Taking Center Stage
I PLAYED A SUPPORTING ROLE IN MY LIFE FOR YEARS. NOW I’M HEADLINING AS THE LEAD
My biological mother was an alcoholic who left our family when I was in grade school. The adults in my life wrung their hands and spoke about her to each other in hushed tones. They assured my brothers and me that we had done nothing to cause it. “She was sick,” they told us.
We went on without her, and eventually my dad remarried a nice woman who became my mother. We all moved past the traumatic event and rarely spoke of her. It seemed everything had worked out just fine. Nothing to see here.
Yeah, right. Tell that to a young girl’s self-perception. From that time on, I became the consummate good girl. I stayed in my lane and didn’t cause any trouble. I lacked confidence, so I was perfectly happy in the wings instead of playing the lead in my own life. I wouldn’t know until decades later why. I knew only that I did not choose to feel that way; I just didn’t have any reason to feel worthy.
There was nothing special about me. I wasn’t athletic. I wasn’t artistic. I didn’t play an instrument, speak another language, or juggle. I just felt kind of, there.
My brothers were both athletic, so I tagged along with my parents to their games and sat on the sidelines reading. I got good grades, kept my bedroom neat, stayed in my lane, stayed out of trouble — just, there.
High school was more of the same. My parents owned a restaurant and were both hard workers, so I didn’t want to cause them any stress. I did my homework, did my chores, and worked after school at the diner. Sure, I had friends and I dated, but mine was a pretty ordinary existence. I think the most I shook up the household was once dating a boy my father didn’t particularly like. Not exactly the stuff of a box office smash.
In high school my brothers began getting in trouble. Not hard drugs and getting arrested kind of trouble, but less than stellar grades and underage drinking kind of trouble. I blended in more and more with the wallpaper as my parents dealt with them. I was a good girl. I didn’t need to be dealt with.
At this point, I feel I must clarify a few things. It’s not that I was ignored or mistreated. I had a good relationship with my parents. I could talk to them and let them know if I needed anything. I just didn’t know I needed anything. I had friends. We had sleepovers, shopped at the mall, and went roller skating. I had boyfriends. I was a cheerleader. I was even crowned homecoming queen my senior year. I just never felt anything I did set me apart from the crowd. I felt I played an extra in the movie of my life instead of the leading role.
In 1981 I graduated high school and started college, majoring in English and Secondary Education. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Writing was my strongest skill, and I liked school, so it made sense. I don’t know if my guidance counselor didn’t tell me, or it was just that I was the product of a middle-class small-town upbringing, but I seriously don’t think I knew there were other career options out there for a student with good grades and a penchant for writing. I’d get my degree and go into the next ordinary phase of my life. After all, teachers don’t earn big bucks or live glamorous lifestyles. That life was for talented, special people. Education seemed a logical path for an ordinary rule-following girl.
Of course, in college my grades were excellent, and I never got in trouble. I dated and had a lot of fun. Other than the typical hijinks of drinking a few beers at parties and sneaking boys into our dorm after hours, the four years went by without a hitch. I met new people, among them my roommate with whom I am best friends to this day. I graduated with honors, and my parents sat in the audience, the hot sun beating down on them, and applauded the milestone along with hundreds of other proud parents. Dressed in my black and gold cap and gown, I looked like everyone else in the class.
During college I met a guy who would later become my husband. Unlike anyone else in my life up to that point, he made me feel special. He looked at me like I was the only girl in the world. Good-looking and charming, he wasn’t like other college guys. He didn’t spend his weekends at frat houses guzzling beer from a red Solo cup. He was mature. He was driven. We went out to dinner at real restaurants, not the campus cafeteria. He sent me flowers — for no reason. He told me I was beautiful, and when I was with him, I felt beautiful. We talked for hours. He listened to me, really listened. It was like stepping out from offstage into the spotlight. Here was someone who would not leave.
We married a few years later. We were both on track to enter graduate school. With his support I aspired for a higher degree in law. He wanted to go to dental school. We couldn’t both attend grad school; one of us needed to work so we could pay our bills. We decided — at least at the time I thought we both decided — that it made more sense for him to pursue his educational goals while I worked to support us. Once again, I — literally — played a supporting role.
He attended dental school, and I worked two jobs and took care of the house. I was happy to do my part and contribute in this way. After all, we were working toward a common goal.
Or so I thought.
After he graduated, he opened a solo practice and I got pregnant. Soon after the birth of my daughter, my husband began behaving strangely and secretively. He became sullen and moody. He began “staying at the office” all night. The worse he behaved, the better I behaved. I had always been the good daughter, good student, good friend. I was determined to be the good wife and mother.
My husband had developed an addiction. He had morphed from adoring knight in shining armor to menacing and manipulative addict. He knew my greatest fear — abandonment. He got inside my head and convinced me I was no better than my biological mother if I left him and broke up our family. He threatened me that if I told anyone, he would lose his license and we would have no means of support. Damaged as I was, I made it my life’s work to keep my marriage and young family intact. I hid his addiction from everyone we knew. My parents and siblings suspected something was wrong, but I turned out Oscar-worthy performances to cover up the truth.
This destructive cycle went on for years: He’d binge, I’d lie for him, he’d beg forgiveness, I’d forgive him, he’d stay sober for a while, he’d relapse. And round and round we went. During one of his extended periods of sobriety, I got pregnant again. Sobriety never lasted; he refused treatment and returned again and again to his demons. When his abuse graduated from emotional to physical and it was clear he would never seek help, I finally left. Ours was a contentious divorce. He made good on his promise to do everything he could to make me miserable if I left. Without the support of my family, with whom I’d finally come clean, I don’t know how I would have made it through that nightmare.
Down, dejected, and in need of income, I found a teaching position. It sounds dramatic, but that job saved my life. I finally felt good at something. I melded well with my colleagues and soon made a few close friends. I earned my own money and was able to buy a house for my kids and me. I remained at that job for 15 years, and during that time, I found an excellent counselor and finally began the process of examining how my childhood trauma led to a life of people-pleasing, fear of abandonment, low self-esteem, and codependency. I set out on my journey of transformation.
The truth that I didn’t realize until I was almost 40 years old is that deep down I felt that if my mother could leave, then who wouldn’t? That’s why I never felt safe. That’s why I was such a good girl. That’s why I believed my husband when he told me I would be to blame for breaking up our family.
Maybe I thought the way to keep people from leaving was to not make any big, sudden movements. If you don’t know I’m here, it won’t occur to you that you don’t want to be.
I did the hard work in counseling and began to break the cycle of generational trauma. I faced my past and took control of my future. And one day an extraordinary thing happened.
I sat at my kitchen counter drinking coffee one Saturday morning and had an epiphany. I had raised my daughters, and I loved my job, but it was time to take center stage in my life. I’d reinvented myself personally; now I was ready to do it professionally. I decided to do something I’d always wanted to do but never believed I could. I was going to write a novel.
In 2015, I resigned from my job and entered an MFA program in Creative Fiction Writing. By the end of 2018, I completed a draft of my women’s fiction manuscript A Week of Warm Weather. Then it was the grueling process of editing, revising, more editing, finding representation, publishing, and marketing. The independent publisher SparkPress agreed to publish my novel, and A Week of Warm Weather just launched on June 7th, 2022.
Looking back, maybe I was writing A Week of Warm Weather in my head for years before I typed a single word. A Week of Warm Weather explores the result of childhood trauma on an adult woman named Tessa. She buried that trauma, almost to the point of erasure. She knows she feels unsafe in the world. She knows she finds it hard to trust people. She knows she goes to extraordinary lengths to please people. Most of all, she knows she fears abandonment. What Tessa doesn’t know is that all of it is a result of her buried trauma.
In writing Tessa, I learned a lot about myself. She gave voice to the feelings I’d buried in my own life. She forced me to uncover and face the motives behind my own choices and behaviors. She took shape. She grew. And I evolved right along with her. Her challenges led her to self-discovery, and she led me to mine.
That scared, codependent, insecure little girl is now a published author. That little girl is still in there, but she’s reinvented herself as someone who owns her experiences. Because I’ve faced my past, I look forward to the future. I have healthy relationships with my parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, and especially my second husband and two daughters. I don’t apologize for being myself anymore. I play the lead role in my life.
Sometimes I even send myself flowers — for no reason.
Lee Bukowski lives in PA and enjoys writing, reading, teaching, and traveling. A Week of Warm Weather is her debut novel.