I read something this morning that put me back into childhood memories. It referred to a mother who pushed her son away when he tried to hug her. I do not remember my mom showing me physical signs of affection. In one of the few photos of my mom, real father and me all together, my father is holding me and gazing at me with 100% concentration and absolutely beaming. Mom is looking squarely at the camera, not touching me and not smiling. I know it was only a split second, but it seems to be telling me something. My father died when I was 3.
Mom married the step-dad when I was almost six. As I was growing up, I was expected to give mom a peck on the cheek and a quick hug around the shoulders before saying good-night. She accepted it as her due but did little beyond a token response. Step-dad touched me only in hurtful ways – punishment, beatings, inappropriate and abusive ways. It left me with both a craving to be touched in an affectionate and comforting way as well as simultaneously causing me to cringe away from every touch in fear, anxiety and shame.
Before mom married step-dad, his first family – wife, daughter and son – had died in a car crash while he was driving. When we moved into his house, it was full of ghosts: their furniture, dishes, toys and other possessions. I slept in the dead son’s bed, played with his toys and sports gear, was given his bike as a birthday gift, expected to play his trumpet, take lessons on their piano, and so on.
When I was given hand-me-down clothes to wear, I freaked out. I don’t even know if the clothes belonged to the dead son or someone else, but that was what I feared. I reacted with absolute horror and had an emotional melt-down, the only time in my life that I had a tantrum. Mom did not get it and I could not explain it to her. I ended up being forced to wear them – and felt like I was either disappearing or turning into someone else.
It was very apparent that I was the substitute or stand-in son. It was also very obvious that I was not up to the task. He was about 10 when he died. I was only 6. There was no way I could compete. I had not had a dad or male figure in my life for the past 3 years. I could not even throw a ball. He was apparently a sports star and a musical prodigy and a mathematical genius and a scientific wizard. I - on the other hand – was good at reading, writing, art and acting. None of that was worth anything in the step-dad’s eyes.
I remember at that period that Play-doh was a new thing and it dried out very quickly if not kept covered. I made a figure of a dog out of the stuff that was drying and fragmenting as I tried to form it. It is the perfect analogy for my childhood. They tried to mold me into the boy that he wanted – that he had lost. But I was not flexible or malleable enough. I could not be forced into the image that he wanted. Like old play-doh, I became more rigid and uncooperative. Instead of my various aspects blending together seamlessly, I cracked and fractured and fell apart.
Additional abuse from other perpetrators later reinforced the messages that I was worthless, unacceptable, and faulty. I still often feel disoriented – like all my various aspects don’t quite fit together – or fit with the rest of the world. A cracked misfit who is sometimes on the verge of disappearing.
"That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. . . What will your verse be?" Robin Williams as John Keating in "Dead Poets Society"