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



Mindful writing practice to re-conceptualize painful memories and traumatic triggers #mentalhealth #addition #alcoholism #posttraumaticstress

January 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

I have been practicing several new cognitive techniques that are helping me feel better on a day to day basis. These techniques address the autopoietic aspect of my experience. That is, auto – self, and poetic – creating, autopoietic speaks to the idea that we are not exactly autonomous within our environmental conditions, rather, we are autopoietic, we can respond to our environmental conditions, although we are never wholly separable from them.

I have suffered for most of my life from the idea that I was an autonomous person, because I believed that meant I was supposed to have the will, or inner fortitude, to transcend my environmental conditions and the fact that I seemed to be subordinate to them was an indication of a fatal character flaw rather than an accurate representation of the reality of my experience. As an autopoietic person, I am empowered to respond to my environmental conditions. I don’t have to change them, I can become skilled at assessing what they are, and then determining by best course of action based on that assessment. Given that environmental conditions are dynamic, and constantly changing, this means that I am in a continuous process of mindfully ‘reading’ my environmental conditions and sorting through a realm of possibilities for what my next steps will be.

My best friend introduced me to a new book, “The Mindful Path through Worry and Rumination: Letting Go of Anxious and Depressive Thoughts“, by Sameet M. Kumar. I started writing for twenty minutes on a daily basis, as much as I could remember to do it. I also started using mindfulness to practice meditation. What I noticed is that when I practice a simple inventory taking process by naming sensory perceptions – what I can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, as they are occurring – this cognitive process supersedes my habit of anxious rumination and displaces troublesome thought clusters. I am noticing I can implement this technique at any time, in any place and it helps me cope with troublesome triggers into unwanted mental and emotional states.

I made myself a little database app for my iPhone to track the relationship between observations of sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings. What I noticed is that one sensory perception, especially in the words or deeds of others, can trigger unwanted thoughts that contribute to unwanted feelings. I also noticed that observations of sensory perceptions seem to trigger unwanted feelings that tag unwanted thoughts that I use to explain my uncomfortable feelings. The other thing I noticed about this tag-team effect of sensory perceptions, thoughts and feelings, was that they quickly became self-referential. It only took one sensory perception to trigger a cascade of negative thoughts and escalating anxious feelings. Depending on how hungry, tired, or lonely I was feeling to begin with, this exponential increase also ‘trigger stacked’ on top of previous cycles of unwanted thoughts and feelings. This helped me understand how a seemingly minor perturbation in my field of perception could turn into a full blown panic attack or rageful frame of mind in the ‘blink of an eye’.

These observations, thoughts and feelings have led me to practice mindful writing exercises. These exercises start with observations of my immediate surroundings, simple descriptions of what I hear, what I see, what I smell, taste, or feel (sensory perceptions on my skin). For example, right now I hear the percussion of rain falling on the street and sidewalk, I hear water running down gutter downspouts, I hear the splash of car tires on a distant, busy street. I hear a plane flying overhead, diminishing as it travels out of range. I hear voices of pedestrians passing on the sidewalk. I hear the slight sighing snore of my big dog sleeping nearby. I see the wet head of my golden coloured shepherd cross curled up in his favourite chair after our morning walk. I see him shift slightly to make himself more comfortable and hear him exhale a big sigh as he settles back to sleep.

In the chair next to him I see one crumpled ear of our fifteen year old fox terrier, wrapped in one of his favourite sleeping bags. I see him shudder slightly in his sleep. He is going deaf and blind so he has become quite attached to my physical body, always wanting to know where it is and only completely relaxing when he knows I am close by.

I am sitting in my living room, in a house built in 1906. It is a little drafty where I am sitting because I am surrounded by five bay windows and the cold damp air slides off the glass and touches my fingertips, my earlobes and my feet. The light is cold, grey, and dull, it is midday in early January and the sunlight is weak and watery at best on this northern latitude. At present the rain is falling in thick wet drops. Earlier this morning there were a few sodden flakes of snow mixed in.

This process of description engages my creativity, language, writing, and sense of connection. These faculties take precedence over reliving unpleasant memories from the past that trigger feelings of righteous indignation, sadness and unrequited love, or indulging in anxious rumination about the future and everything I can imagine going wrong as a pre-emptive strike against possible bad feelings in the future.

What I am noticing about this writing is that it is also leading me back in time, to examine conditions from my childhood and earlier decades of my life. These examinations are not following the same angst-ridden re-hashing of upsetting memories and hurt feelings, but rather, going back as a journalist recording observations from a time gone by. Somehow, by describing the scenes as if I were hovering over the scene and describing details and transitions, I am able to conceive them as events separable from me, even though I only remember them because I was immersed in them at the time. Now, as I use my new observational skills to describe past environmental conditions and evolving circumstances, I can ‘see’ them in a new way, and understand them beyond the injurious, trauma inducing events that have so dominated my life up to now. I no longer have to bury them, compartmentalize them, force them out of my thoughts. I can actually handle them, and start to see the players, my family members, with some of the compassion I apply to my reactive aggressive shepherd, and my deaf and blind fox terrier.

Wow. Could I possibly come to forgive my family members for the painful circumstances of our emergence and the roles they play in perpetuating hurtful family culture?

I do have hope today.

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Objectifying the Insanity #alcoholism #mentalhealth #familysystems

October 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Topics for future discussion:

1. What to do when my relationship with my step-mother has been poisoned by my father – he has told her things about me that has led her to decide to screen his calls so I can’t talk to him;

2. It has been nine months of estrangement and I have reconnected with my father – let the ruminations begin!

3. I have reconnected with my grandson after 4 years of estrangement due to my daughter breaking contact – he smokes pot to self-medicate for anxiety and our home is drug and alcohol free;

4. Brother1 was putting pressure on me to get back in touch with my father because he found it painful that I had broken contact – when I finally got back in touch and Wife3 (current stepmother) accused me of getting in touch because I was after Dad’s money Brother1 blamed me for her behaviour because my timing for re-connecting was bad;

5. I have decided I will no longer attend family events without my husband – my husband will not attend family events because he has found them too unpleasant to remember;

6. I have decided not to attend any family events where alcohol is being served – there is a correlation between unpleasant memories of previous family events and alcohol;

7. I got back in touch with Dad because his health and financial condition have deteriorated to the point that he is forced to sell the family vacation property to finance his out of control lifestyle – his sisters co-own the property with him and agreed to sell and then the next day said they didn’t need to sell and made way for nephews and nieces to mount a campaign to buy Dad’s share of the property – against Dad wishes that the property must be sold to someone outside the family;

8. Writing about social ecologies of learning in education, but now I am applying the theoretical framework to family systems and gaining new insight into the long term effect of low-grade patterns of emotional deprival and mental abuse;

9. The dissertation is progressing but everyday I write we go deeper into debt – can I get a full draft out before we are in danger of not meeting our monthly obligations?

10. I have two brothers who do not talk to me at all – I just have to let them go – one is an alcoholic and the other smokes pot everyday;

11. I love my sister but I hate her drinking and she doesn’t realize it but her perfume is so strong I have to bath after being around her – do I say anything?

These are the topics on my mind at any given moment when I am not consumed with writing my dissertation, training an incorrigible aggressive dog, planning house repairs, and working as a carpenter.

I need to remember how good it feels to externalize the crazy by writing it up in blog posts. I am excited with the direction my research is taking me into mental health and family systems as learning ecologies. I have hope for new relationship dynamics in the future.

12. Talking to Brother1 about the role alcoholism is playing in family relationship dynamics and he argues with me that he doesn’t believe our family suffers from alcoholism because he sees family members using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate for depression and anxiety – discuss;

13. Ruminations about my relationship with my father – whenever my mind is not occupied with immediate concerns it lapses into rumination about what I will say to my father the next time I talk to him – a lifetime of deprivation, shame, fear, anger, abandonment and betrayal – and I want to sum it all up in one or two sentences of brilliant eloquence;

14. What it feels like to have people in my life who truly have my back – my friends, my husband, my new academic supervisor – there is nothing in the world like this feeling – having it helps me identify how it was missing my entire life;

15. When I tried to re-connect with my Dad by calling to wish him Happy Birthday his third wife, I call her Wife3 picks up the phone. I say, “Is Dad there?” She says, “Who is calling?” I say, “Daughter2.” She says, “I’m screening his calls.” I say, “Why?” She says, “So you can’t talk to him.” After a number of inappropriate comments disparaging my behaviour as a daughter for setting the boundary to get a timeout from my relationship with my father, the last thing she said to me was, “What are you calling for? Are you trying to get money out of him?” And I hung up.

16. I know Wife3’s behaviour was fuelled by alcohol – how dare I call after 7 pm and not expect them to be loaded, but it also revealed how terrified she is about her own life – that she should have to use me as a whipping post to vent her anger and anxiety. I feel bad for her – I don’t doubt that my father’s habits of selfish cowardly acts of self-interest put her in a very precarious position;

17. Brother1 exorts me to ‘suck it up’ and participate in a family system that I have described as deeply damaging to my emotional and mental well-being because that is what it means to belong to a family – I forget that he married into a family that has provided his job, his housing, his entire wealthy lifestyle – his wife is not allowed to stand up to her father’s treatment of her because they are completely dependent on the family system for their material well-being – that has to feel pretty precarious – no wonder he doesn’t want to see me standing up for myself – but I don’t have the same financial ties to my family – so we really come from different places – he does not see any choice but to suck it up – I can’t bear the thought of sucking it up;

This list serves two purposes: 1 )  it provides an inventory of all the experiences, thoughts and feelings that are sloshing around in my consciousness and pulls them into focus and ‘puts the thoughts away’ for the time being and 2) it provides a list for future blog posts to write out and analyze these items in depth to help me re-contextualize my experience so I am not burdened unduly by other people’s mental ill-health.

“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.

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