Perhaps because I am acutely aware of the stress being faced by too many of us these days, and because in my role as a psychotherapist I also see the ripple effects in so many families struggling to lead meaningful, balanced lives, even when the odds aren’t in their favor and they are being traumatized in various ways, I am choosing today to share the Epilogue from my memoir Four Rooms, Upstairs.
I hope that my experience and what I wrote will shed light on whatever problems you may be facing at this time and will help you, as well, to find the courage to be pro-active, believing that if you or a loved one is given the proper medical and/or psychological care there is life after a traumatic event and even after years of being traumatized.
Today, my family would be labeled “dysfunctional.” Knowing what we now know about children in such families, it’s easy for me to see why I wasn’t spontaneous or carefree. I had learned early to think and behave as an adult, with an exaggerated sense of responsibility, vigilant at all times, expecting disaster to be a constant companion.
Life had proven that whenever days were good, they were not likely to last. Happiness and all “the good stuff,” was elusive, a tease, never to be trusted.
As one witness to the human capacity for pain and survival, I hope my story speaks to the many adult children who grew up as I did, during the years before modern medicine (psychiatry, in particular) advanced to where it is today. I will, indeed, feel rewarded if I’m able to reach those who weren’t or aren’t afforded the necessary help needed to move beyond trauma, neglect, and deprivation – not only from families in which there is mental illness – but from any family where members are deprived the opportunity to live in an environment in which the healthy, independent development of their spirit is able to thrive.
Along with the many other children then and now, I remained helpless and mute but ever watchful as I observed my mother in her torment. Intermittent periods of calm and sanity never negated the times when she felt attacked by demons, reacting in chillingly frightening rages with agonizing despair, trapped inside a body that even she wished to disown.
The “shock treatments” and various tranquilizers that were available during the 1940’s and ‘50s gave her temporary measures of balance, but robbed her of memory and diminished her dignity.
Most children in those years were not encouraged to ask questions. With no explanations for the behavior we witnesses, we lived with a fragile illusion of safety, an eggshell defense of protection. For me, that defense lasted until I reached adolescence when hormones kicked in and brought me closer to becoming a woman and identifying with the woman who was my mother. Only then did I begin to question my own emotional stability, wondering whether any signs of anxiety or depression would lead to the kinds of catastrophic break-downs that shook our four rooms during our years in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
It wasn’t until my twenties that I learned of my mother’s earliest suicide attempt when she was in her twenties. Ironically, it was then – at roughly the same age – that the anesthesia of denial which had protected me began to wear off, leaving me with an awareness that shifted from a mother I pitied to a self I feared.
A rejection – both conscious and unconscious – of Mother’s illness no longer served me. Love, loyalty, and despair colluded with the dis-ease that had crossed continents and joined generations. Shadows of the past that were her reality fast became my nightmares, and the unspoken law of familial partnership forced me to share in the losses and the pain of her life.
The challenge for me was to learn to forgive. My family first, and then myself. In order to confront my demons and not drown in all that was sorrowful, I reached out for professional guidance to interrupt the progression of familial despair.
In doing so, I learned to separate my mother from her illness and myself from my mother. This released me from the fear of suffering in ways I saw her suffer and allowed the disparate parts of my self to integrate, finding the voice for my fears and the picture for my dreams.
I was then better able to live comfortably in the present, making sense where there was any to be found and using the strength I had gained to take me to where I felt self. Effective therapy gave me – as it can give others – a clearer context in which to store wounds. It didn’t eradicate them, because the glimpsed into places that no child should have to see, the acceptance of secrets and madness as being the norm, still color our lives despite how much we process the past.
If we could, we would prevent such images from intruding. At best, therapy teaches us that we’re able to weaken their power by changing the lens through which we see them and reducing their size. At a distance, they never loom large enough to allow past events to trigger irrational responses in the present, poisoning our adult lives as they did our childhoods.
It wasn’t until I was married and had children that I was truly able to see how deeply affected I was by my childhood. Now, after more than twenty-five years as a psychotherapist, forty years as a wife, thirty-seven years as a mother, and six years as a grandmother, I hold on to the one belief I consider to be most valuable: the need to honor the parts of our selves that are healthy, the parts that are strong.
Each of us is vulnerable. Every person has a dark side, and most of us are faced with unpredictable situations, physical and emotional stressors of our own or those of our loved ones. Yet, we must not allow them to defeat us, for, if we do, we ultimately minimize, distort, and trivialize the human experience.
L.A.S. September ’07
*Please note that no part of this may be reproduced in any form without permission, since it appears here exactly as it is written in the published memoir:
Four Rooms, Upstairs: A Psychotherapist’s Journey Into and Beyond Her Mother’s Mental Illness (ISBN-13:978-1-58385-227-9)
Thanks and all best wishes for a good week! ~ Linda