Wednesday, September 25, 2019

On Casseroles and Private Pain

Making its way around Facebook is an incredible article called The Casserole Rules which talks about the unspoken rules, so deeply ingrained, which determine what crisis warrants support. Or at least warrants a vat of lasagna or that steaming pan of chicken, rice and broccoli glop that everybody makes and nobody has a name for.

Death. Sickness. A new baby. Maybe a bad car accident or even a house fire. Public pain. Shameless pain. Polite pain. When these things happen, the troops rally and the fridges and freezers fill. Nobody goes hungry. Nobody goes it alone.

But what happens when the husband leaves or a child goes AWOL? What happens when the wave of depression comes crushing down and you can't get out of bed? What happens when you have to spend time and money and more emotional resources than you even thought you had in the lawyer's office? The therapist's office? The pastor's office? More often than not there is silence. No acknowledgement. No support. And certainly no casseroles.

I remember this well in my own life when my father left. There was no public acknowledgement of his leaving. No obituary of the marriage. No neighbors rallying around. No extended family rushing in. Because of the shame surrounding the whole thing we weren't even allowed to tell but one or two people from the time he left until 3 months later when the divorce was final. It was a death with no grieving. A burial done alone.

In the 1990s Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control conducted a study looking into the correlation between childhood trauma and health problems across the lifespan and the association is staggering. They pulled together a list of 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and your ACE score is an indicator of your risk for all sorts of issues well into adulthood. You get one point for each "yes" to the following questions:

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
  3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
  4. Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
  5. Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
  6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
  7. Was your mother or stepmother:
    Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
  8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
  9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?      
  10. Did a household member go to prison?
When I first read these questions I found it baffling that the death of a parent or sibling was not included. Or a major accident or perhaps a natural disaster. A dear friend had just lost her husband and I was well aware of the intense pain and trauma that she and her children were going through. The explanation is that the list comprises the most common traumas of childhood mentioned in the survey. But I think there is something else to it as well. The Casserole Rule.

Death and accidents and natural disasters are one time incidents that garner much social support. But look at the above list. These are all private traumas. Ongoing traumas. Shame-filled traumas. Traumas nobody wants to talk about. Traumas that, if talked about, make the conversation uncomfortable. And that is part of what makes them so very damaging. That a child enduring these kinds of traumas must do so alone. 

I don't have an answer, really. I wish we could talk about things. About the hard things we face or have faced in the past. I wish people didn't get so uncomfortable about it all. Shuffle their feet and laugh under their breath and change the subject. Or worse, put a smiley face on it. Tell you to be thankful. Pat you on the head. Find a way to tell you what you should have done. Or lob a scripture bomb your way. 

I wish that divorce, abuse, depression, wayward children, addiction, job loss, bankruptcy, special needs children got the same support as the more public and polite traumas. 

Perhaps it starts with being able to share these hard things in life openly, without fear of judgment or scorn. 

How can we do better? 

Sunday, September 15, 2019

More Than I Can Handle

“I just said, ‘Listen God, if you don’t give people things they can’t handle, I’m just going to say I can’t handle this, so please handle this,’” she says.
“I had this very frank conversation with God saying, ‘I’m just going to turn over this situation to You, and I’ll work as hard as I can in whatever way You can guide me, but there’s no one else I can turn to in this situation.’”

These aren't my words. They belong to Jeannie Gaffigan, wife of comedian Jim Gaffigan. She said these words to God after the diagnosis of a pear-sized brain tumor. I read these yesterday. They stuck with me. This morning I had a conversation with God and used these words myself.

Now, as far as I know, I don't have a pear-sized brain tumor, though it might be a better explanation for my overall forgetfulness, inability to focus, and brain fog than my current belief, that there is a starving weasel inside my head gobbling my brain cells, or the most likely possibility, that those damn hormones are to blame for it all.

No, I am not staring a huge, life-threatening BIG THING, the way Jeannie was. But nevertheless, I am overwhelmed by so many of the smaller things and yet things that I cannot handle. My heart aches with the stress, confusion, challenges and struggles of my adult children, as they work to find their way. I want to be there as a stable and safe place for my granddaughter. I want so badly to serve the often complex needs of my clients well. As I transition to a new company, I want to learn the ropes with confidence (not in large supply) and competence (do I have that either?). I wrestle with this middle-age stage of life where I question what I have done and what I should do and why I am here and why do I feel like it is all over (am I all washed up?) when I could quite reasonably live another 35-40 years, given my genetics. The more stress I am under, the harder it is to fight off the internal prosecutor who tells me I am a failure and turns the mirror into a reflection from the House of Horrors. And sometimes it seems like there are things knocking to bust out of the Pandora's Box of my past. Things I just don't think I have the time or the energy or the focus to deal with, but things that are screamer louder and louder to not be ignored. And over all that is my wrestling with God. With who he is and what he expects from me and is he really there at all and why does everything churchy make my skin crawl and my stomach turn?

So this morning I told God it was all just too much. I could never handle a brain tumor. But I can't handle all of this either. So I am asking God to handle this, please. Please. I'm not sure, but I think he heard me.