Do you have any wise words for those of us grieving our troubled childhoods and wanting to move on?
My family wasn’t abusive, but there was lots of emotional neglect and WASP-y dysfunction. Both my parents are people living with mental illness and family histories of substance abuse. They care about me, but as a result of their own trauma they weren’t able to show up for me in many of the ways I needed them to when I was a child. It’s taken me many years of therapy to stop defending my parents and realize my childhood wasn’t normal.
Cut to the present — I’m in my 30s, out of the closet, and sober. I feel grateful to have a chosen family I can talk about these things with, but it pains me that I don’t have the support of either of my parents. I’ve brought up being gay, being on meds, and my sobriety with them, and it’s been made clear that these topics make them uncomfortable.
Historically, they have pushed back against seeking therapy, so I don’t expect them to be more emotionally available down the line. I still talk to both of them fairly regularly, but our interactions feel very surface level.
The sadness and anger I feel about this scares me. It feels like I have been grieving and processing for years and the sadness and anger is never going to dissipate. All I want now is to move on. But how?
I’m the Sad Guy (Duh)
Hey there, Sad Guy!
It’s pretty jarring to realize that our parents are people, isn’t it? We are so small and helpless as children, and they are so giant and knowing. What are taxes? How do airplanes work? Where does Taco Bell harvest Cheesy Gordita Crunches, and from what trees do they grow? These are adult affairs, until they aren’t.
Sure, the brain is mush at that age and more susceptible to being molded by traumatic experiences. But I think it’s the helplessness, the smallness that sticks with us. For a time, we are utterly dependent on other people — and when they fail us, when they drop us from their Olympian heights, we fall hard. We can’t help but remember.
I’ve thought a lot about what it felt like to be a child, Sad Guy, as I’m sure many people have as they scour the seabed of their lives for answers. I think it’s even more common for LGBT people who’ve had to come out to their family or stay in the closet because they feared the reaction. I have wonderful, loving parents, for example, but they weren’t perfect on this front either.
What I’ve come to realize is that one of the most prominent differences between me then and me now is how indistinguishable my feelings were from my sense of self.
When we are little, it’s common to feel like we are our feelings. We inhabit them so fully, and we express them so freely. When our feelings are treated as unacceptable by the people running the show, the adults, we might come to feel that we are unacceptable. And if we hold on to that, if it happens enough times, we might hold on to it long after we learn better, long after we discover through trial and tribulation that our emotions, both good and bad, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. At some point we learn we can move through them and not define ourselves by them.
It’s entirely understandable that you would want to find acceptance from the people who didn’t give it to you when it mattered most. Maybe if you could get them to come around, if you could win their approval, if you could cut off the trauma at its source and close the mouth of the river, then you could move on with your life. But that’s not how rivers work. You can waste a lot of time and energy that way.
I’m not going to ask you to forgive anybody. That’d be a pretty serious ask on my end. But I do think some grace for your parents would serve you well here. Consider your own struggles, your nuances and shortcomings and flaws. Now, I want you to imagine holding a small life in those imperfect hands, a little heartbeat you’ve been charged with protecting and raising and shielding from the prickly thorns of the world, knowing that failure to do so even once might permanently injure it.
It doesn’t sound like your parents did the best job with you. It doesn’t sound like they were there for you in all the ways you needed and, sadly, it doesn’t sound like they’re coming around the way you want them to any time soon. In my ideal situation, they would get therapy, work through their issues, and meet you where you are. But that’s a rare and difficult thing, Sad Guy. I won’t pretend it’s the likely outcome here.
Nor would I ask you to excuse anything that’s been done. How you process it is up to you. But I would offer that forgiveness and grace are different, albeit intertwined. Grace, to me, allows us to take a step back and see things clearly. It allows us to put our baggage and emotions aside, even if only temporarily, and consider that, yes, people are flawed. They make mistakes. They might even make mistakes that hurt us.
I think people often assume that grace is something another person must earn, that it’s a gift we give. But I’ve come to understand that it does a great deal for me when I give it freely, that it can help me understand the how and why of my pain and, therefore, help me ground it. Grace helps me bend where I might otherwise break. Call me selfish, but I’m very interested in not breaking. This flexibility might help you move on. You parents are people. They’re not perfect. They let you down.
We can understand that, even if we don’t outright forgive it. It’s no do-over or a blank slate, but we can go on from here, and going on, whatever that looks like to you, can be a reward all its own.
Now if you need me, I’ll be picking Gordita Crunches™ from the Cheesy Gordita Tree™.
Con mucho amor,
Originally published on February 3, 2020.
This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, here.