Thursday, December 6, 2012

Veni, Veni...

I'd honestly thought I would be blogging in a frenzy of Advent-inspired ideas this week.  Try as I might, nothing in that vein has materialized on the screen.  Instead, something is prompting me to move beyond the topic of hymns and purple candles, to focus for a time on those "gloomy clouds of night" overhead.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve suffered with depression.  First for years, without understanding what plagued me, sometimes not thinking there was any problem with me; obviously everyone around me had problems, and their issues were what brought me down.   Later, with therapy, I learned to identify, face and deal with reality: I am the adult child of two alcoholics, a co-dependent with a second-hand form of PTSD.  Yet I’d walked through life as if I was the Unscathed Normal One, the Marilyn of the Munster clan.   By the time I was twelve years old,  I had already read Bradshaw's On the Family, and the Al-Anon publication Adult Children of Alcoholics ("gifts" from my big sister).  I was painfully well-informed of the dynamics of the "dysfunctional family" shaping me, but I figured my knowledge was a talisman against actually being affected in any "forever-after" sense.  I always imagined that all I'd need to be a healthy adult was to just get away.

Once alcohol loosened her memories and lips, my mother would share horrific or sad recollections of her own childhood.  My heart always felt near-to-breaking for her.   My much-older sister was living a wild life and in therapy; she often shared family secrets she'd experienced or uncovered as well.  Thus, my second-hand trauma;   I knew too many gory details of others' poverty, alcoholism, and experiences with violence while I was still a child myself.  My friends had grandfathers who were retired from careers, owning vacation homes, and playing catch with them.  I never knew my grandpa, and recall meeting him only twice, but I knew he was an abusive drunk who'd wielded a butcher knife and chased after my grandmother.  (That is the lesser of horrific tales I'd heard about him...)

On one hand, I was highly sensitive and introspective as a result of such disclosures.  On the other hand, I felt an increasing desire to ameliorate everyone's past hurts by becoming the standard bearer for our clan, Bradshaw and all not withstanding.  Everyone has a role to play; seeing how I was already trending, I supposed I could choose worse... and maybe, just maybe, my goodness would achieve results.  Thus began my savior complex.  

Adulthood brought trials that my "goodness" was no match against.  My brother-in-law died in his thirties, after battling Chronic Mylegenic Leukemia.  My sister was left to raise 2 teenagers, neither of them her biological children, both of whom turned to hard drugs, a rough crowd, and theft because they were still children and they had been through hell and this was all they knew how to do in response.  I watched helplessly as my sister unsuccessfully navigated these modern realities of family life.  Suddenly, it didn't matter how good I was; my sister and these young people suffered so profoundly.  It didn't seem just.

This was the period in which my own father died, rapidly and painfully, from lung cancer.  I struggled with how to "properly" react to his impending death.  I can see now that I should have visited him more often; I'd thrown myself into my career and raising my (then) two children, instead.  While my mom and dad encouraged me not to step away from my own responsibilities, in hindsight, I think that was a form of denial on all of our parts.  I'd even skipped out on Thanksgiving, telling myself that my young family was already maxed out/stressed out, that in-laws were visiting from California, that there would be more time to be with dad during Christmas.  

By the time I visited for Christmas, he was in too much pain to truly talk or to enjoy time with us.

The fact that my father was dying at this time of year is something I need to recall and mourn and not push away anymore.  The fact that my mom had achieved and maintained sobriety, only to lose the soul mate who had stuck by her through her nightmare of chemical dependency, is a pain I need to share with her, not shirk away from or ignore.  (There are other traumas and griefs, the total of which comprises my own "gloomy clouds of night," but I feel like I have given a good enough snapshot with just this much.)

Everyone has their personal darkness; details may differ, but the dark nights are there.  It is no secret that the holidays are a catalyst for depression in many people.  Is it because our reality, with its gloom and imperfections, does not line up with what we want for our reality?  Is it our helplessness to disperse the darkness that drives us into a holiday funk?

The price I paid for not dealing with reality was that I stopped functioning.  My anxiety became so acute, I was afraid to drive the car any great distance.  I was reluctant to leave the house alone.  I was uneasy about leaving the children.  I sloughed off my hygiene habits, ending up with ten (!) cavities in one dental visit.   Meanwhile I crafted with the kids, took them on walks, taught the oldest to read, had friends over for dinner... Increasingly these were mere motions that covered over the crumbling that was happening on my inside.

Have you ever felt numb? I am talking about emotional frostbite: to know an emotion should be present in a given circumstance, either happiness or sadness, but instead realize that you have no feeling of any kind.   For me: to host a family celebration, and cognitively know that this is the kind of thing I get happy and excited about, yet in the moment feel absolutely nothing.  It was as if I had left my body and had stopped being me.  I had not told my husband this was happening inside of me, but he was perceptive enough to see it.

My husband  was the one who one day said, “Are you okay?  Really.  I am very worried about you.”  I answered with, “Everything's fine,” or “I'm just tired,” excuses.  I told myself that as always, the problems were all outside of me, in the issues of others: my husband, his mother, my sister, my mother.  If everyone else could only get it together.  If I could just hold everything in place and get these people to see how to live... we'd all be fine and then I'd be fine. I didn't know that was co-dependency, a sign of my own savior-martyr-complex keeping me from treating with reality.

Luckily, my husband did not accept my dismissive assertions that all was well.  "I am very worried about you.” He said it again.  And again.  And finally, after several months of this gentle prodding, he told me a truth that terrified, angered, and yet strangely, relieved me to hear spoken: my behavior towards others was dysfunctional. It was time for me to seek help.

How did I get to that point?  Rather than show my wounds, admit my pain, and cry over tea with girlfriends, I'd tried -- as always-- to be the exemplar of courage and good cheer.  I had tried to skip and deny my dark periods, fast forwarding through my life's losses to get to the good parts.  I thought those negative emotions, and the story of my upbringing, were unattractive and unacceptable; I decided they didn't jive with being a Catholic revert.   I stuffed my negative emotions; I hid the pain of my formative years and the real experiences of my life from everyone.  This was not stoicism or strength.  It was not Christianity in action.   It was dishonesty and maybe a bit of cowardice. 

I had always feared hurt, which was why I always ran from it, denied it, pretended I had beaten it back, and outrun it.   What I learned from therapy, and from reading books such as this one is: If you don't sit patiently with your pain for a while, it won't leave; it will seek you out, and it will catch you.  It caught me.  You just won't see it for what it is when it does.  Add to that the self-pride I had at being a sort of martyr, of thinking I mattered that much to everyone around me, well... My suffering wasn't exactly sacrificial in the end.

Why do I feel like ruminating on all of this today, instead of waxing on about seasonal feast days and Advent hymns?   Perhaps there is an appropriateness in facing and remembering the darkness right now, not just ritually, but personally.  Our struggles are real and the darkness is there, alright.

 It is just that a Light shines in the darkness, and that Light will not be overcome.

In shutting my eyes to the darkness, I had shut my eyes to the Light of Christ.  In denying my own loss, struggle, and pain, I denied my own weakness.  I denied my need for Him to heal me.  Even as I professed my Christian beliefs, even as I received the sacraments and participated in the life of the Church, in my fear and pride, I denied my own dependence on God.

Advent is a time to prepare ourselves for Christ.  It is a two-fold preparation: we are readying our homes to celebrate His birth and we are readying our hearts for His Coming again.  He will come again for each of us; that should not cause despair.  He has shown through His Incarnation and His sacrifice on the cross, that he is Love itself.

This is reason for hope in the midst of the chaos and frustration on this side of heaven.  This is reason to exhale, to wait it out in this darkness, and to trust in its passing.  This is reason to rejoice.


  1. You're scarily close to the bone with a lot of that post. And yet the darkness seems so ever-present and that light seems to have very different plans for my life than what I hoped for. And therein more darkness.

    1. Hang in there. :-( Patience, Fortitude, Endurance: such virtues are forged by fire. Praying for you (and for your hubby, too).

  2. After three readings, I want to go back and read it again, because I know it will still wake up something else in me.How do you pack so much depth, feeling, pain, psychological insight, spirituality, and Grace into on "slim volume"? Maybe envy can be a virtue if I call it admiration?

  3. You flatter me! Thank you. To answer your question, "How do you pack so much..." I attack it all with a stick, a machete, and a shoe horn. It can take all day; the process isn't pretty. And the laundry did not get done.