Isn’t it interesting how many people have perfect lives? To judge from my relatives’ posts on social media, nothing happens but bringing home trophies, straight A’s and loving family gatherings.
They like smiling and church and friends and their fabulous houses and cars and perfectly behaved children on their perfect, Round Up-poisoned lawns.
I’ll tell you what they don’t like.
Anybody knowing anything real about them. I suppose I don’t mind so much anymore because trying to be ‘perfect’ all but killed me before I figured out what bullshit it was.
I’m usually against bleeding all over social media, but sometimes I cut myself, and something ugly spatters across my computer screen. You might want to fetch a lobster bib to read this.
I recently wrote, very briefly, about having to bite my tongue when my sister went on a rage rampage with her middle finger in my face screaming F U, (but not abbreviated) in front of her nine year old with her 14 year old in the bedroom within hearing. Hell, the whole Northridge mall was within hearing, but I kept my wits with me and my voice down. I didn’t slaughter her with truths that she could not even understand much less hear.
Because what’s the point? She had no idea that she was talking about her own pain. I’ve always known she considers herself morally superior to me, and most everyone else, but I was genuinely shocked at the unhealthy level of suppressed, transferred blame. I don’t know why I should be, I remember the sensation well. She’s not mad at me for leaving my husband, she’s mad at her husband for leaving her, but she doesn’t know that. I wouldn’t have either at the same stage of life. I spent much of my twenties and thirties so unconscious that I was playing drunken bumper cars in the dark, and often I couldn’t even find the ride, but I was definitely in a carnival.
When my mom, who also heard the caterwauling because she was recovering from broken ribs, which was the only reason I was in my sister’s house to start out with, found out that I had mentioned the unflattering event in a blog, she was concerned.
But not about the behavior, about the fact that I had said it out loud, I had brought the ‘perfect’ family image down a notch.
Nobody is supposed to know that our family would actually descend to screaming obscenities at each other, (or one at another in this case) and I’m definitely not supposed to say that the reason for that is buried personal failures that should have been dealt with years earlier.
Because it’s hard to deal with things that you swallowed long ago that are now twisted stuck in your gut.
I imagine what it would be like if it were possible for a surgeon to cut into someone’s repressed pain.
“Scalpel, suction. Bucket!”
Imagine the hissing sound of puncturing that mass, the nasty, festering puss, and the smell!! All that tear and bile-soaked, gangrened, rot. I know, pretty right?
If you think of it as cleansing out the infection, digging down to the root of the problem makes more sense, like squeezing a huge zit or removing a tumor. Perhaps a strong dose of self-awareness antibiotics could clear that bs right up.
I’d take ‘em.
I suppose, to a certain degree, that’s what I did. I’ve had several therapists in my life, different people who worked for me at different times. Or didn’t. The first, before I knew what therapy was for, was Freudian. He basically sat there with his eyelids closing as though fighting sleep.
The next one was better, she was a woman in her sixties who had lived a great deal of life and believed in sharing it. I remember telling her about a birthday party I had in seventh grade that no one came to and it made her cry. You may have your own list of sad stories but I made my therapist cry. We have a winner!
She got me going on the right path. Taught me to pay attention to what was bringing up my feelings, what was beneath them, and take responsibility for my responses. I saw her for a couple of years, felt good and stopped, then years later when I was ‘happily’ married, I thought, ‘I’ll just go check in on myself.” So I made an appointment, walked in with a smile on my face, sat down and beamed at her.
“How are you?” she asked.
I always come off so strong and in control that it was the first time in years someone had asked me sincerely, “How are you?” and even as I choked out the words, “I’m fine.” I busted out crying.
She gave me that sympathetic, understanding look I remembered so well, handed over the box of Kleenex, and shook her head as she said, “I don’t think you’re fine.”
Clearly I wasn’t, but I had no idea how un-fine I was until I went back. In retrospect, though everything seemed terrific on the surface, frankly, I was unhappy. I was living a life filled with dinner parties, gala events, a handsome, semi-famous husband who appeared to adore me, (mostly when we were out) and working with that therapist again made me realize that 85 percent of my energy went to other people, leaving very little for me. I was holding everyone else up and sinking from the weight.
Denial is a weird and malignant thing. Pretending you’re happy, striving to have all the ‘things’ you should have instead of the peace you truly need, being convinced that if other people admire your life, it must be great and you have no right to feel unhappy, all of these things lead to dangerous self-deception.
And man was I lying to myself.
Then I got the really great therapist. This one made me work, I mean hard. Instead of letting me ‘talk it out’ she would shake her head and call bullshit. She would force me to look backward and inward, she broke my ass down.
There were times I would leave her office and stumble to a nearby park to sink down at the base of a tree and wonder about how horrible a person I was, how ignorant of even my own basic triggers. It was ugly and staggering to look at myself without the kaleidoscope of distraction techniques my sub-conscious had employed to shut my own darkness out. It was friggen’ cold out there.
Then this ruthless, wonderful therapist told me, “Take a trip by yourself, go somewhere that people are more awake where you can take an honest look at yourself.
So I did. I went to Jemez Springs, New Mexico to a remote hotel that was connected to a number of healers and shamans. Over several days I worked with different people. Some traditional therapy sessions, some art therapy, some spirit journeys, and tons of hiking or sitting in a solitude so absolute that sometimes there was not even sound. The desert is very soul cleansing. It was stunning how many of these people told me similar things about myself.
But the biggest break-though came from a woman who was supposed to be just giving me a massage. Turned out she was a very connected spiritual healer, and as she was working on my back, she said, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of city smudge on you, do you want me to cut some of that off? I said of course, that that was why I had come. During this time I was trying to decide if I should leave my husband or keep trying to make it work, something he didn’t understand because for him, everything was fine.
So this woman is still massaging me, but now she’s talking gently too, I occasionally sense her making sweeping movements over my body and occasionally she clapped her hands loudly. As she’s doing this, I’m getting more and more limp. I feel exposed and vulnerable, but not afraid.
Then she asks me about abuse and I start to cry. All my life men have said inappropriate things to me, even as a child, I’ve been touched and taken advantage of, I’ve been groped and pushed into doing things I didn’t want to do, but I’ve never thought of it as anything other than ‘normal’. That’s just how men are, right? As I got older and wiser, I learned to stamp on that boundary, but let me tell you, in the acting world, the boundary line is deeply zig-zagged. I lost roles because I wouldn’t sleep with producers, I was able to flirt my way out of a great many situations with something like, “Wow, if only I wasn’t married…” but let me tell you, successful men have very fragile egos and they take a great deal of handling. Once I had to report a director to a producer, but I already had the job and the producer was a woman so he couldn’t fire me, but needless to say, it was a bit tense on that set! I thought it was no big deal, but as I lay there, all of these dismissed and repressed thoughts surfaced with a chill that turned to shudders as this woman massaged me. Then she began to talk, gently still, ever so gently, all the while she worked the knots in my shoulders and kneaded my hands with a reassuring touch. Finally she asks, “What do you really want?”
I am on my back now and I put my hands over my face and sob. “I don’t want to feel alone,” I weep.
“Give me your hands,” she says. I hold them out and she places her palms against mine. “Tell me again,” she says.
“I don’t want to feel alone anymore.”
“Say it again.” I do, and as I do, she pushes against my palms, I instinctively push back.
“Keep saying it,” she says. I push harder and repeat, “I don’t want to feel alone, I don’t want to feel alone,” until I am straining against her, the hurt and loneliness in my body raking me with waves of pain. One more time, I shout now, “I don’t want to feel alone!!”
She released the pressure, leaned down over me and whispered, “I’m going to do something that might startle you.”
She put her arms around me, held me gently and whispered in my ear. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for all you’ve been through.”
And I disintegrated. Weeping until I had no energy or tears left.
She finished the massage in silence and I stumbled up, got dressed and went back to my room. I barely made it to the bathroom before I began vomiting. Up it came, everything in stomach, all the forgotten bile and hurt hurtling from my body with projectile force.
For four hours I lay on the floor of that bathroom, unable to so much as lift my head. I was so physically weak I did not have the strength or the will to move. Somewhere in those hazy hours it came to me that I had hit the bottom, I had become aware of who I really was, and I realized how unaware and manipulated I was by forces unseen and it crushed me that I had been so blind. I felt like a total failure, a baby soul, a blob of emotional goo.
Eventually though, I roused myself enough to move to the bed, then a chair and by early evening, I felt not only felt better, but pretty damn good. I won’t say I was ready for a hike, but I felt…lighter, cleaner.
I returned to LA and went to see the therapist, I told her about the whole trip and all I had learned, and I finished by telling her that I was devastated to discover how damaged my core self was, that I felt broken.
She smiled at me, a little lazily and said something I will never forget.
“Congratulations,” she grinned. “Now let’s get started.”
In the work that ensued, I admitted the pain of being the odd-one out in a close family, I confronted my disappointment in my mother and father, in the tactics used by my siblings to make themselves feel better, which was primarily mocking others, namely me. I recognized my perfection complex, and my self-destructive spiraling when I ‘wasn’t good enough,’ my competitive nature fueled by the desperate need for my mother’s attention while surrounded by talented siblings. Beauty and winning had always been rewarded, I had been compared to other girls all my life, and it had shaped me.
It took a long, long time, to be free of much of that.
I know that everyone faces troubles and unkindness and ignorance, we all react differently to these things. How you got there isn’t all your fault, but fixing it is all your responsibility. Pretending that you or your family is perfect won’t let the infection out. Denial will just keep growing in darkness until it kills your joy.
Understanding what makes you tick doesn’t make the self-doubt and blame vanish, but it eases it a bit each time I face up to it. I still work on it, all the time, everyday in fact. But at least now I know I’m not alone.
I’m worth working on, and so are you.
It isn’t easy, but man is it worth it.
Wanna’ feel better about yourself?
Look at the worst of you first.
Then whisper to yourself, “I’m so sorry.”
And give you a hug.
Take one from me too.
Shari, March 1st, 2020
5 thoughts on “Perfect Lives”
I love you, Shari. You are truth.
Thank you, for this wonderful piece. I needed to see and read this and take it to my heart. I realise that I have a lot to work on.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Thank you for writing this. So sweetly broken then rebuilt. Filled with compassion, truth and grace for yourself.
Thank you, how gracious. You understand what competition can do to your soul. Glad we both survived it!