Gaslighting

Hateful. Full of hate. Malicious. It’s a strong word to throw at someone. It’s even stronger when it comes from your family. It’s the word my family uses to describe anyone who expresses anger, hurt, or discontent.

My mother had a volatile personality. She experienced strong emotions quickly. She would think a person was great one minute and drop them the next. I had three stepfathers in three years. She would think a man was great, until he wasn’t. It took me several years and a bit of therapy to figure out that she likely suffered from a mild form of borderline personality disorder.

Many adults who suffer from borderline personality disorder suffered some sort of trauma in childhood. I certainly don’t know everything that went on during my mother’s childhood, but this explanation just never made sense to me. It took many years and some unrelated family drama to finally show me that her family gaslighted her for years. She was never allowed to express anger or pain in a healthy way. She commented to me many times that when she was young and upset, her mother would say to her: You don’t feel that way.

I am seeing it all now as an adult, as a result of something my cousin recently experienced. My cousin is gay, and he grew up in the deep south, in a family rooted in confederate pride and racist attitudes. His parents went through a bitter divorce and custody battle when he and his brothers were young, and he spent a lot of nights at our house during his middle school and high school years. He has become like a brother to me. His family has known he’s gay for 25 years. He has never hidden this and has brought his partner to visit many times. He has invited his father and brothers into his life and shown an interest in their lives. In all that time, they never visited him once and rarely called him. He was made to feel unwanted when he asked to stay at his father’s house for family visits. Over the past couple of years, my cousin has finally had enough.

He has become angry and explosive. He has posted publicly on social media about feeling “less than” his brothers. His family has been angry about the posts but has refused to acknowledge what was behind them. My grandmother has told him it’s all in his head and that he needs to get along with everyone. His brothers deny that he has been treated differently. His father and stepmother believe that he is just saying hateful things. That is the word everyone is using: hateful.

While it may not be gaslighting in the deliberate sense that is practiced by abusers and cult leaders, it seems to have become the way this family operates. Years of not dealing with emotions in a healthy way has led everyone to question anyone who does not follow the family policy and pretend everything is fine. Anyone who dares to get angry about this is “hateful.” It’s a way of shutting the other person down.

There is a difference between being hateful and being angry. Being hateful means you are trying to cause harm. Being angry means you are upset and hurt, and you may act out in ways that are not healthy because of this. The question is: What do you do when your family shuts you down and refuses to acknowledge your pain?

It may be time to let go. They have their version of the truth, and you can never change that. Maybe the best thing you can do is move forward with your truth and live your life in a way that doesn’t bring out the worst in you. Focus on those people who bring out the best in you. This isn’t easy, and it takes a long time, but the healing will come eventually.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Speak Your Truth

The letter to my father that he never answered.

Dear Dad,

There is something I have been meaning to tell you for a while. There are actually a lot of things I need to say to you that I have never been brave enough to say. Last fall, I was having a hard time, crying every day, feeling hopeless, ready to lose my mind. I called my doctor and went on mood stabilizers for the third or fourth time in my adult life. I started seeing a therapist to deal with what I thought was just the current stress I am under – the speech issues with my children, my mom having cancer again, not knowing what I want to do with my life, etc. It soon became clear to me that there is much deeper stuff that I need to deal with from my childhood.

While it looks like I have my life together – a nice house, husband, and kids – the truth is that I don’t. I have a lot of years of practice of making everyone think I am doing great. I always did well in school, was a good, overachieving child, went to a good college and generally appeared to be successful. I did that for all the people in my life – for my mom, to make sure she wasn’t stressed or worried; for my friends, because I didn’t want to be the weird one with a crazy family and lots of problems; for myself, so I could tell myself that I was ok; and for you…deep down inside, I felt like you would finally love me if I was good enough.

The truth is that I have been struggling with anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder for about 25 years. It started when I was around 10 years old. When I thought about how long I have been dealing with this and what was going on in my life at the time, I came up with three major issues that were going on: your increasing absence, my mom going quickly through three marriages, and Grandaddy molesting me. I now know that these issues are a common response from children who have been sexually abused.

I wanted all this buried deep down inside. I never intended to tell anyone about what Grandaddy did. I only admitted it because I found out that he had done it to someone else too. Telling you that was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I had spent a lot of years telling myself that nothing weird had happened…that I had imagined it, or it was perfectly innocent, or that he was a good guy who did something strange. After I told you, I pushed it down again and never wanted to talk about it. It has all been eating me up inside. I let everyone think I am doing just great while I have been crumbling.

I am telling you all this because you don’t really know me. You only see the person who is doing great and has everything she ever wanted. I need you to know more about me. I need you to know that I don’t know what it is like to not feel anxious. I need you to know that I counted my notebooks and went over and over my homework in middle school to make sure I had done everything right. I need you to know that I cried hysterically the first time I didn’t get straight A’s. I need you to know that it is not ok that you walked out on us and then had very little to do with us. I need you to know how sad I was when you cancelled a Sunday visit at Gran’s house because you were too busy. I need you to know that when I was 4 years old, the thing I wanted most in the world was for my daddy to take me to Disney World. I need you to know that I was not a happy child most of the time. I need you to know that I had postpartum depression after I had both of my children. I need you to know that I barely remember the first 6 months of Penelope’s life because of it. I need you to know that I forgot to eat for 2 weeks after I had Teddy…prompting my doctor to question my weight loss and put me on antidepressant medication. I need you to know that there was a night a few years ago, after a rough day with the kids, when I lay down with P to get her to sleep and thought that I could just drive my car into a tree the next day and make it all stop. 

I don’t know what to do with my feelings toward Grandaddy. I didn’t cry at his funeral. I just felt so strange and focused on getting through it all. I’m not sure I ever loved him, but I feel terrible saying that I hated him. I spent a lot of Sunday afternoons listening to his racist jokes, sexist comments, and telling me how great my dad was…the guy who was nowhere to be found. Then he started doing things I didn’t understand. I knew I didn’t like it, and I tried to avoid being alone with him, but I couldn’t really say the words to myself…molested…sexually abused. It stopped after a handful of times, and I never felt comfortable around him again. He always forced us to hug him, sit on his lap, hold his hand…and it was suddenly all creepy. He was a domineering force, and I was terrified. I was confused, and it never occurred to me to tell someone. I didn’t want to be at that house, near him, and I just had to deal with it by myself. I regret that I never got to tell him what I thought of him…to storm out and refuse to ever see him again.

I know this is hard for you. This is probably not what you want to think of your father. Your father was not what you wanted him to be. He was not the grandfather I wanted him to be. You were not the father I wanted you to be. 

In a way I have moved on, put it behind me, mostly forgiven you. I decided long ago it wasn’t worth spending my life being angry. It’s a fine line between putting it behind you and shoving it down and not dealing with it. I am still not ok. It is not ok that you abandoned your family. It is not ok that you rarely saw your children. It is not ok that we got a couple of afternoon visits per year, during which several other people were around and you never spent time with us. It is not ok that for so many years you didn’t explain to your other children that we were their sisters…that they thought we were cousins of some sort. I remember one of them asking me during one of those visits when we were kids why I called you Daddy. I was an adult before I realized you had not explained your first marriage to them. It is not ok that you have never spoken to me again about what Grandaddy did, never expressed concern or asked whether I am ok. I am not ok. I have pretended to be ok for far too long.

As a child, I just wanted a normal family. The only thing I could do was to grow up and make one myself. For the last few years, I have wondered why I am still not happy. There is too much festering inside for me to really be happy right now. I am doing the things I need to do so that I can be happy and really enjoy my life. A big part of that means doing a better job of expressing how I feel. I can’t keep feeling so hopeless and anxious all the time. I have to start talking about things.

My mother’s death has been devastating. Some days I am still in shock and feel like it can’t be real. Some days I am so angry this happened. I only had one real parent and now she is gone. Other days I am just so deeply sad that I will never see her again and that she will not see my children grow up. 

It seems as though you have no idea how to be a parent. We needed more than a child support check when we were young, and how we need more than an occasional check in to see how when are, especially when you just seem to want to hear that things are fine. I have friends who dropped everything to fly to Florida, help us out, and come to Mom’s funeral. They are busy people with busy jobs, just like you, but they prioritized the people who are important to them. My mom’s friends did so much for us while we were there – made us food, babysat the kids, cleaned up, etc. My own father made a 90 minute visit and appeared to be on vacation in the mountains the day of the funeral. We needed you with us, providing emotional support and practical help.

I feel like an orphan, as though I am really on my own now. I talked my mom most weeks and at least texted with her most days. She knew what was going on with us, what our days were like, what the kids were doing. You hardly know us any more than acquaintances do. The most troubling thing is that this doesn’t seem to bother you. I don’t know how you envisioned your life or whether you ever imagined your relationship with your children or grandchildren. Maybe you just want it the way it is: working, traveling, saying hello on occasion. If so, that’s fine, and I can’t change it. If you do actually want to be a father and grandfather, then I have to be able to be honest with you and to know you will be there when I need you.

Online Discussion with the Hometown (Don’t do it)

In the wake of ANOTHER school shooting, this time in Texas, emotions run high on both sides. I kept quiet about it on social media, because we all think what we think, and arguing about it does not good. Then an old family friend from my very small, rural hometown in the deep south posted his thoughts and very clearly invited people to debate with him.

I don’t debate on Facebook anymore. If you’ve ever tried it, you know that you might as well beat your own head against a wall. So I asked a question. I asked what the other countries that don’t have this problem are doing differently. I was met with a paragraph on how we’re different because of the Bill of Rights. I repeated my question: Why don’t they have this problem? I shared charts mapping the correlation in gun ownership and gun deaths. They were ignored.

Within hours, several members of the community were chiming in. They pointed out that Israel doesn’t have school shootings and suggested it’s because everyone is heavily armed. I shared an article on Israel’s strict gun control laws. No response. I was told that our nation needs to turn to God to fix our problem. I shared an article noting the decline in religiosity in western Europe, at which point one woman stated she would never give up her faith, no matter what I said. I most certainly never asked her to do so.

Someone said that a lack of mental health care is the problem and that liberals never talk  about that. I pointed out that they have, in fact, talked about it and worked for improved mental health care for years. It’s a problem with the people, I was told. Are the people in the countries that don’t have this problem better people than us? No one answered me.

There was a “you can’t reason with a liberal” comment. I was told Jesus is the only way. I was told people will kill each other no matter what. It was suggested that the government will come after us if we can’t protect ourselves with guns. Please note that at no point did I ever suggest taking away guns. At no point did I suggest anything other than studying the issue. I said, three different times, the the CDC has not been able to study gun violence for years.

How are we supposed to have any sort of discussion to fix our problems if people completely ignore information that is not in line with their own worldview?

Life with OCD

My mind will never rest. Some say I am hard-wired this way. Others say it’s a childhood coping mechanism to attempt to control the uncontrollable. For whatever reason, I feel the weight of the world is on my shoulders. All rationality tells me it’s not, but this doesn’t change anything.

It starts when I wake up. I open the curtains and make the beds in a particular order. First the boy’s, then the girl’s, then ours. Unload dish washer in a certain way: plastic (close door), then flatware, plates, bowls, serving utensils, glasses. Load the dishwasher in the right order with breakfast dishes. Get the kids to school, then wash hands before putting coat and shoes back in the closet. Always keep the counters wiped clean. No crumbs.

It’s the same with showering and dressing. Be sure to pick the right clothes and not the ones that give you the wrong feeling…otherwise disaster may strike. Keep the bathroom light on while putting on socks and shoes. Make sure the door is locked before leaving the house. Four times. Is the stove off? Right – you didn’t use it.

It gets worse in the evening. Wash your hands before turning the lights on, the right number of times, in the right order. If your thoughts are on something bad, then that thing may happen to you. Get it right so you can sleep.

Every movement, all day long. Putting things away, folding laundry, getting in the car…your thoughts must be on the right thing while you do it. It’s all up to you. You are protecting yourself and your loved ones.

How do I make it better? Practice. It’s a long road. I wish I could turn it off. In my head, everything depends on me. Maybe you know what I’m talking about.

Me Too

Inspired, by a lot of brave women, to put my story out there.

Early childhood. As early as I can remember, my grandfather forced me to hug him when I visited. When I arrived and when I left. I had to sit on his lap any time he demanded it. When my father and stepmother visited, my father would pull me aside and tell me to make sure I hug my stepmother and to be nice to her. Any lack of warmth toward her was simply due to the fact that I only saw them two or three times per year. I barely knew the woman. I was forced to hug her or displease my father. The message that my body and affections were not my own was loud and clear.

Fourth grade. A boy in my class followed me to my bus every day after school. He tried to talk to me and always made a point to touch my butt before he ran off to his own bus. I dreaded seeing him. I couldn’t avoid him. I didn’t know what to do or who to tell. That same year, a few boys on my bus made a game out of trying to grab my crotch. I moved seats and waited for them to get bored and moved on.

Fourth or fifth grade. My grandfather molested me a handful of times. When he was forcing me to sit on his lap. I didn’t understand what had happened. I knew I didn’t like it, and I felt ashamed. I had no idea how to even explain to anyone what had happened. I kept my secret for almost 20 years, until after he had passed away. My father wanted me to keep it quiet when I finally told him. We have not discussed it in the ten years since that day.

Fifth grade. My mother marries my third stepfather in three years, after a whirlwind romance. I barely knew the man when he moved in. He told me he loved me and told me I should give over my issues expressing affection and say it back. So I did.

Ninth grade. A boy sitting behind me in geometry class shakes my desk and makes sexual comments to me daily.

College. A man exposed himself to some friends and I late one night on the street and started masterbating in front of us. We ran away.

Age 37. In my hometown. A married man who is old enough to be my father stood uncomfortably close to me, but his hand on my back, and ran it up my neck into my hair. He chatted with me in a lighthearted way. This happened at my mother’s funeral.

I can’t even begin to count all the catcalls on the streets. I once told a man he was rude and to shut up. He did not.

I am filled with hope seeing so many women (and men) come forward with their stories. We don’t have to be afraid anymore. Sun light is the best disinfectant.