“Telling all,” for me, is about living more authentically and transparently than ever before. It’s about dropping the smoke and mirrors I’ve lived behind for most of my life, and not only being truer to myself and who I really am, but sharing my stories in hopes of helping, encouraging, and inspiring others.
I want others to know they’re not alone… that there is someone who can relate to what they’re going through… I want others to know that no matter how awful a situation seems right now, it’s possible to make it through. But in order to do that, I have to drop my masks and be real…
That’s how old I was when my parents discovered my great-uncle had been sexually abusing me for years.
My great aunt and uncle practically raised my dad, so we used to spend a lot of time at their house. We often went there for big, family cookouts… and that’s where I learned that a smile and a laugh can hide anything.
While writing this post, Mom and I had lots of conversations about that time in our lives. Both of us remember events transpiring pretty much the same way: Mom found out what was happening to me; Mom was furious with Dad because he didn’t confront his uncle about the abuse, it was just decided I would never be out of sight at their house; and Mom learned my uncle had also abused another, older family member… but everyone who knew kept it a secret.
I remember, in vivid detail, the first time we went to their house for the next big, family picnic after all this came to light…
Addie and Tom had a long gravel driveway that ran from the road back to their detached garage. Their house sat off to the left, and on the right was a large yard with big, beautiful shade trees and picnic tables where everyone sat and ate.
I remember standing in the yard, watching everyone carry on as if everything was normal…. But I knew it was all just an act. On the surface, my aunts and uncles, grandmother, and cousins looked happy… but the underlying tension, and the anger rolling off my mom, was palpable.
I remember listening to the cicadas and feeling like they mirrored how I felt on the inside. Their incessant humming created a never-ending thrum of tension… loud….louder… louder still… then a pause that allowed me to catch my breath before the tension started building again.
I was very intuitive, so I picked up on the taut exchange of energy between everyone more than understanding cognitively what was happening. I understood what Uncle Tommy had done was wrong… and I got that everyone was tense and/or angry about it… but I wasn’t clear on my part in all the drama.
As a little girl trying to pick my way through what I intuitively understood was a very big thing, I looked to the adults for clues about how to act and how to respond. And what I learned was…
This behavior was reinforced when, in 6th grade, my classmates voted me as having “The Best Smile.” By that time, my parents were divorced, my dad was mostly absent, and on a personal level, life was hard… at least by 6th grade standards.
But I also lived in a rural Appalachian town, the steel mill had recently closed, and life was really hard for pretty much everyone. I’d learned that, like my classmates, most people appreciated my smile and I often heard, “Your smile lights up a room.” Or, “Your smile always makes me happy.”
Even at that age, I was on a mission to be “The World’s Best People-Pleaser,” and I wanted to make people happy… so regardless of what was happening with me personally, I always wore a smile.
I got so good at it that no one, not even my mom, knew the pain and shame I felt after a high school boyfriend raped me. In fact, I didn’t share that with anyone, other than my husband, until 2 years ago.
As happens with all of us, time passed and life kept dealing its blows: our house burned down, my older brother passed away, and I found myself to be a single mom at 21.
I met Charles (the best thing that’s ever happened to me) when I was 26. Life got really good, and for a while the smiles were genuine. We got married when I was 28, and I had my second son just before I turned 30.
He was born with severe ADHD and bipolar tendencies so life, once again, got hard and complicated. Charles worked 60 hours a week, so I was basically a single mom again, and I didn’t know how to best help my young son deal with the challenges he faced.
Depression settled in and for the first time in my life, I not only stopped hiding behind the smile, I pretty much stopped smiling altogether.
And then one day my oldest son, Dusty, and I were riding in the car, listening to Shawn Mullins’s song, “Lullaby.” There’s a line that says,
“And all her friends tell her she’s so pretty, but she’d be a whole lot prettier if she smiled once in a while.”
Dusty looked at me with the saddest expression and said, “Mom, that’s you. You’re so much prettier when you smile.”
His comment (and deep sadness) hit me hard, and I instantly flashed back to 6th grade… where had the girl who made people happy just by smiling gone?!
I went farther back… to six… and realized I’d forgotten a basic tenet for handling life!!
I didn’t want my son, or anyone else, to be negatively impacted by my sadness…
So from that day on, I stayed consciously aware of how I appeared to the world… I made sure the smiling mask was always in place. And if I couldn’t fake a smile, I stayed out of sight.
Years later, when my husband was battling a brain tumor and both my sons were struggling with addiction, I developed an elaborate array of smoke and mirrors to create the illusion that everything was okay…. Or at least not as bad as it really was.
When Charles got a good report from Duke, I gladly shared that… but when the MRI showed his tumor was growing again… well, I shared that too, but I always spun it in a less-scary, more-positive way.
After my oldest son moved to California in 2014 for rehab, I used his degree in Audio Production and Sound Design as the basis for his move and told everyone he’d gone to LA to be near a producer friend from school… not a lie, but not the entire truth either.
In 2013, when my youngest son was involved in a tragic accident, the lawyer instructed us to never discuss the accident, at least not until all legal issues were resolved. So for over two years, we lived in a silent hell, being publicly persecuted – mostly for our silence and for not openly showing any emotion about that horrific day…
In public, the smiles were in place, and I told everyone our youngest son moved to California to be near his brother, where there were more opportunities to live a better life. Again, not a lie, but certainly not the whole story.
In 2016, after my husband lost his battle and I was on my own, facing the challenges that come from loving two sons who were heavy drug users, the smoke, mirrors, and masks got even more elaborate.
I moved to California to be close to my friend, Reverend Millie… but I also felt like I needed to be closer to my sons so I could more easily manage the never-ending crises that kept popping up.
No one knew I was living in hell, because on social media I played up the good parts… living in beautiful San Diego, walking along the waterfront or beach, attending events and activities I couldn’t have experienced in Eastern NC.
But behind all that, I was drowning in despair and depression.
Keeping up the ruse became more and more difficult, so I withdrew from everyone. But isolating isn’t healthy and life finally caught up to me in September 2019 when I suffered a breakdown.
The following week, when I was finally able to pull myself together, I called a friend for help. Sitting in her study, I said…
She gave me a warm, knowing smile and said,
“You also get to decide what you’re going to pick up and carry with you… and what you’re going to leave behind.”
As I look back over my past… especially the past six or seven years when my sons’ addictions took me to places I never thought I’d go, doing things I never thought I’d do… I experience a wide range of emotions.
Sometimes I’m disgusted for not being stronger or smarter or setting better boundaries. Sometimes I laugh and shake my head at the absurdity of it all.
I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in introspection this past year, making peace with my past, forgiving those who hurt me… while also forgiving myself for my mistakes.
The smiles I share now are real… the joy and laughter genuine.
The ones who truly care about you and are meant to be in your life will stick around… And if people drop off along the way because they can’t handle the truth of who you really are… they weren’t meant to be in your life anyway.
There isn’t another soul in the entire world like you… YOU have a purpose… so please join me in taking off the masks… clear away the smoke, lay down the mirrors, and be the amazing YOU that you truly are.
I wish you much peace and love,