During a particularly low point in my life, I became addicted to reruns of 7th Heaven, the long-running television drama focused on a Waltonesque family whose members faced assorted moral/religious obstacles. I was so mesmerized with the Camden clan’s support and love for one another–and their uncanny ability to handle anything that life threw them–that I got under the covers daily and watched with the same concentration as I would give a Red Sox World Series run. As the credits rolled, I burst into tears. Then evening would come, and the would-be joy of bedtime rituals for my preschoolers would be darkened by my sadness.
It was weeks before I shared my 7th Heaven fixation with a close friend. Our conversation turned to family and I launched into a lengthy soliloquy about the show, how I was in awe of the family dynamics and their harmonious life under one small roof. As I spoke, I could feel the catch in my throat. When I described the Camden family and their weekly dilemmas, I had trouble fighting back the sobs. She listened patiently, waiting for my crying to subside before she spoke. In a careful tone, my friend told me that the people on my television show, my role models, were in fact not real. Nor was their cozy life where teenagers shared rooms and loved each other unconditionally. No one lives like that, she explained. She helped me understand that the life I was experiencing wasn’t too far from the life that many others faced every day. It took some time for me to realize that this new activity wasn’t making me feel better. It was more like a punishment for all the things I had lost.
One year prior to my television obsession, my childhood family fell apart. All the things that I’d thought were so tangible about being part of a large and close family, both immediate and extended, were taken away. My father’s death was merely the beginning. A sequence of events caused a domino effect and suddenly the landscape of my extended family changed. I no longer had the stability I once knew to be my standard.
Instead of finding things to heal correctly, I turned to magical thinking. I believed that immersing myself in the lives of these family members would be the best thing for me. My life was becoming complicated. I even questioned my own faith. Surely the Reverend Camden could steer me back on course. Certainly there would be a space for me in their crowded house, where a sibling would hold me tight and tell me that they loved me each and every day.
So why do we beat ourselves up when the going goes down the tubes? Why do we turn to things that are harmful when the barrel is rock bottom? I think someone needs to write a handbook about handling family crisis. Teach everyone how to move forward in a productive way.
In the end, my girlfriend was right to pull me away from my fictional paradise. I wanted a quick fix for my situation. The truth is, focusing on the sadness and the hurt does not make anyone feel good. It does a great disservice to one’s self-esteem and the ability to move forward.
It took some time to remember what it was like to heal the right way. I went to concerts again, letting the music flow through my veins and awaken my soul. I laughed with friends. I savored a glass of wine and a good steak on date night with my husband. I started running again, which turned into training for marathons. While I ran, I raised money to combat liver disease and then helped start a charity team to help move women up and out of poverty. I started a career with nonprofit organizations and volunteered where I could. I hugged my kids and went to the beach.
I grew sturdier. Most importantly, I chose my own family. To this day these are the people with whom I go to concerts and the beach, laugh hard, and run distance. Support and love runs easily within my network of friends. And I can reach out and touch their realness whenever I want.
And I grew older. Age can give someone great perspective on what feels good, what makes one feel better. Age helps us understand that there is little time to wallow and that the moments of feeling elated can be fleeting. It seems kind of silly to five decade-old me to waste time watching reruns every night when there is so much life to be lived, so many friends with real problems to solve, so much teenage angst to control, and so many sunsets to savor.