#18: Last book blog from “Don’t Try This at Home,” Chapter 3
But the real story was, self-protection literally never entered my mind. Since infancy, self-protection wasn’t in my biochemistry; my entire organism was all about trying to oblige Mom. I took Mom’s excommunication verdict when I was 25 the same way – the idea of protest or self-defense never remotely occurred to me. I didn’t even know I had self-preservation instincts. Whu Nhu?
Yet we all have survival instincts – strong ones. Trouble was, my instincts for self-preservation had been constantly being overwhelmed by events which seemed beyond my control.
I was beyond clueless in 2008, but here’s a fact I’ve learned since: “the overwhelm of our instincts for survival by events completely beyond our control” is the technical definition of trauma. And when our survival instincts are forced into trauma mode, “double-plus un-good things happen,” to quote George Orwell.
As I went into overwhelm in that 2008 hospice, it was like living in a nightmare during the day, all day, every day. I began to experience days when it felt as though Mom’s critical voice was screaming so loud in my head that her voice had become the inside of my head. I began to have waking and sleeping nightmares about Goya’s Los Caprichos, a series of 80 etchings heavily populated by just such images. All I wanted was for Mom to let go her claws from my brain. [FN1, Goya, above: “Can’t anyone unleash us?”]
One day watching Mom nap, I was dimly conscious of a horrifying gut reaction from deep in some prehistoric part of my mental sub-basement, a place out of Dante’s “Inferno.” Up came a horrible idea: something which is inflicting so much pain upon my sister and me requires the raw animal response of fight, flight, or who-knows-what.
I looked at Mom and thought “This is a creature in total misery because it knows no God and no perspective. It can’t find enough meaning in life about which to feel peace, so it’s going out inflicting as much hurt as it can on the universe, because watching people like me suffer is the only way it can know that it exists. This is a bad golem, a hurtful thing, and not only is it hurting me, it’s about to be flown to New York to make life miserable for my beloved sister. I must defend my little sister! Why do we prolong this golem’s ability to torture itself, my sister and me?”
Horrified at my own hideous emotional upsurge, I flat-out ran from the room and the hospice. Many palm trees narrowly escaped the fury of my assault upon the grounds around Mom’s condo that night as I jogged off this unwelcome animal fury, until I limped inside and fell asleep senseless in my work-out togs.
In short, parts of me were literally going mad. There were deep places lurking in me with a gut instinct that emotional pain this intense must mean that I was about to be killed – and we all have a survival instinct to fight back. Luckily the higher parts of me prevailed.
Caution: in trauma, adverse experiences can feel either much worse or much better than they actually were. Perhaps Mom was no such person. Perhaps I was traumatized during my incubation, then I projected my anxieties on her. We have no laboratory proof either way. But my job is my own healing and transformation. For that we must go beyond denial, to feel into our feelings without acting out.
During the last three days in the hospice, I decided I had to bring some calm to Mom’s soul, or all this would kill me along with her. I went in one morning and basically insisted on loving her. I sang to her. I held her hand. I rubbed her back. I used the fact that we thought she was about to be kicked out of the hospice for failure to die according to the Medicare schedule, as a selling point.
“Things are looking up,” I said, “Linda’s finding you a nice place in New York.” My sister was in court running legal cases all day, while trying to find a nursing home nearby. “How am I going to get to New York?” Mom demanded. I talked her step by step through how we would first get her up into a wheel chair, then onto a plane with oxygen, and I’d sit with her on the plane, and Linda and her family would meet us at the other end. In great detail. That seemed to calm Mom down.
“I’m sorry I separated you from the family,” she finally said, 100% out of the blue, regarding me with a baleful look before falling asleep.
I felt moved and teary, but somehow it wasn’t enough to make me feel much better. I was way too far gone into the emotional pain pit. [FN2, Goya, above: “You will not escape”]
During these last weeks, I was staying alone nights in Mom’s upscale retirement pad on the beach, out of my mind with isolation and grief. To keep my immune system from collapsing, I’d jog around the gated community late until midnight after 12 hours in the hospice, so disoriented that I had trouble not running into a palm tree or two and bashing my own head in.
I had to use the computer for business, and I couldn’t go through this alone; one night I “just found myself” on Match.com. What, you ask, after all those weeks of diving deep into the pain of the Inner Child, then being told “Go Way Kid” by my mentors, and then more weeks of ultra pain delivered in person by Mom? “That stretch in the Florida hospice with Mom was the worst weeks of my entire life,” I wrote at the time.
Wasn’t I more ready to enter a mental hospital than a dating website? In retrospect, that’s a big “Yes.” Years later I heard that the standard joke at Alcoholics Anonymous is about a guy who’s been sober for months, then suddenly “just finds himself” with a drink in his hand. That’s exactly how I “just found myself” on dating websites.
But nobody warned me at the time. In fact, my second therapist Dr. Rita told me that I was doing very well on her program. She said that I was well enough to go back to work, and that I was well enough to drop my own therapy and fly around the country to physically nurse someone else for weeks. She also said I was well enough to date.
In my mind, it was simple: I had a huge deficit of romantic love. I’d gotten no deep emotional connection in my 27-year marriage, then I got a taste of it from Dan back East, a taste which blew me away. I had accepted starving to death as a 27-year norm, then discovered there’s food out there. Really tasty food, in fact it was addictive, if you recall.
Hitting the Bottle
What I didn’t know was that I was in so much pain from not merely 27 years but a lifetime without attachment, that I was hitting the bottle. I was trying to anesthetize an entire life of emotional pain, with the “feel good” of romance. [FN3, Goya, above: “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”]
I couldn’t stand the thought of returning from Florida to California after week upon week of this living Hell, with nothing and no one to whom to look forward. After my evening jog, I’d take advantage of the three hour time delay to take calls from California into the wee hours.
“I hope to meet a productive man who has worked in transportation, construction, engineering, the military, science, or any field which gives him the satisfaction that, at the end of the day, he can look at his work and say: ‘Today I created something to make the world better’,” my Match.com profile said. “Such men seem to have the self-confidence necessary to love a real woman.” It also mentioned my singing.
“Hi, I’m a productive guy, and turn in a day’s effort for a day’s wage,” one aerospace engineer wrote back. “I like to be active, love to play in the ocean during the summer, play racquet ball outdoors, and bicycle the Back Bay. But I also have this music connection, and found it fascinating that you perform music.
“I have too have lived abroad, and I have a universal outlook on business models in today’s world. It would be interesting to talk to you about the American and world economies. Got to go practice the piano! With a song in my heart…” he signed off. A prospective accompanist, no less. We spoke several times about everything from Schubert to Schopenhauer.
Another night there was Bob the Air Force man. We both had the same science degree and an interest in international affairs; we hit it off by email and then by phone. “I just read your profile and was impressed,” he wrote me. “We seem to have a lot in common, including a connection to the military. Appreciated what you wrote in your profile, and have never seen it put quite that way before (about productive men).
“The experiences I had during my many years of military service (world-wide travel + two wars) were exciting, inspiring, and humbling. The average American has no idea how lucky he is to have had the good fortune of being born here, rather than one of the thousand other places I have visited around the globe.”
Mom passed away overnight in Florida the Sunday before Thanksgiving. We had been scheduled to fly her to New York two days later, that Tuesday. My brother-in-law booked me to New York for Wednesday Thanksgiving eve, to give me two days to pack up whatever I could carry of Mom’s belongings in our parents’ suitcases. I gave away most of the wall paintings to Mom’s friends and relatives, made arrangements for the furniture, brought whatever bulky items might sell to an e-Bay trader, and took calls from Match.com while packing.
We held a funeral for Mom in New York on Thanksgiving eve in my sister’s upscale church. Again Linda and her family said all the words. When they were done, I just got up and sang again, this time Mom’s favorite song, “Moon River” from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Again everyone cried and almost applauded my singing.
Again I was without tears. At least this time I knew why. I had always lived in fear of Mom, and now she had spent her last six weeks doing what felt like trying to obliterated me. I felt really awful.
I’d been scheduled for many months to sing in the Handel’s “Messiah” given annually at the prestigious Nixon Library in California on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I decided that I’d had my life on hold while sitting in Florida long enough, and told Bob I’d be back for the performance.
“You can’t be alone in California the first night right after your Mom died,” he said. “I’d like to take you to dinner after the concert.” We arranged it.
And you, dear reader, already know what happens next.
FN1 Goya, Francisco de, “Los Caprichos,” set of 80 aquatint prints, Madrid, 1799 : Capricho № 75: ¿No hay quién nos desate? (Can’t anyone unleash us?)
FN2 Goya, Capricho № 72: No te escaparás (You will not escape)
FN 3 Goya, Capricho № 43: El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters)
This is from Kathy’s forthcoming book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series of excerpts from the rest of her book each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in Adults, Adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.
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