NOTE: This is a post about my childhood, as I’m trying to understand some things about my family of origin and how my upbringing has affected me as an adult. Please feel free to ignore this post and move on if you’re here for the crafting–there will be more of that soon. Also please note that this post includes possible triggers in the form of descriptions of emotional abuse and neglect. No nastiness will be allowed in the comments.
There are many things about my family that have been difficult for me to understand and put into words, and one of the reasons for that is that so much in my childhood wasn’t in the form of words. We all just knew certain truths about each other and the world. It’s only recently that I’ve started to understand that all those things we thought we knew were actually only my mother’s prejudices and preconceptions.
My mother is mentally ill, with a significant amount of anxiety, especially social anxiety, some very strange ideas and reactions, a hefty dose of paranoia, and very poor coping skills. By all accounts, her mother was even more severely affected by mental illness, and in many ways her daughter–now a woman in her mid-80s–is still a terrified child who sees dangers everywhere she looks and is helpless to protect herself against them. She is mostly incapable of expressing affection or any other kind of emotional giving or openness. Her life has been spent seeking safety, which she finds in her household routines and her sewing and gardening. I think she also finds safety in the black-and-white way that she thinks. There’s no complexity or ambiguity in how she sees people; to her, you are this kind of person or that kind, and once she’s established that, she knows everything there is to know about you.
So she knew what kind of people her children were without actually knowing them. And we children knew who we were supposed to be. There was the Golden Boy Who Does No Wrong. There was the Problem Child. And there was me, who was Second Smartest and No Trouble. And it was always crystal clear to me that my role was to get good grades, follow the rules, and be quiet. As I’ve mentioned, my mother doesn’t have coping skills and, I think, finds the world to be generally overwhelming, and there she was with two high-energy children that she obviously didn’t know what to do with. My father was this huge, terrifying, unpredictable, screaming person that we were not to bother. For me to speak up, have opinions, or want attention would make me a burden on my parents. It might mean that my mother would do something inappropriate in response, such as calling someone up and yelling at them for an imagined slight. It might mean that my mother would invalidate me, dismissing and minimizing any concerns or problems that I had. It might mean that all four of my family members would join forces to torment me until I cried, then make fun of me for crying.
A certain childhood memory of mine has been on my mind a lot lately. I remember sitting in my room trying to think of something, a bit of news or something, that I could go and tell my mother so that I could have her attention for just a minute. I remember walking down the hallway to her sewing room and telling her my thing and her barely responding with a “mmm hmm” and not even looking at me. And me knowing how much she just wanted me to go away. Feeling small and worthless and deeply ashamed. Knowing that my only value to her lay in not being there.
As a young adult, I had to learn to recalibrate my humor. I thought that making fun of people was what normal humor was, because cruel humor was the only kind of humor I knew. But more than that, I hadn’t realized that what I said could make a difference, that people could actually hear my words and be affected by them.
Years later, in grad school, I was giving a lecture on Freud and came up with an example on the spot of a (relatively) healthy response to childhood trauma: the child who feels voiceless and unheard and grows up to be a teacher so that her voice will be heard. Then I realized I’d just told the story of my own life and had to pause for a moment. I suddenly saw that teaching was satisfying and healing to me for just that reason.
Being ignored when I speak is a powerful trigger for me, as I have just discovered recently. It still has the power to make me feel small and overwhelmed with shame. It can exacerbate my problems with depression and anxiety, to the point where I can’t sleep at night and can barely function during the day.
The ironic twist to all this is that my mother has always seen herself as the helpless victim of every thing and every person in the world. She will never see, much less acknowledge, the damage that she has done to her children and the scars they carry with them now as a result.