Thursday, July 14, 2011

Making Life More Fair

The majority of my day to day life is full of contentment; there's peace and safety, joy and humor, satisfaction in jobs well done, lots of learning and growing.  It's all good, most of the time, and when it's not, I've gotten very good at reminding myself that the dark clouds on my internal horizon are fleeting and infrequent.  And I've been given a built in sort of barometer to measure my attitude against - I happen to work in a place that is filled with some largely, well, unhappy people.

They tend to complain a lot.  I'm overgeneralizing, I know, and lumping a whole melting pot of personalities together under the umbrella of 'they,' but I'm talking about the vague sense of unrest, melancholy and joylessness that runs through the place as an undercurrent, so I feel okay about the blanket approach.

Every time I walk into the breakroom that all the departments in the building share, if there is another soul in the room, it seems that there is a gripe that needs to be aired.  Today there was carrot cake and angel food cake in celebration of one of our co-worker's birthday.  I walked into the room and commented on how nice the cakes looked.  There were two ladies sitting at the table eating cake.  One complained that there wasn't any chocolate cake.  The other complained that the cakes were ruining her diet. 

I thought, but did not say, "Oh shut up!  There's cake!  Free cake!  Two choices of cake!"  There is a part of me that reacts strongly, almost viscerally, to what I perceive as ungratefullness on the part of others.  I think this can be directly linked to the unfairness that I was shown from an early age by NM and EF and later in life by OS and YB too.  It's something that's difficult for me to talk about, though, because I was also taught early on that I am not allowed to notice or comment on the unfairness - my FOO firmly believed that lack of acknowledgement of a practice, behavior or thing has the magical ability to - poof! - make the unwanted thing just go away.

I was taught that I could not acknowledge the unfairness my parents excercised in how they treated their children, and that if I did need to point out the unfairness, well, that just meant that I was a whiner.  There was something wrong with me, don'tcha know... Didn't I understand how hard they were trying to support me?  Didn't I know that I was not an easy child to raise?  Didn't I realize that it was easier for me to take care of myself than it was for OS or YB, as I was so capable?  Really, they wanted me to believe, they were just leveling the playing field for me. 

Here's how it worked ~ school was easy for me, they said, becuase I'd always seemingly effortlessly acheived A's in all my classes.  Yes, all my classes, forever, at least until the 10th grade.  I skipped the 8th grade entirely, just went from 7th to 9th, and still carried A's.  It was more difficult for OS and YB, my parents explained, so really what they were paying compliments to OS and YB for on those report cards with A's and B's and C's was effort.  Which, of course implied that my A's came with no effort, and therefore I deserved no or less praise for my accomplishments.  I was minimized, as were my, ahem, efforts.

That's just one example of the way the game was played.  I swallowed it for years without complaint, largely because I didn't want to appear to be ungrateful.  I was trained to be grateful for scraps from the metaphorical table of love and affection, all while watching the golden children be fed a feast.

The saddest part to me is how well ingrained this minimization and de-humanizing became.  Right as the planet was cracking four years ago, we had our final Christmas with the FOO.  It was a typical one - NM and EF 'hosted' the festivites which worked out well for OS and YB as they (mid-30's and late 20's respectively) lived at the family home, too.  So, true to scapegoat form, I was the only family member who lived outside the clan bubble.  I packed up my DH and daughters... and the gifts... and the food... and the games and everything else Christmas-related and we hauled the 15 miles out to the clan compound.

I cooked a lot of the meal and helped to clean it up - again, this was an expectation fulfilled rather than a gift of service on my part.  The time came to open presents and everyone sat in a circle with their 'pile.'  OS and YB and even OS's husband had HUGE piles of gifts in front of them; 25-30 each, all but three or four from NM and EF.  My DH had about eight gifts in front of him.  I had one very large box.

I'd asked for pots and pans.  I normally hesitate to specify what kind of gift I would like - I'm not sure if this is due to my inner knowledge that 'they' wouldn't get me something I really wanted anyway or if it's because I was conditioned so early on and so consistently with the idea that it was my role to be grateful for whatever I received, even if it was only scraps.  But I was starting to grow and change before that last Christmas, and I was becoming stronger and clearer.  So, when I'd been asked what I would like for Christmas, I responded in a relatively normal way.  I asked for pots and pans.  Simple enough, right?

I noticed the gift count, but I thought, "Well, I'm sure that my gift was just more expensive than all the smaller gifts OS and YB have. Maybe they just packed a bunch of gifts into one big box."
When I opened the large box, it was full of pots and pans, alright.  Dusty, used pots and pans wrapped in newspaper.  EF explained that he 'just couldn't find any nice pans' that I would like, so he'd decided to take a bunch of his used pots and pans and give them to me instead.  Some of the pans still had little flecks of crusted-on food in them.

I swallowed the hurt and the pain and the shame and the absolute heart-break of the validation that I was, in fact, less important to my parents than my siblings and I said thank you.  It took awhile for OS and YB to make their way through their piles of gifts, so I watched and smiled and ooh'd and aah'd over what they received.  I played my role to perfect dysfunctional pitch, but there was just a smidge of uncomfortable truth breaking through my defensive walls.  I was so, so uncomfortable, even if I didn't allow it to show through the outer veneer. 

When we, finally, arrived home later that night, DH flipped his lid.  He pointed out the unfairness and wanted to know why I hadn't said anything.  "I can't believe they break the bank on OS and YB and they give you one crappy box of hand me downs!  I can't believe you accept the way they treat you!  They treat their dogs better than you; the dogs had more gifts than you!"  And then he delivered the kicker, the line that really cracked me open - I can still hear his voice as clear as day; "No one else in the entire WORLD is allowed to treat you like they do!  No one!"

 And it clicked for me.  It was only one tangible example of the scapegoating, the unfairness and the cruelty, but it's one of the first incidents that I was able to see from a slightly removed to normal perspective.  It helped me later on as I moved into No Contact with the FOO as a way to remember that I was slighted, that the family was 'out to get me' (and keep me in my place,) and that no matter how they tried to revise history, gaslight me, diminish me or flat out lie, it wasn't true.  It's not really paranoia if people are, in fact, out to get you, is it?

I carry a mental picture of that one box; those dusty/used/scratched up pans.  I take it out when I need a reminder that gratitude is my choice in life, but there's no rule that says I have to be grateful for being kicked around.  I don't have to be grateful for crumbs anymore; I don't need those poisoned scraps.

I'll make my own feast in life, and maybe I'll have a little of that carrot cake in the break room, too.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Not My Rock: The Big Switcheroo

The Big Switcheroo
I keep coming up against some confusion about my childhood.  Well, there’s a lot of confusion, but this particular point just keeps showing up over and over.  For a while it had the ability to stop me in my tracks, but the more frequently I’ve had to find ways over, around and through it, the more I begin to understand. 
About those character and role labels we tend to be quick to throw around and stick on people, especially people we have a hard time understanding; no sir, I don’t like ‘em.  Although it’s convenient to be able to share a common language with our current loved ones who (hopefully) understand and care about us, I think labels can create single dimension views of people and situations.  They encourage us to look at sketch drawings of memories and life events that really deserve technicolor and 3D on the big screen with surround sound blasting from all sides. 
They provide an all-too convenient box to place people in and often rule out mixed emotions, traits or subtleties.  If I announce to you that I am a Mother, that will be the box you put me in – you’ll never stop to wonder if I also happen to be a professional sky-diver or a lead singer in a rock band. 
If I tell you that I’m the daughter of a NM, you might never get to know that I am also a recovering alcoholic or that I am an artist of sorts.  The whole truly is greater than the sum of the parts, typically, especially when it comes to people and human nature.
So, labels can create confusion, at least for me.  I’ve had to spend a bit of time unraveling this particular knot... I blog here that I am the daughter of a NM and EF, and that is currently and for the last couple of decades been true.  But the older I get and the harder I work to unearth, examine and properly dispose of (again,) the skeletons in my FOO’s origin, the more I wonder.  Can a zebra change its stripes?
Because, frankly, up until a particular event happened when I was thirteen, I remember my parents differently than they were after.  The event is simply explained, though, it certainly didn’t feel simple and actually altered my life as well as the lives of my FOO very significantly.  When I was thirteen I told my mother that I was going to kill myself if we didn’t, as a family, seek counseling.
We did.  Now, we had to see a counselor in the nearest big city ninety miles away from where we lived, because we didn’t want anyone to know that my father’s perfect minister’s (yes, really, he was ordained and everything,) family was in trouble.  After six months of weekly visits, I revealed to my mother that my father had sexually molested me.  He admitted it and also admitted that he’d molested OS, too. 
The counselor did what counselors are required by law to do; he reported it to the police.  An interview was scheduled for me with my school counselor, whom I’d never actually met, a sheriff’s deputy and a health and welfare child services worker.   Unfortunately, I’d made my revelations right before Christmas break, so the interview couldn’t be scheduled until after.  I therefore had two weeks at home with my lovely family, and can see very clearly with retrospect that this is the first clear, direct incident of mass scapegoating that I was subjected to from ALL members of my family.  It was, frankly, what I would imagine hell will be like if there is one down there just for me.  They hated me for telling the truth and they had two whole weeks with me isolated and lacking allies to let me know that ALL THIS WAS MY FAULT!  I survived – don’t we always?
My mother and father sat me down the night before the big interview with the police and school counselor and ‘talked’ to me.  It’s the first time that I ever remember my mother having and using a voice as the primary force in a conversation in which my father was also present.  Prior to that day, my father had been the tyrant of the household – his voice, his choices, his mood, his preferences were all that mattered.  We did what he wanted to do.  What felt what he wanted to feel.  If he was angry, we were the cause.  If he was sad, we needed to behave appropriately sadly as well.  If he was ‘on’ and happy, then goddamnit we’d better put on those happy faces. 
In contrast, my mother had always been a sort of non-person; she was really only ever an extension of him.  If he was hungry, she provided food.  If he was talking (and he always was,) she was listening and nodding.  If he was angry, she was in the other room.  I remember my mother frequently in my early childhood memories as a sort of ‘Dad’s Shadow.’  She walked behind him and stood slightly behind him always.
The conversation when I was thirteen is the earliest evidence I can see of the seismic shift that happened in my family.  My mother did all the talking in that conversation while my dad sat quietly beside her, hands folded in his lap; contrite.  She told me that I should, of course, tell the truth.  Always tell the truth... but (you saw that coming, didn’t you?) that if I persisted in telling ‘stories’ to the police the next day, my father would go to prison for a very long time.  She told me that we would be homeless if my father went to prison; that we would lose our home and that she wouldn’t be able to feed or support us.  She asked me if that’s what I wanted.
I lied, of course.  I was thirteen years old and being given the very clear message that I was responsible for the hypothetical ruination of the only family I’d ever known if I didn’t lie. 
It changed everything for me – I went from being a straight A student who skipped the 8th grade to getting D’s and C’s in some classes.  I started drinking and I had sex for the first time and then went on a run of promiscuity that I am still shocked didn’t have greater consequences.  I truly don’t know how I survived the next four years until I turned 17 and moved out of the house.
I’ve recognized how it changed my life for many years, but it’s only been recently that I’ve come to see how it changed the roles my parents played, too.  I don’t know the actual mechanics of it, but it seems clear that my parents traded their roles after or during that horrific period when I was thirteen.
Prior to that, my egomaniacal, aggrandizing, self-promoting, center of the universe abusive father had been the Narc and my weak, cowering, voiceless, bland mother had been the Enabler.  Then, like an emotional Chinese Fire Drill – they switched. 
Since then my mother has embraced the NM role – her primary manipulations center around her poor, poor self being so mistreated and abused (largely by her scapegoated daughter Vanci,) and her weak, fragile immune system and sickness (no real diagnosis in 15 years, but the addiction to pain killers is very, very real.)  We should all do what she wants, dontcha know, because she might not be around much longer... Sigh.
Dad’s turned into the EF.  He has no opinion unless she’s sanctioned it, his job is to support her and to keep her on that Ultimate Victim Throne.  His existence, best I can tell, is allowed solely to caretake and protect NM from reality. 
Weird, right?  I can’t help but wondering if anyone else out there has a similar experience?
Now that I’m all grown up and have a family of my own, I have a bit of understanding of the temporary nature of some roles in families and support systems.  I know how those of us in loving and mutually beneficial relationship alter our stripes somewhat based on the current need; if my DH is sick, I am his caretaker and if I am hurt or ill, he’s mine.  But these role fulfillments are temporary and situational, it seems.  No matter the short term hats we wear in crises, DH and I always revert back to our more permanent roles in the long run. 
The constantly shifting dynamics in a normal relationship appear to be a matter of only little fissures, subtle and fleeting changes.  Our zebra stripes may blur, in other words, but they don’t truly change.
In my FOO, the parental roles changed drastically and stayed that way, which makes me think that one of the underlying character flaws of either the narcissist or the enabler has got to be a complete lack of self-understanding.  Not an excuse for behavior, certainly, but the more I understand the sickness, the closer I seem to get to relief.