Like all the rest of us, I’ve got a pretty diverse family background. Both historical and modern characters range from mystical and holy to so damaged that they became hands-down evil to those unlucky enough to live in their realms. (Thankfully this latter group has mostly died out or had their worst instincts blunted by the advent of institutions like Child Protective Services, though the damage they caused can still be clearly seen and felt.) Some of the really stellar people, especially if they happened to have been women, don’t have their greatness recognized until much time and reflection later.
Pieces of these characteristics get either passed down or ignored in strange ways. Mystical mothers do not necessarily beget mystical sons, and fathers who seem filled with evil do not always beget abusive daughters. It’s all so much more complicated than that. We think we’re patchwork quilts, but really we’re a million moving pixels arranged “just so,” always on a slow, lava lamp-like move with an occasional earthquake jolt to scramble things up a bit and make life more exciting, or more terrifying. The possible results of those combinations may seem endless, but they’re probably a lot less surprising than you’d think.
I’ve been thinking about my own family a lot over the past few days. My therapist recommended I see someone called a “psycho-traumatologist.” She says their job is to uncover any hidden trauma in my past that is affecting me now (and she apparently highly expects there’s quite a lot to be dug up). It’s a short treatment, and patients she’s referred, she says, have shown remarkable improvement after the 3-4 typical treatment sessions they go through.
To be honest, I feel a little embarrassed to admit I’m spending money on this. With so many problems in the world, going to such great lengths to “fix myself” feels ridiculously indulgent. What combination of early experiences and subconscious messages planted that belief in me, eh? It calls to mind my friend and department coordinator where I taught high school for a few years doing her best thickly-accented Frued impression: “Tell me about your mother…”
Two days ago I had my first “evaluation,” as it’s possible they’ll determine that I, in fact, do not have any significant trauma that needs to be unearthed and dissolved.
My reaction to the beginning of it, though, I think says it all. The evaluator was very kind, and not at all threatening. But I thought my therapist would be there (it was in her office), and she was not, and I was unexpectedly alone in a closed space with a strange man, something that has always scared me on a primitive level and that I have often actively sought to avoid. Where does this fear come from? Sure, I’ve had my butt grabbed on the street a few times, but I’ve mercifully never had to endure the horrors of rape or physical assault.
My own unprofessional conclusion is that my mother’s scars somehow got embedded under my own skin, making me jumpy and untrusting as a result of the knowledge of how much damage can be done; I grew up with a front-row seat to that damage and its resulting long-tailed sorrows. She did have to endure those things, throughout her entire childhood, and if that doesn’t really, really mess someone up, I don’t know what will. I also know that if she were alive today, she’d let out the most painful and heartfelt howl if she thought that her own experiences had damaged me in some way. So much of her intentional parenting, after all, was focused on keeping us safe from the monsters she knew for a fact could lurk in any human heart.
She was always in pain, but she was always so kind. How did this happen? Her parents were monsters, but she must have had angels somewhere that managed to get to her beautiful heart first (I feel pretty sure my namesake, her grandmother Sarah, was a primary one).
Because of the abuse, she mostly kept us away from her family. My sister and I don’t know many on that side very well. Heroes and villains of the past have been lost to memory. We’ll all be forgotten eventually, but damn if those shreds of what was don’t get passed down. “Look, you just made apes with anxiety!” an exasperated angel complains to God in a cartoon.
I like to think of myself as staying “above the fray,” a notion I recognize as a laughably unachievable solution. Taking a global view has its merits, but there’s a tendency — at least in me — for that global view to erase the importance of the individual. Yes, I’m special. But so is everyone else. So if everyone is special, how can anyone be special? And if none of us are, then we’d do good to stop engaging in so much naval gazing and embrace our dependence on one another and the joy that that can bring. I’m a sociologist, not a psychologist. I’m concerned with the big picture. So what right do I have to over-value myself, just one little tiny portrait?
But take the mirror down, and my delusion is exposed. Is my daughter special, and deserve every advantage that I can possibly give her? Oh, no need to even ask. My partner? Definitely. My sister? The list goes on, and recognizing these important people in my life and how much they matter makes my thesis crumble to the ground. I know my blind spot, I just can’t focus on it because it’s, you know, a blind spot.
My therapist has repeated to me often: “The message you give yourself is, ‘I’m not worthy;’ but why do you think that? You’re very worthy.”
Let’s just see what the psycho-traumatologist has to say about that.