Sometimes

Sometimes I wish my mother hadn’t died. The reason I say only sometimes instead of all the time is that there isn’t a damn thing I could have done to save her, and there’s not a damn thing I could do to bring her back. Therefore, thinking that every day is just a way to drive myself crazy, and if the past is any indication, it’s not that far a trip. The flight attendants don’t even have enough time to bring out the drink cart.

I’m still waiting for what Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant call post-traumatic growth. It’s possible that it’s happening already, but because I talk to myself every day, I don’t see the changes that come over a year. I can look back at past blog entries to get an idea, but it’s not the same. If I look back by reading, it’s almost as if what went on happened to someone else. It’s been the best way I know how to forgive myself… having the deep knowing that I would forgive this foreign person much more easily than I’d forgive me. It’s how I’ve gotten through every bad thing that’s happened over the last four years. It’s become clear to me that I can’t atone for every wrong, but I can pray and change my behavior accordingly so that I don’t make the same mistakes again. At the very least, I can move on to make new ones. Perhaps that is the post-traumatic growth I’ve been looking for in the first place. I am learning to give up on perfection and become satisfied with excellence…. because perfectionist anxiety is crippling.

For instance, I wanted to be the perfect wife and friend. I ended up behaving so badly that I didn’t even recognize myself. My moral compass became smashed glass and metal on the floor, and I had to learn how to fix it on my own, without any YouTube videos, Google searches, or even card catalogs. Though therapy is helping me cope, no one gets better only focusing on themselves and their goals for one hour a week. It has been backbreaking, mind-bending work to get back to the person I was before I started vomiting up the emotions surrounding emotional abuse that as a teenager, I didn’t recognize or even have words to explain…. with the added bonus of being sent to therapy and, not wanting to get anyone in trouble, danced around every issue; I talked for an hour without saying anything. Therapy as a teenager was something I was asked to do; it was not anything I would have chosen on my own.

That being said, I had to take a battery of multiple choice tests that revealed just how broken and screwed up I was, because I couldn’t figure out how to outsmart those. So, my therapist knew exactly how worthless I felt, exactly how low my self-esteem really was, and exactly how much I needed them. And yet, you can’t help a little old lady across the street if she doesn’t want to go.

However, those emotions couldn’t stay locked down forever… and it only took 23 years. Finally talking scraped off every scab, and cut down into fully-formed scars. I didn’t so much get over anything as stuff it down and pretend it never happened. I didn’t know it at the time, but moving to Portland was just an opportunity for it to be proven to me over and over that really, nothing happened, and I was crazy to think so… to the point where I would swear on a stack of Bibles that it was gospel truth… because why would anyone who claimed to love me so much cover up truth like that? I exhibited every symptom of trauma. I was coached on what to say. I was told that my past was just this big bag of shit I’d been carrying around forever, and I needed to just let it go…. but as anyone who has lived through emotional trauma knows, it’s impossible until you find the problem… that not letting go is not a function of not wanting it to happen.

It’s a function of reliving what happened over and over and over and over ad nauseam because you can’t figure out whether what you think happened or not. Confusion wracks your brain because gaslighting causes you to doubt your own version of events, your truth. Your intuition battles your programming, as if you are living with a 3,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. It’s just one rumination after another…. this big bag of shit you carry around forever and just need to let it go…. but it’s the emotional equivalent of telling someone with depression to snap out of it. Well, Jesus H. Christ. I wish I’d thought of that.

In a way, though, I did snap out of it. The atomic bomb has dropped, but I am still working through the repercussions. I liken it to a local band that’s been together for 15 years being called an overnight success. In my case, though, it’s the reverse. There was a snap of recognition, and then a therapist who told me it would take five or ten years to really feel well…. and even then, it would be a lifetime of choosing healthy patterns in order not to fall back on old, damaged ones. All of my relationships have fallen prey to them in varying degrees, which is why it has been essential for me to create brand new relationships with the new context I’ve been given; my past is not a factor and I cannot be reminded of it from people who didn’t know me before…. when I was completely in the throes of grief, rage, and poor impulse control.

Poor impulse control is a function of ADHD, but compounds exponentially with trauma, because especially when fear presents as rage, you cannot give yourself enough time to weigh consequences and form measured responses. The phrase even keel is not even in your vocabulary in those moments. Cortisol and sin races through your brain because you do not have the ability to second guess. I’ve talked to too many people who have gone through this scenario to know that I’m not special. In terms of fight or flight, trauma-related rage doesn’t even present flight as an option. In those moments, you’re just a loose cannon unfocused on a target, often choosing……………. poorly. You can’t even tell yourself to calm the fuck down, and God help anyone who decides to say it to you.

But most of that rage boils down to one thing; I have to push you away because I am not worthy of your time or energy because I have the capability to destroy you with my pain, even when you say you can take it and there’s no way I can mess you up. This is because in almost every case, you can’t get angry with the person who deserves it. They disappear and leave you to sit in your own tangled knot, because surely they’re not responsible.

While it is true that adults often abuse each other, the most insidious type of abuse is emotional between an adult and a child, because the child automatically believes that whatever is happening is their fault, because the adult is in a position of absolute power and control. Moreover, if no physical/sexual abuse happens, there is no clear message that anything wrong happened at all. I would never say that it is worse than raping or hitting a child. I would only say that it is more muddled and confusing because there is no line in the sand to go back as an adult and say you are definitely sure someone stepped over it. Many, many, many children have had their childhoods taken away earlier in much more horrible ways, and my heart bleeds out for them. But there is also no such thing as competitive suffering.

It’s not the same boat, but it’s the same ocean.

Emotional and physical abuse present with the same symptoms, much like addiction. Symptoms of addiction are the same whether it’s to drugs, alcohol, gambling/spending, food, or sex. I would compare addiction to food and sex to emotional abuse, because it’s harder to figure out addictions to things you need to live a healthy life vs. things you can do without. You need the right amount of food and sex in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Looking at the pyramid, I haven’t seen the right amount of cocaine yet.

If I extrapolate that into emotional abuse, I crave connection without abusing or enabling, codependency or projection.

In terms of how wishing my mother hadn’t died when she did works into all this is that she’ll never get to see me as a truly happy adult…. thriving instead of barely surviving for years on end…. or worse, just flat-out lying about how I was feeling in order to Suit Up.™ At the very least, I was able to take off the mask for three years, but there should have been so many more. In terms of recovery, three years is the blink of an eye.

Which is exactly how fast I lost her.

Tolstoy Abridged

…she had learned from experience that Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty.

-Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

It is funny the lengths to which we will go, the things we will withstand, when we think we need something or someone… most likely someone. Things are an achievable goal. People are moving targets of emotion. In most relationships, but not all, there is some bit of lopsidedness to it. Not everyone finds that marriage, that friendship, that boss in which esteem and respect are equal to one another.

And yet we go on, trying to please and tolerating others’ behaviors as if they are normal in order to learn their particular brand of dysfunction. As Leo Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina, “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” No family is immune to it- to fit in, we adjust our expectations from the ways we were raised to the way they were… because equality is about compromise, and need is ingratiating ourselves, sublimating the parts of us that are completely different so “we’re on the same page.”

I didn’t learn this from my biological family. I learned it over years and years of emotional abuse. Early and often I changed my behavior so that I didn’t rock the boat, and walked on eggshells, afraid to be myself… because when I was, it was a signal to me that I wasn’t needed anymore. Agreement meant love; disagreement meant “I just don’t know what to do with you. I can’t win, so I’ll just leave.”

Appeasement was the name of the game, and we all do it, but some less than others. Take, for instance, your work phone voice and the voice you use when you’re just shooting the shit with your friends. If “the customer is always right,” sometimes that means swallowing words that need to be said and aren’t… mostly things like “you kiss your mother with that mouth?” Customer service is the only profession I know in which trying not to fake your own death so you don’t have to go to work is a daily struggle…. because people won’t unload on the others they’re mad at, but they have no problem treating the clerk at Target or the waiter at Jaleo like that. They think it’s impersonal, having no idea how deep their words cut… because hey, they’ll never see you again.

And that’s where they’re wrong. They need you. It’s not like they’re going to abandon going to Target or Jaleo, and they’ll see you again whether you want to see them or not. As soon as they walk in the door, you remember their “kick the dog” syndrome and try desperately to find someone else to help them.

But sometimes you’re stuck, and it’s a crapshoot as to whether they’ll remember and apologize.

This same behavior happens in relationships. We’re mad about something else, and unload on the people we love the most, because we know their softest spots. Unsurprisingly, they also retreat, and if the words cut deeply enough, and apology isn’t necessary, because they won’t hear it, anyway.

Because sometimes the emotional abuse is given, rather than received… especially if that’s what’s been modeled for you long enough. Others tiptoe around you, so that you don’t pick up your toys and go home… the exact scenario you were trying to avoid with someone else. You watch as they change their behavior around you, rarely self-aware enough to know they’re doing it, because you’re doing the same thing… your own egocentricity in the way… both saying to each other “please don’t leave me. I am broken and I know it, I just don’t know how to fix it.” Just not with words.

But that’s what happens with fully-functioning adults. As a child and an adult in any kind of relationship, the balance of power is off to an enormous degree… and any perceived anger is all their fault. There is nothing within them that says “this person is treating me unfairly and I need to stand up for myself.” This is because when the child tries to stand up for themselves, it leads to witholding of affection and long, drawn-out silences in which the child takes on the “I have to fix everything” mentality. Instead of another adult compromising themselves into your crazy as you adopt theirs, children cannot begin to comprehend what they’ve done wrong.

And often, this is the root of the problem with adults who also think that every slight is their fault. You don’t get away from it, there’s no relief until you can take back your own power… and it never, ever happens in an instant. It is a lifelong process of examining why you think the way you think, because even when you think you’ve made progress, you’ll fall back into old patterns because they are so ingrained. It is a lifetime of two steps forward, and between one and four steps back. Just like one is never cured of addiction, one is never cured of codependency.

Adulthood modeled badly for children leads to future adults that cannot trust their own intuition, often relying on other people they perceive as just as damaged as they are because they know they can take a healthy person and destroy them. Sometimes it’s a good thing to share experiences, as my friend Donna calls “compatible wounds.” At others, it’s one awful pattern feeding the other with no end in sight, because neither one is aware of just how much they’re doing to excoriate good memories.

The eternal rub, the thing that makes both of you bleed, is that when you’re saying awful words to each other, it’s really just a cover-up as to how you feel about yourself. If you think you’re worthless, that’s how you’ll treat others. You don’t really think that about the other person, you’re expressing your own disgust at yourself, and it comes across as rage and anxiety… words coming out of your mouth before you even have a chance to connect consequences. If someone has treated you that way, why would you? It’s “what you’re supposed to do” in an argument. For two people abused as children, these are fights that are designed to cut both people off at the knees, mutually assured destruction in which both parties have trouble standing back up.

The craziness continues because you’re so afraid of getting “crazy spatter” on healthy people… or at least, the people we view as such… not really taking in that everyone is fighting a battle of some sort. These days, I tend to believe that there are no healthy people, only healthy actions… and, as Elizabeth Gilbert says, “I don’t know of any story of self-enlightenment that doesn’t begin with getting tired of your own bullshit.” I had to decide to get healthy. I had to decide it was time to, in the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians, “put away childish things.” However, just like deciding to come out as GLBT, you don’t do it once… you do it every day. I can’t just decide once. I will die having to make these decisions.

If Need accommodates cruelty, it is a choice to step away from it…. not once, but each and every day. I would amend that statement to say that Need only accommodates cruelty when it is based in lopsided affection, when you think you need something not meant for you. Healthy need is interdependence, not wishing and hoping someone will finally realize what you have to offer… because pro tip… they won’t. Users that make it impossible to please them will only move on to someone else when they realize they can’t get adoration from you anymore. They’ll just lovebomb someone else until they’re so wrapped up in the lovebombing that they can’t understand why it would go away, and what they did to deserve it.

“Putting away childish things” is the realization that you know exactly what you did. You took those childhood behaviors and carried them into adulthood, where they no longer serve you… but again, it’s not a realization that happens once, but every time you interact with others. You have to ask yourself if you are really happy and healthy, or in the company of others, whether everyone is just unhappy in their own way. You have to stand up and say………….

I’m not going to get into the ring with Tolstoy. – Ernest Hemingway