In a house where you are the youngest of six children, it is not unusual to feel invisible at times.
And when the older siblings always seem to have some drama for your parents to attend to, you learn to become a keen observer and an unwilling empath. I can still feel the energy in a room within seconds, even if I can’t identify its cause.
At nine years old—old enough really, to know better—I am playing a game with my parents. It’s rather a mean one, because I’ve not let them know it’s a game. And I’ve scared the living daylights out of them, which was precisely my intent.
At this young age, when your father removes the flowering tree outside your bedroom window—the bit of beauty you say “Good Morning” to each day before school–it’s natural to be sad, especially if you’re an empath.
And when he tells you it really wasn’t your tree anyway, but your sister’s—well let’s just say you move beyond sadness to being fighting mad. You distinctly remember him telling you it was planted in honor of you being born. In a house where very little isn’t community property, you held tight to this rare sentimental gesture—this gift—this tree.
And now it’s gone. And wasn’t even yours to begin with, apparently. Which kicks off a torrent of feelings and memories in your little 70-pound body.
You remember being forgotten on a beach—by your entire family—at a very young age. You remember the first time you sensed your mother had plenty of time for her job and little for you. You remember them letting go the babysitter you loved because you were a “big girl” and didn’t need her anymore—at age five. And you come home to an empty house most days, years later, still wishing she was there.
So if the game you are playing with your parents is less than nice, you feel perfectly justified. You are testing their love. As you hide in a place you know they’ll never find, they call your name. It’s time to go somewhere and they want you in the car. You don’t respond. The calls become louder, more frequent. They check the outside of the house, the basement. But they don’t see you. You make sure of that.
You listen for concern. You listen for words indicating they love you, words of worry. You finally hear the fear as they talk of getting in the car to search the neighborhood. And then, silence as they move quickly through the house.
It is the prolonged silence that finally prompts you to make an appearance. You can feel the frantic nature of this silence—and it is enough to reassure you that they would miss their invisible sixth child.
The reunion scene is a bit less than you’d hoped for. No histrionics. Just relief on their faces. And a stern, “Where were you?”
I was too young to realize karma is a bitch, but I feel its boomerang decades letter when my eldest son—only slightly younger than I was when I pulled this stunt—stages his own disappearing act in a department store. As I realized the terror my parents must have felt, I sent them a silent apology through the ether.
Out of that ether, years later, a man materialized—one that made me want to hide again. New to dating, post-divorce, it soon became clear this man was far more insecure than I realized at the start of the relationship. But, what I lacked in post-divorce dating prowess, I made up for in self-knowledge.
The more insecure he became about how I felt about him, the more he demanded my love. Except, I don’t give love on demand. I am not a trained seal. He failed to notice this, too wrapped in his own dysfunction.
The more he demanded, the cooler I became, the less available I was. Instead of welcoming his calls and texts, I avoided them. I looked for ways to be in groups with him, rather than alone.
He was doing to me what I had done to my parents—testing love. What he did not know was that I had learned to become a master escape artist years ago. That even at the age of nine, if I did not want to be seen or found, I wouldn’t be.
He never did find me again—not the me he thought he had known. He kept looking for the woman that had shown up earlier in our relationship, but she was hiding.
Had he been able to fall silent, to be with his feelings as my parents had, I might have felt the need to reappear in our relationship. Instead, his obsession with pulling the puppet strings made me want to flee; it lost him the very thing he wanted. I could never provide enough love to fill the void inside him.
I see the irony: I disappeared to test my parents’ love and did so again when someone tested mine. But children can be forgiven their primitive emotional tools. I find it harder to do so with adults.
Perhaps you have been lucky enough not to perfect your disappearing act. But do not judge me for mine. That says less about my character than it does about your life experience. Every road contains curves around which we cannot see.
Perhaps yours are still ahead.