Katie Baroni

Shaped by Stories

Guest Post by Katie Baroni

The Storyteller

When I was a little girl, my dad used to tuck my sister and me into bed most every night and tell us stories about a made up character he named Rhonda Rag Buttburn, stories that caused laughter to reverberate in our shared bedroom. From early on, I recognized the power of stories, as they brought my family together on a regular basis and allowed us to escape from reality for just a moment and be fully present with one another. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that stories weren’t all made up ones that caused me to laugh so hard it hurt. Stories were actually and oftentimes about real life with real people, and they didn’t always make us laugh. Stories soon became things I was asked, by my dad (my favorite story teller of all) to keep hidden from a very important person – my mom. I trusted anything and everything else that came out of his mouth, so I certainly trusted this. I wasn’t quite sure what made others unworthy of hearing certain stories but I would soon find out that those secret stories could be morphed into untrue stories called lies.

It pains me to think about the three of us sitting in the car and agreeing on a story that was untrue. My dad convinced us that this was a necessary thing we had to do to protect him, so naturally I learned that lies were told to protect. Not just to protect the liar, but to protect the person on the other end of that lie that would be devastated by the truth. Then there was the matter of protecting my little sister from the consequences of those lies being revealed and the truth uncovered. I assumed the job of protecting others so easily but neglected to realize that I needed protection too. Certainly I couldn’t trust or rely on others to do that for me if I was their protector so I think this is where my self-reliance and over-achieving survival tactics kicked in. I didn’t think there was any other option for myself for a VERY LONG TIME. While this was quite a lofty responsibility for a child to assume, I was overly confident in my ability to do so since I had proved myself so good at protecting others. If only I could see back then that my intended protection of others had a hurtful impact on all. A part of me would love to go back with what I know now and fix it, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, as I think protectors and fixers go hand in hand. However, my stories – the good, the bad, and everything in between – make me who I am today. And while I am just learning how to love myself, unconditionally, just the way that I am right now, I am thankful for those stories that have shaped me. I have less than one week until I turn thirty which means about thirty years’ worth of stories but I am going to stick to three – one pivotal story from each decade.

Decade 1 – The Fight

 As I eluded to earlier, I spent the first decade of my life assuming the role of protector. I remember very vividly a moment where I thought that I failed to protect everyone. It started like a regular night in the Machado household and then very quickly took a turn for the worse. My mom went through my dad’s briefcase and found some pictures from a birthday party, and one of them captured Kathy on my dad’s lap and my mom wanted answers. The story my dad came up with even I didn’t believe – Kathy quickly set the camera up and then as she was hurrying back she tripped and fell and just happened to land in my dad’s lap. Next thing I remember, my mom picked up a glass full of ice and diet coke and threw it at my dad’s head. Lucky for him, his reflexes were quick enough and it hit the wall behind him instead, sending what looked like a firework painted with diet coke across the white living room wall. The fight quickly moved upstairs to their bedroom and that is when my mom started to lash out physically. There was no way for me to understand her pain then but I certainly do now. I just remember begging her to stop. When she finally did, she shoved her way past my dad who had barricaded the door. His wrist was cut by the door latch and started to bleed so I got him a band aid. Convinced my dad was ok, I too wanted to escape like my mom had. I found myself under my neighbor’s big pine tree, a safe place to be alone, where my sister and our friends would play. I tried to make sense of what had just played out, but I couldn’t understand why these things were happening or what I could do to fix it. I felt helpless, like I had failed everyone, like it was somehow my fault.

I am a child who placed the weight of my father’s infidelity on my shoulders, who stood fervently by his side convinced that I could somehow save their failing marriage and protect my little sister all the while. I was a child who took responsibility for things that should have never been asked of me. I was a child who had to grow up quickly. I was a child who thought I had to protect myself and began to build a wall around myself because that was the only way I knew how.

Decade 2 – The Divorce

The news of my seemingly ultimate failure came right before my 13th birthday. My mom came up to our room and told us to come downstairs, there was something her and my dad wanted to talk to us about. Anytime my parents wanted to talk to us it was never good and they soon revealed that they were getting a divorce. My dad sat there and told us through tears that it was ultimately his infidelity that led them to this decision. I had only seen him cry one time before this, and that was when his dad died two years earlier, so it pained me to watch him admit that his actions were about to break up our family. They shared that the plan was to sell the house and each move closer to work. We would live with our mom the majority of the time and spend every other weekend with dad. This was quite a blow, but one I had seen coming for some time.

I mourned briefly before adolescent hormones induced a more appropriate response of resistance. It was finally my turn to be selfish and think about myself for once. However, in spite of all the adolescent hormone induced resistance, plans did not change and we traded our diverse and urban life in Milwaukee for the white suburbs where I stuck out like a sore thumb and didn’t know a single peer. Thankfully, I found some semblance of normalcy in my Chapter 220 (an integration program that bussed kids from intercity Milwaukee out to the suburbs in an attempt to provide access to better education) friends who were mostly black. You would think I would have found comfort in faces that looked like mine, but in contrast, I found comfort in those that understood where I came from. I definitely don’t fault the friends I would later make for wanting nothing to do with me as I wanted nothing to do with them. Eventually, we began to realize that we were not so different on the inside even though we looked different from the outside. I had heard the phrase uttered over and over again- “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”- yet there was a simultaneous judging happening to and by me.

I was a child whose world was turned upside down, who was forced to leave behind everything that I had known for the first 13 years of my life and let my oh so carefully built wall down just a little bit so that others could see me for who I truly was and, in turn, see others for who they truly were.

Decade 3 – The Affair

The title doesn’t leave too much room for surprise. However, maybe some of you are surprised that I allowed my mother’s story to become my own or maybe you aren’t. “A product of her environment” some may say. This affair was a product of unhealed trauma, both for me and my husband, from before we met to trauma we had inflicted on one another. Of course I was shocked when I first found out and then I wanted all of the details to put together exactly how I could have been so oblivious to something that was happening right under my nose, especially when my own mother had played detective right before my eyes.

The first person I called was my mother in law because she was the most privy to our marital struggles. Then I called my family, who I had tried to keep in the dark, but did give not enough credit to for the sake of simple observation. Everyone that I called offered their support and were so sorry that I was having to go through this – 7 months pregnant with our second child. I knew that I had two choices, stay or go, and I had no doubt that I would stay as long as all contact with her was terminated immediately, and a recommended appointment was made. Forgiveness has never been something I have struggled with, for which I am thankful, and this situation was no different. Stay or go may have been the two immediate choices, but later on I would find that I had a choice as to which betrayal I chose to focus on – his betrayal to me or my betrayal to myself.

I think that Camille Braverman on the show Parenthood said it best: “I just feel like I got swallowed up somewhere. And that’s why you did what you did, because you looked at me and you couldn’t see me anymore.” I couldn’t see me anymore either. Day by day, the reflection in the mirror got blurrier and blurrier. I certainly wouldn’t prescribe an affair to anyone who is looking to find themselves again, but this is my story. My husband’s affair was the catalyst that forced me to unbury all of the shit that had been piled on top of me – by myself and others – to rediscover the woman that was still living inside of me begging to be seen, heard, valued, loved.

Decade 4 – Outlook

As I embark on decade four, there is one thing that I know for sure: I am thankful for the pain in my stories. Sometimes we choose pain and sometimes it chooses us. Whether I choose it or it chooses me, I vow to myself that I am never going to allow that pain to cause me to forget my stories or forget who I am ever again. Ann Baxter said “It’s best to have failure happen early in life. It wakes up the Phoenix bird in you so you rise from the ashes.” My plan is to continue to be a Phoenix, risen from the ashes, and if I ever find myself buried again, no matter how deep, I will rise again. I also want to surround myself with other Phoenixes, those who are not afraid of failure, for ultimately it is failure that has been the chisel that has shaped my life. It may not look beautiful to others, but it is beautiful to me, and that is what sustains me when life gets hard.

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Julie Stephenson

Julie is one of the founders of Compounding Courage, a company that provides personal growth and leadership development programs. CLICK HERE to learn more.