‘Show me where they are in five years!’ (abuse recovery and the extended grieving process)

adult alone anxious black and white

A good friend of mine, whom I will call Grace, lost a child before I knew her as a friend. Grace’s mother is a religious woman. She (the mother) was perplexed by the depth of her daughter’s grief response.

Grace’s mother believed that extended periods of grief were an ‘unbelievers’ lot in life. Those who grieved extensively must be lacking somehow in faith. It seems she also subscribed to the notion that a Christian response to loss was stoic, strong, joy filled, and ‘soldiering on’ in spite of it; proving to others your strength (thereby the unsaved folks can be inspired by your good Christian example).

A couple in Grace’s mother’s church also lost their young child. And they ‘handled it so well’, according to Grace’s mother. The father spoke at the funeral and praised and thanked God. In the weeks that passed, as people offered condolences, the grieving dad asked if there were any ways he might pray for them. In the first six months after the loss, the Mother had also shared her story, and proven her ‘faith and strength’ at women’s church events. Therefore Grace’s mother wished Grace could have given such good and faithful examples herself when she had lost a child…

Grace told me all these stories long after the fact. So I asked Grace how she had responded when her mother so rudely told her she ‘should have been like those other people’.

Grace snorted. ‘I told her to show me where they are after a year has passed! And then show me where they are in five years, or on the child’s birthday, since as each year passes those things get harder; not easier. And if they are still going around saying everything is wonderful at that point, then maybe there really is something wrong with MY faith!’

‘How did your mom take that?’ I asked, my eyebrows raised in shock at Grace’s bold defense of herself.

Grace sighed. She said her mom seemed offended and that as soon as Grace had said all that she was overwhelmed with empathy for the couple and felt bad for being so harsh about them. Realizing that they were soon going to crash and burn, once the denial and shock stage of grief passed, she really felt for their inevitable pain. She also feared that they were going to get little support from her mother’s church, when the painful stages of grief began to hit them. So Grace softened some to her mother and said, ‘Listen, mom, they are likely still in shock. Once that wears off and the pain hits them they are going to need real and ongoing support. Grief catches up with everyone, it just does. It isn’t about a lack of faith and so I hope your church still supports them when they are no longer able to stand up and praise God like they are able to do now. They will be brought to their knees eventually by this. Please don’t be harsh with them when that happens.’

The couple did, eventually, crash with grief. Their deep loss becoming more real as more time passed. They went through a time when they were no longer able to ask about others’ prayer needs. They stopped attending the extra church events, and no longer spoke on a public platform. Grace’s mom began to talk about them in the same hushed whispers she used when referencing her ‘broken’ daughter.

At the time Grace told me this story I could relate, but only in this way:  when our business had been established for about seven years, a traveling salesman for a multi-state trade publication pressured me to buy expensive weekly advertisements. I bought one month’s worth; to try it out. But at the end of the trial period I didn’t think the results we saw were worth the added expense.

The salesman stopped on his rounds and pressured me to buy more advertising space for the next month. I refused. He persisted. I refused. Then he told me about a nearby competitor of ours- who was buying ad space every week and how ‘their marketing plan is working unbelievably well for THEM. They are making sales all the time and all over the place!’

The competitor he referenced was a two-year-old start up. I doubted they’d stay in business long as nothing they were doing made fiscal sense to me, nor did it make sense to my BHH (and business partner). I wasn’t sure about MY business savvy but I knew my BHH had business sense in spades. Therefore I didn’t think the nearby start-up competitor would ever make it past the start-up stage.

Both phone lines started ringing at the same time, the salesman wasn’t taking any of my polite refusals, and he was just standing there on the other side of my desk like a lumbering mule who couldn’t understand commands and might mess on my floor at any minute. I was manning the store alone and just wanted the salesman gone. Plus, I was really annoyed that he’d tried using classic sales tactics (so and so just bought it and loved it!) instead of just sticking with truth and honesty about his product…So I angrily blurted out, ‘show me where THEY are after five years, and at that point we MIGHT start running our business like they are running theirs!’

He turned red and left. It took over a year before he tried to sell us more ad space—when he finally called again our competitor had already crashed and was no longer in business. And I felt really bad about that. Just as Grace had felt. Because I didn’t mean them any ill will. I wanted to see them succeed. I didn’t want my thoughts and words about them to actually come true. But they had come true. Because what I noticed had been true.

Start ups have notoriously low success rates. But if a business can make it past the five year benchmark their rates of long term survival are far more certain.

Now I relate to all these stories and the ‘show me where they are in five years’ axiom from the perspective of abuse and PTSD recovery. I get my friend Grace’s grief. I have realized that my recovery is actually an extended grieving process. wherein I have come out of a lifetime of denial and for the first time have started to understand the enormity of the spiritual theft and soul damage that incest and child abuse steals.

And if someone can truly be supported for the time it takes to ride that roller coaster of grief, then they might be ready to be a witness and an example to others, eventually…

For now I am still grieving and recognizing what has been lost in my life. And I’m still in survival mode. Like the first five years of our business when we absolutely couldn’t live off of the earnings and just kept pouring all we had, and borrowing even more on credit, right back into it just to try and make it work on its own ‘someday’.

I keep pouring all I have into my recovery hoping that someday my brain and emotions will just take off on their own and not need so much outside ‘input’ anymore.

I’ve been told it will ‘take as long as it takes’ to heal. But I am thinking three to five years is a MINIMUM.

And so I would caution not to put anyone on any kind of a ‘pedestal’ or use them as any kind of example or good witness, before at least that much time has passed in recovery; any recovery really.

 

A Cracked Christmas…and why I am addicted to being in control.

blur close up crack cracker

My mom was a hoarder. Although I didn’t have a word for it in my childhood as the TV show, Hoarders, didn’t exist. I just knew something wasn’t right with her. We had two deep-freezes full of outdated butter and other things. Mom bought more boxes of butter (and fish sticks and ice cream) on every grocery run. When a freezer got too full, she added more freezers.

Each December I would beg to decorate. My school friends’ Moms put their trees up the day after Thanksgiving. Eventually Mom would nod with a dramatic ‘fine’, and I would climb into the attic to the boxes marked x-mas. I would sift through them and only put out the newer decorations. The cracked silver bell door hanger and the dusty choir boy candles from the 1950’s  stayed at the bottom of the box with the burned out lights, broken tree ornaments and stinky wax poinsettias things. Mom hoarded everything she ever received that had anything to do with anything; and especially Christmas. Yet it also seemed she hated everything to do with Christmas–at least when I was around.

I am an artistic type and so I enjoyed the entire process. All alone I would put the tree up–pushing the stacks of hoarded stuff to the corners of the living room. Mom stayed busy in the kitchen. Dad would come home and declare it looked good; and then now you just need to leave it that way. Then he’d turn to mom and tell her she always over did it and put too much stuff out. I would sing inside at the rare praise, hoping that Mom would listen to Dad.

A few days later, I returned home from school to the harsh reality of my life. Mom had oodles of cookies piled up in the kitchen. She’d already done her work in the living room. The tree sagged, overwhelmed with too many ornaments, many cracked, glued together, and dirty. The bookshelves overflowed with grimy candles. The counters in between the two rooms were covered with nut trays and waxy poinsettias (with layers of dust– too old to come clean). She had redone my decorating; putting it just as she wanted it–and how she wanted it was to have the entire house overflowing with broken, old, fused together…stuff.

I didn’t actually process what that felt like, until I started therapy a few years ago. Yesterday I found my therapy notes about my childhood Christmases. It was insightful to re-read. I could still feel the raw emotions that I felt when I first penned the ‘exchange’ between my younger self and my adult self. But the hard feelings were subdued now; less painful.

I also realized, as I read through the memories: this is why I am addicted to control. This is why I became co-dependent.

There was no submission to one another in our household, and no respect. Boundaries were non-existent. There were ongoing power plays and codependency followed by reluctant obedience followed by retaliations to prove who was really in control. Mom hoarded and ignored. Dad screamed and hit. The uncles molested and assaulted. They were all perverse with one another. And they lived, willingly, with all of it. Controlling their own little worlds, oblivious to the damages done to themselves or others. Just so long as they remained in control of something and/or someone. (Children being the easiest to control).

I decided that most things were my fault, or my responsibility. Now I see that was a form of maintaining some sense of control. In reality, I was in danger. I was abandoned and neglected and outright abused. That truth was too scary to realize, though. I chose the easy lie–that I had deserved it all for being bad.

As an adult my efforts to be in control of the narrative did double-duty each Christmas season as the stress and expectations mounted. I tried to make the holiday into a Hallmark movie for the entire family; hosting gatherings and making nice. I had my own boxes in the attic marked x-mas–yet Mom’s tired junk made its appearance anyway in my own home. She reminded everyone of what a fussy baby I had been. She asked catty questions about how much ‘that new bedspread had cost’ (even though my bedroom door was kept closed, and eventually locked, during family gatherings)…but…. So long as the house and the decor looks nice I can make everything inside of me, and others, be nice as well!!

Nope. I could never control my family. They won every time. Sadly, I still let them win sometimes- even though I have estranged myself now.

As a child I fluffed out that fake tree and made things pretty and believed it could work. I thought Mom would let me have some say, that she would honor my need to have a pretty home, that she might honor ME. She let me get by with it for a day or two. Then she showed us who really ran the house. I’d return from school, see those cracked silver bells on the front door and knew I couldn’t win.

Mom sat wordlessly during dinner, ignoring my dad when he yelled, veins popping in his head, because he couldn’t find his reading glasses with all the bleeping Christmas $*^! on the countertops.

I barely touched my dinner. Then I ate cookie after cookie, their rotten butter and outdated flour putrefying with everything else inside my guts. The next day I’d likely have to skip school, again, due to stomachache.

Dad hit with his hands and cut with his mouth. But in her own way; Mom won the fights. She got what she wanted and what she wanted was to hang on to every old thing she could and to insulate herself from everything. Misery loves company; as they say.

But some things are actually better cracked — like nuts. So the real question is: can I let go of my own need to insulate myself from pain; letting the cracked parts of y life reveal the tender flesh within?

I think so. Probably for the wrong reasons though. Oh, I think I have healed a lot in my recovery process. All I have to do is read some old journal entries to realize that. But, well, mostly I think I am just stubborn enough not to let my mother ruin another Christmas.

 

 

 

Some things were easier when I was living outside of reality.

rear view of a boy sitting on grassland

So my son lost his job. He was fired the week before Thanksgiving. His dream job… Well, all right, perhaps it was not his dream job. Let’s just say it was my dream job. One that I would have loved to have had myself. My stomach is still in a knot as I write this post; a week after first hearing the hard news.

He seems ok with it. It seems he’s learned from the mistakes he made. The work wasn’t fulfilling him anymore. He would have quit soon anyway had he not gotten fired. Still. I felt like I’d been smacked in the gut by a bear.

After a day or two of pain, I found myself longing for the foggy dissociative haze that was once my brain. A numbed out holding place where nothing hurt deeply. Everything could be minimized (well, he was going to quit anyway!), spiritualized (God’s got this! Surely this was meant to be!), or blamed (those dirty pigs, firing someone right before the holidays!?!?), OR, (my unique speciality), DOING ALL THREE AT ONCE.

I no longer deny the reality of my abusive childhood, nor my present mental-health-struggles. Living in those truths is changing my brain. One might think that things would get easier when one is getting healthier mentally. It is a bit trickier than that for me. I denied reality (as an unhealthy coping tool), for so long that there are consequences. Bad news is harder to handle than it was prior. The pain is sharp. Foreign. It tempts me to return to the emotion-less-void that is still so familiar to me. On the flip side, exciting events can, literally, be overly stimulating. I also have to enter into those slowly and with caution.

All of which makes the holidays, err, interesting.

Very early in the morning on Thanksgiving day, I put a turkey in the oven with my heart heavy over my son’s situation. The feeling of loss had eased some, but not enough for me to host a gathering with a smile on my face. I knew I had to pull myself together before the turkey was done. The familiar ‘place’ in my mind was waiting for me to return. I entered into the numbness with relief, because, well, have you ever hosted a Thanksgiving dinner at your house?? It is a ton of work!

The scary part is I didn’t even notice, or feel, the burn on my arm that happened when I put the turkey in the oven. An hour or so later I saw the ugly red gash and only then did the wound begin to throb.

That’s when I realized that it is better to be in reality after all. Because to harm yourself, or to have another harm you, and not even feel it, is scarier to me, now, than anything else. Denial is not a place I want to be anymore.

I thought of Jesus weeping outside of Lazarus’s tomb. The shortest verse in all of Scripture: John 11:35. A mere two words: Jesus wept.

Dead Lazarus–whom Jesus knew would be raised from the dead in mere moments. Why the tears? Why not  focus on the miracle, which was literally about to happen, and which Jesus alone knew was about to happen. It seems strange–why He would cry. Everyone else, who had no idea Lazarus was about to come back to life — sure — it makes complete sense that they would cry and wail and mourn. But why was Jesus crying over something He was about to fix?

Perhaps it is because Jesus didn’t deny any truth. Not for a second. And in that moment, wherein Jesus wept, there was death and loss and hard changes and grieving people all around Him–and so He cried too. He felt the pain. The God-man who is full of Grace AND Truth… stayed in reality.

Scripture doesn’t record Jesus’ reaction when Lazarus emerged from that tomb moments later. But I suspect Jesus was shouting, laughing, dancing, hugging and crying happy tears along with everyone else. I have a hard time believing that He was just standing there, aloof and removed. I think He engaged fully in the celebration which likely ensued.

Living outside of reality works to escape the pain of life, in your mind at least. But the body knows when an injury has occurred, even when the mind is somewhere else. The body always knows. Books have been written about that (The Body Keeps the Score. When the Body Says No.). I’ve read them both in my recovery. They make some very good points; I dare say: chilling points about the importance of living in reality. Indeed, just like my Thanksgiving day oven-burn, it can’t be ignored forever. The body will get the mind’s attention eventually and then it will hurt. We think we can ignore it as a way to deal with it, but it won’t disappear like a salesman at the door. It waits and waits, even though you never invited it in, the pain doesn’t leave. The saddest thing is that a whole lot of restorations and resurrections might happen while you are ignoring the door.

It would be a tragedy to miss those while hiding from pain. And so, while part of me still wants to numb out, a bigger part of me wants to experience all of life. The pain and the joy. The sadness and the celebration. So I placed the good china on the table with a gash on my arm, tears in my throat, and a smile on my face. I felt it all that day. My emotions looked like the heaping bowls of sides, the platter of turkey, and the four kinds of dessert. Or was it five?

There was too much of everything.

But it was good.

pastry on cake stand

 

The Holidays Are Hard

selective focus photo of red turkey head

Every year it is the same. I dread the end of summer. Finally, I get used to fall. I even begin to enjoy it. I love ginger cookies and homemade stuffing and baggy sweaters and stretchy pants and boots. Stores and QVC and mail order catalogs burst with holiday deals. I like all that. At first. But just about the time I start thinking that the holidays might actually be fun this year, I am hit by this incredible, overwhelming sense of loss and sadness.

We Christians like to declare that Jesus is the reason for the (Christmas) season and that Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks to God…But no matter your religious persuasion: the holidays are all about Family. Family gathering. Family bickering. Family going to church together. Family traveling to see family. Family gift giving. Family. Family. Family.

It becomes nearly impossible to limit the thoughts of my family of origin. The questioning (maybe they weren’t that bad? Maybe they’ve changed? Maybe I should reach out again?) starts up again. The aching feelings of abandonment. The loneliness.

adult art conceptual dark

I believe I have something called trauma bonding. Especially with my mom and to a lesser degree with my dad. Going no contact with them was very, very difficult. It remains difficult. It was also something I knew in my gut that I absolutely had to do if I was going to crawl back from the very dark hole I ended up in after a lifetime of denying the extent of my childhood abuses.

I have made such good progress in climbing out of that hole. But I can still get very low and I don’t like it. So lately I have been researching how to break trauma bonds. According to this article, there are chemical reactions in our brain which can take place automatically due to our feelings of love for another. To quote the article:

Through the process of love, our brain will have many chemical reactions, which take place automatically. Therefore, when we are trying to move past this type of painful relationship, we can reduce the chances of the brain having those reactions (of bonding) by limiting the time around the person with pathological narcissism or psychopathy.

And so the holiday season brings near-constant reminders of family which reminds me of the painful reality of my family situation. As well as constant temptations to forego reality and go back into the fantasy land of pretending that my family of origin isn’t completely toxic.

My therapist tells me I can’t outright call my parents, siblings, and other close relatives ‘narcissists’; or I might get sued…but regardless of what actual pathology they may have, I know I had to go ‘no contact’ in order to save myself and to try and heal. That is the hard reality.

And so, when I see all the obvious signs of Thanksgiving, and Christmas…

dachshund dog wearing a red sweater

I wonder if there are just automatic chemical reactions in my brain which occur. I suspect that the holidays themselves, with the constant reinforcement of family ties, are a bit like having actual contact again with the toxic people I choose to avoid. Because I’ve been doing CBT for years now. I’m containing. I’m reframing. I’m counting my blessings and being thankful for what I do have.

And the holidays are still very, very hard for me.

If anyone else is struggling with loss and the holiday season fuels your feelings of loss, then I feel your pain. Prayers and much love to you. And if I may offer some advice (advice which I am saying to myself as much as to anyone else):

Stay in reality. Don’t slip back into the fantasy that just because there is a turkey and a tree you can have a ‘normal’ time around a table with toxic people. You can’t.

Being Nice is the Hardest Thing to Heal From.

woman in pink white floral apron smiling while holding a white creme food during daytime

The photo is a repeat photo. I’ve used it before in a blog post because it fit there as well as it fits here…

I’ve been the woman in this photo. Baking treats for people I don’t even like because I just wanted to be that nice lady who is good to everyone no matter what. Also known as: a doormat.

But in my heart I often want to be Minny in the movie The Help and bake that kind of pie for another (see clip below if you have no idea what kind of pie I’m talking about).

I think of a recent airplane ride where the stranger beside me kept touching me. Not to the point where I could have filed a police report. He was touching my arm a lot with his hand as he was talking to me. I wanted to tell him to stop, but I didn’t want to be rude. So I just shoved my bag down in between us on the seat and made myself as small as possible next to the window. All that accomplished was having him tilt his head over and touch my shoulder…with the top of his head.

WIERD.

And, ladies and gentlemen, this is why I am nervous to fly…I often sit beside the strangest characters on airplanes. Though — on the return flight God made up for the weirdo with a lovely millennial from the West Coast. The flight went super fast as we shared thoughts on food and God and Donald Trump.

To quote a sitcom theme song from my youth: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have… The facts of life.”

Back to the point. A simple definition of mental health is ‘when the inside matches the outside’. I’m learning how to let that happen. It is hard. I suffer from being too passive (and then being too aggressive when I can’t handle ‘being nice’ any longer.). I’m learning assertiveness. Healthy boundaries. Being honest in relationships (one can be nice about it, but the key is being HONEST). It was a watershed moment for me when I began to learn that being nice can actually be… mean. Particularly if you don’t actually think and feel the way you are presenting yourself. That’s lying.

The devil lies; it’s his hallmark trait.

I don’t want to be a liar. Lying to someone is the meanest thing you can do to them.

So if I’m really ‘nice’ inside; why did I have such a hard time telling a stranger, “Please stop touching me.”?? Why was I dishonest in that moment? Sigh.

During my formation years boundaries were non-existent and so I had to hide who I really was in order to avoid being abused any further. I became whomever I thought people wanted me to be.

You need to know yourself in order to be honest. It is still difficult at times to decide for myself what I really want to believe, and who I really am. I feel like a lot of people establish those basics in childhood. But until one knows ones’ self — how can you even begin to be honest with others about who you ‘really’ are???

Books like ‘No More Christian Nice Girl‘ were life changing for me (well, life changing for my mind–my actions are still in progress–those old neural networks take a while to retrain).

Yesterday, while reading some of the blogs I follow, and pondering some of the comments left on this blog, I was reminded of this statement (the title of this post) which my therapist frequently tells me: Being nice is the hardest thing to heal from. 

She further explained, “I can have a volatile couple in for counseling and they will be fine. They will work out their issues because they are being forthcoming and getting it all out, albeit they might be too aggressive, at least they are getting their true thoughts and opinions in the open. When I get a couple in here where one or both spouses are being overly nice; it is very difficult. The nice spouse doesn’t understand why the other spouse has any issue, as they’ve ‘always been nice’. It can be a real problem when someone is too agreeable. If someone doesn’t share their real opinions and desires because they just want to please the other, or avoid conflict, then the burden of making all the choices falls on the other spouse, who can grow resentful. It’s a lot of work to form all the opinions and make all the choices for the other person as well as yourself.”

My BHH and I do fight openly, so I guess that means we will be ok. We can be too aggressive with one another, though. We are working on that. My passive nature extends mostly to strangers, coworkers, and friends that I haven’t let in close enough to see the real, convoluted, deeply-over-thinking, nervous, me.

As for me, I see my habit of being too nice as a combination of several things. I am still trying to figure out who I am and what I actually feel and believe (this takes a lot of alone time, for me, which I have learned to carve out and try not feel guilty about doing that). I still battle a good deal of (self-absorbed) fear (often the fear is that I will be rejected). I also tend toward resentment (aka anger — often the anger is that others don’t immediately know my heart and thoughts on a matter–and I think that stems from all the childhood rejection by my family of origin).

Curious if others have struggled with being too nice and ended up wishing they would have served Minny’s pie instead?

Have you found it annoying to be around someone who is too agreeable?

Is it just aggressive types who have anger issues? Or do you think nice, or passive, people can also suffer from anger issues?