I'm experimenting with sharing my story. Few know much about my life experiences but I think many could benefit from me sharing what I've survived and what I've learned.
I wrote this piece as a test, to see how you might respond to it. It's very raw. It might be triggering. It includes a handful of the interpersonal traumas I have experienced.
It's scary for me to share because I risk your judgement, dismissal and offense. But I believe I have lived the life I've lived for a reason, and I think being willing to share my story is part of my purpose, so we can all benefit from learning from each other so we can be better and more conscientious about our relationships together. I'd love to hear how it makes you feel.
A Convergence of Grief, Lack of Empathy, Sibling Conflict, Adoption, and Privilege
What could make people be able to empathize? People who have experienced very little loss in their lives can miss the ability to grasp the pain others live with every day.
If they had tragedy happen in their lives, my wish would be that from that tragedy they would henceforth be able to empathize with those they have dismissed throughout their privileged lives.
A few years ago my aunt died. She had raised me and I posted on Facebook that I had 2 mothers and she was my favourite. My eldest sibling got upset and told me I couldn’t say that.
When I attended the funeral my sister showed up. I participated in the ceremony along with my cousins because I had all my life been part of that family. But my birth family didn’t really understand that. To explain my Facebook message, at the reception after the funeral I told my sister, “I gave my son up for adoption to protect him from our mother.” She said, “I know.” And that was the end of it for her.
I’m still reeling from the obtuseness of that response.
According to my sister, I’m not allowed to say my Aunt was my favourite mother even though she knows that I felt negatively enough about my birth mother to protect my own child from her.
And regarding the loss of my precious substitute mother, I received no acknowledgement of the pain I was experiencing about that either.
Sure, my sister felt grief over the loss of our aunt, but she minimized my grief to her level because she seems not to have a clue about the extent to which other people have relationships, connections, feelings that differ from her own.
But that wasn’t a new pattern for her.
A few days after my son was picked up by his adoptive parents she called me very angry with me for not telling her I was pregnant and not giving her the opportunity to raise my son. No compassion for a devastated birth mom - just resentment and concern for herself for being left out of the decision - which in fact was intentional because I didn’t want her to raise him. I didn’t want him raised anywhere near my family, not by me, not by a sister, not by a cousin. I needed to protect him from my mother, and that meant protecting him from everyone my mother had programmed with her judgmental, critical, arrogant, controlling, belittling, dismissive, hurtful worldview. And it meant protecting him from my mother’s parents and everyone they influenced.
I wanted to give my son a fighting chance at developing a positive sense of himself. I wanted my son to grow up in a family where he was wanted, where he was cherished, where he was loved and valued and respected and where his needs were met. I wanted my son to have a chance to be his own person, to not have his identity enmeshed with his family. I thought: With an adoptive family he could belong but he wouldn’t be exclusively defined by them because he didn't share their blood.
Of course those are all wishes I had for myself, which of course my sister can’t understand that.
Years later, 10 months after I left a 13 year relationship that was entirely based on lies, my sister told me I should stop malingering and get back to being productive in society. She acknowledged that she couldn’t understand why I had such issues since we all grew up in the same family. She has never comprehended the difference 9 years makes in the experiences of siblings.
It’s always baffled me, again, how obtuse she can actually be.
She’s the oldest. I’m the youngest. She was a twin, whose brother died 1 week before their birth, so she got all the attention of 2. and she arrived at the beginning of the marriage when hope still existed.
I’m the youngest. Number 5. The 4th girl after the only boy – the replacement for the lost male twin. I was an accident – an unintended pregnancy – and to make things worse, I was another girl. If I had been a boy, I would likely have been more welcome. But as another girl I was just superfluous. Meaningless. Irrelevant. An added hassle to an already frustrating life for my mother. It had taken my parents until W in the alphabet to agree on a name for their 3rd daughter, so for me they kept things simple and relied on tradition and named me after my mother and grandmother. (See: It’s hard to have your own identity when you don’t even have your own name. Coming soon.)
When I found out about the death of my aunt, I started reminiscing about my childhood. I have lots of memories of life with my aunt. She started looking after me when I was 6 months old when my mother reclaimed the reins of her own destiny and returned to work. Of course I can only imagine the resentment that caused in my older siblings – perceiving me as the cause for the loss of the full time care by their mother.
It was during this period of remembrance that I made the shocking realization that I have few memories of my childhood with my birth family. I can wander through the house I lived in for the first 11 years of my life. I know the layout of the rooms. I can see the wallpaper. I can feel the sun on my face as I look out my bedroom window to see what’s happening at my friends’ house down the street. I have a few scattered memories of climbing into my Dad’s lap the night I came home from being sexually assaulted at 4. I remember my Mom belittling me because I couldn’t read at 4 like my brother who was 6. I remember looking at my sister’s Beetle doll, and watching the Ed Sullivan Show on the tv in the corner of the living room. I remember the player piano in the corner. I remember lying in bed at night waiting for my father to come up the stairs and get into his own bed before I would let myself fall asleep. He had never given me cause for concern but overhearing a conversation between my sister and mother about a child she met during her nursing training who had be ruined by her father to the extent that she would never be able to have her own children made me fear my father. I was 9 and Mom had moved out and told me I may have to choose who I wanted to live with. I used to crawl into bed with my youngest sister and we'd talk about our decision. I knew I loved my Dad more, but my Mom could give me more. It was a very heavy decision for kids to have to weigh. There are a few other scattered memories but what is missing are the day to day interactions with family. I remember specific events, but I don’t remember daily life with people. The rooms are empty. There is no laughter and play and affection and attention. There’s no one there when I come home from school. And most strikingly, there is no food. For the life of me I can’t remember where the Cornflakes are. I don’t know where the fridge is. I don’t know how the table is set up in the dining area. I don’t know where everyone sits around the table. A memory creeps in of meals as a teenager in a different house, but I have no memories of eating in my childhood home of 11 years. There’s a table in the kitchen. I can see the food scrap container beside the sink. I don’t remember doing the dishes. I don’t remember sitting at the kitchen table and eating breakfast or lunch. I can wander the rooms of that house freely. There is no one else there.
Contrast this with memories of time at my aunt’s. I can hear the toaster rise. It was one of those really old ones that rose slowly rather than popped. I can smell the caramel spread we weren’t allowed to have at home. I can smell the coffee perking for my uncle’s morning break from the farm work. There are always people around. The cupboards, fridge and pantry are stocked with food. There’s lots of activity. It’s pleasant to be there. I’m certainly not alone and I am safe.
I understand dissociation now, and I guess that’s how I lived my childhood in my family home. I think I must have just suspended my life between visits to my aunt’s, lived like a zombie with occasional periods of consciousness because I just didn’t know what was going to happen next and I didn’t feel like there was anyone I could turn to for help.
It isn’t that I’m aware that I had bad relationships with my siblings – except my brother who I was always compared to and found wanting. I’m sure my sisters did whatever they could for me. It just wasn’t their responsibility to raise me.
But to assume my life was like theirs and to find fault in all my issues as an adult because they don’t have similar issues is offensive.
The difference that 9 years has developmentally for a shared experience is huge. When our father was killed in a car accident, I was 13 years old, my eldest sister was 22. I was home when the police came to the door at 2 AM to tell us. I’m the one who defended my family and ripped into the cop accusing him of having some nerve to come and tell us my father was dead. I’m the one who listened to my Mom arrange for my uncle to identify the body, to protect us from the images of seeing my father’s mangled head for the rest of our lives. (Can you ever get the imaginary images out of your mind?) I’m the one who had to be strong for my mother, brother, and sisters. I’m the one who had to help Mom as she contacted my sisters to give them the news and make arrangements to get them home. I’m the one who wasn’t allowed to grieve the collapse of my ideal world, because I’m the one who had been seeing my parents finally start to have a good relationship and I was starting to feel safe in my family, and then it all crashed down around me.
I’m the one who had to start working at 13 to support myself and pay room and board to my mother to keep a roof over my head. When I was 15 and my mother was on an extended vacation in Barbados finally grieving the death of my father, I wrote, “I hate my family” in the condensation on the front window. My sister was angry with me then for feeling that. She was angry when I said my aunt was my favourite mother. She was angry when I wouldn’t let her raise my son. Nobody ever wondered what it must have been like for me to feel compelled to say such things. Alice Miller was right. Children are required to protect the elders in our society and they get blamed for adult pain without the adults realizing the effect of the experiences on the children.
Although my sister has helped me many times in my life, letting me live with her during various transitions, she’s also thrown me under the bus more times than I can count. And she has no idea why I have had mental health, social, employment, and financial challenges in my life.
She has never had to deal with the extent of loss that I have. She was through her critical developmental periods before the family security started to crumble.
If it weren’t for my aunt and what she provided for me, I can only imagine how much worse off I would be. My aunt was my one safe adult. But she only acknowledged the nature of my early life a few years before she died. She took me under her wing as a child and treated me like her own when I was with her, but she couldn’t protect me when I wasn’t there, and we never talked about what I was having to survive on my own.
For those of you reading this who haven’t experienced enough pain to be able to genuinely empathize with those of us who have, my suggestion to you is, at least give the people living every day with the pain the benefit of doubt that they’re doing the best they can and at least give them some compassion.
People who have been privileged to live their lives relatively unscathed by the pains of immeasurable loss and trauma better be thankful they won the lottery of life. If they think it’s their due and everyone else who suffers does so selfishly, they’re in for a reality check if not later in this life, then in their next incarnation.
We’re all humans, and we’re all equal. But we’re not all the same, and we don’t all have the same experiences. I've interpreted my life as my mission - the purpose of which has been to survive the pain, empathize with many, and educate others.
If you won the lottery, consider seriously why. Discern what Life would want you to do with that privilege, and act on it. I highly doubt your privilege was just meant for your pleasure alone.
If you didn’t suffer, whatever you do, don’t minimize the suffering of others. It’s offensive.