My youngest daughter asked me an unusual question today. She asked, “Mom, how come you turned out so normal?” We were in the car, and her question came out of the blue. She knows little about my history. It’s not as if I sit around the house talking about the good ol’ days when I was in captivity. How inappropriate would that be? I asked her why she asked me that question. She replied, “Well, your mom and dad weren’t nice to you, were they? How come you know how to be nice to us? How come you’re a good mom when you didn’t have one?”
I was stunned. That’s a very perceptive question coming from a 10 year-old on the autism spectrum, but I’ve found that my daughter’s autism can increase her awareness at times. She makes connections that other kids her age do not, and she doesn’t feel afraid to ask blunt questions. Funnily enough, I have been asked her question many, many times.
Why are you so normal when so many horrible things have happened to you?
Sometimes what I really think people are asking is, “How fucked up are you really? Are you just hiding it better than the rest of us?”
Well, my daughter was not going to let me off the hook. She expected an answer to her question, and, you know, she deserved one. If she had the boldness to ask, then I ought to have the guts to answer her. So, I thought about it. I wanted to tell her the truth in a way that would make sense to her while also protecting her innocence. I also wanted to teach her something. This moment mattered. This is what I heard leave my mouth:
“Well, have you ever invited friends over for a playdate, and your friends just destroyed your room? They pulled books off your bookshelf, unmade your bed, broke a toy, deleted a few things off your computer that you really liked, pulled clothes out of your drawers, ate food in your room leaving crumbs everywhere, and then when it was time to leave they just left without helping you clean up the mess they made? Has anything like that ever happened to you?
Well, sort of, yeah. One of Grace’s friends did that not too long ago, and she even deleted stuff that I really liked off my computer! She didn’t even ask to use it, Mom! And she left a big mess in my room! I was really mad at her. I even asked her to help me clean it up and she just ignored me. That’s rude, isn’t it?
Yes, it is rude. So, you’re left with this big mess. You didn’t make the mess, right? But, whose room is it?
It’s my room.
Whose mess is it?
Well…I don’t know. I didn’t make the mess.
No, but the mess is in your room. So, whose responsibility is it to clean up that mess?
I guess it’s mine even though it’s not fair.
No, it’s not. In no way is it fair or right, and you can be mad and hurt and sad. You can stand up and shake your fist at the mess and yell, ‘I did not make this mess! I should not have to clean this up! This is wrong!’ But, in the end, it is your room and your responsibility to clean it–even though you didn’t make the mess. It’s still your room so you need to clean it up so that you can live in it and enjoy it. This is like me. My parents made a mess in my life when they were not nice to me. Just like some kids make messes because they were never taught how to clean up after themselves, some adults make messes in their children’s lives because their parents made messes in their lives. They’ve never learned how to clean up a mess. Some kids make messes because they don’t care. Some adults don’t care either. Some kids make messes because they’ve learned selfishness. Some adults are the same. And, sadly, there are some mean people in the world, too. Regardless of why people make messes, when a person leaves a mess behind either in our rooms or in our lives, it’s still our responsibility to clean it up so that we can live a good life. We can’t enjoy our lives if we’re living in a mess. Some people whine about the messes and never clean them up. Some people focus on the mess and learn to hate it. Their hatred becomes bigger than the mess, and they never end up cleaning up the original mess. Their hatred makes the mess even bigger! Some people blame the people who left the mess or blame themselves, but they never get around to cleaning anything up either. So, really, if you want to be healthy, you have to clean up the messes in your life regardless of who put them there without blaming, hating, and whining because, in the end, it’s your room and your life. No one else’s. We want a good life. We want a clean room. We do whatever it takes to make sure that there are no messes lying around even if the messes we find were never left by us. Make sense?
Actually, yes, that does. I understand now.”
It’s a good metaphor. It works. It is the answer to the question: Why are you normal? I’d rather substitute ‘healthy’ for ‘normal’ because what does normal mean? My normal is probably different from your normal. We all have to define what our sense of normal is going to be and go from there. After that, however, we have to get to work. That’s about as black and white as it will ever be, and I’m someone who really enjoys gray.
I meet a lot of people who don’t ever progress in their healing process because they won’t own the messes in their lives. They sit in their metaphorical rooms and allow those messes to overwhelm them. They get stuck in some kind of negative thinking be it cognitive distortions, self-loathing, blame, emotional disregulation, denial, or willfulness. They stare at the messes, point at them, and declare,
“I should not have to deal with this! I didn’t do this. Why did this happen? I’m not cleaning this up! They should clean this up! It’s all their fault! Why me? Why now? How am I supposed to do this? Am I such a terrible person that all this should be left to me to do? Am I being punished? What did I do to deserve such a horrible mess?!”
In the midst of all this negative thinking, nothing is being done. The messes are still there and, most likely, expanding and trapping us all the more. Bottom line? It’s our room. It’s our life ergo it’s our mess. Radical acceptance requires that we stop asking why or when or what if.
So, we accept it. We accept it all. We stop fighting our current reality and assess the damage. Take an honest look at the messes and stop assigning blame. This is really the first step in letting go of that crippling victim mentality and stepping into the healing stream.
We have to commit to cleaning up all the messes in our lives regardless of who put them there. Before you can clean them up, you have to accept that those messes now belong to you–even if you didn’t put them there. It’s your pain. It’s your injury. It’s your life. It’s your room.
We clean up our rooms even if we didn’t make the mess. That requires radical acceptance sometimes. And radical acceptance is one of the core concepts of DBT.
Welcome to DBT.