Sunday, September 13, 2015

Talking about Feelings with Mister Rogers



From the episode, "Divorce":
Jeff, describing his recent surgery: "It just shows, you have a lot of things happen to you when you're handicapped, most of the time. And sometimes it happens when you're not handicapped." 
Mister Rogers: "Of course. But you're able to talk about those things--" 
Jeff: "Yeah." 
Mister Rogers: "--so well, and help other people--" 
Jeff: "Uh huh." 
Mister Rogers: "--who might have the same kinds of things."
Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is now on Netflix. I'm a grown damn woman, forty-four years old, with a nine-year-old daughter, yet somehow this news excites me. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is a little kid's show, isn't it? That's what my daughter, Katie, asked before we began watching the first episode.

"I think the main audience is young kids, but even grown-ups like it. I like it? Don't you?"

Katie responded that yes, indeed, she likes it. How can you not like Mister Rogers?

I have a confession to make: When I was a kid, even younger than Katie, I did not like Mister Rogers. I thought it was a show for babies. The first time I saw it was in the basement at Mrs. Cusamano's house. I would have been six, two months into first grade. Half of my family had recently moved to Kansas City--Dad, Mom, my thirteen year old sister, Jenny, and me--leaving the other half--my eighteen-year-old brother, Jay, my sixteen-year-old sister Kitty, and my fifteen-year-old brother Pat--in St. Joe where I had been born and raised and lived my whole life. I was not happy about the move. Mrs. Cusamano was an old lady who lived across the street from us at our new house. I was instructed to walk the half-block from the school bus stop to her house after school and wait for Mom to get home from work. Some people called her my babysitter, but they were wrong. I was not a baby. Mrs. Cusamano was just a nice old lady who made me snacks and let me play in her basement after school.

If I had been at my own house, even the new one, which had the same TV as our old house did, thank God, the channel would have been set to the local station that played Tom and Jerry and Scooby Doo, after school, not PBS, the station that ran Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I liked PBS when I was a little kid. Sesame Street and The Electric Company were my jam after my brothers and sisters would head to school and leave me at home alone with Mommy while Daddy was at work, before I got to go to school. Mommy said the school said I had to be five-years-old before I could go to kindergarten. I felt lonely at home without anyone to play with. Mommy would have tea parties with me, but mostly she was busy folding laundry and doing the dishes and drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. She let me watch my shows on TV, and then when they were over it was time to turn the station to The Price Is Right so Mom could have a break from the laundry and the dishes.

But after school at Mrs. Cusamano's house, I wasn't allowed to watch what I wanted to watch on TV. There was another little girl, much smaller than me, a little kid who wasn't even five yet and couldn't go to school and had to stay with Mrs. Cusamano all day while her parents worked, she was there in the basement with me, playing, so we had to watch something that was "appropriate" for little kids. I guess Mrs. Cusamano thought animated cats and dogs trying to kill each other and hippies hanging out with talking dogs were inappropriate. This lady had doilies under her table lamps. I never saw the woman in pants, only cotton house dresses. While we played in her basement she was busy in the kitchen upstairs making homemade lasagna so it would be ready right when her husband got home from work. Mrs. Cusamano had not kept up with the changing times.

So I was stuck with Mister Rogers and this little kid in Mrs. Cusamano's basement after school, and it was a real drag, man. I didn't really watch the show, it was just background noise while I busied myself playing with Mrs. Cusamano's old-timey phone and Fifties-era recroom games and looking at all the framed pictures of her family she had hanging on the wood-paneled wall. It was weird to think of Mrs. Cusamano as a young woman with young kids. I never met any of her kids, who by that time were grown and gone. I liked to imagine them coming home every Sunday for dinner, although I never once saw any of them do exactly that. Not that I spent my Sunday mornings staring out the window to see if Mrs. Cusamano's kids were coming home. I was too busy inside my own home listening to the cold silence between my parents. When Mrs. Cusamano's husband would come home from work, she'd give him a peck on the cheek. The first time I ever saw either of my parents kiss was when I was eleven or twelve and Dad was getting ready to leave for a six-week job in Springfield, Missouri and before he climbed into the car, Mom leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. I was shocked. And surprised that instead of happy the kiss made me sad. That one kiss made me realize that there was an absence of kisses all the years before.

After a year or so of going over to Mrs. Cusamano's after school, Mom said my sister Jenny was old enough to be my babysitter. The term didn't bother me as much when we were calling Jenny my babysitter instead of Mrs. Cusamano. Having a fourteen-year-old sister who invites high school friends over to smoke pot and drink beer called my babysitter was way cooler than having a nice old doily lady called my babysitter. I could watch all the Tom and Jerry and Scooby Doo I wanted with Jenny as a babysitter.

I don't know what Mom or Dad would have done if I had ratted-out Jenny and her friends. I never did. What was the point? Even if I did tell my parents what was going on while they weren't around they'd continue to ignore it as best they could. They were busy with their jobs and their failing marriage. Their important adult problems. Kids who don't complain stay out of trouble.

Trouble with the outside world. Internally, they're screwed up. Kids who don't complain tend to internalize their trouble. Chronic stomach aches, mood swings, self-defeating behavior. I can attest to all of those ailments growing up. When I was eleven my parents took me to my first psychotherapist. Our family doctor had diagnosed me with anorexia nervosa and suggested my parents get me a shrink. They didn't want to. My sister Jenny had to scream and cry to our mom, begging her to get me some mental health care.

It's hard to blame Mom for her distrust of mental health care. Before I was born, before she gathered the strength to divorce her abusive first husband, he had her hospitalized on two separate occasions, where she received electro-shock therapy. She has no memory of most of her experiences in the hospital, and some of the things that happened around that stressful time in her life. I similarly have no memory, or just vague memories, of the time I was anorexic.

One thing I do remember is the first time I was taken to a psychotherapist. My sister Jenny won her argument that I could very well die if they didn't get me treatment. Mom and Dad and I sat in the freezing cold office, facing a lady with lots of licenses on her wall that said it was OK to talk about things that are difficult to talk about. We were just chit chatting, getting to know each other. Then suddenly my therapist asked a question that felt like a punch in the gut.

"Becky, would you say you're closer to your mom or your dad?"

I didn't know what to say. My dad was sitting right there! My mom was sitting right there! If I chose one over the other one, I was guaranteed to hurt someone's feelings.

Dad rescued me. It was the first time I remember his actually making an awkward social situation less intense. Dad said, simply, "Becky's closer to her mother."

Whew! He knows! It's not a secret. I don't have to pick. Dad picked for me.

Of course I was closer to my mother. Dad and I rarely talked to each other until I became a teenager and then it wasn't talking, only shouting. I learned at a young age to leave him alone when he got home from a long day at work. Let him sit in his recliner, eating popcorn, watching the News and whatever other grown-up shows he liked. Mom and I were closer because Mom and I talked all the time. I was her sounding board. Her little helper. Her little therapist. It made me feel powerful and important. Mom told me her deepest secrets--how my father was driving her crazy and wouldn't let her do this or that and isn't he just awful and look how he treats your brothers and sisters I swear he used to be nice before we got married and then he changed and now he's just a bully control freak.

Mom could tell me her secrets, but I couldn't tell her mine. I didn't want my hurt to hurt her.

One of the difficult things I never got around to talking about with my first therapist is that I'm a sexual abuse survivor. I've since read that there is a strong correlation between a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa and a history of sexual abuse. If I had the courage to tell my first therapist that I wasn't just mad at my parents for making me go to Weight Watchers in third grade, but that I was mad at my brother and his friend who sexually abused me, I bet I would have had a mental health breakthrough sooner than I did. I eventually began eating again and was therefore "cured" of my anorexia, but it took decades before I began to feel truly healed from my negative childhood experiences.

While my older brother Pat and his neighbor friend were using me as their sex toy, I was told never to tell Mom or it would hurt her so much she'd have to go back to the hospital and get electroshock treatments and maybe this time she wouldn't come home. I couldn't let my hurt hurt her. It was the same story my brother, Pat, was told by our grandmother who, during the times Mom was actually in the hospital getting treated for her "nervous breakdowns", was in charge of Mom's kids. Whenever our grandmother would abuse Pat, she'd tell him never to tell Mom or it would hurt her too much and she'd have to go back to the hospital and never come home again.

I became a writer because it's hard for me to talk about  my problems. I hate feeling like my hurt is hurting someone. I was raised to hold it in. Or, if you must complain, never talk directly to the person you want to complain about. I was raised in a household full of people who talked about each other instead of to each other. If Mom was mad at Dad, she talked to me about him instead of talking directly to Dad. The first time I remember Mom ever talking about leaving Dad was when I was four-years-old and Mommy was asking me if I thought she should divorce my dad. My lack of a Mister Rogers' upbringing didn't prepare me for that question. I understand why it felt easier to talk about Dad instead of to him about her problems with him. But I also understand, now, after too many years ignoring it, that this kind of triangulation hurt me. It's hard for me to admit that my mom hurt me, because it makes me worry that if I talk about my hurt it will hurt Mom even more and she might go back to the hospital and never come back. I metamorphisize back into a little pupa whenever I think about how it feels to get hurt by someone you love.

But you know what? My dad has hurt me many times in my life, and still, I love him. I care about him. I want what's best for him. And he's a pain in my ass, true. But that's life. That's family. And it's not like if I complain about one shitty thing my mom did when I was a kid--using me as her personal therapist--that means I think she was shitty in all other ways. She was not. Mom has been a wonderful mother to me in many ways. It's just that I've come to a point in my life that I feel like it's OK to say I am not a mama's girl or a daddy's girl but I am me, myself, all grown up.

I've felt the growing pains often these past few weeks. It's about time. I'm a middle-aged woman and I'm just now coming to terms with myself.

Dad's been sick lately. Heart failure. His health goes up and down. He's in and out of the hospital. I have been spending more time with him than I usually do. We've been talking more.

Mom finally divorced Dad in 1992 after twenty-two years of marriage. I was an adult, twenty-one, so I thought their divorce didn't affect me much. I was actually happy to see Mom finally do something to try to make her life happier. Dad and I drifted further apart after he and Mom divorced. I see him on some holidays. That's about it.

While I've been spending more time with Dad, lately, he's been telling stories I'd never heard. My sister Glenda, Dad's daughter from his first marriage to a woman named Shirley, is there in the hospital room listening, too. She remembers these stories. I don't. Most of them are stories of Dad's life before he married my mom and had me. He was forty-three when I was born. He had lived a lot of life already. Glenda verifies the accuracy of Dad's tales.

"Dad used to go hunting squirrels with Uncle Clyde?" I ask. "I can't even picture Dad holding a gun."

"Yep. All the time," Glenda says.

Dad used to go hunting and fishing. Glenda and her mom and our dad would go on road trips with cousins and uncles and aunts and they regularly hosted card parties at their house. This is not the Dad I had at home.

What I remember of Dad and my mom's social life before their divorce when I was still living at home is this: watching endless hours of TV and going out to eat at Long John Silver's once a week and maybe order a pizza if it's a good week. I remember having Dad tell me that since Mom and he both worked it was my responsibility to have dinner ready when they got home from work. I remember dry heaving as I stuffed the washing machine full of his drawers. I remember one vacation: to St. Louis, Missouri when I was nine years old. And Dad refused to pay for us to go up the Arch.

I've learned how to complain, now. Glenda took me to lunch while Dad was in the hospital and we had a wonderful time talking. And complaining. It's so refreshing to have someone hear your complaints without judgment. In fact, they totally understand.

"Yeah, Dad is such a bully when he doesn't get his own way!"

"Yeah, Dad is so ungrateful! He didn't even thank me for getting his groceries for him!"

"Yeah. Dad is so impatient! I told him I'd be there at 1:30 and he starts calling me asking where I'm at at 1:15!"

It feels good to vent to each other. We haven't figured out a way to confront dad about how he drives us crazy, so we don't even try. He's 88 and we're middle-aged women. We're not going to change him now.

But our conversations are not all complaints. Glenda tells me stories of how she felt like a "Daddy's Girl" when she was young, before Dad and her mom got divorced. Her mom would make a big Sunday dinner and they'd eat and then afterward Dad and Glenda would snuggle together on the couch and watch the football game on TV.

"Seriously?!" I say. "It's like we had two different dads."

Not all of Glenda's stories are sweet. Glenda remembers when she was 12 being pulled in two directions by both Dad and her mom, Shirley. They were screaming at each other, trying to get Glenda to take their side.

"She's coming with me!"

"No! She's staying with me!"

Glenda finally broke free from their grip and ran. Far away from them both.

Glenda's mom was granted custody. Dad was allowed to see his only child on holidays. I have few memories of Glenda until I was in third grade and Mom and Dad told me she was going to start taking me to Weight Watchers once a week. Needless to say, that experience pulled us apart more than it brought us together. It's only been in the last few years that I've been spending more time with my sister, Glenda. Feeling grateful for our time together.

Glenda and I are fifteen years apart. Our birth certificates show we have the same father, but by listening to the old stories they tell it sounds like we grew up with two different dads. But now somehow we have the same dad and we must together figure out how to best take care of him at the end of his life. Dying brings the living closer together. I'm feeling grateful for Glenda's memories. Her point of view.

"Dad loved you when you were a little girl," Glenda said.

It felt so weird to hear a third party talk about my relationship with Dad in a positive light. My whole life I've heard stories from my mom about how the only time she ever saw my dad cry was when his mom died and when I was born and he found out I wasn't a boy. How dad only cared about himself. How dad was so controlling and insensitive. All true stories. But hearing Glenda talk about our dad in a positive light has helped me see a different side of him. And see my relationship with him in a different light.

I do remember some sweet moments with my dad.

When I was anorexic and cold all the time, Dad would take my hands in his and rub them until his warmth spread into me.

When I was a teenager, Dad gave me a laminated quarter and told me to call home if I ever found myself stranded somewhere, drunk, without a ride. Dad knew teenagers do stupid things. He was once a teenager, too. He told me stories of the stupid drunken adventures he and his buddies would have. So I knew Dad had once been adventurous. I guess I just assumed that when middle-age hit him he slowed down.

But now I see part of the reason Dad never wanted to do anything fun is because Mom never wanted to do anything fun with him. Which came first? The miserable marriage or the miserable moods? Instead of blaming my parents shitty marriage all on my dad, which I've done most of my life, I can see now that I've been listening to stories about my dad that are told from the perspective of a woman whose love for him was tainted with disappointment, resentment, and hurt. Of course Mom views Dad in a negative light. That doesn't mean I have to.

It's really difficult for me to criticize my mom in any way, because I was trained to keep my hurt away from her. But it feels like I was raised to pick sides and she was always pulling my arm in her direction. It's time for me to stand my own grown.

It's no wonder I'm into Mister Rogers these days. My emotional maturity level is that of a four year old, not a forty-four year old. When I was four and my brother and his friend were sexually abusing me and telling me not to tell Mom or the hurt would send her away forever, I believed that I have the power to keep Mom feeling mentally healthy by not revealing my hurt to her. Be stoic so you don't hurt her with your hurt. But now, my forty-four year old self is realizing that's a fairy tale. None of us has power over each others' feelings. I have no power over my mother's feelings. I'm not responsible for keeping her out of the hospital. That's her job. And she does it quite well without my anxious help. I certainly want Mom to feel happy and well, but I don't have the power to change her. It's as if my family handed me the keys to the lock box containing Mom's darkest feelings when I was too young to handle them and now I must hand them back. I need to deal with the contents of my own lock box. So I watch Mister Rogers and feel better. So, what? Better to bloom late than to not bloom at all.

Mister Rogers says it's good to talk about our feelings. I'm trying.

Talking to Glenda about these primordial forces that feel like they're pulling us apart has helped me to feel whole again. Responsible for myself and no one else. Knowing I do not share the burden of family dysfunction alone.

From the episode, "Divorce":

Mister Rogers: "It's good to talk about things, and play about things. It gives you a good feeling."