One of my oldest girlfriends, I’ll call her Sue, is incredibly self-aware when it comes to identifying her “stuff” and owning it when she doesn’t show up the way she’d like. She started going to therapy when she was thirteen years old due to her parents’ ugly divorce, and as she got older, for her own relationship issues. She had watched her parents tear each other down directly and indirectly, through her. Her mom said horrendous things about her dad and her father said awful things about her mom. When they each remarried (which they both did, more than once), the bitterness was quadrupled.
Her stepmothers made snide remarks about her mother, her mother couldn’t stand her father’s new wife, either time. Her father thought her first step-dad was not very bright, and her step-mom said he laughed like a woman. I witnessed a lot of this myself, as did all our friends, at sleepovers and afternoons at her mom’s or dad’s house, and once, sadly, during Sue’s sweet sixteen. Her dad got drunk and took the mic to toast Sue, but it somehow deteriorated into a tirade about Sue’s mom. Not so sweet, and Sue ended up in the bathroom, with a bottle of champagne that she downed and then threw up all night. And so it went.
In high school Sue struggled with an eating disorder and I watched her turn herself inside out trying to be perfect, to control the little bit she could. She was smart as a whip, but sometimes she’d play dumb because she thought guys liked that. Her family has a lot of money, and Sue would often buy lunch for a whole group of us. Or more accurately, she’d pay for lunch with her American Express and her dad would pick up the tab because her parents believed throwing money at the situation would somehow make it okay. We went to college together as well, and as we grew up, a pattern emerged for Sue that was no surprise to any of us who’d watched her struggle over the years. She kept picking guys who ended up hurting her. Not the typical stories of ways men and women can misunderstand each other, or not show up all the way, but deep, “I just realized he’s been stealing money from me for months” kind of pain. The relationships were usually high-drama, and there were many times Sue showed up at my house unexpectedly, eyes puffy and red, sobbing in the middle of the night.
Sue started drinking heavily, first a couple of nights a week and then most nights. Eventually she cleaned that up. If you were to talk to Sue, you’d know within minutes you were speaking to an awake, aware person. She’s intelligent and funny and kind. She can tell you exactly why she’s done the things she’s done. She can give you the whole road-map to explain all her choices and all her behavior. But so far, it hasn’t helped her resist the pull of acting out these dramas. Sue wants a happy ending, but she keeps trying to go back and carve one out of her past as if she could rewrite history. As if she could change her parents into people who were mature enough and loving enough to put her first, to love her well.
Time and again, Sue ends up crashing into the brick wall she keeps choosing, even though the crashing part sucks. A few years ago, I really worried for her. She’d hit such a low point I wasn’t sure she was going to be okay. I went back to New York to teach and I saw Sue for the first time in many months. She was gaunt, and her nails were bitten down to the quick. Her eyes were dull and so was her spirit. Through it all, Sue has always been a force. So I was really disturbed to see this lifeless person who looked like Sue sitting before me. She’d just had another painful breakup and I could see this time she was taking it particularly hard. She started to relay all the details of what had happened. What she’d done. What he’d done. What she said, and why she felt the way she did. I listened as I had so many times before and when she was done, I looked at her and said, “Sue, I love you. You’re an incredible person with such a beautiful heart, but you have to put the baggage down now, or it’s going to destroy you. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re as lovable as a person gets. Your parents did the best they could but their best kind of sucked. You have to stop letting this own you.” And Sue started sobbing, right there at the restaurant. People looked over at us and Sue apologized to me for making a scene. I went to her side of the table and hugged her, and told her to go ahead a make a scene. Because sometimes you work your sh&t out on a rainy Tuesday afternoon at a Thai restaurant downtown. Sometimes you’re just sitting there sobbing with chopsticks in your hand deciding it is finally enough.
Carrying your old, painful stories around with you wherever you go is exhausting, back-breaking work. At a certain point, it simply drains the life out of you. Everybody has pain. Everybody. Some people have more than others and some are better equipped to deal with the everything that life brings. The heartache and disappointment. The trauma and abuse. The neglect and loneliness. The confusion and shame. We’ve all experienced at least one of these, some people have seen all of that and so much more. I once met a girl at a workshop I taught, who told me she had to stay angry at her father so he’d pay for what he’d done to her. I asked her how that was making him pay, since she never spoke to him or saw him. I said I was pretty sure she was the one paying. Your past will shape you and inform the way you think about yourself and the world. If that way isn’t loving, you’re going to have to unlearn some stuff, which is, of course, harder than learning it the right way the first time. If you think people suck, for example, you’re going to have to unlearn that. If you think you suck, you’re going to have to unlearn that first. Have some compassion for yourself. Be kind. In some way or another, we’ve all been Sue, collapsed on the bathroom floor, throwing up our pain all night long. If you want to travel back to your past in a productive way, go back there and give yourself a hug. Re-parent yourself if you need to, but put some of the heavy stuff down. It does not have to own you. The destination that really counts is your journey to inner peace. You’re going to have to throw some bags overboard to get there.
Wishing you strength and love,