Role Models and Changing Perceptions

Having grown up, essentially growing myself up, dissociated and disconnected emotionally from my mother, peers, and experiencing no sense of family or community, having role models has always been a bit of a hit or miss challenge for me.

My earliest role models were found in the books I read. I remember knowing that I was reading on fifth grade level in third grade because I was reading through The Waltons series of books. Now, I only recall what those books were about because of the television series, which can still be seen in syndication on feel good, vintage cable/satellite television channels. This series and others in the same genre, like the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, where the authors were fictionalizing real life and telling stories of kids who were experiencing life in a slower paced, less industrialized, time of community, family, and positive character, taught me life and people were not always what my experiences seemed to be teaching me.

As I grew older and my reality got more and more difficult to cope with, I got into the childhood mystery series starting with Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. I loved the Bobbsey Twins stories. Child characters who were mostly left to their own devices, using their intellect to solve problems, figure out how to overcome threats, reveal truth, and bring justice to unjust circumstances became my obsessions.

As an adolescent girl in the 1980’s I fell under the influence and sway of pulp romance books. Dreaming of exotic locales by women who were caught in traditional roles and traditional thinking, but trying to discover who they were and wanted to be, swept up in the worlds and actions of the men whose lives, passions, and wills seemed to overpower their own. Often, these books became physical weight to carry in my little white wicker purse and use as a weapon to lash out and punish the haters, teasers, and bullies who enjoyed getting me discombobulated and emotionally off balance.

I escaped to the library and discovered the fantasy worlds of Xanth and Pern as created and described by Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffery. I immersed myself in Arthurian legend and alternative worlds melding magic and science, spiritual and secular philosophies. The characters I was drawn to and learning from were those who were coping with the displacement and confusion of not fitting into worlds they were thrust into but didn’t feel part of and/or living in worlds suddenly full of danger and conflict from things previously unknown or relegated to myth and make believe.

By the time I was a young adult, parenting my son from mid-late adolescence, I started identifying and connecting with people who had what I wanted and appeared to have overcome dire and drastic life circumstances, trauma, and drama of their own. Seeking people who I could meet and interact with in person, within my community through church, college, and community services.

Twenty years later, I’m still learning from everyday role models I meet and interact with, here online in the blogging community: writers, mothers, fathers, mental health professionals, persons experiencing mental health challenges, victims, survivors, and thrivers. Pastors, teachers, coaches, trainers. People who are in recovery and those seeking recovery.

Yesterday, I met a woman I am seeking a mentoring relationship with, because she is doing what I want to do. She is functioning and operating as an advocate and guide for people who have experienced abuse to help them move through the lifelong impacts and consequences of having experienced those things, to find their voice and move into growing intentional and authentic lives based in their own value and identity. She is doing this after having gone through her own experiences of trauma and brokenness, from a life of childhood trauma to professional success, to personal breakdown. She has what I want and she is freely and willingly giving of herself to help me, and others, build and grow into that place inside of myself and for my life.

Her name is Davonna Livingston. She is the founder of Changing Perceptions and author of Voices Behind The Razorwire: From Victims to Survivors, Stories of Healing & Hope.

In the meeting she and I had yesterday, she shared something with me I didn’t know about myself. She had spoken of how she had connected with the various subjects in her book, through seeing herself reflected in their eyes and recognizing the shared connections between her and them. She shared how these women who were convicted criminals, often serving life sentences, had become her lifeline and support network while she was working through her healing and recovery process. I noted what an empowering thing that had to have been for them considering the “class” differences between her professional and educational status and upper/middle-class standing being connected and relating to these women as personal peers. Toward the end of the meeting, I asked what she had seen in my eyes.

She told me that she had seen sadness and a sense of being lost, during the moments  when I was sharing my origins story. Then, she told me that changed and shifted to excitement and hope, that my entire demeanor had shifted and changed when I began talking about what I’ve already been doing, including starting and writing this blog.

This is the role model who is building into my life now, in the midst of many other role models who are showing and sharing their lives, their stories, and their courage every day in the forums we are connected with each other in online and in social media, as well as in the seats around me at weekly church meetings, group discussions, public transit, and walking down the street.

For more discussion on Role Models and the Molding of Personality, check out The Seekers Dungeon.


Stupid Hallmark Movie! You made me cry

I don’t usually watch Hallmark movies. I think it’s because, regardless of the quality of the acting or production, I have a tendency to completely immerse myself into the circumstances and psyches of the characters.

Don’t believe me? Go read my posts about sitcom moms and office assistants, as well as animated characters and anthropomorphic animals: Brave, Babe, Wreck It Ralph & his pal Vanellope Von Schweetz.

Yeah, I know. I think too much and am too egocentric. It’s a problem.

Finding a Family” is based on the true story of Alex Chivescue and his mom, Ileana Nistor. The part of the story that makes it Hallmark worthy is the fact he initiated his own search for a foster family in order to maintain academic stability and achieve his dream of attending Harvard.

The supporting facts that make it such a memorable story are that his mom is a Romanian immigrant who wound up a divorced single mom who, earned her PhD, and learned six languages.

Their tragedy is that a car accident triggered bi-polar depression and they were alone without family or community supports and she became unstable, neglectful and abusive at times. They wound up on the big roller coaster of inadequate mental health supports and services at odds with the child protective services system.

Watching this was very, very painful in so many ways.

Obviously, I identified with Ileana. Kim Delaney’s portrayal of verbal anger, hair trigger rage, overwhelming depression, and medicated fugue and frustration, complete with devastated remorse over her actions toward her child, hit me at the deepest levels.

Watching her shame-faced approach and meeting with him and his new family stripped me raw as I contemplated my son’s wedding with his adopted dad officiating.

I know I have done those very things, to varying degrees, with all of my children. Yes, even dear little Luna has been subjected to mommy not being able to force herself out of bed and snarls of overwhelmed and exhausted frustration.

Thankfully, I’ve learned better how to prepare and cope. I try to make sure there are nutritious and vitamin rich things on hand, like Odwalla bars, cheese sticks, Ovaltine to make chocolate milk, and her favorite clementine oranges.

On days I can’t drag myself out of bed, I put edutainment television on and she brings her toys onto the bed, or uses the bed as her personal gym, and the sits pressed up against me. I make sure to hug her, tickle her, and hold her even when being touched or interacting is the last thing I feel like doing.

When the snarling rage turns into a loud and mean tone of voice and she has hurt feelings, she gets to give herself space by running to her room and closing the door. I call her out a few minutes later and we talk about her feelings and what happened while I hold her on my lap and listen to her tell me how mean I was and that she didn’t like what I did. If it was triggered by behavior that she needs to learn differently, I try to focus on the behavior. If my behavior was out of line, I do apologize.

I wasn’t capable of making these kinds of choices with my oldest two during my worst times. I tell myself they didn’t have it as bad as Alex had it because I was never quite as bad off as Ileana.

It’s a lie.

I may never have had the diagnosis she did, but I am realizing that everything they showed her doing was a reflection of what my children got from the combination of me and Keith.

It was shattering to see those effects from an observer’s viewpoint. At least it was for me because I identified with Alex’s character as much as Ileana’s. I saw myself and my son, certainly. However, I also saw myself and my mom. Not only that, I also saw myself with my uncle and my maternal grandmother.

My mom aspired to be an author. She wound up a teen mom. Married three times in six years. We moved around a lot. After finding out, when I was 10, that her third husband molested me, she went completely under. That’s when I remember my grandmother’s influence the most, just strong impressions and a few specifics. We moved around so much that I attended two or three schools in fifth grade and two or three in sixth grade.

By the Summer I turned 12, things were horrible between us. We were both so damaged and overwhelmed. Constant arguments or total silence. Everywhere we ever lived on our own was always a chaotic hodgepodge of clutter. One day we got into it so bad because I didn’t want to be inside, but there was nowhere to go outside, so, I stood just inside the door, with my head in between the door and the jamb, with my body blocking the exposed area behind me. She kept telling me, the yelling and screaming at me to close the door. I argued and refused; I stood my ground.

Suddenly, she yanked me backward by my hair, pulling me over the arm of the sofa, while slamming the door, and sat on my legs. I was yelling and trying to get her off of me, but couldn’t. I finally sat up, bent forward, leaned my head down and bit her as hard as I could on her right thigh.

She jumped up off of me. The next thing I know, my uncle was coming through the door and getting in between us. I told her I hated her and didn’t want to live with her anymore.

Soon after that she wrote a letter, “To Whom It May Concern,” stating my uncle was my guardian, took it to the bank for notarization, and moved back down to Houston. That was sometime in July or August. By the end of October she was dead.

I spent the next couple of years figuring out I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. I started trying to run away when I was 14. My little cousin was born, my uncle’s marriage disintegrated, and I became the grown up. I fielded collector’s calls, became responsible for figuring out how to take care of adult’s business, and looked after baby girl so much people thought she was mine.

More moving around and I was living with my grandmother while my uncle retained his so-called legal custody. So she couldn’t sign school registration paperwork to re-enroll me into a prior district. I could have registered myself if I was still living with my mom, but not under someone else’s guardianship.

I was 16, I hated my life and my family and knew education was the only way out – just like Alex Chivescue. Only, we hadn’t ever been involved with Child Protective Services, and we were a “Don’t talk, don’t tell” kind of family. Besides, I wasn’t being abused or anything bad.

This was what all led to me becoming a mom at 17. Now he’s married at 26 and I’m parenting a 4 year old, full-time, and a 19 year old, part-time.

Yeah, this movie triggered a lot of tears and grief. It’s a tremendous amount to process.

It helped me realize something else. It helped me rethink the storyline in my mind about Marco’s adopted parents. His wife, Bridgette, told me at one point, that his other mother has a lot of the same conflicted feelings about her role as mom that I do. The other mother in the movie speaks compassionately and empathetically of Alex’s biological mom. It helped me to let go of my anxiety about facing her at the wedding.

It even prompted me to send them a message thanking them for being there for him.

Stupid Hallmark movie! I’m all teary again.

Things aren’t always how they seem

Let me begin by clearly stating Domestic Violence is real, does exist, and affects far too many people’s lives. This is not an attempt to minimize or detract from the efforts to address the many issues and concerns of those who have been affected by this problem in our world.

Now, onto my story.

I ran away with and married a man who was 14 years older than me for three and a half years. Because I had experienced inconsistent nurture, care, and discipline; sexual abuse; the emotional and physical loss of my mother before her suicide; and been exposed to drug culture and a sexually “swinging” lifestyle by my subsequent caregivers, I ran away with a man who seemed to see, appreciate, and accept me for me. At 16 years old, I thought he was the only one in my life who cared about me.

Under his tutelage and guidance I learned how to get what I needed and wanted from others. I learned how to tell my story in a way to incite total strangers to offer their resources to help take care of my needs. I learned how to blend truth with fiction in such a way as to be believable and to tell plausible tales.

I was separated and isolated from my family, but they didn’t seem to care all that much about me anyway. I already knew about the skeletons in their closets and judged them harshly for them. So that task was an easy one for him to accomplish. We hitchhiked and lived out of cars, traveling throughout the country.

Occasionally we picked up followers. He could probably have become a Jim Jones or a Charles Manson under different conditions and circumstances. I stayed enthralled by him and influenced by him until I was 19 and our son was two.

I had become disillusioned during my pregnancy, but stuck with him because I didn’t want to be a single, teen mom and raise my son without his father. At that point there had been a reconciliation of sorts with my family and we might have been able to settle down and be a family, except for the legal entanglements that seemed to put him in a position to fail. That’s when we ran again and my disillusionment really began.

I don’t remember the things he would say to me. I don’t think he was overtly insulting or abusive. I suspect I gave him all the power in my own mind and just assumed he was in the right, even when it felt wrong.

We would roughhouse and wrestle around. I used to be quite physically strong and it was a fun thing to challenge my strength against his. Any pain or injury I experienced wasn’t as a result of abuse, per se, but I would always be the one who ended our little play wrestling sessions in pain.

I caught him cheating on me with my best friend nine months before our relationship ended. Because we were “on the road” and I didn’t know anyone or have my own way home or even believe I had a home to go to, I stayed and lived with a hyper vigilance against further betrayal by both of them.

She and I were a lot alike and had been friends before he and I had met. I had facilitated her joining us as a way for her to escape her life and for me to not feel so isolated. Essentially, I had recruited her to travel and con with us.

By the time came that our son was two and I was 19, I was exhausted, emotionally and physically. I hated myself and what we were doing to survive. I hated and loved both of them. I recognized that he was not my rescuer or my savior but that he was my captor.

I started resisting and sabotaging the con. I began demanding we change our lives and find a way to settle down. I argued and stood up for myself.

Things seemed to start stabilizing. We got into a transitional housing program, got public assistance, and started saving toward a place to live. They got accepted into a vocational skills training program and I got enrolled in a high school completion program.

First his training fell through, then hers did. I increased my efforts in my program. They took our son for trips to the nearest rest area, almost 80 miles away, to work the con and bring in some money. I got scared and angry and issued an ultimatum.

Next he talked our public assistance worker to give him the full month’s allotment of cash assistance and disappeared for several days before we had to deposit money with the housing program or move out. Since I thought he was gone and our money was too, I made plans to move.

I withdrew the money we had deposited, minus the cleaning deposit, and went to meet up with a prospective roommate at the bar across from where we were staying. I heard our car and ran out to make sure I’d heard right. I saw him driving around the corner. So, I ran back to the building we’d been living in.

He showed up shortly after I did and in front of our son and my friend we argued and fought. I pushed and shoved and got pushed, shoved and slapped in return. I was overpowered and intimidated. Our son cried and asked in bewilderment why daddy was doing this. My reply was that he was an effing a**hole. I was on the floor with his dad on top of me at the time. I got hit in the face and asked what I had said. I repeated myself, only addressing him directly. Another blow to the face.

I twisted and wriggled around until I was on my stomach and he was on my back. I had this irrational thought that if I could keep him from my face, I would be okay. He grabbed my head and began wrenching and turning until my chin was going over my right shoulder. I thought my neck was going to snap.

Suddenly, he was off my back and I was free. I flew out of the apartment and down two flights of stairs, pounded on the manager’s door and called for her to call the police. I was then overcome with panic and guilt because I had left my son behind. Terrified they would be gone, I rushed back up the stairs, only to discover that my husband and my friend were leaving. I tried to stop him, thinking I could somehow hold him there until the police arrived. I was thrown, spine first, into an external corner and watched them leave as my son stood crying in the background.

I never saw my husband again.

However, those experiences and the remnant emotional, psychological, and physical damage and scars affected every other relationship I have had. Every conflict Jerry and I ever had or got into with each other while my two older children were growing up was colored by the real abuse I had previously experienced.

In my determination to not be in that situation again, I unconsciously chose a man who was my intellectual inferior and who could be easily manipulated. I chose someone who devoted himself to me and wanted to do for me and for my kids. I say chose, but it really was less of a choice and more of a drive to feel in control, loved, and secure.

What I went through with my husband was domestic violence: Isolation, imbalance of power, manipulation, intimidation, economic dependence, and physical violence.

What Jerry and I have had, the things we’ve said and done to each other, what we put my children through have definitely included aspects and symptoms of domestic violence. Many of the effects on my children are the same as that of children exposed to domestic violence. However, ours has been more complex that what domestic violence is assumed to be.

A lot of our conflict was driven by my broken and wounded psyche. Many misunderstandings and altercations happened because each of us had distorted self-images and were fighting our own internal certainties that the other was diminishing or disempowering the other. Each of us had experienced emotional and psychological abuse and neglect in our families of origin and in prior relationships. Neither of us were able to see, admit, or take responsibility for our own contributions to our mutual destruction and it’s impact on my children.

At the same time, it seemed that whenever we hit our bottoms in individual crises in each of our lives, when we were apart, we were the only ones there to offer care, support or nurture of the other.

Because things like domestic violence and abuse are perceived to be one thing, abusers are identified and classified as perpetrators and monsters while often their partners, the victims, are treated with an underlying attitude of contempt for allowing themselves to be in the situation. There is a tendency to not look past a checklist of behaviors and symptoms and try to diagnose every situation and person involved the same.

I was ignored and basically told I was in codependent denial when I tried to explain and identify the things that were not characteristic of domestic violence and those who perpetrate it. Whenever my depression and anxiety symptoms manifested, they were incorrectly identified as being a result of the domestic violence in my relationship with Jerry instead of being recognized as pre-existing conditions and possible factors in our relationship conflicts.

Instead of being examined and evaluated to determine if there was a mental health issue at play, Jerry has been accused, convicted, and looked down on as an abuser, end of story. Whenever I try to explain and identify the things that point to undiagnosed mental health or personality disorder issues, I am dismissed and belittled as being too much of a codependent who is willing to rationalize, justify, and excuse his inexcusable behavior.

Domestic Violence is real and something that men, women and children need to be protected against and rescued from. However, it is not the only thing happening in the lives of people who are in conflicted, unstable and sometimes violent relationships.

Sometimes things and people aren’t always how they seem.