How The Ice Princess Melted; autobiographical
Sad music, check. Heart-wrenching testimonials, check. The lifeless body of my cousin in the open casket before me, check. Then, “Why can’t I cry?”
At a young age, my mom nicknamed me the ice princess. By junior high, I knew I wasn’t like the other girls. For years I wondered why, when those around me were bawling, I couldn’t shed a tear. It wasn’t that I never felt sad, because I did. For some reason, I just couldn’t let it out.
There were plenty of reasons to cry. Buck teeth and glasses were just the beginning of my problems as a child. I was the class nerd, and my classmates had no reservations when it came to letting me know. That was okay though, because I came home every day to a mom who never failed to tell me how much she loved me when she was awake. Later she was diagnosed with bi-polar depression, but at the time all we knew was that she slept a lot.
“We” refers to my little brother Jimmy. He and I were very close. My relatives say that is because I spent most of my childhood raising him, but I like to think it’s because he was an all-around great kid. He was there the night I was molested by a family friend while my parents were out of town. I felt confused, violated, and taken advantage of. Jimmy was there when I tried to tell my dad what his friend had done to me. He was there when my dad refused to believe me. This would seem outrageous to most, but not to me. Mine was a family where emotions ran dry and feelings were meant to be squelched and not heard. Sad, yes. Able to cry, no.
By the time I had begun my fight against raging acne and all things adolescent, my parents decided to end their fighting with each other. In a blur of flashing red lights the police tore my brother away from us. He was to go with my mother. I would stay with my Dad. We were both scared, but neither of us cried.
Within a year my Dad, a successful business man with no lack of charisma, had found himself a new bride. A judge had awarded him custody of both of us. My Mom was too sick to take care of us, so we began a new life in Phoenix, Arizona. I spent four years there and even graduated high school with a full-ride scholarship to a local university. Things were looking up. During college is when I began to reflect on my life.
High school is about discovering who we are. College is about discovering who we want to be. The rest of our life is about becoming that person. By my senior year of college, I had decided that I wanted to be a woman who could cry if she needed to.
That summer before my senior year of college my dad surprised us with a family trip to Hawaii! To this day, I have never been to a more beautiful place. I hadn’t spent much time with my family since I moved out. I looked forward to not only spending time with them, but also the chance to observe them as a wiser, more introspective version of myself.
The first night in the hotel something happened that I will never forget. My 16-year-old brother got in an argument with my 14-year-old stepsister. What they argued about is not important. What matters is that he said the most hurtful, vindictive, heart-wrenching thing to her. Words so awful, they took my breath away and stopped me dead in my tracks. She did what any self-respecting 14-year-old girl would do, she ran crying and screaming to our parents’ room.
My brother and I stood silent, waiting for certain annihilation. Undoubtedly he was wrong, and it would only be moments until they emerged from their room to deliver his sentence.
Before my whaling sister could wheeze out her last sobbing word we heard my dad yell, “What’s wrong with you? You don’t cry! Get out of here. Leave and shut the door behind you. Don’t come back until you’re done crying!”
It was then I discovered what my soul yearned to know. Crying was a shameful behavior that was looked down upon by my family. I had blocked this out with a long list of bad memories that were better off forgotten. Now I knew what was wrong with me. I just didn’t know how to fix it.
Fast forward three years and three children later. I met a wonderful man, had two beautiful babies back-to-back, and we were living in Spokane, Washington thanks to his successful career in the United States Air Force. During this time we had made a split decision to adopt a 6-year-old girl who needed us. Her name was Brittany. On our drive up to Washington State we received a frantic call from her mother, a relative of mine, detailing the shocking story of Brittany’s abduction. Brittany’s mother had reported to Child Protective Services the case of a man who had molested her daughter during a sleep over at Brittany’s friend’s house. CPS tried to get the man who molested Brittany but never found him (he had fled the state with his daughter shortly after the report.) CPS took Brittany instead.
She was a drug baby, the victim of repeated sexual abuse, had been homeless, lived in a car, was in and out of shelters, spent six months in foster care, and now she was ours. We thought we could help her, but it was she who helped us.
The first couple of years were filled with therapy; individual counseling, group therapy, family counseling, and psychoanalysis all for Brittany. Some days it felt like it would never end. Each one began and ended the same way. We would drive 30 minutes to a small run-down building in the center of downtown. A therapist would come out, and Brittany would go in while I sat in a tiny waiting room for an hour with two restless babies wondering, what was happening behind those closed doors.
After awhile the sessions all blended together in a blurry haze of mystery and frustration on my part. In an effort to make the child feel safe to share every excruciating detail of her painful story, the therapist shares nothing with the parents. For this reason, you can understand why I was so excited to hear that the two of them had been working on a very special project that they were planning on sharing with me. It was a t-shirt painted by my daughter herself. It would be the first time anything that went into that room (besides Brittany) came out!
The two of them went on for weeks talking about how wonderful the shirt was looking, how Brittany had come up with the idea of what to paint “all-by-herself!” I imagined rainbows and butterflies in full-blown color as the anticipation continued to build. Almost a month later, it was time for the big reveal!
Brittany and her therapist walked out with huge smiles on their faces. I could hardly wait! The therapist dropped the cotton fabric, holding it by the shoulders, and it fell like a cement wall on my heart- no flowers, no hearts, no glitter, and certainly no bows. In dark blue letters, the same color as the blood now running cold through my veins, the shirt read, “It’s okay to be sad.”
Devastated, behind my supportive fake grin, I wanted to scream! At first I was embarrassed. What six-year-old girl with the chance to paint any one of a million things writes on a t-shirt, “It’s okay to be sad”? “We’ve ruined her,” I thought. “The therapist must thing we’re insane.”
My next reaction was anger. “What’s wrong with her? Why would she write something like that? She can’t wear that thing anywhere; it would be humiliating!” Children are supposed to wear shirts promoting their favorite team, color, or cartoon character; not a slogan for family issues promoting group therapy for one and all.
On the way home, I started to think not about what was wrong with her, but about what was wrong with me? “Why am I so mad?” I was angry, she was right, and I hated it.
Allowing myself or even my children to be sad was scary. Sadness made me feel weak and out of control. For a type-A control freak like me, the idea of not being in control of everything, including my emotions, seemed wrong.
All my life I had believed that being sad was wrong. I never had to say it or think it to believe it on the deepest level of my being. I struggled for 25 years to discover what Brittany had learned in only four short weeks of therapy, “It’s okay to be sad.”
I had learned years before why I couldn’t cry, and now I knew what I had to do to get to the place where I could. I had to believe what Brittany’s shirt said. Even when every fiber of my being locked together with my upbringing fought against me, I had to believe, “It’s okay to be sad.”
The first time I cried, I bawled; and not just for a minute, for hours. It was Saint Patrick’s Day. For the first time ever, I was cooking the traditional Irish meal for my family; corned beef, cabbage, and boiled potatoes, passed down by my Irish grandmother. The food needed to boil for three hours in the same pot. Three hours turned into three days due to a phone call I received during the process.
“Christy, your family has been in a severe accident,” echoed the hollow voice on the other end.
“What? What do you mean? Where are they? Are they okay?”
“No, they’ve been hurt badly.”
“But they’re alive right?”
“Not everyone survived.”
“No. Not my Dad. Tell me my Dad is alive, tell me!”
“What about Jimmy? Jimmy’s alive, right! Sweet Jimmy...”
“Who died? Who died? Tell me who died!”
“Susan didn’t make it Christy, I’m sorry.”
My family was driving through Palm Springs, California, rushing to make it in time for the birth of my step sister’s first child, they never made it. Neither did the baby. It was false labor. The tiny convertible sports car carrying my family flipped three times tossing my brother and stepsister far from the vehicle, leaving my father mangled, and my step mom lifeless in the seat next to him.
When I got on the plane the next day, I realized I may not make it to Palm Springs in time to see my brother before he went under for a life threatening surgery. I remember staring at my watch, each tick like a slam against the dam welling up in my heart for so many years. And when it became too much, I cried. As the plane landed I cried some more. As we waited through baggage claim only delaying us further, I cried even more. But never more than the moment I walked through those sterile ICU doors, seeing my brother for the first time, just laying there motionless. Screws sticking into his skull, a metal halo around his head, arms and legs strapped down, bandages everywhere. I sobbed. As the nurse informed us that he had severe spinal damage and would most likely never walk again, I sobbed. As she told us that he had no idea what was happening nor who had died and that we couldn’t tell him, I sobbed. It was okay to be sad, and I was.
Since then I’ve cried a lot. I cry at movies, I cry after arguments, and sometimes I even cry when I watch commercials. It feels great. Showing emotion is not always easy and sometimes I still wrestle with the desire to stuff down the kind of sadness that would cause me to cry in front of others. But the sadness that wells up within always finds its way to the surface eventually, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A woman who can’t cry is like a winter with no snow. As a girl who grew up in the dessert, I would know. The heart dries up, and the spirit dies. Tears are water for the soul. My new found ability to express sadness, has made me the happiest I have ever been. The Ice Princess has melted.