When Anna (who chooses to remain anonymous) speaks to me, what she says and how she says it is like a soothing balm with an injection of hilarity. She often sounds like she’s on the verge of giddy laughter.
And so when she told me, in that very same tone of voice, about her very early childhood, about how her mother would send her father to her bedroom…
[Go tuck Anna in]…
…when he was “randy” because her mother didn’t want to have to “deal with him,” well, all I could think is, this is the epitome of resilience, right here.
[She didn’t want it to be her…from a very early age I was her confidante and her protector and she put me in a parental role from the get go. So it would fall to me to deal with him, which is, as a parent, just almost incomprehensible to me to even understand that line of thinking.]
Like all resilient daughters, healing was a process, which included a recurring painful story that she told herself (unconsciously) for years:
[It kept showing up in the form of the vaguely abusive boyfriends. Sometimes not even vaguely. You know, boyfriends who were into questionable sexual practices on their own and would say “this has nothing to do with you” but it was weird and I could not understand it.
I did not understand why I kept ending up in relationships with men who were so sexually inappropriate…stuff that I just could not abide…and they just didn’t care. My need and desire for them to show up differently in the relationship meant nothing.
I was also drinking a lot of alcohol at the time, so I had very little true awareness…but rather confusion. I watched the same patterns emerge over and over and over again no matter how I chose boyfriends.]
And those same patterns showed up at work and in other areas of her life, as well.
So what was that painful story?
[I have to take responsibility for this thing that has nothing to do with me. I’m the fall guy. I have to take it. It’s my job.
I’m supposed to be able to take everything on. I’m supposed to be able to change things and do all the stuff. So why does this feel so miserable, why do I keep ending up in situations with people and relationships and men that are just so dysfunctional?]
This seems to an excellent moment to share this Anais Nin quote: “There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic.”
As we talked Anna recounted how she started to receive the truth, and to be honest, the way she describes receiving it sounds like both “instant illumination” and “fragment by fragment.”
[I was the financial reporting manager for a company that was going through a lot of change and people just kept quitting and I ended up taking on everybody else’s jobs and they just kept handing more stuff to me like, “Oh, no one else will take care of it.”
And at the same time, there had been a big earthquake and so I was having panic attacks…and then 9/11 happened.
Then I went on a business trip and a friend of mine hooked me up with a friend of hers, and we went out to dinner and he was old. He was like my dad’s age and he looked like my dad and he smelled like my dad.
And then on the way home, he took me to a deserted park and tried to have his way with me and I was trying to avoid him, trying to get away from him. “You need to take me home.” I didn’t know where I was. It was terrifying and then I have this enormous flashback of my dad. I finally got him to take me home and he verbally abused me the whole way back to the hotel: “Oh, you’re just a prick-tease” and “You’re such a vapid little girl.”
It was like a total recreation of what happened when I was growing up.
The waves of memories kept coming and I called my mom and asked her what the fuck happened. “I used to send him to your room.”
And that’s when I knew I needed help.]
And that story? The one where she was telling herself that she had to take it…that it was her job? It led to this:
[I perpetually felt like a fraud. I was constantly anxious. I never felt like I was living in any sort of integrity. I didn’t have real friends. I had drinking buddies. I felt alone because I didn’t want anybody to know how fucked up things were. I was concerned about maintaining some sort of image because of all the people I drank with, I was the only one that actually made any money (not that I had any). I was a manager at a big company and sat in board meetings. Those people helped me look good. Being around people who were kind of in the gutter, so to speak, helped me feel like I was okay.
So it was messy…very messy, very ugly, and very dark.]
She was also enraged with her mother.
[She had lied to me in so many ways. So much of our relationship was built around her lying to keep me close so nobody would ask questions. I was absolutely furious with her.]
And her father?
[I expressed my anger to him in high school, after he stopped drinking. As soon as he stopped drinking, the molestation stopped. He doesn’t remember any of it. He was drunk and thank God, he was gone six to eight months out of every year. I would stay at my grandmother’s a lot…who knows why. At that time, I just thought it’s because I like staying with my grandmother. But now I see it was self-preservation.
Years later my mother told me that one time, when I was about nine or 10, I came home to find my dad holding a gun to her head. He said he was going to shoot her and then shoot himself. I got up on the bed and I took the gun from him. And I believe her on that story because I asked my father about it and he said, “Oh, yeah, I have a vague recollection of that.
”I know that he really does not remember what happened.
By the time I was 30 and in therapy, so much time had passed and he had become a completely different person.]
And so Anna grasped, with the help of her therapist, that her life was her responsibility.
[What I wanted most was resolution within myself around all of this. I didn’t want to have a conversation with my parents about it because frankly, it’s none of their fucking business. This is mine. I needed to make peace with it. It wasn’t their job anymore. I am clear about that.]
Now that she knows better, she lives a different, and much better story. But how did that happen?
[The night I decided to quit drinking, I had a vision…I was looking out the window and I had a bunch of beer but I couldn’t get drunk. I was smoking cigarettes and I was having this existential moment. I wasn’t drunk. I was gazing out the window at the sunset and a realization dropped into my awareness…the truth of who I was, was not the way that I was living.
That awareness became my homing device. I was given an understanding that I was not all of the shit that was happening. I wasn’t the emotions. I wasn’t the circumstances. I was something much, much better than that. I was destined for more. And that really became a very powerful sort of focus for me.
During that time I cried and cried and cried and I raged and raged and raged and it felt like I was running through waist-deep mud. There was just so much that had to be dealt with…so much baggage that had come from the way I was living. I was in debt. I was in a job that I hated. And my relationships were all built on lies and fakery.
So slowly, I started making decisions by asking, “What would feel good?” to the me who’s out there in the future – the real me. I would ask, “What does the real me want?” And I started making decisions from that place. And once I stopped drinking, even though there was a lot of mess to clean up, I felt the truth of who I was more and that made it easier.]
And slowly, that old life fell away.
[A little over a year after I stopped drinking, I met my husband and we got married quickly. I knew that if it had not happened the way it did, I wouldn’t be married to him, because neither of us would have been interested each other.]
And at that point Anna decided to get back in touch with her parents, who were divorced and remarried.
[I invited them to the wedding. I wasn’t committed to having any kind of relationship with them but I thought, “Well, they’re my family. I’ll invite them to the wedding.” But my dad didn’t walk me down the aisle. My husband and I walked down the aisle together. I wanted nothing to do with that kind of nonsense.
And my mother, who had been sober on and off, was drinking again and she blacked out at the wedding and said some pretty ugly things. I did not speak to her for a while after the wedding.]
Anna describes herself as a naturally enthusiastic and optimistic person (and she says she’s a lot like her mother in that respect) and so when her mother stopped drinking again she thought it would be a good second opportunity.
[I found that she is not that much different…she hasn’t changed. My mother still puts me in situations where I will fail, where I might hurt myself…or have someone hurt me.]
She described a recent visit an incident that showed her that…
[…there’s no evidence in her behavior that she likes me at all. It did not surprise me at all.]
But because she has healed, and with healing comes the ability to set truly loving boundaries…
[What did surprise me was realizing that it’s unusual for anybody to treat me like that now.
I sometimes find myself slipping back into that old role with her and then I remember, “This isn’t my job. This isn’t my responsibility.”
And when I do that, she responds defensively and won’t call me for a long time.]
Anna acknowledges that part of her story was, “I’m going to prove you wrong” and that it served her.
[My parents expected nothing of me. When I was high school junior I my mother told me, “If you graduate from high school without getting pregnant, I’m going to consider that a huge success.” It felt like I was being held down: “Don’t get too big for your britches, who the fuck do you think you are?” You know, the things that a lot of us who are in our 40s and 50s heard. I was constantly fighting against their low expectations. To graduate from college and become a CPA was an enormous thing for me to do.]
She no longer lives her life “in reaction” or trying to prove her parents wrong.
[As I got sober and then married my husband – who’s just this amazing supportive person and who believes in me 5000% –I could see the difference between how I grew up and how I live now. Good Lord, I’m a miracle, a walking fucking miracle! Do you know what I mean?]
Yes, Anna, I do indeed know what you mean.
[I live my life in integrity…I enjoy my life and I no longer think rotten horrible things about myself. I don’t think I would appreciate as much who I am today if it were not for my parents.]
Anna consciously chooses to mother herself this way:
[I create safety for myself. This is really a big deal. I was not safe growing up. Safety is essential to expressing myself and shining my light and doing all that good stuff. I’m committed to making sure that I feel safe. That may look like giving myself time to cry in certain circumstances or asking for something I need rather than just saying, “Oh, yeah, it’s fine. I’ve got it.” I am learning, instead, to say, “You know what, this is what I need to feel safe and to feel okay about what’s going to happen.”]
Anna’s advice for a woman who is struggling in her relationship with her mother/parents:
[Don’t be afraid to walk away. Give yourself permission to walk away if it’s not working. I don’t think there is any greater gift you can give yourself.
The biggest thing that helped me find peace was taking to heart that there is a statute of limitations. You can’t blame your family. You can’t blame your mom. You can’t blame your dad. It’s like once you’re an adult, whatever happened, whatever trauma remains, whatever hurt remains is our responsibility, and nobody else can fix it.
That to me was so powerful.
My parents can’t fix it. They’ve never been the parents I wanted them to be, but now I can do it for myself. It doesn’t matter what they do or don’t do.
How I feel and how I’ve move forward is absolutely about me and my relationship to myself.]
Anna is a resilient daughter and an empowered woman.
[In relationship to my mom, I am able to stand in one place and she does her thing. She comes, she goes, she says mean things, she doesn’t say mean things. And I hold the same stance no matter what. And to me, that feels like resilience. I don’t stop being myself no matter what she’s throwing into the mix.
I used to call her on it and at some point, I realized it was a futile conversation because she’s a chronic liar and will say whatever she thinks I want to hear. When she is available in ways that I feel are healthy and feel good to me, I’m here, and if she’s not, I’m not.]
She’s All That
Anna is a highly successful entrepreneur who defines her own success and understands that sometimes she must destroy things to create something better.
To use “coach speak,” she can “hold the space” like no one else I’ve ever known. I’m not alone in that assessment, having spoken to several of Anna’s clients. One of them said to me: “Sometimes I would spend my hour on the phone with her just sobbing hysterically and at the end, I’d feel so much better and Anna would say, ‘It’s just what you needed and I love you’.”
She has travelled extensively, embraces the lessons each location has to offer, and translates those lessons into her business. She marries the wild to the practical.
She is obviously committed to her own personal growth and is hopeful that even though her own daughter may well end up in therapy some day, that modeling personal growth is the best and most powerful way she can mother.
She is married to a man whom she surprises on a regular basis…and he’s grateful for that.
This woman has reframed her past to work for her. It no longer holds her back but is a source of clarity and motivation in her present life. Would you like to release the story that holds you back and tell yourself a new, more powerful one so you can live up to your potential?
Reframe your past, make good on your future: The Transformational Interview.