A friend recently described a moment in her younger life when it became apparent that the responsible adults in her life, both at home and school, did not have their shit together in any way, shape, or form. The rules were blurry and the consequences, nonexistent. At the time, I experienced the very familiar and vaguely disembodied sense of confusion that I usually feel in such conversations about parenting or being parented.
But this most recent conversation got me thinking, again, about what sorts of consequences I faced in my own upbringing. And again, I can only remember one: a lengthy and silent sit-off at the dinner table with my mother. My best guess is that this situation arose from my refusal to eat my broccoli. I could not leave the table, I seem to remember, until I ate the vegetable which had become suddenly and inexplicably so very unpleasant. It’s all very sketchy in my memory because I don’t remember ever actively disliking broccoli and as an adult, I am rather fond of it. Also, I don’t remember how old I was or any other detail. I remember the silence, the sitting, the waiting, the coldness, and broccoli. That is literally the only consequence for misbehavior that I actually remember being inflicted on me.
This is not to say that I never broke the rules because I am pretty sure that as a human, albeit a small human, I was imperfect. Moreover, I intuit, but do not “know” in any cognitive sense that misbehavior was not tolerated at home. Unlike my friend, however, I remember vividly a few consequences at school. Sister Marie forcing me to sit in the back of the room facing the wall. The lay teacher who threw me out of the room because I found it so hilarious that she showed us her ring and told us she was married to God. And the epitome of juvenile delinquency itself: being expelled from boarding school. I was also suspended from the next school I attended, but that story lacks the panache of the epic expulsion. I attended an elite institution only because of a full academic scholarship. I thought at the time and still do that even though my family was well-off enough, it was probably a stretch for my parents to cover the room and board. And then I proceeded, within six months, to be “busted” in alcohol-related incidents not once, but three times. I barely remember the first, but it instilled in me a lifelong aversion to even the smell of gin. The second bust was, in the way only a fourteen year old can possibly consider it, unfair. I was not drinking, but I was with someone who was. I still don’t know if my sense of righteousness related more to my insistence on not having broken the letter of the law or to the fact that I was full-on busted and didn’t even get a taste of that Jack Daniels. Plus, this second incident makes the narrative a bit unwieldy. It would be so much easier to say: “I was caught being drunk off my gourd three times.” Ah well, such is the nature of truth v. fiction. The third time I can say very little about because the only thing I remember is sitting in the backseat of a car driven by one of my basketball teammates. I was drinking Southern Comfort. I woke up to find out that I had been expelled. How it all went down, including an apparently very flamboyant display of public drunkenness at the theater department’s Winter Follies: my mind is empty of such details. That was the one and only full blackout I have ever experienced; I learned absolutely nothing from it.
But while the consequences were severe in terms of the school, the consequences on the home front were imperceptible. The only limit set was that I remain silent about what really happened at boarding school. The official story became something about homesickness and maybe even feeling out of place with all those rich kids. I can’t remember the lie exactly. But I know people actually believed it, and some of them believed it for decades. I myself had long ago relinquished my vow of silence and pretty much assumed the incident was kind of like my coming out. I didn’t have to come out to every single member of my family, you know? Eventually, I just started referencing girl friends and gay pride parades and that was that. Little did I know that I was still, in my mid-forties, in the I-was-thrown-out-of-boarding-school closet.
A few years back I was having lunch with my cousin and I made a passing reference to getting kicked out of high school. The reference was casual because, as I said, I thought the thirty-year-old cat was already out of its proverbial bag. I looked up from my chicken Caesar salad to see my cousin on the opposite side of the table with her jaw hanging slack: “You were kicked out of Peddie?”
Now I will fast forward to two years ago when it became apparent to me that I might be suffering from more than a touch of complex PTSD. I have been in therapy for decades but it is really only in the last two years that I have begun to see clearly. It is no wonder that when I visited the Tampa Bay Zoo, I experienced such deep empathy with the naked mole rats. Even then I must have known that the light can indeed be overwhelming.
Now I will fast forward to this morning, driving to work, thinking about consequences.
During that drive I thought about all the sorts of consequences I see delivered by friends who are parents, or that I hear about from real life people or people-on-the-media. There are the stories of physical violence that evoke in me an instinctual, instantaneous, and powerful sense of protectiveness and outrage. I have too many friends with scars, and my heart breaks with them. And sexual abuse? I can barely tolerate the mention of such things without feeling like my head is going to explode with empathic rage. But there are also less awful tales: bittersweet stories of incompetence and haplessness. And every now and again, there are stories of enlightened parents who have clearly read their Brene Brown and taken Oprah to heart.
My mind wanders to my own experiences. I revisit the nearly blank scene of my childhood. I say nearly because there is still the broccoli incident to contend with. And there is also this feeling—impossible to pinpoint or describe with any accuracy—that misbehavior simply was not tolerated. But how? How did that happen without the time out chair or being grounded or spanked or anything at all?
To answer this, I need to explain that one result of psychotherapy for me has been learning to trust what I do know: for example, I know that for many years, I felt—at the very same time—so powerful that one misstep on my part could lead to utter devastation and so powerless that I did not feel I had any right whatsoever to exist. And I know that my inability to understand the impossible logic of my distorted self-image is itself a byproduct of a profound and traumatic shame. My cognitive ability to override these deeply wired distortions is enhancing with treatment and mindfulness practice, but I am still, on occasion, caught unawares and rendered incapable of seeing what is.
When the whole megillah comes into focus, I understand that the consequences for me were, in some ways more simple than sitting in a time-out chair, being spanked, having TV privileges taken away, being grounded, or any one of a host of childhood slings and arrows that would be consistent with the appearance of middle-class suburban normalcy. There was, except for the broccoli incident, only a single and consistent consequence: my mother made me feel ashamed of whatever I had done, refuted utterly any apology I might have made, and then stopped speaking to me for . . . well, for as long as she wanted. There was no logic, no rhythm, no discernible pattern to the silence. Indeed, I wonder if all the silence was even about me at all. Or, maybe: was it ever about me?
I still struggle to accept that I will never know the answers to those sorts of questions. But I struggle less with accepting my truth: that the infliction of these consequences traumatized me. I also struggle less with telling the story even though it sometimes feels like I am talking about someone else’s life.