It doesn't take much to conjure up those long-ago desperate days after my father lost his job -- never to get another one. He was let go from his engineering management position on my thirteenth birthday. With a modest, fully paid for home in an upscale community, we slid into a kind of genteel poverty. On the outside, at least for a time, everything looked as it always had. Inside, there was quiet panic.
"Baby," my father would say, handing me the Sunday L.A. Times classified ads. "Please look and see if there are any jobs. We all have to get jobs. I don't know where our next meal is coming from."
My stomach would tighten as I looked through the ads. There were no jobs listed for females -- the ads were segregated by gender then-- who were younger than 18. I wondered how far babysitting earnings could be stretched to feed a family of five. I loathed babysitting, but longed to make a difference. And I wondered if it could be true that we were in danger of quietly starving to death in a community of abundance.
My brother Mike, then nine years old, seemed to worry less because he saw more options. He quickly got a paper route -- available only to boys in those days -- and that kept expanding. He switched to a larger newspaper with an even bigger route. He earned enough to help out and to start his own savings account -- savings that have only grown over time -- through his years as a paperboy, an Air Force pilot and then as a physician and administrator at major medical centers in the U.S. and abroad. He paid his own way through medical school at Stanford. He owns several homes. He has been prudent and productive, amassing healthy savings. And yet....
"I've always worried about being destitute," Mike told me recently. "From our childhood on. Did it come from Father telling us at a tender age that we all needed to get jobs? My whole life I've never felt safe -- there's always the fear. Actually, it's worse than a fear. It feels more like a knowledge that it's all going to end up badly some day. That's what keeps me working all the time even now."
I nodded. The same ghosts of the past have haunted me. The old destitution terrors have heightened anew as our sister struggles through a dire financial situation, a crisis that seems to embody all of the fears we three have carried through the years.
And it leads me to a truth that is hard to face at times: we may rise above troubled pasts, but pieces of who we've been and what we experienced in times long past do linger into adulthood, into future relationships and on into older age.
It may mean:
Feeling like a perpetual outsider:
I had several reasons to feel like an outsider while growing up.
I was in and out of my parochial school in the early grades, battling polio and a subsequent life-threatening respiratory problem. Groups and alliances formed in my absence. I struggled to fit in, particularly when I returned to school full time already in the throes of puberty when I was nine years old. My family's fall into quiet poverty when I was in middle school only added to my feelings of being different.
But all outsiders have their reasons for not fitting in -- maybe shyness, maybe a vulnerability that causes bullies to zero in, being a newcomer to a small town where families have known each other for generations. There are so many reasons triggering feelings of being an outsider in childhood and sometimes for life.
Playing a family role for life.
Who were you in your family? The beauty? The clown? The good child? The scapegoat child? The responsible one? A parental confidante and caretaker when you were far too young to take care of yourself, let alone an adult? Who you were then can have a big impact on who you are now.
It may mean that you neglect your own needs while serving others. It may mean that you have unrealistic expectations of others that too often leads to chronic disappointment. It may mean that you try to defuse difficult discussions with jokes or silence, blocking communication with those closest to you. It may mean echoing a long-dead parent's voice with your own children, cringing as soon as the words leave your mouth.
It may also mean conflict as you reflexively fall into a role long outgrown or rendered obsolete by the growth of others. For example, you may still be falling into the role of take-charge (or bossy) older sister or brother with your resentful or dismissive middle-aged siblings.
Carrying a legacy of abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual.
The legacy of abuse is complicated with shame, buried or overt anger, emotional withdrawal, lingering trauma, isolation and defensiveness. At worst, this can immobilize you with depression and fear or cause you to lash out at your loved ones with the violent words or actions that have scarred your life. Or it can lead to a lifetime of dodging commitments because being close to another simply feels too dangerous. Or shame and an inability to forgive yourself for being a victim can impair your ability to reach out to others or to recognize and accept love from another.
Feeling limited by parental expectations or long ago social mores.
The voices of our parents can linger and haunt us into our later years -- voices that tell us that we're not measuring up, not good enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough.
My mother found me disappointing in two ways: I wasn't pretty and I wasn't popular with boys in my teen years. She would study my face appraisingly. "You have a nicely shaped face," she would say. "But you need to get a nose job. You need to fix yourself up. Maybe someday you'll grow into a kind of attractiveness." But I could see the doubt in her eyes. She attributed my lack of social life to the fact that "you're socially awkward and you always say the wrong thing." The latter would make me wince, even then. I thought I was quite good at conversations and connecting. I had deep and lasting friendships. It was true that guys weren't asking me out. But they were confiding in me ("How do I get Patty to like me??"). They saw me as a buddy, just not as a potential date. Over time, I began to see that my fierce ambition -- which matched or exceeded theirs -- might have been a factor in my dearth of youthful romance. But the legacy of my mother's voice lingered for a long time in my angst and insecurity with romantic relationships.
The social mores of the time we came of age can also linger.
In some cultures and some families, daughters weren't valued as much as sons and/or sons were expected to measure up to often unattainable achievement or macho ideals.
A dear male friend of mine talks about the pain of growing up sensitive and artistic in a family of men who loved hunting and sports.
An older female cousin talks with a twinge of regret about measuring her worth by her attractiveness to men when she was young, never realizing or valuing the keen intelligence that became evident in later life when she excelled at college courses she took for fun after her children were grown.
A long-time gay male friend looks at younger gays and lesbians with wonder at the fact that so many come to terms with their sexuality at a very young age and are reaching adulthood at a time when marriage is an option. My friend didn't come out to himself until he was thirty, after a failed heterosexual marriage and numerous relationships with women, all with unhappy outcomes. He didn't come out in a larger sense until many years later. And while he found love and his life's companion while in his mid-thirties, they were together for 35 years before being able to marry. And he still struggles with discomfort at casual public affection, like holding hands, after so many years of secrecy and social disapproval.
How do we overcome or learn to live with these ghosts from the past?
- Take responsibility for your life -- past and present. It can sound like a tall order when so much happened back then. It may be true that others caused you pain when you were too young or too powerless to defend yourself. It may be that criticism or neglect or abuse defined your relationship with a parent. But now that you're neither young nor powerless, you do have a choice. You can choose to simmer in that pain from the past, caught up in resentment, convinced that your life has been permanently damaged, even ruined, by what happened long ago. Or you can refuse to be a victim any longer and choose to live life on your own terms.
- Be aware of your feelings -- from long ago and today. When you allow your feelings to happen, rather than avoiding or repressing them, there can be pain and there can be growth. Long ago, you may have felt powerless and fearful. You may have despaired about life ever being different. It's important to cry those unshed tears, to comfort that child within you and to reassure the adult you are that you're no longer powerless or without options.
- Forgive what you can't forget. Forgiveness does not mean saying what happened then was okay or denying that a significant person hurt you. Forgiveness means letting go, freeing yourself from the bonds of resentment and a desire for vengeance, freeing yourself from a pattern of anger and blame. Forgiving another can mean letting go of the need to look back and revisit the anguish. It's also important to forgive yourself. Many people find themselves caught in a pattern of self-blame and recrimination for being a victim, for not being stronger or able to make a difference then. Forgive yourself for what you weren't able to do. Forgive yourself for poor choices or decisions that make you cringe as you look back. Tell yourself that you did the best you could at the time -- even if it was far from optimal. What really matters is what you choose to do now.
- Focus on what was positive then and now. Very few of us grew up in total misery. Life may have been challenging to be sure, but think of those times in between. You may have had one friend who understood. Or a teacher who cared. Or an activity or interest shared with an otherwise difficult parent or sibling. Or a family tradition that brought a smile to your face -- maybe once or maybe many times. Maybe the ghost that lingers is not from your childhood but from a relationship or marriage that went sour and that lingers painfully into your present as you find yourself reluctant to risk loving again. Thinking back to the good times instead of dwelling on what was painful and awful can help to balance your view of what was. It can also empower you to recognize and emphasize the positives in your life now, appreciating the present -- however imperfect or complicated. Embracing the positive in your life right now can free you from those ties to pain and powerlessness, free you to take the risk of making your life even better.
- Seek help in sorting through the past. This may mean seeking professional help with a psychotherapist to explore what happened then, how it all affected you and how to begin to make a difference in your own life. Or it may mean talking with a sibling or trusted long-time friend or other family member to sort out your memories and feelings, to find positives from the past, to share tears or laughter over old times and to express hope for the future.
My cousin Caron spent several summers with my family when we were young, before my father lost his job. She remembers only the charming side of my father, his humor and generosity. She recalls lively conversations, fun family walks in the evening and my father's enthusiastic encouragement of my early writing efforts. Her memories help to balance my own.
Talking with my brother Mike has helped me to see how beliefs carried from past to present can be irrational and yet enduring. We remember that our father predicted his downfall and our slide into poverty long before it became a reality. It was part of a life script that fit his self-image as a victim of circumstance rather than the master of his own life. His alcoholism and his fears of not measuring up -- fears fueled by his own irrational and critical mother who put him to work as family breadwinner when he was only nine years old -- led, at least in part, to his midlife unemployment and descent into madness. He always felt like a victim and his failures, in his eyes, were always someone else's fault. Mike and I grieve and laugh and comfort each other as we remember it all -- the creative and intellectual stimulation, the fun, the terrible fear that permeated our home from our earliest days, the abuse, the craziness and chaos. And we forgive our parents and ourselves, vowing to take total responsibility for our own lives -- for our failures as well as our successes.
Mike quietly vows that life will be quite different for his two young children. He wants to give them love, gentle guidance, and the inspiration to find joy in living. He wants them to grow up feeling both loved and empowered.
For me, a uniquely healing look back came from a conversation with Sister Ramona, my high school journalism teacher and a lifelong friend. Not long before her death two years ago, Ramona and I were having dinner together and discussing a troubled mutual friend who had been a high school classmate of mine. "Your home situation when you were growing up was so much worse than hers -- or so it always seemed to me," Ramona said. "But lately I've been thinking about it. Your parents had their issues -- okay, they were seriously dysfunctional at times -- but they cared. They were very engaged in your life. They showed up for every school play, for every parent-teacher conference. They were so proud of you. And they loved you so very much. What a difference that makes...."
Indeed. One may wish away those ghosts that linger, but that might take away too much else that made a wonderful difference in my life.
Not long ago, Mike asked if, were it in my power, would I choose to go back and grow up in a different family? I answered instantly and definitively "No!"
He smiled. "Neither would I," he said quietly.
Our ghosts are manageable, instructive, and an intrinsic part of the joyous, imperfect and loving individuals we've grown up to be.