i don’t remember how old i was when i realized that there was a difference between sympathy and empathy, but i do remember that i identified strongly with empathy versus sympathy. to me, it seems that sympathy is a sort of passive, removed, unembodied pity for someone else’s misfortune or pain, while empathy is actually sharing in the experience of their feelings. i don’t know if we can always control how we feel, or how removed we are from feeling it. but to me, sympathy reeks of condescension, privilege, and almost like a show of emotion that is for the consumption of other people. like, oh i feel so bad for them, oh my gawwwwd, it’s just so awful. as opposed to actually feeling their pain, being able to relate to it, and wanting to connect with another human being.
i don’t know if i’m making sense at all coz i’m two gins and one gravol into my night, and because i’m sad and thinking about how my mom has had a complete and utter lack of empathy (or sympathy, come to think of it) for the fact that i’m devastated by what’s happened to me and by her rejection of my experience. and how so much was for show, even back then. it’s easy to make a show of caring, isn’t it? but to take the time and effort to connect to another human, to feel their hurt and their pain? not for the phony, or the faint of heart, or those so deeply buried in denial that they will sacrifice their own child.
This one is kind of mixed in with all the ‘being weak’ stuff that I wrote about the other day (or started to write about) And when I say mixed in, I mean glued together, being smooshed into each other by ten tonnes of iron either side, inside a locked safe with the key thrown away in a room 1,000ft under ground… ie really fucking together, and never not going to be. Crying is weak. That is the message that was planted into me very early on, and fed all the time. So really the first huge thing I think of when I think of me crying, is massive amounts of shame. And that’s all thanks to my family
I mean, to begin with I grew up with two older brothers, and that just in itself probably tends to result in a girl being a little tougher and less likely to cry (maybe? Maybe not. Depends on the family and the kids, but with my kind of brothers definitely so). Then you can include my hard mother, who doesn’t cry, never has been a crier. She was tough, not soft, and that was how I was to be. And then, y’know, you can add into the mix my entire childhood experiences. Violent father, abusive family, sexually abusive family, for that matter. And I was the mediator, the one required to keep her cool and keep the peace and make sure everything was okay. I was needed to be emotionless, and to a great extent I was. Different parts generally held different emotions, and I appeared to the outside world devoid of all ‘bad’ ones… Or “fine”. (that word had better not come up any time soon or I really will cry).
So, what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t cry much. I absolutely could get upset, but as I got older I started to switch my emotions off. But to do that, I absolutely did cry… late at night, all on my own. About things that were happening to me, about imagining family members dying, about characters in books and films. I had books and films that I would turn to when I felt like I needed to cry. And I would sob into my stuffed elephant, like really really cry… About fictional characters, and yet also about the feelings of things that were actually happening to me, in my very real life.
And that was almost every single night for a while. I took myself to bed and I read if I needed to, and I cried myself to sleep.
Fast forward on a few years and I felt like I must’ve cried myself out, used up all my tears, because I could no longer cry…my tactical books and films no longer worked, I was immune to them. I was noticeably hardened, to the point where people commented on it. All of it had been turned off because it was all far too much.
Im still so ashamed of crying, of being weak, of allowing there to be a place for my hurt and of people knowing that I am hurting. But I’m so much better with it. And I do think a certain Canadian friend has helped so much with that, by being kind and gentle and reassuring and sitting with me when it happens. I’m relearning to cry, and I really hate it sometimes, but it feels much better and safer with her by my side. She uses the phrase that “it feels like you will down in the grief” or “die from the pain of it”, and it really really does sometimes. Just today it all felt like too much to bear, it felt like I would never stop crying, and yet always, always, I have.
All of this is not to say that I cry a lot, because I don’t, I’m still getting there. But it’s more. Its also only ever on my own or with safe people, which so far only includes pocketcanadian, (though my therapist is close to being added to that list I think, if she stops disappointing me enough that I actually go back to her). But it’s so much better to give it space, to feel those feelings, even when you feel like you won’t survive them.
Lastly, this makes me think of pocketcanadian and how heavy my heart feels that she let’s me be there when she’s crying, that I’m safe enough. And it makes me think about how being on the phone to her and hearing her cry, is sometimes enough to make me cry too.
i feel entirely battered by this past week’s words.
to be fair, i am likely just feeling battered by december: a month of rampant over-consumption, of consumerism, of pressure to be happy and to get the right gifts and to send cards (i never do), a month where i have to hear about people’s family gatherings and traditions, where there is such emphasis on togetherness and peace and FUCK OFF ALREADY, a month to overeat everything in sight, and the month, nearly to the day, that three years ago, i first remembered the incest. while doing something innocuous and festive with my daughter, on a sunny afternoon.
kiddo and i did that same festive activity tonight (for the first time in three years) and i was trying really, really hard to stay present. i think i succeeded. she had fun and went to bed on a huge sugar high. i didn’t crumple into a heap on the kitchen floor, or scream or weep. (well not tonight i didn’t. that was earlier today, on my own.)
one of the few friends who knows *all* of the shit about my dad said, the worst thing about all of this [pain and upset and hurt] is that none of it is your fault. you didn’t do anything wrong at all. and i’ve read those words a million times in a million places and my wife and therapist and pocketbrit have said that to me another trillion times yet it took this friend saying that, as simplistically as she did, for me to truly take it in. it wasn’t my fault. i was just a little girl.
i take ownership for so much else, but finally, finally, i know that bit to be true. it wasn’t my fault.
it wasn’t pocketbrit’s fault (no, my love. i promise. not ever.)
and for everyone else reading, if you were little, and someone hurt your body or your mind or your safety, it wasn’t your fault, and i’ll hold that for you until you can.
i have a bunch of unrelated thoughts. i’ll just write them here.
i don’t usually have baths, usually only if i’m feeling little and triggered and i need to calm down i do. and when i do, i make it so so hot, put in baby soap or essential oils, and, as i cry (which i often do) i let my head sink under the water so my ears are covered, and i close my eyes, and just listen to my ragged breathing and my heartbeat until they both slow. sometimes i add more hot water. then i lie there some more. until the tears are done, or, more often, until someone bangs on the door with an urgent need to pee in this particular toilet or until someone pokes her head in to check if i’m alive in there.
i also thought about ani difranco’s song everest, and about one my favourite lines: that the moon was so beautiful, the ocean held up a mirror. i love that. water as a reflection of the sky, as a mirror of what’s above.
i am from a province where there are many beautiful lakes and rivers, but not near the sea. my wife has the atlantic ocean in her blood, and for her, coming home means being near the sea. it is so interesting that i have come to love it with the passion that i do, given my origins and my roots. but i just find i can breathe there. that it soothes me. that the sound of it, the smell of it, the coming and going of the tide, its movement and constant life, also feels like home to me.
we got married by the water. and, water poured from the sky as we exchanged vows…our original plans of being outdoors foiled. we had a backup plan though, we didn’t even care, we were the furthest thing apart from bridezillas you could imagine. and the sunset that night, and then the meteor shower later on? more than made up for it.
this blog is also about water; about the sea, the place where pocketbrit and i meet. ages ago i asked what her sea looked like, and it gave me chills, because it was so similar to mine. more recently, i asked her what her cottage looked like, and there were more variations there, but the basics were the same: the pounding surf outside the windows. warmth. coziness. a fireplace. room to stretch out or curl up into a ball, depending. blankets. each other, as close or as far as feels tolerable, given the day. love.
did you know that our bodies are up to 60% water? that’s wild. also wild: the amount of tears i shed earlier today, while i sat on my bathroom floor, on the phone to pocketbrit, as i panicked. i was so young. she was so gentle. and then, part deux, tonight with my wife, as i confessed how so very not okay i have been, how i’ve been hiding it from everyone (i’m sorry), how lately, i just keep thinking how much better things would be for everyone if i weren’t here. i couldn’t see anything, for hours, for the water; the struggle continues as i try to finish these words.
i recently watched a video of me bathing our newborn daughter in the NICU, the second bath of her life (the first given by a gruff nurse as she screamed bloody murder) (our baby, not the nurse) and i was struck by how very…purposeful i was. i was gentle, but i was confident, i knew what i was doing, was not remotely swayed by her tiny slippery body or her (numerous) indignant protests or her newness or the fact that this was the first bath i was giving our baby, the one i’d waited for my whole life, the one i thought would never come, especially after five rounds of fertility treatment and a huge bleed early in the pregnancy. no, in this video, i had a job to do. she had sticky molasses-like poop up her back and down her legs, and i was tasked with getting it off.
but then, by the end, when she was really yelling, her fists waving, her legs kicking, i gathered her up onto my chest, and i rocked her, and i swayed, and i apologized as i pressed my cheek onto her wet hair, and she quieted. and the video kept playing for a number of seconds with me doing that, and watching those last few seconds the other night (over and over again), it all got very watery then, too.
i don’t think i can do this one justice today, it’s been a completely shitty day.
what i long for most is for this not to have happened. the possibility that somehow, i wasn’t a little girl to whom these things occurred. that i wasn’t really a receptacle for the lust and sickness of two grown men, that i was safe, that i was protected, that i counted.
secondly, i long for a lap, into which i can keen and sob and wail because it did fucking happen, all of it. so many disgusting things, to my small body, so many disgusting words, into my young ears.
and lastly, i long for the day when i don’t long for that lap, when my motherlessness doesn’t feel like a stone in my gut, when i stop needing so desperately and often. when i can hold her and me both, and know that we’ll make it through.
this is a word that is both meaningful and hard for me.
meaningful, because i hold kindness in high esteem…value it greatly. aspire to it, try to embody it, cultivate it, and live it in my daily life. i fail often, of course. but i won’t ever stop trying, because i know its profound impact, and i believe in it, am a devout follower.
and yet, hard, because there was a bit of a shortage of kindness in my household, growing up. my parents were purposely unkind fairly often, but even when they were not, i would not describe them as especially kind. things at home felt very particular, all sharp edges and expectations and discipline. measured responses. a lot of impatience. it is difficult for me to recall spontaneous cuddles or affection or praise. when i think of kindness in my childhood, it is not their faces i see (but thankfully, i can think of other instances of kindness. kind eyes and kind faces and kind hands and kind acts, and i am grateful to have those.)
many times, even a stranger unexpectedly calling me ‘dear’ or ‘sweetheart’ invites a massive lump into my throat, floods my eyes, even before i can control it. it is so so embarrassing, how a correctly-timed kind word, or a loving glance, or someone speaking gently can entirely do me in. i used to say to my therapist that my idea of torture would be to have someone say a bunch of loving, positive, things about me to my face. like in a row, one after another. it makes me squirm even now, ugh, where would i look, what would i do with it all, when would it stop ugh ugh ugh. but tie me to a chair and criticize me, withhold praise, shrug at me or otherwise act indifferently for hours, and i’d snuggle in like i was home.
speaking of therapy…yesterday, i had an appointment and we were about to do some work that i had been avoiding. my therapist was asking me to check in with my little one inside about something, and i didn’t fucking want to, i just didn’t want to hear about it. i crossed my arms, pulled faces, fidgeted in my seat. she waited, and watched, patiently, and then, right in the middle of my huffing and puffing and eye-rolling, surprised me with a snort and a belly laugh. you’re so, so cute, she said. i could just see her in you right then, that sweet wee girl. i could’ve laid in her lap and cried just from that, for hours and hours and hours. my face is wet just remembering it. why is she like that with me?
and why weren’t they?
the most pride i feel as a mother is when people say our daughter is kind; we’ve heard it from her teachers, our friends, her friends’ parents, her grandparents. she is kind, so kind to nearly everyone.
and when i am reminded of that, when i see that and hear how mean she is to her little self, how intolerant, when she makes a simple innocent mistake and is sobbing and telling me that she is the worst kid, she is a rotten person, she doesn’t deserve to be here, it is the most desolate i ever feel as a mother. it is hard not to just quit, right then and there. did i do that to her? is it just in my blood, something i can’t help being and giving to her? is it a cultural affliction, or just a genetic one?
years ago, i remember hearing about amma, a woman colloquially called ‘the hugging saint’ from a province at the southern tip of india. i don’t remember where exactly i heard of her, or read of her, but i remember seeing a picture of her and being struck by her kind face. and also recall a video of her, quietly but meaningfully hugging people, hordes of them, one by one, for hours on end. searching out their eyes, and holding them close to her, smiling gently as people dissolved into tears in her arms. when asked why she did it, she responded simply that we all deserve love, no matter who we are. at last count, she has apparently comforted over 34 million people…that amazes me. how much love she gives, but also how much she gets back. she must be brimming, all of the time.
this is not really finished but it’s all i’ve got for tonight…sorry it’s just trailed off in the middle, i’m overcome by sadness and tiredness and the kindest thing feels like burying myself in my flannel sheets and succumbing to sleep.