Loose Lips Can Float Ships

For the first two days of 7th grade, my friends (with whom I’d been thick for three years) ignored me. They literally did not speak to or interact with me for two school days. Confused by the treatment, but afraid to ask why they were snubbing me, I pretended not to care and sat with others in the cafeteria, while my former friends looked on.

During lunch on the third day of 7th grade, my friends invited me to their table. One said, “We weren’t going to talk to you this year.” I nodded as though I understood but wondered how they might ignore me for an entire year. Studies on human behavior show that being shunned is a universal fear. We all want to be accepted by our peers. Middle school seems to be the place where we experience both.

Over the next two years, I shunned and was shunned, bullied and was bullied, made some friends for life, and gossiped incessantly. (Perhaps that’s why my friends shunned me.) Looking back, I see my gossiping as a way to get attention and gain friends. Instead, it made people avoid me or want to kick my ass. As I came of age, even into my 20s, my loose lips continued to get me into trouble. I had to take a good look at myself and see my fingers were pointing in the wrong direction.

As I got into writing, and made friends with other writers, I discovered we are a gossiping bunch. We love to get to “the truth,” find out what goes on behind-the-scenes, and tell stories, which are good things. What I’ve learned, however, is that it’s safer and often more powerful to tell stories about myself and the dumb things I do. Some of my favorite comedic writers, Margaret Cho, Dave Chapelle, John Mulaney, and Conan O’Brien, make fun of themselves. Laughing at our humanity brings us together.

The older I get, the more I want to preserve my friendships. I try to share positive gossip. Who got a job? Who got married? What’s going on in town? I also try to think before I start yammering on. I’m far from perfect but am commited to working on this part of my personality. If we can’t invite others to our table and make connections, why are we even here?

 

Where Are You, Gen Xers?

My current job, working as the Senior Writer/Editor for a foundation at a land-grant university, involves sharing stories, Tweets, photos, and more on various social media. Most recently, on #GivingTuesday, I was checking out articles on LinkedIn, one of which mentioned “how to get Millennials to donate.” Since two of my children are Millennials in their early 20s, and I volunteer for another local foundation, I clicked on the link.

About 2/3 of the way into the article, I came across a paragraph that compared Millennial philanthropic trends with Baby Boomer trends. I kept reading, waiting to see how Gen Xers felt about philanthropy. Guess what? There was no mention of Gen Xers in the entire article. Zip. Zero. Zilch. So, I became curious. And like a Millennial, I went to Google and typed in Generation X.

Suddenly, a whole new world opened to me. I was born in 1968 and have always considered myself a Gen Xer. With a brother born in ’66 and one in ’75, I’m also the middle child. Coincidentally, Gen Xers are called the Neglected Middle Child, mostly because there are 70 million plus Boomers and 70 million plus Millennials, and there are only 50 million plus Gen Xers. Why the discrepancy? Well, lucky for us, even though the hippies were having a lot of sex, in the early 70s, birth control and legalized abortion helped them have fewer children.

After visiting a few more websites, I found conflicting information regarding the specific dates that designated a person as a Gen Xer. My theory holds at this: Gen Xers were born in between the early 60s and the early 80s. And, similar to astrology, if your birthdate straddles those years, you are said to be on the cusp, or a cusper. So, my uncle John, for instance, who was born in 1965, probably has Boomer and Gen Xer traits.

When I think about my being a Gen Xer, I think about being a child of divorced Boomer parents who needed to “find themselves,” walking everywhere by myself, and being raised on or by television. I often joke that my father (a single parent until I was six) used the TV as a babysitter. Through my research, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Many, if not most, Gen Xers were left home alone with little more than the TV and their siblings to keep them company. It’s probably why we love pop culture!

On a positive note, Gen Xers are independent, resilient, hard-working, and have a sardonic wit. I remember bristling, years ago, when I heard us called the “Slacker Generation.” WTF? When I was 12 I got a paper route. And from that moment on, my father gave me no more spending money. So then I worked as a babysitter. Then as a lifeguard. McDonald’s manager. Nursing home diet aid. Retail sales. Bakery cashier. Then, when I was 20, I joined the navy to get the G.I. Bill because my father wouldn’t help me pay for college.

I’m happy to report we are the generation responsible for creating Hip Hop and paving the way for ethnic diversity. When I think of my childhood, I think of Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo, and the Electric Company, which we watched in second grade as part of our curriculum. Also, with my father, I watched shows like Good Times, What’s Happening, Laugh In, and the Sonny and Cher Show.

On a negative note, Gen Xers, because we were almost always left alone, referred to as the “latchkey” kids, and were often physically and sexually abused, have become the “most devoted parents in American history.” Some folks call us “helicopter parents.” Guilty as charged. Both of my adult daughters failed out of college, although they grew up watching me bust my butt to earn a BA, an MA, and an MFA, all in writing. I did that without parental support. My daughters have oodles of support. Have I killed their ability to stand on their own?

Anyway: this post is a plea. If you’re a Gen Xer, I want to hear from you! After all, peers are more important to us than parents. I plan to continue my research. If you want to share a story with me, please email me at cindyjoy68@gmail.com.

Why Psychotherapy is like Kale

Psychotherapy is not easy, or fun. It’s good for me, even necessary, but I don’t love it. Psychotherapy is like kale: not nearly as tasty or enjoyable as homemade macaroni and cheese, or pizza, but sometimes, I have to force it down.

One of the biggest issues about not seeking help from a psychotherapist is that we rarely know why we display negative behaviors. Often, we react to stimuli based on a complex process of unresolved issues (or trauma) from childhood. Some behaviors are good, like holding a door for someone or not cheating on a test. But others include slamming the door in someone’s face, tearing up your husband’s baseball card when he stays out all night, or yelling at some unsuspecting cashier. Consistently negative behaviors harm us and can destroy relationships with people we love.

Before I turned 18, my birth mother ran out on us; my father remarried a physically and emotionally abusive woman; my step-uncle sexually abused me; my stepmother slept with one of my boyfriends; my older brother was killed in a motorcycle wreck; my younger brother was kicked out of every elementary school in our town; and I moved in with an abusive, cheating, drug-dealing boyfriend.

Phew. I realize there are millions of people who’ve suffered far worse tragedies than I did. I’m not searching for pity, only understanding, a willingness to see another perspective. A family member once said, “In my day, we didn’t go to therapy. We solved problems by ourselves.” Hmmm. This family member drank a six pack every night just so he could fall asleep. And he stayed in a marriage with a cheating spouse for 20 plus years.

At 21, I eloped with a man we’ll call Jon. This was one week after I admitted to my parents that I’d been sexually abused as a child. My father said, “You must have liked it because you never told us.” My stepmother said, “You’re just trying to cause problems.” Um, no. But before you hang these folks out to dry, I can assure you these are typical responses. (After my father divorced the nightmare, he spent the last 15  years of his life apologizing to me for the earlier response).

In the wake of Donald Trump’s accusers coming forward about his sexual misconduct, many people ask, “Why didn’t they come forward when it happened?” I echo comedian Seth Meyers’s response. For reasons that seem absurd, our society tends to blame the victims of sexual abuse. I was four when my uncle started abusing me and nine when I screamed, which sent him running from the room never to touch me again. If anyone says a four year old girl is asking for it, he or she should be flogged.

Often times, people who’ve been sexually abused as children become hyper sexual, engaging in risky behaviors like having unprotected sex with numerous people largely because their personal boundaries were destroyed. In addition, subconsciously, they’re scared of getting too close because others might get to know them and judge them for their “shameful” past.

For two decades, I moved guy to guy, always dumping a good one who loved me for someone who treated me like the piece of shit I thought I was. It was as if I were saying, “Don’t get close. I don’t want you to know the real me because I’m no good. I deserve to be with a piece of shit.” In recent years, science has offered new theories on addiction, drugs, sex, food, shopping, alcohol, saying it might have more to do with attachment disorder than genetics.

A theory is a theory, but it makes sense to me that someone who has lingering feelings of being discarded, neglected, and abandoned, might have serious problems with interpersonal relationships (lack of trust, PTSD, fear of authority). I have a solid circle of male and female friends, people I’ve known for years who love and support me. They appreciate my unfiltered speech, openness and honesty. But if you asked the men from my past what it was like to love me, you’d get another story.

After years of pushing good men away when they got too close, I ran out of luck. The man I shared a deep love and even deeper friendship with, the man I grew closer to than anyone in my life, drew a line in the sand. “If you don’t want me,” he said, “I’ll go.” It was the exact opposite of what I wanted and needed, but I was used to my past coping skills, so I let him go and moved on to the next guy. I also went into therapy.

In the year that followed, something happened. Through long discussions with a psychiatrist, talks with friends, and reading self-help books, I stopped. Instead of pointing my finger outward, I turned it on myself. I needed to excavate my painful childhood memories, unearth them, and examine them to set them free.

Over the past several months, I’ve been attending therapy once a week, including doing EMDR, which tastes like kale but is so good for me! Sometimes I break down bawling. Sometimes I just want to run. My therapist challenges me. I’ve processed one old memory and am working on a second. There are plenty more. But I feel more confident in my ability to move around in the world, to forgive myself and others, to recognize that the man I loved and lost did me a favor. He forced me to take stock of myself and see I am not my past, I can be better, but I need to do more work. It’s a long, long road, and at the end, I hope they have pizza.

On Marilyn Monroe and Childhood Sexual Abuse

Fifty four years ago today, Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her bedroom from an overdose of pills meant to treat her depression. (Her death was ruled a suicide, as you may know.) I remember the first time I saw an image of Marilyn Monroe: it was on the Child of the 50s comedy album by Robert Klein. At the time, I spent many afternoons in the bedroom with my step uncle “Reggie.” We’ll get to that in a minute.

Reggie introduced me to Cheech and Chong, Robert Klein, Aerosmith, and Rush. During one afternoon while listening to Klein, I studied the album cover as he talked about putting a coin in a vending machine and getting a button with the now famous nude image of Marilyn Monroe. (If you look at my featured image, I’m talking about the two identical pictures just off center to the right in the collage.)

After I was made aware of Marilyn Monroe, I started to hear her name all the time and see images of her in cartoons, advertisements, magazines. There was even a pictorial of her in one of my father’s Playboys, which since I’m a child of the free-wheeling 70s, lay right on the coffee table in our living room.

I was struck dumb by the beauty Marilyn possessed. Sure, her hair was bleached and straightened, nose fixed, but even now, looking at the photos of her when she was simply Norma Jean, I found her breathtaking. My favorite film with her, Niagara, is worth a watch.

Fast forward to my early 20s. I had joined the navy after the death of my beloved older brother, left my hometown Binghamton, New York, and was lucky to get stationed at a weather center in Monterey, California. (Not far from Watsonville where Marilyn had once been named Miss Artichoke.) I visited Hollywood, saw Marilyn’s wax figure, and got the chills when I placed both hands in her hand-prints at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. I loved her.

I started reading books about Marilyn, biographies, anthologies, even an autobiography. She’d been abandoned by her birth mother, just like me. I’d never lived in an orphanage, but had a severely abusive stepmother. Marilyn was raped and sexually abused numerous times during her childhood. I’d never been raped, but Reggie started performing oral sex on me when I was four. His sister also molested me. The more I read about Marilyn and her problems with men, I started to wonder about myself–a woman terrified of commitment who eloped at 21 and dumped the guy three months later. In one book, Marilyn is said to have done the same thing in Mexico. (Some folks says it’s not true, but I believe it.)

Marilyn was unfaithful to every husband and lover. I’ve had many struggles with infidelity as well. The current psychology on childhood  sexual abuse tells us this type of behavior is not uncommon–the adult often tries to “work out” or repair what happened to them in the past, and that can lead to repeatedly looking for love in all the wrong places. A very smart writer I met once said, “A kid who’s been sexually abused is the world’s sex object.” The statement is both astute and heartbreaking.

If you’re lucky enough never to have endured sex abuse as a child, it might be difficult to have empathy for people who have. In my life this has been true. I’ve had family members say, “It was experimentation, get over it.” “That’s just an excuse because you were unfaithful.” One callous soul said, “You must have enjoyed it, because you never told your parents.”

Indulge me for a moment if you will. Imagine yourself at four. Or your child at four. (My uncle was 11 when he molested me. Chances are he was molested too, or at the very least exposed to inappropriate behavior.) Reggie bribed me with quarters so I would let him have his way in the bedroom. As I grew older, he gave me record albums or other presents. He said, “Don’t tell your Daddy because he’ll think you’re nasty.” Thank goodness, at age nine, I told him to stop. But the damage had been done.

Over the years, as I learned more about childhood abuse, I grew to feel empathy for Marilyn Monroe. She married for the first time at 16. Although marrying young was not uncommon at the time, I still see it as her getting the hell out of her current situation. In many of the books I’ve read about her, authors describe her as sexually frigid and a woman-child. When I hear “She slept her way to the top,” I prefer to see her not as a soulless woman using sex to get her way, but as a wounded child who believed the promises of men who offered her a better life.

Although I am in my late forties, I am still a hopeful child. Not long ago, I believed the promises of a man, even left my happy marriage. Now, I’m alone and missing my ex-husband and the amazing life we had. I’m grateful for the therapists I’ve had who’ve tried to help me heal from my past. I have a fabulous one now and we’re doing EMDR. It’s not over; and it’s not easy. Today, I wish to say, Rest in peace, Norma Jean. I’ll always be a fan. ❤

 

 

10 Signs You Were/Are a Middle Child

1. When pouring drinks for friends, you still kneel to get eye level with the glasses to be sure the liquid amount is even for fear of getting jabbed in the arm by your older brother.
2. You wore hand me downs until you hit puberty, and it no longer looked “okay” to wear your brother’s shirts.
3. When riding in cars with friends you still instinctively head for the back seat, because the oldest always gets the front.
4. In home movies from your childhood, you were always trying to get in front of the camera, only to be pushed out of the way by your father.
5. Your baby book is two pages long, while you confuse your siblings’ baby books with the King James’ bible.
6. You don’t have an entire wall (or room) dedicated to your accomplishments.
7. In adulthood, you try to outshine your siblings only to have your parents pat you on the head, and say, “Keep trying, honey.”
8. As a kid, you didn’t mind being called weird if it meant you stood out from the siblings.
9. If you played sports, you wore your brother’s old equipment even when the cleats were worn flat and the sneakers stank.
10. Your parents call you to brag about your siblings, but they never call the siblings, and often forget your name.

Poem for my Brother, 1966-1987

The Prankster

You’d just turned 21, bought us the Beck’s Beer
we sipped while we waited for the drop-off

at my place, listened to the Stones. You had
silky hair like Mick Jagger, wore a leather jacket

from Dad’s shoe repair shop, dingy white Pumas.
We laughed about our childhood, how you played

tricks on me, like saying you were adopted or
that the shell tasted better than the egg.

We planned to run Dad’s business until we died.
You left to buy one more six-pack, Ruby Tuesday

playing on the stereo, and I was happy to wait
for you. You patted my shoulder, said, I’ll be back,

three words that became a broken promise—
Hours later, after I guessed you’d caught up

with a buddy, forgot to call, our uncle phoned
to say they found you one block from the store,

motorcycle mangled, brain stem snapped in two,
you never felt a thing. Eighteen years old, grief

dropped over me like a veil. I took a cab to our
grandparents, thought of when we were kids:

you made a noose out of plastic, tied it around
your neck, pretended to hang yourself–head slumped,

eyes bugged–from the top bunk. When Dad came
in, he popped you on the head with his knuckle.

I sit at our grandparents, watching the door,
waiting for you to waltz in like so many other
times to tell me that this was all a joke.

Happy Halloween with a Throwback Photo

I will return with a blog post with real words after I return from my writing workshop in Port Townsend next week. But until then, enjoy this photo from my fifth grade Halloween Party with a bunch of really cool people. Dan Mollen, Bob Ferber, Sandy Wagner, Amy Coutant, Eve Wolyczyn, Ann O’Rourke, Diane Stetz, Paul Mahoney, Mark Coleman and me.