When I was in grade school, I had so many things I loved to do that I was never sure what I’d be when I grew up. I loved animals, and sometimes I wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved nature, and spent a lot of time outside my house, watching living things in the fields and by the river and pond. At those times I wanted to be a zoologist. I loved reading psychology books, especially Karl Meninger and Erich Fromm, and was particularly interested in dreams. I also loved art and poetry, and thought I would write, or paint.
But the thing I wanted most to be when I grew up was something I kept secret from adults who asked me about my future plans. I wanted most to be free of my parents – my adoptive parents. I had come to live with them at age 5 from a foster home, and I lived with them as their only child, on a farm where I spent a lot of time in isolation. My adoptive mother had not wanted children, and later told me that people had to have children back then (the sixties) or be rejected socially. She resented me from the very start, and constantly made me aware of how I didn’t measure up to her expectations. My adoptive father was a disturbed man who harmed me in many ways, and who also allowed his friends to harm me.
By the time I reached puberty I was severely depressed, and had tried to hang myself. I wasn’t successful because the pain of the strap around my neck was excruciating. I burned my skin with matches over and over, because it helped me to bring the pain to the outside from the inside. For some reason, it seemed more manageable on the outside. Once I was talking on the phone to a girlfriend, and told her about the burning. My mother was listening in on our conversation, and for the rest of the day she followed me around the house, saying in a mocking, spiteful voice “How does it feel playing Joan of Arc? It’s no fun being Joan of Arc, is it?”
I wanted to run away but I was afraid of what my adoptive father would do to me if I were caught. After one run-in with my mother, in which she grabbed me by the hair on the top of my head and shook my head back and forth while screaming at me, I ran up to my closet and hid. I crouched in the closet sobbing for a couple of hours, and promised myself over and over that when I grew up, I would break free of that family. I was 12 then.
It would be another 18 years before I kept my promise. By then, I was married and had two sons, an infant and a toddler, and I was living 1500 miles away in another state. I had begun therapy because memories from my past were nipping at my heels, tormenting me all the time. Some of these memories were of events I’d always been conscious of, but had chosen not to dwell on. Others I had locked away, safely out of mind, but they were stirring in their little dungeon, calling out to me and rattling their chains throughout my days and in my dreams at night.
I realized I had to deal with the past or risk living my life in unmanageable pain. I wanted to be fully present for my husband and my sons. I wanted to understand the truth about my past, because I knew that suppressing that truth would destroy my intimate relationships. But most of all, I wanted to be me, the person who once loved animals, plants, and the earth, and art and literature; who had an active, curious mind; who had ideas and insights to contribute to the world. That person lived inside me, shrouded by a numb, suffering ghost-woman so full of sadness that she could barely think.
As I began speaking—with the encouragement of my therapist-- with my adoptive parents about events in our past, they became increasingly hostile and resentful. My adoptive father suggested to my husband that I was delusional, or perhaps surreptitiously using drugs, and that I needed to be institutionalized. He ridiculed my therapist’s support for me in confronting my past. It became clear that he and my mother were dead set against my treatment plan, and would not support it in any way.
I understood that they felt guilty and had some serious misdeeds to hide. I also understood that there was not enough love on either side to enable sorting through old hurts and building a new relationship. I wish I could say that I was disappointed about that, but it was a relief to have reason to distance myself from them. For several months I limited my contact with them, and later severed all ties.
This was a difficult period. I received hate letters from people back home. My husband’s parents were scandalized and angry. There was a period of time when my only allies were my therapist and my husband. I subsequently didn’t speak to my mother-in-law for five years, and my relationship with my husband’s stepmother never recovered. The message I kept getting over and over was that I should forgive, move on, and pretend all those things never happened—or admit that they never really did happen. But through it all I possessed the conviction that I was doing the right thing. I was purposefully choosing safety for myself, which for me was a radical act. And I was keeping my promise.
That was 23 years ago. Since then my life as an adult has mostly been about raising my children and healing myself. I’ve suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder my entire adult life, and although I make progress each year, I still do not feel as though I have shaken off all the fetters that hold me back. I still possess the creative potential I’ve felt within me since childhood, but I am now 53, and I feel that my time is running out. The chances are slim that I will achieve much that is measurable by the standards of our production-oriented culture. But because of the healing work I’ve done, I’ve developed a very rich interior life. I spend a lot of time alone working at my loom and drawing. I’m starting to develop a distinctive voice as an artist. I am still learning to trust other people, and myself.
My dream is to someday publicly exhibit my work, and to explore other ways to share with fellow travelers the insights I’ve gained about healing. That doesn’t necessarily mean a book or the lecture circuit, as I know we can often touch others most deeply in informal, unscripted encounters. I try not to think too much about the future, reminding myself often that the future is now. I am living the promise I made to myself long ago. That promise cuts through time and space. It is a direct, living link between my present self, older and wiser, and the self I once lived. The self I am now was with that girl in the closet, and helped her survive and heal.