Many years ago now, when my mother and I had a bad argument, I took everything so much to heart I would go down into my room in our basement and lie face down on my bed.
I was in intense pain, like a bad sunburn at the interior.
But as it diminished, I would get up and go to my corner desk, turning on the lamp. I would avoid her at all costs, for as long as I could, opening my notebook in case a poem came to me. I would bury myself in my Latin homework and the fairly arduous work of translating a portion of Caesar’s Gallic Wars.
I would wall myself off in classical music on my Sears stereo, instinctively teaching myself to self-soothe, self-comfort and surround myself with beauty.
Even so, I was never able to not give my mother the power to hook me. She would catch up to me even if it meant barging into my bedroom, casting the shiny lure of an insult out over the water or say something hyper-critical and shaming that could take away my equilibrium in an instant.
The young and beautiful trout I was would take the bait, whereupon I was engaged in a fight for the right to exist and to get the hook out of my mouth—the hook being her words, her dirty looks, her shameful psychological torment of finding fault with everything about her daughter—-the immense barb of maternal rejection..
That the children in our family didn’t get their needs met is an understatement. We needed validation and constancy, to feel and be safe in our own homes. We needed our mother to be kind and forbearing and present, to function and to be a grown-up. To feel that we mattered and that she would go to bat for us. Above all, we needed to know we were loved without condition and readily forgiven for our mistakes. None of that happened.
After I moved into the dorm at CSU, and as I attempted to form friendships and develop bonds with others, I was too open to the wrong people. I would get hooked again, dragged into a quagmire of toxic interaction far afield of what I had committed myself to: scholarship, further mastery of the craft of writing.
And again, I would wrest myself free, withdrawing into my studies. There was a classical music room in the student union where I would sit with my books and notebook and work, until time to bike back to the dorm for supper. It was my instinct to shrink back into the shadows, to withdraw, in order to be safe.
But I was also starved for love– a carte blanche invitation to be wounded and re-wounded. It is so uncomfortable for me to think about or write about how vulnerable I was-—suffice it to say it was easy to lure me out of the deep water and the reeds with an entirely different sort of bait—-the possibility of love, passion, excitement.
Hence I graduated from being a brook trout to a marlin arcing out of the water who could be speared. I feel so badly for the young woman who didn’t know how to protect herself from such things, or from the hurt when the flash in the pan attraction gave way to abandonment, grueling loneliness and nothing.
Although I’ve made great strides in learning to protect myself, I’ve been recently hooked and done quite a bit of manta-ray stinging back. I’ve been dragged out to sea, bruising my being against the hull of a boat in an effort to defend myself, and as anger has been triggered in me, I’ve periodically morphed into an aggressor of the deep.
To abandon the metaphor for a moment, yesterday was a really difficult day. My partner didn’t see/didn’t realize, although it seemed obvious to me, that our old Golden was suffering immensely with dermatitis to the extent that she has stretched the skin below her elbows and traumatized it with her claws—that she had a tormenting rash and hives all over her belly and under her legs.
We were both so hurt and angry, in and around getting the dog to the emergency vet clinic, that we were exhausted. We had been trading off the roles of fisherman and marlin, embattled and hooked into a draining and retaliatory battle.
I know, after many years of such instances with my mother, that the hook of the present is poison-tipped with the past, equipped with radar for my vulnerabilities. And yet, how powerless I was to let go, detach, protect myself, or when I felt falsely accused, state calmly: “I’m not your problem.”
For want of a nail, the kingdom is lost. For lack of skills, lack of the ability to self-intervene upon being baited and dart away to cool off, a fragile trust falls apart.
And so today, not without difficulty and more than a little residual sadness and anger, having mustered the will to apologize for my part but not let blame and shame be heaped upon me, I recommit to staying focused on that which makes me feel whole and feeds my spirit; my creative work, the transcendence of all the drama that writing is, and the beauty of Bach pouring from the stereo.
Living fully in the moment is really all that matters, at the end of the day. Detaching, refusing to engage, closing the door if necessary, searching out safer waters, are all part of the skill-set of the underwater survivor.