This morning I went to one of my favorite spots in the world – it’s a nearby hiking trail that comes out at a swimming hole. It’s a place we frequented when I was a kid and it’s where my father’s ashes are scattered.
This morning I went up and sat for a long time – thinking about my dad. Thinking about Evie. Thinking about my place in the world. Thinking about what it means to be safe and loved.
As I sat, I remembered another day spent in the same place, working out similar thoughts but from a very different vantage point. On that 4th of July about seven years ago, I wrote my own personal Declaration of Independence. I went digging through my files to find it again and as I re-read it, I realized it is as true now as it was on the day I wrote it.
MY DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
Why is it that, when given a choice, we believe the bad things?
My father was a hero to many people. They knew that if they asked him for help, he would make things happen, make problems go away, and there would be a cold beer and a hot meal at the end for everyone. I can’t count the number of people who came up to me at his memorial service and said, “You were so lucky to have him as your father.”
But my father also had a lot of demons, and while there can be no doubt that he loved me, his demons often got in the way of his love. While others saw a Superman, at home my mother and I saw the man afflicted by Kryptonite. Instead of boosting the flagging self-confidence of a seventh grader, he told me that I’d better be careful or I’d end up looking like my mother…apparently a terrible fate, even though he supposedly loved her. Instead of helping a young woman about to step out into the world on her own, he told me that he couldn’t co-sign an apartment lease with me because it might hurt his credit…even though I had always been more responsible with money than he had. And instead of supporting a fledgling career in theatre, he told me I wouldn’t be successful…an echo of the words his father said to him.
And yet there is a flip side to all of this. My mother told me I was beautiful. My mother told me I was talented. My mother told me I could do anything with my life that I wanted and I would succeed. My mother didn’t just tell me – she showed me in every way possible. I was her world, and nothing I could do would ever upset that perfect balance.
So why do I believe the bad things? Why, when given the choice to believe my father’s deeply distorted version of the world or my mother’s, which was based in love, have I bought into my father’s? I have spent my life believing that he saw me clearly but my mother only saw me as she wished me to be, not as I am. I have believed myself to be incapable, irresponsible, and never smart enough…despite all evidence to the contrary. Graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa was not enough to unravel my twisted thinking. Working with some of the great legends of musical theatre was not enough to drop kick me out of my self-destructive beliefs. Receiving acclaim now as a workshop facilitator, including publication of my work in a national medical journal, hasn’t even been enough to show me that I’m okay. But my mother has stood by me at every step, holding her belief for me.
In the workshops I facilitate, my goal is to help participants look at the “stories” they have built up around themselves and reevaluate which parts aren’t working for them anymore. In my work with them, I have watched women who say they are terrified of speaking in public get up in front of 800 people and share deeply personal experiences. I have been blessed to sit with a group of breast cancer survivors, whose next mammogram is always a cause for nerves, and hear one of them say, “I’m not so afraid anymore.” The promise that I make to these women is that I will never ask them to do anything that I am not willing to do myself. Yet my “story” is something I have played around the edges of for years, never confronting it head-on. I have been unwilling to step up and say that the loudest voice in my head, the one that controls many – if not most – of my actions, thoughts, and feelings is no longer working for me.
Not long ago I finally had the breakthrough that allows me to sit down and put these words on paper. Hopefully this is the personal revolution that will allow me to liberate myself from my father’s voice. Amazingly, it was as simple as taking a painting that’s been on the wall for 30 years and turning it upside down to reveal an entirely new image. I had always assumed that my father knew the truth, that he was the standard bearer by which I should be judged, and that my mother didn’t understand. But what if my mother was in fact the one who saw the truth? What if it is finally time to hold my father up to my mother’s standard, rather than my mother to my father’s standard? Rather than constantly telling myself my father’s story about how irresponsible and inept I am, it is time to hear my mother’s voice – I am strong, independent, and capable of creating whatever I desire. What if it is finally time to start believing the good things?
This is still new. I often catch myself buying into the old self-destructive patterns and have to consciously decide whether it’s working for me. There are many times that I still don’t even recognize that I’m lapsing into the old way of thinking. But it’s getting better, and it’s worth the effort.
Because somewhere between my father’s story and my mother’s story is MY story, and that’s the one I’m working on finding.
This is my Declaration of Independence.