Betrayal, Abandonment and Trust

Sometimes, I overhear comments that hit deep, and remind me of stories that needs telling:

“I like the music too but my heart doesn’t hear in song.” –Ra Avis

When I was little, we had an amazing sound system in our living room, with dual four-foot high speakers. Our parents never let us use them.

One night, mom and dad were invited to a fancy dinner, which was to be held about half an hour’s drive away. They didn’t get many evening away from the kids, so they accepted. I was to be left in the care of my two older brothers.

Both brothers were interested in music, and had new a love for Metallica and Nirvana. The best speakers available to us were low-quality, second-hand things that didn’t have the fidelity to properly experience such nuanced music.

My parents left around sunset. When darkness set in, and my brothers were sure they had dominion over the house, they powered on the living room stereo and cranked up the volume knob. Music blasted out of its beautiful, four-foot high speakers till our windows shook.

I was playing with LEGO bricks, by myself, down the hall, in my room. My window rattled a bit extra, because it didn’t latch right. The noise startled me. I put my toys down, stood up, opened the door and walked to the living room. The bass made my rib cage hum.

With disdain in my voice, I asked, “Could you turn it down, please?” “No,” they responded, staring at me as if I wore my head on upside down. “Turn it down!” I demanded. They ignored me, looked away, and lost themselves in the beat.

I approached the stereo, angry about being dismissed, and hit the power button.

Silence.

I started towards my room, but one of them stomped in behind me, and turned the stereo back on.

It was louder this time, as if in provocation.

I turned and confirmed the challenge in their eyes.

I went to silence the sound again, but this time they blocked me. We wrestled. It was sort of fun. I’m amazed at how temperamental my emotions were.

Against all odds, I wiggled past their grasping limbs, and got to the stereo on my belly. Unable to reach the control panel, I pulled on the power cable instead. It came free from the socket.

The music stopped, the silence broken only by the sound of our scuffle.

I smiled to myself, and then things got serious.

One of them picked me up, opened the door to our backyard, and shoved me out, hard. I hit the grass, but didn’t fall. I ran back and rammed both my hands into the door, right as it clicked shut. I tried the handle. They locked it. I slammed my palms onto the door and yelled. The stereo volume went up and their ability to hear me went down.

On the outside of the house, things were quieter; the thickness of the walls diminished the volume of the speakers.

It was night out, and I wasn’t dressed for it. The windows provided a glow that made it impossible for my eyes to properly adjust.

There was a gentle, cool breeze, but I didn’t appreciate it. My mind was entirely focused on the injustice of the situation…until I heard the coyotes.

Our house was in the middle of desert wilderness. The next closest house was too far away to see.

Coyotes are native to the area. They’re skittish during the day, but hunt in packs at night. Each weighs between 15 and 46 pounds, two of them could have easily taken me down without a fight. They weren’t scared of us, and occasionally left feces in our back yard…the yard I was currently standing in.

High-pitch staccato yips pierced through the bass of the song. A series of them sounded to my left. A moment later, I heard more to my right. A third echoed in the distance.

My perception of time became liquid, as the moments slowed down and then sped up. My mind narrowed to a point of clarity where nothing existed besides me, the predators, and a need to escape.

I ran to our side door.

Locked.

I ran to the front door.

Locked.

I heard the yipping again, and it was closer on all sides.

The coyotes were probably just curious, but as a child I assumed the worst.

My feet whipped through the grass and my hands rattled one doorknob after another. I was breathing hard and fast. I could still hear the low rumble of music leaking out from where my brothers were, but the real attention-grabbing noise was coming from me.

I tried the windows next, digging my little fingers in between the frames, and pulling. Nothing budged.

I kept trying. Half way around the house, I reached the window to my room.

I pulled on it.

Creak…it moved.

I’d never been so thankful for that stupid misaligned latch. The glass pane swung outward with a little more effort, as its metal hinge-mechanism bent slightly out-of-place.

The music poured out.

I pushed the screen free from the frame and it crashed to the floor. No one heard it but me.

I jumped in and turned the window crank behind me to seal the opening. It closed, not all the way, but more than enough to keep the animals out.

I shut the bedroom door, so my brothers wouldn’t accidentally see me from the hall. I was afraid of being kicked back out to the coyotes.

I remembered the phone in my room. We hadn’t had it long. I don’t know how I got the number, or who I called, but I eventually reached our parents. I told them about the music, the fight and getting locked outside.

I asked them to come home.

I asked them to save me.

They said they couldn’t come. They’d parked in a small lot, and their car was trapped behind too many other cars to move. I’d be on my own until their event was over.

All I heard was they wouldn’t help.

I felt abandoned.

My parents said they loved me and then they hung up.

Click.

The tears came and didn’t stop. I sobbed and shuddered. Snot ran down my face. I flopped down on my bed and buried my head in a pillow, pulling the ends up over my ears.

The music continued.

I don’t know how long I laid there. A draft from the slightly ajar window reminded me of what was outside, to which I had been thrown. I wallowed in betrayal and abandonment.

Eventually, sleep found me. The four-foot high speakers never stopped their songs of dead hope.

I didn’t trust anyone in my family after that.

The next day, when I heard Nirvana playing quietly out of the second-hand speakers in another room, I was overwhelmed by anxiety, paranoia, and a feeling of helplessness. I ran to the other side of the house, shaking in terror, and covered my ears. I was experiencing my first panic attack.

Over the next decade, they became a regular part of my life.  They were triggered by hearing alternative rock, grunge, death metal and any similar genre. If someone so much as turned on a radio, I became uncomfortable.

In high school, I joined the drama club. When we weren’t rehearsing or performing, the sound crew used the audio equipment at their discretion. I had a very talented and genuinely sweet friend on that sound crew, but she loved alternative rock more than anything else. She played it religiously on the loudspeakers, or maybe that’s just how I remember it.

We fought about it, a lot. I’d wait outside and focus on breathing, until she stopped paying attention. Then, I’d dart inside and turn the music off. She’d be upset when she found out, but I didn’t know what else to do.

I spent the minimum amount of time there as I could, even though I wanted to contribute so much more. After two years, I quit. I don’t blame anyone, I just couldn’t handle the anxiety. She’s still a good friend.

My panic attacks went unchanged like that until half-way through college. The worst of them finally stopped when I took a three-day, one-weekend course called The Landmark Forum.

My boss attended it before I did. He was a stressed-out entrepreneur, trying to make ends meet for his company of five people.

His girlfriend invited him to go, and grumpily, he went.

He returned a different person: generous, full of empathy and brimming with innovation.

A lot of my friends had attended motivational seminars before. They’d have life-changing revelations, which they’d  forget a week later. This wasn’t that.

The following month, he tripled our company’s income, and showered us with emotional encouragement. I was in disbelief, but clients kept pouring in. When it didn’t let up, I asked if I could have time off, so I could take the course too. He said he’d pay for me to go.

I arrived at the center, early in the morning, for the next available session. The staff was suspiciously friendly, but professional. We met in a large conference room. One hundred and forty chairs faced a carpeted stage, all under fluorescent lights. On the stage was another microphone, a collapsible music stand supporting a heavy binder, a nonchalant man sitting in a director’s chair, and an impeccably-clean chalkboard on either side. A few more microphone stands were set up in the audience.

I sat in the back row, between two strangers, in a sea of sleepy-eyed people.

The man in the directors chair began speaking the moment his watch beeped the hour. His name was Roger Armstrong.

He told us there was a distinction between our interpretation of the personal-history and the physical things that actually happened. He said that our interpretation influences how we experience the present; An injury during childhood could lead to a phobia in adulthood. There is no way to change the past, he continued, but if we change our interpretation of it, it creates new possibilities for our future.

He asked us to pick a significant personal-event in our past, and to define our interpretation of it separately from physical event itself.

I couldn’t think of anything off the top of my head, so I bounced ideas off my neighbors and eventually settled with the fight over the stereo.

I boiled down what happened to “I was locked out of my house, coyotes yipped, and my parents didn’t return when I asked.” I made it mean “I was betrayed, abandoned, and unable to trust anyone ever again.”

Roger asked us to set aside what happened, and to repeat our interpretations to ourselves until they lost significance. The exercise was similar to desensitizing myself to an ambient noise. He gave us half an hour. You’d know when someone had completed, because they’d start chuckling about how ridiculous their meanings were. No one needed extra time.

Roger then asked us to brainstorm new interpretations which other people might have developed given the same situation. We were encouraged to hold onto the ones that felt empowering.

I came up with, “My brothers were starved for more control over their lives, and loud music was an expression of that. They didn’t consider outside dangers, and would have been devastated if I was hurt. My parents loved me, but needed time to nurture their marriage, and coming home was out of their control.”

We repeated the new meaning in our head a few times. Roger suggested that we try on our new meaning as if it were a jacket, to see if it fit.

No one spoke, and he maintained the silence for a lot longer than I thought was reasonable. I didn’t really get what he meant. Our eyes were closed. I listened to my inner monologue, and got bored.

Then, I heard sobbing.

I looked up. A woman in the audience was actually sobbing. A lot of other people had wet eyes too.

Roger invited the sobbing woman to approach a microphone and share what had happened. Her voice struggled through spasmodic breaths.

She explained how she had held herself responsible for a terrible thing that had happened to her as a child, and that the change in meaning allowed her to let it go. She was able to love her parents again. I’m not at liberty to share the details of her story, but when she was done, half the audience was weeping.

The group’s empathetic tears turned into heaving sobs as people, one by one, got the emotional impact of their own new meanings. I was one of them.

We were all invited to form a line and share our story into the microphones. A lot of people went.

I was too shy.

However, I called my parents on the next break, crying joyfully into the phone. I told them about the fight over the music and what I made it mean. I told them about how my understanding of it changed and opened up new possibilities, like me trusting them again and experiencing their love. I said I wanted to rebuild our relationship as a family. We made a plan to do it. They accepted and shed more tears.

I called my brothers next, and they agreed too.

Some weeks later, I got in a friend’s car for a ride. We had a lot to discuss, so no one was paying attention to the stereo. Ten minutes into the trip, we hit a lull in the conversation, and my attention shifted.

Metallica, in its full glory, was rumbling through his speakers. It was the first time I’d heard it since I attended the Landmark Forum.

I glanced at the stereo display; it said it was playing from CD.

We’d been listening to heavy metal the whole time and I hadn’t even noticed. I tensed up, in anticipation of being overwhelmed by fear and anxiety, but the panic never came.

Somehow, my reinterpretation of the past had removed those constraints from my life.

I haven’t had trouble listening to any genre since.

The quote at the beginning of this essay is something written during a Facebook Live video by my friend, Ra. It reminded me to tell this story and that although I’ve mostly overcome my fears, I’m left with an emotional void where an appreciation of music should be.

The panic attacks aren’t entirely gone; I occasionally get them when exposed to prolonged loud noises, but they’re far and few between. I realize it indicates I still have meanings to redefine and emotions to confront, but I look forward to doing so, and hope you join me for the ride.

Editing by TreeGoddess08.

Validation and Relationships

The following story paints a dysfunctional portrait of my childhood parents. Keep in mind, they did the best they could. I forgive them and can’t stress enough how different they are today. I only wish to shine light on the circumstances that shaped me. On to the show:

My friend and I were talking about past relationships, when a familiar stress crept its way through me. A hundred romantic failures bubbled into thought, flowed into the pit of my stomach, and I winced. I hadn’t anticipated how uncomfortable the subject still made me. I took a breath and focused on the present.

I asked her to speak about her late husband. She did and I was grateful to hear the story of when they met. I imagined what it might have been like to be her while it played out. She was loved. It was pleasant. It was foreign. It was a state of being for which I had no clues how to attain.

It dawned on me that my model for romance was different than hers. Where were the insecurities and the yelling? How could she be close to someone for so long without building resentment? I looked at my past and at the examples from which I learned love. I saw flaws and a lack of definition. It was time to put them to words and to free myself.

I grew up on a vineyard outside a small farm town. The nearest neighbor was a quarter mile away, through high brush, in rattlesnake country. Needless to say, I didn’t see people much.

I learned a sense of affection from my parents’ relationship. Dad worked all day, building a winery from scratch. Mom stayed home to raise us children. In the evening, the parents spent time together, they fought more often than not.

When I heard their voices raise, I went to my room. They’d shout. Loudly. Neither listened. I tried not to.

The fights progressed in stages. The first ended when one of them stomped away and slammed a door. I wouldn’t feel safe to leave my room at that point.

The next was the silent treatment. It could last for hours or days. They just completely ignored each other, or turned to ice if they had to be in the same room.

It ended when their need for affection outgrew their need to be right. One apologized for fighting, both embraced, and things returned to normal. I don’t ever remember an admission of being wrong or a problem being resolved. This is what I thought love was.

In middle school, my parents habitually teased me about girls. Every day, they’d make some hint or comment about it. I heard “Is THAT the one you like?” or “So, when are you going to give us grandchildren?” at least three times a week. The more they teased me, the less I shared, and the less I shared, the more they teased.

My hormones broke the cycle when I actually started liking girls. One girl was even worth being teased about. I watched her from a distance, avoiding conversation. I’m not sure if it was out of shyness or fear of fighting like my parents. It took a month to work up the courage to ask her out. I wrote a love letter and held onto it, waiting for the prefect moment to hand it to her. I was still waiting when my parents picked me up from school. It wasn’t until after dinner that my brother convinced me to look up her number and call.

He listened in silence as the conversation went something like this: “Hi, this is Dave” “Dave who?” “Dave P, from class” “Oooh, hi, what’s up?” *awkward silence*  “Would you like to go out with me?” *more awkward silence*  “No way!” The emphasis was ambiguous disgust or disbelief. “Oh, okay, bye.” and I hung up. I was sad, but my brother was proud. He congratulated me for taking a risk and told me I had huge balls. It was ridiculous, but it made me feel good about myself.

I took my pride to my parents and told them about the call. They scrunched up their faces in worry and rubbed my back as if I were in pain. I felt fine…but they looked like they were in pain. It took me a moment to connect the dots, but my actions made them sad; I failed at the first step of making grandchildren. The pain they felt was me being rejected.

The girls I liked and the methods I used changed, but the disappointment I felt from my parents didn’t. By the end of high school, I had such a fear of rejection, I’d only asked out one girl. I didn’t manage to start my first adult relationship until after college graduation. What I think made it possible was that I never had to formally ask her out.

That relationship validated my existence; I wasn’t a disappointment to my parents anymore. We spent every free minute together for a week. Then, she started paying attention to the demands of the real world. There was homework to do and friends that needed time. We spent slightly less time together.

In those hours apart, I only saw existential validation slipping away. If my parents could live in isolation, why couldn’t she and I? (I am so embarrassed to have thought like that) I nagged her when she spent time with friends. I hovered when she did homework. I let myself be controlled by my insecurities, and I didn’t give her room to breath. She hated how controlling I became. We fought. It was just like home.

The relationship didn’t last long, and she broke up with me. Today, I am grateful she had enough wisdom to end things. I cried for a few days while I came to terms with failure. I still wince when recalling how I treated her.

After that, I returned home to work at the family business. The relocation forced me to develop a new social group. I really liked a new girl, but just as a friend. She was exotic, and had a brilliant sense of humor.

One day, she and I were walking down the sidewalk with a group of friends. I wore a large hat and she stuck by my side, chatting away. After a moment of unexpected silence, she looked up at me, and said, “I think I love you.” Time slowed down as I noticed the group chatter die. I didn’t want to embarrass her, but I also didn’t like her that way. The best I could come up with was, “Oh, it’s just the hat, see?” as I took it off, gently put it on her head and continued the conversation as if nothing had happened. We couldn’t make eye contact through our height difference and the hat. I hope she wasn’t crying, but I’ll never really know. The following few months was a hard lesson for me that people don’t want to be your friend if you reject them. I still miss her.

Later, I got to experience what she did. I remember being invited in this other girl’s front door, no euphemism. I’d liked her for a long time and was so nervous, I could barely speak. I just stared at my shoes and mumbled compliments. Then, I asked if she’d like to date. In a tender tone, she responded with a compliment and let me know she just wanted friendship. I left as fast as I could, breathlessly saying goodbye before tears prevented me from saying anything. It was the most gentle rejection I ever received, but I was too self-conscious and awkward to really contribute to the friendship after that.

I eventually found a girl who gave me a taste of my own neurosis. When I didn’t spend enough time with her, she acted mopey. She yelled at me for not going on family trips. When I had a strong opinion about our future, and we disagreed, she always got her way. At first,  she acquiesced, then went passive aggressive, and finally poked me with complaints until I relented. I realized, through her behavior, how unhealthy my actions were. I broke it off and withdrew from dating altogether. I needed to learn to manage my insecurities single.

I devoted myself to work. Collaborating with my brother at the winery, we focused on improving wine quality. He found the right oak pairings, aging techniques and improved workflow in our limited space. I searched for the right yeast and bacteria, performed chemical analysis and maintained a log book of our progress. What we produced ended up being world class, gilded with gold medals. I finally found validation through work.

Then, I hurt I my hands; Repetitive stress injuries in both arms. Doing household chores became out of my reach, so winery work was unthinkable. I made so much progress and it was all taken from me. Time was all I had in an apartment I couldn’t even clean.

I adapted. My family cooked meals, opened cans and bags, did my laundry, took out the trash, and pushed my shopping cart. I figured out how to control my computer with voice, eye tracking lasers, and toe clicks. It was painfully slow, but enough to distract me from my worst moments. I got medical treatment for my arms and they slowly started healing.

After a year, gratefulness welled up inside me for the continuous help I received. I was running out of money, and my hands were still out of commission, but I needed to express my thanks in a way more significant than the standard “Thank you.” So, I listened to my family for cues on what they needed. The more I listened, the more they had to say. It just kept pouring out and it dawned on me that what they wanted most was just to be heard.

I learned to speak with kindness, so as not to undermine their willingness to share. I learned to encourage, so they would speak about what matters. I learned how to listen so I wouldn’t judge what said. I learned to be silent to express my love. In turn, these actions gave my life meaning. A validation for existence. I’m not an expert, but I feel the demand for hearing and I don’t need functional hands, a job or a relationship to practice. I just need to listen and love.

If you have an experience similar to mine, want to talk about your own validation, or how you’ve overcome your fears in dating and friendships, please share in the comments below. I’d love to hear your stories.