I recently remarked to my girlfriend that being in recovery and being in therapy was like being set free from the Matrix. You look around you and suddenly see the world the way it really is. In many cases, more than you ever wanted to see.
My girlfriend’s niece turned 4 years old last week, and her birthday party was today. It was held at her favorite place, the “bounce house.” Basically, an entire room filled with rows of trampolines, ball pits, jungle gyms – all padded so that kids can run and jump and bounce and play without harming themselves. The place was full of little kids having a blast, and parents who looked unenthusiastic at best, exhausted and irritated at worst. Even the employee helping with the party looked tired and bored.
(An aside: last year, her birthday party was held at Chuck E Cheese, a place where I’d had my 8th birthday party all the way back in 1982. Back then, it was all video games and pinball machines, which I loved. But they still had the goofy, scary looking animatronic puppets playing music way too loud. I promptly texted my father and told him I then understood exactly why we didn’t go to Chuck E. Cheese that often.)
In any case, there were quite a few dynamics at play:
– My girlfriend no longer speaks to her father, for reasons I understand and respect completely. He was there.
– My girlfriend has instructed/begged/pleaded with both her siblings not to allow their young children around her father (“grandpa”) for the same reasons. They don’t listen.
– My girlfriend’s sister-in-law tried to schedule a Mother’s Day lunch the previous Sunday without inviting my girlfriend or sister. There was much consternation, and so the sister-in-law is being pissy. She also was there.
– The birthday girl’s parents are going through an ugly divorce and, you guessed it – both there.
– My girlfriend’s mother was there, mostly likely a little tweaked on Adderal, and an hour late.
I glanced around the room. The children seemed content to eat pizza, cake, run and jump. The little girls were just sitting and talking, learning how to be social with one another. Same with the boys. In short, the kids would’ve been content to simply be themselves.
The adults however were fidgeting, anxious, nervous habits and tics could be observed all over the room. Everyone just HAD to get pictures of the niece with the presents they got. And – you guessed it – there was a big chair at the far corner of the “party room” where the birthday girl could sit and have her picture taken with all her presents as she opened each one. “This one is from Ms. So-and-so! Say thank you! Sit! Smile for the camera!’ “Sit in your seat.” “Get up from your seat.” “Eat your pizza.” “Eat your cake.” Do this. Do that. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Be here. Be there. Everything had to be just so!
I know what it is to be a spoiled kid. Like my girlfriend’s niece, I was an only child. I not only got everything I ever wanted, I also knew how to gripe to get what I wanted. After my parents divorced, my father (whom I lived with) would get angry with me for griping, even though he was the same person who repeatedly got me everything I ever wanted. I certainly didn’t complain. What 10-year-old boy, circa 1984, would complain about getting ALL the Transformers?
It took years of childhood trauma, unfortunate circumstances and self-inflicted wounds to break me of my entitlement and greed. It didn’t have to go that way, but it did.
My girlfriend, who came to the party exclusively for her niece, was traumatized seeing her father – invited anyway despite her past pleas, but again no one listens. I felt horrible for her. We left early.
In the end, I wondered who the party was truly for, or about. Because it certainly wasn’t about one little girl turning four.
In many respects, it’s never about the kids. It’s about parents keeping up with the Joneses. In high school and most of college, I worked part-time in the stock room of a Toys R Us. I was a jack-of-all-trades. I knew how to run a register, set up an end cap with new toys, block merchandise, unload a semi-truck full of toys in a hot truck bay and assemble a kid’s bike. I can tell you I never saw one child leave that store with a dry eye, unless they had something to show for it.
And why would they? A five year old mind is no match for a colorful store with toys, video games, sporting goods and bicycles stocked floor to ceiling. It’s like telling a cocaine addict to go into a room full of mirrors with a straw and an 8-ball and NOT use. The retail chains know this. That’s what capitalism is all about – sell, sell, sell. Always be closing. Take their money. No one cares which kid grows up spoiled or addicted as long as they sign on the dotted line.
Again, seeing things through the eyes of someone who’s been unplugged from the Matrix, it is hard to watch a room full of people repeating the same patterns that have probably been in those families for generations. The same patterns that my family followed for generations. My grandmother would have epic Christmas parties when I was a child. In many ways, it was a throwback to when she was younger, and the family was well-off, living in Colorado and high on success. As a child when we went to visit them at Christmas, they were just an old, retired married couple living in Marietta, GA, far away in both time and place from those experiences. Now that my grandparents have passed, my uncle tries to carry on the tradition, desperately trying to cling to something that only ever worked once or twice, sometime in the early 1950s. In addiction, it’s called “chasing the dragon” or “romancing the drug.” The circuit is the same.
Watching the cycles repeat over and over is like watching reruns of the same series, only with different actors. We tend to think of therapy and recovery as terms only to be associated with the most severely affected. Survivors of physical and sexual abuse, recovering addicts, those suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or some other mental condition. Given the millennia of trauma humanity has endured as a species, one would think we’d know better. But we don’t. Even with all the access we have to good information, we avoid it. Even with all the tools at our disposal. Instant access to credible sources and we turn straight to Raw Story.
For instance, I found this clip of a lecture by Dr. Janet Woititz, on Youtube. Dr. Woititz started the Adult Children of Alcoholics movement and in fact wrote the book. This clip was recorded sometime around 1983, the time her book was published, and almost 3 years before my Mom’s alcoholism would take hold. The resources were there! Here she talks about messaging in broken families (in this case alcoholic family systems, but it applies to more than just alcoholism). She describes a type of habitual repetition in the victims of trauma.
Never again will I live that way, dragged around by the dysfunction of others. I will follow the truth wherever it takes me.
And the truth, as I see it, is this: I think two parents, the niece, and maybe a close friend or two would’ve been fine. No crazy party hats. Let them run, let them jump. Let them be themselves. Hold them, show them love, leave them be and keep them safe. She wouldn’t have known the difference between 20 friends, pizza, cake and a truckload of gifts – or a day at the park – if she hadn’t been conditioned from birth to expect the former.
And for Christ’s sake keep the kids away from Grandpa.