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Life HappensIt's How You Let It Shape You That Matters
By Alivia Cahill
Balboa PressCopyright © 2012 Alivia Cahill
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Early Years: Setting the Stage for Dysfunction
When I was growing up, I often heard stories about the misadventures of my three older siblings. As a baby, my oldest sibling, a sister, was known for "crying and screaming bloody murder" (as my mom would say) when my parents tried to give her a bath or put her to bed. She was so rambunctious that my parents would have to strap her in the car seat and drive around the block for an hour just to get her to fall asleep at night. When she was a toddler, she snuck into my parents' bedroom while my father was sleeping and drew all over his back with a black permanent marker.
In stark contrast, the next oldest child, a brother, would practically hibernate like a bear. My mother often told stories about how she would have to go into his bedroom and check on him while he slept because he was so quiet and napped for so long that she was afraid that he had smothered himself in his sleep. She even had to wake him up to eat! He was also known for having to wear socks on his hands because he often scratched his little baby face.
My other older brother, who's between my oldest brother and me in age, was the more rambunctious of the two; he used to jump up and down in his crib like a monkey. If I'm not mistaken, I think he may even have broken a crib or two in his time! But that doesn't compare to when he was a toddler and set the holiday decorations on fire with a stray cigarette lighter that had been left around the house. In my parents' defense, they had four kids to keep their eyes on; one was bound to go astray from time to time. But I digress ...
My point here is that I never heard baby stories about me. When I was a child and I heard the recollections of these antics, I asked my mom what I was like as a baby and during my toddler years. Her response was as boring as can be—she said I was a good baby. I'd be more descriptive if I could, but that's essentially the response I got whenever I asked that question. Like I said, boring!
As an adult, however, it's some validation that I didn't come out of the womb screwed up. I mean, as a baby I wasn't high strung, behaving like a depressed person by sleeping through meals, or showing signs of a potential arsonist. That's a good thing. Through deductive reasoning, I can then infer that any imbalances, trust issues, fears, or other dysfunctional oddities that I exhibited over the years, or express today, are results of how I let my life experiences shape me and not simply innate qualities that I was meant to exhibit. That's disturbing, yet comforting at the same time.
Additional evidence that suggests I was innately "normal" as a child comes from one of my earliest memories. When I was around three or four years old, I loved to play dress-up by putting on anything "girly" that I could find in the house; that included my mom's jewelry and make-up. Since mom only wore such things for special occasions, like weddings, I got much more use out of her jewelry box and make-up case than she did. I was drawn to anything that sparkled, shimmered, shined, glistened, or felt soft to the touch. Because of my affinity for dressing up like a movie star and being drawn to anything that looked expensive, my parents often referred to me as Zha Zha Gabor. I was a younger, rounder, brunette version of Zha Zha, but I took the complement. After all, what girl wouldn't want to be compared to a glamorous actress?! My mom has told me that it was also around this time when I said that I loved her so much that I never wanted to leave home.
Such recollections of happily playing dress-up and being so content that I never wanted to leave my mother's side offer validation that, at my core, I was an easy-going spirit who just wanted to love others and be loved. It really seems that any self-hatred, anguish, or anger harbored over the years was a result from life experiences and my inability to cope with them. From a psychologist's perspective, it seems that in my case the nature versus nurture question isn't that difficult to figure out—I came into this world a delicate, sensitive, loving being, and through "nurturance" (or rather, nuisance), I was changed.
The first of those life-shaping experiences happened when I was five years old. Thankfully, my conscious mind hardly remembers the event, but I know it happened through my visceral reactions to spotted memories and through my perceptions and fears that I had during childhood and adolescence. In order to fully explain this experience, I'll have to jump from age five to my twenties and thirties because it took that long to unravel the details of this experience.
When I was five, my family visited a friend of my father's for the day. He was a married man and had two daughters who were much older than me. The memories of the day are quite spotted; they are more like photos or still shots than a movie, which is unlike me. It seems like reels of memories play constantly in my mind like a movie marathon, but for this day, this experience, the memory exists in snapshots. I remember my siblings and this guy's daughters going down the stairs into the basement where they spent the afternoon. They probably watched TV or played video games to keep themselves busy while our parents rehashed old memories and got caught up on current life events.
Then I remember playing in the living room, which was on the main floor of their two-story home, while my parents and the friend's wife sat outside talking. The only other person in the room was my father's friend—I'll call him Phil. So, I was in the living room with Phil while the other three adults were outside and not within my line of vision. Phil was playfully chasing me around the living room (recalling the memory even now brings about an uneasy creepy feeling). During this chase, I stubbed my toe on the leg of the coffee table as I ran around it. I immediately started crying because my toe was hurt, so he sat me on the couch to inspect the boo-boo. A moment later, he got up to retrieve a bandage for my toe. When he returned, he sat next to me on the couch and bandaged up the very minor injury. It's at that exact moment that my memory goes completely blank; I don't recall anything else that happened for the rest of that day.
Even though I had no recall of any portion of that day until I was much older, there was a subconscious ripple effect that influenced me into adolescence, and even young adulthood. I always felt a need to avoid physical contact during childhood (hugging, holding hands) and adolescence (dating, kissing), because I felt uncomfortable and unsafe around men. However, I didn't make the connection between such feelings of uneasiness around the opposite sex and that afternoon with Phil until I was an adult.
When I was in graduate school in my early twenties, all of the students in my field of study (holistic health) were asked to keep a personal journal in which we would write about anything that was on our mind. The purpose of journaling was to learn how to shift our focus to our own thoughts and feelings instead of being so outwardly focused on our jobs, our education, and even other people all of the time. Well, one day when I was in my bedroom trying to pick a topic to write about, that Phil-related childhood memory came to my mind out of nowhere! As it did, I felt a tsunami of heat rush over my body. It felt like the hair was literally standing on the back of my neck. The heat was so intense at the base of my skull that I had to put my hand there so that I could feel a sensation other than the heat that felt like it was searing my brain. My heart beat faster and I felt like there was something much more powerful than the present moment taking over my body. Within a few moments, the tsunami was over; the whole experience was eerie. I had to reflect on what I was thinking about when the tsunami hit. Since I remembered only tidbits from that childhood experience, I didn't understand what had happened or what caused it to happen and I felt a bit scared. It was akin to Teen Wolf turning into a werewolf for the first time; he had no idea what was going on, when the sensations would be over, or what the outcome would be.
From then on, any time I recalled even a partial memory of Phil, the tsunami of heat flooded my body. As much as I didn't want to know what happened that day, I felt like I needed to know so that I could try to work through it and move on. The memory snuck up on me on several occasions over the years, but it seemed as if there was little I could do about it. After all, if it was only Phil and I in the room that day and I couldn't remember all of what happened, how would I ever know? I sure as hell wasn't going to look up Phil's phone number and give him a call to discuss it.
Several years after the initial memory resurfaced, when I was thirty years old, I was seeking help from a holistic practitioner and I recalled the spotted memory of Phil again. Even though I did not want to discuss this issue, I desperately wanted to move forward, so I asked for her professional assessment of my spotted memories of this experience. Not knowing how much I could handle, I only wanted to discuss two simple questions: was I sexually abused, and did it involve Phil?
I explained the physiological reactions that I had been experiencing to the memory in question, and that the memory was choppy and faint instead of fluid and detailed like all of my other memories. In her holistic office where I felt safe and relaxed, we worked to retrieve additional details from that day. I was very hesitant to remember more than I could handle, so once it was confirmed that my discomfort around men did include sexual abuse that involved Phil, I stopped probing that memory bank. I just left it at that; I couldn't handle anymore at that time.
With or without all of the details of that day, I know this experience shaped me—at least on a subconscious level. Even recalling it now and recording what little I remember in written form, I can hear my heart pounding and I feel it beating harder and faster. I feel thoroughly nauseated and overwhelmed. This all feels sickening, but cathartic at the same time. One professor who taught several of my health courses in college always said that "healing feels like something." In other words, it's not just a magical occurrence in which one feels ill or strong negative emotions, and then feels completely well the next minute. Healing is a process and it has noticeable shifts in energy, emotions, and physiology. From what I'm feeling now, I'm guessing I'm still healing.
It's difficult to explain how my fears of intimacy and men initially stemmed from this experience with Phil since I did not remember the instance throughout much of my life, nor do I even recall all of the details of the experience today. All I can say is that while these memories were repressed in my mind as a coping mechanism to protect myself, my body's uncomfortable physiological responses to being hugged or touched, or simply near a man, were not repressed. So while my mind may not have remembered every detail of that day, I experienced reactions in my cellular memory that illustrated that at least part of my being did remember it all. Unfortunately, it seems as if those subtle, reoccurring cellular responses (not the tsunami) were enough to affect my perception of others and my relationships over the years.
That negative experience with Phil when I was just five years old may or may not have been the first to contribute to my skeptical and untrusting nature, but it was certainly not the last. Since I was the youngest child, my older siblings didn't really want to play with me; instead, they liked to harass and tease me. I don't really blame them for not wanting to play with me because older siblings usually want to explore new places and play with kids who are "cooler" than little girls with their dolls. I get that. What I don't get, however, is the pleasure they felt from tormenting me.
Because of the dynamic between my siblings and me, the baby of the family, I spent a lot of time playing by myself. I made up stories and played with dolls and stuffed animals, and things of that nature. Unfortunately, when my older siblings couldn't find neighborhood kids to play with, were stuck in the house because of bad weather, or were just bored, their entertainment came from harassing me. As a sensitive kid, their taunts would always end with my desperate pleas for them to stop and my crying so hard I could barely breathe. They pulled the same stunts over and over again and instead of foreseeing their bluffs, I got seriously upset each time they picked on me. They found it hilarious that I got so devastatingly upset, and what was even funnier to them, that I got upset about the same unfulfilled threats day after day.
When I was five or six years old, their favorite threat involved my red suitcase. I had this adorable red suitcase that I used more for play than for traveling because I stored all of my dolls in it. That suitcase, along with most of my other toys, were stored in the basement due to the cramped living quarters of six people living in a three bedroom home. So, understandably, I spent a lot of time playing downstairs where my toys were. Cue torment now.
On at least one occasion, I remember standing in the basement next to all of my beloved toys, including my favorite red suitcase, and being surrounded by all three older siblings. They repeatedly told me that I wasn't related to them—that a band of gypsies dropped me off on their doorstep one day. They continued by telling me that, even though they didn't love me, my parents supposedly felt sorry for me and kept me anyway. Then they took my cherished little suitcase and threatened to pack my belongings in it and ship me away; I believe the full threat included being sent back to the gypsies.
Being so young, I didn't know who the heck these gypsies were, but I did know that if they dropped me off with this band of lunatics who were now threatening to send me away, then there were two families who didn't love me. The only thing I could do was cry and beg them not to send me away—although that probably would have been a fantastic option! After pleading with them through a waterfall of tears, I ran upstairs in hysterics to tell one of my parents.
My dad was home, but he worked the night shift and was sound asleep in his bedroom. That meant that my options were to wake the sleeping bear (who wouldn't be awake enough to understand what I was saying) or call my mom at work (which was only supposed to happen in an emergency). I rolled the proverbial dice and elected to call my mom. While she was annoyed that I called, she had me put a sibling on the phone and she told them to "knock it off!" I think that was her go-to disciplinary action during all of her child-rearing years.
God only knows how many times this happened before the band of lunatics (aka, my siblings) didn't find it funny anymore. But from where I stood, once was enough to leave a huge scar and the feelings that I was unworthy of being loved. Without realizing it, I'm pretty sure that this experience branded me with perpetual feelings of unworthiness of being loved by others, being unworthy of self-love, a general distrust of others, and an understanding that exposing my weaknesses could, and likely would, be used against me in the "court of humanity."
By the age of six, consequently, I had developed a subconscious fear of intimacy and men, I learned that I shouldn't really trust anyone (especially family), and that I was not loved, and therefore, was not worthy of self-love. Maybe it was a combination of these perceptions, or perhaps, it was constantly witnessing heated arguments between my parents, but that general distrust of others eventually triggered an irrational fear about my father. Even though my father and I were friends—we built kites together and went to the park to fly them—the family stressors and my growing distrust of others led to a childhood fear that my father might kill me. I'm not exactly sure at what age this fear appeared, but it stuck around until I was in my twenties. (While noting this fear may seem arbitrary at the moment, it is important to another time in my life that I will mention later.)
To elaborate on this particular fear a little bit, I'll give you a brief description of my father. As I said earlier, he worked the night shift so his schedule was backwards from that of the rest of the family. When we were lying in bed going to sleep, he was getting dressed and eating dinner before work. My sister and I shared a small room growing up and so we also shared bunk beds; I slept on the top bunk. Our bedroom was right across the hall from my parents' room, so when my dad was getting dressed and going back and forth in the hallway, I could easily hear every heavy, awkward footstep pounding on the floor. If he woke up late from his nap or was running behind schedule, those footsteps were heavier and noisier, and in disturbing contrast to the quiet and calm tone of the rest of the house.
Excerpted from Life Happens by Alivia Cahill Copyright © 2012 by Alivia Cahill. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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