October 19, 2020
Everyone’s life is a journey. That journey comes with a narrative—how we describe it and the meaning we give each experience. That narrative provides a framework that shapes the way we view the past, live the present, and perceive the future. Journeys, however, do change. Here’s part of my journey.
The first time my father left the family I was six. The second time was for good and I was nine. My mother worked in a factory on the south side of Chicago and with four children to feed, her hands were full. Too full to clean, cook, work, and tend children. Too full to cradle a frightened child or whisper, “I love you” to a broken heart.
Out of desperation, she considered a heart other than her own to pump life into her children. She took my brother, two sisters, and me to visit Mooseheart, a residential childcare facility outside Chicago. Her intention was clear. If she couldn’t care for us, she would explore an alternative.
Even if a moose had a heart attached to its name, I knew it was an orphanage. It wasn’t an awful facility, but it was a disturbing venue for a Sunday excursion in the summer of ‘57. When we toured the grounds, I didn’t get mad, sad, or act bad, even though I was faced with the prospect of leaving the familiar to live in a frightening new place with a group of strangers. I was ready to accept the decision, for I had learned to adapt and accommodate – keys to survival. At that tender age of nine, I didn’t need an orphanage to realize I had lost my home.
Home is about belonging—to a place, a group of people, a wellspring of love. A place where one is comforted, nurtured, and protected. Where one can feel safe and secure and can gather strength in the face of adversity. Most importantly, it’s a place to live one’s truth.
That was not my home. Mine was a place ravaged by my father’s mental illness, domestic violence, blaming parents, and their impending divorce. It was a place riddled with conflict, fear, and anxiety. Home was not a fortress of protection. Rather, it was a crumbling castle with dragons spewing hot flames. I felt insecure and unsafe, and realized later that I had lost a more sacred space—that place of inner knowing where I had inalienable rights—the right to exist, to feel, to think and act, to love and be loved, to express myself and be heard, to see my potential and have it recognized and blessed. That home was clearly lost by the time I visited the orphanage.
To survive my childhood, I learned to shut down. I forgot about that inner knowing and replaced it with voices of anxiety and fear. Becoming orphaned from my sacred truth was the harshest of losses. To manage the fear, grief, anger, and shame simmering underneath, I adopted defenses—silence, avoidance, and suppression, along with a dash of sarcasm and dark humor. I had learned that life was not about love, it was purely survival.
Fortunately, there were slivers of hope. My three siblings as fellow orphans offered some companionship and comfort. As well, my Polish grandmother helped soothe my soul. Her English was poor, so I couldn’t talk about problems, yet she acted as a haven in an ugly firestorm. With her support, my mother, thankfully, made the courageous decision to rear her children for better and for worse.
Though we never moved to that place with the heart of a moose, my anxiety and fear remained. It turned into a faint hum coursing through my veins like electricity, urging me to be alert, ever ready, on edge, because home as I knew it could be stolen in a flash.
I never talked about the humming and carried on as if nothing was wrong. During times of uncertainty and insecurity, the hum would vibrate more intensely, forcing me to be vigilant about any possible threat. I often ignored the hum and followed my mother’s dictum, “Get busy and forget your problems.”
It wasn’t until after I became a psychotherapist that I realized the damage caused by neglect, abuse, and abandonment. Deeper insidious wounds resulted from the ways I adapted and accommodated. No talking, no feeling, no crying, no sign of a whimper, even when my heart was humming with pain. Denial and disconnection were not the best ways to manage wounds, yet without much guidance or direction, it was hard to act otherwise.
Nonetheless, out of our deepest wounds come our greatest gifts. The amazing gift I received from my childhood was a quest. And that quest was to find home.
I discovered that the inner Home, though buried, had not been extinguished. The heartbeat pulsed with a rhythm of life. The sound was often faint, but the message was clear—return to the place of inner knowing. Wake-up calls shook me from my unconscious state. Those bolts of lightning sent tremors rippling through my psyche. The widening fissures in my defense system allowed me to turn my eyes inward past the ruins of old preconceptions and toward the beckoning heart of authentic connection.
Finding the way back demanded that I recognize the calls, liberate the orphan, and awaken from a numbed existence. I had to share stories, release tears, and embrace forgiveness. The healing energy of acceptance and love provided soothing balm on the journey Home.
Home is not the result of finding a place, living with a person, establishing a career, or having material success. Rather, Home resides in the heart and soul and remains with us wherever we go. It endows us with wonderful gifts—to delight in the senses, to experience emotions and feel joy, to exercise our free will, to love and be loved, to express ourselves, to see our true potential and satisfy our dreams.