S is for Sibling

s goldI have one sibling, an older brother. Growing up, our parents compared us to each other, often to his detriment. When he was born, there were complications. When I was born (three years later), everything happened perfectly. My brother was a fussy baby. I was quiet and slept right through the night immediately. My brother threw temper tantrums and ran away from home, repeatedly. I didn’t. My parents often said that I was the “perfect” child, the “good” one. My brother was rebellious, “bad.”

I still feel guilty about these comparisons and not just because they made my brother feel bad about himself. You see the instances that my parents claimed were proof of my “goodness” were really just proof that I kept my mouth shut. My brother wasn’t rebellious; he was just willing to say what he thought. Yes he was loud and occasionally violent about it. But he usually had good reason. When it comes right down to it, my brother got the short end of the proverbial stick. And then had that stick used upside his ass.

My brother was our paternal grandparents’ first grandchild. They lived about a half hour away and insisted that my brother spend as much time as possible with them. As a male child, he was a perfect way for my grandparents to try to fix whatever mistakes they thought they made with their only male child. By the time I came along, my brother was more their child then our parents’. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t spend most of his weekends at their house.

I was jealous of his relationship with our grandparents. I thought they loved him more than me. They never said anything, but I may have been right.

My grandfather often planned activities with by brother in mind. I was never invited. Never even asked if I was interested. My grandfather’s big hobby was model trains. I wasn’t allowed to touch them. My brother was allowed to touch, rearrange, and play with the trains. I have distinct memories of my grandfather driving away from our grandparents’ house with my brother in the car, leaving me behind in an empty house (my grandmother was at work). I was eight.

siblings

No this isn’t us.

My revenge was that our maternal grandmother liked me better. She said so. Out loud. With my brother in the room.

We always went to visit our maternal grandparents during our school’s spring break, which usually fell on or near his birthday. They lived on a farm seven hours away from us and talked with a southern accent. My brother complained about these visits every year. He hated that we had to visit on his birthday, that it took so long to get there, that there were strange smells and stranger people. Everyone always commented on how well behaved I was, how I was such a “good girl” for helping out our parents, how much I looked like my mother. I loved our visits.

The older we got, the less our parents compared us. It wasn’t necessary. My brother and I were stuck with the labels of “bad” and “good” child. Each year, our various resentments grew. He resented having to spend weekdays with our parents. I resented our paternal grandparents love for him. He misbehaved and was spanked for it. I kept my mouth shut and nothing happened to me.

He ran away from home at least once a year. Usually in the summer, which he wanted to spend entirely at our paternal grandparents’ house. He had to be bribed into going to our maternal grandparents’ house. I crept into the persona of “good girl” and rarely allowed myself to act otherwise. The shell of goodness felt safe, comfortable, even if it wasn’t always genuine.

Then my brother became a teenager. Our paternal grandmother bought him his first car and we rarely saw him. When he was seventeen, he moved out of our parents’ house and into our paternal grandmother’s apartment (our grandfather had died years before). I watched our parents endlessly discuss my brother’s rebellion. And I wished I was anyone other than what I was: a boiling mass of jealousy and anger within the façade of a “good girl.”

Then my brother became a father and a husband. An adult. Seemingly all of a sudden he stopped rebelling and became “good.” He got a job, provided for his family and treated our parents with respect. He didn’t go out of his way to spend time with them, but he no longer argued with them, no longer picked fights with them. Our parents began to spend hours discussing how much he’d changed. I was still angry, still jealous and still hiding behind my “good girl” façade. But now, no one noticed.

Years later, my brother and I discussed a little about how we were compared. He told me he had hated them. He said that he had always felt as if our paternal grandparents were his real parents. That our parents were just these people he was required to live with. I told him that I thought our paternal grandparents loved him and not me. I also told him how sorry I was that our paternal grandparents and parents used him as a way to work out their problems. And that I had grown up angry that everyone, our parents included, loved him for who he was, not for what he let them think he was.

You see, by allowing myself to crawl inside that “good girl” shell, I had prevented anyone from knowing the real me. I stayed silent whenever anyone said or did anything that I didn’t like or didn’t agree with. I rarely said or did anything troublesome because a “good girl” didn’t do that. But I wasn’t a “good girl” inside. And no one really knew me.

Looking back at all this, I also can see the seeds for what became my arrogance. Our parents called me their “good girl,” their “perfect” child. People, both related and unrelated, praised me for being there for our parents, for my polite behavior, for my “goodness,” even for my intelligence (long before I showed any signs of being anything other than an average student). Growing up I was constantly thinking I deserved things just because I was there. As an adult, I fight against the bitterness of not having my “goodness” acknowledged. I fight resentment every time I hear about special programs for people with kids or for veterans. Not because I think they don’t deserve it, but because I think “what about me? I deserve those things too!” I think I deserve them without working for them. Why? Because I’m me.

I’m me and I’m not a “good girl.” I don’t deserve to be handed things just because I’m alive. But I also don’t deserve to be labeled as any one thing. I’m not just a woman. Not just mentally ill. Not just fat. I’m all of those things and none of those.

I am a human being. A human. Being. And somehow my sibling learned those things long before I did. And without my shell of “goodness.”

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F is for My First Memory

abcalphabet_block_blue_fI’ve spent the last few days avoiding writing this blog post by searching for new graphics to use. Hours upon hours of looking at different versions of pencils, letters, and so forth just so I didn’t have to talk about this memory. The really stupid thing is that I’ve told people about this before since it’s a common “ice breaker” type of activity to ask people to describe their first memory. I’ve told this story to several different college classes, three or four different spiritual institutions and more counselors/therapists/shrinks than you can shake the proverbial stick at. That said, I’ve no idea why it took me so long to write this post.

Anyway, here’s my first memory:

I don’t remember why I woke up, I image I had a bad dream or heard something. I don’t know. All I know is that I was about 2 or 3 years old and I had woken up in the dark. I remember that I was scared and crying and that I pulled myself up in my crib by the slats until I could rest my chin on the top rail. I have an image of my darkened room with a small sliver of light illuminating the floor, but I’m not sure if that is real or if it’s something I’ve added over the years imaging the scene.

I know I cried for what seemed like forever. I don’t know if it was just a few minutes or a few hours. All I know is that eventually I stopped. Not because I stopped being terrified. Not because I was tired. Not even because I ran out of tears. I stopped because I knew, from the bottom of my pajama’d foot to the top of my towhead, that no one was coming. I was alone and I had to deal with whatever it was by myself. And that I’d have to do that for everything for the rest of my life.

So I sat myself down, crossed one leg over the over, hugged a pillow and rocked forward and backward until I fell asleep. I fell asleep that way until I was in my mid-teens.

No this isn't me.

No this isn’t me.

The thing is, there was probably someone home at the time. My brother, my parents, someone. But they didn’t come and likely wouldn’t have. Back then it was believed that if a child wasn’t hungry, sick or wet, you let them cry; it was thought that you were teaching them how to comfort themselves. Well, I guess in a way it did teach me to comfort myself. The problem was that my family’s particular dysfunction combined with my innate way of being ended up giving me problems similar to children brought up by neglectful parents. My parents weren’t neglectful, weren’t bad people; they were doing the best they could at the time. What they didn’t know is that some of the choices they made and some of the ways our family did things would end up giving me more problems than solutions.

As an adult, I logically know that I don’t have to deal with everything by myself. And for the most part, I don’t. If my car breaks down, I talk to a mechanic. If I can’t figure out how to do something on a computer, I ask someone. But if I need help with something I can’t touch, a decision, a feeling, a fear, I hesitate. Especially if it’s something I think is important, I keep whatever it is to myself until I get to some sort of impasse. It isn’t until I’ve chewed the problem to pieces inside my head that I take it to someone else.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: When I went back to college, I had to choose a foreign language. I took a look at how my schedule would be structured and realized I had about five or six choices, which I then narrowed down to two equally good choices. I then spent months, and I do mean months, trying to decide which one to take. This one was more practical, that one sounded like more fun. This one was harder to get into, that one was something I’d thought about taking since I was 12. And on and on. It wasn’t until I had to make a choice that I went to a friend and talked about it out loud. She took one look at me and said “you already know which one you’re going to take.” And she was right; I just didn’t realize that I’d even made the decision until I said it out loud.

Now I imagine a lot of people have similar ways of going over a problem. I just imagine that it doesn’t take them months to get to the point at which they talk to someone about it. Imagine if I had talked through the problem with my friend when I first became aware that I needed to make a decision. I could have saved myself months of dithering over the issue. And I could have used that time and energy thinking about something much more interesting during those months.

I do this with all kinds of problems, both important and trivial. Should I buy that DVD? Should I go to Grad School now or in a few years? What car should I buy? Should I have a brownie or ice cream with dinner? Should I kill myself with pills or by hanging? (Don’t worry, that’s not a current deliberation.)

I honestly think that my problem with asking for help, with trying to take care of everything by myself, can be traced back to that first memory.

And, what might be worse, I think that first memory is when I first started to distrust people. After all, if people aren’t there for a baby, a toddler, why would they be there for a kindergartner, a pre-teen, a teenager, an adult? If a baby can’t depend on anyone to be comforted, why on earth would anyone depend on someone else to comfort them for anything?

So I learned to keep people at a distance very early. I don’t trust people to comfort me. I don’t trust them to do much of anything. This early experience wasn’t the only time people let me down, but it was the first.

Coming up next post: more of my history that caused me to have some sort of issue. Anything in particular you’d like to hear about? Please comment below.