The Legacy and Labor of Psychological Abuse #highered #alanon #recovery #addiction

September 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Amidst the clutter on my dining room table sit two hard copies of my dissertation. They are printed and cerlox-bound with transparent covers. These are my copies of the dissertation that I submitted last Friday to the department of graduate and post-doctoral studies. These are my personal copies, one to keep for the defence, the other to lend out to interested friends who actually have the patience to read it.

I expected, after seven years of labor, to feel proud of this accomplishment. Instead, to my dismay, I feel shame. I feel so embarrassed that it took me so long. That I continued working in an abusive relationship even as I watched others leave my toxic ex-supervisor. That I protected ex-supervisor from the critical comments of others even as I was being subjected to ex-supervisor’s manipulations. In fact, I can see now, that my protective comments were part of the whole web of emotional, psychological and mental abuse perpetrated by ex-supervisor.

I have announced to family and friends that I have achieved this milestone and they are reasonably happy for me. They await the invitation to attend a celebratory party with me, to participate in the glory of getting to the end of my graduate program. They would be dismayed to hear how I actually feel. That I want to cry, that I almost lost my marriage, that I almost lost my house, that I came so close to declaring bankruptcy, that I feel depressed, that I have been having panic attacks.

Here is the ironic twist to this horrible tale. The day before I submitted my dissertation for external examination preparatory to booking my defence I visited my department. There was a delay getting the printed copies from the copy shop but I could still pick up the paperwork that needed to be submitted with it. I checked in with my graduate secretary, my department manager, the department head, my new supervisor, and my new committee member. It was very nice to see them and know that they all have my back, that they all want me to get through.

I expressed my concern that my ex-supervisor, who is now barred from any communication with me or my committee members or even the graduate department regarding my case, would be allowed to attend my defence. I was worried that ex-supervisor’s presence in the audience would cause me emotional and mental distress that would impinge on my defence performance. My new supervisor did not think this would be a problem because the defence itself would be tightly programmed and there wouldn’t be an opportunity for any disruption from my ex-supervisor. My new supervisor could not grasp how upsetting it would be to have ex-supervisor in the room.

However, new supervisor had been told, unofficially, by the committee member who had replaced ex-supervisor, that ex-supervisor would not be allowed to attend. I next visited my new committee member and he assured me that ex-supervisor would not be allowed to attend the defence and that I don’t have to worry on that account any further. This was deeply reassuring, and I felt a mass of anxiety evaporate. I could now focus solely on my defence and not worry about whether I would have to contend with disruption from ex-supervisor.

In the aftermath of these momentous occasions, I am left observing my own reactions to changing conditions. I observe how concerned I was that ex-supervisor would attend my defence. I observe the shame I feel as I contemplate the documents on my dining room table. I observe the depression I am coping with in the aftermath of the relief that I am actually going to get out of this graduate program (with a degree). With these observations I deduce the depth of damage I sustained under the abusive tutelage of my ex-supervisor. I infer the magnitude of injury to my health and well-being. I realize I must take steps to recover from the injustice, the threat, and the unrelenting obstruction (in the form of belittling, invalidating, stonewalling, obfuscating, threatening behaviours) received from my ex-supervisor. I realize I must recover from my sincere efforts, in the continuing face of irrefutable evidence that ex-supervisor would never let me graduate, to try to win approval, to appease ex-supervisor’s criticism.

Today is Sunday, and I am going to clean my house, walk my dog, kiss my husband, and prepare for the week ahead. I am also going to work on developing my own program of recovery, so that I can make sense of what I have endured, ascribe meaning to the significance of these copies of the dissertation sitting on my table, and rightfully feel proud that I endured and I prevailed.

Recognizable features #mentalhealth #mentalillness #ptsd #motherhealth #drawingstrength

January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

Every once in awhile, sometimes with more frequency that either of us would like, Husband and I have terrible fights. Over the eighteen years we have known each other, these fights have taken on a pattern, almost a ritual of giving and taking hurtful words and escalating emotional intensity. If it weren’t for the fact that we are both in recovery and both working to improve the condition of our lives, including the emotional condition, our marriage would probably not have survived.

These fights generally last two or three days, with long periods of leaving each other alone interspersed with efforts to re-connect. For whatever reason, after two or three days the tornado has spent itself and we carefully start talking to each other, hugging, and telling each other we love each other. With each iteration of these fights, I am forced to go through my own growing and grieving pains.

What sets us off is immaterial. What is important is how I get triggered by Husband’s emotional and mental states, and how frustrated he gets when he needs understanding and comfort, that I am thrown into a panic and completely unavailable. When he gets frustrated he gets mean, condescending, invalidating, and disrespectful. When he gets frustrated and I realize every effort I make to ‘fix’ the situation is only making it worse, I withdraw, hurt and angry at him for causing all this trouble. Then, when I am angry enough, instead of weeping and gnashing, I go on the attack, accusing him of causing all the trouble and telling him his behaviour is unacceptable. I feel righteous, indignant, and royally pissed for the way he is treating me.

He is looking at me with dagger eyes and I am defiant. There is nothing wrong with me that won’t be fixed by him changing. Al-anon, anyone?

This time, during our extended period of ‘alone-time’ I furiously wrote down everything that I was saying to myself because I was unable to give him what he wanted to be happy with me, to be content with his relationship with me. This is what I wrote:

I am feeling angry. I am feeling afraid. I am feeling desperate. I am feeling distressed. I am feeling hopeless. I am feeling hurt. I am feeling attacked. I am feeling put down. I am the problem. I am stupid. I am slow. I am selfish. I am self-centred. It is all my fault. it is up to me to fix this. It is all up to me. I deserve to be treated like this because I am worthless. I don’t belong. I am not loved. I am not safe. This is all my fault. People are horrible. I am treated unjustly. I set unreasonable boundaries for myself. I feel diminished. I feel invalidated. It is hopeless. There is noting I can do but it is up to me to fix this. I am stuck. I am trapped. I feel manipulated. I feel dismissed. I feel attacked. I feel put down. None of this is making any sense. Why can’t I just do this. It is all myself. I am treated like an idiot. Attacked. Put down. Terrified. Panicking. There is no way out. There is nothing I can do…

This continued, allowing myself to repeat any statement that came into my mind. At the same time as I was writing this down, my jaw was trembling and I had tears streaming down my face. I could barely breathe. I felt excruciating emotional pain. I didn’t stop, I just let it continue to spew across the page until there was nothing left to write.

In the aftermath, I thought about what I could do to bring myself back from the bleak contradictory beliefs: 1) it is all up to me to fix this; and 2) I can’t fix this because I am wholly inadequate for the task. I remembered photos I had taken the last time I was pulling myself out of a deep emotional flashback. I had gone to the neighbourhood where I grew up. There was a creek running behind our house, and all through my childhood I had gone to that creek to play, to watch the water levels change with the seasons, to retreat from the insanity of my childhood home.

The creek is still there, as are the familiar shapes of rocks and boulders, vine maple trees and ferns, and ancient hollow cedar stumps. I decided to see if I could make a drawing from the photos I took, something for me to focus on, and draw me out of my painful state of mind and emotional exhaustion. I selected a photo, and then zoomed in on the image until I had reduced the complexity of the scene to one manageable fragment. I used a pencil on my sketchbook page to render a version of the photograph into shapes, composition and variations of light and dark tone.

As I built up the layers of scribbles a phrase came to mind, ‘recognizable features’. I realized the coursing water through the mossy rocks, the curling swirls of fresh mountain rain winding over, under and around glacial boulders, were as familiar to me as my hands scratching images with a pencil. These were recognizable features and in their familiarity I found comfort. I thought about my fight with Husband and noticed that when he is so angry with me that he stares at me with those dull, thunderous eyes, that I do not recognize his features. He is a stranger to me, and in that strangeness, I panic.

As I examined the statements that had coursed out of my brain onto the page in a rapid torrent, I realized these were the things I told myself as a child when I faced the perplexing and terrifying reality of my mother’s mental illness. My mother was a loving woman, who cared deeply for her children, all of us. However, she was stricken with debilitating postpartum depression when my youngest brother was born, her sixth child in seven years. I was four years old at the time. My mother was one of the five percent of women who suffer post partum depression and go on to develop a full-blown psychiatric disorder. It wasn’t until I was ten that my mother was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. This diagnosis was a consequence of her attacking a paper boy and throwing a rock through the neighbour’s window. As child, my mother had gone from a source of comfort and security, to a person of unrecognizable features. Even when she was sitting in front of me, I did not recognize the dull blank blackness in her eyes, her sallow, flat complexion. She was there in body, but emotionally, and later, mentally, I could not reach her, I could not recognize her features.

As I worked through the drawing I was able to see the impossibility of the position I was in, as a child, and how I felt trapped. I was able to see how Husband’s legitimate need for support and understanding, escalating into a fury of frustration, was not the same thing, but the cues of comportment and composure were familiar enough to bring up those long buried feelings. In this sense, his bleak despondence of being misunderstood were recognizable features that awakened that lumbering monster inside me. I was able to see how my childish response, to believe I could somehow change the course of my family history, while I was utterly unprepared, and unsupported, to do so, was an extremely painful condition. That painful condition had never been properly excised, and so, when current conditions were properly attuned, the wraith of anger, frustration, grief and pain would rise up once again and thud me into a form of wakeful coma.

But this time the pencil drew me through it, giving me a way to put the whole experience, past and present, into words. It allowed me to draw comfort from the familiar setting of the creek bed and the rushing winter water, while giving that young girl, and this old lady, the strength we needed to withstand the onslaught, to let it rage past us, through us, and over us.

Here is the drawing – nothing special, but the beginning of something:

Recognizable features of rocks and boulders, and the flow of winter rain down the mouton, through my childhood backyard

Recognizable features of rocks and boulders, and the flow of winter rain down the mouton, through my childhood backyard

 

revealing the lie #dissertating #academicabuse #familysystems #alcoholism

June 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

The conditions of childhood neglect, abandonment, betrayal and oppression have far reaching consequences across a lifetime. In my case, I have managed to reproduce these conditions in every significant relationship, even after I had been in numerous recovery support groups and one to one therapeutic relationships. For example, my ex-thesis supervisor turned out to be an academic narcissist. Although he would not give me proper direction to get me to write what was in his mind, he would reject everything I wrote because it did not articulate what was in his mind. He had conceived the research proposal, and he seemed to expect that I was going to be able to write a dissertation in his words.

After 4 years of excruciating stonewalling and re-writing, I finally quit the program and my relationship with this ex-supervisor. The university stepped in at this moment (last September) and appointed me a new supervisor and a(nother) extension to finish. I am getting near the end of the process, although I still have many hours of writing to complete.

What I am noticing is that, as I get closer to actually finishing this monstrosity, I am feeling a commensurate pressure to process my history with my family and process these relationships into a new framework. It is as if the narrative my family spun about me that turned me into the family emotional pressure relief valve, “Irrational Persistance is broken.” “Irrational Persistance is weak and frail.” “Don’t expect too much of Irrational Persistance, she is not as smart|strong|talented|good looking as the rest of the family.” As I get closer to finishing the dissertation, despite a profound lack of support or engagement in my work by my family, I also draw closer to revealing the lie that has been perpetrated against my character and my capacities for achievement. It is almost as if I also need to shrug these systems of belief and attitude from within, to allow myself to get this darn thing finished.

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Self portrait 2014 06 22

moving forward

June 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

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June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have been listening to the Mental Illness Happy Hour whenever I have my ear buds on. It has been helping me to make sense of my experience, of the decisions I am making about family contact, and about how to approach my own mental health challenges. I have been drawing comfort from the conversations and the difficult topics that get covered in each episode. One of the most important developments I have drawn from the podcast is a new understanding of my portrait practice.

I draw and paint portraits. My practice has been interrupted by the dissertation writing, but it is never far from my mind. Once the dissertation is done I intend to get back to work, this time with renewed vigour. Although I felt compelled to work with portraits as multiple instances of images, I hadn’t figured out an underlying meaning to the compulsion.

When I draw or paint a portrait, I cannot do just one portrait to stand as a representation of that individual. I have to do 12 portraits, of different points of view and different focus of the sitter. On top of that, I have also been fascinated with making blind contour studies of the portraits, which make for very interesting psychological portraits. I used to be a little disturbed by my attraction to this style of drawing and painting portraits, now I see them as the representation of that which is not on the surface, that which is the reality of an internal life. Whatever we may interpret as we look at those distorted shapes, lines and images, we are also interpreting something of ourselves, our own internal condition shows itself as we make meaning of these strange images.

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