Many of you who follow my writings started to get to know a bit more about me personally about a year ago. Today I’m sharing the next phase of my earlier life, childhood, which will help you understand how I ultimately got to where I am today, although I touched on some aspects already. Perhaps some of you can relate to what I write, and my hope is to inspire you and show you that no situation and no person is hopeless!
As stated in my first article, I identify as an adult child. For some of you who are not familiar with this terminology, it means I am a child of parents who were involved in drugs and alcohol. With my dad and mom both, substance use likely started with smoking cigarettes and drinking highballs, which are drinks with hard liquor or liqueur mixed with water or a cola product, or other mixtures. (Think decades ago.) I would describe my dad as a functional alcoholic, but my mom was a full-blown substance user, who advanced rapidly to addiction. It may have started out with cigarettes and highballs, but progressed to additional hard liquor, and legal, doctor-prescribed uppers and downers because she had trouble sleeping at night; Then after taking a downer, she would need help getting up in the morning, and so she took an upper. Addiction was often swept under the carpet in those days. My mom’s doctors knew that she was drinking lots of alcoholic beverages, but they continued to prescribe the amphetamines and barbiturates.
As I shared in my first article in this series, I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and from age two to six, my family lived in Miami Beach, Florida. My dad’s sister lived there. Because my older sister had what turned out to be a tumor in one of her hips, we trusted my mom’s instinct of which doctor was correct in his diagnosis, and we moved back to Philadelphia to the row house I described previously. (This doctor turned out to be correct as evidenced by the outcome of my sister’s surgery.) My mother came from a large family, and we lived very close to one of her brothers and his family. In fact, they lived right across the back alley from our row house.
I remember being relatively happy in Philadelphia, till we moved when I turned 12. I say relatively, because nobody is happy 100% of the time! One of my fond memories of that time was when I stole a big branch of someone’s thrown-out Christmas tree the day after Christmas. It still had tinsel on it, and it was such a trophy for me. You see, we came from a Jewish family, although my particular family did not practice any religion at all. By this time, and close to the time we left Philadelphia, I was getting older and questioning things like, wasn’t Jesus a Jew? And why do Jews shy away from him if that’s the case? Were there one or two religions? It certainly didn’t make sense to me! As it was, I hid the tree branch in our basement, but was certainly acting odd and my mother decided to investigate. (I was excited and really wanted to share my treasure with my mom, but I knew I would get in trouble – hence, my weird behavior!) Almost needless to say, she found my beloved tree and made me throw it out, and I was punished…yet again.
Why was this tree so special to me? At about age 12, my family’s dynamics were not very good, and with all the unwarranted punishment I got and my parents’ inability to navigate the relationship with each other and theirs with me and my siblings (and think, no education on religion other than being Jewish is how you feel, not what you know – my mom’s defensive, angry-sounding “take” on my questions about the topic), I was also wondering what had happened to my own happiness and what love was all about. With all the hoopla surrounding Christmas, this seemed to my 12-year-old self like love. So…I was stealing a piece of family love when I took the tree branch! Always getting punished, I got the idea that no idea or other part of me was good. My mom was slowly killing my natural happiness.
When my dad got a new job, we sometimes moved. This happened when we moved to Maryland from Pennsylvania. His job must have been very good, because we bought a very nice home in the suburbs of Wheaton, Maryland. (Although my dad never did any education beyond high school, he was likely a genius and highly motivated to propel his career forward; he landed executive positions in large companies, and ultimately became an author of over 100 business books, published by prestigious companies.) I found myself very depressed, having to make new friends, having to leave my best friend in Philly, and starting a new school. This school’s district was more advanced than the one in Philadelphia, and if you find that I am a bit geographically challenged (and you would if you got to know me personally although I have overcome quite a bit), then don’t be surprised! Geography was taught in Philly in 8th grade, and in Wheaton in 7th. Having moved before it was taught in Philly to after it was taught in Maryland…well… I never studied it. I later found out that at this time, the move was extremely hard on my mom, as well.
I must have slept through this event, because I have no personal memory of it, but my sisters filled me in years later. Apparently, my mom, being highly depressed herself (yes, it runs in the family and I’m genetically wired for it, too, along with a host of other undesirable traits), overdosed – took pills and drank alcohol – and nearly died. My sisters were awake though, and after calling for help and nobody coming, they each took one arm of my mom and walked her around for hours until she came out of it. (It’s much more likely today that if you call emergency, a squad will come and whisk you off to the hospital.) I don’t know where my dad was at the time. Perhaps they’d had a big fight and he decided to leave for a while.
My hardest adjustment was going to a junior high school, which they didn’t have in Philadelphia where I was. School kids in Maryland were so much more independent than I’d ever been, and I was scared, depressed, and had very low self-esteem after being raised by my jealous, narcissistic mom, who taught my siblings how to treat me in her fashion (although she ultimately did the same thing to them). I did make one good friend who seemed to understand what I was going through, and she remained a friend for many years to come. So, I guess you could say that she kind of saved my life! (Certainly, nobody else had.) She was a lifeline for me. There was plenty of bullying in that school, too, and I was made fun of because I was new, depressed, and had essentially no positive self-esteem, not to mention I believed I was fat and ugly. (Who can relate to that one?!) In reality, I wasn’t. But that doesn’t matter when you think that of yourself – that’s your reality and when you look in the mirror all you notice is what you think about yourself.)
More to come later.
As always, have a happy, holistically healthy day!
Dr. Donna Poppendieck (Dr. P) has over 30 years of experience in the mental health care field. She is a seasoned college professor and instructor for providers. She uses credible, proven holistic health strategies in instruction for parents of children with mental health challenges looking for another approach as well as healthcare providers seeking to implement or understand holistic strategies.