Stuck

Why we can't (or won't) move on from bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad habits, and how we can all move ahead.

Enslaved by the Past

First, we must see our chains.

Passover, which ended last night, is a holiday about the sweetness of freedom and the bitterness of slavery. 

I have been enslaved by my past and fight every day to become free.

No to minimize physical slavery whch still tragically persists around the world. But bondage need not just be bodily. We who as children placed our loyalty into unstable hands, we who were brainwashed, we who were told lies about the world and about ourselves which (loyalty being loyalty) we believed, thus were cursed to live in fear and hate ourselves today are slaves. We might not realize this. In fact, our ignorance regarding what was done to us might have been crucial to the plan. They did not tell us: We are tricking you. Look over there, you do not see the padlocks on your ankles click.

But yes.

I was raised by someone who almost certainly had Borderline Personality Disorder which, like many if not most cases of BPD, was never diagnosed: was never, in her lifetime, so much as suspected, much less named, much less assessed. She displayed BPD's classic symptoms: self-loathing, unstable sense of self, depression, rage, dissociation, paranoia, anorexia, extreme reactions, fear of solitude, black-and-white thinking in which other people were -- for that moment, at least -- either angels or demons. She displayed a strong, vibrant persona to the outside world and a terrified, self-destructive one to me and Dad. Not that this was ever discussed. She suffered terribly but shunned "headshrinkers": Back then, many middle-class Americans thought mental illness meant straitjackets, Norman Bates and padded cells.

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See, I speak gently of her. For her. Some would say this proves my slavery.

For fifty years, I have been shackled to a balmy, palm-treed paradise where those I worshiped, whose chests I watched while they slept to reassure myself that they remained alive, would at whim seize me by the collar or the sleeve while screaming You're a goddamn slob or slap me without words or warning, leaving finger-marks, their beloved faces purpling in the soft sea light. My father was not Borderline but joined its chorus because he was caught, because (my husband says, and yes: slaves can be wed) Dad did not believe that couples with children should divorce, thus as his only child I sentenced him to hell.

This is not what I meant to say today. I wanted simply to explain this thing about present and past but here I am recounting those same scenes in olive-carpeted suburban corridors in blue-sky iceplant-land again, again, again because I am enslaved. I find myself telling the ancient trauma stories over and over. Roiled by the same terrors and self-loathing I was taught to feel then, never individuating, never becoming my true self, never growing up, I have served my masters. 

I have been padlocked to a mother's love, such as it was: a father's care. I felt what I was told to feel, which was that life outside our house was terrible and everyone besides my parents meant me harm, that my worst enemy was my own body, which was always waiting to humiliate and kill me. I was given toys in ribboned boxes, crayon sets, each gift another gorgous link in that well-meant slavery-chain. And every time I said Goodnight, I love you, standing stock-still until they said those words back to me, because the world would end if they did not: more links, forged in the crucibles of love: more locks.

How ungrateful I sound. And see? By telling you all this, perhaps I stay enslaved, stuck in that past: my past and theirs as well but they have left this world. By telling you these tales, am I the Ancient Mariner, waylaying merrymaking strangers who feel forced to listen, who politely squint at my salt-crusted hands and hoary pantomimes while wishing desperately to flee? I do not want to be the Mariner. I want to stop telling these tales. I want if not exactly to forget the past at least to let the past remain the past and come and go at will. I want to walk off with those merrymaking strangers into normalcy, into maturity, into the present and whatever merrymaking strangers do. I understand that living in the present has its pains, its broken hearts and hospitals. Heck yes I know. I want it even so. For those of us who hate ourselves, who have been tricked: This is my prayer.

And no one ever said, Your mommy's crazy. No one ever said, She's ill. This was not known. It was not seen. She was simply herself, her public personality with its proud allusions to her NYU diploma and Hi, Jane! How ARE you? then her private personality, hissing through froth-flecked teeth at me and at her own reflection: You disgusting PIG. Public and private, she comprised my definition of "adult." My friends had mommies who baked cakes and beamed Tomorrow is another day. Mine said Cars are two-ton death machines and Lying to me is as bad as stabbing me.

But I remain enslaved as long as I keep saying this. Telling these tales to my freshman-year roommate or my fiancé was fine, the sort of data young intimates share. Such sharing can break chains: Identify your master and be free. Not me. I told and told yet decades later stayed enslaved. One might suspect I wanted to. That, offered pliers, I refused to flee. The very fact that I am still telling these tales is terrifying.

Mine was not a brutal past involving rapes or wars or beatings or the kinds of deprivation people recognize as such. In its seeming sufficiency, its garage and hot meals, my past nonetheless chained me to itself. And every word I wrote, every note scrawled to friends in class and every college essay, every book and article: They all were messages in bottles hurled between the bars as far as they would go, tightly rolled missives saying HELP ME I AM IN HERE AND CANNOT GET OUT.

Escape attempts. I have written of many silly things, of custard cakes and garden gnomes because I thought myself unworthy of more serious success, adult success, because I was always so desperate just to write, because maybe this time, maybe this time, no maybe this time it will set me free. And every failed escape attempt added more years to my captivity.

I was forbidden to exit my past at will and inhabit the present which of course becomes the future, then the past, folding over and over on itself like pastry dough which becomes sweeter and more exquisite with every fold. I watched my friends grow up, striding with babes in arms into their own tomorrows fearlessly. Why would they fear? Of us all, it was only I who had been brainwashed to believe that every day promised another doom, that someone would outstmart me or mock me or murder me and that I would merit this punishment, that I must plead for permission to live. I watched my best friends as a spectator. I had been brainwashed to believe they were unworthy of my love but loved them anyway but loathed myself for loving them because Mom told me they were sluts and bitches who badmouthed me when my back was turned. She mimicked their voices calling me names. She ad-libbed dialogues between them about me in which they squealed She's weird! I hate her guts!

I loved my friends but wondered why. I did not see my chains. I did not see the key dangling from my own wrist. I did not -- but it sounds too much like blame to say I would not -- see. Enslaved, I watched my best friends come and go, and wondered why I always felt as if I was waiting for life to start.

Waiting, as slaves do when they chisel hatch-marks on fenceposts to count the days because, when their bodies and lives are not their own, how else? The unenslaved, the free, however harsh their lives at least inhabit them. We the enslaved are constantly reminded that wherever we are is not home. Food comes sometimes through slots. Every window through which I have ever looked was barred.

Passover came, we spoke of slavery and freedom and I felt compelled to tell the old tales yet again, as always without resolution, without the obvious denouement of shattering chains, bright heavens opening, crossing the sea, some sense of sudden, better-late-than-never maturation on the Other Side.

Passover came. I should have said: I labored in your cornfields, built your pyramids, gave love which most slaves never give. I did all this. Now in the nick of time -- hear that whoosh as the Red Sea holds itself apart -- I am freed from that madness, mine and yours. I loved you as you asked. I gave you my mind and my life. What has gone will not be returned. But now (I should have said, last week) I walk away unchained by grace of God, by monumental grace.

But see: I am accustomed to my cell, its hardness and its limitations. I am accustomed to my chains, their clank a song that says I am. I depend on inertia and find comfort in confinement.

See, I have never been free. I have no memory of freedom. Only recently have I come to see that I spent fifty years shuffling in shame and horror not because I was bad but because I was enslaved. OK, so now I know, but still: In spite of everything, slavery is far too familiar. Freed, I would have to be someone. Freed, I would count all my hatch-marks and say OMG. Freed, I would understand beyond the shadow of a doubt what I have missed. What I have lost. What -- for me, for others -- slavery cost. Freed, I might relish the wide open spaces but stand staring frozen at the far horizon having no idea how to feel. I do not know how to be free.

We who were brainwashed walk our tiny circles, our chains leaving patterns in the sand. We who have been tricked hide behind ourselves with whips in hand. We are the ones who live in fear, the ones who hate ourselves. We are the ones who wait but do not know for what we wait. We must first see our chains and remember who put them there. And then. And then.

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On.

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