Stopping the Holiday Madness

The Iceman hath indeed cometh to my neighborhood.  I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of snowplows clearing snow and scraping concrete.  I had grand plans to “get shit done” yesterday until my car got stuck in the alley in a mound of snow.  Well, three inches of snow that had somehow become a mound that my totally hip minivan couldn’t overcome.  I see now why all the locals drive SUVs.  Nothing seems to stop them.  Not snow, ice, flash floods.  Pedestrians.

Hanukkah begins tonight, and I have a To Do list that needs attention before that first candle is lit.  This weekend, however, feels a million times less stressful than last weekend.  You know, Thanksgiving weekend–the first Thanksgiving weekend my mother and stepfather have come to my house in years.

About 11 years ago I had an epiphany.  Our family holiday get-togethers had become so emotionally tumultuous and stressful that I wondered why we even bothered to celebrate them.  What was the point? I tried taking Xanax once just to get through Thanksgiving, and that was a mistake! I took one Xanax in the morning and fell asleep standing up while cooking.  Suddenly, I woke up on the kitchen floor an hour and half later with no memory of how I got there.

The thought occurred to me to just tell my mother, “No, you cannot come over on Thanksgiving.  Celebrate with your husband’s family,” but my mother has borderline personality disorder.  The last time I told her ‘no’ I was a small child.  She slapped me so hard across the face that I nearly sustained a whiplash injury.  Over the years, I’d seen people tell my mother ‘no’.  It never went well for them.  Violence always ensued in one way or another, but eleven years ago I was willing to take that risk.  Either give up celebrating altogether or tell my mother ‘no’.

So, I found some courage, and I told her that we wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving by ourselves in a way that was meaningful to us.  She had in-laws.  Celebrate with them (I wasn’t that blunt).  That was probably one of the reasons my mother stopped speaking to me.  For five years.

So, last weekend, my mother and stepfather drove in from out-of-state to join us for Thanksgiving, and I had a feeling that it would be a less than pleasurable evening.  Over the years, we’ve crafted a certain kind of holiday.  We eat in the evening.  We stay at the table.  We enjoy drinks and desserts.  And then the games come out.  Sometimes we’ve played until early into the next morning, but my mother doesn’t know how to have fun.  She doesn’t have great social skills, and part of that is due to how she was raised.  My mother has also spent far too much time alone as she has aged, and her ability to socialize has slipped.  As her daughter, I observed this, and, as a host, I kept this in mind.

By six o’clock in the evening on Thanksgiving, I knew it was just going to be about getting through the night.  It wasn’t fun.  It felt like playing a social game of Tetris.  People around the table were, at times, acting inappropriately, and I, as the host, had to somehow make the remarks and behaviors fit together to keep the evening flowing smoothly.  I was glad when it ended.  As I cleaned up, I distinctly remembered why I disliked holiday celebrations.

Why do we do it? I ask it honestly.  Why do we put ourselves through the meat grinder that is Holiday Celebrations with Friends and Family if we feel so drained afterwards?

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Ah yes, tradition.  How many awful things have been tolerated in the name of Tradition? Sure, sure, we get to eat some great traditional food like Great Aunt Vera’s dessert bars and Auntie Esther’s bread, but then three of your cousins show up two hours late completely shit-faced and high, your sister-in-law starts talking politics during dinner and refuses to change the subject, your brother starts discussing religion and offends a co-worker you invited, your father is passive-aggressive and upsets your mother-in-law, and then a family argument ensues in the middle of dinner about that thing that happened that one time.  Just like last year.  And the year before that! It’s like a holiday template that must be followed every year, or it isn’t the holidays.

I’m not suggesting that my idea to un-invite my mother to Thanksgiving was the “right” thing to do, but it was a different thing to do.  I wondered what life during the holiday season might feel like if I said, “No one can come over until they stop acting badly.  You want to come over? Then deal with your issues. I’m not having bad holidays anymore.  Can we please start a new tradition?”  You know that you have a real problem on your hands when you start dreading December in June, and that was me.  I wanted to know what an honestly pleasant celebration free of drama, enabling codependency, crippling anxiety, and pandering to pathologically self-centered people felt like.

What does it feel like? It feels wonderful.   There are no more obligatory visits with family members who actually don’t approve of us and actively look down on us for not thinking like they do.  I can spend the month of December making positive plans rather than making plans to decompress from excessive stress.  I don’t have to come up with strategies to avoid my cousin’s husband who likes to secretly grope me when he hugs me, and I don’t have to think of ways to sidestep political and religious discussions that always end in fiery judgment and unkindness.

One key thing I learned from this Thanksgiving is that I don’t have the distress tolerance for “misbehaviors” when the circumstances are already stressful, and this I would suggest is likely true for many people.

This is the most important takeaway.  Somatic complaints are very common during the holidays for this very reason.  Our bodies cannot adequately process the overload of stress which comes in the form of a cortisol assault on your body.  Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands.  When you are stressed, your body produces it.  One of the key things that cortisol does is suppress your immune system’s response.  Have you ever had a very stressful week at work or school like completing a big presentation or studying for exams? You’re doing fine and then once the project or exams are over, you suddenly get sick.  Or, if you get migraines, you are migraine-free during the stressful work week, but come Saturday, you’re down with a terrible migraine event.  Why is this?

The symptoms of illness like a runny nose, sore throat, body aches, or nausea are not caused by a virus.  Those are signs of inflammation which are caused by your immune system engaging in a response to fight off a pathogen.  In other words, that’s how you know that you caught a bug.  In the stressful days prior to your symptoms when you were neck-deep in exam prep (or Holiday Apocalypse Family Fun Time), you were already infected with a virus.  Your body’s stress-induced production of cortisol, however, was suppressing your immune system’s response to that pathogen.  So, you had no symptoms of the infection, but you had an infection.  You merely experienced the symptoms of the infection after your stress decreased along with your cortisol production.  The stress causes the spike in cortisol production, but it is likely the lifestyle changes that puts you at risk for viral infection like poor dietary habits and sleep deprivation.  We all eat more poorly and get less sleep during “crunch time”, and that is what invites viral infection.  We simply stop taking care of ourselves particularly when we feel like something is on the line like our jobs, grades, or our sense of self.  And the holidays certainly have a way of doing that to us.

Not managing our stress contributes to cortisol dysregulation which can result in a number of health problems and negatively impact your immune system.  Bottom line: take care of yourself and invest in your own level of happiness and well-being even if it proves to be very difficult.  Why? Because you’re worth it and you deserve a meaningful holiday experience–even if you have a family who disagrees with you.

With that, I bid you a meaningful and healthy December.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Significance of Being Seen

After almost a year of grad school perhaps one might expect to feel like this:

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Sometimes, however, I swear the doctors are looking at me like this ::cough::Dr. Hong::cough::

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I suppose it goes with the territory.  Humility and feeling completely inadequate are better traits to have in a would-be medical professional than hubris and arrogance.  In the midst of raising teenagers, trying to keep my household running–and doing it very poorly I should add, I’m still riding the therapy train.

When I went to my regularly scheduled Tuesday appointment with the FNG, Jack, I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I really require this in my life anymore.  I’ve been at this now for over two years.  I feel okay.  I really do.  I’m nowhere near where I was when I started in 2015.  My life is completely different now.  I’m different.”  So, I walked into his office open to talking but unsure of where to begin.  He is new.  My former therapist is gone, and I miss him.  He knew my history.  All the stories of my family of origin.  It feels exhausting to try to catch Jack up on all that shit.  I sighed internally.  Maybe I don’t need to!

I sat on the couch and stared back at him.  He’s using that approach with me.  You know the one.  They just stare at you, waiting for you to begin blathering on about something.  It is unnerving.  So, I told him that I didn’t know where to begin, and he responded:

“How do you feel about how our sessions are going?”

I answered honestly.

“Well, it’s hard to say because you don’t know my history.  When I say, for example, that my mother sent me a letter, you don’t know what it means.  People who know my history know what that means.”

“Did your mother send you a letter?” he asked.

“Yes, she did, and it means a lot.  My mother is a dangerous person, and I’m not sure how to begin to describe that, but I’ll give you a sense.”

I presented “postcard” views into my experiences with my mother.  Scenes that would capture her best and worst selves.  The utter terror and absurdity of her personality and emotional expressions.  The betrayals.  The abuse.  The distortion campaigns.  The violence.  The gaslighting.  The moments of lucidity.  He responded:

“What you describe is in line with borderline pathology.”

“I know.”

“She sounds fragile,” he observed.

“She can be, yes.”

“She also sounds like she has a lot of rage.”

“Talionic rage, and yet no one in the family believes me.  She is like this behind closed doors.  She presents very differently to the outside world.  But, go home and shut the door? She can become homicidal if triggered.” I said.

I then moved onto my father.

“Look, I don’t even know where to start with him.  I know that you know some things about him because you confabbed with my former therapist during my transition, but I think I’ll tell you this.  Aside from the obvious offenses like his sexual abuse of me during my preverbal years and his preference for military-like violence and torture, he did something else that I think neatly represents his psychology.

He had a book.  A kind of photo album of pictures of me from infancy to childhood.  Photos he took.  Photos of me crying after he had abused me.  Like a set of trophies.  Some of the photos I remember him taking, and I remember what he had done before he took the photos; and I know that he had this album because I found it when I was visiting him.  I was young.  I took it out and looked through it, and I felt very confused when I looked through it.  I brought it to him and asked him what it was.  My father was a steely, cold man.  I had never seen him lose that composed veneer–until that moment.  He looked angry when I brought that to him, and I felt scared seeing him look like that.  Scared because his response was not predictable.”

Jack is not a high affect man.  I, on the other hand, express myself like a Muppet.  I struggle sometimes when I am faced with low affect expression because it is so opposite to my mode of expression.  This is, therefore, the time when words matter.  He leaned in and said:

“This is positively evil.”

I never characterized the album or my father as evil before.  I just thought that there was something deeply wrong with him.  Oddly, I never characterized him as anything.  Evil.  Huh.

Jack went on to tell me that he had spent time in his post-doc research studying psychopathy and psychopaths.  It is hard to describe how relieved I felt.  I grew up with a psychopath.  I knew that for sure.  I was abducted by a psychopath.  That was a certainty.

“So, you’ve seen some bad shit then?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ve seen some bad shit. I’ve studied it.  I can take it,” he said, looking into me.

I started to feel better about disclosing, and that brought some relief.

The thing about all this is that I’ve disclosed all this before.  There was nothing new about any of this.  Did I need to do this all over again? It could simply be re-traumatizing.  In the middle of my rumination, Jack leveled a question at me:

“Who knows you? What is it like to have had these kinds of life experiences and be who you are? You’re not sadistic.  You’re not cruel.  You don’t even express borderline traits.  You’re not even that angry.  So, to carry all this personal history with you–all this personal contact with, frankly, evil, who gets to know that about you?”

I must have looked like a deer caught in a meadow in the dark of night while a hunter aimed his spotlight at my face.  He landed on something, and I was completely caught off guard.  I stumbled.

“Who knows me?” I asked trying to buy time.

“Yes, who gets to know you? Who knows all this about you? Who do you tell your stuff to? And who gets to share this pain with you? No one can go through life carrying all this by themselves.”

I started laughing.  Tears were starting to stream down my face, but all I could do was laugh.  The question was legitimate, but I just couldn’t fathom the idea of sharing all that shit with people.  It was laughable.  I felt like I was about to cross over into some kind of mania.  Can you relate to this? For anyone who has ever seen some serious shit in life, can you imagine sitting around with people or even one person and trotting out some of your worst pain? What do you think would happen based upon your past experiences with people? Awkward coughs and stares? Quick subject changes? Being treated differently? Stigma? Judgment? A game of The Trauma Olympics (“You think your pain is bad? Well, at least you don’t struggle like I do!”)? The idea seemed impossible to me.

My mother losing it and punching holes in walls or ruining family holiday parties is one thing.  The kind of violence and abuse that characterized the relationship I had with my father is simply too personal and shocking as was what I experienced in the trafficking environment not to mention that it could very well cause secondary trauma.  The people hearing it could be adversely affected.  The people I include in that very intimate circle matter.  Boundaries matter–for both sides.

And, I think that these reasons are why people who have experienced profound trauma struggle alone and don’t often know how to change it.  The result of this is an ontological feeling of desolation that comes and goes–for me anyway.  A deep and hidden fear that one will never be truly known.  I felt this keenly when my mother’s second husband died.  He was a witness to my mother’s most violent cycles of abuse and rage.  He knew her when she struggled the most, and he understood the consequences in a way that few did.  He knew where I came from.  When he died, I felt a grief I never expected.  I heard a thought drift through my mind, “There is no one left in the world who knows me.”  I didn’t understand it at the time, but I do now.  There is no one in the world, aside from my stepsisters, who were witnesses to that nightmare.  We know each other’s histories, and there is great validation in that knowing.

In being seen.

I think, therefore, that what Jack was really asking me is, “Who sees you?”

Who sees you and loves you after having seen you?

Whoa.  That gets me.  I don’t even like that question.  This is a question about belonging and significance.  And vulnerability.  So, I’m going to let the queen of vulnerability and belonging provide some kind of round-about answer:

True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.  True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” Brené Brown, “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone”

This is where I was after my session with Jack.  Well, this is what therapeutic hubris will get you–a realization that I really do need more time in the Hot Seat.

This is the work of a lifetime.  I’m all in.

I highly recommend Brené’s new book.  It is so timely for so many people struggling with existential questions of belonging, vulnerability, and finding their place in a world divided.

My Borderline Mother

If you’ve read my blog in any detail, then you know by now that I have a mother who expresses her emotions and general psychology through a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.  If I were to follow Christine Lawson’s archetypes, then I would classify my mother as the Queen/Witch with a sprinkling of Medean Witch thrown in for good measure.

No one in my family knows my mother.  Not the way I do.  Well, my former stepsisters know her in a very distinct way.  We spent our late childhoods and adolescence together under her reign of terror.  I don’t say that to be dramatic.  It was seven years of a ceaseless nightmare.  When I was a child, I used to watch “Mommy Dearest” over and over again because it felt…familiar.  The exacting nature of Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford.  The obsession with the wire hangers.  My mother insisted that my sock and underwear drawer was organized perfectly lest she dump it out onto the floor and make me refold every item again and await her exacting inspection.  My closet was to be organized by color and season.  That made no sense to me.  Every Saturday was cleaning day, and my room was to be military clean to the point of a literal white glove test and a perfect quarter bounce off my bed complete with hospital corners.  If I failed any part of her inspection, I had to clean my entire room again.  Drawers were turned out onto the floor.  Invective was launched at me like live grenades.  I was, at times, violently dragged around my room, my face shoved down into perceived imperfections from streaks on windows to visible footsteps in previously vacuumed carpet.

Everything had to be perfect.  All the time.

My stepsister defied my mother once.  She was beaten so harshly for saying ‘no’ to her that a few of her ribs were broken.  She was so bruised that she could not sustain physical touch for at least a week.

These are just small details in a sea of stories about my mother.  I watched my mother lose herself to her own talionic rage on one Christmas Eve morning.  She tried to kill my stepsister.  She assaulted the other one.

My mother remembers nothing.  To her, this is all just water under the bridge.  I am characterized as an unforgiving person because I remember.  I am bad because I carry the marks of trauma.  She might say, “Well, you know, I have struggled with anger over the years.”  That’s one way to put it, I guess.  Strangling the life out of a person is just a normal thing to do then during the holidays when you feel angry because there are crumbs on the counter. Guests are coming! Chop, chop! Never mind.  I’ll just kill you over it.  Merry Christmas, one and all.

This normalized response is crazymaking.  There is absolutely nothing normal about a childhood like that.  There is nothing normal about witnessing another human being do that to someone.  Being made to feel like a bad person for saying so is…fucking nuts.

Why say this?

My mother wrote me a letter last Christmas as she always does.  It’s the Merry-Christmas-You-Are-A-Bad-Person-For-Not-Letting-Me-In-Your-Life-and-You-Have-Robbed-Me-of-Happiness letter.  I’ve received one every year for the last five years.  Her pathology is on full display in each and every letter.  I would compare it to a fruitcake full of nuts, but perhaps that’s too crass.  Suffice it to say, I’ve noticed the calendar.  I’m due for another demeaning and judgmental letter.  This year, I launched a pre-emptive strike and wrote her instead.  I mailed it this morning.

In reality, I actually only replied to her last letter–almost a year later.  I have been working on a response for almost a year.  There are a few people (i.e. almost everyone I know) who will all but scold me “Airplane” style for contacting her in any way, “Get a hold of yourself, MJ!”:

But, I feel rather like the pilot blazing a trail through the terminal.  I don’t want to sit here and passively take it for another year, dreading every December trip to the mailbox.  I’ve worked too hard to get where I am.  I wanted to speak up rather than ignore her.  No, it won’t change her.  It won’t change anything, but speaking up might continue to change and empower me.  That’s a good reason to respond to her, I think.

I don’t experience my life, memories, and even my own personality as I once did.  Everything has evolved, and that’s a good thing.  I don’t feel as I once did where my mother is concerned either although I know enough to be cautious by now.  What I have learned on this long and winding path called ‘recovery’ is that telling the truth is important.  Speaking up is valuable, and it’s important that we do so.  It’s important because we are changed when we hear our own voices in the midst of the din of naysaying, accusations, and other nonsense.  We may be talked down to, accused, disbelieved, and rejected.  I’ve experienced all of this, but your healing is catalyzed when you feel the resonant power of your own voice as you say, “No, that happened, and that was wrong.  I am truthful, and I am good.  And whether or not anyone believes me or supports me, I can say that I know what is real, and I am stronger for having said so.”

Ultimately, this is why I responded to my mother, and this is why I feel peaceful.  I’m not scared of her, but I do feel slightly vulnerable.  Between her and my father, I have witnessed the absolute worst in humanity.  Hands down.  For those who prefer the light, the darkness holds little appeal.

So, speak your truth.  Be brave even if you’re afraid.  You are in good company, my friends.

The Borderline Blame Storm

I was asked recently to write more about being in relationship with someone who expresses as having a personality disorder.

Firstly, I want to be careful because I don’t want to vilify people who carry this diagnosis.  There is a lot of inflammatory rhetoric particularly on the Internet concerning personality disorders, and the very labels themselves have entered into popular culture.  The word ‘narcissistic’ is used commonly today, but would someone recognize a legitimate diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in, say, their neighbor? I’m not so sure.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is on its way to becoming just as recognizable in terms of popular terminology and stigma.  To counteract the stigma associated with BPD, there is a movement within the therapeutic community to rename BPD Emotional Dysregulation Disorder.  I can understand this.  Diagnostic labels of the psychiatric sort can dehumanize people minimizing an entire person until they are just viewed through the lens of a label.

Having grown up with a mother with BPD, I can tell you why there is therapeutic and social stigma around BPD.  The disorder manifests in such a way in a person to enhance and magnify their best and worst traits even going so far as to bring forth talionic rage and homicidal tendencies.  At times, it can resemble sociopathy.  Without help from trained professionals specializing in treating BPD, there seems to be a lack of any ability to learn from past mistakes causing the same relational mistakes to be made repeatedly–even if those mistakes are extreme displays of violence.  This notable inability to apply learning is what makes BPD so difficult to treat.  It’s also why it’s so hard to stay in relationships with someone with BPD; you can’t hold someone accountable for their behaviors if they don’t learn from their past mistakes.  The neuroscience behind this explains some of the behavioral manifestations, but it doesn’t lessen the abusive nature of it.

I love my mother.  Dearly.  It cost me to pause our relationship and put space between us.  Why did I do that? Because she consistently blamed me for her behaviors and choices.  What does that look like? I’ll give you a very black-and-white example so that the dynamic is easy to spot.

When I was under the age of 10, I was playing in our living room.  I had a drink in my hand.  My mother had our couch newly upholstered in a rather hideous floral pattern.  As I was going to sit on our couch, I lost my balance spilling my drink on the couch.  She saw this, and I observed her facial expression change from one of contentment to rage.  It was an immediate switch.  She ran over to me, clutched my upper arm very tightly, and dragged me across the floor while screaming invective.  I was trying to get to my feet because I could feel my shoulder starting to pull from the joint, but I could not.  I was crying and pleading with her to stop.  She proceeded to drag me by my arm up the stairs, her nails digging into me, the connective tissue in my shoulder stretching.  She got to my room, threw me on the floor, and slammed the door.  My shoulder was almost dislocated by then, and there was already a well-developed bruise around my upper arm marking where she had grasped it.

This is a typical interaction with my mother.  One of many.  Years later, when I tried to discuss this with her, she responded, “Oh, you had that coming.  You were fooling around and stained my couch.”  She tossed her hair, gestured, and rolled her eyes.

Blame.

She blamed me.  It was my fault that she behaved badly.  It was my fault that she was abusive.  When I told her that she almost dislocated my shoulder, she said, “It’s not my fault that your shoulder couldn’t stay in its socket!” She blamed my shoulder! It is almost funny.

In her mind, she should have been able to apply as much force to my shoulder as she wanted because she was angry.  It was my shoulder’s job to take it.  If my shoulder broke or dislocated, then it was my shoulder’s fault.  Not hers.  This idea comes from a blindness, and that blindness is centered around a poorly developed cognitive empathy known in academic circles as theory of mind (ToM).

Theory of mind is the ability to understand that what I think is different from what you think.  Going further, a well-developed theory of mind allows one to predict, infer, and deduce another person’s thoughts based on their cues and nonverbal communications.  It also allows one to understand that what I think, want, and believe is not what other people want, think, and believe.  Furthermore, what I do affects other people and my environment as well as how other people feel around me.  People who carry a personality disorder diagnosis often have a ToM deficit, and this deficit contributes to the blatant displays of entitlement which fuel the blaming behavior.

In my recent dealings with my mother through an exchange of letters, she is still blaming me for her choices.  She wants a relationship, but she continues to blame me for her abusive behaviors: “That only happened because you did _________.”  There is a pathological behavior present here.  She cannot account for her own choices and then go on to see how anything that she did might have caused a subsequent event.  It is like trench warfare.  To reach her, I would have to leave my trench and go out into the field risking assassination, and I’m no fool.  She would take me out, and then, when I’m gasping for air, she would blame my body for being vulnerable to death.

My mother has both borderline and narcissistic tendencies so her “blame storms” are excruciating.

Sam Vaknin, self-acknowledged narcissist and author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, says:

I am constantly on the lookout for slights. I perceive every disagreement as criticism and every critical remark as complete and humiliating rejection–nothing short of a threat. Gradually, my mind turns into a chaotic battlefield of paranoia.

I react defensively. I become conspicuously indignant, aggressive, and cold. I detach emotionally for fear of yet another (narcissistic) injury. I devalue the person who made the disparaging remark, the critical comment, the unflattering observation, the innocuous joke at my expense.

A narcissistic injury is just as painful to the narcissist as abandonment is to the borderline. Thus, just as the borderline is hypersensitive to abandonment, the narcissistic is hypersensitive to anything that smacks of a narcissistic injury. (Randi Kreger)

In the end, my mother has emphasized that if I loved her, as she so loves me, then I would never “throw these things in her face”.  I’m supposed to love her no matter what, and this is where I must offer a different opinion:

What does unconditional love usually mean as employed by a Narcissist, Borderline or other abusive personality type?

It means that you won’t hold the Narcissist, Borderline, Histrionic or Sociopath accountable for their bad behavior nor enforce appropriate boundaries and natural consequences for their bad behavior. Basically, they’ve confused unconditional love with you happily and obliviously tolerating their abuse of you and others, including children. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

In my experience, this is true.  This is also true:

If for whatever reason you’re committed to staying with your abuser (e.g., there are minor children or you’re confusing abuse with love due to your own childhood issues) then, yes, you do need to accept that your abuser is unlikely to change in any meaningful way, that she or he is severely limited as a human being and, at some point after she or he has completely depleted your resources, you may be further vilified and discarded for fresh supply. You don’t get points for being a compliant martyr at the end of the relationship. You get blamed for being broken — never mind the fact that it’s the abuser who broke you…(What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

This is tough to hear.  The psychologist who penned this article has a lot of followers as well as haters.  She doesn’t pull her punches.  I don’t agree with how she communicates everything, but she isn’t necessarily wrong either in terms of content.  Abuse is abuse.  An inability to change is still an inability to change.  At the end of the day, does the ‘why’ of it all matter when you’re dying a slow death?

Finally, this is where she is most accurate:

Generally speaking, the mental health field has a difficult time admitting that women can be abusers, even when their victims are other women and children. Many wives and girlfriends of men with abusive exes and adult children of narcissistic and borderline mothers understand this all too well. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

I was told for years that my mother was abused as a child and emotionally troubled, and I should just “love her through it”.  If a man, however, did the things to me that my mother was doing, I would have been pulled out of the home as a child and advised to flee the relationship as an adult.  The faith communities with which I became acquainted were notorious for this response.

As you can see, the concepts of unconditional love and radical acceptance are frequently (ab)used in couples therapy to persuade targets of narcissistic, borderline and sociopathic abuse, particularly if the abuser is a female who has “emotional problems,” that you’re an unloving and abusive partner (or adult child) if you don’t unconditionally accept your partner’s (or parent’s) abuse. If that last sentence makes your head spin, good. It should because it’s ridiculous. It also probably echoes what your narcissist or borderline has been drilling into your head, which is equally ridiculous. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

It is not wrong to want to be happy.  It is not wrong to want to feel safe.  It is not wrong to want to be loved appropriately.  It is not wrong to want to be a part of healthy, mutually life-giving relationships.

The only thing that tolerating or accepting abuse will get you is more abuse. You can call that unconditional love, but it sure sounds more like codependence and extremely unhealthy codependence at that. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

What I have learned is that blame can be rejected.  My mother or my ex-husband can blame me for anything, but I don’t have to accept it.  I can let the “blame ball” drop to the ground and walk away.  I do not have to take responsibility for something that is not and never was mine.  Nor do you.

There may be disorders at play in others that limit their capacities to grow and change, but, if we are not limited, then we can grow and change.  When you stop and think about that, and I mean really think about that, you must see that the playing field isn’t level at all.

The possibilities are limitless for you when you stop allowing another person’s limitations define your terms.

That is what I would offer you today.

Where are you allowing other people’s small capacities and limitations determine your own life’s possibilities?

What can you do right now to change that?

Shalom…

Further Reading:

Borderlines and Narcissists Both Blame Storm by Randi Kreger

What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love

No Apologies

It’s the holiday season, and you know what that means.  It’s Letter from My Mother time!

For those of you familiar with her, I fully expect an eye roll.  For those of you new to my blog, just roll your eyes.  She seems to like to send long, hand-written notes on yellow legal paper folded up and stuffed into Christmas cards annually.  At least this year it wasn’t a Dear Santa letter.

One statement that my mother has made in all of her letters is: “I’m sorry for whatever it is that I did to hurt you.  If I could go back and do it differently then I would.  I’m sorry that I wasn’t the mother that you needed.”

This has always grated on me.  There are three ideas within this statement, and each one carries its own meaning.  The first statement is a blanket apology: “I don’t know what I did, but I’m sorry about it.”  One can’t offer up an apology if one doesn’t know what it’s for.  The very nature of an apology is to take responsibility for a specific action.  This statement fails to meet the criteria for a basic apology.  Am I being a stickler? Perhaps I could be defined as such had I not informed my mother prior to this letter of the actions that needed to be addressed.  There should be no confusion.

The notion that she would like to go back and do it again mystifies me.  If she doesn’t know what she did wrong, then what would she like to go back and change? That doesn’t fit.  We have two contradicting ideas.

Her final statement, to me, is the trickiest of them all.  She wasn’t the mother that I needed.  Perhaps she could have been the mother that another child needed? Just not me.  I had unique needs?

These types of slippery “apologies” are very common in families of origin where high-level abuse was in place.  When you receive them, you might feel confused or crazy.  Like something isn’t quite right.  Did she just apologize to me? Why do I somehow feel worse? That is what I have been thinking about, and I think I’ve come upon an answer that you might find helpful as well.

There are some actions that we witness and experience in abusive families that cannot be defended.  Sexual abuse, for example, cannot be defended.  Attempted homicide cannot be defended unless it’s self-defense.  Long-term physical and emotional abuse as well as neglect cannot be defended.  One can’t offer up an apology for committing incest: “I’m sorry, honey, that I snuck into your bedroom every night and forced you to have sex with me.”  That falls woefully short.  “I’m sorry that you had to talk me out of trying to kill myself so many times.”  Really? “I’m sorry that you were on the receiving end of my rages and violence.”  Huh.

No one should ever have to endure abuse of any kind.  The amount of time and focused effort it requires to recover and heal from abuse is staggering.  How does an apology from the abuser mean anything in comparison to that? It’s worthless.  The act of abuse is indefensible.  There is no apology that could ever be meaningful enough.  There is no apology that could ever build a bridge long enough to mend the gap.  A better statement might be: “I should never have done _______ to you.  That was wrong.  You should never have had to go through that or witness it.  I am sorry that I ever put you in a position to carry lifelong injuries because of my character flaws and subsequent actions.”

The notion that she was not the mother that I needed is absurd.  An abusive parent or guardian is not the parent that anyone needs.  We are not somehow demanding or fragile children because we do not like being abused.  All children need and deserve a loving parent who provides safety, predictability, empathetic presence, and love.  You and I are not high-maintenance because we ask for healthy boundaries, appropriate communication, non-deviant forms of love and intimacy within the parent-child relationship, healthy parent-child role modeling, and a validating environment.  We are sound and healthy when we ask for that.  Being made to feel somehow unreasonable for asking for such is gaslighting: “I’m sorry for whatever it is I did to you, and I am sorry that I was not the parent you needed.”

It’s very high level.  The manipulation is so subtle that it’s easily missed.  Your feelings, however, don’t miss it.  It’s why you feel so crazy after receiving something like this.  Essentially, you are made to feel somehow lesser for asking for that which is appropriate and healthy through an apology like this.  The failures and abusive actions of the person apologizing to you are deflected onto you, and then you are blamed for not only not being able to accept their apology but also for not being able to accept them in their role as parent because, you know, “they did the best they could” and you somehow had special needs making it impossible to be a good parent for you.

I have not crafted a response, but I have figured out why I was so bugged by her latest effort to connect with me.  She and my ex-husband have issued similar apologies.  It’s painful.  I just want someone to own up.  That’s all.  Is it that hard? It must require a Herculean effort because so many people refuse to actually take responsibility for their actions in a meaningful way.  Instead, you see apologies coated with justifications or outright denial:

  • “I never did that.” (Gaslighting specifically countering technique and denial)
  • “That never happened.” (Countering and denial)
  • “Maybe I should have been a little more empathetic.” (Gaslighting specifically trivializing technique)
  • “Maybe I was a little volatile but I wasn’t abusive.” (countering and trivializing together)
  • “Look, I did some wrong things, but I had some things I was struggling with.” (trivializing)
  • “You don’t remember it the way it happened.” (countering)
  • “I will always be your mother.” (This is a weird thing to say, but it’s a common comeback.  It almost feels like blocking and diverting, another form of gaslighting)

The only reasonable defense that I can conjure in my mind for abuse and extreme behaviors is mental illness.  And, in the end, this is my mother’s only defense.  She does struggle with mental illness, but one might argue that she is responsible for the treatment of that illness in order that she would be a safe and healthy adult.  If an adult cannot stop themselves from abusing the people under their care and/or they can no longer differentiate good from bad behavior, then they are no longer fit to care for said minor children or adults needing their care.  If their inability to properly care for people is largely due to mental illness and not an unfortunate character defect, then it is imperative that they seek help.  If they are entrenched and treatment resistant as so many people are, then what?

That is the question to ask.  We each have to decide for ourselves how we want to proceed in relationship with a family member who is a former abuser and also may struggle with mental illness.  This is my current dilemma.  I know for a fact that my mother has rewritten the past.  The family history has been redacted in order to create a narrative that she can tolerate.  She has participated in distortion campaigns and lied about me.  She will never apologize for this.  She will turn the tables on me and blame me should I ever try to hold her accountable for any past behaviors that hurt me.  She will continue to be entitled and emotionally dysregulated.  She will only see her needs and pathologically pursue getting them met at the expense of everyone around her.  And, she will fail to see how any of this could possibly hurt me or anyone else.

This is reality.  Is it even reasonable to expect an apology from a person like this? It’s reasonable to want one.  To expect one?

Truth is a theme on my blog, and this is where we land again.  To continue to heal from having been in a relationship characterized with this flavor of abuse, you must know the truth.  You must know that your perceptions and memories of events are valid and valuable.  You are not crazy.  You are sane.  You are not asking for too much when you ask for safety, predictability, empathy, nurturing, kindness, and healthy reciprocity.  You are not too demanding when you draw a line in the sand against passive-aggressive and unsafe behaviors and defend it.  You are not high-maintenance when you dictate that there will be no gaslighting or ad hominem attacks in future conversations.

You are showing signs of growth and maturation.  You are moving forward and healing.  You don’t need anyone’s apology to do that, but, admittedly, it sure would be nice sometimes, wouldn’t it?

Resources:

For a review of gaslighting, refer to Gaslighting and Distortion Campaigns

A Star Is Born

This isn’t an equipping post or an inspirational post.  It’s just me, remembering something.  Most of the time I simply sweep the past behind me because most of it has been so thoroughly examined and consecrated that it no longer has a sting.  But this memory quietly bubbled up today as I was changing the sheets on my bed.  Or maybe it seeped into my mind like a slow hiss.  Some memories play out like a film.  We’re standing outside the event as an observer.  We see ourselves as if we’re not even an active participant in our own lives.  Some memories are alive and vivid, happening to us in real time as if we are reliving them over again.  That’s what this memory was like.  I was suddenly thrust back in time, standing directly next to my mother as she was helping me organize my basement.

It’s funny to me because I seldom think about my mother these days.  If she comes to mind at all it’s only in passing.  I don’t feel very much.  She’s where she is.  I am where I am.  We are 300 miles apart in distance, but we might as well be a universe apart in spirit.  And you know what? I am finally okay with that.  I grieved the loss of that relationship as if she died so it feels very surreal to me that she still lives because, to me, she died along with every dream I had that I would ever have a healthy mother.

This is why it felt all the more strange to find myself in a remembered time in my basement standing next to my mother.  The memory was brilliantly clear.  I remembered every detail around her presence.  It was my birthday.  All I wanted for my birthday was an organized basement.  So, she and my stepfather drove in for the weekend, bought a plethora of organizational bins, and helped me take things out of the cardboard boxes and put them in plastic bins.  My stepdad organized our tools, installed some lights, and built some shelves.  I was just happy to have the task finally underway.  It had been weighing on me.  As is my mother’s way in all things, no gift is given freely, and I am never allowed to expand into any sort of identity that might threaten hers.  This is how her borderline personality disorder is expressed.  She will try to be generous, but she must always take a pound of flesh in exchange preferably at a vital spot that might cause longterm damage.

I recalled that I was organizing the newly built shelf.  I was happy.  She saw that I was happy.  She came alongside me and commented on my basement.

“It’s coming along nicely.”

“Yes, I’m so happy.  Thank you so much.  This was so helpful.”

“Well, don’t think you’ll be getting anything else from us for your birthday.  I think that this is quite enough, don’t you?” she remarked with a hardened smile.

Stunned into silence, I nodded.

“Well then, I can tell you that this looks nothing like our house.  It sure is beginning to look good after all that renovation we’ve been doing.  Granted it was a mess after taking down those walls, and I didn’t like it.  All that dust!” She then turned to me with a haughty expression and quietly said, “But I’ll tell you this.  You would never have been able to handle it.”  She then tossed her hair and continued organizing the shelf as if she had just told me that she liked my haircut.

This is standard behavior for my mother.  She’s like a scorpion.  As soon as you feel like you understand her or even feel comfortable, she’ll get you from behind.  My training would have dictated that I say nothing to her after a sting like that.  Granted, that’s tame for my mother.  She was just being herself.  In her eyes, she is the Queen.  She gives happiness.  She is the provider of all good things.  If I seem just a bit happier than she intended, then she must take it away as a reminder that I am her subordinate always dependent upon her for everything.  In this case, however, I didn’t want to submit.  I didn’t want to remain silent.  I didn’t like the sting.  So, I spoke up.

I turned to her and said emphatically, ‘You have no idea what I’m capable of handling, Mother.”

She was so surprised by my response that she stumbled backwards and fell.  I did not help her up.  She glared at me.  I knew I would pay for it later, but I didn’t care.  I was an adult.

When I remembered this today I felt an urge to cry.  Then, I felt another far baser urge.  I wanted to find my mother and shove her face in her own shitty declarations and yell back, “Do you see? You were wrong about me! Do you see? I’ve handled you! I’ve grown up and become a far better person than you’ll ever be! Do you see? I am raising my daughters under extraordinary circumstances, and they are great kids! I’ve been married for nineteen years! I’ve done this in spite of you with all the hurdles you’ve thrown in front of me! I don’t need you.  I don’t need your approval.  I’m doing just fine! So there!”

And then I felt guilty for feeling that “carnal” urge to shove my mother’s face in her own abusive shite.  I sat with my feelings for a moment, picked up my newly covered pillow, and sniffed it.  It smelled clean and fresh, and that comforted me.  It was also cool against my cheek, and I have a thing about cool pillowcases.  I had no idea why I had remembered my mother’s toxic words today.  I try to pay attention to memories when they come forward.  They speak to us.  My mother often told me that I wasn’t good enough.  She had to impose her own self-loathing on me through words and violence.  As is typical for her expression of borderline personality disorder, she could not permit me to separate or individuate.  I was never allowed to be.  I was only allowed to do particularly what she forced me to do.

I think it’s why I can let this memory pass on with the rest of them and release my mother from yet another debt.  Ten years ago, this memory would have hurt me more.  Today, I see her more clearly because I see myself more clearly.  I can do today because I am, but my doing doesn’t define my being.  If I fail, it doesn’t define me in any way.  My being is already settled.  I in no way loathe who I am.  I don’t feel empty or rootless.  My mother can’t agree with any of this.  One can’t give what one doesn’t have.

Standing in my basement, my mother did indeed fall.  She lost her place of power over me because I spoke up.  Maybe that’s why I remembered this moment today.  Maybe it’s not her words that I was supposed to recall.

Maybe I was supposed to remember mine.

“You have no idea what I’m capable of handling, Mother.”

Maybe you have some memories that bubble up and sting you, too.  Maybe you’re not seeing what’s really there.  Maybe you’re a helluva lot stronger than you know.

If I was really the star of my story that whole time, and I just realized it now…then what does that mean for you?

 

speak.

I wanted to say something about speaking the truth.

I have often found myself in conversations with people discussing personal circumstances that are gridlocked.  Marriages are in turmoil.  People feel unheard, invisible, and helpless.  I’ve been in that situation.  Or, perhaps it’s something familial.  Fathers are still foisting their high and hidden expectations upon their grown sons causing their sons to feel emasculated and inadequate in other spheres of their lives outside of the father-son relationship.  Whatever the case may be, when I find myself talking to people who feel stuck in situations like these I always find myself saying, “Speak up!” The usual response is: “What would that change?” followed up by, “My husband will never change so I have to just make myself as small as possible,” or “My father has been dishing out demands and ridiculously high expectations since I was a kid.  He expected me to talk when I was an infant and walk at 10 months.  If Neil Armstrong could walk on the moon, then why couldn’t I run on it? I didn’t even run track.  He will never see me for who I am.  Nothing I say will change anything.  What’s the point?”

I understand this.  I have lived with this view and experience in most of my key relationships.

When I was growing up, I was the romantic comedy queen not to mention all the classic old movie romances.  I grew up in a sprawling Southern Victorian house with almost too much space so, fortunately, we had a lot of room to get away from each other.  Oh, and that white porch swing on that wraparound porch allowed me too much room to be dramatic.  I would tuck myself away in the “rec room” upstairs and watch Grace Kelly in “The Swan”, Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron in “Gigi”, Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in “Funny Face”, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in “Charade”, and, of course, I could never forget Hitchcock’s classic leading men and ladies in “Rear Window”, “To Catch A Thief”, and “The Birds”!  And then “The Princess Bride” happened to me.  I was done for.  I was completely slain when I saw “Room with A View”.  And, then I was resurrected when I discovered Jane Austen–O, Mr. Darcy…Mr. Darcy…Mr. Darcy.  In my head, love and relationships were going to be like that.  My husband was going to be a mélange of Mr. Emerson, Westley/The Dread Pirate Roberts, Mr. Darcy, Gaston Lachaille, and Cary Grant.  Oh, and he would dance like Fred Astaire in cowboy boots.  How’s that for high standards? It explains my constant sense of deprivation and disappointment every moment of high school.  I would moan, “Where are you, Mr. Darcy? Where are you, Westley? Where are you, Mr. Emerson?” I wish I could say that I am embellishing my memory, but I’m not.  My mother used to call me Sarah Bernhardt for my constant displays of drama.  I hated that nickname.

All this is to say that I came into marriage with obviously high expectations.  I wanted the fairy tale.  I think I expected to be rescued.  The more I read about the psychology of adult children of personality disordered parents, the more I am able to to understand myself.  I am better able to organize my past and present emotional experiences and give feelings and responses a context.

I have written in the past that I found life coaching, which I did for six months after three years of intense psychotherapy, to be far more challenging largely because a life coach does not carry you as a therapist does.  Therapists share the load, but life coaches direct you to do your own work–all of it  Since my therapist transitioned into being my life coach, he knew me well, and he felt quite free to be blunt with me.  His message? “If you aren’t happy, then the problem is you.  No one is responsible for your happiness except you.  So, define ‘happiness’ in the context of your own life and begin crafting a life that helps you take responsibility for what happiness means to you.”  This might not be a shocking sentiment to any of us but putting it in a context can be quite shocking.

“I’m not happy in my marriage.”….”It’s not your husband’s job to make you happy.  That’s your job.  So, what are you going to do about your level of happiness in your relationship?”

Uh….

“I’m not happy quite a lot.”….”What are you going to do about that?”

Uh…

“Can we just go back to therapy? I feel like I’m getting slapped in the face repeatedly for 30 minutes, and I feel like you like it.”….”No, we can’t, and I know that this is very hard for you.  You’ve been in the therapeutic environment for a long time.  You’re used to finding problems and attempting to solve them.  You aren’t used to building a life for yourself.  It’s time to starting learning empowerment.  It’s time for you to start learning to see positives.  Not just problems.  It’s time to start answering the question: What do I want? Not just ‘What don’t i want?'”

Life coaching was the beginning of my learning empowerment.  It’s where I learned that I could speak for myself.  The first time that I started to say ‘no’ came about in life coaching, and I started acting like a toddler when I finally found my ‘no’.  I said no all the time! I mean it.  I even said no to things I wanted to say yes to.  My therapist found it hilarious.  No, no, no, no, no! People called me to ask for favors.  NO! People wanted something from me.  NO! Would I like to volunteer? NO! I looked quite self-involved, but I was really doing something that I should have done years ago–individuate.  When we individuate, we find our voice.

When you find your voice, something happens to you.  In the beginning, you want to use it all the time, and sometimes you misuse it.  Just like toddlers who say ‘NO!’ when they really mean ‘maybe’ or ‘yes’, you might find yourself throwing your newly discovered weight around.  The point of this isn’t intent.  It’s principle.  We need to know that we can speak and be heard.  We need to know that we can lay down a boundary and that boundary will be respected.  Using our voices is actually identity work.  That’s what is happening when 18-month old toddlers begin communicating intent.  The strength of their ‘no’ is really meant to convey: “You are not me, and I am not you.  Let me be me.”

Why does this matter? Recall what I wrote at the beginning of this post about speaking up.  In my last post I mentioned that a friend of mine referred to me as a battered wife because I had the intent to engage my mother.  She viewed this as an exercise in futility.  She asked me directly, “What would your engaging her change?”  She missed the point.  I have no illusions that engaging my mother will change her, but engaging my mother will change me and fortify the delicate neural connections I’ve been attempting to forge regarding identity.  When we engage a perpetrator with the intent to stand our ground, tell our story, and self-advocate, we do so for ourselves.  We are actually coming against being re-victimized over and over again, putting down a boundary, and adding weight and substance to our own voices.

Many people who grew up with BPD/NPD/APD parents are terrified of them.  They would sooner cut off a finger than confront their parent.  This paralyzing fear resides in the brain and body, and, while they can provide evidence from their childhood that this fear is rational, this fear has no place in an adult who no longer lives with a parent.  This sort of entrenched paralysis isn’t benign.  It roots itself in a person and invades other areas of a person’s life like a cancer.  The cure for this fear is, in part, learning empowerment because when you are empowered and able to self-advocate, then the object of your fear isn’t all-powerful anymore.

I experienced this for myself a few years ago the first time I told my mother no with my voice.  I had written her quite a few letters before that moment, some with the help of my therapist, which specified boundaries and even had the word ‘no’ written.  The written word, however, is not the same as the spoken word.  I am very comfortable writing down my thoughts, but, in my mother’s presence, be it on the phone or in person, I am rarely able to advocate for myself.  I fold.  I, however, chose to tell her no for the first time in my life, and as soon as that word passed over my vocal chords it felt like adamant fortified my spine in that instant.  I grew tall in the next breath.  I trembled and my mouth grew dry, but I stood my ground and let my voice be heard.  She seethed and cried.  She attacked me, but, to me, it was worth it.  It was the best moment of my life.  I let all those years of effort and therapy quicken me.  I had arrived.  After I hung up the phone, I was completely triggered and shaking so badly that I had to take a hot shower to settle myself.  I didn’t look like I had just won a war.  I was drained and exhausted, but something inside me had shifted.  I had crossed into a new space, and I was not going back to being the silent victim.

This is why we speak up.  Does it change others? Often it does not, but it changes us.  Every time we speak up, use our voice, choose to speak the truth rather than choose passive silence, we are actually pursuing our own mental health.  We are demonstrating what it is to have integrity.  We are demonstrating that which we want for those who are perpetrating abuse.  I want my mother to take ownership of her mental health and happiness.  How could I tell her to pursue such a thing if I sit in silence and say nothing when she behaves so poorly? How could I insist that she seek help for herself if I won’t even take responsibility for my own happiness by falling back on a passive declaration like, “Why bother saying anything? It doesn’t change anything.”

This is what it means to take responsibility for your happiness.  It starts with learning to use your voice and learning to speak up.  We advocate for ourselves not to change others but because it brings long-lasting change to us.  This is reason enough.