Had a FB convo recently that started off with one member of the group talking about how, as a baby, according to the advice of the “experts” of the day, she had been left in her crib to cry — so she could learn “discipline” FFS — which has led to her having abandonment issues.
A second woman chimed in with this story:
My mother was in the hospital in an oxygen tent for the first 5-6 weeks after my premature birth, with spinal meningitis, so I was home with an incompetent, elderly, agency baby sitter who had to chase after my two older brothers, aged barely 3 and 1.5 yrs old! So I spent most of my time in the crib and I REALLY had abandonment issues!
I am guessing that my early infancy was much the same, unfortunately, as far as the lack of attention goes. “You had diaper rash so bad that your butt was bleeding,” was one of the few things my father ever told me about that time. Continue reading “Which one?”
“…I talk a lot about fighting back in The Asshole Survival Guide. There are three factors that especially predict how successful you will be at stopping or bringing down a bully. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is whether you—or them— have more formal power (the more powerful they are, the tougher it will be to win). The second is whether you are fighting back alone or with others, the more allies you have, the more likely you are to win because it is harder to portray you as a lone nut and you also have more power (even against a boss or other powerful person). The third is documentation; keep notes, emails, and social media posts, anything that provides objective evidence that you and your colleagues are in fact being bullied.”
I found out I have no formal power in my own family of origin.
I also found out I was alone in that “family”.
I am the “lone nut”, the scapegoat, the outsider, and as such I am not to be believed, let alone defended. In some eyes, I am not even supposed to exist, not supposed to take up physical space, be noticed, be cared about. (With the notable exception of being noticed for what I fail to do correctly, i.e. being criticized.)
And there was no documentation – the incident that started the whole thing, or rather brought it into the light, was deliberately engineered to have no witnesses, other than my husband and a brother who also has little formal power.
No wonder it all turned out the way it has.
A related article shows that there weren’t too many other options.
The powerful bully
Who they are: The engineer with hard-to-replace skills whose creepy overtures get overlooked. The rainmaking dealmaker whose boorish behavior goes unpunished. Whether they’re explicitly in charge or simply influential, too many organizations look the other way when top performers or top bosses behave badly. Sutton points to Roger Ailes — the powerful Fox News chief who left the media empire amid a swirl of sexual harassment allegations. “Going to HR didn’t seem to help anyone for years,” he says.
What to do: Tread carefully. “You’re fighting the cool kids,” Sutton says. In such cases, getting out is really often the best advice — especially if the behavior goes beyond milder incivilities. “This is one when you often leave, or when you hide, or when you lie in wait until their power diminishes,” Sutton said.
“Disenfranchised grief” is when your heart is grieving but you can’t talk about or share your pain with others because it is considered unacceptable to others. It’s when you’re sad and miserable and the world doesn’t think you should be, either because you’re not “entitled” or because it isn’t “worth it.”
Your relationship was real, but the family (or members of society) would not or does not approve.
Slight twist on this one. My side of the relationship to my siblings was real. I tried for decades to fit, to be accepted, to do the things they wanted me to do.
It was when I needed them to do something for me, in return, that it all fell apart. And I realized how one-sided the relationship had been, and that I had never really been accepted as a real member of the club (at least not by my sister, who now runs the show).
I am grieving something that I wanted so badly, but which did not really exist.
You aren’t grieving how people expect.
This can happen when the way you are acting in your grief is unsettling or confusing to someone else. If you are “too upset” (Dad’s death) or “not upset enough” (Mom’s death)…
If you’re experiencing any of the above (or something similar), you need to know that you are entitled to your grief. Nobody has the right to take away your grief, and it is their failing — not yours — that makes your grief “unacceptable.”
Disenfranchised grief happens because your love and care for the object of your grief isn’t recognized…
And in certain situations you may be right — not the part about it being your fault (because it isn’t!) — but because there are certain situations where people try to turn their own pain and anguish outward at the nearest convenient target. Or they’re just super-judgmental people.
In any event, it is not your fault — it’s not like any of us can control who or what we care about — and you have a right to your grief, your style of grief or your reason for grief for one reason: because you are grieving.
It is also your right to be comforted, affirmed and validated.
It’s especially painful when… you are the only one in the family experiencing the deep loss.
“The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because they don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe…
“Systems built on a fundamentalist framework are not conducive to introspection, questioning, learning, change. When you have a belief system that is built on fundamentalism, it isn’t open to outside criticism, especially by anyone not a member of your tribe and in a position of power.
“…will NEVER listen to anyone outside their bubble… if you are viewed as an outsider, your views are automatically discounted…
“… any information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, no matter how sound, how unquestionable, how obvious, they WILL NOT even entertain the possibility it might be true. Their refusal is a result of the nature of their fundamentalist belief system and the fact I’m the enemy…”
“…any change must come from within. Internal change in these systems does happen, but it happens infrequently and it always lags far behind reality. This is why they fear change so much. They aren’t used to it.
“…Without built-in protective functions like critical analysis, self-reflection, openness to counter-evidence, willingness to re-evaluate any and all beliefs, etc., bad information in a closed-off system ends up doing massive damage in a short period of time.
“…When someone doesn’t trust you and isn’t open to anything not already accepted as true in their belief system, there really isn’t much, if anything you can do… no amount of understanding, no amount of respect, no amount of evidence is going to change their minds, assuage their fears.
“Of course, it didn’t help matters there were scapegoats available they could direct their fears, anger, and white supremacy towards… Why reevaluate your beliefs… when scapegoats are available?
From this article about politics, of course, but it applies to my FOO as well.
Their brand of fundamentalism is a combination of Catholicism, Mary/mother-worship, and blame-shifting.
I am the outsider, the convenient scapegoat who can be blamed for the problems; whose views, evidence, and explanations can be easily ignored; whose existence means they don’t have to think too much or feel too bad about what they did or allowed to happen.
Others put bad information — lies about me — into this closed system, those horrible things were unquestioningly believed, and it did a lot of damage.
My FIL and my husband enabled my MIL to not deal with her control issues and her dislike of me — which was probably because I defied her attempts at control, from the get-go.
Planning the wedding was a nightmare (and, needless to say, I did not have an older sister or a mother helping me out on that one).
We were planning the wedding in Boston, long-distance from Texas, long before the internet would have made it so very easy. His mother had it all figured out: we would get married in the chapel of the school at which she worked. I didn’t much care where we got married, but I wanted the processional and recessional to be the traditional (secular) selections, and kept after her to make sure her chosen venue would allow it (some church venues don’t, because it’s secular music).
I suspect I earned her enduring wrath the day she called and told me, “I found out about your music.
“You can’t have the music you want, but that doesn’t matter.“
I immediately replied, “Well, we can’t have it there then.”
And apparently to say that to her was unthinkable.
It wasn’t unthinkable to tell a bride she can’t have her chosen music, mind you, but it was unthinkable to deny her what she wanted.
Looking back, I’m surprised I prevailed, but I did, and without even a fight.
Something in my voice must have told her that this was Not A Thing To Mess With. I got the music I wanted, in a 130-year-old church instead.
And I got one pissed-off mother-in-law, who basically, childishly, pretended I didn’t exist for the rest of her life:
After both my in-laws died, when we were cleaning out the house, I was talking to a neighbor who had been close to them. Along with praising my MIL for how warm and wonderful she had been to her — “treated me like a daughter” — and if you don’t think that was a twist of the knife, you are much mistaken — she also said, “I’ve never heard a thing about your wedding. You could have been married in Jamaica for all I knew.”
In the nearly 20 years that I was married to her son, no one put a foot down and said, “Look, she’s here to stay, you need to figure out why you don’t like her and deal with your issues, because they are YOUR issues. She hasn’t done anything to deserve the way you treat her.”
Well, that isn’t 100% true. It happened a time or two, with varying degrees of success. I can remember a meal at our previous house where the four of us actually had a 4-way conversation — the only one I can remember — and it was really very nice. And it happened once.
Most of the rest of the time, in person or on the phone, his parents spoke to their son, and not to me.
At one point during that visit, we took them to a place they wanted to see. There were walking paths, so my husband and I went for a walk around the perimeter. His parents walked for a bit and then sat on a bench. When we walked back up to them, his mother looked directly at him and asked, “[name], how was your walk?” She made sure it was clear that she was not asking both of us. Only her son.
Standing in the bookstore, his dad came up to the two of us and said, “[name], did you ever read The DaVinci Code?” My husband said, “Yes, we both did.” That small statement changed the conversation to be among the three of us, not just the two of them. But his mother was nowhere nearby.
Another episode occurred when she and I were buying tickets for a ferry. The woman at the window asked my MIL where they were from and why they were visiting. She replied, “Oh, we’re here visiting our son.” With me standing a foot away. I said pointedly, “And his wife.”
I also distinctly remember another meal during that same visit. After I had cooked it and served it and we all ate it, his dad looked not at me, sitting across from him, but diagonally across the table to his son, and pronounced, “She cooks a good meal, [name], you can keep her.”
At the time this infuriated me. I considered it belittling, to refer to me as some kind of property, even one “worth keeping” — and was angry as hell that he apparently just couldn’t bring himself to look at me and compliment me directly.
Now I know that he wasn’t allowed to treat me nicely. If he had looked at me, spoken directly to me, and complimented me, there would have been hell to pay, I am sure, in the form of his wife’s wrath. But it was OK to speak to me in the bookstore, because she wasn’t there with us.
We once got a phone message on our anniversary. His father left a message saying, “[Name], this is your father calling to wish you a happy anniversary.”
Never mind that by definition, an anniversary is celebrated between TWO PEOPLE. Without me, there wouldn’t BE a damned anniversary.
But of course, there was that thing with the wedding and the fact that she didn’t get her way…
(there is in fact whole a list of weirdness and conflict that happened around our wedding and his mother, including that she used the same pattern for her dress as I chose for the bridesmaids. And she doubled the cost of the dinner without telling me, and then skipped out on paying the bar bill after she said she would. The best one was when she decided that one usher (her other son) wasn’t quite good enough, and she wanted her other son – the groom! – to leave the altar and come to the back of the church to also escort her to her seat. I have a fond memory of telling my mother this, to which my mother replied, “If she gets both of hers [sons], I want all four of mine.”)
Over time, his dad started signing cards “Don or Dad” which I took to at least be a tacit admission that I existed at all. I’m not sure how he got away with it. I figure he probably signed the card after she did, and put it in the envelope.
Because no one could call her on the carpet about it. There was way too much history there. She had an alcoholic mother — she became parentified and had to do her mother’s job. And from a very young age, she had to be in control.
When it came to the wedding planning, we later joked that I was probably the first person to tell her “no” in 40 years. (And I figured out why her own daughter flat-out refused to have a big wedding.)
My MIL (and everyone around her) would probably have benefited from some therapy, but she was of a generation and a culture that didn’t do that kind of thing. You toughed it out. Maybe you prayed, but you kept it to yourself and god.
And, you ruined relationships — because prayer is a shitty substitute for therapy. Therapy actually works a lot of the time.
The result of her inability to grow, to work through her own issues, affected three relationships. Four, actually, if you count theirs. When she was suffering from dementia later in her life, there was a lot of anger that came out against her father, and was directed against her husband, who was trying like hell to take care of her. It was so much more difficult for him than it had to be.
And that’s not love.
“There is a difference between helping someone who is disabled, incapable or otherwise infirm versus helping someone who is resisting growing up and taking care of what every adult (or child, for that matter) has to be responsible for: herself or himself. When you find yourself in any way paying for someone else’s responsibilities, not only are you stuck with a delayed ending, but you are probably harming that person.” ~~ Dr. Henry Cloud
If not actually harming, then at least you are enabling them not to face reality, denying them a chance to grow as a person.
I can see the same thing happening in my FOO. My sister doesn’t let her husband contact us. This controlling behavior spills over into the rest of the family as well. And it goes without saying that Joe can’t be friends with us, even if he wanted to.
But dictating who another person can be connected with is inappropriate and manipulating. Make your own choices, sure, but don’t force those choices on another person, no matter how close. You get to be responsible for you — they get to be responsible for them.
Anything else is just a way of avoiding hard work.
If you have to control others’ interactions, if you can’t deal with letting other people be responsible for themselves, if you have to force others to also pretend that a family member doesn’t actually exist because you can’t deal with them — then you probably need to do some.
After seeing what my FIL went through, I can’t imagine how my brother and my BIL will deal with their wives if they ever develop dementia. As with my MIL, unresolved issues from early life can be reactivated, but by then it’s too late to deal with them cognitively.
“Relatives and front-line care staff often notice a history of trauma in the lives of people with dementia. Investigations into the backgrounds of an initial 51 people with dementia identified what appeared to be unusually high levels of childhood loss, particularly the death of fathers…
“When I was considering with the son of one of them the concept that the burying of traumatic memory might constitute a route into dementia, he commented that his father and numerous uncles and aunts had the advantage of being able to complain heartily to each other about their childhood experience whenever they met at family gatherings over the years because their father was profoundly deaf and couldn’t hear what they were saying(!)”
“Having someone to believe and validate one’s traumatic experience is an essential part of the healing process. Siblings may, at least sometimes, be able to help each other keep painful memories within conscious awareness rather than feel obliged to bury them.”
But of course, you’d have to love the other person, really care more about them than you do your own comfort, to go and face your issues and deal with them, after a lifetime of trying to bury them. Of course my sister and SIL won’t do it for me, as my MIL did not. But maybe they should do it for their spouses and children.
I cleaned out a bunch of books this weekend. There are cabinets in our bookcase that I probably haven’t opened since we moved six years ago.
And what did I find but eight — EIGHT — Thurber books.
To understand the significance of this, you have to understand that Thurber is practically a religion for my sister (venerating our mother, of course).
The holy book of this unholy maternal worship is The Thurber Carnival. There is a dingy brown-and-orange hardback copy of it that was our mother’s, which I am sure is in my sister’s possession now.
This is the only Thurber book that counts, of course.
Yet over my younger years, I apparently collected EIGHT different books of Thurber. There is a kids book, which I am sure no one else has ever read. I even read his biography once.
Thurber is something that never fails to make my sister laugh. But in her hands, it is humor that excludes: a kind of a specialized language that the older siblings, especially, use to communicate among themselves, and exclude anyone who isn’t really in the club.
I guarantee not one family gathering goes past without some reference to Thurber. Just a few words of a cartoon caption from someone (but it has to be the “right” someone), and they are off and running and laughing themselves sick. Most of the time they don’t even have to finish the sentences.
Which would be fine — except that in-laws, for example, don’t have a hope of understanding what is going on, let alone of joining in the fun.
And for some reason, this conversation always seems to happen in the kitchen, or some other public, central place — and because it is so loud, with (certain) people shouting bits of prose at each other, and gasping with laughter, it grabs everyone’s attention, and takes over the entire gathering when it happens.
It is so much a part of my memories of family gatherings: it always happens. I can remember witnessing this display, trying to join in even, and eventually being pointedly aware that I was being kept firmly on the outside, looking in.
The humor of Thurber generates power for my sister by strengthening the bonds of the Triumvirate, and excluding anyone who doesn’t “get it” (because of course, they weren’t there) — thus neatly defining who the “real family” is, in a very subtle way, as it also emphasizes the all-important connection to Mom.
Today, I immediately recognize my Thurber collection for what it was: another sad, desperate, failed attempt to be accepted by my own family, to be admitted “into the club” — by my sister, and probably by extension, my mother.
It’s sad, but it didn’t make me cry, or want to cry. Instead it made me super angry by about the time I found the fourth one. It made me so angry to see this physical remnant of how I stupidly tried to earn acceptance into a group — or more specifically, acceptance by one person who runs the group — that has never had any intention of truly accepting me.
It’s funny how well I understood the unspoken communication, telling me that I am not a part of the “real” family, and it’s sad that I so diligently tried to find a way in anyway. Like it was my job to somehow become worthy of acceptance.
And it’s infuriating that my maladapted sister has the power here. Who died and made her the fucking arbiter of who is worthy to be in the club?
Oh, wait, yeah. Dad and Mom died.
And my sister has, equally desperately perhaps, tried to make me into nothing ever since. Her job would have been a whole lot easier if Mom had managed to hang on longer. Then again, maybe I would have figured everything out a whole lot sooner, in a post-Dad world, a world once again run by my mother. Who knows?
Normally, the chore of dropping off donations at various places is my husband’s job. But there is one box of books that I will be taking personally — or just possibly setting on fire.
It’s been four years since I sent that first letter of resignation to my FOO, and started out on a journey of trying to figure the whole mess out.
Four years since it finally got so bad that it was more painful to have a “family” than not have one.
Four years since I realized I did have that choice, and that there was a better chance for me to be happier if I made it.
Last night I dreamed I got an email from one of my nieces, telling me that one of my brothers was dead. It was very realistic: I could tell you exactly what it said, who sent it, who had died. The dream woke me up, and I was a little startled, and a little sad. Because if I find out at all, that’s how I’ll find out. I know that.
And I know that’s how this will all end, because — barring an act of god or some other form of miracle — I know this is how it will all stay.
And while it’s a shame, it’s still better for me than going back to the way things were.
I’ve made this decision, knowingly, consciously, rationally, because things were shittier for me without this decision.
That is my reality. That is what is real for me.
My FOO will instantly say that I’m wrong — because they have no other option. I cannot possibly be allowed to be right, even about myself and my own reality. Is that the epitome of arrogance, or what?
But they need for me to be wrong, so they can continue to be right.
That’s why nothing is going to change. Because what needs to be true for them is to deny me my reality. They need to erase me and diminish me, and hurt me — or at least, allow me to be attacked and hurt, and refuse to do anything about it: refuse to protect me, defend me, or even just to listen to me.
And what I need from them: justice, fairness, and accountability, for the Susan Incident — along with equality, respect, and acceptance, for the long term, the things that are missing which allowed the Susan Incident to happen — they are still adamantly unwillingly to give me.
Given all that, it should have been an easy choice. It wasn’t. But my choice was really between two shitty things. For me, there was no “good” option. The choice to keep the peace, not make waves, not stand up for myself, just “forget” about the horrible way Susan and Joe acted towards me on the worst day of my life — that was also a shitty choice. It was an easy choice for everyone else, so for years I tried it.
Then four years ago, my youngest brother just had to throw it all back in my face, and that’s when I finally had had enough.
I am sure no one has blamed him for picking that fight. I am sure I get the blame for that too, right along with the fight I supposedly picked with Joe and Susan. And they can, and will, go on believing what they need to believe in order to make it all my fault.
I’m definitely better off without that bullshit. Easy choice, no. Right choice, yes.
I found out yesterday that a high school friend of mine suffered a serious stroke in late April.
Of course I hope she fully recovers, which it appears she is well on the way to doing. I feel sad for her, and glad that she obviously got prompt medical attention and her life was saved. Those are normal feelings that healthy people with empathy have for other people in misfortune, and of course I have those feelings for her.
That isn’t what this post is about. It is about the other feelings that have come up for me with reading about this news.
My friend’s Facebook page, and the website they set up to keep everyone updated, is chock full of family and friends writing things like, “I love you so much” and “Thinking of you every day” and “Love love love to you and to your family” and “I’m so proud of you”.
All that tangible, visible proof that the people around her love her and care about her, in the biggest crisis of her life.
Her mother. Her mother-in-law. Some of our other high school friends, who are like sisters to her. REAL sisters, I mean. The kind that don’t heap a lot of shit on you that isn’t your fault, but just love you instead.
They just love you. Out loud, in writing, with a little note or a phone call or a comment on a web page.
I have another high school friend whose Facebook page often shows a comment from someone in her equally large and extended family. A niece, or her sister, or a brother, or a sister-in-law. Always something loving and kind, and obviously not there because it’s a birthday or something — just because they felt like saying it.
I don’t know what that’s like. I see it, and it looks wonderful. I wish I did.
I actually can’t imagine my sister writing anything like that to me, ever. “I love you so much.” I challenge anyone who knows both of us to try it. You can’t picture it, because IT NEVER HAPPENS.
She has excuses — there are too many years between us, she was busy raising a family, we are poles apart on many things — but shit, it’s not like she ever tried.
I did, once upon a time, but after enough failures, eventually even I got the message.
Nor did I get that kind of love from my mother. Facebook wasn’t around 30 years ago, but the one time that I know of where my mother was invited to write a letter about why she was proud of me, what I got was a chilly, formal letter. It was so bizarre, I don’t think they even read it at the pledging ceremony — or if they did, it was in such contrast to everyone else’s letters that I have blocked the memory, out of embarrassment and shame at how impersonal my mother’s letter was.
She didn’t even write it by hand — she typed it. In the handwritten note that accompanied it, she even wrote “end”, as if it were a business communication. And of course, she had to make it about a topic that was important to her: religion.
Years later, my sister defended my mother’s coolness on this occasion with a bunch of bullshit about “she didn’t know who was going to read it” and so on.
Fucking hell. Someone who loves you doesn’t CARE who reads it. THAT’S THE FUCKING POINT.
But that’s the way it always goes. I expressed my disappointment in the way my mother wrote this letter — because it hurt me to be shown so starkly the contrast between the chatty, friendly letters that she wrote to my sister when she was in college, versus the one that I got when I was in college (by the way, there aren’t any personal letters from my mother from my college days, because I was expected to call HER every week).
And my sister didn’t say, “I’m sorry she couldn’t love you.” My sister didn’t say, “I bet that was important to you. I’m sorry you were disappointed.”
No, what my sister did was defend my mother’s abnormal behavior. Because my sister has apparently inherited that abnormal behavior, that unwillingness to love me, or to let anyone else love me.
This is very similar to my mother-in-law, who was the oldest daughter of an alcoholic mother, and also strongly parentified. And while she couldn’t stop her son from marrying me, she wouldn’t let her husband be too nice to me, either.
Once she was gone, he spent his few remaining months trying to finally be friends, but he didn’t have much time to work with. But we could have had a loving relationship, I think — if it hadn’t been for my MIL, and the anger she directed towards me for us making a life decision that she didn’t approve of, and as she saw it, depriving her of her “right” to grandchildren.
Because of course she can’t direct that blame at her son, and besides, women are “supposed to” have kids — even if they are women as fucked up as her own mother, and my mother, I guess. See how well that worked out.
Over the 20 or so years that I knew her, she did her best to retain some control and undercut me with “her” son as well — even criticizing me to him under our own roof — and often she pretended I didn’t actually exist.
I remember one time they visited us, and she and I went to buy tickets for a ferry. The woman at the kiosk asked my MIL why she was here, and she replied — with me standing right next to her — “We’re here visiting our son.”
Another time we were all out at a garden, and my husband and I went for a walk while his parents sat on a bench. When we came back, she looked directly at him and, using his name — so it would be clear that I was not included in the caring, no matter how trivial — she asked him, “How was your walk?”
On another memorable occasion, his dad left a phone message wishing him — specifically and only him, again by name — a “happy anniversary”.
Kind of like my sister not even giving me a welcome hug, or noticing that I’m in the room. (At the same time that she can sure as hell notice that I failed to ask her about being a grandmother.)
Little wounds. Over 20 or 40 years they add up to big ones.
It would be one thing if the people involved were like this to everyone, not just me. But they hurt even more when, after she’s gone, you get to hear from the neighbor how wonderfully warm and loving your MIL was to her — treated her “like a daughter,” in fact.
So eventually you learn that no matter if you are nice, and caring, and give love to others, they don’t give it back. And you learn not to make the effort any more. That’s the person I’ve become.
Which is why my siblings will say – have said, in fact – “Well, but YOU don’t show love to US!”
Because of course, to them, it’s all about them. (Except the part about who’s responsible. That is most definitely not about them.)
We are each too wounded to put our own pain aside in order to love the other person.
The difference here is, my siblings’ wounds were not inflicted by me — but mine were inflicted by them. I don’t have anything to apologize for, but they do.
I tried for years and years, and got rejected over and over. And the ultimate wound, of course, was the moral injury of the night my father died, and the morning after. And the lies about it, and the believing the lies, and the not upsetting Susan and Joe, because it was easier and simpler to upset me.
Their wounds were not inflicted by me. Theirs were, at the heart, inflicted by a mother who was selfish and sick and couldn’t let anyone else have love. Our mother’s version of the control was to not let “her” children love their father. She deprived them of that hugely important relationship, for her own selfish reasons.
See the pattern here? Selfish, angry, injured women, deliberately ruining relationships between others. I’m not the one who’s doing that.
I used to have brothers, and even a brother-in-law, who at least appeared to care about me, but they are no longer allowed to do so.
My brothers have said some nice things to me in the past. One of them once said he enjoyed conversations with me, but of course that was said in the context of the rest of the sentence, which was that he refused to discuss the family issues any longer. So yeah, he enjoys conversations with me as long as they are on his terms.
I have other brothers who probably couldn’t say a nice thing about me if their lives depended on it.
My sister won’t let her husband speak to me any more. Nor, I suspect, are her kids (and eventually, their kids) allowed to contact me. Once in a great while, as on the actual birth of a child, I get a picture or two from a niece – that’s the return I get now on the investment of years of caring about my sister’s kids. Of course my sister never had to put out anything for the ones I didn’t have. And we aren’t even told about their weddings any more.
This isn’t exactly new: we have been left out before, not told about get-togethers until someone lets it slip after the fact, not invited until it’s too late for us to come.
This is controlling and dysfunctional and fucked up, of course, but it kind of works. It’s easier than the alternative. Can’t do anything to upset my sister and SIL, or there will be hell to pay.
As my father used to say, and I know where he learned this lesson: “In an argument between a reasonable person and an unreasonable person, the unreasonable person will always win.”
They are the ones who have won, by being unreasonable, by being the bigger threat to familial harmony. By having the power to throw the bigger tantrum. Me leaving is no big deal, compared to what they could pull off.
Another Facebook friend has a son who is getting married this fall. All week her posts have been about planning the wedding, her excitement, her happiness about having a new daughter-in-law to love.
It’s hard to read those posts. I actually don’t like to think about my own wedding, because even for the one fucking time it was supposed to be all about me, it wasn’t.
Not for my mother. My mother wouldn’t even shop for her own dress. I had to go shopping for her in Dallas, buy and ship a few dresses to her, and then harp on her to send the others back so I could return them.
For context, up until my wedding, my mother’s immediate first concern about any such event was what she was going to wear, down to shoes and accessories, and she often sewed her own dress for such occasions. I had to hem her fucking skirt myself, the night before the wedding.
In hindsight, the complete lack of giving a shit is crystal clear. And, I suspect, it also sent a subtle message to everyone else that this event wasn’t something they needed to care about.
The excuse made for her is that she was getting sick at the time, but I defy you to show me another loving mother who lets physical illness get in the way of caring about her daughter’s wedding.
Not for my MIL. I recently found out from that same neighbor that my MIL never spoke about our wedding. “You could have gotten married in Jamaica for all I know,” she said. The only thing she ever heard about our wedding was that at some point, apparently my father asked where my FIL was, and said he needed to talk to him, and went to find him.
Somehow that offended my MIL. What she had to say about our wedding day, after the fact, was vague criticism for my father.
Before the fact was worse. The planning was a nightmare. She had her own separate guest list. She literally doubled the budget for the reception dinner. She used the same pattern that I chose for the bridesmaid’s dresses for her own dress. At one point she told me directly that what I wanted didn’t matter. And there are weirder parts that are too long to tell here.
It would have been awesome to have a sister and a mother or even a matron of honor who was on my side through all of that, who could have been a reality check, but no. It will be no surprise that my matron of honor was also a narcissist, who was also no help to me at all, and actively contributed to my problems, instead of helping.
[Side note: A few years later, when we told her and her husband that we were leaving Texas and moving to Oregon, the first words out of her mouth were “Oooh, I’ve never been to Oregon!” The first thing she thought about was herself and what good we could be to her. Classic. We never gave them our new address.]
And not for the rest of my family, either. Ask them about my wedding, and you will hear about how much fun they all had in Boston together the day after, without me or my husband.
But, they will say, you had just gotten married. You were busy.
Of course, that’s not the fucking point, but that is seriously how they see it. That’s their excuse. To all of them, the important thing about that event was not their sister (their daughter, their son, their friend) getting married. It was not welcoming their new brother-in-law. It was about them, having fun doing something else. Something that, in fact, specifically didn’t involve me, or us, because I was “busy”.
The “something else” that I was busy with was, in fact, supposed to be the center of attention and the whole fucking point. That’s how it is when people love you and are happy for you, anyway.
They didn’t ask us what we would like to do that last day. I don’t think we had anything specific planned, but it’s not like anyone said, “Hey, what is the plan for Sunday? What would you like to do? Oh, there’s nothing planned? Well, here’s what we thought we could all go do.”
They didn’t even ask us if we wanted to go along. They just assumed, I guess, that we wouldn’t want to go? I don’t know. I do know we didn’t get invited, even though it was the last day everyone would be there and we all knew that and it was MY FUCKING WEDDING.
“Often clients tell me that they felt that their family didn’t understand them, that they felt different from the rest of the family or like an outsider. What is being described is the trauma of invisibility.”
That doesn’t even come close to describing it. It’s not so much being invisible – it’s that they see you, and they don’t care anyway. They don’t love seeing your face, or think of you “just because”. In fact, they hate the sight or the thought of you so much they will pretend you aren’t there.
Years and years and years of being rejected by the people, especially the women, closest to me — being met with criticism or disdain, or unacknowledged or taken advantage of, every time I tried to reach out and build relationships — has taken its toll.
I don’t reach out to anyone any more, because my love kept getting met with rejection. Rejection from my mother, from my sister, from my mother-in-law: all women in my life that you would think would have been a bedrock of love and support. The kind of love that is visible, the kind I see other people getting.
Love that is allowed to be expressed, and doesn’t have to hide for fear of pissing off some fucked-up, controlling, unhealthy person, who can’t stand to see someone they hate being loved.
I don’t know why I ended up with so many of these women in my life. Some sources say that being trained by one narcissist leads you to attract others. Certainly I think the familiarity factor is how my SIL ended up in the family, and why she is so welcomed.
Intellectually at least, I realize now that they all had issues. Just as I now have issues, and am unable to simply feel for my friend, without also being envious of what she has that I don’t have.
I don’t have the capacity to just be openly loving and caring, without these other feelings getting in the way. I don’t have enough logs in my raft, the hole hasn’t been filled enough.
I could have been that person, though. It’s what I wanted to be — still wish I could be. A healthy, loving person, with people to love, who love me back.
But at least I have the guts to work on my issues, and not perpetuate the bullshit.
Sometimes I am that person. For example, one thing I have noticed in the past couple of years is that I don’t do art unless it is something FOR somebody. I am not an artist for myself. I don’t make time to draw, or paint, for my own enjoyment. But let me get an idea for something someone I care about would like, and I am all over it. I love to make art that will make someone I love happy.
There have been loving women in my life, here and there: a housekeeper, a friend’s mother, a junior high school teacher — but they all fell away, one way or another, because they just didn’t have the same tie, day in and day out, that you get with a mom. You don’t get a second chance at having a mother or a mother-in-law or a sister, someone who’s been there your whole life, who just loves you.
I did have Dad. I got about 15 years less of him than I should have, but I did have that. I have loving notes, and letters from college, and some saved emails, and a box full of other things that I still haven’t gone through in the 15 years since his death. In the absence of a loving mother, that’s what saved me, but it’s still not the same.
Mostly, it’s just too late. I don’t see where I will ever find that kind of love at this stage, or people TO love. I’ve been cut off from the next generation of my relatives. And the healthy people all have wonderful loving families of their own. There’s no room in them for a couple of strays, and there’s no replacement for those 40 years of shared history that we wouldn’t have. I don’t see any way now to find or make a place like that where I really belong.
Maybe if I’d had kids, I’d have one. More likely, in my 20’s I’d have been the lousy mother that I suspected I’d be, even though I didn’t quite know why. I understand why a lot more now, and I even think I’d be a decent mother now. But it’s pretty late for that, and “to not be alone” is a shitty selfish reason to have kids anyway.
At least I’m not carrying on the tradition.
In the 4 years or so that I have been working on this family’s problem — researching, learning about relationships and what can go wrong with them, trying to find the truth of things or at least exposing the biases — I have often had the experience of coming across a new word or phrase that perfectly describes something that happened in my FOO. And every time, I think, “There it is. It has a name.”
Names are important. Their existence shows that these things do happen, and they happen regularly, and they happen to other people, other families, as well as ours.
We are not “special”. Our family’s story is not some weird anomaly that can’t possibly be understood by anyone else — it is in fact very well understood, and it is pathological. It is not some unique form of “normal” that can only be understood, in Joe’s words, by someone who knows the “history of the family and personalities involved”.
If the story that’s being told can’t stand up to impartial, outside scrutiny, it’s not normal. (But abused children often think abuse is “normal”, because abuse is all they know.)
Not only do these things happen — they are known to have harmful, lasting effects. I am speaking of narcissism and NPD, parentification, parental alienation, blame-shifting, invalidation, scapegoating — just to name a few of my new words. Narcissism and blame-shifting are known to be damaging to relationships. Scapegoats are known to be the ones who seek out the truth. Parental alienation is destructive to a child who naturally wants to love both parents. Invalidation disrespects and destroys a person and a relationship.
Parentification often happens to the oldest child – especially if they are the same sex as the parent who is abdicating their proper role – and “The adultified child takes on responsibilities in the hope that it will hold the family together by keeping mom and dad around.“
My siblings manage to ignore all this information, or explain it away somehow. I don’t know how most of them do it; there is one brother who simply insists that I am wrong about practically everything I write.
Which leads me to another term I learned in all of this: “cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who… is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values,” and that one of the four methods of dissonance reduction, and probably the simplest, is to “Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs.”
Ta-da. There it is. It has a name.
Anyway, the point is, I’ve learned about a lot of concepts that definitely do exist, that are studied and well understood, and that explain most, if not all, of what happened in my FOO.
Up until now, though, I never had a word for what happened to me the morning after my father died, when Joe and Susan attacked me for daring to complain about Susan’s inappropriate behavior the night before — other than that I found out it is called a narcissistic rage attack, which explains what they did, but not what I experienced as a result.
Neither of my therapists diagnosed me with anything very specific. “Therapeutic services” was the billing code the second, better and more experienced one, used.
“Adjustment disorder” was the billing code used by the first one — who I went to for grief counseling, and who I think was not familiar with NPD, and the complicated family problems I presented as a result.
I still remember how she was as mystified as I was, the day she exclaimed, “But you’re not even allowed to defend yourself!” Knowing what I know now, it is clear that what I was going through was more than just normal grief over the loss of my parents — and to someone who did not understand NPD and its effects on others, of course it would appear that my reaction was stronger than expected.
It is obvious that the initial experience was traumatic. There was, of course, the death of the only real, caring parent I had. Then being yelled at, at the top of their lungs, inches from my face, less than 12 hours after the death of my father, by two members of what was supposed to be a family, who all claimed before the fact that they were going to be supportive, especially of me – pretty damned traumatizing, I should think.
And then the aftermath, where they lied to everyone else, blamed me, threw me under the bus, and no one thought twice about what might have really happened – also pretty damned traumatizing.
And finally, that last reunion – when I was physically ignored, yelled at again, and began to understand just how the rest of the family actually viewed the whole incident. Up until then, I had thought that they knew what really happened, but chose to simply sweep it under the rug for Joe & Susan’s benefit. (That would have been bad and unhealthy, sure — but it would also have been “normal” in the context of our family and the ever-present hierarchy of age.)
I didn’t realize until then that Joe and Susan had lied about what happened, and that they all believed those lies: they believed that I had started it, deliberately picked a fight, that I was entirely to blame for it, and that they in fact believed they were being rather magnanimous in not holding my supposed behavior against me! Rather traumatizing to not only have the original incident thrown back in my face, but to realize that their view of it, and me, was even worse than I had thought.
So, for a while, I looked at the idea of PTSD. I found out there is something called “complex PTSD“, which is quite different from “classic” PTSD. “Situations include… psychological manipulation (gaslighting and/or false accusations)… Forms of trauma associated with C-PTSD… [include] emotional abuse…repeated or prolonged traumas in which there is an actual or perceived inability for the victim to escape.”
That had some commonalities with what I had experienced, and for a while I wondered if I had been a whole lot more screwed up than I realized, by the early separations from my mother, and her neglect and disinterest — but it didn’t quite fit. PTSD is a fear-based reaction, and I’m not afraid.
Now, I think I’ve found it. It even fits in with PTSD, in a way, but it is different. By reading about PTSD and soldiers and veterans, I learned about moral injury.
Depending on who you ask, this idea is either new or old. “It’s a new term but not a new concept. Moral injury is as timeless as war — going back to when Ajax thrust himself upon his sword on the shores of Troy…“
Yet the term, and the idea, is very new, at least in the treatment of PTSD and other mental health issues of soldiers and veterans. Most of the work I have found on this is written in this context (probably because the military is where there’s plenty of funding, and by the nature of the beast they are at least somewhat focused on mental health).
One definition is “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” However, this definition doesn’t take into account the effects on the person who actually experienced the act.
Another definition doesn’t rule it out: “Like psychological trauma, moral injury… describes extreme and unprecedented life experience including the harmful aftermath of exposure to such events. Events are considered morally injurious if they “transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Thus, the key precondition for moral injury is an act of transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life, and so forth.”
One expert is a Dr. Shay, who introduced the clinical concept. And his definition is that moral injury can happen when “there is a betrayal of what’s right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high-stakes situation.” Bingo.
Dr. Shay also talks of “authority perceived as violating what is “right” or “fair,” keeping in mind the extreme dependence combat Veterans have upon one another for survival.” Well, when I was very young, and my mother was hospitalized, I learned on some level that I had to depend on these people for survival.
Finally, this definition actually includes a potential victim: …“moral injury” refers to the emotional and spiritual impact of participating in, witnessing, and/or being victimized by actions and behaviors which violate a [person’s] core moral values and behavioral expectations of self or others.
What happened the night my father died, and the day after, pretty much blew away the concept I had had of my “family” as a group of decent, healthy, moral people who could hold it together and maintain a reasonable amount of self-control in a time of crisis.
I never thought they were people who would treat a family member the way they treated me: screaming at me, leaning down to shout directly in my face, with the accompanying threat of physical violence implied by that invasion of personal space.
Or, if they had been triggered by that crisis, and did behave so badly, they would own up to it, apologize, and try to make amends. They would be honest, responsible adults.
I never thought that my “family” were people who would ignore what I politely asked for in a time of crisis. That they were people who would deliberately lie about another family member to cover up their transgressions.
And what happened at and after the 2012 reunion destroyed the idea that my “family” would at least TRY to step up and do the right thing in a difficult situation.
That was when I found out that whatever else they might do in other situations, whatever else they might be capable of, however moral and decent they may be in other facets of their lives — they won’t do it for me.
That was when I figured out that I didn’t have a “family”. At least, not one that was healthy enough to give me the respect, love, and acceptance that I was asking for. My FOO was one where, when I asked for these things, instead I was ignored, invalidated, or criticized. Maybe it is a functional family among the “right” people; I wouldn’t know, because I’m not in that club. What I know is that it is a group of people who are incapable of doing the right thing for my sake. I’m not important enough to them.
“Moral injury usually stems from a precise moment in a [person’s] experience… It’s about reconciling that event that sticks with you… And it’s also about reconnecting with a moral community, feeling connected to your fellow man.“
Between those two experiences — that day in 2000, when my dad died, and that day in 2012, at the reunion — I lost my whole experience of “family”, the people I was connected to by blood, that I had been connected to for my entire life.
Two dozen people, gone from my life.
“Transgressions can arise from… the behavior of others… An act of serious transgression that is at odds with core ethical and moral beliefs is called moral injury… Betrayal on either a personal or an organizational level can also act as a precipitant.”
It’s not a mental illness or failure to cope:
It is the loss of trust:
“Both flavors of moral injury impair and sometimes destroy the capacity for trust. When social trust is destroyed, it is replaced by the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation, and humiliation from others.“
In my case, I got the reality first, and now I have the settled expectation.
I got the reality of being treated like shit at the worst time in my whole young life, by the one group of people in your whole life that you’re always, ALWAYS supposed to be able to count on, for anything, any time, anywhere. The ones who were older and supposed to be oh-so-much wiser.
And, I got the reality that there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
“With this expectancy, there are few options: strike first; withdraw and isolate oneself from others (e.g., Achilles); or create deceptions, distractions, false identities, and narratives to spoil the aim of what is expected (e.g., Odysseus).”
I tried the latter option — to “get over it” — hiding my pain from the wrongs done to me, censoring my feelings, my thoughts, my opinions, my beliefs, in order to “fit in” and not do damage to the “family”.
To accept the act of Susan violently, viciously vomiting her psychological shit all over me RIGHT AFTER THE DEATH OF MY FATHER — traumatizing me, leaving me to deal with it for years and years — and to pretend that it never happened — so that she, and everyone else, can also pretend that it never happened (or if it did happen, it was my fault) and she can pretend that she’s still perfectly perfect.
Never mind that it DID happen. Never mind what it did to me. Never mind that if she gets to be perfect, what’s left for me to be is only the flaws.
I was supposed to allow them to continue to treat me as second-class, as a scapegoat, as if my feelings and my pain and my trauma and my humiliation didn’t matter as much as hers. When it was MY father who had died – MINE.
What is misunderstood is that if this is what the group needs me to do in order to not sustain damage, it’s already really, really fucked up.
After realizing this painful truth, I finally chose the other option, to get away from the toxic people, and the ones I no longer trust, the ones who consider themselves above wrongdoing, the ones who are so very perfect that they would never humble themselves so far as to apologize to ME.
Because to the special arrogance of the Triumvirate, that would be unbelievably humiliating.
And finally, one bullet point that sums up most of what I have felt about this for the past 4 years:
It feels so good to finally have a name for it.
Even better, it feels GREAT to discover that I’ve been doing all the right things, in terms of healing myself.
Not ignoring a problem usually helps, and this one is no exception. Also trying to understand what happened, analyzing it, looking at evidence. Guess what I’ve been doing?
“People mostly try to push those experiences away and not look at them, and they inevitably end up with an oversimplified conclusion about what it all meant,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to unearth the beliefs that are causing their distress, and then help them analyze it, consider the evidence…therapists focus on helping morally injured patients accept that wrong was done [though not by me!], but that it need not define their lives.”
And then there’s this idea:
“…some have devised makeshift rituals of cleansing… At the end of a brutal 12-month combat tour in Iraq, one battalion chaplain gathered the troops and handed out slips of paper. He asked the soldiers to jot down everything they were sorry for, ashamed of, angry about or regretted. The papers went into a makeshift stone baptismal font, and as the soldiers stood silently in a circle, the papers burned to ash.
“It was sort of a ritual of forgiveness,” said the chaplain, Lt. Col. Doug Etter of the Pennsylvania National Guard. “The idea was to leave all the most troubling things behind in Iraq.”
And, I knew that I needed to write this blog.
“Dr. Shay places special importance on communication through artistic means of expression. Moral injury can only be absolved when “the trauma survivor… [is] permitted and empowered to voice his or her experience…”
“We favor the tenet that “treatment” of moral injury must be defined by the individual according to their beliefs and needs. Outlets for acknowledging and confronting moral injury include talk therapy, religious dialogue, art, writing, discussion & talking circles, spiritual gatherings, and more.”
Of course, it’s still a bit of a mixed bag. For one thing, it has occurred to me that at least part of what the rest of my FOO is doing is actively avoiding EXACTLY THE SAME MORAL INJURY that I received.
Those cowards don’t want to believe that Joe and Susan could really, truly have done what Joe and Susan did. They don’t want me to describe it:
Imagine what it felt like to see Susan’s horrible, ugly, angry face two inches from my own, bending down so she could scream right at me, to feel her spittle on my face, to wonder if she was going to physically attack me, to hear the shouts from both of them ringing in my ears — their words just so much angry, hateful noise, because both of them were shouting nonstop, at the same time.
And she lost her shit like that over the idea that I had dared to criticize her selfish behavior of the night before, when she refused to do something I asked for right after my father died.
I didn’t want to believe it either. The difference is, I don’t have the luxury of not believing it, and I don’t have to imagine what it was like, because I’m the one they did it to. (And my husband witnessed it, and he has some moral injury from it too, you fucking bastards, because he feels like he ought to have done something to stop it.)
And I didn’t want to believe that they could lie like they did, and that everyone would believe them like they did.
This would be bad enough on its own – but now add that this was only hours after I watched my beloved father die, and then sat by his dead body, waiting for the ambulance to take him away, all the while forced to listen to her LOUDLY LAUGHING AND JOKING WITH A STRANGER IN A ROOM WITH A CORPSE.
This is in stunningly bad taste no matter how you slice it.
And this was after I even specifically and politely asked them to go somewhere else with their jolly conversation.
Yet, in the presence of that obscene behavior, that outright disrespect and provocation, I STILL managed not to scream at her, not to get up in her face and shout and spit and threaten. I certainly FELT like it, but I controlled myself. Because you just don’t do that shit to people. Not if you are a decent person.
Good thing it happened to the strong scapegoat, I suppose, because having lived through the past few years, if I’m truly the strong one then I don’t know what the hell it would do to any of them.
And, this is never going to happen: at least, I’m not going to get it from my FOO.
“…moral injury affects, and is affected by the moral codes across a community [in this case, a family]… moral injury stems in part from feelings of isolation from [the family]. Moral injury, then, is a burden carried by very few, until the “outsiders” become aware of, and interested in sharing it.“
Finally, this quote was written in terms of therapy, but it works on another level with my own story.