For some reason, I am remembering the how and why of being such a tremendous failure at relationships. I once thought it was only relations of the “small r” kind, non-romantic, non-sexual. But I am thinking it’s just about all of them – the “small r” and the “capital R” types. I am sometimes a very good friend, i have never been a very good “capital R” partner. And, more importantly, I have never chosen a good “capital R” partner.
The memories I’m having this morning aren’t just about my behavior in relationships, they are more concerned with my earliest views of the as-built rendering of my inner workings. It’s not good. It’s PTSD in small ways…I know so many people have gone through far worse trauma than I have, and that’s a point of conflict for me in dealing with it. I’m trying to own it as my own, and not in comparison to other folks’ trauma, but I am still battling with not feeling as though I have a right to be this effed up without good reason. Bleh.
The specific memory I was having this morning, from out of nowhere, was of many long months of my parents battling over superficial things which covered bigger things. My father was having an affair – he knew it, the other woman knew it, my mother knew it, and of course I knew. Just because I was there, not because anyone specifically sat me down and told me about it. I wasn’t even sure what an “affair” was, but I knew it was not a good thing.
My mother was so magnanimously enraged it was difficult to deal with her on any level. She was a gem at work, in her kind teacher incarnation, but a veritable terror at home, in her cruel, unkind parent incarnation. I never quite knew what I was going to find when I got home, but figured it wouldn’t be good and expected to have to fight.
While all of this tension about my father and “the other woman”, tension was so thick a crust you couldn’t puncture it with a sabre. This was all happening around the time I refer to as “when the world fell apart”, coinciding roughly with death of my grandmother, death of my grandfather, me leaving the familiar school of childhood and going to mostly-white private school, and me entering the hallowed ground of official adolescence. My body was doing really bizarre things, and I didn’t quite know what in the world to do about that, but that’s another story. Entirely.
While my sainted mother was battling the spectre of “the other woman”, my father was dodging and weaving like a ninja, saying nothing, coming and going without a sound. It was driving my mother farther across the edge of sanity, because she knew what was going on and couldn’t stop it or even have it acknowledged. I understand all of that, even have compassion for it. What I don’t enjoy remembering, however, is how I was dragged into this very adult drama.
Towards the end of the marriage, dear mom went straight up ghetto. She had always been prone to psychological warfare with my father, taunting him with disparaging comments, belittling him, saying cruel things about his family members. He took all of that. When there was bona fide evidence of him with this other woman, he still took it. He said little or nothing, which drove my mother even more insane. I suppose it was more frustrating to have no partner in the battle, so dear old mom upped the ante.
As grateful as I am that no physical violence took place between my parents, I still learned how to do the equally damaging battle of the egos, using weapons like insult and “i am going to destroy something valuable to you”. Those were my mother’s weapons of choice, and I learned at the feet of the Master. She was a teacher, after all, so she taught me very well.
I remembered this morning about one of her favored attacks on my father, which was to cut up his suits. He was a teacher as well, and in those days, you wore a jacket, shirt and tie in the classroom. So, she knew very well that she was making it hard for him to go to work without his suit jackets and shirts, not to mention the expense of replacing those items. When they’d had notable screaming matches, he’d disappear for a few hours either to his second job or who knows where, and she’d go into his closet with pinking shears and cut up his clothes. She didn’t shred them, just cut the sleeves and the lapels so they couldn’t be worn. I would be standing right there, watching. Fortunately, she never handed me the scissors, so I can honestly say I never participated in the slasher routine, but I was part of it nonetheless.
After she’d wreaked havoc on his wardrobe several times, he brought his brother in at one point to witness the carnage. I believe they took pictures, for evidence of something we came to realize was a petition for divorce. My mother then felt threatened by the evidence, so she decided to dump it. Literally. She put all of the damaged clothing in trash bags, and she – and I – drove to some deserted place along a road notorious for illegal dumping, and threw the bags into the ditch. I honestly cannot remember if I physically tossed any of the bags, but it is very likely that I did. Then, back home we’d go. This happened on more than one occasion.
I am trying to remember how I felt during, or after, one of those episodes. I am coming up blank, so it must have been a tremendous conflict for me. I don’t remember saying much, and the memory is like a disjointed, choppy video vignette in black and white. I just remember that it happened, and looking back on it, find it nasty. Nasty to say the least, and I mean the least. When I say this was straight up ghetto, I mean exactly that. I have read untold numbers of stories about women in the housing projects, trailer parks, etc. doing this sort of thing, or throwing bleach on a philanderer’s clothes, or setting them on fire. One of my cousins went the pyromaniac route, and that guy married her not long afterward. Go figure.
This kind of behavior, and this display of volcanic rage and emotionalism, is what I learned. I cannot un-see that crap, but I haven’t remembered it in a very long time. I’m not entirely sure why I am remembering it now, either, but wonder how much of it can be unlearned. I have not destroyed anyone’s clothing or anything like that in a relationship, but I have felt that nuclear reaction of rage fueled by betrayal. I am enormously grateful that my meltdowns never went farther than insult and psychological torture, but it frightens me that it’s in there at all.
These days, when left to my own devices (and when taking my anti-depressants on schedule) my reactions to betrayal lean toward internalized hatred and externalized hostility. I haven’t manifested any of that physically – no hitting, no destruction of property. This is more like my father’s reaction, it seems – say nothing, keep your distance. In short, hide until you can escape, or until the threat goes away.
I suppose I diverge from my father’s passive-aggression because I don’t move toward satisfying my desire. He had “the other woman” (who I long-ago named “The Chihuahua” because she is a small, short brown thing with large eyes and a sassy demeanor that is prone to bark loudly for no apparent reason) to urge him on and give him respite. I don’t have that. As with most emotionally significant moments in my life, I have only myself to get through it.
My father was moving toward something. My mother was desperately trying to hold on to something that was moving away. In many ways, my rage on rejection is more like hers, but how I handle it is more like my father. I can be passive aggressive to a fault, and I can not speak to an offending party for years. I did not speak to my own father for more than 10 years after this divorce drama was over, not because he divorced my mother, but because I felt he had rejected ME. He didn’t even bother to tell me he was married to “the other woman”, who had personally attacked me during the course of the adult drama.
Being drug into adult business as a child is confusing, and you don’t know where your loyalty should be. You don’t understand the significance or consequence of what you are being asked to do, and you don’t have the skills to establish a healthy boundary for yourself. Nobody talks to kids about healthy boundaries, especially in the 70s where all this was happening. Nobody gives you any tips on what to do when your mother is cutting up your father’s clothes with shears and you’re going with her to dump the evidence. There’s not a Q&A for that, even today.
So, to add insult to injury for me, I couldn’t tell anyone about what was happening in my house. I couldn’t tell anyone that kindly school marm you know and love is a monster who runs with scissors and calls my father the dirtiest of names. I couldn’t tell anyone that I was becoming an angry and withdrawn student in school because I was being called some of the same nasty names at home, I was being summoned to do things I didn’t want to do, shouldn’t be involved in. I couldn’t tell anyone that I was being emotionally and spiritually abused by someone they believed was an icon of virtue and kindness. And there was no grandmother, or relative, in whom I was able to confide.
The cognitive disconnect for me was immense. I had already begun to feel that I was living two lives, one at school where everything was fine (it wasn’t) and my family was just like all the others (it wasn’t). But, I was also starting to understand that I was not like the other girls in my school, because I could not have cared less about stupid boys and somebody’s brother who was cute than the man in the moon. I couldn’t talk to anyone about that, either. I couldn’t explain how I felt entirely disconnected from the entire world at that point, from my parents, from my religion, from people everywhere. I felt alone in the world, and like a failure because it didn’t seem that everybody else felt that way. There was definitely something very wrong with me, inherently wrong, so no need to try.
But, try I did. I always tried, even when I had no chance of success. I went to the stupid Junior Prom with a cousin I didn’t even know. My classmates thought he was cute. I don’t think we said two words to each other the entire night, but I was there in some ridiculous formal attire and ribbons in my salon-styled hair, just like all the other girls.
But I knew, and I figured everybody knew, I wasn’t just like all the other girls. I wanted to be there, because to not be there meant I was a loser and couldn’t find anyone to go with, but I really didn’t want to be there because being there meant I was bought into a movie set, a fairy tale, a lie that I didn’t want any part of. And when the evening was over, I was going back to that same place of more disconnect that showed the world everything was fine, when I knew that it wasn’t fine at all.
My Senior Prom was much the same as the Junior Prom. I went with a guy from my parish church, I think? It doesn’t matter…I went with some guy that felt like settling, that felt like a lie. We did the whole false celebratory thing, with a corsage for me and some lapel adornment for him, and a cab ride to a fancy restaurant and then to the Prom. It was see-and-be-seen exercises. So I was seen. I don’t remember much of it, except that I was there, and I was able to put a check mark into the box that said “Attended Senior Prom”. Yay me.
Looking back on those times, it amazes me how much turmoil and literal cataclysm was going on in my life, in that house, and nobody else knew anything about it. By the time of my Senior Prom, my father had left the house and my parents were legally separated. I had a grudging pseudo-relationship with my father, sans other woman, but with heavy doses of mainly the maternal unit playing me against the paternal unit. More of me injected into an adult drama in which I had no place. I was 17 when I graduated from high school, but already had the blue print for being a dysfunctional adult.
I didn’t flag these incidents with my parents as being worthy of note, or even bad things, until long after I was out of college, into sobriety, and on my second or third therapist. I knew something was wrong, but I had downplayed the drama and the bad behavior of my parents as something everyone went through in some form. I blamed myself for being involved in it. I blamed myself for not being a good enough kid to have gotten around it. I figure that I was so incorrect I could not expect anything more. And so I didn’t.
It hasn’t been all that long ago that I learned my lack of relationship with my father wan’t something I should have solved, it was something he should have solved. It was something my mother should have made it possible to solve. I was a child, they were adults. It wasn’t my gig, it was theirs, and they didn’t show up. I am still taking that in, and still deeply regret having given my father the impression that I shared my mother’s disdain and lack of respect for him. I tried to say that to him as he was dying, and I hope that was heard.
I still regret that my father didn’t fight for me, didn’t fight for a relationship with me, no matter how badly I behaved. I was A CHILD. I deserved parents, not playmates, and bad playmates at that. i can forgive them, but I have to forgive myself for not being the better parent. That wasn’t my job, and it’s taken me a very long time to acknowledge that. I don’t believe it every day, but it’s better than it used to be.
When I was eight years old, I declared to everyone present that I was never having children. I had been watching “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and some woman was having a baby, and screaming in agony during the process. Of course, this was a television show, but I associated childhood with pain, and childbirth with agony, so none of that for me. The adults laughed it off as some cute and precocious utterance, but I knew it was true for me. My mother in particular said I’d change my mind. She’s still waiting for that to happen. I’m not.
I can’t forget, or ignore, all of that psycho-drama that helped imprint my psyche for having relationships, for playing nice, for being unhappy as a way of life. I’d like to believe that I’m working on it, that I’m improving on it, and in many ways I believe that’s true. I also believe that I will leave this life with a large part of those feelings intact. Hopefully, I will no longer act on them in negative ways, as I sadly admit that I have done in the past.
Some of my more new-agey esoterically oriented friends have told me in the past that we choose our parents long before we are born into human form. OK, that’s just dandy. I can see that. But my big question is…what the FUCK was I thinking when I made those choices? What am I supposed to get out of this, other than some pain that I can say I’ve not let flatten me, the knowledge that people can look entirely normal but be batshit crazy anyway? I understand things are not always as they seem, that you never know what the hell is going on in someone’s life when they’re out of your sight. I understand there is just a lot I don’t know, way more than I do know, and that’s just the way it is.
Today, I am studiously ignoring my congregations, which is doing some bureaucratic exercise in governance. I did what I was asked to do – gave them an annual report on my social justice committee’s activities. So, I’m done. I don’t really give a two shits or a damn what they do right now because they are part of the large number of people in the country who are just desperate to get back to “normal”, which means the status quo of pre-pandemic. I’m not interested in that, because it was never “normal”. Not interested in rebuilding anything, because we’re just rebuilding damaged systems and structures. Tear ’em all down, build new from the ground up. That’s what I’m looking for.
Earlier, I responded on FaceBook to someone who’d posted something about trauma that I found interesting:
I found that interesting because it summed up how my life has been informed by trauma, no matter how much I downplay it, no matter how much I minimalize it. It was traumatic. It has an effect on how I roll. That’s just how it goes, and trying to make it seem like less than what it is doesn’t help me. I’m sure there are many who have worse trauma, but comparison gets me nowhere. This was trauma. There are many traumas more or less damaging, but this one is mine. And that’s all that matters.