L is for Love. This is not the same love I usually write about. The kind of love I am talking about is raw, messy and honest. If you choose not to read this in it’s entirety I understand. This is long. It has taken me a long time to understand what love is and a long time to find the courage to be honest about what I now know to be true about love. If you want the short hand version it’s about worth, and being worth love. If you want to hear a journey, read on……….
I started this blog to share what I learned about love from my sister Cindy who had Down Syndrome. It seems like I bear my soul on these pages. I don’t really. I sugarcoat things and leave significant parts out. The truth has been too painful to admit. Even though in my head I know I am not so different from so many others, I stay separate.
The ‘honest the truth’ as Cindy used to say is that I never knew how to love. I’ve been great at faking it. I’ve talked about love more than anyone I know and have been gooey and warm all the while feeling like a phony. I haven’t known how to love because I never felt worth being loved. I carried around an enormous bag of debilitating shame which robbed me of fully living because I felt unworthy of being loved.
Much of this was because of how my father treated me when I was young. He didn’t want me. He didn’t want another child and he definitely didn’t want another girl. Having a Down Syndrome child rocked my parents lives and their marriage. It was devastating for both of them and they handled their grief and fear in different ways. My mother chose to have another child to prove it was not her fault. If she had another ‘normal’ child then it would be proof that Cindy’s retardation wasn’t caused by something she did or didn’t do.
My father’s reaction was to turn away. He couldn’t face the pain. One reason Mary and I have been so bonded is the fact that my father didn’t want either one of us. He wanted one child. Four girls, one of which was retarded and an anomaly, was too much for him to handle. I’d like to say he did the best he could. I can’t. I don’t think he tried to love me when I was young. In fact, I don’t remember a single hug or warm touch from him until I was in college.
My oldest sister has always resented me. I knew that subconsciously when I was younger and, like with my Dad, assumed there was something wrong with me. With Bonnie I played the role of a dumb blonde and acted like a ditz to make her feel more comfortable. If she could put me down she could feel better about herself. Of course I wasn’t aware enough to understand this dynamic at play in my life. Now I see clearly that I took in my father’s and sister’s insecurity and shame as if it was my own.
The feeling of worthlessness caused me to live with one foot out the door. I always had an escape plan that would allow me to run if things got too close. Even in my marriage I kept a part of me separate. There was always a part of me no one could ever have. It took over 20 years of marriage to Neil, who refused to let me hide, giving up drinking and a ton of work to begin to see that I am worth being loved. The crazy thing is the parts of me I kept separate and hidden are the most real, raw and vulnerable parts of myself. They are my greatest and truest source of strength and I witnessed those parts of my self clearly when my mother was dying.
Being with my Mom this summer and watching her die caused a monumental shift in me. In the final weeks of her life I began to see how strong I am and how deep my capacity is to be with what is true and real. Through those painful weeks I gave up playing dumb. I stopped giving my self away for anyone else’s fears. I let go of the roles I always played and stopped apologizing for being me. I became more of my true self and was able to be with my Mom completely, without holding anything back. Both feet were fully in with her and the experience of her leaving. It is a bittersweet irony that through watching my Mom let go of her life my determination to hold on to mine and the truth of who I am grew even more fierce.
I am unwilling to ever give up my self for anyone, even my sister. I refuse to play small ever again. I refuse to act stupid so someone else doesn’t feel insecure or intimidated. I will never back down and take crap from anyone ever again. I am worth more than that and not even my sister or my father can ever take that away from me. I will never give up my self or back down to fear or hatred ever again.
By far, the hardest and most rewarding work I have ever done was learning how to love my self. In learning that I learned how to allow others to love me and discovered how to be with and love others honestly and authentically. The lesson has always been about love.