In graduate school, I liked almost everything I read, with one notable exception: Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance. The course was a survey of the American novel; we read 17 major American novels in 15 weeks. On the week we discussed Hawthorne, I sputtered and raged about the pathetic narrator and his pathetic excuses, his self-absorption and self-importance. It was such a shrill outburst that, fifteen years later when I ran into one of my classmates at an academic conference, she mentioned that she vividly remembered it.
Normally, I like pathetic narrators, since I believe we are all pathetic from time to time, by which I mean that we all deserve sympathy. Who hasn't abandoned the veneer of social correctness at least once, publicly begging for attention, or pity, or love? Who hasn't unreasonably complained about a friend or spouse or lover, playing the righteous victim? Who hasn't voiced suspicions that "someone" has it in for us, which shows mainly our own fragility and paranoia, not a deep, hidden plot against us? Emotions are complex--or at least what prompts our noticing and processing them is complex; often we despise what we most fear in ourselves. Flaws, in general, make us human, and human nature is such that we ought to give each other a break.
I have always struggled with giving myself a break, though I try to be generous in understanding others' needs for a break. With chronic illness in a family, it becomes difficult, since so many breaks must be given to the ill person whose needs dominate the dynamic. There don't seem to be any leftover breaks to give away. No one asked me or my older sister, Terri, to be hard on ourselves. No one insisted that we didn't cut ourselves any slack; we did it to ourselves--rather, it was our reaction to growing up in a household with an ill sibling. We compensated; our younger sister was truly sick and required attention, medication, rest, treatments. We knew she was forced to tolerate pain and discomfort, the loss of her hair and control over her weight. Could we ever have any illness or difficulty or problem to compare to hers? It didn't seem so.
Of course, it was not a competition; we weren't asked to compare ourselves to her. But that's the way developing reasoning works; we watched her, helpless, lose her normal life to a swirl of hospital stays and radiation treatments. We watched our mother thin with worry, work three jobs to keep up with the bills. We watched our father, a planet in orbit around us, keep his distance and refrain from helping in any practical way. He brought teddy bears and balloons to the hospital, but he never paid child support or took extra time with Terri and me. Therefore, we could not make the situation worse by having anything really wrong with us. We could not really need anything significant. There simply wasn't enough of anything to go around.
The word compensation seems apt for our response, because it suggests making up for something, making reparations, making amends. We didn't do anything, yet we felt guilty: for our sister's pain, for our mother's anxiety, for our sister's helplessness. For ours. We couldn't do anything to help except not need any help. Any physical illness was out of the question.
This mentality pervaded our family, a silent and insidious presence. The strength of it presented itself to me specifically, since I had a small "something" to deal with: sometimes I passed out. The first time, I had been to the dentist getting several teeth pulled to make room in my crowded mouth. It was raining, and my mother left me under the dentist's awning while she drove the car up. The last thing I remember was watching her fade in the slant of rain as she ran in the parking lot. Then, I was on the ground, a stranger kneeling beside me, and my mother appeared and the stranger said I had fainted.
There were many of these episodes: when I scraped my toe on the pavement riding my bike barefoot; when I was sick with the flu and literally fell into the bathroom while waiting for my mother to come out; when my sister cut her leg wide open on a nail; when I had to watch a First Aid movie in Health class. I was always hot, flushed, and disoriented when I regained consciousness. And guilty. I had lost control. Again. I was weak when I should have been able to be strong.
My sisters reinforced my guilt by resenting me; they thought I was doing it on purpose to get out of school or to get attention. They often said so. They said I could help it if I wanted to. They said I focused on my own pain so much that I would finally keel over. They said I focused on myself so that I would keel over. They may perhaps even still think so.
What they didn't say but what was implied, hidden in the silences between their words, was that my fainting didn't deserve much attention. It wasn't serious. It wasn't serious enough, anyway. It couldn't compare to the seriousness of my sister's ongoing battles, nor garner the kind of sympathy we held in reserve for her and spent lavishly.
She still deserves our sympathy, since her illnesses continue. Every holiday gathering, every family birthday party is shot through with concern for her, albeit often unvoiced.
My older sister Terri once told me that my morning sickness during pregnancy would go away if I just got out of bed and exercised. She said if I didn't, I had let the sickness win. In truth, she is at least as hard on herself as she was on me, for my fainting spells. We are ruthless in our downplaying of our own limitations; we try not to accept any limitations.
So mighty was the power of our mode of compensation that I waited until I was an adult to mention my fainting to a doctor. When I asked, I was nonchalant: Sometimes I just faint; it's no big deal, but it's kind of irritating. I found out the cause; it has a name, it is a real thing: vasovagal syncope. Under periods of extreme stress, such as that caused by the sight of blood or pain, blood pressure and heart rate drop, which reduces blood flow to the brain. I could accept this diagnosis without guilt, except for the fact that the condition is described like this: "when your body overreacts to triggers such as . . ." And there it is, my family's weird dysfunction over sympathy verified by a medical text. It is my doing, my fault, which is what the word overreacts suggests.
No wonder I get so irritable when I come down with the flu, thinking to myself every time, What is wrong with me?