Sunday, January 29, 2023

You Go First


I am back in the loft, a sliver of space tucked above my resting place. I am cradled in memories - some close, some faded, most tragic, all haunting and begging to be sketched into the landscape of my life. 

I am three days shy of completing my first-ever Dry January. I have a lot more time on my hands now that drinking is not something I do. I have filled this time with online MasterClasses from authors I admire, and by writing. I am especially inspired by David Sedaris's class. His wit and humility motivate me. 

It is too soon to write about my dead cat, and I'm not feeling bold enough to write about the advances of a stranger in an adjacent New Orleans hotel room, or about Dick - a Match date that ended curtly. 

Today, I leave behind days of grey skies and rewind to the blaze of summer. 


A friend suggested I attend a weeklong, personal growth retreat aimed at identifying negative behaviors learned in childhood. "You go first," she urged.

Based on the limited information I found online, I was extremely apprehensive. There were assignments that needed to be completed before arrival - endless questions about the structure of my childhood. I found this daunting and pointless. "This question is STUPID!" I answered repeatedly, like a defiant teenager.

We were instructed to give up alcohol one month prior (I arrived with a slight hangover), abstain from sexual stimulation (I packed lube), and agree to eat three meals a day. This was challenging because I conditioned myself to eat only during a 4-hour period of time, typically at the end of the day. During our stay here, we would have no contact with the outside world - no WIFI, cell phone, music, TV, or communication with family, friends, or work. There would be no sleep aids and no reading material other than the propaganda they provided. This concerned me as I relied heavily on audiobooks to turn off my brain and knock me unconscious.

Even the title of this process was triggering. Without identifying the institution, it is named after a man whose last name is the same as my estranged mother. It is the same name as the stepbrother who molested me as a child, and it is the same as a man who ghosted me - uncovering a sea of insecurity one frivolous summer at Burning Man. It was written on the binders, in big bold letters, that we would reference and carry during the week. It was on the top of every page of reading material we were given. It was on the pens we gripped, and the lanyards we wore around our necks. It was EVERYWHERE.

There were twenty-four of us at this rustic, Connecticut retreat - nine men and fifteen women. We were identified by our childhood nicknames. When I volunteered this information during the pre-processing, I had no idea they would identify me as such. Molly was what my father called me but hearing strangers call me this was unsettling. I quickly colored over my nametag and insist I be called by my birth name, Shannon.

Last names and occupations were off limits, but I sensed most of us, if not all, were emotionally depleted, Type A personalities, driven by our careers. I would later learn the youngest in attendance was 23, and the oldest was 83. I was the second oldest at 63. I immediately felt inferior when I was unable to hold a cross-legged position seated on the floor, and I assessed everyone by the ease they could get off the floor. I took the longest but from her scars, I could tell the 83-year-old had two new knees.

There were those who liked the sound of their voice - eager to raise their hands and volunteer, and others who hid in their shadows. I found it difficult to focus on anything that was said or taught and doodled feverishly to stay awake.

At times, they broke us into three teams of eight, with an assigned teacher. My teacher was a tall, thin, artsy-looking, age-appropriate-by-dating-standards man from Canada, who matched his shoes and glasses to his brightly patterned, button-down collared shirts. With him was a soft-spoken male assistant who was in training. During our first two-on-one, I let them know I didn't take direction well from men and loathed the idea of someone practicing on me.

When we were not in session, we were eating cafeteria-style meals or acting out assignments. Most of the time, especially early in the week, everything was done in silence. At one point we were called together with a sense of urgency. Seated in a large circle, we were reminded that sexual activity was strictly prohibited. "Who's having sex?!?" I cried out in a harsh, demanding tone. It wasn't that I was appalled, rather, I was jealous as there were many fuckable men in this group of high achievers.

As the week progressed there was nowhere to hide. Our resistance was broken. By witnessing the heart-wrenching release of our trauma we developed deep-seated, soul connections and valued friendships.

To my surprise, I walked away with a deeper understanding of my mother after completing an assignment instructing us to script a dialogue with our parents as children. I wrote from the eyes of a 12-year-old, the age my mother was when her mother died. Bits of information I was told or overheard growing up came to mind as I focused on her turbulent upbringing.

My grandmother died of a brain tumor at the age of 36 and my mother became the primary caregiver to her 3 younger brothers. My mother blamed her father for the tumor, stating that he would often beat her.

My parents divorced when I was only two. My mother said my father had a terrible temper and that he made us kids nervous. After their divorce, we moved to Northeastern, PA to be raised near her brothers and their families. As adults, my sisters moved to Vermont and my mother followed. I, always a Daddy's girl, moved back to Connecticut to be near my father.

The breakdown in the relationship with my mother began shortly after my double breast cancer diagnosis which correlated with the death of my father. The estate was divided evenly between both of his daughters but the business, which I had taken over back in the late 1990's, and my sister had no involvement in, was left to me. In the immediate aftermath, my sister hired a forensic accountant to review his estate. Everything was in order.

When I informed my mother of the double gene mutation I inherited that caused my cancers - an inability to suppress tumor growth - she refused to validate the medical science and to the best of my knowledge, none of my remaining siblings or relatives on my mother's side, have been tested as recommended.

The last memory I have of my mother is hearing her warm, engaging "hello" when I called her home, followed by the abrupt click of the phone when she realized it was me. She died 5 days later. If there was a funeral, I was not invited.

What I uncovered in the aftermath of this intense therapy, is that my mother would have had to forgive her father if she were to accept the science behind my cancer. The tumor that grew inside her mother's skull was most likely due to the same genetic mutation I have.

She carried her truth, including resistance to male authority, with her for her entire life. She was loyal to her family but saw my alliance with my father as a betrayal. She was not evil but she was bitter. Her angst was her shield. She did the best she could with the skills she had.

I went first. I ended the story we tell ourselves when we cast blame. I forgave and I healed. I did this not only for myself but for future generations. There is no need to punish or perpetuate the pains of our youth. We are free to live our lives as best as we know how. To walk in love and gratitude. 



Thank You For Encouraging My Joy of Writing

Thank You For Encouraging My Joy of Writing

Shannon E. Kennedy


Photo by Joan Harrison