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The No-No

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

September, 2012

While access to a computer had been a nicety in 2006; by 2011, it had become a necessity.

Not only was the computer the best way to research and plan travel, but it had become Niko’s main source of companionship apart from Hanna. Unable to work and frequently apartment bound, Niko had come to rely on their laptop for entertainment and as a portal to the outside world.

You know by now that Henry and I had thought about our computer situation in advance. We had agreed that it would be very difficult to deny Niko use of my laptop, especially after having previously given him carte blanche. We had also agreed that it would be best to do so.

For some reason—and I suspect some fuzzy-minded state of denial and avoidance—I had not connected the dots. If I had, it would have been evident that a month-long visit sans computer would pose problems for anyone visiting a major metropolitan area. For Niko especially, computer access had become crucial to his sense of wellbeing and mastery in a sometimes hostile and often overwhelming world.

Maybe you have had this feeling too…when one half of your brain, red faced and breathless, brandishes a red flag in your face; and the other half of your brain responds: “Strange weather we’re having. I feel all melty and mushy,” and then proceeds to the freezer for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s followed by a food coma and a dreamless sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat…with any number of diversions.

I knew, but did not want to let myself know, that confronting the matter of the computer with Niko head on would, at some point, necessitate my confessing that I had concerns beyond those related to the condition of my laptop.

To be blunt without being gratuitous: In 2006, Niko had had trouble sharing the computer with the 5 other people who wanted time. And he had used the family computer it in ways I believe most hosts would not condone.

Shortly after Hanna and Niko departed that year, our new desktop had (terminally) failed. I wondered if his habits had played a role. Realizing his activities had occurred during prodromal and illness states, it didn’t seem right to classify them as Bad Behavior. How much true choice had been involved? And thinking it unfair to blame him for the demise of the desktop without clear evidence, I hesitated to speak. I wasn’t mad at him, and I certainly did not want to shame him. He had been so worried that his psychosis had damaged our friendship. Yet, I feared the same things could happen again in 2011.

Niko is a highly-verbal, detail-oriented, analytical, intelligent, and intuitive man. And he is persistent. He is good at debating, and he never misses an angle. To engage him on these issues at all would have been to open the whole can of worms, and I was afraid he would catch me out.

Why did it matter if he did?

I’m not sure.

I harbored no ill intent. But I was young and unsure in my attempts to prioritize my family. I knew I was making a healthy change but Hanna and Niko were unaware. In some fashion, I felt disloyal. Maybe even sneaky. For the first time, I was putting the needs of Henry and the girls over those of my best friend–and by association, her husband.

This is all hindsight, of course. In the moment, one half of my brain was sending up frantic smoke signals while the other half was smothering them with plans. Layers of plans, which were to provide insurance against ever having to have this conversation.

This is the eleventh installment of The Story of Hanna, a story of friendship, loss, and aging. Please click here for installment ten. Installment twelve is here.

The NO that Broke the Camel’s Back

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

September, 2012

This is the NO that ended my friendship with Hanna.

Once Henry and I had put some boundaries in place, we allowed ourselves to get excited about our visit from Hanna and Niko. Truly, it would have been foolish—and negligent—to ignore the lessons we had learned in 2006.

I had told you that Hanna is humble and independent and makes very few requests of others. I should have clarified that she makes very few requests on her own behalf. Shy and unassuming, she often neglects herself. Still, Hanna can be a real tiger when it comes to the wants and needs of others. In her immense and compassionate heart, she feels with her husband all the woes of his remarkable life; and she goes out of her way to champion him.

If it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words, then I submit to you the following: a photo taken outside my mother’s house in the summer of 2006. The pose is odd and very telling–all the more so for having been struck spontaneously, its meanings transmitted without conscious consent. It speaks of love, loyalty, advocacy, and interdependence. It tells of self-effacement, exhaustion, enmeshment, and denial. Balance—literal and symbolic, necessary and illusory—manifests itself in this image, as does sacrifice. For reasons of confidentiality, I cannot share the actual photo.

I’ll do my best to describe it to you here:

Niko is the focal point. Thick and solid as an oak and dressed completely in black, he stands on the brick sidewalk in front of the day lily patch and offers an understated smile. He stands flat on his feet, which are firmly planted a short distance apart. He leans ever so slightly towards Hanna. His right arm dangles at his side. His left hand reaches down to rest on Hanna’s left shoulder, as she is has made herself very small in comparison.

Hanna, dressed all in white, is in a low crouch. She rests awkwardly on the ball of her right foot while her left foot extends forward for balance. Her pose is unnatural, as though she might topple at any moment. The top of her head reaches barely to Niko’s waist. In her left hand, she holds some sort of figurine, which she balances on her left knee. Her right arm reaches under the edge of Niko’s shorts and hugs his thigh just above his knee. She smiles broadly, the side of her face pressed up against his side.

Returning to the ill-fated denial…

I think our friendship might have survived if not for this.

Shortly after their arrival from Germany, Niko asked to use the computer. I explained that our desktop had broken down, and I had only my old laptop.

I told him, “I’m not comfortable letting you use it. It’s a really cheap old thing, and it’s on its way out. All sorts of error messages are starting to pop up. And it overheats and shuts down. I can’t afford to replace it, and I can’t do my work without it. Plus, if it died on your watch, I wouldn’t want you to wonder if you had done something wrong.”

I thought this was a kind and soft “No,” and I hoped it would suffice.

I was wrong. So very wrong.

This is the tenth installment in The Story of Hanna. Please click on the tab of the same name to read other segments.
Installment nine is here. Installment eleven is here.

Family Math

triangle

We do math, together. It is a fun family pastime. In fact, it is a Family Rule*.

Geometry is our favorite. Because WE. LOVE. TRIANGLES.

Geometry can be a great family activity. You might want to try it yourself! I’ll type out some of our math problems for you so you can get the hang of it.

Exhibit A:

I.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: Have you heard from your sister lately?

Me: Not since last week. Why?

Mom: Oh. It’s just that she seemed so angry. I was hoping you had resolved things.

Me: Gwen’s angry at me?

II.

The phone rings. Gwen picks up.

Me: Gwen! What’s going on? Mom said you were mad at me.

Gwen: She wasn’t supposed to tell you.

Me: Why are you mad at me?

Gwen: I can’t talk now. I have to call Mom.

III.

The phone rings. My mother picks up.

Gwen: Mom, what did you tell Jane?

Mom: I did not tell her about the restaurant thing.

Gwen: Mom! That was a private conversation!

Mom: You know she didn’t mean to. She can be insensitive but it’s not her fault. She inherited it from your father. You should just forgive her.

Gwen: Mom!

IV.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: Your sister is mad at me. What did you tell her?

Me: Well, you told me she was mad at me. I just called her to find out what was going on.

Mom: I know she can be a bit dramatic but she can’t help it. It’s her artistic temperament. Just let it go.

Me: Mom!

Or maybe Exhibit B will help:


(Translation is included, gratis, for the uninitiated. Take it with a grain of salt—Seamus is actually a really good person.)

The phone rings. It’s my stepfather, Seamus.

Seamus: Hi, Jane. It’s Seamus. Your Mom’s fine. How are you?
This is not an emergency. This is a friendly chat.

Me: Hi Seamus. I’m fine. How about you?
A friendly chat is good.

Seamus: Fine, thanks.
Chatting.

Me: Great!
Chatting.

Seamus: I mowed the lawn today.
Watch how I subtly steer this conversation.

Me: Uh.
And I scratched my bum.

Seamus: And I weeded the garden.
I’ve got this.

Me: That’s nice.
Scratching.

Seamus: I picked up the mail too. And bought milk.
Because I am a good person.

Me:
You may have one gold star.

Seamus: Don’t worry about your mom. I’m taking good care of her.
Because I am a really good person.

Me: That’s great. I appreciate it.
I smell a rat.

Seamus: We haven’t heard from you in a while.
Your mother feels neglected.

Me: I called Mom last week. And you know, I told her to call me on my cell any time but she—
That’s not fair!

Seamus: You need to call your mother.
So she will stop sighing loudly.

Me: Uh, ok. I’ll do that.
Grrr.

Seamus: Actually, she’s just right outside feeding the birds. I’ll get her.
I am a hero.

Me:
Punked!

Seamus: Carol! Carol! Jane called for you!
I’ll even let Jane take the credit!

Mom: Jane! How wonderful to hear from you!
Jane! How wonderful to hear from you!

Me: Sure, Mom. How are you?
Sigh.

Gwen and I have had a lot of therapy over the years, and we are graduating from triangles to lines and rays. Conversation is a lot more efficient these days but nowhere near as fun.

Thus, Exhibit C:

I.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: Hi Jane! Have you heard anything from your sister lately?

Me: Nope. Bye.

II.

The phone rings. It’s Gwen.

Gwen: I’m mad at you, and I don’t want to talk to you.

Me: Ok. Bye.

III.

The phone rings. My mother picks up.

Gwen: Hi Mom! Jane and I had a fight but we worked it out.

Mom: Then why are you calling me? Bye.

IV.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: I miss you.

Me: Well, then! I’m so glad you called!

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here.

Infidelity III

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

Sept. 30, 2012

This is how I broke the rules.*

Until Hanna and Niko announced their intention to come for an extended visit last summer, I didn’t realize how much peace the distance between us had accorded me. Though I missed them both, Hanna terribly, we had done well with snail mail, Skype, and email.

My knee-jerk reaction was one of dread. It was quickly followed by guilt. BIG, FAT, UGLY GUILT.

I appalled myself. My superego roiled. I had to ask myself what was really going on here. In my typically obsessive fashion, I drilled myself.

It went something like this–on and on and on:

  • Was I insincere when I called Hanna my best friend? No.
  • Was I insincere when I professed to love them both? No.
  • Was I insincere when I said I missed them? No.
  • Was I insincere when I stated that I had enjoyed their last visit? No.
  • Was I insincere when I assured Niko that we did not harbor resentment against him for his psychotic break during their last visit? No. It was not his fault he had become ill, and he need not feel shame nor fear our censure. I assured him that no lasting harm had been done.

So why was I having trouble sleeping?

I was just coming into conscious—and reluctant—contact with the reality that my giddy naiveté had been stripped away. My husband Henry had been living in reality all along, and it appeared that our children had bounced back nicely from the last visit. In fact, the kids were all for a repeat performance. They couldn’t wait to see their fun-loving Aunt and Uncle!

The real change had taken place within me. Now I KNEW what could go wrong. I KNEW what a repeat of 2006 might cost my family, my friends, the friendship itself. The feeling I had was similar to the feeling I had after my first cross country race as a high school sophomore. I hadn’t known what I was getting myself into when the gun went off. I ran like a demon and finished much faster than expected. Wobbly and green, I nearly puked my guts out. Having only begun to run two weeks prior, I limped away with a roaring case of tendonitis which made it difficult for me to train–let alone walk–for weeks. Stepping onto the starting line was much harder after that. I knew what lay ahead.

Henry and I talked. It was clear now that successfully orchestrating a lengthy visit involving a person with special needs would require more than, “Y’all come!” We weren’t sure we had the resources.

On the other hand, we loved Hanna and Niko; and we missed them. We knew what this vacation would mean to them and how they had scrimped and saved to make it possible. They continued to try to keep Niko’s illness under wraps but had not been able to avoid negative reactions. Though they lived in the heart of a city, they led isolated lives. They had often told us how loved they felt in our home, and by the time 2011 rolled around, they had named us as their only real friends. We appreciated what we understood as a sacred trust.

Saying yes was impossible. Saying no was impossible.

So, we said yes.

Unlike 2006, Henry and I worked together. We shared our concerns with one another and discussed what we believed would have to be put into place in order for the visit to be enjoyable and “safe” for everyone involved.

Working things out with Henry in this way was an important step in my consciously choosing the welfare of my family over my intimacy with Hanna. I believed this to be a healthy step. I had learned in the intervening years that it is possible to have rewarding intimate friendships without crawling directly into another person’s skin. Reducing my enmeshment with Hanna would undoubtedly result in healthier relationships all the way around. Right? Unfortunately my private discussions and teamwork with Henry were later viewed as the cornerstone of my betrayal.

Henry and I attempted to come up with some boundaries which we hoped would serve us all, and I discussed them with our friends via Skype.

Our invitation:

  1. You are welcome to come visit!
  2. You are welcome to use one of our cars whenever we are not using it.
  3. You are welcome eat all your meals with us.

Our requests:

  1. Limit your visit with us to 4 weeks duration. Spend half of those nights away on outside travel. You can use our house as home base. I’ll take any week off work to hang out with you. Just tell me which week.

This request was huge and very, very difficult for me to voice. I felt tremendous loss at limiting our contact. And I was extremely worried that I would hurt Hanna’s feelings. Still, I firmly believed this request would serve us all.

This request was made to protect Hanna and Niko. Though we had set up a reasonably private apartment (sans running water) in our walk-out basement, he had become overwhelmed by the noise and non-stop activity in our home during their last visit, and it had contributed to his crisis. Hanna, who works an hourly-wage job, is their sole breadwinner and Niko’s sole caregiver.

It was made to protect Henry and his fragile employment status as we prepared to send two children off to college the following year. The economy was still rough, and Henry was still recovering from workplace trauma he had experienced at his previous job. He had just taken a new sales job which required him to work from home. We were concerned that the noise and disruption might prove problematic while Henry was mending and trying to make a professional transition requiring his complete focus. (Henry’s office was in the basement next to the apartment our friends would be using. We knew our success in limiting our daughters’ urge to thunder up and down the stairs for visits would go only so far. Plus, the visit would take place during summer vacation, and it didn’t seem fair to require monastic silence.)

It was made to protect me. I was both stay-at-home Mom and part-time counselor now. Due to my availability and German skill, I would be the go-to person for parenting, household duties, and hospitality until about 6 or 7 each night. I had been a homemaker for many years, and I wanted to adjust our friends’ expectations to make sure I would get to enjoy this visit without becoming overwhelmed and exhausted. I wasn’t too worried on this account, as our daughters would help if asked; and Hanna had always pitched in without waiting to be asked.

It was made to protect our daughters. I was determined to give our children sufficient attention, something I had failed to do during the last visit.

  1. Obtain travel health insurance. It just seemed like a good idea given Niko’s history.
  1. Purchase tickets with a flexible return date in case Niko shows signs of distress OR Henry’s work situation proves too stressful for us to continue to host you.

We believed these were fair and straightforward requests. That didn’t make them any easier to speak. Any limit, any “no” was new to me when it came to Hanna, and I was very, very anxious. I was relieved when Hanna and Niko received our words in the spirit in which they were intended. Spending some time out of the house would be in line with their plans, they said, since they had wanted to do some sight seeing anyway. They agreed that if Niko showed signs of instability, it would be best to return home immediately; and they asked us to let them know if we needed them to leave the house. They indicated their willingness on all accounts and said they were planning to rent a car so as not to inconvenience us!

I felt relieved and reassured.

We were going to have a great visit!

This post is the ninth part of The Story of Hanna. Infidelity, Infidelity II and other installments of the story can be found under the Hanna tab.

*I broke this Family Rule! You can find other family rules and some family-related essays under the Family Rules tab.

Infidelity II

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

Summmer and Fall of 2012

There are many kinds of unfaithfulness.

As I examine my failed relationship with Hanna, I can trace the beginnings of my own infidelity to a time long before things between us reached a crisis point. I hadn’t wanted to see this. I felt too ashamed.

I can explain it simply: I pushed and shoved until I got my way. I didn’t appreciate what my agenda might cost my husband and children. In some ways, I think it cost Hanna and Niko as well.

She was my oldest friend, my first soul mate. She had the prior claim. When it came to Hanna, I just couldn’t say no. I didn’t want to say no. We saw each other so seldom that I wanted to spend every moment with her. I would have done just about anything to please her. Fortunately, Hanna was modest and demanded little. It was I who offered. My husband Henry knew this when he married me. He knew it would be easier to dig his way to China than tell me no when it came to Hanna. When she visited, he played host from a safe distance while Hanna and I ruled the roost.

Whenever Hanna stayed, Henry trudged off to work while Hanna and I shopped together. We cooked together. We cleaned together. In time, we tended the children together. Our daughters adored Aunt Hanna, and the feeling was mutual. Life was a vacation when Hanna was around! Occasionally we went visiting or sightseeing. Mostly, though, we talked, and talked, and talked. We started when we got up in the morning and finished in the wee hours over a glass of wine. This worked fabulously for many years.

My husband was a real trooper. Henry is good natured and generous, and he loves Hanna. He managed these finite periods of neglect with good humor–not that we gave him much choice since all of our conversations took place in German.

Hanna and Niko married in 2004 after several years of togetherness. When they asked to come from Germany in June of 2006, it was with the intention of permanently relocating to the U.S. I know now that both parties suffered from a case of Wishful Thinking.

Our friends hadn’t properly researched what was necessary for success and were ill prepared when they pulled up stakes (and burned some bridges) to come live in our basement with their cat Schnurzel. They didn’t have the proper visas, and Hanna was unable to work. I hadn’t considered the negative potentials should their bid fail. More to the point: I hadn’t been willing to consider anything beyond the delicious promise of a visit–indefinite in length–from my best friend and her husband. Who cared how long it might take them to get established? I was all in.

Henry had examined the situation levelly and made his concerns known. This is not to say that he had attempted to bar the way. He saw how much Hanna struggled to provide, and it was clear to him that they both felt isolated and stigmatized because of Niko’s mental illness. They complained about their lack of opportunity and the poor treatment they received in Germany. They were certain life would be better here.

Henry was all for lending them a hand or two or four. They were his friends too. All he asked was that I come down from Cloud 9 long enough to participate in an adult conversation. He wanted to discuss how best to help them, to consider the pros and cons of open-ended cohabitation, and to partner in some advance planning. I refused. I bullied and stomped: Why all the catastrophizing? You’re always so negative!

As it turned out, Henry had predicted the outcomes nearly perfectly. I imagine he felt quite alone as they unfolded, one by one, before his eyes: Within a few weeks, Niko relapsed into psychosis and ended up in the state hospital hours away; and Hanna began dividing her nights between our house and the parking lot of the state park nearest the hospital. We got her a phone, loaned her a car, and helped with the cat. She mastered station wagon camping, perfected the art of bathing at McDonald’s, and tried to make the best of her unscheduled “vacation.”

I feel weepy when I remember Hanna’s loyalty, patience, advocacy, and tenderness for Niko. She was a rock. She remained cheerful and determined even when her visa ran out and she was forced to leave Niko here while she returned to Europe for a period to straighten things out.

All of these happenings were predictable and manageable.

What was predictable but not manageable was my absence during this period. It tore at the security of my family. I gave my smiling best to Hanna and Niko. I denied them nothing. I gave Henry and the girls whatever I had left over. And not always gladly.

This went on for months.

I can see this now, and I am sad. I paid lip service to my marriage, and I shooed and shushed my children when they sought me. I set myself up as the perfect friend, and I set up Hanna and Niko to expect a level of availability and care which no healthy friend could sustain. I think I did harm.

My neglect of my family was easy to justify. I was being a good hostess. I deserved to spend time with my best friend. Our friends needed help, i.e., they needed my help. Mine, mine, mine. Me, me, me. Henry and the girls could wait until after Hanna and Niko were gone.

This is how I kept the family rule—”Friends Before Family”*—and betrayed my husband and children.

Both Hanna and Niko said many times throughout the years leading up to our painful parting in 2011, that their 2006 visit had been an incredibly positive experience. They said they had felt so safe and loved and welcomed. Inclusion in the hum and rhythms of family life had warmed them. At first, I wholeheartedly agreed: The visit had been a smashing success despite the complications. It was true. I wasn’t lying. There were many beautiful things about that summer and fall. But it is also true that my mind did what had to be done in the moment. If it had allowed me to feel my stress and fear, I would have fallen apart.

Once Hanna and Niko were able to return to Germany that November, the dust began to settle. The protective anesthesia wore off. In no time, Henry and I were at each other’s throats. It became clear, too, that the girls needed help to process Niko’s frightening descent into psychosis and the fruition of our family dysfunction. We required therapy and several months to recover.

Well being was restored but something was shifting. My skyrocketing panic when our friends asked to visit exactly five years later told me we could not afford a repeat. The cost to all of us was just too high. Henry and I wanted them to come but we decided we had to approach this visit differently. Do you hear the we in this?

I’m not sure I communicated this shift to them as well as I should have, and as the politicians in D.C. are wont to say, “Mistakes were made.”

This is the eighth installment of The Story of Hanna. Please see the tab of the same name to read the others. Installment seven is here. Installment nine is here.
You can find Infidelity I, a very silly post, here.

*You can find this Family Rule here. Please see the Family Rules tab for more rules.

A House Divided

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I could have Mom or I could have Dad. I couldn’t have them both. At least not at the same time. But it never stopped me from trying.

I was kind of a double agent–except I wasn’t a spy. I tried thinking of myself as a mediator but that didn’t fit either. A mediator is a neutral party. No, I was a confused sort of ambassador. An ambassador is an emissary loyal to and invested in the well being of a specific country. Guess what? I was a dual citizen! Anxiety around matters of loyalty has tormented me throughout my life. After you read this piece, you will understand why.

You’ll need to understand a bit about my parents.

My father William was an odd fellow. He was a tall, bent, reed of a man who enjoyed oil painting, classical music, cooking, foreign language, and mystery novels. He loved to learn and experiment. He taught me how to plant a garden, check my oil, play chess, and knit. My Dad loved to travel, and he kept up with individuals all over the world using his ham radio. My father was respected at work, and he mentored many young men in their careers.

Lest you think him too cultured, it is important to note that he was also “Billy Boy,” the barefoot son of a quiet, uneducated carpenter and his domineering wife. My father relished his sweet iced tea and his corn bread with pinto beans. A times, he brewed alcoholic beverages in the laundry room and bathrooms. He thought it funny to sneak up behind my mother when she was washing dishes and her hands were occupied. He would nuzzle her neck, squeeze her love handles, and call her “Flabber,” a nickname which never failed to humiliate and incense her. I can still see him shaking with silent laughter at her impotent rage. I suppose you could say my father was a study in contrasts.

My mother Carol, being a more conventional soul and wishing for conventional happiness, found herself frustrated with the gulf between her husband’s prowess at work and his slovenliness and inconsideration at home. In some ways my mother was very much the archetypal warm, wholesome, cozy Mom. She was outgoing and social. She kept an orderly home, and she made gingerbread houses and chocolate chip cookies. Mom was the kindest and most wonderful nurse imaginable when we were ill. Unlike my father, she was an excellent athlete.

My father possessed little physical vigor, and he avoided joining us in any play but his own. His “play” involved the creation of prodigious messes which he left where they lay. He dirtied every dish in the kitchen to produce one batch of bread. He used our basement to build television sets for friends (for free!) while completely ignoring all chores. When invitations for neighborhood social functions arrived, my father was entirely uninterested. My mother responded by staying home to sulk or else attending alone and fabricating an excuse intended to protect them both from shame. She thought it an enormous and delicious act of rebellion when, many years later, she began to tell the truth: “William didn’t want to come.”

I suspect my mother might have been better able to tolerate my father’s eccentricities if he had left her alone to rule the household as she saw fit. Instead, he acted as overseer. He believed her somewhat lacking in brainpower and in need of supervision. My mother responded by using her “stupidity” to manage regular bank overdrafts and other ploys to make sure that we had tasty food and clothing which was not embarrassing.

I could think of no other way to affect conciliation than to hold the confidences of both Mom and Dad while trying to help each understand the other’s point of view. I have intentionally avoided the word reconciliation because they didn’t learn to enjoy and cooperate with one another until I was grown and out of the house.

My father frequently asked me to accompany him on weekend errands. During our times in the car, he entrusted me with adult concerns: “I love your mother but you have to understand that she is like a child.” He implied that she wasn’t very bright. His manner communicated that we had a special bond and that I was able to understand things my mother couldn’t. I listened quietly or else I tried to help him understand my Mom. I felt special. Surely I must be a very mature and smart girl! At the same time my father’s confidences were tainted. I was ushered into a realm of emotional intimacy which should have been reserved for my mother.

My father’s attentions were never sexual but they had a quality of intimacy which confused me and which I still find difficult to describe. Perhaps an example will clarify: Several times, immediately after flying into a rage and administering corporal punishment for minor misdeeds, my father came to me as I cried on my bed and calmly rubbed my back. He sought comfort and empathy. He wanted my reassurance that I understood him: He had been compelled to punish me this way because of his love for me. It had been done for my own good. Now that his rage had achieved release, I probably should have offered him a cigarette.

My mother found in me a convenient outlet for expressions of frustration involving my father. Having been influenced by my father’s assessment of her defects, I found Mom’s confidences less satisfying. I was torn between my desire to be her friend and ally and the guilt I felt when I failed to remain loyal to Dad’s agendas. I explained my father to my mother as best I could, hoping to win her compliance and bring about harmony. I was drawn to her by a child’s need for closeness, yet I was repelled by the contempt I felt. Her loyalty was two-sided as well. On occasions when we children misbehaved a bit more than she could manage, my mother appealed to my father to discipline us the moment he arrived home from work. When he was stressed, he lost his temper and raised welts on our thighs while my mom, once again in the role of good guy and advocate, begged him to stop.

My parents were either unaware of their nauseous dance or else too deeply entrenched in their power struggle to resist childish misbehavior. I tried to stand between them and connect them. I recall one very painful incident in which my father gleefully offered to take us kids out for ice cream. The offer followed directly on the heels of a heated argument between the two of them.

Going out for ice cream was a rare and valued treat. We excitedly hopped in the car, relieved that safety had been restored. We waited for my father to pull out of the driveway but he did not. After a moment, he declared that he wouldn’t take us unless my mother came too. I ran into the house and asked her to come. Still furious and hurt from the confrontation, she refused. My father innocently responded that my mother was the one with the power to decide whether or not we would get the ice cream. I reasoned (and pleaded) back and forth with my father and my mother while my siblings looked on, begging and sobbing loudly. Finally my mother changed her clothes and slipped into the car. She looked straight ahead and didn’t utter a word. My father was positively giddy. I had somehow chosen my father and betrayed my mother for an ice cream cone.

Keeping the peace was a task far beyond my reach as my family culture made it difficult to befriend more than one member at a time. To be close to Dad, I had to snub Mom. If I allied myself with Mom, I had to defy Dad. If Dad’s mercurial anger threatened to alight upon me, I had more complicated choices to make. I became an expert at reading the family tea leaves so that I would know just how to respond. Should I turn off my emotions and try the cool, logical appeal he favored? Should I feign submission and ask for mercy? Should I play dumb and implicate my mother or siblings? Should I inconspicuously ease my way out of the room? Should I run like hell? When push came to shove, I looked out for myself.

My writing is replete with dichotomies, and that is as it should be. I felt divided then, and I feel divided still. This is the kind of confusion wrought by emotional incest and manipulation. Loyalty and betrayal continue to be fraught concepts. Sometimes the line between being a good “ambassador” and being a flagrant codependent or a weasel is finer than one might think. I’ve developed a good professional understanding of how this works. (Would it surprise you to know that I have a specialty in couples therapy?) The summer of 2011 drove the lesson home in a personal way.

I’ve been sitting on this piece for two days. Clicking “publish” is hard sometimes. One betrayal per click. Family Rules breaking left and right. I can feel my stomach churning. But this is my story, and I’m going to tell it. I’m going to sell out my parents for the possibility of a “like.” Think carefully. Do you really want to be complicit?

This is where Family Rules and The Story of Hanna Intersect. For the prior installment of Family Rules, click here. For the next installment of Family Rules, click here. For the prior installment of the story of Hanna, click here. For the next installment of The Story of Hanna, click here.

Growth Pains

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

This is the first installment in The Story of Hanna

October, 2011

I’m still feeling a bit wobbly following my surgery this summer. It was unexpected, it was rough, and it happened without the benefit of anesthesia. I lost an important part of myself, and my wounds have not yet closed. As a counselor, I’m always helping others deal with enmeshment and individuation. I get this stuff. I was surprised at some things I learned when I had to look in the mirror.

“I knew as soon as I saw your hair and clothes.” Hanna had said, unable to fully articulate what had begun to go wrong between us the moment she and her husband arrived from Germany for a month-long visit. This was their first visit in five years. I had finished my graduate work and taken a job in my field. I wasn’t sure what taboo I had broken. What had I done to trigger such feelings of loss and betrayal?

Hanna and I met when we were assigned to the same fifth grade class in XCity, Germany. We were classmates for four years before I returned to the U.S. I was the pig-tailed American girl with the Ranger Rick backpack and the bad John Denver habit. She was the quiet, white-haired kid who wore traditional leather pants and carried a pocket knife. I thought she was a boy. It wasn’t until our early teens that our best-friendship became firmly cemented.

By ninth grade, Hanna had become a star athlete and a Beauty. Her looks and effortless air of mystery caused boys to pine and become irrational in her presence. I, on the other hand, had followed my family blueprint to become a gangly, pimple-faced Nerd. In my presence, boys experienced…nothing. They didn’t notice I was alive unless they needed help with their homework.

Steadfast through the decades, we visited back and forth and were in frequent touch in between. Despite our outward differences and our geographic separation, we were, as Hanna’s father often joked, “ein Kopf und ein Arsch.” A head and a tail. A single creature. Though he meant to tease us, he had hit upon the truth: We were so close that we hardly knew where she ended and I began.

Hanna and I understood one another intuitively and profoundly. Our enmeshment worked unbelievably well. In fact, I believe it saved us from childhoods which could have undone us.

Hanna came from a family in which feelings were poorly tolerated. She grew up without hearing the words, “I love you”; and when she showed emotion, she was criticized as mentally unstable and threatened with boarding school. Invalidated and undervalued, she could easily have gone for broke and self destructed.

My family was equally dysfunctional. We were just as well versed in passive aggression but it was located within a larger arsenal of weapons intended to help us bite and scratch ourselves to the top of the family heap. Punishment came frequently and unpredictably, and nobody wanted to be the one in the crosshairs when Dad was in one of his moods. I became observant and stoic. I distrusted and ignored my own feelings. I could easily have gone on to become an abuser or else continued to withdraw until I lost touch with myself altogether.

I know Hanna’s love and support made me more resilient and allowed me to hold my head a little higher. I conjured her presence to help me when I felt clumsy shopping for clothes, and I imagined myself in her skin to give myself the courage to take risks. I later learned that she had carried me in her heart in much the same way. Admiring my dispassion and logic, she imitated me when she needed to think her way through difficulties without becoming overwhelmed by her emotions.

Our outward experiences were always very different. I was a goody-goody; she experimented. I accepted Christ; she remained skeptical. I went to college and became an athlete at about the same time she retired from athletics and moved to a small town to apprentice as a goldsmith. I dated little, married young, and couldn’t wait to have babies. She traveled the world and dated a series of colorful characters. Nevertheless, we always shared intimately and without judgment.

We each made an important decision around the year we turned 40. I returned to school to pursue my M.S. in Pastoral Counseling. After making progress towards an undergraduate degree in Psychology, Hanna dropped out of college to become partner to a man with a serious and chronic health condition. We did not realize that the cord which had kept us connected for so long was about to fray.

My grad school experience was arduous and protracted. Family responsibilities resulted in my taking over six years to finish; but stretching out the timeline had gifted me with the opportunity to deeply contemplate and assimilate the material. The program required more of me than the memorization of facts and the writing of research papers. I was challenged at every turn to reflect with honesty upon my faith and my life, past and present. I experienced anger and sadness, joy and gratitude as God used this time as the crucible for a work of healing and enormous growth.

It was suggested this summer that I had changed, that I had become “other.” It was hinted that I had become less. Less hospitable, less authentic, less available. I disagree. I know have become more.

Somewhere along the way, I grew my own head, heart, and lungs without even realizing it. My brain thinks clearly, my heart beats confidently, and my soul expands with every breath. I love Hanna, and I want her friendship just as much as I always have. I simply no longer require her. In time, I believe I will be able to feel the profound beauty of this truth.

We are not yet at the end of the story, and I do not know how it ends. What if I survive the surgery, and Hanna does not? What if we both survive the surgery but the friendship cannot be resuscitated?

The wait is painful and uncertain.

To follow this thread, please click on the tab for The Story of Hanna or find second installment here.

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