The Transcendent Familiar 8: Guilt Stricken Sobbing

There are no conclusions to draw here from the story of my divorce, no larger lesson. This is a story, and it is mine, and as of today, it is truth.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

I was in class on a sweltering June day in 1997 when Jacob’s preschool teacher noticed a blister on his chest and called to tell me that he had chicken pox. Abbie had her first blisters by evening.  Late June and early July are the hottest weeks of a New Mexico summer, and that day, the third Monday in June of the year when I was 26 years and not quite 3 months old, was a day to sit poolside, not a day for statistics lectures.

For all the heat and misery in that classroom, I was loathe to be called away. That spring, in our final effort to save our marriage (or to find our way out), Robert and I had started marriage counseling, and when the therapist looked at me and asked, “What do you want to do with your life?”, the answer tumbled out of my mouth with no warning, no forethought, a total surprise. “I want to go back to college,” I said, and although I’d had no inkling that school was a thing I’d wanted even five minutes before I said it, I needed no time to consider. I registered Jacob and Abbie for daycare for the first time, filled out my financial aid forms, and picked up my education where I’d left it the year I fell pregnant with Jacob.

I remember the final weeks and months of my first marriage as if they happened in snapshots instead of real time. A bitter word here, a despairing moment there, and giving my scabbed, spotty children tepid oatmeal baths between stolen minutes of studying. I remember the last time Robert and I found each other’s hands under the covers, seeking comfort in what had been familiar. There were the moments when my fear for our kids made my heart thunder and my breath catch.

I hung on, even though I knew the thing was dead. If it had been broken and ugly from the beginning, it had, however briefly, been a marriage, but not anymore. By the fall of 1996, it hung, limp and breathless. By summer 1997, it had begun to smell, and we waited.

My motivations for waiting were complex and largely unconscious, but one reason I allowed it to linger as long as it did was for Abbie. She was very much my baby, and while she adored her dad, I feared that if he moved out while she was so young, she would never really bond with him.

I wanted out. In every moment, I wished for it to be over, but my fear for Jacob and Abbie knocked the breath out of me. While I knew the marriage was doomed, I couldn’t quite take that last step and ask Robert to leave. For a year, he waited for me to leave, and I waited for him to leave, and together, separately, we waited.

So it was that a marriage, long dead, ultimately ended on an impulse of anger on July 4, 1997.

I don’t remember before. I don’t remember waking, or making coffee, or changing Abbie’s diaper, or any of the first-of-the-morning activities. My memory begins in media res. I was wearing pink shorts. Jacob was naked. I was holding Abbie, my left arm wrapped around her, my left hand on her juicy thigh, and was I plugging in a fan to cool us all off? Perhaps, or maybe I was putting The Land Before Time tape into the VCR for Jacob. We had plans to go to my parents’ house in the afternoon to barbecue.

Robert (Had he been sleeping? Did I say something first?) screamed, “How can you expect to fix this marriage if you won’t give me the one thing I want? How can you be married to me if you won’t have sex with me?”

“Why would I have sex with someone who hates me?” I screamed back.

“You know what? You’re right. I don’t love you. I don’t love you. I’m leaving. I don’t love you,” and he seemed to be testing the words and the sounds they made, and he picked up a pencil and a pad of paper, and he left.

That argument is Jacob’s sole memory of his parents marriage.

Robert came back an hour later and sat down on the couch. “Were you looking for an apartment?” I asked.

“Yes, as soon as I find a place, I’m out of here.”

“Fine,” I said, “but if you’re leaving, go now. Couch surf or something.”

He put a few things in his backpack and rode away on his motorcycle, and as soon as he was gone I took off my wedding ring and put it in my jewelry box. When our final decree of divorce was granted almost a year later, it was nothing but the punctuation. I got divorced on July 4, 1997, whatever the court records may say.

I had lost almost everything—dignity, integrity, hope, even my voice. What I had left, what I clung to as the ground under me rocked and shifted, was my love for Jacob and Abbie. I wanted nothing for myself (and oh, is that not the great mistake, that we can hope nothing for ourselves and everything for our children?) and all things for them. That they should feel secure, loved, and safe was the rock in front of me, and could I scale it? Could I climb that thing, with my fear and my shame weighing me down, holding me fast to the ground?

Sort of.

A little.

Not really.

Eventually, not at all.

If I am clear-eyed, if I look into the past, no matter how dark that glass may be, I see that I failed.

Which is not to say that I didn’t do the best I could. I did.

Oh, how I want to flagellate myself some more. I could stay awake for a week—a month—a year, even, and whip myself raw. I could bang my head against every wall, cut myself with every available sharp thing, starve myself until I am flesh stretched over angles of bone and eat until I am immobile, and no punishment, not even my death, would change the past.

I can stay awake as many nights as I want, hurt and punish myself in all possible ways, and I will still have married a man who hurt me, and I will have hurt him. I will still have had children with that man, and we will still have hurt those children. That happened.

I did that.

In some space of my heart, I will never lay down that burden. The weight of it belongs to me and I would be faithless, even treacherous, if I cast it aside.

There is a time for everything, as the saying is, and the two years after Robert and I broke up were a time for all things. I wept, and I laughed. I broke down, and I built up. I embraced some of the wrong men, but I eventually got around to refraining from such embraces.

Not quite two years after Robert moved out, my close friends had a baby, and watching them with their sweet, wonderful new daughter, I remembered the day we brought Jacob home from the hospital. I lay our baby in his Moses basket, swaddled tight, and Robert stood over him, rubbing his hands together. “I’m so proud, I just can’t stand it. Look at him! He’s too perfect. I’m so proud,” he said, over and over.

Someone told me once that in Italian, there is a word for a person you once loved but don’t anymore. I wish there was a word in English for such a person. My relationship with Robert was never, will never be, simple or clean or easy. We were wrong together.

But.

There was good. There was some happy. There are those two extraordinary people who would not be, had we not done our damage with each other. In that terrible, terrifying, impossible-to-reconcile juxtaposition of two realities, each true, but completely at odds with the other, I learned to live balanced atop a fence. I regret; I celebrate. I hate; I love.

For those two, for my children, those enchanting people who are flesh of my flesh, who are living their own lives and bearing their own witness to the ways their parents have succeeded and failed, for those two, I stay here, in reality. I will not hide in bitterness or fantasy. I will not blame their dad, nor will I blame myself. I claim my part; I release to Robert his, and if it lays on the ground unclaimed, so be it. I do this imperfectly, with almost no finesse or style (no points for such things, anyhow).

There are no conclusions to draw here, no larger lesson. This is a story, and it is mine, and as of today, it is truth.

Midmorning on the day after Robert moved out, I was kneeling in the hall, folding sheets and putting them away in the cabinet. The kids were there, playing and goofing, giggling at each other, and we were singing that little song about the hole in the lake, and the log in the hole, and the frog. All of a sudden, relief poured over me like water. He’s not coming back. I’m not married to him. We are not married anymore. I will sleep alone tonight.

For just one minute, maybe 2, surely no more, it was almost too wonderful to bear. I grabbed those two kids up and we three rolled together on the carpet and laughed.

 

We’ve tried to wash our hands of all of this.
We never talk of our lacking relationships,
and how we’re guilt stricken sobbing with our
heads on the floor.

The Success of Love

Parental Alienation Syndrome creates a world in which the ground under our feet shifts and rolls without notice.

The success of love is in the loving. —Mother Teresa

A few days ago I read the first post I ever wrote about my two eldest children, Jacob and Abbie, and how they came to live full-time with their dad. I sat at my computer, eyes goggling half-out of my head, unable to believe I had accomplished the mental-gymnastics necessary to believe what I wrote.

Better?

Better?!?

Like hell it was better, but I definitely believed it at the time, at least at the top of my consciousness. I was mostly (sort of? who knows) convinced that Jacob and Abbie’s dad was a better parent than I; that I was, if not abusive, at least profoundly deficient.

Truth? Yes, I’ll tell the truth: in some ways, in the very beginning, it was a relief to have them gone. I missed them terribly, but at the same time, Carter was so sick that I was living far beyond the limits of my emotional and physical resources and I was stretched much too thin.

More truth? In spite of all that I believe now, and all that I am about to say, I was at my low point as a parent when Jacob and Abbie left. The things other people did and said can’t absolve me of my responsibility, and I am responsible. I did the best I could under terrible circumstances, but that isn’t the same as being innocent.

When they moved out, I never imagined for one minute that they would go away and stay away. I assumed that, given the freedom to choose, they would spend most nights at their dad’s house and just one or two (as opposed to four, as it had always been)  per week at mine. I thought they would come around a few days a week after school, or hang out with us sometimes on Saturdays.

When I didn’t see them for a few weeks, I thought they needed some breathing room, a chance to decompress from the difficulties of life at chez Jones, and so I gave it to them. This was not a decision I made lightly. I prayed and pondered and agonized, staying up late at night writing and crying. Ultimately, though, I decided to live by the credo, “This is a family. We take volunteers, not hostages.”

So while I continued to invite my kids to dinner and other family events, and kept calling them several times a week, and texted them every night to say goodnight and tell them I loved them, I didn’t push or force. I stepped back, focused my energy on Carter and helping him get stable, and I waited.

As carefully as I made that decision, it was absolutely the wrong one. What I didn’t see, the giant piece of the puzzle that I didn’t even know I was missing, was this: my kids’ dad and other members of my family were actively working to keep my kids away from me. That, combined with their anger at my genuine shortcomings, stewed in a broth of early-adolescence, created a case of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) that I didn’t recognize until it was two years entrenched.

The kids’ resentments against me grew and deepened both because adults they love and care about encouraged (in overt and covert ways) those resentments, and because they saw me so rarely (we didn’t see each other for months at a stretch sometimes), I didn’t have enough time to show them that I wasn’t the person they had created in their minds.

Starting in the summer of 2011, when I began to push hard in any way I could to have more time with my kids, I watched it happen: when they were with me more, they started to soften. Their defenses began to relax as they let the reality-mom impact idea-mom. Then, something would happen (something always happened), I would see the kids less, and the fierce, hateful, horrible words would come from the kids’ mouths to my heart again. The same words that their dad and other people spoke to them about me.

Never, ever, ever underestimate the power of a good story.

My family’s experience of parental alienation syndrome is unusual in that the alienation began long after the divorce itself. In fact, Robert and I co-parented fairly peacefully for quite a few years. Or so I believed; I know now that he wanted our kids all to himself long before he got them, and when the opportunity presented itself, he took it. If my kids’ PAS had been more typical (that is, happening during the immediate post-divorce months or years), someone probably would have identified it sooner. As it was, I flew blind for a long, long time before I knew what was happening.

My 18-year-old son and I remain fairly alienated (though I see signs of progress), but my daughter has been home with me now for several months and, while PAS will always be one of the most painful experiences of my life, I’m healing.

Having my beautiful, brilliant daughter, with her heart wide open and her mind searching for her truth, doesn’t hurt one tiny bit.

For other alienated parents, this is what I know:

When you doubt yourself, breathe deep and remember that you don’t deserve this; what they say isn’t true. Oh, I know. I know that you weren’t perfect; that you made mistakes; that you were weak and broken and you failed in ways large and small. Still, you don’t deserve this.

Don’t give up.

Don’t let them (your kids, their other parent, and any other people involved in your children’s alienation) define you. You define you. There is no solution to PAS, no sure way to save our kids or our relationships with them, but I know that living our own lives with integrity is the start.

Never live down to their expectations. Live up to your own.

You are living in the vast darkness and hope is a tiny, flickering flame, almost invisible. Oh, I know, and my heart is broken because you are in the darkness and I remember the darkness and it is so large. So endless. So damn heavy. My grief was like being chained to a line of cinderblocks that I dragged behind me.

Find love. Find as much love as you can, because you deserve love. You deserve people and kindness and togetherness and a whole, fulfilling life, in spite of the terrible hole that won’t be filled by anyone but your children. Still, surround yourself with people who care about you and who see you as you are—gifts, flaws, and all. Those people who assume that only a terrible parent could ever be alienated from his or her children should be tossed overboard immediately.

Don’t give up.

Nourish your spirit, whatever that means for you. Read good books (or trashy ones), go to church, spend time with friends, write a blog, write a journal, pray, go dancing, learn to knit, grow a garden, or take up painting, but find something that feeds your soul.

PAS creates a world in which the ground under our feet shifts and rolls without notice; we need nurturing and support and a strong spirit to survive.

Your kids do need you. No matter how loudly they say they don’t, they do. No matter what they say you did, they need you. They may not hear your words of love (though you should never stop speaking them) but they see you. That bedroom you dust and vacuum every week for your son is not wasted space; it’s an invitation. That bicycle in the garage, with its oiled chain and inflated tires, is a love note that your daughter notices every time she sees it. The phone calls they ignore, the texts they don’t answer, the gifts they return, all speak their own language.

As long as our children are alive, there is hope.

Don’t give up.

The Transcendent Familiar 7: Choking on the Ashes

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
If you haven’t read parts 1-6, that’s OK. This one stands pretty well all by itself.

Peek with me into a house and observe the family therein.

There’s the dad, young and handsome, laughing at two tiny children who are splashing and playing in the bath.

There’s the mom, also young, and she would be pretty if she didn’t look so tired and puffy, getting small jammies out of dresser drawers.

The dad lifts the older of the two children out of the bath and towels him off. The boy runs across the hall and into the bedroom where the mom is waiting. He flings his tiny body onto his bed, howling, “To infinity…and beyond!”

“Silly boy!” the mom says, and she reaches for him, pajamas at the ready, and he grabs her arms, pulling her to the bed with him.

“Read Sam, Mommy! Can we read Sam?”

“Again? Jacob, we have tons of books! Let’s read a different book, OK?”

“No,” and the little boy shakes his head firmly. “Read Sam.”

“OK,” the mom sighs, “but jammies first.”

The little girl comes in then, all pink pudge and halo of ginger hair. She climbs onto her brothers bed, imitating his shouts with her own, “Ifity! To ifity!”

They are beautiful children—healthy and exuberant and sweet. The mom puts a diaper on the little girl and helps both children with their pajamas. She reads Green Eggs and Ham while the boy sucks on two of his fingers and the girl sucks on her binky.

The mom tucks the little boy into his bed while the dad tucks the little girl into hers. They pass each other in the hall, switching rooms so that she can kiss the little girl and he can kiss the little boy.

The dad goes to the couch in the living room and turns on the television. The mom moves past him, to a desk in the den where she turns on a computer. She connects to the internet and spends an hour on UseNet, reading and responding to messages on boards about depression, marriage, politics, and parenting.

At 8:00, her husband appears in the doorway. “Hey, you wanna get it on?” he asks, and she turns to him, fear and disgust plain on her face.

“I…” she begins, but he interrupts her.

“God, you make me sick. How do you think we’ll save this marriage if you won’t give me the one thing I want? Why the fuck would I want to touch you, anyway? Look at yourself! Look at you!”

She does. She looks down at her stained shorts and sloppy t-shirt and her face is desperate and despondent for a moment. She slumps in her chair.

“Jesus, you don’t even try,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s a good thing the people in that goddamn computer can’t see you or they’d tell you to go fuck yourself.”

“Like you’re any better,” she says, standing and moving toward him. “What the hell is that? Wanna get it on? Is that… what? Romance? Love? You haven’t said two words to me since you came home from work!”

“Whatever. I’m sick of talking to you. Why don’t you just get the fuck out? If you won’t have sex with me there’s no point. Just go away.”

“Fine,” she says. “I’ll get the kids.”

“Like hell you will! You won’t take my kids out of this house!” he shouts, and one of the children cries out. He blocks the woman’s path so that she can’t go down the hall to the bedrooms.

“I’m taking the kids!” she screams at him. “Move!”

He laughs at her, shoves her backwards into a bookshelf. She looks stunned as books and photos thump to the floor. He is nearly nose to nose with her, shouting, “Those kids are mine. I’ll tell the judge you’ve been in the nut hatch and you’ll never see them again! You could just kill yourself right now and no one would give a shit. You’re crazy! Fat and crazy! You disgust me!”

There is another cry from one of the children. The woman makes another attempt to push her way past her husband and he shoves her again. This time she lands on the floor atop the books and photos.

She sees the phone amid the clutter and grabs it, running for the back door as she dials. “Dad?” she says into the phone, stepping onto the back patio. “I need you to come over right now.”

She waits on the back patio until she hears her dad’s truck in the driveway. Walking through the house she sees her husband, still standing sentry near the opening to the hallway. “My dad is here,” she says.

He shakes his head and smirks at her a little, then sits down on the couch and turns on the TV.

When her dad comes into the house, the mom picks up the children, one in each arm, and takes them to the car. She buckles them into their seats and drives the six blocks to her parents’ house. She sings the children back to sleep then lays, listening to her babies’ breath, until dawn. She does not cry.

At breakfast, her parents ask her, “What happened?”

“Just a fight,” she says.

“You should go home after we eat,” her mom says, “before it turns into a big deal.”

“Yeah,” says her dad, “the longer you wait the more uncomfortable it will be.”

And so she does.


What else could I write?
I don’t have the right.
What else should I be?
All apologies.

The Transcendent Familiar 6: Love Is Not a Victory March

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
Part 5
However, maybe you didn’t read those, and maybe you want to read one post and not 6. Fair enough. Here’s what you need to know: Robert was my first husband. We married in May of 1993 and our son Jacob was born in December of that same year. We were both very young and our relationship was always chaotic and difficult.

During Jacob’s first year, I controlled every bite of food that I put into my body. I subsisted on vegetable soup, oatmeal, and dry salted potatoes, a diet so low in fat that eventually I became deficient in fat-soluble vitamins, and by consequence was covered in bruises. Every time I scratched an itch, bumped a table, or Jacob bit my shoulder, I would get a black-and-blue mark all out of proportion the to the injury. My doctor sent me to have something like 20 vials of blood drawn so he could test it for God-knows-what-all, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when those tests proved I didn’t have leukemia. The doctor seemed unconcerned that I was so thin I wasn’t menstruating and had to sleep 12 hours out of every 24 in order to maintain my brutal workout schedule. He prescribed a multi-vitamin and sent me home.

During that year, I also kept our house in pristine order. Everything was perfect. I washed my cloth diapers and hung them out to dry and they were so perfectly even and white out there on the line, they looked like movie star teeth. I swept the floors daily and mopped them twice a week. My dishes were clean and there were no sticky jam spills in my refrigerator. My jeans were size 4 and my breasts had all but disappeared.

Everything was perfect.

Eventually, not long after Jacob’s first birthday, I lost the thread that connected me to whatever force enabled me to do all of those things that were so unnatural for me. I ate some cookies or I watched TV instead of cleaning the bathroom, and soon it all unraveled and I was me again, laundry half done, dinner unmade, my nose in a book, and candy bar wrappers hidden at the bottom of the trash can. Robert told me I was “marshmallowing out” again and asked how a person who couldn’t cook anything more complicated than Jell-O could possibly manage to get fat.

When I lost hold of the thread, my period came back, and in April 1995, the rabbit done died again.

When I was four months pregnant, Robert got a new job and he asked me not to come visit him there, in spite of the fact that he would be working less than a mile from our house.

“Why? Don’t you think Jacob wants to see where you’re working?”

“You can come when you look more pregnant. I don’t want people thinking I have a fat wife.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t know how.

My weight had fluctuated widely since my late teens, but during my pregnancy with Abbie I became genuinely fat for the first time. Part of that was almost certainly due to the fact that I entered the pregnancy on the rebound from a year of near-starvation, but also, I was angry. With food to nourish my brain, I couldn’t ignore that anger, and since I couldn’t starve it away anymore, I ate it. I ate my anger with omelettes and toast, with roast beef and mashed potatoes, with ice cream and cookies. I ate and ate and ate until I had stretch marks in places I didn’t know people could get stretch marks and I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.

I was so ashamed, I almost never left the house. All my emotional and mental energy was consumed with food and weight, planning how I would find that thread and get back to being the perfect, tidy, slender person I had been a year earlier. I spent hours lost in a daze as I planned the diet I would pursue beginning the instant I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Awful as it was, it was better than feeling so violently, helplessly angry.

And then there was this:

Oh, the pink juicy wonder of my Abbie. She smelled so good, I thought I might accidentally suck her up my nose. She was round and rosy and sweet and always, unmistakably, her own person, sharp and opinionated and stubborn.

Two babies were a heavy load on a weak and shaky marriage. Soon after Abbie’s birth, the cracks in our relationship’s foundation began to grow. By the time she started to crawl, I could fit my hand in those cracks, and when she learned to walk I discovered that I could climb right into some of those cracks and take a nap.

Maybe there’s a God above
All I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…

Part 7

The Transcendent Familiar 3: This One Goes Out to the One I Love[ed]

Part 1
Part 2

When Robert and I got married, the wedding preparations weren’t difficult because of the one we’d cancelled just a year before. We called the florist, the baker, and the tent rental place and re-ordered the things we’d already chosen. My penchant for procrastination paid off since I’d never gotten around to selling my wedding dress.

Caught up in round after round of frenetic activity, I never stopped to consider any of the choices I was making. Growing a baby (and the attendant vomit-o-rama), planning a wedding, and finding an apartment and moving, not to mention jobs and classes, made it easy for me to ignore the whispers at the back of my skull.

I think I felt happy. I certainly look happy in the pictures. It’s amazing what the intervening years and the experiences during those years have done to the memories. In trying to remember how I felt and what I was thinking, there are shadows laid over everything. How I felt about Robert then is changed not only by how I feel about him now, but also how I felt about him when our children were born, and when our marriage began to die in earnest, and when we divorced, and when, and when, and when…

The wedding rehearsal. My mom bought Robert that ridiculous hat.

In a stunning illustration of how little I knew about myself, we had a small but very traditional wedding. We all got dressed up in the customary wedding way, including a giant white dress.

My mom, Robert, me, my dad, and my sister Erin, the ultra-young versions.

Erin and I carried beautiful bouquets.

We had a fancy cake and did all the rituals that people do with wedding cakes.

I can hardly believe it myself (and I was there!), but there was a woodwind quintet.

Whose wedding was that?

I guess, though, if you are marrying the wrong person, you should do it with the wrong wedding.

At 11 am on May 29, 1993, I took my dad’s arm and we walked out of my parents’ house and into their backyard. Walking down the aisle we’d created with rented chairs, giant dress billowing around me, I looked ahead to where Robert was standing and suddenly, those tiny whispers at the back of my skull rallied.

Unintentional and absolutely unwelcome came the thought, “This is a stupid thing to do. Marrying Robert is a really bad idea.”

And yet…I didn’t consider turning around and walking away. I moved forward, passed my bouquet to Erin, and exchanged vows with Robert. My roiling, lurching stomach reminded me of the baby that was coming and I didn’t want to raise that baby by myself.

I thought I couldn’t raise that baby by myself.

I thought I was weak, that I needed Robert.

I thought that I was incapable of creating a satisfying life for myself without him.

I thought I needed to keep the first man who was willing to be with me because I would never find anyone else.

I believed I was unworthy of  anything better than adequate, and even that might be too good for me.

I didn’t understand that Robert and I were doing little more than using each other. How could I have known that? I was young, naive, and scared out of my damn mind. I didn’t know myself well enough to understand my own motives.

So I told myself everything would be OK and I rang the bell.

A marriage is a hard bell to un-ring.

Not-really-a-part 3.1
Part 4