Let’s set the scene: I’m in high school, and left in the wake of yet another terrible relationship.
The relationship had been a special kind of toxic, the kind that should’ve heralded a warning: that this was the type of guy I would keep on attracting until I could actually find some self-worth. I’d been treated like dirt, cheated on, and unceremoniously dumped. He’d eventually return and I’d take him back, because it’s amazing how far you can bend over backwards when you don’t have a spine to stop you. He’d dump me again, this time with a pocket full of insults instead of another girl waiting in the wings.
Let’s set a more specific scene: I’m in the car with my mom, sitting both passenger side and in the wake of the final break-up, venting about the newest set of verbal sparring — the terrible things he’d said about me, the things I’d said to friends in response, the anger and repulsion felt towards a guy I once thought I’d loved.
I look over and my mom is smiling amusedly.
“Oh, you two will get married someday.”
In college, I would learn about crystallizing moments during my cognitive development in children class. Moments that might’ve meant nothing to the adult, but had seared into the child’s mind in indelible ways. You probably could’ve asked my mom a week after that exchange what she had said, and she wouldn’t be able to recollect it. But, for me, something had been set. The venom over the high school ex would dissipate before I’d hit college, and now even the memory of the memory feels hazy and vague. But that moment — in the car, with my mom and her statement — stays sharp and clear.
I felt a swell of anger at the dismissal, at what my mother was implying: that all of this was somehow quaint, that the boy who was a liar and a cheater and cruel with his words was somehow fit to be my husband. I can’t remember exactly what my response was, but — knowing me — I probably responded by immediately shutting down and refusing to talk. Withdrawal has always been my strongsuit.
The boxes of childhood toys have stayed stacked one on top of each other in our guest room. (“How fitting. The ghost of my childhood as been the perennial guest as of late, anyway.“) I’ve had zero interest in sorting through them. Truth be told, I had zero interest in even having them. It had been a source of contention for the last nearly-five years. A source of contention that was never as simple as an item taking up space.
When the last set of boxes were trucked into our house Thanksgiving of 2017, I turned to my little brother and said, “If there is anything else, just call and we’ll do a clean sweep, because I never want to have discussions about this ever again.”
Perhaps a slightly dramatic response for a set of childhood and adolescent things. And it’s not exactly uncommon or unreasonable for a parent to do this. But an act never happens in a vacuum. The weight of an item can’t always be measured by the number on the scale.
Of course, my mom would never dream of overtly telling me that I should marry the boy who cheats on me, who breaks my heart, who makes my blood boil with his behavior.
But that’s the thing with messages: it’s never the overt ones that sneak past the sensors. We get good at filtering out the ones yelled at us. It’s the ones inferred that do the most damage.
The first thing I tackle are the books. It’s a simple enough decision: the books stay. If there is any hoarder’s indulgence I’m allowed to have, it’s my books — including the ones from adolescence. I have the complete collection of Animorph books, and the smaller but also complete collection of The Boyfriend Club books (the boy-crazy answer to The Babysitters Club).
My children’s bible and my teen’s bible are both in the mix, as is The Phantom Tollboth, and Charlotte’s Web and Walk Two Moons. My Goosebump collection is incomplete but still staggering. I was a walking, talking Scholastic book fair in my days. And all the books stay. Their boxes were the heaviest, but the books hold something light — which is perhaps part of the magic behind creating entire worlds that the reader can sink into.
Perhaps that is why I write as obsessively as I do. Stories are a way of making the world around you a little bit lighter.
“Well, they say life is a quiet desperation.”
This was one of her few explicit messages. It was a saying my mom referred back to time and time again, saying it the way other moms might say, “A stitch in time saves nine,” or “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
“They say life is a quiet desperation.”
What a weird piece of supposed insight to pass along to your child. Or perhaps it was never really meant to be an insight. I know I never took it in as so — what I took in, instead, was the impetus behind it. What remained unsaid. The look in my mom’s eyes and the wavering smile as she repeated herself time and time again.
When I was old enough to read Thoreau, I’d learn that the line was a bastardization from the first chapter of Walden — in which he gives a scathing indictment against the average man. He talks about “quiet desperation” with derision, and as proof that one must fight against the status quo — as reason why he was disappearing into the woods, to suck out all the marrow of life, to actually live before his life is up.
Some of the boxes are easy to consolidate. The packing was haphazard and inefficient, and for that I am grateful. With minimal work, I am able to collapse four or five cardboard boxes, doing nothing more than rearranging a few items.
It feels good, like I’m clearing something out, even though I really haven’t done any work — even though everything I still need to sort through is still right in front of me.
“This is a metaphor for how you used to live your life,” I think to myself wryly.
“Everything has to be a metaphor, doesn’t it?” I add.
I’ve learned that, if utilized properly, your 20s and 30s can become a time of great deprogramming. A chance to notice what messages you’ve been blindly listening to, recognize which messages are toxic, and figure out what you can do to shut off its signal.
I’ve also learned that, until you are made aware of the messages logged, you run the risk of doing things that make you turn around and go, “Why did I do that?” And you can blame manipulation or trickery or just plain being played like a fool, but something had to have primed you to let it happen in the first place.
I’ve learned the first step to rewiring the messages is to figure out where the messages came from in the first place. It’s why I don’t begrudge the retrospectives. Sometimes you have to keep digging until you hit the treasure — or the landmine, whichever comes first.
I look at the boxes and realize that my mom hasn’t found the cache of stuffed animals packed into garbage bags and tucked away in the eaves of my mom’s little cape-style house. I wonder if I should tell her about it, or if the eaves are enough out of sight, out of mind. I figure for now, I’ll let it be. If the time comes and I have to make good on my vow to do a clean sweep, so be it.
My Barbies spent decades in a sturdy, white, cardboard box. But, for some reason, they weren’t packed away in it. Instead, they were relegated to a flimsy, flattened box alongside my LEGOs. I think of the hours I spent with those dolls, creating intricate stories — stories that, at some point, all became about war and the end of the world, the Barbies taking shelter until it was safe to come out again. I’m sure a child psychologist would’ve had a field day with the type of stories I came up with.
I take a good look at the remaining boxes. It is only now that I realize almost all of them are alcohol boxes — red wine, beer, whiskey, the shipment boxes for bottles as they arrive at the package store.
My toys enclosed in containers meant for booze. The metaphor is so loud my ears start ringing.
I’ve learned a long time ago that the best way to fight your demons is head-on. You can’t evade them. You can’t lose them in the chase. You certainly can’t wait until their backs are turned and then implement your assault. Do any of the aforementioned and your demons will just strike back the moment your guard is down.
And I’ve also learned a long time ago that the powers that be will find ways to grab you by the shoulders, swivel you in the direction of your demons, and go, “Round one. Fight.”
“Marriage is what people do when they want to make each other miserable.”
It was one of the first truly candid things I said to my husband when we started dating — a candid thing stemming from my discomfort over even joking about marriage.
Marriage is what people do when they want to make each other miserable. Of all the messages I’ve had to deprogram, that one has been the biggest and most vital to tackle. It’s also why I can’t begrudge my mom too much for thinking my ordeal with my ex-boyfriend was cute. She didn’t know any better, especially at that point, married for nearly 20 years.
Hers was a marriage defined by screaming matches and chaos. A marriage that proved you need to make sure your demons can run alongside with your partner’s demons, lest they start street fighting.
The overt messages were there as well: my mom loved to tell me that marriage was like two oxen that had been yolked together for so long that they kept plodding along, side by side, when the harness was taken off, because they didn’t know any other way of living their lives.
But it was never the explicit sayings that did the damage. It was the day-to-day toxicity, the palpable unhappiness from both sides of the table. I learned all the wrong lessons on how to handle conflict, how a man should treat a woman, how a woman should respect herself. These would all be things I’d have to grapple with when the powers that be grabbed me by the shoulders, forced me in the direction of my demons, and told me, point back, “The days of consolidating boxes are over.”
Their marriage was proof that divorce is not the only way a marriage can fail. And perhaps way more than contently remarking that I’d marry my toxic ex, this message made me withdraw most from places that should’ve brought me warmth.
There are plenty of other messages to deprogram. Plenty other messages that are just as vital to stop, to shoot the messenger down before it could send another telegram. Messages that perhaps, in their absence, the comment about my boyfriend would’ve came and went, and perhaps the messages about marriage would’ve been nothing more than a sharp sting in the back of my mind.
Other messages, the ones that I did my best to rewrite retroactively once I got a little bit more information, once I became more educated on the world of mental health, on addiction, on the human condition. But, interestingly enough, those were not the things I was thinking about as I was going through my boxes.
But it did make me think: isn’t that what we’re doing, as we become a little more self-aware and self-actualized? We become just a little more informed so we can retroactively rewrite those messages? So that we can read between the lines and decipher between intent and outcome? That we stop shooting the messenger so much as we start to learn to understand them?
That we stop fighting our demons so much as we learn to dance with them?
One major thing I keep finding in these boxes are my creations.
Flip animation books, pretend movie reels that fed out of coffee cans, figurines made from various wires. Sand art and clay sculptures and binders upon binders upon binders of old writing. Doodle and sketchbooks, blueprints for the future, DIY jewelry.
I know I can hyperfocus on the negative. It’s something I knew long before the Enneagram called me out for it. Cause me pain and that’s probably the only thing I will remember.
(And, boy, will I remember.)
A box of creations doesn’t offset a toxic childhood. Much like a camping trip, or jazz music, or Sunday morning church service doesn’t erase the damaging messages given during the darker times.
And perhaps all these creations were not the counterbalance to the negative so much as the response to it. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. I lived in my own world, a world of my creation both in the mind and with my hands. And it’s probably why I’m as prolific of a writer as I am today.
I was given my own binder’s worth of messages that have done subtle and explicit damage. But within those messages might’ve held the morse code that made the person that I am today — and, in a way, I can thank those messages, that source, even as I reprogram and delete them.
“When we finish the basement, we can put the boxes in the closet,” says my husband. He had gone to great lengths to add built-ins to the semi-finished basement — built-ins that will someday become shelved closets, big enough for small cardboard boxes to fit.
But then I’m just moving things around. Consolidating boxes and calling it clearing things out. I have made major headway with my endeavor, but I still have a long ways to go. More boxes to go through, more decision to make.
Decide what stays, decide what goes. Decide what I can live with and what will be let go.
I think of the messages my husband has worked so tirelessly to give me (you are loved, you are worthy of love, you are not a monster, you don’t need to be ashamed of who you are, I am here) and the times I’ve leaned all my weight on him to tell me the things I never heard growing up.
You are loved. You are safe. You are protected. You deserve respect. Marriage can be a beautiful thing.
I smirk at the idea of those closet shelves, of him building something to hold my childhood baggage.
I am here.
Everything must be a metaphor for me, huh. Almost like anything can serve as a messenger.