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…CONTINUED

If we don’t fix Can Opener Deficit Disorder, then we have the perfect excuse not to try  a new way and we may hurt ourselves, instead.  As a result we may very well miss joy beyond mere survival. That, my friends, is a rut, an excuse, a bowl of leftovers from a poorly set children’s table, a rut lined with excuses…

Why try hard?                    

I can’t.

What’s the point.

My friends, we were made for so much more.

 

If, at the age of thirty I believed I was worthwhile, I would have also have believed I deserved a better can opener. The same would have been true at the age of seven, but the idea of worthiness was an impossibility given the circumstance. For some of us who survived to adulthood this paradigm runs like a deep fault line beneath the thin veneer of our grown-up lives. By the time we’ve grown up we are afraid of what lies beneath.

I’m gonna give up

We may have heard, “You can’t” or “You’ll never” or “Get your head out of the clouds” or “You’re too sensitive.” Or, my favorite: “Why do you make things so difficult for me?”

I still struggle once in a while with worthiness, purpose, joy, happiness, or fulfillment so, my point is this: when  those of us who come from extreme difficulty struggle from time to time, we may now have access to proper tools with which to open things up–for instance,  a good adviser, coach, or counselor, someone skilled at help you “open up the can.” Or…an actual can opener.

I, for one, am willing to try for a better way to open up that can. Because I believe, inside each of us there’s something good, something hopeful, something worth sharing. And I’m not about to waste it.

We’re not wasters.

So let’s go, get a better can opener, and actually use it.

If we don’t purposefully set out to reward ourselves with proper tools, our lives are bleak indeed. Let’s not fail to understand this: that to strive for something good is to strive for reward-worthy living. We are capable of doing so much good in this world. To strive for more means we believe our efforts are worthwhile.  It’s not too far a leap from there to conclude that we are worthwhile too.

So we get to the core.

We are worthwhile. We deserve a better can opener.

“You Deserve a Better Can Opener” concludes next week.

 

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…

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?

 

Heating Oil and Monkey

I can smell Dad now: he smells of heating oil and monkey. Having consigned his adult self to fixing refrigerators and oil heaters for a living, it was all Dad could muster, given the abuse he suffered as a child and his subsequent breakdown at the age of seventeen. Repair work — Dirty, grimy work, helpful work that made others’ lives better — was tedious work of which his beautiful mind grew bored. So, every evening in order to decompress he carried a newspaper pouch heaped with leftovers across Second Street to his pet monkey, Squeako. The beast’s Sacred Feeding Time was sacred to them both. Mom refused to go. She had had enough of the monkey business — all the injuries Dad’s various monkeys had inflicted on her and Dad through the years. Often he allowed me to go with him to feed Squeako.  This was where the mere memory of Squeako and Dad combined to make that sharp blend of monkey and heating oil. It permeated his skin and clothing. I both hated and loved its pungency; it invades the nose of my mind right now.

He — Dad, not the monkey — could have been an architect. As with any creative, not all of his ideas were home runs. But, judging from his many brilliantly conceived ideas such as the the Luggage Buckle, and the Tricycle Go Cart (fastest in the hood), and the Duct Tape Butterfly Bandage On the Six Inch Chainsaw Wound (self inflicted), the Taj Mahal For Primates turned out to be one of his best. He designed and  built an elaborate network of rooms and runs: a heated feeding room, an exercise room, sleeping space and the piece de resistance (in Port Angeles we called it the piece of resistance): the Sun Tower. Ah the Sun Tower, but I digress. Another time, perhaps, you and I will pick fleas together in the Sun Tower. Right now, I want to talk about Dad’s music.

As a professional musician myself, I can say with confidence that Dad’s musical talent was of the highest caliber; he possessed an excellent ear and a fine-tuned, silken voice of phenomenal range. His rhythm was on point, his interpretations were marked with great insight and tenderness. This was a man of great creative potential, potential of pure essence stripped of him at an early age by his own father who quite thoroughly abused him. At the age of seventeen Dad, before he was Dad to me, snapped under the strain of abuse. To say he never recovered his essence would be a gross understatement, though it helps to believe he did the best he could.

So, it’s a thing worth thinking about. Abuse often triggers the onset of mental illness. Here’s a link: http://healthland.time.com/2012/02/15/how-child-abuse-primes-the-brain-for-future-mental-illness/

Abuse, a prolific breeder, begets a many things. It begins with verbal abuse which, in turn, spawns emotional abuse. You can’t document verbal or emotional abuse. Can’t take a picture of it. Hard to get a witness. It’s insidious that way. Makes you think you are the crazy one. Then, abuse breeds more abuse: physical, sexual and where does it stop? So a person copes by shutting down all but the most basic survival system. That’s what happens to so many abuse victims. They, in turn, abuse because abuse and subsequent shut down have stamped their imprints onto their psyches. Such was the case with Dad when he was a boy, and it all started with words. Not only is this worth thinking about but it’s worth changing ourselves for.

Abuse –our rampant societal ill — from parent to playground to President — smells to the mind a whole lot like an uncleaned monkey run. Abuse starts with our words. Escalates from there. Like a slow buildup of discarded banana peels, buckwheat pancakes, oatmeal slime and sodden newspapers, the stench builds as the breakdown of waste continues to pollute that which was once clean and new, until that place becomes unreachable.

Such wasted space robs us all.

Mental illness is a huge problem. And where does much of it begin? Perhaps it begins with the quieter thing to which we have grown accustomed: verbal abuse. We do not have to scream at or beat another person in order to abuse. Perhaps we as a race have grown so accustomed to a verbal abuse so subtle that we do not realize we ourselves are abusing others with our words, with our put downs and our withholding. Abuse spawns more abuse,  so why not prevent what we are able to prevent? Why not nip it in the bud and stop our cruel words, our unkind actions? Or let’s stop withholding and actually dare a conversation about the effects of withholding? This is where it begins.

Dad failed to reach a potential that matched his gifts. He didn’t need to be famous or spectacular to be successful. Most of us don’t. He did need to live the way he was designed, in accordance with his gifts. Verbal abuse, physical abuse and subsequent mental illness stole real life from him. Adult he, in turn, abused his family, withheld from us. And, when life got to be too much for him he went to that dark fortress he had erected in his mind, one not unlike the Taj Mahal For Primates. Instead of giftedness, he smelled of heating oil and monkey.

Perhaps I am being unfair. On church days he added Old Spice to the mix.

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.