Antioch—Part V. Slaying Demons and Dragons

“Dr. Leonard, I know that you’ll be shocked when I tell you my secret. You probably won’t like me anymore.” With a flushed face and racing heart, I confessed.

“I’m not a very intelligent person. I’m actually pretty dumb. I’ve just been pretending that I’m smart most of my life. I’m a good actress and have everyone convinced that I’m smart.”

Dr. Leonard looked puzzled. “What are you talking about, Erica? Of course you’re intelligent. You’re very intelligent. I read your file. You took honors courses in high school and got straight A’s. I read the enthusiastic letters of recommendation that your teachers wrote. You’re doing very well academically with excellent evaluations from your college professors. And you have the distinction of speaking several foreign languages. There’s no way to fake those kinds of achievements. I think—”

I interrupted, “My sisters skipped grades because school was too easy for them. They went to college when they were sixteen and got big scholarships. One sister is in graduate school at Harvard and a second sister is at Yale. A third sister, Susie, scored so high on her IQ test that Mensa invited her to join their exclusive high IQ society.

“As for me, I only got small scholarships for college. And I never skipped any grades. I wasn’t smart enough. I had to work hard in school. My sisters could read a thick book in a day or two. It takes me many days to read a book. And I never dared to take an IQ test. I didn’t want to know.

“My sisters were the intellectuals in the family. I was the athlete, tall and strong—with the weaker brain. My brother, John, liked to taunt me by calling me an ‘Amazon,’ with a tone of disdain, especially after we had physical fights that I won.

“Somehow I managed to fool everyone into thinking that I was really smart—everyone except my family,” I stated with conviction.

Dr. Leonard had a bemused look on his face. He asked me to give him examples of times when I first began feeling stupid. I had a hard time remembering specific incidences. The feelings of being stupid and not good enough pervaded my entire childhood.

After some moments of silent reflection, I remembered that my younger brother, John, called me a stupid idiot during fights and often made fun of me.

I recounted an incident that happened when I was eleven years old and John was eight. I heard him talking to one of his friends about World War II. He mentioned that he had read in a history book about a war hero who was hit by shrapnel. I interrupted the conversation and asked John who Shrapnel was. He said that Shrapnel was a famous general in World War II and then burst out laughing and called me stupid because I hadn’t heard of shrapnel. He said that I had a small vocabulary. Humiliated, I asked my father if he knew General Shrapnel. He said that there was no such person.

As Dr. Leonard cleared his throat, I saw him purse his lips to suppress a smile.

“I remember something else that really hurt my feelings. My father liked to do outdoor activities with me, like hiking and boating. He treated me like his buddy. One time when he took me sailing, I did something that almost made us tip over. He said harshly, ‘Don’t be so stupid, Rickie.’ My father was my hero and even he thought that I was stupid.”

Dr. Leonard intercepted the case I was making to convince him of my stupidity. He pointed out that I took literally what my family had said to me as a young girl. He asked me if I had ever called someone “stupid” simply out of anger or frustration—without meaning that they were literally stupid. I acknowledged that I had. In fact, I had called my brother “stupid” on quite a few occasions. But, my brother never believed for a second that he was stupid.

Dr. Leonard told me that if I spent my time comparing my intellect to that of my sisters, I would overlook my own unique strengths and my own kind of intelligence, and that I would never have the pleasure of appreciating who I am.

Because I totally trusted Dr. Leonard, I took his words to heart and considered the possibility that I might be genuinely intelligent after all.

It was time to move on to another topic. “Tell me more about your brother George,” Dr. Leonard said. “You haven’t spoken much about him during our sessions.”

“George and I, we both have something wrong with our brains. He has these little seizures where he stares off into space for a few seconds. His brain waves were tested and showed that he has petit mal seizures. It’s a kind of epilepsy. I think that I have the same problem because I stare off into space sometimes too. In fact, my friend and classmate in high school, John O’Connor, even noticed how I stare off sometimes. He said that I looked like I was thinking about something very deep. He thought I had a deep mind. I let him believe that.”

“But that could be just simple daydreaming. Did you ever get a recording of your brain waves—an electroencephalogram—to see if you really do have seizures?” he asked.

“No. I don’t want to get tested because I don’t want to know,” I said with my eyes cast downward.

“I’m going to insist that you get an EEG. I’ll call the neurologist and schedule it for next week. We have to get to the bottom of these fears you have. I suspect there’s no basis for them.”

“Well, even if I don’t have epilepsy, I know that I’m just like George in other ways too.”

Dr. Leonard looked intrigued. “Tell me why you think you’re like him.” He looked at the clock and said, “It’s okay if we go over the hour today. You’re my last patient.”

“I didn’t see much of George growing up. Of all my sisters and brothers, I saw him the least. He was sent away to boarding schools most of his early years.

“My older sisters were sent to boarding schools too. My mother wanted them to get the best possible education.

“One time, when we lived in England, George ran away from boarding school when he was nine years old. He was homesick and tired of being hit at school. It makes me cry just thinking about it.”

Dr. Leonard interrupted, “Where in the order of your siblings did your brother fall? Was he the oldest?”

“George is the third child, after Vreni and Jackie. My parents referred to that first batch of three as the war babies. They called Susie, John, and I the postwar babies. My mother said that George was conceived just before my father left for the war. I bet that George was affected in the womb by my mother’s constant worrying.

“Mummy had come to America after she married my father in a tiny chapel high on the Matterhorn in Switzerland just before the war broke out. During the war she raised her three babies virtually alone, while living with my father’s mother who pressured her to do things “the American way,” like bottle-feeding the babies, since that was the modern thing to do. My grandmother told her that only poor and uneducated people still breastfed. My mother resisted and breastfed in spite of her mother-in-law’s disapproval. She told me that she felt totally alone and overwhelmed. At one point during the pregnancy with George, she received news that my father had died in battle. She grieved her loss, heartbroken and fearful. A few weeks passed before that information was proven to be false.

“When she went into labor, the last stage went awry. George’s head got stuck in the birth canal. As time passed, there was evidence that he wasn’t getting enough oxygen because the heart rate began to drop. The gynecologist understood the urgency of the moment and forcefully pulled George’s head from the birth canal with forceps.

“My father came back from the war when George was almost three. When they met for the first time, George was terrified of him. He ran and hid behind my mother each time my father approached him in his uniform. They never formed a father-son bond.

“George was sensitive and shy. Some of us younger kids teased him mercilessly. I could see him withdraw even deeper into himself. My mother was the only one who showed some real understanding and compassion toward George in those early years. While she freely hit her daughters, she never laid a hand on either of her sons.

“After being in his second boarding school in the Swiss Alps, George came home to our family as a teenager to continue school in the States. School was difficult for George, especially math, a subject my father had taught before the war when he tutored MIT students. My father tried to tutor George, but repeatedly lost his patience when George couldn’t come up with answers to the questions and just stared into space. My father had no understanding that George was doing the best he could. But he did understand that George disliked him.

At one point, the math tutoring in the dining room degenerated into a near brawl. My father hit George and then chased him around the table where they had been working. I screamed at my father to stop. He stopped in his tracks, sobered by my screams. He left the house and spent the rest of the evening alone in the garage at the far end of the back yard. When it began to get late and he didn’t come back into the house, my mother told me to go and get him. He told me how sorry he was for his behavior. But he needed to say those words to George. I don’t think he ever did.

“That was when I realized that if I wasn’t smart enough, or if I had a handicap, no one would love me, not even my father, and that I would be treated the way George was treated in our family. I got really scared that deep down I had the same problems as George. I vowed to keep those thoughts a secret. I reassured myself that I was a good actress and I could keep the secret safe inside me.”

After recounting the story, I began to sob inconsolably. I felt a wave of deep sorrow wash over me. Dr. Leonard let me cry and then asked, “What about the seizures?”

“My parents finally began to wonder if something was wrong with George’s brain and made an appointment with a top-notch neurologist in the area. When George’s electroencephalogram was reviewed and compared with my sister Jackie’s EEG that had been obtained for comparison, it was clear that George had a type of epilepsy commonly known as ‘petit mal’ or absence seizures. They speculated that it was caused at birth when his oxygen supply was cut off, and then he had the added trauma of being pulled forcefully by forceps from the birth canal.

“The seizures happened many times throughout the day, and every few minutes when George was tired or stressed. His seizures were only visible if you looked carefully. They lasted a few seconds. During those moments, George had a blank look on his face. Sometimes his eyes rolled slightly backwards or the eyelids fluttered. At the moment of the seizures, all the information in his brain was discharged, gone. No wonder he had trouble in school. The neurologist prescribed medication that helped make the seizures less frequent.”

Dr. Leonard asked, “So, why is it that you think you have seizures?”

“Well, I stare off into space sometimes and I lose track of what I’m doing. I thought that maybe I was having the kind of little seizures that George has.”

Just as I said those words, something big released within me. Exposing my deep secrets for the first time to the light of day made them lose their power over me. In fact, I laughed out loud with the realization that the fear of the consequences of not being good enough or smart enough had resulted in a crazy, irrational conviction that had informed much of my life.

Dr. Leonard reassured me, “You saw how George was treated and you became terrified that you would be treated the same way. Kids do all sorts of things to win their parents’ love when it’s not offered unconditionally.

“Unfortunately, we need to end here. We’ve gone an extra hour beyond the scheduled time. I have to get home. My wife will wonder where I am. We’ll talk more about this at our next session.”

I wondered what other misperceptions, misunderstandings and mistakes from childhood were driving my life and needed to be discharged into the light of day.

I eventually got the EEG that, as Dr. Leonard predicted, was entirely normal.

The Merriam family, 1954, in England. Vreni, George, and Jackie—”the war babies”—in the back. Susie, John, and Rickie—”the post war babies”—in the front. I was six years old at that time.

 

Comments

Antioch—Part V. Slaying Demons and Dragons — 20 Comments

  1. Your family story dramatically proves what i’ve learned that fathers get along better with daughters and mothers with sons. I guess the parent of the same gender as the child believes that the child is a reflection of them. And not being of the same gender frees the parent to care for the opposite gender child without that projection. Note the movie Sophie’s Choice. Don’t know if i learned this or figured it out.
    I’ve very much appreciated your candor about your life. And what a life. I’ve the good fortune of getting to know you a bit, Though it’s unlikely that you’ll ever meet me. No matter.
    I hope you can pull this together as a book.
    Sincerely
    KK

    • It’s so lovely to hear from you, Karl. Thanks for sharing your astute observations about mother-son and father-daughter dynamics. It’s so true what you say. Maybe we will meet someday after all. Blessings, Erica

  2. So deeply touched by your suffering and your awakening transformation. I feel so priveledged to be privy to these words you weave magicically, bestowing your wise woman healing to all of us through them. Sending love from Portugal,

    • Magda, you always write such thoughtful comments—this time all the way from Portugal!! With love, Erica

  3. Wow….like all these comments ,show. Wow to you with all that in your circular family dynamic to figure out. Like us your friends and patients and family, I think, with you the humble example in these words you write for each of us to know for ourselves as you do/did.
    Why you are doing this I think and know. My hummers are lovely and still trying to tell me something …….probably, when are you Jim going to finally wake up to what is real and hard to control……thought I had. Still miles to go it seems but I am better with this as I age for its process…….love again.

    • Sometimes there’s a very big silver lining to aging. It gives us perspective and the potential to have radical acceptance of who we are. I always appreciate your comments, Jim. Love, Erica

  4. Growing up and growing inwardly is hard to do, but essential. You made a good choice in working with your doctor–he sounds like a good, insightful and compassionate person. Your family picture has me wondering, which one is Veet, why does George have what looks like a book in his hand, why is Susie dressed in black and the other girls in white blouses. A beautiful family. Thanks again for your stories.

    • In those days, psychiatrists actually talked to their patients and didn’t just give out pills. I was very fortunate to have had this incredible opportunity come to me at such an early age. I would have NEVER chosen to see a psychiatrist on my own. For that reason, I’m so grateful that I had a breakdown and was forced to see Dr. Leonard.

      George is probably holding onto a book for comfort or security. He loved to read. Veet’s birth name is Susie. She’s on the left. I have no idea why she had on a black dress. Thanks for your comments, Benette. Love, Erica

  5. Dearest Erica,
    What a beautiful and important story you are telling here….What tyranny we wreak on ourselves until we see what’s happening!
    Love, Heidi

    • It’s so liberating when we can finally free ourselves from the tyranny, as you say. It was so fortunate that I had the breakdown that led to Dr. Leonard. Love you, E

  6. Oh, Erica, how deep the wounds of doubt and misguided beliefs imprint on us during childhood….I am so grateful to you for growing into the wise healer you are. Your guidance for me and my family has been the best. Thank you for your courage and honesty and for your stories.

    • Thank you so much. Susan. It’s been my hope that, by being totally transparent about my life, that the stories will have some sort of potential healing for the readers who can identify with some of the wounding that is an inevitable part of childhood for many of us. With the wounding comes the potential for transformation. Without my wounds, I would not have the depth of understanding of the human condition to help others. Again, thank you for your feedback. With love, Erica

  7. P.S. We were living in Atlanta when my first born, Anne, came along.
    My mother-in-law…a beautiful, prissy, Southern belle….was horrified when I breastfed Anne.
    She thought that was something poor blacks and peasants did because they couldn’t afford anything else.
    Starting after, about, the first month she would ask me, “You weanin’ that little girl yet?”
    After six months she gave up.
    I nursed Anne for a full year 🙂 🙂

    • How fortunate that you were able to think for yourself! Sometimes being stubborn can be a real virtue. Love you, Rickie

  8. I’m glad you confessed your “big secret” to Dr. Leonard so you could let go of all those misperceptions lodged inside it. Heartbreaking–I’m sending hugs with this comment!

  9. Rickie, Rickie, Rickie……
    You and Susie–along with Katie—-were the smartest girls I ever knew. And Maria Gayle 🙂
    How terrible that you could not have known that; or at least have had some inkling.
    I hope you do now. But, best of all….is your good heart. Of what use is all that brain power without a good heart?
    Now, I would call you one of the Goodest People I’ve ever known.
    xoxox

    • Thank you so much for your comments, Deane. I do realize now that I am blessed with a head and heart that are hooked up and operate together. It’s ok that I’m not Einstein. I’ve come to realize that I’m good enough as I am. I have what it takes to give love and kindness and help to my patients and my friends and family—and that’s what counts. I am fulfilling my life’s purpose. With much love, Rickie

  10. Very touching! I love these stories of your upbringing – down to the bones……Love, Traude

    • “Down to the Bones,” certainly describes this, Traude. The older I get, the easier it is to tell the whole truth, not just cherry-picked truth. After the huge suffering I endured, I was stripped of all pretense, need to be right, need to be the best, need to have all the answers, need to make a good impression–it left me with the pure essentials of life, like an open heart, being fully transparent, loving unconditionally. That’s the silver lining from that nightmare. I really appreciate your comments, Traude. With love, Erica