Monday, April 21, 2008

On an Unsettled Spring Night

When have you felt misunderstood?

A woman in her 30's says:

In my twenties, I took one of those youth-oriented bus tours through Europe. Most of my fellow travelers were less inspired by the great sites than the good opportunity to drink and get laid. There was a guy we called No-Pants Steve who dropped his drawers whenever the bus “theme song” of You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet played.

I felt very removed from the group, not because I was so taken by Europe, but because I didn’t have that talent for being loose and uninhibited. Some of the girls took pity on me after a night out in Barcelona when I drank too much sangria and admitted that I hadn’t kissed anyone in three years. On the ride back to camp, they started whispering mysteriously to Mark, the male “me” of the group. I just smiled and looked out the window, silently mortified. I knew I had said too much.

That night, when everyone took off up the hill in search of more alcohol and I turned to go back to my cabin, I heard footsteps on the gravel behind me. It was Mark, looking white and gawky in the moonlight. From the hill, my roommate helpfully shouted, “Be nice! She’s a virgin, you know . . .” Mark and I laughed, looking down at our hands. I wanted to run, but I didn’t. After a few nonsensical comments about the stars (yes, really), he made his move. As his moist lips descended, I realized that he must believe I wanted this, that I convinced my friends to speak to him, and that he was the one doing me the favor. Every instinct repelled me, and yet I kissed him back. I couldn’t disappoint his very slight expectation. And it had been three years.

The Conversation:

Jason: How are you tonight? I hope you're comfortable.

I'm settling in.

Jason: Good. I should have a glass of wine.

I should have something stronger.

Jason: Ha! It'll be okay. Really.

If you say so. :-)

Jason: So, tell me about your trip. What was it like preparing for it? Were you excited?

I was excited, but a little apprehensive, too.

Jason: Apprehensive why?

I felt like it was planned for me by my mom. That kind of group tour would not have been my first choice.

Jason: Did you pick the destination?

We decided on the big European tour, which included about seventeen countries. To be honest, I was looking for an excuse to run away at that point in my life, and this fit the bill.

Jason: Did you want to make the trip at first, or did you feel forced into it? Did your mother think it would be an important experience?

She brought it up, and I was ambivalent at first. My older siblings had the opportunity to go to Europe, and I think she thought it would be a nice diversion. I was struggling a bit with my career choice at the time, and she wanted to give me some happiness, I think. So I wasn't forced, and I was appreciative of the gesture, but at the same time, it didn't really hit me that this is what I was doing until I stepped on the plane.

Jason: Tell me a little more about wanting to run away. Figuratively or literally? From what?

I had a bad habit of embracing my parents', and especially my father's, choices for my life. I thought I was going to be a veterinarian at the time, and was working in an animal clinic to gain the necessary experience to be admitted into school. But I was miserable. So yes, I was eager to get out of my head, and away.

Jason: Did your parents sense your unhappiness?

My mom...maybe. But you know, she thought the cure was going to Europe.

Jason: Why would she think that?

I don't know. She always spoiled me. She's a big believer in purchasing happiness, if possible.

Jason: So, it was a random choice? It didn't reflect a conflict that she knew about (such as your father wanted one thing and you wanted another)?

I may have to take my time with some of these. Just warning you.

Jason: That's fine. They're hard questions.

My father was absolutely determined that I become a doctor. I sidestepped those wishes by choosing veterinary school, but it was never a good substitution for him. And I wavered back and forth on the subject. Perhaps my mom thought that by pushing me away for awhile, I would get a grip on what I really wanted.

Jason: What was the reason he was so passionate about it?

He's the kind of person who thinks it doesn't matter what you do for a living. As in, you're never going to be happy working, anyway, so you might as well reach for the top. It was the prestige of the thing.

Jason: If you became a doctor, would you have been a crown jewel of the family in his eyes?

Absolutely. My older sister didn't quite have the smarts, and my older brother was an enormous failure in his eyes.

Jason: Did this type of responsibility often fall to you?

Yes, I suppose so. My brother showed the greatest "potential," because he was very smart and athletic. But after he floundered in college, the anvil came down on me.

Jason: Did this "failure" affect your brother?

Immensely. He developed anorexia and depression.

Jason: As your older siblings disappointed him, did the pressure build on you?

It sometimes felt that way. The funny thing is that I always felt like I was his favorite. Which made disappointing him even more painful.

Jason: Did that change after you finally decided not to go into medicine, or did you remain his true favorite (i.e., not by default)?

I think he likes being with me most. But it's so hard to tell.

Jason: Did you feel like he saw the real you, or did he only seem to see who he wanted to see?

My father doesn't have the slightest notion of who I am.

Jason: How so with your mother?

She tries. She really does. But we're so careful with one another.

Jason: Did she go with you on the trip?


Jason: Did anyone go with you?


Jason: How did you feel about going alone?

I was nervous. I'm not at ease around people I don't know well. And I knew I would miss my solitude.

Jason: So these friends on the trip were friends of circumstance?

Yes. I doubt a single one of them would have been a friend back home.

Jason: So you tried to fit in with them the best you could?

To some extent. I did often separate from the group during the rare moments that was allowed. But I drank more than usual, and in conversation, I stuck to topics that I knew would interest them. For all of the great culture and history around me, it was a very shallow month and a half.

Jason: How hard was that effort to maintain for a month and a half?


Jason: What element of "fitting in" was the most effort?

Being forced to be "on" for that length of time. Talking about crap. God, I just wanted to curl up with a book and read.

Jason: If you could have wished to interact in a different way, how would it be?

Everything was so frenetic. Each hour planned...appearances to maintain. I would have liked to take a deep breath and talk to someone about all the beautiful things we were seeing, about what books we were reading, films we loved. But yes, I also need that alone time, especially then and even now.

Jason: Did you predict that the trip would have great effect on you?

I think I had the tourist-on-speed mentality. My father and brother were always such history buffs, and I knew I would be expected to see as much stuff as possible, and to report back on what I saw. And yes, I know that sounds absurd.

Jason: Did the trip have a great effect on you?

Yes, but not the things that I thought would. Not the things in Fodor's.

Jason: Describe a revelation moment for me.

There was a lot of anti-American sentiment at that time..."U.S.A." with a swastika for the "S" was spray-painted on some buildings. It was a shock for me to realize that this is how Americans were viewed. I was very naive, sheltered. I went running one morning, with my slick running shorts and bright white tennis shoes. These two teenage girls started following me up the hill, making fun of me, though of course I didn't know what they were saying. I was so tired! I couldn't deal with it. They were nipping at my heels. I turned around, crying. I wanted to tell them that I wasn't a cartoon.

Jason: It widened your perspective?

Yes. It lifted the veil from my eyes.

Jason: What was the before and after?

Before, I was conservative, like my parents (always, always like my parents). I had blinders on, and was very satisfied with my good fortune, without ever really thinking much about it. Afterward, I started drifting toward more liberal positions. I started to think for myself a little bit more. It was about time.

Jason: You realized that America--its policies and attitudes--were not perfection?

I suppose I knew that theoretically. I mean, I had taken a Vietnam War course in college by then. But seeing ourselves through others' eyes--acquiring that far-flung empathy--was harder sought.

Jason: When you look at people (in general) around you today, what do you see?

I see people struggling, but hopeful. That sounds like a trite answer, but it's such a difficult question.

Jason: Do you feel part of people around you, or separate from them?

I have so few friends. I have my family. So usually, I feel separated from others. But I'm always sensitive to any sign of pain, no matter how casual.

Jason: Do you feel like you make that choice to be separate, or do others make that choice by pulling away?

I think it's my choice. I don't make that effort anymore. I'm not stuck in a bus traveling through Europe.

Jason: When you were on that bus, did you feel like there would be a time when it would be different? Maybe when your peers caught up to your maturity?

Not really.

Jason: If all responsibilities were removed from you and you were dropped in a brand new place, would you feel lost?

I think I'd feel liberated--for about five seconds. Because my responsibilities are different now. They're mine. I've chosen them.

Jason: And after the five seconds?

I'd feel guilty. Most of my responsibilities have names now.

Jason: But just imagine those responsibilities didn't exist, not that you left them or abandoned them. Are you defined by your responsibilities?

Not anymore. At least, I don't think so. If I had never married, if I didn't have those responsibilities that come with family, I think I'd be feeling relieved after those five seconds. That umbilical cord finally severed. Free.

Jason: But are you afraid/uncomfortable to fail in those responsibilities, even when they are unfair? Is that the freedom you would feel? The removal of that emotional power over you?

Yes. God, yes.

Jason: That must be so hard. I can feel how confusing it is. You want to live up to expectations, to make other people happy, but at same time you resent the power of other people's disapproval to upset you. You probably blame these people who put demands on you, but you also blame yourself for not pushing back. I'm so sorry your father did that to you. Although he didn't mean to, he missed that line when we, as children, crystallize into young adults and our needs fundamentally change. Past that line, we need freedom and loving encouragement to become who we essentially are meant to be.

Jason: What I feel the most, however, is how hard it must be to build a deep comfort in yourself when so many potent demands were placed on you from the outside. Your solitude is your escape, your peace. Yet, it can only last so long. Soon, the fear of taking too much time for yourself creeps in. I feel like I understand.

You do. Thank you, Jason. I really was nervous and self-conscious at the beginning of this. But not anymore. It is liberating to reflect on these issues with someone I can trust, and find acceptance instead of judgment. I'm very happy we shared this moment across the night. And I know I'll carry it into the day.

Jason: Have a good night.

Good night.


Kaycie said...

I grew up with a controlling parent as well. From the moment my first child was born, I refused to think of her as just a baby. Instead, I thought of her as a tiny little person. I was determined that I would not make the mistake of exerting control and robbing my children of their own minds and decisions.

I know what that feels like. I know how hard it is to live up to the expectations of a parent who has no idea what you want or need in life.

I hope that after your trip ended you were able to find your own way.

ChristineEldin said...

A friend of mine once said that each of us will carve our own story. It's a very simple concept, but when you apply it to relationships, it's profound. For me, that means allowing my children to make choices whenever it's safe to. I want them to be strong, and I can see they are. I never had that. My mother was such a control freak. I understand a lot of what you say.
I hope your siblings are doing better. Perhaps now that you're older, you can reach out to them in a different way. And it will help you too.

Jaye Wells said...

This is very cool, Jason. Liberating for the interviewee and enlightening for the reader. I can't wait to read more.

SzélsőFa said...

This series has a great potential within. I liked reading the first part and will return to check the rest as they come.

JaneyV said...

I think everyone experiences being misunderstood within their family at some point or another in their life. There is often an inherent conflict between the identity you carve for yourself and the picture that family members have made for you which can be constraining and controlling. I have found that families tend to construct a group identity based either on the personalities of the majority or just the most domineering. As I feel different to the others I have struggled to conform. I have found that happiness and contentment is only achievable by being true to your own sense of self. For me this has meant living apart from the family circle. I love them to bits but I need to be separate to be happy.

This is a very interesting forum Jason. A brave thing to do.

Geraldine said...

Best of luck with the new blog Jason. Interesting concept. G

Precie said...

I. am. hooked.

I was fascinated by the first entry, Jason, but now I'm totally hooked. I'm astounded by the traits I share with this woman, even though our lives have been very different. The conflicting interests, the desire for external (particularly parental) vivid, so immediate.

I can't wait for more.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone,

I am the woman who participated in the conversation with Jason. And I just want to say how gratified and touched I am by everyone's empathy and support. I was nervous about doing this, but it was a very positive, and heartening, experience. I now recognize how universal so many of these issues are to other families, and I am reminded of how many great people there are who also happen to blog. ;)

And Christine, my brother is doing a lot better now. Thanks! He still battles with depression sometimes, but he's his own person now and has largely torn himself away from our father's influence. So have I, I'm happy to say.

And Precie, I can't wait for more, either. Thanks again, Jason. :)

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Dear Woman In Your 30s:

Take comfort in the fact that you are unique, but your circumstances are not. I sure have, after reading your conversation tonight. We are all so very different, and yet so very similar after all.