Monday, May 2, 2011

On Learning to 'Live in the Air'

        The idea of a house full of water as a metaphor for dysfunction came about when I found myself bored and fretful on a cross-country flight and began plotting a story as a way to distract myself. I imagined a young girl who has this amazing secret life within her own home, the life of a fish essentially, and how being able to swim from room to room exhaling streams of bubbles might make it hard to have friends over, although the inability to hear people screaming at each other might be a plus. I imagined what events might have triggered the house 'filling up with water' and how the two sisters in the story might experience this taking place at different times in their lives.
       On a personal level, I grew up in such a house, in an atmosphere of silence, coldness, and relentless judgement and gloom. Within those walls, what was considered 'normal' behavior was anything but, and learning to accept the unacceptable was a necessary survival skill.
       From an emotional standpoint, it was life on the bottom of the ocean as far as I was concerned, but the details of it were very different from those of the family in my story.
       Once, after reading "The Family Underwater" at an arts retreat in Colorado, a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said that she too had grown up with a sexually abusive, alcoholic father and was moved by my willingness to share such intimate details of my life. I thanked her, but didn't tell her the truth--that my father was virtually absent from my life throughout my childhood, that both my parents were rigid and fantatical teatotlars, and that the only physical contact my father ever initiated with me was a stiff handshake upon meeting, as though I were a business colleague, not a child--and certainly no child of his.
      I didn't say that at the time, though, because I didn't think it really mattered. Underwater is, after all, underwater, whatever caused the psychic inundation to take place. It's living in an an ongoing state of denial about how bad things really are that does as much, if not more damage, than the actual abuse, whatever form it takes.
     In the story, the protagonist is a survivor. She runs away and makes a life for herself in the outside world. What she doesn't count on--and what I didn't count on either when I was growing up--is that if you live for a long time under a severely dysfunctional system, that system can start to seem normal. Or at least tolerable. Or, worse, it may seem exciting, the only thing that separates you from others' bland, drama-free lives. Peace, serenity, and relationships based on kindness and respect may seem mind-numbingly boring when it takes a bloodbath in the Octogon to really command one's attention. And fear gets the body amped up in spectacular ways to do something, be it flight, fight, or that other f-word.
       After many years of relishing the rush of that old familiar fear, I cultivated a taste for the air and stopped living underwater. Haven't for quite a few years now. Don't even visit. But I still find it damned hard not to take a second look when I meet a man who I'm sure must live at least part of the time underwater. So I take the second look. Then I walk away.
      Ah, the price of sanity.

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