Ambivalent Love


It’s the month of February, a month for wiping out huge inventories of red roses and setting false romantic gestures in motion. I haven’t written much about love and romance, because, with the exception of my husband, I have a long history of being quite awful at it. That’s a subject for another day. Or never.

There’s a kind of love that is harder to practice than all the rest. There are people in my life that make love a challenge, a constant renegotiation to see their positive sides, to recognize their intent versus what actually happens or is said. We all have them – friends or family that don’t make it easy to love them.

Many years ago, shortly after having my daughter, I decided to talk to a family therapist. Some issues of childhood had reared their ugly Medusa-like heads and I desperately wanted to be a good parent. I was involved in a dysfunctional volley of exchanges with someone I wanted to believe could change. I quit acquiescing and started to challenge this person’s behavior.

I come from a long history of mental illnesses and substance addictions. The easiest people to love were the ones that married into our families, but often, due to the aforementioned issues, those people came and went on a fairly regular basis. We got glimpses of normal behavior – just enough to know that normal would be an ambitious goal for anyone in our family.

I have compassion and understanding for those that suffer from mental illnesses. I’m all for social justice and a better system to identify and support people who need assistance and kindness and compassion. When it’s in my face though, infiltrating every corner of my world, exhausting me at every turn, calling me names, stealing my money and holding me hostage to drama, I can feel very hardhearted.

It’s hard to love someone who can only take. They’re so knee-deep in their own shit that they can’t see anything else. You long for them to be interested in your smart, delightful daughter or what you have written or to appreciate what a kind, decent man you have married. But it doesn’t happen. They never ask about your life during phone calls and when they do, it’s a perfunctory nod before they go into their own tales of woe.

Growing up, I was good at being a fixer, a mediator of sorts. This role followed me and even after I left home, I’d get letters letting me know everything that was going wrong, being asked to intervene on this person’s behalf or that. As a kid, I felt important and needed and valued in that role. As an adult, I was frustrated and angry and I’d swear that I wouldn’t get sucked in again. Until the next desperate phone call.

This self-importance gave me a way of positioning myself, a way of seeing how I fit into the world, a false sense of superiority over those more troubled than I. Until my troubles came. Instead of saving everyone else, I had to save myself. If they threw me bricks instead of life preservers, I shut them out. I quit a dead-end job, an off-again on-again relationship, and moved farther away. Emotionally, I might as well have been in outer space, unreachable.

I needed that time to establish my own identity. It’s a natural process as we become adults to see those boundaries. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I recognized that it was even okay to have boundaries -that it was okay not to be a dumping ground for everything wrong in one’s family.

I got married. I became a parent. And my heart softened. I again longed for connections to those people that I had loved my whole life. I longed for some sense of normalcy – family holidays, pictures of all of us in one place, children laughing and playing together, running around the dining room table. I longed for stupid Norman Rockwell. I longed for something that never existed.

Re-entry was horrible and painful and left me heartbroken. The sickening realization came over me that there would never be another family gathering, except possibly for funerals. Even then, we’d stand shoulder to shoulder, like strangers on a subway.

My daughter would likely never know many of her cousins or aunts and uncles. People had begun dying in sad, awful ways before she was born. My father committed suicide. Alcoholism had killed several others. I was left with a handful of people with whom relationships were difficult, uncomfortable and frustrating.

Romantic love, when you’re both ready and right for each other, is easy. Day-to-day love can be challenging at times, but you learn and adjust to the others’ needs. Family love inside this house is very easy. We work together, squabble on occasion, but for the most part, we have each others’ backs.

Loving people that don’t have social skills, who are so mired in their own worlds that they can’t imagine you existing outside of their universe, who only come to you when they need something – that is a tougher kind of love. Loving people that seek to lash out, to cause harm, to damage everything in their path, is nearly impossible.

While in therapy,  I ran across a passage in a book (I wish I could recall the source) that has stayed with me for many years. It referred to treating someone with mental illness like a force of nature. You wouldn’t stay in the path of a tornado, just in case it changes direction. You’d get out of the way, seek shelter and protect yourself. You can’t love a mental illness away. You can’t empathize self-destruction out of someone.

I had more leeway in my life for drama before having my own family. I’m at a time of life when things are the busiest – a young child at home, aging relatives to care for, juggling career goals with family goals, trying to accept that it’s okay to be happy, even when those people that I love are not. But the longing never goes away, no matter how much I intellectualize things.

I love them and I miss them. I’ve helped all I could manage. I’ve listened for as long as I can listen. I will rally myself for another round. I don’t want to enable or to judge. I recognize that their lives can be painful and difficult and I do feel compassion. It’s a hard kind of love.


Fight or…No, Just Fight: Part 1

Today, I’m a fighter, sporting a black eye and a lot of bruises. Sparring at Taekwondo was not pretty last night and my inexperience resulted in me being kicked in the face.

This morning at the grocery store, between a few curious, sympathetic looks from people, I felt inexplicable shame. It took me off guard. I cannot, at times, penetrate the inner workings of my brain. Then I looked in the mirror.  I’ve seen this face before. Not my face, but the face of someone I have loved my whole life. I’ve seen her bruised and bleeding and crying. I, with my little clenched angry fists – absolutely powerless to protect my mother. This is a story of my rage and like my sparring, it is not pretty.

I was a witness, and sometimes a recipient, of domestic violence as a child. There was a lot of alcohol involved, followed by angry threats that the whole family would be killed. I try to see it through adult eyes. Was it bluster? Was it idle? It doesn’t matter. I believed we would die. I believed that I would be shot, strangled,  or beaten senseless. I wanted more than anything to be invisible and all powerful. I went to church every week and I prayed first that he would stop drinking. Then I prayed that he would die. I was young and I believed.

The longest nights in the world were waiting for him to come home. I’d lay quiet, listening to the escalating drunken arguments downstairs. We’d all pretend to be asleep, hoping against all hope that he would not do what he had done so many nights. He’d roust us all from our beds, mocking us, yanking on our arms, sneering in our faces. The fear of what would happen was greater than what usually happened, which was that he’d get tired and pass out. One time he passed out over the gas stove, leaning on the knobs until the smell woke us.

On the nights when violence seemed imminent, I’d scoop up my younger siblings while he was distracted and load them in the car so that we could run. But I could never leave without my mother. Once, when I was 13, he started to come at me and I snatched up a cast iron frying pan, preparing to knock him straight into hell. She prevented him from reaching me, a fact that I bitterly held against her for a long time. The flame of adolescent rage had been lit. I began to plot the many ways in which I would kill him.

It was over before I managed to follow through on any plans, most of which involved shovels and shotguns. I hadn’t started my P.D. James English mystery phase or else I would have been all over poisoning him. We finally left one sunny afternoon while he was at work, after enough social service interventions and my mother had saved enough money to rent a place for us to live. I was beginning a new chapter in my life, but like ripples in a pond, the past continued to touch my present and my future.

It’s always a concern when I write family stories. I was supposed to wait until they were dead, before dredging up the past and ripping the family myths wide open. But it’s MY story, too and until I tell it, until it is exhaled out of me, I will not fully embrace a creative life. I am lucky enough to be able to tell it and to walk away with what I need to continue evolving as a person.