Growing up I went by Liz, except for one day in 7th grade when I went by Lizard to Jeff Humphries.
I was not a fan of his momentary nickname for me, but I was even less a fan of the period when I actually was a lizard, a cold, bloodless reptile incapable of feeling anything but the primal survival of myself. Or rather, there was a lizard part of me that couldn’t feel anything but the primal survival of myself. The other parts were horrified, which set off an enormous amount of interior conflict as these parts tried to shut the lizard down. They were unsuccessful. The lizard won.
[NOTE: if you happen to be a newcomer, this piece is the 7th in a story-based series outlining a process framework for the development of self-leadership (even though it might not seem much like it right now). While I hope that each individual story has some interest as a stand-alone, if you’re curious to see how it all works as a concept or just want to read more stories, circle back to the homepage. “Setting the Stage 1 & 2” and all of the “Scene” stories are part of this series.]
Lizard came out during my very brief marriage to Ed in 2005. I brought 2 children into the equation; Ed brought 3. Our combined collection of kids spanned a less-than-optimal number of years, as in way too many. Hunter was about to head off to college and Ellen was going to be a sophomore in high school, while two of Ed’s were in grade school and one in middle school. We were going to have Ed’s for a long time.
Saying it like that sounds terrible, like they were un-wantable kids, which was not true at all. They were great kids; they just weren’t mine. And they were also very different than mine — loud and rough & tumble and very, very present, as if they filled every molecule of breathable air. Hunter and Ellen were on the quieter side, not rough & tumble at all, and given to spending a fair amount of their home time doing their own teen-agery thing. The house always felt airy and spacious with just the three of us, even when we were being boisterous and loud.
Adding to the issue, when Ed and I got married, the seven of us came together in my family’s house since it was the larger of the two houses and the one that could be renovated to accommodate a big crew. As much as I loved my house and loved the idea of staying there, this was not a good plan at all given my territorial space issues. After being out and about in the big stimulating world of people and interactions, I required a fair amount of time alone so I could restore and think and settle and feel at peace. That house was my sanctuary. And while I love having people over and entertaining for an evening or even a week, my system has made it clear it requires a return to zero outside stimulation for a good stretch of time.
And so when Ed and his kids moved in with us, it was hard on me, but I was determined to be a good stepmother for the every-other-week we had them. I got myself up for the on-weeks and tried really hard, often even enjoying the bustle of activity and Brady Bunch commotion for limited pockets within the time they were with us, just as I would a fun outing. However, especially during the essential time I required in the quiet, early morning hours when I got up at 3:30 or 4 to read, write, meditate and put my lunch together, I needed to be alone. This time was sacred. Inviolable. Life sustaining.
The problem was, one of Ed’s kids picked up on the beauty of this time, too. One morning when he couldn’t sleep, he wandered out and after that he took to waking up early so he could join me in this cozy, companionable way.
The first day I gritted my teeth when he appeared. The second day alarm bells went off. When it became clear this was becoming his new routine, I had to force myself to display calm, gentle civility as I established my boundaries, explaining to a 9-year-old how I needed my early morning hours to myself. But this boy was just a child whose own mother was not very motherly anymore, and so he sometimes drifted my way despite the barricade I’d put up to protect my integrity. My sacred, life-sustaining space became a jaw-clenching time with every molecule of my being tensed for the sound of the bedroom door creaking open.
And then came the ultimate trouble the second Ed carefully alerted me that at some point the kids might need to spend more time with us because their mother wasn’t all that stable. I instantly turned to rock.
“That wasn’t part of our agreement.” I just came right out and said it like we were in a court of law. I didn’t bother to soften my statement in the least.
He was incredulous at my blunt disregard for the blatant unfairness.
“Your kids are here full-time!” Ed had no problem with Hunter and Ellen being there 100% of the time, but was pushed into pointing out the obvious double standard.
“I know. Which is exactly what you understood from the beginning.” Pure ice.
The fact that altering the custody arrangement was going to be a very touchy topic was no surprise to Ed, which is why he’d attempted to prepare me with just a hint of what may become an eventuality. But with that whisper of a threat, something in me turned. In an instant I became a slit-eyed guardian of my space, now stiffening at the sight of Ed’s kids. Even the bare mention of his ex-wife would trigger something reptilian in me, she a robber of my peace.
I started dreading going home, taking the long way after work. Then one Friday night I couldn’t face it. I drove out to the Lucerne Inn in Dedham, overlooking Phillips Lake and Bald Mountain. I sat in the parking lot and let the minutes tick by. 6 o’clock came. Then 6:30. At 7 o’clock I forced myself to go home, driving myself to this place I no longer wanted to be. In my heart it was all over.
Not long after, when Ed hinted we were probably getting closer to the point where the kids would need to start spending more time with us, Lizard coldly began to put a plan in place. We weren’t even married a year, but you do not rob me of my peace of mind. Oh, no you don’t. I will throw you out.*
In fact, we were the ones to move out but that was okay. It didn’t matter to Lizard we were losing our family home; the only thing that mattered to her was having our own rock to sun ourselves on. And then, after completing her job, Lizard receded and never returned.
Not that the guardianship of me was all done; it just wasn’t Lizard on duty. Guard Dog was the one who arrived on the scene to protect me two years later after Joyce pushed me over the edge at work (see Scene 4 — Rabbit). This time, however, it was about more than just space. Guard Dog let it be known that she had been witnessing injustice for a long time — not just from the work trauma but all that I had ever been robbed of over the course of my entire life.
She was so angry at everything that shouldn’t have happened to me and all that never happened but which should have. She was so enraged at everything I rightfully should have been given and all that I was not. Every last injustice. Every last indignity. Every single slight. There had been such an enormous breach of contract. The world was robbing me blind. Of course it was, just look at Rabbit. She was a mess.
But no more. Guard Dog was now on duty, baring her teeth just in anticipation of someone encroaching on my time or energy, asking more of me than I wanted or felt able to give. To ensure my safety she backed me up in a tight little corner of a box. Ever vigilant, she determined that even if life wasn’t threatening in that instant, it was a pain in the ass. From here on out, unless it was something I wanted to do and chose to do, forget it. Bills? No way. A favor for someone? Not on your life. Participate in the ho hum, everyday business of living? Well, if I had to go along with this bullshit I wasn’t going to be happy about it. On top of everything else, I was not going to hand over my happiness, too.
In essence, Guard Dog objected to everything, maintaining a low-grade, ever-present level of preemptive outrage which translated into a basic, ground-level resistance for doing anything. I was confused about what to do with her and alarmed by the sweeping scope of this protection. It wasn’t making life better or easy at all.
You can’t just be so angry all the time, I told her. You can’t just stay in this place thinking everything is a pain in the ass. You aren’t helping.
With Guard Dog I was at a true point of decision. Following the very visible, very active involvement of Lizard, I was onto the presence of the subterranean parts inside me expressing themselves in cataclysmic ways. And I was sick of it. I did not want to be broken and I did not want to be owned. From that point on I focused my entire being on figuring out how the heck I worked so I could prevent whatever had broken down in me from ever breaking again. I went to work and learned everything I could about how the mind works in general and how the particular ruckus going on inside of me worked in particular.
Over the years I got Guard Dog to lay down, but she’s still there. In fact, she sprang to action just the other day when I visited my mother in the memory unit where she’s been living for the past 5 months. It was Saturday morning and Dad was already there. I found them at the puzzle table out in the dining area. Even in my approach I could tell instantly from the way Mom’s body was so keyed in on Dad things were not going well. She was not happy to be here in this place. She was not happy about having Parkinson’s. She was not happy about how little control she had over anyone or anything or her body or the accumulating white spaces the MRI reveals in her brain with every scan.
As the progression of her disease steadily eroded her ability to self-regulate, unhappiness began to swallow her up. You never knew when you visited whether it would be a relatively peaceful day or a very, very unhappy one. The scales were tipping more and more toward the unhappy, and when it was unhappy, Mom would hold onto it tight, unwilling to hand her bitterness over along with everything else she’d been robbed of. It was a very, very difficult state to talk her out of. In fact, impossible — about as effective as telling someone to calm down.
Lately, however, I’d been trying something new. Instead of relying on logic and reason — pitiful in their inadequacy — I was experimenting with first acknowledging her vast unhappiness and the unfairness of it all, second acknowledging my powerlessness to change any of it, and third saying since I didn’t know how much time we had left together, what I really wanted from this time was to find out all I still didn’t know about her life and her experiences. For instance, where did her love of music come from? Did Muna play an instrument or sing? DanDan? In fact what is DanDan’s actual name? Dan? How could I not know that!
When I put that first question about music to Mom, she looked me right in the eye in a searching way. I could see she was at a deciding point — certainly not fooled by this re-direction on my part. But the music question got underneath her unhappiness and found her heart. It put her back in touch with herself and in the end we spent the next hour roaming through her past. We talked about how DanDan — whose real name is Joseph — loved to ride his motorcycle and sing Danny Boy. How Muna played a big, black upright piano. I found out that Mom had been a waitress in the dining hall on campus as a work study back when meals were served to the students at tables. We talked about her 4 high school friends she’d come to college with, all named Anne, all rich, and all served dinner by Mom. We talked about a paper she’d written in Mildred Bensmiller’s* freshman comp class Mom had taken as an adult, a credit apparently not required back in the day but a prerequisite for the master’s program she was now enrolled in. She’d written that paper in freshmen comp about the 4 Annes. Of the 5 friends, only two had graduated from college — one Anne and Mom. She didn’t say it, but I inferred this fact evened things up quite a bit.
I did not know this information about Mom and I treasured it, immediately converting it into treasured memory as the story emerged from Mom’s mouth word-by-word, all the while keeping one eye fixed on the dining room clock. Keeping this conversation going was hard and heartbreaking work and I did it with my whole body leaning toward the sweet release of lunchtime when Dad and I would get to walk back out into the great, wide-open, crisp out-of-doors.
It was going to be soon. There was a bustle picking up in the dining room. Residents were rolling in. The aides were busy at the counter pouring drinks. Then the big crock pot of soup arrived, which meant we were really close. I watched an aide ladle some into a mug, which I knew was for Mom because she’s the one who prefers to drink it. I started to let down.
But then the aide walked right over to our puzzle table with that mug of soup and handed it to Mom! Like Dad and I were just going stay on through lunch!
“Mom’s having the soup at her table!” I practically shouted as I sprang to my feet and grabbed the wheelchair handles. The aide, so exceptionally sweet and thoughtful, looked stunned but said okay and backed away.
Rolling Mom over to the table I already felt heartsick stabs of shame for how obvious my horror at staying was. Mom would get that, of course, and it killed me. I wanted to be so much better than this. And I so didn’t want to add to her hurt.
Life is just so hard. You can go from doing some good in one minute to wrecking it all the next. And my cast…oh, they were raising a fine riot now. Owl was all over Guard Dog with contempt. Bug, of course, was sick with shame. Sissy was just so sad. And Rabbit…poor Rabbit was a mess, all ears and twitchy whiskers watching this shit show go down, undone by how quickly the world can fall apart.
But it’s okay. Everything really is okay. The framework we’re about to get into shows me what to do with it all.
I tell Mom I love her, kiss her goodbye and walk out into the bright blue sky saying, Okay, guys, hold your seat. We can work this through.
Curtain call: Guard Dog, Rabbit, Owl, Bug, Sissy….take a bow. Well done.
Next up: Scene 6 — the self-leadership framework process
Illustration credit — Gary Robinson
* I couldn’t so much as picture Ed’s kids in my mind for years and years after our divorce. It was just way too painful to consider the kind of damage that had been done to them by this brief marriage, how they had been uprooted from their school and moved from their home and forced to re-consider the make-up of their family structure, then forced to reconsider it again. It was already more than I could bear to face what my own children had been dragged through.
I say this to make it clear that while Lizard’s heart was cold, mine is anything but. I was far from untouched by what I’d done to 5 children, though it may seem so in the telling of this story which channels Lizard, necessarily so in order to bring her to life so that you would know who she is.
**Mildred Bensmiller is iconic in my family’s history and so I include this detail not because it has any intrinsic value to this story — and therefore I’m breaking the rules of clean storytelling to keep her in — but because I want her here. Iowa Wesleyan College is deeply embedded in my family’s story. Wesleyan was synonymous with my growing up. Both my parents worked there, my father first as an English professor and then as an administrator, and my mother as a faculty member in the nursing department. And then each and every one of my three siblings and I graduated from this tiny, private college in southeastern Iowa.
Mildred Bensmiller was the doyen of the English Department, had hired my father, and had been my mentor. Her mystique and teaching prowess was legendary, which I write about in Just Tell Me. She meant so much to all of us.