Once Upon A Time
Once upon a time there was a little princess who lived in a pink castle in the shadow of a great snowy mountain. There was a scary monster that dwelled inside this mountain, but the little princess knew that she was safe because it was surrounded by a magical kingdom where nothing bad ever happened.
In reality, I spent my first few years of life in a Pepto Bismol-colored rental house in a sketchy Anaheim neighborhood. When you stood in the exact right spot outside on the street, you could see the artificial peak of Disneyland’s Matterhorn rising high above the sprawling suburban rooftops of Orange County.
My life wasn’t exactly a fairytale growing up. It was more of a black comedy. But I know it could have been much worse. I could have been born the daughter of carny folk, or been born with a subpar IQ and a propensity toward being a featured guest on Dr. Phil. This was the 60s after all – when mothers would smoke and drink like sailors throughout their pregnancies.
I could have been born in any number of third world countries where the primary focus of each and every day is survival. Let’s face it, I hit the birth place and time jackpot. Here in our oh-so-comfy first world bubble, we have the luxury of worrying about esoteric concepts like self-actualization, and call it a tragedy when we are momentarily deprived of a wifi connection. Navel gazing doesn’t even begin to describe our level of self-indulgence. We’ve got those belly blow holes under hi-def, digital zoom surveillance 24/7.
So I’m not asking for a pity party, and I adamantly refuse to label myself a victim. Because I’m not. What I am is primarily of my own doing – both good and bad. But if I dismiss my history as not relevant to where I’m at today, it would be glossing over important artifacts that might help me understand who I am and how I got here. My past is like a dusty old attic – it’s time to sweep out the shadowy corners, disperse the cobwebs, let in some fresh air and sort through all my old crap.
We all experience the not-so-wonderful during our so-called wonder years. One of those moments experienced by itself would be called life.
Shake it off, Junior.
In all honestly, I think as a society we’ve over-compensated for the previous era of no helmets or seatbelts, drinking water from a hose instead of a fancy bottle, and the kids should be seen but not heard mentality. We’ve essentially bubble wrapped our kids.
They’re technically safe, but at what cost? Our gated master-planned communities have barren parks and streets because we have somehow convinced ourselves that there is a pedophile lurking on every street corner. We fret over every supposed slight or disappointment our children experience, wringing our hands if they don’t like something we do or say, like it might destroy them forever if they are momentarily unhappy.
When I think back on my childhood, I realize I was unhappy a lot. I got up, went to school, came back to a jacked-up home life where nothing ever seemed to change, went to bed, woke up, rinsed, and repeated. My own dysfunctional version of Groundhog Day. The trauma I experienced wasn’t a damn bursting kind of trauma. It was the steady drip, drip kind. A joy erosion. It wears you down. It encourages you to erect walls around yourself, and it undermines your self-confidence and sense of optimism.
Making snow angels naked was less chilly than the mood at home around our dinner table. When we sat down for supper, it felt like we were doing penance. It kicked off with Catholic grace recited by my Dad. It always seemed more begrudging than grateful, so I never understood why we even bothered. Mumbled quickly under his breath, it sounded like one big word:
Then we’d all sit there stiffly, eating our tuna casserole, chicken, or whatever that night’s dinner was, almost always in silence, except for an occasional pass the salt. Conversations and smiles were extremely rare in the Bananas family. I don’t know how we ended up with that degree of moroseness. Probably because my Mom and Dad were in an unhappy marriage and were not kind or loving to each other, and that emotional poison just slowly seeped out until it infected the entire family.
Most nights, my Mom was working the swing shift as a nurse, so it was just Dad and us kids at dinner. We were like a pack of wolves, establishing our pecking order around a deer carcass. Not exactly a Norman Rockwell scene of familial bliss. My Dad was the alpha wolf. If you didn’t want to be growled at, you were wise to keep a low profile – your mouth shut and your eyes averted. I knew every nuance of that white formica table top with the gold speckles, as well as every detail of the ivory carving of Jesus and The Last Supper that languished on the wall above us. What else did I have to look at?
Jesus was undoubtedly multitasking – as the son of God I imagine you become quite adept at that. I would see him up there – preaching to his disciples and looking all holy and shit. But I’m pretty sure he was also making mental notes of my transgressions for that future day of judgement. Me – slouched in my chair and trying to figure out how I could get out of doing the dinner dishes (sloth), inhaling my slice of pizza so I could snag the last piece before my brother (gluttony) or smirking behind my prayer hands during grace (pride).
Even way back then, I thought that wine must surely be awesome. Jesus liked his wine, after all. So much so that he made the original Jesus Juice out of water. It was one of his official miracles – right up there with that whole coming back from the dead thing. Maybe that’s where the seeds of my future addiction began – me staring at the carving thinking, even at the last supper, Jesus and his posse look like they’re enjoying themselves more than we are. Perhaps it’s the wine.
I remember how shocked I was going over to friend’s houses for dinner. Observing them and their families – their chit-chat about the events of the day; their lively debates; their – gasp! – laughing and joking at the dinner table. It was like I was a social archeologist that had magically stumbled upon a heretofore undiscovered tribe in the Amazon. I was dumbfounded.
It was fascinating, but also made me wonder what was wrong with my own family. I must not be deserving of this kind of normalcy, I thought. I felt awkward and alien-like to be sitting there amongst those shiny, happy people. I rarely had friends over because I was ashamed of my family’s glum detachment. How sterile and joyless our home seemed by comparison.
I never once heard an I love you from my Mom or Dad, and could count on one finger the number of hugs I received. I’m not looking to attend a new age rebirthing retreat inside a patchouli scented yurt anytime soon – but somehow I need to get to a place where I can be okay with the fact that my parents were troubled and not the best role models for a happy family life.
I have pretended a large chunk of my life never existed – pushing it down, and trying to silence its insidious presence inside my head. Now I’m beginning to realize that I never really let go of it. That it has been there – biding its time all along – eating away at me like a parasite.
Because here I am, decades later, feeling like the center of me – the core that would have kept me strong and resilient through life’s challenges – is not structurally sound. I thought I could handle whatever life threw at me, but lately I suspect that I may be vulnerable to even the smallest of storms.