“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. At a time in which I was only just beginning to wake up to how toxic things actually were.
I had had a conversation with her not long before writing it, 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 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!*
Edit Sunday 11/5/17: Just want to note that since I’ve written this post, I’ve heard a lot about ‘Freeze.’ But at the time that I wrote it, many of those I was reading and listening to were not mentioning it.
Freeze tends to be my go-to defense mechanism, at least up to this point. 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 bitching, berating and finger pointing.
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 mean about it, in response to my last attempt, to strengthen our relationship by resolving an issue between us, 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. Ever. There was no consciousness on her part when it came to what was at the root of all this toxic sludge and dysfunction. No accountability.
When she said to me once, in a separate conversation than I’m referring to here, “Well, I have issues…” I stopped what I’d been saying in attempt to address a problem I’d detected from her about a week prior, to let her tell me what those issues of hers were.
My automatic thought process was that she was going to talk about some issues or faults of her own. Because when I say, “I have issues,” I am usually referring to some sort of flaw within myself.
Instead she laid into me. Her issues were about me and so-called awful things I did. They weren’t awful things. I had offered an idea while conversing with her. It just happened to be an idea she hadn’t agreed with. But instead of saying anything then, she just went silent and stiff. In fact I felt the tension. I knew something was wrong. She held onto it and used it against me during that phone call.
So back to the phone call I was originally referring to: At the moment that she said, “You have a choice…”I realized that she was never going to really hear me or be willing to listen to me.
In addition to that, when she’d said that she had decided she was never going to discuss the past with me again, that also got me off the hook from trying to have a real and deep relationship with her.
Thing is she wasn’t even willing to amicably and maturely revisit shit that happened just a week prior. She generally used my attempts at resolving something I knew to be a problem, as an opportunity to chastise, criticize and belittle me.
So I made a conscious decision at that point in the conversation, (although it wasn’t exactly a conversation since she was the only one getting words in and hurtful ones at that) to let go of all the shit between us that had been left unresolved and kept us so emotionally distant. I decided I would stop trying to work things out with her. I also decided in that moment that severing ties with her would eventually happen.
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. She was never going to be accountable in any way.
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 (possibly) however benign my half of the conversation may have been.
Ironically though she’d said to 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.
Then said, “And I don’t want you calling me to tell me negative things about family members.”
More irony, to say the least. These are things she had done!
Again I froze saying nothing. At that point I just wanted the phone call 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.
The threat wasn’t as overt as that with my sister. But I recall feeling at 13, I couldn’t wait for those girls 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.
Just weeks after this accusation, in the form of a command, I heard her catching herself when she just about started to make a comment about my brother and her frustration with the way he had kept some files of my fathers so disorganized.
She stopped herself before she said anything negative, but had gone far enough in what she was telling me, I knew where she’d wanted to go with that hypocritical bullshit of hers.
Maybe she’d had a moment of delusion about who complained and trash talked family members. She used to complain to me about our mother and compared her friend’s mom to ours.
Our mother wasn’t the grandmother, to her kids, my sister wanted her to be.
Edit Sunday 11/5/17: I know now this is a form of gas-lighting. It’s meant to knock the other person off balance and doubt themselves.
She hated how our mother wouldn’t chisel out more time for her kids. But instead of going to the person she had the issue with, (our mother) she talked about it to someone else, (me). This is her MO and had played the same game on me, speaking to my mother about me.
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 didn’t inform my mother of all the trash my sister was talking about her either. 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.
As for the realizations that flowed during that phone conversation:
I woke up to the fact that the eggshells…
(not only the two of us walked on…which she believed in her twisted 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 cleaned up, beyond bulging from under the rug, and until I had the opportunity to remove myself, I would not stop feeling like a garbage dump and actually being their garbage dump. This is who and what I was to all of them. Really sick shit.
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, yes.
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 or I coulda said that.” You know…that kinda thing.
Yeah that was happening anyway, but I feared it would be worse. Besides, there is a whole brain mechanism involved. I was groomed to take this shit. And my brain formed in such a way so that it and I would react this way. Of course there were already innate traits present that made the freeze response possible as opposed to the fight response. But I used to have the fight response. Then I’d been physically attacked a couple times as well as raged at and felt threatened. So that had something to do with it as well.
My siblings became monsters when it came to how they treated me.
My sister also spat out an ultimatum about me walking away, during that phone call. But my father was dying. And in fact is one of the reasons she and I were on the phone in the first place.
The same ultimatum was offered to me by my brother before that and then later by my mother.
I gave it some thought each time it came up and I’d been barked or whined at. Maybe it would’ve been healthier for me if I had. Perhaps more peaceful.
My father was dying though and I was apprehensive in getting deeply involved with his care, like the family was asking me to do. He and I had had some recent problems and he abused me emotionally and psychologically when I was growing up.
My family thought I was selfish for ‘making it about me.’ But in fact I wasn’t exactly doing that. 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, needed to be filled and that usually fell on me.
So yeah, it was kind of about me and him and her, as well as it was about my father.
I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be bullied into being there on everyone else’s 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’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 price to pay.
The exhaustion I felt made it difficult for me to 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. But this didn’t occur to me then. 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 those three bullies:
“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. But having no toothbrush and wanting to get into something more comfortable, I chose to go home.
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, when someone else has no interest in doing that.
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.
I did feel some shame and regret. And in some ways felt that I deserved to be abused.
And don’t forget it’s in our DNA to feel the need to be part of a family, a clan. It was a necessity to our survival once upon a time. That is still programmed into us as humans.
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, teens and young adults, was at least partially responsible for how we related now and why we have certain issues.
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 I was tired of being verbally beaten. So I gave up and let her have her say. As usual. When it came to her and me, she always got her way, ever since we were kids.
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. So 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.
*After reading Pete Walker’s book on Complex PTSD I learned of another defense mechanism called Fawn. It is just how it sounds. I think of it as kissing ass. But best to read the book if you want to know exactly.
This post on Safire Falcon had a short comment exchange so I’m including those here below because they added to the post nicely.
R said: 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.
I said: 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.
R said: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.
I said: 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.