Excerpt from Exhilarated Life: Discovering Inner Happiness
The Past: It Is What It Is
In the film As Good as it Gets, Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, responds to the comment that everyone has terrible stories to get over.
“Some of us have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes,with boats, and friends, and noodle salad,” he says. “Just no one in this
car.” I certainly didn’t have pretty stories growing up notwithstanding
the lake and boats, and if you are holding this book, then I guess
neither did you.
We all have stories that shape us and inevitably they are the unhappy
ones. This may be because they have more intense emotional charge
or maybe because they weren’t handled properly by the adults in our
lives. I know looking back, that everyone does the best they can with
the awareness they have and in the circumstances in which they find
themselves. If our perspective is distorted when we make choices, the
consequences and the rippling effects will also be distorted and echo
down the generations. What I can look at objectively as an adult,
intellectually, is not the same as the reverb that unconsciously filters
my experience and perspective if I let it.
The roots of many of our distortions lie within our families. We play
out the scenes over and over, well beyond the family unit and into our
social and work life, until at last we recognize the theme and are able
to make clear, conscious, self-affirming choices. That is what this book
is about. My resolve to change, and in changing, alter my experience
of recurring themes, and from here to set my family and myself, and others who desire it, on a course of true and unshakeable self-esteem,
confidence and complete well-being.
You cannot change history but you can change how history influences
you: The past only affects you if you think it doesn’t. I didn’t want to share
my story. For one reason, I have already picked those bones clean. At
least that is what I thought until I began to write this chapter. The
other reason being it goes against all my conditioning to “rise above it
and get on with life.” It seemed like whining and self-indulgence. After
all, we all have sad tales. We incorporate them into our story and make
the best of things; lead “normal” lives. But it is this very familiar theme
of rising above it that continues to separate personal truth and self acceptance from an idealized, unattainable perfection. Herein lurks the
silent saboteur of happiness. The harder it was for me to sit down and
write what I have recorded within these pages, the more I realized that
I had no other choice.
My first memory as a child of two-and-a-half was my mother going
“away.” It must have been a Sunday evening because for decades later,
those weekend twilight hours would be resonant with doom. That
night my dad took my mother to the psychiatric hospital where she
stayed for some time, undergoing insulin and electric shock therapy
to relieve her depression. My mom would be “away” for five years. She
wasn’t in hospital all that time, but also stayed at a recuperation center
in another city and worked as a nurse until she was “ready to come
home.” We went to visit her on occasion and sometimes she would be
allowed to return for a weekend, but when the time was up, the parting
was renewed sorrow.
My mother was diagnosed as manic-depressive and treated accordingly.
I wouldn’t know until I was much older that her father had committed
suicide. She was fourteen when he called out to her, and she found
him in the bathroom with his wrists cut and bleeding. He died, leaving
his wife and three other younger children, my mother’s sister and two
brothers, one just a baby. I asked my mother once if she had truly grieved her father’s death; her response to questions was always so
emotionally intense, I wondered. That is when I began to suspect that
we often label and medicate a perfectly normal response to a dreadful
and traumatic experience. The family was Fundamentalist Baptist and
I can only surmise the lid that was put on such an event, leaving it up
to an external GOD to fix the emotional wreckage.
My father, whose three older siblings all enjoyed university and college
educations, was left to fend for himself after a wheat blight in the
west wiped out the family fortune. At a young age, with little by way
of formal qualifications, he began a sales career. When my mother
became ill, he took to the road and travelled, and was always away one
or two weeks at a time. I dreaded those days and would lie in bed at
night, fearful he would be killed. I would later wonder if this was his
way of coping with a home life that was too emotionally demanding.
At that time we had a housekeeper who came with her son, between
my second brother (five years older) and me in age.
I absolutely adored my older brother, ten years my senior, and would
watch him comb his hair into a waterfall curl in the front and a “ducktail”
in the back. He called me “Pigeon” and taught me how to dance the
Twist. He would roll his pack of smokes in his fitted white T-shirt sleeve
and head out for adventure. Then, at fifteen, he was considered too
much to handle at home and was sent to live with an aunt and various
other families until he went to university. I missed him terribly. I can
only imagine what this banishment did to his self-esteem.
Evidently my mother was resisting treatment at the recuperation center
and the director advised my father to tell her he wanted a divorce, so
her emotional support network would be removed and she would be
forced to rely on her treatment alone to recover. I guess that did the trick
because it set her determination to return home. In the meantime our
housekeeper, as I was later told, was hoping to stay, and planted seeds
of doubt as to my mother’s capability to manage her family. But my
mother won out, and that summer she returned home.
As it happened, the housekeeper died of breast cancer that same summer. Her son, who was like a brother to me by then, was collected by his uncle one day and went to live in another quite distant city. I only saw him once after that. Nothing was ever discussed. Mother was back. The housekeeper
was gone. My suggestion that we all live together was coldly ignored.
In these few sentences I am speaking dispassionately of events that rode
on massive emotional turmoil. I have no doubt that the adults involved
were treading a minefield without a map. I also know that their words
and actions spoke one thing, and the energies were entirely discordant.
There was always a strong religious influence on my mother’s side,
particularly, and on my father’s the determination to do the “right”
thing, based on his private Masonic-based convictions.
I was alone a lot, especially during summers at the family cottage north
of Toronto. My mother had seen the tiny log cabin perched on a hill
of red granite and fallen in love with it. It would become her refuge.
Nature and the trees and rocks and lake would soothe me too. My
relationship with God was a very personal and accessible one, like
an “imaginary friend.” But the GOD worshiped by my family was
another matter altogether. My mother’s brothers had joined a group in
their teens called Moral Re-Armament, MRA, which was in retrospect
a cult. They were volunteers and travelled the world for “The Team,”
making films about peace and racial equality. The creed was “absolute
purity, absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness and absolute love.”
My mother and aunt were greatly influenced by MRA. The recovery
program which helped my mother re-enter family life and maintain her
tenuous emotional balance was actually the basis of The Twelve Step
Program later used by AA. It would be hard to argue with those values.
It was a strong, cohesive entity tightly bound together by absolutes,
and overseen by a strict GOD with a world-changing ideal. It would be
a logical refuge for siblings traumatized by their father’s suicide. GOD
was in charge of everything if you just “towed the line.” However,
projecting the leaders’ own distorted view and magnifying it through the voice of GOD was the edict that sex was for procreation—period.
And any married couples that participated in the act for pleasure were
considered to be destroying the family bond if there were children, and
simply aberrant otherwise.
This point is rather important because it would explain why my
mother (who became pregnant with me at the late age of forty) would
drop into depression. Was she happy before that? I don’t know, but
she wrestled with depression forever after. Shame is a terrible, terrible
thing but an extremely powerful, controlling device that continues to
resonate. I once read a scrawled entry in a pocket diary of the year I was
born. In my mother’s familiar handwriting were words of such despair
my heart broke for her. This moral imperative might also explain my
aunt’s suicide some years later, six months after her youngest child was
born, also the result of a pregnancy in her late forties.
My aunt’s suicide occurred the year following my mother’s return and our
move to the house down the street from my aunt’s family. The memory
of that Sunday morning is indelible on my mind; being wakened to my
older cousin bounding up the steps, shouting to my parents to come
quickly. I was nine. My adored cousin, three years older, and I then
stayed behind closed doors in my room reading Anne of Green Gables,
while I can’t even imagine what was happening up the street.
Ironically, it wasn’t until I was in high school that I “heard” that my
aunt had committed suicide. I went home and asked my dad if it was
true. He said it was, but it didn’t really matter how she died—did
it? Looking back now, I wonder at the tightness of the cap that was
ratcheted down on that little fact. How could I forget that morning and
the actual, terrible words I heard? My brother, two cousins and I were
sent off to family we didn’t know somewhere snowy for a week until
some equilibrium was achieved.
I think it mattered very much how my aunt died. The energy and
seismic waves of emotion are consistent with suicide and tragedy. From the time my sons were little I told them about the suicides. I did not
want any fascination or allure to this way of solving problems. When
my oldest son was five, he would comfort me as I cried for my beloved
older brother who, in his late forties, killed himself as well. Not all
family members agree with my transparent approach, but children’s
radar picks up all the subtleties of communication. In fact, our whole
bodies are receivers and we get information on levels way above and
below any conscious filter.
The morning after my brother died, I called my mom. Her first words
were, “You know, I just saw a picture in the paper of a house that looked
like yours.” “Oh, Mom…” was all I could say at this deflection, and
then she sighed, “At least I don’t have to worry about him any more.”
At the funeral, I was devastated to hear the minister speak solely of my
mother and her two sons. It was as if I did not exist. The revelation
was that my mother’s depression and subsequent shock treatment
had seared out any memory of me as a child. In a time of trauma she
defaulted to a place before I was born. It also shone a light on the fact
that while we had a “good” relationship, there was a detachment that I
know I felt but could never pinpoint.
The reality was that my mother was “well” when she had two sons
and “unwell” with the birth of me, her daughter. My mother would
often say, “I love you in spite of yourself.” I never knew exactly what
she meant by that, but I know how I felt when she said it. When I was
pregnant, each time I was determined that it could only be a boy. In
my experience, the worst thing that could happen would be to have a
daughter. And in writing this book I finally recognized the source of
that belief, and my abiding lack of self-esteem.
When my first son was born, a family friend, Martha G. Welch, M.D.,
who was conducting research at Columbia University for a book on
mother/child bonding called Holding Time, contacted me. She was
concerned with my ability to bond with my child, as she was familiar
with the circumstances of my birth and formative years. I engaged with my son, eight months old, in her therapy and found it amazingly
effective. Martha was keen to have my mother and me do it, but I could
not face it. I just couldn’t bear the thought of looking deeply into my
mother’s eyes. I was afraid of what I might see. I could not risk the
chance of a direct experience of rejection again.
None of this was on a conscious level at the time, of course, and
through my teens, my family life was normal. I loved my mom and
dad and continue to hold some of their values dear to me. I don’t
recall them ever saying an unkind word about one another and they
had a good relationship. My mother was on lithium at this point and
doing well, but there was always an underlying sadness. How could
there not be? But the unwritten family law was don’t upset your mother.
As a consequence, I would spend most of my life trying not to upset
anyone. People in my experience did drastic things if upset. It was
better to absorb all fault and responsibility for anything that might
go wrong. It was as if I was, in fact, the “original sin.” This fired an
intensely independent nature and a detachment from family events
where underlying currents were always palpable and unpleasant to me.
It was my instinct as a mother that—unless I consciously shifted—I
would either parent the way I was parented or the opposite, neither
of which is appropriate for the nurturance of a new soul. I bucked
family tradition when it came to refusing having my mother stay with
the newborns, purely because I was intent on breaking the influence.
I also began my own active healing journey with the assistance of a
wonderful Jungian analyst, and one without a prescription pad: Dr.
Lois Plumb, the first truly wise woman I met.
In the years after her sister’s suicide, my mother was determined to
find an answer for her condition and the family dynamic outside
the mainstream pathological labeling and medicating. She became a pioneer in alternative treatments, vitamin therapy and nutrition.
Being a nurse, she understood how little the medical world knew of
the power of food to heal, nor the affect of good health on our mental
outlook. It was a path that was unpopular in those days, when doctors
were losing their licenses for referring patients to vitamin or nutrition
regimens. Within the family, my mother was looked on as eccentric,
and her theories (now mainstream) largely ignored.
I admired my mother hugely for her research and determination. I owe
her my own passionate pursuit of wholeness, which has taken me through
the constraints of past influences and into an even broader approach to
wellbeing. But first I had to take a few detours myself into relationships
that let me play out my sense of unworthiness. I attracted just what
I expected I deserved, informed by those silent self-saboteurs. I ended
up in a miserable, debilitating relationship and making my own lame
attempt at suicide, shouting out in the hospital as I was being wheeled to
have my stomach pumped that, “Everyone in my family did it!”
When I met George, who would become my husband, I was absolutely
astonished at his state of happiness. He was a successful and much
revered innovator and fabricator in the construction industry. Even
his brothers and friends were happy, and when they gathered, they
spoke of wonderful things; accomplishments, challenges—having
fun! They were playful and guilt-free. I was twenty-seven and had
never seen anything like it. But happiness without judgment was not
something I trusted, and being loved for myself was completely beyond
comprehension. I did everything I possibly could to dissuade George.
One day I finally shouted at his gentleness, “Just wait, when you get to
know me, you will hate me too!”
Where this self-loathing came from I can surmise, but why it stuck
escapes me except that I never challenged the truth of it directly. Like
my mother’s eyes, I didn’t want to see too deeply. Fortunately I believed
what I saw in George’s eyes and we had an incredibly happy, creative
and constructive life together. His four children from a previous marriage became my family and our two sons were born in the greatest
joy and into a loving, extended family. George was a beautiful blend
of manliness and sensitivity. A supreme father and adored by all his
children. His motto was: “Teach your children self-love and self-esteem,
and they will never hurt themselves or another.” When our children
were born, we engaged a nanny who instantly became a member of the
family. We soon determined that, instead of looking after the children,
she would look after us so we could devote ourselves wholeheartedly
to our sons.
We loved working together, and built and lost and rebuilt several
“successful” businesses. My own father, whose family had lost
everything in the 1920s, would caution our risk-taking. He would
tell of how at ten years old he walked down the steps of the family
main street mansion for the last time, holding his mother’s hand and
carrying only what fitted in their arms; forced to leave the rest of their
possessions behind. His words would trigger an anxiety in me that kept
me constantly on the lookout for disaster. Indeed, disaster struck and
we lost our house during a recession. I would come close to losing our
home again after George’s death, but the memory of this story became
a determinate to change that karma.
The year of the first recession when we lost our business was the same year
of my brother’s suicide. It was also the year that our nanny, who was the
third person to ever hold our firstborn, would die of breast cancer. Our
sons were just seven and four. When she first was diagnosed, I panicked.
How could I subject my sons to witnessing the death of someone they
loved so dearly? There had been entirely too much death and tragedy in
my memory. I wanted to save my sons this terrible unhappiness. George,
of course, responded from his practical center of love that we were her
family and we would care for her, which we did, through three long years
of chemotherapy. We were each holding her hand when she died.
I learned a huge lesson as a parent then. Shielding our children from
trauma by non-communication, as in my family, or by avoidance, as I first desired it, deprives our children from learning the very coping
and strengthening skills necessary to withstand and manage life’s
many inevitable challenges and tragedies. It became a period of deep
engagement and tender love. It was a crazy time. Our business had
been bought and then I was let go, and George was given a severance,
as the business became a division of a bigger corporation. There was
a recession in the construction industry; George was in his fifties and
jobs for entrepreneurs were rare. The construction industry halted and
we were about to lose our house.
One day, with nothing to do and no money, the children in school, our
beloved nanny dead, George and I took apart some old picture frames
and began to sort through boxes of photos. We discovered that all we
needed was all we already had, and that was love. The recession lasted
several years and we had a few missteps with untrustworthy people
offering business opportunities. In one case, our lawyer told us we’d
better get out quick—this guy’s about to get indicted. We left being
owed months of salary, because cons rarely pay their debts. This is
when we lost our house.
With the help of George’s brother, we bought a smaller house and started
over. Eventually, a friendly competitor of George’s from the past offered
him a partnership in a company. My husband turned the company
around from a losing position and several years later it was sold to a
large corporation. We invested the proceeds in a country home where
I imagined I would stay forever. However, it was during these tentative
negotiations that George himself was diagnosed with cancer. He was
determined to see the sale through and kept this challenge to himself.
It was particularly frightening because George’s brother had just been
diagnosed with mesothelioma; a very aggressive, environmentally-caused
cancer that had taken their older brother just a few years earlier. The
three brothers were extremely close and had all worked in the building
trade, where asbestos exposure had claimed so many lives.
George’s brother spent the final months before his death in a neighboring town, visiting us often with our sons. The two sets of Harding brothers
enjoyed cherished evenings sharing growing-up stories, listening
to Frank Sinatra and playing billiards by the hour. His death took a
terrible toll on George.
George had begun treatment, both traditional and alternative, and
we were optimistic. I opened a shop in town and created a website,
LightBeam, for holistic lifestyle information and alternative therapies,
and George began to plan his consulting business. But two weeks after
I opened my shop, George collapsed and was rushed to hospital. He
might have died that night, but he lived on: I believe so that our sons
(then aged fifteen and eighteen) would have a steadier footing. The
next year-and-a-half was a time of equal joy and sorrow; days became
precious, and an awakening for me to the next echelon of my journey.
All through my life, I have written to keep my sanity and to find an
eloquence and beauty in life just the way it is. I have also relied on
a very personal spiritual and interactive relationship with my version
of “God,” whose description I can only call Love. My family history
has shown me that rigorous and moralistic doctrine damages the
very loving relationship we desire the most and that is the one with
ourselves. My references in this book to Christian stories is with the
intent to illuminate the seed of self-love I believe they are meant to
convey, rather than the interpretation that love or God is something
outside ourselves and a reward for good behavior.
The five years following George’s death documented in this book
depict the days when I had to find my own compass and navigate out
of the forest of the past, and into the clearing of the present. It was
the dominion of my spirit over my present circumstances. And it was
these very circumstances that provided the means to that clarity, and
instilled my will to happiness.
Finding and nurturing the Self inevitably takes us into our own
personal ancestry and the influences that unconsciously guide our lives, unfolding as much as our DNA. But—unlike our DNA—we are
not hardwired by these influences and, by seeing them clearly we begin
the journey that brings us into our own light. At least that is what
happened to me, and that is what I want to share with these stories.
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Read the previous installment: Happiness is an Inside Job