Mistakes

“The truth is this: sometimes we display good qualities and sometimes bad. Sometimes we act in helpful, productive ways and sometimes in harmful, maladaptive ways. But we are not defined by these qualities or behaviors. We are a verb not a noun, a process rather than a fixed “thing.” Our actions change—mercurial beings that we are—according to time, circumstance, mood, setting.”

– Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff

For the first time in therapy I talked to my therapist L about the biggest mistake I have ever made. The long and the short of it is that I was abusive to my little brother, when I was 14 and he was 3. I was looking after him, and I couldn’t handle it. I screwed up, massively, and no matter how much I tried to make it up to him it felt as if I had a black mark on my soul, a stain on my character, a piece of me that was nothing short of evil. When he died 6 years later in a drowning accident, I felt as if I had failed him as a big sister in every possible way. I had hurt him, I had abandoned him when I left home, and I hadn’t protected him from the harms of my parents and their neglect. I pushed his memory to the side as much as I could, but despite my best efforts the memories began to resurface after I had my son, A.

My brother and A look similar: dark caramel hair, blue-green eyes, and a shining wickedness of mischief in their faces. I was filled with sadness, panic: seeing my brother “overlap” with my son when we went swimming, I imagined my son drowning. As my son got older, reached 3, then 4, I compared their lives and burned and raged inside at the unfairness of it all. My son is happy. Healthy. He’s safe, whole, growing, adventurous, explosive, and with a sense of humour that has us all laughing nearly every day. My brother was happy too, shining and bright in the midst of abuse, chaos, and terror. He was always smiling, despite his hand always bleeding from his obsessive finger-chewing, despite the bruises that always peppered his body. We loved him – all of us – me, my parents, my other brothers. None of the neglect or abuse came from a lack of love, just a lack of ability, a lack of control, a lack of support. I did what I could to look after him, and so did they. We all failed at it.

As I got closer to my therapist L, the black mark of my abusive behaviour towards my brother gnawed at me. I felt so ashamed, so guilty, and no matter how much I reassured myself that I am a totally different person now, that I regretted it, it fed upon me more and more. Finally, I crashed. Crying, I told L what I had done, feeling as if my entire body would just be swallowed up by the ground, as if my entire soul and heart was sinking deep into an abyss of guilt and pain. Steadily, she reassured me. She gave me a way through, a new way to look at the entire situation. I’m processing it, finding ways to discover the voice inside myself that says: “You did a bad thing, but you are not a bad person.” It feels horrible to try to reassure myself, as if I don’t deserve to ever feel better. I tell myself “Honey, you were 14. You were just a kid yourself. You and him were both in a horrible situation, together. He’ll always be your brother. Connect with him, don’t turn away from him anymore.” I’m still figuring out how.

It’s strange to admit: so often I apply a victim narrative to myself, a narrative of helplessness, hopelessness, abuse and harm committed against me. It’s true. But I have also acted as the perpetrator, the abuser, the harmful person, exerting power and control over someone much smaller than me, someone innocent. I know I did something wrong.

I have been reading a lot about how to process this, how to accept it, and how to keep moving: for the benefit of my partners, my kids, my friends, and everyone else who is still around me today. I work on myself to improve as best I can. The key thing I am discovering is that I can continue to choose healing over harm in every action I take: to the best of my abilities I can try not to harm others, and I can try not to harm myself. Yet, still beat myself up after nearly 20 years for my actions as a 14 year old. Why? Kristen Neff’s book “Self-Compassion” has been instrumental in supporting the techniques from my therapist, and attempting to find a way forward that is connecting and kind; I can focus on the now, rather than the past. She explains:

Rather than getting lost in thoughts of being good or bad, we become mindful of our present moment experience, realizing that it is ever changing and impermanent. Our successes and failures come and go—they neither define us nor do they determine our worthiness. They are merely part of the process of being alive.

The more that I think about these ideas, the more I can move. I keep reminding myself we are all one and the same: we are all wounded in some way, and we have all wounded others. It is not the wound that we create or that is within us, it is how we deal with it, and we are all in this life dealing with these things together.

The Simplest Stories We Tell

It took me a long time to realise how much shame I hold in my body. So many other emotions, behaviours, actions I take are mislabeled as other things without me taking the time to look the real feeling in the eye. Noticing, being aware of my own shame has a sort of triumph in it. Aha! I see what is happening, now! It sounds odd, to be triumphant about shame. For me the repair is in the knowledge, because without being able to see my feeling and the story I am telling around it, I can’t untangle it. Without feeling it I can’t heal it.

As a child, my parents often rejected me. My mother especially. Not because of me, but because she was overwhelmed. Preoccupied. With a violent marriage to a man she loved, and a mother telling her never to give up on commitment, she lost her power and hope, lost herself in her own despair. It culminated in her trying to take her own life, and I will never forget the moment she stood right next to me and swept our telephone to the ground, ripping the cord from the wall so my Dad couldn’t call an ambulance. I barely remember the rest: did an ambulance come? (I guess so, since she’s not dead). Did I run away? (I don’t know). Did she get better? (Sort of). When I realised as an adult that she had tried to leave us so permanently, the sense of abandonment and fear I felt was unreal. Were we not worth sticking around for? Did she not love us? How could she look right into my 7-year-old face, less than 1 metre away from her, and fight being saved?

These adult musings are just a fraction of the story my young self began to tell, without the words to describe the terror, no outlet to talk to, nobody to mend the pain. I withdrew, became angry and anxious, and the photographs of me from that age are nothing more than haunting, light gone from my eyes. She was out of control, chaotic, cold, and the shame I internalised in response to this behaviour has torn the good parts of me apart for the longest time. The stories children tell are simple ones, because we do not understand the nuances or complexities of human behaviour or abuse. We are totally dependent, and require a steady and stable caregiver who we are biologically primed to attach to. I was torn between the need for closeness, the fear of danger, and a lack of understanding what was going on. With constant rejection and chaos the stories I told were: This is my fault. I am not good enough. I am “too much” for her. I make her crazy. I’m bad, disgusting, no good.

I’m lucky that I had enough in me to make it through that, as well as everything that came after. When I look back at my life and see all this chaos, with this little girl wading her way through the swamp without giving up, I realise I told the wrong story. The story is not that I’m worthless, or bad, or someone causing problems. I’m brave. I’m resilient. I have so much love in me, and I have enough strength in me to feel the feelings, untangle the narrative, and mend it all. Of course I don’t do it all alone. I have many people standing by my side. I asked my mother for some photos of her as a teenager and as a young woman, and I looked at this 19 year old in her wedding dress, love and compassion just pouring out of me towards her. It’s so heartbreaking to realise that she was in so much pain that she didn’t want to stay anymore. And I know from experience that being that chaotic, being in so much pain, makes you believe that you are a burden, that you are damaging everyone around you. She wasn’t trying to harm us. She was trying to save us, along with herself.

I look at all this toxic shame I carry and think about pulling it off my body, out of my skin, out of my heart and ribs and the soles of my feet. It doesn’t belong to me, nor her. I don’t want to keep it inside anymore, so I take it out and release it into the air and the sunshine one bit at a time.

Island

I know something is wrong with me. I don’t know how to explain it other than that this can’t be normal, this can’t be how life is supposed to be and how people are supposed to feel. Every time I’ve gone to therapy in the past, as soon as they start questioning me about my childhood and my parents and everything, I stop going. I haven’t been able to process it. I’ve been hesitant to call it trauma but increasingly I realise that it is. It was traumatic. I was just a child. I felt so grown up at times but I was a child, and everyone around me who was supposed to keep me safe, didn’t.

I went to Naples on holiday and had to wear my headphones for most of the time because all the city noise triggered my anxiety. I felt like I might have a panic attack, so I shut it all out so I could enjoy the city. I felt somehow weak or strange, that this was how I had to experience somewhere as fantastic and lively as Italy. I was slow to leave the house in the mornings, I found it hard to experience real joy. I’ve wanted to go to Italy since I was a kid. What happened?

When I search for what’s wrong with me, there are too many things that kind of fit and don’t fit at the same time. I keep trying to diagnose myself and find something to hang my hat on, but the more I look the more nervous and confused I get. I used to have hallucinations and I didn’t even realise at the time that’s what was happening, I knew that I heard voices and saw things that weren’t there. But it stopped. Was it just stress induced? It stopped when I moved away from him, away from them. I realised how much it affected me when I went to Edinburgh and saw all the same street names. It felt like home, well… what everybody calls home. My home was a house of pain and disappointment. I only started seeing it when I saw other people’s reactions, when I tell people how I was treated. I told A. just one tiny piece of the story at a dinner the other night, just one small thing, and she cried. What’s going to happen when I tell her all of it? I feel so alone.

Beast

I tell her she has brown eyes like me.
Her brother has blue eyes like Dad.
Parts handed down like quilts, eyes from so far back and so far across the sea I don’t even know where my own body was made.
And I see in my hands, heart, lungs everything you gave me, that scarlet bloom of sickness in my chest, bursting up into the air.

I remember hiding under the table, my whole body shut tight, hoping you wouldn’t see me

searching for just a stupid rubber ball.

That ball was the end of me and my clouded eyes that didn’t really see anything at all.
I was blind and yet when I saw you I was blinded more than I ever thought possible, a crouching baby beast feels such electricity in the air and just knows that it’s wrong.

And did you put this wrongness into me too?
What on god’s earth did I inherit:

brown eyes like my mother, brown eyes like my father

and the passion of both enough to split a thousand knuckles wide open.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Tomorrow is the 9 year anniversary of my brother’s death. Discussing it is still so hard for me, and yet I’m increasingly realising that I must find better ways of dealing with it and talking about it. When I recount how he died, when I explain everything, I somehow feel like I have to give people a disclaimer.

It’s a pretty morbid story. I don’t know if you want to hear it.

I tend to avoid talking about it. But when someone starts asking about the scars on my arms, or about my depression, or about being a teenager, inevitably the topic of my stepdad comes up. And then through talking about my stepdad, I talk about my brother, and the whole dark and twisted story comes out. There’s no good way to talk about it all, there’s no simple way to say it. When I push the words out of my mouth it’s like I’m shoving them through a barrier of cotton wool, as if by uttering them, the person I’m speaking to will be so horrified that they will disappear in a puff of smoke.

He drowned, okay? He had a seizure and drowned in the bathtub.

If he was alive he would be 18 years old now. I can’t even imagine what he would be like, what his life would be like, what any of our lives would be like. When I think about him my chest feels tight and heavy, and I feel as if my mother must be consumed by this sorrow so large that she cannot even begin to climb it.

I remember stroking his hair in the hospital when he was in the paediatric ICU. His hair was flattened into a Johnny-Bravo-style peak, from everyone stroking his hair in the same way. It was so soft.

The doctors had to test if he had any brain activity remaining, so my parents could decide if they wanted to switch off the life support or not. The doctor shone a torch into his eyes, and I stared so hard at his pupils just hoping and screaming inside my head: “React! MOVE! JUST DO SOMETHING”. But nothing happened, they turned off the life support, and that was it.

I hated his hugs, because he was always sticky and slimy and he was so skinny that his hugs were bony and painful. He would hug me and say “I love you, Leah”; he’d wake me up at 3am, standing by my bed, wanting me to play with him; my boyfriend and I would babysit him and take him places and look after him as if we were our own little family. But then he was dead and the hugs were gone and I wished with every piece of my body that I could go back in time and love him better, pay him more attention, spend more time with him, make sure he knew in his bones that I adored him even though he drove me crazy.

Four brothers seems like a lot to most people. But to me it seems like such a tiny number, just four.

We’re With You

Everyone cares about what other people think. I’ve been fighting against it for so long, taking tiny steps towards doing what I feel is right, presenting my true self, and living authentically. But there are still times when I think to myself “Am I doing enough? Do I still care too much? Should I come out of the proverbial closet just a little bit more?”.

We’re all driven by a desire for people to like us. It’s only problematic when that desire overtakes our own selves, to the point where we don’t ever do anything weird or unconventional or challenging, simply for fear of having the people we care about turn their backs on us.

One tiny thing that has helped me has been (surprisingly), Twitter. I started posting things. My thoughts. Re-tweeting jokes I thought were funny. I stopped worrying if anyone liked what I posted. I slowly gained followers, random people who saw some reply of mine to someone ‘bigger’. Some Twitter comedian that nobody knows unless you spend too much time on the internet.

I wrote about my ex-girlfriend, and how she dumped me. I wrote about my queer identity, my marriage, our lives, our kids, my political views. I forgot that my husband’s father follows me on Twitter.

My daughter E woke up one morning with tonsils so huge that they were blocking her throat. I rushed with her to the ENT, and struggled to explain in broken German what was wrong with her. The doctor looked in her throat for a few seconds at most, and said with a serious and firm voice “She needs surgery”. I posted on Twitter about this experience, and later that day sent an email to my in-laws back home, explaining what was happening and when the surgery would be.

When my father-in-law replied “I saw your Tweet and photo” I felt this weird feeling in my stomach. He saw my Tweet? Does that mean he saw my Tweets about my girlfriend? About getting dumped? About polyamory and getting high and being queer? I wondered what he thought. I love my husband M with all my heart. I had this cold and heavy thought that my father-in-law would think I was cheating on M, or that I didn’t love M, or that I was somehow messing up our family.

I hurriedly replied with a huge email, detailing various aspects of our lives, being careful to include how happy we are, holidays we planned together, information about our mostly-very-normal life. And then I wrote it: “You follow me on Twitter?! I tweet about a lot of stuff I don’t put elsewhere so that’s… Probably raising various questions for you…”. I decided that tackling it head-on would be best, and that if he had any questions about my other partners or about the stability of my relationship with M, he could just ask me.

It turns out that when you marry someone as wonderful as M, you should not give his parents too little credit.

My father-in-law replied within an hour, giving me all the updates on their life back in New Zealand, expressing sympathy about E’s surgery, asking me what I plan for my career when both my kids are in Kita.

And then at the end he included one final comment:

I’m a very rare twitter viewer – mostly just look when I have a few notifications come up. Don’t worry – just be real 🙂 We’re with you.

So I guess that’s the end of the story. I care immensely about what they think. Nothing worse than having your husband’s family hate your guts. But they’re with me. They’re with me, despite all the life decisions that I’m sure they wouldn’t make in a million years. That’s a pretty wonderful thing to happen; to accidentally take your mask off, and have the people that you love still support and care for everything that’s underneath.