It was not Love but not to Feel Guilty

I was having dinner with Sookie, my high school BFF, now a psychiatrist, in a local restaurant.  Her phone constantly buzzed.   We reconnected a couple years ago after three decades of being out of touch, mostly on my accord.  I moved across the Pacific and I didn’t want to be found by anybody from my hometown.

“It’s my mother,” she said.  “Sorry, but I have to go.”

Sookie was taking care of her mother, who was on a wheelchair, at home.  Although her kids were all grown up, she had a full time job, as a professor and clinician.

“You are lucky.  You left home early,” she said to me.

At that time, I visited my elderly parents once a year.   I spent more time with them than my younger brother who lived in the same country.   I usually got badly depressed before and after the trip.  My original home was toxic to my soul.  I called it a tour of duty.  It’s my duty as a daughter to show my parents I cared, or at least to pretend.

Later, Sookie told me what was going on.  She prepared breakfast and lunch for her mother before she left for work, then she cooked dinner after she came home.  I asked, “Why?”  “My mother only eats what I cook,” she said.  “Once I ordered food delivery service because I was too busy.  I came home and found the food in a garbage bin.  She said it tasted awful.  She didn’t like aids I hired.   She refuses to go to a day care service because she doesn’t want to mingle with “those people.” ”

So Sookie took care of her… as her mother, a perfect housewife, took care of her husband and her children.  Now Sookie’s mother demands the same from her daughter.

Sookie has a younger sister.  She left home and live in another city with her own family.  Sookie’s sister calls her mother once in a blue moon.  They chat and her mother loves her.  Her sister won’t even visit her.  “Don’t you feel it’s not fair?” I asked.  “I do, but that who she is.  I don’t dislike her,” she said.  I didn’t understand.

“Why?”  I asked again.  “Why you have to take care of your mother by yourself?  Why you  accommodate her unreasonable needs?  You have a career and your own family to take care of.”

She pondered for a moment and said, “Not to feel guilty.”   It made a sense.  She was honest.  She didn’t say because she loved her.

I traveled 24 hrs door to door once a year spending thousands of dollars that could have been used for a vacation not to feel guilty.    Sookie cooked for her mother every day juggling her career and family life not to feel guilty.   We were doing the same.

Both my parents and hers did their best to take care of us and at the same time planted the sense of obligation.   It was not love.

I decided to do what I could do for my parents, as long as it wouldn’t destroy my life.  My mother constantly tells me to come home to take care of her.  (She also tells me to come home so that she could take care of me.  I don’t know why she thinks I need to be taken care of.)

No.  I set a firm boundary.  That’s the line for me.  Once a year visit has become three times a year visits since my mother needed my help after my father passed away.  It has wrecked havoc on my financial, physical, and emotional health but hasn’t destroyed me yet and it spared me feeling guilty.

As for Sookie, her mother passed away in a hospital from in-hospital infection and she was feeling super guilty for a long while as if she killed her mother.  (She chose the hospital when she fell ill.)

This is what happens when parents treat kids as their territory.  Colonization doesn't foster love.

If you love your parents, you are the lucky one who experienced unconditional love from them.

We did not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family as a Bootcamp

“It sounds like you were brought up by a pack of wolves,” the teacher said.  “I guess I was,” I said.  I took a semi-private class to explore family dynamics.  We were doing show and tell of old family photos.  I don’t remember which story or photo led to that remark but it made a sense.

Nobody taught me how to be human, how to communicate, how to deal with feelings, how to foster relationships, how to love, etc.  My father taught me how to survive in a hostile world.

It was the world of his construct.

My father didn’t say, “Don’t show your vulnerability.”  He just pounced on me when I was vulnerable.  He was the kind of person who instinctively knew where it would hurt most and push the spot hard.

My father didn’t say, “The best defense is offense”.  I just learned to attack back harder, verbally and energetically– if I were a big man, I would have fought back physically but I was a petite girl — and retreat fast so that my father wouldn’t catch me.  I ran back to my room and block the door with furniture, since the door didn’t have a lock.  He yelled from the other side of the door.   “You have your father’s temper,” my mother said.  I was just defending myself because I didn’t want to be eaten by the wolf.

He never hit me but his verbal attack was violent enough.  “I’m gonna beat the shit out of you!” he yelled from the other side of the door.

“I’ve learned watching you and Dad,” later my younger brother said.  “I just stayed in my room and didn’t talk to Dad.  We didn’t have any interaction.”  I guess he was smarter than me or just adopted a different strategy for survival.

When I got hurt or felt weak, I didn’t cry.  Crying would attract wolves and they wouldn’t come to comfort you.  I learned to lock myself in a cave and wait until I regained strength.  I felt like an injured dangerous animal, licking the wound in a dark cold place, with body tightened, claws out, growling.

My father made sure that I understood the world was out there to get me.  He made sure that I knew I was ugly, unlovable and worthless, so anybody who might offer a hand to me must be trying to get something out of me.   When I was proud of something about myself, he spat at me, “Got a bighead, haven’t you.  Who do you think you are?”

I had beautiful hair when I was a teenager.  It felt like expensive silk threads.  That’s the only part of my body I was sure I could be proud of, because I got compliments all the time.   So I kept it long.  “Your stinking loose long hair is everywhere,” he complained.   I had my hair cut very short.  “What a stupid haircut. You look so ugly,” he said.

Home was not a safe nurturing place for us kids but a bootcamp.  It was as if he was preparing me for being ridiculed and shamed by the world outside of my family.  If he could harden me and toughen me enough, I wouldn’t be beaten down by anybody else.

If you are a wild beast to be afraid of, nobody would come to you to take advantage of you.  Being asked of a favor is in itself the sign of weakness on your part.  Don’t be off guard.  Let them know you are somebody not to be messed with.

My father told me again and again never to be a guarantor of anybody.  Actually it makes a sense since many people he knew lost everything because they trusted somebody and co-signed their debt.

He did a good job.  I grew up a woman who saw everybody a potential aggriever.  When somebody wanted to be friends with me, I thought, “What do you want?”   I didn’t understand that somebody could want to be friends with me just because who I was.

My high school BFF called me a barbed wire.  Somebody I worked for called me a naked blade.  I thought it suited me and that I was satisfied.   The message was loud and clear.  Don’t you dare to come close to me.

My father passed at the ripe age of 86, after suffering several years from Alzheimer’s.  At a nursing home he was slightly paranoid delusional but most of time pleasant old man.   However, once in a while he suddenly yelled, “I’m gonna hit the shit out of you.”   The staff thought it was Alzheimer’s disease that made him say such a violent thing.   “No, it is how he always is,” I said in my mind.

And I grew up to be an angry she-wolf.  At one point I really believed showing my kids having power over the others was the best defense.  I called it a baseball bat strategy.  I imagined myself threatening them with a baseball bat, to make them follow a line.  It was because I loved them.  I had to teach them how to survive.  The threatening energy of my father’s yelling was registered in my psyche as a destruction of a baseball bat blows.

It was fortunate that I just had imaginary kids.

This is how a family trauma is inherited through generations.  I was locked up in the world his negative paradigm shaped.   My father painted over his daughter’s vibrant world with his gloomy palette.  I don’t know what made his world so grim because we didn’t tell stories about ourselves.  But I’m sure he thought his life sucked.

It took me 20+ years of therapy to attain paradigm shift.  The world is not dangerous.  (Fortunately I don’t live in a war zone.)  People just want to be friends with me because they are interested in who I am.

I had to peel the old paint chip by chip to reveal the original vibrant pallet of mine.  I had to demolish the wall that confined me a brick at a time.   Next to me there always was a ghost of my father putting back the brick that I took out.

I had to learn giving up anger wouldn’t make me a victim.  I had to learn I could be open to the world if I knew how to set a firm boundary.  I had to learn acknowledging my vulnerability would make me more strong.  The skillset I learned in the bootcamp would be with me no matter.  And I could be a tough cookie and an emotionally vulnerable person at the same time.

Don't paint your kid's world with your pallet, just teach them skills and let them paint theirs.

 

 

 

 

 

Family as a Cult

“I always wanted to have a mother like yours.  Somebody who is waiting for me coming home from school, baking cookies,” I said.  My mother was a nurse, who worked her entire life.  Nobody ever greeted me when I came home.  My friend’s mother was a stay-home mother and wife of a prominent professor and well-respected surgeon at a local medical school.  They moved from a big city and settled in the small city.  To me her family looked an ideal upper-middle class made for TV family, while I was from a working class one.

“My mother never baked cookies,” Sookie said.

“But you were very close with your mother,” I said.  “You used to talk to her on phone a lot.”  When we were teenagers, every time we were away from home, we called home to let our parents know we were safe.  My phone conversation was short.  “Hi, it’s me.  I’m here. Everything is O.K.  Bye.”  “Is that all?” she asked me when I finished the call.  She chatted with her mum as if she were talking to a close friend.   In my emotionally dysfunctional family, kids were not supposed to be seen nor heard.   Having a conversation was unthinkable.  Every attempt to communicate ended with yelling at each other.   So I learned to keep communication at a bare minimum.

Sookie, my high school BFF, was talking about her difficult relationship with her late mother.  Her mother has become totally dependent on her, who now is a prominent psychiatrist/professor of the same medical school her father taught.  “She turned out to be a mistletoe, a parasitic organism,” she said in an detached tone.

“But she was a perfect professor’s wife,” I protested.  “Yes, she was.  My parents were deeply in love with each other.  They were co-dependent,” she said.  “When my father passed away, my mother chose me as the next host and expected me to provide for her as her husband did.”   As she now had her own family and career to take care of, her mother’s demands were millstone around her neck.

“I always wished to have a mother like yours,” she said.  “Your mum was professional.  I respected her for building up her career up to the head nurse of a major hospital.”

“Yea, all the women in my family had a career,” I said.  “But my mom was a terrible cook.  Our home was always in a mess.  I was always by myself at home.”
“She is independent,” she said.
“Yes, that’s always how it was in my family.  Women need to be independent,” I said.  

I still didn’t understand.  I thought Sookie and her mum had a girlfriends-like relationship, like a pastel colored cotton candy.  “But I remember you loved her when you were a teenager,” I protested.

“I did,” she said.  “I was in a cult.  I just didn’t know it.”

“Then, when did you realize it?” I asked.

She pondered for a moment and said, “After I became a psychiatrist, ” and added, “I realized I could diagnose everybody I know with one or more mental disorder.”

In a nut shell, her mother couldn’t understand her daughter and she were different individuals.  Her daughter was part of her just like her husband constituted her identity.    For Sookie it was a normal family, until she realized it was not.  “She tried to make my son her next host.  I couldn’t let her do that at any cost,” she said.

I was in a cult, too.  My mother didn’t understand I was a separate individual from her.  She still does not understand I have my own life. “Come home,” she says all the time.   Come home to take care of me as I took care of your father.  That’s what I hear.   She doesn’t understand I am home.

Our family is the only family we know.   We grow up believing our family value system is the only one, and often try to recreate it.   We are programmed to act in a certain way.  It could be good for us or it could be inconvenient for us.  If we couldn’t or is not allowed to examine and assess if the value system of our original family is still suitable for the present life, we stay in the cult.

To get out of my family’s version of cult, I had to move across the Pacific.  Now we have thirteen hours time differences (and 20+ years of therapy on my part) between us.

P.S. I grew up in an Asian country when stay-home wives were norm.

A Skeleton in the Closet

I grew up believing my family was an ordinary one.  Nobody was particularly out of ordinary, so I thought.  My father was not an alcoholic nor an addict.  My mother was not a chain-smoking suicidal woman.  My brother didn’t smoke pot nor join a band.  I didn’t have an eccentric spinster aunt.  It was a quotidian kind of dysfunctional family.  Then I saw a play,  August, Osage County.  After the curtain, I turned to my friend and said, “That’s a terrible family.” And then I added, “That’s my family.”

Every dysfunctional family I saw on stage had a secret everybody knew about.  They lock it up in the closet and pretend it is not there.  Children born into the family can’t do anything but inherit it.  Adults may think kids don’t know about the skeleton in the closet.  We know. We see the ghosts lurking in the hallway, hear them whisper, and feel the cold air when they pass through us.  We grow up with the ghosts and adults tell us again and again that there is no such thing.  Silly child.  So we start to believe it’s us.  The dark shadows and crazy voices are inside of us.  We become the ghost of the family secret.

So I started to drink early, chain-smoked, cut myself, ate and vomited.  I started to live by myself when I was 18 and moved further and further from my hometown until I reached to the other side of the globe.  I’ve become an eccentric divorcee.

After several decades, funerals started to happen.  Older generation was dying out and they wanted to talk about the skeleton.

The irony is that I knew about it.  Nobody told me but I just knew it.  It’s silly to believe you can keep secrets from a highly sensitive child.  They just didn’t know I knew.  Once they knew I knew, they talked, and talked, and talked.  He said, she said, he said she said, and she said he said.  Everybody told a different version of the story.

So I found out that my family was not an ordinary family.  It could be the one in Yoknapatawpha County, could be in Tennessee Williams’ play, and definitely August, Osage County worthy.

Nothing was wrong with me.  It wasn’t me.

Fortunately, after decades of therapy I was able to be the shaman who could navigate between the worlds of the living and ghosts.  I listened to the stories they told, and returned them a story with a new and much gentler narrative, transformed it into a story where there was no skeleton in the closet.   Adults could talk about their feelings, how they loved and hated, how they got hurt and survived.  The mistake they made and how it affected their lives, lives which are running out ever so quickly.

I am not a ghost anymore.