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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

German Shepherd Next to Me

“Imagine you wake up in the morning and find somebody lying next to you.  What do you want to see?” my therapist asked.

“A German Shepherd” I said.

My therapist looked as if he were suspended in the mid air.  He didn’t expect the answer.  We were working on my relationship issue and he was trying to prime me for a new relationship.

“What do you expect from a German Shepherd?” he asked.

“He sees me as I am.  No more, no less,” I said.

My therapist seemed to be searching for words, and then said, “I was touched by your strong desire to be seen.”

Almost 10 years has passed since, and now I wake up every morning to find a 12 year old 80lb mutt lying next to me.  I adopted him about 2 years ago.  He is no German Shepherd and not a particularly affectionate type.  He does have a physical presence.  Warmth radiates from his body and I can touch his warmth without actually touching him.  Sometime I wake up in the middle of night and quietly listen to his steady breathing, hear him talk in his dream, feel his paws moving when he runs in his dream, and smell his stinky fart!  His whole physical presence make me feel safe and comforted.

Have you ever felt alone when your loved one is lying next to you?  I have.  That was one of the worst loneliness I had ever felt.  With my dog, I am safe.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Restricted Access Area

I am an adorable three year old.  A perfectly happy little girl with natural exuberance radiating from her smile.   Whenever I post my baby photo on facebook, many of my Facebook “friends” say, “You haven’t changed at all.”

And I’m like, “Yes!!!!” crying out my victory.  By age four, she was locked up behind a heavy door.  I dedicated the last 30 years of my life to find and raise her to be a woman she was meant to grow up into.

“You are too skinny,” Dad said. “You are ugly.  No man will marry you,” Dad said.   “Having girls is a waste.   I shouldn’t have had a girl child,” Dad said.  “Why aren’t you a boy.  I wish you were a boy,” Mum said.  “Your skin is too dark for a girl,” Auntie said, “but strangely red becomes you.”   “You were a tiny thing.  A tiny wrinkled faced monkey baby.  I was sure this baby wouldn’t survive,” Grandma said.  “Look at this girl’s eyes.  Too small,” Dad said…

I was too short, too dark, too skinny, too fat.

I was ugly and nobody would ever love me.  (Then why did you touch me?)

Everything about me was wrong.

Don’t believe what they say, Girl.  They are defective mirrors.  They reflect distorted, biased images of you, or maybe perceived images of themselves.  It’s not you.  You are a perfectly happy little girl with natural exuberance radiating from your smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How do you feel in your body?

“How do you feel in your body?” my therapist asked.  “Fine,” I answered.  “Do you feel the floor under your feet?” he asked.  “Yes. (So what?)” I answered.  This question irritated me like a hell.  I didn’t understand what it was to do with my psychological misery.  I had two arms, two legs, feet and hands.  I was fine, thank you for asking.  “Stump your feet on the floor.”  I stumped.  “How does it feel?”  “Nothing,” I answered.

“What does it make you feel like?” the therapist asked and I looked for my feeling outside of my body, staring at the ceiling, or watching my therapist’s cat yawn. I didn’t find my feeling in my body.  My feeling didn’t reside in my body.

Disconnection is an excellent survival mechanism.  In a battlefield you won’t survive if you feel.  And for some of us, childhood was a wartime, and the body is where the battle was fought.  In Trauma and Recovery Judith Herman writes, “Traumatic events violate the autonomy of the person at the level of basic bodily integrity.  The body is invaded, injured, defiled.  Control over bodily function is often lost; in the folklore of combat and rape, this loss of control is often recounted as the most humiliating aspect of the trauma.”  Our trauma doesn’t have to be of rape or combat.  It could be grandma pinching your cheeks.

I am not saying that pinching chubby cheeks of an adorable kid is a form of child abuse.  It could be a rather innocent expression of affection.  However, when it is done repeatedly against the child’s will, it could amount to loss of “control over bodily function”.

My ex-boyfriend had a habit of pinching.  He pinched his daughter, he pinched his nephews and he pinched me.  It was his way of saying, “Hey Sweetie.”   I can’t speak for his daughter or nephews, but when he pinched me I felt a rage surging up deep in my body.  “Stop it,” I yelled.  “Don’t pinch me, ever.”  He pinched me a couple of more times, and every time I reacted violently.  Then thankfully he stopped pinching.  He listened to me.  While pinching itself didn’t hurt much, it triggered an uncontrollable anger out of nowhere.

When I was a little girl, my childless aunt doted on me.  She literally tried to eat me with a spoon.  Since she was the source of love and affection, and chocolate and candies and dolls and all the goodies, I clung to her.  She used to tease me by doing something I didn’t like.   The more I shrank from, the more she seemed enjoying.  She used to lick my face, saying I was so cute that she wanted to eat me up.  It was wet and yucky.  I said, “No!!!” but she was much bigger and stronger.  She told me that she loved me and that I should let her do whatever she wanted to do.  Sometimes, she bribed me with goodies.  It’s an innocent expression of affection, isn’t it?   Pinching was a variation.  I don’t remember who pinched me, but it does not matter.  It told me the same story.  My feeling does not matter.  I don’t have control over my body.  They have.  And I am an ungrateful brat if I don’t appreciate the affection the adults are giving to me.  Tolerating the feeling of discomfort will be rewarded with chocolate, or whatever goodies.  Got it?  Just replace the word “pinching” or “licking” with “touching improperly.” It tells the same story of trauma.  “The traumatic event thus destroys the belief that one can be oneself in relation to others”(Herman 53).

When I was a little girl I told my mum that my tummy ached.  I told her that I would feel better if she let me eat a piece of bread.  She didn’t give me bread and took me to a family doctor.  It turned out that I was not sick but just hungry.  I didn’t know the word to explain the intense sensation I felt in my belly.  What I felt in stomach, aching for food, was denied as not legitimate by adults. When I was a teenager, I had a painful period.  I told that I had severe cramps and couldn’t move.  My father said, “No, you don’t.  You are lazy.”  My mom didn’t protest.  (Later I found that my mom never had a painful period in her life, and she couldn’t imagine how bad it could be.)  Thus in my early ages I learned not to trust the feeling in my body.

We lose the ability to connect to one’s body little by little.  When someone in authority, such as parents and teachers, tells us we have to feel certain way again and again while we don’t feel that way, it becomes unsafe to be ourselves.  Others in our life take away our connection to the body.  We gain artificial limbs and body parts instead, which function very well.   Nobody notices it’s artificial.  Sometimes they could be much more useful than real limbs, just like a sword loaded limb, since we don’t feel pain.  Eventually we might even forget they are not real. When one suffers a hugely traumatic experience and survives, the disconnection between mind and body could be much harder to reconcile.

About the photo: I took the photo of the glass sculpture at Corning Museum of Glass. Unfortunately  I don’t know the artist’s name.

Therapy Session with Dr. Lecter

It cracks me up every time Dr. Hannibal Lecter (the psychiatrist) asks Will Graham (the client), “How does it make you feel like?” and without fail Will answers, “It makes me feel like… ” Then Will’s focus moves inward, searching for the felt sense just as a well-trained body oriented therapy client does.

They are good.  Their therapy session is exquisite.  Both the therapist and the client know how it works and dance very well together.   I’m sure some of the writers have had a very good therapist.

How do I know?   I know because my therapy sessions went exactly like that and it worked.  Fortunately, my therapist was not a cannibalistic serial killer nor a narcissistic intelligent psychopath.

So when your therapist asks you how it (whatever the issue of the day is)  makes you feel like, you might want to look inward and start your answer with  “It makes me feel like …”  In the end, it is what matters, not what you think but how you feel.

Neuroplasticity and Netflix

Sawshark

Sawshark

Netflix/Amazon Prime binge watching is my choice of drug.  Once in a while I medicate myself with streaming mindless films for hours and hours and stay numb.  When I can’t tolerate feelings, mindless B horror movies or super violent action movies with serial killers, monsters, vampires, zombies, and werewolves are the most effective sedative.   I fall asleep with a horror movie playing.

Netflix learns.  If you watch Evil Dead 2 and like it, then they recommend Amityville Horror.  They recommend films I didn’t even know existed.  I click on one, watch 1 minutes, then move on to the next, till I stumble upon a movie which fits my numbness of the day.  Eventually my “You might like these” list looks like something a disturbed teenage boy would like.

When my friend apartment sat, she binge watched Netflix/Amazon.  After her visit, Netflix started to recommend something like Beckett, Elizabeth, etc. Since I don’t watch those intellectual films often, it eventually stopped and my Netflix personality returned to the normal.

Yet, the list does not represent who I am.

I guess our brain is like Netflix recommendation.  If I keep focusing on traumatic experiences of the past, my brain’s Netflix list will be filled with traumatic titles.  Eventually I would believe there are only traumatic experiences in this world.   It’s not true.

When Netflix recommended Sharknado and Human Centipede, I asked myself.

“What have I done to my life?”

Well, I chose not to watch Sharknado.