Complex Trauma

This is the single-most compassionate description of complex trauma I have heard.

Complex trauma

I disagree with a few of her points, one of them being about shame, which I think comes from both the idea that most of us have had many years of experience in which people who were not part of our traumatic pasts explicitly or implicitly tell us that our experiences are overwhelming to hear about and we should not tell them as well as from how we felt at the time: shame is the emotion of submissive behaviour, and it’s a reasonable strategy for a child being faced with aggressive behaviour to stop.

My other addition, which she does not really address, is that for the caregiver, abuse is usually understood as discipline for misbehaviour. It may be recognized as inappropriate discipline if the abuser has some degree of conscience or self-awareness, but the abuser’s narrative to the child who is trying to understand what is happening to her is usually, “You have done something bad and this is the consequence for it.” I have realized a part of what I feel in situations where I am overwhelmed by negative feelings that are obviously (to me) trauma-based, is remorse. My parents taught me asserting myself or revealing myself, my needs, my personality, or my inner world was bad and wrong, and so when I do it, I feel remorse, and sometimes i feel guilty.

I have started to realize that my “mammal” brain does not learn by being told the same thing over and over again. It does not learn by being shouted at, argued with, or invalidated either–because this is really about the mind trying to see patterns in life. What is it that seems to make my parents so angry? Well, me. My existence.

So I go around, in some cases, being apologetic that I exist. This pattern in my mind does not change by numbing myself against yet more feelings, and silencing the remorse or guilt I feel. It changes by making these situations in which I automatically feel remorse ones where I am comforted.


I have felt a profound sense of heaviness the last few days.

C wanted some things–I think I mentioned that. So I spent quite a lot of time searching for her requests. It wouldn’t be that difficult, except that it’s hard to make my mind work properly. It’s hard to imagine both what I have experienced of things and what I know about her enough to think of what she might like.

There was a teddy bear, and I spent a day or so wandering around to all of the shops nearby who might carry a teddy bear and then bought it online. I hate online shopping. It takes so long.

And then there was a book.

I had to give that three tries. It’s just hard to stay with the process long enough to make a decision. There are so many feelings involved. But I was more or less determined not to give up, not to do what I might have done and just grab a book, say it’s good enough and give up. I was determined to stay with the feelings and let feelings be part of the process, instead of aborting the whole thing so that I can stop having them.

Today, I went to the post office and mailed it.

I haven’t spoken to C in maybe 4 or 5 days. There were two days when she said, “I’m busy. Call later,” or some variation on that. Then nothing at all. She had a tooth extracted. The kids in Country X have terrible teeth, because junk food has caught on in a big way and parenting has not caught up with it yet. Sweets are cheap.

The thing about modern life is there starts to be an awful lot to say no to.

Also, they brush their teeth once a day, if that.

This is a change that has happened within probably the last five years. Not the teeth brushing. The availability of consumer goods, which you then need to be able to make informed decisions about.

Anyway, it might be the tooth extraction that prompted what C is going through. She was very sad one morning and sounded tearful, then cheerful and talkative and asking for lots of stuff. Then silence.

We have been chatting on Facebook though. In one chat, she asked for a fairly large sum of money for when she got back to school. She said she needed shoes and notebooks and “many.” I have learned–I think I have–that it’s mostly better to trust her.

What I mean is that if I say no arbitrarily, because I can’t really price out accurately her needs and feel it’s excessive when it isn’t, then she is really, very deeply hurt. But if I say yes and it actually is excessive, she sometimes comes to this on her own and doesn’t take the money I have agreed to give her. The risk of hurting her trust in my desire to care for her is greater than the risk to my bank account which is, in the end, sitting in Country X anyway.

Which is why I said yes, although I thought she could probably do with half what she asked for.

We then talked about how she would get the cash in hand: my friend who gives her money has gone to Australia to start a master’s program. The friend’s sister has been left in charge of dispensing cash, but she works part-time teaching people to sew and may not be home when C rolls into town on the way to school. My friend said she could take the money from her mother, who runs a small shop selling betel nut.

C said she couldn’t take from my friend’s mother. We discussed this for a bit, and then C said that she could do it.

I said, because I understood the problem to be fear, that you are taking your mother’s money and I am giving it to you because I love you. Or something like that.

A minute later, C posted a status update that she missed her parents–they haven’t come to Y-town to visit and it might be logistically impractical for her to go there, but mainly she has made it clear in a variety of ways that she does not actually want to live in their house again. She said when she sees parents with their children, she begins to cry.

Isn’t there a moment when we begin to realize other people have relationships with their parents that will never be possible for us? These relationships that we imagine are not merely fantasy, but exist. There is something real to mourn over.

The connection between what I had said to her in our chat seemed to me clearly about this feeling: if I am loveable, then why are my parents unable to love me?

I think it is possible that she reached out in the first place due to the stress of a toothache. It’s possible that I am wrong, and she merely began to settle into life on the farm and to feel safe and comfortable. But I did feel while talking to her that this is a part, and parts emerge due to stress and the necessity of expressing something or doing something–in this case, the need for emotional support–that has been forbidden. It’s a way of doing something that needs to be done without being overwhelmed by the fear that arises over doing it. “Oh, it’s okay. Someone else is doing it, and not me. They are allowed to do it.”

It’s heartbreaking, actually, to think a young person believes at some core level that the only way to get attention, to get simple things like a teddy bear and a book (the last one I sent her was a self-help book), is to be deceptive both to herself and to her other people. I don’t know how to explain that, but this part of her is quite charming. Very loveable. Very wide-eyed and innocent. But the discontinuity of it makes it seem very much that this part has been revealed solely to get her the things she needs or want.

Anyway, it seemed to me there was a direct connection between my reassuring C that she could go to an older woman who intimidated her and ask for the money I had sent to her because she is loved and wanted and missing her own parents.

What that leads to is this immense cognitive dissonance: my parents don’t seem to want me. How is it that someone else does? The only way of resolving that dissonance is to think there is something wrong with my parents.

That leads to other conclusions.

It isn’t me. It’s someone else.

It’s someone I have no control over, unlike myself.

Which means it cannot be fixed.

It’s a very hard road to go down.


It’s the suburbs, and I have realized in the suburbs someone is pretty much always sawing wood or blowing leaves. All day, there is the sound of machinery. I have not lived in the suburbs as an adult before, and I did not know this. I grew up in the suburbs, but we did  not hire gardeners. Those were different days. Or, we were from a different class. Maybe both.

I react to machinery. This is why it is relevant.

I was thinking today it’s somehow easier to think of things in terms of injustice or whether something breaks rules than whether people are responsive.  There is something widgety about this. It’s okay to be upset because something broke the rules. It isn’t okay to expect life to respond to you.

Of course, people’s need to get their yardwork done isn’t going to be responsive to me. They aren’t my friends. But the reason machinery is frightening to me in the first place is that my parents were so unresponsive to my need for safety that they did terrifying things with machines.

I don’t know where to go with that, but maybe it helps to link things to where they belong.

I was also thinking I wasn’t an easy child to raise. Abused children never are. They harmed me, and then were frustrated at the consequences of their actions, as though they assumed actions should not have consequences. Of course, they do.

Like you

As a child, we are aware of being a member of a family. There are certain things you think about as being unique to your family: “In our family, we do it like this.” And if you feel like a valued member of that family and you feel like your family is valued within society to some reasonable extent, this is great. You have a sense of identity, and of safety and belonging.

But what if you don’t feel valued within your family? What if you don’t feel proud of yourself within your family or you don’t feel proud of your family? There is no sense of belonging that comes with being a member of your family and no sense of safety that comes with being a part of your family within society.

What if “what we do in our family” is be mean to each other?

I was thinking about my dad, whatever his mental health issues, he was fucking weird. I don’t know why he was busy butchering corpses or openly engaging in sexual activity with his daughter in front of his wife, but what does that mean for the children in the family wondering about their place in the world?

In our family, we are out of our minds.

There is certainly no sense of pride about being a part of that family, no safety in feeling you belong to that particular insanity.

I was thinking about this because C wanted a book to read. She wanted greeting cards to give to her friends to tell them how much they mean to her, and a teddy bear that’s bigger and cuddlier than the one I had given her in March, and a book to read.

I haven’t been able to find a book to read for her because it became too overwhelming for me. There is a pretty good bookstore here in this town, and there’s also a thrift store almost entirely devoted to books This town is a town of readers. It’s great.

Anyway, I went to both places, and was checking out the YA section at the bookstore, and there was just too much of everything. Too many voices talking too loudly, too much cheerful music (the kid’s section has different music going on than the rest of the bookstore), too many books to choose from. Meanwhile, my feeling of longing became too much.

I don’t really know why.

But today I thought it’s because she’s imitating me. I send her greeting cards. I read. She’s aligning herself with me by imitating some of my behaviours. For someone with attachment issues, the idea that someone might want to be like you is profound.

It can happen in an extreme and unnatural way in controlling relationships, because the person is trying to get their need for belonging met by forcing someone. And it can also happen because someone feels so intensely damaged and broken that they’d like to be someone else.

This isn’t that extreme.

I began to think she’s imitating a behaviour that was contested when I was a child. My mother took us to the library every week, she read bedtime stories to us, she liked to read herself and she also criticized me for reading whenever she saw me doing it. I was ridiculed for it within my family.

I don’t honestly have any idea how my mother managed to make sense of the cognitive dissonance within her own mind about it. How does, “I am a good parent. I take my kids to the library once a week….” square with, “Then I ridicule one of my children for actually reading those books.”

I mean, maybe it was something like she wanted me to read like a normal child. She didn’t want to be different or weird or “nerdy.” And I read voraciously, rapidly, and from a very young age.

I don’t know. In the bookstore, none of that went through my head. I just had all of these very intense, very painful feelings of longing and I also felt confused. So I left.

Now I think maybe it makes sense that it would feel confusing. This was something about me that my mother both encouraged and hated, and here C is wanting to be like me in that way. Or, C has discovered about reading what I discovered: that it opens up other worlds to you, expands the range of possibilities and allows you to connect to and feel like you can relate to people who aren’t even there. Anyway, that’s confusing. It’s confusing that my mother would have such diametrically opposed attitudes towards the same activity. It’s confusing that C would want to adopt a behaviour that my mother thought was “bad.” It makes sense that I would feel confused, and also that I would feel something over connecting with C over a shared interest.


What I think I left out from my previous post, which was probably the point of it, was something I have said before.

Until I could process the idea that my parents intended to hurt me–both of them, not just my dad, but both of them–and sit with that long enough to connect it to specific sensations and perceptions, it just kind of floated around a this incomprehensible pain. It meant that when someone in the present does something intentionally to hurt me–or when I am not sure what their intentions even are–I can’t process that either, and I don’t respond effectively or in a way that’s thoughtful.

I think I should add as a caveat that I had a therapist for a couple of years who was around for the worst part of my long term relationship and worked with me after we broke up. I stopped seeing for her a while because I would end up in session feeling so utterly hopeless I worried about my ability to maintain my rationality. There was one day I left her office feeling frankly suicidal, and it was a bright day, beautiful sunshine, perfect breeze. I was meeting my partner to look for a desk we were going to buy for my birthday.

And I thought actually life isn’t hopeless, but therapy is convincing me that it is. It’s distorting my thinking to such an extent that I can’t keep in my mind the idea that there are bright spots in my life, there are things I enjoy that are good, even if it’s just sunshine and a new piece of furniture.

I went back to her after the relationship ended, although now I can’t adequately explain why.

But what I wanted to say about this therapist is that I think in light of my present understanding that she wanted me to respond to my abusive partner by being abusive myself.

When she said, “Set boundaries and enforce them.” I think she really meant, “Retaliate and punish her.” And I couldn’t do that. It’s wrong.

The reason I say that has to do with a sense that she believed as long as you followed certain rules of behaviour or claimed certain motives, behaviour wasn’t abusive. She used to tell me, “So how do you take care of yourself?” And I think she meant, “How do you still get what you want?”

So, for example, if we were having an argument and I said in the middle of it, “I need a break. I’m going for a walk,” (which I did), this wasn’t abusive behaviour even though my partner would feel abandoned by that, because I could simply decide for myself what taking a walk was supposed to mean, and if my partner understood it differently and felt hurt by it or punished by it, or if she began to fear disagreeing with me because I would leave her when that happened, that was on her.

Which isn’t to say it’s not okay to take a break during an argument. But it’s not really about behaviours. It’s about the impact of your behaviour, because in a couple that has been together for a long time, you pretty much know what that is.

She gave the example of a friend of hers who was being emotionally abused by her husband. It was happening in front of her. She didn’t feel comfortable with witnessing what was happening, and she said if it didn’t stop she would leave. It didn’t stop. She left.

Well, good for her.

But the impact of that behaviour was that her friend now felt alone and abandoned with a man who hurts her. It didn’t help anyone except her own sense of righteousness.

I don’t have any idea what one should do when someone is doing something intentionally to hurt you. However, it can help tremendously just to recognize that someone is doing that instead of having your brain shut down because this thought can’t be thought.

It happened at the end of the school year with a parent: You might remember her. She was flipping out about the kid in my class who is emotionally disturbed and disrupting class. During the conversation, she said something about needing to get some balls, and it helped me a lot to recognize that she was intentionally saying that to hurt me. It was the worst insult she could come up with and that’s why she said it. Whether that was true or not wasn’t probably the point. The point was she was angry and she wanted to cause me pain. Recognizing her motivation gave me a sense of control over the conversation, and I ended it at that point. It took me a long time to get there, because there was this huge WTF in my brain I had always gotten to before.

This feels like my parents trying to hurt me.

Yes, because that intention is the same. It feels the same because it is the same. The details are different, but the core element of it is not. Without the WTF in between, the whole process becomes a lot smoother. She is trying to hurt me. This is how I protect myself from actual harm.

The party

My friend had a party before. She suggested I invite my own friends, but I didn’t feel like it. This is partly about not really trusting them. Will anyone really care to come?

I was gone for three years. Very few people in the US chose to stay in touch with me. I didn’t try that hard, and they tried less hard. I acknowledge this might be because I was not able to really form relationships that well, and there may be little bond between us. Or I chose people who could not bond. Or nothing.

But also, I didn’t want to manage more. I didn’t want people from different parts of my life to come together and force me to have to juggle those different parts at the same time.

I am aware that many situations that I encounter I am looking at now with fresh eyes, and so there are fairly routine and ordinary experiences that are more cognitively demanding than I might expect. I am working pretty hard already.

But my friend is a professor at the college I attended, so some of her friends are people I have some tie with already. Not all of them, because many of the faculty who were there when I was a student have retired or even passed away, but also I have known my friend for more than 20 years, and gone to her parties for that long, and people return. So it wasn’t that I didn’t know anyone.

Socially, I felt more successful than usual. Not that I typically look back on social situations and feel I didn’t do well. I tend not to assess my social performance. Maybe I ought to. It’s more than they frequently feel like an unpleasant chore that needs to be done. Something like dusting.

I had actually not realized that before–that I actually do not enjoy a lot of social situations. They are often these things that I do in order to give the appearance of normalcy, or so that the people I do care about don’t feel neglected. I think this happens because juggling my own feelings inside and trying to carry on in a sort of normal way is just so difficult that I feel drained afterward. I just don’t end up actually forming connections that often. Occasionally, I do. Very often, they are things I just survive.

I did also notice there were off-putting things I might have said in the past in moments of discomfort that I did not say this time. It was interesting to realize that I knew, in fact, what those moments might have been, although when I did do them, I didn’t feel aware of it. Apparently, some part of me was. Some part of me understood, “I don’t feel safe and I am now going to push people away.”

I also had time to reflect as I was talking to people what made some conversations with more pleasurable than others. Some of it was how much they were interested in talking about me, and whether there was a sense of give-and-take. When someone holds forth, it’s pretty dreadful. But I also realized a lot of it is simply eye-contact, and whether someone checks your responses as they are talking.

There is one person I talked with who really did not make very much eye contact, didn’t take turns very much in speaking, and it occurred to me that there was nothing wrong with what she was saying. It was perfectly interesting. It was the sense of being a part of what she was saying that made the difference. She looked sort of around people or between people. There was almost the sense that she might be looking around you eyes rather than directly at them.

I think that has happened to me in the past. I learned no one could really want me or be interested in me, and so avoided having to confront that question by not looking.

It turns out this sense of message of not being interested in other people. In some people, it can look like holding court, and in others it just creates a sense of boredom.

I might have been especially attentive to this because my friend’s adult son is autistic, and he had invited some of his friends, whom he knows through a group that creates social opportunities for adults on the spectrum. It gives perspective when you move from a conversation with someone who actually can’t and does not know how to make appropriate eye contact or how to take turns in a conversation with someone who chooses not to for other reasons.

I have a theory about how this has impacted me–my preconceived of not being someone who could be wanted. Other than maybe I have bored people when I did try to talk, not because I having nothing interesting to say to anyone, but because I am afraid to make eye contact at comfortable intervals.

I think I had to be able to manage my painful emotions well enough to understand in a conscious, declarative way why I have them. My feelings aren’t wrong. They are providing me with information about my world, but the disconnect between my felt world and the world I thought about were so far removed from each other that I could not make sense of what I felt well enough to proceed with life in a coherent and organized way.

What was missing for a long time were the tools to do this. I spent far too long trying harder. One of the important pieces was actually being able to use safe people to help me calm down, instead of trying to do everything myself. I did a lot of just breathing, just trying to help my physiological self. However, physical proximity to someone who feels safe is immensely powerful. It just gives a huge leg up, even if the physical proximity is pretty remote: a memory even. I am sure therapy is supposed to do this, but it didn’t. But I think I also made myself safer by being better at relationships.

Anyway, what it means to me is that in the past, something like my conversation partner might be feeling bored never got worked out, because the sense of being unwanted triggered a traumatic state that shut down my prefrontal cortex. Either I ran away, pushed my conversation partner away, or avoided taking that information in altogether.

What I am getting at is that when I can keep my mind engaged long enough to know that my parents didn’t want me and this is, experientially and sensorially, this is how that felt and looked and sounded when they didn’t want me, then I can respond to the present situation in a more effective way.


Bastille Day

When I was in college, I had friend who could likely be diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder. She had used drugs heavily in high school, gotten cleaned up and then went abroad her junior year to Denmark where she began to use heavily again. She had been intensely traumatized growing up, and made poor choices as a young adult that resulted in more victimization.

Finally, when we were both around 22, she went into rehab, got cleaned up again and shortly thereafter committed suicide.

I don’t really remember when she died, but her funeral was on Bastille Day. My now-ex and I had been invited to a Bastille Day party in the evening, and we rather foolishly decided to go, not quite anticipating how surreal this would feel.

My friend is having a party today. She usually has a Fourth of July party. It’s been a tradition for more than 20 years–she does it most years anyway. This year, she has these two huge dogs in the house that aren’t particularly well-socialized and her daughter and son-in-law (the dog owners) were on vacation in Europe that day. So it wasn’t the best circumstances for a party.

She opted for a Bastille Day party instead. When the topic first came up, I tried to bring up the the death of my friend–not as a big heavy conversation, but just it might be nice to have a party as it’s kind of a sad day for me and a little distraction might not go amiss. But she interrupted me and changed the subject. Not pointedly, but perhaps to avoid the emotional discomfort of it. She tends to do that. So I did not bring it up again.

I have become more aware recently that some people can’t cope with their own internal experiences. They just don’t have a lot of emotional skills. And so their response is often to try to control their environments so that nothing ever happens that might upset them. They try to avoid making mistakes, so that they don’t have to manage shame or guilty feelings. They avoid conflict so that they don’t need to try to understand their own anger or face anyone else’s. It’s not that it helps to just force your way through emotional difficulties, but because my childhood was so horrific, I never realized before that there are other people in the world with less ability to cope than I have.

Some of that might be about resiliency factors. It’s complicated. You can be less intentionally hurt than I was, and yet be more deprived of nurturing and warmth, and so just end up with fewer opportunities to learn emotional and social skills that then allow you to get the nurturing you need later to get through things. And I hadn’t thought about that.

Some of it is also probably about will. I look at my friend and the energy she put into her career and her family–one child is autistic–I know I put into trying to improve myself. I suppose I couldn’t help but know the pain was inside me: it wasn’t something outside me I could fix by altering my circumstances. So consequently, here I am at midlife, single with no children and a career that’s kind of in an uncomfortable place. When I got to be about 30, it got to be kind of do-or-die.

That is harder for me to understand, because it’s hard to grasp why someone who might find it easier to improve their internal state than I find it wouldn’t try harder. I mean, if it’s easier–why not do it? But there is also less motivation. There are things I have to deal with, because my pain is just totally inescapable.

Anyway, it’s a big piece of my puzzle, personally. All of this pain I need to deal with and I have been surrounded by people who lacked the coping skills even to be in the same room with it or with me if I am going to be honest and authentic. Many times, I have had to choose whether to have the physical presence of other people at the cost of holding my emotions myself. I can be alone and at least be in some kind of honest conversation with myself or I can be with people.

I know the conventional wisdom is that if we extend ourselves, we will find ourselves pleasantly surprised that people are more open to us than we might expect. Sometimes, yes. But sometimes they are less open.

And I have really started to come to terms with the idea that in order to manage life and get through it, to be whole and coherent internally, I need to make peace with a lot of things other people simply push away. They hear about it in the news perhaps, and are shocked, but they don’t ever need to find a way to accept that it does happen. Very great horrors are part of the human experience. I can’t do that, because those horrors happened to me, so I can’t turn my attention to something else. It’s in my head.

And it does make days like today very lonely for me.




I am still really struggling. I am trying hard to cope so that I don’t go into a freeze state over some tiny thing or slide into icky, oozy depression.

I know what set it off was the interview that was almost a week ago now. All that scrutiny, but also having something on the line that is really important to me.

The reality of my parents’ abuse has been hitting home for me–just that it hurt so much. The first layer of my childhood is so much shock, it’s hard to get through to the very deep sadness of it, the loneliness of just not being cared for. The difficulty of grappling with the stuff that is absolutely shocking and horrifying has made it hard to get through to seeing myself as simply a little child in a lot of pain.

Lately, I have noticed, beyond the things that are more like atrocity, are more garden-variety mechanisms of abuse. My parents lacked compassion. I think in many instances they knew the pain they were causing me and they didn’t give a fuck.

There are three elements of empathy: emotional empathy, which is feeling with people; cognitive empathy, so that you can understand why people feel the way they do; and compassionate concern, which is feeling motivated to help.

I think they both had trouble recognizing other people’s feelings or motivations, but they also didn’t care. Which means it doesn’t feel okay for me to care about myself. Compassion doesn’t mean making excuses, which is a common confusion people can have. It doesn’t mean having no limits or boundaries. It just means feeling concern and doing what you can to help.

Today I realized it’s okay for me to have compassion for myself. I can try to help myself: I do, but I can also believe that this is okay.

I have been thinking that our “two brains” are meant to work together. They are not meant to work at cross-purposes. You are meant to unconsciously feel emotions, search through your memory banks for prior experiences that might give guidance to the situation, while also thinking about the things you know and have been told.

They aren’t meant to be things you can’t fit together on the same page.

The hardest part of all this is really not knowing why I feel the way I do in a lot of very intense situations. Why do I feel so sad at night when it is time to sleep? Why do have the urge to harm myself when I can’t actually point to the emotion causing it?

I have been thinking maybe I can get my two brains working together a bit better, because I have a few paradigms that seem like they might fit. My parents lacked the social and emotional skills they needed to care for themselves and their families. What they knew were aggression and coercion. Those were the tools they had. Overwhelm us with emotion and hope that being completely dysregulated was aversive enough that my sister and I would be motivated to figure out how to behave all on our own.

The “consequences” they used were the ones they understood: isolation, shame, humiliation. Sometimes they had other motives, but sometimes they intentionally hurt me, because they lacked actual leadership skills in the family.

The two other mechanisms at play in the family were random attempts to feel better by demeaning other people. They let off little humiliation bombs in a kind of low-intensity warfare within the family.

What that has done for me is made me react to any indication that some little bit of me might be showing with fear or aggression or shame, maybe all three in turns. The other thing that’s related to this is that they also had aggressive responses to shame. They felt bad about something or other and launched a counter-attack. I wouldn’t necessarily know why that something or other might feel shameful to them, and I might not be expecting an attack: those moments seemed as random as attempts to enhance their status by demeaning me. When it’s so random like that, you just try to keep as many potential targets out of site. You don’t give anyone anything to hurt you with.

So keeping those things in mind, it might be possible to get through my reactions a little better without just cutting off my emotions. My slow, conscious mind can say in way, “I know what this is about. This is going to be okay. These are the things I can do to help myself through it. The situation isn’t hopeless. It’s difficult and it’s going to be difficult, but it’s okay for things to be difficult sometimes. I can survive difficulty.”

Anyway, maybe.


What happened?

I don’t feel very coherent.

But I’ll give this a try.

I have been thinking about my parents. C seems kind of unsettled. She’s been talkative lately, which has been nice to see. She wanted a teddy bear. She wanted a new phone. We discussed these things. I couldn’t find a suitable teddy bear in a brick and mortar store here and resorted to Amazon. I showed her some pictures. She picked one out. We discussed the phone situation. I said I would buy her one if she needed it and to use her good judgment in buying it. The next day she decided she didn’t need it. I suppose that’s good judgment.

Anyway, I feel concerned for her in a vague way. She seems more and more troublingly enmeshed with Boyfriend. She signs herself LCD, which are his initials with her C sandwiched in the middle.

I imagine the core of it all is that she feels so bad the part of her feels good and worthy of being loved must be someone else. Just like I hate my first name, because it reminds me of growing up and my parents and abuse, it’s like this person who feels good must be someone different than the person you were before. But she might know good as willing to be controlled by someone more benevolent than her parents.

The trigger might be that her parents aren’t coming to her village to see her, since the rains are very bad this year. I don’t know when she was informed that they weren’t coming. It might be recently enough that it would reasonable to assume she is reacting to that. I have known for a week, but that doesn’t mean anyone bothered to tell her that.

Anyway, it makes me think about her and what would support her if she is having a hard time with it.

That makes me have to think about myself, because I mostly have my experiences to help me understand someone else’s.

What comes out of this for me is mulling over the cognitive dissonance of feeling bad in abusive situations and also not feeling that I am bad. It’s hard to explain how it comes to that, but that is a core element of what goes on in my head when I feel concerned for C.

What I think in regards to that is what resolves my cognitive dissonance is understanding the malevolence my parents felt for me. I hurt because my parents wanted to cause me pain.

And that’s where it gets difficult, because I can’t understand it. I can’t understand how they felt justified in any way in what they did. Never mind the horrors. I can’t understand how they felt entitled to demean me or call me names or how they did not realize they needed to interact with me and talk with me and take a genuine interest.

How did they not even not know right from wrong? And I can’t really get past it. What was wrong with them?

One down

I’ve sorted a few things.

It was a big piece of the great puzzle of life to understand that it enhances one’s self-esteem to put someone else down. It ought not to news, but I didn’t really grasp that it feels good. I was familiar with the mechanics: make you feel bad, I feel better. But that didn’t compute. I don’t feel better. If I put someone down, I just feel sad.

When I started to read about it as being part of something that happens in terms of dominance behaviours: being higher in the social hierarchy gives you a feeling of well-being. Being lower in the hierarchy makes you feel stressed. This is innate and something that happens physically in your brain.

And that made it make sense.

I have in my head someone who can’t really navigate life, doesn’t have the social skills to form connections that she needs in order to feel supported and fulfilled: this person might fall back on the quick-fix of establishing dominance.

I have had a chance to reflect on this here at my friend’s house, because it seems like she does this sometimes. Not frequently, but in moments of vulnerability. She says something out of the blue that makes me feel attacked, but also seems puzzling to me. Like suddenly, indirectly criticizing the mustard I use. What difference does it even make? It’s mustard.

My friend has a life history and a set of ideas she has been exposed to that I don’t entirely have access to. But she grew up with critical parents who were also trying to position themselves socially as academics and, perhaps, distance themselves from blue-collar roots, without being snobby elites.

Because that’s bad too.

It’s hard to explain this exactly. I am just saying these things happen and I know, actually, her intention is to put me down, but I can’t really figure out why what she is saying is a put-down. It’s painful and confusing when it happens.

This isn’t about the mustard incident though. This is just about thinking I grew up with parents who did this to establish some kind of equilibrium for themselves, and it is also about noticing that when you haven’t shared someone’s history or their biases, you don’t always get their put-downs.

Because it turns out almost anything can be an indication of status which can be used to promote one’s own sense of dominance. Not wearing cool clothes, having a problem at home, being less competent at something, having the “wrong” physical characteristics.

Also, being in a position of dependence. I need warmth, for example, and if the other person pretends they don’t need warmth, they have a way of being dominant.

I was reading something about gender relationships and it was something along the lines of a man saying men don’t all feel women’s bodies need to be perfect. Men who body-shame are assholes. It was something like that anyway.

This idea carried over into the idea that my parents were assholes. My mother’s illness and difficulties in coping are so prominent that I had not quite registered the emotional abuse. The physical abuse I remember. I remember her screaming things that did not quite make sense. I remember the near psychosis. But I hadn’t put together that she said mean things to me during periods when things seem to be perfectly fine just to feel better, nor did I put together that I understood the intent but not always the mechanism.

Like the mustard, the ways she put me down were not always things I understood. What’s wrong with that? Whatever that was.

There is a very great sense of loss to this, where I realized I was to a large extent this object in her life and not someone whose well-being she felt connected to. I was there for her to use as a source to get her own needs met, but not someone who felt on the same side as me. Not someone who felt diminished when she diminished me.

There is something else I didn’t get: I do know what these things were, kind of generally, the things that made her think putting me down. There were quite a few. But what I get now, the missing piece, is that these were often seen as opportunities. I did something “wrong” and this was a chance to feel better.

It might also be a time when she felt she needed to distance herself from me: I am doing something “bad” so she wanted it to be clear she wanted no part in it. C has done this. Her aunt called her up in a video call and she complained that her aunt always does that, as though she doesn’t like it. I just kind of nodded. Then I said some things about this aunt that were positive. The next call, C received and we both chatted with her aunt.

C thought I might not like her aunt calling, so she distanced herself from it. My mother has invisible, unhappy people in her head. She sometimes might have distanced herself from some “bad” thing I was doing in order to escape that inner critic.

My mother is an asshole.