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Archive for November, 2013

Martha Wolfe Hope prayer flag

Martha Wolfe
Hope prayer flag

In no particular order, 10 things that Mama Bear has said to me that were particularly helpful, and because I could have kept on going, there will be more at a later date.

1) He is dead. After I started working with Mama Bear again and I became more aware of just what some of my child parts were experiencing, I realized that deep down I didn’t believe that my grandfather really was dead and I was terrified that he could come after me again. We spent weeks talking about my attending his memorial service, the evidence that I had that he was dead, and why I was having trouble accepting it. I know that he was cremated and have seen the container that his ashes were collected in, so as I began to feel more secure I found myself having revenge fantasies about what I could do with his ashes. Slowly, more and more of me accepted that he probably was dead. The fear that he was so powerful that he could get me anywhere, at anytime ran so deep that I simply had to accept that the process of fully believing that he was dead and I am now safe from him would take however long it would take. I spent several months when a part would unexpectedly pipe up in session, “Is he really dead?” and we would have to take a few minutes to go over the evidence again, and then I would feel reassured enough to refocus on the original topic. Now I almost entirely believe that he really is dead, but sometimes I still slip.

2) Even if he wasn’t dead, you are a capable adult now and you know how to protect yourself. I was shocked the first time that she said this. I tended to think of him as so much more powerful and larger than me, but eventually I realized that Mama Bear was right. Not only am I three inches taller than he was, but I am physically more capable than he was. And as I thought about it, I realized that he tended to reserve his worst treatment for those who had the least ability to stand up against him. Or, as Mama Bear said, “He was a coward who preyed on a defenseless child.” But I am no longer that defenseless child that he was able to prey on. I have strength in myself. I have strength in allies. If my grandfather stood in front of me today, he might make a few cutting remarks, but he wouldn’t dare to do anything more.

3) It isn’t happening now. My flashbacks often have a very strong sense of “nowness” to them. Even though I can look around and see that I am here in this time and place and know all of that at a surface level, the part of me that is experiencing the flashback believes that the events are happening right now. Even after I manage to I pull back from other aspects of the flashback, I often am left feeling as though part of me is still stuck inside of it. So Mama Bear and I have emphasized the difference between here and now and there and then over and over and over. It all has helped a great deal, but sometimes I still am not able to pull myself into the here and now on my own, so hearing her say, “It isn’t happening now” is a tremendous relief to me. When I hear those words, I can grasp ahold of her reassurance that here and now really is reality, the flashback isn’t.

4) It’s nothing but a horror show. During a particularly harrowing period of frequent, intense flashbacks, Mama Bear said this to me. It seemed to fit, because, yes, the things that were happening in the flashbacks felt like they would do better in a horror show than in my mind. I was dealing with a particularly revolting set of memories and it helped so much to imagine taking it out of me and placing it on a screen, in a horror show. While I couldn’t entirely turn off the horror show until it had run its course, at least it was a bit more distant and tolerable. And most importantly, it no longer felt as though it was a part of me. It helped me to see that the memory was a memory, it was not me.

5) I see you. Hearing her say this while looking her in the eyes and really allowing myself to connect is both a terrible and wonderful experience. Terrible in the sense of painful and overwhelming because it goes to the core of so many attachment issues for me: feeling unseeable, that no one would want to really know me, that it could never be safe for the most vulnerable me to know and be known by someone… It was wonderful because it is what I have craved all of my life. First my mother wasn’t capable of providing it and none of the other adults in my life were remotely safe enough to connect with deeply, and then, when I was older, it was too late, I was too badly hurt to risk allowing myself to feel that fully seen. I am still in the midst of learning how to be fully in the room and allow myself to perceive that she is fully in the room with me. When we have had these connecting experiences, I both feel a physical jolt of pain and I cry tears of relief and hope. Slowly, step by step, I am allowing my full self to be in full relationship with her, and at the same time, bit by bit, I am doing the same thing in my other significant relationships.

6) You are going to be angry with me sometimes, that’s just what happens in relationships. Don’t worry, it takes a lot to ruffle me, and I’ve had clients get really angry at me. Just don’t try to throw me out the window. Mama Bear has been trying to encourage me to feel safe enough to feel angry with her for many years, and I’m finally at the point where I can hear what she is saying and believe her. I have been testing her bit by bit over the last year or so, at first just showing the tiniest bit of anger in an e-mail. Each time I tested her, she would reassure me again that it is OK for me to get angry with her and while what I had shown had been a big deal for me, it was no threat to our relationship at all. She would talk about how real people in real relationships get angry with each other sometimes, because everyone makes mistakes. At some point she would mess up and I would get really angry at her, but I didn’t have to worry about how she would react. She isn’t frightened by anger and her joke said to me that she wasn’t afraid that I would get so angry that I would lose control and do something terrible. I might be afraid that my anger would turn me into my grandfather, but she knew that it wouldn’t. Through her, eventually I learned to have faith that nothing could turn me into my grandfather.

7) You can’t get rid of me. I went through a period that was several months long where I kept on testing Mama Bear, even though I didn’t quite realize what I was doing at the time. I was terrified that if I really leaned on her as much as I needed to, then she would abandon me when I was most vulnerable. I knew that she wouldn’t intentionally betray me, but I was afraid that I would overwhelm her and drive her away. I was convinced that I would turn out to be “too” something for her- too much trouble, too demanding, too clingy, too needy, too hurt, too contaminated, too weird, too something… So we talked over and over about how she knows how to take care of herself and she can create boundaries, so she was confident that I was not going to be too much for her. I didn’t believe her. I would write long emails and end them with, “See, I’m too needy, aren’t I?” or some such thing. And when that didn’t work, sometimes I would turn around and say, “I don’t think that I can do this anymore. I just want to run.” Eventually she sat me down and just flat out said to me, “C., you can keep on trying, but you can’t get rid of me. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to abandon you when you need me. And you’re going to have to work a lot harder than that to convince me to let you go.” It didn’t all sink in at once, and it took her repeating herself, but at that point I started to feel a bit of security that it was safe to rely on Mama Bear. Eventually, I realized that Mama Bear is far stronger and more capable of taking care of herself than my mother was- she really was telling me the truth and I could trust her to be there for me. She really was willing to provide the security that I needed then to feel held, contained, and secure. What I realize now is that the problem wasn’t that I was too needy, hurt, clingy, etc. when I was a child, the problem was that my mother didn’t have the resources to deal with helping a child who was being abused. It wasn’t my fault that I overwhelmed her and that she couldn’t hold me in my pain, the way that I needed for her to.

8) You don’t need to know exactly what happened. You just need to know your truth. Dissociation saved my mind by putting me in a different state during the abuse, but by doing that, my memories of the abuse were completely disrupted. There is an awful lot about what happened to me that is unclear. I have experienced many of the same body and emotional memories for decades, however there are other areas that continue to confuse much of me, even after decades. To make matters worse, when I experience flashbacks, I’m torn between wanting to believe myself and wanting for it all to be untrue, messing with any sense of what might or might not be real. Unfortunately, I also have had the driving need to know exactly what happened. Mama Bear and I have gone round and round with this: There is no knowing which details of the memories are true, but I have been able to build an over all picture of what my experience was like. I feel as though I have thrown myself against a wall time and again over this, but I finally get it. Part of the reason I was holding out for details was because I didn’t want to accept my truth. I realize now that it doesn’t need details for it to be a horrible truth, so horrible that I want to have a reason to hold back from owning it.

9) We know that you were abused. You don’t need to keep on proving it over and over. I don’t have a memory of trying to tell my mother about the abuse, but I act like I did and I feel as though I did and she just didn’t understand me. I think that is tied into why I have had this deep fear that Mama Bear doesn’t really believe me and I have been convinced that I will betray myself and stop believing myself. Inside, there are parts of me that have been convinced that “No one will really believe me. It’s impossible.” While I was completely unaware of it at the time, I felt the need to prove to myself and to Mama Bear over and over that I had been abused, and I pushed myself towards being triggered into flashbacks. It was an incredibly painful way to demonstrate that I had been abused, but it was effective. Somehow, Mama Bear caught on to what was going on, and she started to say to me, “We know that you were abused. You don’t need to keep on proving it over and over.” Wow. “We know that you were abused.” I finally realized that someone did believe me, really believe me. “You don’t need to keep on proving it over and over.” It sank in that she wasn’t going to stop believing me. Further, she noticed and cared about what this was doing to me.

10) I hear your pain/anger/grief and I am here with you. I have spent much of my life running from the intensity of my feelings, but that causes all sorts of problems for me. So I am currently working to allow myself to come together and fully feel my emotions in the context of my truth, but when that happens, it feels as though I am being filled with that emotion in a physically painful way. In fact, it feels unendurable, but I know that I need to find a way to endure it without dissociating, if I can. When Mama Bear sits there with me and says, “I hear how terribly deep your pain is and I am here with you,” it reminds me that she believes that I am strong enough to survive the pain, that it is safe for me to no longer be invisible and I don’t need to suffer in silence, that someone sees/hears how much pain that I am in, and that someone cares enough to stay with me. That sort of support makes a difference and sometimes it’s enough to allow me to remain with the emotions until they ebb on their own. It hasn’t happened often, but each time that it does happen, I learn a little more deeply that strong emotions may be unpleasant to experience, but I can survive them.

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Elizabeth Morris Spring Rain

Elizabeth Morris
Spring Rain

“I have a new mantra for you. I’m not entirely sure that you are going to like it. Do you want to hear it?”

I looked at Mama Bear warily, “I’m not so sure with that introduction.”

“It isn’t anything bad, it just might be uncomfortable for you.”

Grudgingly, I agreed, because often when she starts off like that, whatever she has to say is important for me to hear, but also very painful.

“Believe the past, but live in the present.” I met her eyes and slowly took a breath, trying to take the mantra in. She slowly and deliberately repeated herself, “Believe the past, but live in the present.”

This time, what she had to say wasn’t painful. Actually, it was timed perfectly, because on the way to the session I had heard, “I am so done!” I was at a point where this gentle push helped me to crest the hill, and the thoughts and reactions in I am so done! were the results.

Since the session, over the last few days, it’s been echoing in my head, as if different parts of me are trying to take in just what it means to all of me.

“Believe the past.” Am I finally at the point where I can go ahead and simply choose to believe myself? While I have confirmed evidence that my extended family was one in which abuse of all types took place and my parents openly acknowledge that my grandfather was a bastard, I cannot see how I will ever have confirmation that the sexual abuse took place. I have to make the choice to believe myself, if I am going to free myself from endless rounds of “trying to figure out” from flashbacks whether the abuse actually happened or not. The thing is that it’s what fits. My being sexually abused as a child is a more logical conclusion than anything else I can come up with, when I look at everything that I do know. It would make absolutely no sense if I had experienced everything that I have experienced for decades with the body memories and the flashbacks and there had been no sexual abuse at all. The flashbacks, body memories, and dissociation all predate therapy and having sexual abuse on the radar at all; I didn’t come up with this in therapy. I’m not psychotic, even though sometimes I start to think that it would be easier to be “crazy” than to have this whole mess be true. I’m not making this up to get attention. For the most part, when things are at their worst, I hide, not seek attention. And finally, it’s what my insides say happen. OK, so that last isn’t something concrete, but sometimes it comes down to needing to choose to listen to yourself.

So I am practicing simply believing. Not worrying about which parts of the memories are more accurate and which are less so. Simply being with the knowledge that my grandfather hurt me very badly, and for the work that I have to do right now, that is enough. There may be times in the future when my work requires my being more clear on what happened, but for right now, it’s OK for me to leave the abuse memories behind a wall, out of sight. I don’t have to remember details and I certainly don’t have to relive it, in order to believe that I was brutally abused.

“Live in the present.” Bit by bit, I’m doing more of that. I’ve worked through some obstacles that threatened to derail a trip to visit to dear friends, and in the past I have cancelled trips. But I’m determined to live and not let my past control me. I’m no longer stuck in my rocking chair, staring into the distance, trying to sort through things internally. I have already made the gifts for a gift exchange not only for this year, but also for last year, because I was too overwhelmed to make anything then. I am engaging more with my husband and daughter, playing games and laughing. I’m more willing to take on hard therapy work that I would not have done before, because I both feel stronger and I’m more motivated to deal with things that impact my present. I’m not fully here yet, but it’s like those first stirrings of spring when the first bulbs come up and bloom. They are beautiful and welcome, but the garden still looks empty. It isn’t really empty; plants are stirring under the surface of the soil, and they will emerge when they are ready. Leaves are hidden inside of buds on trees and bushes which may from a distance look dead, but eventually, when the conditions are right, the leaves will burst out.

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Lisa Marie Sanders Time

Lisa Marie Sanders
Time

“I am done! I am just so done with this! No more!!”

I’ve been hearing a voice in my head say this for the last couple of months, but I haven’t been sure just what it is that I’m so done with. Therapy has been painful and exceptionally challenging, so I wondered if it meant that I was done with doing therapy. Yes, it felt related, as though I just couldn’t bear to keep on doing what I’ve been doing into the foreseeable future, I was tired of feeling beaten up emotionally. So very done with feeling all of that pain in regards to my parents, but I noticed that the voice didn’t use the word “quit.” I dreaded the sessions as much as I needed them as a life line, but I knew that I had to go, quitting wasn’t an option.

So what was that voice talking about?

I think that I’m starting to understand. I am completely done with feeling stuck under certain obligations to my parents that have controlled me my whole life. I am done with letting the limitations caused by the trauma reactions keep me from doing things that I very much want to do- keep me from seeing people who I know will help to nurture my heart. I am done with feeling like I have to stay curled up in a tight ball and not dare to breathe. I am done with letting the days slip by and not letting myself really live them, because I am too afraid of the pain. I am done with not allowing myself to fully be me, whoever she might be. I am done with living by the old rules.

I am just so sick and tired of that life. I don’t want it. And I feel as though things are opening up inside and I am slowly seeing that I don’t have to live that life.

I don’t know where I’m headed and I find that frightening. But I also feel as though I might be on the edge of stepping off on to a wonderful journey.

“I refuse to live in a box. I won’t do it for anyone.” That is what it has felt like, isn’t it? Folding myself up into a pretzel and then being walled in by a box. No more.

I know that these things wax and wane and I’m not about to jump up and turn my entire life upside down with revolutionary changes. But, yes, I agree with that voice, I am so done. I’m particularly done with the bonds that have kept me feeling trapped in a tight place with so many of the emotions and memories of when I was a child. I’m no longer that child who had no choice other than to get through the best that she could. Now it’s time to do my best to free myself from what has kept me so tightly tied to that period of my life. It’s time to allow myself to move through the pain and start to fully live in the present with a marvelous husband and heart-breakingly wonderful daughter.

From the depth of the pain that I felt today, this will not be an easy process; I’m not fooling myself. But I can also see that something different happened while I was experiencing the pain today: I both allowed myself to honestly express and fully experience my emotions and I allowed myself to not only take in and really accept acts of kindness and support from Mama Bear, but I was able to take in her intent to deliberately care for and comfort me. Sitting here now, I realize that once it was all over, I felt cleaner and freer somehow, if exhausted.

I’ll do this somehow. I’ll need the support of those who love the full me, but I’m done with staying in this place.

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Kate Themel Moonlight

Kate Themel
Moonlight

Comforting another. Such a natural thing to do when you see someone you care about in distress, isn’t it? Your infant cries and you pick her up and soothe her, while you try to figure out what she needs. I remember when I was a new parent, it almost physically hurt to hear an infant crying in public, because at an instinctive level, I was afraid that it was my daughter who was crying. Never mind my response if it actually was my daughter who was crying. And I have never felt more impotent than when my daughter would cry in unrelieved pain for hours and all that I could do was to hold her, pace the floor, and speak soothing words to her.

For most of us, it’s an instinctive response to try to help to ease the pain of others around us. We even respond to people that we don’t know. A child does a face plant in front of you and starts to wail. You look around and see no parent. Do you just let the child lie there all alone? Of course not, you talk to them and reassure them, pat their back and try to assess how bad the damage is until the parent shows up. Another example: remember all of the pictures of the survivors of 9/11? Over and over you saw complete strangers, holding each other up, providing what comfort they could to someone they would never see again, in the face of a world gone mad.

Giving comfort is easy. It’s natural. Receiving comfort, now for some of us that is another story…

In my last session, I had been talking about going through yet another round of realizing that my grandfather really abused me. It’s something that I have to do over and over and every time it’s incredibly painful. So there I was, curled up on my side against the arm of the love seat, just done with a round of crying when Mama Bear said, “I’m not quite sure why I’m saying this, but all of a sudden I’m having a craving for hot chocolate. That means comfort to me. Are you feeling a desire for comforting?” I just burst into tears again, thinking, “Of course I am! What sort of a silly question is that. I so much want for someone to come and take me in their arms and let me cry on them!” At the same time, part of me was incredibly touched that she had even thought that about my need to be comforted.

But my tears dried up and I almost immediately heard the thought, “But I don’t deserve to be comforted. It’s wrong for me to want it and I’m bad.” I told her what I heard inside.

“I can see why a child in your situation needed to believe that she didn’t deserve to be comforted. Does it make sense to you?”

I nodded yes. “Because I’m not going to actually get the comfort that I want.”

But there were lots of reasons for me to believe that I didn’t deserve to be comforted. It kept my perceived self worth within tolerable bounds for what was happening to me. If I had felt that I deserved to be comforted, then I would have needed to believe that I deserved to be protected. It kept me reliant upon myself, when my mom wasn’t reliable. If I had looked for comfort and it never came, I would have despaired. The list probably could go on for awhile. In short, I couldn’t afford to believe that I deserved to be comforted when the abuse was going on.

Mama Bear suggested to me, “But you do deserve to be comforted. Can your adult provide some comfort to your hurt parts now? I think that she can.” I considered her suggestion, nodded my head, and settled into a more comfortable position. “In what way could she provide that comfort? Any way that would help at all?”

I took the blanket that I was leaning on, unfolded it, and wrapped it around me, settling into a feeling of both being wrapped in the blanket and held and wrapping the blanket and doing the holding. I’m not sure what happened after that.

For the last couple of days, part of my mind has been caught on the idea of being comforted. Who would these hurt parts even allow close enough to comfort them when they are feeling most traumatized? They have allowed my husband and Mama Bear and one other therapist in the past, but in some ways that feels different. It feels like it was a blind reaching out when I had no choice. Now I’m talking about choosing to believe that another person believes that I am worth being comforted and wanting to do so! I would need to let in that they have chosen to stay with me when I need them just because I need them and they want to help make things easier for me, not out of obligation. Can I believe that someone could still love me, even when I most need to be comforted? Is it possible that my deep down belief is wrong that when I am most hurt and most in need of comforting, I am also most repelling?

I don’t know… All I know for sure right now is that I have gone around wrapped in a fleece blanket most of the time that I have been home over the last 36 hours, and I’m not done dealing with what it means to accept being comforted.

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Shaun Downey

Shaun Downey

A while back, I said that I would do a post on how I experience different parts. I quickly realized that writing such a post is quite difficult, because I generally lose my sense and memory of what a part is like, soon after I am no longer blended with that part. However there is one distinctive part that has been showing up a lot recently, and I think that I might be able to capture some of what the experience is like…

First of all, please bear in mind that I am trying to use words to describe nebulous and often transitory experiences, so I am sure that I will only be able to capture a portion of it. Also, I am going to refer to the me that I generally experience as me- the outer most me- as ‘I’ in this post.

With this part, I fairly strongly retain my sense of ‘I’, but it feels as though there is another slightly different and slightly distant ‘me’ draped over me. Simultaneously there is an awareness that this part is of me and yet this part also sees things from a different view point than ‘I’ do. Most of my parts are needy, hurt child parts, but I seem to have one helper part that morphs from time to time, and this is that helper part. She feels wiser, calmer, and far more compassionate than I do, and I wish that I could access this aspect of myself more consistently, but sometimes I go for months without accessing her. Lately, she has been more present, though, and she has been involved in my making progress at accepting what is, rather than fighting against what is, because I don’t like it. A few days ago, the part helped me to see that if my mind needs to be divided in regards to the abuse memories and keep them from feeling real to me, then that is what I need and I should accept it, rather than fearing that it means that the abuse didn’t happen. She helped me to grasp that I may simply need to chose to believe myself because I am worth believing and it’s the explanation that makes the best sense out of the facts that we have been able to verify. Tonight I realized that this part has no doubt that the abuse happened. I don’t think that she has access to the memories, but she has better access to the rest of me and it’s hard to doubt the abuse when faced with the results of the abuse.

She is one of the better “formed” of my parts, but she hasn’t always kept the same form or had a clear one. In the past she has shown up as a fairy godmother, a spunky teen, and other forms that were nebulous. Now, she seems to be a mirror image of me. Oddly enough, I don’t actually ‘see’ her, but I have a strong sense of her, which gives me the outline of what she looks like.

I am grateful for this part of me and I wonder why she is separate from the rest of the me that makes up ‘I’? There have been many times when I have needed the additional strength and calmness of this part and I simply haven’t been able to locate it. Why do I consider it necessary to dissociate the me that is more self compassionate, forgiving, and wiser? I suspect that it may be because I can’t simultaneously live from those qualities and be willing to twist myself into a pretzel in regards to my mom. I can’t treat myself gently and believe that everything is my fault at the same time.

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Kate Themel Weighing Options

Kate Themel
Weighing Options

I mentioned in Trust in the Therapeutic Relationship- Part 3 that my willingness to explore my anger with Mama Bear allowed me to access the rage that I feel towards my mother for not protecting me. I have been choking on that bottled up anger for a couple of weeks and just hadn’t been able to express it. Every time I started to, I would get caught up in a need to be “reasonable” in regards to my mom.

When I finally began to access and express the emotions in session, the feelings were overwhelmingly intense and raw. I felt as though I was simultaneously being ripped apart by the emotions and that I was still struggling to retain control of what I was feeling and expressing. I sobbed, doubled up in a painful ball, while Mama Bear acknowledged the intensity of my rage and pain and sat with me in support and as witness.

Eventually, the intensity eased and Mama Bear asked if we could take a step back from my rage at my mother and make sure that we had addressed all of the issues related to my anger at her, so I could leave the session feeling connected to her, rather than at odds with her. I found myself shaking my head, and she asked, “You aren’t ready to move away from dealing with your mother, are you?” I started to shake with intensity again and I knew that I desperately needed to say something that I have been keeping trapped inside.

“What is it, C?”

“I need to say something.”

I struggled to get the words out and Mama Bear gently said, “Just say it.”

It was like a dam burst and the words were half way torn out and half way pushed past terrible resistance. “How the hell could my mother keep on sending me to my grandfather?!? He was raping me with things!! She was supposed to protect me!!!” As I halfway yelled this out, in anguish, I cried, but then to my surprise I found myself calming after I finally got the words and attached emotion out. I kept on waiting for more explosive emotions, but instead I found myself falling into a state of almost relaxation. It was as if I had fought a battle and I knew that I had won it for the moment and didn’t need to fight anymore right then. I had managed to speak my truth out loud and nothing bad had happened. In fact, I felt safer than I had in awhile. For the time, the battle inside was quiet.

As I sat there, pondering over what I was experiencing inside, I had a huge change in perspective. I looked up at Mama Bear and said in wonder, “It really was her job to protect me.” That thought lifted a heavy weight off of my shoulders. Yes, it really was my mother’s job to protect me, not mine to protect her.

Over the next few hours, I thought about the session and in particular that portion of the session. I considered the terrible pressure and distress that I often feel when I am trying to “protect” my mother from my emotions and the blame that I place on her. The conflict and resulting self blame just about make me sick. I then contrasted it with the sense of peace and relaxation that I felt after I allowed myself to express some of my truth out loud and I realized that I am harming myself in an attempt to shield the mother in my mind from my truth. This harm doesn’t only affect me, it also affects my husband and daughter, because it keeps me from being fully present with them. It has to stop. Whether or not I really needed to, I believed that I needed to protect my mother from some unpleasant realities when I was young. The chance of my being abandoned was too terrifying to risk, because she was my only safety in a world where other people hurt me badly. But my mother no longer is my safety. In fact, the way that I have things set up right now, I am getting very little that is positive out of our relationship. My safety in the now comes from my taking care of myself and the support that I receive from those around me. So I need to take care of myself. I need to stop harming myself by trying to take care of my mother.

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Diana Wright

Diana Wright

Lately, I have become increasingly aware of a set of rules that I lived by as a child and which my insides still turn to when I am feeling threatened: I can’t get angry. I can’t be critical. I can’t ask for help; I can only hint. I can’t cause problems/ do anything wrong. I have to do everything right and try my best to make everything right all of the time.

I’m not sure how many of those rules were taught to me by the people around me and how many I developed myself, in an attempt to keep things under control inside, but the result was that I had very little freedom to simply be. It’s like I wasn’t allowed to be a real living, breathing child. I can’t say that my needs didn’t matter, because at the core, I followed those rules in an attempt to keep myself as safe as possible. My most basic needs ruled my actions.

I lived in a situation where my dad treated me in a way that didn’t feel safe and I simply wanted to do whatever was necessary to keep things as OK as possible between the two of us. I am pretty sure that I believed that he did not want me there, which, given that he kept on going off alone with my mother and leaving me with my grandparents, was a reasonable conclusion. I can’t remember ever feeling wanted by him or secure with him, although I do remember him being proud of my accomplishments. So I followed the rules and tried to keep my position in the family as secure as possible.

The rules served a different purpose with my mom, though. As far back as I can remember, I believed that I needed to protect my mother and I have recently come to understand that the rules helped me to protect her- from myself. I was in a terrible bind. My parents regularly sent me over to my dad’s parents’ house from a fairly young age. I believe that part of the reasoning was that they were poor and they needed free baby sitting while my mother worked and my dad did his college course work, but they also sent me there over night just so they could regularly have time together alone. Young parents need time together, but not by sending their young child to stay with grandparents who were at the very least physically and emotionally abusive to one of the parents.

I was also left with my mother’s older brother and mom, both of whom had been abusive to her, particularly her brother. Frankly, I don’t really know when the abuse started or with whom. I’m certain about my grandfather and I believe that my uncle probably abused me when I was quite young- at the very least he terrorized me.

The upshot was that from an early age I knew that I was surrounded by family members who were not safe for me and my mother was the only person with whom I felt any safety at all. I felt loved by her and there were times when I felt nurtured. But, I seem to have learned early on that I couldn’t tell my mother what was happening to me. I believe that I tried to tell my mother that something was wrong and I was being hurt, but she couldn’t hear me. As near as I can piece together, her own childhood so traumatized her that she just couldn’t deal with a lot of interpersonal stress. On the other hand, looking back, I think that if what was happening to me had been clearly placed in front of her, her conscience wouldn’t have allowed her to avoid dealing with it, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was a child; how could I understand the complexities of my mother’s psychology? The best that I could do was to try to manage by living by the rules.

Don’t get angry. From the depths of rage that I am discovering now, it must have taken so much energy for me to bury the anger that I felt at my mother for not protecting me. It was her responsibility to protect me. Period. No matter how hard it was for her to deal with protecting me, it still was her responsibility. Too much of me tried to take on responsibility for my own care and protection, but part of me always knew that she failed me miserably by not keeping me safe from people she knew treated others cruelly.

Don’t be critical. Even implying that my mother did something wrong was a big no-no, because it might make her feel badly about herself. How fragile was her self concept if she couldn’t even tolerate her child saying that she did something wrong? But even now it is hard for me to even think that my mother should have done things differently- I want to make excuses and “see her side of things,” and this rule is a significant stumbling block when I think about talking to my mother about what happened and how it affected me. The fact is that she messed up big time and she should have done a lot of things differently. Somehow I need to find it in myself to treat her like an adult and expect for her to be able to deal with the reality that her actions (and inactions) resulted in my being harmed.

Don’t ask for help. I couldn’t directly ask my mother for help, because she might not be able to give it to me. It might be too hard or too painful for her or otherwise impossible. But I could hint. I seem to remember telling my mother that I hurt and holding my lower abdomen and her response was, “Oh, you have a tummy ache?” I then felt that I was being told that all I was allowed to have was a “tummy ache.” Whether or not this exchange exactly happened, I think that it was the general pattern. I could sort of tell her that something was wrong, but if she didn’t want to really look at me and see that something was really wrong, then she didn’t actually need to. Her own hurts seem to have kept her from ever looking closely at what was happening to me, even when I was clearly in distress. Twenty one years ago, when all of the abuse material started to break through the barriers and I was being flooded, I was desperate. I tried to tell my mother that things were bad and I hinted as hard as I could that I needed her help- I needed for her to fly across country and give me support because I was becoming increasingly suicidal. It seems that she didn’t understand me and she didn’t come. After I checked myself into the hospital, then she offered to fly out to support me. But at that point I was behind locked doors. I still can’t ask my mother directly for help and I have a terribly difficult time asking anyone for help.

Don’t cause problems/do anything wrong. I pretty much was the epitome of a ‘good girl.’ In some ways it has been helpful over the years, because it probably helped to keep me from making some bad mistakes, but it also meant that I couldn’t figure out what I wanted. I needed to be the model daughter.

Do everything right. I guess that this is another variation on don’t cause problems… But there was a constant obligation to figure out what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing. What was going to make my mother happy? What was the ‘right’ thing to do?

Always, but always keep on trying as hard as possible. This rule feels somewhat different and I believe that it started out purely as a survival drive on my part. It isn’t about protecting my mother, but is all about getting me through some very hard times. I think that it keeps me from completely giving up, even when I start to despair, feel trapped, and can’t see my way out of a painful place. I just keep on trying. But I have also realized that even though this rule is helpful, it still leaves me with little room to maneuver. Other than a few short breaks, I have always been trying as hard as I can. It might not look like much from the outside, but it still is pretty much everything that I have to give. It was a matter of life and death for awhile, but it isn’t now. Thinking about it, I see that I can take some of the pressure off of myself now. In fact, I should take some of the pressure off of myself.

So many rules. So little room to breathe. So little room to live. I may have needed the rules in the past, but they are only getting in the way now. I need to learn how to become a rule breaker.

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