Writing this memoir has hijacked my life. I was all of twenty-one when I declared to my then mother-in-law, “I am going to write a book about divorce.” I wanted it to state the most important fact I learned from my parents’ divorce: children are not as resilient as most adults believe. Many rewrites during my inner journey of healing and much research finally took me beyond the boundaries of my initial idea, enabling me to see our social and health problems through new lens. I now understand how I lost my childhood prematurely, and with it, my authentic self. Not only that, but my well-being and happiness went on an abrupt downward spiral after my parents separated.
Part of me still feels lost in free fall. Although I was very resourceful as a child and quickly learned coping strategies that helped me through this painful time, they now work against me as an adult. It is an irony that we think of divorce as a ‘transient’ crisis in children’s lives. However, the truth for many (too many, perhaps) is that the ‘crisis’ has continued unabated, with wounds that still remain raw and exposed even in late adulthood.
A twenty-five-year landmark study carried out by Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee that resulted in the publishing of their book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000), highlight the long-lasting negative impact on children of divorce. One of many conclusions they reached was this:
Except for those raised in divorced families, few people realise the many ways that divorce shapes not only the child’s life but also the child. As we have seen in many homes, parenting erodes almost inevitably at the breakup and does not get restored for years, if ever. The changes in parenting and in the structure of the family place greater responsibilities on the child to take care of herself. And she, in turn, becomes a different person as she adjusts to the needs and wishes of her parents and stepparents. All of the children I have described in this book took on new roles in direct response to changes that occurred during postdivorce years. Many were acutely aware of their parents’ distress and tried to rescue them. Others remained angry at their parents’ diminished attention and judged them harshly. Others longed for the family they had lost and tried to reverse the divorce decision. And still others took responsibility for keeping the peace and walked on eggs throughout their childhoods. These children took many paths, but all changed significantly in the wake of divorce. And because the children’s character and conscience were still being formed during the postdivorce years, the new roles they assumed in the family had profound effects on who they became and on the relationships they established when they reached adulthood.
While writing my own story about the impact of divorce on my life I was truly shocked by what finally emerged. Divorce is that melting point where one or both partners decide they have had enough and leave. While divorce can be that final step to end longstanding unresolved problems in a marriage, it is often not the cure-all that was hoped for. Bitterness and acrimony can unexpectedly erupt and continue long after the divorce and custody arrangements have been finalized — to the detriment of everyone involved. However, it is often the underlying factors that lead to divorce, rather than the divorce itself, that not only rob children of their ability to thrive and find happiness, but also to live life to their highest potential.
Unwittingly, children can repeat in adulthood the roles they adopted before or after their parents’ divorce. This entraps them in patterns they cannot see, often thrusting them into an adult prison of unequal and co-dependent relationships characterized by fear of loss and abandonment that further diminishes any chance of lasting happiness. The loss of their authentic self through role-playing causes them to feel disconnected within, and manifests as a feeling of being empty, numb or ‘dead’ inside.
Writing this memoir has therefore been more intellectually and emotionally challenging than anything else I have ever done or attempted to do – even organizing and working on the refit of a fifty-foot steel yacht after it sank at anchor during a custody battle for my children.
However it was while living on that yacht for two years during the rebuild that I was able to complete the first manuscript for this memoir. It was fortunate that Nobby, one of the workers who helped with the refit, also liked to write and took an interest in my developing story. He even offered to proof read each chapter I completed. Not only did this keep me writing, but Nobby began to question me about my childhood and the circumstances surrounding the choice to flee my marriage.
In Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book, Ring of Power, she states that in order for the truth to emerge, a person needs people who care about what happened to them in the past and what they are feeling now. This was Nobby’s gift. His caring, and non-judgmental acceptance of me as a person, encouraged me to begin a journey into the catacombs of my past to find the ‘truth’ of what I had experienced and what I had hidden that I could not see.
In the process I discovered that my childhood — even before my parents’ divorce — was full of traumatic experiences from which I had not recovered. It would take over twenty five years before I learned the full extent of the damage done and the legacy of dysfunction it left me with in the form of undiagnosed chronic Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Not only that, but because of the traumatic memories I buried in order to survive my childhood psychologically and emotionally, I later created a merry-go-round existence for myself which kept repeating those traumas in many different guises. The disturbing truth was that I would not be free until I began a lifelong journey of healing to face the truth of my past, and go into the pain to release the grief locked inside.
One of the most disturbing things I learned along the way is that children who are abused and traumatized and unloved and neglected often ‘survive’ by shutting down their feelings. They can later become narcissists, psychopaths, or sociopaths who feel no empathy. They can also become depressed, anorexic, bulimic, workaholics, perfectionists, obese, and shopaholics, or a combination of these. They can develop schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder (BPD), drug and alcohol problems or dependence, PTSD and other anxiety disorders, diabetes, and heart disease. They can also become sex, love, romance and relationship addicts. They can remain victims and survivors stuck in their emotional, psychological, and vocational development. Distressingly, many become perpetrators and ‘do unto others’ what was done to them, thereby creating a new cycle of abuse.
If it wasn’t for the fact that an editor picked up my completed manuscript from Doubleday’s slush pile in New York and someone had the gumption to tell me that I hadn’t “told the whole story,” I probably would know none of this. Acting on their advice to do a rewrite, it has taken me twenty years to uncover that ‘whole’ story. Discovering buried memories and how they negatively impacted not only my life, but my children’s lives, has shocked me to the core. It is how I learned about the ripple effect of parental abuse and that we are all in some way, victims of victims.
Pat Conroy wrote in The Prince of Tides that there is “no fixing a damaged childhood. The best you can hope for is to make the sucker float.” M. Scott Peck noted in his book, A Road Less Traveled, that:
The child who is not loved by his parents will always assume himself or herself to be unlovable rather than see the parents as deficient in their capacity to love… One of the roots of mental illness is invariably an interlocking system of lies we have been told and lies we have told ourselves.
Is there any hope that things can change or that there can be some positive outcomes?
Only with a lot of hard work and dedication. By developing the courage to come out of denial about what happened to us and how it has negatively impacted our lives, we can then say with authority that abuse is not okay in any form. At the same time we can learn to feel compassion for the frailties within those who commit abuse. Finally, we can learn to love ourselves and parent our children with unconditional love. Growing up in an atmosphere of unconditional love builds resilience and empathy and responsible adults who foster attitudes of love and respect for people, the planet, and all its inhabitants.
In this memoir I explore the implications of the lies I discovered within the ruins of my own childhood memories and show how discovering the truth not only helped to ‘float’ my childhood, but helped set me free from my own self-victimization.
This is still a work in progress as of April 08, 2014. It was my intention to post sample chapters here, but the way I am working on them is leading me into the underlying causes of some of the serious social problems we face, causing me to work on several chapters at once. It is the way I work on paintings, each presenting different problems that cannot immediately be resolved. I give them a rest and work on something else and come back to them later – often with startling new insights or a new direction to take them in. For all my impatience to complete this project by a certain date, I remind myself that creativity is a birthing process that very definitely comes in its own time and cannot be hurried. I will keep you posted.