May 9, 2012

Not a bug but a feature

I recently made the acquaintance of someone whose childhood appears to have been, at least in the rear view mirror, idyllic.  Now, admittedly, I don't know the whole story, but what I heard was like a report from my dream world.

As a little girl, I had this idea that there was this way my life was supposed to be.  I don't quite know where I got the narrative, but I did watch a lot of T.V., so maybe that explains it.

From as far back as I can remember, I knew the kind of life I wanted, a life that was tidy, where everything and everyone had their place.  Mommy would stay home while Daddy would go to work.  I would dust the furniture and set the table.  (I also wanted to gather eggs in my apron from the chickens we'd have on our farm, but that's a story for another day.)  There would be pretty party dresses and fresh flowers.  We'd go to church every Sunday.  Father would preside over meals.  Everything would be neat as a pin.  We would all live happily ever after.

For a while we did.  Or, I did.  Apart from the chickens, I had just what I thought I wanted and two little sisters besides.

Then one day my parents told us my dad was moving out.  No more Mommy staying at home; she went to work.  No more Daddy shaving in the morning or cutting the grass on Saturday or sitting at the dinner table.  Just us girls at home with my mom and Daddy's house every other weekend. 

But still, somewhere in my mind, I was still living in that other world.  If only I could make it be true!

I remember in college, someone from the counseling department, upon hearing my story, introduced me to the words "dysfunctional family." I was horrified and defensive. Not my family.  We loved each other.  It would be years before I understood what that man was trying to tell me -- the truth.

As self-aware as I imagine myself to be, it's rather embarrassing to confess that I was into my thirties before I connected the dots from my adult dysfunctions back to my parents' divorce.  Every single neurosis I could think of seemed to have its genesis when I was about ten years old, when my dad moved out.  For a long time I felt sorry for myself.  Now I don't.

Labels like "dysfunctional family" or "co-dependency" have their place, but they don't really say what needs to be said for my story to feel true.  It's true that I was emotionally wounded by my parents.  It's true that their divorce was emotionally devastating to me.  It's true that I pretended, mostly unknowingly, for years and years to be fine when I really was sad and angry and lonely.

I'd like to say that I'm just this amazingly magnanimous person and I've forgiven everyone because it's the right thing to do.  In fact -- and maybe this is the truly amazing thing -- I'm grateful.

While I thought my family was healthy, the only explanation for my personal crazy was that I was wrong.  I felt the wrong things, wanted the wrong things.  But that's not true.  I feel what I feel and want what I want.  How I act on my feelings or my wants can breed love or destruction, but the feelings and the wants just are what they are.  I don't have to judge them all the time.  I don't have to judge me all the time.

I don't know that I could ever have understood all that unless I'd suffered a little.  I've never been hungry or sick or, thank God, abused or victimized, but I have suffered loss at the hands of the people that I thought were supposed to make my life perfectly safe and lovely.  Thing is, they were human, just like I am, so they made mistakes.  They suffered.  I suffered.

But that suffering has opened my eyes to the possibility that life holds more than I imagined.  My dreams, my little Leave It to Beaver/Brady Bunch fantasy life, was so much less rich than the life I have.  It's not that there were no chickens.  It's that it was too perfect, and life's just not that way.

Life is messy.  Everybody's life is messy.  If I don't understand and embrace the messiness of my own life, I cannot possibly be trusted with the messiness of yours.  I wanted my life to be perfect.  I thought if it was I wouldn't be sad or angry or lonely, but that isn't true.  It's because I'm sad and angry sometimes that I don't have to be lonely.  We're in this together.

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