Tag Archives: anxiety

Passing it On

16 Mar

My daughter, Leah recently took it upon herself to organize the family archives (archives, you say? Oh, yes—we have archives!) After sorting through dozens of boxes of old photos and letters, some that are over 100 years old, I came across an old photo of my grandmother, Martha (my mother’s mother) with her mother, Leila, (my great-grandmother) and her grandmother Mrs. H.D. Weed, (my great-great grandmother.) The photo was probably taken in the early 1900’s in Jamestown, Ohio. Tucked inside the photo was a tiny letter, written by my grandmother to her uncle Harry when she was around ten years old.

Dear Harry,                                        Jamestown, Ohio, Jan. 1, 1913

I am writing you to tell you how much I liked your present. I think that this letter will get to you, before Hellen will get home. I got four books, three boxes of kf, a sewing box; and lots and lots of things too. This is New Years day, I will have to close.

Yours Sincerely,

Martha Smith

P.S. Aunty Kate was here today with Uncle Ed and Bernerd. Thank you              for your present.

Give Hellen my love. M.S.

 

Kisses xxxxxxxxxxxxxx                             Hugs oooooooooooooo

M.S.

 

 

On the back of the envelope, her mother, Leila writes: I don’t know what is in this as she did this all herself. We are having winter for sure her this morning. Leila

Martha Smith Green. My grandmother. Reading her tiny letter in her delicate cursive lettering, I realize that she was once a precious little girl who was deeply loved by her family. I only knew her as a frail old woman in a mink coat, doused in Chanel No. 5, wearing too much red lipstick, her stooped body draped in colorful silk scarves and gaudy jewelry. She always had a cigarette in one perfectly manicured hand and a glass of whiskey in the other. She lavished me with presents from her world travels, while completely ignoring my two brothers. At the time, I thought she just didn’t like boys. Only later in life did I discover why she didn’t interact with my brothers. I also learned that she carried so much pain and trauma in her heart, that for decades, she needed to self-medicate with alcohol. She died of cirrhosis of the liver when I was ten years old.

Over the years, my mother and I have had many conversations about my grandmother, Martha. That she had a brother who died in childhood. How she had a career as a concert pianist, but gave it up when she married. How three of her babies died (two late term miscarriages and one full term birth) before my mother was born. That she and my grandfather refused to do anything to prepare for my mother’s birth—no crib, no diapers or layette—because they believed that my mother was most likely going to die, as well.

Five years after my mother’s birth, Martha had another child—a boy—named Johnnie. He was the light of her life. When he was five, he ran out into the street between two parked cars, and was hit by a speeding car. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. My mother, who had just argued with Johnnie and told him to drop dead saw it happen. In her ten-year-old mind, it was her fault.

Neighbors removed Johnnie’s clothes and toys from the house the very next day and my grandparents kept my mother home from the funeral. One day he was there, the next, he was erased. No one talked about Johnnie’s death. One afternoon, my mother walked into her parents’ bedroom and witnessed her dad methodically banging his head against the wall—over and over and over. When my mother was a senior in college, her dad died of a heart attack. She thinks it took him ten years to die of his broken heart. My grandmother took longer, but still died at a very young sixty seven.

Generational trauma. The sadness, the loss, and the secrets become part of who we are. For years, I never knew my mother even had a brother. I always thought she was an only child. Throughout my own childhood, my brothers and I were never allowed to speak negatively about anything. Everything had to be wonderful all the time, even when my dad’s own childhood trauma (he died before I ever had the understanding or maturity to ask him about it) turned him into an alcoholic and wreaked havoc in our own lives. My parents couldn’t handle any kind of conflict, grief or sadness, so they wouldn’t allow us to, either. We had to pretend everything was okay—when it wasn’t.

My own childhood trauma manifested in anxiety and depression that I’ve fought for years to overcome. But what I’m now learning in therapy is that my anxiety may have actually been a good thing—it prevented me from turning to alcohol and drugs to dull my pain. Because my anxiety is based on a fear of losing control, I never liked how alcohol made me feel, so I avoided it. My husband and I made the mutual decision not to drink, so our children never had to deal with any family alcoholism.

Of course, we gave our children trauma—all parents do in some form or another. But I at least broke one cycle that won’t haunt them for the rest of their lives. And I’ve broken the cycle of keeping secrets, as well. I’m an open book (sometimes without a filter) and will freely admit to my foibles, vulnerabilities and shame. I will talk until you tell me to shut up.

I’m also realizing that life is not meant to be happy every single minute of every single day. Society has fed us this big lie that we MUST be content all the time or we’ve failed. It’s just not true. If anything has taught us that life is not always easy, it’s these past few years. And it looks like it’s not getting any better real soon. Yes, there will always be great pain in life; but there can also be great joy. Often, it’s somewhere in the middle.

And good or bad, this too, shall pass.

Mess

7 Oct

I hate mess. Clutter is my enemy, and I spend an inordinate amount of time picking shit up off the floor. When I’m anxious, I don’t pour myself a large glass of Syrah—I run around the house with the Swiffer. The scent of bleach during a good bathroom scrub calms me right down.

Children react to trauma in different ways. I blame my boomer childhood (particularly my poor alcoholic dad) for turning me into a semi-psychotic clean freak. Like my father, I was born an introvert, and our family’s generational trauma and dysfunction only added to my need to find peace. My bedroom became my safe haven—an orderly space filled with light, plants and books. I could close my door, open the window wide, and breathe—away from the football game blaring on the television. Away from the cigarette smoke. Away from the festering rage of my dad.

Unfortunately, life is sometimes a little messy (actually a lot messy! Pandemic, anyone?) Let’s just say that over the past couple of years I’ve had to learn to be more flexible—to welcome change instead of resisting it.

Case in point: Two weeks ago, my daughter, Leah and her husband, Jeff moved in with us. They wanted to get out of Los Angeles, and try to save some money to buy their own home someday. We have the room; we love having them around. It was a win-win.

First let me mention that Leah leaves me in the dust with her masterful skills at organizing. She’s a diamond chip right off the ol’ block. But filling a dumpster of decades of accumulated crap, while combining two households is a massive undertaking. Then there was an epic yard sale. For several long weeks, the house and yard were a mess. A HUGE MESS.

I didn’t freak out. I didn’t get anxious. Well, maybe I got a little anxious. I repeated my mantra, “This too, shall pass,” while reassuring Leah that I was not bothered by the chaos. To be honest, it was difficult at times, but something my therapist said really turned it all around for me.

“You know,” she said, “You might want to consider that every open cardboard box, or every pile of stuff left out, or every item out of place—is a reflection of their love for you—that they feel safe and comfortable enough to move in with you. That’s pretty wonderful.”

That’s why we have therapists.

It is indeed wonderful. The house is put back together, and trash has all been hauled away. We are an organized home bursting with people and animals, but life is fuller than I ever imagined it would be (no pun intended.)

And should I begin to feel anxious, my Swiffer is right within reach, hanging from its very own special hook on the wall of our newly remodeled and organized laundry room, compliments of Leah.