Looking For Gold
We all break at some point in our lives. Unfortunately for me, mine came much too soon and for all the world to see. It began very early with the silent and subtle hairline fissures inflicted deep within me from the invisible wounds of my childhood. I grew up in a family where the state of my existence in a large part was much like that of a quantum particle. Popping in and out of reality only when I was observed or measured in the eyes of others.
And in those times in between when I wasn’t I felt like Schrodingers’s Cat suspended in a never world of quasi existence. Feeling transparent most of the time had its uses though. As it allowed me to quickly disappear back into my own imaginary world whenever my father erupted into one of his temper tantrums immediately followed by the emotional hole he crawled into. Each time however it would cast such an oppressive pall over my whole family. Naturally, I quickly learned to walk on egg shells around him hoping to avoid setting off another one of his emotional bomb shells.
As if by some invisible force my family seemed to be held captive in a union of co-conspirators living under an oath of silence. Nothing was ever overt or transparent in my family, every important discussion and decision was made under the cloak of secrecy which was in fact the permanently closed door of my parents’ bedroom. It’s so strange to describe but I really struggle to recall a real heart to heart with either one of my parents. We could talk about intellectual topics but anything to do with our feelings was virtually taboo. I suppose because my sister Glennis and I excelled academically my parents must have assumed that our lessons we learned at school would be sufficient enough for us to get ahead in life. It was like growing up with your neighbors, you know, like discussing the weather or the latest news or sports score… Ironically nothing has changed… It still remains just the same today….
Through the power of my family’s subconscious agreement to uphold the silence and keep the secrets locked away from us was definitely a psychologically toxic environment which could only sow the seeds of a similar kind. Surrounded by the many whispers and the constant secrecy of my parents meant one thing to me, there must be a lot to be afraid of. Using the pretence of protecting us from the world they actually made me more fearful of it. This whole element of fear which I grew up in was so very implicit and subtle. It was so intangible in nature but nevertheless pervasive and real to me. Nothing was directly implied or expressed I simply picked it up by osmosis. Not once was I ever threatened or physically mistreated but then again it was completely unnecessary as obedience was in my DNA.
This unspoken and unaddressed fear which took up permanent residence within me was so insidiously dangerous because it festered far below any level of my conscious awareness. So much so that when I was only 3 I fell off a table which I had just climbed onto and in the process broke my left elbow in 2 places. Instead of running to my
mother I immediately rushed off and hid fearing that I would be in trouble. My mother eventually found me whimpering in a closet with my left arm dangling down at a strange angle…
Looking For Gold
This inherited fear has always lurked in the darkness of my mind just waiting to strike whenever I am at my most vulnerable and still today I have my share of battles with it. Born out of this cradle of fear within me was its own progeny, learned powerlessness and people pleasing. Gradually over the course of time I lost contact with any true sense of myself and my genuine feelings because it was much too risky a venture. Anytime a stray feeling would surface that wasn’t in line with keeping the tenuous peace or upholding the mutually agreed family silence then I would immediately stuff it away as we all went about the charade of our lives.
This preconditioned programming in an attempt to counterbalance the gaps in my emotional development would eventually come to haunt me in the future as all these unexpressed and unrequited emotions were definitely going somewhere…. We each inherited our own roles within this patriarchal hierarchy in order to maintain the polished veneer of a well-adjusted happy family. I now know that I subconsciously chose the role of the hero and peace maker whereas my older sister Glennis opted out all together.
Somehow she figured out the theatrics of my family at a very early age stubbornly refusing to play their game but soon after she was sent to a psychiatrist. Immediately following her sessions I witnessed her personality abruptly shift and her gradual emotional withdrawal from us all. I can remember feeling my own sadness and loss not only to see her disappear within herself but missing her genuine presence in my life as well.
I still hope one day she will return but then again that is her journey and not mine…
Not only did this incident intensify my fear of disobeying my parents unwritten rule but also reinforced my role as the hero and repairer of the breach in order to sustain our false façade which had now just fallen onto my shoulders alone. Having taken on the yoke for my family’s psychological welfare I went out of my way to keep everyone happy. This is where I think I really lost myself in this process. Juggling everybody else’s feelings above my own. My boundaries became blurred, confused as to where I ended and where others began.
Without my conscious consent I took it upon myself to keep my Dad’s happiness utmost in my mind hoping that maybe my family would eventually transform into the one I wished and at times even pretended to have. In all fairness, when my Dad was in good spirits he was actually a lot of fun with a great sense of humour. Dad and I did have many wonderful times together and I know he enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his. But the more I attached myself to him however the deeper I felt the hurt whenever he would disappear into his anger and
melancholy which inevitably followed his outbursts spurred on by how own guilt and self-hatred.
Having lost myself in the psychological vacuum of my father’s struggles was reason enough to lose touch with my own emotional needs but instead of being cushioned and supported through this process by my mother she actually accelerated it. I know deep down in my heart she never intentionally meant to hurt me but then again she never paid close enough attention to come to the understanding that she ever did.
Looking For Gold
My mother was and still is a real trooper. Never complaining and always doing. She willingly pitched in and with her never ending patience and dedication allowed her to accomplish anything and everything she put her mind to. She is highly intelligent and her memory is sharp as a pin. I admired her for her intellect and penchant for learning and I thank her for many of those inherited qualities However having said that there was a huge void in her emotional makeup that she could never give…her heart…
Somewhere along the line something must have happened to her because although she gave of herself she could never give from her heart.
As a child it was impossible for me to understand her emotional detachment and head up demeanour towards me making me feel inadequate and unlovable. Rather than feeling a genuine love from her I felt more like a chore and this was her duty to perform.
I was just something on her to do list. I knew in the deepest part of my soul that I had to constantly validate my existence to her so she could one day change her mind and truly love me… Eventually I began to feel strangely conflicted over these feelings about my mother. Having never been able to find a chink in her emotional armour a part of me still yearned for her warmth yet another part of me just shut down. My one saving grace from a complete emotional implosion was my grandmother who lived with us. She was the loving salve that nursed my wounds outwardly and soothed my pain inwardly. She was the one in whom I felt comfort with and loved me more for who I was rather than what I did. Nana, as we called her, cooked, cleaned and took care of us while my parents were at work during the week. However kind and generous she was to all of us this genuine love and caring was far from equally returned by my parents.
She would make our meals at night and once the dishes were done my parents rule was strictly enforced, she had to retire to her tiny suite in the basement until the next morning only to repeat the same process all over again. What’s worse on the weekends she wasn’t even allowed up the stairs until Monday morning. I remember spending many hours with her in her room playing cards, doing jigsaws and helping her with her
crossword puzzles which she so loved so much.
The nature of her mistreatment was very much like that of my own, not obviously blatant but dangerously subtle. That is why it went on for so long. This type of abuse of power avoided my detection as a child because I still needed to strive within the confines of my parent’s rules regardless of the validity or complete lack of fairness within them. I sometimes wonder now if Nana was aware of the unfair treatment she received or had she been totally mesmerized into submission just like me…This was the foundation on which my self worth was built. Rather
than rock it was more like quicksand…
Thankfully though I found my first escape route through swimming or should I say more like swimming found me. We were living in Sunnyvale, California where my father had just been offered a job as a lithographer. I had always loved the water and now there was a swimming pool on every corner! As fate would have it that particular area was the cradle of many Olympic swimmers and I remember watching in awe while they practiced in the local pool. This was the beginning of my dream… The first shiny glimpse that was to become my personal quest for gold….
Looking For Gold
Literally I dove into swimming head first. My natural talent even at only 5 years old was immediately apparent to the local swim instructor who quickly advanced me into their competitive program. I was very small in stature but I more than made up for it in heart eventually earning the nickname of “Mighty Mouse” many years later.
For the first time I really felt a sense of power and control whenever I was in the water and I truly loved it. I quickly began to thrive both physically and emotionally through the whole process of it I was completely selfdriven requiring no outside motivation whatsoever. I had always been full of life and extremely active right from the start. My grandfather nicknamed me “fidget” and my dad called me “monkey” so you can get the drift..
I loved the challenge of competition and always pushed myself beyond what other people expected of me. But this suited me just fine because underneath the surface of my accomplishments and the ever increasing level of performance I demanded from myself was the subconscious desire to prove my worth once and for all. In the beginning it was just for the true joy and feeling of freedom it provided me with but the more I began to succeed the more I could see that swimming was quickly becoming the cornerstone to my existence in the eyes of others and most importantly for the love and attention from my parents.
My quest to achieve was always driven through the power of the subconscious contract I had made with myself although at the time I didn’t realize it. Swimming was my attempt to overcompensate for the real truth of our lives which was a family shattered at the deepest level into emotional pieces…
When I performed well the rough edges of my emotional foundation seemed to smooth almost to the point where I deceived myself into believing that it was true. I had safely cocooned anything that threatened my rise to success and hid them behind the mask of my bright smile and cheery countenance.
However years later as I would so dramatically find out that false belief was at the risk of my own peril. Living my life from the top down was fool hearty at best. I was as good as my last race, or my Grade A’s on my report card and as long as they kept on coming in quick succession I never had to consider who and what I was beyond that.
I was probably too afraid to look into that darkness fearing that if I didn’t meet or exceed other people’s expectations then might I, too, disappear like one of those quantum particles into the vacuum of space?
Looking For Gold
I was safe just as long as I could find my validation and selfworth from the accolades and approval of others. My value as a person became dangerously intertwined with the sweep of a stopwatch or the stroke of a reporter’s pen. As far as I was concerned my reputation and list of accomplishments spoke for themselves . And thank goodness I never needed to repeat it because if anything I actually shied away from words preferring instead to just go ahead and prove it Introspection and self-doubt were for losers and I just didn’t have the time nor the desire to
attend to such trivia when I had the Olympic Gold dead in my sights. Or so I thought…
Over time what had started out as my very own personal quest to win Olympic Gold had now become far greater than I had ever imagined. It had now become the dream of an entire nation and I was mentally unprepared to handle it.
How could one possibly prepare for such an immense undertaking? Where could I look for advice? I was only a very young 17 year old girl and back in the 1960’s there were no sport psychologists , no self-help books and certainly no mentors who could prepare me emotionally for what was about to unfold. All of a sudden my dream was quickly becoming a nightmare and I was rapidly becoming a victim of my own success…
Having moved back to our home in Vancouver BC when I was 9 I had been immensely proud to wear the Red Maple Leaf and see our Canadian Flag fly high on many a podium around the world. As the 1968 Games in Mexico City approached, Canada’s Olympic hopes for gold seemed once again to fall squarely on top of my shoulders alone… Rather than dreaming for gold it was now gold or bust… Somehow my chase to reach the top of the podium had just turned into a job description and it was up to me to deliver. There was no margin for error. Silver just wouldn’t cut it.
This scenario somehow felt hauntingly familiar… It was once again up to me alone to pull it off. But this time it felt much different. Not only was it my burden to uphold the foundation of my family but now the hopes and expectations of an entire country on top of it. I slowly felt myself start to buckle… At first I thought I could manage the small seams of worry and doubt that began to creep in. Completely side tracked by the media circus and all the blunders of my pre-Olympic training due to poor decisions by my swimming association not least of which was denying any access to my own coach before and during the Games that my well-disciplined mind became overwhelmed.
My worst nightmare was beginning to unravel in front of me and so was my composure. Then to my dismay I began to recognize those old feelings of powerlessness and self-doubt. Having haunted me so long ago it was now about to take its vengeance upon me at the most important point in my entire life. I felt paralyzed but I was just too afraid to speak or admit I was quickly losing confidence in myself.
Looking For Gold
As the race got closer and closer I began to panic. I just couldn’t get a grip.
Sitting in the warm up room while I awaited the call for my final in the 100 meter backstroke I felt the strength drain out of my body and my legs go numb. My mouth was dry and I had to struggle just to swallow and try to collect my thoughts. When I finally heard my name called I could barely stand up. This was the moment of my dream . The culmination of all I had worked so hard for.
When the gun finally sounded all I could hear was the pounding of my heart in my ears and the tortured thoughts which flooded my mind as I hit the water “But what if I lose!” “But what if I lose!” My race had been lost before it began. I knew well before I hit the wall that I had lost to my rival Kaye Hall of the US by only a mere fingernail. I had left my kick too late and had run out of pool before I could overtake her. In disbelief at what had just happened I went into emotional shock. My dream of Olympic Gold had just been shattered into pieces on the cold hard deck
of that pool in Mexico City and along with it went I. When that race finished everything finished in my world… My life and all the glory was gone in a mere minute…
My only recollections in the wake of my race are snippets here or there. I do not remember receiving my medal on the podium nor going to the interview room afterward. According to those who witnessed it I looked inside the door and saw all the reporters rushing up with their microphones all asking the same question “Why did you lose, Elaine!?” and this is where I officially broke apart into pieces for all the world to see…
I once again opted out by running away from them and it seemed like I never stopped running for many decades
Having not only let myself and my family down but the hope and pride of a country was far too much for me to withstand based on the foundation from whence I had come. Some may view this as just another race and get over it but in complete contrast to me this loss struck at the very core of my being.
Everything I had believed about myself had just been shattered into pieces and with little support nor encouragement from those who were left to help me put them back I became a broken soul in search of myself. It took many decades for me to pick up those scattered pieces from the ashes of my life. I continued to seek in all the wrong places hoping to fill the hollow within me from the outside. People and places and things which ultimately could never complete that which needed healing from the very beginning… my own heart… It was only when I began to look within and understand the wisdom hidden within the pain that I truly began to make progress. This is the true Quest Beyond Gold and the one that I was about to embark upon…
I have written in much detail the events of my life and the years of suffering the after effects of the Olympics on my other website elainetanner.ca