Being born and raised as a third-generation conservative evangelical, ‘rules’ were a huge part of my landscape. My family, all my friends, and every family living on our street went to the same church. Kids learn early and quick so learning the rules of my tribe was vital to surviving in the plastic bubble town I called ‘home’.
Not surprisingly, my particular church overflowed with written rules – printed and hardbound. Thou shalt not go to movies; drink; smoke; swear; dance; gamble; show skin or skip church if you weren’t dead. I remember wondering if we were somehow secretly Amish…the kind that got to watch television and use electricity. I was sinking beneath a religious version of Orwell’s ‘four legs good, two legs bad‘. The version the church taught
me was: “If it feels good, it’s a trap. If it feels bad, you’re probably safe”.
Home was the same drill, only with the added plus of even more micro-management (applause, applause). It took a lot of work to keep so many ‘not’s’ in play. Not surprisingly,
my family developed a conversational shorthand to lessen the load. Verbal cues like, “Honor thy father and thy mother” or “Children are meant to be seen and not heard”. And who can forget, “Clean your plate”. There were dozens more, but you get the idea.
The saddest rules were the unwritten ones (and their consequences). Early on, I
learned it was best to ignore or deny anything that made my heart beat faster. That way, you didn’t have to lie, ’cause that was a sin. I knew that going to church at least three times a week was not optional –and it wasn’t. So even though we, as a family, ate
together every night; I knew in my gut if something real, awkward or remotely confrontational were to approach the conversation, it was best to not mention it. Sweep it under the rug. If it wasn’t talked about, it didn’t exist. Ergo, keep your opinions to yourself and we have no problems. Why? Because mom said so. No further questions.
But there’s more…I never saw my mom and dad argue with each other…not once. So that was the behavior I learned. I was so cloistered, I didn’t even know that other families argued – on a regular basis! Keeping true to the tradition, I never had one argument with them until I was in college. Part of it was not feeling like I had permission. It wasn’t until much later before I began to decipher the other part. The vibe we kids were picking up on ran something like: ‘Angry words mean no love. And since we all love each other, there no angry words inside our house – ever’. The unwritten post-script was, “’If you do backslide and get angry or raise your voice, you’re obviously out-of-step with the Lord. Heaven
is not assured and your place in this family can be revoked”. I feared the promise was true.
With that heady combination of summary forces, it shouldn’t come as much of a news-flash that I created emotional armor. My armor read ‘good son’ on the outside, and wore
hot and uncomfortable on the inside. Every morning, I got up, put my kid armor on and made my bed. And every night? I took it off, figuratively leaning it up against the dresser when I thought the coast was clear.
Back then, my kid armor was a good thing. At the time, it was a gift. It’s how I survived. I’m grateful for the clever magnificence of a kid’s brain…it knew what needed to be done to protect my insides, and did so without consulting me. But alas, kid armor is no different than school clothes. Not only do you grow out of them, you’re supposed to. It’s the nature of growing up. Physically, I hit my growth spurt in 7th grade and quickly grew beyond 6-feet. Emotionally? I was a lot like Linus and his blanket. If I didn’t have my ‘kid armor’ on, I felt frantic and exposed. And everyone knows it’s not a good idea to show flesh to circling sharks.
So over and over again, I’d watch my mom sweep the latest bit of uncomfortability under the proverbial rug and we knew not to say a word. So I did the same. Rumors at church?
Under the rug (UTR). Problems at work or school? (UTR). Money? (UTR). Problems with a difficult relative? (UTR) and Puberty? (UTR!!!).
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist long to ask, “But where does it all go?”.
It goes ‘inside’. Deep inside.
I had learned from some of the best at the UTR School of Guilt. And no matter how crowded mom’s rugs were underneath, there always seemed to be more room for
more junk. If doctors could have taken an X-Ray of my heart, the side view of my ‘rug’ would have looked like the profile of the Rocky Mountains.
Having a ‘bumpy rug’ worked out in a variety of ways. Someone would ask my opinion and I would respond with an answer that had everything to do with what I thought they
wanted to hear. Someone would commit a random act of kindness and I would wonder what they were really after. I would make up cover stories to mask my real interest in tennis or music…carpentry or being a really gifted lawn kid. Neighbors would compliment me on the way I kept our front yard looking so nice. My response was, “I have to…it’s one of my chores”. And on, and on, and on…for years. Even now, when I look back on all of that, my molecules hurt.
By the time I had reached adulthood, I was miserable. It didn’t make sense. While I had learned to separate the idea of God from the ‘sweeping’ frenzy I saw at church, I kept thinking I was the problem. After all, I knew my pastor was a bright guy. Even he routinely mentioned how we had all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So there I was; clean and shiny on the outside, dying on the insides.
So for those of you who can identify with at least some of what I’ve described, let’s run the kind of quiz you see in magazines. Answer for yourself and be honest. No one else will know.
[ ] Often bored.
[ ] Guilt-ridden.
[ ] Hypocritical/Lying.
[ ] Problems concentrating.
[ ] Emotionally Unavailable.
[ ] Times of unexplained sadness.
[ ] Unable to make my own decisions.
[ ] Most comfortable when I was alone.
[ ] Passive-Aggressive (I took the art form to new levels!).
[ ] Suicidal.
How’d you do? For me, I’ve checked all of them at one time or another – and sometimes, all of them at once. But it does get better. And it did for me…one baby step at a time.
One of my earliest steps was to claim the courage to quit sweeping junk under my rug. Or, when I realized I had, going back, pulling up the rug and sweeping the bumpy debris into a dustpan. Flat rugs. Happy rugs.
Like I said in the beginning, learning the hard stuff can take a long time. Building new neuro pathways in your brain is not accidental. For me, I explored every conceivable option. But eventually, painfully, I knew there was no way out and still be able to stay in. The only choice left was to leave the ‘bubble’ or I was going to disappear. The choice to leave came with a horrific price tag, but I paid it. To this day, I still struggle with some of the costs that came with my freedom. But I owed it to my Creator (and myself) to be me – as created – flaws and all. Good choice.
On the upside, the decision to leave brought me love-at-first-sight (still is). It also launched me on a quest to find gifted Life Coach that was part monk, psychologist,
counselor and bull-s*#t detector. I had finally committed to being healthy. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to matter. I needed to learn to walk again. I needed coaching. I found it and now, I am all of those things. I Am.
Coming from where I did, my recovery took years of fits and starts to get there and for all that, I’m still learning. Even now, when I take my eye off “Old Dan”, some of his most stubborn behaviors come roaring back through the smallest of keyholes.
Just last night, I hadn’t called on my way home from work, like I had promised. I came in the door and was greeted with a look of frustration and disappointment from my spousal
unit. BOOM! I was instantly transported back to coming home late and having to apologize, grovel, etc., etc. It made me mad (even now). Old hot buttons were getting pushed and I was the one pushing them.
The difference is now, I’ve got warning lights hooked up. When my emotional dashboard started blinking, I paid attention (another re-learned skill). I pulled up, braked hard and
put my mouth in neutral. We apologized and made up. In the old days, I would have punished myself for days. Now it’s only for a few minutes. But those are the kinds of realizations that confirm for me that I will be working on myself, every day, for the rest of my life. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I’m still learning not to sweep things under my rug. But it’s my rug. I now decide if there is anything underneath it besides floor. If there is, it’s up to me to pull out the broom AND the dustpan. I’m not only OK with it, but after all these years, I’m genuinely excited to be able to do it. It’s my journey.
As many of us know, some of the coolest places we ever go aren’t the ones we set out to visit. It’s the journey. Life wants to take you along; Just get over your self-imposed guilt for being human. It’s how Life is designed to work. We grow, we adapt and once we know better, we can do better.
Thanks for letting me sweep beside you for awhile. The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, repeat after me, ‘Flat rugs good, bumpy rugs bad‘. Repeat and sweep as