Return

I got the email Thursday night sometime, that I was approved to teach in Country X for 2018. They are sending me back to Y-town. The email warns that there may still be changes and the placements are not final, but somehow I trust there won’t be. The snag for me would be housing, because Y-town is something of a boomtown. They are still in the midst of a building a hydropower plant somewhere nearby, and it has brought quite a number of new people to town to work on the project from all over Country X. I don’t really know how many, but in an area of 3,000 people even 20 new families living in the central town area has an impact.

Anyway, I left a message for C on Faceback afterwards. She got it later and sometime in the night–around 11–I saw she was online and we chatted about it.

“You got here, Mom?”

“Yes, I did.”

“But I won’t stay here.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“Timbuktu [the town where her mother and stepfather live–it’s the middle of nowhere, so I call it Timbuktu]. Am fade [sic] up with Y-town.”

“Is there a high school in Timbuktu?” (I think there isn’t. The school goes up to tenth grade, as far as I know.)

“I won’t qualify.” There is an exam C has to pass in December that determines whether she has a place in a public school. There is a pass mark, which is pretty low, and a qualifying mark that is quite a lot higher.

Can you see it? Push, hide, shame….Disorganized attachment fun. Go away, relationships are dangerous. I’m afraid. I’m not allowed to have relationships and I am not good enough to have one.

I might have mentioned this in my last post, but I think I forgot to. With my friend, I began to realize there is this pattern where during stressful times she impulsively reaches out to me and says kind, warm things that pull me towards her. Once I am there, she hates my guts. It creates the sense of being deceived. I don’t think she is intentionally deceiving me, although she seems to interpret her behaviour that way. I think she has dramatically different emotions and therefore different perceptions at different times. But it creates the sense she has pulled me to her for the sole purpose of emotionally pummelling me.

I think of a child experiencing this from a parent, repeatedly, the same cycle: being drawn in with warmth and the promise of nurturing and then being rejected or humiliated or controlled–treated in some way that makes the parent feel more powerful and therefore safer. That’s what C feels when I draw her to me. Do you really mean this? If I trust you, are you going to hurt me?

I cannot remember ever trusting my mother or feeling drawn to her. I only remember submitting to her attention when she felt like giving it to me, because I felt I had to. But when I was very little, before I can remember anything, I am sure I did fall for what later would have felt like a deception. I needed a relationship so badly I would have risked abuse even after I began to put things together.

The fear I feel now is about that deception. If someone seems to like me or enjoy my company, I don’t know whether or not to expect a trick. And the thing is I do have all of these people in my life who do have some version of relational trauma, and I am not a little girl anymore, but being invited forward and then pushed away, attacked and put down or criticized and controlled still hurts. I am still a human being with feelings and it does still hurt. On top of that, there are people who have real power over me, even though I am an adult.

I had a principal who did not renew my contract out of the same disorganized attachment. My friend took away my home at the worst possible time of year–before school had started and I did not even know how much work I would be getting or where I might get called to work. Everyone has vulnerabilities, and adults are clever enough to know how to exploit them. They can harm you by sullying your reputation in front of your boss or creating friction in your social circle by spreading rumours about you. Teachers can bully your children, as the matron did C when the matron was angry at me. There are all kinds of way to get power over someone, even between equals. So there are real things to be afraid of.

But the fear I have about people is about that cycle of abuse, the seduction and then the violent rejection.

 

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Reversal

A while ago, my friend got really angry at me over her perception that I hadn’t kept an agreement we had over my cleaning her house. Now, her memory of the agreement does not match actual written correspondence between us. Since she does not call or show willingness to see me in person, we just email and text. This means it’s written down.

The thing is my friend seems to not actually feel she meant kind or understanding things she has said, and she gets really angry at me for not realizing this. Personally, I think at the moment she says them, she’s responding impulsively. She perceives it as being manipulative (although not in those words): I said x so that you would do y. You did not do y, so I am angry I ever said x. I am not really sure the sense she makes out of her behaviour later is really what goes on in the moment inside her. It doesn’t matter much though. (The idea that there could be some kind of moral problem with saying nice things just to get someone to do what you want has not evidently crossed her mind.)

My point is I’ve had this opportunity to think about her being angry and the dynamic involved in that, because I assume she responds like someone with relational trauma.

When I used to visit C, she more or less hated me every time I saw her for about two months. I went to see her 3 times a week, and most of the time, she was furiously angry when I arrived. I stayed until she stopped being furiously angry and was settled down again. Then she would say, “You better go,” with tears in her eyes. Eventually, the anger stopped surfacing so quickly and she was more afraid.

I’m dealing with some of the same issues, I always assume, even when I am not necessarily aware of them in the moment, and my mother had some of the same issues, so what I glean from these other situations helps me understand myself now as well as what I grew up with. We aren’t entirely unique.

I think the pattern is the expectation that relationships are not safe to have or something you are even permitted to have. Entering into a relationship means looking for danger, armouring up, and searching for ways to protect yourself–like putting the other person down, so that you don’t feel so vulnerable, or being controlling so the whole thing feels more predictable, or pushing the person away with harsh words.

I thought of how I experienced this as a small child, with a mother who felt she wasn’t allowed to engage with me. She wasn’t just lazy or indifferent or selfish, although it’s possible she was those things too. She perceived relationships as dangerous and if she started to feel a longing to be close to me, she perceived me as a threat.

Now when you are little and forming an idea of yourself and your parent perceives you as an actual, real frightening threat to themselves, what idea of yourself do you form? I can’t be myself, because I am actually a danger.

The best I could

I was reading yesterday about the right temporoparietal junction, which is the area of the cerebral cortex where the temporal lobe meets the parietal lobe, on the right side (as the name implies). It seems to be involved in tasks which involve shifting attention between different stimuli, and is especially implicated in tasks involving false beliefs. In other words, if I know where the doll is hidden, but I have to understand that Sally Ann doesn’t because someone moved it while she was out of the room, I need to be able to take into account that Sally Ann does not know what I know and will search for it in the place she (falsely) believes it to be.

This is important to me because these kinds of tasks involve mentalization: thinking about someone else’s (and one’s own) thoughts, beliefs, motives and feelings. The ability to mentalize is something which seems to be break down during stress for people with borderline personality disorder, and I suspect in others with relational trauma.

Anyway, it’s something I feel I am working on. I have an instinct that this is key, and I do a lot of just trying to keep being aware of myself as someone who thinks and feels even when those feelings and thoughts are distressing. In other words, I don’t so much work at eliminating distressing thoughts and feelings, but try to keep it within a tolerable range and not numb out so that respond I impulsively and reflexively without actually knowing why I am doing what I am doing. Sometimes that means just holding onto an awareness of the unpleasantness of the sensation of the emotion for as long as I can manage it, because that eventually seems to lead to some part of my brain eventually saying, “Oh, I think this is sadness…” or anger or whatever. And then it kind of gets better.

So I was reading about this part of the brain, and I suddenly realized something which I basically already know: children really have no ability to think about false beliefs below the age of two, and it’s pretty limited until about five. Kids at four years old are on the cusp: some four-year-olds know that Sally Ann will look in the place where she last saw the doll, but many won’t. At five, nearly all children who don’t have Autism Spectrum Disorder will know this.

And it just occurred to me so if my mother was a lunatic, essentially, and had distorted beliefs about me (that I was trying to ruin her life, say, rather than call attention to my loneliness or my hunger or whatever feeling I had), before around three at the earliest, I had absolutely no way to think about this. I had probably also no way to think about my father’s obsession with death or corpses or even the idea that the corpses could not feel pain when he mutilated them. These aren’t situations about false beliefs, but they are about minds which were quite different from mine.

I have an idea some of the most severe abuse I experienced occurred before I was five, and a lot of it before I was four. The way these memories are encoded would be different than memories where I have an awareness of being a mind which thinks. I think memories of being very young when my mother was viciously attacking me would have encoded her mental state as merely my feeling about her mental state: “My mom is angry at me,” is encoded as, “I am bad.” In other words, as though the mental state is merely a reality: my mom thinks  I am bad is not possible as a thought, because three-year-olds can’t think about thoughts.

When those memories come rushing back, I feel again that sense of badness as I did as a toddler. I know some people feel this is a maladaptive belief which will remain troublesome until it is corrected, but I feel it is an attempt to tell a story, which will be a lot less troublesome when I can hear the story.

The story is my mom got really mad about things and she yelled at me and sometimes hit me and said I was bad, and it felt really terrible when she did those things. And the thing is if my mom had been sort of normal, my distress at feeling overwhelmed by this sense of badness (which is essentially guilt) would have prompted my mother to lay off. Right? I suppose that’s probably why I remember it the way I do: I remember the message I needed my mother to hear. Listen, mom, I feel terrible. I feel so full of badness I want to tear off my own skin. Mom, stop, I am overwhelmed.

That’s what I think today. I think about this little toddler me and what I felt, and I think knowing how it actually felt is important. I think that’s part of the story. And I can’t really imagine telling myself, years after the fact, well, I’m sorry this happened to you, but you got it all wrong. You had the wrong feelings. Your misunderstanding of the situation has more or less ruined my life.

I can’t really do that. I think of my toddler self who just felt unbearably, excruciatingly bad and I feel prompted to simply accept this happened. It was awful. It hurt me. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault what happened and it wasn’t my fault how I made sense of it. I did the best I could

 

New job

I had an interview yesterday. Fifteen minutes and then they said they wanted to hire me. I suppose that was their plan: fifteen minutes and then a decision. No discussion among the panel, no checking your references to see you are as great as you say you are. Just, “We’d like to hire you.”

It’s the same thing I have been doing–just day-to-day substituting, but closer to where I live. It was gratifying.

It also meant I have some things to do now: another TB test, some online trainings, more fingerprints (but they pay). I went to the DMV to get a new ID, because I lost mine more than a decade ago and never replaced it. That means I’ve had only my passport as a form of identification, and it ends up making me a little crazy–like what if I lose that?

Anyway, it wasn’t a terrific surprise that I woke up in a more distressed place than usual.  I wonder what is really happening in my mind when this goes on. Why do I feel drowned in emotions that don’t really make sense? Why even do I seem to be more focused on myself, and on whatever my thoughts have prompted me to believe about myself?

I don’t have answers to this. I think it helps to try to continue to be able to think. I think being able to engage in any kind of “I am a person thinking about my own mind” sort of thinking makes a long-term difference.

My other thought about this is that, for one, actually having the sensation of the emotion (as painful as it is) makes it easier to be with it rather than feel I need to do something. Losing awareness of the feeling catapults me into a place where I am restraining urges or holding onto thoughts that, for me, feel annoying: pointless, like chatter.

In addition, being aware of the sensation of the feeling connects me to being the person who has had that feeling in the past and is likely to have that feeling again. In other words, since I probably cannot think rationally, during these times, it’s no use running down the rabbit hole of “am I a worthwhile human being?” But allowing myself to have the emotions of someone who feels I have no worth (or whatever distressing feeling I am having) connects me to being the person who felt that way as a child and is likely to experience set backs in the future which might lead me to feel that way again.

I think there’s a benefit to that. It sucks to feel worthless, and it most definitely felt terrible to feel worthless when I was five or two or whatever, so rather than debating over the fact of the matter, which I think mostly leads to shame, (I am not worthless, so then I am not allowed to feel the sucky feelings I have right now, so now I feel like I can’t really exist as a feeling person….) it’s much better to build a sense of compassion for myself as someone who sometimes has painful feelings.

They are building a deck on my neighbours house. Circular saw going for the last hour–on and off–can’t really cope anymore….

Have a nice Saturday.

Tired and Burnt out

I stayed home sick Wednesday as well. The hard thing about this is my mind is free just spin.

It was okay, more or less. Not amazing. C is taking what are called trial exams, which count for 5% of her grade. I feel worried about her, because I don’t know her midterm grades still. I asked the class teacher. He promised. He did not. I asked him for about 2 months. Then I asked my friend for the principal’s phone number. I used to have it, but I think I lost it. She said she would ask him for me. He promised. He hasn’t. It’s so hard being far away. This kind if thing just wears you down.

C probably won’t qualify for 11th grade. She will be crushed. But if she is at all improved over last year, that would be a way to encourage her. You improved, C, keep trying and maybe you will.

I am worried really that she’s scared. It’s just a feeling– not that something will happen, but just I am being pulled. And I can’t come.

My friend emailed me last night as I struggled to sleep. I wouldn’t be so placenta-ed to my phone, but there is C.

My friend said some important-looking mail had come, including a paycheck perhaps.  She wanted to leave it on her front porch for me. She said I know this sounds inhospitable. Then she said she hoped we could get past this. Well, her approach would be unlikely to make anything improve. I feel like I am in 2nd grade.

I said if it seems important, please don’t leave it on your porch all day. Keep in mind, someone will most likely be home. I didn’t respond to her hope of getting past things while simultaneously being rude. (I just want to make a point of making sure you know I don’t want you to actually knock on the door.) It’s her mind fighting itself and I prefer not to come between it.

In which I cannot keep my pronouns straight

I saw my therapist on Monday this week. I had stayed home sick with a cold, but I thought it might be easier to come in then than during an evening after work when I might still be recovering.

It went more smoothly. She started off asking if I still thought it was a good fit, which of course hurt my feelings although I had also been wondering this. I said I thought our issues were a normal part of relationships. It takes time to get to know each other. It is not necessarily a smooth process.

That said, we went on to more serious stuff. Nata, my miscarriage. I went away feeling much lighter.

As time goes on, I sense that things about my mother and how she affected me are clicking into place. A kind of mental unjamming.

There is a predictable pattern to relationship trauma emotions. This is what I feel I have noticed, among other things. The flip among states happens so fast because you are so vigilant. The alertness makes you observant and reactive.

Thinking of this as schema therapy modes is very useful. They intersect with some basic emotions. What I feel in close relationships about having needs and what C feels, my mother felt towards me although I was the child. Children do meet some of their parents’ relationship needs– enough to activate responses once learned as a child.

Here, I am imagining myself as a child, experiencing my mother’s relational trauma.

So you get the Vulnerable Child who has relationship needs and might feel lonely or affectionate, might want to pull you close in order to get a need met for warmth or attention or just stimulation. This might feel like the warm, nice mommy. Then once you are pulled close, there is the Abused Child who has a list of hurts and grievances, bandaids to be applied and scraped knees to kiss. Or, you could get an anxious parent, aware only of unease about closeness and not knowing what the unease might be.

In a parent, this comes through as a list of the child’s shortcomings and errors, either resentfully or fearfully. If these aren’t addressed to satisfaction, then the parent becomes angry and punishing. This is really frightening.

What it means is a child who continually feels deceived by the false hope of being accepted and cared for. Then picked apart, then terrified.

On the other end of this is a child who grows up with the expectation that approaching a parent or anyone close means looking for what’s wrong with you. Isn’t that the reason behind the shame for merely making an appearance and being seen? A deprived parent unable to locate a reasonable source of her feelings of deprivation settles on your weight on your posture or the way you did your chores or your tone of voice. But the real source is the parent not knowing how to meet her own needs what they are or even whether one is allowed to meet them, and maybe also childhood memories of the same terror the child now feels in being found wanting.

And this might escalate to the histrionic version of Angry Child who wants to express needs and feelings but feels consumed by guilt or shame.

Or to the Punishing Parent who gets needs met by force. What that feels like is anger and a fight response.

So tangled up, but I feel it all fits together.

There is another piece to this: histrionic displays perhaps come as a result of having grown up with a parent who was depressed or drunk or self-absorbed or even simply ill and could only be roused by deep alarm. It’s a learned strategy: seriously, attend to me!!!! But to a child from a parent, it’s traumatizing.

The effect of all of this is several-fold: the sense of being continually betrayed or deceived makes intimate relationships feel permanently uncertain and also that when someone really does get close, they won’t like you. You always seem to get played.

In reality, the parent who made you feel this way was responding to themselves and their own feelings and desires more than to the child. The parent brought you close and discovered a listener to hear their feelings of deprivation, not realizing the child might feel something about being identified as the parent’s source of pain when she never started this fire in the first place.

My friend says kind things to me, I realize, at times of parting. I realize that she says them because, impulsively, she does not want me to leave and in those moments she might actually feel that way. But later, she does not really remember feeling that way about me. The person who said them does not really seem to be her, and promises and implications she has laid out feel like corners someone else has forced her into–me, it seems then–when it’s her desire to avoid loss that pushed her into saying them, and not me.

That’s the kind of thing I mean: Later, it feels to me that she lies about even liking me, and I feel used almost in a mechanical sense, even though I don’t quite know what has been gotten out of me. Just that something must have been. I think it feels mechanical because she does view the world in a mechanical way: people are like levers she pulls, trying to figure out how to get her needs met, not knowing how to work relationships in more naturalistic ways. Not knowing really how to get serve-and-return. The mechanical sense may come doubly from the feeling that comes with shutting down attachment feelings the trauma feelings that go with them; You end up kind of blank, shutting down all of this.

But really I think it may not exactly be manipulative that she does this. Her way of seeing the world is so different at different times that it becomes difficult to see a pattern to it. There is a coherence problem, which goes beyond what I am writing here, but this same kind of coherence problem created a coherence problem within me.

Mindlessness

I saw my therapist on Wednesday. I had worked a half day in the morning, so I wasn’t as exhausted as I sometimes am.

My friend had sent me a nasty email in the morning. I read it right before class, and responded simply, “You do seem very angry about this.”

In kindergarten, we had gone over the calendar and colored pumpkins. All very Halloween-y, all very difficult for me, but the day went okay.

So I started off by saying it had been a difficult day. I mentioned the email and I mentioned something about Halloween being difficult.

We talked about the email for a bit, and she broke off and asked which I wanted to talk about first: the email or Halloween. Well, I said the email, because I thought we were about to wrap that up in a minute or two. I didn’t have much more to say about it.

She, however, did, and we spent the entire session on it.

There was a moment, answering her many, rapid-fire questions when I realized she is emotionally shut down. We are both in this kind of mindless state where we aren’t aware of ourselves of thinking, feeling people and are only acting.

Earlier in the week, I had realized when I act impulsively, I don’t hurt. I can enact the hurt without feeling the pain of that hurt when I am in that state. It was a strange realization. I might know I am hurting, but the physical sensation of pain goes away.

So we were doing that.

It was a difficult session. She really wanted me to express more of my own feelings to my friend. She felt I was acting self-protectively. I told her  it’s my job to protect myself. She said, “But if you’re always protecting yourself….”

I don’t believe not expecting someone who seems overwhelmed by their own mental state to be able to take in mine means I am always protecting myself from hurt.

She asked what it would be like to be able to bring wounded feelings to someone and have them acknowledge my hurt. I can’t remember what I said, but most of the time I feel my wounded feelings aren’t really about the present. I mean, some of it is and some of it isn’t, and it’s so consuming to entangle it, I don’t necessarily get to the point of knowing which is which before life has basically moved on.

She asked, in kind of a poignant way, “How would it feel for you if you could have that from your parents?” Well, I would think my parents were possessed. My parents can’t hear about consequences or about minds outside their own. A strange mind is an assault on them, a danger. If they began to see from my point of view I would know they were no longer themselves anymore. You can’t spend your whole life wishing your parents weren’t mentally ill and trying to imagine how life might be if they weren’t. It’s more exhausting to imagine life as it might have been than simply to deal with what is. At some point, there has to be a way to accept that they are, and to begin to think given what is, what can I make out of the life that I have? And to focus not on one’s deprivation, but on what hope there might still be.

Not that there isn’t a place for seeing deprivation and not that there needs to be some kind of time-limit on how long you are allowed to notice it before you are forced to move on. I think it is something that always recurs, in fact. At every important life moment, you will see what might have been or you will see what seems to be normal for other people but that you will never have.

When you have mentally ill parents, at every graduation, wedding, bar mitzvah, holiday gathering, christening, whatever….you will either see what it is like to have normal parents be a part of these events when yours aren’t, or you will see yourself needing to manage parents who are emotional toddlers on grownup legs when other people have parents they don’t need to babysit.

But I can’t set up camp and live in that place. This is my life. It isn’t fair. I can’t really do anything about that. It’s a deeper societal problem: in reality, mentally ill people need help raising their children. Society cannot either accept that people with mental illnesses need help nor that there will always be some parents with mental illnesses. I don’t think society at large can accept that mental illness is a permanent part of the vast range of human experience. It contradicts too deeply held a value: we are each of us responsible for ourselves and our own families. The practical application of this is that problems get passed down through generations and generations.

She has this idea that I am lonely and I need more relationships. She thinks I am pushing people away. She thinks this is the answer.

She thinks I am seeing my friend in a distorted way.

She asks me about this I think four times, something like, “Are you sure you aren’t reading into this?” Not those words, but something like that.

I wonder if my own reading hits a wound for her: sometimes people do mean to hurt you. When someone is angry, our instinct is to wound. As we become older and more able to regulate our emotions, our cognitive biases let up a little, and we stop hitting people on the heads for stealing our toys. But when you cannot acknowledge that someone you trusted and depended on wanted  to cause you pain, then you find yourself unable to talk about it later.

I wonder if she won’t allow me to identify that my friend at the moment of the email wanted to hurt me, because there are people she cannot identify as having wanted to hurt her: if this idea that sometimes harm is intentional is unspeakable for her and she needs it to be unspeakable to me.

People can hurt you, I suppose, but it cannot be intentional and unremorseful. And yet it is sometimes. Not necessarily because people are evil, but because emotion creates cognitive biases. Then later, people find ways to justify what they did while in a state of mindlessness.

I finally asked what the purpose of this was: Why was she pushing so aggressively for me to agree with her? She didn’t think she was being aggressive, so we left it at that. I was feeling really suffocated at this point, as if I had no space to breathe or to think my own thoughts.