A Co-dependent Child

The original title of this post was about my denial.  Fairly soon after I had saved the first draft, I realized that it wasn’t really denial.  Denial is when you are faced with evidence, but refuse to believe it.  The refusal is not conscious.  If you’re in denial, you don’t know it.  You truly believe that you are not an alcoholic, even though your life is falling apart.  What took me so long was not denial, but lack of information, compounded by my mother’s refusal to acknowledge my pain.  I once told my mother that I was being teased by classmates, and she said “Ignore them.”  I didn’t even know what the word “ignore” meant.  My pain was invisible to her and so it was invisible to me and without cause, so I believed I was defective.

Denial was why it took so long for me to accept how damaged I was.  I was the oldest child of five, and both our parents were alcoholics.  I was given far too much responsibility for the younger kids.  I was expected to do things that were way beyond the abilities of a child.  Mama Greene told us a story of when Mom & Dad wanted to go to a cocktail party, and the babysitter fell through.  So I was left alone, at 7 years old, to care for 3 yr old Jack, 2 yr old Josephine and infant Jesse.  When I told my friend Beverly about it she was horrified.  She pointed to her daughter and said “Olivia is seven.  Leaving a child alone like that is illegal now.”  It surprised me to see that Olivia was just a child.  I had no image of myself as a child.

I remember learning to cook hamburgers for my younger siblings when I was left to babysit at our summer house in Maine.  I was 12 years old and no one had ever taught me how to cook.  The first batch of hamburgers were burned on the outside and raw on the inside.  The next time I babysat I tried again.  This time they were not burned but thoroughly overcooked.  Finally on the third try, I managed something tasty.  After I had got the kids fed and into bed, the sun had set and the sky was darkening.  I remember feeling alone in an empty house, feeling bleak, unwanted, and alone.  I imagined that my life would never be more than this, looking after someone else’s children and then being alone.  I called it “that twilight feeling.”  There was no support for my intelligence or my creativity.  Years later, when I finally understood that I was depressed, my therapist asked what was my first memory of depression.  I started describing “that twilight feeling,” and realized that it was exactly what I now knew was depression.

These experiences left me with a life-long sense of inadequacy about all the practical tasks that were part of living.  The only place I didn’t feel inadequate was at school.  I was very intelligent and got good grades.  All the way through grade school I thought everyone got A’s.  I was surprised in Junior High when I was first made aware that it wasn’t true.

I did well in school, graduated from Wellesley college with honors.  (This is the person my parents thought only good enough to babysit.)  I had no idea what to do with my life, so I thought perhaps I might go to Europe.  I mentioned it at the dinner table in my dorm and a classmate said “I’d love to go with you.”  Only now do I realize how lucky I was that she wanted to do it too.  We planned a trip that started in Ireland and went all the way to Greece and back.  As we interacted with people in different countries, I discovered that Bettie had good social skills and I had none at all.  This became more evidence for how inadequate I was.  I had no idea it was due to lack of teaching and modeling, I believed that I had been born defective.  I remember watching other people to see when it was OK to eat, always waiting for someone else to start.  I was horribly embarrassed as a teenager, at a dinner party given in my honor at a country club.  We all sat around the table, food in front of us, not eating until an adult (not my parents) came and told me that, as hostess, I had to be the one to start.  (One of the characteristics of Children of Alcoholics is “guesses at what is normal.”)

Another thing that happened with Bettie was that I would say and do things that puzzled her greatly.  I said that I had taken math and science because I was good at them.  She said with astonishment “You don’t take courses because you’re good at them.”  Another time she told me I didn’t have to lose my temper.  She was right, I even said it to my father one day far in the future.  But Bettie’s puzzlement I interpreted as criticism, and when I came back after the year abroad I felt exhausted and a failure.

I spent the next year at home with my parents.  An Aunt, who was a supporter of the Natural History Museum told me that they were looking for someone to help in the Planetarium.  I really loved the work, I loved teaching, I loved running the machine.  It was during this year that a school friend came for lunch.  Mother drifted in and out of the pantry in her usual fashion and Susan asked “How long has your mother had a problem with alcohol?”  The lights went on, that’s what it was.  Denial would have said “What problem with alcohol?”  Not that I even began to guess what that had done to me.  I still thought I was defective.

The next year I tried what co-dependents know as the “geographical cure.”  I went out to California, to the Bay Area, where another Aunt had been trying to get me to come for years.  I got into Stanford, I even had a fellowship for the MAT program: Master of Arts in Teaching, and I would do it in Earth Sciences.  I loved Geology, and did well at it, but going to school with men was too much for me.  As I had done earlier the few times I met a guy, I fell in love with one after another, who either didn’t know I existed, or dropped me after one date.  I had no idea how vulnerable I was, and that I had never learned the skills for negotiating relationships.  It was the 60’s and I was swept away by the rebellious intellectual ferment.  I dropped out of Stanford, giving up my fellowship, not wanting to be part of the “Evil Establishment.”  Because I had a small independent income, I didn’t need to get a job to support myself.  I had several emotional breakdowns, which no one saw as such because I wasn’t working or in school so no one noticed.  I did start seeing a therapist, and I’ve been seeing them on and off for most of my life.

While I was in California, not realizing how badly I had been wounded, I took lots of “Personal Growth” workshops, but I continued to have difficulty with relationships. I met a man on some computer dating scheme.  I didn’t like him that much, but I was desperate for security so I moved in.  I made myself believe that I loved him.  Eventually I was forced to see that the relationship wasn’t working.  I fled to my friend Kathi who lived in Oakland.  She offered sanctuary with her parents, who couldn’t have been kinder.  They let me have a room to myself, fed me, and asked nothing of me.

Kathi moved to Davis to go to Nursing School, and I followed her.  The environmental movement was just gearing up — it was 1970 — and I was invited to be part of a team that was exploring computer modeling of biological systems.

Looking back, I can see that if I had wanted a career, I could have easily found one in Planetarium work — the San Francisco Planetarium hired me to teach a class, and I was even allowed to run their beautiful machine.  Or, I could have had a career in the growing environmental movement.  I remember Dr. Watt saying of my Wellesley degree, “They taught you how to think.”  It was all too much for me.  I got overwhelmed, got into another bad relationship in my desperate search for security, and finally had a breakdown that landed me in the University Health Center.

I used to feel guilty for the luxury of not having to have a job.  What I didn’t know, until I began to work with PTSD, was that I would never have been able to work a 40-hour week.  If I had not had an independent income, I would probably be in a mental hospital, or dead.

Previous posts on Denial:
Denial and Science
More on Denial

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