Two days ago, I felt compelled to comment on a fellow blogger’s post about her childhood and how it affected her adult relationships and, much to my surprise, in doing so it brought about a huge flood of emotion. I couldn’t stop crying. I was in a funk in the first place yet my response was quite unexpected.
Her post triggered questions. Why am I the way I am? Was my childhood healthy? Is there a pattern to my past relationships?
During 4 years in marriage counseling, I became quite good at looking inward. Trying to remember all I possibly could became a game for me. I would randomly choose a time in my life and analyze it, delving into my memory banks to dissect it. At first, it was difficult to remember details but the more I did it, the easier it became.
As our marriage counselor always said, each of us is like an onion. We are the same people we were as children. We have layers. The layers only build upon one another. As you peel back the layers, you see they’re really not all that different.
Our experiences shape us and become a part of us. And we tend to repeat the same patterns.
It became a personal mission for me to remember everything I could. How far back could I go? As it turns out, with practice, I can go pretty far back. I’m guessing to around age 3.
But, in reading this blogger’s post, I wondered how I had become the way I am. Sure, a lot of it is nature (genetics). But some, maybe even a large part, is nurture (environment).
I had a happy childhood. I played with dolls and miniature cars and had lots of friends. My parents were happily married. Or so I thought.
My parents’ divorce came as quite a shock when I was a teenager. I soon found out from my dad that my mom had had a string of affairs since I was quite young. She would go through long periods of faithfulness, then lapse into short periods of promiscuous behavior and affairs. It was a cycle…. and the reason my dad stayed in the marriage. The times were so rare that every time it happened, he thought it would be the last.
My dad finally drew the line after 18 years of marriage.
They divorced almost 30 years ago and we now suspect she has mental illness. Possibly bipolar depression. Possibly something else, although we’re not sure what. She refuses to see a doctor and hasn’t in at least 20 years. My dad suspects she was ill even way back when and her affairs were a symptom.
My mom was mainly a stay-at-home mom when I was little up until around age 10. She raised my brother and I. After that, she got in early on the ground floor of an image consulting company (remember those?) and made it big. Soon she was regularly traveling around the United States on business.
My dad and my grandpa had a company in the construction industry. When my mom became the breadwinner, my dad continued working full-time while also taking care of 3 children. It must have been difficult. We ate a lot of fast-food for dinner and the house was a complete mess during her absences. The days she was due home, my dad would get very stressed and then yell at my brother and I to help pick it all up before she returned home.
My dad pretty much raised my little sister single-handedly. To this day, they share an incredible bond. I have always been envious. My sister is a daddy’s girl; I am not.
It has been a source of sadness and confusion for me, and a recurring theme during my life. Why did I have such a distant relationship with my dad? One therapist I saw for PTSD and untreated PPD after my oldest child was born suggested it was because of my mom’s affairs… that I was never able to properly bond with my dad because of them. It makes sense. When I was an adult, family members told me that they remember meeting my mom’s paramours, not knowing they were love interests at the time. They said she brought them around my brother and I as well. I do vaguely remember her meeting up with guys I didn’t know at McDonald’s and other such places. As a result, the therapist suggested I probably had a hard time rectifying who my dad was relative to the other guys in my mom’s life when I was very young. My dad worked a lot when I was little; it was very physical work. When he was home, he was exhausted.
As a parent myself, I now recognize that both my parents must have been emotionally checked out. I don’t remember a whole lot of warmth and professions of love after age 8 or so despite having lots of great times together.
My parents were on the fast-track to success. They had built a large custom home overlooking the lake, bought new cars, dressed in nice clothing, and apparently had it all. But their marriage must have been falling apart.
By high school, I felt as though I were completely on my own. There was no talk about what I would do after high school graduation. I don’t think it was even on their radar. My brother was the problem kid. My sister was young and required a fair amount of attention. I was the easy kid, the one who did well in school, was reasonable, and had a great group of close friends.
I was not a concern. I was overlooked.
Then my life as I knew it imploded when I was 16. My mom was having a flagrant affair and casually announced the separation to my brother and I while barbecuing hamburgers one night. My dad was still at work.
Needless to say, it was a very contentious divorce. My parents wouldn’t talk to each other for about 10 years afterward. (Surprisingly, they are very good friends now.)
The news of the divorce came as a huge shock to my friends. They couldn’t believe it, as my parents were always affectionate with each other and they knew my parents never fought.
I rationalized it and thought I coped very well at the time. In hindsight, however, I now realize how traumatic it really was. I saw my parents fight for the first time ever, this time with deep-seated hatred and hostility. I testified in court about which parent my sister should live with. I should not have been asked to do that.
I moved out when I was 17 to escape the fray. My brother escaped, too, by enlisting in the military. My little sister was caught in the mix, shuttled between two dysfunctional homes on two different coasts. My heart still bleeds for her and what she had to endure.
I was forced into adulthood too soon. I put myself through college while living in tenement housing with a roommate. I subsisted on pantry foods (couscous, Pop Tarts, peanut butter) and V8 juice.
I grew up too quickly. I had to juggle paychecks with tuition and living expenses. I had to work. I had to attend college because I wanted a better life for myself. I was extremely independent -and I didn’t realize this until very recently- to a fault.
I am used to being on my own. Alone. I really don’t know any other way. The last half of my 12 year marriage was mostly spent living our lives separately but together. Mars had checked out, just as my parents did almost 30 years ago. I was overlooked. I was invisible. Just like a when I was a teenager.
I was so comfortable with it that it didn’t even register for a long time. I find that incredibly sad. I am sad that I feel hardwired to be alone, that even as a child I needed to take care of myself because no one else would. But a part of me wants so desperately to be nurtured sometimes.
The bigger concern I have, though, is how to stop this cycle.