Like A Buick
Has anyone ever complimented you by telling you that you were “like a Buick”? No? Well, it hadn’t happened to me either until recently when, after working with me for quite some time doing intense work, the husband of a friend said that of me. I laughed but the comment stuck in my head, because I know that, to this particular family, Buicks, not Fords, are the kind of vehicles that are truly “built tough.” They love their Buicks. Regals, La Crosses…pretty much everyone I know in their family drives a Buick. He claims that he’s never had a Buick leave him stranded. Now, personally, I think that’s due, in large part, to the fact that he takes care of his cars (kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will: he thinks the Buick is going to outlive him, he takes care of it and, voila, the Buick lasts for years. Tell him that and it’s just shy of blasphemy). I’m no mechanic and I don’t know that I’ve ever had a Buick so I can’t tell you whether or not they really are tougher and more durable than, say, my Chrysler. The point, however, is that he thinks they are, indeed, he loves them, kind of like my daughters love their stuffed animals or women love diamonds. For him to compare me to a Buick, then, is rather a high compliment, even though he said it because the work I needed done was demanding and physically wiped us both out. In essence, he was calling me a workhorse.
Which made me start thinking, mainly about strength.
I’ve heard that I’m “stronger than [I] think [I] am” from half the people who know me. The other half of the people who know me privately believe that I’m really nothing more than a weak, attention-seeking victim. The second half is the half that I’ve normally attacked. I won’t stand for being seen as weak and I have serious, serious issues with being thought of as an attention-seeking victim because then I start wanting to defend all survivors and their methods of healing and then I get rather riled up rather fast. So, if given the choice, I’d rather be seen as Superwoman. At least then the anguish is mine alone to bear.
I suppose, in a way, I am “like a Buick”, especially when confronted with manual labor. I don’t like lifting heavy things. I don’t like having to gut a house out or do anything like that. I’d rather not. But I know how to do it. And I’m not intimidated by it. If something needs moved then I fail to see the sense in calling for help if I can physically do it myself. In much the same way, when confronted with an especially vicious or terrifying crisis, I’d rather plow through it than think about the emotional consequences of said crisis. Teach the same week, waste no time in managing the steps my invisible manual suggests under the chapter How to Deal With Hell. I’m remarkably calm under pressure; unless crying for no apparent reason while soaking in a garden tub occasionally or writing these unedited blogs count, I never crack in front of anyone; I’ll smile until my face breaks and insist I’ve got it under control because I like control, I don’t want to weigh anyone else’s already burdened shoulders down with stuff that doesn’t concern them and also I’m adaptable to the point of absurd. I get extremely anxious when I have to socialize with other grown-ups because I’m super conscious of the fact that (a) I have no idea how to communicate with other grown-ups who supposedly care about more than making a neat craft or organizing the greatest sleepover ever and (b) I’m terrified that they’ll see past the smile and insist on walking through my walls. Why? Simple. Because, if they did that, if they got to see the real me as opposed to the confident leader, writer, teacher or volunteer…. they’d run. As fast and as far as humanly possible. Therefore, the only way to make sure I’m not totally abandoned is to keep the unedited, unrehearsed thoughts that rattle my brain and shake my soul tucked away. Before you start to complain or feel sorry for me, let me add that I’ve done this my entire life—sometimes to the extreme, and sometimes hardly at all but, either way, I’ve always kept private really important things. If you’ve always done, thought or behaved in a certain way, then doing, thinking or behaving that way doesn’t really hurt you. It just… is who you are. If, for some reason, you know that it’s counter productive and you think you should not be that way, then the war you fight isn’t because the behavior is causing you overt stress but rather because you know that it’s damaging you long term. It’s the same principal that makes you keep a savings account: you put money into it not because you need it right now but because you know that, at some point, you will. If you’ve got a mortgage to pay, or your kid’s doctor’s co pays, then even though you know you should put money in a savings account, you don’t, because you’re too worried about the immediate bills that must be paid. It’s really hard, then, to make myself “open up” even though I know I should when the more immediate fear of the person to whom I’m talking walking away crowds my brain. You wouldn’t run, you say?
I’ve only been to a certified psychologist once, as in one time. She was supposed to be the best. She specialized in childhood trauma, I actually learned about her because I saw her on a television broadcast. She was supposed to know what she was doing. And she was a woman, which everybody and their brother told me was what I needed. So I went. I sat in front of this woman I had just met. She opened with: “So what brought you here?” which put me on the spot. I wasn’t ready to tell this woman I had just met … well, anything, to tell you the truth. But I never give anything a half hearted effort. I will work and work and push myself just so that, if it fails, I can assure myself I did everything I could. Regrets terrify me. So, I spent time telling her some of my….. messed up…. childhood. I didn’t tell her much about my father, I told her just the basic stuff, what I’m comfortable saying to a perfect stranger. I pretended she was a reader who was emailing me asking me for help, and with that image in mind, I was able to tell her what I thought was a lot. No, I didn’t go into details. No, I didn’t really spill my guts. But I told that woman more after half an hour of meeting her than I had ever, ever told anyone else in a face to face meeting. At the end, I was shaking, and tears were shining in my eyes. I really needed reassurance. I really needed hope. Instead, she told me that I wasn’t ready for therapy.
I stared at her in shock and then felt my heart slam against a concrete floor. Part of me wanted to hand her the book “The Character” I’d written, tell her to read it and then tell me I wasn’t ready. Part of me wanted to ask her if she would tell a perfect stranger her deepest, darkest, most shameful experiences before the end of one hour. Part of me wanted to ask her why she thought that after I’d just told her terrible things no one in their right mind would tell anyone. Part of me wanted to ask her if she was just didn’t really want to take on another case right then. But most of me wanted to crawl into a corner and hide forevermore. Instead, I calmly told her that while talking about this was still new for me and very, very difficult, I had wanted to try. She accepted that, got out her little pen and made me another appointment. I calmly walked out of her office and never returned. Instead, I walked on. I decided that I wasn’t prepared to go through the emotional warfare of telling someone incredibly painful things multiple times just so that I could hopefully find “the right fit”. No. Instead, I decided that I had a good enough handle on things and even if I did sometimes freak out privately a little bit from all the internal chaos and undoubtedly twisted thoughts I suffered from, I’m not a masochist and I wasn’t willing to subject myself to the judgment of someone who didn’t even know me because well, I mean, after all, who doesn’t have demons?
So… as Elvis sang… “the world turns.” Life went on. People called me strong because I waited the storm out. Is that strong? I don’t really know. Don’t you do the same thing? Doesn’t your neighbor? I mean, really, what choice do you have but to wake up each morning, even after the worst possible night? The sun is going to rise whether you think it will or not. True, I guess I could hide myself between the four walls of my home and swear off people all together: they’re the ones that hurt me, so naturally, they’d be the ones I should shun, right? I could do that. Except, for one, I have kids who need to know that the world is a GOOD place, who need to feel the grass between their toes and play in creeks while they are still children. It is my responsibility to help them create memories that will produce confident and happy and well-grounded adult women who are capable of trust. Sleeping the years away, or hiding behind the computer screen, won’t give them what they need to learn to trust other people. That’s the biggest one. Also, though, I mean, even Thoreau needed occasional human contact. It is unnatural to be secluded for an indefinite amount of time. Solitude can make you go perfectly crazy. We all need human beings in our lives and not just strangers–we need real people who we believe care about our lives. We need substantial relationships if we expect to thrive. So, knowing all this, steals my ability to hide. I don’t have a choice but to get up and get out of the house. If you don’t have a choice in the matter, then is it really strength that propels you into doing something?
I used to think that the Holocaust survivor was stronger than Hercules, at least emotionally, especially those survivors who managed to live law-abiding, normal lives that included laughter for decades after Auschwitz. But that Holocaust survivor didn’t wave a magic wand and just lift the weight of her memories off her heart—no, she just opened her eyes and forced herself to get out of the bed. She focused on surviving first and if you do that long enough, sooner or later, the ice that’s formed a thick shell around the heart will begin to thaw. Something will happen that will make you smile. You’ll feel guilty about it at first, but it’ll give you the needed courage to wake up again the next day. Enough days pass and soon you find you’re maintaining a job, paying bills, and chit chatting with the stranger in the elevator without thinking of how stupid and pointless small talk is. You’ve survived. My heart has a very special place in it for the Holocaust victims and survivors. I admire them and find courage through their stories more than just about any other group I can think of. I have no comprehension of how they witnessed and survived what they did and still came out willing to believe in human kind. Except… I kind of do. The stain of torture is that it makes you believe you’re the beast, it makes you believe you’re ugly, it makes you believe you’re at fault—not the real perpetrator. It destroys your self-esteem, it wipes out your belief in you. You can’t hate another living being as much as you can hate yourself so if someone can make you believe you’re worthless then you start to think that maybe you’re the whole problem, maybe they’re right in some twisted way. Maybe it’s you. If you believe that, then acting out against another person, even the one who hurt you, is unthinkable. All you can see, feel, smell or breathe is the filth that you’re convinced lies on you. What gets rid of that is God, and I’m convinced that He usually does it through other people. By the time you’re smiling again and laughing, you just want it behind you, you just want to forget, so you keep putting one foot in front of the other instead of giving in to rage or vengeance.
Is that what makes me strong? That I don’t get angry? That I don’t resort to gangs or drugs or violence? Does that make the gang member who endured eighteen years of abuse, neglect or both weak? What is it that makes one person, like me, turn to quiet resolve and things like writing and another turn to the gun? Hm. Personally, I think it’s grace. I think I had people in my life who loved me, and I knew they loved me, and also I trusted that God was holding my hand, and that even if the whole world though of me as an outcast–HE didn’t. I had an incredible mother who never once laughed at my dreams. I had amazing teachers who made me believe I was important. I like to believe that if the abused gang member had the same set of environmental influences, he, too, would have found a different coping mechanism. That, then, doesn’t make me strong, it makes me blessed, and lucky.
“I’m okay”: it’s my motto. Sometimes, I’ll be in the tub, crying for no apparent reason, my hands will clench into tight fists and I’ll start to feel my entire body go tense as wire. Nothing is “wrong”, I can’t control when this happens and when it doesn’t. But when it does, I always whisper “it’s okay, it’s okay” and, somehow, that reminds me to breathe. I then consciously note that my hands and clenched again and I’ll deliberately make my fingers uncurl themselves. I’ll remind myself that I have to be rested in order to provide for my girls, so I’ll tell my eyelids to close. And there I’ll lay until I’m asleep. Doesn’t sound very strong, doesn’t sound “like a Buick” much at all. But then again, the Holocaust survivor probably didn’t feel strong either. The book I’m working on is about domestic abuse; the woman trapped in such a situation probably doesn’t feel strong either; the child walking in the ghetto beneath the glare of gunshots probably doesn’t feel strong; the teenager standing inside her bedroom staring blankly at the wall after a date rape probably doesn’t feel strong; the wife crying in the bathroom after a fight with her husband doesn’t feel strong; the family rebuilding a life after a fire stole their ability to sleep alone doesn’t feel strong. But the sun will rise above each of these people. They will drive their cars to work, they will walk to school, they will make new memories and then they’ll close their eyes only to open them again at daybreak and do it all over again.
See, the real strength lies in the underlying belief that there’s something out there that’s worth living for, believing that “just around the corner” is the smile of a future husband or best friend. Real strength is in being able to see the horizon and stay focused on its shiny promise rather than lie down and allow the darkness to submerge you. The gang member who endured abuse IS strong—he’s working the wrong defense mechanism but he doesn’t have that gun pointed at his own head, thus grace is still with him–he just doesn’t know it. The Holocaust survivor, the abused woman, the raped teenager, the childless mother, the arguing couple: they’re all strong. They choose to live, to face another day. I, like they, know the secret to life: that rainbows only show themselves after the storm, that the rose doesn’t bloom til after the snow, that true friends show up when they’re really needed, that grace shines the brightest after tragedy, that strength doesn’t mean squashing pain but rather living with it, that God isn’t only real but also full of love.
Someone important to me recently told me that I use children as a shield: by surrounding myself with them and playing, I conveniently avoid interaction with adults. I should work on that. I definitely have issues with the dark and nightmares that probably should be addressed. I like control, just a little bit (read: A TON). It takes concentrated effort to breach my walls. I cry when I soak in the tub, and most of the time, I don’t even know why I’m crying anymore. Teaching three classes a week, homeschooling and raising my daughters is challenging, so challenging I actually laugh at the idea of a personal relationship because I frankly, have no time for everything I’m involved with at the moment, much less anything new. I don’t think normal thoughts, particularly where intimacy is involved (that’s another blog entirely). My imaginary characters are quite real, actually, and if you contest that, you obviously have a death wish. I can move anything you can but I might not let myself go in a trust fall. I get scared. I’m flawed, and I’m scarred. Just like you are. Just like my neighbor is. Just like we are all. Tomorrow morning, a lot of you will post to Facebook. You won’t post about the argument you had with your wife or the fact that your daughter won’t sleep alone anymore or that the wreck that destroyed your car was your fault or that you cried yourself to sleep because of the nightmares or that the postpartum depression is ripping you apart. No, what I’ll read all about is what you ate for breakfast and who at work is ticking you off; I’ll learn what you think the most epic joke is and I’ll see from Places where you spent five o’clock; I’ll look at pictures of your Spring Break or the new baby just home from the hospital.
And I’ll smile, reassured that we’re all strong enough to bend, that we’re all going to be fine, that we’re all “like a Buick.”