About four years into our marriage, bickering was at an all time high. I suppose it was the cumulative effects of a cross-country move, Bill’s new job, my return to the workforce, and all the other realities of being a dual-academic career couple with a toddler and an infant. At our second or third session, the counselor observed, “Boy, blame is really important with you two.” He was an astute fellow: Bill and I devoted most of our arguing to determining who was to blame for a given situation rather than figuring out a solution to the problem.
For the past eight months, I have made a full-time job out of blaming myself for my situation: if I had only followed my instincts and not done the chemo, if only I could eat more, if only I hadn’t gone to Florida and caught a virus, if only I had insisted on TPN instead of the feeding tube, if only, if only, if only. I had made a sport out of whipping myself and I didn’t know how to stop.
While I could look at my situation as a former clinician and see that I was not at all responsible for the rapid decline in my health, I could not change the way I felt. I felt I was to blame somehow. If only I had zigged when I zagged, then everything would have been fine. “Why didn’t you trust your instincts?” I asked myself over and over. “This is all your fault. If you would just eat more, if you would just start taking walks again, things will get better,” I tell myself several times a day. But then I walk 10 feet to the bathroom and back, quickly becoming out of breath. Still the need for blame persists.
On Tuesday morning my therapist finally admitted to me, “I wish I knew how to stop you from being so hard on yourself.” Being hard on myself is how I have achieved almost everything in life. I always expected a lot of myself though not in a mean way. I just set my standards high. It was functional for a long time, but now it has morphed into a process of self-flagellation that is making a bad situation worse. I knew on Tuesday that somehow I had to stop playing the blame game for good.
Tuesday night Amelia and I were watching Season 1 of Little House on the Prairie. Amelia discovered the Laura Ingalls Wilder books last year and read every one. For several months all Amelia talked about was Laura Ingalls Wilder. Every conversation, no matter how seemingly unrelated led back to Laura Ingalls Wilder. In researching the author’s life for a school project, Amelia discovered that Laura’s mother was born in Bill’s hometown, which made her positively giddy. As if that wasn’t enough, she also learned that Laura’s older sister Mary was named Mary Amelia. I have to admit that after several months of entertaining this obsession I was beginning to wish that Laura Ingalls had never put pen to paper.
Amelia is no longer obsessed with Laura Ingalls so I decided to start renting the TV shows from Netflix. Amelia and I have been watching them together and, I must admit, they are even more wonderful than I remembered. While Charles and Caroline, the parents, are portrayed as kind and loving parents, they are no means caricatures of perfect parenting. All the characters are realistically portrayed and the themes translate into modern life beautifully. The pacing of the show is much slower than modern shows, which is surprisingly refreshing.
And then, of course, there’s Michael Landon. Clearly I was prepubescent when I watched this show in prime time because I do not remember noticing him. But, good God, he was one handsome fellow; he’s got that dark and stormy thing going that I just love! And there’s a gratuitous shirtless scene in every other episode, which just fans the flames of my desires. (We explained gratuitous to the kids at dinner the other night and Bill described it as “not necessary.” He then went on to explain, “They just had him take his shirt off for the mommies watching the show.” Indeed!) I’m so overwhelmed by his attractiveness that I practically drool for the entire episode. This irritates Amelia highly.
On Tuesday night we watched an episode in which Charles and Caroline allow Laura to adopt a baby raccoon against their better judgment. Eventually the raccoon bites the family dog and Laura, but Laura makes Mary, her older sister, promise not to tell. The following evening a raccoon raids the hen house and Charles discovers and kills the rabid animal. Charles later notices the bite mark on the dog and ties him up out back to observe him for signs of rabies. When Mary discovers the reason that the dog is tied up, she divulges Laura’s secret. After a trip to Doc Baker, the family learns that the dog will become rapid within 8 days and, if he does, Laura will develop the illness within 3-4 weeks. If she develops the disease, there is no treatment.
In the next several scenes everyone in the family is riddled with guilt for their role in the unfortunate turn of events. The girls cry and blame themselves aloud while Charles and Caroline merely look beside themselves with grief and culpability. As I watched them struggle, I realized the real power behind blame. If there is someone to blame, then someone is responsible, and if someone is responsible, then the event is subject to control. If it can be done, perhaps it can be undone.
For months I have been sitting here blaming myself not because I truly believe it is my fault but because I want so desperately to believe that I can fix this somehow. I want so much to believe that all will be well if I just zig at the right time, make the right choice, or take the right medication.
What underlies blame is a belief that we humans have control. Sometimes we do, but probably far less often than we would like to think. I think I can finally let go of the blame now that I realize that it was just a corollary to the fallacy that I am in control of my destiny. And I hope I can reorient all that misdirected energy to something useful for a change.