Originally written February 2014. The text in orange below was the biggest edit, but there are other edits that I didn’t indicate. However, they are all completely relevant and helps the story to flow, even if it does make the post even longer than it already was. Heheh.
In addition, I want to share the comments that were written below this post when it appeared on Safire Falcon, the blog I had started and written at before starting and settling into this one. So I will include them below in the post, rather than putting them in the comment section.
“We are who we are because of our past. I’m not talking about what we do or don’t do for a living. I’m talking about who we are within. We walk on eggshells because of the past and I believe that we treat each other the way we do because of the past.”
I wrote the above paragraph to say to my sister quite some time ago, back while in the midst of a very stressful time in my already toxic family’s life, my father’s terminal illness.
Edit on 8/11/17: It was this event and circumstances surrounding it that made clear the toxicity within my family. The sickness had nowhere left to hide. Of course a family like this needs a dumping ground or what is commonly referred to as a scapegoat. That scapegoat was me. And boy did they dump on and walk all over me. I also want to mention and clarify the part of my statement above, in reference to what we do (or don’t) for a living/career.
Throughout my childhood, teen years and early adulthood, there was this underlying message that a career is an important part of identity. It was never said, never, outright. But the message was certainly there. Both of my parents had good jobs/careers. The industry my father was in wasn’t quite as stable as the one my mother was in, but he always did something. Even when he went into sales, which he claimed not to enjoy, he still did well, even winning awards and other fun prizes.
Like I said, the words were never, “You must do what we are doing to have worth. But the message was clear that it was an important part of identity to have a career or even a solid talent and be really good at it. I always wanted to find my talent and make money at it. I think maybe it might be writing, but I never knew how to make money at it and I didn’t have much help.
I remember once, writing an article or a poem or something and sending it off to a bunch of magazines. I was so excited about it and told my father. He immediately became impatient and condescending telling me, “You’re not supposed to send the same thing to all those magazines. You pick one and send it to them.”
I felt like I was stupid. But how the fuck was I supposed to know that? It’s not like he made any effort to nurture me in my writing or guide me in making a living at it. Fucking pecker head.
So back to my sister: I had had a conversation with her not long before writing that statement above, all the way at the top of this post, with the plan of saying it to her at some point, when the opportunity arose. It never did. In fact the opportunity had passed and I was left with the frustration and need for acceptance that I had frozen, once again, when given my window to state my case.
I hear a lot about fight or flight but it seems most people who talk about those human defense mechanisms forget one…FREEZE! (This, before I had known about Pete Walker’s book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. At the time I wrote the bulk of this post, most of what I was reading and listening to, left out FREEZE and certainly didn’t mention anything about FAWN either.)
Freeze tends to be my go-to defense mechanism, at least up to this point, when it comes to my sister and other family members too. When I get into a situation where it’s appropriate to stand up for myself, I fumble, stumble and stutter or just stop talking altogether. The last time I was in a particular situation that would have been appropriate to verbally defend myself, I sat there listening to my sister tell me how screwed up I am/have been. And when I did venture a statement or question, it was completely ineffective. Waved away with a “Yeah but…” or ignored while she leaped over it to continue berating.
Despite my “I feel” statements and non-aggressive approach, I was going to once again come away from this ‘conversation’ feeling as though I’d been attacked by a rabid dog.
However, despite her being so vicious in response to my last attempt to strengthen our relationship, I was about to begin being freed. Even through all the blame, shame and finger pointing.
When she stated:
“I’m done talking about the past with you!!”, I realized that I no longer ‘had’ to try to ‘fix’ our toxic relationship or the dysfunction between us.
She said, “You have a choice,” as if she were an angry mother scolding a child.
She continued, “You have a choice to sit and wallow in the past, to spend life in a depression. I don’t have time to resolve every little thing.”
She used herself and her husband as an example. That if one of them does or says something hurtful, they say they’re sorry and move on.
And there in-lies the difference…there was no apology to me. Ever. There was no consciousness on her part when it came to what was at the root of all this toxic sludge and dysfunction.
Although I don’t actually think depression is a choice for the most part and is an illness, at that moment I did realize that she was never going to really hear me or be willing to listen to me.
I actually made a conscious decision in that moment to let go of all the shit between us that had been left unresolved and kept us so emotionally distant. I let go at least to the point that I knew I would stop trying to work things out with her. I also decided in that moment that I would be working out a way to sever ties with her.
It was a relieving feeling actually. And I’d had this pain in my left shoulder blade for years. But as soon as I made that decision about her, that pain disappeared.
She was never going to see my point or validate anything I felt and I was certainly never going to get apologies for her bullying nor was I going to get any acknowledgement that she had been verbally abusive, never mind admit to remembering the physical attack years ago.
I was allowing her behavior toward me to cause me fear of being myself. I needed to be on my guard around her and be extra cautious as to what I said to her and around her, lest it be used against me in the future however benign my half of the conversation may have been.
During that same conversation and realization, she told me that she didn’t want to have to worry about every little thing that came out of her mouth when she was around me. Ironic.
Then said, “And I don’t want you calling me to tell me negative things about family members.”
This is yet more irony.
Again I froze saying nothing. At that point I just wanted the conversation to end. It reminded me a little of feeling trapped on the phone with a couple girl-friends when I was about 13. They’d been calling me names, making fun of me then threatening to “beat me up” if I hung up on them.
I recall feeling like I couldn’t wait for them to tire of their bullying so I could be set free. And that’s the feeling I had that day on the phone with my sister.
Thing is what she’d said was bullshit. She’d just insinuated (or is it implied?) that I had done something that I hadn’t. And before that, in a twisted way, accused me twice of doing things she’d actually done.
Just weeks after these perverse and even insidious accusations, I heard her catching herself when she just about started to make a comment about my brother and her frustration with the way he keeps things so disorganized.
She stopped herself before she said anything negative, but had gone far enough in what she was telling me and from her tone of voice, I knew exactly what her complaint was. It helps that I know my brother too.
Referring to the other accusation she so cleverly formed into a demand, the one where she said she didn’t want to hear me trash any of our family members. Well…
In the past she and I would be talking on the phone or I’d be visiting and she’d have some problem with our mother. She’d compare her with other moms of her friends, because our mom wasn’t the grandmother to her kids my sister wanted her to be.
She hated how our mother wouldn’t spend more time with her kids. But instead of going to my mother, the person she had the issue with, she bitched about it to me. This is her MO and had played the same game with me, speaking and complaining to my mother about me.
The difference between my mother and me though, is that I did not call my mother to try to make her do what my sister wanted. I had the presence of mind to know that the issue was between the two of them and I had no business getting in the middle of it. In fact I think I might have even said to my sister, “Why don’t you talk to mom about it?”
As for the realizations that flowed during that phone conversation, more accurately referred to as a berating session:
I woke up to the fact that the eggshells…
(not only the two of us walked on…which she believed in her warped mind, that I was the cause of and didn’t see I walked on them too…but the eggshells the entire family walked on among each other) would most likely never be truly cleaned up and until I had the opportunity to remove myself, I would not stop feeling like a garbage dump.
Not that I hadn’t had the choice to stick up for myself. I suppose I did. But I didn’t feel or see it that way because of the fear of more abuse I’d already had enough of.
I was afraid for my safety.
But I was also afraid that if I attempted to express myself, the words wouldn’t come out right. I would fuck it up. And then I’d be back where I started and the rumination would be even worse than if I hadn’t said anything at all. Ruminations like, “I should’ve said this, not that.” “I should’ve been more articulate in what I did say.” I’d also kick myself for having tripped over my words. So with all that in mind, combined with the ‘Freeze’ response I kept my mouth shut most of the time.
During this berating session of hers, she’d given me an ultimatum to either step up or walk away, completely disregarding any of the reasons I had for being so hesitant to ‘step up’ for my father. In fact it wasn’t even because of my father so much, even though there were certainly reasons regarding him. It had much more to do with my siblings and knowing full well how they would likely treat me if I got involved on their terms.
And that’s the kicker, there were more than those two choices but I “Froze.” Ironically I felt the need to choose only between the two of those because of my fear of the abuse I was sure I’d have to endure. No other choice was clear to me at that time either.
And you know what’s even more fucked up: The same fucking ultimatum was thrown at me by my brother before that berating session with my sister and then in a later phone call with my mother.
I gave it some thought, to walk, each time it came up while being barked or whined at. Maybe it would’ve been healthier for me if I had walked away. Perhaps more peaceful.
But my father was dying and despite his abuse of me throughout my life, I didn’t really want to walk away from him. Not at that point. But I think about all this that I’m writing right now and wonder how he would have felt and what he would have thought, had he known the way I was treated by my siblings and mother trying to get me to step up…particularly my sister and mother because I’m sure their motives were so, that they wouldn’t have to put in so much time in being with my father. My brother was already spending all of his free time away from work there, so although he was still a POS in this situation, I know it wasn’t all about relinquishing responsibility for him.
Added 8/11/17: I want to ask my father, “How does it feel to have a family who’s so toxic that three of them gang up on one to get her to help care for you? How does it feel to know that your youngest daughter is a bully toward your oldest daughter? How does it feel to know that your ex-wife, the mother of your children is participating in manipulation, guilt tripping and triangulation against your oldest daughter? How does it feel to know that there is all this sick toxicity surrounding you in your time of need?
My family thought I was selfish for ‘making it about me.’ God forbid I have the rational fear of the two (actually three) people who have a history of treating me like shit, whatever the fucking circumstance is, even a dying father.
The fact is when a whole family gets involved with anything, it’s about all of them. And it was about all of us. My brother spent most of his non-working time with my father so he was pretty much never home. My father decided he didn’t want kids around so my sister’s time with him was limited. Which meant the times she could’ve been there, but only with her kids, needed to be filled and that usually fell on me.
I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be bullied into being there on their terms. I wanted and needed it to be on my own terms. Again I was the throw away who didn’t matter. And if I said no, I was pushed. And if I said no still I was still given a hard time. Agreements were ignored, my brother barked at me one day on the phone because he “NEEDED TO KNOW NOW if I would be available to be there every night until dad went to bed.
This happened a few weeks in and was suddenly dropped on me. After being barked at, I gave my brother what he wanted. He actually didn’t want to know…he needed to know that the answer was yes. No room to think and the message was, do it or you’re a horrible person.
Forget the fact that I had an on-call job, nights, that I would now have to quit. I was already struggling to put enough gas in my car to get to and from my father’s place. And was never offered money to do that. I had to ask and I was afraid to.
I’d known when I made the decision to give in to their demands and ultimatum, I’d have angry chaos and abuse to confront and basically absorb. I knew I wouldn’t stand up for myself. I did at times but not without some kind of recourse. Even when I stuck to my boundary after my sister’s attempts of violating part of an agreement I’d made with my mother, I spent that whole day shaking, scared and rehearsing what I’d say if my sister confronted me. Turned out to be a waste of time but doesn’t change the state I’d been in because of it.
The exhaustion I felt certainly wouldn’t let me defend myself physically or mentally if I needed to. I think I was also trying to control what they all thought of me. There was still some of that left despite my knowing it was a matter of time before I did take them up on their offer to walk the fuck away. The fear of losing their love was still a factor even though I didn’t really have it to begin with. And then there was the sense of obligation pounded into me..
“Step up or walk,” is what was presented to me, by ALL THREE FAMILY MEMBERS. Mother, brother, sister. It makes me want to cry thinking about this again.
What I wish my response would have been to these three sick fucks:
“Those are not the only two choices. I will be there if I want and if I choose to walk that is my business. But I will be seeing dad and caring for him if need be, on my terms. And I will not be forced into anything pertaining to this situation via shame or guilt.”
I thought it would be easier. After all, the abuse now had a time limit. Once my father passed, I would be taking that walk they all offered me in their ultimatum.
My father passed April 1, 2013 in the early hours of the morning. I remember because it was still dark out when I got the call from hospice. I had left just a few hours before…around 10pm the night before. And I’d actually thought about just sleeping there in the big oversize chair that was in my father’s room.
So my sister was right in her statement about choice, but not exactly the way she meant it.
I do have a choice not to continue hitting my head against a wall in attempt to resolve issues that someone else has no interest in.
I do have a choice in discontinuing to get acceptance from someone who doesn’t want to give it.
I had other choices too, that I wasn’t quite clear enough about, at that time to see, or if I could see them, wasn’t feeling brave or confident enough to enact. The feeling of needing to keep myself self physically and emotionally safe as possible was priority.
I did feel some shame and regret. And in some ways felt that I deserved to be abused.
To my sister on the phone that day, I found an opening. But I used it to weakly present the idea of the past actually being the present. I asked her, “Don’t you walk on egg shells because of events from the past?”
I was feebly and pathetically attempting to point out that our dynamic was formed over time through our behaviors. And the roles in the family, and the way we related as children and young adults, as well as lack of proper teaching from our parents on how to relate and resolve, was at least partially responsible for how we related now.
And in my mind the only way to change the toxic dynamic in the present was to resolve the past, by awareness of our own behaviors that created it all. But it was not to be.
As per her usual response it went something like, “Yeah but you…” and she fell into her habit of finger pointing and blame.
She was stuck in being right and making me the bad guy. I was tired of being verbally beaten. So I gave up and let her have her say. As usual.
So… Are we what we are because of our past?
I think it has a role in molding us. As kids our brains are malleable and in addition we all have innate traits and abilities. But they will be effected by how we are nurtured or abused. I’d say most of that takes place without our awareness too. And many adults who are in pain and manifest it in a myriad of ways, don’t and won’t look at it. Won’t look back. Will stay in denial. But there are others of us who are aware, who want to get past the denial and resistance. Who fight the confusion and frustration. Who want to separate what they own from what belongs to others.
And either way, maybe that is dictated from the past.
And maybe those that fight to work things out, to change, to make themselves better people, are who they are (or who they are becoming) DESPITE the past.
Comments from original post: (I am posting these for myself more than anything else.)
Rivka: I agree with your thought that some people are… smaller than you or me. Your sister sounds like my mother. She doesn’t listen. She doesn’t understand my point of view. I want closure from her. I want an apology, and she says I am a spoiled brat. I don’t think your sister can see the big picture like you do. And your brother, he wants what he wants. It doesn’t matter if you have a job to go to. It’s really hard when one member of an abusive family wants to make things better but the others want to continue and to deny. I feel for you. I’m sorry you are going through these growing pains.
Safire Falcon (me): I didn’t really mean that anyone is smaller or better than me. Not that I haven’t entertained that thought, if I’m being brutally honest with myself. But I’ve thought he complete opposite as well, so…
I’m guessing you’re referring to the end of the post where I say something about trying to be a better person. (?)
I was talking about being a better person in comparison to past self, up to the point where I’m in a situation that gives me the opportunity to respond differently.
I reread the post (and edited a little too being the perfectionist that I am) and didn’t see anything (or take anything out) that said that I think I’m a better person than some people.
But if I’m missing that, I would love to have it pointed out to me. Because even though I was angry at this situation with my family, I wasn’t trying to get the message across that I think I’m ‘better’ than them.
I think I’m more aware, awake and willing to see what they don’t though.
Rivka: You did not say that you think you are better than your siblings. I’m saying for you. “Being more aware, awake, and willing to see” is self-actualization, the goal of every human being. Their vision is small. Yours is big, and it depresses you when you are around them. I would guess that you both feel sorry for them and feel hurt by them. I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable.
Safire Falcon: Oh no, you didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. I just wanted to be clear and make sure I didn’t miss something in my own writing. lol.
Thank you for the clarification. What you say is very comforting and validating. In fact you are right about what I feel. Pity as well as hurt. I couldn’t have worded it better.
I never thought of my awareness as self actualization either, which is quite helpful too. I remember first hearing that word in my early 20’s and thought of it as something I’d probably never reach given my depression and what I felt was my lot in life, which was to work jobs that took me nowhere.
I am learning that I am more than my job. Thanks again for clarifying. I was concerned it might come off as being a bit angry but I wasn’t at all.
Rereading these now, I could make some corrections in what I wrote. Like how “I feel, pity and hurt.” I feel anger too. A lot of it.
Self-actualization: Referring to my last comment, there’s that mention of job again. The messages we get as children are so ingrained, it’s ridiculous. It is just registering to me that Rivka is telling me that waking up is actually self-actualization. But I’m still stuck in believing it has to do with understanding my purpose in life which in my mind connects to a meaningful (to me) career, something I dedicate my life to, a way to be productive and contribute to society.
I think I have made even more progress in waking up now that I can see more clearly what Rivka was saying to me. It looks like I missed Rivka’s point a couple times in these comments, which is frustrating.