(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)
“If there’s not drama and negativity in my life, all my songs will be really wack and boring or something.” Eminem
For many people, December is the most neurotic month; and Christmas marks the apogee of shame, jealousy, disappointment, and self-loathing. Indeed, most psychotherapists aver that Christmas in America might as well be called Crisismas. One can theorize endlessly about why Christmas/Hanukah (and the attendant mass gift buying) inflame the dominant neuroses of so many people, but the picture that sums it up for me is of a child surrounded by dozens of presents she has just frantically unwrapped, not one of which satisfies her craving to be loved.
“The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
When I embarked on my first experience of formal psychotherapy, I knew my parents had abused me, but I could not clearly elucidate the rules of behavior instilled in me by their abuse. My therapist suggested I try to write down the basic rules governing my behavior so I might gain a more objective view of how those rules impacted my life.
One of the most deeply entrenched rules I uncovered was: Nothing I do is good enough. Sound familiar? I ask because I subsequently learned that this rule runs many people’s lives. And though I doubt our parents ever came right out and said, “Nothing you do is good enough,” I know that in myriad other ways they repeated that message thousands and thousands of times; and repetition accomplished the entrenching.
For instance, my mother used “Yes, but…” responses to everything I did or said. “Yes, but…” responses are characterized by positive (though insincere) opening statements followed by the word but, followed by subtle or emphatic derogatory proclamations. Here are a few examples of the thousands of “Yes, but…” responses I received from my mother over the course of my life.
Following my performance in a high school play, my mother said, “You were very good, but…you’re not going to be in another play, are you?”
Upon hearing about my very first sale of a short story, my mother said, “Well, that’s good news, but…they didn’t give you very much money, did they?”
And after meeting my girlfriend(s) for the first time, my mother opined, “Well, she seems nice, but…maybe just a little cuckoo/not too bright/might have a weight problem/might be anorexic/seems rather young for you/seems rather old for you/never finished college/works in a restaurant/rides a motorcycle/do you think she takes drugs?/she sure can drink/she wears an awful lot of makeup/why no makeup?”
Children who are constantly bombarded with “Yes, but…” responses grow into adults incapable of hearing or believing positive responses from anyone. If such a bombarded person sings a song and a friend responds, “That was beautiful,” the bombarded person will assume the compliment is false because in their experience honest responses (which are always negative) only come after the word but. Indeed, a statement not followed by but and a negative comment has no meaning at all to a person programmed to believe Nothing I Do Is Good Enough.
Some people grow up with “Yes, but…” fathers and non-“Yes, but…” mothers, or vice-versa; and these people tend to have mixed views of themselves as partly good enough and partly not good enough. Their versions of the Nothing I Do Is Good Enough rule are Nothing I Do Is Good Enough for Dad (men) or Nothing I Do Is Good Enough for Mom (women). However, if both parents employ “Yes, but…” responses to everything a child does or says, then that child will become an adult with serious trust and intimacy issues; and he or she will almost certainly fear and loathe Christmas because no matter what he or she buys for anyone, it, the present, won’t be good enough. How could the stupid thing be good enough? Consider the source!
Most of my father’s responses to me began with, “You know what you really should do?” followed by a lecture about what I should be doing as opposed to what I was already doing. In this way he re-enforced the Nothing I Do Is Good Enough rule with the I’m Never Doing What I Should Be Doing rule.
“At best the family teaches the finest things human beings can learn from one another— generosity and love. But it is also, all too often, where we learn nasty things like hate, rage and shame.” Barbara Ehrenreich
I vividly remember the day before Christmas when I was twenty-two, a scruffy lad hitchhiking to my parents’ house for our annual festival of neuroses starring my brother and sisters and parents and moi. This was during the vagabond phase of my life—a cold and rainy day in California, the oak trees rife with mistletoe. I was standing on the western edge of Highway One, about ten miles south of San Francisco, the rain drumming on my gray plastic poncho, my backpack and guitar sheltered under a silver tarp, my soggy cardboard sign reading Half Moon Bay Or Bust. I was dreaming of a hot shower and a good meal and a warm bed, and trying not to think about the de rigueur verbal abuse that would accompany such parental hospitality, when a tie-dyed Volkswagen van stopped for me.
The driver was a loquacious fellow named Larry from Galveston, Texas, his coach reeking of tobacco and marijuana, his voice warm and comforting. After a few minutes of back and forth, he said, “Hey, man, I like you. Why don’t you come to our house for Christmas? Stay a couple days? We live right down here in San Gregorio. Kind of a commune, you know? My wife Suse is cooking a big turkey, my sister Clara’s making yams. Bunch of artists and musicians.” He bounced his eyebrows. “Lots of pretty women. You’ll dig it, man. There’s plenty of room to spread your kit.” Then he grinned enormously and added, “It’ll beat the shit out of mom and dad, guaranteed.”
As the child of two alpha “Yes, but…” parents, I was certain there was an unspoken but attached to Larry’s generous invitation—a problem or multiple problems. Larry’s wife might become violent after her third glass of wine, and the wine would probably be cheap and give me a headache. Their dog would bite me or give me fleas. Suse’s turkey would be overcooked, Clara’s yams inedible, and I’d become constipated or get the runs. I would hate the music Larry and his friends played, and Larry and his friends would hate my music. The women would not be pretty and the whole affair would be a disaster.
“The thing is,” I replied, hating myself for turning him down, “I promised my mother I’d come home for Christmas, and…she worries about me. I haven’t seen her in a year, so…”
“I hear you,” said Larry, nodding sympathetically. “But listen, man…if it sucks, you know where to find us. We’d love to have you.”
We parted ways at the San Gregorio general store and I hitched the last thirty miles to the festival of neuroses at my folks’ house. And that festival did, indeed, totally suck. So the next day, Christmas, despite the howling wind and torrential rain, I hitched back to San Gregorio, found the dirt road to Larry’s and Suse’s place, and arrived at their little farmhouse to find Suse storming around in the wreckage of her kitchen and raging on the phone at her mother in Los Angeles—Larry sitting in his van with his five-year-old son Lance, Buffalo Springfield on the stereo singing, “Listen to my bluebird laugh, she can’t tell you why. Deep within her heart, you see, she knows only crying. Just crying.”
“Hey,” said Larry, rolling down his window and smiling at me. “You came. Right on.”
“Is it still okay if I stay here tonight?”
“Absolutely,” he said, turning to his son. “Hey, Lance, this is Tom.”
“Todd,” I said softly. “Merry Christmas, Lance.”
“I got four books and a ball and crayons,” said Lance, nodding seriously. “What did you get?”
“Fifty dollars,” I said, thinking of my unhappy mother slipping me the money under the table so my dad wouldn’t see, and how, despite her disapproval of everything I chose to do, she loved me; if only I would be someone else.
“Suse is seriously bummed,” said Larry, shaking his head. “Bullshit with her mom. You don’t want to know. So…I think maybe you better sleep in my van tonight. Should be better in the morning.”
“I think I’ll just come back another time,” I said, taking a hit from the proffered joint. “But I thank you for the invitation.”
“Oh, stay, man,” he said, nodding encouragement. “This, too, shall pass. Besides, we need you to help us eat all the leftovers. Right, Lance?”
“Right,” said Lance, nodding emphatically. “There’s tons.”