Sunday, April 17, 2016

Mending a Soul

I always think people don't like me, that I am unlikeable.

My birthmother gave me away. My adoptive mother was the consummate narcissist in her dealings with me and raised me to believe I was dumb, ugly, and incompetent. I was never good enough.

My mother's life centered on her church and its people, and I found it and them highly critical and backbiting. I was raised in the South in the 50s and 60s where a girl's primary objective in life was to find a man, marry him, have babies, and raise them. My mother told me I'd never get a man because I was too obstinate.

Well, I showed her. I found one at college, married him, and had two babies. I adored those babies, but I had little more, emotionally, to give them than she had given me. And that husband? He was—I see through the magic of hindsight—extremely insecure and used his power of words, of belittlement, to continue what my mother had so adeptly begun. And I believed him. I believed I was of no value to or in the world. After ten years of marriage to him and two suicide attempts, I walked out, leaving my precious babies with him.

[I'll skip the part about the tricks he played during the divorce negotiations, and his years of trying to turn my sons against me. He was unsuccessful—my sons still love me and understand why I left their father (and them).]

I just wanted to be loved.

[I'm also skipping, in this account, the impact of my adoptive father in my life. He wore a halo. He loved me and gave me the only self-esteem that was to exist for many, many years. But he was somewhat absent, due to being married to a woman who couldn't let him feel loved and the possession of an occupation in which he could immerse himself (family doctor and general surgeon) to escape her emotional cruelty. In his medical practice he was greatly loved. He would leave for work before I got up and get home after I was asleep. I would see him a couple of afternoons a week, until my sophomore year in high school, when he drove me to the school bus stop every day and we had the longest conversations of my formative years. I loved him. He loved me. He died when I was 34.]

[And we'll skip the boring part about the two brothers in my adoptive family who were five and seven years older than I and wanted nothing to do with me. Later in life they would blame me for Mother's inability to mother me. They still exist. They still have next-to-nothing to do with me.]

At 33, I found my birthmother. She wanted nothing to do with me and told me never to contact her again.

After two more poor-choice marriages in search of someone to fill the holes in my soul, I found the right man for the job. His mother had died when he was three. It was 1938 and his widowed father didn't know what to do with him and his five-year-old sister, so he put them in an orphanage. This precious little lost boy was bounced from foster family to foster family for five years until he found a family with enough emotional generosity to give him what he needed—acceptance and a place in the world.

When he and I met, he was twice-divorced to my thrice. After eight years as friends, we married. We found in each other and in that marriage exactly what we had been looking for all our lives. Our similar-though-different backgrounds enabled us to understand each other's insecurities. We were each able to ignore the other person's foibles and fill in the holes with acceptance and love.

Six months after we were married, he was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer. Twenty-one months later he died. We had a wonderful marriage as we walked the crooked path to his death.

But the patterns formed when we are children follow us everywhere despite brief reprieves. Baggage can be forever.

Skip forward twenty years. I now have a wonderful and loving partner who is able to overlook my very old and very deep-seated insecurities. But they're always.always.always lurking in the shadows, waiting to pop out and whisper in my ear, "See, you really are unlikeable. You only thought that had gone away."

I'll close with an amusing anecdote from last summer that illustrates my cloak of insecurity with crystalline clarity:

Last summer, when my partner and I had been sharing our lives for five years, I went away for six weeks to work as a collaborative pianist at a well-known arts camp in northern Michigan—a dream I had been harboring for twenty-five years. While I was away, my loving partner spent every spare minute painting the kitchen. He scraped the ceiling, steel-wooled the seventy-year-old wood cabinets, removed all the hardware from both cabinets and doors and made it sparkle, scraped and repaired all the cracks in the walls, and changed the walls from ugly institutional 1950s blue-green-crud to delicious warm buttercream, and the trim to glossy whitewhite. When I walked into the kitchen after six weeks away, I didn't even notice. Didn't even notice!!

Two days later, after repeated queries from workmates and best friends, "How did she like the kitchen?" ... I was standing at the kitchen sink, doing dishes and watching the activity at the bird feeder. He walked in and said, "I have to tell you something."

My gut reaction? I immediately thought he had met someone else during the six weeks I was away and was going to leave me.

Once given away, always give-away-able.

(What he wanted to do was show me his beautiful handiwork and describe his ideas for his next house project.)

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