My Father’s Keeper
By Karen Walker
Nothing prepares you for becoming caregiver to an aging parent. If a parent was abusive when you were a child, it can be particularly challenging. It took 30+ years to overcome my dysfunctional childhood and reach some degree of inner peace and only one moment to disrupt that serenity—an urgent call from Florida. My 86-year-old father was seriously ill.
“Oh my god,” I said as I walked into the condo my parents’ had lived in for 26 years.
“I can’t take it anymore. I’m ready to go to the other side.”
Nothing new here; Mom was always dramatic. But this time, I understood. Most of my father’s body was covered with red, puss-filled sores. He sat in their darkened living room, his chin pressed into his chest; shoulders slumped; so shrunken it seemed he’d disappear into the mint green fabric with the large yellow daisies. Dad seemed withered inside himself, his hideous rash screaming for attention.
Dad raised his chin slightly, those mischievous brown eyes just tiny slits covered with scabs. “Hi, baby,” he said, quickly putting his head down.
I’d physically and emotionally distanced myself from my parents since they retired to Florida in 1975, visits limited to once a year. Each visit, my parents were a bit frailer, slower, and less alert. But this deterioration was unexpected.
That night, on the pull-out bed in the den next to their bedroom, I lay awake listening to my parents’ scream at one another, just as I had as a child. I wanted to help, but couldn’t intrude on their habitual dance of anger. What I could do was find Dad a physician who could diagnose him properly.
Several weeks later, Mom and I woke up at 5:00 a.m. so she could have cataract surgery. I’d noticed her squinting, barely missing curbs, and unable to read street signs. It went smoothly and we arrived home in time for me to take Dad to a highly recommended specialist.
“Your father has an auto-immune disease,” the doctor explained. “His body thinks his skin is ‘foreign,’ and is attacking it. Plus, he has a serious staph infection. We’ll need to hospitalize him immediately.”
Seven hours later, I left Dad asleep in his hospital room. My body ached. I felt like I was dragging an elephant behind me and my brain felt empty. Now that we had a diagnosis and treatment plan, I could let go a little.
At home, Mom sat on the couch, surprisingly calm. I gave her a quick hug and fell into bed. The next morning I found her. She had died sometime during the night. Natural causes, they said.
No time to grieve. Dad waited at the hospital.
“Where’s Madeline?” he asked as I walked in.
“She’s resting,” I explained. Not a total lie. Several minutes later the sedative I’d requested took effect and I could tell him about Mom.
The jarring news didn’t seem to register. Then Dad’s eyes misted.
“It should have been me,” he moaned.
Later, Dad asked how long he’d have to be in the hospital. I explained what he had and the treatment plan. After a discussion about breakfast and baseball, I told Dad I had lots to take care of and left him flipping channels on the remote control.
First, details relating to Mom’s death needed to be dealt with. Several hours later, I sank onto the sofa. It no longer mattered that I had grown up hating myself because of this man’s verbal abuse and poor parenting skills. He was my father and I am an only child. After a lengthy discussion, my husband and I decided to bring Dad to our home. Gary would ready a room then come help drive us all to New Mexico. Dad willingly agreed.
Two months later, ensconced in New Mexico, life revolved around Dad. Before, only seeing my parents’ for brief visits, I could maintain my equanimity. Now, with Mom gone and Dad so ill, I was forced to spend much more time with him. At first, I was hyper-vigilant. Unable to sleep, I’d go check to see if he was breathing. The image of my mother lying in bed, her un-patched eye staring straight up, not breathing remained etched in my psyche. The little girl inside me who had sometimes wished her parents dead or that she’d been born into another family was going to make sure she didn’t find her father the same way. This was counter-balanced by the adult me who resented caring for this man and the intrusion into her life.
As Dad’s skin condition healed, scabs scattered in his wake. I’m fanatical about cleanliness, so this drove me nuts. Luckily, his limited mobility kept him confined to a small space consisting of his room, the bathroom, and the dining room, all adjacent to each other.
We slipped into a daily routine—breakfast, followed by Gary helping him shower and dress. Next, I’d rub prescribed ointments on his wounds and dress them in gauze.
“I’m such a burden,” Dad moaned.
“No, you’re not,” I’d lie, as my heart sagged, weighed down with guilt.
Once a week we’d see Dad’s internist, eye doctor or dermatologist. Always the extrovert, he’d wear his “Big Red One” hat and talk to people around him. Once he actually offered someone his cane, thinking he didn’t need it anymore.
Trying to maintain a semblance of life prior to Dad’s arrival, Gary and I went folk dancing Saturday nights, now with a cell phone so I could be reached immediately. I pretended everything was okay, but secretly dreaded the sound of Dad’s walker scraping our tile floor, knowing I’d have to sweep the scabs later. My stomach curdled at the sound of his voice.
Escape valves were few. Feelings I’d managed well during short visits to Florida now threatened to explode. Ripped apart, I wondered how love, hatred, anger and compassion could reside inside me at the same time. Boundaries weren’t just crossed, they were trampled. The child inside who had lived in fear took over and as I’d done in childhood, I lost myself in books, or stuffed my face—old familiar choices that once comforted me. Gary grew concerned and suggested therapy.
“There are options other than having your father live with you,” Mary said.
Weeks stretched into months. The shock of my mother’s sudden death slowly wore off and reality sank in. Mary helped me see that spending time with Dad if my emotional well being was threatened wasn’t necessary. If his basic needs were met and he isn’t abused or neglected, then my responsibility ends, she told me.
So four months after bringing Dad to New Mexico, we moved him to an assisted living facility. As his health improved, he made friends, joined a weekly poker game, and started playing Bingo. One day he said, “I miss Madeline sometimes, but mostly, I don’t. It’s so peaceful now.”
I struggled to find a balance between caring for my father and living my life. At first, we screamed at each other as he and my mother had. Knowing that I needed to change my responses to my father, not just for his sake, but for mine, I began paying closer attention to our conversations, trying to separate the little girl inside from the adult I’d become. Little by little, I caught the moment when the child got wounded by something Dad said. Slowly, I was able to respond as an adult.
One day, after leaving the VA, he said to me, “You’re causing so much trouble.”
“You’re the reason we came today,” I responded. “I had plans to go to Santa Fe.”
“No,” he said. “I’m the trouble, not you.” Suddenly I realized Dad’s words had come out backwards.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Dad cried. “You are my baby girl. I love you.”
It didn’t happen overnight, but finally, I accepted this was true. He just didn’t know how to show it. How could he? He’d had no childhood; no one to love him. I needed to discern what Dad was trying to say and not assume he was attacking me.
Nothing could make up for the Dad I’d needed as a child, but we became a loving father and daughter. Spending time with him became a choice rather than an obligation. We talked twice a day. I bought his toothpaste or diet sprite or new socks or underwear. Each week I prepared his prescription medications and set them out in his pill box. Sunday became Dadday. We’d play poker for pennies and Dad loved to win. Or we’d go to a movie and dinner. Dad almost always wanted Italian food so we’d take him to Nana’s, his favorite because it most closely resembled New York City Italian food. Dad would devour the meatballs and spaghetti; but always saved half his portion for Gary to take to work the next day.
2003, we took Dad to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, something he’d always wanted to do. Watching this old man savor the beauty and grandeur of the canyon was unforgettable. At one particularly beautiful spot, Dad watched two condors fly from one rock ridge to another. He was unusually quiet. After awhile, he asked “Do you think everything that’s happened to me is my meanness coming out?”
Surprised by this profound statement (I didn’t think Dad capable of self reflection), I asked, “Is that what you think, Dad? Do you think you’re mean?”
I was mean to your mother. But was I mean to you?”
Breathing deeply, I told Dad he had hurt me, but I didn’t think he intended to be mean. “Like when I was seven and in that dance recital,” I said. “You told me I looked like a whore because I had lipstick on.”
Dad stared at the vistas of the canyon, then down at his lap. Several minutes ticked by. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t give you what you needed as a child.”
The lump of pain that had lived in my stomach for most of my life began to dissolve. He was 89 and I’d heard words I’d longed to hear for 50 years.
I remained my father’s keeper for two more years. On our last trip we went to San Antonio so Dad could see The Alamo. Dad loved westerns, and to see the actual site he had only seen in a movie was quite moving.
Less than one month later, Dad called, saying he didn’t feel well. At 2:00 am he called again, wanting to go to the hospital. We were told Dad was having a massive heart attack. The next few days were spent at his bedside. Dad wasn’t in a lot of pain, but couldn’t talk much. Four days later, Gary went to pick my son up at the airport. I remained with Dad. While feeding him dinner, Dad’s eyes suddenly looked off to the right, staring blankly into space. He had left instructions not to resuscitate, so I quietly held his hand as the squiggly green line on the monitor went straight.
Being a World War II veteran had been the proudest part of my Dad’s life, so we arranged a military service and for Dad to be buried in the National Cemetery in Santa Fe. He’d loved the mountains of New Mexico, so it was fitting his final resting place be in the state he’d come to regard as home with a military honor guard saluting him.
My relationship with my father was not ideal. But in the end, I came to understand and accept him, flaws and all. Every day he said, “I love you, baby.” In his own way, he tried to become the father I’d needed. Those three years where I was my father’s keeper became a gift in which caregiving shifted from burden to opportunity—enabling forgiveness and unconditional love to emerge and heal us both.
The Pink Ladies By Karen Walker (2005)
They drive up to my mother-in-law’s house, slowly unraveling from the large green Chrysler sedan. Jane, the youngest at 84, is short and round, her steel gray hair teased high on top, the ends flipping like Jane Wyatt’s on “Father Knows Best.” Elizabeth, 89, is a former schoolteacher with a stern expression, even when she smiles. Her brown hair is streaked with gray and she stoops some when she walks. Dorothy, at 90, is the least spry, but still walks unaided. Her dimples are a source of joy to those around her. Helen, a farmer’s wife widowed for 20 years, is also 90, but if you replaced her white hair with another color, she could pass for 50. My mother-in-law, Mildred, also a farmer’s wife and widowed for more than 40 years, makes the fifth Pink Lady, and she turned 85 this Christmas. At 56, I am an honorary member when I visit Mildred in Plainview, Texas.
The Pink Ladies have been having breakfast together every Saturday for over 40 years, ever since they served as volunteers at Plainview Hospital. No one remembers whether they were called Pink Ladies at the hospital because of their pink uniforms or one day one of them simply referred to them that way. Mildred was in her forties when she got the idea to have a monthly get-together. Over the years, the gathering became weekly. Today they have changed their routine slightly—we are going out to lunch rather than breakfast because they want to try out a new restaurant.
I am forced to slow down in Plainview. Having grown up in New York City, I naturally move at warp speed and, although I don’t have a New York accent, I talk fast, like most “Northerners.” I have lived in Albuquerque, NM for 11 years now, but still have a lot of New Yorker in me and my pace hasn’t slowed down much. I am impatient with small talk and am usually thinking about the next thing I have to do. I especially hate waiting.
When Mildred can’t find her keys, my nerves are edgy. We search her purse then the papers stacked on the kitchen table. “Wait, Karen,” she says. “Maybe they are in my coat pocket.” After five impatient minutes, I notice they are in her hand.
Outside, the Pink Ladies wait as Mildred locks her front door. Another five minutes are spent deciding how to fit six women into a five-seat automobile. Since I am the youngest, I volunteer to straddle the hump in the front seat. I offer to drive, but Mildred, who is only 4’ 11,” firmly says, “No, I can handle it.” It is a tone that brooks no arguments. She raised four young boys and a daughter pretty much alone; her oldest was 17 and the youngest 10 when her husband died. I think that gave her a formidable strength. Another ten minutes and the Pink Ladies are settled in the vehicle, Mildred driving, me taking deep breaths and reminding myself that someday I, too, will be elderly and slow.
Plainview is a small town, population 23,000, located in the Texas Panhandle, about 50 miles north of Lubbock. It got its name because it is perfectly flat and everything is, quite literally, in plain view. We take the one main road out of town about ten miles to Halfway, Texas. Halfway is named ‘Halfway’ because it is halfway between Plainview and Olton. This is farm country, the most prevalent crops being cotton and wheat.
“Did I ever tell you about the first time Karen came to visit me in Plainview?” Mildred asks the group. “No? Well, listen up. Karen and Gary were driving down from Albuquerque and they got to Olton. Karen says to Gary, ‘What’s that white stuff along the road?’ Gary looks at her, puts his hand over his mouth to hold in a giggle, and says, ‘That’s cotton.’ Apparently she never realized cotton was a plant. She told Gary she thought cotton came in balls that you bought at the pharmacy. Well, when my cousin Bob Junior heard that, he insisted on taking her through the farm, showing her the whole process from planting to harvesting to taking the cotton to the gin.” Smiling at me and placing her hand over mine, Mildred says, “She’s never quite lived that down.” I’m used to this by now. Mildred loves telling this story and my initial mortification has long since given way to laughing along with everyone else.
Mildred says, “Hush, now. Be quiet so we can look for the restaurant.” The landscape is bathed in shades of brown and green. Here and there a lone tree stands amidst the wheat or cotton crops; the farmhouses are situated not too far from the road. Every once in awhile, a crop duster dips low in the sky. There is not a store in sight. I think they must be mistaken. There can’t be a restaurant here, in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly Mildred swerves left, crossing the two-lane highway quickly, and stops at a warehouse-type building with a sign that says “J-Bar.”
Sure enough, it is a roadside hamburger joint. Another ten minutes as we get out of the car and walk slowly through the door, which is held open for us by two young cowboys, boots and hats and all. It is one room, about the size of a large living room. Red and white checkered plastic table cloths cover the tables and there is a window at the counter where you order the food. The Pink Ladies take their time reading the menu posted above the window, arguing about what to order. “Do fries come with it?” “Can I get a coke instead of an iced tea?” “What’s for dessert?” The lady behind the counter answers each question calmly. I tap my foot waiting for my turn. The Pink Ladies arrange themselves at the one rectangular-shaped table in the corner of the room. I fill their water glasses from the water jug on the table.
“Isn’t it nice to have a young one with us?” Helen asks. “So much easier.” She is laughing as she says this, the only time her face exhibits a wrinkle. One by one, I bring their orders to the table. Two have cheeseburgers, two the special – a barbecue beef sandwich with French fries - one a grilled cheese sandwich with chips, and I have a hamburger with fries. I figure if these five women can eat whatever they want and live to their nineties, so can I. Everyone devours every last bite and the ladies are quite pleased with their dining choice.
The restaurant has filled up by this time, mostly with men working at surrounding farms. The room buzzes with talk of planting, crop dusting, the possibility of hail, and how lucky that they have had so much rain. I hadn’t thought about that during my drive from Albuquerque, but I did notice how the normally brown landscape was much greener. Weather is not such a big deal in New York.
“How’s school, Karen?” asks Elizabeth, the school teacher.
“Are you still dancing?” Helen wants to know. “Are you still in the same house we stayed in when Gary took us to the Balloon Fiesta?”
It is hard for me to answer one question before the next one flies out. All of their focus and attention is on me and my life. After a while, the conversation shifts.
“My daughter finished her chemotherapy and radiation treatments last month,” Helen says. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”
“We’re praying for her, Helen,” says Jane. “I need some prayers, too. My son wants me to move to Florida.”
It is interesting to watch the dynamics of these women who have known each other for so long. Sometimes they don’t exactly hear what the other is saying, so they might not answer a question directly. Sometimes they mishear what is said and say something on a totally different topic, but they don’t miss a beat. I, on the other hand, enjoy sitting back and just listening for a change.
Just as The Pink Ladies decide they are too full to order dessert, the screen door swings open with a loud bang and in walks a very tall man with wide shoulders and a big beer belly. He has curly black hair and wears black glasses, a flannel shirt, blue jeans, and brown leather boots. He waddles as if he has just gotten off a huge horse and is covered from neck to toes with mud. He leans his elbows on the counter and says, “I jest got done wreeestling a pig and I’m mighty hungry.” My jaw drops, but I look around the room, and the Pink Ladies, along with everyone else, simply continue whatever they are doing. The conversational hums do not stop. Once again, I am reminded that life in a small farming community is so very different from life in a city. Everything seems interconnected here. This man has probably been up since 4:00 am working his land, and more than likely, will be doing the same until dark. The fact that he is muddy and hungry is nothing out of the ordinary.
I remember my first trip to Plainview, when I didn’t know the white stuff on the road was cotton. Gary and I pulled up to the Dairy Queen in Earth, Texas. As we were getting out of the car, several cowboys rode up and pulled their horses right next to us. They tipped their hats to me and sauntered in to get an ice cream. In New York, taxi drivers honked at pedestrians and other drivers. Tall buildings surrounded me so only a small portion of the sky was visible and no one looked at me and smiled. On my last day there, I saw four muggings in midtown Manhattan. During the first visit to Plainview, I met Gary’s extended family, which includes 21 first cousins and hordes of second and third ones, plus all the aunts and uncles—easily over a hundred people at one event. I am an only child and have only four first cousins, so this was a bit overwhelming. We were watching a videotaped interview of Gary’s grandmother, Nanny. She was talking about her pappy and how he was a prisoner. At first I thought she meant during World War II, but as she went on, I heard her say, “Them Yankees had him penned up in some hole somewhere,” and I realized she meant the Civil War. I was the only Northerner in the room. I wondered then if I’d ever get used to West Texas and still ponder that question.
But it is more than North, South, cowboys, farmers, and crops that are so different from my experience. And it isn’t just small town versus big city, although that is a big part of it.
It’s the people themselves. And the stories. You never have a simple conversation with statements made, questions asked and answered. A story often accompanies the statement or the answer. In the Texas Panhandle, I learn to take a deep breath and slow down. In New York, your speech is constantly interrupted. You don’t let anyone else finish a sentence and no one asks a question because they don’t have time for the answer. Even today, I sometimes stop myself from asking questions for that very reason. I wonder how many connections to other people I’ve missed by rushing everywhere, frantic to get through my to-do list.
The Pink Ladies are trying to decide whether they will try a new barbecue place Helen heard about in Amarillo next week. That’s a good hour and a half drive from Plainview. Even in Albuquerque, most of us don’t want to drive more than ten minutes to get to a restaurant or store. The Pink Ladies are so full of life. Sure, they move slower now. They can’t do everything they used to—and they grumble a bit about that. They’ve grumbled about a lot in their 40+ years together. But they don’t let the aging stuff stop them. I hope I am as passionate about living as they are when I reach their age. The frantic pace of my life and that of my friends worries me. Sometimes there isn’t enough energy to get together, let alone try new things.
I think about how many times I have moved in my lifetime. How many friends I’ve lost touch with—some deliberately, some not. I think about family and friends, spread out across the country—parents in one state, children and grandchildren in another. I think about once a year visits and whether that’s enough to stay connected. My mother-in-law lives alone in Plainview. Her five children are in different states. Her grandchildren spread around the world now. She has lived her entire life in Plainview and still has friends from Kindergarten. They call themselves the GOGS, Grand old Gals, and meet once a year, those that are still alive. But it is the Pink Ladies, I think, that sustain her. And I see why. I am sorry I will not be here to go with them on their adventure to Amarillo. I only hope each of them will be around on my next visit to Plainview, but I know one day they won’t be. But I’ll take a lesson from them and not dwell on that, though. Instead, I’ll think about the Girls Night Out group I started about a year ago, inspired by The Pink Ladies, and whether I can get them to go to a Karaoke bar on our next Thursday night adventure.
Unfinished BusinessBy Karen Walker (2003)
I was sitting in Astronomy class one day and suddenly felt like crying though I didn’t know why. I was having trouble understanding the math and physics theories the teacher was explaining and suddenly I was back in seventh grade Algebra, convinced I was the only kid not getting it.
Memories of all the times I was confused and couldn’t speak up bubbled inside me. Deciding to go back to school at 53 had been difficult enough. I didn’t expect to have to deal with unresolved issues from childhood as well.
For 32 years I vacillated between wanting to finish college and thinking it wasn’t worth it. Education hadn’t been a priority in my family and there was always some reason not to go. My secret dream started when I read “Little Women” and wanted to be like Jo – a writer. But I had scarcely admitted it to myself, let alone anyone else. I whispered this dream to my new husband Gary in the quiet times of our getting to know each other. Three years later, he gifted me with financial support so I could write full time. That was four years ago. I had some successes, but thoughts of a college degree still haunted me.
The steps leading to admission to UNM were challenging. My ancient transcripts were on microfiche somewhere in the bowels of Queensborough Community College in New York. After weeks of letters and phone conversations, one angel of a clerk sent them to UNM. Great. I’m admitted. Then more hoops to jump through before my credits from the 1960’s could be counted towards my degree. Finally, with 50 credits to my name, I registered for Fall semester.
What had I gotten myself into? My menopause mind wasn’t as sharp as it used to be. My back hurt frequently. How would I find my classes? What if my father had a crisis? At 88, dad has health issues all the time, each one potentially serious. I never know when I will have to drop everything and deal with something or other. I was an idiot for even thinking I could do this.
I arrived at school that first day, heart pounding, palms wet, hoping the agile young folks striding purposefully around school would hardly notice the dumpy, middle-aged woman with the only rolling backpack on campus. Having successfully made it from the parking lot to the shuttle to the Duck Pond, I sat discreetly on an empty bench, happy to commiserate with the honking geese and ducks. I felt like honking right along with them. But instead, I furtively glanced up, watching for anyone who might have a rolling backpack so I wouldn’t feel so damned conspicuous. When it was finally time for my first class, I was convinced everyone I passed was snickering at me.
I found a seat in the corner, thinking how much worse this was than when I was 19. Back then, even though I felt like a misfit, no one knew because I looked the same as everyone else. Now I’m older than most of the students in class as well as the teacher. Breathe, Karen, breathe.
I got through that first day and the days after that, but school consumed my life. If I wasn’t in classes, I was studying or writing papers. Dad’s needs took second place to writing my first fiction piece ever. Making dinner took third place to learning about the consequences of fossil fuels on the environment. Yet I started to feel more assimilated and did far better in my first semester than I thought possible. I registered for Spring classes with a new confidence in my student persona -- until that day in astronomy, when I was paralyzed by emotions that had been deeply buried.
Suddenly I remembered sitting in Mrs. Mickenberg’s class in third grade. She was explaining long division. I didn’t understand, couldn’t concentrate and was unable to raise my hand. Then I remembered feeling shell-shocked most of the time, at home as well as at school. My parents fought frequently. Tension pervaded the household, and anger was a constant. Being an only child, I felt responsible and tried to fix what was wrong. I failed miserably. So I shut down, frozen inside myself. I went through elementary, junior high and high school in a trance-like state, making average grades despite my emotional handicap. I finally understood why school had been so difficult.
Today, after making Dean’s List both semesters, I realize I’m smarter than I’ve always believed myself to be. Being back in school as an older adult, I can recognize destructive patterns and behavior and move past them. No regrets about what could have or should have happened if things had been different. My parents did the best they could and so did I. Maybe that’s why I felt compelled to return to school. So I could heal some childhood wounds.
But my full life, my desire to write, and caring for my aging father are competing with the need for a college degree. If I finish this degree, I’ll be almost 60. My time for family, writing, and friends will have been shortened by required school work.
When the war in Iraq started and two friends were diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses, I began to question how to best spend my remaining time on Earth. Life is fragile. No one knows how long we have to live. As I struggle with balancing the key elements in my life, I wonder: If life is graded, when I get to the end, will I feel like I deserve an Incomplete? If I leave school, will I sabotage a long-held goal, or will I free myself to pursue my dream of writing? Can I do both at once? We’ll see. One thing’s certain. It wasn’t the degree that was left unfinished 32 years ago. It was me. I still have much to learn.
Self-Sabotage and Weight Loss: How to recognize and overcome it
By Karen Walker
The 12-step programs have a slogan: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. According to that definition, when it came to my weight, I was insane. Over the years, I counted points on Weight Watchers, ate frozen Jenny Craig food, worked out at Inches Away, guzzled Slim Fasts, slipped into trances in hypnotherapy, charged my body with Energy Tapping, yelled my emotions in Radix, and discovered my inner child in traditional talk therapy. Each time, I reached my goal weight, then proceeded to gain all or most of the weight back. So two years ago, when an orthopedic surgeon told me I needed knee surgery but wouldn’t operate until I lost weight, something snapped. I knew I had to do things differently.
For months after the surgeon’s pronouncement I resisted, complained, and procrastinated, but eventually reached acceptance. I needed a plan. I wasn’t comfortable in gyms where young people with buff bodies strutted their stuff. I am not, nor have I ever been inclined to jog or play sports. If I attempt something athletic like swimming or biking, invariably I break a bone or strain a muscle. Instead, I found a gym filled mostly with folks on oxygen and who use walkers to get around. At 59, I was one of the youngest members. Exercise physiologists gave me a workout structure based on my personal history and physical abilities so I wouldn’t hurt myself or try to do too much too fast. The staff nutritionist taught me how to eat healthily without being obsessed.
I didn’t understand this at the time, but what I came up with was a way to become conscious about my body and food. Eckhart Tolle, in A New Earth, says that humans carry an accumulation of old emotional pain, which he calls “the pain-body.” He goes on to say that the “pain-body” thrives on negativity, using emotionally painful experiences as food. No wonder I couldn’t sustain weight loss. My “pain-body” craved misery. Unless I learned to recognize when my “pain-body” became activated, it would continue to seek what it knew best—pain and suffering.
I decided to weigh myself every day. In previous endeavors, this led to obsession and acute, daily frustration with results (or lack thereof). This time, however, my goal was to learn about and understand my body—to see what factors influenced my weight. I learned not to identify with what I saw on the scale. When I caught myself at the labeling game: “good” if I lost a pound; “bad” if I didn’t, I did what Tolle advises—accept “what is.”
Everyone’s body is different and I found what works for mine: I am hypoglycemic, but did not understand how that was affected by nutrition. I must eat a minimum of three starch servings per day (i.e. one slice of bread; ½ cup of whole wheat pasta). Otherwise, I get light-headed and quite irritable. Drinking enough fluids was important as well—I tend to retain water. Adding fruit and vegetables into my diet was hard, but crucial. I switched from products with white flour to whole grain pastas and breads. Lastly, I needed to start taking probiotic supplements to normalize my body’s digestive system. Irregularity influences body weight.
Most importantly, I became aware of and familiar with the negative self-talk constantly running through my head. It was a challenge to remain alert enough to recognize the voice of “the pain-body” and not react in the old, insane ways. But as this process unfolded, my attitudes began to shift and I found myself making different choices. What emerged were eight predominant ways my “pain-body” tried to sabotage my weight loss. Tolle teaches us not to reject or resist our negative emotions, but to acknowledge their existence. Awareness and acceptance must come before actions if lasting changes are to occur. See if these internal dialogues from my “pain-body” sound familiar. They are followed by the positive way I reframed them:
1. Don’t get on the scale. Then you can pretend you’re not gaining the weight back.
The scale is my friend and keeps me honest. If my weight begins to creep up, I can stop it at five pounds, rather than 30.
2. Wear only clothing with elastic waists so you can pretend your clothes still fit.
If that zipper is a little snug, it’s time to take inventory. I need to get on the scale and find out how much damage I’ve done and take corrective action immediately.
3. Don’t keep track of what you are eating each day so you can tell yourself you stayed within your food plan.
Pay close attention to food choices and how my body feels before, during and after eating. This is especially important after I have reached my goal weight.
4. When you measure your portion sizes, it is okay to add a little bit here and there. It really won’t make a difference.
It really does make a difference. A little bit here, a little bit there adds up to a lot over time.
5. Once you reach your goal weight, you do not have to watch yourself that closely. Like magic, your weight will remain stable.
I have had a weight problem my whole adult life. It won’t go away just because I lost weight and achieved my goal. I have to remain watchful and stick to my new way of eating. I have to remain conscious and awake.
6. It’s okay to allow your mood to affect your decisions about food. It’s really okay if you are angry, depressed, sad, upset or happy and feel like eating. Go ahead and do it. You deserve to make yourself feel better or celebrate something.
Emotional eating is not okay. It is a momentary “fix” of the mood problem, but creates a much larger, longer-lasting problem—being overweight. I need to find other ways to soothe and comfort myself when my emotions flare up.
7. When your friends or family members tell you it is okay to eat what you want just this once, listen to them. They know better than you do what is best for you.
No one knows better than me what is good for me. Find ways to gently explain to my friends and family that I am working hard to eat healthily and it is important that I stick to my plan.
8. Even if you are feeling full, if that dish tastes better than anything you’ve ever tasted, it’s okay to finish it. Never leave food on a plate, especially at a restaurant. After all, you paid for it, you better finish it.
Despite the fact that there are people starving, it really is okay for me to leave food on my plate. I ask for a doggie bag at the beginning of the meal, and put half my meal into it. If I want dessert, I share it with someone. If no one wants to share and I can’t let go of the craving, I order what I want, take a few bites, and either leave the rest or bring it home.
These are the most frequent “pain-body” voices in my head. As I become more alert, I notice others. Catching them in the moment, rather than after I’ve already behaved unconsciously is vital to my weight loss success. I’ve lost and gained 30+ pounds four or five times in my adult life. Since the wakeup call from the surgeon and beginning this new way of approaching weight, I have lost 36 pounds. I don’t have a crystal ball to know whether I will keep it off this time. What I do know is my attitude towards and my relationship with food has changed. I no longer diet. I follow the nutritionist’s guidelines as well as I can. The most significant change, however, is being aware of my body and how it feels. The energy and intensity I had around eating has lifted and the negative voices, although still there, are much quieter and show up much less frequently. Then, too, there is a new voice that comes in the stillness of being awake. If I listen carefully, it whispers, I’m full, and I stop eating, or you don’t really want those potatoes—you want salad instead. I don’t always pay attention and then the scale reflects the consequences. But more and more, I am present inside my own skin—and that has made me feel quite sane regarding eating.
"Frozen"By Karen Walker
It was 1956 when I was sexually molested by a stranger. I was seven years old. Now I am almost 60 and still dealing with the effects of that trauma. Experts say the impact sexual abuse has on a child varies, depending on the severity and longevity of the abuse. Other factors such as home environment impact the victim as well. For me, well, I became frozen inside myself, like a leaf I saw buried four feet deep in a glacier—perfectly preserved.
Queens, NY, 1956
I told Mom I wanted to go outside to play. On the ground floor, a door stood open to one of the apartments and a man was inside, painting. Leaning against the doorframe, I was mesmerized by brush strokes spreading white paint over pale pink walls.
The man turned and asked, “Do you want to help?”
“Sure,” I said, walking to where he stood next to the closet, a bucket of paint at his feet. He lifted me onto a ladder, handed me a brush and told me to paint the closet shelf. Lost in a world of white, the smell of paint mixed with something like Daddy’s Old Spice, but earthier, like wet dirt. The painter stood behind me as I moved the brush back and forth, sheltered in his arms while he painted along with me. His baggy white overalls were streaked with dirt and paint, hiding the hard thing poking my back. Soon he put the paintbrush down and shifted his hand to my chest, rubbing back and forth. Slowly, he lifted my dress, his fingers probing on top of my underpants, while that hard thing nudged between my legs. His fingers slipped inside my panties and I leaned back, enjoying a tingling sensation. But my tummy started to hurt and pretty soon my “down there” got sore. Stop, I wanted to say. But I was frozen. His fingers were rough and chapped. His mouth nibbled my ear. Paint dripped into my hair and onto the sleeve of my pretty new dress. Oh no, Mom’s gonna kill me.
My mind blanked as paint covered dirt on the closet shelf. Almost done—just that small spot in the corner and I can go. But it feels so good, but I better go. Hurry up and finish. There. All done.
“I have to go now.”
“Okay, but listen. Don’t tell anyone you helped me. It’s our little secret. Understand?”
The look in the painter’s eyes conveyed something different than the gentleness of his voice—not the last time men gave me mixed messages, saying one thing with their words and another with their tone, gesture and actions.
Back home, my mother discovered the paint in my hair as I was changing out of my dress. “Did he do anything?” She shook me, hysterical. I don’t remember much after this point. Today, I understand how frightened Mom must have been, but back then it came across as anger. This exchange with my mother was one of the earliest times in my life where I misinterpreted someone’s words and behavior. I thought she was angry that I got paint on my new dress. I was afraid the painter would be angry that I told.
Years later, I was grateful for my mother’s sixth sense. But in that moment, confusion reigned. Why was she so upset? Something was wrong, but I had no idea what. That confusion led to drawing erroneous conclusions—like it was my fault the painter did what he had done, and that feeling good was wrong. As I grew up, a similar pattern repeated itself. When involved in a discussion or argument and I had conflicting feelings and the other person was upset, I got quiet rather than speak up or ask for clarification. Then I would invariably make inaccurate assumptions about what the other person was feeling as well as what their intentions were.
I told Mom what the painter did. She ran out, leaving me standing there, alone. Time blurred as I stood frozen in my room, arms stiff at my sides, knees locked tight, tummy aching.
Police were called, the painter was arrested, I was questioned by detectives, and over the course of several months, had to testify in court.
I don’t remember many details about the experience. What I do remember is feeling small in court. The room was cavernous; the judge sat high and imposing. Mom considered dropping the charges because I became so distraught. I didn’t want to leave school, didn’t like court, didn’t want to go, and didn’t want to answer any more questions. What I did want was food—comfort items like tuna fish and macaroni and cheese—but I especially wanted chocolate. There were always sweets in our house, and the day of the painter, when we got home from the police station, I discovered the numbing benefit of eating. That afternoon several chocolate cupcakes seemed to soothe the discomfort in my gut. It was the first time I used food to cover emotional pain, an act which would one day become compulsive. Geneen Roth, in When Food is Love, says that as children, some of us have no power to make choices about our situations. If we feel the pain around us is too intense and we can’t leave or change it, we choose to shut it off. We will—and do—switch our pain to something less threatening: a compulsion.
It would be 20 years before I discovered the truth in Geneen Roth’s books and even now, some 50 years later, I struggle with food—sometimes able to make a choice to remain present—other times succumbing to the unconscious need to cover my pain.
At some point we learned that authorities had dropped the charges against the painter after discovering he was wanted for murder in Oklahoma and rape and sexual abuse in Long Island. He was extradited to Oklahoma to face murder charges.
I overheard grownups say I was lucky. Not raped, not penetrated. No, just abused by a strange adult male who whispered soft things in my ear as he rubbed my vagina. At age four, I had discovered my own vagina and how good it felt to rub it. But being touched that way at seven by an adult male changed who I was—and probably who I could have become, had I not been molested.
I suppose my parents believed if we didn’t talk about the molestation, I would forget. Instead, I sleep walked and talked in my sleep. A recurring nightmare in which I was being chased by a tidal wave began. Playing outside by myself was no longer enjoyable. I blamed myself for being abused. Everyone always told me how pretty I was, so I must have done something to make the painter do that to me. And although I didn’t know what to call it back then, I felt ashamed because something that was obviously so wrong had felt good. The most difficult aspect was trying to understand why pleasing sexual sensations were so wrong.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about what the painter did, how I felt at the time, and how those sensations and the way I processed them affected my sexuality. Our five senses add texture, enriching our lives. Somehow, being molested so young affected my ability to experience these senses in normal ways, thereby altering how I experienced life through them. We may be drawn to the smell of freshly-made popcorn or the aroma of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven. The taste of these things makes us feel good. Red balloons floating in the sky may cause a fluttering in our heart, and we feel like skipping, perhaps trying to catch them. The visual experience leads to some kind of bodily reaction. Our skin responds when we cuddle a fluffy teddy bear. But I have few memories of these kinds of sensations after I encountered the painter. Sexualized way too young, I pushed my sense responses deep inside, creating a chasm between sense awareness, stimulation and appropriate response.
As time went on, I understood how being sexually abused impacted my life, especially how I felt about my appearance, hating how I looked. Wearing make-up still makes me uncomfortable as does primping to enhance my appearance. Other effects linger. Questions upset me. Being indoors is more comfortable for me than outside—I feel safer. Allowing sexual pleasure is often difficult. But perhaps the most troubling effect molestation had on me was my not learning to speak up for myself—especially when it came to personal boundaries. It’s somewhat easier now, but for many years, saying “No” was hard. Questioning someone when I needed clarification was scary. It was almost impossible for me to tell someone I was angry or hurt. These issues, along with my lack of self confidence, affected my ability to make appropriate choices and trust myself. How can one make the right choices when one is out of sync and out of touch with inner feelings, sensations and desires?
* * *
What I thought was love up until the time I met my current husband, wasn’t—if a man wanted me, that meant he loved me, and if he didn’t want me, he didn’t love me. If I was attracted to someone, it meant I loved them. I had love, sex, lust, and sexuality all mixed up. And intimacy isn’t the same as sex. Sex is intimate, but there can be intimacy without sex. And love can be shown in many different ways. My husband’s ways make me feel loved. Like when I get into bed before him, he always places his hand gently on my back or my side when he joins me, connecting. He calls at least once a day to check in and see how things are going. His face lights up when he comes home at night, genuinely glad to see me. We cuddle on the couch while watching TV or reading. He only reads Harry Potter novels and train magazines, while I read everything from philosophy to religion to the classics to the current bestseller. But I feel loved for the first time in my life. And I am responsive—still self-conscious, still afraid, still not comfortable, but responsive.
If I were a country western singer, I’d write a song, “Hungry for Love.” It would tell the story of a girl using an outside substance to mask her pain, just like a heroin or cocaine or marijuana addict. Only my substance is food. I’m slowly learning other ways to comfort the anxiety in my gut when I’m stressed, frightened, sad, angry, or turned-on—a partial list of the emotions I tend to eat over rather than feel.
What is the connection between food and sex? The best I can figure is that being molested screwed up the internal wiring somehow. What felt good was bad. Sexual pleasure became associated with negative feelings. So being attractive became scary. If I wasn’t pretty, men wouldn’t want me, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the confusing feelings about sex. It has something to do with not allowing myself pleasure. So I froze, stuffing my face with food in order not to feel. Good sex is not possible if you are frozen. You need to be open and vulnerable.
Intimacy comes in ways that are not sexual. It comes on the dance floor, step-hopping and doing the grapevine, our arms wrapped behind each other’s waists, smiling as we whirl and twirl in a waltz. But insecurities are never far away. I still worry that he will stop loving me.
These days, I’m learning to live without chocolate or pasta or chicken soup or cupcakes when I feel whatever it is I’m feeling in a particular moment, rather than eating to cover it up. I either live with it until it shifts or disappears, or choose a healthier analgesic. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll unfreeze enough to allow myself the pleasure of feeling my husband’s love in a way I never have before.
OLD LADY ARMS
By Karen Walker
Nora Ephron hates her neck. I completely relate. Until recently, some of my body parts were on my most unwanted list. After years of trying to apply New Age philosophy to shift this self-hatred to self-love, feeling gratitude for my body and what it does for me is a daily goal. However, when I looked in the mirror the other day and saw crinkly flesh sagging from my upper arm bone, my immediate oh my God, I have old lady arms, was most definitely unloving.
Part of it is my fault. Overweight for most of my 59 years, I only recently lost 36 pounds. Despite exercising throughout the weight loss, flabby skin flops over arms, neck, stomach and thighs that, at this point, will never become taut. And truth be told, my upper arms always sagged, even in my twenties. It was the crinkles which threw me. I’m not talking fine lines at the side of my eyes, or laugh lines that have grown a bit deeper. I’m talking elephant skin.
Okay, Eckhart Tolle, I’m in the moment here—not resisting what is. But I am judging and certainly not graciously accepting. It’s not that I mind getting older—that’s inevitable. I guess I just wasn’t ready to face the fact that I am older. Folks in their seventies and eighties say that in their heads they are much younger than their physical bodies. I get that. Me too. In my head, I’m 30-something so my reflection in the mirror surprises me every time. One soon-to-be 64-year-old girlfriend tells me she just doesn’t look in the mirror anymore—it’s too painful. When did this happen, we lamented to one another.
Bette Davis once said growing old wasn’t for sissies. She was so right. How does one graciously accept losing looks, friends, bodily functions, mobility, independence, and ultimately life? I’ve had some experience dealing with elders as caretaker for my father the last three years of his life, helping a close friend with her mother and now caretaking my 88-year-old mother in law. As I watched these octogenarians deal with the aging issues, my prayer was that somehow I would approach growing older differently—accept it more graciously—become more peaceful and serene and content with myself rather than mourning all the losses.
Instead, the fact that I’m turning 60 next April has thrown me into a bit of a tizzy and I’m not quite sure why. Yes, I’m surprised by my reflection and not happy about what aging is doing to my skin and hair and flexibility and range of motion. And no, I am not dissatisfied with my life and accomplishments. Yes, I wish I’d done some things differently. No, I don’t really regret anything because it all led me to where I am now. Yes, I would love to have had my present wisdom years ago when I made really poor choices. But I do believe things happen for a reason and I am very content with who I’ve become and where I am in my life.
So what is this tizzy about? Didn’t I hear somewhere that 60 is the new 40? True, today’s 60-year-old is much more active, involved and vital than 60-year-olds from my parents’ generation. In fact, there was an article the other day about how baby boomers are wearing out body parts much younger than previous generations. The good news is our generation has the option of replacing some of those parts.
But I have to ask myself, do I even want to? Replace body parts, that is. When does one begin to accept what is happening to one’s body, rather than continuously trying to repair or enhance it? This is a complicated issue. My father took medicine to prevent strokes, reduce blood pressure, and keep a skin condition from recurring, which I’m pretty sure added some time to his lifespan. When I fractured my ankle a few years ago, it never dawned on me not to have it repaired so I could return to normal physical activities. If arthritis deteriorates my knees or my hips, however, should I get new ones? I’m not sure. The issue gets confused with vanity and societal pressure to look and stay as young as possible for as long as possible. One must be able to separate body functioning from body appearance and make wise, personal, appropriate choices.
My hair is completely white now, but I colored it ash blonde for years. Now it’s white with platinum highlights, a bit closer to the truth. In the past, I couldn’t handle looking older (and yes, I’m sorry, but our society does consider those with white or gray hair to be old) but perhaps now is the time to begin feeling good about my age. A volcanic paradigm shift would be needed, however, to think I’ll look good as well. Letting go of whether others think I look good is a whole other issue.
There is no room for vanity in the aging world I want to inhabit. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to 60 and 70 and 80 not worrying about how I look, or how anyone else looks for that matter? When I reach the end of my life, I truly don’t want it to have been about body parts I wished looked different—I’ve wasted enough time and energy in that zone already. There is still much vitality, energy, passion and hunger to use my wisdom, experience and skills wisely—to make a difference in peoples’ lives.
Perhaps turning 60 can revolutionize me. Rather than obsess over reaching 60 years of age, which, to my mind, is an ancient milestone, perhaps I can release attitudes and old ways of thinking which no longer serve me. What if the 60’s become my best decade ever? How freeing that would be to accept what is—even white hair and old lady arms.
Insecure Writers Support Group
Welcome to Following the Whispers blog
Thank you so much for taking the time to visit. Hope you enjoy your stay. I blog here on Monday and Tuesday. This blog was created at the time my memoir came out, in February, 2009. Its motto was: creating a life of inner peace and self-acceptance from the depths of despair.
"ONLY ONE THING IS MORE FRIGHTENING THAN SPEAKING YOUR TRUTH, AND THAT IS NOT SPEAKING IT." Naomi Wolf
"We are called human beings, not human doings."
Wes Nisker, Buddhist teacher
"The way to do is to be."