Writing this memoir has hijacked my life. And it is still a work in progress after thirty years as I write this on 10 February 2020. I thought it was all done and dusted after two years of writing over 800 pages about a divorce and custody battle that tore my life apart, and how I learned to heal while rebuilding and living aboard Zeehaen after she foundered on a sandbar in the Broadwater on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia.
Last year I had to take a break from writing to process a few more confronting realities that writing this memoir has unnervingly exposed. As I write and update this page, I can say unequivocally that it has taken me into places that most dare not go. As painful as this sounds, it has probably also saved my life.
How and why does a marriage “end up on the rocks”? In Zeehaen’s case, strong winds drove the yacht onto a sandbar and when the tide went out, she rolled over and filled up with water through the galley seacock, normally above the waterline. I asked at the time what an open seacock represented within me. I never thought to ask the same question of the sandbar. However, it wasn’t until Zeehaen was up on hardstand and I began clearing out all the waterlogged interior that I had an epiphany that would, from thereon, direct the course upon which I would sail my life, although not necessarily at sea.
While throwing over the railing what needed to go to the tip and watching it land on the tray of a ute (pickup) below, a little voice said to me, “This is what you need to do with yourself.” Taken aback by this, I struggled to imagine what needed throwing out within me. Negative thoughts, maybe. Bad habits, perhaps. Personal shortcomings and character flaws… We don’t go there.
And then, when everything was removed, including the oily salt-water-sludge, and I saw the rust I would have to treat deep in the bowels of the bilges (at left), I remembered the words of a wise old sailor that steel boats more often than not rust from the inside out. Oh they can look just fine on the outside, he told me, but untreated rust eventually makes the steel plates so thin and brittle they can crumple at the slightest impact and let in enough water to sink the boat. There was a lot of rust to treat inside Zeehaen. And I was to discover there was also a lot of ‘rust’ I had to treat inside me.
What did the rust represent? Toxic shame that formed early in childhood? Unhealed wounds? Unintegrated childhood trauma? Deep secret grief eating away inside me? Worry? Anxiety? Depression? Fear? All of them mixed up together, inseparable? Intuitively I knew then, at the age of thirty-seven, that if I didn’t treat this ‘rust’ within myself, whatever it was, I risked a major breakdown in my health at some future date.
In the following video, Dr. Gabor Maté, author of When the Body Says NO: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, he gives a confronting talk about the link between childhood trauma, addiction, disease, and mental health which I was forced to address during numerous rewrites of this memoir.
I was all of twenty-one when I declared to my then mother-in-law, “I am going to write a book about divorce.” I wanted it to state the most important fact I learned from my parents’ divorce: children are not as resilient as most adults like to believe. The thought had never entered my mind that I would also experience a painful divorce, the adverse experiences from my childhood and that of my husband’s creating a ripple effect that would adversely impact my own children’s lives as if we were all caught on a merry-go-round out of control.
Many rewrites during my inner journey of healing and much research finally took me beyond the boundaries of my initial idea, enabling me to see our social and health problems through new lens – a ripple effect of childhood trauma and abuse. I now understand how I lost my childhood prematurely, and with it, my authentic self. Not only that, but my well-being and happiness went on an abrupt downward spiral after my parents separated, although the divorce itself was not the only cause of it. Divorce always has a before, during, and after phase. And it is within any or all of these three phases that irreparable harm is often done.
Part of me remained lost in free fall for years. Although I was very resourceful as a child and quickly learned coping strategies that helped me through this painful time, they worked against me as an adult. My reflex reaction of compulsive care giving to someone in distress instantly comes to mind. It is an irony that we think of divorce as a ‘transient’ crisis in children’s lives and they quickly get over such things, when the truth for many (too many, perhaps) is that the ‘crisis’ continues unabated, with wounds that remain unhealed, raw and exposed even into late adulthood.
The 1995-1997 ACE Study conducted by Vincent Felitti, MD and Robert Anda, MD lists divorce as one of ten Adverse Childhood Experiences that can negatively impact an adult’s health even 30-50 years later. Nasty stuff can happen around divorce. Beforehand, there can be much violence and arguing between the parents, which the children hear and often witness. During and after the breaking up phase children can be manipulated, brainwashed and alienated from the other parent. This is also a time where incest and abuse can take place, or a child’s attachment bond with a parent is broken. Thus, encapsulated within ‘divorce’ can be further abuses that also rate as Adverse Childhood Experiences that can negatively impact a person’s health for years to come.
A twenty-five-year landmark study carried out by Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee that resulted in the publishing of their book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (2000), highlights the long-lasting negative impact on children of divorce. One of many conclusions they reached was this:
“Except for those raised in divorced families, few people realise the many ways that divorce shapes not only the child’s life but also the child. As we have seen in many homes, parenting erodes almost inevitably at the breakup and does not get restored for years, if ever. The changes in parenting and in the structure of the family place greater responsibilities on the child to take care of herself. And she, in turn, becomes a different person as she adjusts to the needs and wishes of her parents and stepparents. All of the children I have described in this book took on new roles in direct response to changes that occurred during postdivorce years. Many were acutely aware of their parents’ distress and tried to rescue them. Others remained angry at their parents’ diminished attention and judged them harshly. Others longed for the family they had lost and tried to reverse the divorce decision. And still others took responsibility for keeping the peace and walked on eggs throughout their childhoods. These children took many paths, but all changed significantly in the wake of divorce. And because the children’s character and conscience were still being formed during the postdivorce years, the new roles they assumed in the family had profound effects on who they became and on the relationships they established when they reached adulthood.”
While writing my own story about the impact of divorce on my life, I was shocked by what began to emerge. Although we may view divorce as that final step to end longstanding unresolved problems in a marriage, it is often not the cure-all that was hoped for. Bitterness and acrimony can unexpectedly erupt and continue long after the divorce and custody arrangements have been finalized – to the detriment of everyone involved. More often than not this is because one or both parents have failed to heal any unresolved adverse experiences from their own childhoods that also may include abuse and trauma. It is these underlying factors that too often lead to divorce. This then creates further problems for their children, for parents can unconsciously pass onto them all their unresolved ‘stuff’, which is how children end up suffering the “sins of the father” (and/or mother).
Unwittingly, children can repeat in adulthood the roles or coping behavior they adopted before or after their parents’ divorce. This entraps them in patterns they cannot see, often thrusting them into an adult prison of dysfunctional, unequal and co-dependent relationships characterized by fear of loss and abandonment that further diminishes any chance of lasting happiness. The loss of their authentic self through the roles they played as children in order to cope with emotionally overwhelming experiences, and/or to help their siblings and/or parents cope, causes them to feel disconnected within as adults and manifests as a feeling of being empty, numb or ‘dead’ inside.
Somewhere during my writing process I decided that the ‘buck’ had to stop with me. And that meant that I had to address what most people, and I mean about 90-95 percent of people, avoid like the plague. Writing this memoir has therefore been more intellectually and emotionally challenging than anything else I have ever done or attempted to do – even organizing and working on the refit of Zeehaen.
However it was while living on the yacht for two years during the rebuild that I was able to complete the first manuscript for this memoir. It was fortunate that Nobby, one of the workers who helped with the refit, also liked to write and took an interest in my developing story. He even offered to proof read each chapter I completed. Not only did this keep me writing, but Nobby began to question me about my childhood and the circumstances surrounding the choice to flee my marriage.
In Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book, Ring of Power, she states that in order for the truth to emerge, a person needs people who care about what happened to them in the past and what they are feeling now. This was Nobby’s gift. His caring, and non-judgmental acceptance of me as a person, encouraged me to begin a journey into the labyrinth of my past to begin to find the ‘truth’ of what I had experienced and what I had hidden that I could not see.
In the process I discovered that my childhood – even before my parents’ divorce – was full of traumatic experiences from which I had not recovered. It would take over twenty five years before I learned the full extent of the damage done and the legacy of dysfunction it left me with in the form of undiagnosed chronic Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Not only that, but because of the traumatic memories I buried in order to survive my childhood psychologically and emotionally, I had unwittingly created a merry-go-round existence for myself which kept repeating those traumas in many different guises. The disturbing truth was that I would not be free until I began a lifelong journey of healing to face the truth of my past, and go into the pain to release the grief locked inside.
One of the most disturbing things I learned along the way is that children who are abused and traumatized and unloved and neglected often ‘survive’ by shutting down their feelings. They can later become narcissists, psychopaths, or sociopaths who feel no empathy. They can also become depressed, anorexic, bulimic, workaholics, perfectionists, obese, and shopaholics, or a combination of these. They can develop schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder (BPD), drug and alcohol problems or dependence, PTSD, anxiety disorders, diabetes, and heart disease. They can also become sex, love, romance and relationship addicts. They can remain victims and survivors stuck in their emotional, psychological, and vocational development. Distressingly, many become perpetrators and ‘do unto others’ what was done to them, thereby creating new cycles of abuse.
If it wasn’t for the fact that an editor picked up my completed manuscript from Doubleday’s slush pile in New York in 1989 and someone had the gumption to tell me that I hadn’t “told the whole story,” I probably would know none of this. Acting on their advice to do a rewrite, it has taken me nearly thirty years to uncover that ‘whole’ story. Discovering buried memories and how they negatively impacted not only my life, but my children’s lives, has shocked me to the core. It is how I learned about the ripple effect of child abuse and that we are all in some way, victims of victims.
Pat Conroy wrote in The Prince of Tides that there is “no fixing a damaged childhood. The best you can hope for is to make the sucker float.” M. Scott Peck noted in his book, A Road Less Traveled, that:
The child who is not loved by his parents will always assume himself or herself to be unlovable rather than see the parents as deficient in their capacity to love… One of the roots of mental illness is invariably an interlocking system of lies we have been told and lies we have told ourselves.
Is there any hope that things can change or that there can be some positive outcomes?
Only with a lot of hard work, perseverance, and dedication. By developing the courage to come out of denial about what happened to us and how it has negatively impacted our lives, we can then say with authority that abuse is not okay in any form. At the same time we can learn to feel compassion for the frailties within those who commit abuse. Finally, we can learn to love ourselves and parent our children with unconditional love. Growing up in an atmosphere of unconditional love builds resilience and empathy and responsible adults who foster attitudes of love and respect for people, the planet, and all its inhabitants. Maybe then we can achieve lasting peace.
In this memoir I explore the implications of the abuse and lies I discovered within the ruins of my own childhood memories and show how discovering the truth not only helped to ‘float’ my childhood, but helped set me free from my own self-victimization.