My son left. He’s in Boston now. My friend Lauren agreed to take care of him.

“Until when?” I said.

“Right now, just get him on the plane. He doesn’t have a cello and he doesn’t have a teacher and he just needs someone to help him. I can help him.”

I want to believe I picked Boston because there is a teacher there who is a good fit. But really I think I picked Boston because I never tell anyone how much I’m failing my kids, but Lauren visits me a lot, so maybe she sort of already knows, because she says things like, “There needs to be a lid on your trash can so the garbage doesn’t make the whole kitchen smell.”

When she could see I was going to lose the cello, she also said, “Why isn’t your family helping you?”

“They think I’m a lost cause.”

She hugged me. And that’s how I knew Boston would be the right place for my son.

When you put an unaccompanied minor on a flight you have to wait at the gate til it takes off. I sat away from the window to make sure my son couldn’t see me from the plane and then I cried. The gate agent brought me a tissue. Then she brought me the whole box of tissues. Then the plane took off.

When you grow up in an abusive household you can be really tight with your siblings, to survive, or you can leave them all behind, to survive. We are tight.

While my brother Mike and I were growing up, my parents tortured me, literally, and my brother watched from the sidelines, terrified and almost invisible. From the time we left college, I took care of our much younger brothers, who were also abused. My brother Mike took care of me and Mike’s wife Rachel took care of Mike.

This is how we got through the next fifteen years. It was the four of us siblings, plus Rachel, who has been with us so long now that my younger brothers can’t even really remember life without her.

My mom would tell people about her kids: an economist, a chemist, an investment banker, and an author. My siblings would tell people: a mental ward, a stint at rehab, a case in court, an accusation of assault.

At least once a month I’m incapacitated by a flashback from my childhood. Sometimes it’s predictable: I’m driving by the ice cream store where we used to go to when we ditched Hebrew school. Sometimes it’s a surprise: my wood floors got refinished in the wrong color and now they look like the wood floors in the house we grew up in.

For me, the flashbacks have the cumulative effect of making me anxious, ashamed, and awake all night. For Mike, the effect is that he always picks up when I call, even when he can’t really talk.

But the last two years I’ve been unraveling. And I wasn’t sharing very much with my brothers because I thought they’d just brush it off. But then I called Mike crying. I told him I wasn’t fit to take care of the kids. And I asked him to take my older son.

He thought it was one of my panic attacks. But the next day I sent my younger son to Boston.

Then I called Mike to arrange sending my older son to him. But Mike said, “Rachel’s coming to Swarthmore.”

Rachel has never visited me.

She sat in my blue chair in my living room and I almost couldn’t believe she was there. She said she was sorry that she had not realized how hard it’s been for me. She didn’t know how long this all had been going on and she’s talked to my brothers and they’re all so sorry they didn’t know how hard it was for me. And she cried as she kept talking. She said they knew something must be very wrong if I am asking people to take my boys.

The thing is, I don’t want them to be sorry. Because I love them so much. I just want them to understand me.

Rachel said, “We see now that we were expecting you to do things you’re not capable of doing. We don’t always understand why you can’t do them. But we understand you need help.”

The blog post where I told you I was falling apart is what saved me. I didn’t know who to tell. So I told you. And when I told you, my siblings listened.

I feel so loved. I want to tell you that I feel so loved. I am not sure I’ve felt this way before. I feel more secure than I’ve felt in my whole life maybe because I feel so understood and cared for by my siblings.

Rachel called Melissa to better understand how to help me. To ask her what I can and can’t do. My three brothers and Rachel are all helping me now –– it’s a lot of work to get me back to a stable place, that’s good for me and good for the boys. And now I see that Melissa’s been doing a four-person job by herself for a long while.

One brother said that if I weren’t so good at earning money I’d have been homeless a long time ago. He’s right. But I think it’s not just money that keeps a person from being homeless — it’s love.

It’s my job to make sure my boys are safe and secure. And to make sure they feel the same kind of love that I feel right now. Because you can’t give it before you can feel it. And you can’t feel it before you make yourself vulnerable enough to receive it.

100 replies
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  1. Kati Berg
    Kati Berg says:

    I tend to comment only when I have knee jerk reactions to perceived horrible advice – which is like 1 in 99 posts. Your writing helps me – I always come back for more. This comment is to send love. Thank you for the way you see the world. Thank you for being a writer. Thank you for giving others permission to be vulnerable.

    Reply
  2. Nat
    Nat says:

    I know it’s not about me, but this post came on my birthday and it was the best unexpected birthday gift.

    Perhaps one of the greatest gifts of radical transparency is encouraging others to take the leap themselves.

    Your struggles mirror many of my own as I get through life and all its messiness while managing bipolar (sidenote: writing that, for the first time, publicly on the internet, is a huge step for me). My parents have driven 5 hours to come to my house to help me clean up and do the dishes when everything was just too much. We forget the necessity and insurmountable difficulty of daily self-care like eating, cleaning, and getting to appointments on time or on the right day.

    Thank you for your gift of transparency which gave me the courage to take my first small step towards transparency.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    The idea that family can will help can be overrated, as well as being underrated.

    I remember a telephone call, years ago, where I was asking my brother to help me with something.

    Not only did he not help, he called my parents. Father and stepmother. That was the very last thing I wanted.

    They “helped” sort of. But also said, “Don’t ever do that to us again.”

    Since I wasn’t the one who called, and I had not personally asked for anything . . . that “lesson” stayed with me for life. I didn’t do anything to them. But made sure not to ask for any kind of help again.

    Years later, co-workers of my then-elderly stepmother wondered why I and my siblings weren’t taking care of her. That event, plus many others, stayed in my mind. My own health was extremely poor — taking care of her might have been barely possible. But….

    Reply
  4. christine
    christine says:

    Whew! What a turnaround! It’s amazing to me how trapped we can get by the stories that define us. And the little bit you shared…..just horrible to feel that that happened to you. Geez, no wonder your have a nervous breakdown – who wouldn’t? That’s a ton of weight to carry around and no easy thing to revisit. I am both relieved and glad that you feel received, loved and best of all cared for by your family. I am really appreciating the risk you took to express. It’s deeply moving to me to witness that kind of vulnerability. I really got connected to you through this and can feel a cord of strength in myself because of your honesty. My wish for you is continued love to come your way and may your wounds melt with each loving response.
    Chris

    Reply
  5. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I love this letter from Henry James to his friend Grace Norton. I am a humanist funeral celebrant among other occupations, and I often use extracts from this during ceremonies to comfort the bereaved.

    In this case, I am posting the whole letter, because it reminds me that we are in this together and your commenters are here to support you, and because he was living in Boston when he wrote it.

    You are in my thoughts.

    131 Mount Vernon St.,
    Boston

    July 28th

    My dear Grace,

    Before the sufferings of others I am always utterly powerless, and the letter you gave me reveals such depths of suffering that I hardly know what to say to you. This indeed is not my last word—but it must be my first. You are not isolated, verily, in such states of feeling as this—that is, in the sense that you appear to make all the misery of all mankind your own; only I have a terrible sense that you give all and receive nothing—that there is no reciprocity in your sympathy—that you have all the affliction of it and none of the returns. However—I am determined not to speak to you except with the voice of stoicism.

    I don’t know why we live—the gift of life comes to us from I don’t know what source or for what purpose; but I believe we can go on living for the reason that (always of course up to a certain point) life is the most valuable thing we know anything about and it is therefore presumptively a great mistake to surrender it while there is any yet left in the cup. In other words consciousness is an illimitable power, and though at times it may seem to be all consciousness of misery, yet in the way it propagates itself from wave to wave, so that we never cease to feel, though at moments we appear to, try to, pray to, there is something that holds one in one’s place, makes it a standpoint in the universe which it is probably good not to forsake. You are right in your consciousness that we are all echoes and reverberations of the same, and you are noble when your interest and pity as to everything that surrounds you, appears to have a sustaining and harmonizing power. Only don’t, I beseech you, generalize too much in these sympathies and tendernesses—remember that every life is a special problem which is not yours but another’s, and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own. Don’t melt too much into the universe, but be as solid and dense and fixed as you can. We all live together, and those of us who love and know, live so most. We help each other—even unconsciously, each in our own effort, we lighten the effort of others, we contribute to the sum of success, make it possible for others to live. Sorrow comes in great waves—no one can know that better than you—but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we after a manner see.

    My dear Grace, you are passing through a darkness in which I myself in my ignorance see nothing but that you have been made wretchedly ill by it; but it is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end. Don’t think, don’t feel, any more than you can help, don’t conclude or decide—don’t do anything but wait. Everything will pass, and serenity and accepted mysteries and disillusionments, and the tenderness of a few good people, and new opportunities and ever so much of life, in a word, will remain. You will do all sorts of things yet, and I will help you. The only thing is not to melt in the meanwhile. I insist upon the necessity of a sort of mechanical condensation—so that however fast the horse may run away there will, when he pulls up, be a somewhat agitated but perfectly identical G. N. left in the saddle. Try not to be ill—that is all; for in that there is a future. You are marked out for success, and you must not fail. You have my tenderest affection and all my confidence.

    Ever your faithful friend—

    Henry James

    Reply
  6. Tea
    Tea says:

    Penelope,

    You will get better. But to truly be better, you need to stop blogging every detail of your life. It is sucking the air out of you.

    I have been following you for 15 years now and you have gotten worse. I think it is the blogging.

    You have way too many bonker ideas and blogging cements them. Focus on yourself. Your kids. Your siblings. Etc.

    Blogging is sucking the life out of you. People can say nice things but they are not in your life. It is not real. Your kids are real. Your parents are real. Your siblings are real. They are the people that will be there from the beginning to the end.

    Also you are way too old to continue complaining about your parents. Part of growing up is accepting that our parents are just like us and doing their best. Some are better than others. If you keep writing this, why would they help you? If I were your parents, I would be deeply hurt.

    Finally, please stop blogging. Ur blogs are getting worse. Not the writing. It is more raw. But your life is getting worse & the blogging is likely a huge cause. I would be afraid to be part of your life because u might blog about it.

    You are probrably realising a few life lessons that weren’t obvious to you. Pay attention and stop repeating the same mistake.

    Start with forgiving yourself and then your parents.

    You are a parent. Imagine if your kids talk about you the way you talk about ur parents in a blog. It is just too brutal.

    I would never do that to my own parents.

    Please stop. You are hurting yourself and your kids. And these commenters, they are not looking out for you because they say nice things to make you feel better but not necessarily things you need to hear to actually get better.

    And you are a survivor. You will get better. And you are a good person and OK. Stop blogging to get approval. You don’t need it. Trust me. You are totally fine. Just start organising yourself and streamlining yourself. Stop letting too many forces enter a very private space called life. Protect your kids and yourself. They probably don’t want this.

    T

    Reply
    • Living Life
      Living Life says:

      What good advice! I, too, have looked back at the terrible childhood I had (severely mentally ill mother & distant, alcoholic father) & realized that my childhood didn’t need to define me or affect me NOW. It takes a lot of work to “get over” your difficulties, but it is so worth it.

      Today my life is different. I am not being abused or being enmeshed in my parents’ problems today. I can make decisions based on my reality now–not based on the horrible childhood experiences or past failures. Make peace with your past & “get over it.” Start living in the now.

      When I realized that my parents were not trying to destroy me, but that they were damaged. They were incapable of loving me & couldn’t feel any love sent their way. I feel sorry for them as having children & raising them with my husband has been the joy of my life.

      DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) helped me to “get over” all the crap I was hauling around from my past. It is not necessary for all that stuff to affect you so much NOW. Please consider DBT (CBT on steroids). I did it for 2 years & it changed my life & the quality of my life so much. I have been diagnosed as having bipolar, but with medication & DBT, my life is fantastic.

      You are on the autism spectrum (I don’t know what are the preferred terms), but don’t let that define you. Work around the problems this condition poses for you.

      Geeze, I know comparing “pain” or “problems” is not helpful, but I look at Helen Keller & so many others who live beautiful lives despite all their challenges. I also feel more gratitude when I think of my life compared to others.

      Stop looking back at the past & get help now so that your future isn’t as tainted by your past experiences.

      Something I don’t understand: If your parents abused you so much, why are you even in contact with them? Do you think they will change & suddenly have the capacity & desire to love you? Quit groveling to try to get love from people who can’t give it to you.

      I hope you will seek help (as I did; I wanted to be a good mother & it didn’t come to me naturally due to my mother not doing such a good job & not modeling parental love).

      Live now & plan for a future that is not determined by your past. Much love to you. I’ve been where you are–stuck in the past.

      Reply
  7. Mansa Brice
    Mansa Brice says:

    Hopefully, another comment showing admiration for your strength will help boost your mood. We all have inner and outer struggles but what matters is getting back up when you’re knocked down. I’m glad to see you back you and tougher :)

    Reply
  8. Stopthecycle
    Stopthecycle says:

    Perhaps you should rethink the standard advice you give to people, especially women, about choosing either kids or career. Some people’s entire goal in life should be to strive for health (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) and functionality as a human citizen of this world. Passing on generational trauma and abuse to another generation is the result of the extremely selfish choice to procreate when one is unfit to even look after oneself.

    Reply
  9. greta
    greta says:

    hey penelope! please let me know that you’ve seen this. i just got a reply from my friend who works at twitter about your account. she’s really nice and efficient. we used to live together in england when we were both at university and i’ve never known her to not get anything done, which needs doing.

    this is what she said: if she files a support ticket, have her email me and i’ll see if i can flag internally raki@twitter.com. i’m on holiday at the moment but will respond when i return!

    i know you have moved everything to patreon now but if you’d still like the account back, at least you might be able to try again through Raki.

    great to see you taking control of your life- i have been going through something similar and i’ve been telling myself for months that patreon is the way out of it, so you are inspiring me to break the feelings of not feeling good enough for help/payment for my work, and put myself out there. hopefully soon the stage fright will break away. lots of love and continued affection for your work and growth.

    greta x

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hi, Greta. I really appreciate your help. I have filed about 30 tickets like this. Twitter says they cannot retrieve my old tweets. It is very sad, but I’m getting over it. And in any case, it’s nice to have people like you who are willing to help.

      Penelope

      Reply
  10. Angie
    Angie says:

    “But I think it’s not just money that keeps a person from being homeless — it’s love.”

    You are so right, but I would add that it is unconditional love. . Having at least one person in your life who can give you unconditional love and be on your side, without judgement is going to give you a better shot at life than if you have none.

    I’m so glad you have a few of those people. No one deserves to go through a tough time alone.

    Reply
  11. Jean
    Jean says:

    Hi Penelope,

    This post brought me to tears. I grew up in an abusive household too. Those flashbacks can really linger…

    I am beyond thrilled to hear that your siblings are reaching out. And your insight and sharing are so important to all your readers. You have offered us so much over the years. You inspire me all the time to become a better writer, be more open and take a chance even when I’m afraid.

    Thank you for being you. I’m proud of you for asking for help and hoping you find the balance you need. Much love.

    Reply
  12. Mariana
    Mariana says:

    I’ve also read all your posts throughout the past few years, so I gave a tiny contribution to Patreon, thank you for allowing us to do that.
    That being said, some of the dissenters in the comments session have a point. It does feel that you are taking all these huge risks out of fear. Not clarity, not wisdom. Fear. Fear of being mediocre. Being in the middle. That if you don’t standout – for your brains, your talent – you are invisible, you do not count as a person. I am seeing what it is taking you to make a cellist, make a scientist, make a great mom. I am wondering how far you are willing to go. And what is being left behind.

    Reply
    • MMJ
      MMJ says:

      “That if you don’t standout – for your brains, your talent – you are invisible, you do not count as a person.”

      That seems to be a common enough American mindset. And, having grown up that way, I’d say it is a toxic one. There are plenty of happy people in flyover country, in unremarkable lives, and plenty of miserable ones trying desperately to be so successful, and so exceptional, that someone with authority will finally tell them that they are not worthless. It’s insanity (in many of our cases, set up by parents who ran hot and cold and made love conditional upon placing more glory at their feet).

      Reply
  13. JML
    JML says:

    This is so timely for me. Thanks. I am unraveling. I think I’ve mostly been in various stages of unraveling, but now it’s intolerable. And I don’t have siblings or support that I can see. And I know it’s bad because I don’t think I can take care of my kids anymore. All I want to do is flee. They deserve better. Or at least less crazy. And nobody talks about this. I don’t even know what to do with these feelings except sit here and feel like the worst mother ever – confirming my already awful feelings and creating a downward spiral of despair. So your ‘feel love to give love’ comment resonated. But how to make myself vulnerable without feeling like I’m going to die?

    Reply
    • Tea
      Tea says:

      👋🏻 JML – you are OK. Try this, take a deep breath that sucks the oxygen deep into your lungs & then slowly release that. Try that for three breaths & they do it for five minutes.

      Now, go run a hot bath/shower, cleans yourself, let the oxygen circulate in your body. Once that is done & you are well circulated, drink plenty of water.

      The pt is this – you are fine, still breathing & that is wonderful. The second pt is you need to focus on WHAT YOU CAN DO & not what you can’t. Do the things that make you feel good about yourself (this is how you build self esteem) & make you feel proud of who you are. It doesn’t have to be massive steps. Small ones will do like breathing.

      There are 24 hrs a day, 8 of which is to sleep, 2 to groom/etc, & so u really just need to make decisions for 14 – & if u don’t trust yourself to make good decisions, create good habits in small ways.

      And trust yourself. You have a great machine & that is your body & your mind. Sometimes it has glitches but deep down you know what is truly good for you. Just pay attention. Your body wants you to survive. Wants you to like yourself. Wants you to live oxygenated & full of energy to keep you going and hopefully well enough to tend after your children.

      And although they are dependent on you for care, the most important thing for your kids is for you to take care of yourself because then they don’t have to worry about you and just focus on themselves.

      This is the best gift you can give to them. You already gave the first, which is LIFE. You gave them a chance to be alive & a chance at survival. The second gift you will them is the freedom to love themselves & know that they are entitled to that love, just like you are.

      You are fine, good, OK. You deserve to be loved, with or without siblings. And you have everything necessary to survive & thrive. Inhale deeply & the exhale.

      Whenever I feel really really sad, I let myself feel sad, and then I do something to help me feel good about myself (hiking, bathe, etc). Let the endorphins enter your brain through small acts of kindness to yourself.

      I am sending you positive energy from Asia & will pray that u find the rhythm you need for success!!!

      T

      Reply
    • harris497
      harris497 says:

      JML,
      Listen to Tea, everything she says in her response to you is true. All that I add is for you to make time each day to go outside of your home environment, and get some sought of exercise. Walk, jog, go to the gym and tire yourself out, or ride a bicycle. Do something to make yourself sweat every day. This will release endorphins that will help you to think more clearly, and to feel a bit better emotionally.
      It will eventually get better, just make sure that you keep your mind clear and develop a means of venting. For me, that is exercise since my anxiety sometimes prevents me from meditating.
      Peace,
      D

      Reply
    • MBL
      MBL says:

      JML, I wish more than anything that I could give you a hug right now. Whenever I find myself enumerating why I am the world’s worst mother I realize that I have knocked myself out of the running by feeling like I am failing my daughter. There is no way in the world that the actual title holder is sitting around worrying about her kids. I think kids can forgive a LOT as long as they know you are trying. And sometimes trying is getting out of bed. And sometimes succeeding is lasting through the day in order to get back into bed.

      You asked, “But how to make myself vulnerable without feeling like I’m going to die?” And in so asking, you did. To put your feelings and fears out there to be judged takes enormous courage and absolutely shows your ability to make yourself vulnerable. Perhaps you will be able to extend it a bit into your immediate circle. Regardless, it is a good start.

      Just know that you are not alone.

      Reply
  14. Batsheva
    Batsheva says:

    I’ve suffered through the politics of this page. The keeping up with the joneses trump hate and awkward feminism and lgbt advocacy the self hatred . And again this strange presumptuousness that ones political opinions or opinions period are truth. I’ve suffered through the egotism and self doubt usually egotism the overreliance on studies the pseudoscientific personality types and while some writing has been very good all has been above average it’s not nobel prize stuff as many fans seem to think. But I have no fans so she’s certainly ahead of the game.
    Some points
    Penelope wants attention. Desperately. I think she prefers positive attention but she’ll take negative attention too. If you’re only going to post kind or sycophantic comments you may as well just write them yourself.
    Why does it matter how many times someone posts or what nicknames they use? There’s lots of redundancy here no?
    This blog is a SOAP OPERA. It’s a little Late to be giving the kids privacy. My feeling is Penelope is famous but not famous enough for this to matter. She’s not at the recognition level where an average joe will know the family business. As far as googling it do you see what the average person puts on their Facebook and the like? I’ve not hired sitters because their facebooks are awful. People WILL google you.
    Penelope I think you should try an ssri. If you’re on one and it’s not working try a new one. The body builds up a tolerance. When you get into this level of rut medication can be very helpful for lifting away the depression fog.
    Your kids are both so damn successful. Why are you beating yourself up? Nothing is ever ever ever going to be perfect. You’re Tiger mommying and it’s a road to misery. Your kids need love more than anything. They have it. Try adding two more kids. Many of us have had multiple nervous breakdowns especially homeschoolers. I’m married but much of this my hubby fails to understand. And we take out the stress on each other all too often. Having a spouse makes it easier but as you know it makes it harder too. I don’t see anything wrong with a break as long as it’s a break. Problems don’t go away. You need to face them when you feel strong enough. You have many friends and family a great career you’re very cute and healthy (physically) and your kids are awesome. Listen you can’t be superwoman all the time. Everything awesome can’t always happen. Take a breath and relax and take care of you!!!

    Reply
  15. Linda
    Linda says:

    I don’t ever comment, but this post moved me to speak. I hope you find your ground again. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you may be near the bottom and need to work back up to a higher level. Would getting traditional, paid employment help you for awhile? Having a regular paycheck, a regular routine, and some benefits may help you get back on track. Cream always rises to the top, so I don’t think it would take long for you to get back where you want to be. You have to find any means to meet your basic needs for now, and the rest will follow.

    Reply
  16. ioana
    ioana says:

    I am so happy to see you receive help from your family. It’s been a very long time that you’ve been keeping up appearances at a very, very high cost to yourself. A very big hug to you, and to your boys.

    Reply
  17. Ned
    Ned says:

    Aspergers is a bitch. If I wasn’t married to a great and understanding wife, I’d be some homeless guy. Genius can’t help you make a living if you don’t know what to do with it.

    Reply
  18. Krish
    Krish says:

    I found this blog due to an old article about your son auditioning for Juilliard. I guess I need to scroll and read, but whatever happened to him and Juilliard Pre college?

    Reply
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