I was emotionally orphaned as a child.
Like many of my peers, I grew up with a Depression era dad, who, I suspect, like his father before him, never really learned what being affectionate, let alone vulnerability looked like. He loved by doing. To my dad, working hard (and often) and providing for the family was love. Concepts like listening without judging, accepting without feeling compelled to fix, affirming without insisting on perfection (or something awfully darn close to it) or hugging spontaneously and for no particular reason were mostly foreign to my dad. And so, as the middle child, “do” I did – as much and as well as I could – and I’ve been doing (or trying to do) ever since. And then there was my mother, who was an alcoholic for as long as I can remember. In her defense, she was a by-product of a traumatic and highly dysfunctional childhood of her own, one that likely left her heavily scarred and wholly unaffectionate. My sense is that, left to her own devices, my mom likely would not have had children at all, never mind three of them, but, because it seemed to be the thing to do, she did and so we are. In the end, however, she was ill-equipped for mothering and her drinking made rising above impossible.
In fact, it made lots of things impossible . . . like modeling what a healthy male/female relationship is supposed to look like; being someone who a too-hard-working husband looked forward to coming home to at night; being a source of comfort and encouragement when my siblings and I needed it most; serving as a beacon of light and a safe harbor we could turn to when we were struggling to find our place and our way in this world (as we often were); having a tolerant, if not fun-loving and predictable personality that encouraged, rather than discouraged us (and our dad) from bringing friends, colleagues and classmates over to the house; showing a genuine interest in our lives; listening attentively to our fears and inspiring our dreams; patiently instructing us in, rather than boisterously dictating the activities of daily living; and placing the many needs that we, like all children, teenagers and young adults had – to not only know, but feel that there was at least someone on Earth who loved and supported us unconditionally and for affection – above her desire for another drink. Simply put, my childhood home was a very lonely and, at times, scary place.
But I realized the other night at a dinner with a friend that, paradoxically, it also was the birthplace of my giver’s heart. You see, unbeknownst to me at the time, it was all the hours I spent alone that gave me the appreciation I have today for the destructive power of loneliness and fueled my desire to want to root it out in the hearts of others. It was the looks of disappointment that greeted my untimely strikeouts, missed shots and academic miscues and the immeasurable pain each of them seared into my admittedly too sensitive heart that taught me how critical it is to meet others’ missteps with empathy, compassion and encouragement. It was the silence that too often fell around my own accomplishments that caused me to more fully appreciate how important it is to first recognize and then acknowledge the achievements of others – large and small. It was the times I wasn’t held that ultimately made me understand what all the fuss is about where hugs are concerned – and the life-affirming power of a heartfelt embrace. Most importantly, my unmet needs gave me a unique set of heart antenna that enable me to spot a fellow heart in need from a mile away and an unquenchable desire to come to its aide.
Did any of this lessen the pain I endured “acquiring” these gifts? No. Does sharing those gifts with and being able to help others today because of them? You bet! Truth is: The most remarkable hearts I know have had to fight for their remarkableness. Mine is no exception. In the end, it’s worth it. I’m worth it – and you’re worth it. #FightOn