In sixth or seventh grade, my mother asked to see a paper I was scheduled to submit two days later. It was a little before bedtime and the house was relatively quiet. "This is shit," she said when she finished reading my work. They were hurtful words coming from a woman who was supposed to comfort and console. Except I wasn't permitted to cry. Instead I was expected to collect my books, meet her in the breakfast room, and rewrite the paper through the night while everyone else slept.
In high school I was not really permitted to wear jeans. Besides being too casual, my mother liked to remind me my shape was a challenge. "Your rear-end is built like a shelf," she'd say as I stood in the fitting room, the waistband gaping as the hip area strained. Judgmental words coming from a woman who was supposed to love me unconditionally. Except instead of telling her she was being mean, I quietly stood there as she directed the owner of the local denim store to tailor the waistband to accommodate my mismatched curves.
In law school I found myself standing at the foot of my parents' bed, abdominal pain, a high fever and extreme nausea keeping me awake. When I whispered I felt terrible and thought I needed to go to the hospital, my mother said, "Let us know if you need anything." I was in too much agony to weep at the fact my own mother let me drive myself to the ER. Upon my return home hours later, I was too exhausted to inform her that I had an infection so high it registered off the charts, the doctor resorting to IV antibiotics to help me recover. It didn't make sense to say something because it would never amount to anything anyway.
After law school, my mother took me to France for a two-week summer trip. We started in Nice and worked our way north, ending in Paris. On our second to last night, my mom threw a fit. I don't recall what it was about but at a certain point, she headed for the door. "Are you coming back?" I asked from the bed. "I don't know," she responded without even looking at me. When the door slammed, I panicked briefly, realizing I was five thousand miles from home, alone, and with limited resources. But there wasn't time to process the fear and anxiety created by the one person expected to protect and shelter me. So instead I determined I'd be fine, using my passport, return airline ticket and credit cards to make my way home.
"Looking back now, how does it make you feel?" my new therapist asked.
I laughed. "It's ridiculous. But I figured it out."
"But how does it make you feel?"
I sat there quiet.
"I've noticed this with you the last few weeks. You're whip-smart and can think your way out of any situation. It's an incredible skill that you developed as a kid."
"It's how I survived."
"Right. It saved you. Except there's nothing to survive any more. It was never safe to express feelings. But it's safe now. So how does that make you feel?"
"I was twenty-four or twenty-five at the time."
She looked at me for a second and then spoke. "Your mother abandoned you in a foreign city. I don't care about your age. She left you alone as punishment for something most likely minute and probably never apologized for it when she finally did return."
"I think we went out and got crepes from the corner stand."
"How does that make you feel?"
I shifted my lower jaw so that the tips of my teeth gently brushed together. Saliva pooled beneath my tongue and tears filled my eyes. "Sad. I feel dismissed, rejected, and alone." I paused to reach for a tissue. "Incredibly alone."
"See, that's the healthy response. Now we're getting somewhere."