Saturday, October 31, 2015

Consolation Prizes

I've mentioned here before that, as a child and teen, I had a habit of looking for "consolation prizes" when bad things happened to me.  Some people call them "silver linings."  Sometimes they were good things that might not have otherwise happened; sometimes they were simply lessons I'd learned.  I liked to believe everything happens for a reason because it makes everything life doles out so much easier to swallow.  I fell out of that habit though.  I want to get back into it.  Here are some consolation prizes for which I'm thankful.  They might get a little weird.

1) I'm thankful my mother is as low functioning as she is. 
It's terrible for her, and of course I would prefer she be her best self and happy, but if she has to be cruel and work against me, being severely mentally ill and low functioning to the point that strangers can tell is a good thing for me.  It made her easier to cut from my life.  When I told people the truth about things she had said and done, no one seemed to doubt me.  I still have relationships with some of my extended family (the ones I like best) and do not feel like I have to fear what she says about me to them or to strangers anymore because I appear sane and trustworthy and she does not.  She also does not have the stick-to-it-tiveness to hire a hitman or steal my identity (fingers crossed) or anything else she might dream up against me in her darkest hours.

There are a lot of people with parents who have personality disorders and the like who aren't quite so lucky.  A high functioning parent who has a tendency towards cruelty and viciousness is a terrible thing.  It can make people call you a liar and treat you poorly.  It can make you doubt your own sanity.  My mother's spiral into darker depths saved me from that.  I did go through the self-doubt as so many of us do, but I know it was easier than it could have been, and for that I am thankful.

2) I'm thankful the dad I grew up with isn't biologically related to me.  Maybe it wouldn't have made a difference, and maybe his health problems are mostly related to his paraplegia rather than genetics, but I don't see any way being related to him would have made my life better.  He's not so nice, and I'm pretty sure I got at least a few extra IQ points from my hyper-educated biological father.  I'm 99% sure my parents would agree with that too -- no matter how mad they got at me, they never seemed to stop believing I was significantly smarter than them.  Plus, now that I know who my biological father is, I have siblings with whom I'm on speaking terms.  Even if we never become close, just being their sister is something I treasure.

3) I'm thankful for the parts of my parents that wanted me to excel.  They had the same high expectations of me that I had for myself, and they were willing to put money into my education.

4) I'm thankful for the parts of my parents that wanted me to shut up and leave them alone.  Had they been exclusively helicopter parents who overprotected and coddled me, I might not have become self-sufficient as easily, but when they were sick of me, I had to figure out how to handle things myself.  I learned how to stick up for myself, physically and financially and (sort of) emotionally.  Perhaps I could have learned these skills via good parenting instead, but from what I've read, only about 50% of people have fully functional parents anyway, and I got what I needed, so for that I am thankful.

5) I am thankful I am hypersensitive and couldn't take anybody's shit even as a child.  Most of the things I have always hated most about myself can be traced back to being hypersensitive -- crying easily, getting upset easily, even fainting easily -- but I know there are ways this quality has actually served me well.  I think Dante would have abused me in worse ways had he not known I would scream and tell our parents.  My complaints and tears were a great source of irritation for my parents, but at no point did I just shut up and accept what was dished out, even when it would have been easier for all involved.  I hated that about myself -- the tears and complaints felt like more of a compulsion than a choice -- but in hindsight I think it was actually an effective defense mechanism in that house.  I have worked to change gears as an adult, especially since I have control over my own situation now and can usually just get myself what I need rather than complain about it, but I think being willing to complain is still useful.  When I can't take matters into my own hands and the most reasonable thing to do is file a formal complaint or call the police, I can do that, and that's a useful thing to know.

6) I am thankful for my childhood perfectionism and terror of doing anything wrong.  This is another quality I have spent a lot of time hating about myself.  It took me until my twenties to realize I was going to get yelled at just about the same regardless of what I did, so I spent my entire childhood and college years trying to be perfect.  I wasted a lot of time I could have been having fun feeling completely stressed instead.  If I did things just so, my parents would be happy and no one would yell at me, I thought erroneously.  However, as stressed as it made me, I did get good grades, and those helped me get out.  I stayed out of trouble and -- because I tried so hard to be perfect  -- when that still wasn't enough, I was eventually able to see that it wasn't my fault.  Accepting that your parents' bad behavior isn't all your own fault can be really hard, especially when they can point to things you might have done to provoke it (I'm going to let you in on a secret -- it still isn't your fault).

From what I've read, there are two routes children of unpredictable parents tend to take:  attempted perfection and rebellion.  I attempted perfection while Dante rebelled.  While I believe rebellion would have been more fun and I might still have turned out fine, attempted perfection has landed me in an okay place, so I'm making peace with the route I took.  Besides, I'm really glad I didn't turn out like Dante.  He still lives in that house.

6) I am thankful I was slightly fat as a child.  I honestly think I might have been in better health my entire life had I been raised by parents who fed me reasonably and occasionally took me to the park, but since I wasn't and I did spend all of my childhood slightly fat and miserable about it, I learned about nutrition and exercise myself, which has served me well.  Had I been as thin as Dante, I might never have forced myself to learn these skills and might thus have worse health now as an adult, as I know Dante does because he posts about it in online forums under a username I'm sure he thinks is anonymous. 

7) I am thankful my parents didn't allow me to go to therapy.  Maybe I would have recovered more quickly if I'd had professional help earlier, but I've also heard of people who learned not to trust therapists at all because of how their parents used their mental health against them.  The parents accused them of being crazy and painted fantastic pictures for their therapists of what terrible, troubled children they were.  I can only imagine how that would have broken me down.  Because my parents didn't allow me to go to therapy, it was something I reached out for on my own when I got out, and it has been gloriously helpful.  In my opinion, therapy is the #1 life hack of all time.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Learning to Breathe (After Life in a Moldy Hoard House)

The title isn't a reference to something profound.  This post is literally about overcoming sinus problems associated with growing up in a wet, moldy hoard house.

I've mentioned here before how my childhood home had a flooded basement.  My parents said the house was built on an active spring, and they never had a sump pump installed.  The basement flooded every time it rained until, eventually, there was at least an inch of standing water over the basement's concrete floor even when it hadn't rained in days.  There was visible mold on the books and papers in the basement.  We weren't allowed to open the windows in the house either because "Dante is allergic to pollen," so the air in the house was perpetually stale and damp.  I lived there from birth until I left for college.

I have had severe sinus congestion for as long as I can remember.  When I was a child, my mother took me to the doctor regularly with sinusitis and upper respiratory infections, for which I was on antibiotics far more than any doctor today would prescribe them.  I remember being on either Amoxicillin or Augmentin for what seemed like most of elementary school.  I was prescribed them enough that I knew the drug names and what they were.  Even when I went to the doctor with what I can only assume were stress-fueled stomach aches, he told me, "You have an upper respiratory infection.  Here's a prescription for Augmentin." 

I can't remember the last time I took antibiotics for something and the problem didn't return within two weeks.  It was sometime before high school anyway -- I started researching and trying my own home remedies after that, and I found ones that worked.  I always finished all my antibiotics too, so that wasn't the problem.  I was just on prescription medications A LOT as a kid.  A lot more than should have been necessary.

My mother attempted to aid my congestion by keeping a humidifier in my bedroom, which at best probably exacerbated the problem.  She insisted on pointing it at my bed since that was where my breathing problems really bothered me, so my bed was damp whenever it was time to go to sleep.  When I redirected the humidifier so that it wouldn't dampen my bed, she would notice on her regular bedroom searches and move it back.  I finally had a talk with her about that -- both about the wet bedsheets and about how moisture dissipates through the air -- and thankfully she seemed to understand.  She also gave me a tiny Vick's inhaler with a sort of mild menthol scent.  It didn't seem to do anything, but I sniffed it obsessively in my bed at night for the first decade of my life in an attempt to be able to breathe through my nose.

At the age of eight, I tested positive for a mold allergy.  The doctor recommended I not keep bouquets of fresh flowers in my bedroom since plants are often a source of mold spores and he didn't know about the basement.  My mother now had a better reason than ever not to allow us to open the windows.  On the days when the weather forecast said the pollen count was low, the mold count was typically high from recent rain, so we stayed in our climate-controlled house and breathed the moldy air together.

When I was around eleven my dad introduced me to Dristan.  It's a medicated nasal spray that works like magic on even the worst congestion.  I wondered why he hadn't given me some earlier, but I didn't know it was highly habit forming or that it increases blood pressure and causes perpetual post nasal drip (that last one isn't even on the box).  I didn't learn any of that until I'd been using it for months, when I started noticing I had to use it more and more frequently to keep being able to breathe.  My dad had been using Dristan compulsively several times per day for twenty years at that point, so I guess it didn't occur to him to tell me any of the box warnings.

I weaned myself off Dristan for the first time when I was a senior in high school.  It was hard.  It meant enduring even worse congestion for several days until the withdrawal period wore off, then going back to the poor congestion of my childhood.  I started using it again my freshman year of college when I came down with a sinus infection.  I had sinus infections frequently growing up, and they would swell my entire nasal passage shut.  I couldn't sleep.  In college, using Dristan again seemed like less of a problem than not being able to sleep for several days in a row.

I weaned myself off the Dristan again a couple more times over the years.  Each time I started using it again was because of a sinus infection (which I treated by simply waiting for it to pass) and a complete inability to breathe through my nose.  I tried asking my doctor for help when I read that a prescription steroid nasal spray can help get through the withdrawal, but he said I should simply stop taking Dristan and learn to breathe through my mouth forever like everyone else.  Not terribly helpful.  I eventually developed a weaning process that made the withdrawal easier.  I also discovered the decongestant pseudoephedrine, which isn't habit forming when taken orally, such as in OTC allergy pills.  I also started using a neti pot regularly, which helped enormously.

When I was in my mid-twenties and had been off the Dristan but on oral decongestants for awhile, my doctor noticed that my blood pressure was higher than it should have been for someone so young.  He wrote it off to being nervous about being at the doctor's office, but I suspect the pseudoephedrine had something to do with it.  When I got pregnant, my blood pressure at every checkup was suddenly better than it had been in years.  It also happened to be the first time in years that I wasn't taking any kind of decongestant to aid my breathing.

I used Dristan again recently when I came down with a bad cold.  I find if I use it for three days or less there is no withdrawal period, and I managed to stop after two days when the congestion from the cold started to abate.  I was pleased with myself.  Dristan is a nasty beast, and being able to breathe through one's nose is highly addictive. 

Now that I'm getting older, I'm trying to manage my blood pressure better.  High blood pressure and heart disease run in my family on both sides, as does dying young (50-ish) of heart attacks.  I eat well and I exercise, and now I don't use decongestants regularly either.  I can breathe better now than at any point in my life thanks to discovering the SinuPulse Elite (I paid like $90 for it on Amazon, and it is worth every penny).  It's essentially an electric, pulsating neti pot.  It's like the Neti Pot 2.0.  I use it twice a day, spiked with a dash of Alkalol once a day (which doesn't appear to be a habit forming substance, but if you know things about it, I'd like to hear them).   I also drink enormous amounts of water.  My sicknesses still seem to last longer than they do for my husband or daughter -- I don't think my immune system will ever be quite as strong as theirs -- but my congestion isn't worse than theirs anymore.  I no longer dread going to bed at night and trying to breathe.  It probably also helps that, when I saw mold starting to form in one corner of my house from a leak in the roof, I immediately got the roof and drywall fixed. 

And my basement has TWO sump pumps.

Friday, October 23, 2015

My Latest DNA Project

One of my hobbies is figuring out how I'm related to my various "DNA relatives" on Ancestry, 23andMe, and Family Tree DNA.  I love it.  It's my favorite kind of puzzle, and while some of them are simple enough to solve to keep me from getting too frustrated, there are a handful of people in the vicinity of 3rd to 4th cousin who I feel like I should be able to figure out but haven't.  Is it a non-paternity event?  Was there an adoption?  On their side or mine? 

I've been able to figure out everyone up through my second cousins and most of my third cousins at this point, typically up through third cousins a couple times removed, at least when their names are visible to me.  In some instances I've been able to determine their legal names from their user names and work from there, and in a couple rare occurrences I've identified private users on 23andMe simply by knowing who I'm looking for and what their maternal haplogroups ought to be (I'm proud of that one -- this is me patting myself on the back).

One of the closest relations I haven't been able to figure out yet is Aida.  Aida is a black woman my mother's age who has been a prominent figure in her community and in the US Civil Rights Movement.  She didn't know of any white people in her family, so when her 23andMe results came back, she was surprised to learn she was more than 50% white herself.  That meant there had to be quite a few white people in her more distant ancestry.

When I first talked to Aida, she knew a lot more about her ancestry than I knew about mine.  She comes from a large, proud family and has a cousin and a couple of aunts who have served as unofficial family genealogists back when that involved a lot more than internet research.  Her cousin devoted a few years in the '70s to visiting old family homesteads and interviewing "the old-timers." Thanks to a family website she showed me with all the data they've collected, I now know about as much about her extended family as she does. 

Now that my own family tree is better fleshed out (back to the early 1800s across the board and as far back as the 1600s in some branches of my tree) and we still have no family surnames in common, we're trying to figure out how we're related.  If I had to put money on it, based both on shared DNA and our respective family trees, I'd estimate we're somewhere in the vicinity of 3rd cousins twice removed.  She has a daughter, a granddaughter, and a couple first cousins on the various DNA databases.  Because I'm also related to those particular cousins, we know I'm related to her on her mother's side.  Because she isn't related to my paternal uncle, we know we're related on my mother's side too. 

Because my 23andMe ethnicity report says I'm 99.9% European, we know our closest common ancestor was also white.  I went through her family tree and highlighted all the people who were or could be white.  There are some slave owners further back whose surnames don't appear in my tree (so far).  A "non-paternity event" -- finding out someone's dad is not in fact his or her biological father -- is always a possibility, but even those locations don't appear in my family tree.  If I am related to those particular slave owning families, which are farther back in time than I would expect our closest shared ancestor to be, Aida and I must be cousins a couple times over to account for all our shared DNA.  I don't think that's the case, simply because we don't share as many DNA relatives in common as I would expect if we were twice related.  It's not impossible though.  My family has been in America for close to 400 years, and there was a lot of intermarrying between the same families over and over again for the first century or so.  More than one of my seemingly closest DNA relatives turned out to actually be my 5th cousin AND my 6th cousin, or my 4th cousin twice over.

However, there is another way Aida and I could be related.  Her grandfather was born just after the Civil War.  His mother was a slave, and she had a few kids, all of whom were listed as "mulatto" in census records beneath their mother's "black."  No one knows who his father was, but we're all pretty confident he was white.  I didn't have direct ancestors in the same state where Aida's grandfather was born, but it's possible one lived there for awhile and it didn't end up on public record.  Maybe during the Civil War, in which much of my family fought.  It's also possible one of my ancestor's brothers was Aida's mysterious great-grandfather, which would make us 3rd cousins, probably twice removed, depending on which branch of my family tree.

The most obvious way I've come up with so far to figure out how Aida and I are related involves finding someone to whom we are both related the same way.  We have a mutual distant cousin with whom we share the exact same 14.8 cM of DNA, but I haven't figured out how I'm related to her either. There are large blank spaces in her family tree that I haven't been able to fill.  I keep thinking if I figure out how she and I are related, Aida and I are probably related just a generation or two closer on the same branch of the family tree.

I printed out a few generations of Aida's mother's tree and my mother's as well -- just a couple pages in total -- so that I could shade in the names of people who couldn't be our common ancestors and tag the ones who I share with other known cousins.  I don't appear to share any of those cousins with Aida, but it's hard to be sure when some of them are distant relations and sites like Ancestry won't let you compare genomes anyway.  I think I've narrowed down my mother's side of the family tree by about half at this point.  I've even taken to fleshing out Aida's family tree with descendants of her grandfather's siblings, and their descendants too, in the hopes that I'll run across a name from one of my DNA databases.  If I found one, I would consider it a lead indicating that we were most likely related on her grandfather's side.  I've done the same with the slave-owning side of her family, but still no matches.

Setting aside the more obvious ills of slavery -- being kidnapped, held hostage, legally owned, and possibly beaten and raped, all so you can watch your children go through the same experiences -- slavery had some long-term side effects I am ashamed to admit didn't really occur to me until I started working on Aida's family tree.  For instance, slaves were given their owners' surnames.  I knew this.  This was a thing I knew.  But when I ran across the name of a famous slave with the same surname in the same region of Aida's ancestors around the same time, my first thought was that they might be related.  In my family tree that far back, people in the same immediate area with the same surname -- even common names -- tend to have been related in some way.  But in Aida's tree, it more likely meant people were owned by the same master, or by masters who were related.  It's like all slaves were subjected to an exceptionally messed up closed adoption, and those adopted surnames are the ones that persist today. 

No wonder Aida's holy grail of genetic genealogy is to find a cousin in Western Africa.  Every bit of data her family had about their ancestors in Africa was obliterated by kidnapping and slavery.  She knows no names or places; the people doing the kidnapping didn't write down her family's personal information in a ledger for later.  A generation or two might have held onto the knowledge for awhile, passing stories and names on to their children, but whatever might have existed once is gone now.  The DNA they handed down is all that's left, and with each passing generation, that DNA gets more diluted and the possibility of finding out who their ancestors once were grows weaker.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Christmastime at the Mall

The Christmas I was four, my mother took me to the biggest local mall early in December.  We stopped at a kiosk that was selling Christmas stockings to get one with my name on it.  They said they'd have it ready later, so we went to the food court to get something to eat.  This is where my actual memory begins.

While my mother and I waited in line at Original Pizza, I ventured to the next food stall over and then came back to my mother.  Then I ventured just a little bit further and came back.  I did this several times until I was venturing around a curve, just out of sight of the line at Original Pizza.  The last time I came back, I couldn't find my mother.  It looked like the right food stall, but she wasn't there, and now I wasn't sure.  I turned in circles looking for her.  I raced past all the food stalls, starting to panic.  She was gone.  My mother was gone and I didn't know what to do or what would happen to me, and I wasn't allowed to talk to strangers. 

A mother-aged woman noticed my distress, or maybe the fact that I was alone, and asked if I needed help.  My fear of being lost and alone trumped my fear of stranger-danger and I told her, "My mommy lost me."  Just then I saw my mother on the big ramp on the other side of the food court.  She was talking to another mother with a small child.  I raced to her.  I told her I hadn't been able to find her anywhere and I was so scared. 

She said she had wanted to surprise me.  The last time I wandered off, she had left the food court to go back to the Christmas stocking kiosk.  She said she had come back into the food court by another route so she could have my stocking to show me.  It seemed like an odd choice at the time, but it seems odder to me in hindsight, as the adult mother of a small child.  I also know the layout of that mall better than I did at age four, and I cannot imagine leaving my small daughter alone in the food court while I ventured to another floor of the mall where she was even slightly obscured from my view.  I wouldn't do that if she asked me to, let alone leave without a word so that she could suddenly find herself lost and alone.  I couldn't play anywhere but my room at home without a chaperone standing guard over me.  I had what seemed like no autonomy or privacy for at least the next decade.  Why was leaving me alone in a mall at the age of four okay? 

I wonder if she wanted to see me panic, to prove my love for her (testing her children's "love" was sort of a thing with her).  I wonder if she wanted to "teach me a lesson" not to wander off, though she hadn't told me to stay put.  I wonder if she hoped something might happen to me so she wouldn't have to deal with me anymore.  Or maybe it was just a brief lapse in judgment.  She didn't seem to think it was a lapse in judgment.  She'd just wanted to surprise me.  She was trying to do something nice and I, as usual, ruined it.  I was just relieved she hadn't left me forever.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Being DC: They Won't Understand

Back before I found my biological father, I posted my story anonymously on a fairly large website.  Because apparently it sometimes pops up when people do a Google search for "I just found out my father was an anonymous sperm donor" or similar, I have had the honor of being the first donor conceived person some other DC adults have contacted.  Based on those exchanges, there are some things I want to make sure every donor conceived person knows, especially those donor conceived people who haven't yet met another donor conceived person or gotten a chance to talk about how they feel about being donor conceived.  If you fall into any part of those categories, this is for you.

The first thing is that, while not everyone feels the same way about being donor conceived, most people have feelings about it, and that's normal.  If you're bewildered or crying yourself to sleep or spending hours every night trying to find information on who your anonymous biological father and half-siblings might be, or even if you aren't, you're normal.  You haven't done anything wrong.  You aren't crazy, you aren't weak, and you aren't a bad child to the parents who raised you simply because you want to know more or because the revelation of your parentage blew your mind.  You're reacting in a normal fashion to some mind-blowing news.  That's not to say therapy would be out of the question to help you deal with this news -- I advocate therapy for pretty much everybody because I love the simple elegance of paying someone to listen to me rant -- but you're still normal.

The second thing I want DC people to know is this:  people who aren't donor conceived will not understand.  I am surprised this is the case, and I will grant you my evidence is only anecdotal, but it has been the case with everyone I know.  EVERYONE.  My longtime best friend Jerry is the kindest, most empathetic person I've ever met, and she still doesn't get it.  That's not to say talking about it with her isn't still helpful -- talking with her is always helpful -- but the most she can empathize with my situation is to say, "I don't get it.  I know it's important to you and a big deal to you, and I can only assume I might feel the same way in your position, but I don't understand why it matters."  Jerry grew up with two biological parents (one great, one balls to the wall crazy) and a biological sister who is one of her best friends.  When I wanted to write to my biological father to introduce myself and to ask if he'd tell my half-siblings about me, she didn't think I should do it.  She knew he was unlikely to want anything to do with me, so she didn't see the point in reaching out at all -- and that's a normal reaction.  If an empathetic person who is close friends with her parent and sister doesn't understand the allure of possibly meeting new family, who will?

My therapist had essentially the same response as Jerry.  So did my husband.  These are good and kind people with no personal skin the game that they're trying to protect.  They just don't get it, and I know it's not because they don't try or don't care.  I think it's just too foreign a concept for people outside that situation to relate to.  Parentage seems like it shouldn't matter.  I get that.  Why does it matter?  I don't know.  I could name twenty reasons it matters to me, but I can't convince someone else that my reasons are valid.  That seems to be one of the big strikes against rights to information for donor conceived people.  We can't prove that it matters.  For most people in this kind of situation though -- donor conceived people, adopted people, people who have no idea who one or both of their parents are for whatever reason -- it matters.  Even if a person doesn't want to get to know that parent, not being allowed to know who they are usually matters.  Not having a choice in getting to know them matters.  There are too many people who feel the same way I do for you to convince me these feelings are wrong.

This is why I think it's important for donor conceived people to be in contact with other donor conceived people.  They will be able to relate in ways even the best friends and family can't.  You'll see the whole spectrum of attitudes and feelings a person can have toward being donor conceived (it's pretty wide, and I suspect a lot of the quiet majority sits near the middle), and you'll see that you're normal.  I don't post on any DC online groups, but I do read some of them.  It makes me feel normal (thank you, PCVAI and Worldwide Donor Conceived People Network -- please note these are groups exclusively for donor conceived people, not for parents of the donor conceived as most websites are, which makes for a very different atmosphere).  As much as I feel like a bit of an outsider pretty much anywhere I lurk, I feel an unusual sense of belonging in these groups.  People often disagree, but there is a sense of mutual respect and understanding that I appreciate.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

My Parents Loved Me

Whenever I read about troubled childhood experiences, there are references to parents who never said "I love you," who never gave hugs or said anything nice to their children.  I didn't grow up like that.  My parents weren't unloving, just volatile and unpredictable.

My mother told me "I love you" every night before I went to sleep.  It was part of our routine, and I believed her.  She wasn't always nice to me or accepting of me, and she didn't seem to know what to do with my emotions or childish qualities, but when she could see past her own pain and mental troubles, I do believe she loved me.  She really tried to be a good mother sometimes, and sometimes she was.  Sometimes it seemed like there were two versions of my mother doing battle:  the one who wanted to give me everything she'd never had herself and the one who resented everything about me.  I was never quite sure which version of my mother I was going to get when I woke up in the morning or came home from school.  It was contingent upon her mood and had almost nothing to do with me, though I didn't recognize that at the time.  As she got older and started abusing prescription muscle relaxants and sleeping pills, it seemed like the wall of pain and sadness around her got taller and thicker until she couldn't recognize the existence of other people's feelings at all anymore.  The best way I know how to describe it is that she didn't give a fuck about me or anyone else because she didn't have a fuck left to give.

My dad used to love me.  He seemed to love me more than he loved anyone else anyway, and he seemed to hate my mother and Dante with a fiery passion.  His love manifested largely as a sort of smothering toward me and a protective aggressiveness toward other people.  But it also sort of seemed like "out of sight, out of mind" with him.  He doesn't seek me out.  He wouldn't call or email me no matter how much I used to encourage him.  He doesn't show an interest.  We were close once, briefly, when I was in my early 20s and we bonded over how crazy my mother was driving us both.  I don't know why he stopped caring about me.  I don't feel like he has the excuse my mother had.  There is definitely something wrong in that he doesn't control his emotional outbursts and has a history of violence, but I understand him less than I feel like I do my mother.  I also care less though.  I never expected much of him.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

My Own Most Shameful Secrets

I don't really know if these count as secrets since they are things my husband and best friend seem to know about me, whether I want them to or not (I'd prefer no one knew them, honestly), but they are things I hate about myself.  I feel like I should document these so I don't just sound like I'm exclusively complaining about my family all the time and think that I'm perfect.  I am not perfect.

1) I have trouble with emotional dysregulation.  Feeling normal and grounded is like walking a tightrope, and any little upset -- things most people either bounce back from or scarcely even notice -- can plunge me into panic or hopelessness and despair.  I don't like this about myself.  My mother is the same way.  Therapy coupled with reading as much as I possibly can about mental illness and mood disorders taught me that this is a normal side effect of growing up with two parents who have the same problem.  It's one of my worst "maladaptive behaviors."  I also learned from a book that one of the best ways to combat emotional dysregulation is to keep practicing staying calm, which seems idiotically simple but does seem to help.  It's kind of like weight training or training your body for anything else -- keep trying and, little by little, it gets more doable.  I feel stupid for not knowing this before my thirties.  I mean, multiple episodes of "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" focus on how to be a calm, emotionally mature human being, and I'm learning this same stuff at the same time as my preschooler.  I'm afraid if I don't master it fast enough, she'll turn out as emotionally messed up as me.  I think I hide this problem pretty well most of the time, but I'm also afraid I don't.

2) I don't like having emotions and I wish I could make them stop.  Some are fine, but the majority of emotional reactions I feel are sadness or despair or worry, and I'd rather have no emotions at all than keep dealing with these ones.  I brought this problem to my therapist as one of the things I wanted to change about myself, and she said I can't change this.  She said it's normal human being stuff and I'm like this permanently.  I don't know what other people do to make having emotions bearable.  I feel like people who don't have life-long mood disorders or mentally ill parents won't even fully grasp what I'm talking about on this one.  I'm afraid someone who doesn't get it will tell me, "Everyone has emotions.  What makes you think you're special?  Stop complaining so much."

3) I'm deeply ashamed of my home.  I think this might be a "children of hoarders" thing.  I don't like having people inside or even seeing the outside because, in spite of paying professional landscapers to take care of the mowing and edging, there are still weeds to fight back and I still don't know what I'm doing in terms of gardening.  It's a nice house.  People visit and say nice things because it gives a good first impression.  I do let people visit because I want to have friends and family and don't want to become someone who caves in to fear, but I wish it could all be invisible.  It's not visitor-ready at a moment's notice, and I don't even know how close to "normal" it is.  All I have to go on is the mess I grew up in and what other people's houses look like when they are expecting me.

I can't walk down the street without analyzing other homes' landscaping and comparing them to my own and feeling disgusting.  This is why I don't like going outside anymore.  I can't focus on anything else when I walk my dog and my daughter.  Even when other yards are weedier than my own and I don't judge them for that because honestly who cares, I still can't seem to stop judging my own for being visibly imperfect.  People used to call the city on my parents for letting their lawn grow wild and leaving a totaled car parked in the driveway with a poster board sign on it.  I know my home is nothing like that, but I don't know where the line stands between "normal" and "my parents."  I want to feel I'm beyond reproach, whether I'm thinking of my house or my body or pretty much anything else mine.  I don't like worrying what people will say about me or my home or how disgusting I am as a human being because there is a huge weedy bush that keeps growing back in my backyard where a better homekeeper would have flowering plants and a thicker layer of mulch.  I want it all to be invisible.  I find the longer I live somewhere, the more disgusted I feel by my home and the more I worry about people seeing it.  Familiarity seems to breed contempt when it comes to things I own.  Things look so much nicer when they aren't mine to feel self-conscious about. 

I've been working on building habits for keeping my home clean and maintained for the last decade, but I feel like it will take me until retirement age to reach a level of competence that other people achieve by their mid-twenties.  I also think I stress over my home more than "normal" people, which is even more obnoxious because it isn't even contingent upon my continued incompetence at housekeeping.  Anxiety is a whole separate beast.  I don't like having anxiety, especially when I don't have any idea how to fix it. 

4) Sometimes I think everyone I know would be better off if I'd died a long time ago.  No one needed me a long time ago.  My husband would probably have a better wife if I hadn't come along, my daughter wouldn't even exist so nothing would be worse for her, my best friend has tons of other friends anyway, and my existence doesn't really affect other people.  My mother would probably even be happier, or would at least have been happy temporarily because of the pity she would have received from having a dead child (I'm not the first person to say my mother seems like someone who would have gotten off on my death, so please consider that this might not just be my callousness or hyperbole), which is the one reason I'm really glad I didn't die young.  Because fuck that.  Neither my life nor my death will be devoted to trying to make her happy.  One of the feelings that has kept me alive is spite.

When my daughter was a baby, I thought about dying a lot.  I wouldn't call it postpartum depression because it wasn't the worst depression I've felt by a long shot and I felt like it was primarily brought on by extreme sleep deprivation, but I wanted to be dead.  I thought, If I were dead, people would line up to help my husband and baby, because I was having trouble getting things done and, while I don't give the best first impression, they are very cheerful, likable people.  He would have a better wife, my baby would have a better mother, and my life insurance policies are worth significantly more than anything else I can offer them. 

Later I realized that no one would actually line up to help my family.  As likable as my husband is, he's not the best at asking for help, and people seem to prefer to do nothing anyway.  I'm also all my daughter has, and I don't know how long she could survive without me.  I don't feel like I'm worth more than I did back then, but I do feel like things would be worse for my family if they had to hire help to replace me.  My death would cause a lot of inconvenience, probably for years.  The thing that is really hard is knowing that I increase my daughter's ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score by being depressed but would also increase it by being dead.  I feel like it's impossible for me to be good enough not to cause her harm.  That's why I wish I'd died a long time ago.  I couldn't make her life worse if I hadn't forced her into existence in the first place.

In a lot of ways, my life has improved year by year for my entire life, partly because of increased independence, partly because of increased distance from my parents, and partly from self-education about mental health and -- if I do say so myself -- sheer force of will.  I keep trying.  But I'm not sure I will ever be able to try enough to make things all better, and for that I feel weak and disgusting.  I don't want to be broken like my mother.  I believe that everyone is good at their core, even if that core is so covered in the residue of pain and anger and fear that it can't be seen by other people.  I don't feel "not good enough" so much as I fear other people will never think I'm good enough.  I don't know what I'm afraid of.  I am a grown adult of independent means, but I'm still somehow afraid that if people feel I'm as useless my parents seem to think I am that I will somehow be voted out of here.  I don't know what "here" means in this instance or how the voting would happen, but I feel like I constantly need to prove my worth.

I don't think all the time about the feelings noted above.  I don't walk around sobbing and telling my daughter how much everything is terrible.  I generally confine these writings to naptime and after she goes to bed at night.  I try everyday to be my best, but my "best" isn't always that impressive.  I wanted to mention these feelings because they've never really gone away completely and they sometimes feel like little weights tied all over my body.  I really want my daughter to build good cleaning and self-care and mental health habits all her life so that she doesn't have to expend this much brain power on just maintaining her living space and feeling okay, but what if I can't be good enough at it myself to teach her properly?  It feels like my heart is being squeezed by a vice grip when I think of the likelihood I won't "break the cycle" of these disorders and she will have to battle the same personal problems as me.  She is wonderful.  She deserves better.

Childhood Depression

When I was little, before I knew the words "depression" or "early onset dysthymia," I tried to explain what I was feeling to my mother.  I was in preschool, and I knew what I was feeling wasn't "sad" or "angry" or "sick," but I also knew something felt wrong.  I'd always been overly sensitive and easily irritable -- I can't remember I time I wasn't anyway -- but now at four I also felt sort of dull and grey and off.  "Sad" was the closest word I knew to what I felt, but I also knew if I said, "I feel sad," she would ask, "About what?" or the less helpful, "What do you have to feel sad about?" and I didn't know the answer, so I told my mother, "I don't feel happy." 

My mother replied, "Nobody gets to feel happy ALL THE TIME!  GAWD!" and went on about how my expectations are too high and no one can ever meet them.

Friday, October 16, 2015

We Need to Talk About Dante

Trigger warning.  There is some physical violence and some what would probably be termed low-grade sexual abuse of a child in this post.  No touching, just inappropriateness.  I had planned to write a series of shorter posts about life with Dante, but it all sort of came vomiting out.

Dante was our household's "problem child."  He was my hero in a lot of ways.  He was good at drawing, and he was seven years my senior and very "cool," as far as I could tell.  He seemed fearless when it came to troublemaking, which was the opposite of me.  He got detentions and failing grades in school ("He's too smart, he's not challenged enough, he just doesn't apply himself," our mother explained), while I got mostly A's and was terrified of doing anything that might lead to getting in trouble.  I relished any attention he paid to me.  When he let me have a picture he'd drawn, I kept it on the wall of my bedroom or -- when I was old enough for school -- as the decoration on my Trapper Keeper so that I could tell people, "My brother drew that."

Dante is a scary person.  I knew that as a child, and I know it better as an adult.  He is volatile and violent, and I have never seen evidence that he has a conscience or sees other people as people.  Maybe things are different with his friends, I've always thought.  Maybe it's just because he hated me and our parents.  Maybe that's why he didn't treat me like a person.  Maybe that's why he didn't bond with anyone in our family.  He was so charming and likable.  Most people really liked him.  Maybe I deserved the way he treated me.  Maybe I was asking for it and provoked him, like she said.  But I can't think those things for long because I strongly disagree with them.  I've always strongly disagreed with them.  No child deserved that.  Then a little voice that sounds something like my mother's whispers snidely, What makes you think you're soooo good?

We lived together in our parents' house until I moved out for college.  Mom took Dante to a child psychologist when I was fairly young.  I remember being enthralled with a particular toy in the waiting room -- one of those little tables with beaded wires on it that I always pretended were roller coasters -- and I think I must've been somewhere between five and seven, which means Dante was 12 or in his early teens.  I remember my mother afterward telling me with what I could only interpret as pride that the psychologist had said Dante had "the makings of a criminal mastermind."  I was jealous.  "Mastermind" was impressive.  I assumed she was proud because it was yet another way Dante was exceptional, just like with his art and his being too smart to do well in school.  In hindsight, I think she might have felt vindicated in the hard time she had had parenting Dante, and maybe that was what I was reading as pride in her face and voice.  She was proud of herself -- Dante's behavior wasn't her fault.  She only took Dante to that psychologist one or two more times before they abruptly stopped going.  When I asked to be allowed to see a psychologist myself a few years later, she told me it would be a waste of money because all they do is get you to blame your mother for everything.  Based on that conversation -- as well as what I think any psychologist worth his salt would have advised -- I think the child psychologist might have suggested my mother receive therapy herself, prompting my mother to stop seeking any professional help for Dante.  I think she had been looking less for help to improve things than for someone to diagnose Dante as a "bad seed" and absolve her of all blame.

One of the most irritating things Dante did was the stealing.  As a small child, I habitually saved up any birthday money that came my way so that I could buy my family "real" gifts for Christmas and birthdays.  One year I managed to save up $80 in my Hello Kitty lock box before I noticed the money was gone.  The same day Dante bragged to our mom and me about how easy it is to break through cheap little locks, but our mother refused to believe he had stolen the money.  "You lost it," she said. "Don't blame Dante for your carelessness."  When she found my electronic pocket translator in the back of his closet on one of her regular bedroom searches, she told me to take better care of my things.  I confronted Dante about it later that day and he laughed and admitted he had planned to pawn it like he had already pawned my stereo.  He even cut open a large piggy bank I had filled exclusively with pennies -- over 3000 pennies -- and emptied it.  My mother told me if I was going to complain so much about something so minor she'd give me the money herself to shut me up.

Dante started showing me pornography when I was about six and he was 13.  He invited me into his room in hushed tones and said he had something he wanted to show me.  He pulled out some magazines and said a friend had stolen them from his father and let him take them home.  I was thrilled at the idea of being part of Dante's inner circle.  I knew Playboy wasn't appropriate for a six-year-old, but I thought, He's so excited, and he has no one else to share this with, so he's letting me be his friend.  I sat down and looked at pictures of naked ladies with him, excited both by being treated as an equal and also the fact that I knew we were doing something we weren't supposed to be doing.  Partners in crime!  Then he pulled out Penthouse and showed me a picture of a woman fellatiating a man.  He asked me if I liked it.  I said no, it looked disgusting and I didn't understand why anyone would do that.  He said we didn't have to look at that one if I didn't like it.  We could go back to the Playboy -- he'd look at any porn his six-year-old sister wanted. 

He called me into his room a few more times in the following months, whenever he brought home new magazines.  It never went farther than looking at magazines.  He didn't try to touch me or make me do anything, and it didn't occur to me he might have any idea what he was doing was inappropriate.  He was seven years older than me, but I didn't see him as more emotionally mature than me or someone capable of controlling his impulses.  He has no one else to talk to, I'd thought because that was me.  I had no confidantes.  Then I got older and realized he had friends, including the friend who had given him the magazines in the first place.  Now, giving him the benefit of the doubt just means remembering that he didn't see me as a person, that maybe he just wanted to see what kind of reaction he could get from showing pornography to a small child.  I don't assume he was grooming me for something more.  If he had, in hindsight, I don't think anyone would have prevented him.

Dante did eventually get yelled at for having pornographic magazines.  One of our parents found them somehow -- I think it was Mom on one of her regular bedroom searches -- and Dad lost his mind while Mom insisted that boys will be boys.  It was a really big deal for the rest of the day, and I don't remember anyone mentioning it ever again.  After that, Dante stopped bothering to hide his porn and it took over the cabinet under the bathroom sink where normal people might keep cleaning supplies and extra toilet paper. 

I remember a family gathering at my dad's parents' house a couple years later.  My grandmother had made a lot of the fancy picnic dishes that I so hated as a child but probably would have loved as an adult, and my few paternal cousins were there with their parents.  I rarely saw my dad's family, despite them all living nearby and Eric being my closest family member in age at just a few weeks my junior.  Eric and Dante and I were wandering the large yard after lunch and, out of the sight of parents, Eric unexpectedly shoved me hard to the ground and walked away.  I don't know why.  He was always kind of a prick as far as I could tell.  Dante looked down at me lying on grass for a few seconds.  Then he stepped over my body wordlessly and followed Eric.  I cried.  I was heartbroken.  I knew Dante would sell me out for older kids any day of the week, but Eric wasn't even older.  Eric wasn't even cool.  Dante was high school aged, and he wouldn't even tell him, "Hey, that's my sister," or help me up.

I went crying to my mother and told her what had happened.  She told me that couldn't be what had happened.  Older brothers stick up for their sisters, she said.  She'd had an older brother in Uncle Charles, so she knew.  Once when she had come home from school and said that a car full of boys had threatened to rape her on the way home, Uncle Charles had been so enraged he had sworn he would find and kill them all.  He hadn't actually done anything, but he'd sure been mad!  That's what big brothers do, she said.  What I had described couldn't be accurate, so I needed to stop lying and trying to get Dante in trouble.

When I was about 12 and Dante was 19, I was sitting on the living room couch with my mother when a woman called our house.  She told my mother to keep Dante away from her 13-year-old daughter.  "Who is this?" my mother asked.  The woman introduced herself and said Dante and his friend Darrin had been calling her home and coming over and hanging around her daughter, who was far too young for them, and she wanted them to stop.  My mother replied, "I've never even heard of your daughter, and I'm sure my son hasn't either," and she promptly hung up.  She ignored the fact that the woman had known the name of Dante's best friend and also that we rarely knew where Dante was when he wasn't at home.  After all -- he was an adult.

Dante had some minor trouble with the law when he was around the same age.  I remember my mother saying that he and a friend had been arrested and hauled to jail in a paddy wagon for disturbing the peace.  It was another occasion when I thought I heard pride in her voice.  "A paddy wagon!" she kept saying.  "Can you believe it?"  She'd had to go to my grandparents' house to ask for enough money in cash to post his bail because it was late at night and the bank was closed and, if ATMs existed, we didn't know about them.  As an adult, I understand that "disturbing the peace" usually means the police come to your house and ask you to keep down the noise.  Dante had been at a friend's parents' house in a particularly affluent neighborhood.  Affluent white adults don't typically go to jail for disturbing the peace, nor do their adult children when the parents are standing right there as his friends' supposedly were, so I wonder now what he and his friend had actually done.  I don't think this was the only time he got arrested and my mother had to post bail, but I can't remember the other times.

Probably the most physically aggressive thing Dante did to me that I can remember was the time he wrapped his hands around my throat and choked me while simultaneously lifting me off the ground.  I was in my early teens, and he was in his early twenties.  I don't remember what prompted this action from him, but I do remember our parents were in another room and, when one of them called for us, I was able to regain my footing with minimal physical damage.  I don't remember if I "told on him."  I usually did, endlessly optimistic as I somehow was that someone would help me, and depending on which parent heard, either our dad would scream at Dante, our mom would scream at me, or both.  There was often a circle of screaming at our house.

There is a splintered area in the door of my childhood bedroom from the time Dante tried to knee or kick it in.  I had said something mocking to him, knowing full well it would piss him off the way he liked to piss me off, he had given chase, and I had only been safe because I was fast enough, my bedroom was close enough, and he couldn't pick the shitty locks on our interior doors with his fingernail like I could.

When I was in high school and he was in his twenties, Dante started stealing my yearbooks and keeping them with his stack of "Barely Legal" and other assorted pornographic magazines under the bathroom sink.  I went to my mother outraged and said, "Tell your son to stop stealing my yearbooks and keeping them with his porn!"  She acted shocked and told me I was never to use such a bad word as "porn" ever again, she said nothing to Dante, and Dante kept stealing my yearbooks, even after I took them back and told him to stop doing that.  They are probably under that same bathroom sink right now.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"I Need My Mother"

When I was in my early to mid-20s, sometime before my parents' divorce became final but after my mother had started calling me almost daily in unpredictable moods, my mother had a fight with her father.  My grandpa had a tendency toward rages and rudeness.  I never particularly liked him, but I wasn't allowed to say so.  Every time my mother complained about him during my childhood, if I dared to agree, she scolded, "That's my FATHER you're talking about!"

Anyway, at this point in our lives my mother had gone so far off the deep end that she criticized just about everyone to their faces.  It was one of the things that made my life at that point easier actually.  Instead of pitting relatives against each other, being sweet to some and treating others as scapegoats, she tore down everyone.  She kept no allies for herself.  I think the cocktail of prescription drugs she was on had something to do with her inability to effectively manipulate the way she once had when I was younger.  Now she just drove everyone away. 

When my mother lashed out at her father for something during this phase, he got mad back.  She was good at angering, and he was an easy man to anger.  Either as punishment or simply because he was tired of listen to her vitriol, my grandfather assigned a limit to how often my mother could call and visit his home, where her mother also lived.  Previously, my mother and grandmother had spent at least three days a week together for as long as I can remember: church on Sundays, a Walmart shopping trip followed by lunch on Wednesdays, and grocery shopping on Fridays.  (Even when I wasn't in school, I was not invited to anything but church.  It was "Mother-Daughter day," my mother would say, and I was persona non grata.)  My mother stopped by on other days and called her mother most days, possibly everyday, but those were the three days they spent together with scheduled regularity.  They were close to a point that might be considered pathological.

My mother called me in tears.  She said her father was limiting her contact with her own mother to two days per week.  TWO DAYS PER WEEK!  She hadn't had such little contact with her mother at any point in her life.  "He's trying to keep me from my mother!" she sobbed.  "She's MY MOTHER!  I NEED MY MOTHER!

I have a gallows humor that made me want to laugh at our mutually stupid situation.  My aging, emotionally unstable mother who hadn't been a comfort to me in several years and hadn't been reliable at any point in my childhood was calling me to comfort her through the trauma of only getting access to her own mother twice per week.  The darkest parts of me wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it.  But I didn't.  I wasn't quite that cold.  I couldn't conjure up the pity she wanted from me -- I didn't even try -- but I could imagine the kind of pain she might be feeling.  She's like a child in a lot of ways.  I had been a child like that once.  All I could think though was, You don't get two.  You already got one mother.  Just because she isn't enough doesn't mean you get me too.  I felt sad for both of us.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The First Time I Wrote Publicly About My Parents -- And My Mother's Reaction

The first time I wrote publicly and honestly about my parents was my senior year of high school.  I had to write a paper for English class -- one of many -- and I don't remember the theme of the paper, but it included a memory from my childhood.  My parents were screaming at each other in the living room.  I was maybe six years old and watching them from my hiding spot crouched behind the recliner at the edge of the room.  My mother wanted to leave the house and was trying to take her purse, and my dad had wrapped the shoulder straps around her forearm and was yanking on them, trying to prevent her from leaving.  When she finally got the purse off, there were red strap marks on her arm. 

I rarely witnessed physical altercations between my parents, so that one had stuck with me, comparatively benign as it was.  I don't remember what my parents had been fighting about, but the screaming matches were an almost daily occurrence.  My six-year-old self had crept back to my room at the end of the long hallway and scribbled a note to Dante, who must've been 13 at the time.  It read, "Mommy and Daddy are fighting.  I could really use a friend right now," and I folded it up and pushed it under his bedroom door, which was adjacent to my own.  A minute later his door opened and Dante stood in my open doorway holding the note.  "I could really use a friend right now," he mocked in a high-pitched voice, and then he threw the note into my room, laughed, and walked away.  Typical Dante.

Sharing this memory in an English paper was kind of a big deal for me.  We did peer editing, so several of my classmates had to read it before even the teacher did, and as far as I can remember, I had never told any of them about my parents' fights.  Up to that point, I usually tried to make my papers funny rather than serious.  I mean, look at Dante's reaction when I tried to write something sincere -- can you blame me?  The surprising outcome was how many of my classmates came up to me at the end of class and said something along the lines of, "I thought it was just me."  I hadn't expected to strike a chord with people who I thought had happy, loving homes.  That's when I decided everything could be relatable if the retelling is honest and detailed enough.

I finished editing my paper and turned it in the next day with the rest of the class.  I would get an A, as I always did in high school, though I didn't know that at the time.  My mother took me out to dinner that night at Outback Steakhouse.  This was years after she'd given up cooking at home.  She was sullen and significantly more quiet than usual that night.  I knew she was mad about something, so after we sat down to dinner I tentatively asked, "Are you feeling okay?" and she erupted.  She informed me that she had found my paper and read it.  "Why?" I asked, and it came out that she had a previously unknown to me habit of searching my backpack every night after I went to bed.  I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was surprised I hadn't found out about that sooner.  I was also surprised at how upset she was.  I didn't think the paper painted her in a bad light at all.  It was about my dad being physically abusive, and she was the victim.  It seemed like a depiction that would delight her, though I admit I wasn't enough of a fool to say so out loud.  Apparently I hadn't understood the house rules as well as I'd tried.

My mother had told me since I was old enough to write, "Don't write down anything you wouldn't want published on the front page of the newspaper," and I had indeed taken that message to heart.  Since I was old enough to write, she had searched my bedroom for journals and stories and notes under the guise of "cleaning," in spite of the fact that nothing ever got clean, and she'd read them out loud to me in a mocking voice much like Dante did, so I knew to be guarded.  I knew to make sure I really wanted to say what I was about to say before I wrote it down.  I knew to say only what I wanted to publish.  The English paper was the first time I understood that her intended lesson wasn't actually, "Don't write down anything you wouldn't want published," but instead, "Don't write down anything I might not want published."  But it was too late for that now.  Now I knew how good it felt to tell the truth.

"Won't You Feel Guilty When Your Mother Dies?"

I didn't see a therapist for the first time until after I moved halfway across the country without telling my mother.  I was 28.  I hadn't talked to her in over a year at that point and had realized I never wanted to talk to her again.  My therapist asked, "Aren't you afraid you'll feel guilty if your mother dies before you can talk to her again?"

"I always assumed I would," I told her.  "I choose to stay away from her because I feel better with this distance between us and because I felt so terrible whenever I heard from her, but I always assumed it would be a trade off -- feel worse later so that I can feel okay now.  Then I had a dream that my mother died, and all I felt was relief.  I was just so relieved that it was all over and she couldn't hurt anyone anymore."

My therapist replied, "I don't think you should talk to your mother again."

The moral of the story is this:  If you cut a family member from your life, people will question you.  Your therapist and your family and even your friends might question you.  It's a valid question and one worth thinking about, in my opinion.  After all, lots of interpersonal problems can be remedied with compassionate communication, and most people won't know the full extent of your situation.  But just because someone asks, "Don't you think you should give things another try with your mom?" doesn't mean you can't answer No.  It doesn't even mean other people won't ultimately agree with you.  Only you can decide what's best for you.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

My First Halloween Costume

My first Halloween costume I can remember -- quite possibly my first one at all since I've never heard stories or seen photographic evidence of my dressing up before the age of three -- was the negligee my mother wore on her wedding night.  It was sheer polyester chiffon in Pepto-Bismol pink, trimmed in cheap lace of the same hue, and it comprised all the dress-up clothes I owned as a child.  I cannot remember a time before it was in my possession.

I remember several preschool Halloweens for which I threw it on over my sweatpants and t-shirt and -- with the addition of some kind of accessory such as a toy wand -- claimed to be a fairy, a princess, or a fairy princess.  It didn't occur to me until I was much older that this was strange.  I am not remotely surprised that my hoarder mother would recycle her decade-old wedding night negligee by gifting it to a toddler, but it does seem a stretch that she took me out of the house dressed that way -- both for trick-or-treating and to preschool costume parades at our Methodist church.  I always wore clothes underneath, but it was still very clearly sexy -- albeit heinously ugly -- lingerie.  I also can't remember a time I didn't personally know it was from her wedding night.  She made no secret of what it was, and it was the only piece of sexy anything she'd ever bought -- she made that fact well known too.  Somehow as a child I thought that other people couldn't tell what it was.  As far as I could tell, it was simply the most elegant article of clothing in the house.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Wanting To Be Sick

When I was little, I used to fantasize about being hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.  I knew nothing about what went on in mental hospitals; no one in my family had been hospitalized for mental reasons at that point, and I was also very young.  I remember my mother talking about specific teenage girls from our church who were straight A students and on the dance team and preparing for college and how they would be hospitalized because of the stress of being so amazing at everything, and also anorexia.  I wanted to be like that.  I wanted to be so amazing that I had to be hospitalized for it.  I envisioned my mother and doctors and nurses stroking my forehead and telling me to rest, that I shouldn't work so hard.

Mental illness wasn't acknowledged in our house or in our extended family, in spite of my uncle's suicide and almost all my mother's siblings eventually being diagnosed with one thing or another.  The only illnesses that were valued and treated (and faked) were physical.  Stress counted as physical though.  Only the best, hardest working, most put upon martyrs felt stress, so my mother was in a fairly constant competition to be the most stressed out person she knew.  I think this is part of why I wanted to be hospitalized.  I wanted the attention, and I wanted someone to acknowledge that the stress I felt was real too.  I wanted a reaction that wasn't, "Why is that little bitch crying again?" or "Stop being so sensitive."

One of the best side effects of my mother going off the deep end was that she stopped responding positively to my ailments, including the ulcerative colitis I developed in college.  I learned that I had to care for myself and no one else would do it for me.  I could ask close friends for specific help, and they usually came through, and hired help is an option for almost everything if you have enough money, but I was responsible for making sure I had what I needed.  No one else.  No one would decide I was too sick or under too much stress and tell me to take a rest.  If I let myself hit rock bottom, no one was going to come to my rescue.  It is a little depressing to grow up wanting so much for someone to stroke your hair and take care of you and tell you not to stress yourself, and then to realize that will never happen, but it was an important lesson to learn, and it was a better situation than the one my mother had. 

My mother's parents took care of her until they died.  She lived within walking distance of their house up until they moved to the next town over in their 70s.  I remember watching her mother cook for her, and her father giving her money when she needed it, despite her income via my dad's disability payments being several times that of my grandparents.  She moved in with them after the divorce, when she refused to bathe or feed herself or find anywhere else to live.  She always had a human safety net.  Until she didn't.

Shortly after my grandparents died, my mother took a bunch of pills, called herself an ambulance, and ended up in the psych ward of the local hospital.  Based on what I've heard as an adult, I imagine the psych ward wasn't as soothing or nurturing as I'd fantasized as a child.  No friends or family came to her rescue that time, and they ultimately discharged her to a low-end assisted living home where she was required to see a psychiatrist.  He was the one who diagnosed her with bipolar disorder. 

I don't know where she is now or how/whether she takes care of herself.  I heard she left the assisted living home after awhile.  My dad said they wanted her to pay something to keep living there, but I don't know if she got evicted or if she left because she wanted to go.  She had tried to reach out to me via Facebook from that assisted living home to say my brother, my husband, and I were all the support system she had left in the world and she wanted me back in her life.  It had been some three years since I'd heard from her at that point.  I never replied.  After she left assisted living, she talked about suing my dad for more monthly spousal support and wanting to pick up the things she'd left at the house after the divorce, including some major appliances, but nothing ever came of it and then she disappeared again.