I was talking to a friend a couple weeks ago. I asked her how she was doing. She said, “Keeping busy.” At the time, I thought nothing of it. Later, it struck me as odd. Who answers “How are you?” with “keeping busy”? Retirees and people waiting for something specific to happen.
Part of this might be the pandemic. Normal is gone. Some people are waiting for things to get back to the old normal, which I don’t believe is coming back. Everything is up in the air. Nobody knows what will happen. And so they wait for…? Spring? The weather has been endlessly, ridiculously cold. That definitely adds to the sense of hibernation. I understand the feeling of wanting to stay home and drink hot chocolate, killing time until the snow melts and it is fifty degrees outside.
This is my friend that graduated law school. I know how many sacrifices she made to graduate. She left Michigan for jobs that pay a living wage. She found work on the east coast. She clawed her way up to a contract job that paid $76k.
And then she got a wolf-dog hybrid. That dog is now her life. The contract ended. She is back in Michigan, living with her daughter, who owns the parents to her pet. The daughter has grown tired of financing her mother and her pet. And now, my friend is “keeping busy.”
Is that all any of us are doing? Keeping busy? I watch my younger co-workers during their lunches and breaks. They spend all their time on their phones, watching videos, playing games, etc. They are keeping busy. Not accomplishing anything, but keeping busy.
I have spent the past few years working on emotional issues. My ultimate goal is to not be devasted and wish for death when ordinary disappointments occur. I know that my feelings come from my childhood and being unwilling to play the role assigned to me by my family: scapegoat. I work on healing and re-mothering myself every day. I know I am making progress. I refuse to just “keep busy.”
I hope to do more with my life than just “keep busy.” Shoot me now if all I am doing is killing time before death.
Lately, I have been focusing on re-mothering myself. I now recognize that I was “under-mothered.” That’s when really basic, elementary things most children can rely upon simply were not there. The secure attachment does not exist. The protection did not happen. I learned how to function at a surprisingly high level for survival’s sake. I radically skipped non-negotiable developmental steps. And now it has caught up with me and I am left with the task of giving myself all that I did not receive in the normal course of childhood.
It might be working. I have been feeling very vulnerable lately. Some of it is Covid-related chaos and some of it is leftover, never-ending fear from a lifetime of being unprotected. So I have been doing a lot of meditations and focusing on figuring out what my “inner child” needs now.
Yesterday, I had a rush of…security? I felt safe. I am waiting to see if this is an anomaly or if this might be something more permanent. But even if this is just a blip of safety, at least I now have it in my repertoire. Is this how normal people with “good enough mothers” feel all the time? That’s the Winnicott concept.
On the one hand, I feel like I am so late to the game of having normal feelings and processing them. On the other hand, I come from a family where people would rather die than grow. I am where I am. It’s a whole lot better than where I was even a year ago.
We are now starting year three of dealing with Covid. I have been fully vaccinated and boosted–and have yet to be tested. I work in a place where I believe I am exposed pretty much all the time. I work hard to keep my immune system up and running. Just now, my life is being seriously impacted by Covid, after the three month quarantine from March to June of 2020 at work.
Work has Covid issues. Two of the regular cashiers were out with it. One of them has little immune system, so she really got Covid. Then there is the store where so many people are out due to the virus that they are cannibalizing our store for managers and workers. A couple Tuesdays ago, I was walking into the building and the cashier was hustling out of the building, to work at the suffering store. Not a good sign. I cashiered all day. This past Friday, the store manager had ACL surgery, but had started to wear a mask again. He had never been all that concerned about Covid (because he is a generally robust, healthy person) but was suddenly genuinely worried about it. I think his wife probably got to him. He is a social, gregarious person and not generally into social distancing, but I suspect she reminded him about his upcoming surgery and the fact that he smokes. Suddenly it was real to him, for whatever reason.
Then there is my friend with the subdural hematoma. She had to have brain surgery. Not good. But the worst part is not being able to see her because she is allowed one visitor per day due to Covid rules. I feel for all the people that cannot get the social support they need because of all the regulations. I can’t wait to see her on Wednesday.
And one of my best friends’ husband is now quarantining in Mt. Pleasant because he has tested positive. So he can’t go home where his wife is negative. She is frustrated because she knows what co-worker of his probably gave it to him. People at CMU just “pop in” to ask her husband questions and it is unlikely that they wear masks every single time.
I get it. We all want things to go back to normal. I know I do. But pretending that things are post-Covid when the hospitals are beyond capacity is not a real bright thing to do. I don’t know if things will ever go back to the old normal, but risking other peoples’ lives in the name of “freedom” is just plain stupid.
I have always believed that everything is connected. A leads to B leads to C leads to D, etc… Everything is a process and once you understand what process you are in, you know what comes next, for better or worse. Timing is always a mystery, but the next phase is predictable. Everything takes time–and usually longer than you think or assume it will.
This past summer/fall has been exhausting. The denial in my family evaporated in a heartbeat. My brothers are dying of cirrhosis. My mother’s true feelings about me came out in a letter, things I think I had always suspected but never wanted to admit. I have been processing my feelings as quickly as I can. But let’s be honest: this is a lifetime of rage boiling up to the surface. It is not pretty, but I have faith this is just a phase. No matter how strong the feelings, if felt, they ease up eventually, because no feeling lasts forever, good or bad.
I was talking to a friend that I hadn’t spoken to in a couple of months because I had just gotten the letter. She asked if we could talk about something else and I agreed, but I cannot imagine calling her again. A person to help me process some of these feeling was all I ever wanted from her. So when she said no, she eliminated my primary reason for talking to her. I made friends with her precisely because she also comes from a highly dysfunctional background and seemed to understand some of my struggles. Maybe she thinks I am getting stuck in my anger. I don’t believe that. Life moves way too quickly for that.
The issues I am dealing with from the past are the issues that have crippled me my entire adult life: the toxic shame, the radical under-achievement, trying to tip-toe around my mother’s feelings while she possesses zero empathy, the scary lack of having a goal in life in my mid-fifties, and not having any meaning. There is simply no way for me to talk about my current issues without speaking about my current efforts to resolve them and the hundreds of dots I am connecting, sometimes seemingly all at once. This is the core of the onion. There are no deeper layers. I have hit the “mother lode” of my psychiatric issues/life problems, pun intended.
I am developing clarity. This is what I have always wanted. Be careful what you wish for because clarity can be like turning the lights on in a toxic waste dump. This is precisely what the denial was meant to protect you from: too much awareness. Now you know how much needs to be cleaned up. The difference between now and the past is that I now have the tools necessary for the job: the shrink, the books, real friends, meditation, the Crappy Childhood Fairy, Gabor mate YouTube videos. I have a huge task ahead of me, but am equipped to handle pretty much anything now.
I’ve had an epiphany. I hope I am not just regurgitating something I read years ago. It feels like I am the first person connecting these particular dots, but I could be wrong.
I was ranting with a friend about my family. Her particular take is that I can pick and choose to what degree I wish to participate with my family. Her position is full of maturity and common sense. And I simply didn’t buy any of it. Her position was like that espoused in Alanon, maintaining boundaries in a deliberate, intentional manner.
Here’s the issue: dysfunctional systems do not allow for that level of maturity and self-hood. Period. Dysfunctional systems are all about their own survival, at the expense of even the physical survival of their own members. “The show must go on.” Everyone has their role(s) to play. Those parts are written before the people are even born. The roles are rigid and non-negotiable. You either play them or some outsider plays them, but the behaviors are pre-determined. You are either in or out. You either accept the role wholesale (no alterations allowed) or reject it altogether. There can be no picking and choosing.
Dysfunctional systems do not allow for boundaries. To say no to a demand of the system is to encounter instant ostracism. A boundary is a limit. “I will go this far to accommodate your demand and no further.” The dysfunctional system cannot survive common sense and personal autonomy. When the system makes a demand, you either comply immediately or are out of the system completely. People raised in these systems naturally develop all-or-nothing thinking because it has been their experience from day one. Negotiating and compromise are foreign concepts. Picking and choosing have been verboten their entire lives. If you try to barter with a dysfunctional system, you are seen as a total moron. You clearly do not understand the concept of “loyalty.” The dysfunctional system demands absolute loyalty to its unhealthy expectations at all times unconditionally. Having boundaries will never be acceptable.
Here is the weird thing about dysfunctional systems, roles, and having no boundaries. These roles are slippery. Take, for example, the triad of persecutor, victim, and rescuer. Without a sense of self (having boundaries), you can easily shift from one role to another subconsciously. That’s right; it is as if you have no personality to speak of and you go from one role to another, literally without a thought. The roles are rigid, but you can play multiple parts in the blink of an eye, even within the same conversation! You can see how having limits is anathema to a dysfunctional system. “Who do you think you are?!” the system demands to know. “A healthy, functioning adult,” is the end of the conversation and your place in the system.
This is why developing a personality or will of one’s own is so unacceptable to the dysfunctional system. The system allows for no compromise. If you don’t want to play your role, you are out. I remember, in my early twenties, when it dawned on me that my brothers and I seemed to take turns having drama. It was as if only one of us could have problems at a time. I decided then that I was out of the rotation. They can have all the drama.
I have always been scapegoated, but I have never been a good little victim. They have placed me in that role, but I have never acquiesced. Scapegoats oftentimes are law-breakers and substance-abusers, a subconscious way of diverting attention from the party causing the real problems. I, on the other hand, am the straight arrow of the family. I have never been a willing participant. I will never take on their issues voluntarily.
My friend is both totally right and a little wrong simultaneously. She doesn’t understand a family system as dysfunctional as mine (perhaps a good thing because I wouldn’t wish this on anyone else). But she nails it on the aspect of personal choice. If someone should contact me (because it will never be me attempting to contact them), I can have the conversation I want to have. Any attempt to pull me into the system can be my cue to exit. I can pick and choose what I am willing to do and not do.
The irony is that these dysfunctional systems live at the expense of their own members. When the members get healthy, the system has no ability to accommodate that. The members must be ejected. If enough members are ejected, the system may even die off, which spells the beginning of mental health for all.
The frightening part is when the system shifts downward a generation. The scapegoat thinks, “Thank God! My abuser is dead. Freedom is mine.” Then, the next generation simply picks the next abuser, without a thought obviously. Freedom can never be found within the system. The system can never be transformed; it can only die off due to a lack of compliance. I already know, for example, whom the next scapegoat will likely be: the youngest daughter of my oldest brother. Why? She is in the least denial. She knows her little brother has an alcohol problem and she has called him out on it. The system cannot survive containing a member with this high level of awareness. There is no forgiveness for awareness.
My ideas are a mish-mash of Harriet Lerner, Melody Beattie, and Rebecca Mandeville. If you want to understand where I am coming from, read The Dance of Anger, Codependent No More, and Rejected, Shamed, & Blamed. I think Lerner is the one that created the perpetrator, victim, rescuer triangle. I could be wrong.
Connecting the dots is painful, fascinating, enlightening, harrowing, depressing, amazing, and so much more.