Lust Kills Your B.S. Detector.

My father opened a shoe-repair business when I was two, and I spent a lot of time around adults. There was Joyce, the woman who made tie-dyes and sewed leather; Bob, my father’s buddy who fixed shoes; and the array of business men (it was the 70s and they were mostly men) who wore fedoras and suit jackets, and called me Chooch. Spending time around adults helped me cultivate a decent b.s. detector.

My memories from this period, before age four, are idyllic. My father had divorced my and my brother’s mother, and the three of us lived in a modest apartment. We were poor in money but rich in love, and we went everywhere together–the shoe-repair shop, the bowling alley, the bar. We ate TV dinners in front of the black and white console, mostly Laugh-In and The Sonny and Cher Show, or scarfed fried clam strips down the street at Sharkey’s Tavern.

After my father started dating “Vickie,” a high-school dropout with wavy bleached hair and freckles, my life changed. Although Vickie dressed my brother and me in nice clothes, and kept us clean, she also whipped us with leather belts and called us names. Her brother molested me when I was four. And, Vickie was a serial cheater. My father married her in 1975, and six months later my younger brother was born. He caught Vickie the first time when my brother was less than one.

My father and Vickie stayed together for 23 years. Living with her until I was 18 (I moved out on my birthday) taught me injustice, to keep silent, and to cower in the presence of a bully. Her brother had said to me, “Don’t tell your daddy what we did. He’ll think you’re nasty.” Vickie said to me, “If you tell your father I hit you, you’ll get it worse.” And when I told other family members or adults about what was happening in our home, I got a pat on the head, and a, “Oh, you’re just being dramatic.”

It may not surprise you that when I married, I fell for a male version of Vickie and left my relationship. More than once. Several people waved warning flags in my face, which I ignored. It wasn’t until the love of my life divorced me that I saw I was the problem. It took ten months for me to see through my male Vickie’s bullshit. Now, I’m single and am trying to make up for my mistakes through reading, self-reflection and therapy.

My father divorced Vickie in 1998, and he passed away in 2012. Vickie remarried and from what I hear, is cheating. I wish she would have sought help for whatever childhood haunts keep her in that self-destructive cycle. To make matters worse, I now have a good friend who’s been hoodwinked by his own version of Vickie. Did I warn him? Yup. Did he yell at me and cast me aside? Yup. It’s as if I’m reliving my childhood, watching my friend instead of my father, heading for a fall.

My hope for my friend, who usually has a keen bullshit dectector, is that he will wake up before too much damage has been done. But, similar to Vickie, his enchantress is pretty, fit, and an amazing liar. Friends tell me, “Don’t worry. She’ll hang herself. And then you can say, ‘I told you so.'” Problem is, I’m not going to say I told you so. I’m going to be there for my friend if he feels had can confide in me. Keep your fingers crossed.

 

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The Truth Is Sometimes Painful

I grew up with a father who loathed dishonesty. I credit his Italian American pride, or perhaps growing up catholic, but nothing made my father angrier than learning he’d been lied to. He tended to be “brutally honest,” and the people who loved and admired him appreciated that. As his daughter, I feared his truth-telling when I was as a girl because I was extremely sensitive, but eventually I grew to admire the trait.

You have to be courageous, confident, and often live with regret when you are honest, because people rarely want to hear the truth. The image I’ve included in this post is a sketch from my son. In order to remember his spelling words, he sketched faces beside them expressing what he believed conveyed the word. When you look at the faces beside “truthfulness,” although one wears a halo, they both look anxious. Telling the truth is hard; hearing the truth is hard.

My father once told me, “You couldn’t be more like me if you tried.” Although I was sincerely flattered to hear that, I knew it meant I am also brutally honest, have a terrible poker face, and tend to alienate people because I struggle with being dishonest even in polite conversation when sometimes you should be. This is not to say I have never told a lie. I have. And some have caused irreparable damage in my life. It’s just that lying to people causes me great internal struggle, reddens my face, and fills me with crippling guilt.

Similar to most people, it’s also not easy for me to hear the truth. When people have told me I’m too analytical, sensitive, dramatic, or that I remember more negative details than positive, I stiffen with defensiveness. All of the preceding statements are true. I am also self-deprecating, affectionate, and loyal. The older I get the kinder I am to myself (and others), and I try to work with not against my human flaws.

One of my most irritating traits, I’m guessing because I’ve received a lot of flack for it, is my incurable need to discover the “why” behind just about everything. Why did my mother leave? Why did my stepmother beat me? Why do dishonest people seem to have more success than honest ones? Why did my brother get killed? Why did my husband die? Why do I have so much trouble sustaining a romantic relationship when others seem to just do it? Why are people mean? Why I did reject the man I believe is my true love?

On a positive note, once I process the Why in my head, through writing, art, or talking, I can usually let it go. In some cases, like with the death of my brother, I’ve had to make peace with not knowing why it happened. That has taken 30 years. I’m still struggling with the true love question. The other whys might be explained with psychology, self-help books, chats with friends, or talk therapy–of which I’m a huge advocate. But one important lesson I’ve learned is that in order to process these questions and heal, you have to be 100% truthful.

In the book, The Courage to Heal, which I highly recommend if you’ve suffered any personal trauma, the word courage is aptly used. It’s so much easier, and fun, to ignore our flawed humanness and not heal. For years, I was the party girl, loved getting drunk, being around people, being loud and obnoxious, all in an effort not to spend time alone and seek the truth within myself. I’d gone to therapy, but never engaged fully with the tenets. It took my loving someone other than myself to see how badly I needed help.

This person is still in my life, and because we’ve hurt each other, we have had to start rebuilding trust from the bottom up. Being honest takes courage, confidence, and working through regret to move forward when we hurt each other now. But, as you’ve probably heard or experienced, there is no greater reward than having an honest, open relationship with someone you love. And I want that.

 

 

 

 

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. ❤

 

 

Get Out of the Bitter Barn

The four-year anniversary of my divorce comes up in April 2016. After six years of separation and three-plus years of divorce, my ex, Eric, remains bitter and difficult to communicate with. Sometimes we get along, share inside jokes, or talk about work, since we have an incredible ten-year-old boy to raise. But when one person from the breakup lives in the bitter barn, co-parenting sucks, to say the least.

I keep thinking that as time passes, Eric’s bitterness will fade. If anything, he’s angrier now than he was in the first couple years after our split. I can’t control his feelings, but I have to deal with them on a daily basis. He refuses to discuss our relationship, which I think would help us move past the pain, and if I text him about anything besides parenting, he ignores me.

When Eric and I were a couple, we were two solders fighting the same war. We had hundreds of inside jokes, traveled to New York City, North Carolina, Las Vegas. We’d cultivated a beautiful friendship and were deeply committed to each other. He supported me through grad school, and I supported him through his undergrad. We were on our ninth year of marriage and still like honeymooners.

After we had our baby, however, we fought. I had postpartum depression that lasted two years after our son was born. Now I see that my depression, which confused Eric, helped lead us toward an ending. But my childhood was rife with physical, sexual and emotional abuse, which has kept me in therapy for more than 20 years. I barely understood my triggers, so how could Eric? When he found me at home, sobbing in my bedroom, drinking too much wine, and scribbling in my journal like a fiend, he never asked what was wrong. But I wouldn’t have told him anyway. I was terrified that if I admitted I was attracted to a guy at work, Eric would have dumped me on the spot.

Before I had the affair, I sensed the doom that was headed our way. Eric was busy with graduate school; and I was so depressed that I reveled in the attention of this unhappily married man from work. Before the affair I sought advice from my psychiatrist who said, “Just let the crush takes its course. You have a solid marriage.”

The affair started and after three weeks, the guy dumped me like yesterday’s trash. And that’s exactly what I felt like. I chased him around at first, unable to accept that I had been used and abused by a man who wasn’t half the man Eric was. I hid the truth for six months. And because I have no good poker face, I felt like Hester Prynne, with an A on my forehead.

I confessed to Eric largely because no marriage counselor would see us if I didn’t. And I didn’t want to get divorced. Not at first. After I confessed, Eric went blind with rage and despair. We lived in the same house, with lots of screaming and drinking. Eric phoned the seducer’s wife and told her about the affair. The seducer got a “Get Out of Marriage Free” card.

Both Eric and I come from homes where infidelity and bitter divorces led to poor relationships and strained co-parenting. Neither of us has adequate coping skills. We went to marriage counseling, but Eric kept calling me names, and I ran back to the affair guy for emotional support.

I had confessed in March, and by October, Eric moved out. He filed for divorce on the grounds of infidelity. He took half my retirement, gave me the house, left me with thousands of dollars of debt, and I paid $280 a month in child support for the first two years. As my lawyer said, “Eric wanted a ‘pound of flesh.'”

Looking back, there were signs that Eric might react the way he did. He once ignored his mother for eight months until I begged him to make up with her. Some members of his family haven’t spoken to each in other in more than a decade.

I have forgiven Eric for his drunken rages, the name calling, even the pound of flesh he took. But he refuses to forgive me. While before we had been two soldiers fighting together, now I’m waving my white flag and he’s shooting cannons in my direction.

They say time heals all wounds. But a person has to be willing to let the wounds be healed. Eric says I’ve trapped him in “relationship purgatory,” but doesn’t see that I’m right there with him.

The affair is the single biggest regret of my adult life. If only Eric realized he doesn’t need to keep punishing me. I’ve spent these years falling on my own sword.