Posts Tagged ‘family system’

My plane was over three hours late. I agonized as the plane circled the Charleston airport, knowing my father was waiting, knowing the waiting area had no chairs in which to sit, knowing he would be there, standing, uncomplaining, waiting.

This was the first time I had returned home since Mom had died, two month’s previous. Mom’s was a startling and quick death – 12 days from start to finish – and Mom, in characteristic thoughtfulness, had let no one know she was sick, so when we saw the scans of her lungs and brain riddled with tumors, we had each and every one been astonished at the depth and severity of her cancer.

Mom was the love of Dad’s life. For over 60 years my mother and father had been by each other’s side.   As I walked with my carry-on bag toward the gate, my father broke into a big grin. I was stabbed with love and gratitude for him, for the fact that he would never complain about the long wait, that I would never know if he had been uncomfortable or tired, that he would never complain or even give voice to any discomfort in his body, and that this teaching had carried me long and hard into the vicissitudes and difficulties in my own life.  I was grateful and filled with awe sometimes that this 87 year old ex-Marine could endure so much with a stiff upper lip, yet be so filled with love and kindness to me, his eldest daughter.

I folded into Dad’s arms and he held me for a long and hard hug. He then gave his characteristic “tap, tap” which meant it was time to break away and begin walking.  We got into his old, rundown car and made the long trip from the Charleston airport to Georgetown, arriving well after midnight.  Not once did he complain about losing sleep or being tired.  In fact, when I awoke in the morning, coffee was made, the paper was laid out for me in Mom’s place at the breakfast table, and a cereal bowl and spoon were laid as well (with a note),  as he had gone for his morning constitutional.

The week I stayed with my Dad without my Mom, for the first time in my life, was painful and difficult for me, yet strangely one of the best weeks I had ever spent. In fact, at the end of the week, my father told me he had more fun that week than he had ever remembered.  I had a hard time falling asleep in the upstairs bedroom next to my parent’s room, peeking through the door to the bed they had shared for over 60 years, seeing Dad asleep on his side of the bed, wondering how he could do it, how he could fall asleep without her next to him, when he would crack up, when he would certainly begin his descent into the hell I was sure would come (and this did happen, but mercifully, not for another year.)

I cleaned Dad’s house from stem to stern. The tumors in Mom’s brain had made her addled, and the house, over 200 year’s old, was dusty and moldy, so I turned it inside out.  I polished silver and furniture.  I scrubbed toilets.  Glennie, down at the shrimp docks, saw fit to bring us so much fresh shrimp I boiled us a potful almost every night, and we sat at the kitchen table, melted butter at one end, cocktail sauce at the other, my homemade slaw in a bowl, the ubiquitous and essential white rice in the other bowl, and we ate and ate and ate like there was never going to be another bite to eat on this entire planet.

And the cat, Mr. Chrissy, (God only knows where the names of my parent’s animals come from), became gregarious again, and began coming inside and curling up at the end of my parent’s bed, as he had done before.

My days with Dad took on a rhythm, which I now realize probably mimicked my Mom and Dad’s time together. I would accompany Dad on his first walk of the day often down to the water and shrimp docks, then set about doing housework.  After lunch and a nap, we would go on an outing, usually a drive, often to Pawley’s Island, an enclave of beautiful, old homes on the ocean, where Dad had played as a child in the summer, and where Mom and Dad had taken us each summer when we were kids.  A haven for those with old money and a place where new money and newly built houses were an absolute impossibility, Pawley’s Island was a place of ease and almost clumsy wealth.  With its’ ragtag beauty and laid back people, perfect clapboard houses and sparkling white sand, I felt like I had truly returned home.  I got my first kiss on the pier at Pawley’s.

My father’s birthday is October 25, and had he lived, he would be 94 years old this year, 2015. He died two years ago, at the age of 92.  He was considerate and kind when he died, having just finished dinner.  He ate his ice cream and put his head down.  Then he died.  Just as he was in whatever this thing is called ‘life,’ he was courteous and respectful in this thing we all call ‘death.’  He was courtly and mannered and caused no trouble.  He just died.

I was unable to visit him the last few years of his life, counting on my brother to keep his commitment to call me with reports each time he visited. But my brother failed to keep his commitment, leaving me to rely on a few calls every now and then to the Assisted Living facility to hear Dad’s childlike voice, trying to gauge from it if there was any issue to which I should tend.

Dad had fallen down the slanted stairs in his pre-war house several years after Mom’s death – probably very deliberately trying to kill himself – but instead of dying had fallen victim to a severe subdural hematoma, which had left him mentally compromised.  He was eventually put into Assisted Living, and my sister, God bless her soul, cared for him until his life ended.  But my sister had, many years before, turned against me in bitterness and envy, so I could not rely on her for information nor could I visit, as my visits triggered her deep hatred and she was likely to strike out at me, usually in ways which affected my livelihood.  I therefore steered clear of South Carolina during my Dad’s last years.  It was best this way, and I was deeply grateful for the times I had previous with Dad, before his downfall.  Family curses run deep, and it is often best to respect and understand them rather than challenge them.

The last time I was to see Dad, it had been his birthday again. That is why this time of year hurts so.  It holds a morphogenic trauma, a memory which can never be burned away.  In fact, it should not be burned away.  For it was this last visit I realized Dad was not okay, he was not processing his loss, and he was drinking heavily, trying to drown the impossible grief he had buried at first.  With no hope and the certain improbability of healing, he had kept drinking and drinking, to the point of oblivion many nights. My last trip to see my father had been difficult and humiliating, resulting in neighbors helping me carry my proud father up the stairs and to bed as he could not, quite literally, walk.  After I left this time, Dad hurled himself down the stairs.

And it was this trip, the afternoon of my leaving (for I had rented a car by this time to drive myself back and forth to the Charleston airport) wherein something in me recognized I would never see my father again.

Not only had Dad been drinking heavily each evening, but during the day, he had begun the troubling behavior of saying “Let’s go visit your Ma!” We would get into the car, always silently, and journey down Highway 17 to the beautiful Hospice building Mom had been so instrumental in building in backward, pre-Revolutionary War Georgetown.  It was here she had died, in a beautiful, mahogany four-poster bed, thinking she was in her bedroom at home, with her family and loved ones around her, loving her more than anyone could be loved on this plane of so-called existence.  Dad would drive in the driveway of Hospice and circle the parking lot, slowly, his jaw set, his eyes dull yet somehow troubled.  We would do this two or three times daily.

On my last afternoon, my bags packed and in the trunk of my rental car, Dad and I were sitting outside on his porch. The day was balmy, and he slowly, without any further chit-chat, got up to walk me to my car.  I suddenly began to cry, hard.  He held me and said “Save it, Kathy!  You will need it!”  Then he looked hard into my eyes and hugged me so tight it took my breath away.  Then I was gone without awareness of driving my car.  Suddenly something drove around the block as awareness of a body, a heart and mind crept into me again, and I pulled over to  sob and sob.  I knew I would never see my father again.

As difficult as things are with my sister, I do have a great deal of sympathy and compassion for her, having moved from Florida to South Carolina to be with Daddy, only to have him become so ill so quickly after her move. How disappointing this must have been for her, with fantasies of sitting on his front porch in the rockers, sipping mint juleps in the afternoons.  But this was not to be, and she was thrust into a caretaker position long before anyone could have wanted or assumed this role.

When Dad died I did not go to his funeral. I knew I would not go, knowing the funeral would be for the living, not for Dad.  I had said my goodbye to him that day, when I had wept.

But I did go back to South Carolina two years ago, for his birthday, when we had a small memorial service at the family graveyard, in Sumter, South Carolina.   I was deeply moved at lunch afterwards, looking at my brother and sister and the children, realizing that things would be different now, that my sister and brother would surely get over their small and petty differences and would include me in their lives.  I said so and held them each tightly before my daughter and I left to begin our journey back to the West.

Several days upon my return I was served with papers for a lawsuit, initiated by my sister, with the full knowledge and apparent support of my brother.

What my father gave me was the knowledge that he had my back, that he would never betray me, that his mind would never be filled with bitterness or envy. I never heard him speak an ill word about or to anyone.  He offered presence.  He offered loyalty.  He was there for me.  He furthermore celebrated my independence and freedom from the limitations and expectations of being, not only a woman, but a Southern woman.

My sister and brother, and even my mother when she became mentally ill, punished me for being preferred by my father. This is their cross to bear.  It has hurt me each and every time, but I truly would never trade places with them.

This time of year is hard for me. It is a time of incredible loneliness for me.  It is a time when I am told, in word and in deed, that in order to have a “family,” I would have to become a hostage.  This is not a price I am willing to pay, so I prefer to go it alone, knowing I am okay, knowing I only have to cross the threshold of memory, once again, into the sanctuary of my father’s arms.

Katie Law Goodwin © 2015

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When I read Jean Houston’s book on sacred psychology in the late 1990’s, “The Search for the Beloved”, I remember thinking I had found the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle I had long been searching for. I identified completely with the dilemma of Psyche and her quality of “too much-ness”.

I had been caught up in a family system best described as “spiraling” toxic shame. I had studied Virginia Satir’s work on family systems and Bradshaw’s work on the family, and this, coupled with a study of archetypes, helped me put together the fractals and jigsaw pieces of what I considered a very sad state of affairs: my family of origin.

Psyche loved Eros, as the mythology goes. Yet Psyche was absolutely hated by her mother-in-law, Aphrodite, for the sin of being who she was. Aphrodite, who represented the old order, or status quo, taught the quintessential divide between gods and humans. At that time I related this to my parent’s hierarchal divide between the untouchables: the children in my family of origin, and the Brahmin caste, the parents. My early perception of my family of origin was that my parents were clumsy and rather childish, making themselves into rigid gods who were both unapproachable yet also quite ignorant. They both saddened and interested me somewhat, having robbed me of my vital energy for being a child, leaving me to feel I needed to protect them in order to watch out for my own safety. This is best talked about in family system’s literature, but any child who thinks of her parents more than herself will know what I mean.

When my mother died in 2008 she and I were completely healed of any past story of archetypal jealousies. I was able to be with her at the end of her life in a way I never thought possible. In Hospice, as she lay dying of lung cancer, more child-like and adorable than anyone I had ever known who resembled my mother, there was no cancer in that room. She and I giggled together. I fed her. I put makeup on her. And she told me again and again how much she loved me, she said: “I know you. I know what you have done.” Her eyes, huge in a skull mostly gone to heaven already, were crystal clear and piercing. I loved her with all my heart as I knew she loved me.

But for much of my life we had not been able to express that love. I was to deal with a father who adored and preferred me and a mother and sister who competed with me for his love. In order to get the love and attention I truly craved without the homicidal rage of jealousy thrown in by my mother with her father complex and my sister with her never-ending competitive need to not only be my sister, but to quite literally absorb and be me, I strove for attention any way I could get it. It was so very lonely wherever I cast my shadow. And like Psyche, I too was betrayed by the women in my family who sided with weak, patriarchal men who claimed to belong to the “real world.” I was lost among the good ole’ boys of the south, weak men who only pretended to be strong, wounded in their masculinity. Sensing their unease, I ceased yearning for the males in the family and cast about craving maternal care and the companionship of sisterhood. I longed for the camaraderie of the women in my family; I sought out women who I felt possessed some maturity and wisdom I was certain I lacked, but most of the women I found were unhappy, and their disappointment in life and love made them doubting and envious, classic representatives of the obvious doubts that arise when things are misunderstood, childlike, and unconscious. I lived in an anachronistic world of longing and doubt, placating those around me, at best somewhat entertaining, at worst, irritating and easy to leave.

For awhile I thought I was screwed up and ravaged by demons. I accepted the introject of my family’s cruel projections; not understanding my demon was a true daemon (god). I continued to be lonely and miserable, craving company at any cost. I developed a personality trait of the super-achiever, and this is what Jean Houston calls the archetype of “too much-ness”. This archetype drives weak men away in droves, but it also represents a deep, tribal wounding in women; an archetypal envy and rage as women see in other women what they perceive they lack. And rather than become self-evolved enough to address the lack in themselves, un-evolved women project their self hatred on any likely target, especially on the very women they both envy and admire. Not only did this set me up for disaster, it set me up for a survivor’s guilt I struggle with today – a guilt so profound sometimes it leads me to want to destroy myself.

Karl Menniger wrote a book about people who achieve success with this complex. Mostly they commit suicide when they become successful. I know how many times I have been close to greatness – and I mean real, public accolades – only to deliberately sabotage my success and destroy it. This happened again and again with acting. I can remember two deliberately sabotaged screen tests with famous directors. The cost of breaking out of my family of origin mold of sameness and becoming successful – especially as a woman on my own – was too much even for my own psyche, so I destroyed what I had achieved before anyone else could do it for me.

This question of too-muchness has always raised sad and poignant issues for me. Later in life, when my mother was unable to keep her competitive edge in check and she was stressed beyond measure by the blistering disappointments in the life she was not to have, she was inhospitable whenever I came to visit, especially when I brought my own daughter, now preferred by my father, as his “favorite granddaughter.” Unable to even share her husband/father, her puella complex brought a terrible need to negative bond with the other women in the family, who in turn gossiped and triangulated with their men, both to the alarming and obvious discomfort of me and my daughter whenever we visited. As a result of this treatment, I would attempt to shrink, to put myself down, to do anything to “make everyone comfortable,” to subvert my intelligence and accomplishments at the feet of anything ordinary, anything to get people to stop humiliating me and to love and “feed” me. Constantly trying to assuage my survivor’s guilt by buying things for my sister and mother and giving them money every opportunity I could, they would turn on me anyway in terrible unkindness. I could not win. I saw how deep the tribal transgression had gone. My own mother had gone so deep into her mythological hatred of me, convinced I was there to take her husband, that she could not even see I was her blood. I was made to constantly feel uncomfortable, humiliated, and to become ill each time I visited. I became “bad,” a scapegoat now that my sister had long been banished from family events due to what surely helped her cope: a long and enduring battle with alcohol. The family curse ran deep.

I was to return again and again to the same lesson: I was best, I was “okay,” there was comfort and even an ecstasy for me when I recognized my aloneness; for I was always at home in the darkness and mystery of soul wandering. Not an isolation or punishment for me, I was, as Carolyn Myss aptly offered the moniker: a “mystic without a monastery.” Nobody could guess what went on between me and the regions of my soul when I was silent, and I was best when I played my cards close to my vest. I was best never letting the “right hand know what the left was doing.” I lost myself completely when low self esteem had me announce myself in ingratiating ways, like an arrogant doormat. My essential “seeding”, the very nurturing of the next moment of essential gestation was harmed again and again when I attempted to bond or talk about what was going on with me. Intuition warned again and again, and a return to my meditation mat affirmed what I already knew.

Like Psyche, I suffer from the quality of too-muchness. Not only have I achieved when I was expected to fail, I have made myself too available, too competent, and too predictable way too often. I scare people who do not know how to express themselves, so they attack me. I become confused and chaotic when I do not nurture the quiet sanctuary in my soul where I go to heal the pain of other’s chaos when it is projected on me and called my own. I try too hard, I try to force solutions to insolvable dilemmas, and I become ridiculous and pathetic. I am left alone, nursing wounds of confusion, betrayal and rage.

The myth of Psyche continues with test after test. Psyche’s final initiation, before any sanctified connection to her beloved Eros was possible, and one which she goes through alone, bereft, pregnant, and quite literally, suicidal, is made all the more difficult by her mean mother-in-law, Aphrodite. Psyche is without love, and mostly, without energy. Still, she perseveres. The four tasks that Aphrodite sets before the young woman serve as a series of initiations leading to deepening structures of consciousness and are symbolic of the ordeals many of us endure to deepen our consciousness on the path toward God.

The first task Aphrodite assigns Psyche is one in which Psyche is left stupefied and overwhelmed. She is asked to sort a huge pile of seeds, putting each “in its own place” before evening. She completely surrenders to the impossibility of the task, and in this surrender, a huge army of ants comes to complete the task within the allotted time. This makes Aphrodite furious, and she gives Psyche another impossible task, that of gathering Golden Fleece from sheep, which the innocent Psyche does not know are frenzied and will kill her. Again in despair over the impossibility of the task, Psyche plans to throw herself in the river to die, but she is stopped by a singing reed, breathed through her by some spirit in the wind who advises her to wait until evening when the rams are docile. She listens to her inner wisdom, does just what is advised, and again, completes the task.

Two other tasks are completed intuitively, with surrender, until Aphrodite, completely frustrated, gives Psyche the ultimate and final test, one that people rarely get to, or are extremely hesitant about ever taking. Aphrodite tells Psyche that she must journey to the Underworld and obtain from Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, a jar of her very own beauty ointment. Again, Psyche collapses from the apparent impossibility of this task. She climbs a tower and prepares to hurl herself from it.

Yet this tower is her final ally, and this is the very tower which gives her specific instructions about how to carry out her final mission:

She must go to the outskirts of a nearby city;
She must not help the lame donkey driver pick up his sticks;
She is to take two coins in her mouth and two pieces of barley bread in her hands;
She will give one coin to Charon, the ferry man, as she goes in, and she will give the other coin to him on the way out;
She must absolutely refuse:

-the dead man with the rotting hand who wants her help;
-all others who beg her help along the way;
-a man braiding a rope of the black and white threads of ambiguity;
-the entreaties of the old women who weave the web of fate.

She must also feed a piece of bread to the 3-headed canine guardian of the Underworld, Cerberus, as she enters, and again as she leaves. This will distract the dog as the three heads argue over the bread, giving her time to get through.

Most importantly, she must return the way she came once she retrieves the ointment, and she must, under no circumstances, open the jar.

The symbolism of the tower is the very archetype of wisdom itself. I am prodded to ask myself again and again, “what is the tower in my life?” Is it my profession, my family, my child? Is it my writing? Is it a network, a spiritual group, an affiliation? Is the tower changing? What is essential now? What is now?

The tower warns Psyche to curb her availability to others. How many times have I given up my focus to distract myself on relationships which were of no value? How many times have I allowed myself to be totally interruptible, totally available, for whomever, or whatever needed my attention, moving, however, with resentment and resistance, into expected generosity?

Psyche follows her instructions perfectly. She meets Persephone and receives the ointment from her, reminding us that anyone who approaches the deep world with mindfulness and attention receives the gift of beneficence. Her return trip, however, is not so successful. In spite of her good intentions, like many of us, especially when she is close to the goal, she falls prey to ancient habits. She opens the jar. Vanity has trumped spiritual development. Psyche’s soul lesson here teaches us that, just when we thought we had something licked, old habits may come back to kick us down again. But ego deflation reminds us that the hallowed aspect of these habits are the tragic flaws that provide the opportunity to claw our ways back up to grace from the tininess of our local selves. Death, resurrection, death, resurrection. Only in this way can we allow ourselves the essence of another “cocoon” phase, to morph into the beautiful butterfly which Psyche was to become.

We are lucky and filled with grace to not only be given the difficult and humiliating tests of the ego, of life, but to be given the awareness and capacity to interpret these experiences in the context of the bigger picture. Understanding experiences like this is daily Tonglen – it is compassion practice made real – for we are able to see in no uncertain terms how we are experiencing and analyzing and utilizing just like everyone else. It is bittersweet and poignant, and often very difficult, to be rejected simply because – as my shrink used to say to me: “You shine!”

It takes time and experience and wisdom to understand this opinion of others and integrate it as one’s own. Sometimes we are held hostage by our lack of understanding of the vagaries and necessities of personality. People will do as people do – they love and hate according to nothing more than their own projections; and to stay true to the authentic self regardless…well, this is an enormous accomplishment in the goings and comings of individuation.

It hurts to be rejected. It hurts to be disliked just because someone else cannot stand themselves, so they take it out on you. It hurts when our loved ones become mentally fallible and cannot sustain or even create autonomy and authenticity so that we can know where we begin and they end. And it hurts when an entire tribe moves against the outcast, the one who just isn’t quite like them. But knowing our own small self is held and embraced in the larger Weltanschauung is not only comforting but moves us from our own drama-de-jour to the big picture, the human heart we all share.

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