an attempt to understand the development of my guilty conscience
Opportunities for Guilt
I should have been born Catholic. After all, I was born fifth in a line of as many children. Consequently, I heard from the older kids, “Stop whining! You’re such a baby! Of course you can’t come with us, you would just be in the way”, etcetera. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized all brothers and sisters everywhere spoke these words. My parents were either depressed (my mother) or irresponsible and probably bipolar (my father), so the balance of nurture was far out of kilter. Parental feedback was sparse, and while I now know they loved me as well as they could, during those critical years when I learned how to view myself it seemed there wasn’t much lovable about me.
Some early memories of my mother are as flat as the ironing board she leaned over. In a quiet and desperate way she kept up our home, trying to hold together the edges of our lives as she did the sheets and towels she folded while Walter Cronkite droned on in the background on the black and white. “And that’s the way it is…” When I did something “wrong” I recall the reprimands, the sharp-tongued shrilling. "Put back the neighbor’s tea set, that's not yours! Stop bothering the chickens! Stop, stop, stop!" Of course, all children need correction and guidance – but how it’s provided is the key.
Eventually our family fell apart. My mother probably faced a choice of divorce or complete breakdown. My siblings tell me now I have blocked the memories of my dad’s lies and manipulations in his attempts to gain our allegiance. “I have a brain tumor and I’m dying.” “If you come live with me, I’ll buy a horse.” My oldest brother and sister were already out of the house, leaving my other sister, brother, and me. When they went to live with him, I was pulled along like an afterthought.
My dad remarried first. He needed a wife to take care of us. She was about as stable as he was, having her own mental and emotional disabilities. For years I avoided sleeping on my back after listening to her tell about the evil spirits with saucer eyes that would overpower her if she was on her back in bed at night. She couldn’t deal with me, the “tomboy” child that was no little lady. I found a new level of agony in her physical abuse of me, yet more proof of unworthiness.
My reaction as a teenager was to run away, jump off the train wreck and try to find myself. Not surprisingly, my sister and I left the house by the time we were 16. It took many years to see this as a choice I made to do something within my power to save my life. I felt like a bad girl, a rebel who acted scathingly toward her parents and did not live up to the model of the young woman I should be.
Let me sum up this tale of putting the fun back in dysfunction by saying that I have turned out to be a survivor despite the odds. I really believe in the expression “there but for the grace of God”, and I have done a lot of work to exorcise the demons my stepmother brought into our house.
A problem humans have is that we develop an internal and external worldview and assume it is reality. The collateral damage in our family led me to believe that I did not deserve love, shelter and safety. It is so hard not to become my own voice of criticism and censor, taking off where my family started. Instead of being knocked around for cleaning the bathtub wrong, I tell myself I am a low life because a bill wasn’t paid on time. Since I didn’t learn the social niceties that come with a more normal upbringing (hah) I sometimes stick my foot in my mouth. Rather than seeing these times as opportunities to be human and simply apologize or make amends, I want to sink to the bottom of the pond as a new form of goo.
At the risk of sharing a psychoanalytic moment with my reader, I have tried to explore this sense of ickiness and hope it might help someone else in being a bit kinder to his/her sad little self. Damn, but it gets crowded inside my head at times, and I could use a bit of shuteye. Night, night, friend.