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.

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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.

My House is Haunted and I Have to Sell It

Eight years ago, my husband Eric and I bought a house. He wanted the perfect place in the package, already put together. I wanted the old place with potential that we could create. Because he was too busy finishing college, I looked at homes with the Realtor. When I walked into the harvest gold living room with hard wood floors on 870 Orchard Ave, I attempted my best poker face. This would be our house. There was no garage, and it had an itty, bitty tiny kitchen, but we had off-street parking and a pantry in a great neighborhood.

Our son turned one in this house, and we had a huge party with family and friends. Eric and I painted the rooms the way we wanted, fixed up the basement room, put a compost barrel in the backyard, and even got TP’d one year. We took gorgeous photos of our three kids backdropped by trees, held Easter egg hunts and trick-or-treated in our neighborhood. I found a great job, and Eric started graduate school. We were well on our way to living what many call the American Dream.

Eric and I had been together nine years, and he had seen me through my bouts of depression stemming from childhood abuse: emotional, physical and sexual. Talk therapy was a huge part of my life. I believe Eric didn’t understand what I went through daily, but he listened and hugged me. After I had our son, my postpartum depression lasted more than a year, and I went on antidepressants, which helped enormously. A few years later, when I turned the big 4-0, I thought, I had never felt happier. But danger loomed on the horizon.

By our son’s fifth birthday, I confessed to Eric that I’d had a three-week affair with a coworker months earlier. It took me five months to confess. Some friends say it was a selfish choice to tell him, but I assure you, no marriage counselor would see me unless I did. I wanted to work things out, not split up. And I guessed the affair was a symptom of my past abuse rearing its ugliness into my wonderful present as it had done before. Never with Eric, but in other healthy relationships. Eric saw my explanation as an excuse for me to “have fun” with my coworker “Leif.”

Eric called Leif’s wife and told her about the affair. Then in a drunken rant, he told our daughters. And the next thing I knew, my life spiraled into complete pandemonium. A state of disarray that my therapists warned I was a master at creating. People who grow up in chaotic environments need to learn to like the quiet.

Within six months, I asked Eric to leave our house because he was drinking and being abusive. He filed for divorce on the grounds of infidelity. He destroyed me financially. I quit my job. I tried to seek comfort from Leif, but realized he was only interested in the forbidden wife. My elder daughter lost respect for me. My middle daughter, who was going through puberty, started cutting. And my son said he wished Mommy and Daddy would stop fighting.

My daughters are grown. I am living alone in this huge house, my son coming half time. Leif is a dirty word. I am so guilt ridden about the affair that I cannot have a normal conversation with Eric. He is still angry, and it’s been five years. Our divorce has been final for two and neither one of us can move on. Me, because no one holds a candle to my ex-husband, whom I am still in love with. And him, because he’s bitter. He has a new home, a job he likes. We live blocks from each other. Our son is nine and is well adjusted and tender-hearted.

Tonight, I am signing papers to put our house on the market. I cried for the first two weeks after I realized I had to sell it. I can’t look anywhere without seeing Eric and the kids. Eric playing X-box in the living room. The girls playing Rock Band. All of us having dinner in the sun room. Drinking coffee in the itty, bitty tiny little kitchen. Raking leaves in the back yard. Tearing down the toilet paper in the front yard.

Many of my friends ask, Why are you and Eric not back together? It all depends on how you look at it.

Why I Killed My Step-Uncle In a Poem

From ages four to nine I was sexually abused by my step-uncle “Reggie” who was seven years older. He paid me in quarters and record albums, including Cheech and Chong’s Big Bambu and Toys in the Attic by Aerosmith. I had no idea that the abuse was wrong and blocked the memory until I turned 18.

When I told my father and stepmother about the abuse, they said, “Why didn’t you tell us then?” I was four. And of course, my stepmother accused me of trying to get her brother Reggie in trouble and cause problems between her and my father.
(as if they didn’t have enough on their own) Now I know this response is typical of a family in denial.

I’ve spent decades in therapy working through the after effects of the abuse, which includes mistrust of men and authority figures, fear of commitment, control issues, and a penchant for the melodramatic. I have left good relationships for terrible ones, including my last marriage. I don’t want to be alone but keep making that happen. The truth is, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

In a poetry class years ago, I had a teacher who was a victim of childhood sexual abuse and not afraid to talk about it. He really understood the damage it causes to the human psyche. Through discussion, he helped me get my writing to a place where I could articulate what I wanted with the following poem. He read The Coin Collector and said, “You killed ‘im off, eh?” I didn’t mean to, but the poem took me there. And so be it.

The Coin Collector

You look tranquil in nickel-plate, uncle,
shark skin suit, black tie, eyeglasses.
They’ve done great work with your makeup,
brushed your hair back as you would
have worn for a wedding or wake. Your mother
offers kind words, says that as a child
you saved every penny you found. Your sister
talks about your thumbs, how they bent nearly
flat from the indent of so many coins.

I remember the Lincoln Cent collection book
you gave me, your taking me to antique shops
when I was thirteen, our private talks
of my high school lovers, all of which
you were dying to hear. These days, I carry
grief in my pockets like the coins you collected,
handled so often they’ve lost their brilliance.

I think of the young girl from a family
where no hands reached, how she welcomed
your affection year after year, afternoons
in your bedroom, a quarter a trip, your arms
linked through her legs, her fingers
tugging your blond hair, the pleasant ache
she felt between her legs then—and now—
when she hears them say your name, runs
her finger along the ribbed edge of a quarter,
sees the coffin close over your face.