Breaking the Chain Starts With Us

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.18-11_webster-029.

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.

Just sayin’.

 

YOU DESERVE A BETTER CAN OPENER

Let’s talk rewards.

Yes, rewards.

But first, may we talk about Can Opener Deficit Disorder?

I used to suffer from Can Opener Deficit Disorder and I’ll tell you why. For a very long stretch–years–my parents did not own a real can opener. Can openers cost money and therefore were considered a luxury available only to the well-off. My dad reasoned his spare change was better spent on cat food, which I was expected to open for him with the jackknife. Not that I minded, because I had no working knowledge of can openers. Hence, because I had no understanding, no witness to tell me any differently, I had Can Opener Deficit Disorder.

I only wished we could have afforded BAND-AIDS.

But BAND-AIDS belong to another story.

The point of this article is this and I’m not the only one who learned it early: the one necessity in life was the one that demanded we suffer in order to subsist. Forget about a reward. Many of us experienced similar survival events in childhood, and could not have possibly had any working knowledge of what a reward was. We were too busy surviving.

The idea of rewarding oneself may be new idea for those of us who hail from one of life’s bleaker landscapes, a place where a certain mindset, an automatic way of being  may support mere survival. You understand, some of us hail from that place where rewards sit like isolated cabins on far apart hills, rewards hidden in thickets of brambles that hurt too much to get through. It was best not even to imagine bestowing a reward upon ourselves, best not to think about them at all. Besides, if adults in our lives were disabled from teaching us their value, how could we possibly learn about rewards? A decent can opener that might have been viewed by others in a different situation as a necessity in the kitchen. In mine it would have been a lovely reward for a kid working hard to please a parent, but I had no clue about rewards or how lovely they could make my life. Neither did my parents, given their situation. Some may laugh at the saying, “You work hard, and then you die” but, for some of us, survival in childhood under the tutelage of a mentally ill parent was no laughing matter.

The silver lining to Can Opener Deficit Disorder? In spite of a flawed system I learned to work hard and expect nothing because nothing would certainly follow. This reached into my very core for a while, and supported my survival, for which I am grateful.

I was thirty when the light finally cracked open the rewards center of my brain. When someone made the comment, “You know, Eva Stanfield, you could go out and buy a new can opener instead of struggling with that jackknife…” The light of that moment shone on something too-long stuck, unchanged in my psyche. I had a job. I could actually go to a store and buy a brand new can opener for myself.

What an epiphany! Epiphany which took only thirty years to sprout, grow, and break open my earth. Then, another one broke through: I didn’t have to suffer in that way any longer. More epiphanies to come, each gently breaking through those times when my earth softened and I was ready for them.

Life is hard, it’s true, so why make up additional suffering? Why not reward our work with some simple pleasures too?

When the earth beneath me started to shift: I no longer viewed a decent can opener as a necessity. Rather, I viewed the jack knife as the necessity.

You Deserve a Better Can Opener continues next week…

Witness–Is It Real?

If we have a family member who suffers from mental illness, then we suffer alongside them. Or beneath them. We are their witness, yes. We understand too well the tumult, the moment by moment, the wrinkled implication of their affliction, especially as it pertains directly to us. We are forced to come to the realization that they may never be our witness. We suffer out of our own want for them to please get better or out of our desire to be seen by them. We suffer out of our basic unmet needs to be clothed and warmed, the very indicators that they care for us. We want them to witness us. But they cannot see beyond the thing that binds them. They cannot see us.

Who will be our witness, then?

Well, heck, we reason, haven’t we been lovingly placed in this physical time/space thing right now? Doesn’t all of nature see? There is so much out there that is real that we haven’t seen yet. We cannot see the true largess of life (or its smallness)–we only see glimpses. With great relief and wonder we stand and gape at the portal.

Then we break down the biggest most beautiful things into the smallest, even into quarks (But are they really the smallest?) You may want to check this out: Tiny Grandeur: Stunning Photos Of the Very Small.

Are we, ourselves, any less awe inspiring? Our bodies, our spirits? Our sheer will to struggle? To overcome? To really live?

If we were somehow able to pause on our path and pull back the curtain all the way–if we glimpsed all of it right now, the big and small stuff behind all we see and experience here, I wonder if our eyes wouldn’t go blind from brilliance and our physical bodies unable to manage the weight of its abundance.

Meantime, we pass through this very real space one step at a time (sometimes two steps forward one step backward!) doing what we were meant to do. All of nature–great and small–is our witness. Our body is our witness. Our spirit is our witness. What happened and will happen to us was and will be real. Our struggle to live in this time/space continuum is real. We know it because we see growth here, in spite of or because of the difficulties of a family member’s mental illness. As we continue to move forward we forge a path by clearing the brush of uncertainty out of the way.20161017_1246331

As a result of our work we see dynamic change spring up not only in us but all around us in nature. Nature is reciprocal. Nature reflects back to us our struggle, rewards us with glimpses of what lies just beyond the scrim. Then, we see that we are our own witness. Witness is all around us. It’s inside our very spirit too.

And it is enough.

Parenting Yourself: the Power Of Witness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith a mentally ill parent love may very well come hard or not at all. When a child comes into a family you can bet your life that little kid is very interested in getting the parent to notice her, because that kid believes her daddy is equally interested in his offspring. My dad’s interest in me started out as genuine, then slipped away as his mental illness took him over until his meager efforts appeared phony.  Confused the heck out of me, why, at every turn he had abandoned me. I kept trying to get him to see me.

As I grew older I mistakenly believed that, since my dad was still present bodily, then he must still be there for me. I really didn’t understand how ill he had gotten. His downward slide paralleled my growth incrementally. As my material, emotional, and spiritual needs grew greater his provisions for me quickly dwindled to nothing. For example, living conditions got so bad we had to haul water from town for months on end because the well pump stopped working. He seemed unable to make things better for those who depended on him. I did not have adequate clothing or heat. Mom happened to be a resourceful hunter/gatherer so she made sure we were OK in the food department. In the midst of Dad’s wealth, and in spite of Mom’s efforts, desperation ruled our days.

His body was still there, living at the house, fed by Mom. He talked, yes. He had gumption to feed the monkey. He worked some, too. However, the thing I couldn’t quite wrap my head around was this: he was not really at “home.” Though I could see, touch and speak to (at) him, his mind, the thing that made him him, had gone away.

A kid loves a parent, right? So, the parent loves the kid, right? If not, maybe the kid thinks she hasn’t tried hard enough. Some adults think this, too. If the kid tries harder he or she can get Daddy to love him or her back, right? Wrong. Not a little kid’s responsibility to present the love model to the parent. The onus is on the parent to model love for the child. Imroperly modeled “love” by a parent is something a lot of kids don’t receive, an awful gift that keeps on giving. A lot of time passed from early childhood to adulthood before I was ready to swallow that pill–my truth–about my mentally ill father who could not love me. No matter how much I looked to Dad to even see me, his window had closed long ago, and would not be opened by him again.

However, I vowed at a fairly young age not to let Dad’s depression rule my life. While I still lived at home I did everything my gifts allowed in order to offset the overwhelming influence his illness tried to exert on my life. Later, when I had the freedom, in my early twenties I sought counseling. Counseling invoked the power of witness. Witness is powerful. Witness sees and understands. Witness validates things that cannot be seen. Witness helps us parent ourselves.

  • Witness can be a professional counselor. You can trust yourself to find a good one because you are caring for yourself.
  • Or, witness doesn’t have to be in the form of a counselor. Witness can be a five minute phone call to a friend. Sometimes simply hearing someone say, “I have your back” is enough for that day.
  • You can experience the power of witness by reading the story of Hagar in the Bible, or inspiring stories like Jeannette Walls’ book, the GLASS CASTLE.
  • Witness can be writing a letter to yourself and keeping it in a safe place.
  • Witness can be a book or story you write, a song you compose or even someone else’s song you sing.
  • Witness can be a poem you write about a little tree that grows in spite of lack of rain, a tree whose roots learn go deep to find an underground pool.
  • Witness can be painted, drawn or doodled on paper, then hung on a bathroom mirror to remind you you are caring for your heart.
  • Witness a powerful tool and helper, a good one you can trust yourself to find.

When I was old enough, free enough to parent myself I followed my instincts to care for me. I wrote, created music and drew. I walked a lot, got into nature. Still do. Not afraid to say it, I still get counsel from time to time. And what a difference counseling, writing, walking and creating has made in my life.

These are smart things we do for ourselves so we can break the chain of neglect. Neglect has to stop somewhere. Why not with us? Why not explore the power of witness?

 

Caged

That’s the thing about having a parent afflicted with mental illness: you feel caged. I can only imagine how my dad felt. Speaking of cages let me tell you about my dad’s monkey’s cage. Talk about the Taj Mahal For Primates, an edifice Dad took great care designing and building. The finished product boasted a warming room, a tunnel leading to a sunlit monkey run about twenty feet long, and a sun tower that jutted far above the tar papered roof of the adjacent building. It really would have been impressive except for the fact that the Taj Mahal For Primates was warmer than my bedroom at home. Dad saw to it. Why my dad afforded the monkey every comfort and failed to build warm fires for me, his flesh and blood, was something I spent a lifetime trying to figure out. Plus, the monkey had fur. Not fair.

About my dad’s monkey (there were six total). Think Rhesus. Think Mean. Fangs. Cage rattler. You would be those things, too, if you were caged most of the time. This monkey’s name was Squeako and I am here to tell you I am not making this up; Squeako was born the exact morning as I. Not kidding. The day my mom came home from the hospital with infant me in her arms she found a surprise awaiting her: a monkey in the oven. Baby monkey. In a shoe box. Sadly, while I was busy nearly dying from my own birth, Squeako lost his monkey mother in his. Thankfully I lived so I could tell you — work with me here — everyone has got to have a purpose — this completely ridiculous yet true story.  From what I understand of the situation, my near death experience couldn’t hold a candle to Dad’s concern over his monkey in the oven. An incubator, Dad said, since the mother was dead, and could we please use the baby girl’s diapers for Squeako? I had a name for Pete’s sake.

Squeako lived forty years. Just like my dad’s mental illness, Squeako watched, chased, terrified me, terrifies me still, in dreams. Growing up I simply could not get away from him, especially when Dad got bored and “accidentally” left the door to the Taj Mahal open. He laughed and laughed a scary high pitched giggle when he was pleased with himself, especially after he had done something stupidly dangerous, followed by, “See, kids, it’s funny, isn’t it?” Not funny, Not at all. I was terrified of the monkey. None of my needs registered with Dad. So I stayed cold and afraid and there was no comfort. Until I learned the power of pen on paper, the power of witness. Then I learned to express myself through music. At last, when I finally learned there was no shame in talking about mental illness I shared my truth and got some great tools to help me cope with the strain of a mentally ill father.

I was glad when that monkey died forty years later. My whole life I pitied Squeako, yet feared he would get ahold of me eventually. He seemed a perfect picture of my dad’s sickness, of our family’s torment, something I couldn’t understand, something that chased, caged us all, for a very long time.

monkey-708565_1920

Squeeko looked like this Rhesus, fatter due to excessive consumption of Dads buckwheat pancakes.