It was all wrong. The day started out all wrong. I was scheduled to perform a notoriously difficult solo, one that I had obsessively over-practiced so that I could nail the challenging steps. Lack of practice wasn’t the problem. Dress rehearsal went really well, in spite of the fact that I had recently torn a ligament in my ankle when my partner dropped me at the wrong time. Physically, I still felt almost ready. My director gave me uncommon praise after the dress rehearsal.
I had decided to invite my dad to the show. I hadn’t invited him to my wedding, and since we had mended things a little bit since then I thought I’d invite him to my last performance weekend. It felt generous of me given the context of our relationship. I bought him a plane ticket and he showed up at my house with a Marlboro duffel bag and a rented tux. He had trouble sleeping because of all of his health problems, and I had trouble sleeping that night as well. In the morning, we went to my husband’s favorite Mexican restaurant for breakfast. I don’t like Mexican food for breakfast, especially before a show, but I was going along with everyone else’s ideas. It was all wrong
I had gotten my hair colored, but for some reason it turned orange instead of blonde and nothing they could do would make it right. I was destined at that moment in time to have the wrong color hair, a very hurt ankle, severe body dysmorphia about another issue, and both of my dysfunctional parents either in town or on their way. It was the last weekend I would dance on stage, and I had unintentionally created an impossible environment for myself.
My first performance that weekend — the one my dad attended, overdressed in his rented tux and looking wildly out of place with the crowd — was a total disaster. I hopped through my turns, and since they were the main thing I’d worked on, I felt like a total failure. I wanted to crawl under a rock. The second show was better. I survived and did a fairly good job. My mom was at that second show. My husband told me later on that she had “shark eyes” prior to it starting. I’m not sure why she had them, but I knew what he meant. There are times when my mom’s heart seems to exit from her body (it could be a form of dissociation) and she stares blankly, angrily and coldly ahead. I am not sure what she was feeling that day – out of place? Offended? Jealous? Maybe she was upset that I was leaving the dance world. I wish she’d talked to me, comforted me, & seen where I was in life, but she was really not okay herself.
To be fair, a LOT of things could have gone wrong that day regardless of my comfort level with my parents, or my current level of mental health. Performers have bad shows, hair colorists get colors wrong, and injuries happen all the time. But the rest of it… the fact that it sealed the deal on my career, and the fact that I left at a low point of desperation, could have been different.
After the show, I left the theatre as a dancer for the last time. We went to my mother-in-law’s for a buffet style lunch and I remember feeling so alone. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, so I smiled, but the ending of my career felt so deeply sad. The stress of my parents being there (but unable to be supportive in the way I needed) complicated things more than I’d anticipated. I was alone but unaware. I felt cut off from myself, my true feelings, and the world. I hid this from everyone.
It’s a sad reality when parents just can’t fulfill the roles you need from them. Even well-intentioned parents can be out of touch with their children emotionally. This often results in a longing that cannot be filled, a longing that’s hard to verbalize. I wanted so badly to be loved & mentored… by my parents, by my boss. I felt like I was missing something that many others seemed to have. In many ways, I filled this longing in my relationship with my husband.
A decade later, I see this last day at the theatre and this period of my life a little differently. I am proud of the effort I made to include both of my parents, even though it was stressful. I would change many things if I could do it again, but my intentions at the time were good. I was in survival mode that weekend, and I survived. That counts for something. The inglorious, shame-filled moments are not always what we wish for, but they teach us lessons that we can pass on.
I learned that people sometimes need an advocate or a guide. Sometimes we are in survival mode, about to make mistakes, and we need someone around who really knows us, who can see us clearly when we can’t see ourselves — someone to ask questions and dig deeper.
Who is your person? What if that person has been your mother most of your life, but she’s unavailable, emotionally unstable, and/or in the habit of giving very unwise advice? You might find yourself quite alone, relying on your own unwise ideas. You might misinterpret reality, with nobody to check you. You might assume that others will shame you and give you bad advice (and they might, so it’s important to find the right people).
At this point in my life I’m trying to find my way towards forgiveness and compassion — for my myself, and the things I didn’t know when I was younger, and for my parents, who didn’t know how to be healthy examples or mentors. They were in survival mode, too, absorbed in their own pain. I realize now that a lot of us are missing the guidance of healthy parents. Although it feels protective, not allowing others to know what is really going on can keep you cut off from help. Hiding from yourself and hiding your pain from others gives those people who do care – and those who are healthy – no way to access you, and no way to help. People can’t always read between the lines.
Maya Angelou wrote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Sometimes we blame ourselves for things we couldn’t control and just didn’t know how to handle at the time. But if we really didn’t know better… if we really didn’t have the resources and tools to do better… then maybe we couldn’t have made better choices at those junctures. Maybe we didn’t know there was another door we could open. Be gentle with yourself, and do better when you’re able.
Please respond in the comments if you can relate to this experience/lesson.
3 thoughts on “Alone but Unaware: Moving Past Survival Mode and into Conscious Choice”
Dear Daughter, this closely resembles the post I just wrote about my own parents. Thank you for taking the time to stop by. I think the most valuable lesson we can learn from unwilling or unable parents is the ability to comfort ourselves. Sometimes we have to create what we need, and simple accept the disappointment is a form of self responsibility. It’s a shame and a tragedy to outgrow our parents, but sometimes it’s the only way. In some way, maybe this is the most important lesson we can take away when parenting our own children. Lord knows I have felt abandoned in more ways than one. This is why my teachers grew to be the great influencers in my life, and I excelled in school despite every obstacle. I hope you continue to grow and heal, and find the love and grace you deserve. Thank you for writing!
Thank you for your comments. You are so right. Learning to self-comfort has taken a long time but I am definitely happy that i’ve started on the journey of understanding and compassion. I enjoy reading your posts about your parents. You write so beautifully. Sending love!
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Good Morning Lara, I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by. Hopefully our words will continue to resonate with each other, as well as those in need.