In this post I will explore some of struggles as a child, adolescent and adult in dealing with the challenges “visited upon me” by both my biological and adoptive parents. My mother was born into a poor southern family and had no opportunity for education beyond the eighth grade and was expected to simply get married, have kids and take care of her husband. Unable to get pregnant and lacking the skills to seek better choices, she became alcoholic and was frequently absent from home for extended periods of time. Her husband responded in the only way he knew how by abandoning her and leaving her feeling even more worthless. She visited her sister in Chicago, met one of her sister’s friends there, and became pregnant with me.
Completely unable to cope with the responsibility of caring for a young child, I was largely abandoned to the care of my grandmother, beginning the “visiting of the sins of the fathers (and mothers) upon the children” as I have described in a prior post. When my mother became pregnant a second time, my grandmother took steps to have me and my baby sister taken away from my mother and surrendered to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society (TCHS). It was there that I have the first memories of dealing with the challenges now laid at my feet.
One strong memory from the TCHS was waking up early one morning while it was still dark, filled with fear of being alone and screaming for the nurse. When no one came, I felt so angry that I threw myself down in the crib and promised myself I would never, ever depend on anyone else for anything. It was an absurd promise for a three-year-old, of course, and I can only guess at all the underlying experiences that were buried in my emotional memories.
I can’t remember anything particularly positive or happy during my time in the TCHS home, but believing I had been abandoned by my birth family, I began to form emotional attachment to the nurses in the orphanage. Then I was suddenly taken to Los Angeles and given to my adoptive parents. After a few words at the train station, the nurse just turned and walked away. I remember crying and trying to run after the nurse. I could not understand why she was now abandoning me. Was it because I had cried too much, hadn’t been obedient enough, hadn’t been grateful enough? My new adoptive parents, Vesta and Luke, had no idea what was going on with me and were probably embarrassed by the looks of strangers as they walked by. They dealt with it by scolded me for making such a fuss. Again, the “sins of the fathers”? All I knew was that the nurse had disappeared and I might just be left there alone if I continued to cry. Another critical choice that would impact my life for decades: just hide my grief and fear because it was dangerous to disclose any negative emotions to anyone else.
My adoptive parents seemed to quickly recognize the value of my fear of rejection and abandonment and used that as a tool to enforce discipline. If I didn’t clean my room properly, was unwilling to go to bed on time, or did just about anything that displeased them, the response, so often, was some variant of “You will do what I tell you or we will send you back to the orphanage.” My first question after going anywhere with my parents was always, “Was I a good boy?” Most of the time the answer was “yes”, but I still remember the stab of fear and trembling when my mother would respond, “No! You were a very bad boy!!”
My parents love was conditional on me pleasing them. Any questions I asked about my biological family meant I was criticizing them, that I didn’t appreciate their “sacrifice” in adopting me. Trying to understand my own identity meant I was rejecting theirs. All of this led to increasing anger and frustration as I entered adolescence. Since none of this could be expressed directly to my parents, it showed up as increasing anger and aggression with teachers and other teens. Many a black eye or bloody nose that I inflicted on other boys led to weeks of detention in the principal’s office. It didn’t help my confusion that my father often expressed pride about how I had “stood up like a man”, only admonishing me to take care to do it away from school, not in it.
Cutting myself off from my emotions and hiding myself from others with a torrent of words and analysis was a pattern that I would unconsciously follow for the next couple of decades. I did it when my aunt committed suicide, even though I was sure it was because I hadn’t helped her enough on our Thanksgiving visits nor had I told her clearly enough how much I loved her. I did it when Luke refused to visit his dying father, even though the nurse had called to tell us the night before that it was unlikely that grandfather would survive the night. I’ve written about the deep attachment I had with my grandfather and I was heartbroken. What could I do as a twelve-year-old? The image of him dying alone stayed with me for a very long time.
When my first daughter was born with a severe birth defect and died two days later, I tried to explain to my wife that was all for the best because, “what kind of life could she have had with that sort of condition?” Intimacy, vulnerability and connection were all too scary, and it was made far worse because all of those fears were buried under a mountain of words and intellectual analysis.
Somehow, as I became an adult, “good” expanded to “perfect” and then to “indispensable” as the insurance that I wouldn’t be rejected and abandoned. At 21, legally an adult, I preempted the possibility of being rejected by my adoptive family by rejecting them. I moved out and had little contact with them for nearly twenty years.
The problem was, I still needed to deal with me and I had no idea who “me” was. There was just this emotionally twisted man with an explosive temper and need to control everything. I was determined not be dependent on anyone and was incapable of any real intimacy. I had no friends, couldn’t keep a job and made a mess of my first marriage – partially because I tried to control and dominate my wife in the same way that my parents had controlled me. I went into the army as a medical officer during the Vietnam War, believing I was doing my patriotic duty and serving my country. During those six years I learned first hand the lies being told by the government and was compelled to repeat those lies to the next of kin of dead soldiers. I left the army with an enormous load of psychological baggage and a clear sense that I had been abandoned by my country. I have previously written about how I later tried to deal with that trauma and forgive myself.
A year later I decided that everything that was going wrong in my life was my wife’s fault and I filed for divorce – “visiting my sins” on my four-year-old son to deal with the trauma of abandonment and certainty that he wasn’t good enough and on my unborn daughter to deal with the trauma of a family without a father.
I was a total mess. The fears and insecurities that were at the root of the “the sins of my father that were visited upon me” were buried in my subconscious and completely inaccessible to me. It was as if there was a dark, enveloping fog of fear that others would discover that I was just a pathetic, worthless excuse for a human being. My survival depended on being able to conceal that “reality” from everyone else through a heavy mask of behaviors, attitudes and rationalizations that would hide the “real Roger”.
Right around my 36th birthday, during lunch with a client, he started telling me about a seminar that he had participated in that had made a real difference in his life. It was run by an organization mostly known by its initials, EST. They had a reputation for conducting their seminars with a lot of yelling and insults, long sessions without bathroom breaks, and continuing well into the early morning hours. It didn’t sound like anything I wanted to put myself through, yet there was something in the quiet, assured way that my lunch partner spoke of the impact on his life that stirred something deep within me. I reluctantly signed up for the next seminar.
It began very much according to its reputation. I was alternately bored, angered, and frustrated. The leader picked out someone he decided was being too disruptive and told him to “get the hell out of the seminar.” My ingrained “be a good boy” habit kept me from finding some behavioral misdeed to also get me kicked out. I would ask questions about what he was saying in a very analytical and disapproving way. Late the first morning, he responded to yet another such question by stepping off the podium, walking down the aisle, and standing in front of me with his face perhaps 30 cm from mine. He just stared at me for a few seconds, then said, “You’re a figure-outer aren’t you? Well, you’re so damn busy trying to figure things out that you’re missing out on life!” Then he returned to the podium and continued, ignoring my question entirely.
Oh, was I outraged. I sat there in my seat sulking, replaying the scenario over and over in my head and plotting some kind of “revenge”. It was probably 30 minutes later when some woman several rows away who burst out crying broke through my self-preoccupation. It was a profound and painful shock to realize I had no idea what had happened for the past half hour. The truth expressed in the leader’s “insult” to me was gut-wrenching and left me also quietly crying at how much of life I had probably missed in exactly the same way.
There were several other such moments of profound insight over the course of the seminar – all very emotionally painful, yet at the same time filled with a joyous delight at finding doors to escaping my life’s misery. By the last session I felt so light and free. I experienced a new kind of connection with the other participants where I felt liked and valued just the way I was. I left the seminar with the belief that I had at last found the way to happiness and that all my problems were now behind me. I just didn’t occur to me that would be many more challenges in actually navigating that path.
I got married again and became the step-dad to an eleven year old girl and her brother of eight. It was a great relationship in the beginning and I had some wonderful adventures with my kids. Even so, I had little insight into parenting teenagers other than the example from my adoptive parents. My temper and need to control everything intruded more and more in my relationship with both my step-kids and my wife. As time went by, there was less and less empathy and connection.
When my father was diagnosed with severe arteriosclerosis that required emergency surgery, I refused to take the time to fly to California to visit even though he was fearful that he might die. (“Ha, who needs who now?” was my gut response.) It’s only as I am writing this now that have to ask myself if my refusal had anything to do with not being able to say good-by to my grandfather as he lay dying in the hospital.
I had continued to be involved with EST and had found value in several of their once-per-week follow-on classes. Frustrated by my continuing work and relationship issues, I decided to participate in one of their week-long intensive seminars conducting in the mountains north of San Francisco. This one promised a deep exploration of the masks we wear to prevent others from seeing all our fears and insecurities.
It was a depressing, exciting, emotionally painful and transformative week. The most life-changing moment came when we were asked to do the zip line exercise. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this, a long steel cable is anchored near the edge of a cliff that rises around 50 – 60 meters from the rocks in the valley below. The cable is secured to another anchor point down the valley, approximately a kilometer away. A pully runs freely on the cable. I was told to grasp the grips extending out of either side of the pully axis, walk out on a narrow plank, step off into space, and let the pully carry me down on the zip line to the termination point. I don’t know that I have ever experienced such terror before or since in my life.
With a lot of coaxing and encouragement from the exercise helpers, I finally closed my eyes and stepped off the plank. In the first moment, my weight carried me mostly straight down toward the rocks below. I was sure that the zip line had failed and I was falling to my death. The moment seemed to last for a very long time. There was no “flashing of my life before my eyes” but rather just a clear question: “Did you love, and were you loved?”
Then, suddenly, time flowed again and I zoomed to the end of the zip line where I was congratulated and helped out of the harness. I turned and looked back at the cliff and, for a moment, was sure I could see my broken body on those rocks. I believed I had died and been born again – given a chance to live another life in which I could love others and be loved.
As soon as I could, I booked a flight to Los Angeles to visit my adoptive parents. I know it must have been a tremendous shock to them after not having seen me for most of the prior 17 years. I just told them how much I loved them and to ask for their forgiveness for all the problems I had caused them. It was two days of the most intimate and honest connection with them that I had ever known. The joy and lightness of being that I experienced was breathtaking. I was convinced that I had this whole business of hiding behind a mask finally solved. Of course, that was rather naïve. It would take another thirty years of challenges, experiences and insights before I began to realize how unwilling I was to forgive myself.
By the time of the seventh anniversary of my second marriage, I was very unhappy. My wife seemed to have no interest in communication or making our relationship work. My stepchildren, now adolescents, got involved with smoking, alcohol and petty thievery and there seemed to be no way forward without a partnership with my wife. Something within me said, “Many of these relationship issues are exactly the same as you had in your first marriage. What is the only thing in common here?” It was so painful to acknowledge what the answer was: me.
I responded with my “analyze it, figure it out” approach, completely missing the relevance of my “insight” from that long-ago EST seminar. I persuaded my wife to enroll in a current EST seminar, completely unaware and uninterested that her personality was completely unsuited to the insulting, emotionally abusive approach of EST that had worked so well for me. She came home feeling even worse about herself and resentful of what I had compelled her to do.
I began Aikido training, the “way of love”, that taught one not to resist physical force but to blend with it and redirect it in a healing way. One day at work, an angry colleague came into my office and began pounding on my desk about something. I remember getting up, walking around the desk, and standing alongside him (exactly like I had been trained in the Aikido dojo). Now we were looking at the issue as partners. We found a solution and he left satisfied and with our relationship strengthened. I could see the value of my Aikido training in dealing with my emotional challenges in a failing relationship, yet I was unable use it effectively in my failing marriage. We ultimately divorced some four years later.
Single again, I went fairly regularly to a weekly gathering at an art museum where a lot of other singles would gather to chat, dance and … perhaps afterward, share other activities. I would try to listen and figure out (again!) how some people would seem to hit it off right away with everyone, while others (like me) couldn’t seem to really connect with anyone. There was one lady in particular who tried to be polite but clearly had no interest in talking with me at all. After a few failed attempts over several weeks, I just dismissed her as a “cold and distant bitch.”
I got involved in another relationship and moved in with this woman a few months later (at least I didn’t get married this time!) Sadly, the relationship followed the same pattern as in my previous marriages: it started out with a lot of promise and then quickly went downhill. It was especially painful to hear once again that I was always trying to control everything and that I never really listened. The pain finally broke through that long-ago decision in the crib at TCHS to never be dependent on anybody for anything. I acknowledged to myself that I needed help and started therapy.
The author Brené Brown once observed that the best therapists were the ones who have an outstanding BS meter. My therapist must have had one of the best because she would always kindly but clearly cut through my BS (all my excuses and explanations) and leave me no alternative then to look deeply inside and speak the truth about that. If I thought the EST experiences had been emotionally painful, they were nothing compared to what I was dealing with now with this so kind but unyieldingly tough woman. Just one example was a question she asked repeatedly: “To truly listen, you have to truly be interested in what they are saying. Are you?” It was horrifying to experience how seldom I could honestly answer “Yes”.
I came home from work one evening some four or five months after starting therapy to find a note that said the relationship wasn’t working and she wanted me out of her house immediately. I was shocked and saddened, but I noticed that my response was more one of understanding and acceptance rather than my more usual anger and resentment. Perhaps that was some indication that I had made personal progress with my own issues? I moved out, promising myself that I would not get involved in another serious relationship “for at least ten years.”
It was only a few weeks later when Bill (a good friend) invited me to come see a high school play that his son would be in as part of his graduation. After I had accepted his invitation, he added, “Oh yes, there will also be another woman I have invited and you might like to get to know one another.” I arrived a bit early on the agreed evening and took a seat that was available at the edge of the stage.
Just before the play was scheduled to begin, Bill walked into the auditorium with a woman and indicated that she should take the seat next to me. I realized with a shock that this was the same “cold and distant” woman that I had met almost two years before at the art museum. “Oh no, not her,” I thought. “Well, it’s just for one evening. I can use it to practice my new listening skills.”
We ended up having a lot of time to chat – and what I learned about her just blew me away. She was a bright, hard-working and dynamic woman who had been a professional dancer, a book editor, was deeply passionate about supporting non-profit organizations, and had been extensively involved in the peace movement during the Vietnam war. Cold and distant? That I had made this judgment without knowing anything about her was like an emotional bomb going off inside me. I didn’t sleep at all that night and spent all the next day on the couch, weeping over all that I had missed throughout my life.
I don’t know to this day how providence granted me a second chance with this woman, but I was determined to not let this one get by me. We were married some four months later and Susan has been my love, my dearest friend and my teacher to this day.
I must confess that recognizing and managing my tendency to rush to judgement without adequate understanding still remains an challenge. I’ve written about some of my successes and failures in this area here.
Susan and I ran a company that conducted professional training for large corporations all over the world. I would observe her from time to time and marvel at the easy connection she seemed to easily establish with her seminar participants. I, on the other hand, worried constantly that I might make a mistake or be unable to answer someone’s question and so would invest a ridiculous number of hours in preparation and revision of my materials. I always had an answer for any question that came up. Still, when we reviewed the student evaluations, she would consistently get higher ratings and lots of praise. Susan would just smile and remind me that I really didn’t need to always know the answers.
For me, that was just heresy. I had to have the answers or the students would think I was incompetent. Susan recognized that it was “little Roger”, struggling with the fear of rejection if he wasn’t perfect, that was at the source of it. In her gentle way she would sometimes remind me that “The orphanage won’t take you back now!” We would laugh about it and I would relax a little – until the next time.
Then the time came when a potential new client came to us and needed a tailored seminar for thirty students to be delivered in one week’s time. It was impossible to prepare in my usual manner, yet the business opportunity was significant. I prepared my materials as best as I could and began the seminar. Around mid-morning one participant asked a question to which I had no answer at all. My hands were trembling as I responded, “Well, I really don’t know. What do you think?” He offered his idea and I responded with, “That’s really interesting. Anyone else have some other suggestions?” And so it went. The final answer that we came up with was better than anything I would have come up with no mater how much time I had. I realized that it was my very imperfection that made the seminar better and more collaborative. The icing on the cake was that I got better review ratings from the participants than I ever had before. It was another transformational moment in my life – another zip line, so to speak.
I’m still on this journey of self-discovery. I wrote about some of my struggles to be collaborative in the context of improvisational acting here. Learning to become a good actor has enabled me to develop greater empathy for others. I’ve written about learning to live life more truthfully through acting here and about some important life lessons from the stage here if you would like to read a bit more.
What I am discovering is that my mask is multi-layered, onion-like, and that peeling away some of it only reveals more subtle elements that still remain. It’s an ongoing process, and the unease and discomfort I am experiencing in this very moment as I am sharing this with all of you makes clear that the process remains incomplete.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Helen Keller: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.“
Going through the pain and discomfort of recognizing all my subconscious demons and chipping away at the heavy mask I have built has been richly rewarded by an increasingly authentic life that has been so fulfilling and satisfying – especially because it has opened the door to genuine, empathetic connection with others in my life.
I choose a daring adventure!