Thursday, June 28, 2007

Protection

The house in which I spent most of my childhood was a split-level ranch home with a basement. When my mom and step-dad married, we added on a section to the back of the house that included an expansion of the kitchen and dining room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and an unfinished bedroom in the basement.

The dining room was on the upper level. An outside door was on the south wall of the dining room and a staircase led from a landing just outside the door to the ground level. A stairwell down to the basement door sat behind the staircase, creating a semi-enclosed space under the stairs. I could slip into that space and feel like I was hidden from the world.

It was useful for all sorts of things. I had my first kiss there. His name was Kirk and he was in the third grade. He had a head full of curly blonde hair and wore stylish wireframe glasses. My brother was dating his sister and I guess we had the idea that these things should be all in the family, so we did what we saw them do. It went something like this:

Me: I think the boy is supposed to lean in and put his lips on the girl’s. That’s what I’ve seen my brother do. I’ll close my eyes and you try it.
Him: Are you sure?
Me: Yeah. I have a lot of brothers and sisters. I’ve seen it a lot.
Him: Okay. [Closes his eyes and slowly leans in to kiss me quickly]
Me: I don’t understand why they like that so much.
Him: Me either. Let’s play tetherball.

It wasn’t exactly romantic, but definitely true to our eight-year-old selves. We lived for tetherball. The story is remarkable only in that it was out of character for us to let anything interrupt the endless hours of hitting the ball back and forth, trying to get it past the other player until it wrapped tightly around the pole. Romance was lost on us.

The space under the stairs was also the sight of a disgusting experiment with cigarette butts, yet another attempt to push past our age and try on adulthood. Limited access to matches or lighters, and probably some sense that we didn’t really want to taste the smoke, kept us from actually lighting up. We were more concerned about the look and perhaps the feel of the cigarette in our mouths.

But more than a place for the occasional premature foray into adulthood, the space under the stairs was my private getaway. My most vivid memories of that space are of sitting against the stairwell with Pierre the poodle on my left and Sugar the pointer on my right. They were my most trusted advisors. Their keen ears heard my deepest secrets.

I had a lot of secrets. At the age of four, my father dead and my mother out of commission for awhile with the heavy grief of widowhood and single parenthood, I learned to take care of myself. And even after the heaviness lifted, the habit of holding in my pain was firmly established. I had a skillfully crafted appearance of strength and resilience in front of my family, but the dogs knew better. They heard what it was like for me to lose a father to cancer, and then to lose him again when all mention of him was erased to help assure my step-dad that my mom’s loyalty was to her present husband. They knew how scared I was when my mother would rage through the house, angry at everyone, but no one in particular. They knew the intense fear I felt about losing my step-dad when my mom dared to suggest she might divorce him. In that small space, with the dogs on either side of me, I felt safe and protected. For the time that it was necessary, it served me well. It helped me cope with things children shouldn’t have to face.

I think about that place a lot when I feel insecure and unable to articulate to others what I’m feeling. There was something freeing about not having to have words for the dogs. Their love and attention and loyalty remained steadfast whether I spoke or not. In my child’s mind I was certain they understood. And because it brought relief I developed the habit of protecting myself by retreating from others and coping with the feelings on my own.

I don’t have a stairwell to retreat to anymore, but I still withdraw. I have a wealth of ways of keeping people at a distance when what I’m feeling seems to contradict the exterior of strength and self-sufficiency. Pushing people away so I can retreat is like creating that space under the stairs, where I’m left with only myself and a couple of inarticulate dogs to comfort me. I think that’s protection. I think I’m keeping myself safe. But maybe it’s just a cowardly way of trying to reinforce that false notion that I’m self-sufficient. Maybe it’s just a way of recreating the temporarily necessary reality of my childhood, while simultaneously robbing myself of some the richness life has to offer.

I need a new image of protection, one that leads me to engage rather than retreat, one that encourages trust in the universe, instead of assuming that I’m alone to face the world.

9 comments:

Marie said...

Did you ever feel protected in someone's embrace? Or in the embrace of several people? That's the image that allows me to reach out of my pain.

cheesehead said...

(o)

jo(e) said...

You say so much in this post. I read it earlier today and then came back to read it again.

I think moving out of that safe space is difficult because it means being vulnerable. I know that's the tough part for me.

And I know that intimacy is not really possible without vulnerability, but still ... it's hard take that step.

J said...

You are not alone.

AC said...

Thought provoking post.. Its hard to move out of protected space.. Its scary to do. I can relate. After a new experiene or person, I feel the need to withdraw in order to process and figure out the situation.

Katherine E. said...

May that new image come to you soon, Linda. Perhaps writing about it has already started creating it?

Such a beautiful post. You certainly "articulate to others what you're feeling" here. And we are so grateful.

Linda said...

Marie- That's a good question. The honest answer is no, or rather, not that I can think of.

Jo(e)- When it's a matter of being vulnerable, I usually take the question to the logical conclusion, and ask honestly, "What do I think will happen if I let myself be vulnerable in this situation?" There are just some situations where the fear is a big enough block that I don't really know the answer, yet I remain afraid.

J- You know, I find a lot of courage in knowing that I'm not alone in this.

AC- Welcome. This is the first time you've commented, right? Glad to have you reading. I withdraw when I need to process too, which I think is actually a good thing, but it's the withdrawal when I need something or when I'm angry or hurt that is problematic for me. At the times when intimacy is most possible, and therefore I'm left most vulnerable, I head for the stairs. There's a person in my life now with whom I really don't want to do that and who has in a very short time noticed the pattern and been willing to share how it affects her. I want to change and intend to work on it. Often having a mental image that reminds me what I'm trying to do helps me in the early stages of change.

Katherine- Writing about it has helped me understand how problematic having only the image of the stairs is for me. It was in writing about it that I recognized that I always retreat. Sometimes retreating is the thing to do, but it is not good to always do it, so I need to have a new strategy. And writing about feelings here often helps me be able to express them verbally, but putting it on the blog diffuses the intimacy, which really is the problem. I also struggle with recognizing and articulating the feelings in the moment, anger especially. I have a really hard time articulating it when I'm sitting in front of someone who I've let get close enough to hurt me. That's when I retreat. I say things like, "I'm okay. I'm just tired."

Jan said...

Linda, I am a friend of Katherine E., who brought me into the blogging world. I found you through her.

Protection for a child can be a hindrance to an adult; something I am still grappling with in my 50's. I always go back to a 12-Step aphorism; awareness, acceptance, action, which to me is the turning around that is repentance. I am learning that the middle phase takes a long time, but that is truly when God helps us to see us as we are with no judgment and then helps us to act differently.

You are eloquently describing where you are, with great openness there and ahead of you. Wishing you peace in discerning the way ahead.

Marie said...

You are so incredibly articulate about your feelings and your self-discoveries. I envy that. AND I think that articulating something that you want to work on is part of the struggle. Once you do that work, then you can begin to notice it IRL and take action, even if the only action is to say (to the person whom it affects), "I just realized that I did it again." Once you feel safe to talk after the fact, you might begin to feel safe before. Or I might just need to nose out.