“Not today, thanks anyway.” #mentalhealth #mentalillness #estrangement #alcoholism

September 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Everyday there is another fascinating facet of mental ill health in my family for discussion. If I don’t write about it on a daily basis it just drifts off behind me into a cesspool of unresolved feelings, thoughts, and baffling behaviours.

It is extremely helpful to consider my experience within the context of a social ecology rather than an individualistic expression of autonomous agency. I argue that autonomous agency simply does not exist, because even our conceptions of our autonomy are conditioned by the relationships, experiences, and history of emotional encounters that have shaped our individual value-category memory systems.

I had a most frustrating talk with Brother1 on Sunday. I fear we are reaching an impasse in our effort to keep a connection because I insist on maintaining my estranged relationship with my dad. Brother1 cannot understand why I would do this, and why I don’t just accept Dad for who he is and engage with him on his level. Brother1 sees Dad as his beloved mentor and father. He absolutely cannot see that his view is so deeply conditioned by male privilege, trauma bonding, and denial that he is unable to offer me the slightest expression of empathy.

I understand why this is so. If my brother was to allow himself to feel empathy for me, he would have to allow a crack to show in his lifetime wall of denial that has allowed my father free reign in the family with no consequences for his behaviour or his attitudes. Well, Brother1 lives across the continent and has done so for decades, so I suppose it is easy to take pot shots from afar. Our conversation revealed another part of my brother’s life, though, that gave me a glimpse into the extreme state of vulnerability, entanglement and entrapment that is the reality of his life today. I realized that, if my brother was to actually empathize with my position in relation to my father, he would also have to empathize with his own condition, which I now realize would be wholly intolerable for me, and explains why my brother suffers from extreme anxiety on a daily basis.

A big part of my recovery has been getting to a point of emotional, financial, and psychological strength to say to my father, “I don’t need you.” The only reason I can be estranged from my father is that I am not dependent on him for anything. All ties of dependence, save the deepest emotional ties of a daughter to a father, have been cut. I do not rely on him for anything. I can be estranged from him because the only thing left that might form a relationship with him is emotional honesty and respect. He has demonstrated his continuing inability to bring those qualities to the table, and I have exited the room rather than suffer further indignities and heartache. It is an extremely difficult position to take, and if I could do anything else, I would. But the truth of the matter is that I don’t have the internal fortitude right now to coddle my father’s immaturity and narcissism. So I estrange myself and have some semblance of peace in my life.

For my brother, though, my position is causing him deep pain and he really wants me to relent and get back in touch with Dad. I have to ask myself, why is he putting this pressure on me when I have told him how damaging Dad’s attitude and behaviour are to me. And then, after our last conversation, I realized my brother, who postures as this charismatic, successful, accomplished family man, actually lives in a feudal state of subservience to his father-in-law. Everything my brother has, his fancy apartment, his vacation home, his job, his social standing, is tied to his subjugation to his father-in-law. Yes, they are wealthy, they have all the creature comforts anyone could ask for, but my brother and his wife are tied to family values and a family system of patriarchy that takes a huge cost on their emotional and psychological well-being. Not only that, because their entire economic system is based on family dependence, my brother and his wife have never established their financial independence from that family. If their father-in-law was to fire my brother tomorrow, and strip away all the family protections they currently enjoy, neither my brother nor his wife would be prepared to enter the workforce to earn a living outside the nepotism that has supported them for decades.

When I take a stand of estrangement from my father because I do not accept the treatment he metes out to me, I am doing something that my brother cannot do. He is a subject of the largess of his father-in-law, my brother’s life has been devoted to keeping his wife in the conditions to which she is accustomed. I imagine it is deeply painful for my brother to witness me taking my stand, knowing, on some level, that for him to actually stand up and protect himself, and his wife, from the unhealthy family system perpetrated by her father, would wreak havoc on their lives. What a subterranean fault line to have to live on top of.

Brother1 is not the only one putting this pressure on me. I am getting it from all four of my brothers. For different reasons, but the same underlying condition. I am calling Dad out for being selfish, self-centred and destructive to my well-being. I am saying it stops here, I am not passing this on to my children. My brothers, each for their own reasons, are saying, “You can’t do that. Suck it up. Get over it.” and I am saying, “No. I don’t have to and I am not going to.”

Well, I do suffer for taking this position, in that my brothers, each in their way, are putting pressure on me to change back. As I go longer and longer, refusing to do that, the pressure is building and I am feeling less comfortable trying to talk to them or socialize with them. But, if my belonging to this family depends on my subjugation to an alcoholic, destructive narcissist who no one will be honest with or stand up to, then, I don’t want to belong to this family.

I don’t want to cause pain or suffering to my siblings, but they cannot see how their demands amount to the same thing, that I suffer pain, indignity and further psychological harm to assuage their feelings of discomfort. They cannot see that their demands amount to a hypocritical demand that I suffer so they don’t have to, because none of them will stand up to their father and say, “Enough is enough.”

I wish this stuff wasn’t decades old and a lifetime of patterns to address. But perhaps that is what it took, all this life experience to this point in time, for me to finally stand up and say, “Not today, thanks anyway.”


Suffering in silence is anathema to healthy family systems #mentalhealth #mentalillness #anxiety #grief

September 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week I had a cluster-f*&k of anxiety that culminated in persistent panic attacks on Friday. The grenade pin that sent everything into hurricane emotional conditions was the mental ill-health of my husband’s youngest brother, BrotherInLaw2. It is a very sad story that has gone on for decades. It recounts a family history plagued by depression exacerbated by tragedy.

BrotherInLaw2 is a handsome, well-educated man of uncommon intelligence. A lot like Husband and BrotherInLaw1. He was a baby the year his older sister, at the tender age of five, passed away from brain cancer. Of all my husband’s sibling group, Husband was nine, and his older brother was eleven when their sister died, I believe BrotherInLaw2 suffered the most profound emotional deprivation during his early formative years. To add to his challenges, his younger sister was born a couple of years after his older sister passed. Not only was BrotherInLaw2 deprived of normal family love and security because the entire family was thrown into grief before he understood what had even happened to the family, but, before there had been any family recovery from this tragic loss, a new baby sister arrived to take the place of the one who had departed. This younger sisters was a golden haired darling who could do no wrong.

BrotherInLaw2 grew up in the dual shadows of is sadly departed older sister and his spoiled younger sister. His parents were both profoundly depressed and bereaved and his brothers were coping with their own individual states of overwhelm at the loss of their sister and the subsequent emotional affect of their family. All of these conditions are in play before BrotherInLaw2 is verbal, there is no one to put into words what the conditions of deprival and emotional abandonment are, and he is not able to put into words, to share with anyone, if there had been someone there who cared to listen, what he was feeling, how he was hurting, the loneliness and the sense of disconnect that he was enduring.

All of this family emotion was being carried out under the cloak of upper middle class affluence. The family was well-educated and well-connected through family ties and community to the highest levels of  social privilege and comfort. Looking at old family photos it is difficult to detect the depression and disconnect that was affecting everyone in the family. Summer vacations at seaside cottages, winter expeditions to ski at Switzerland, family gatherings in lush gardens with neatly manicured lawns and poodles. Smiling for the camera. It all appears so enviable and comfortable.

I really got a sense of the emotional darkness at the core of the family one summer when we all gathered at a storied family cottage on a remote island of the coast of New England. It was a gorgeous setting: an 19th century sheep house converted to a cottage complete with wrap around balcony, surrounded by newly mown fields of hay, the calm seas of Penobscot Bay in the distance; the main living room aged, but comfortable furnishings arranged around a hand tied rag braid rug, and the entire family, Mom, Dad, three brothers and sister, Sister’s husband and children, and me, all gathered as the sun set over Tip Top Mountain. An idyllic scene, supper had not yet been started, the afternoon glow of sunlight was just receding in shadows up the living room wall.

One might expect a scene like this to filled with conversation, laughter, games, music, planning, the kinds of things that families do when they are freed of the daily pressures of workaday life and are together for a reunion after long absence. Instead, the room was filled with an eery silence. No one was talking. I found it unnerving. I couldn’t put my finger on what was happening until I looked over at BrotherInLaw2 and saw that he was reading a book. He wasn’t just reading the book, he was holding it up so that his entire face was hidden from the family, as if he was extremely short sighted and had to have the book an inch from his face in order to read the text.

It was then that I realized how vacant the emotional affect was in the entire room. No one was engaged emotionally. It was this state of emotional death, the affect was of a dull, wet vacuum, where any emotional expression, especially one of joy or friendliness, would be met with a heavy, felt blanket, a muffling thud. I found it so uncomfortable I went outside to play soccer with the little boys, where we laughed and chased the ball. Inside, it was quiet and the room fell into darkness.

I don’t know if you can imagine the effect this kind of emotional deprivation would have on an impressionable child. When I saw BrotherInLaw2 with that book in his face I knew he had suffered, and continues to suffer, unspeakable emotional pain.

To the present day. The settlement of MotherInLaw’s estate hangs in the balance. We have been waiting for a year for BrotherInLaw1, BrotherInLaw2 and SisterInLaw to settle out a deed swap on vacation properties so the estate can be settled. This process has brought the worst of the relational conflict and sibling rivalry between BrotherInLaw2 and SisterInLaw out into the open. They have finally come to an agreement, which amounts to SisterInLaw getting her way and BrotherInLaw2 having to give up his claim to the property he wanted and settled for the less desired property. Yes, I know, the problems of privilege. Anyway, all the paperwork has been executed and everyone is waiting for one signature to wrap up the transactions. Who hasn’t signed? BrotherInLaw2.

All summer we had been waiting for this business to be finished, and finally I asked Husband, “When was the last time anyone actually heard from BrotherInLaw2?” It had been months. I put pressure on Husband to follow up – to actually ascertain that BrotherInLaw2 was okay. It took a few days to get the communications circulating and to finally rouse BrotherInLaw2 to check in and let us know what was happening.

It turns out he has been suffering, the loss of first his mother last year, and now his father this year, is taking its toll. As he put it, he has, “not been firing on all cylinders.” I feel for the guy. But I found the entire episode deeply anxiety provoking. It is not the first time in my life that someone else’s emotional and mental state has a profound effect on my life and my fortune. The feeling of powerlessness and dread hovering on the horizon were overwhelming. I could barely sleep as I waited to hear news of my BrotherInLaw2’s condition.

The fact is that we are dependent on each other’s well-being. The mental and emotional health of family members affect the entire family system. Sometimes, if these affects came into effect at a young enough age, we won’t even know what it is we are struggling with. We can’t put our finger on it because we can’t put it into words. All we feel is a pervading sense of fear, or dread, or the ominous feeling of imminent explosion.

My only recourse, now, in these situations, is to recite mantras in the form of prayers to help my brain unhook from obsessing about the family member. We need to talk to each other, we need to be honest about what we are feeling and what is going on in our minds. Suffering in secret is anathema to family health and well-being. It does not protect the family from our ill health, it subjects our family to the stress of unknown emotional and mental pressure.

As BrotherInLaw2 sat in that room with a book in front of his face, it did not occur to anyone in the room to ask him, with real kindness and caring, “Hey, BrotherInLaw2, how’s it going?”

Put it in words. Change happens. #alcoholism #addiction #recovery #mentalhealth

September 4, 2014 § 1 Comment

I have been ruminating on this feeling of discontent about my relationship with Brother1. Over all these years, when he perceived me to be ‘shutting him out’ and now, the idea that my estrangement from Dad is about money, he has never shown interest or empathy toward me. I have been judged, I have been dismissed, and I have been invalidated. But I have never been afforded an equal respect to other members of the family, including my dad.

I am writing about sibling collateral damage perpetrated by a shame-based alcoholic father. A big part of my father’s expression of shame and anxiety is to perform – to literally get up on a stage and perform music, and to also perform feats of extra-ordinary craftsmanship. All to secure the admiring gaze of onlookers in hopes they won’t look behind the curtain and see the sorry coward that hides within. None of my siblings can talk to me realistically about my father. They seem unable to entertain the possibility that he may be less than perfect, and that I might be more than the shameful angry person they appear to hold in their minds. It is this circle of emotional deprival, invalidation and dismissal that has been so difficult to deal with over the years.

Now that I have no longer accepted that interpretation of me, that representation of my person, my ethics, my intelligence or my courage, it is causing problems for some of them. I know I shouldn’t group all my siblings into one generalization, they are all different, unique, damaged in their own special ways. The net result of our family system as incapable of providing appropriate support, confidence, and a sense of security is that we all suffer individually and that suffering looks the same on the outside. What I am addressing is the absence of meaningful discussion about our shared history. We share that in common, even if our expression of that common history is different for each one of us.

When we are unable to put our experiences into words they do not go away. That wordless experience exists in our memories as emotional memory and fragments of sensual impressions – what we saw, what we heard, what we smelled, what we felt on our skin, what we tasted. That is why stimulating different senses through music can bring back memories in alzeimer’s patients. Our routes into value-category memory systems are multi-variate. This becomes a problem when we have not had the opportunity to put our memories into words. They exist in our memories as wordless sensations. If those memories are of traumatic events, the experience of similar sensual cues in current time can trigger an emotional flashback. If we don’t have language to explain our experience to ourselves, we are more vulnerable to triggering events because we cannot identify the emotion laden triggers we might encounter.

In my relationships with my siblings I can count on getting triggered when I spend time with them. We have this deep chaotic shared history and it doesn’t take much for one or the other of us to provoke those compartmentalized feelings. It doesn’t take much to destabilize our current relationship and then, once one of us is triggered, the other is reflexively triggered. It is very, very difficult to stop the circuitry of recursive emotional triggering.

I know this is probably a little bit of a wandering piece. It does help me understand why I elect to avoid family gatherings and one to one interactions with my siblings, even as I long for connection and to build new family relationships. When we can put our experiences into words it gives us an opportunity to re-contextualize our experiences because we can talk about it. If we can’t talk about them we cannot decontextualize them and they continue to exist in a state of wordless purgatory.

Put it in words. Change happens.

Weeding the yard and changing family relations: Slow progress is still progress #mentalhealth #mentalillness #financialrecovery #alcoholism

September 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Yesterday we worked our way down the east side of the property pulling weeds and grass. We have now cleared the grass from the boulevard that edges our corner lot on both sides. The weeding started from the front walk in the middle of the south end of the yard and proceeded across the front of the house and down the side yard. We now have 6 trash barrels full of weeds for the composting truck to pick up tomorrow. It feels so good to look at that fresh turned soil. It holds great promise for the future.

Today the work week begins again with myriad pressures – earn enough money to live on, earn enough money to pay the mortgage, property tax and house insurance, finish the dissertation, clean out the fridge, clean the bathrooms, vacuum up the dog hair, etc. Our basement suite tenants are going to be giving their notice soon, they have started looking for another place. We have decided not to rent the suite for long term tenants again. We are going to figure out other ways to monetize the space. Definitely seeing some financial pressure up ahead. It doesn’t help that I have taken time off wage earning work to write the dissertation. Again. The never-ending time and money drain with a dubious promise of unspecified payback.

It seems that the story of my life is one of constantly facing pressures from numerous sides and feeling unprepared to meet them.

I had a long talk with Brother1 last week as I was staining pergola posts at work. He had finally asked me why I was estranged from his beloved father, my emotional and psychological abuser. I was finally able to explain to him what it means to have a parent who is unable to put your needs first, who is blind to his own narcissistic self-centredness. My brother had revealed to me that my dad thinks the reason I am estranged from him is that he thinks I think he owes us money for the oil tank removal and contaminated soil clean up.

A bit of back story. Husband and I bought our house from my dad in 2010. He sold it to us at appraised value. When we bought it, he did not disclose there was an oil tank on the property. When we discovered the oil tank, Dad did not take any responsibility for selling us the property without telling us about the tank. We paid for the clean up, it was a $26,000 bill. In my mind, while feeling completely betrayed and abandoned by my father, I reconciled the financial part to the fact that we had not used a real estate agent to handle the sale. The clean up bill amounted to the fee we would have paid an agent, which would have revealed the oil tank in the sale. What hurt so much was, more than the fact that my dad was a liar and a cheat, was that he never once gave us any encouragement, as we faced one the greatest challenges of our lives. The problem of the oil tank and contaminated soil came to a head when our house was up on cribs getting a new basement. The City put a stop work order on our renovation to force us to clean up the contaminated soil in the side yard. We couldn’t handle everything at once and it was our luck to have a very capable contractor who was able to broker an agreement with the city so we could get our house down on a new foundation and then clean up the contaminated soil. A nightmare.

What this incident revealed to me, which I have only been able to piece together in recent months, was the kind of father I have. A man who would sell his daughter a piece of property with a buried oil tank and then would do nothing to help – not even words of encouragement, emotional support, empathy for the burden placed on her shoulders. It was this incident that helped me piece together the real damage of my relationship with my father, the pattern of abandonment, undermining and betrayal that I have laboured under my whole life.

My brother, none of my four brothers, up until now, has been able to understand why I am estranged from my father. Their common reaction is, just get over it! They can’t stand the rift in the family that “I” am causing. They are incapable of conceiving that their myth of a heroic father might be at fault and might be culpable in the situation.

On the phone the other day it seemed that my brother actually heard me and took in what I was saying without the knee-jerk reaction of shutting me down. I am wondering how he is doing now. I know what it is like to have one impression of a person and then have a completely opposite story of that person. It is very upsetting and disorienting. When you love both people and one has suffered so badly by the treatment of the other, and the other is someone you have relied on, trusted, turned to for inspiration and guidance, your mind has to come to terms with these two opposite pictures.

For my part, when it happened to me, the truthfulness of my daughter’s disclosure was the beginning of the end of my relationship with my ex-husband. Some part of what she told me rang true, even though I was completely unable to put the two parts together in my own mind at the time. It took another 8 years for the truth to sink in and for me to act on it.

I just wonder how my brother is doing with it. He suffers from extreme anxiety disorder. He has never talked to me about his relationship with our dad as having anything to do with his condition. I hope he is okay.

Me? I got my yard weeded! Whoot! Small progress. That is how I measure my life. In small steps forward, pulling weeds, raking out the rough spots, and eyeing the next project for rebuilding my life.

Growing new relationships with a ukelele #addiction #recovery #mentalhealth #mentalillness #socialecologiesoflearning

September 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have been writing non-stop on my dissertation. Progress has been made, but I am nowhere near done. I just looked at the series of selfies taken by a man who walked 5,000 km. I wonder what my selfies would have looked like if I had documented every day I have written this thesis. Graying hair, burned out eyes, sallow cheeks, worry and frown lines, clenched teeth. What about a time lapse of my wrists and shoulders? Increasing inflammation, less movement and mobility, clicking tendons. What about a map of my relationships over this time? Let’s use a scatter graph of dots that indicate people in my life and degree of closeness. Over time the dots are disappearing and those that remain are further and further away. Except for Husband and two dogs. They stand close to me and never move.

Today is Labor Day. I’m not sure how I feel about it, other than a one day reprieve to catch up on housework that I have ignored while I wrote this weekend. This afternoon there is an annual block party in my neighbourhood. I am going to take my ukelele over and hang out. I had better take a chair with me too.

I am making progress on my thesis and I am actually quite excited with the story it is telling. My PhD work has focused on relationships. What a surprise. The songs I write are about relationships. The portraits I draw are about relationships. And now my scholarship is about relationships. I understand why I am pre-occupied with the quality and characteristics of relationships because my own history of family relationships has had such a profound impact on my own life possibilities.

I have worked these years developing an ecological theory for social learning. I have called it social ecologies of learning. My research for the thesis was in education, so I have been developing a social ecology of learning with regards to education, specifically, teacher education. However, this theoretical approach is not limited to education, in fact, it is generalizable to our human existence and how we learn in any social group.

First, a social ecology of learning considers our human relationships as affecting our development socially and biologically. My theoretical approach shows how the social is biological, and vice versa. There is no separation between the biological processes of brain function and the social processes of relationships. The biological processes of cognition are stimulated by perturbations in our field of perception – that is, changes in our environment trigger neurobiological processes. Changes in our environment include temperature, time of day, altitude, barometric pressure, etc. Changes in our environment also include communication – speaking, being spoken to, making gestures, physical movement, proximity to each other, etc. Relational changes in the environment also trigger neurobiological responses. The intensity of these interactions affect the significance of the memories that are formed in relation to these events.

Our memory systems are based on an internal process of evaluating the intensity of sensory-motor data (perceptions of change from the environment). Each one of us has unique thresholds for evaluating intensity, determined by genetics and previous life experiences. We use a value-category memory system to store our interpretations of events in our day to day lives. When we experience particular events as intense and pleasurable, they have a greater impact than events that are not as intense and pleasurable. The same goes for other emotional reactions to sensory-motor data. The more intense our emotional response, the more significant the memory stored in our value-category memory system. Understanding how our value-category memory system works in social relationships helps us to understand how our relational experiences give rise to our social ecologies of learning.

I have lived with post-traumatic stress disorder most of my life. At first I thought it was a result of my mother developing a condition of paranoid schizophrenia when I was a child. Later I realized it was that first experience combined with having a narcissistic father who was incapable of putting me first, of caring for me as a normal father would, that I could look to him for security, validation, and support. At a crucial period in my development, as I went through puberty into early adulthood,  the pattern of emotional and psychological threat, invalidation and complete lack of support had a profound effect on my life decisions and the course my life took. It affected the kinds of relationships I sought and the kinds of men I formed attachments to. It affected how I felt on a day to day basis and the level of threat, disrespect, and undermining I expected from everyone in my life. My work on social ecologies of learning has helped me understand the relationship between my environmental conditions and the kinds of responses I am capable of formulating in certain situations. This understanding is helping me make new choices on my own behalf, and my life conditions are slowly improving.

After I get this dissertation booted out the door I want to bring this work into the field of mental health and addiction recovery. I am a recovering addict, 18 years clean from drugs and alcohol. I no longer look at my mental, emotional and physical condition as a disease. I see it as a predictable consequence of living in conditions of mental abuse, emotional deprivation and physical threat. I do not see myself as autonomous of the influence of my conditions, rather, I see myself as autopoietically empowered to respond to these conditions, knowing that I can foster conditions that can give me the strength to resist the damaging effects of old patterns and relationships. After I get this PhD out of the way I want to pursue a degree in clinical psychology, specifically ecological psychology, and set myself up with a practice to help others as I am finding this approach is helping me.

My research helps to explain why working 12-step programs can be essential for changing the conditions of one’s life. The steps and traditions of 12-step recovery are not specific to those programs, they were drawn from historical writings and proven methods for improving human conditions. When studied as a social ecology of learning, it becomes clear why we are able to change our lives if we work a 12-step recovery program.

It feels good to be able to apply these many years of work to something that is so close to my heart and so important in our current human condition.

When I take my ukelele over to my neighbourhood block party and play some songs, I am contributing to the social ecology of learning in my own immediate environs (hopefully for the better!). I have long used a saying to guide my choices and decisions as I work to build a new life, “For the good of all concerned.” I will bring that to life today as I catch up on housework and spend time with my neighbours.

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