Wednesday, March 19, 2008

You put the fun in dysfunctional

And the sky was made of amethyst
And all the stars are just like little fish
You should learn when to go
You should learn how to say no

Might last a day yeah
Well mine is forever

When they get what they want they never want it again
Go on, take everything, take everything I want you to

And the sky was all violet I want it again, but more violet, more violet
Hey, I'm the one with no soul
One above and one below
-Violet by Hole

In case you are wondering, the title of this blog is not directed at my beautiful friend in the picture, who is a fellow rat and Halloween enthusiast. She is a very, very good friend who cheers me up when I am feeling pissy (and when I'm not, too). This week I have tried to reduce the astronomical level of stress I tend to operate under. I experience a lot of anxiety that I used to suppress, but now I am trying to work it through. It is one of the many joys of having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I am afraid and nervous that bad things will happen, and that fear and unease causes me stress. Writing is a big part of my efforts to address my emotional distress, and talking to my friends who provide a lot of understanding and support.

The anxiety wears on me physically, with my digestive problems, migraines, and insomnia. Plus, I feel disconnected from my body a lot because of the sexual abuse. I've been disassociating from my body and my feelings for so long I have to learn how to be present in myself. So much of me was banished to my subconscious that I have to work at remembering to pay attention to my feelings, like trying to remember to include a co-worker who sits on the other side of the building in the lunch plans. Last week, my goal was to do yoga every morning, both to try to calm myself down and ground myself in my body, so I don't go through the day feeling edgy and numb. Those two adjectives sound odd together, but they describe my normal emotional state, and the opposite of grounded, pretty well.

Oddly enough, I noticed that when I did yoga in the morning I felt kind of angry. I don't know if that's because I was more awake while driving to work and therefore more aware of people who drove like jerks, or that I have a lot of pent up rage that is slowly being released. I suspect the later. I like the way people drive in L.A. better than Seattle anyway. I also have odd, unexpected flashbacks when I do yoga, but I think it’s probably healthy to have them come up and deal with them while I'm calmly doing yoga, as opposed to, say, when a large man walks up behind me or a crappy boyfriend is yelling at me. Jerk. Guess what, I'm still mad. Jerk jerk jerk jerk jerk. I'm mad at the PTSD too. Stupid, stupid, pain in the neck disorder that is screwing up my life and making me feel bad. Bad disorder, bad mental illness, bad adults who did this to me. Jerks jerks jerks jerks jerks. (How's that for letting out my feelings. I'm experiencing feelings! This is GREAT.) Next week my goal is to keep up on the yoga, and to get enough sleep every night. I was sleep deprived all last week. I think adding yoga at night too, or at least meditation, will help. It's amazing how high my stress level goes when I'm not getting enough sleep, and then I'm too stressed out to sleep, then I get even less sleep...

You may wonder how I am doing with the "I am not going to suppress my feelings about the sexual abuse any longer" campaign (or maybe you weren’t but you are now). Well, my concerns about ever having a decent sex life have only gotten worse. (I said "decent" rather than "normal" because I no longer think normal is a possibility.) Even if I try to masturbate, which is supposed to be a safe and non-traumatic way to explore one’s sexuality according to my sexual abuse books, I get such vivid flashbacks I have to stop. Let me just reiterate that- I can't even touch myself while totally alone without reliving the abuse. It kind of makes me wonder how I lived through years of trying to have a "normal" sex life. It really took a monumental effort to shut out the flashbacks, and I couldn't do that and see the guy as a source of emotional support and friendship. He was the abuser surrogate.

Harsh, I know. That's why I usually went out with guys I really didn't like all that much (with two exceptions. You know who you are, hopefully.) That way, I wasn't disappointed by the lack of emotional connection. And judging from the way they treated me, they didn't like or respect me much either. It seems sad now that I wasted so much time, and only made my issues with men worse. I actually don't dislike men- I have a lot of male friends, but in my mind, there's a big difference between a guy I'm friends with and a guy I'm having a sexual relationship with. The sex is a trigger for anxiety, fear, helplessness, anger, and dissociation. Those feelings are so overwhelming that I can hardly see the guy for who he is. I stick it out as long as I can stand it, and ultimately, with a sense of failure, have to give up on my dream of having a functional relationship with the guy.

The solution to this may seem to be that I should be friends with the guy before getting involved with him sexually, but sorry smarty-pants, I've tried it and it doesn't work. My feelings about sex wipe out the friendship; I feel like a sex object, and I feel like he wants me that way and I don't see him as a friend or trustworthy or someone I can be close to anymore. I go into disassociation mode to protect myself. If he's a jerk to me, I'm too numb to react, and even if he's not I'm not able to emotionally engage with him because I'm dealing with a full on anxiety/terror/PTSD/inner child emotional meltdown in my own head. Even nice guys are jerks or insensitive sometimes, and some people are emotionally unavailable without being jerks. I get that. I just don't feel like I can react appropriately and get the things I would want out of a relationship, like understanding and support. I get that from my friends. What I get from sexual relationships is the temporary illusion and reassurance that I am not so damaged and used that I couldn't at least put up the facade that I could be in a relationship.

I realize, unconsciously, I was trying to work out my daddy issues the only way I knew how at the time. It was re-enactment (another lovely symptom of PTSD). I was reliving the abuse, trying to come to some resolution, some understanding of why it happened and why I wasn't able to stop it. It was a compulsive attempt to make an abuser surrogate love and accept me in a way my dad never did. My behavior was based on the idea I had from childhood that there was something fundamentally bad about me that caused adults to mistreat me, and that I had to fix it, fix the flaw in myself. It was self-destructive. I wanted to be someone I wasn't, pretend I wasn’t hurting.

I have been reading a book called The Narcissistic Family by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman. One of the really interesting things about this book is that it offers a definition and explanation for what a dysfunctional family is, and why these kinds of families are damaging to the children who grow up in them. The term "dysfunctional family" has gotten thrown around so much that it seems to have lost all meaning, but I think the term still has value. I know and have known many people whose families, while not abusive, have scarred them emotionally. And for those of us who did grow up in clearly abusive homes, it can be hard to understand why, when the abuse is over, the emotional distress continues. In this book, dysfunctional families are called "narcissistic", but I think the terms are interchangeable:

"Our model is indeed about a parent system that, for whatever reason, can mirror only itself and its own needs (Narcissus), and about a child who only exists for the parent to the extent that she meets or refuses to meet those needs (Echo). Although in a strict sense this model is not about pathological narcissism, it is about a system of relationships or interactions that bear qualities we commonly associate with narcissism: self-absorption, detachment, lack of empathy, the putting of the self (parent system) first, an exaggerated need for reassurance, and concern with external appearance over internal substance." (p. 44)

"In narcissistic families, be they covert or overt, the children are not entitled to have, express, or experience feelings that are unacceptable to the parents. Children learn to do all manner of things with their feelings so as not to create problems for themselves vis-à-vis their parents: they stuff them, sublimate them, deny them, lie about them, fake them, and ultimately forget how to experience them. What has been extinguished in childhood—the right to feel—is difficult to call back in adulthood. But until adults understand that they have a right to feel whatever it is that they feel, and that they always had that right, they will be unable to move forward in boundary setting. And without appropriate boundaries, all relationships are skewed and unhealthy." (p. 38)

"It is helpful for individuals raised in narcissistic families to have a realistic idea of who they were as children. One of their childhood coping mechanisms often was to think of themselves as somehow responsible for the problems in the family (as bad, defective, stupid, and so forth) in an attempt to gain control, believing "if I broke it, I can fix it." As adults, they still have a skewed idea of how responsible (or powerful) they were--how much control they had, and who they were as children." (p. 52)

Under this definition, dysfunctional families are not wacky, unusual, or silly (as they often are portrayed in the movies and television shows that celebrate non-normal families), they are families in which the dramas, problems, and desires of the parent(s) eclipse the emotional needs of the child/children, where the child/children take care of the parent(s) instead of the other way around. Adult children of these families can often be identified by the intensity of their conflicted feelings about their parents and loyalty to their family that may seem unwarranted and not in keeping with the person's outbursts of anger and resentment towards their parents.

By loyalty, I mean deferring to their parents on decisions about their own life, believing that living their own life and focusing on their own needs is a betrayal of their parents, discomfort with saying anything bad about their parents or the family, denial and minimizing of the negative effects of their parents' behavior, the inability to confront their parents or express anger and disappointment, or talk about and acknowledge the past, being overly concerned about their parents and feeling that their parents are dependent on them, talking about their parents as if their parents were the children, feeling obligated to take care of a parent who is insensitive to their needs, suppressing their feelings for the good of the family, etc. There is an awareness that the parent(s) have acted inappropriately, but a desire to protect them from the consequences of those choices and cover up the true nature of the family dynamic.

I've known a lot of people who do this, and I struggle with it myself. For example, I am currently writing a book (based on this blog) and I feel guilty about it. I feel like, if it was published, it would hurt my mom and the rest of my family. It's not stopping me from writing the book, but that's because I've worked through a lot of my feelings about my family. There was a time when I could not talk to my mom about the past at all because I didn't want to "upset" her, and I certainly would not have written about it.

It seems so unfair. You get dumped on your whole childhood, and yet you still feel this sense of obligation and sympathy towards the parents that didn't have that kind of regard for you. It's especially confusing to sort out with the parent who was less "bad". My mom did all sorts of horrible things to me- blamed the abuse on me, refused to do anything about the sexual abuse even though she knew it was happening, watched my dad beat me and didn't do anything to stop it, left me on the floor bleeding and with a concussion and didn't take me to the hospital, called me lazy and ridiculed me, refused to hug me or be physically affectionate, and neglected us. She didn't protect us. She let it happen. She still holds me responsible, and talks as if I could have stopped it but my dad couldn’t help himself.

Yet, I can't hate her even though I do hate my dad. I feel sorry for her- she is clinically depressed. She was depressed for a lot of my childhood. My dad abused her too. She didn't think she could take care of us if she left him. She was worried about money. She didn't mean to hurt us. All these excuses don't excuse the fact that she did not take care of us emotionally. She was not there for us (my brother and I). She was not on our side. She supported our dad to our detriment. She told me after I was put in foster care that I was hurting the family. I resent her. I'm angry at her. I still have this sense of loyalty towards her, though. I don't want to hurt or abandon her. I feel like she needs me.

It is so hard to express anger at my parents, even as an adult. I can't help relating to them and feeling tied to them. They have this mystique about them. When I was a kid they were gods, kind of in the vein of Greek gods who were self-involved, immature, and unpredictable, but still gods who had complete power over me. If I rebelled I got a lightning bolt directed at me. I'm still ducking my head. It was that instability and capricious use of power, treating me like my feelings and needs didn't matter, that made it so difficult for me to develop into an emotionally mature person who could have healthy relationships. I felt like a peon without rights and I still do.

I read in one of my books that a man who has unresolved anger at his mom may deal with it by taking it out on other women rather than expressing it to her. In my experience, this is a warning sign for abusive or misogynistic men- men who seem unrealistically loyal to their mom, as if she was without fault, yet have unexpected outbursts of resentment and anger towards her. And women who talk about how they don't want to turn out like their mom end up dating screwed-up men like their dad, it seems. It always comes out somehow, no matter how hard you try to suppress it. The subconscious will not be denied. Some people say it is the real source of all our behavior, the home of all the secret motives driving everything we do. I don't really know how to fix it except that, according to all the books I've read about this subject, if you work through the emotional messiness you stop attracting dysfunctional relationships. It sounds like magic to me, but I'm trying. At this point, I have my doubts that I will ever have sex again, but maybe my subconscious has other ideas.


Pepper said...

Ya know, Aladriana had a mother like this, but hopefully not quite as bad (I hope!) So did Pepper, and Pepper's mother and Pepper's grandmother (and on up the tree.) I am not making light of your life; but I can't tell you how guilty I feel about how I was emotionally unavailable to Aladriana. I also remember how my mom was "never there," ever. I used to try to talk to her about my emotions; she told me when I was 13ish that "My mother didn't have to listen to this kind of thing from me, and I am not going to listen to you, either." My mother never felt guilty; but maybe your "mother" does, and that way she blames it on you in order to look innocent in her own, blind, eyes.
If you haven't tried it yet, try some pranayama. Meditation is good, too. I am only just now coming to grips with my feelings about myself, and I am ancient! I'm glad you started earlier.
Love ya.

Tealrat said...

Hi Pepper,

Your comment makes me sad! Mothers get blamed a lot more; it's pretty unfair. We just expect so much more from our mothers than our fathers, I think. My dad is just a tool, but I actually really like my mom, so her betrayals hurt more. But I still talk to her, and love her, and care about her, and I don't give a hang what happens to my dad. Screw him.

You know, my mom lives with my grandma, and she complains about her mom all the time! She has a lot of the same complaints about her mom that I have about her. It is a hard legacy to break. A least I have a mom who cares, and is sorry about what happened, and is trying to be a good mom. That means a lot.

I think you are fantastic, Pepper. Thanks for helping me out when I was having a hard time. I miss you!

Your adopted daughter,

Anonymous said...

I stumbled on this post and it really struck me. I can relate to much of the sexuality problem, in my own way. I found that in my desire to prove to myself that I was 'normal' and to try to get the sex life I really wanted, that I was re-victimizing myself by having sex when I felt really uncomfortable (or worse, totally terrified). I had to build trust in myself that I would end sexual encounters when I was uncomfortable no matter what. If I couldn't trust myself to protect me, how could I trust someone else intimately? Does that make sense? I guess it's also connecting with the knowledge in that moment that I am an adult and I have power over my circumstances. Yoga helped a lot, too. I learned how to focus in on a specific part of my body to let go of tension and actually feel it. I have to consciously do that to really feel what's happening during sex. Disassociation's a bitch ;) I'm still working through it all, but it has been getting much better. I hope the sex break and the yoga help you, too!

Take care, Deena

Tealrat said...

Hi Deena,

I'm glad I'm not alone, and I really mean that. It's amazing how reassuring it is to know you are not alone. Disassociation is a TOTAL bitch- even after all the self-help reading I've done I don't really know how to make it go away. I guess you just try to be aware of when it's happening and maybe it gets better as you deal with the emotional stuff.

Yeah, the yoga and taking a break seem to be good ideas, and writing about it really helps me. I'm glad it's gotten better for you! It gives me hope :)


Gwendolyn said...

:hugs: I remember. I always wished I could take it away. I hated your parents too. And I don't think I'll ever forgive either of them. That may seem harsh, but I was there, at least for some of it. Right there, when he said he'd hit you. And I felt like there was nothing I could do, but get you out of there. I still wish I'd noticed earlier.

Also, just so both of you know, I don't blame Pepper for anything. I don't hate her. In fact, I love her so much. I know she tried.

I love you, sweetheart. I always will, no matter where you are. Some day, I'll be there, and help. The very least I can do, is stroke your hair (which I now do with my children...thank you for that :)

Love: Gwen

Tealrat said...

Gwen! I was just re-reading this blog post and the comments, and amazingly, I think I glossed over your comment about how you heard my dad say he'd hit me. He said that in front of you?! I swear, it's insane the stuff that happened that I forgot or was in denial about. Christ.

I miss you and Pepper very, very much. :(