Irene Watson’s pretentious life could go no further until she faced her own past. Her poignant and inspiring memoir begins at the end, in a recovery center, where she has gone to understand a childhood fraught with abuse, guilt, and uncertainty. Her powerful story is a testament that it’s never too late to change your life, never too late to heal.
The Sitting Swing was a rope swing, hung from a tree next to the tiny cottage her Russian immigrant father built by hand from hand-milled logs and mud in Northern Canada in the early 20th century. Any motion at all would smash the child into a vigorous rose bush. It was a sitting swing in a family not given to play, in a childhood stretched between two very different cultures.
Irene was born into a tight Ukrainian-speaking community and a family struggling with guilt, shame, and grief over the death of a first-born child—a son. The old world immigrant culture placed much of the blame for Irene’s brother’s death on her mother, causing her to hold her next child close to home, segregated from the new culture, victim to the blunt aggression of male cousins, and scornful townspeople.
The Sitting Swing shows us how guilt, fear and ignorance are borne by our children. Two distinct parts of the book look at an abusive child rearing and the process of recovery that takes place years later. On many levels this is a classic immigrant story showing us that change, growth, forgiveness, and recovery are possible. It is also a heart warming healing story and a testament to the strength and courage of the human spirit.
It was the damnedest thing that they thought I’d fall for it. A video camera in plain sight, in one corner of my room, pointing right in on everything I’d be doing for the next twenty-eight days. Not likely. I couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t bother hiding the thing. Even a hanging plant in front of it might have kept me from noticing it for an hour or two. But they didn’t even try, and that was their real weakness as far as I was concerned. Here they were, helping some of the most messed-up people you can imagine, people addicted to just about anything, and they thought if they had cameras watching these people get dressed, watching them sleep, that they would just reveal everything about themselves in an instant?
Some experts. I started to wonder why I’d paid good money to be here. But there it is⎯we all want to fit in. I had many friends graduate from this utopian little institute, and they all swore it changed their lives. They all used “Avalon talk” as I called it-the catchphrases and jargon used in this Avalon Center. Tiring as it was to listen to their new language, they were my friends, and it was even more of a challenge to be outside the group in that way. So, I decided to call some of my own challenges “addictions” and to make a trip here. Twenty-eight days of dealing with real addicts; then I could graduate and get back on the inside track with my friends.
I pulled a chair out from the small desk and turned it to face the camera, then sat and reclined myself a bit against its stiff back. I folded my arms across my chest and looked with a cold grit at the camera. I probably looked the way my own kids did when they decided to pull the rebel thing. It’s not that I was overly confrontational, but a camera was a statement, and I would make one right back. I stared it down, just hoping someone was watching me live. I wanted my eyes to tell the story-you might have me stuck here, you might control a lot of what I do, and I might even tell you a thing or two about myself, but you’re not invading my privacy. There was a me I would share; there was a me I would not.
After a three-minute stare down, I got up from my seat and rummaged through my suitcase, pulling out a white washcloth. That would do the trick. I walked to the camera and flipped the cloth up over the thing, covering its lens. I brushed my hands against each other in a mocking way. Done and done, I thought.
The camera wasn’t the only reason I felt this place was like a prison. For starters, you weren’t allowed to bring books, magazines, tapes, a radio. No incoming phone calls either.
They pretty much had your input covered. From then on, you’d get input from them or from your own brain, and that was about it. And just like in prison, everything I’d need for those twenty-eight days, I had to bring with me-clothes, toiletries, extra money. Well, they did offer things like massages, so cash wasn’t a bad idea. But isn’t that a little like pleasantries to keep shackled people happy? Amazing that I’d heard nothing but good things about the place from my friends. Most of these points I knew ahead of time, but the camera had put me on edge. Maybe the big joke among graduates was to get other people to attend so they’d experience a month of prison too, sort of a hazing ceremony to get back inside with your friends. Looking at my surroundings, that didn’t seem out of the question.
The place was called “Avalon” with good reason. Well, it wasn’t as glorious as the island from the Arthurian legends, where magic was said to reside and where Arthur himself was supposedly healed of a mortal wound. But the place was on an island, relatively hidden from the world, connected to the mainland only by a long and narrow bridge. Maybe half a mile from the center, there was a very small resort community, with a resident population of five hundred year-round, and twice that in the summertime. It wasn’t what you’d call a booming tourist destination, but it had its visitors. A road circling the island connected the community, the Center, and the substantial woods covering the area.
Those woods and this room seemed the only real havens, now that the camera was out of the loop, where I would have some time to myself. The rest of Avalon was made up of common rooms where groups would gather either for recreation or for talking sessions led by the staff. Those were the sessions, I’d been told, when people learned what it meant to open themselves up in front of a bunch of other addicts. And if scrutiny from other addicts wasn’t bad enough, that’s when the staff would direct you to confront all your issues. I wasn’t one to avoid issues, but there are two facts about that. First, you don’t deal with that stuff in front of other people. On that point I was sure. The last thing people need on their path to healing is to have a bunch of others judging them. Second, I had some disappointments about my life so far. But I doubted that any of my challenges really counted as issues, not things that had to be “fixed” by a professional. Pain about some choices I’d made? Yes. A bit of insecurity about who I was? Yes. I wanted to spend time thinking about these and setting new goals. Surely new goals would help point to the “real me,” as my friends now put it. But I just couldn’t see how these could be “fixed” with therapy. After all, a little pain and a little insecurity didn’t make me broken.
I sighed a deep sigh. Like it or not, I was here now, and I had paid to be here.
Twenty-eight days. I had better settle in as best I could, so I started to unpack. As I opened my few drawers and started setting in my clothes, I thought about the airport where I’d arrived. At a small bar near the luggage, I had met many of my fellow “addicts” as we waited for our ride to the Center, and I watched in disbelief as many of them chugged down drinks. I said a silent prayer of thanks that, if I had to be surrounded by addicts, at least I wasn’t really one myself. I felt sorry for them, but I was grateful not to be among their ranks.
There were kids here in their twenties, and elders in their seventies-people up and down the scale who had seen something wrong with life and wanted it fixed. There was something positive about that, and as much as I pitied most of them, I also had a small sense of hope. As I finished unpacking my clothes, I smiled with that in mind.
And then I looked up to see a woman staring into my room from the bathroom, toothbrush held in her mouth. I sighed again. Forty-eight years old and I was sharing a bathroom with a perfect stranger who seemed interested in spying on me. I say “spying” because she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking at the washcloth over the camera. I pretended not to notice what she was looking at. She walked back to spit out some toothpaste. When I knew she was finished, I went in to introduce myself. “Irene Watson,” I said, hand out for her to shake.
She took my hand but looked sort of absently past my shoulder. “What’s that rag doing up there?”
I shrugged. “A little privacy never bothered anyone, don’t you think?”
She blinked, then looked at me maybe for the first time. “Sure.” She wandered back to her bedroom, and I didn’t learn till later that her name was Gabby, Gabriella in fact. A native Puerto Rican living now in Connecticut, she went by Gabby, and later, I decided it was a good name for her.
Yes, things were off to a terrific start. My best course of action was becoming clearer all the time. Give them some things about me to play with, to feel that they could fix. Show how happy I was to have my problems resolved, and what a different person I could be at graduation. That way I wouldn’t be opening up to people like Gabby, or to people who would put cameras in my room. And along the way, I could make use of the retreat-open up, perhaps, and spend time in personal reflection. Then at graduation, maybe I really would be different. They could let me go, believing they’d made a difference, and I would leave, knowing I had made a difference on my own.
But that’s not how it worked at all.
About the author: Irene Watson holds a Masters Degree in Psychology, with honors, from Regis University in Denver, CO. Her emphasis was spirituality and psychosynthesis. Irene’s life has taken her on many paths, with breakthrough results and exemplar growth, to find her authentic and true self. She has designed and facilitated workshops and retreats throughout the United States and Canada. At present she is the Managing Editor of her book review and author publicity company, Reader Views. She lives with her husband on the banks of Barton Creek in Austin, Texas along with their Pomeranian, Tafton, a rescued cat Patches, and a rescued cockatiel Clement.