It might be springtime where you live, but we just got hit with a doozy of a blizzard that dropped over a foot of snow on us. And it’s still snowing. Go home, Mother Nature. You’re clearly drunk.
I thought I would use my time wisely indoors, but I didn’t. After studying like a maniac for my hellish finals I crashed. I decided to watch “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”. Now, I loved “Seinfeld” the TV show, but Jerry Seinfeld the man doesn’t seem quite so affable playing himself. He’s a bit of a trope really which disappoints me–guy gets rich and famous and doesn’t have to pretend to be a good person anymore because he can buy favor and has more money than he can spend. You can observe this in the episode with Trevor Noah which is worth watching just to listen to what Trevor Noah has to say.
While Noah and Seinfeld are having coffee, Seinfeld does say something rather notable, and it threw me a bit because, to date, I haven’t heard Jerry Seinfeld say anything noteworthy.
He illustrated his point by saying:
“When you stub your toe on the foot of the bed, that was a gap in knowledge. And the pain is a lot of knowledge really quick. That’s what pain is.”
That is an interesting perspective on pain. Very rational. I like it. I tend to be emotionally driven; so, I appreciate a highly rational perspective on pain. It brings balance to my overly internalized process which often becomes dangerously introspective and too contemplative. Perseverative even.
Of course, there is no wisdom here concerning how to deal with whatever new information is causing pain. It is merely another perspective. Void of blame and accusation. I think that’s why it’s appealing.
You may find it to be a useful perspective the next time you stub your toe in real time or metaphorically.
Well, I did it. I saw my mother and stepfather. I wasn’t nervous at all until about an hour before I had to leave, and then it hit me. I was suddenly scared that she was going to be unkind to me. I was also scared that I wouldn’t have what it takes to withstand it.
My mother’s unkindnesses usually began as passive aggressive comments about my appearance, and, for some reason, I always experienced that as more painful than most of her other criticisms. It’s so high school, I know, but I think that’s why I found it hard to bear. Growing up, we put up with a lot of social garbage. We don’t expect to come home to it as well, but my mother was the ultimate Mean Girl. I feared that I was about to go out to lunch with that persona again. Frankly, I’m over that, and I’m really over pandering to that to keep the peace.
But, it doesn’t mean that the remarks don’t sting. They do because mothers have a way of making them feel very personal because they know us.
In my previous post, I described my mother like Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in “Mommy Dearest”. That’s accurate. Socially, however, my mother used to be very much like Lucille Bluth, the mother on “Arrested Development”:
Two of my daughters wanted to see my mother as well, and my other daughter decided to externalize her anger towards my mom twenty minutes before we had to leave causing conflict between all of us. I was functioning at capacity at that point. It made the drive to the restaurant a time of “trying to get one’s shit together” rather than a time to just relax. In other words, I was trying really hard not to cry.
When we arrived, I saw my mother and stepfather sitting in the restaurant, and I froze for a second. My stepfather hasn’t changed. He’s hardly aged. It’s the weirdest thing! My mother, on the other hand, has aged a lot. In ten years, she looks to me like she’s aged twenty years. She looked frail and small. The girls went ahead of me, and, as soon as they saw us, they stood up. My stepfather started tearing up right away and hugged them. My mother told them how much they’d grown and how beautiful they looked.
Pause: I have never heard my mother tell anyone that they look beautiful. She never gives compliments. That startled me. I was starting to wonder if she might say something nice to me.
Play: She came over to me and hugged me. She then said, “Oh well…don’t you look…older. And all grown up now. And…older.”
I sat with it for a minute. Older. Of all the things to say that’s what she went with. What makes this funny is that I joked with friends that she was going call me old: “I’ll wager that my mother is going to say I look old or something,” and, sure enough, she did! It could have been so much worse and, in times past, usually was. So, I moved on in the moment.
The lunch lasted a long time. Everyone behaved. I saw my mother as just a woman. She was no longer this powerful perpetrator who had power over me. She was a woman with health problems whose health was declining. She didn’t say anything new or unusual, but she still clung to a certain narrative particularly about me:
“Aren’t you glad I so strongly encouraged you to take Latin now that you’re in medical school?”
She has always taken credit for that and brings it up whenever she can. I just nod my head now. It doesn’t cost me anything at this point to let her have it. She did indeed encourage me to take Latin I. Not four years of it. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s time to let it go.
There was no drama. There was very little jockeying for power. She appeared to really want to try to reconnect without the past bad behavior. We all saw a movie after lunch, and then we parted ways although she was her typical self when she told the guy filling our popcorn order to layer the butter:
“Young man, I want you to layer the butter. Laaaaayer it! Do you understand? Really layer it. I want it layered! Layer the butter!”
Classic mom right there. You know what? I have never had popcorn so perfectly layered with butter. That kid spent so much time trying to layer that popcorn with butter because he could feel my mother’s eyes boring into his back! I just stood back and watched. She has zero assertiveness problems. NONE.
All in all, it was a positive experience, and I didn’t feel triggered. My daughters had positive experiences as well. She didn’t display any past borderline behaviors, and my stepfather was, as always, himself.
I did feel very drained when I got home as did my daughters. It was emotionally exhausting. I have final exams this week, and I couldn’t study at all. I could hardly process a thought. I think the significance of the event didn’t land until yesterday. I woke up feeling completely trashed.
I don’t know when I’ll see her again, but I know that they will want to visit. I feel okay about that at this point. I’ve worked really hard to achieve this state of mind. A few years ago, I would not have imagined ever feeling that a day like that was possible not because of my mother per se but because I couldn’t imagine feeling well enough emotionally. I honestly didn’t feel triggered by her–even by the remnant behaviors that would have triggered me in the past. Calling me “older” would have bothered me simply because it could be perceived as a criticism of my appearance, and I used to be hypervigilant to things like that. My mother’s demands upon the guy at the movie theatre would have triggered me in the past because that’s how she was towards me all the time. I would have identified with him too much. Her mentioning Latin class for the millionth time would have triggered me because my mother overly identified with my accomplishments always taking credit for everything I did. It was as if she were me, and I would have felt diminished and engulfed by her.
But now? It all felt irrelevant. I told my friends that she called me “older”, and we all laughed about it–a lot! My boyfriend didn’t hold back either. People filled in that gap for me so that what she said wouldn’t find a place in me. I don’t need my mother’s approval or emotional support, and most of the trauma associated with her has healed. It is very possible to achieve that given time and effort–as much time as you need. I’ve needed over a decade.
So, if you find yourself estranged from a parent and harbor even a flicker of hope that perhaps you will one day see them again under better emotional circumstances, don’t give up that hope. It’s possible. I don’t say this with a Pollyanna-esque attitude. I am in no way BFFs with my mother. It was one lunch, and it went well. That may be all that we ever achieve. Quarterly lunches if that. I may not see her for another year, but I feel very good that I did see her. It feels like an accomplishment.
I wonder if that’s because I’m older…
Today is a momentous day. I see my mother at noon today for the first time in almost ten years. At least I think it’s ten years.
I have some long-time readers who will know that this is a big deal. I have many readers who aren’t familiar with this situation. To quickly recap, my mother has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and clinical depression. I have always had great compassion for her. I spent most of my life feeling responsible for her well-being to the point of parentification, and, due to her inordinate fear of abandonment and simultaneous fear of engulfment, my mother exploited my natural people pleasing disposition to an abusive degree.
I was a non-entity growing up. I was only allowed the personality, will, and opinions that she permitted me to have. I was all at once The Good Child, Bad Child, and Scapegoat*. My role changed according to her momentary whims. I have written extensively about BPD on my blog, and I fear repeating myself. I also don’t want to stigmatize the diagnosis as it’s already a charged one pregnant with assumptions and implications.
What I want to discuss is achieving a reality in which one could see a formerly close family member who was also a perpetrator of profound abuse. How is something like that possible? There is a reason BPD gets a bad rap. While the disorder can express itself in various ways, when it expresses itself through manifestations of talionic rage bystanders are in danger. Emotional dysregulation is a hallmark of BPD, and this emotional turmoil manifests in myriad ways to loved ones. Children are the most vulnerable to subsequent trauma. So, how does one move from a post-traumatic state to a confident state of mind? Or, at least, confident enough for a meet-and-greet? That is a valid question.
A few friends are not thrilled that I’m meeting with my mother. They know the stories of her past behavior. They have witnessed her fight every boundary I put up. For those of you with a close family member carrying a BPD diagnosis, you’ll be able to read between the lines here. For readers who are not familiar with anything I’m attempting to gently imply, I’d recommend watching “Mommy Dearest” if you are at all curious. Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford is spot on in terms of representing a woman with BPD, *Queen/Witch subtype. My mother is a *Queen/Witch, and my mother behaved a lot like Joan Crawford in this film.
So, what have I been doing for the past ten years then that helped me heal?
I made a career out of going to therapy. While my father was abusive in his own right, my mother’s abuse proved to be the most psychologically pervasive and damaging. She was in my head. I used to have crippling social anxiety because I could almost hear her voice in my head criticizing me largely because my mother openly ridiculed me publicly by critiquing my appearance throughout my adolescence. My hair, my face, my teeth, my body, and general appearance were all in her crosshairs, and she looked gleeful as she crushed me. It was as if she had to humiliate me in order to feel good. She was a bully. So, I spent years dealing with everything that she did including her rages which caused her to act out extreme physical violence against other people. Her public sadism is actually what I’m most anxious about today.
I practiced being assertive. This is still very difficult for me. I was not permitted to say no or have a differing opinion with either of my parents. I recall saying no to my mother only one time. She slapped me across the face so hard that my head snapped back. My father was a Green Beret and Army sniper in Vietnam. You just didn’t say no to him. Ever. I grew up very afraid of authority, but, at the same time, my natural personality is assertive and a bit contrary. I will stand up for myself and other people. So, part of the recovery process has been looking for opportunities to be assertive even if it’s only returning coffee drinks that have been made improperly–something that makes me sweat.
I stopped being friends with people who were exploitative and took advantage of my nature. What do I mean by that? People who are naturally kind are easy to exploit because we will absorb relational inequities believing that somehow our personal sacrifices will help the other person. Believe me, they won’t. We will build the bridge to get to the other person in the relationship because of an empathetic nature. It is, however, worth nothing that women have a tendency to do this more than men due to social gender biases as noted in this study– A study by the Harvard Business Review(link is external) showed that only 7 % of female MBA graduates attempted to negotiate their salary with their new employers while 57% negotiated.
“I was raised to be an educated, polite, and respectful girl. You might have been, too. I was taught to think of others and their well-being. I consciously made an effort to treat others how I wanted to be treated. In short, I was always trying to be a good girl.” (Are You a Good Girl?)
I was definitely raised like this. It wasn’t a choice. It was a necessity. For survival. There are men who were raised like this as well, and I don’t want to discount that. I have met men who struggle with something like The Dutiful Son. They, too, must be educated, polite, and respectful always thinking of others and their well-being, willing to sacrifice themselves and their interests for the benefit of their family. The “Good Girl” phenomenon isn’t isolated to women. This spans the gender gap.
I also thought that this was the way of the world:
“I naively thought this was the way everybody was raised. I assumed everyone would go out of their way to treat each other well. I thought we were all living in a world where we respected each other and each other’s choices. I thought being considerate towards others would mean others would be equally considerate towards me. Turns out, I was wrong.” (Are You a Good Girl?)
I re-examined that assumption because I discovered in the past ten years that many people are not interested in personal development, bettering the world, or even being kind. There is a lot of brokenness in the world, and needs often drive behaviors far more than intention:
“…there have been plenty of people who saw my being polite as an opportunity to test my boundaries. There have been many who saw my being kind as a sign to trample all over me. Apparently, when you’re seen as a good girl, people think they can get away with anything, because they know you’ll continue to behave like a mature, respectful adult regardless of what’s thrown in your face.
Worst of all, I found myself getting sucked into the role more and more. I tried so hard to please everybody around me. I checked in with people to make sure they were OK with the life choices I was making. I said yes to things I would never dream of doing on my own. I became an obsessive perfectionist, especially when it came to how I presented myself and what I did. Best of all, I pretended to enjoy all of this and did it with a smile on my face. Sometimes I was so deep in it that I started to mistakenly believe I did. It was terrifying and exhausting, all at once.” (Are You a Good Girl?)
Does this ring true for anyone? It’s an interesting description, isn’t it? Living a life without personal boundaries. And, it’s all too easy to do that when you come from a family wherein you were not permitted to have any. I think that building a life with appropriate boundaries, starting at the identity level and moving outward like rings on a tree, is the most important thing you can do for yourself and your relationships when you come from an abusive family of origin. After that, learning how to enforce them in the context of interacting with people particularly with people who will challenge them comes next.
What does that look like? Life coach Susanna Halonen lists concrete actions to take that will go to building and reinforcing personal boundaries:
1. Ask for what you want and deserve.
Want to take on a new project at work? Ask for it. Want a raise or a bonus? Justify it to your boss. Want better treatment from your inconsiderate friend? Tell them.
2. Say no.
People will always ask for help. You probably do, too, as do I. There is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with helping. Unless you’re exhausted. Wiped. And burned-out. You can’t say yes to everything, and you can’t help everyone. You have to put yourself, your health, and your well-being first and foremost. If you don’t, there will be nothing left of you, and then you will be able to help no one.
3. Speak up.
If somebody disrespects you, don’t ignore it. If somebody is being rude, point it out to them. If somebody tries to change you, tell them you’re happy with who you are. If you don’t speak up, nobody will hear you. If you don’t put boundaries up, people will keep pushing them. Be brave, be bold, and be loud.
4. Stand your ground.
There is nothing wrong with living your life according to your values. There is nothing wrong with making the life choices that are right for you. There is nothing wrong with you. Believe that — and stand tall with it. People often try to influence your life trajectory or give clear opinions on what they think you should do, especially if you’re a good girl. Don’t let them sway you. Thank them for their input, and tell them that you have made your decision based on what you think and feel is right.
5. Treat others how you’d like to be treated.
Transforming from a good girl to a strong girl doesn’t mean you start being rude. You will continue to be polite, considerate, and respectful — but you will no longer do so at your expense. (Are You a Good Girl?)
My final thoughts on this might be that personal development is a lifelong process as is healing. Some things stick around in our minds. We do not forget them, and I’ve concluded that we should not forget certain things. It is important to remember the profundity of our past experiences so that we always know our own strength. Recovery and healing are so much harder than many people understand and yet here we stand. So, we cannot forget. You are resilient today because you were once hurt then. And that is ultimately why I can see my mother today. I withstood the worst that she was capable of, and none of it got the best of me. I’m still me. There is no power in that place anymore. That is why I remember. Your former battlegrounds and fields of defeat can become the place where you ultimately forge your greatest victories. The places where you overcome, shake the dust off your feet, and walk away.
May you forge new victories as you keep going.
We celebrated Passover last night with the customary Seder–the ceremonial dinner for the first night or first two nights of Passover. My house is usually the gathering place. It is a big job. Traditionally, the preparation that goes into preparing one’s home, kitchen, dishes, and even inner self for Passover is daunting. In many observant homes, there is separate dishware that must be used during Passover. One’s house must be cleaned thoroughly (“kashered”) in order to rid the house of “chametz”, or any kind of leavened bread or leavening. All uneaten and unopened leavened food products must be donated while opened and partially eaten leavened food products must be disposed of. The kitchen must be thoroughly cleaned, and there are detailed instructions on how to do this. I learned just last week that the Israeli army just replaces all their metal kitchen shelving with Passover shelving. When Passover is over, out comes the non-festival shelving.
I have kashered my house a few times. The result? My house was clean. It felt clean, but I was exhausted. It helped me, however, experience the spectrum of Jewish observance. Today, I can’t be that observant although there is something about going through all your kitchen shelves and drawers and thoroughly cleaning them that scratches a particular itch. It cannot be about what is “good enough” though. It is about preparing my mind and heart for what this particular Seder will speak forth. What does that mean?
Every year, the Seder is different. For those of you who are still mystified by what I’m saying when I say “seder”, the Seder is essentially a meal directed by a liturgical ritual. The word “seder” itself means “order”, and we follow the order of this customary Passover meal from a text called the Haggadah.
It is the same order every year because the Haggadah tells the same story–the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and God’s deliverance of the Jews from slavery. I like a very meaningful, thoughtful Seder because one of the key elements of the Seder is to read this story as if it were happening to you. In fact, the Haggadah that we used stated: “In each generation, everyone must think of himself or herself as having personally left Egypt.” The texts are supposed to be read as if you are living them out. This is why they remain relevant. What could be analogous to your life experience in the present? Who are you in the text? Who is your personal Pharaoh? Are you experiencing a metaphorical plague? Do you feel enslaved to something and require help or intervention? Do you feel hopeless? As our Haggadah said, “Our Seder goal is to relate personally to the Passover story.”
I remember going to a Seder at synagogue a few months before my marriage ended. I felt on edge, scared, and almost hopelessly uncertain about my future. My oldest daughter was about to graduate from high school, and I had three other daughters to think about. I needed surgery for an injury I sustained from my now ex-husband, and I had no idea how I was going to keep going forward. What did that Seder speak forth at that time? I looked around the table I was sitting at and saw people around me who would help me. I saw a community. I slowly began to realize that I would not leave “slavery” alone. I would go out with a group. I could try, and I did. Only two months later. My life, three years later, has changed dramatically–for the better.
What did last night’s Seder speak forth? At the end of the Haggadah, we read this:
“Redemption requires our participation. The Midrash says that God did not split the sea until one person, Nachson Ben Aminadav, took the first step into the water. If we take the first step, God will help us the rest of the way.” (A Family Haggadah)
Whether or not people believe in God’s intervention (or even a Divine) need not detract from the greater meaning of the experience. There are Jews who do not believe that God intervenes into the affairs of mankind. What I want to emphasize here is that action is required in order to obtain any sort of freedom from that which creates personal inertia and bondage. It can be almost terrifying to take first steps particularly when a big life choice is at hand. Divorce? Marriage? Career change? A confrontation that might drastically change a relationship? Moving to another part of the world? Going to therapy for the first time? Choosing colleges? Dating again after a long-term relationship? You name it. If it feels daunting and freezes you up in your life, then you’ve got a personal Egypt. In my experience, taking first steps often creates momentum and opens doors. I am experiencing this phenomenon right now in my life, but so often we don’t experience a fulfilling or meaningful life because we are stuck. We feel paralyzed or too fearful to take a first step. Or, we don’t know what the first step even is.
Engaging in the annual Seder ritual can prepare our hearts and minds for self-examination. If we have a relationship with God, then the Seder sets aside time for conversations about very specific situations in which we can listen to what God might say to us about our very personal Exodus story. If we are not theists, the Seder is still of value because the ritual itself provides time to reflect, look back, and then look forward. Because the Seder is an annual celebration, we experience an opportunity to track the trajectory of our lives, and this is what I find so interesting. I can look back a few years ago and recall what I took from that particular Seder–what I internalized as a much needed truth and encouragement. Yesterday, I contemplated where I had been and where I was going in the context of my present circumstances. I hope everyone who attended our Seder was able to enjoy some contemplation even though a Seder at our house is a little more like a festival celebration at the Goldbergs.
We try to be solemn and honor the sacred, but, in the end, it just ends up like that. My daughter’s boyfriend joined us. One man in a room full of loud, opinionated women. He said very little. I’ll crochet him a Pokemon yarmulke for next year. He’ll fit right in.
Making time–even if it is once a year–to contemplate your path and examine your state of freedom is a part of the Seder experience. You do not have to be Jewish to make this idea a part of your life. It is rewarding, useful, mindful, and helpful in terms of crafting a life that not only fulfills you but contributes to the betterment of the world around you.
It is another way to enjoy life so that you can keep going.
Did everyone make it through the Ides of March intact? When I was in high school, I was the only student in the history of my school to study Latin 3 or 4. Nowadays, schools would delete the offering, but I guess the school administration just forgot about the classes. I signed up for it and was promptly put in the corner of the Latin 2 class. There was no curriculum to speak of forcing Ms. Jennings, my Latin teacher, to make it up. She decided that translation was the way to go. So, for two years I translated Ovid, Catullus, Cicero, and, my nemesis, Virgil–author of The Aeneid. I was that kid who sat in the back of the classroom and talked to no one.
In the middle of all this classical, academic conviviality (I do not include Virgil here), we Latin students were forced to re-enact ancient Roman practices from time to time. During December, for example, we had to run around the halls yelling, “Io Saturnalia!” You can imagine that this might have caused a ruckus. Ms. Jennings liked the juxtaposition of ancient life and modern, and she really liked to insert ancient traditions into our modern ones. I won’t even discuss what she did with Easter. But, the Ides of March was like giving her center stage. The Ides of March was a date on the ancient Roman calendar that corresponded to March 15th. In the ancient Roman imagination, the Ides of March was roughly equivocal to the American April 15th in terms of emotional weight. You know, tax day. Except to the Romans, March 15th was the day that you must settle your debts. It bears a similar weight, doesn’t it? On April 15th, all Americans must settle their debts with Uncle Sam. The Ides of March then became the perfect day to assassinate Julius Caesar in the Senate. Sixty senators were seeing to it that Caesar settled his debts with Rome.
Every March 15th, the entirety of the Latin classes had to run around the school pretending to be the sixty senators conspiring to find and assassinate Julius Caesar. No one wanted to be Julius Caesar. Where was the fun in being murdered by a pack of overzealous high schoolers while muttering, “Et tu, Brute?” during feigned death throes? I, of course, had to be Caesar. I didn’t exactly participate. I tried to evade capture. I was scolded by Ms. Jennings for eluding the assassination: “The Ides of March was not an assassination attempt! Now, go out into the halls and die gloriously!” It felt personal. Being a placeholder for Julius Caesar. I didn’t want to be assassinated particularly by a bunch of underclassmen who were still figuring out how to conjugate sum (I was a total Latin snob in high school I admit with shame). Alas, I had to die, and I resented it. I resented it because the two people playing Brutus and Cassius, the assassins, lorded it over me for weeks in typical teenage fashion. Their account of how they found me, how I died, and their ultimate victory over high school Rome became bigger, badder, and more ridiculous with each taunt and retelling.
I’m annoyed even now as I retell this story. What’s even funnier is that when I am presently forced to participate in group activities, I immediately remember being Julius Caesar. I remember how much I hated it. I remember how it felt to be stalked in the halls. I remember how embarrassed I felt to have to wear those ridiculous togas made of bedsheets (yes, we had to do that) to every class. I went to an urban Texan high school! No one lets you live that down! I didn’t sign up for that nonsense, but we were graded on our participation; and I was Julius Caesar destined to die on the Ides of March–in the hallways during passing time. O the mockery!
Why do we do this? Remember the past when we experience life now or even try to plan an upcoming event? What does a past event like the Ides of March Latin Class Extravaganza have to do with my future participation in a group presentation on ovarian cancer? This has something to do with it:
“Professor of Psychological and Brain Science Kathleen McDermott, of Washington University, cites results of brain scans demonstrating that when subjects imagine potential future events it is the memory processing centers in the brain that light up.
Further, subjects with amnesia are unable to imagine the future. We have to look back in order to look forward. Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter asserts: Memory is set up to use the past to imagine the future.” (Re-story Your Life)
I love this explanation. When we plan, imagine, and attempt to engage in anything, our brain relies on past events and experiences to support us in terms of expectations and potential futures in order to, in a way, help us erase uncertainties. Humans don’t do well with uncertainty. So, our brains, whether we know it or not, do a lot of the heavy lifting for us by connecting past stories together to weave a narrative flow that will help us predict an outcome.
But, what if we don’t have good stories? Or, in a specific case, what if I’ve only had bad experiences with group projects, and I’m now being assigned a group project? What do you suppose my new narrative will be? What feelings will become intertwined within the potential futures my brain brings forth? Realistically, I know that I will not literally be assassinated, but the entire high school endeavor was one of awkward disempowerment and feeling singled-out. That defines “high school” for many people. I know people who still struggle with the emotional impact of their high school experiences due to the narrative mark it left upon them. If their past narratives are never re-examined, then how do you suppose they approach new life experiences when their past narrative identity is still partially rooted in such negative events? If I never re-examined my Julius Caesar experience, would you want to partner with me in a group? For real, would you? I wouldn’t.
This idea is applicable to so many life experiences. One single event can change our narrative–the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and our place in the world, in our personal relationships, and even our relationship with ourselves.
So, how do we incorporate this idea and make it work for us?
“Our stories are always shifting, moving and incorporating this moment and the next possible moment. Our stories are fluid.
Psychologist and storytelling researcher Dan McAdams explains that our stories make up our narrative identity. But we don’t live one story or one identity. Instead, this narrative of self is ongoing, always integrating the latest information and developing into something new.
The stories we construct to make sense of our lives are fundamentally about our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, are, and might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are, and might be in the social contexts of family, community, the workplace, ethnicity, religion, gender, social class, and culture writ large.
So how exactly do we take on the challenge of rewriting our story? We can start by seeing ourselves “in the middle.”
Like all good plots, the middle of our story includes themes that form a coherent narrative. But the unsettling secret is that each of us is both the protagonist and the narrator of a story in which we have no idea what will happen next.” (Re-story Your Life)
There it is again. That dreaded uncertainty. What is going to happen to us next? Recall the research. We can only imagine what will happen to us next by relying on our past memories–that’s the part of your brain being used when you imagine your future. So, for crying out loud, what then?
I’m going to rely on Willy Wonka for guidance:
“You can’t get out backwards. You have to go forward to go back.”
“For many of us, the uncertainty that comes with middle age brings an inclination to solidify the story. In the effort to control our anxiety about change, we form a kind of crust over the current. In time the crust hardens. We set the past: this is what happened, these are my regrets and these are my triumphs, no need to look back any further. What’s done is done.
Next we fix the future with our expectations and demands: this is what will happen. We expect to live without further twists or evolutions. While this may calm our anxiety of the moment, we deprive ourselves of creative involvement with our becoming.
Since plot twists are the secret to a great story, we need to get creative with ours.” (Re-story Your Life)
If you want to go back and look at what is hindering you, then you have to begin to move forward. You can’t go back to go forward. You have to go forward to go back. You will only know what you are afraid of, what is paralyzing you, what your greatest struggle is, and from whence they originate when you begin to try to leave your residence. Looking forward gives us a reason to look back–to gauge our starting point. Looking back continually is futility because we gauge nothing except where we once were. It provides us with no present perspective or even trajectory. It only provides distortion. You don’t even gain new information. No one makes a plan with old information.
It sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But, what is left? I could remain Julius Caesar in my mind whenever I’m called upon to do a group project dragging my past into my present effectively demoting myself perpetually. That is very un-Caesar-like. Or, I could create a better narrative for myself in which I engage the uncertainty while also feeling certain that no one I work with will ever try to hunt me down in a high school hallway again while wearing a bedsheet toga in order to mock stab me. This I actually can feel certain about.
The idea is absurd, and I deliberately chose an absurd example to better elucidate the idea. What we so often fear will overtake us will not, or, if it could, it will not affect us in the same way because we are not the same person now developmentally, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. We are very different people in the present than we were in the past, but we recall the past with the perspective of our past selves rather than with our more developed present perspectives. So, while what we fear could, for the sake of argument, happen again, we would respond very differently because we are far more resilient and capable because we have lived life and matured–we have gained skills. It is in this exercise that we discover our deficiencies. If we find that in going forward we truly are hindered by a lack of skills or an inability to recall the past from the present due to pain or trauma, then we have new information. From here, we can create a new plan of action and implement it. And, this new plan of action is actually moving forward.
This is a very big idea to be sure. I sit with it a lot. It is, however, such a powerful idea. We have immense say over our potential futures, and our influence comes from choosing to move forward even when it’s hard and scary.
Go forward to go back. This is a very effective way to keep going.
To bring you up to speed, one of the reasons I started this blog ages ago was to process having a relationship with my mother. My mother has borderline personality disorder (BPD), but she also has other co-morbid disorders. When I was growing up, my mother had sadistic tendencies. In fact, my mother used to meet all the criteria for Sadistic Personality Disorder, excepting the last one, which was removed from the DSM before publication of the DSM-IV:
Maladaptive patterns of motivated behaviour, usually evident for at lease several years.
Enduring, pervasive, maladaptive patterns of behaviour which are usually recognised before or during adolescence.
It is long-standing and its onset can be traced to adolescence or early adulthood, but is not due to drugs (of abuse or medication) or to a medical condition eg head injury.
The behaviour pattern is inflexible across all personal and social situations and significantly impairs their social or occupational functioning.
Has used physical cruelty or violence for the purpose of establishing dominance in a relationship (not merely to achieve some noninterpersonal goal, such as striking someone in order to rob him or her).
Humiliates or demeans people in the presence of others,
Has treated or disciplined someone under his or her control unusually harshly, e.g., a child, student, prisoner, or patient,
Is amused by, or takes pleasure in, the psychological or physical suffering of others (including animals),
Has lied for the purpose of harming or inflicting pain on others (not merely to achieve some other goal)
Gets other people to do what her or she wants by frightening them (through intimidation or even terror),
Restricts the autonomy of people with whom he or she has a close relationship, e.g., will not let spouse leave the house unaccompanied or permit teen-age daughter to attend social functions.
is fascinated by violence, weapons, martial arts, injury, or torture
This additional disordered component of her personality, I suspect, made her that much more impossible to live with. What I have always asked, however, is: Are the above pervasive patterns of behavior motived by sadism or fear? Some of the behaviors listed above, aside from the last one, are not uncommon in BPD but are also not motivated by sadism but rather a crippling fear and a need to control. With my mother, it was both. It depended upon which persona was calling the shots in the moment. Was her Witch persona dominating her mood, or was her Queen persona at the forefront? If you could determine that, then you would know the motivation and what you were in for.
She refused treatment for most of my life, and, when she was forced into treatment after a suicide attempt, she masterfully played the part of a depressed woman deceiving her treating psychiatrist, thusly, never receiving the correct diagnosis or treatment. I have described knowing her as living under a Reign of Terror. It is strange in retrospect to feel love for someone who is so dangerous and malicious. In her worst rages, she could become homicidal. To everyone else, however, she was charming, lovely, and the life of the party. No one in my family believes me when I try to convey just how bad it really was behind closed doors. They just hound me and ask, “How is your mom? Why don’t you just reconcile? Forgive her.” If only it were that easy…
So, it is no surprise then that my mother writes me a letter annually. I don’t speak to her anymore, and I won’t let her see my children. That was over ten years ago. It’s funny how something starts. She got angry at me because I made a suggestion about her business. She decided not to speak to me. That was her M.O. Typically, when my mother would run off to her room to sulk and freeze me out, I would seek her out and kowtow. The kowtowing was very important. She had to see a certain kind of degradation to accept me again. If I didn’t do this, I would be subjected to days of a slow-burning rage that would eventually explode. Then, I would have to kowtow and take responsibility for her feelings anyway. This time, however, I didn’t call her. I went against a lifetime of programming and refused to act out that toxic script. I thought perhaps that she would eventually call me. I am her daughter after all.
She never did. For years. In all of that I finally saw the reality of our relational dynamics. I was the engine of our relationship, and I also saw how co-dependent it was. I was a classic enabler mostly because I was terrified of my mother. I would do anything to avoid rousing her rage. Anything. I lacked any distress tolerance for it. I still struggle with tolerating displays of anger. My first response is to run away as fast as I can.
My mother waited for something like 4 years to call me, and when I asked her why she waited so long, she said, “I got angry. I’m not now. So, how are you? I want to visit.” Four years. I was so angry at her nonchalant attitude and entitlement. I told her to go to a therapist and figure out why what she was currently doing was wrong. I then ended the conversation. Since that phone call, the letters have been arriving. Usually in December. Some of them are twisted and strange. Some of them blame me for her misery. Some of them plead with me. The 2017 Letter was different.
This letter was either written by another person, or she’s been in therapy. She acknowledged that she has engaged in abusive behavior. She acknowledged that she put me in harm’s way. She acknowledged that I would live with the effects of her abuse for the rest of my life. She apologized. My mother doesn’t say things like this. I was shocked. She asked if we could talk. I thought about it for six weeks.
I decided to send her my email and cell number. She has not reached out except to wish me a pleasant New Year. After years of letters begging to see me, beseeching me, she is silent when an open door is presented to her. I suspect that she is waiting for me to call her–as always. Finding that reality is the same makes me sigh.
I will not call her, and my choosing not to call her isn’t because I’m stubborn. It is because it is not my responsibility to make amends. It is hers. Part of the very difficult process of making amends is making those very difficult phone calls. No one wants to do it, but that is part of the process. Were I still enabling her, I would spare her the suffering and make the call. But, I see now that this very particular kind of anxiety and suffering associated with making amends are exactly what matures people. It is a consequence of their choices, and people have to be very familiar with the consequential experience.
I don’t feel responsible for my mother’s emotional state anymore. I have felt released from that relationship for years, and I don’t expect anything from her. I don’t expect her to come through for me, be better than she is, or even do an ethical or moral thing. I expect her to still engage in needs-driven behaviors meaning that if doing something meets her needs, then she will choose that over doing something to meet the needs of another person. And that need could be the off-loading of her rage or relying on everyone else around her for emotional regulation. It could be almost anything really.
I don’t feel angry towards her anymore. I feel at ease. I do, however, feel disappointed. So much was possible and went unrealized.
My description of my mother is not meant to be representative of BPD. She is herself. My experience with her is unique unto itself. So many people grew up with abusive parents and have either walked away or are still trying to figure out how to navigate those relationships while also attempting to find their own peace and healing. What I can say is that it is possible to heal and experience peace after an abusive childhood. It won’t just happen though, and time doesn’t heal you.
You heal you. Your active engagement in a startlingly truthful process is what heals. Seeking it out ruthlessly and fearlessly no matter what it costs you. Staying willing. Pushing through. Partnering with people who will tell you the truth about you and how you live and do relationships. Finding a community of people who model healthy interpersonal habits and love. This is what heals you. And, getting rid of the relationships that are slowly (or quickly) killing you. You can’t choose life and death at the same time and expect to thrive in your life. Death will win out every time because we continually operate at a deficit and never move forward. That’s the definition of survival. That isn’t how one wants to live if the goals are healing and expanding.
That is something I have learned along the way. As always, keep going, and don’t forget to choose life as you do.