“Not my monkeys, not my circus.” Any of us who have dipped a toe into the murky waters of late-20th-century self-help know that mantra well. Those of us who have loved an addict or struggled with addiction know it like we know our own names. We each carry a lifetime’s worth of maladaptations within us, says the wisdom, and the key to a peaceful life is to recognize which ones belong to us and which do not. We can harness our own monkeys (or not), and attempt to integrate them smoothy into our lives, but we can’t do a damn thing about the monkeys that plague the psyche of another. Is there any harder lesson in this life? Not for me.
I had a happy childhood. My parents loved each other and we had enough of everything. My father taught English literature at an unremarkable small university in one of the prettiest places on Earth, and the house was full of books and laughter and good food and wine and conversation from as early as I can remember. There were glorious summer vacations surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles and lake water and pine forests. We ate dinner together every night, sang Christmas carols together, planted gardens and told stories and played games together. There was music and theater and international sabbaticals and what felt like endless hours of peaceful solitude with a book. I was the oldest, and the first to leave the nest to go to school, where I learned that other children had TV at home, their mothers went to work, some of the girls wore pants. I liked elementary school, but never could find common ground with all those other children, who knew all the unspoken rules and could never teach them to me, although some of them tried. I used to go back and visit those teachers on my visits home from college, those wise souls who sent me to the library while the other kids counted mittens, understood why math problems calmed my nerves, assigned me to read to 1st-graders when 6th grade palled. I remember no more than a handful of names from those years, and only 2 or 3 with affection.
Puberty was no worse for me than for any other introverted intellectual, which means it basically stripped me down to a core of inarticulate, profoundly confused self-loathing and left me to reassemble something like a functional exterior from the debris. Not a joiner, never able to shrug off the thick mantle of embarrassment and awkwardness that felt like my skin in those days, I had sporadic friendships, moments of crippling shame that still make my stomach roll at the memory, tortured myself for my inadequacy, envied others their apparent skill at the game and understanding of the nuances that perfectly eluded me. 30 years later I still look askance at the memories from those times, barely able to admit to myself how uncomfortable I was, yet increasingly able to feel compassion for that little girl, so eager to grow and so hopelessly ill-equipped even to read the signposts along the path.
A Facebook friend who lives 2 hours from me reminded me that next year is our 30th high school reunion. I’ve not lived in my home town since graduation, nor gone to any other reunion, but we met for dinner a year ago at a Cheesecake Factory near her house on my way home from a business trip. As little girls, we chased grasshoppers together and made them homes out of clean pickle-relish jars. As teenagers she had been an athlete and a socialite while I buried myself in AP classes and social awkwardness. As middle-aged women, we didn’t even speak the same language, although we groped our way to a kind of blind, compassionate affection that suburban afternoon, wreathed in a haze of memories older than loss or grief or loneliness. She spoke of high school as her last gasp of autonomy before going into the military, getting married, having children. I couldn’t tell her how much I had longed to leave that world behind, or how much my horizons had opened up when I did. There were tears when we parted, but we’ve not seen another since. So much water under the bridge.
Somewhere in there, the monkeys were born, the unwelcome voices that tell me to give up, to live in fear, to deny joy. They were spawned in the disconnects, in the disappointments, in the body blows that life deals out to all of us, leaving us to piece ourselves back together in the unique and hellishly delusional aftermath of youth. We all have them, the reflexive and unexamined instincts that once protected us but now only muddy the waters. My monkeys are not exotic: self-doubt, inadequacy, irrelevance, fear that someone will see and expose the uncertainty and insecurity that float just outside the public eye. They are no longer strangers to me, these unruly psychic beasts that plague and destabilize my thinking; I know their ways and they know mine. If I pay attention, I can co-exist with them peacefully, aware of their habits and ready to rein them in when they become obstreperous. Which is all very well until I am called upon to interact or engage with another human being, whose monkeys are mysterious to me.
That’s where the real circus begins, the dance between two people and their twisted, ancient habits of uncoping. There are so many ways to avoid facing the truths in this dance, so many ways to blame the music, the partner, the rules as the dance disintegrates into stumbling embarrassment. As I feel myself lose my balance, the most natural thing in the world is to reach out in teetering desperation and clutch on to whatever comes to hand—idea, person, circumstance—in hopes of righting myself. It took years of tilting the windmill of someone else’s addiction to realize that sometimes the only way to stay upright is to let go of the person who is falling. It took years after that to realize that I could dance as well alone as with a partner. I wrestle still with the “need” to focus more on another’s monkeys than on managing my own.
I am learning how to walk this walk. I am telling my children the mistakes I made and allowing them to make their own in my unconditional love. I am opening myself to trust and radical honesty and recognizing that my self is strengthened by the terrifying journey. I take comfort from my growing sense that this process of becoming ourselves and encouraging others to do the same is the point of the entire enterprise. Monkeys and all, we are meant to tread the steps of this dance together, to hold one another lightly enough for flight. Our shadows and our light are one and the same, and they are us.
©Mary Braden 2015