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.

Invisible Disability

I thought I was lazy, weak, and useless. When depression closed in, I felt worthless. Once I shut myself in for three months, only ventured out to walk my dog and it was so painful that I thought of jumping in the East River together with my beloved dog. It was my dog who grounded me. I was only worth to live for him.

I spend most of the day and the night in bed, streaming something on Netflix.  I watched the entire series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer twice and moved on to Angel, just to forget I existed.  I was worthless.  Every morning I hoped it would be different and every morning  I found myself drowning in molasses of dark, heavy liquid of depression.  I couldn’t get out of bed to take a shower.  Sometime I manage to go to grocery shopping and bought a combination of food which didn’t make sense.  I survived on a pint of ice-cream at a time.  I was worthless.  

I don’t know how but I managed to finish all the work assignments at hand on time. (I’m a freelance).  I even managed to attend dinners to entertain my clients.  Inside I was hurting as if I ingested shards of glass.  I came home to collapse for days.  

I was not lazy. 

Eventually I came out.  Nobody but close friends noticed that I had depression.  Since then I have been on standard doze of SSRI even when I feel like a million because I accept it is how I am.  And my friends call me a powerhouse.  I am not useless. 

Then I got Ménière’s disease.  I joined a support group and found out that most of the sufferers got depressed with anxiety.  Ménière’s disease robs you of the life as you knew.  I didn’t get depressed.  I decided to fight to manage it.  I am not weak.

When in remission, I am still a powerhouse.  However, when I have flare ups, my life is just like I was depressed.  I can’t go out.  I spend most of the day and the night in bed.  I don’t function.  A small chore exhausts me.  Dizziness caused by inner ear disorder renders me confused.  But I don’t blame myself.  It’s the illness not me.  

One day I woke up and I didn’t have dizziness, but couldn’t feel like getting out of bed.  I wasn’t sure if I was depressed or it was because Ménière’s disease.  I had a bad attack that night so it must have been Ménière’s disease.

People with this disease are real warriors.  They are not weak.  They are not lazy.  They are fighting and enduring for every breath.  They are mothers and fathers.   If you are weak, you won’t survive with Ménière’s disease.

Ménière’s disease is (probably) mechanical disorder.  Depression is chemical.  Both are invisible.  But we are fighting all the time.  So please be compassionate if you are lucky enough not to suffer these afflictions.  And please be more compassionate to yourself if you are a sufferer.

P.S. Ultra low salt diet is required to manage Ménière’s disease.  I love potato chips but can’t take a risk of having an attack.  

A woman sat next to me on a subway and started to eat potato chips.  I understood how the vampires in the Twilight Saga felt when they sat next to humans.  

Unless you experience it, you will never really feel it.  So please don't judge people for what you've never experienced.

I feel I want to die when I have a bad episode.  But I know it will pass.

Silver Bullets

My friend, who is a professor of psychiatry, believes in the art of psychopharmacology.  It is not a cure.  She believes that the right combination and dosage of medications will alleviate the suffering of patients and their caretakers.  Her patients are not the standard dose SSRI consumers like myself.  Her art is to find optimal combination for the individual patient afflicted with deep sufferings.  She is not a drug dispenser like my shrink, who writes prescriptions away.  She is deeply compassionate.

A pharmaceutical company tweaked inactive ingredients of the drug her schizophrenic patient was taking.  As the active ingredient was the same, she kept him on that medication.  On the next visit, the patient begged her to make “them” stop staring from the air-conditioning unit.  “He was so scared,” she said.  “I was so sorry for him.  Who would know the inactive ingredients had an effect on his condition.  I changed his prescription to the one with that ingredient and no more staring eyes.”

There is no silver bullet that works for everybody.  If there were, there would be no suffering.  That’s why we keep on seeking for the right combination of measures for the particular condition for the particular individual at the particular time.

Meds won’t cure personality disorders, though.  My “difficult” 93 year old aunt is a patient of my friend.  She put my aunt on standard dose of SSRI.  My aunt stopped seeing creatures in the middle of night.  She doesn’t scream and wake up her aid anymore.  Now she is manageable for her caretakers.  “But Doctor S., she is still mean,” the caretaker and my mother, who accompanied her, said to my friend.  “Unfortunately, medication won’t change personality,” my friend said.  I believe my aunt, who loved me like a precious doll, has narcissistic personality disorder.  In her mind, everything is somebody else’s faults.

Because of complicated and fucked up family dynamics, I was diagnosed with a personality disorder unspecified (mainly for insurance coverage of therapy sessions.)   While I saw therapists for 20 years on and off, I explored and sought for the silver bullet.  I befriended my inner child.  My soul was retrieved, (oops I didn’t know I had lost one).  Death arrow was burnt at a fire ceremony.  I drummed and journeyed many times.  I was saged and cleansed.  I had my chakra balanced.  An entity was extracted.  I was gestalted and talked to a chair. I meditated and vipassanaed.  I saw channelers, a sound healer, psychic healers and energy healers.  While each worked in some way, there were no silver bullet.

It is the process of seeking, which led me where I am.

I’m still seeking, not for a silver bullet, but for something that would free my soul at this particular stage of my life, so that I could keep on seeking.

Beware of a healer bearing a gift of silver bullets, claiming it is the cure.  

My friend, who was diagnosed with ALS, told me that she bought “miracle healing water” from a random guy, who claimed it would cure her illness.  It was obvious that she was fooled.  I doubt that the guy even knew what ALS is.  But what can I say?  She was desperately seeking for the cure of one of the most cruel illnesses.

Since I was diagnosed with Ménière’s Disease and joined support groups, I’ve learned that everybody with this affliction is seeking for the silver bullet desperately.   However, a “cure” of one Ménière’s sufferer not necessarily works for others.  So we start to look for the right combination and dosage of whatever works for that particular individual sufferer at that particular stage of illness.

Also I realized when people found somebody had a chronic or incurable illness, they wanted to offer the silver bullet.  I happen to know many practitioners of physical and/or spiritual healing, and they offered to treat me.  It seems that people believe or want to believe they have some control over my condition, or at least they wish to mitigate my suffering.  Each of them did something and probably affected something, but nobody has “cured” my condition.   Then a woman with Hashimoto disease recommended me to use “Hydrogen Water.”   For a moment I thought of buying it.  Then I felt for my friend’s desperation.

I would say if it works for you, placebo or not, good for you.  But I don't believe in silver bullets.

Memory of Tenderness

“He was doing better,” my friend said. “He told me he would be o.k.” My high school BFF is a professor of psychiatry. One of her regular clients killed himself while she was away for a couple of days to attend a medical conference and she felt somehow responsible. “When I attended his funeral, I was bracing myself for being blamed by his parents,” she said. “He was a highly intelligent sweet person.” His parents didn’t blame her. Instead they thanked her for being his only life support for a long time. The gentle tortured soul had been barely surviving from one appointment to another. “At his last appointment, he looked much better. He promised me he would be o.k. to skip one appointment.”

I knew it. “He had already made up his mind,” I said. He must have been peaceful once he made up his mind. It turned out that he had been carefully preparing way before her trip. “Everything was perfectly planned. He made sure that his body would be found soon after,” she said. “He was very smart. Still I feel responsible,” she said.

“Nobody can stop a person once they made up their mind,” I said. “If it is so painful to live, how can you tell them to live on,” I asked. She was taken aback by my bluntness. “It was his illness that made him commit suicide, not he,” she explained. I was taken aback. So my illness is a separate entity from me? I’m confused.

I realized the chasm between us. My friend, the prominent psychiatrist in the region, does not know how “it” is. She studied pharmacology before she went into psychiatry and she’s been telling me how the right drug in the right dosage would be effective to alleviate sufferings for both patients and their caregivers. I believe what she says. I even sent my aunt to her to be medicated. My aunt’s “problem” is manageable since.

I told her I’ve been diagnosed as having dysthymia and had suffered episodes of major depression. It seems my coming-out does not register for people who know me as a highly functional energetic person.

So I explained. We can’t separate illness from us. It is not that we want to die. We just do not want to exist because being is unbearable. When it’s really bad, I don’t feel pain. I become pain. I am pain. Breathing is painful. With every breath, it feels like I am breathing in jagged shards of broken glass. We are not even allowed to have skin, which provides the boundary between us and not us. So the air hurts us. Noise doesn’t come from outside and reach our eardrums. It is already inside us. Even light burns us. Every thing hurts. We tighten ourselves up into a small dense ball and become a black hole, where pain and I are one and the same. We just want to stop the unbearable state of being, an affliction of being us.

So how can I tell them to live? I know how it affects people around us. My friend’s son killed himself and I witnessed it devastated him. “It becomes exhausting after some time,” I said to her. “But he was so young,” she said. “How old was he?” I asked. “Barely twenty,” she said. Oh, that’s too young to be sucked into the black hole. She told me that the sweet young man was suffering from multiple heavy stuff. I’m sorry for him. I’m very sorry for him.

What I wanted to say is that she was not responsible for his death. You couldn’t have saved him anyway. It could be scary for all-mighty psychiatrists to acknowledge their own helplessness. But let us share the helplessness with you. That’s how we feel.

I never tried to kill myself and I am glad I didn’t. I knew it would pass. It might come back, but it will pass. I am major-depression-free for several years. I’ll be on meds for the rest of life. I gave up my hypersensitivity for peaceful routines. It is worth to live and to be older. It will get better. What remains will be the memory of tenderness. You remember but it won’t hurt you.

All I can do for the tortured soul is to share the sense of helplessness. I know how it feels. I hope it will get better for you. I really hope so.