Fibromyalgia has given me a gift. It has pushed me to reflect, evolve, and break up a solid foundation of untruths I’ve lived by. Trauma happens to all of us, at least that is what I’m finding as I share my story. We all have things we need to work through. Some do it sooner than others.
One way I have always gone through life is by playing the “mother figure”. From a very young age, I remember peers and elders saying things like “Katie is the mom of this group” and “you’re an old soul”. I remember being 10 years old, my mom cemented to the couch again. I didn’t know why. Six years later, she would be committed to Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital (and spend the rest of her life in the State’s care) for Schizophrenia and Bipolar disorder.
Cultivating a Caretaker Persona
When she was on the couch for days on end, I would “cook” meals, do the dishes, rub her feet and scratch her back. My younger sister and I would stay out of her sight as much as possible. When she was manic, it was a crapshoot. She could be a lot of fun, bringing us to get ice cream or buying us things we liked. However, she could also be violent. Not so much physically to us, although there was some of that, what she’d do a lot screaming and breaking of things. It was scary.
As an elementary student, I’d befriend those I saw as outsiders. I’d see it my role to help them. In 5th grade, one of my friends was Joey. He had six or so siblings. He’d come to school dirty and wearing raggedy clothes and shoes with holes. I made sure to protect him at recess (bullies saw his petite frame as easy pickings) and brought from home anything I thought he could use. My home life was not much above his financially, but my mom did obtain decent clothes (generally garage sales and donations) for my sister and me, so I felt I could help him, too.
This mother-figure that made sure to take care of those around me continued into college, my marriage and family, and into my profession as a teacher (both to my students and colleagues).
I’ve begun to realize that this role has served me. Yes, I did it to help others, but I also received what I wanted. Maybe it was a distraction from dealing with my own wounds, helping someone with theirs. Maybe it was to get the love and appreciation from the one I helped. Maybe it was to get the praises of those around me. Maybe it was to be needed. Probably, it was all of these. Still, it led to me ignoring my own needs- physically and emotionally. I would regularly get through a day of teaching, realizing that I had not had anything to eat or drink all day.
Learning I’d Been Living a Lie
This realization comes through writing. Often my hand flows without me knowing what’s going to come out. It’s as if an invisible spirit has taken my fingers over and I sit and watch as the words fly out. Often what I write is very close to the first draft’s version. When I read it, I come to understand a new insight about myself. There was little to no forethought about what gushed out. Many times I cry as I read it to myself-the knowing becomes so raw.
Below is a poem that brought me an understanding of one of the falsehoods I had lived by.
Too long have I hidden in the dark; fanning your fire.
I too need to burn; burn bright and strong.
I too need to know that who I am counts.
That just me, not what I’ve done for you,
Actually has meaning and worth.
I don’t hesitate.
I blow gently, timidly at first, hoping that my fire will burn strong and vibrant.
reminding me of all the oxygen I gave to you to hold.
You pass it back to me.
I blow with a giddiness that encircles those embers and brings it to flame.
I’ve only brought logs, and they’re not ready to ignite.
“Now,” you nudge, “add your first log. I think it’s strong enough.”
It Was Complicated
The relationship I had with my mom was complicated at best. I was so angry, disgusted, and ashamed with her nearly all my life. Yet, I respected her, loved her deeply, and thought she was amazing. After her suicide in May 1991 when I was 27 years old, 5 months after my son was born, I went through many stages of emotion: anger, judgment, love, inconsolable grief, forgiveness, and shame. This poem poured out of me after listening to a speaker talk of forgiveness.
They said you were mentally ill.
You said you had hypoglycemia-
drinking raw eggs like Rocky.
They put you in a hospital.
Outwitting your opponent
and told you not to smoke.
and bummed a carton of cigarettes.
You said, screw this,
I don’t live because you say.
So you, let the blood run out
Soaking into the shag carpet.
A Desperate Obsession