It is said that, of all the senses, sense of smell links us most powerfully to memory. Smell is a chain taking us back, sometimes way back, uncomfortably back.
Like when I talked to a homeless person the other day at QFC ,who was living in a borrowed car without access to a hot bath or a dentist.
There’s always a kind of conversation taking place in a grocery store, a conversation engaging all the senses–Dungeness crab clacking claws onto a silver scale as the fishmonger weighs in on how to serve the thing (simply cracked, drawn through butter is best). Push your cart through the dairy department over to the deli where crispy fried chicken crackles out of the fryer. You can smell fried chicken all the way out to the parking lot. The sensual conversation continues with apples and kale and carrots and lemon. Sleepy Time tea perfumes the air, fresh ground coffee civilizes the senses. There’s another wonder: an entire aisle dedicated to ice cream. All of it white noise now.
I am in the candy aisle now, forced to take in the full effect of the person talking to me. I see a soul housed in a bald, thin, leather coat once-black-now-pebbled-charcoal, her breath forcing me back a couple of yards. A wild, familiar look haunts a green, accusing eye, too rough hands–these things take me back, right back to childhood.
And they tell me who I really am without all the trappings.
Sometimes I don’t like knowing who I am.
This mentally disordered person blames everyone else for her misfortune, something I, too, have been guilty of. But hey, I came by the justification method honestly, I learnt it from my mentally ill father.
- “If they hadn’t been ___, I wouldn’t be ___,”
- “Those goll-darned___!”
Let’s all be the fast talker, fill in our own blanks. It could be anything. I’ve already filled in my own blaming blanks, too many times.
Then, I think, if I keep blaming I will end up like my parents or like this person I am in conversation with. So in effect, I’m no better than they. It’s true, I am they.
We are all they, aren’t we, really?
“They,” the other us, they are our teachers, aren’t they? This is an uncomfortable truth.
An encounter like this teaches me to fight the urge hardwired into my cells that says my life is everyone else’s fault. True, I was abused worse than the others but at some point I must take responsibility for my own choices now, no matter my beginnings.
It angers me that even mentally ill people have choices, to try and get help. Or not, which is what angers me, and why don’t they, when help may be found? This is a hard thing for me to say.
I back up in the aisle, close my eyes and I am reminded of TV blurbs about homelessness and an animal hoarder which may trigger me for days, which I have learned to avoid like the plague.
And I wonder what this mentally disordered person fooled away in exchange for a lifestyle that hurts all of us. Because of my personal reference points I confess to you my initial cynicism, then some anger, too, with the homeless, with hoarders. Not outward anger–I’m too nice for that. I keep up the civilized veneer. I don’t let it show.
I wonder how much land or money do they secretly still have? How selfish were they with family members who loved them once, love them still, families who, for a long time–years maybe–fought harder for their presence–whole or in part–than for anything else on earth for at least a sort of affair that says I love you back, and finally gave up because it hurt too much to try. Most of us will settle for the conversation which says I see you. But no, many make a choice to feed the hoarder inside, instead. I wonder about dis-integration, what made that happen, what choices were made and when.
And I wonder what degree of abuse and neglect played a part. As a result of neglect and abuse how many loved ones have the homeless and hoarders discarded, carelessly? I wonder at what point is the inverse true.
Then comes the guilt. My frame of reference is too small. As I process their blaming and excuses, my guilt turns to shame and I wonder how many of these souls suffered as little children.
- Many mentally ill souls were the recipients of long time horrendous treatment in childhood.
- Abuse can trigger those genetically susceptible to mental disorders. These kids have nowhere else to go but to stay and receive, receive, receive. They have to keep family secrets for the sake of the “family” so no one knows, no one witnesses. Some kids are resilient. Some are not.
- Some grown up messed up kids have loving families and did not receive abuse or neglect.
Abuse leads to loss. Loss may be helped. That is, unless abuse leads to, as in my father’s case, a highly disordered individual. Narcissism almost always refuses help. Narcissism nearly always loses everyone completely.
So the chain tries its darndest to continue in those susceptible to mental illness.
A mother may say to a questioning child, “There’s simply no choice. You have to stay in this awful situation and pretend everything is fine.” But we do all have privilege of choice, though admittedly, some choices we make to flee an impossible situation may deliver terrible consequences. Maybe what she means to say, but considers herself far too impenetrable to state is, “I refuse to take action for you, my child, because I am afraid.” Add to a lack of courage more abuse and neglect and, my friend, you have immense loss. Familial, material, relational, societal.
This kind of loss costs all of us great heaps of everything.
So then, who will break the cycle? Why, of course, it has to be us.
- Stop childhood abuse or get them away from it.
- Stop withdrawing, which is the worst kind of abuse.
- Give our child a blanket for their bed, build a fire to keep them warm, read a story, hold them close when they are afraid of monkeys. Tell them they aren’t imagining the monkeys.
- We must see our children, every day stop our frenetic lives and take a few moments to see them and, by our witness, love them.
- Let’s not ask then, “What is wrong with you, for Pete’s sake?” Let’s not tell them “You are too sensitive,” create a chaotic home then tell them “You’re the reason for the chaos.”
- Let’s not withhold.
- Let’s not ignore.
- Let’s not refuse to get help for own hurting ourselves. Let’s not be so arrogant as that.
Let’s break the chain before we lose everything. In the recesses of our being we all are mere children, too, but we must reach for maturity at some point.
When my mother hoisted the responsibility of “breaking the chain” onto my shoulders she had no idea what results her prophecy would bring. Neither did I. She, the loss of me–though I am not so sure she noticed–me, my nearly complete loss of birth family, loss of everything except for one thing: I got to keep my soul.
Where was I. Oh, yes, the sense of smell..
After my encounter with the homeless soul at the grocery I could not defuse the memory bomb so I called my life coach so she could help talk me off the ceiling, the place where the memory of smell took me. I am not averse in getting help from my life coach–a gift of a person who reminds me that I always come from choice. Once I reconnect to choice, she then reminds me to choose from a place of love rather than fear.
After all of it, I am alright.
I do not, nor will I ever own an abundance of cats, nor will I ever own monkeys.