Alright, where did I leave off? Oh! That’s right, I was telling you about my stepdad ‘Larry’.
Larry joined our family when I was eight years old and things changed drastically the moment he married my mom. Larry was all about structure (Harry) and discipline (Mo) and rules (Larry the 2nd) and he didn’t waste any time introducing his three friends to us kids. The three of us at the bottom became very familiar with Harry, Mo and Larry the 2nd (HM&L2) because my stepdad had the most peculiar way of driving them into your head. No, he never hit us. Thank God for that! He didn’t even yell and scream and threaten. What did he do? The good old silent treatment. Wait a minute. Hang on. I can already hear you say sarcastically, “Poor Baby! Daddy didn’t talk to you for a little while because he was unhappy with you? How terrible it must have been! Consider yourself lucky. At least you didn’t get the strap or worse!” Well, let me explain and then maybe you’ll understand.
Imagine you come home from school one day, after also working as the lunch assistant, library assistant, crossing guard and office assistant, because you need an ‘Atta Boy or Atta Girl’ so desperately, any words of praise. And when you get home, instead of immediately doing your chores, you look at the clock and realize ‘Popeye’ is about to start. You also realize that your stepdad isn’t home yet and maybe you have a small window of time to watch the cartoon and get your chores done before he steps through the front door. You park yourself in front of the TV and start to relax a little. Popeye does the usual, finds himself in a combative situation, grabs the nearest can of spinach and gulps it down, and then proceeds to save the day! It takes your mind off reality for a while. But you’re so absorbed in the program, that you’ve forgotten to keep an eye on the driveway to watch for your stepdad’s blue Vega, so you’re taken completely by surprise when he steps through the front door. He doesn’t greet you, he doesn’t say anything at all. He just scans the room. And when he notices that you haven’t completed your assigned chore (the living room and dining room), let alone started it, he flies into a rage.
The first thing he does is take the palm of his hand and use it to smack the on/off button on the TV. There goes Popeye. The room is deathly quiet, but you know that it won’t last. The loud, long sighs start up first. And then the banging starts. He has gone down the hallway, after removing his coat, and is aggressively pulling the vacuum out of the closet. After slamming the closet door, he stomps down the hallway and into the living room, with the vacuum in tow, and after unwrapping the cord, forcefully puts the plug into the outlet. All the while you sit there, feeling stupid and ashamed for having let your guard down and allowing this to happen. You watch for a while as he angrily pulls each end table away from the couch and yanks the recliner out of it’s spot and starts maniacally vacuuming the wall-to-wall carpet, leaving a very precise pattern, one that we’ve been instructed to replicate. After vacuuming, he starts pulling everything not fastened down off of each of the horizontal surfaces (tables, mantle, bookshelves, TV, etc.) and setting them aside (with as much emphasis as possible to make sure we notice). He then dramatically dusts each item he removed along with all of the surfaces, and then returns each item to the exact location where it originally stood.
As all of this is going on, I must remind you, he doesn’t speak. Nor will he look at you or acknowledge you. He is angry and he wants you to know it. But if that’s all that happened, if he just got mad and threw a temper tantrum and then everything returned to normal in a couple of hours, it probably wouldn’t have been so impactful and left such a deep wound. But that isn’t what happened. After he carried on and made a big dramatic deal out of me or one of my brothers not getting their chore(s) done before he came home from work, he wouldn’t speak to us for D-A-Y-S. And the silence was deafening. Sometimes the silent treatment would last 3 days, and sometimes it would last a week. And all the while, my brothers and I would tiptoe on eggshells, trying not to make it worse, trying not to set him off again. The tension in the air was so thick, sometimes it felt like I was suffocating.
If the silent treatment didn’t get the job done, a lecture would follow (or vice-versa). In the very beginning, it was commonplace for a ‘family meeting’ to be called when he was unhappy about something and we all knew that that meant ‘a lecture’. This was an opportunity to get us all in one room; whereupon, he would scold and chastise us for being ignorant or lazy or greedy or selfish. And these lectures would typically last anywhere from one to two hours. One time, when I was on kitchen duty, as I was returning the blender to the pantry, I didn’t push it far enough onto the shelf. When someone later opened the pantry door, the blender promptly fell out and broke. I was around 9 or 10 at that time. And this, of course, was a great opportunity for a family meeting. As I was repeatedly chastised for my carelessness and laziness and and recklessness and wastefulness, I sobbed. And after the lecture was over, I felt about two inches tall. What a stupid thing for me to do! How could I be so careless?! How could I be so wasteful?! I’m a bad person. I should have known better. If only I’d been more careful. If only I’d been more thoughtful. If only.
Oddly enough, I didn’t fully recognize the correlation between my (lack of) self worth and my stepdad until just this past year. This moment of clarity was quite a revelation. All of the years I’ve spent hating myself and criticizing myself and never feeling like ‘enough’, they were all because of the influence of this one individual? This one individual that I truly don’t believe, in my heart of hearts, intended to hurt me. At least, not to this extent. But to finally have had this incredible realization, was an awakening for me. To truly see that the carefree, joyful, curious child of seven was hardly recognizable by the time she was 10. It only took 3 short years for this happy, hopeful, innocent person (me) to change to one of sadness and self hatred, one where maybe the world would be better off without her?
Well, let me tell you, finally, FINALLY, it all made sense. It did make me incredibly sad and I cried for days, but it’s like the pieces of the puzzle had finally come together. I ached for this child. I mourned the innocence and joy and hope that she lost. And I developed compassion for her. It wasn’t her fault. She was one of the many players in this ‘game’, this ‘reality show’. And honestly, no one fared well when it was all over. But having that compassion, it was a life changing experience. It made me start to question some of my beliefs. It’s almost as if you were raised by someone that told you your entire life that the sky was green and the grass was blue and you believed them, and then one day someone tells you that the sky is blue and the grass is green. You don’t believe them at first, they can’t possibly be right. Could they?
Yes, sometimes you grow up with a message in your head. But it doesn’t always mean the message is right. We are all humans and some of us don’t always do the best job when we are put in charge of other humans. But the beauty of being a human is that change is possible. It is a rare thing, but it is possible. And for change to happen, I think forgiveness is key as well as compassion. I used to do so many things to punish myself. I used to eat and eat and eat until I couldn’t hold it down anymore. I used to think about all of the ways I could ‘off’ myself. I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling lower than low. But I am learning compassion and I’m working on forgiveness, for not only myself but for others. It is a daily process.
I guess I just want you to know, that if you’re reading this and you struggle, too, that whatever the circumstances were when you were developing, they don’t have to define you. Whatever may have happened, it doesn’t have to be a ‘life sentence’. If you are an adult, you are at the controls now. Life is short. Find your joy. Get the help you need to correct the ‘messages’ that you received in your formative years. Make the coming years better than the past. And should you take a step and stumble, please do not berate yourself. Remember, you are human! We are imperfect beings. Just dust yourself off and start anew. Forgive and have compassion for that child within you. Be patient with yourself. Be kind to yourself. And most of all, treat yourself with love.