My father lit up any time my sister entered the room, all smiles and beaming blue eyes. He loved his beautiful daughter.
It was my name he kept repeating as he was dying. He wanted to know where I was, even when I was holding his hand. After speaking for he and my mother for so long, he wanted me to find my own voice.
“He always felt so safe when you were around,” my sister told me.
I never thought I was taking care of my mother. I thought I was helping my father take care of my mother. I knew how she worked, making demands without understanding the cost of those demands.
And I knew how my father spent his life struggling to comply with those demands. Up until his last six months in the hospital, he always told he he would get better and do what she wanted, work to make her happy, even though 89 years proved that was task no one could achieve.
I was here for the last decade to make sure that my mother didn’t kill my father with her demands.
That meant I was safe, from cleaning him up in a restroom when he shit his pants to sitting with him all night in emergency rooms. I made sure that he felt safe, that there was someone who was taking care of him, someone working hard to fight his battles. “Saving Mr. Banks,” indeed.
I loved doing it, I really did, as much as it shattered and infuriated me. His returning to the notion that if I was just more like him, I could succeed, my mother’s constant self-centred distress, and then the battles where they just missed the point, it all tore me up.
But I was there, for a decade, making sure that they felt safe. And when I wasn’t there and someone let them get hurt — that picnic where my sister let my father fall off the scooter and break his back — the cost and distress to me was high, very very high.
I know that I will never, ever have anyone who works to keep me safe. My sister has promised to do that, of course, but the number of promises she has broken let me know that all I should expect from her are shards on the ground. She wants to feel safe with me there — the last time when I escorted her to the plastic surgeon for removing squamous cell cancer — but she has no idea how to keep me safe.
The world feels very, very unsafe to me. I grew up in a minefield, laced with stigma, ego and people who just couldn’t understand. The “third gotcha” defined my experience of the world. Safety was never something my parents gave to me, with an unstable mother and a father who was sweet but clueless, so it was something I had to give to them.
My dream was always someone else to share the driving, someone who would make safe space for me. My own Star Trek moment was when Lwaxana Troi cradled shapeshifter Odo in her lap when he had to go back to gel form and didn’t have his own space. He was safe. When TBB and I were on stage together as The Drama Queens, we had each other’s back, which made it feel like a safe space to let loose.
At this holiday season, the only place that feels even a little bit safe is in this basement. Maybe that’s why I have spent the last two weeks inside, battling infection, not even going out to shop for food.
It’s my last Christmas in this house. I know that, even if every other fact is invisible to me. Whatever bit of safety I do feel in this decaying bunker is disappearing, and very soon.
I have rescued the people I love, doing that will all my energy and life force. Is there anyone to rescue me right back? I very much doubt it. My own queerness, empathy and hard won healing lets me walk into other people’s worlds, help them feel seen and safe enough to heal, but it also leaves me alone, with no one who gets the joke.
Other people want to be sweet, loving, kind and safe, but they each have their limits. They have their own lives, their own healing, their own priorities to attend. Those limits are the limits of what they can do, limits of the safety they can offer.
The struggle to find safety inside of ourselves is a challenge for everyone in the world. Faith helps, but so does the long ago experience of feeling safe in the world, that sense that safety is possible somewhere. Somehow, that experience is lost to me.
My first post in this blog was about how, in a 2005 Thanksgiving grace, my mother valued my sister for who she was, but valued me for what I did for her. My value was in duty, not in beauty or in essence, so who I am I, how safe am I, if I express my nature rather than doing my duty?
My experience is of a world of scarcity, which is almost by definition a scary world. I spent a lot of effort trying to build intrinsic safe space (1994), which let me learn to be safe for other people, letting go of my manipulative defences. being post therapy was my only choice, even in a world where recovery is not highly valued. I know that other people’s intention to be safe is sweet, but that the limits of their safety are the limits of their own awareness and healing. They may have a loving intention, but that does not make them safe.
I know how to make other people feel safe in the world. People respond to that ability, opening up and knowing that I am unsquickable and safe.
Feeling safe in the world seems to escape me, though. It’s just not deep enough in my experience to trust. This learning to trust isn’t something I can do by myself. In my tender state, it’s too easy to feel every slip as a slash, to feel every inadvertent bruise as a bomb. I have learned to not expose myself, learned to fall into myself, but that also means I have learned not to get the support, caring and love that I need. Humans aren’t meant to be alone.
The opposite of feeling safe is feeling terror. I know that the world requires risk, that nothing is safe, but feeling always unsafe means that it becomes hard to work the process, get out there and do the work that can bring reward.
I am proud of making my family feel safe in the world, of taking care of them.
But I am also very, very tired of feeling unsafe in the world, with no hope of safety.