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.

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.

Jello in a Square Box

When I was a little girl, my grade school teacher called me Jello because I couldn’t stay still. ADD didn’t exist in the national lexicon yet. My old country still had military style education system. A wiggly daydreamer didn’t fit. I was shamed for being Jello and told not to move.

So I put the wiggly Jello in a tight square box, like a Japanese square watermelon. They nicely fit into a cardboard box, and then in a fridge. That’s my parents and teachers wanted: to fit in.

I grew up believing I was a square box, until I found I was not.

I was diagnosed with ADD by a psychiatrist I was seeing for depression. “I don’t have ADD. I have depression,” I protested. “I never be hyperactive.” “You are just highly disciplined. ADD could lead to depression,” he said.

It is usually mild but when it’s bad I can feel my brain is misfiring. Laser beams of multiple colors criss-cross in my brain in an accelerated speed. I can’t sit still and I walk around in a small apartment only to forget why I was in the kitchen or the bathroom. I can’t finish any small task. Noises are amplified in my brain and I need to wear a headset to muffle them. My eyes rove. It requires tremendous effort to focus on one thing.

And I remembered I was Jello. A fabulous rainbow colored Jello. All that I was made to believe I was were lies. I spent almost 20 years working in the same office, sitting at the desk from 9 to 5, doing the same thing and I thought I liked the structured mundane routine. It was a lie.

I was an ADHD magnet. All of my past relationship was with a severe ADHD guy. I thought they were attracted to me because I was still, because I was the person who held a string of floating balloon. I captured them and tried to put them into square boxes. Because I believed it was dangerous to be freaking fabulous multicolored Jello.

Now I know that they weren’t attracted to me. I was attracted to them, because I wanted to move, I wanted to be spontaneous, I wanted to float and bounce. I wanted to be them.

Since I accepted my original state of being, I haven’t had major depression. I am magical rainbow colored Jello, who is happy and dances freely.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My own very personal storm

In Frozen, Olaf, the funny snowman, gets his own personal flurry to prevent him from melting in the sun.  Some of us were born with our own personal weather system. Having dysthymia is like having a personal weather which might not be so cute as personal flurry.

If your baseline is dysthymia and you have recurrent major depression, your life probably sucks.  A gloomy day is a good day and before you take one breath, voila! you are in a storm of one kind or another.  You can’t breathe, you barely can keep your eyes open.  You can’t see clearly.  You always walk against vicious winds.  Hail, lightning and heavy rain overturn what you know, and knock down what you hang onto.

You see your friends and wonder why they can move so easily; why they can read in the torrent of rain; why they can laugh in the sand storm without feeling choked while you taste the deadly ash of volcano eruption in your mouth even though you close your mouth so tightly shut that your face start to hurt.

What is wrong with me?  Am I weak?  Am I lazy?  Am I stupid?  Or what?  I am trying to do what they do as hard as possible, and still I can’t catch up.

What I didn’t know was my friends lived in a different land, where everyday was a normal weather day: sunny with some cloud, and slight chance of rain.  They have storms, but after a couple of days, it returns to normal sunny days.

What I didn’t know was that it takes a courage, endurance, and focus of athletes of extreme sports for us just to live a day in such a severe internal environment.

Once in a while, I experienced a beautiful day with blue sky as high as eternity and it scared me because if I would ever enjoy the weather, if I would ever even slightly believe it was real, then I would be punished multifold.  The storm shall follow and strike me down, on hands and knees, with my face in a gutter.  So I held my breath, close my eyes tight, and made myself hard.

So if your personal weather sucks, it’s not your fault that you can’t move gracefully.  And your friends who live in a normal weather land could never imagine how it is to be you. (They won’t survive in your personal weather.)

I hope you will find your way to change the weather.  It is possible.  After decades, I’ve changed my weather.  Everyday is just an ordinary weather day and it’s beautiful.   Even when a hurricane hits me, I now know it will pass and that I will breathe easily tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ordinary People

“What do you want to be?”  I asked my date.   We were just shy of 20 years young.

“I want to be an ordinary person,” the young man said.

“???”  I didn’t get it.  When you are a teenage boy or girl, don’t you want to be an outstanding, extraordinary, prominent person even when you don’t know in what.  Somebody but an ordinary person.

Several decades have passed since and I had a chance to see the boy again at a class reunion.   I told him I now understood what he meant by being ordinary and appreciated him for his wisdom at such a young age.

“Did I say such a deep thing?”  the boy, now a man in fifties, said.

I should have chosen this ordinary guy instead of a succession of overgrown permanent teenagers, who were exciting and extraordinary in not necessarily good ways as a partner.

I am not outstanding, extraordinary or prominent, but I think my life was nothing but ordinary.   After decades of turmoil, now I find myself living a very ordinary life with absolutely no drama.  And I am mostly content with my ordinary life as an ordinary person. Then once in a while, I look back and say to myself, “It was fun.”

It must be just a state of one’s mind.

 

Lifeline

I have never been prescribed meds for anxiety.  I have had severe anxiety but it was always a precursor or aura of major depression.  When I experienced anxiety attacks, I was already on the way to major depression and almost immobile.

I am one of the lucky few.  After years of psychotherapy, a straightforward generic SSRI and Crossfit have been working for me and I haven’t experienced a major depression for several years.

Still every night for a couple of seconds before I fall asleep, I feel anxiety.  It’s about nothing and everything.  It’s about being.  Suddenly I have a hole in my chest and I feel like I am being sucked into the hole in my chest into a heavy black mass of nothingness.  I know if I allow it happen, I will lose my sleep and fall straight down to the bottomless depression.

So I reach out and hold the tail of my dog sleeping next to me, as if it were a lifeline.  My 80lb 12 year old mutt’s tail is thick and feels substantial, warm and alive.  I feel tethered to his life.   And I fall asleep.

 

Yearbook

When I went home to attend my father’s funeral, I found my junior high yearbook.  I recognized faces of girls I haven’t seen for many decades.  One by one, they came back to life in my memory.  I knew those teenage girls.  They looked exactly as I remembered.   I turned pages looking for my photo.  I couldn’t find it.  I felt confused.  I was sure I was in the yearbook.  I started back from the first page.  Page after page, the faces of girls got clearer in my memory.  I still couldn’t find my face.

On the third try, I finally found my name under a photo.  She was a beautiful teenage girl.  I didn’t recognize her because I had been told I was an ugly, unattractive, miserable creature no boy would love and I believed the image the fucked-up mirror reflected.

Did I look ugly to you, Dad?  Or did I threaten you?  Did I look ugly to you, Mom?  Or did you also believe what Dad saw?

Anyway, it’s too late.  I lost my chance to live the life of a pretty girl.

Then I became a plain looking highschool girl.

When I remember my highschool years, I am cast as that unpopular girl with long hair hiding half of her face, Violet Parr in The Incredibles, believing that she is invisible.  My best friend is that popular girl who dates the football team captain.

I started having drinking problem while I was in highschool.

A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to attend a highschool reunion.  One guy, who was neither the football team captain, nor an academic high achiever, told me that I had been his crush in highschool.  I was like, WTF.  “You were a beautiful and intelligent girl,” he said, “and I admired you.”  Shit, I didn’t know.  I knew he liked me, but I did’t believe anybody would like me.

So I lost my chance to live a life of popular girl in highschool.

When we are surrounded with distorted mirrors, we believe the distorted images they reflect.  I wonder what it would be like to have a mirror on the wall that always tells me I am the most beautiful girl in the world.  I guess that would also fuck me up in a different way.

I still can’t believe 100%, but I think I am freaking gorgeous as an old gal of certain age.  It took me almost half a century to feel unugly.

“You are a catch,” a male friend of mine recently informed me.   “Really?” I said.  “Yes, you really are a catch.”  I believed him.

Nightmare that didn’t happen

This is a nightmare that didn’t happen.  I was about 11, sleeping in my room.  The door suddenly opened and my father came in.  He was yelling something and he threw things, talking to himself.  I hid under the comforter.  I heard him walk around in my room, talking to himself, throwing stuff.  Then he left.

I waited.  I waited for my mother.  I waited for my mother to come to check on me, comfort me.   Minutes passed.  Nobody came.  I fell asleep crying.

I woke up in the morning.  I found my stuffed animals were on the floor.  One of them, a stuffed kitty my friend gave me, was almost decapitated.  I didn’t understand.

I quietly went down the stairs, expecting my mom at least to explain what happened.

Nothing happened.

Nobody mentioned anything.  Mom was cooking breakfast.  My father was reading the newspaper or whatever.  Nothing happened.  I ate my breakfast and went back to my room.

That was the nightmare that didn’t happen.

But I remember that I sewed my stuffed kitty’s head back by myself, crying, saying to myself again and again, “My friend gave it to me.”

Decades and years of therapy later I confronted my father and asked what it was about.

He didn’t remember.

My mom came to me to tell that she had no idea and asked, “Your father didn’t hit you, did he?”

“No, he didn’t,” I said.

It doesn’t matter.  It was not my father’s unpredictable rage that marked me.  It was the absence of my mother.  I learned that nobody would come for me.   I didn’t want to be the scared little girl, so I became my father.  “You have a temper just like your father,” my mother used to say.

Now I have many friends who are fathers.  When I saw their daughter perfectly safe with their father, not hiding from them, not tensing up at the sight of them, remaining soft and smiling, I wonder how they do.  It is a dream that didn’t happen to me.