Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The World I Know

My family threw a joint Graduation/Birthday birthday party for me and my mother this past weekend. My mom turned 85 on May 17th. It was a wonderful party and it was great to see everyone again, but the highlight for me came when my partner Stephanie sat with my mom in a quiet part of my sister's house and showed her the video of my graduation speech.
Stephanie told me that half way through the video my mom started crying.
And afterward she sat with Stephanie and talked with her as she never had before.
She told her about the difficult time I had when I was growing shy and withdrawn I was, how I felt as if I would never "fit in," and how much pain I experienced just trying to make it through high school when I had no hope for the future, and saw no value in my own existence. My mother told Stephanie how worried she was for me as I struggled to get through those difficult years, and how proud she is of me and what I've accomplished.

Hearing this made me cry.
My mom is not one for huge shows of emotion, and she has never been one to feel comfortable in the presence of those who are showing emotions.
It took many years for her to return the "I love you" I shared at the end of our phone conversations without hesitation. I don't recall her saying those three words very often when I was growing up, although she showed her love in a million other ways.
When I was going through those difficult years, I would often pour my heart out to her at the kitchen table, and not knowing what to do with my pain or how to ease it, she would simply get up and go about her business. As I sat there crying she would get up from the table and go fold the towels in the laundry room.
I now understand that after years of listening to my fears and frustrations she had run out of calming words to offer. She felt powerless in the face of my pain, and feeling her own discomfort with my displays of emotions she reacted in the only way she knew how.
I understand that now.
But at the time I felt abandoned and unheard.

For years as a teenager and young adult I had nightmares in which I was following my mother from room to room, screaming to get her attention and she would never even turn to acknowledge that I was there.  In other dreams I would tell her one thing and she would hear another, and I'd spend the entire dream trying to get her to listen and understand that she had misunderstood me.
Feeling abandoned.
Feeling not heard.
These have been life long issues for me.
And I know these fears originated long before I became a forlorn teenager.

As I've mentioned here before, I was born with a cleft palate - both my hard and soft palates were not fully formed (I was essentially missing the entire roof of my mouth), which made eating difficult and caused a noticeable speech impediment. Before the age of five I had several operations to repair the hard palate deformity, all of which were unsuccessful. The scar tissue that formed as a result of these operations precluded any further attempts to fix the deformity, and I did not have my cleft palate completely repaired until a new type of operation was presented to my parents when I was 16-years-old.

But the emotional scars that formed during the early years of my life went much deeper than the physical scars. I had my first operation when I was 18-months-old and I vividly remember standing in a crib in the hospital, reaching over the side and crying hysterically as I watched my mother walk away. I was too young to understand what was going on or where I was. Even at the age of 5, I don't recall having any comprehension of what was happening to me. My mother tells me that I screamed so much after each operation that I tore the stitches out every time. For weeks after I was brought home I would wake up screaming in the middle of the night and calling for my mother.

These early experiences influenced the fear of abandonment that overwhelmed me as a teenager. Added to the mix was the fact that I was naturally shy, and the speech impediment only enhanced my social inhibitions,  and I was not yet fully conscious of the fact that I was gay, which led to all sorts of issues surrounding gender expression and feeling like I didn't "fit in." Add these all together and you have a recipe for one unhappy teenager.

And then there was the bullying. Taken by themselves any one of these factors would have been enough to slap a target on my back. Taunts about my speech impediment in parochial school led to outright expressions of hatred and disgust in high school. By that time I was so withdrawn and experiencing the symptoms of depression that my mere presence seemed to trigger the worst in my peers. I didn't talk in class, I didn't socialize with anyone, and like many who experience depression I had little concern about my appearance - I would often wear the same clothes day after day and showered only once a week. In the societal microcosm that is high school I was "the other" in a group of young adults who were desperately trying to find and assert their own identity while trying to conform at the same time. I was the weakest link.

I am still amazed that I made it through those years without taking my own life.
I thought about it. Often.
I saw a psychiatrist briefly who prescribed some anti-anxiety meds for me - which I rarely took but instead saved in massive quantities for the day when I would finally end it all.
When I was 15-years-old I was convinced that I would not be alive to see my 18th birthday.
But yet I was.

I can't put my finger on any one single reason why I made it through those years.
I had the operation that finally fixed my cleft palate when I was 16, which helped me feel more confident about my speech.
I saw the move "Breaking Away" and fell in love with the sport of cycling - Cycling gave me a sense of freedom and accomplishment that I so desperately needed.
And I had a friend, a pen pal, who reached out to me and helped me to feel valued and special. She would end each of her letters with "I love you" - the words my own mother had such a hard time saying.

As these three influences converged in my life my depression seemed to wane and I grew to be more comfortable in my own skin.
I stopped caring so much about being different and not fitting in, and instead embraced it.
And once I learned that I could face this kind of adversity, and live through it, there was no experience or fear that I couldn't face, and ensuing disappointments would not bring me down for long.
Life was a roller coaster, with ups and downs.
And it's realizing that the downs don't last forever that is the secret to survival.

I don't know if my mother has ever fully understood what I was going through during those difficult teen years. I don't know if she has ever realized how close I came to taking my own life.
But she knows that I was in pain.
She knows that I had lost hope.
And feeling partly responsible for that pain (she often blamed herself for the fact that I was born with a cleft palate) and feeling unequipped to restore my sense of hope, she clawed and dragged her way through that period of my life the same way that I did - Not knowing what to do or say, and often doing or saying the exact opposite of what we should, but holding onto each other none the less.

In recent years my mother has never held back from telling me how proud she is of me and what I've accomplished, and how much she loves me. And I know in the core of my being that she has felt this way all along.
Hearing that she cried upon viewing my seminary graduation speech connects two moments in time.
One moment I am standing in the pulpit using the voice that God has given me, and in another I am sitting at the kitchen table with my mother, trying desperately to speak from my silence.

Both moments are gifts from God.
Both are woven into the fabric of my life experience and both moments inform how I have come to live and be in this world.

This world is not perfect.
Our lives are not perfect. Not by a long shot. 
There are many reasons why we might lose hope.
But this is the world that God has given us.
These are the lives that God has given us.
What we end up doing with both is up to us.

When I think about the days when I felt as if the only way to end my pain was to end my life, I can't help but cringe at the thought of what I would have been throwing away.

These lyrics from a song by Collective Soul come to mind:

So I walk up on high
And I step to the edge
To see my world below.
And I laugh at myself
While the tears roll down.
'Cause it's the world I know.
It's the world I know. 

This is the world I know.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.
Happy Birthday, mom.
I'm glad I was here to celebrate your 85th year.
And I'm glad you were here to celebrate my graduation from seminary.
I can't wait to see what we'll do next!


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing your story and for letting me get to know you as an adult. So many of your experiences with your mom are shared family traits amongst the seven siblings (my dad too, doesn't say "I love you"). I'm proud of you!
(cousin) Ro

Senator Beth said...

You are such an inspiration Maureen. I'm grateful for the journey you've had that has led you to speak your truth, God's truth.

Anonymous said...

Maureen, You wrote a beautiful commentary of your life experiences. We in our family did not see much of you after we moved to Florida when you were about seven years old. Please forgive your mother for those times when the laundry for her ten children seemed more important then your tears. She was always busy and your father worked 16 hours on most days. May you inspire many to find God in their lives in your ministry. My daughter, Rosemary is right, I'm like my sister (your mother) and don't say "I love you" very often, but will try to do better. -your Uncle John.

Anonymous said...

Dear Maureen,
I hope you don't mind me sharing this with your blog followers. Having lived through some of these experiences with you, I can relate to some of the pain, and it breaks my heart to know that I couldn't help in any way, because I always did sense in the later years that you might be on the path you mentioned. Maybe I followed Mom in my method of dealing (plus I had my own teenage angst to deal with although to a lesser degree)so I'm sorry I wasn't there for you more.

Know that God most certainly had a plan for you, even if it was delayed many years. Maybe you needed to "Break away" (and break your pelvis!) before you heard Him calling. Now is your time to use the gift He gave you. As we told you at the party, you gave a phenomenal speech and you will inspire and encourage so many by sharing your experiences. You give the hopeless reason to hope. And I am sure every single one of us Frescotts is extremely proud of you and your accomplishments and I will say right here that I LOVE YOU!!

PS I am sure you won't mind all these years later, and to lighten the mood, I remember that Reds baseball hat that you NEVER took off (you were on a Pete Rose kick)!! Was glad to finally see that go!

gay williams said...

What a wonderful story of transformation. Knowing you today (and not in your younger years) I would have no idea of your struggles. God has worked wonders in you - and surely is not yet done with you! So glad for your "seeing", and for the life you are living out.

Affectionately, gay williams

Cousin Rich said...

Congratulations survivor. Welcome to renewed life. You earned it.

Maureen said...

Thank you so much, everyone, for your kind words and your support.

Uncle John, your comments have touched me the most. Please know that I am most appreciative of all that my mother and father did for us children as we were growing up, and although only five of us were living at home during the time I spoke of in my post, I do know that my mother carried the weight of all her children's troubles - and still does - no matter where we live or what age we are.
I'm so happy you have taken Rosemary's comment to heart.
God moves in blessed ways! :)

Suzy, thank you for your comments as well. Please know that I never expected you to do any more than you did, which was to just be my sister, friend, and companion. You were just a kid yourself!
This was something that I needed to work through on my own, and I've never once begrudged anyone for not doing more to intervene - Even mom did everything that she could given her nature and capabilities.

Hope is a wonderful gift to give to another, but the person on the receiving end has to garner the strength and willingness to reach out and accept it as their own...and to do that one must realize that no one is beyond hope. All of us have value and are worth saving in the eyes of God.
That is what I had to learn as a teenager, and that is the "Good News" that I wish to impart to others in my ministry, with God's help.

Oh and BTW - I loved that Pete Rose inspired baseball cap that I used to wear, even if I did put my own iron on "C" on the front to make it official. ;)

I love you too, Suzy.
And thank you Beth, Gay, and Richard for your comments as well.
Thank you for YOUR inspiration! :)