Challenge and growth

It was 10 years ago today that I got to go see my grandmother’s grave, several months after she died.

That’s a good example of one of the things I found it so hard to forgive my parents for: they kept her death a secret from me for months after it happened. It wasn’t because I was far away, either. In fact, one of the reasons I initially moved back home was because I wanted to be there when my grandparents died. And in the end, it didn’t even matter that I was there.

That secrecy on the part of my parents extended to so many big things, like the fact that my dad had been married before and had a baby that died. Everyone else in the extended family knew all along, of course, but they were all in on the plan to keep it a secret from me and my sister at my parents’ request.

That informed a huge part of my own parenting decisions, much to my parents’ disapproval. I was not going to lie (even by omission) to my kids, especially about big things. I broke it only once, when I promised my oldest that we’d stay in Michigan until he graduated, but moved back here when he was 16. I get why he was so mad at me, even if we both now agree it was a necessary move. But lying to kids about things like death is really damaging and it’s really hard to forgive.

So needless to say, my relationship with death hasn’t been one in which I learned to cope with it well. My parents’ general M.O. seemed to be that if something was too painful, you just wouldn’t discuss it, therefore not deal with it, either.

The frustrating part is that on the other side of the work I’ve done on myself, I can see that they weren’t doing that to intentionally hurt me. They likely hadn’t dealt with the painful things themselves and probably thought they were protecting me. They encouraged me to take the same approach with my kids, but of course I didn’t because I didn’t agree with it.

I overreacted to my aunt’s death from melanoma, sobbing at her funeral far disproportionately to my relationship with her, which had never been close and was always kind of cold. I just didn’t know how to process death.

Even the gang-violence deaths of the patrons at the inner-city library where I worked seemed to deeply affect me, even though they weren’t people I knew well.

And of course, I completely lost my shit when my favorite cat died way too young a little over a year ago. That was my first experience with the death of someone I deeply loved. It took me months to stop crying whenever I thought about him and about how traumatic it was to watch him die.

So now I’m faced with the biggest and scariest fear of death yet with my husband’s cancer. I kind of had a meltdown about the fact that he couldn’t get his second round of chemo yesterday because his white blood cell count was too low. It stirred up all those fears of loss, all those feelings of not knowing how to cope with death. For a moment, I fell back into bad habits of assuming the worst.

But then I had some time to think and meditate on it some more. I realized that the more enlightened way to look at this is that you can’t live life expecting death. It’s going to happen; you just don’t know when. That’s true for all of us.

Even though I have intuitively known for a long time that he would have cancer (and even this specific type), it still caught me by surprise. I didn’t think it would happen yet. Ever since my MS diagnosis, I fully expected him to outlive me by decades. I am still in shock, like a punch to the gut, that this might not actually be the case.

But I can’t live every day expecting him to die, even if it’s my greatest fear. Whenever that time comes (hopefully decades from now), I don’t want him to be afraid to go because of me. I think he is more at peace with his cancer than I am, and I need to do something about that. I don’t want my fear to be contagious.

What I need to do is step outside my fear. Face it, and know that I can handle whatever comes. Enjoy every day that I have with him without worrying about how many there will be. How lucky I am that I found him at such a young age and that we’ve already had so many years together.

In that, I can’t help but think of my friend who spent many years in an unhappy marriage, just got remarried to a wonderful guy a couple months ago–and then recently found out he has a less treatable form of cancer than what my husband has.

There are truly no guarantees. I could get in a car accident and my husband could still outlive me. I have to be at peace with today, every day, without worrying about tomorrow. I think everyone has to learn that, but this is a hell of a way to do it. Like the universe pushed me off the deep end of spiritual challenges and expected me to figure it out. Once I do, it’s going to be amazing, but until then, it’s absolutely terrifying.

I read some stuff about psychedelics helping people cope with fear of death. Maybe I’ll try that once none of my kids are minors anymore. But I hope I’ll be dealing with it better by then.

I’ve spent the past few years focused on personal growth and I’ve made a lot of progress so far. I’m already dealing with anxiety so much better and less often than I did before.

But all of that growth was precipitated by some sort of pain. It’s hard to grow without pain. I didn’t want another opportunity to practice growth yet; I wanted a period of relative peace and ease. That’s not how it ended up happening, though. And now is not a time to start running away from fear.

I can’t worry about how I’ll survive if my husband passes and I can’t work. That’s the wrong focus. I have to find out what gives my life meaning, in addition to my husband and kids and cats. And I have to trust that the universe will take care of me.

I choose to face the pain that my parents did not. Even if it brings me to my knees, I know I can survive it.

Christmas and thoughts of home

In many ways, I still feel like I just got back from my trip to Michigan. After all, since I moved away almost five years ago, being back from a week’s visit only six weeks ago doesn’t seem like long in comparison.

You might think that with the sentimentality of the holidays, I’ve been missing home. But nope, it’s actually quite the opposite.

Believe it or not, I’m still processing the trip back home. And what I’ve come to feel even more strongly with every passing week since I left is that Michigan is not my home anymore. It’s a place that I’m from and the state itself has some beautiful places, but I can’t ever live in my hometown again.

Honestly, I’m not even sure if I could live in the state again. Not because the state itself is so awful, but because seeing my family on a regular basis is that bad for me. I know that if I lived there and I was just a couple hours away, I’d still be expected to visit on every holiday. (I know I’d have the option not to, but I don’t have good boundaries yet.)

The fact that I can’t see my family regularly and still be okay is a problem. After all, I’ve forgiven my parents. They are good people overall, just imperfect, like most people are. They don’t mean to hurt people. They would take me in if I were temporarily homeless, and sometimes not having that option here is a little scary.

So if they’re good people overall, why can’t I live by them and see them regularly? Why does it mess me up so much and cause me to regress in many ways when I’m around them?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because I’ve started to recognize my negative patterns that I learned from them. Seeing them again both causes me to lapse back into old behaviors I’ve worked hard to change, while also seeing theirs objectively makes me frustrated by them.

Maybe someday I’ll be at a point where the negative patterns I unlearned are more securely defeated and I’ll be able to see them without lapsing back into bad old habits. But I’m not there yet.

And I also realize that there’s a possibility that someday my kids could come to the same realization about me, that they love me and forgive me for my mistakes but have to limit time with me for their own good.

Hurt people, hurt people. I see that that’s what damaged me. Nobody is to blame and I am responsible for my own healing process. What my healing process needs at this point is limited contact with the source of those unhealthy learned behaviors. It’s hard to explain but there’s little bitterness involved. It’s not a lack of forgiveness. Instead, it’s having to put myself first. I can’t rescue them and I can’t change them; I love them for who they are. But that doesn’t mean that I am obligated to be around them more often than is healthy for me.

Similarly, I’ve been working to get better and I know I’ve made some improvements with my kids over the way my parents were with me, or that their parents were with them. But I don’t fool myself into thinking my kids will have nothing to recover from. They may be able to have contact with me and still work on healing themselves, though they may also need time and distance.

We all have this idea of the super-close family that loves to spend lots of time together all throughout their lives. The holidays make the ideal Hallmark-movie family seem more important. But in many ways, that’s sometimes an unrealistic fantasy. Not every family is healthy enough for that to be a good influence at every point in time.

If you recognize unhealthy patterns you’ve learned in your family of origin and you’re affected by anything from narcissism to alcoholism to gifts with strings attached, sometimes you have to step away to get better. It doesn’t mean you’re stepping away forever, though it might.

Ultimately, what matters most is that you value your own healing. That you don’t allow guilt and obligations to make you do things that are bad for you. It may feel selfish, but it’s actually not; you have to take care of yourself. And you have to be prepared that other people may have to do the same to you.

After all, you can’t get well in the same environment that made you sick. Whether the damage was intentional or not doesn’t matter. You have to love yourself enough to get healthy. And you have to love others enough to respect them if they tell you they need a break from you so they can get healthy, too. You can’t break generational chains by guilting everyone into doing the same unhealthy things over and over.