Growing Up Jeub · Psychology and mental illness

The Love Label

Don’t give me love, don’t give me faith
Wisdom nor pride, give innocence instead
Don’t give me love, I’ve had my share
Beauty nor rest, give me truth instead.” -Nightwish

Imagine growing up in a house where the salt was labeled “sugar,” and the sugar was labeled “salt.”

Then you make friends, and they talk about how they like making cookies with sugar, and they love sprinkling salt on their dinner plates.

You try their suggestions, but the cookies are tangy and hard, and the potatoes taste sweet. You don’t know any better.

For me, it wasn’t salt and sugar that had their labels mixed up. It was love, and everything my parents called “love.”

I don’t often get frustrated. If a situation bothers me, I conceal it well in the moment, and write it down in precise terms later. When I was fourteen, my mom started doing something that could frustrate me.

“Cynthia!” She’d call me from the other room, and I obeyed instantly, leaving whatever had preoccupied me. “I love you.”

“Why do you keep saying that?” I asked.

“I just want you to know it.” mom replied.

We’d just filmed our first TV show with The Learning Channel, and the eleven kids living at home were all recovering from whooping cough. It was the beginning of 2007, and my mom wanted me to be sure I knew I was loved.

It wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. My parents said “I love you” to each other when they were about to end a phone call, and I hear it when I received kisses before bed as a child. This was different because it was relentless. She’d slip the phrase “I love you” into every conversation we had.

“Mom, I can’t find my book. Do you know where it is?”

“I love you.”

“Thanks, I love you too. Do you know where my book is?”

“I love you.”

“I know, mom. Why won’t you answer me?”

More than once, I lost my patience and begged her to stop, to just talk to me normally.

It’s like I was raised in a house where the salt was always labeled as sugar, and the sugar was always labeled as salt. My mother would place a label on something, and it tasted wrong, everything about it felt wrong, but she insisted that the label belonged. I tried questioning her, but she wouldn’t answer. It was what she said it was.

That year, my parents coauthored a book called “Love in the House.” They retold the story about how they’d kicked my older sister out, making her sound like the culprit in the situation. They talked about how being on TV changed their whole outlook on how to do family. Our family was all about love now, and it was true at home: my siblings and I were told all the time that we were loved, and we believed it. We couldn’t do otherwise. It was a label for which we had nothing else.

The following year, I coauthored a cookbook with my mom called “Love in the Kitchen.” I enjoyed writing about something I was good at doing, sharing my tips on pastries and large-batch meals. My dad was designing the cover of the cookbook when he called me into his office and said, “Either I’ll pay you royalties based on the sales of this book, or I’ll put your name on the cover.”

I was fifteen. The ultimatum didn’t seem unfair to me at all. I thought that, based on my business studies, publicity had more long-term value than money. I chose to get my name on the cover of the book, and I got to show it to all my friends.

When I got older, and saw how bad my parents were for me, I still wanted love. My labels were mixed up, though. I got into relationships that felt like a step forward: they switched the labels back.

This still hurt, it still frustrated me, it still robbed me of the affection I’d never known, but it felt better because it was honest. I’m starting to understand, at least in part, why people sometimes move from unhealthy relationships to even less healthy relationships.

If you switch the labels back, you might still head for the same stuff you’ve always known. For me, I didn’t like the false label. So I sought out relationships that looked like what I’d had with my parents. These relationships included my friends, significant others, and role models. The label read “salt” now. I knew what it was, but I was still trying to make cookies with the wrong ingredients.

So my philosophical thought, with a practical application, is this: don’t just seek out truthful labels. There’s more to the process than that.

I’m holding a label that says “love” on it, and I’m looking for another place to put it. Heh – that was a metaphor we learned in the purity movement: “If you have too many relationships, you’ll be like a piece of tape that can’t stick anymore.”

No, my love label won’t get ruined by a bunch of relationships. My love label would be ruined if it was still stuck to the wrong thing.