It had been decades since the sensation had hit me this hard, although I recognized it immediately. I had just come out of the kitchen to join my sisters for morning coffee when, centered deep and low inside, the ache surged upward grabbed at my heart and caught in my throat. I smiled to Lori and Diana, murmured a brief excuse, and walked the short path into Lori’s guest house. Leaving the French door ajar I sank into the love seat beside the shaded windows beyond which my sisters talked quietly in the mild morning sun. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply and wondered what had just happened to trigger this response? I’d never had this level of anxiety with my sisters before, though I’d felt it often with Mom and Diana when I was young.
Reflecting on those times an image of a downtown shopping trip came into sharp focus. It was in Wenatchee and it was cold. I was eleven and Diana was sixteen. She and Mom were talking and laughing as the three of us ambled along the sidewalk. I remembered how they brought their heads together to whisper some confidence then broke off in conspiratorial laughter. I asked, “What?” They answered with dismissive smiles, shaking their heads to wave me off. Aware I was being excluded, a flush of confusion overcame me. While they continued to chat and window shop, I trudged along pretending it didn’t matter. But a cold sadness in my soul rushed through my body to emerge as hot tears in a constricted throat. Lowering my head I walked ever more slowly until I lagged just far enough behind to appear to be in my own little world. It was a coping mechanism I perfected over the years; self isolation in plain sight.
But what had just happened here, now, fifty plus years later? What the hell had elicited this rush of fear-laced anxiety? Perhaps it was how Lori and Diana sat with their heads bent towards one another when I approached them. Maybe their conversation had shifted as I came closer; a sentence left to hang in the air, a slight change in voice tone, an eyebrow raised. If they had been talking about me it would not be malicious; so why this intense reaction? Why had my amygdala, that hardwired primal response center, temporarily taken over my ability to reason? Why, doesn’t matter, I quietly soothed myself, the important thing is what I do now, how I go forward. Having calmed myself sufficiently, I returned to the sunlit patio to finish coffee with my sisters.
Though I veiled its occurrence, the residue of my panic attack jangled within me throughout the day. Determined to understand what had sparked it, I closely observed my own behavior: the words I used, my tone of voice, expressions, and gestures, and how others responded to me. In the course of this examination I noticed how often Diana interrupted me. When I started to contribute to the thread of conversation, before I could complete a thought she began talking right over me, rubbing my words into obscurity. Am I really that invisible? I wondered. Is she even aware of what she’s doing, let alone conscious of how it hurts me? As the day progressed I remained present and involved, all the while aware of the interactive dynamic. I listened, laughed, added tidbits and small observations, but made no effort to confront Diana’s interrupting behavior. For that I would need to regain emotional energy and spiritual balance. It would take courage and straight thinking.
That night as I mulled over what the day had taught me, I recognized that when I was a child it had been acceptable to dismiss me out of hand. I was powerless and consequently withdrew into myself. Fifty years later I no longer played life by those rules, but the residue of this ingrained interactive pattern remained with Diana and me. Long ago I had shed the skin of passivity and consciously struggled to change my self-protective response pattern from passive-aggressive to assertive. Yet with Diana I seemed to slip back into that submissive role, and it was up to me to break out of it.
The next morning while we sisters again sipped our coffee on the patio, I wanted to tell Lori that as far as I was concerned, she and Scott need not feel obligated to take us out to dinner tonight, an idea that had been floated the evening before. As the discussion of what we would do today advanced, I repeatedly attempted to voice this thought, and every time I began to speak Diana talked over me. Then calmly and assertively I interrupted her interruption. “I have been trying to get a word in edgewise Diana, please give me the courtesy of listening.” For a moment there was tense silence. “Lori,” I began, “I just want you to know that our visit here does not require a night out on the town to be successful. It has been a wonderful time together, and speaking for myself I would be very content to have dinner here at your lovely home rather than go out somewhere. It’s your call, but I want you to know I’m OK either way.”
Did I upset the applecart? Yes. Would we be able to establish a healthier relationship in the shifted dynamic I had precipitated? Probably. We had done so before. I could tell it stung Diana when I confronted her. Though taken aback she didn’t retaliate or pout overtly. I’m quite sure others who also love her have helped Diana recognize when she is being overbearing. Having successfully carried out this difficult but necessary task, as my adrenaline rush dissolved I began to feel a sense of relief, a lifting of my spirit. Throughout the remainder of our visit, and in the months since returning home, my relationship with both sisters continues to be close and strong. And if Diana and I ever slip back into that old pattern, I will face up to it in a heartbeat.