Alan Alda

May 19, 2017

[written for my writing group for the subject: Permit]

My second-grade teacher and my parents were at odds over how to deal with me. They didn’t know they were giving me such mixed messages because I didn’t tell my teacher about what was going on at home (although, having taught 7-year-olds, I am sure she knew something was wrong). And my parents never received any complaints from my school, just the occasional note that I seemed sad.

One afternoon that year, my teacher had us watch Free to Be You and Me, the 70’s TV special narrated by Alan Alda and some other people I don’t remember, all about being comfortable in your own skin, not putting labels on people, and various other hippie ideals that were not quite as popular in 1982, but that my teacher firmly believed in.

I remember very little about the TV show except for two things: the radical notion that boys and girls could like the same things and the song “It’s All Right to Cry.” You see, in my family, it wasn’t all right to cry. Crying was not permitted, at least for me. It was all right for my little sister to cry, and my mom was rarely not crying. I was pretty sure that my little brother or sister on the way was going to be crying most of the time. But for me, it had never been OK.

My mom had me when she was 25 – not that young by the standards of the day, but she was completely emotionally unprepared. To this day, when someone talks about how they might be less lonely if they had a baby, or how it would be nice to have a child so there would be someone who was always there, I have to walk away. I recently ended a friendship because my former friend spent tens of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments, confiding to me that, without a partner, she was really lonely, so even though she was financially and emotionally unprepared to have a baby, she just “really needed someone who loved her unconditionally.”

That’s exactly what my mother intended I would be for her.

It should really be no surprise then that she couldn’t handle me. From the time I learned to walk and talk (both around nine months old, which shocked everyone), I had opinions. Actually, I probably had opinions before then. I was not the malleable precious little doll-baby she had imagined, but was strong-willed and emotional, and she had no idea what to do with me. So she made the rule that I couldn’t cry. After all, only one of us could be upset at a time, and it was usually my mother.

This rule was enforced in different ways at different times. I’m not sure what the mandatory reporter laws were like in the late 70s and early 80s, but it was probably more convenient for everyone that I didn’t talk to my teachers about this enforcement. The mildest version was to be sent to my room if I cried, and if she could hear me through the closed door, the next threat was to have to spend the night in the garage. I never had to do that because I would put the pillow over my head and hold my breath, trying to stop myself from calling out for my parents, who were clearly not going to be any help.

If my mom wasn’t feeling patient, she’d slap me across the face which would generally do the trick. “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” and all that. It’s hard to blame her – that would have been an act of love compared to what she grew up with. It’s no wonder that I grew up steeped in shame and fear; she had come by those honestly and passed them on to her children in our DNA and from her behavior

One day though, everything changed. I came home from school and something happened, and I cried, and she slapped me across the face. We had just watched the last part of Free to Be You and Me and I just wasn’t taking it any more. “My teacher says it’s OK to cry!” I yelled at her. “It was on TV! You can’t punish me for crying!”

I’m not sure she had any idea what I was talking about but I kept going. “If you hit me, I’m going to tell my teacher because I’M ALLOWED TO CRY!” I screamed at her. And went in my room to do precisely that.

That ended it. There were plenty of other problems in my family, but I wasn’t punished for crying anymore and she never hit me again.

But, of course, it didn’t really end it. The shame never left. I still feel it every time tears come – I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m disappointing people, I’m not good enough.

My nieces and nephew though – they don’t have this. They know it’s OK to cry. They know feelings matter and are valid, and they don’t feel ashamed when they express their feelings. The cycle of shame seems to be ending, and maybe it’s time for the adults to learn from the kids. They didn’t even need Alan Alda.


Chronology of Depression: Part One

December 23, 2011

I’ve been reading my old journals lately – something I haven’t done for over a decade. I’ve actually thought about doing this quite a few times but I didn’t think I could handle it. When I was depressed (and it still feels so strange to say that in the past tense) I couldn’t handle sad stories and that included my own story. Now that I’m doing much better, I wanted to see what I could learn from the past, if anything. There are also a lot of periods of time that I just don’t remember very well. They seem blurry, and I think this is partly due to the depression.

My depression has always been a part of me – and I really do think I mean always. For reasons that I’ll get into in another post, I began feeling worthless and completely hopeless – really from the time of my first memories. In kindergarten I would think to myself that I wished I were dead but since I wasn’t I had to keep going.

I didn’t have a name for the depression, however, until I was about 20. In hindsight, this strikes me as a little odd, since I knew the term and I knew the symptoms, beginning when I was a teenager and my mother was hospitalized. I don’t know if I just didn’t think my symptoms were as severe as hers or why I didn’t clue in earlier.

The part of my journal I’m reading right now is from the summer and early fall of 1995, when I had just turned 20 years old.  I had experienced, like I said, many many symptoms of clinical depression before this but I never named it.  Sometimes I blamed it on not having good friends (I had a lot of good friends) and sometimes on not trusting God (I sort of want to go back and shake my younger self – to think that it was all my fault for not trusting God!).  At other times I just wasn’t sure.

In my sophomore year of college, I started really dealing with family patterns and trauma (again, another post), and I was just blindsided by how much it hurt to deal with these things.  I worked at a camp that summer, and had 6 weeks between camp ending and school starting.  I was definitely afraid of having too much time to myself and did my best to fill the time.  I spent several weeks visiting friends from college (friends who spent summers with their families without going crazy) and worked at a couple of short-term jobs.  Then I went back to my college town.

At this point in my life, it sounds wonderful: two weeks with nothing to do but read, exercise, and relax.  At that point, it was torture.  I remember rollerblading a lot to kind of try to keep my feelings at bay, and writing obsessively in my journal because I didn’t know what to do.  I was waiting for my friends to come back to town and thought that when they did, my loneliness would end.  At one point, I woke up at 4:30 am sobbing, just so sad and so lonely and with absolutely no idea what to do except to cry and write and cry and wish I didn’t exist.

Of course, when my friends came back, my feelings didn’t go away.  The last page I read was from a day that is still painful to think about (over 16 years later!) but was probably the day I figured out I needed help.  I went on a hike with a couple of friends, not feeling very good but trying to put on a good face.  We got back from the hike around noon and my two friends needed to go to the hardware store.  I was going to change and go with them.  I got through the living room and halfway up the stairs of my apartment and couldn’t go any further.  I fell down on the stairs and cried and cried.  One of my friends came to get me for the store and found me there.  He asked if I was OK and I said I was. He was pretty freaked out but didn’t know what to do and left because I had said I was OK (and he was an 18-year old boy who wanted to help but didn’t know how).  I think I stayed on those stairs for at least two hours, crying.  I spent the rest of the day in my bed crying and not answering the phone or the door.  I think it was the first time I had been absolutely completely paralyzed by my depression.  Up until then, I had always been able to keep going somehow, even if I was miserable.  This day I literally couldn’t make it up the last four stairs before falling apart.  And then couldn’t make it out of my bed at all for the rest of of the day.

Besides remembering my own despair, I wonder about the friends who kept trying to check on me that day.  There’s part of me that wants to apologize to them for terrifying them (and this was only the beginning).  There’s another part of me that wants to thank them.  And still another part that wants to never ever ever speak to any of them again so I don’t have to remember that time.

I’m the Nothing

April 20, 2010

That’s how I’m feeling right now.

My sister and her husband bought a house last year, have fixed it up, and just had a baby.

My brother is getting married.

My parents are so excited about those things – and they are exciting celebrations. But I’m the nothing. I feel like their conversations must go like this:

“Oh, and X just had a baby! We’re so excited!! And Y is getting married! We’re so excited!! And Z? She’s fine.”

It’s even worse that I’m the oldest. I’m supposed to do these things first. In addition, both my siblings have exciting jobs. They are both professional artists – a photographer and a musician. My parents are always emailing around the photographs and the music samples and the photos being published and the music gigs, and rightly so. But again, I’m the nothing.

They’ve forgotten to call me back and email me back lately because they’re so excited about what’s going on with my siblings. They told me.

Mother’s Day

May 12, 2009

I hate Mother’s Day.  I really do.  I despise it.

I realize that this makes me look like a terrible human being – right up there with terrorists and people who kill kittens.  But I hate it.

I don’t feel like I should celebrate Mother’s Day.  I resent being told that I should appreciate my mother, celebrate her, buy her flowers, or take her out.  I hate that if someone asks me what I’m doing for my mom for Mother’s Day and I say, “Nothing,” that they give me the same look they probably save for people who leave their dogs in the car in 100 degrees with the windows rolled up.  That there’s no excuse for not celebrating Mother’s Day unless your mother is dead.  Otherwise, you have to at least call her and buy her a card that says how wonderful she is and how she’s nurtured you and always been there for you.  And if you’re a good son or daughter, you’ll send her flowers or a gift, or take her out to brunch if you live close enough.

I suppose if I had a mother who nurtured me, I’d feel different.  Maybe if I had a mother who had actually been there for me, whatever that means, I’d feel like getting a card that said so.  As it is, I can’t do it and not feel like I’m compromising myself.  I wish I didn’t care and I could just lie and make her happy, but I can’t.

The thesaurus says that synonyms for nurture include “bolster, cherish, cultivate, educate, foster, instruct, nourish, support, sustain, tend, and uphold.”  Antonyms are “deprive, ignore, neglect, starve.”  OK, she didn’t starve me.  She bought groceries and we figured things out.  Sometimes she made a meal.  But cherish?  Tend?  Sustain?  Are those words that people can use about their mothers?  Because if so, then I guess I understand the Hallmark cards.  I just wish I could send one and mean it.

I know that she had it worse than I did.  I know that she spend most of my childhood in a bottomless depression and that it probably took most of her willpower to stay alive.  She couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time.  She sent near-strangers to pick us up from school because she just could not do it.  I understand that kind of depression.  There’s a large part of me that thinks that I should appreciate her for just staying alive and doing the best she could, but I don’t really.  I deserved better.  I deserved a mother.

In addition, each year Mother’s Day gets harder for me.  In college and soon afterward, I had friends who had rocky relationships with their mothers or whose mothers were no longer in the picture either because they had died or walked out.  In addition, there were just a lot of people not physically near their mothers.  As time goes on, however, many of those people are now mothers themselves.  And new mothers are the most difficult kinds of people to be around on Mother’s Day.  It is so new to them and so excited and they feel such an overwhelmingly wonderful sense of family and accomplishment… and none of those things are bad.  They are wonderful, God-given experiences.

But it makes it really hard for me.  Not only do I not have the mother I’m supposed to appreciate today, but I am not a mother.  I don’t have a family of my own, either, which seems to have been very healing for a lot of friends in similar positions.  I know that God has a plan for me and all that, and I also know that it’s a good thing I haven’t had children because I would have repeated a lot of my mother’s “parenting,” but it’s extremely isolating.  I’m running out of people to be with on Mother’s Day.

I wish I had some way to celebrate myself on Mother’s Day.  After all, I had to raise myself (and to some extent, my siblings), while I myself was struggling with depression.  And for eight years teaching, I was more of a mother to much of my class than their own mothers were.  But it doesn’t feel real.

I accidentally took a four-hour nap this Mother’s Day.  Avoidance?