my old photographs from the days when we took our film somewhere and had it developed. As I thumbed through photos of the first fifty years of my life, looking at all those younger versions of myself in the context of family, friends, and places, I was struck (not for the first time) by how one-dimensional a photograph is. One single moment in time recorded visually. As I was there when the picture was taken, I remember the emotional context of those recorded moments, the relationships, the quality of my experience; but showing the pictures to someone else is like taking the cover off a book and trying to convey the story with just that.
We know this, yet we continue to take selfies and be utterly seduced by pretty pictures, nowadays filtered, air-brushed, and otherwise enhanced. Some part of us believes in that fantasy, envies it, longs for it.
Is a picture authenticity?
No, of course not. But my pictures do record visual moments in a real life: My childhood, long-dead pets, family, trips, school years, my first job, my first day at college, and my years raising two sons. A real person experienced all that, but not quite the same real person I am today.
Authenticity, then, changes as we change. We age, we grow, we learn, people around us come and go, we move from place to place.
I think of authenticity as a positive quality, one to aspire to and practice. I admire real people, and find them attractive. In some relationships, however, practicing authenticity is dangerous and severely punished. When children repeatedly experience negative consequences for their authenticity, they are effectively crippled in their ability to self-express and form healthy attachments. In order to survive emotionally, they create a pseudo self.
For some, being real or genuine is a horrifying risk. Here is a quote from Patricia Evans, author of Controlling People:
“I have heard many people … say that even when they use all their strength to maintain patience, to carefully articulate their truth, to share their deepest feelings, to explain their personal reality … they don’t receive understanding but instead encounter disparagement, subtle trivializing, or outright rage. People with excellent communication skills, sensitivity, and honesty can’t “get through.” … the Controller experiences this depth of authenticity as an enormous assault.”
When we are children, our sense of self is curated by the adults around us. Too many children internalize relentless criticism and contempt from their caregivers and carry it into adulthood in the form of a vicious internal critic. In this case, what feels like authenticity becomes a lie based on negative beliefs. The genuine, worthy human being is invisible, especially to him or herself, under a crust of trauma and abuse that’s so old it feels real. Ironically, a palliative for this is to risk authenticity with a healthy other and be able to hear a challenge to the false beliefs obscuring our true selves. Sometimes a loving, compassionate onlooker can see us much more clearly than we see ourselves.
I found an article in Psychology Today about authenticity that was thought-provoking. The author lists qualities of authentic people, including emotional intelligence, the ability to learn, and being able to perceive reality.
Perceiving reality has become an enormous cultural problem recently, as you may have noticed! It makes sense that a person practicing authenticity must be able to recognize what’s real and genuine externally as well as internally.
Being authentic sounds so easy. A simple choice. I haven’t realized before writing this post how difficult it is. We can’t choose it if we don’t know what it is, and discovering what’s real, both inside and outside us, is a daunting challenge.
Authenticity is approached by many paths. The practice of minimalism is one. Peeling away layers of stuff and clutter leads to peeling away toxic habits, thoughts, feelings and beliefs, which helps us peel away weight, addictions, dysfunctional relationships, and a multitude of other unhealthy debris.
Another road to authenticity is creativity. I myself discovered decades ago I’m incapable of expressing anything but truth in my writing, particularly journaling for my eyes alone. Our creative work can expose our deepest selves.
Yet another path is emotional intelligence and healing old trauma. The habits of mindfulness and self-inquiry, the willingness to reveal our scars and wounds and express the truth of our experience to others, help us discern the difference between who we really are, who someone told us we are, who we’re afraid we are, and who we wish we could be.
As I work on my new site (yes, yes, it’s coming!), one of the things I’m working with is reorganizing and recategorizing my content, which amounts to 250 posts. Going through all this content chronologically, starting at the beginning with my first post during the summer of 2016, has been a fascinating and lengthy process. Each post is entirely authentic, but I can clearly see change and progress from week to week, month to month, year to year. The woman who wrote that first post is not quite the woman who writes this one. Yet both are (were) practicing authenticity.
I can’t think of anyone more authentic than a newborn baby. Maybe life is a journey from a state of absolute, completely innocent authenticity, through chaos and identity confusion and enormous cultural and societal pressures, and gradual reclamation of who we were born to be, less innocent, but more fully ourselves, as we grow old.
Certainly, I feel more authentic in this moment than I did when I wrote my first blog post. Will I be more authentic yet in a year? In two years? In five?
Interestingly, my new site says “A Journey Into Power” on the landing page, and authenticity is one of my categories. To be seen, heard, and loved for our real selves is a core human need, a longing we all share.
The power of authenticity. My daily crime.
Family time this Christmas took the shape of phone calls and e-mails. I don’t live near any of my family now, though they are often in my thoughts and prayers. I noticed, during one of these phone calls, a pattern I’d not been fully conscious of before.
When someone asks me what I’ve been doing with myself, what’s occupying my attention and time, I’m tongue tied. Something about that question stops me in my tracks. I hear myself give a stilted what-I-did-during-my-summer-vacation kind of report rather than a true, heartfelt answer. After these conversations, I feel like an idiot. I love hearing about what my loved ones are up to. Why can’t I give an honest answer to the same question? What’s in my way?
The answers to that (so far) are complicated, and interesting, and sad.
One thing I can say is I much prefer listening to others rather than talking about myself. Talking about myself is embarrassing. Underneath the embarrassment is my persistent feeling of being a freak. All my life I’ve felt I don’t fit in very well, and all my life I’ve endeavored to hide that fact. The best way to do that is to keep the focus firmly away from me!
Whoever or whatever I was existed only in a tiny cage in the center of an ongoing hurricane of necessity and demand. I could talk (a lot) about doing. I had few chances to just stop and be, and if I did, I felt ashamed of wasting time and making no contribution to anyone else.
This, of course, is absolutely normal for women in this culture. The expectation is women with children, women with partners, women with family elders, live in just this way. It’s what women are for, and I asked for nothing better. It gave me great pleasure to take care of others, manage relationships, and live up to expectations, my own as well as everyone else’s.
What I didn’t realize until I stopped living that way was the terrible price I would pay for stepping out of that role and choosing to live for myself. Now, when someone asks me what I’m doing with my life, the true answer is NOT taking care of anyone else. NOT managing the lives of others. NOT burning myself out in unending emotional labor. I am able to choose Failing To Please anyone but myself.
Now I’m being. I’m meeting my own needs. I’m still busy, but not with running errands, doing housework, and general caregiving. I’m creating a life plan in the context of holistic decision making. I’m making a writing business plan as part of my life plan. I’m taking SEO tutorials and applying what I’ve learned to this blog. I’m taking tutorials on Excel and making spreadsheets as part of my writing business plan. I’m reading. I’m writing. I’m herding cats. I’m looking out the window. I’m doing midwinter ritual and welcoming the returning light. I’m loving people. I’m loving myself. I’m exercising. I’m searching for an editor and agent. I’m submitting writing for publication. I’m looking through seed catalogs.
The part of me shaped by the overculture is deeply ashamed by these honest answers to what I’m doing with my life.
I was not able to be responsible for myself while taking on responsibility for others. Maybe some women can balance successfully between self and others, but I couldn’t. The demands were too many and too great. For a long time, I chose to be responsible to others without counting the personal cost, but then things changed, my kids grew up, and I committed the ultimate act of selfishness and betrayal.
I chose to begin taking responsibility for myself and let go of managing others. Managing, not loving.
Doing more of what I want to do (and less of what I don’t want to do) seems to be unforgivably selfish.
When my kids moved out to live with their father and finish high school, I was completely lost. Being their mother was my biggest piece of identity. Without them, I collapsed like a wet paper doll. That collapse was also a rebirth. With the help of friends, time, and my community, I gradually began to excavate who I was apart from a single mother, a daughter, a sister, a romantic partner. I discovered a woman I’d never had time to get to know, a complete person in her own right. I liked that woman. I loved her. I wanted to share her, proudly, with my loved ones.
But somehow I couldn’t, and can’t. I struggle with a largely unspoken (directly to me, anyway) background vibe of disapproval, resentment and wounded feelings. For the most part, my needs and choices aren’t openly challenged, yet reclaiming my power to have needs and make choices is met with a feeling of subtle withdrawal and withholding of true connection from some of those who have known me for decades.
I’ve written before about Baba Yaga, a crone figure from Slavic European folklore. The world is full of women like me, an army of Baba Yagas. We are postmenopausal and no longer objects of sexual or procreative interest. We are a generation of grandmothers, either literally or figuratively. We’ve learned and suffered much, and have a storehouse of wisdom. At our best, we’re earthy, bawdy, rich in experience and texture, honest, and direct. We can laugh at ourselves. We take tears and tantrums in our stride. We’ve made friends with ebb and flow, cycles and seasons, life and death. We are largely invisible and frequently undervalued and underestimated. We’ve played many roles in our time, been many things to many people. We’ve finally reached a stage of life in which we’ve become a whole greater and more powerful than any of our previous single roles.
We have paid the price and reaped the rewards of being emotional slaves to others. Those of us on the road to cronehood have also paid the price and reaped the rewards of insisting on the freedom to be more.
I hate my shame. What kind of a culture, which is made up of individual people, shames a person for self-care and rewards emotional slavery? Are any of us born solely to serve others? Is that the only meaningful contribution we can make? Are women worthy of love only in proportion to our caregiving?
The most evil twist of all in this is caregivers, people pleasers, and performers of emotional labor are quite often overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted. I frequently felt unloved and unlovable in those roles, too. My choices were socially approved, but that was cold comfort. I want to be valued for all that I am, not just my socially-compliant roles.
So, what to do? Will I be less tongue tied now when someone asks me what I’m doing? Will my shame wither and die, now that I’ve examined it?
Probably not. I can commit to being more honest about what I’m up to in spite of the shame, but I suspect a part of me will always feel I let everyone down in choosing to live my own life. It’s ridiculous to frame it in that black-and-white, either/or way, but we’re all shaped by our tribe and culture, and I’m well aware many onlookers expect (even if unconsciously) women to stay in their place, which is to say remain as pillars of strength, support, and nurture for others to the end of their lives.
Even so, I won’t go back. I have Baba Yaga work to do now, work I was born to do, work life has shaped me to do. I earned my freedom and my own love and respect. My love for others has ripened into a powerful current, but it’s not slavish. It’s a gift I choose to give, not an entitlement or a duty. Loving others is not all I’m for and I won’t prostitute for reciprocity.
That’s what I’m doing with myself. Thanks for asking.
I also recently developed a daily practice of sitting and focusing on my breath, which has been enormously helpful in my life. A few days ago, my partner and I had a conversation over breakfast I found difficult, and I trudged up the stairs to my attic aerie for my Be Still Now time feeling upset and discouraged.
Usually when I’m upset I get busy with exercise, a project, online solitaire or a book in order to distract myself. I almost never sit still with my feelings immediately after an upset. However, I’m stubbornly committed to my Be Still Now time, so I got settled comfortably in my chair and began.
It was hard. It was hard to even find my breath in the midst of my discomfort. I remembered the article about helping kids become mentally strong. One of the ways to do that is to allow them to experience being uncomfortable. Remembering that, and struggling with my own discomfort, made me curious. What would happen if I made myself sit for my usual time in spite of my discomfort? What if I viewed the circumstances as an opportunity instead of a reason to give up? What if it didn’t matter if I had even a minute of peace and stillness as long as I sat patiently with my mental and emotional chaos for a few minutes, not distracting, not fixing, not thinking, not compulsively avoiding, not writing or processing, but just feeling?
Curiosity is a great gift. I wish we nurtured it in one another more effectively and consistently.
So I sat, and it was messy. My mind was all over the place, as were my feelings. I cried a few tears. I stayed with my breath as much as I could, but I couldn’t achieve the restful, peaceful place just a few days of consistent practice has given me the ability to reach. The urge to get up and do something was fierce. The urge to be mean to myself was equally compelling. I breathed and tried to let those thoughts go. I didn’t try to get rid of the feelings, but stayed with them. It reminded me of swimming in the ocean and dealing with the surge of waves.
Gradually, I settled down. Both my pulse and breathing slowed and I stopped crying. I consciously relaxed and breathed from my belly rather than my shoulders. I stopped thinking about the time and relaxed in my chair rather than nailing myself to it.
On an intellectual level, I recognized immediately upon reading that article the value of letting our kids be uncomfortable. As a mom, I refrained from saving my sons from the consequences of their choices or trying to fix everything they struggled with. In my own private life I’m stoic and don’t dramatize my emotional pain to others. Part of that comes from being an introvert, part from my difficulty in trusting others, and part from the harsh feeling I probably deserve whatever distress I’m experiencing and thus don’t get to whine about it.
On an emotional level, though, I realized during that Be Still Now time that none of my usual coping mechanisms when faced with emotional distress are as powerful as simply being with it. I can’t even remember what it was all about now. I remember coming downstairs after I finished sitting and apologizing to my partner for being unnecessarily bitchy with him, but after that bit of cleanup the whole thing was over. I went on into the day feeling just fine.
Power and strength from discomfort. Well, not from the discomfort itself but from what I chose to do with it. Interesting.
It’s notable I don’t convert sitting and breathing into compulsivity or hurting myself. I immediately noticed any mean thoughts and let them go. After all, we’re made to have feelings. There’s no shame in them, no unnatural deformity, no weakness. We can choose to be self-destructive, but our feelings won’t stop. I wonder to what degree my previous choices in dealing with upsets have made everything worse rather than better. Perhaps the key all along has been to sit still and let the waves crash over me until the storm passes.
Storms do pass.
If discomfort is an opportunity to build strength, both kids and adults can benefit from it. Life guarantees discomfort of various kinds, after all. I’m in no way condoning rape, bullying, racism, abuse, or a depressingly long list of other deliberate cruelties, by the way. I’m talking about everyday discomforts of frustration, confusion, guilt and embarrassment; the discomfort we experience physically with various aches, pains and bodily functions; and the discomfort and inconvenience of our feelings — the kind of experiences we all share.
Never has our entitlement been clearer to me than during these months of the pandemic. The simple action of wearing a mask has become a politicized gauntlet. Some people find waiting in line to enter a business in order to maintain social distancing or waiting in their cars for a chair to get their hair cut intolerable. I can hardly call it discomfort. It’s not really even that inconvenient. We can do everything but cook dinner in our cars these days, for pity’s sake.
Some folks are loud about their contempt and scorn for recommendations designed to keep us all safe, and for those who follow them. They bluster, honk their car horns, glare, and go into tirades while waiting in line for a cashier. Their attitude is one of being cleverer, better informed, stronger and braver than the rest of us.
It’s a lie. All I can see in this behavior is ignorance, fear, and weakness. Interestingly, many who refuse to mask say they do it because they refuse to live in fear. I wonder if those folks eat potato salad with mayonnaise that’s been on the picnic table all day, decline to stop at red lights, ignore a rattlesnake’s warning and don’t hydrate when they’re working hard in high heat and humidity. They’re obviously much more concerned about what people will think of their courage (a sure sign that they have doubts about it) than they are of protecting themselves or others. You know, the other people in the world to whom they might pass on the virus? Such folks have the emotional development of a toddler. Sadly, they get plenty of modeling, validation and enabling for their behavior. They’d rather die than adapt — and they are dying. Unfortunately, they’re killing others, too.
It’s not just kids who need to learn to deal with discomfort, or inconvenience, or change, or new rules. We all do. If controlling coronavirus means a certain amount of inconvenience and discomfort, it’s worth it. If ending racism means the unfairly privileged become less privileged in order that others may share more equally in resources and opportunities, and corrupt systems and institutions get an overhaul, count me in.
Life is hard enough without being forced to play a rigged game.
Going through discomfort in order to arrive at a stronger, more just and power-with global community is a path of strength and resilience. Denialism, arguing with what is, willful ignorance and support of power-over dynamics is a path of weakness and, ultimately, deselection. If you don’t believe me, observe a child who has been allowed to experience a reasonable amount of discomfort with loving support, and compare that child with one who is continually rescued from the consequences of his or her choices and the full experience of life. It’s not hard to see the difference.
It’s not hard to see the difference in adults, either.
Social change begins at an individual level. This is another chocolate-or-vanilla choice. Are we willing to embrace, or at least tolerate, discomfort, or are we too weak and fearful to consider the truth that we’re no more entitled, immune or privileged than anyone else? Racism is a human construct rooted in greed, hatred and fear. We constructed and supported it, and we can deconstruct and refuse to tolerate it. We must, for everyone’s sake. Make no mistake, if it can happen to whichever currently disenfranchised group you care to name, it can happen to any of us.
On Monday, I drove my old Subaru to work and parked. It was unusually warm, so I decided to leave my insulated winter gloves and parka in the car. I got out, used the key fob (as always) to lock the car, put the key in my right-hand pants pocket, and walked into the building.
I went down the stairs and entered the pool, met by the bright light and lovely (to me) smell of a clean and well-maintained indoor pool. I exchanged greetings with my coworkers, set my bag down on a chair (a bag with a couple of handy outside pockets the hospital gave to every employee), removed my jewelry and put it in a small pouch, and took off my boots and socks while chatting with my friends.
I went into our small “break room,” which consists of a towel rack, a handful of lockers, a sink, a fridge, and a microwave, and set my bag on the floor between a plastic chair and a crate in which we collect bottles for recycling. I fingered the key fob and key in my pocket. I usually keep that key in my coat pocket, but I hadn’t brought my coat in. We only have one key to the Subaru, so I’m careful with it. I could leave it in my pants pocket, but things frequently slide out of my pockets as I change in and out of my clothes at work, so that didn’t seem safe. I decided to put the key in an outside pocket of my bag. I tossed it into the pocket, stripped off my clothes, folded them hastily, and dropped them onto my bag. I put on my lifeguard shirt and shorts, got my gear out of my locker, and went to work.
During the following five hours, I taught a private lesson, contributed money towards buying flowers for a recently bereaved colleague, lesson planned for my group swim lesson later in the week, lifeguarded, worked at the desk, did some cleaning, and checked chemicals.
It was a good day.
We had a couple of late families come in, so closing was a little chaotic. We went through closing procedures, put on our street clothes, clocked out … and I couldn’t find my key.
I couldn’t find my key.
Where was my key?
I emptied everything out of my bag (not much). No key. It wasn’t in my pants. It wasn’t in my coat, because my coat was in the car. It wasn’t on the floor.
Where was my key?
I remembered tossing it into the outside pocket of my bag, which I hadn’t moved all shift. Nobody but staff had been in the break room. I know with absolute certainty none of my colleagues would ever deliberately take anything that didn’t belong to them. However, most of us do use the same bag, although we’ve personalized them in small ways with pins, colored carabiners, etc.
My colleague checked his bag, which hadn’t been near mine. No key.
It was late. I was tired. We wanted to go home. My coworker has a long commute and had worked a much longer shift than I had. He offered to take me home, but it would have added miles and time to his already lengthy drive, which I was unwilling to do.
There was nothing for it but to call my partner and ask him to come and get me.
What, you’re asking, is the point of this long, rambling, boring story? We’ve all lost keys.
The point is that losing the key sent me right over the edge so completely and so quickly it wasn’t until hours later that I realized losing the key was a trigger for a much deeper upset.
For much of my life I’ve doubted my own perceptions and experience. I’ve internalized a lot of gaslighting and projection. I’ve accepted I’m hypersensitive, dramatic, attention-seeking, too intense, too curious, too imaginative, too sensual and too passionate.
My second husband (not the father of my children) was abusive. During that marriage, when I was in my 30s and the kids were pre-teens, I reached a point of despair and desperation that led me to find a therapist, ostensibly for marriage counseling. My deeper, more honest agenda was I wanted a professional assessment of my parenting.
My husband had me convinced that I was bad with money, I fantasized and made up stories about things that never happened (like being abused), I was frigid and/or a nymphomaniac (he could never make up his mind), and I was impossibly difficult to live with. I got a lot of the “you’re an unfit parent” routine from the boys’ father and his family, too.
My own experience of myself was quite different, but it didn’t matter, because I’d given up trusting my own experience in childhood.
In spite of being an “unfit parent,” I loved my children more than anyone or anything, and I was willing to give their father full custody if that was best for them.
I didn’t think that was best for them.
But I couldn’t trust what I thought, or felt, or remembered. I knew that.
So, I thought I would get an objective, professional evaluation.
We went to the therapist. We went. Once. My husband spent 50 minutes telling the therapist how difficult and crazy I was. I said I wanted an evaluation of my parenting and some guidance in healing our troubled marriage.
The therapist told my husband he need not return, (implying I was clearly the problem), and rescheduled with me. I spent the week steeling myself, finding a lawyer to draw up paperwork to transfer custody, and otherwise trying to wrap my head around losing my boys and whether it was worth it to try to help myself. Could I be healed? Was I worth fixing? Did anything matter anymore? What would I say to the boys? How in God’s name could I go on without them?
When I walked into the second session, the therapist was angry. I deserved it. People were frequently angry with me. He pointed to a chair, sat knee-to-knee with me, and demanded to know why I was with a man who was destroying me.
I was blinded by the realization he wasn’t angry with me. He was angry for me. He actually cared. About me!
“Do you want to live or die?” he asked brutally.
“I want to live,” I said without thinking, the warrior in me suddenly coming to life. I hadn’t known until then that it was true.
We spent the next six weeks planning an exit strategy from my marriage, and then he cut me loose. He told me I was fine; I didn’t need his services. What I needed was to get away from my abuser.
From the moment I lost that key at work, I went obsessively over every move I’d made from pulling into the parking lot to the realization the key was gone. I thought I knew exactly what I’d done. I could remember it, see it in my mind’s eye. I’m a creature of habit. There was nothing new or different about that day and my routine. I wasn’t tired, sick, or distressed.
Yet the key was gone.
I was at once plunged back into that old feeling of madness, that I live in some kind of sick alternate reality others don’t inhabit. I remembered every mocking or contemptuous comment I’d ever heard about my sensitivity, my intuition, my imagination, and my drama. I thought about how disconnected and isolated I’ve often felt; crazy people are, after all, impossibly difficult to deal with. I remembered the terrible confusion of having a clear memory but being told it never happened, I made it up. And what kind of a monster would make up such disloyal, ugly lies?
All the work I’ve done in the last decade; my creative life; the processing, healing, and reclaiming of myself and my power, were swept away as if they’d never happened. I was not to be trusted, and I couldn’t trust myself. In fairness to my coworkers, students, pool patrons and patients, and most of all my partner, I should crawl away, institutionalize myself, disappear.
Because I lost my car key.
While all this emotional chaos was going on, my partner and I made complicated plans to get a new key programmed for the Subaru (towing the car to the nearest dealership an hour away, dealing with the $100 cost for said programmed key, etc.), and my teammates scoured the office and break room at work looking for the key. Meanwhile, a major winter storm looms on the horizon, adding more pressure around timing, scheduling, and the necessity for winter driving.
All the while I watched myself, wondering if my memory is to be trusted, if my intention is to be trusted, if any of my perceptions are to be trusted. How could I remember every step of what I did, and yet the key was not there? What did it mean? What had I done? Do I have black holes in my memory and don’t even know it? Did I make up a story about what I did that had nothing to do with reality? Was the key still in the car after all? Had I not locked it, though I remembered doing so?
Had all those voices in the past been right, and I’ve been living in a fantasy for the last few years, believing myself to be rational, sane, even well-balanced and intelligent?
Maybe I should have given up the kids, after all? Maybe I was (am?) an unfit mother. Perhaps I shouldn’t be working with children.
Yesterday afternoon, my partner drove me to work. I went to the Subaru and stood by the locked driver’s door. The key was not in the car. My partner verified it, as I no longer trusted the evidence of my own senses. The car was locked, just as I remembered. My parka and insulated gloves were on the passenger seat, just as I remembered. My partner and I walked across the parking lot, exactly as I’ve done hundreds of times before, with me reciting each action along the way. We went in the building, down the steps and into the pool.
No one had found the key. Everyone was concerned. Nobody seemed to understand that I was crazy; no longer to be trusted. We talked about where we’d looked. People asked questions. We looked in various places again. Wearily, I said that I’d thought I’d thrown the key into the outside pocket of my work bag. Everyone rummaged in the outside pockets of their work bags without much hope.
A shriek from one of my colleagues. Unbelievably, she held out the key on its fob in her palm.
For a moment, I had an intense sense of vertigo. It seemed unreal. What was real? Was that my key? Was I really seeing it? Or was I making this up, too? But every face around me was filled with relief. They were all smiling. They saw it, too. I took it, held its small, familiar weight in my hand. The key was there. It was found. It was real.
So, maybe, I thought dazedly, I’m not crazy? I’m okay?
We realized my coworker’s bag had been sitting on a chair in the break room. I had tossed my bag onto the floor next to the chair. In a moment of non-crazy but very normal human inattention, I tossed the key into the outside pocket of her bag rather than mine. The bags, as I said before, are identical. I got in the pool for a private lesson, my coworker went home with her bag, and that was that.
The key wasn’t there because the key wasn’t, in fact, there. I didn’t make anything up. My memory was true. My reality was real. I simply tossed the key into the wrong bag.
Today I feel exhausted, vaguely embarrassed, and relieved beyond words. I’m not crazy. I can trust myself. My perceptions and experience are real. I’m rational (most of the time — but I recognize my own irrationality when it’s happening!) I know the difference between reality and fantasy.
I’m okay. Again. Still.
On the other hand, it didn’t take much to knock me over — hard. It’s difficult to overestimate the power of our old wounds. My confidence is not as strong as I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it ever will be.
My partner was the first person who ever told me to trust myself. It sounded cruel the first time I heard it. Any number of people could have told him I’m not to be trusted. I certainly didn’t trust me. I could speak in detail about my perceptions and experience, but I didn’t, because to do so resulted in an emotional beating, and I believed the people around me could see ugliness and abnormalities in me I was too (stupid? crazy? arrogant? confused? cowardly? mean? selfish? disloyal?) to identify. Yet my partner (fool that he is) stubbornly persists in trusting me, even after living with me for five years.
In his eyes, all I misplaced was a car key. I felt as though I’d permanently lost myself.