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Rose-colored glasses are never made in bifocals. Nobody wants to read the small print in dreams. -Ann Landers
Overcoming childhood trauma influenced the adult I grew up to be in ways I didn’t expect. I developed an eternally optimistic outlook to elude the common fate of addiction that many neglected and abused children fall victim to, my sister Alexis included.
I was always the person looking for the silver lining, the overflowing glass, or the last ray of sunshine amidst a storm. Alexis seemed to be endlessly searching out the grey clouds, the bone dry glasses, and the rage of the thunder itself. More often than not, these different personality traits incited a battle that yielded no winner.
I was too young at the time to realize that these disparities weren’t personality traits, but rather incompatible coping mechanisms to trauma. I thought that looking at the world around me through rose-colored glasses was simply a part of who I was and that Alexis was just a pessimistic person. In reality, we chose to wield optimism and pessimism like weapons and armor.
Alexis and I were never in a battle with each other, but rather it was a fight for survival. Alexis stared down the deep, dark tunnel of the truth while reading between the lines, and I donned my pair of rose-colored glasses and reminded myself that all it took to be happy was to remember that it could be worse.
While our reactions differed, the similarities of our trauma are evident, if you look at our childhood experiences as an emotionless list:
- We both had zero interaction with our biological dad throughout our childhood.
- Our mother was incapable of providing even the most basic standard of care and left us with our grandparents.
- We were both brought up by that set of grandparents until my mother “officially” left us to enter the witness protection program.
- Our mother died when both of us still had ages that ended in “teen.” I was 18, and she was 14.
Now a trained therapist, or doctor in psychology, might argue that the extreme variations in the way we each coped are due to the nuances that we don’t share.
Our missing father
Alexis, being an infant when our mother left NY and our father, had no tangible memory of our dad. I don’t remember the mental snapshots I held onto when I was that age, but I know I didn’t just move to Florida and forget my father and other grandmother immediately.
I’m sure that I loved and missed them, yearned to hear their voices, and hoped to see their faces. I told myself that at least I still had my mother, and it could be worse. Alexis cried for people she couldn’t ask for with words.
“Still had my mother” is a statement that didn’t ring true for both of us. My grandmother assumed the responsibility of caring for Alexis almost immediately, whereas I had lived with my mother for nearly another year. I almost failed kindergarten that year because of her inability to take care of me. I mothered both her and me, despite being ill-equipped for the task.
She was not what one would describe as an adequate mother, but I recognized she was mine. Much the same way, a penguin can tell the sound of its child’s call in a crowd, I knew her. Our bond was fierce, and looking back now, I realize that inherently I knew she would be far worse without me there.
Alexis had that maternal bond with my grandma. The weakened relationship between my sister and I became even more volatile when I moved in with them because we had different loyalties, although I didn’t realize that at the time.
I bided my time in this altered state of reality while reminding myself that mom would sometimes remember to follow through with her promise to visit. It wouldn’t be long until she kept her promise to get a house and clean up her life so we could be together again. So, I told myself it could be worse. After all, I still had my mother until the day I didn’t.
In the summer between 8th and 9th grade, my mother entered the witness protection program, leaving us behind with my grandma, who later adopted us.
My maternal grandma related to Alexis and me in a distinctly diverse manner, although I can’t blame her for this. She had become Alexis’ mom and my grandma, although not the “give me anything I wanted grandma” of my youth. The distinction was never more apparent than in the discussion over whether or not we should call her “mom.” Alexis wanted to, I did not, but it would look strange if we both didn’t use the same moniker. And so I lost that battle.
I went along, telling myself that it could be worse. After all, I only had four years of high school left, and I had been living here since the end of kindergarten anyway. Graduation meant I would be an adult and could do what I wanted. I just had to survive this period, and then everything would be ok. After all, it could be worse. Little did I know it would get so much worse.
My Mother’s Death
Her loss would be a turning point for my sister and me. I had lived with my mom (finally) for six months before her death. Her death rocked me in a way that 18-year-old me didn’t even know was possible. I went through all the stages of grief, including anger, that this time she had found the ultimate way to abandon me. In the end, I would tell myself that at least I got to spend time with her, and it could be worse.
Alexis didn’t get to spend this time with our mom. Her journey with grief, anger, and the injustice of life led down a path of destruction. At 15 years old, she turned to sex and drugs to ease the pain. She was fulfilling the prophecy that had been touted her whole life, of being just like Joanne.
It was the worst it could be
I’m not a therapist or a doctor, but what I know is that for nearly 20 years, Alexis struggled with drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, recklessness, and illegal behavior. If I tried to help her choose differently, she would aggressively claim we all couldn’t see the world through rose-colored glasses.
This was always said to me as if it was some serious character flaw that I needed to address, each word dripping with disdain and anger.
During one of our worst fights, she threw these words at me for the final time. We were standing outside in the falling snow, screaming at one another. I was no longer going to allow her to live in my house with my family if she couldn’t treat me with a modicum of respect and get her life together.
I never imagined that we would arrive at a place where I would need her to leave to preserve my mental health, the wellbeing of my children, or the sake of my marriage. Yet, here we were shivering in the cold, both burning hot with rage, while the snow fell around us. She hurled her favorite insult about the color of my lenses at me.
My voice reached the shrieking decibel that only dogs can hear, fist clenched and shaking with emotions. I told Alexis that:
“They were my glasses to choose to wear. They may be rose-colored, but I am looking at MY world through them. I am in control of how I see that world and what I choose to do in it. I would let her borrow them, but she was too far gone, and they wouldn’t do her any good.”
I believed, with every ounce of conviction I possessed, that she was solely responsible for the state of her life. I would realize, many years later, that while she is an adult responsible for the decisions that she makes, life hadn’t been kind to her.
The cuts run deep, all the way done to the very core of who she is. More profound than anyone can see and more painful than I ever conceded.
It would take me years to learn that my need to control nearly every aspect of my existence might have saved me from a life of drugs and miscreant behavior, but it had shackled me to a different kind of hell.
The sort that would become evident in all the intricate ways I lived my life, the pursuit for perfection, and the fact that I couldn’t muster up empathy for “normal” problems.
I arrived at a place where I expected everyone else to realize that life could be worse. To stop looking at the things that were bothering them, and realize that they could do anything if they could apply enough focus. Overcome anything, despite how much work was required to do so.
Ann Landers once said:
Rose-colored glasses are never made in bifocals. Nobody wants to read the small print in dreams.
When the child in me dreamt of normality and success, even love, I wasn’t interested in reading the small details of what that required. I just knew I needed to figure out a way to make them happen. Achieving these things was the only option.
Escaping the cycle of damaged women was paramount, equal to the craving that lungs have for air. So, I picked up the rose-colored glasses and constructed an entire world built on optimism. I was living a watered-down version of my life, where the details were told less and pushed deeper inside. A world where controlling my destiny meant always latching on to the one thing that could be worse and ensuring that “that thing” didn’t happen. And on the occasions when that terrible thing did happen, persevering through it, by repeating the mantra of “well at least it wasn’t this other thing.”
My sister and I would go years without speaking after that fight. She would go down a road so dark; I wasn’t sure she would ever find the light at the end of the tunnel. At one point, she disappeared for a few months, and no one could locate her. I called the police, friends, and her last place of employment.
She had vanished, and part of me was sure she was dead. My first thought was that it could be worse, and she could be suffering, so I wouldn’t allow myself to be sad. Thankfully, she was alive.
She would find herself in prison for a few years, and when we finally reconnected and began to repair our relationship, she made a passing comment that has stuck with me all this time. She said something like:
In treatment, we were talking about how come some people react one way to trauma, and some people react another. The therapist said the thing it always seems to come back to, is the person’s perceptions.
Seeing the world through my rose-colored glasses may have contributed to some of the other flaws in my personality, but I believe they saved me. I feel ready to look at the small details about how to achieve my dreams now. Grand ideas, more significant than ever, and the devil is in the details. Exposing the details and telling the story as clearly and vividly as possible has been my life’s goal. I have talked about writing it down for two decades, and it high time I did so.
I can understand that the path of healing from trauma is not as easy as sheer control. That while you can choose a strategy of optimism and gratitude, you can’t block out negative feelings and emotions. Acknowledgment of the truth, no matter how unpleasant, is the only way I will finally heal.
My sister had tried to say that to me all those times that she addressed my rose-colored glasses as a severe character flaw that I needed to address. The words no longer drip with anger and disdain, and I can finally hear them. They sound a lot like two wounded siblings saying:
I love you, and I hope you keep dreaming.