Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Flowers In The Rash

I don’t like weakness. Not in the general sense mind you. People can be weak and I
won’t mind it one bit. But the weakness I deplore exists in the people who are supposed
to take care of me but who fail to do so or fall short because they’re busy being, you
know, human. As a child, I grew up much sooner than I should have had to. By the age of
six, I was making meals for my four year‐old brother (gourmet fare such as canned
tomato soup and frozen strawberries) while our struggling mother, a single parent
raising two small children (and later a third) completely on her own, worked two or
three jobs just so we could squeak by every month with the bare necessities.

In elementary school, my brother rebelled. Even as kids we knew in our bones, (though
not in the forefront of our minds) that being left to our own devices was not okay. That
we deserved more. We deserved to be cared for. Nurtured. Protected. Fed hot, healthy
meals every night by a Mom who was there and not at work while leaving us to take
care of ourselves. As a young child, my brother unconsciously protested once by hurling
buckets of locally picked strawberries at the wall and ceiling in the living room of our
low‐income housing townhome. The complex where we lived, dubbed by locals for its
uniform brown box structure as the “Chicken Coops”, was situated in the happening hub
of Oak Bay known as Portage la Prairie’s wrong side of the tracks. It was much more
than a stone’s throw away from the glitz and glamour of the affluent Koko Platz
subdivision where the rich bitches lived. My brother was whipping the strawberries
with an equally unattended young friend. That is to say, I think we may have had a baby
sitter that afternoon but I have no idea to this day where she was. Perhaps she ran out
the back door screaming and/or swearing never again to be left alone with the two little
holy terrors left in her charge. (As children we were, ahem, a bit of a handful.) Anyhow,
the sweet, ripe berries my brother fired against the wall and ceiling with the velocity of
a heat‐seeking missile stained their target beyond anything soap and water could
remedy. When my Mom got home from work, she was pissed. This was long before the
debut of the capable abilities of the Mr. Clean Magic Sponge. And decades before I would
ever benefit from the powerful abilities of a good therapist, who would wield her
exceptional healing tools like her own version of a magic sponge to help wash away the
deeply buried feelings of loneliness and abandonment that took root in my young
psyche from those early years of the motherless dinners and the strawberry stained

Unlike my brother, I rebelled later in life and for much longer. For years, I mentally
punished my mother for all the ways in which she failed us. Never home? Check.
Always working? Check. Crying and suffering from depression due to the unrelenting
weight of poverty and the type of excruciating exhaustion that comes from being a
single parent in your early twenties with no way out and no relief in sight? Check. From
my wounded emotional palette, I had concocted the reality that everyone else I knew
was being raised by a capable, present mother who was strong and able and home when
they were. Only, it seemed, my Mom was always working. (Or trying desperately to
catch up on much needed sleep on sunny spring afternoons when we wanted to go
outside and play.) In the cerebrally rebellious phase of my twenties and most of my
thirties, I saw my childhood as one in which I was parented by a mother who was weak
because she couldn’t single handedly juggle both jobs and get home in time every day to
ensure I had the third of my square meals placed in front of me by 5:30pm ‐ the time I
was usually sent home from my friends’ warm, comforting houses by my friends’ perfect 
mothers who had all prepared for their perfect children perfect meals, the aromas of which 
haunted my senses as I lumbered home to my supperless chicken coop perfectly hungry.

Of course, looking back in retrospect (and particularly as a parent now myself) I would
throw my Mom a party for all she did for us. I would spend my days and nights thanking
her for every time she picked herself up and willed herself out the door to one of those
thankless, soul crushing waitressing jobs or hospital orderly gigs so that we could have
any food at all on our table. What she really wanted to do was act, gawd dammit. She
wanted to perform and entertain the masses. But what she had to do was a far cry from
what she wanted to do. The reality that nipped her heels and heart daily demanded it.
With the weight of the world on her small shoulders, she had children to care for with
no partner to help her. If my Mom were alive now, I would spend every waking minute
celebrating with her every ounce of her tenacity, her resilience and her integrity. But
during those rebel years in my mind’s eye (which in some ways endured until as
recently as last Spring) I chose instead to retroactively foster a disdain for anything I
perceived as weakness in my Mom because that weakness stood squarely between my
young, sweet innocent self and the consistent hands‐on care I felt I deserved but didn’t
receive. And my long‐standing battle with abandonment was the result.

Cut to married life. Now, of course, I do not see my husband as my caretaker. We both
work hard, we are equals and we share all the responsibility for raising our family
together. However, it is said that in our partners, we marry some version of the parent
with whom we identify most in our formative years. We do this, in part, to help heal
whatever emotional wounds were caused during that time. That’s the theory anyway.
And I can see how it’s played out in my own marriage. If my husband gets sick or sad or
a headache (for crying out loud), there is still that little button in me that gets pushed
back to those days when I felt I had to do everything myself. This is not my reality mind
you. My husband is an excellent partner. He is a hands‐on Dad with the kids, he helps
around the house and he will get up early with me to run lines for whatever audition I
have that day before the boys wake up and the household is turned over to the bustling
activity of getting them ready and out the door on time. Yet still, there is that button.
That pesky little button that can turn me into a lonely six year old, utterly indignant at
being asked to take on the world. And “weakness” is the bony, wretched finger that
pushes it.

My husband has an immune‐mediated disease known as psoriasis. It’s a condition
whereby the skin cells regenerate at an accelerated rate but instead of shedding as they
normally would, they build up on the surface of the skin creating red or silvery plaquelike
patches. Psoriasis is itchy and painful and brutal. It’s a hereditary lifelong disease
for which there is no known cure, just the managing of lifestyle, which can greatly affect
whether or not a break out occurs. When my husband eats well, sleeps well and
exercises, his skin is pretty much clear. When he is tired or stressed or loaded up on
sugar, the patches appear. During his worst breakouts, he has literally been covered
from head to toe by this painful, itching scourge that torments him like a pestilence with
no remedy. Scratching makes it worse. Not scratching feels impossible.

And so from a mathematical point of view: Having healthy clear skin myself + The
increasingly obvious aforementioned theory about marriage (partner parallels parent)
= Me identifying my husband’s maddening inability to refrain from scratching as a
“weakness” within him. As a result of this albeit faulty proof, somewhere along the way,
I chose to abandon any shred of compassion I would normally have for anyone who is
not my husband suffering from this terrible condition. “The solution is simple, don’t you
think?” I ask him as I firmly mount my sanctimonious high horse and relentlessly nag
the shit out of him: "Just stop scratching."

One of the things I’ve learned being married to my beautiful husband is that a high
horse is never really strong enough to support a person’s weight. Its legs are light as
feathers; limp as cooked spaghetti. Self‐righteously sitting on the thing is tantamount to
climbing the walls on a house of cards and expecting its feeble roof to properly serve as
a soapbox from which wisdom and certainty can be dispensed from the rigid “black and
white” all‐knowing set to the – sigh/insert eye roll here – unknowing masses. One of the
surest ways to get knocked off said high horse is to attempt to get on it in the first place.
It’s only a matter of time before you’ll find yourself tumbling down ass over teakettle.

That’s precisely what happened to me last year during a family trip we had taken, a
week before Mother’s Day, when my husband began to develop another rash. At the
time, I had been emotionally estranged from my Mother, so to speak, as a means of self-
preservation. By then, she had been dead for nearly 12 years and I found I had long
surpassed the romantic stage of grief where everything she did while she lived
reframed itself in my memory of her with a kind of reverence one normally reserves for
the virtuous and the saintly. (And the really great donut makers at 49th Parallel on
Main.) I was now in a new phase of grief, and in my life, whereby I came to understand
just how closely I associated my low opinion of myself and my worth to my Mom’s
failures, to her struggles and to her own low self‐esteem. So I did the one thing I
learned how to do from my years of fending off further potential abandonment. I cut her
off. I pushed her away. I kicked her out of my psyche for a while. No more longing for
her. No crying for her; and certainly no dreaming about her.

It’s worth mentioning here that in the months and early years that followed my Mom’s
death, I had the most extraordinarily beautiful dreams about the lady in which she
provided me with invaluable information and tools to guide me through life in her
absence. I mean, these dreams were indescribably (and hauntingly) resplendent in their
uncanny ability to pull me back from whatever depression and self‐destruction were
looming within me. And there wasn’t a single one of these dreams of my Mother that
didn’t flit along my pillow as I lay sleeping from which I wasn’t utterly transformed on
some level upon waking. But in choosing to divorce myself from the merciless toil of my
mother’s experiences in my youth, which I had absorbed into every ounce of my
cantankerous perspective as an adult, I also shut the door on all the wonderful parts of
her; including but not limited to that rich, glorious tapestry of dreams through which
she so elegantly and gracefully visited my slumbering subconscious.

In the months leading up to Mother’s Day last spring, I had done a fair bit of soul
searching. And miraculously, in doing so, I had managed to realign my inner compass to
a default setting that had more to do with what could be possible for me rather than
what had, much to my dismay, always been. As a nifty side bonus, I came to a place
where I was ready to reconnect with my Mom again.

And so as it happened during this time, my husband and I had taken the boys to
Kamloops for their Great Grandfather’s 90th birthday celebration and we made a proper
road trip of it. We ate fast food, we stayed up late and we booked a room in a motel
with a pool and a water slide! The night of our second day there, our bodies filled with
birthday cake and covered in residual chlorine from the pool, Bryce began to itch and
scratch at the psoriasis patches breaking out on his forearms. It seemed one minute his
skin was clear and literally the next minute, he found himself scratching from wrist to
elbow. I did my best to gently encourage him not to scratch but those old condescending
tones crept into my well meaning voice and it wasn’t long before I was outright
lecturing him about the obvious benefits of A.) Taking better care of himself (though
you would need a powder keg to blow out the logged up cake and frosting from my own
colon that weekend); and B.) Just not scratching. At the end of the day, not scratching
was simply a matter of discipline; of mind over matter.

That’s when I went to bed and when my Mother reentered my life through the world of
my dreams.

In this dream, I am in downtown Vancouver at a busy and frantic industry function. As I
walk across the Cambie Street Bridge to get home, I notice there are billboards
promoting the work of other actors in town. One of these actors happens to be walking
toward me on the bridge and I greet him warmly, only he doesn’t seem to know who I
am and he keeps walking past me. In my dream, I discover much to my delight that I live
in a very large house the size of a mansion. But when I enter the house, I find that it
appears to have been burglarized and left ransacked. Everything is upended. Every bit
of the floor is haphazardly covered with something that should have been put away,
neatly in its place. But in my dream, I come to realize that no one has broken in to my
home. This is just how I live. Just exactly like the mess in the houses from my actual
childhood ‐ chaotic and cluttered. In the mess of my dream house, I barely have room to
walk. When it occurs to me that this disorder is all of my own making, I feel stressed. It
is at this point that I see my Mom, for the first time in what feels like forever.

And she is beautiful.

She is sitting on a picnic table style bench at the dining room table, a long expanse of
furniture stretching into the sunlight streaming in from the windows nearby. As I sit at
the table across from my Mom, I look down and suddenly notice that my left forearm is
covered in psoriasis, exactly like my husband’s. I am puzzled by this. When did I develop
psoriasis? I also notice that growing out of some of the patches of the rough, bumpy red
skin on my arm, are little white flowers standing about an inch tall with tiny bulbs
protruding from their center. I look up at my Mom who smiles at me. She seems
apologetic about the mess. She looks down at the flowers on my arm and she begins to
carefully squeeze the flowers’ swollen bulbs, delicately wringing out the toxic fluid from
each one. What comes out is a clear watery liquid that drips off my arm and spills out
onto the chair I’m sitting on, forming into puddles all around me. I had no idea there
was so much being held captive in each flower.

After my Mom has tended to the wound on my arm, which is now healed completely,
she suddenly transforms from the incandescent Mother of my dreams to the harried,
scrambling parent of my youth. She tells me that when she is finished raising money for
my brother’s schooling, there will be more time for me. His course will cost $30,000 –
an exaggerated figure, which seems inaccurately high but relevant nevertheless because
it symbolizes one of the many impossibilities she faces as a single parent. She is frantic
yet focused and needs to come up with the money right away before she can do
anything else. In my dream (though not in reality), my brother is a special needs child
and his needs take priority over mine. After his needs are met, mine can be met as well.
I realize in this moment that all my life I have mistakenly taken this to mean that I am
not special.

For a really long quiet moment, I look at my Mom as an empathy wells up in me for all
she is trying to juggle as a parent; for all she is trying to achieve for her children. I ask
her how I can help. And I see that this calms her. The chaos of my dream subsides a little
and we go about our day. I don’t remember much of my dream after that. But as I write
this, I do remember that my Mom was there for me. And that, in tending to the rash on
my arm so that I could get better, she helped release something in me: The notion that I
always come last, that my needs are simply not a priority. That on some level I have
carried with me through life the idea that I am not worthy or important enough to be
acknowledged, whether on a bridge by a colleague who doesn’t recognize me or by a
mother who is truly doing everything in her power to keep her children safe and loved
and cared for. Throughout my life, I have felt perpetually and utterly secondary. My
Mom came to me in that dream to literally wring out every last ounce of power this
notion has held over me; every last bit of sway I have allowed it in the cultivating of my
beliefs. Then she made it clear to me that it was time to let this notion go. She made it
clear by mothering me.

But there was a greater message even still that I was meant to take away from my
dream. This I came to understand more precisely one week later when, on Mother’s Day
‐ for the first time in my life ‐ I woke up to find my forearms covered in a psoriasis‐like
rash. It was itchy. It was painful. Scratching made it worse. Not scratching felt, you
guessed it, impossible. For a week, I was tormented by this hideously inexplicable
monstrosity of a rash. There were times my arms were so itchy and inflamed that I
thought I was going to literally throw myself against the wall in an attempt to find a
reprieve from the despair and discomfort. My doctor diagnosed it as a viral infection
that typically affects only children but was bizarrely showing up on my arms in the form
of this rash. At one point when she was listening to my lungs during my check up, she
absentmindedly said, “You’re being childish.”

I stopped in my tracks and turned to look at her, astounded by her undeniably astute
phraseology. She shook her head, a bit surprised by her slip of the tongue and
immediately clarified that what she meant was that the rash itself was childlike. But it
was too late. The dominos of my stubborn ideology had begun to fall forward into one
another taking down with them the tightly constructed maze of long standing beliefs I
had built all those years ago when I was six. In my doctor’s inadvertent diagnosis, she
had said exactly what I needed to hear. I was being childish. My body was behaving like
a child with a rash from a virus reserved only for children to prove it. Strangely,
poetically – perfectly ‐ I developed this childlike rash on Mother’s Day of all days to let
me know that it was time to grow up. And that’s when the last missing piece of meaning
from my dream hit my oblivious ass like a ton of bricks. It came to me in the form of a
singular word: Compassion.

For one week, I suffered from this horrible feeling of not being able to control myself
from tearing away at my flesh in an attempt to merely find a suggestion of relief from
the rash. Just one week. Yet, this is what my husband had to endure endlessly every
waking minute of every painful breakout he ever had. And so, in setting my armor and
rigid self‐defense mechanisms down for one blessed beat, I could begin to see that
loathing what I perceived to be weakness in those closest to me was actually the most
evident form of weakness in myself. And it was time to replace that weakness with
strength. It was time to clean house.

Transforming one’s obscenely long‐lasting notions takes time. Whether they be itchy,
isolating or self righteous ‐ old habits die hard. But they do die. I have found that taking
the responsibility for pulling the plug on mine (sometimes repeatedly so) has become
the TSN Turning Point of my own making. It has helped guide me to a gentler inner
landscape, turning me into a kinder, more supportive wife and a less judgmental, more
accepting daughter. The bridge between the here and there is a necessary one to cross.
And it is possible to venture it safely without succumbing to the childish land of old

I had a good mother. I have a strong husband. 

Compassion makes it so

Yours in the quest for bliss,

The Happiness Detective 

My good mother...

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