Gulping down sobs, I sat down at the dining room table. A huge lump in my throat, feeling intense despair and sorrow. Why didn't my mom understand? Why couldn't I mess up and feel sorry and then be comforted instead of punished?
What were we both missing?
When I look back at my life I see how who I was and what I felt got shaped by the childhoods of my own parents, and of their parents. I see the pain of it all. It built on itself, generation after generation. It took us down, life after life after life after life. My paternal grandfather committed suicide. My maternal grandmother committed suicide. Three of my four grandparents were abusive alcoholics. The pain and struggle that stabbed through my family on both sides takes my breath away even now.
What could we have done? How did children live these intolerable lives and then grow up to hand a version of them off to their own children? Legacies bound in addiction and mental illness, raging out of control under the guise of normal enough family life. The worst parts hidden from view by our own knowing that what happened at home wasn't for anyone's eyes but our own.
I want to gather up my mom and dad when they were little and sweep them away from what must have been almost unbearable. That my brother and I turned out as well as we did is a miracle, the miracle of my parents finding each other in the big world- two people who shared such a similar painful story. The story of alcohol, pain, and mental illness without resources.
No one knew what to do, except have another martini. My parents didn't drink because of how awful alcohol made their lives. But they weren't healed either, and their lack of emotional skill burned a deep raw impression on my own life. Although alcohol abuse skipped my parents it roared back in me. I discovered blackout drinking at fourteen and remained dedicated to it as a way to manage my emotions for 27 years.
This is just my own story, how many of us have these kinds of histories? How many of us walk through the world maybe doing better than our parents did, better than our grandparents, but still handing our children clumsy emotional skills?
So many. In my own life I'm finding my way- sobriety, therapy, healing. Bound and determined that my children would not suffer from the deep self hatred and doubt I carried, the doubt handed to me by my own family- generation after generation. I was not going to let my children suffer what we endured, not one more member of my family would hide from what made us tick: our emotions.
It seems so simple, really. Just be aware of what you're feeling and what other people are feeling and then adeptly manage it over and over every moment of every day. But we're so human, so sometimes messy and not adept. We say hurtful things or be ourselves or forget what people need and have good days and bad days and the next thing you know there's a wall as high as the sky between you and your partner. The toddler who lit up whenever you came into the room now is the teenager who angrily slams the door in your face. The career that joyfully challenged you is now dreaded drudgery.
Emotional skill will save us. Save us from becoming more and more isolated, more alone. As we grow into technology and grow farther apart in person we need to be able to clearly say what we're thinking, and to receive others with an intuitive sense of how they're feeling. Emotional skill is a lifelong process. It never stop evolving. That can be exhilarating and exhausting at the same time.
We've all been there- that lump in your throat at the dinner table feeling. What if instead my mom had slowed down, seen my sadness, and been able to face it instead of angrily
blame herself for it and then yell at me? Can we create generations of parents who teach their children to share themselves without fear of judgement? Generations of people who recognize our own humanity?
I hope the pain of the past has stopped with me. I sometimes think it's why I was born, to stop the legacy of hurt, addiction, and pain so our family line could leave it behind and become who we were always meant to be. And I hope I'm strong enough to bring that hope to others so that we can begin to heal from ignoring and stuffing down one of our greatest strengths: our emotions.