Libbyliberal's post Surviving the Unrecovered Borderline Parent gave me the emotional version of the dry heaves. I don't cry, but this post cut down to the bone.
It was a relief to read a story so close to my own: growing up in a house where one false move could result in an irrational outburst or psychological and emotional blackmail.
I started to write something about my own experience but two sentences in, I realized that I couldn't. It is territory too painful to revisit.
However, I can write about the nervous breakdown I had last year, triggered by a lecture I went to hear on living with someone who has a mental illness.
In March 2011, I attended this particular lecture as part of my work at the local women's center. Something clicked. Pieces of a faded jigsaw puzzle materialized when I was certain they'd been lost forever between the sofa cushions of forgetting and uncertainty, the ground gave way beneath my feet and I reached out for help.
The counselor at the mental health clinic listened to my story and remarked that I seemed to laugh a lot while telling it. “If I didn't laugh,” I said, “I'd start crying and if that happens, I don't know if I'd be able to stop.” I told her that I couldn't understand why I felt the way I do about my parents, why I left home and moved across the Atlantic at 22 and started a new life without a second thought to the family I was leaving behind. I hadn't been physically abused, my parents and I just didn't get along. I used to think that everybody thought my parents were great and there must be something wrong with me, but at my mother's funeral in 2005 several of their acquaintences and relatives told me that they were so proud of me for starting a new life away from my family. At the time I figured it was just the grief talking. I've spoken to them since and they've all told me that they're ashamed for not stepping in, but my father scared them as well and they were afraid he'd retaliate on my brother and me or my mother. They didn't know my mother was just as abusive in her own way as my father was. She was more subtle.
Emotional abuse and fear of the people who are supposed to be taking care of you does not build loving family relationships. Everybody knows this. I'm a bit dense at times; I needed to hear it from a professional. I needed her to tell me I'd been abused. I'd been denying it so long I couldn't believe it on an intellectual level. The counselor assured me that I wasn't a bad person for keeping my children away from my parents, I wasn't a bad person at all, but I probably should see a psychiatrist or psychologist because I was obviously in pain. I'm leery of medication and I didn't want to go into therapy; I like the kinks in my mind the way they are, thanks very much, I didn't fancy someone helping me to dig around in my cranium and possibly destroying the creative section in the process. The counselor suggested a course in “whole-hearted living” instead.
In between the time the counselling session ended and the course began, I did a lot of crazy things, some of which find me blushing at the moment, some of which break my heart, and some of which make me crack up laughing. I filed them all under “Nervous Breakdown 2011” on New Year's Eve. A review of the file this morning tells me that my life is only richer because of its contents.
The course was wonderful. There were 10 people in our group. I wondered at first what kind of lunatics I was jumping on the train with; these people looked seriously troubled. Far more troubled than I was. Hah! Months later we discovered that all had similar thoughts about the group that first session.
Session 1 was examining and unpacking our “knapsack of pain”. This was confrontational and although sharing was always optional, it was a tough and uncomfortable thing to unpack my sack of pain and I thought about quitting.
I stuck to it instead and learned in the process that the flight response, while it is my survival method of choice, is not effective.
We learned mindfullness exercises to teach us to live in the moment, to sharpen our perception to recognize what is real and what is imagined, the difference between emotion and impression, We learned the difference between saying “I'm an idiot” and saying “I just did something really stupid and am embarrassed.”
Most importantly, we learned about establishing our personal boundaries and priorities.
I still don't cry like other people. There are times when I would welcome the relief of tears. Maybe some day. I've stopped thinking of myself always as “unworthy”, “not up to scratch”, “difficult”, and “clumsy”. I allow myself room to make mistakes (even big ones) and this makes life easier for me and my family.
My biggest fear was that my sons would ever feel about me the way I feel about my own parents. When I asked the Imps if they were ever afraid of me, they laughed and said, “Aw Mom, you aren't scary. You're cute when you get angry. Like a bad tempered little elf.” That's goddess, you imps, and don't ever forget it.