Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Two Stories about Me

I just returned from Mallorca, an island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain. The Playa de Illetas, one of Mallorca's resort areas, is tidy, tasteful, flowering, breezy. The sea has that aqua-to-blue-to-aqua thing going on that I first saw in Cancun a few months ago. Yet I took no photographs. The photo here is a promotional one.

I traveled to Mallorca to attend a personal training course called Expand the Box, based on the work of Clinton Callahan and his colleagues. Clinton and Marion, our trainers, taught us a different way of thinking called Radical Responsibility. I'm already sounding like someone I don't know, a narcissist who takes an expensive flight to a gorgeous place to self-improve. But that's just a story. We, about 30 of us, heard a lot about stories over the five days of the training.

Some facts first, then the two stories. I should warn you that I'm not entirely sure that what follow are facts. I'm going to be practicing separating facts from stories for some time to come.

I'm the three-year-old in the middle.
I come from working-class parents whose histories left them fearful. My brother and sister are 11 and 8 years older than I am and were entering adulthood and leaving home about the time that my father became very ill. He was 63 then, my mother was 48, and I was 10. My mother went to work at night so that either she or I would be available to care for my father.

I did well in school, left home at 18 for college on scholarship and returned to live in my hometown afterward. I married once, then twice, and had my first child. My siblings moved to other states and visited my parents occasionally. During my twenties I spent a lot of time in the car driving from my home in Palo Alto, California to my parents' mobile home in Sacramento. After my son was born--I was 27 then--he came with me.

My parents died 16 months apart, my father when I was 29, and my mother when I was 30. My brother and sister came to see my parents during their last illnesses, but left quickly. For all intents and purposes I was the child responsible for visiting my parents regularly during their last decade and, toward the end of it, for interacting with their doctors and sitting at their bedsides.

The story I told myself before Expand the Box: (Once upon a time in the galaxy far, far away that I call my childhood) my parents conceived me, long after their other two children, so they would have a child to care for them in their old age. They were proud of my successes in school but not entirely comfortable with them. Like the parents of children described in Alice Miller's books, they sometimes discouraged me, either to protect me from disappointment or to keep me from going too far away from them. I was what is often called a parental child, caring for them more than a child should be expected to, until I went to college. At college, the growing up I couldn't do at home, the "normal" experiences adolescents have in our culture that I had skipped, made life difficult.

My siblings had their own problems and forgot or resisted thinking about mine. The chaos of my twenties--marriage, divorce, remarriage--gave them an excuse to view me as a person who would have been troubled even without taking responsibility for our parents. When they left me at the hospital during my mother's final days, they did this with clear consciences.

The story I am able to tell myself now: I was born into a family established in its ways, and I wanted to make a place for myself in it. I couldn't compete with my brother and was determined that my mother would treat me better than my sister, so I tried to be the perfect, shiny, smart and sometimes even a little bit pretty child. I used church teachings to convince myself that good works make you better than others, and hunkered down to do my parental child thing at home.

After college I didn't know what kind of work I wanted to do, and I was temporarily husband- and boyfriend-less, so my father's first heart attack provided an excuse for me to retreat to Sacramento. Visiting and caring for my parents became the one steady element of my twenties, the one thing that made me feel like a worthwhile person. During my parents' final illnesses, I conveyed in one way or another (I conveniently can't remember exactly how) that it was all right for my siblings to leave me with our parents. I would do the work. They might not be able to, but I was and I would. When my mother died and I sat alone watching the undertakers zip her body into a black plastic bag, I told myself that I had won. I was the best of my parents' children. I always had been, and I'd gone the distance. I had done the work until it was finished.

Which of these stories is true? I learned in Mallorca that it doesn't matter. What matters is which story makes me feel as if my life belongs to me. If I need to reframe my story to say that my nearest and dearest didn't use me as a crutch so much as I became one in order to feel good about myself, then that's what I do. Because I feel stronger. Because my box becomes bigger. I'm able to stand up straight in it, for example.

I've been trying to think myself out of my good-girl role for decades. It's not a comfortable home for an adult. A sticky, pink residue has clung to me day in and day out, a little like the stuff that forms the bathtub ring in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. You can take a bath in that tub, and scrub and scrub, but you won't get clean.

I live near my siblings now, and recently I began trying to talk about how they let me down 30 years ago. You can imagine how these conversations went. I figured out pretty fast--and this conviction was reinforced in Mallorca--that I couldn't work through this stuff and let go of it by talking to them, not armed with all the anger I still felt. I had to wade back into the anger on my own and hope I could start fresh with my siblings on the other side. I believe I stumbled on exactly the right program to help me do that. Thank whomever.

Read about Expand the Box at Clinton Callahan's most recent book, Directing the Power of Conscious Feelings, will take you some distance toward grokking this stuff, but I recommend showing up for a training. For trainings in the U.S., see