I’ve written about emotional abuse in my boyhood and a family history of depression as big contributors to my own illness, but recently I’ve spent more time reconnecting with the things that went right all those years ago rather than dwelling only on what went wrong. The positive side is simply the love that has always been there. Feeling it is a powerful force for recovering life.
There is so much injury in childhood that can bring on depression and so many ways to reconstruct and analyze how it affected you. God knows I spent enough time learning about the lost child, the damaged sense of self, the avoidant attachment style, dissociation from feelings, toxic parents, trauma and all that these things lead to. I definitely needed to re-experience all the anguish, frustration, hurt, anger and depression that permeated the 17 years we lived together as a family.
Immersing myself in the dark history was important when I was first gaining insight into the widespread effects of depression in my life. I needed to see causes, connections and explanations that could end the tail-spin of self-blame and self-hate.
I needed to feel the emotional ties to my family life that I had shut away, even if the first impact was about the nightmare side of growing up. Reliving the worst times helped reconnect me to emotions I had long hidden, but I lost sight of another dimension of all those experiences. The hurt would never have been possible without the deep love that I also felt and that has never left me.
A therapist once tapped into that hidden love when I was rattling off something about my past that had to do with my brother. I was describing things in a detached way when he suddenly interrupted and said he could sense the deep love I had for my brother. It was one of those moments that caught me off guard with its simple truth – and I was very much on guard emotionally at that time. I teared up and became speechless.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able then to open up fully to the love I felt. I was more comfortable pushing it aside while I focused on the damage of the past. But my brother was the key, as that therapist knew intuitively, because he was the one in our family who brought his feelings into the room, whatever they were.
Whether he was raging and ready to fight or pulling us into a chain kiss, he was right there emotionally. We were opposites in that way. I hid my feelings, he acted out his. I was the observer, he was the doer. At times, he terrified me with impulsive violence. At times I looked up to him as a heroic figure. I was always passionate about him, though I could never express that or even acknowledge it to myself. He embodied the intense feeling and love that were so frustrated and hidden in all of us.
The other day I reread an unpublished piece he wrote several years ago about our father, and I realized that he was helping me once again to get to the real feeling. It’s a short memoir that tries to capture a sense of what Dad was like. What comes through most strongly to me is the love that moved him to write this piece, a love that survived a lot of anger.
Both my brother and I had much to be angry about when it came to our parents. In their very different ways, they were each preoccupied with their own dreams and injuries and lost to us. Neither could take us into their lives fully or lovingly. Like most kids from difficult homes, we learned ways of relating to other people and ourselves that were distancing, and depression was one of the legacies of that past for me. But the love of children for parents is so strong that it can survive neglect and abuse.
What I’ve been realizing in the last few years – and with renewed force this week with my brother’s help – is the importance of reconnecting with the pure and simple feelings of love that I had as a kid and still have now for those very flawed people who raised me.
By reconnecting, I don’t mean forgiveness or compassion. I’m not talking about “letting go” of resentment and anger or condoning harmful actions of the past. Nor is it about restoring the relationship. My parents died many years ago, and nothing about the past can change.
It does mean letting myself feel the love that is there, setting aside all the judgments and evaluations, all the struggles, hopes and frustrations. No conceptualizing, no names for feelings, no purposes, no words.
To the extent I can let myself dwell in the intensity of that love, I’m in touch with the deepest and most vital part of me. It feels like a source of life itself, a place where words aren’t needed.
My brother was getting at something like this in his own way when he wrote at the end of his story:
So what was my father like? A smile and the smell of shaving cream; corny jokes and nice clothes; games of cards with his mates; business and an important sounding voice on the phone. Distant in death as he often was in life. Out there somewhere and somehow still with us. Whenever I rise above my own shortcomings, when I do something that other people appreciate not because it is me but because it is something good, an achievement, I like to think that it is those positive aspects of my father working through me. I still love him and I’m sure he still loves me. What else can I say?
Where are you in the long process of sorting through the impact of early family life? Has it been a healing experience?