The Forgiveness Chronicles - Part XVI: Trauma Bonding
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
The Forgiveness Chronicles, Continued
The mushrooms tasted horrible! They were dry and chewy at the same time, the scent and flavor strikingly familiar to sweaty gym socks. I gagged. There had to be a better way to do this.
"How long does it take?" I said, through a clenched throat and a spasm in my jaw. I imagined my face was screwed into a pitiful contortion of revolt.
The shaman looked at me with the slightest grin of amusement. "Maybe an hour." At the look of distress I gave her, she reminded me: "in the meantime, we breathe. The mind follows the breath."
I laid back on the ground, feeling the thick, scratchy Navajo blankets under my back. I stared up at the sky, examining branches of the trees above and the large, white billows of clouds slowly drifting to the east. My inhales slowed, as I envisioned roots sprouting and wiggling down into the dirt, tendrils reaching, searching, probing the soil for their perfect spot. My breathing then became one with the Earth, this all encompassing goddess of beneficence. She was fierce, but only as a Mother would protect her children. Wrathful, but only to the extent of self defense. She was transcendent abundance, yet balanced, always being forced to enforce her boundaries, teaching us about our own means of self preservation. The roots connected a tree to it's neighbor, synapses buzzing these messages...a rhythmic beat all its own. I wondered if this was the heartbeat of the planet, something we could all sync into and harmonize with at any time.
I suddenly saw the vastness of the universe, and then universes beyond that. "As above, so below," I heard in the tree root whispers. Perhaps the beat was a binary code. If everything can be expressed in binary code, then the trees speak to the planets, the planets speak to us, and through this interconnected pulse, we are all One. There is a cosmic language. I was but a miniscule synapse and a crucial bridge simultaneously in any given moment.
A bridge to what? To who? To where? I caught my breath quickening and steadied myself, returning to the slow, deep inhalations, where my belly pushed out, and the exhales brought release. Slowly, faint apparitions began to appear dancing around me, the roots from my body still pulsing in the dirt below me, feeling the secret communications with the trees. Feathers, beads, chanting, and leather flashed around me, spinning, as the vision zoomed out to our entire Earth, spinning on its axis around the sun.
It was all connected. We are all bridges to Oneness, while at the same time, still being distinctly one in and of ourselves. Suddenly, I innerstood: we are all just here to figure out what kind of bridge we really are.
And sometimes that changed from one moment to the next. But the pulse, the heartbeat, that rhythm we all shared, was always there to return to, the unifying force throughout the cosmos.
Driving to the airport, every song that came on the radio seemed to be a sad one. The sunny skies of lunchtime had also been replaced by a light, gray rain. Pearl Jam’s “Breathe” began playing and I sobbed uncontrollably, driving 55 miles an hour in the slow lane, barely seeing through the tears. Nostalgia washed over me. I was transported back to the moment when I was boarding a flight to San Francisco twelve years prior, almost exactly to the day. It had been just after I had broken off my engagement and was going to see Violet over spring break to lick my wounds and clear my head. I remembered staring down at the clouds below and feeling a sudden and profound loss; for the first time in my life, it had hit me that someday, my parents would die and my life would continue without them. Why this thought had struck me at that moment in time was beyond my comprehension, but I remembered it vividly, as though it were just yesterday. Had I been listening to the same song playing over the radio? Had I been eating the same snack? What had triggered the two moments and linked them together twelve years apart?
Everything felt laden with some deep, intangible significance that was just beyond my grasp. It was the same feeling of impending doom I had experienced at GGG back in 2016, eighteen months prior. All my life, the veil between my current reality and the ones that existed just beyond, on the other side of something, almost within reach such that I could feel and acutely sense it, but never fully experience it. It was like chasing that high I knew I would never reach unless it killed me. Then, maybe I would experience it. But would it be all I thought it could be, or just a figment of my imagination?
I tried to gauge where the bag claim would be and parked as close as I could get. I stared through the glass separating the ones getting on and off the plane from those of us just visiting the airport, avoiding security and the now routine invasions conducted by the TSA in the name of national security. I realized that all I had eaten were the two egg rolls and a few pieces of shrimp from Mom’s soup and bought an overpriced bag of jalapeno potato chips from a small market in the terminal. I returned to my spot at the glass, watching planes pull in and gate doors open. I scanned the crowd for my sister and nephew, holding back tears as I watched moms embrace their children.
I was certain I looked a wreck. I didn’t even want to catch my reflection in the glass. My sister emerged from the jetway and looked up and saw me. Her lips pursed when she saw me and she gave a curt wave. My nephew was distracted, a stuffed monkey dangled from his hand as my sister struggled to keep a grip on him. My heart melted. He was only three months older than my daughter and like her, full of spunk.
I met them at the exit and hugged my sister, realizing that I must be clinging. I swallowed back the next round of tears that threatened to roll forth. Jesus, get your shit together! F*$king quit with the tears already. You’re the strong one, remember? You can’t cry in front of the kid. Take a breath…there you go. One more. Release. Release, damn it! Don’t be weird. I sighed.
We gathered up the bags and headed for the car, giving my sister the debriefing on the way to the hospital. She and I had never been that close. We were polar opposites, never quite getting one another. The family crisis gave me hope that we might be able to forge our way forward and finally have a normal sibling relationship.
“What’s the prognosis?” she asked.
I took a breath. “Too soon to tell, but probably not that good.”
She only nodded. “When will they know the sub type?”
She had been Googling. We had all been Googling. Google had done no one any favors that day.
“She has a bone marrow biopsy Monday. The results take a few days. They will probably know more by then.”
My sister looked over at me. That’s right. Tests, then wait. I think we’ll be waiting on a lot of shit in the coming weeks.
“This is so shocking. But you knew. I remember that phone call,” she said. “But it’s still….”
Yeah, I couldn’t quite finish a sentence that day, either.
“So I’ll drop you off. Dad will bring you back to my place later.”
“When do they start treatment?” my sister was still stuck on the timeline. I had been through this earlier in the day. There were a series of things that had to be determined. The bone marrow draw, then depending on one or two tests, the type of treatment. Then we’d wait until after that round, do more tests, wait for results, see if it worked, then depending on all of that, figure out the next steps. No one had any idea what would happen, what would come next, or how this was going to go. The uncertainty of it all made my stomach turn. I pushed the nausea aside.
“They aren’t sure. They have to get the biopsy results back first because the sub type determines the treatment.”
My sister groaned. Yep, I was there five hours ago. I knew the feeling. I would have liked to have been able to say that I had already moved past it, but I hadn’t. I had just cried myself into a temporary numbness. By bedtime, she’d probably be there, too.
My Dad was genuinely happy to see his grandson, though I could tell it was an effort for him to be so joyful on a day so bleak. I waved at everyone as they headed through the hospital entrance and up to mom’s room. Fourth floor, last door on the left. Room 4233.
My brain instinctually added up the numbers: four plus two plus three plus three...twelve. Completion. Another sign! Oh shit. Just stop thinking about it...I tried to will the thoughts of completion from coming, but my mind was relentless. This is it. This is actually happening.
By the time my sister and nephew arrived home, my sister’s entire demeanor was different. Her shoulders were slack. Her eyes were fatigued from holding back the tears I knew were about to wash down her face. The kids were playing in the other room and I was lying in bed, feet up, trying to concentrate on a magazine. She sat on the foot of the bed and in the lamplight, she looked at me.
“So…it is this bad.”
I nodded. “Yep.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know how to feel.”
My sister’s feelings for my mom were complicated. She was closer with Dad and I was closer with Mom.
“She told the doctors and the nurses that she barely drank and didn’t really smoke,” she said with a biting sarcasm. “That’s just great. Lying to the doctors. Then they tell her she didn’t do anything to cause the disease. It just happens,” she rolled her eyes in frustration. “And Dad’s playing along!”
I gave her the look as if to say, and you’re surprised by this? She glanced at me and then waved a hand dismissively.
“You’re right, I know.”
“Ironic, isn’t it?” I began. “Every night before bed, we had to recite the three things,” I said.
“Always love you family, always tell the truth, never do drugs,” we said in unison. We both laughed, but it quickly turned somber.
“Yeah, well, amazing how that shit doesn’t seem to apply to them,” my sister spat. “All they do these days is lie.”
“Yes, well, the older we get, the more the bones we accumulate in the back of the closet,” I reminded her.
Her face twisted into a scowl. “Do you know how much therapy it has taken me to get here? To fly here? To see her?”
The surprise registered on my face. “Therapy?”
“Yes, I had to go see a therapist.”
“Before we all met in Branson last August,” she said matter-of-factly.
“No shit. I found one that specializes in counseling adult children of alcoholics,” she said, shifting her weight at the edge of the bed and getting comfortable. “She wrote a book about it. I read it in a day. I’m the typical adult child of an alcoholic.”
“What does that even mean?” I asked.
She tossed her hair over her shoulder. I always admired her hair. It was darkening from blonde to brown with age. “It’s actually a syndrome. We’re approval seekers who lose our identity in the process. That’s where my anxiety comes from, because as a kid, I never knew which Mom I was coming home to,” she began.
I nodded. “Yeah, drunk Mom drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette on the porch or Mom who was making cookies and tea and wanted to talk about your day.”
My sister pointed at me. “Exactly!”
I smiled. “Yeah, that was Mom.” I knew what she was referring to, but it hadn’t affected me like it had her. I had never been phased by Mom or her drinking. It was just one more thing that highlighted the gulf that existed between my sister and I. I would never be able to comprehend the depth of her trauma surrounding her relationship with our mother. I could be sympathetic, but I could never pretend to truly "get it."
She continued. “Compulsiveness, over developed sense of responsibility, because it’s easier to be concerned with others than it is ourselves…and then there’s the whole guilt thing, which probably ties into the fact that no one was there for me emotionally, so I stuff my emotions away and feel guilty for having any.”
“Wow, I’m really sorry…” I wasn’t sure whether to feel guilty myself, as the older sister who was too preoccupied with my own life to notice her struggle. “It didn’t quite affect me that way. I had other issues.”
“Well, it manifests different for everyone.”
“Listen...I was sexualy molested as a kid. No one ever knew." I recounted the incident to her, told her about how I had repressed memories that surfaced in my late teens, and how, when I had told Mom, that it had been quickly dismissed.
"Did you get therapy?!?" she asked incredulously.
I shook my head. "I tried. Therapy didn't really help. I found other ways. More unconventional ways."
"Like what?" she asked.
I told her about my spiritual journey and how psychadelic therapies with hallucinogenic plant medicines had helped me to alleviate the PTSD I had experienced. "But I guess I took on the addiction. It took a lot for me to realize I had a problem and then to quit and get clean. Almost sixteen years, this summer,” I admitted.
“I know that must have been difficult for you,” she said softly.
She could try to empathize, but I knew she never would be able to grasp what I had been through or had overcome, just as I would never relate to her suffering. I was staring off at the wall, as if trying to see into the past. “It was terrible. I didn’t realize until a lot later that it might be a genetic…a family thing.”
“Right! Because no one wants to call it what it is. She’s a f*$king alcoholic. I came home one time to the front door wide open and blood all over the floor. What the hell is that? And never once would Dad admit she had a problem,” my sister glowered, tears glistening in her eyes.
"I don't judge her," I said flatly. "We all have our demons. And I think it is more than genetic. I believe when we incarnate, we have ancestral karma to work out. If our ancestors didn't fully resolve an issue, we are here to resolve it not just for ourselves, but energetically for them, as well," I added. “Although...after promising every night for years on end, the shame was unbearable when I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t tell anyone because then I would be a fraud, and that made the pressure worse. The thought of disappointing them was my crushing burden. So that’s why I ran off to Hawaii. I didn’t want anyone to know. It was sort of like rehab for me,” I said. “You know now that they would have been the first to condemn me, judge me.”
My sister shook her head, a big tear rolling from her blue eye down her cheek. “This is exactly what I am talking about.”
“I don’t feel like I can complain, not really,” I reminded her, “because the house was spotless, we were fed, we were clean, we had everything we needed.”
She let out a caustic laugh. “Almost.”
I stared at her, not wanting to hear out loud what “almost” meant to her, but I already knew. After the tampon incident and being told to shove my childhood sexual molestation back into the box it was dug up from, I knew. But even those things hadn’t ruined my relationship with Mom. I always saw it as Mom needing to distance herself from her own trauma. I could relate to Mom. She had found her way to cope, and it wasn’t her responsibility to wave a wand and make my trauma disappear. I never expected that from her. Instead, I had empathy for my Mom. I imagined we had faced similar horrors and I could never judge someone for how they had dealt with theirs.
“I have been trying to commit suicide since I was a teenager,” she began softly, almost in a whisper. “I wanted to die. As soon as my hormones changed, something inside of me changed, too. I needed help. I went to the school counselor, and they called Mom down there. I remember thinking to myself, please…anyone but Mom…but she stayed home. So she was the one who came.”
She wiped the tear from her cheek and took a deep breath. “The counselor tried to explain, but Mom insisted I was making empty threats to get back at her, to hurt her, to manipulate her into getting my way. The whole way home, I got lectured about what a spoiled brat I was.”
Her nose crinkled and the tears came more readily. She paused, allowing the tears to fall, slowly wiping them away until she felt she could continue.
“I needed psychological help. But you know them: shrinks are snake oil salesmen. Toughen up. I tried, but I just couldn’t. Mom’s answer was birth control pills.”
I gave an exasperated sight. “I know. It’s like birth control pills would solve all our problems. She thought those would fix me, too.” I chuckled. Mom loved birth control pills. I could hear her voice in my mind: oh these fix everything!
“But they didn’t work, did they?” she asked.
“No. It made it worse.”
She grabbed her sleeve and dabbed her face with it and continued. “Everything was fine for a while. It got better when I moved out. But then, after I had a baby, I tanked. I felt like I was falling into this black hole. One weekend, on our way home from North Carolina, I admitted to my husband I wanted to jump from the car window while we were flying down the interstate…it was an overwhelming urge, even with our baby in the backseat. I lost it,” she sobbed.
I reached out and grabbed her arm, stunned. I had never known. “Why?”
She shrugged. “Because I’m sick, Aubrey.”
I just stared and kept my hand on her arm. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Why would you?” she asked rhetorically. “It’s not like we were close. All Mom and Dad have ever done is pit us against each other.”
I had never thought of it that way before. All the phone calls where Mom or Dad had complained about my sister and her family and their life choices and parenting. All the criticisms. Maybe it was true.
“They are always talking poorly about you to me,” I said, relaxing back into my pillow.
She gave me a wry smile. “And about you and Chet to me,” she said.
I had always fancied myself low maintenance kid who had succeeded, surpassed their expectations, stuck around, and tried to be the one who was there whenever I was needed. But they always found fault with Chet, and the longer our marriage lasted, the worse it got. Part of me wanted to know what they had said about me to my sister, but it ultimately didn’t matter. It was an awful spot and I knew it well.
It didn’t take long for my parents to notice we were getting along for a change. True to form, Mom instantly took credit. She gave me a smug grin from the hospital bed the following day.
“Seems you and your sister are getting along well. That’s good,” she said, taking on a pleased tone. “You see, this illness is for the best. It’s bringing everyone together. Leave it to me to have that happen,” she added with satisfaction.
I was wary, though. It might be too good to be true, this closeness…this trauma bonding. Something inside of me wondered if it would last. I felt like one bridge between Mom and my sister. I knew there were others; my Dad was a bridge, too. But when Mom died, there would be nothing over on that side of the bridge anymore, nothing physical, anyway. Would our relationship be able to stand on its own? I knew I needed to just hold it together long enough to get through this crisis. I no longer had the privilege of taking anything for granted and learned never to think too far ahead.
“Yeah, okay Mom,” I said. It was better to agree than debate the details. The details were entirely too dirty for the moment. Serious illness meant prioritizing the criticisms. I knew the second Mom was released from the hospital, she would be looking for a Swisher Sweet and a glass of wine. This would be swiftly followed by justification. Instead of ‘I keep a spotless house, I deserve it,’ it would be something like ‘well, who knows how long I have? I might as well enjoy life to the fullest.’ I could hear her tone indignantly ringing in my head. And I already knew I wouldn’t be the one to say no or to judge her.
She had never been one for chemo. She had always told us she would refuse it and allow herself to die, so the fact she was going along with it was sincerely shocking. But then, no one expects to have a doctor tell them, at 63 years of age, that without intervention, they might have a couple weeks left because 90% of their blood consists of cancer cells. No one expects to have to look at their spouse and best friend of nearly 40 years and actually go through with saying no thanks to treatment, because that means you’re giving up not just on your life, but on the life that was built with this other person. There were also the grandchildren, who were only five, and who were a major source of joy. So, she went along with the treatment, but never the education.
“I don’t want to know,” she would say. “I’m doing this my way. I don’t want their expectations. I’ll control my thought process on this.”
The three to four weeks they told her in the beginning ultimately turned into seven. She refused many items from home because she didn’t want to get comfortable at the hospital. Never did I feel Grandma JoJo’s presence so strongly as when she declined the comfort items. She was doing the exact opposite of what JoJo had done. Mom, on the other hand, ruminated more on Grandpa Otto, her father.
“I now understand,” she would tell me. “This confinement…it is enough to make someone miserable enough to wish for death. I hate that he was cooped up like this, alone, the final years of his life. But he had choices, and because he refused to make a choice, he wound up in the nursing home. I understand why he was so miserable.”
“You can’t blame yourself, Mom. He was always miserable, even before he went to the nursing home,” I said.
Mom closed her eyes and gently shook her head. “I know, Aubrey. But still, I understand now.”
“Say the word, Mom,” I said, grabbing her hand. I closed my eyes and willed the tears away. “Say the word, and I will find a way to get you home. We can end this. You can let go in your own way. You can be free.”
Mom squeezed my hand and shook her head. “No. I need to give this my best for your father.”
A tear rolled down my cheek. “You’re suffering.”
Did she think of herself as a bridge? I wondered. I didn't dare try to burden her with these deep musings as I fought off the desperation I was feeling at losing the one person who I could always engage in tireless, Mariana Trench type philosophical discussions about the great meaning of life.
The unspoken words hung in the air between us like a giant, bobbing balloon.
The first round of chemo hadn’t worked. When the first round failed, there was less than a 10% chance of Mom surviving a year. Mom did a second round of chemo, and by week eight, she was discharged home. She would get a few weeks at home, with two or three trips to the hospital per week for transfusions. Then, she would return to the hospital for up to two weeks each month for subsequent rounds of chemo. The goal was to beat back the cancer enough for a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. I would have given Mom every organ I had. I was ready to be tested to see if I was a match. The chemo wasn't working, though. Mom was getting weaker by the day. In some ways, her spirit was getting lighter and brighter; but there was a leaden heaviness about her body as the life began to leave it. I became acutely aware that the bridge between our physical bodies and the Cosmos was our spirit. Once that bridge departs the body to rejoin the Cosmos, the body merges with the physical Earth in one way or another. Some bridges were long. Others were short.
While everyone around me wore a brave face and was hopeful, all I could hear was the ticking of an invisible clock getting louder by the day.