Other kinds of men

I did not feel very rational yesterday. Today isn’t looking good either. I feel deeply wounded, as if my feelings have been hurt. There is no readily identifiable cause for this. I am not sure what to do about it, or how to make sense of it.

There is this awkwardness with C’s dad, because of his dream about being a happy family of three. Dad, mom and C. I think there is an element of pretend to this: what if my life hadn’t been the way that it was, and I wasn’t 16 when I knocked C’s mother up and I had been able to marry the mother of my child?

I think there are real feelings involved too, though. He gets worried about C, and I feel worried about the same things and we discuss it and find a solution. And what I felt before was that I couldn’t share my worries about her with anyone, because people either did completely unhelpful things or told me I was imagining things and all would be well. He may have felt the same way. There is a real feeling of being supported.

Anyway, if you recall, at that point he said he didn’t want to call me sister anymore, and he called me mom, which confused me. Since then we don’t call each other anything–just you. It doesn’t feel good to me. I have lost my way of expressing warmth and affection to him, which came in the package of calling him “brother.”

So yesterday I asked him about this, and he said I could call him father or dad. He said he would call me mummy and I could call him whatever I wanted. I don’t think this is as weird to him as it is to me. In the languages here, mother and wife are the same word. I think I have heard women call their husbands “dad.” It has a larger range of meanings than “dad.”

But it immediately made me aware of all kinds of “dad” feelings and associations, and that I can’t actually think straight about what he said until some of that is worked out. I have managed to get by in life by never putting certain pieces together in the same box in my head. Some men feel protective of their daughters and some exploit them. Those are two pieces I have managed to never put together, because those feelings are too painful.

I think I grew up believing all men used their power in society to exploit women and girls and if they didn’t, it was because they couldn’t. If I start thinking other kinds of men are possible, it was not inevitable that I have a father who murdered women and girls and was obsessed with cutting up their bodies, then it becomes very painful.


Trauma mama

It is exam time. Country X has a very strong exam culture. Children from pre-primary on up have twice yearly exams. These count for increasingly more of their marks as they go up. In fourth grade, which I teach, the exam is half the mark at midterm and 2/3 at the end of the year (overall, 3/5 of the mark).

The odd thing about this is that Country Xers have no concept of the unit or unit planning, although their textbooks are arranged in units. They do not routinely give unit tests or plan culminating activities at the end of units. I suggested that backwards design is intended to be a part of unit plans and was met with blank stares. Teachers give tests according to whim. Some teachers only give 1 or 2 tests a year. We now have a cycle of tests on Saturday, so that each of the subject teachers must give a test every 5 weeks, whether it is needed or not.

Anyway, so I spent yesterday morning monitoring about 150 4th and 5th graders sitting in an echoing multi-purpose hall while they took an exam. It was an unpleasant and frustrating experience, as it often is.

Nothing about it was organized or coordinated in terms of the human beings involved–there were 3 monitors and 3 subject teacher. We train the student to ask permission to enter a room, which means you have students standing in the doorway asking loudly, “May I come in?” whenever they need to return to the classroom (and students you have given permission to go to the toilet asking whether they can leave the classroom), but if no teachers are present, they walk on in. It’s one of the stranger things about the culture (for me).

So 150 students entered the exam hall unattended, because someone had left it unlocked. They have to be checked for cheat sheets beforehand, because Country X students cheat as much as you let them. While I was checking, the math teacher began to give instructions to his students at a deafening volume in the National Language. This meant students as a group were not first given any instructions generally about the exam–there was a page to attach to the front. They needed to be reminded to raise their hands silently if they needed something rather than calling out or leaving their seats.

It also meant when the children asked me what he said later, I had no idea. I find it frustrating that whenever there are ordinary matters to talk to the children about, the teachers who are meant to teach in English lapse back into the National Language. How is it they can understand the complexities of the subject in English but they can’t understand “turn to page 7 and look at question 14”?

In the long run, it means students do not learn what we call “mortar words” in language development, which are the vocabulary words common to all subjects. They learn the specialized vocabulary of their discipline, but not things like “open” or “draw.”

In the short run, it means I am left out of the loop and cannot fully participate with the group in many situations, although I would like to.

So that was a frustration.

In the afternoon, I sat with the math teachers and tried to mark the 5th grade math papers. It is done in a group to minimize the unfairness that comes from one teacher being very punitive about marks and another teacher inflating the marks.

Also, Country Xers like to do everything together.

I don’t like this system, because I find the people with me spend half of the time marking and half the time off-task and dragging others (including my distractible mind) off with them, so that the effort of maintaining my attention feels Herculean. Also, several of the math teachers are very careless in how they mark, and I find I need to redo it anyway. So it’s not a time-saver.

The thing is they have been giving me the multiple choice sections to mark. It’s very easy, of course, but I began to think they do this because they are all men and they see me, as the only woman, as not being very capable. I can only be expected to do the work normally given to non-teaching staff who have 10th grade educations.

It’s not always very easy to make sense of social messages in another culture, but yesterday I began to suspect men here typically do not see women as being very intelligent. This had never crossed my mind as a possibility before.

It’s an odd experience for me to ponder this, because in the US, I am never seen that way. The gender bias is less intense, but I also talk less here because I am consistently left out of conversations (or the endless gossip and complaining bores me to tears) and no one has any special reason to think I have thoughts of any kind, let alone intelligent ones.

While I was marking, The Girl called. She had wanted to go home in the afternoon, because she is off school in the afternoons, but I am not, and it gets lonely being in the house by herself for 3 hours. I know it doesn’t seem like a long time, but this is Country, where people don’t buy shampoo by themselves.

Then she got home and evidently found the household in more chaos than anticipated. The best cow had died, a second cow was sick, and her mother had responded by embarking on a drinking binge. She said she wanted to come back. I said that seemed like a good idea.

After the marking was finished, I tracked down The Boy, and told him we were going to fetch her. He was not at all happy about this, but went. I have recently (as in, day before yesterday), instituted the “naughty chair,” although we just call it a chair, because I was fed up with his obstructionist tendency (if I can keep you from doing what you want to do, I can feel I have some power and I feel safer). I started this after he was gone for a weekend, and I began to see that life is actually fairly pleasant. He just objects to everything so relentlessly that he sucks the joy out of daily life.

The (maybe) strange thing about having traumatized children is that it’s possible to see them in this very negative way (that he really is grasping at control, it really does make me feel like life is nothing but bleak and unremitting desert), but still feel concern for them. I can’t live with someone who spends so much time trying not to mop the floor that it’s actually more pleasant for me not to try to teach him responsibility, life skills or teamwork, and it’s also not going to be good for his adult homelife if he needs to be in control all the time. (I think of C’s family, and I am pretty sure her stepdad’s need for control is one of the core reasons behind their collective misery.)

What I am getting at is an attitude of acceptance rather than paranoia about negative behaviours. What I see in the children at times appears to be the result of alternating over-indulgence and neglect. I think in The Girl’s case, her parents are afraid of her dramatic presentation of emotions and so either become punitive or frightened in the face of them: either placating or abusing her. What you get out of that as a child is that you are a frightening and dangerous person, and yet that is how you know to get your needs met. It’s not a good self-image to have, and it’s also confusing. Why am I so bad? Why do I do such bad things? You haven’t learned to curtail your own aggression through deliberate control of your impulses, and you also haven’t learned other strategies. What I see in The Boy is more a kind of laziness on the part of the parents or maybe the result of despair. Enforcing boundaries is just too difficult, or maybe the parents feel guilty for the times they have punished their children harshly as a result of lost control and in the same situation where they have once lost their tempers enforce no rules at all. I am not sure.

There is some kind of confluence in my mind of knowing that what I am faced with in the children is re-doing normal developmental stages which were not successfully mastered and trauma-based behaviours.

I remember last year, my therapist was surprised that I mentioned that for traumatized children, personality disorders are one possible outcome. Specifically, one reason I intervened in C’s life is to  to try to prevent this. Maybe it’s neater to categorize the world into victims and perpetrators, but sometimes perpetrators are former victims who are now in positions of power.

It’s exhausting, and I feel very keenly I have no one to talk to about it. The loneliness is sometimes quite intense.


I feel especially bad this morning.

I asked The Boy’s sister to come to the house to study for a few hours, because actually she’s going to fail in a unsalvageable way. I have tried to help her, but I can’t get her to stay after school or there is something else after school she needs to attend. I haven’t been able to give her the support she needs. We had a holiday on Saturday, and my grading is caught up, so I am relatively free to help.

She came and brought her five-year-old brother. Country X kids occasionally do this. They feel lonely and want company and don’t see that actually the idea was for me to teach–not to provide a babysitter for your parents.

So The Boy had the brilliant idea to give his brother something like raspberries mashed up in a jar while sitting on the principal’s borrowed sofa set. He was eating them with his hands. The Boy is 13 years old. I have trouble fathoming his lack of sense at times.

I told him to get his brother a spoon and sit at the table. I think I neglected to tell him to go wash his brother’s hands. Anyway, I needed to take a bath at that point. I had heated the water before they came, not knowing when to expect them. I was in the bathroom for about ten minutes, the whole time hoping they could keep it together for that long.

I came out and they had gone outside to play–relief.

But in the evening, I saw in the light red streaks across the cushion of the chair where the little boy had been sitting, as though someone had wiped his fingers across it with red-stained fingers.

I was rather panicked about it, because the stain had been there all day, setting more and more deeply. Anyway, I washed it, and it’s possible that it may have faded enough to be unnoticeable. I’ll see better when it has dried.

So today I am not at my best. It’s very difficult and stressful living with The Boy, because he does not really have a conscience yet. Consequences do not seem real to him, nor do other people’s feelings. He needs to be able to tolerate shame well enough to start to learn what is right and what is wrong, before that happens. Right now, he is still too defended.

He is not all bad, by any means, but he gets caught up in the moment and can’t remember things like don’t steal, don’t break other people’s things. There are times when he feels like a big 2-year-old, minus the remorse later.

I am struggling more than usual. I felt in the morning especially worthless. I felt it’s important for me to stay with this feeling long enough to understand it. I think over the years, I have accumulated views which blamed the victim. I have come to believe that people mistreat me because I don’t have a positive view of myself. My lack of a sense of worth allows it.

What has occurred to me is the assumption of malignancy–people are just waiting for an opening. They are hoping someone will come along that they can mistreat. In reality, I don’t think they are. There are some people who are like this: anyone who seems willing to act as a whipping boy will be given the job. But this isn’t a universal phenomenon. Most people aren’t restraining an impulse to harm others they are just waiting for the chance to release.

In my own head, it’s meant I haven’t been able to engage with these feelings of not being valued. I don’t think I understood them to be social perceptions which might give me information about something happening right now. I understood them to be who I am all the time, which made them more frightening than they needed to be.

I think previous experiences with therapy did not fundamentally alter my gaps in mentalization. They colluded in supporting pre-mentalizing modes, rather than developing them into adult mentalizing abilities. Feelings can’t be felt because there is no difference between feelings and reality is psychic equivalence. I didn’t recognize that trying to escape feelings of worthlessness came from this assumption just as much as expanding upon it.

I don’t feel valued, because The Boy did not consider my need to take care of the borrowed sofa set. Against the backdrop of his desire to please his brother, so that he could be liked, all else was forgotten.

I can force people to do what I want at times, but I can’t force them to feel concern for me, and I think this was the deep undercurrent of my childhood. I could make my mother pay attention to my needs if I screamed enough, but I couldn’t make her feel concern.



If I hurt you, you do not bleed….

Fonagy talks about individuals reverting to developmentally earlier forms of mentalization or non-mentalization entirely under stress and he also talks about entire systems remaining in non-mentalizing states. He talks about teleological systems, in which only concrete actions can be understood. In this kind of system, individuals become coercive: aggressive means are used to force behaviours which mimic the appearance of care. (I know you care about me, if you do want I want you to do. Hystrionic behaviour can stem from this motivation: if I make you feel uncomfortable enough, then maybe I can make you things I recognize as caring.

Another system he describes is one called psychic equivalence: thoughts are seen as real, and so thoughts must be carefully controlled. Results are equated with intention. There are no accidents.

Finally, he describes pretend systems, and this one strikes a deep chord with me. Only one’s own thoughts and feelings are real. Other people have them, but they are not experienced as “real,” leading to feelings of isolation and emptiness as well as intense selfishness. Lack of sense of reality to feelings “permits interpersonal aggression,” because their emotional impact has no importance.

It also permits acts of self-harm, because psychological existence is seen as being decoupled from physical existence. (I can destroy myself, but only kill off the bad or unwanted part of myself.)

That was also my dad, who could kill animals and people, because their deaths were not felt to be real or to have importance.

They were real to me, and I felt pain and fear when I witnessed his violence towards others. It was decades before I understood this as normal. I grew up seeing only self-interest. I didn’t know I put myself in the place of corpses, because that is actually natural for people to do: not just I could be next, but I tried to understand what it was like to be them, to be dead and to be chopped up into pieces, because actually that is what people do. Imagining the experience of others is natural.

Empathy and mentalization

I have started to be able to recognize affection. I can’t explain to you why I was unable to recognize it before. I think it created so much cognitive dissonance, I didn’t process it. I didn’t realize it was a distinct feeling, with its own facial expression, its own tone of voice, or that it was as evident as happiness or anger.

I am beginning to recognize it because there is one boy in my class who feels it for me and it’s very clear and obvious in his face. I also hear it in C’s dad voice when I talk to him, and sometimes in his older sister’s manner. (She lives in Y-town.)

I was writing last time about mentalization. I read some things that were interesting to me. I am trying to organize them in my mind this morning, because they are lying there in my head in disarray, like loose threads on the verge of tangling.

The first of these threads is that the ability to understand inner states–to make sense of motives and beliefs and feelings–develops over time. Under stress, we tend to lose later-learned abilities.

Our initial ability to mentalize is teleological–in other words, concrete. I know what you are thinking or feeling only from easily recognizable physical actions. If you do things that I understand will bring comfort to me, then I know that you care.

The process of learning to mentalize is disrupted in abused children, because the malignant intentions of the parent are so unfathomable, and it is stalled in neglected children because of loss of opportunity.

Under stress, we are all vulnerable to regressing to this earlier state.

To me, it explains the controlling people I have encountered, as well as C’s tendency to make demands for money or possessions which can feel exploitative to me. If only actions can communicate care, and even then only actions which you have predetermined to be caring actions, then the only way to feel cared about is to control someone’s actions very carefully. It also explains to me why when I first began to work with parts, I needed to find things which were very sensory and physical to help myself calm down. Self-talk had no impact, because I have learned people can lie. I am even capable of lying to myself.

The other strand lying loose in my mind, ready to tangle, has to do with non-mentalizing. Because borderlines hypermentalize (and I think I do too), then trying to make sense of other’s and one’s one mental states can seem impossible or even destructive. I think I ended up in therapy which discouraged mentalization. I and the therapist lived in worlds where attempts to understand motives, especially the motives of others, felt destructive. The only way to stop the spiral of trying to grapple with real or imagined malignancy was to suppress one’s natural attempt to make sense of the world.

My therapy became action-oriented, rather than reflective. “How do you take care of yourself?” stopped me from attempting to make sense of my partner’s motives and encouraged me to stay in a concrete mode, where I could at least act in ways I understood.

The end result of this, however, was to increase my sense of loneliness. Without engaging in the imaginative process of trying to understand other people or find ways to communicate my own inner states to others, the loneliness was unbearable.

In one article I read, it warned clinicians of this: that people form systems, and clinicians can become part of systems along with their clients in which mentalization is no longer engaged in and curiosity about mental states is discouraged.


I read some things yesterday and the day before about borderline personality disorder and also about mentalizing which were very explanatory, both about what’s going on with me and what was in my mother’s mind when she interacted with me. Some of it explains C to me.

It’s still kicking around in my head.

The newer idea is that borderlines hypermentalize. They are hypervigilant about social interactions and ascribe motives and feelings to people beyond what’s really observable and most of the time these motives and feelings are very negative, so the borderline lives in a hostile world of their own making. They may even begin to ascribe motives and feelings to objects which do not have motives or feelings.

This is not meant in as critical way as it sounds. They aren’t doing this on purpose. That is just what their brains do. I think there are times when I do this, even when I do not verbalize to myself what I am responding to and do not know. I can tell you it’s not fun.

But you can see that if you start making up ulterior motives with a crying baby, it would not go well. You can also see if my mother did this, the image of the parent that would emerge in my mind would be of a very malignant caretaker, and if it happened enough, I would internalize an image of myself as being malignant, because that is what my mother saw when she saw me.

There is more to say, but it’s six am now. Time to get the kids up and make breakfast.

Small abuses

I see my children interact and sometimes VP Ma’am and I start to have an idea of the low-level conflict in my home growing up–the part I don’t remember. I remember the truly traumatic parts, the life-or-death moments, but not the parts that wore away at my small soul.

I see criticism and judgment in moments of stress in order to gain a sense of power, I see competition for no reason other than control, I see smashing someone else’s happiness out of jealousy.

My birthday is on Sunday, and lately I feel particularly sad and also less reasonable than usual. I began to think it’s those small abuses that are likely making me sensitive now. I have trouble reconstructing my mother’s mindset, but I see how my children are often prone to disrupting the other child’s attention, and I think a day when your child has a birthday may be a day you both want and don’t want that child to be the center of attention, and like my children, my mother may have seen me as a rival.