Developing fibromyalgia as a child

“Over-controlled by anxious, fearful parents, these children often become anxious and fearful themselves”, Susan Forward

Recently a commentator on one of the blogs wanted more of my personal information. She said that I was prone to write about others rather than myself. This, of course is true, although I have leaked  a few lived experiences of my own over the course of writing these fibromyalgia blogs for many years. First, I want to point out that fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue are caused by trauma that needs to be addressed early in life and only talk therapy will begin to help our suffering. This is why I am sharing my own childhood experiences that have set me up for anxiety, panic attacks and night terrors.

I do believe fibromyalgia is a journey that begins in childhood or perhaps even in the womb. It isn’t an easy thing for me to do, being ‘out there’.  I do not see myself as a victim and life could have been much more difficult, as it is for many. That my parents loved me I have no doubt. Their life circumstances were not easy either. This is not a story of parent blaming.

All of us who have fibromyalgia are highly sensitive people, perhaps born that way. This is how I became or was born as highly sensitive. We each have our own story. This is how it began for me.

The Story 

I was born to parents who were barely 20 years old, both high school graduates, but living in an era when becoming pregnant outside of marriage was a disgrace. They lived in a small town in Nova Scotia, Canada,and married in the Catholic Church seven months before I was born. My mother’s family treated her badly because of my ‘early’ arrival, therefore my parents moved from this small town to the big city of Montreal. I was raised in an apartment on what was then considered the longest and busiest street in Canada, Sherbrooke St, 22 miles long. It was a French, Italian, Polish working class neighborhood. It was war time and my father got a job in a munitions factory. We lived in a very small apartment, a large room that opened from a bedroom into a front room with a coal fired stove in the kitchen and a bathroom.

My mother was exceptionally anxious and my father was absent most of the time, an angry man, prone to violent outbursts, who felt forced into marriage. My Mum spent every day drinking coffee, smoking and listening to the radio. She could not speak another language and did not have any friends or relatives in the city. Because we were English speaking we did not fit in the predominately French neighborhood. It was just my mother and me alone every day without any family or other adults with whom to interact. My mother guarded me closely and lived for my company. I was the one who would buy needed groceries as I learned to speak French at an early age.

I found one girlfriend, Lise, who was French and who became my constant companion. I learned to speak French at age three so that we could communicate. My mother could not communicate with Lise’s mother. Being an Anglophone meant we were frequently discriminated against, so I did everything in my power not to be noticed as different. I would change my name to a French one if someone in the neighborhood asked me for it. English speaking people were called “tête carreé” , that is, “square head” as a French-language slur against Anglophones in Quebec. I was terrified that I might be found out and called that name, so I always tried to ‘pass’. Lise helped me in my lonely life. As playmates we were inseparable. Here she is in her first communion outfit. I wish I knew where she is now. We lost contact after moving when I was an adolescents.

LISE BONIN

Home life was primarily my mother and me quietly listening to the radio.  Mum was absorbed with me and my safety. I would often cry that I felt all alone but she would not understand what I meant and I didn’t have the language to explain it to her. I began sleep walking and crying with nightmares. It was the beginning of my generalized anxiety, night terrors and sleep disorder. We were robbed twice during those years, once the thieves stole my meager Christmas presents.

Then came the dreaded school experience at age five. Because I was forced to go to an English Catholic school I was separated from my only friend who attended a French Catholic school nearby. I had a long trek to deLorimier St school, either by streetcar and bus or on fine days I walked. I would be the whole day without Lise, our roller skates, balls, our paper dolls, our real dolls and skipping ropes.

My first day of school will always be remembered for the terror I felt seeing nuns for the first time in my sheltered 5 year old life. Up until this time I had not been in a church as my parents did not attend. The photo below is of my first grade teacher, Sister Agnes Alma. 

It was an all girls school, as was common in that era, and I wore a uniform with long stockings that were mandatory. We were all crying. My mother left me as did all the other parents. As soon as the door closed we were forced to go down on our knees to learn prayers. We were told that the huge crucifix of the dead man on the cross was killed because of us and the ‘original sin’ we had been born with. We all sobbed, some of us uncontrollably. Each day before classes we knelt to pray, and before and after recess and again before lunch break. The same process was enacted after lunch. Catechism was preached and memorized and we had to kiss the feet of the crucifix with Sister Agnes swiping the feet after each kiss with what I presume was alcohol, after all, it was the polio era. The story of the crucifixion haunted me day and night.

I began hyperventilating, particularly at bedtime and my father, who when once was at home, taught me to breathe in a paper bag which helped calm me somewhat. I was convinced I would die and go to hell. Furthermore, I began to faint often, particularly before going to school in the morning. Anxiety, panic, hyperventilating and fainting, and living with an anxious parent are all precursors to fibromyalgia.

The nuns terrified us all. They would walk around with wooden clappers; avoiding having a finger or ear lobe clasped in a clapper was a strong deterrent to misbehaving. But it was the wrath of God we feared the most and the stories of his death. “Holy cards” were handed out to the deserving children.

Preparing for my first communion meant I had to begin my weekly confession. Finding sins to confess was a difficult task. I learned to say by rote :

“I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”

On each fault I would rap my chest. I had no idea what my sins were but I must have had some?  I was almost seven by then living in an almost completely enclosed tiny apartment on a busy street, with a lonely, anxious, terrified mother and with only Lise for comfort. I must have committed sin? My mother frequently told me I must never lie to her or God would hear me. I was very obedient. I had no opportunity or inclination to steal. I didn’t know any cuss or swear words. Who would I kill? I didn’t ‘covet my neighbor’s wife’ (whatever that meant) or ‘bear false witness against my neighbour” (?) and as far as the other commandments I did not understand them anyway. I must have been sin free. Like all of us living with the intense fear of dying (polio was a real fear of us all during the 1940s, and one of my classmates died from it), everyday was a search for the sins we had committed and would confess in the weekly confessional box. There was little joy in life and no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins or adult friends to ease the burden.

By now I was exceptionally hypersensitive, living with Catholic guilt. It would take a few more years before a full blown fibromyalgia would develop. The groundwork was laid. Anxiety would become my life long companion; night time would always be feared; guilt would plague me forever; depression would surface easily; sleep disturbances would haunt my lifetime. If only I had been able to talk with a responsible adult. It was an era when there was little understanding of the intensity of a child’s fear. For those of you out there who can afford to spend time with a therapist, run, don’t walk, find someone you can trust. While it won’t cure it is at least a beginning step towards an understanding about how fibromyalgia and its challenges of anxiety and depression along with the physical manifestations first began.

End of Part One

7 comments

  1. Brigitte Hahnemann says:

    Dear Barbara,
    it touched me to read your lines, as there are quite a few similarities between our upbringing.
    A lonely childhood with only my mother, no father ( he died in the year of my birth), no grandparents or caring relatives ( in spite of an existing big family who all seemed to hate each other)
    No real friends because of my mother`s constant disapproval of who ever came around.
    The school experience in an all girls catholic school with nuns that that tried to chase the devil out of me.
    My sins? No idea, but somehow I confessed sins I never even understood, like unchastity. Over and over again.
    And my mother`s threatenings with my dead father and of course god who`d see through me with all my accumulated sins and would punish me. I felt permanently guilty without knowing of what and had no idea how to become a better person although I tried my best.
    Today I think that my constant fears and feelings of “not being right” which I was confronted with daily lead to a lot of little deseases during childhood that took hold of me frequently. So I was sent to children´s homes where I was abused emotionally. What a great solution!
    Noone knew about conditions like fibromyalgia, anxiety and HSP in the fifties or sixties.
    So glad that in spite of my state of health at least social acceptance has changed to a certain degree nowadays. And thanks to great therapists I learned that I am perfectly all right the way I am.
    All the best and thanks for the article
    Biggi

  2. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    I hope my point was clear, dear Biggi:
    Fibromyalgia is caused by a hyper-aroused central nervous system in highly sensitive people. The anxieties are caused by external factors, no doubt in childhood. It is impossible for researchers to find a ’cause’ that is ‘evidence based’. Only by examining our past can we begin to define our own journey into fibromyalgia. I believe you understand this and I am grateful to hear from you.
    On another issue is medical marijuana legal in Germany? It has been shown to help with pain but still not ‘evidence based”, although there is more and more science to show its effectiveness.I ask because I don’t know of your pain level.
    I am a big proponent of evidence based medicine and to that end do not partake in alternative therapies but in the case of fibromyalgia I don’t believe a cause can be found that is hormonal, bacterial or caused by a virus! However, one of those could precipitate a full blown fibromyalgia along with other crises such as an accident, divorce, death of a loved one, surgery etc.
    Many are driven by the desire to find a ’cause’ but in my view, it is counter productive not to explore psycho-social factors!
    Enough from me for now. I sound like I am preaching to the converted.
    I wish you well in this new year,
    Barbara

  3. Brigitte Hahnemann says:

    Dear Barbara,
    just a few words because I`m going on a big trip to the warmer part of the world tomorrow as my body has a lot of problems in winter in Berlin. So with all the supplements and stuff that I have to carry with me I`m a bit under time pressure now. Indeed I heard that just these days (or at least in March?) medical marihuana can be prescibed by doctors. Unfortunately I don`t have much experience until now. I´m going to investigate when I come back in springtime. It seems to be another effective way to lower the pain in an acute situation.
    And this what we sometimes need when in spite of all the good things we do ( from healthy food, supplements, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, MBSR,Yoga, sensitive touch and massage, meditation and all the things mentioned by you before) we feel drowned in pain.
    I`ll be back in the group in April,May if internet connection is difficult on our island.
    All the best
    Biggi

  4. Bett Willett says:

    Recovering From Childhood Neglect
    Bett Willett
    I am an adult survivor of childhood emotional neglect. This is my story.
    What happens to us in childhood has an effect upon who we become as adults. The good and the bad: awards, accomplishments, mistreatment or abuse. It all has an impact.
    But there is something else from childhood which also has an enormous effect it’s something that people can’t see, it’s emotional neglect.
    Emotional Neglect is a parent’s failure to act. It’s a failure to notice, attend to, or respond enough to a child’s feelings. Because it’s an act of omission, it’s not visible, noticeable or memorable. It is insidious and overlooked while it does its silent damage to people’s lives.
    Emotional neglect is not a deliberate act of physical or sexual harm which is what we normally think of as child abuse. Emotional neglect is called invisible because the children are usually not bruised or battered, they are often physically well cared for.
    If you grew up in a home where your feelings were heard and encouraged, then you are likely to have a good relationship with yourself so that when a feeling surfaces inside you, you don’t just push it away or ignore it, you listen to it and act on it, no matter how unwelcome or painful it is.
    But if you grew up in a home where your feelings were not heard, were ignored, were repressed, or overlooked causing you to feel ashamed and guilty for even having feelings, then you may have suffered from emotional neglect.

    Children who are emotionally neglected grow up to have a particular set of struggles. Because their emotions were not validated as children, they have difficulty knowing and trusting their own emotions as adults.
    They may have difficulty understanding their own feelings, as well as others’. Because their emotional self has been denied, they may find themselves feeling disconnected, unfulfilled or empty.
    They may have difficulty trusting or relying on others. They may have depression. Many describe feeling that they are different from other people; as if something is wrong with them, but they’re not sure what it is, they feel confused and responsible for not being happier—and they blame themselves for this invisible emptiness.
    My goal is to shine a light on this neglect by sharing my struggle in the hope that my story will help those of you who are suffering in silence and wondering what is wrong with you identify with my journey and seek help and to help everyone understand something of what an emotionally neglected child goes through.

    I needed help, or validation, or something like that, I wasn’t sure. What I did know was that I couldn’t deal with my life by myself anymore. I thought it was my disintegrating marriage, but what I didn’t realize was that I was very close to a complete breakdown. I checked the internet for a therapist near me and got lucky when I found Ira.
    I saw Ira alone for the first couple of visits. I told him I needed help to get my husband Jim to quit drinking and I don’t know how to do that. I didn’t know what to expect as the only other time I had seen a therapist was for a very short time during my first divorce. Ira asked a lot of questions about Jim, but he seemed more concerned with me and how I was feeling. That was quite refreshing to me, I was there for Jim and his problem, but he was interested in how I was handling life. Something I usually gave very little thought to. I was single-mindedly focused on how to get Jim to stop drinking. Ira was so understanding and supportive that I was certain he was the magician who could wave his wand and give me a sober husband.
    After a couple of meetings with Ira alone, Jim came with me. Ira said rehab was the best way to make sure Jim quit entirely. I blackmailed Jim into agreeing to go; I told him the bottle or me. Jim agreed and off he went.
    I then saw Ira by myself and he really zeroed in on me and my feelings and my unusual childhood. I said I felt I was losing myself and didn’t know if I was a person anymore or just a reactive blob.
    Right here Ira laughed out loud; it’s a really happy laugh, and good to hear. The laugh also calmed me down and evened out some of the fear I had as I was trying to figure out what was going on and what else he was trying to get me to understand.
    He had already helped me understand that I didn’t have to be in control of what happened to Jim and I didn’t have to fix it.
    This was a big jolt; I have always been the “fixer”. Just realizing that this was not something I had to do all by myself was a big load off of my mind and my anxiety really abated.
    Jim didn’t last the whole 28 days in rehab; he checked himself out in a week. Not surprisingly he chose alcohol over me and we started to work out our separation then divorce.

    I continued to need Ira to help me.
    What I am going to tell you now took Ira many months to get me to talk about, months and months because I wouldn’t trust him and didn’t feel safe telling him about my past for a long time.
    I was ashamed and felt really guilty about my childhood and how I failed my family and I wasn’t going to let anyone, even this kind and understanding therapist, know what a mess I was.
    After I finally, in bits and pieces, told Ira about my childhood, it took even longer for him to get me to realize I was not at fault for the failings of the adults in my life. That was an enormous breakthrough, and makes my writing this possible.

    I grew up in a New Jersey suburb of Manhattan most fathers went on the train to NYC. My dad was an engineer at the Bayway Refinery in Elizabeth.
    We lived in a house on a short street lined with big old colonial houses.
    Our house, which I shared with my older brother, Danny, little sister Marion, and my mom and dad had a big roofed front porch and a struggling lawn.
    My parents were of mostly Scottish decent and came from a culture that did not lavish affection on children. My brother Daniel was born three or four years after my mother lost twin boys in her eighth month of pregnancy. She was unsure she would ever have more children, when my brother came along a beautiful blond, green eyed cherub; she was ecstatic, there are two albums of pictures of his baby years. Five years later I made my appearance, and three and a half years on – my accidental sister Marion surprised everyone.
    Squeezed between an older favored brother and a cute chubby blond baby sister I was kind of overlooked. There are a few pictures of me; most of them have Danny or Marion in them also.

    The “Middle Child Syndrome” is very real. Middle kids are often ignored and grow resentful of all the parental attention given to the oldest and the baby of the family, and feel short-changed. Middle children have to try harder to “be heard” or get noticed.
    Because of the loss of her twins, my mother completely spoiled my brother and he grew into a self-centered adult with a giant sense of entitlement. When life “let him down” he became an alcoholic, left his wife and four kids and moved to the Caribbean where he drank himself to death.
    My sister married and had two girls, she became an accountant. Sadly, she is currently in hospice with lung and brain cancer.
    During the everlasting summers we kids were outside from morning until bedtime with brief visits home for food. We roamed the town and woods nearby. We played on our street for hours with no cars to worry us. There was no adult involvement at all.
    Some days I might join a baseball game in an empty lot, then play canasta with my friends. I might spend some time weaving potholders out of cotton loops to sell for candy money, and then ride my bike downtown to the public library. With those books I spent hours living magnificent adventures and exploring alien countries and planets. I might wind up, after dinner, playing flashlight tag in the empty lot until bedtime.
    I was overly shy around adults and a hyper sensitive child. Ira says I had Attention Deficit Disorder as well as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but what I knew was that everyone else seemed to be able to do and handle things so much better than I and I was constantly wary of making mistakes.
    Once my friend Gail took me to her cousin’s house and her aunt and grandmother were there. I was very uncomfortable and stayed very quiet. Later Gail told me that her grandmother said she didn’t like me because I was sneaky and when I talked to her I wouldn’t meet her eyes. I was crushed; I always tried to be polite to adults and was just shy. To this day injustice gets to me more than any other kind of problem.
    My parents were not much involved with what we did as kids even before my mother got sick, we were fed and clothed, but not fussed over. I saw a term, free range children, used as the alternative to helicopter parenting. We were certainly free range.
    In our Elementary school in those days there was no homework. My mother saw no reason to get involved with what was going on in school that was our business.
    When I was four years old and in kindergarten I hurried into the classroom, I could hardly wait for what was coming. Yesterday, our first day of school, I knew every song and I thought that maybe today we would have something new. Before she went to the piano the teacher leaned over me and whispered, “Don’t sing out loud today, just move your mouth.” I remember the embarrassment to this day; the rest of the year was misery. Decades later I, told my students that my kindergarten teacher helped make me the teacher I was.
    My third grade teacher was having some kind of breakdown and retired after our year, but that was too late for me, her wild accusations against those of us who weren’t her pets made learning anything from her impossible. She said I had better not act like my brother, that my handwriting was lousy just like his, but at least he could do arithmetic, why couldn’t I?
    Of course the message I clearly received was that I wasn’t smart enough to do arithmetic. No one realized that because of the stress of being neglected at home and the added stress of having a crazy teacher I couldn’t concentrate at all.
    I often dream about what-if. What if I had been less shy, or if my mother had been warm and caring, what if I had told her what happened, what if she led a parent revolt and had the teacher fired right away or had me taken out of her class, and what if Mom had hugged me, in my what-if dream I would have known that I was intelligent and able and worthwhile.
    When I was ten years old my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and she was in and out of the hospital for surgery and radiation treatments for the next four years until she died when I was in eighth grade. The three of us raised ourselves even more so after that.
    My mother wasn’t a complainer even when she had cancer. She was not shy about her body with me; I helped her dress and wash. I saw her scars from her mastectomy and watched her stuff the one side of the bra to fill it out.
    I learned that whatever comes along, you can deal with it. I learned that my mother, in spite of what must have been a frightening disease just found ways of doing things without making a fuss.
    I guess I didn’t think much of the operations and hospital because she didn’t, she went away, making sure everything at home was set up for however long she thought it would be, and then came home again. No big deal. It was just something she did. No anger, no tears, no shouting or cursing the fates, just make do if you can, by yourself, if not, with as little disruption as possible. I guess my parents thought that it was better not to discuss things with kids. Or maybe they didn’t discuss them at all.
    I ached for attention; I lapped it up in any form, and made up lies just so my mother would notice me.
    One summer afternoon after a really energetic game of some kind I was flushed and sweaty I ran home and told my mother I was sick with a fever so she would put me to bed and tend to me.
    Another time I told her that the teacher allowed my classmate Robert to do something that she didn’t allow me to do, I was looking for sympathy, maybe a hug and some commiseration but it backfired as she marched me to the school and confronted the teacher and they found out I was lying, I was embarrassed and also punished.
    I remember sitting in the bathroom on the toilet lid helping as my mother slowly dressed, after I fastened her bra and stuffed the cups with hankies I pulled her dress around her arm; it was a button-front blue checked cotton housedress.
    I no longer reacted to the discolored scars which slashed across her chest, or the ugly wounds where her breasts used to be. We discussed what to have for dinner and what we had to do to get it ready, I was almost a teenager and as the oldest girl, my mother was making sure I knew how to keep house.
    Meatloaf making, table setting, mitered blanket corners, laundry sorts, she was stuffing 44 years of how-to into a twelve year old’s head in preparation for what, I didn’t know. Frankly, I just thought she was teaching me how to help her. I have no memory of being told that things I did were terrific or super or wonderful. If it came out good, it was the way it was supposed to be.
    My mother paid a lot of attention to how to do things, but none at all to how I was feeling.
    At the end I was a fourteen year old able to cook, sew and do laundry, but a fourteen year old who had no idea how to love never having received any indication of it from either parent, or even witnessed it between them.
    I was never warned that the cancer was not far from killing her, I had no clue it would be fatal, just that it made her sick and I wanted her to get better. Everyone I ever knew who got sick got better. I had had chicken pox, measles, and strep throat, and as nasty as they were, I got better, and I fully expected the same for my mother.
    Mom never told me how she felt, or if she was scared, or that she would miss us. She didn’t prepare us emotionally in any way, but then she never had. A sick mother doesn’t have much energy for supervising children, so the very little we had anyway dwindled to none.
    When I was around eleven, one of the neighbor women told me to go home and wash my hair and brush my teeth which were green with scum from lack of brushing.
    That is how neglected my sister and I were. I ran home and took a bath; I washed my hair with soap in the dirty bath water. It must not have been too bad as the neighbor told me I looked much better.
    With everything going on at home, having to take care of myself and later being enrolled in my mother’s homemaking 101 I didn’t have much leftover for school work, nothing much could sink in with so much else going in inside my head anyway. Luckily, I had no trouble with reading, but spelling, handwriting and math were a disaster.
    If I were in school today I would have been tested by the child study team and would have had an Individual Education Plan which most certainly would have included using a calculator as I had no problem with math concepts, just memorizing number facts for the hated timed tests and doing calculations.
    I remember being disappointed at Christmas. All the other girls had white ice skates; I really wanted some but never got them I had to make do with the black hand-me-downs from my brother. I recently thought of those white skates and then tried to remember Christmases at home while my mom was sick and afterward. I drew a blank, I do not remember a one, or birthdays, or my entire grades 8 and 9. I have completely buried many, too painful, memories.

    Thinking back while writing this I time travelled and was there, in the past, and I was that little kid reliving the feeling of being confused all the time, of being the only one in school who was different and didn’t know what was going on. I do very much not like the powerlessness and being alone. My mind resisted being back there; the negative feelings were intense and physical with a big dose of fear.
    The thought of sitting in a classroom in my little wooden desk, and the feeling of coming up short in what was expected of me and feeling guilty was strong and very real. The memories also bring back the feelings. No wonder I buried myself in books, at least they made sense, and were an escape. What a horrible way to feel all the time with no way to know why or even that help was needed. Did I think this was normal? I knew I was different, I was sure I was stupid in everything except reading. What a hell of a way to have a childhood.
    Some of the confusion I lived with as a kid must have been displaced anger, I don’t really know, I must have compared myself to other kids and wanted what they had, but I don’t remember blaming my parents, only myself.
    I don’t remember being consciously angry, I didn’t know I had the right to anything other than how I was treated, I’m pretty sure I didn’t notice the lack of care. How would I, I had no frame of reference. I interpreted the neighbor sending me home to wash my hair as a criticism of me.
    Trying to remember how I felt is really hard. I don’t remember any good times at home or in school. I remember being active, outdoors all the time, playing in the neighborhood. I know I was happy playing with the kids, but I was always wary of doing something wrong.
    The School psychologist gave me a test, I think I was about 15, and I had to define words, the only one I didn’t know was “edifice” (I said it was an eagle’s nest).
    I turned red and he made a big deal about my being embarrassed about not knowing only one word when I knew all the others, I couldn’t escape from him soon enough. I thought he was criticizing me for being embarrassed but now I am sure he was trying to praise me.
    My mother was there and not there. I mean that when she was well, she did the housewife things, my father made a good salary so she had help with cleaning and ironing. But she was not someone who played with her kids. She was a presence, but not a warm loving person.
    I was the middle kid, and I am sure that had something to do with the lack of attention, but my mother had a warped idea of what it was to be a mother, and didn’t think kids needed anything but food and clothes. I was left to raise myself, to figure out how the world worked all by myself.

    After my mother died, I was, as a teenager, a bizarre mix of needy, ashamed, people pleaser, defect hider, and procrastinator.
    I was sure that everyone else had things all worked out and only I was a confused mess, so I kept everything inside, I couldn’t let anyone else know what a screw-up I was, I was too shy to ask for or to accept help because that would mean airing my faults. I took it out on my fingernails.
    I had to go through what every teen goes through with the handicap of having no parents to support or even discipline me.
    I never studied, I didn’t even know how; I did just enough to pass. Once my Latin teacher, (I have no idea why I took Latin, probably because one of my friends did, I don’t remember) told me she would turn my 68% into a passing 70% if I promised not to take Latin II, no big decision there.
    Right after my mother died there were legal and funeral things to take care of. My father was sobbing in his chair; I was sitting next to him in a lawyer’s office going over legal stuff after my mother’s death. My father brought me with him because he couldn’t deal with it alone or at all, as it turned out. I was fourteen years old dealing with a lawyer like a grownup.
    Even worse was in the funeral home when I had to decide on what hymns should be played, what bible verses and what flowers. I got really stubborn about the flowers. My mother loved wild pink roses, we had them vining all over our garage and she loved them. Once a year when they bloomed we had vases full of them in every room, and the house smelled like heaven. I insisted on pink roses.
    What in hell were the adults in my life thinking when they allowed my father to put this responsibility on my head? Where was my grandmother, my aunt, or even my nineteen year old brother? My father was sobbing, tears streaming down his cheeks making his starched collar a wrinkled mess. I had not shed a tear yet, not when I was told she died and not during this ordeal of shepherding my father from lawyer, to church to mortuary.
    Not even the minister questioned that I was in charge. This skinny little dead-eyed stoic shell shocked kid was in charge, and not one adult thought it was strange and that just maybe, possibly it might not be good for a child to have this responsibility. I sat all through the funeral without a tear; I shook hands afterward with all the mourners without mourning myself. I thanked everyone in my father’s stead like the perfect grownup I wasn’t.

    The anger I was certainly entitled to feel was stuffed way down into a vault in my head that I could not allow to be breached. Life went on.
    And it did. My father went to work, came home, and ate the dinner I cooked and sat in his chair, watching TV or reading. What conversation took place was mostly my sister talking about what she did at the McCarty’s house. Mary, her best friend had a warm and wonderful mom who for all intents and purposes adopted my sister. She spent almost all her time with Mary at her house. Mary is still her good friend. My brother, when he was home, ate and disappeared.
    I now understand that what was expected of me was impossible for a kid my age to live up to, but at the time I felt horribly guilty that I couldn’t handle the cooking, cleaning, laundry and school, and that I gave up.
    What I was going through at home during the time after my mother died and when I escaped into marriage is still, even after a lot of therapy, very hard to – reveal. I never revealed anything much of me to anyone, and especially the disaster that was those days.
    My father was useless, completely useless, and more than that, he was damaging as he let everything go to hell and did nothing about it. In the first few weeks after the funeral, my father hired the woman who had always come in to clean and do the ironing to come more often. Josephine had worked for my mother for years and she stepped in to help. But, she made a big mistake by trying to boss me around to get me to clean my room and pick up my clothes off the floor. It was my mistake in the long run, because my nasty rant and screaming, “You are not my mother, and you can’t tell me what to do!” made her quit, and my father didn’t replace her. The message was if you can’t get along, you do without.
    I was supposed to be the one to keep house, that the house was a dirty mess was guilt that I shouldered but did nothing about. I knew I should be home cleaning and doing laundry but I didn’t want to, I wanted to go to the sweet shop with my friends, and I wanted to ride my friend’s horse and hang around the barn, and I wanted to be a teenager, not a housewife. So I lived in a pig sty, which at one point became overrun with roaches, which must have come in on some grocery boxes. Coming into the kitchen in the morning and seeing the bugs in the sink gave me a lifelong loathing, to this day I cannot even deal with Florida’s “palmetto bugs”. My father continued to ignore everything.
    Needless to say we had no rules or regulations, I was in my teen years and had absolutely no one to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. Once, when a group of my friends and I were in the park after dinner, someone said they had to be home by eight o’clock or their mother would give them hell, I lied, Yeah, me too, I have to be home by eight also. It felt good to think that someone would care about me enough to give me a curfew, but no one really did. So I muddled through. When I think about me then I feel so sorry for that confused little kid.
    Thinking about my mother’s death is very confusing. I should have been wracked with the loss of the most important person in my life. But I wasn’t. She knew she was going to die, so did she talk to me, and prepare me emotionally, no. Did she help me learn how to take care of my little sister, no. What did she do? She taught me how to cook, and how to sew. How to plan meals, how to shop, but not once did she tell me she was going to die, or tell me how she was feeling, just how to use the pressure cooker. When she did die, did I lose my mother, no I don’t think so, I lost a tutor, a housekeeper, a robot.
    No wonder I couldn’t cry at the funeral, no wonder I wondered why I wasn’t sadder. I saw my father sobbing all the time and wondered why I wasn’t. I stayed in my room and read, I want over to Gail’s house and rode her horse, and tried to be away from home as often as I could. I avoided my father as much as I could. He was a tight SOB, and I had to wheedle money for clothes and things I needed. He always acted surprised that I needed anything.
    I really wondered what was wrong with me. Well, I was what I was raised to be, as much as I was raised at all. I was a sucker for any one at all who showed me the least little bit of affection or attention, I craved attention, I craved approval; I hated home and couldn’t wait to leave.
    Poor mixed up teenager. I hung around with the kids who were kind of wild, but smoking, beer, cutting school and dancing to the juke box was the worst we could think up to do, I was 10 years too early to have access to any serious damage. I wonder if I would have done drugs, maybe – probably. I learned as a tiny girl to stop expecting. Over and over my hopes were unfulfilled, so I didn’t hope, I flattened out my reactions.
    What saved me was that I lived in books, I learned about the world from books; that was what was real to me. My life outside of books was a roller coaster of emotions all inside my head, and never expressed. I was like a rotating radar dish, checking the landscape and the dangers around and reacting to minimize any threat. I was a ship threading its way through a reef-lined sea lane heading to a harbor hoping for as few hull scrapes as possible.
    No wonder at fifteen I latched onto a seventeen year old boy who lavished praise on my looks and didn’t care about school work. We spent every free moment together; I didn’t say a word when he refused to allow me to hang out with my friends. I just tossed them aside. He was isolating me for his purposes, not mine, but who knew? I agreed to marry him and got engaged on my high school graduation day. My father was just glad to have someone to take me over, I was just glad to get out of that loveless house, and away from the mess. We were married when I was 19 and he was 21.
    On my wedding day I had second thoughts, I was pretty sure I shouldn’t be doing this, but the dress was paid for, the church booked and the reception hall rented. I didn’t have the guts to back down; I made myself go through with it.
    That same, something’s wrong, feeling stayed with me through my entire marriage, until I finally acted on it. It took 29 years.
    Love, I had no idea what that was, but I was swept up into marriage, we were playing house. That’s when I became a neat freak, in reaction to the mess of a house I left. We talked about things, not feelings or issues. He was the boss; I was content to be with a person who “cared”. My neediness was being fed, I no longer had to be ashamed to invite anyone in to my house; he had a big Italian family. We spent every Sunday at grandma’s; big dinner, lots of cousins.
    I had two children, a big house and a husband which takes up a lot of time which left no time for me, but I was slowly learning some things. I learned that I was the idea of a wife to my husband; not a real person, as long as I was pretty, blond, and thin, and kept the house clean and the kids out of the way things were fine. As long as everything was done and dinner was on the table on time, I could do what I wanted, only appearances mattered to him. He harassed and insulted me until I lost the baby weight. I learned not to fight with him, I was totally unable to handle confrontation and unable to stand up for myself. He fought so mean and dirty that I dissolved into angry tears and ran. I quickly learned how to keep everything the way he wanted.
    We had a neighbor who was a retired accountant; he badgered me into going to college. I knew I wasn’t smart enough to go to college, but he convinced me to take the entrance test to Kean College, I passed, I took an evening class, I passed, I kept going, my confidence grew.
    Looking back I amaze myself at what I did. While not disrupting my husband’s life at all, (my mother in law helped baby sit) I substitute taught while going to college at night. I graduated magna cum laude.
    Just after graduation I got a job in the Public School. That confused inadequate kid still lived inside me, but people seemed to think I was good at what I did. Along the way I got a masters’ in Counseling and Special Services and was certified as a reading specialist and another masters’ in public school administration.
    I taught remedial reading for some years, and then was asked to set up a reading laboratory in the Junior High in preparation for the transition to middle school, after four years there I went back to the elementary school by my request.
    One of the reasons I asked for a transfer back to the elementary was that the students I taught were so needy that I was wearing myself out defending and helping them. It was impossible for me to remain detached, I knew I should but couldn’t. These kids were the same age I was when my mother died. I empathized through “love” affairs, refereed spats and was a go-to person for every crisis, panic and lost lunch money.

    A nice thing about that age is a few years later some of them told me how much I helped them; the little ones couldn’t do that. But the little ones didn’t chew hunks out of my hide either.
    I was elected to the Teachers’ Association board where I was head of the negotiating team and then was elected president. We straightened out the salary guide and got some perks for some of our members. I was then asked to become an administrator in charge of the Basic Skills program and testing. Every promotion and added responsibility validated my non-dumbness, a surprise but it felt good. I didn’t say no.
    During this time my husband’s construction business boomed. We moved out to Hunterdon County to a thirteen acre farm on which we built a house, a pool and a barn.
    Again, I filled time with my kids, teaching school, friends and now horses, chickens, and cows.
    My husband and I still talked only about things, mostly the kids and his jobs. As the years passed he got more and more verbally abusive, nothing I did was good enough, I was too fat, my clothes were too dowdy and school teacherish. I was miserable, we tried couples therapy; this was my first time talking to a therapist.
    She listened to my husband tell her that he had no problem at all, it was all me, and after a few visits she experienced his abuse and advised me to go through with a divorce. I saw her a few times after that but as I was so sensitive about my past, and she was not perceptive enough to understand what I needed I stopped seeing her. I wish I had realized this and tried to find help somewhere else. I wish I had found Ira at that time as my life would have been so much easier.
    Picking partners, apparently, is not my strength, after the divorce I met and married Jim, This was our second marriage; we were both teachers in the same school district. Jim was good for me in a bunch of ways, but not in helping us grow as two loving people. He was passive and I was, for the first time in my personal life, free to do and plan what I wanted, I grabbed the baton and never looked back, it was intoxicating, and I liked it. With every achievement, plan, task, project and trip I did I glowed. After we retired I dragged him all over the world seeing country after country. We were good for each other because we were both free of domineering spouses and were having fun. We were also a disaster together as he withdrew into a bottle more and more and I with my usual reaction drew away and went off on my own doing things that interested me. It worked until it didn’t, and I wound up in Ira’s office.
    I better understand how neglect in my childhood shaped everything I did and do. I now have enough understanding to move out of the quicksand. I recognize how I coped all my life – I chose overachievement, it was really frantic achievement, and not drug addiction but it could have gone that way. I’m learning that I have a lot of un-learning to do.
    Coming to terms with my divorces was more of a kick in the teeth than I was equipped to handle – that I failed in two marriages. It took a little while to get the “fail” out of my head.
    Working through why I married them to begin with and that both were predestined to not work because of my tendency to separate me from any conflict, and the type of men they are is still a work in progress, but I’m getting it.
    I feel much better about the future. I told some friends at dinner recently that I was feeling just about normal and we drank a toast to that. Me, laughing inside at what “normal” might turn out to be.

  5. Barbara Keddy
    Barbara Keddy says:

    Thank you dear Bett: This is an amazing recounting of the drama and trauma of your life. Ira is the kind of therapist we all need. He has helped you become what you now laughingly consider to be ‘normal’. In fact, you always were. It was the circumstance you were in that was dysfunctional. You are a brave woman.
    Very best wishes,
    Barbara

  6. Bett Willett says:

    Thanks Barb, Thanks for the kind words. I do hope someone is helped by my story. And that they get therapy a lot sooner than I did. Bett

Leave a Reply