There’s something about trauma that brings you out of your shell. You’re so eager to escape the terror you are experiencing that you discover a newfound bluntness. It’s a technique that delivers distraction, a temporary reprieve from inner anguish.
Her name was Gabby. She was, until the fall of 2011, my best friend. We showed each other love through thick and thin, and because of what seemed like terrible misfortune on her part, there was plenty of thin.
When Gabby’s mental disorder finally revealed itself, I was left holding the bag on brutal lies she had told and which I had repeated. It’s one thing to read about personality disorders; it’s another to actually experience one in the flesh. When it befalls someone you love, it’s terrifying. You realize that you will never, can never, believe anything he or she tells you. The person you thought you knew doesn’t exist; their replacement seems evil and sadistic.
After this became true of Gabby, the first thing I did was distance myself. The second was to get tested for STDs, as we had been intimate on numerous occasions. Since I no longer knew who Gabby was, I could not rule out the possibility that she had inadvertently, or even purposely, given me an STD. My mind went right to the scariest one of all, HIV.
It took nine days for the blood test to come back. Nine days of pondering death, of asking God for a second chance, of feeling horror I had never known. HIV is not a life sentence, but when you think there’s a chance you could have it, it sure feels like.
The test confirmed I did not have HIV, yet I was still numb and panicky. I now knew that I was vulnerable, that death wasn’t just a theoretical possibility. I wasn’t sure if I could ever revert back to my old, comfortable naïveté. I began fearing things I had never feared before, such as driving a car or swatting a bloody mosquito (What if that blood carried HIV?). And somewhere underneath it all I was mourning the loss of a dear friend.
It was in this state that I turned to my parents. I was 30 then, and they remained the primary caregivers in my life. I was never one to drink or smoke pot, though during this time I was at a buddy’s house party where everyone except me was high on weed. I was in such a heightened, unyielding state of alarm that I actually considered crossing my own uncrossable line and toking up.
I didn’t smoke the pot, but I did make the mistake of telling my parents that I had contemplated it. That’s the coming out of my shell I mentioned earlier. I was trying to convey to them how fucked up I was. Considering my clean-cut nature, my words must have shocked them.
A few days later, I was at that same buddy’s house when my Mom texted me: “You better not be doing drugs. We don’t want to disown you.” I should have known. That’s the judgmental, love-taketh-awayeth Mom I knew. As absurd as it sounds for a mother to threaten to “disown” a 30-year-old man for inhaling plant smoke in the year 2011, it was actually very hurtful. And part of a long pattern.
Growing up, it never really felt like I could do right by Mom. I’d shyly interact with relatives in what seemed like an acceptable way to me, only to be told that I wasn’t doing it right. And she was so often angry. I remember being 8 or 9 and bringing a friend over to the house, sensing that when we walked through the door my Mom would needlessly flip out. She did. Some of her favorite lines (always yelled) were, “I don’t like you right now!” or just calling me a “cunt.”
Meanwhile, my father was a “cool dad,” playing catch and taking me out for ice cream. But like Mom he was terrible at handling situations in which my behavior differed from his expectations. When I got a bit older and started misbehaving in school, he’d tell me that I was “incompetent” and “ugly.” He mocked me for having few friends. Not every day, or even every week, and probably with out malicious intent. But still.
While Dad did his best to help me reintegrate into life after Gabby and my HIV scare, he also found time to judge me for apparently being promiscuous. And he could not handle any concerns I raised that went against his own narrow moral compass. I regret talking to him about the whole traumatic episode, because his judgement only made me hurt more.
Lately I have been thinking about how I would treat my child if I became a father. Often the answer is “the opposite of how I was treated.” I’d let that little boy introduce himself to family members however he wanted to. I wouldn’t try to humiliate the shyness out of him. I wouldn’t ask him questions such as “Do you love your father?” Those aren’t really questions, but rather demands that a child provide a statement that will make adults feel validated. I would value that child’s individuality.
And if my grown son had just gone through an event in which he feared for his own life and lost a close friend? I picture myself showering that man with unconditional love.
I know my parents did the best they could in every situation in my life. And I understand how they let their own petty frustrations and repressed emotions get in the way of good parenting. That’s why this morning I quietly took time to forgive Mom and Dad for everything I’ve written about, and more, in my own mind. I did this because I love them and I love myself.
I also know this forgiveness won’t be a one-off, but a continual choice. That’s what forgiveness is, and that’s what love is.