By Alex P. Vidal
Regina Brett is a veteran journalist and a former breast cancer patient. When she turned 50, she reflected on all she had learned through becoming a single parent, looking for love in all the wrong places, working on her relationship with God, battling cancer, and making peace with a difficult childhood.
Then she wrote a column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer on the 50 lessons life had taught her. It became one of the most popular articles the paper ever published, crisscrossing the globe via e-mail to hundreds of thousands of people, and shared at weddings, graduations, Sunday schools, Bar Mitzvahs, anniversaries, and more.
Now Brett expands the 50 lessons into essays that are inspiring, deeply personal, sometimes funny, and often poignant. They’re sure to strike a cord with anyone who has ever gone through tough times–and is there anyone who hasn’t?
Let’s here from Brett in his essay, “Make Peace with Your Past So It Doesn’t Screw Up the Present.”
Ever have one of those days where everything is fine and then suddenly it isn’t?
Nothing on the outside has changed, but everything inside you just did. Something you can’t name happened, and suddenly, you find yourself at the bottom of a hole deep inside yourself.
It’s hard to figure out what sent you spiraling down. A noise. A smell. A comment. Something so small sends you back into your own personal darkness, fear, and dispair. It happens so fast, you don’t know how you got there. Or sometimes you can feel yourself falling in slow motion but you can’t stop it.
What sets it off? It’s different for everybody, especially those who have suffered child abuse or neglect in some form or another. For me, something as small as the smell of chalk and milk cartons will do it. The sight of tiny folding chairs like those we had in the first grade. The sound of a weeping child in a store. The sight of an angry parent dragging a toddler across a parking lot. The sound of flesh hitting flesh in a violent movie.
Some days, any one of those sends me into the hole. All at once, I feel scared and lonely and disconnected. I call them attacks of childhood. In a flesh, I’m suddenly not a full-functioning adult. I’m powerless and scared and can’t figure out why. One therapist who used to counsel Vietnam veterans told me that adults who suffered abuse and neglect as children can have post-traumatic stress. Childhood injuries remain with us for years. Like shrapnel, the pieces keep working their way out of the body.
It used to take me days to climb out of the hole. Meanwhile, I’d go to work, fix dinner, play with my child, try to function, but inside it felt like I was on the verge of an emotional breakdown. If someone pulled one more string, I’d unravel in puddle of yarn and no longer be whole.
We all have childhood holes. Most people have a few here and there that are small enough to avoid and easy to get out of quickly. Others have a lunar landscape of deep craters left behind from mentally ill relatives or teachers, encounters with domestic violence and sexual abuse, or beatings and rages by parents who were also once children who were abused or neglected by someone else.
Big things rarely push you in the hole. Big things you can see coming and avoid. If you see or hear a train coming, you step off the tracks and stay out of the way. It’s the small things that knock you down the hole. Things you don’t see coming until you look in the rearview mirror.
One day I pulled my car into the garage as I do every day. My husband was standing in the driveway and told me to move my car up an inch. So I did. It still wasn’t good enough for him. No, a little more, he insisted. I could have easily smiled and moved it up or left it alone or handed him the keys to park it perfectly. Instead, I felt an instant rage come over me, like he’d lit a short fuse to a huge bomb. KABOOM! I was blasted back to childhood. Why do I have to be perfect? Why am I never good enough? Why do I even bother?
But instead of exploding, I usually implode. Instead of yelling and raging, I cave in and cry. They’re old tears. I can feel them come from a different place in me. My face hurts, my sinuses ache, and afterward, I need to sleep.
The incident with the car? Hours later, I was able to trace it back in time to the exact moment it triggered, decades earlier when I was 21. I’m standing in my parents’ driveway and my dad wants me to help him put a TV in the back of his station wagon. It’s heavy and awkward and I’m not sure how he expects me to carry it and squeeze it into the small spot he pointed to. I grab my half of the TV and slide it in the car. He tells me to move it back. Back where? I don’t know what he wants. He screams at me. My dad was either quiet or screaming. I don’t know why, but he’d go from zero to 100 in a flash. His rages were almost always accompanied by these words: “What the hell’s wrong with you? Can’t you do anything right?”
Standing there in the driveway holding the TV, he screamed them. I couldn’t drop it and leave so I was stuck standing there as a target for his anger. There was never an apology, never an acknowledgment that he was having a bad day or a bad moment.
Over time I learned how to get unstuck. First, you have to recognize that you’re stuck. For me here’s my warning sign: whenever my emotions don’t match what just happened, it’s about my childhood. I’ve learned to freeze the moment, just like you would pause a movie, and ask: Wait. Is this reaction about the present moment? Or is it about the past? I can’t change the past. But by changing my response to its leftovers, I can change the present.
One counselor helped me avoid falling in the hole by using this technique. Get an index card. Jot down proof that you are a functioning adult. Write down your age, education level, degrees, job title, the fact that you can drive a car, parent, vote, and others things adult do. When you find yourself teetering over a hole, take out the card and read it. Get grounded in today, in the adult you are, not the kid you were. It helps you regain your footing.
On the other side of the card, write down your search and rescue team. List your 911 friends to call to help you get out of the hole. Choose people in your inner circle, people who love you the most, as is. People who aren’t afraid to search in the dark for you, people who can yank you back into the light.
It takes work to rewire your thoughts about yourself, but when you do, everything in your life changes for the better — especially your most intimate relationships. If you don’t do the hard work, you will constantly bump into your past and run into the worst of your mom and dad in every relationship. Rewiring your thoughts won’t get rid of the holes in life, but it can prevent you from falling in them.
My friends in recovery told me this story:
A drunk leaves the bar one night and on his way home stumbles and falls into a deep hole in the road. He can’t get out. One passerby tosses him a Bible, cites a Scripture passage to give him hope, and leaves. A counselor stops and tries to help him figure out why he fell in the hole. Finally, a recovering alcoholic hears the screams and stops. “Can you help, please?” the man in the hole cries. “Sure,” the sober man says. He jumps into the hole. The alcoholic screams. “Oh, no, now we’re both stuck in this hole!” The sober man smiles and says, “Don’t worry. I’ve been here before. I know my way out. We climb out together.”
The goal isn’t to walk around the hole. Or get out quicker. The goal is to fill the hole so no one else falls in it. What do you fill it with? God. Which is to say, love: love of self, love of others, love of God.
The last time I climbed out of the “I’m not enough” hole, I prayed, “How will I ever believe that I’m good enough?” The answer came in that small still voice from my heart: “By helping others believe that they are good enough.”