As a writer, I have never really been one for fiction, though I dabble here and there. No, instead, I am far more drawn to the genre of memoir.
Memoir gives us a rare, brave insight into the human condition and how a person deals with the hand that life gave them.
Good memoirists are brave, brazen and at times seemingly cruel with the cutting honesty with which they tell their story. They are often vilified for daring to tell their story from their perspective, for daring to shine a light on their own pain, for hurting those that caused them that pain by telling the story.
A couple of days ago, I was listening to Books and Art on ABC radio here in Australia. On it was an interview with Ariel Leve, author of “An Abbreviated Life: Memoir of a Monstrous Mother“. She was being interviewed by Michael Cathcart, the presenter of Books and Art, at the Sydney Writers Festival.
I had never heard of Arial Leve before, but as I listened to the interview, I knew I had to read her book. You can read a good review of her book here, which gives a really good insight into just how honest Ariel gets, for reviewing her book is not my point today. However, I did want to mention that during the interview on Books and Art, I got quite angry with Michael. Normally, I find him to be a sensitive interviewer who asks probing questions without offending, but this time, he asked questions that, to me, seemed to victimise the victim.
You can listen to the interview here and judge for yourself, but it got me thinking that, as a society, we don’t like to shine a light on pain. As victims of abuse, we are constantly reminded, even through something as innocent as a book interview, that we are meant to keep our mouths shut.
I gave Michael the benefit of the doubt (I really like him), choosing to believe that he wasn’t victimising Ariel so much as being curious about her motivations, what led her to the point that she would write about her mother so glaringly in such a fashion, whilst she was still alive. Notwithstanding his intentions, it came across as victimising and it seemed like he was saying Ariel had made a poor choice considering the obvious pain she was causing her mother.
I think this is why I am drawn to memoir so strongly. I love those souls that are so brave to bare their vulnerable innards to the world, to shine that light on their pain and to provide a voice for those of us who are not quite so brave. We need these authors to lead the charge in making it okay to firstly acknowledge our pain and then to talk about it. We need these authors so very very much.
As enlightened as we think we are, we still inherently protect abusers, and this has to stop. Memoirists, often writing from a place of extreme pain, pave that path, to make that journey a little more possible.
I pondered this as I sat in my lounge yesterday, rooted to my chair, unable to move, tears streaming down my face. I pondered how brave memoirists are, especially those who write in minute detail the circumstances that led to the pain that had to be written about. I pondered this as thoughts of ending my life danced across my brain for the umpteenth time this week. I pondered this as I knew I couldn’t go through with it, because I could never cause that much pain to my children. And so I sat, pondering the bravery of memoirists, wondering at the same time if it was possible to get a lobotomy to end my pain.
Almost 7 years ago I read a book by Sandra Cabot and Wendy Perkins called “Want to Lose Weight but Hooked on Food?” At the time I was, as I still am, 30 kilograms overweight. I was fat, and I was tired. Like most women, I truly believed that if I could just lose those 30 kilograms, I would find my happiness, my groove, my mojo, and my life’s purpose would come rushing up to me and all would be well. I would no longer be miserable, or suicidal. I would find hope and meaning in my life. I would finally, after 41 years of life, feel normal.
I bought the book with the intention of finding those answers. Such a big ask of such a small book.
Instead, I learned that due to growing up in an alcoholic family I was codependent.
As I turned each page, my story unfolded before me. The enormous relief was physical. I cried.
Finally, I knew that I wasn’t mentally deficient. I had a reason why I struggled so hard to make sense of the world around me, why I was such a people pleaser but then got upset when people didn’t want to take my help or appreciate what I was doing for them, why I was becoming more and more of a control freak, why I felt things so deeply, why I was unable to go the distance at a tertiary institution or a job, why I reacted all the time, but rarely acted on anything, why doing the simplest tasks seemed like such a big effort, almost impossible to do, why I felt like such a failure in every single facet of my life, all the time.
I immediately called my mother.
I excitedly told her my revelation.
She sighed. How could I still be blaming my parents for the ills of my life? Hadn’t dad suffered enough? Why was everyone still blaming him? Dad had his faults, but we all turned out okay. Dad is devastated at the notion that we still lay blame for our mental illness at his feet.
I was confused.
My mother had no small part to play in my codependence.
From the age of eight, I was her confidante, her friend, her bestie. From the age of eight, I would become her rock, the person to whom she would confide all the ills of living with an alcoholic husband. From the age of eight, I would become her protector, fighting my father on her behalf, defending her against him and his alcoholic tyranny. From the age of eight, my mother became my sole friend. From the age of eight, I lost all sense of where my mother ended and where I began.
Even when he became sober when I was 16, and the anger did not subside, and alcohol could no longer be used to explain it, I would still stand up to him, a stance that would ultimately cause my father to hate me and one day say that I am no daughter of his. There were many a family argument that would result in my father squaring up to me, threatening to hit me. But I did this to defend my mom, because I loved her, and I needed to defend her. It had become my purpose.
I had no idea of the toxicity of this type of relationship until long after my mother died.
When she died seven months after my declaration of being codependent, I devolved into a very dark place. I had just become sober and so alcohol could no longer be used to sooth and numb my pain. I had to face this head on.
It was too painful. I could not. And so I ignored it.
This was at my peril.
Over the last 6 and a half years I have become quite ill.
In order to start our path to recovery, we have to admit that we have a problem in the first place. We also have to admit the cause of that pain, because it is only in admitting that cause, we can deal with it. We can either forgive, or walk away – whichever is the healthiest thing to do for us to mend ourselves.
I have largely forgiven my dad for his alcoholism and the ensuing anger we grew up with. He is still in my life and we skype often to talk. Our relationship is better than it has ever been in the past.
I acknowledge his inability to understand the pain he caused, and I choose to no longer seek that acknowledgement from him. I also understand he cannot and will not talk about it. Seeking retribution is futile and clinging to that hope was rotting my soul.
Instead, I choose to forge a new path, working around his very dogmatic way of thinking.
It is tenuous, I won’t lie. But it is as healthy as it can be given our history and I am content with that.
But in the past few weeks, it has dawned on me that I have never really acknowledged my mom’s part in all of this.
I adored my mother. She was everything to me. Literally everything. I would not make a single decision without consulting her first and if she didn’t approve, even though I really wanted to do that thing, I would usually do something else, or eat something else, or be something else. I completely and utterly lost all sense of self.
When she died, and they were wrapping her in the body bag ready to take her to the morgue, I threw myself upon her body unable to let her go, incapable of imagining a life without her, without her rudder to steer my ship.
The result of that is that I have become a recluse. I am isolated. I am alone. And lonely. I find maintaining relationships difficult, and usually people tire of my view on the world that makes no sense to me. I seek for others to make me whole because I do not possess the glue to mend myself. And when they cannot provide that service to me, I feel like a failure as well as feeling like I have failed them. A hopeless cycle downward begins. I lose hope – hope in ever finding connection, hope of ever feeling normal.
I reach that point where the acute pain of living becomes far greater than the seemingly far less pain of dying.
This is the point where Adult Children of Alcoholics usually become addicts themselves, usually in their early to late teens. We really don’t want to die, so we drink, drug, overeat, gamble. We need to find something to numb the pain. It really is a case of substance abuse or death. Often it is both.
This TED talk by Johann Hari describes this beautifully.
As humans, we need connection, and when that connection is not there, we seek other ways to ease our suffering.
My father does not talk much of his childhood. In fact, he never speaks of it at all. I believe there is pain in his past, and this caused his suffering, and his alcoholism. It is this belief that does not excuse or condone the pain we endured as children, but it is what enables me to forgive him.
What remains, however, is my own pain and suffering, and my inability to reconcile my life with the world in which I live in a sober state of mind. The depths to which I go are frightening as I dance with the notion of death, whilst at the same time am terrified of that very same notion, for I do not want to die before I have tasted pure joy and optimism at least once in my life.
I am acknowledging that now. I am acknowledging the pain, the gaping wound that is my life. I am acknowledging how unmanageable my life has become.
Step 1 states we have to acknowledge our lives are unmanageable. Only after that can we begin the process of putting it back together. Only after that can we begin to stop trying to paste over the cracks and allow the light to filter in.
Thank you memoirists for paving the way. Thank you for giving me the courage to write this, baring my soul and allowing the world to see my vulnerability, and fear, in all its unadulterated mess. This is the first step of my recovery. The very first step.