Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Queen Enabler

This is what enabling results in!

I played the role of Queen Enabler in my family. 
The first lesson I learned in Al-Anon is to stop the co-dependent merry-go-round. I’m ready to get off. I hereby resign as Queen Enabler. I would be hard pressed to decide whether my Queen Enabler activities reached their peak with my Mom, my sister Margaret or my sons. Cleaning up their messes, literally and figuratively, and propping up their lives with money seemed second nature to me. I accepted that role in their lives never questioning whether it benefited them or me. I didn’t want to be one of those people who climbed out of poverty and then kicked the ladder to the ground so no one else could use it. I never questioned that my methods of enabling were far different from showing someone else the ladder and waiting with patience while they made or didn’t make the decision to use it.
Some of the high notes in my aria as Queen Enabler included: giving sister, Margaret, the down payment for her home, then watching her abuse the home, borrow from the equity and sell it short of what she owed on it; buying Mom a car on which she let the insurance lapse and then allowed my sister Vivian to drive and wreck it; and finally, aiding and abetting Mark as he wander around finding himself, tending bar, smoking pot and refusing to go to college. I stopped the vicious spiral by telling him I would no longer contribute to his life until he decided to quit smoking pot and take that brilliant mind off to college. Each of these constituted the circumstance which finally got my attention with that one person. Getting off the co-dependence merry-go-round happens one person at a time. If I complain about how slowly the process is my Al Anon friends remind me, “Progress, not perfection, is our goal.”
Of the Enabler stories I’ve heard since being in Al Anon, the prize and pinnacle is the woman who found a pair of women’s panties in her bedroom that were not hers. She confronted her husband and he insisted they were hers when she knew they were not. She washed the panties and wore them rather than forcing the issue of his infidelity and alcoholism!
I’m finally letting the fact sink deeply into my soul, enabling others benefits no one.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sexual Abuse

Brenda at age 5

According to Wikipedia, the Genogram, based on family systems theory, “is a pictorial display of a person's family relationships and medical history. It goes beyond a traditional family tree by allowing the user to visualize hereditary patterns and psychological factors that punctuate relationships. It can be used to identify repetitive patterns of behavior and to recognize hereditary tendencies.” (Genograms were first developed and popularized in clinical settings by Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson, with the publication of Genograms: Assessment and Intervention, 1985, now in its Third Edition, 2008.)
I replied to Jim, “I’m game. Oh, buddy, do I have a family system for you!”
The assignment directed us to ask a question (as a therapist would) which needed resolution in my life. I told Jim, “We’ll have to make up one because I’m in such a good emotional space about my life, I don’t have any problems that need answers at this time. The question I’m thinking of is genuine, I just don’t have a pressing need to answer it. It light of what I have lived through it seems a trivial thing to ask.”
The question: “Why, if I have little or no anxiety about public speaking, acting, dancing or teaching, do I sometimes have all-consuming anxiety when I sing publicly?  I’ve had as much or more training in vocal performance as any other skill.”
The methodology of the Genogram involves creating a family tree. For ease of illustration, let’s say the family tree has circles around all addicts, squares around all abusers, triangles around those who were abused, trapezoids around mentors and so forth. My family tree is a geometry teacher’s dream. We filled it all out and ended that session.
Jim returned days later. During the casual visit, we were sitting at the breakfast bar at my house on Summershade Court. He gently asked, “Tell me more about the aunt who taught you a song and prepared you to sing in public for the first time when you were five years old.”
An electric shock radiated from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. I could barely form the words, “Oh my God, she also sexually molested me on a regular basis that same year.”
I have known this fact all my life. The path to the long, narrow, cold bathroom at Grandma’s house led between the pot-bellied coal stove and the cabinet where the black desk phone rested, number Harrison 48595. The click of the sliding bolt lock. My aunt telling me to lie down on the towel.
“I was five. I didn’t know I had a right to say ‘no.’ I didn’t suppress the molestation. I felt guilty about the incident all my life. And yet I pooh-poohed the significance of the actions and certainly did not name it abuse or connect it with singing. I excused her because she was just a teenager at the time. I thought it didn’t count as sexual abuse because she was female.”
Jim listened intently as I continued to think about the abuse. “I remember when I was studying voice with Dr. Noemi Lugo in the Nineties at the University of Kentucky. Something she said makes sense to me now.”
“Brrrrrrrrrrrrenda,” she would say rolling her R’s with delight, “you have this beautiful sound that you refuse to let out. For some reason it seems contained, locked up tight.”
“Now I understand when, where and who locked the door.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sexual Abuse of Children

Brene Brown has been my heroine for some time now. I have written about her work in this space on several occasions. Concerning the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, she speaks my mind. No other words necessary.

Perhaps this scandal will give me the courage to post about my own sexual abuse at age five. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Expecting Adam by Martha Beck

This post was inspired by the book, Expecting Adam by Martha Beck.  As a member of From Left to Write book club, I received a copy of this book. This is not a review, it is a post inspired ll opinions are my own. You can read other members' posts inspired by Expecting Adam on book club day, November 9, 2011 at From Left to Write.

“This is the part of us that makes our brief, improbable little lives worth living; the ability to reach through our own isolation and find strength, and comfort, and warmth for and in each other. This is what human beings do. This is what we live for, the way horses live to run.” from Expecting Adam.

I applaud Martha Beck’s discovery that relationships are the true essence of life. I also want Martha to know that not all of us start with the loving family that Adam got.
           As sure as my love for unsweetened iced tea, one glass of white wine with dinner and Lindt chocolate peanut butter balls, relationships are essential to my very being. For connection, I started with what I received biologically. Decades later, I continue to define relationships as the richness of life and I am forced to admit, I started with interesting raw material.
We’d take the big round table in the corner if I gathered my family at a local restaurant. Older brother Bill, in bib overalls, no longer reeks of alcohol but his wrinkled skin, droopy eyelids, and dark circled orbs broadcasts that his body has not recovered even though his spirit is a perpetual “pink cloud.” (Alcoholics Anonymous jargon for the euphoria from getting sober.)  As he laughs too loudly and tells stories of drunken days and lost weekends, I see glimpses of the little boy and the teenager who greeted each day with “Hello world!” and wore a Japanese happy coat (generally translated to English as hapi or happi coat not happy) through much of high school. Bill could fix anything that needed fixing especially if it was a hydraulic engine. During the worst of his drinking years, he worked for two companies that maintained big garbage trucks in the Chicago area. He would wear out the patience of one company with his priority on alcohol and the other company would hire him by the next afternoon. His extraordinary skill encountered something he could not control when one of the giant tires on a truck exploded at his chest. His injuries are not visible at this dinner but they continued to scar his health the remainder of his life.
Bill’s logical explanation about The Incident that caused him to be a registered sex offender by the state of Florida hangs in the air like a leftover party banner. Perhaps his pink cloud drifted away on that day he raged at his mentally challenged stepdaughter and grabbed her breast.
Pretense only brings Bill to this dinner because his early life of drinking and smoking took its toll and Bill died of lung cancer at age sixty-five in 2010.
Sister Margaret arrives after Bill. She, too, looks on the outside like the choices she made on the inside. Her anger worn thick like her mascara, her bitterness as brittle as the tenth coat of hot pink polish painted on her nails. I dig deep to find the bright little girl who skipped second grade or quick sense of humor of her young adulthood. Margaret’s laughter at a joke or situation that struck her as funny spread like news of the best shoe sale in town.
Margaret blurts out as soon as she is seated, “Can you believe I have to have another surgery? This time it’s for carpel tunnel syndrome.” She delivers this news with excitement rather than the resignation or frustration usually accompanied with surgery. 
Bill reassures her, “Margaret, you may have had cirrhosis of the liver when you were five but you don’t have it now and you’re not that sickly little girl anymore. You should have dropped the hypochondria decades ago.”
I accepted Margaret’s hypochondria and surgery-of-the-moment ages ago, I wonder how someone as bright as Margaret cannot remember when to use she/her and he/him and they/them?  When confronted or teased about her grammar, she tells you rule by rule the correct usage, yet refuses to use such rules in daily speech. This stubbornness completes the picture of refusing to get her undergraduate degree. For decades, she worked at a university where she could have finished for free. She dared to call colleagues “educated idiots” when they didn’t see things her way.
Sister Ashley hobbles behind Margaret, the years of looking like Linda Carter of Wonder Woman fame locked away in her memory. A run-in with a forklift on the factory floor interrupted her work life, sapped her will and drained her desires for years afterward. This waning of her will started early but the accident squeezed its last breath. Her creativity, sensitivity, beauty and wit might as well be specimens in the jars of a science lab for all the use they were to her. Perhaps her children have taken the jars off the shelf, handled them with curiosity and put them back, thinking “Surely these belong to some one else. They couldn’t possibly belong to the hollowed-out, used-up, emotional cripple that is our mother.” Ashley sparkled on stage when she sang and acted. Her wit, even as a child, shined through in letters she wrote to me when I was in college. If Emerson is correct in saying, “What is needed in life is someone who will make us do what we are able,” Ashley didn’t have that someone in her life. I thought it would be me then discovered it wasn’t.
            Our final sib Vivian, may be the most fortunate in having less potential to work with. She wonders aloud, “Am I retarded?” We assure her she’s not, but quilt-like comfort can’t be found in some simple diagnosis. The family shakes its corporate head and says, “She’s just Vivian.” In subsequent generations, Vivian would have been diagnosed with multiple learning disorders. As a child, her waif-look, quaint vocabulary and general neediness manifested as Cosby-kid cute. At forty, it evokes wells of sadness and pity. Circumstances will require legal intervention to protect one of her children from Vivian’s lack of parenting skill. Her other child will spend time in prison, may still be there. Vivian doesn’t hobble physically like Ashley but the weight of her mother-guilt rests so heavily on her psyche it cannot be alleviated by crutch or cane. Pretense also brings Viv to this dinner, she too succumbed to an early death at age forty-seven in 2006.
            At this imaginary dinner, I, of course, made the reservation, order some appetizers and resolve for the umpteenth time not to pick up the whole check. I wear my excess of education like my expensive, well-tailored Doncaster clothes. The skinny little girl whose crinoline always hung out below her skirt no longer exists. The smile, grooming and practiced charm weave a curtain of denial which covers the pain, vulnerability and poor self-esteem of the Family Enabler Extraordinaire. I keep nurturing the thought that I can redeem every embarrassing characteristic of my family with my own perfect behavior. It’s exhausting not to mention arrogant.
Then there’s the general perception hanging in the air like humidity in August that Brenda experiences no pain because, “She has money and a good man. My God, what more could she want?”
Oh, my, I sound bitter and angry. I must work on that.
As I pick my fingers raw (under the table, of course), my soul longs to be seen as a whole person by these people--fragile and strong and oh, so, imperfect. That’s what I want. Perhaps it is an unreasonable request of these people who are immersed in their own struggles and rendered myopic by their own pain. I bore the weight of guilt about rearing these siblings before I ever became a mother. My plan that a college education would pull each one of them along with me failed before I framed the diploma. This guilt rests like concrete blocks on both my shoulders.
            Oh, I forgot, Mother is here.
Ashley surely chose Mother’s too bright Wal-Mart dress; Margaret must have fixed her low-maintenance hairstyle and Vivi hovers over her expecting her to actually be a mother. Tall, big-boned, a bit overweight, Mother looks older than her years. Her high forehead and rectangular face hit at attractive but don’t quite make it there.
From her earliest encounters with motherhood, Violet Lee struggled. She laughs at herself and tells stories about her attempts at parenting like the day Bill swung a fish hook into my eyelid. She called a taxi to rush me to the hospital and left Bill, age six, alone on the sidewalk.
Surprise! Surprise! Dad arrives late. Perhaps we should honor him for showing up since he has built a life around the role of absent father. He doesn’t have his pet pig in tow this evening and appears sober. At eighty-six, he looks one hundred and five and the self-proclaimed “shit-eatin'” grin that made all women between twelve and sixty weak-kneed now seems as rusted out as the moonshine still in his back yard. Dad pulled off this larger-than-life character with stunts. For example, he had a photograph of himself framed and surrounded by individual pictures of all six of his wives. He had nine marriages to these six women.  Friends flocked to his place on the Ohio River where an extra refrigerator devoid of shelves had its belly-filled with a keg that hooked up to an exterior spigot. Dad invented this decades before appliance companies got the idea to have water and ice accessible on the outside of the fridge door.
            If my family is the poster child for wasted genius, Dad is the Jerry Lewis circus barker trying to convince the world that it’s cool to underachieve. I cringe because I’m so afraid he will grab his chair, straddle it backwards and order a “smart alec.” I don’t know what that drink is but I know he can’t pull off the devil-may-care party animal anymore. At this pretend dinner, we will laugh, have fun and never acknowledge or deal with realities like alcoholism, divorce, education, intimate relationships or caring for Mom or Dad when they’re old. The strain put on the fabric of reality causes even the table, chairs and menus to tense the fibers of their being.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Which Wolf Is Motivating You?

Photo by John Lynner Peterson AKA Pappa-razzi

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, "My son, the battle is between two wolves inside every one of us.

One is Evil: It is anger, envy, jealousy, conceit, sorrow, hatred, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, inferiority, lies, pride, lust, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good: It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?

The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Conductor

The third vocational option for Tristan is conductor. Pappa and I took him to the children’s concert of the Lexington Philharmonic. We sat in a box that partially overlooked the stage and the pit. He asked, “Are those black curtains going to open up and people will come out in costumes?”

“No, Tristan, this is a concert not a play or musical,”  Mimi replies.

“Ok, then I’m not going to like it. I will be bored.”

“Let’s listen to the few pieces that will be played before the drum ensemble which is what we thought you would like. Then if after the drums you want to go home, we will go home.”

“It’s a deal, Mimi.”

We were only one piece into the drum program when he proclaimed, “I like this!” And we stayed to the end.

Tristan sings in the children’s choir of our church. Dress rehearsal for their first Sunday morning to sing came right after our philharmonic experience. All during the rehearsal, Tristan conducted his teacher.

His teacher waited to get him alone after rehearsal, bent down to his level and with the gentleness of a warm puppy pointed out to him that there can be only one conductor and that she was the one. She pointed out that he forgot to sing when he was conducting and distracted other children. He looked into her eyes with the sweetest, most innocent face and declared, “Sometimes I just go overboard.”

Conductor, NASCAR driver or museum curator? Stay tuned.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Museum Curator

Photo by John Lynner Peterson AKA Pappa-razzi

In addition to NASCAR driver, Tristan creates an awesome museum and plays the role of museum director himself. One day when we arrived at his house, he adopted the museum director’s all-knowing voice and gave us a tour of the museum. The museum director also carries himself in a proper way with hands behind his back and an officious gait to assure you know who’s in charge. The museum houses the traditional dinosaurs and historical exhibits using all Tristan’s soldiers and props. The tour displays the length and width and breadth of his knowledge and takes hours and several rooms of the house to create.

Since still in the mood for museum directing when we had to leave his house, Tristan pretended the entire city comprised his museum as we drove to our destination. From the back seat, we hear his imitation of a grown-up voice describing every building, fire plug and tree. We play along and ask questions of “the director.” He hesitates but a moment with an officious, “Wellll, that fire plug is painted yellow and green instead of red because school children wanted to paint it that way.” He never lacked an answer regardless of the question. All the world is Tristan’s museum.

Pappa and I were most impressed with one of the exhibits back at the house. A memorial he built to dead soldiers. Remember this six year old museum director’s Daddy is a Marine who lost friends in Iraq and Afghanistan. A cardboard box rested on the floor with a child’s plastic chair on it and atop that is a rider-less motorcycle. The museum director, in his compassionate but professional voice, informed us that the box contained the belongings and memories of the soldier who was killed in war. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The NASCAR Manager

Tristan ponders his vocational choices
Creative play forms the basis for all vocational dreams. Which really makes me ponder whether grandson Tristan will be the next Dario Franchitti on the NASCAR circuit, by the Executive Director of the Smithsonian or conduct our local philharmonic. His current preferences for spending his play time gives no hint of which way he will turn.

As NASCAR driver he requires the services of the “manager” none other than yours truly, his Mimi. He prefers Mimi as “manager,” who really does the job of announcing, because I capture his imagination about how race day excitement and events might unfold., “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to NASCAR. You are in for the most exciting day in racing and you will not be disappointed!” His preference for Mimi has nothing to do with my knowledge of NASCAR, cars in general or aerodynamic properties. It’s all about drama and the glib tongue.

Based on the engaging Cars movie and Cars 2, Tristan’s cast metal and plastic cars all possess personalities and moral characteristics. We line them up, sort them into categories and make a place for the pit crew and for President Barack Obama’s limousine and entourage. Tristan always gets to be Lightning McQueen and win every race. Losing is not one of Tristan’s self-identities at this point in his life. So we set up the race in Mimi and Pappa’s living room, family room, kitchen, breakfast room and hall way. It’s takes a lot of real estate to create NASCAR.

At some point in our early days, I must have referred to the attendees as “folks.” It stuck. The watchers of the race henceforth are called “folks.” He divides the cars into various countries usually according to style of cars---these designations zoom over Mimi’s head---but I can always expect Japanese, Chinese, British and Italian cars.

So the “manager” has to develop, at minimum, a British, Italian and Oriental accent because I voice most all characters. The bad guy/car, Francesco got in trouble yesterday. He broke one of the rules of NASCAR and the “manager” called for an investigation, penalty and fine. I must have been on a roll as Francesco’s angry mother who attended the race. I ranted and raved in my best Italian accent. So well, in fact, that Tristan broke character and inquired, “Mi---------mi, are you mad at me or are you still being Francesco’s mommy?” Guess I played my part well.

My little NASCAR fan also confuses whether the driver breaking the rules has to be accountable to the track rules or his mommy. Guess we know where is locus of authority still rests.