We all project onto others that which we believe about ourselves, sometimes to comic effect.
As a young adult, I assumed my parents were much smarter than they actually were. I gave them credit for connecting dots that I realize now that they have yet to connect to this day. In other words, I grossly over-estimated their intelligence.
Last week, I got something in the mail from my mother. I assume it was a birthday card. Then envelope was very thick, so I suspect it contained a letter. Also, birthday cards generally contain a check. The funny part? The envelope had no return address and my mother printed my name and address. I did not think about the printing until a friend told me that people print when they try to disguise their handwriting. Then I almost laughed. This is the woman that signed my Christmas presents “Santa Claus.” I know my mother’s printing and cursive.
What was her logic? “If I don’t put a return address, then she can’t return to sender.” “If she doesn’t know who it’s from, she will have to open it and read it.” In other words, she assumes she can trick me into opening it. Not. Going. To. Happen.
I flung it into the back of the dumpster, which gets emptied every few days. When I disposed of some chicken bones three days later, the dumpster had been emptied. In other words, whatever she sent is now unfindable in the Granger landfill.
I was amused that she thought she could out-smart me. This is the woman that never connected the dots of what a baby is fed with the type of poop in the diaper. My first thought was, “Wow. She really thinks I am stupid.”
Come November, when the folks are in Florida and my father is balancing the checkbook, it will occur to him that the check never got cashed. You see, I know my mother. She is likely telling people, “Cindy may not want to hear what I say, but you can be sure she will cash the check!” The question is: Does Dad lie to her to make her think she is right? “Yeah, she cashed it.” The truth has never been an issue in my family. If the truth might offend someone, then making people feel good is all that matters. They are Trump-ers. Facts, science, truth, reality, whatever label you want to put on it, are not relevant. Global warming is a hoax (even while the earth is literally on fire!). They are not bright people.
I am just so happy! Why? The little girl in me is finally being protected from the still-faced mother of the past 55 years. Look up “still-face mother” online, experiments where children are writhing in emotional torment because they cannot receive normal human interaction from their mothers. It is painful to even watch for a minute or two. Imagine that as your childhood. And young adulthood. And middle age.
Why didn’t I open the card/letter/whatever? Because the last thing I opened from her was a venomous, nasty, vicious letter, blaming me for things my brothers did thirty years ago! I spent months recovering from that. Imagine putting your hand into a campfire, spending months recovering from it, and then being told to put your hand into a campfire a year later. Just exactly how dumb would you have to be to say, “Sounds like a good idea to me,”? Unlike my family members, I do this thing called “learning” where I don’t keep making the exact same mistakes over and over and over again.
I imagine my mother with all that venom in her and nobody to dump it on. It feels wonderful. This is truly karma, with all her nastiness rebounding back onto her. My soul feels at peace. The little girl within me is finally protected and loved. Self-love is not allowing others to abuse you. Ever.
I continually give my shrink various situations and ask, “What would a normal person (someone actually cared for in childhood) do with this?” Her basic position is that we live in chaos and that the word “normal” doesn’t have much meaning anymore.
I ran into it again a couple weeks ago. A text appeared on my phone. I did not recognize the number. It was about an end-of-summer pool party and who was coming and who wasn’t. I assumed someone had butt-dialed me. I have gotten plenty of wrong-number texts. I deleted it and thought nothing of it.
But the texts kept coming. And then one of them mentioned a sister-in-law with an uncommon name. This was not an accident. And I kept deleting them until they stopped.
To understand the situation, one must have context, the very thing electronic communications lack. This sister-in-law, in decades past, has forbidden me to talk with her children. Now those offspring are grown adults–and inviting me to a pool party. I have zero relationship with these people. Period. We have never talked on the phone. Not once. It was so detached from reality that I assumed I had gotten butt-dialed. I have never been included in these text chains, to the point where I do not recognize their phone numbers. I did not see the number and say, “I am being invited to my brother’s house.” These people are strangers to me. I had to work that day and whomever was texting me did not bother to ask if I worked that day, which I did. The whole thing had a surreal quality.
I asked myself exactly what they expected me to do. What if I had shown up? The conclusion I have reached is that what they want is me in the family picture without actually speaking to me. They want the optics of a “family” minus any relationships that would give the word “family” any meaning at all. They want things to look good.
Roles without relationships are worthless.
The family works very hard to make things look good. This sister-in-law works very, very hard to make these get-togethers work. And work it is. The amount of time and energy she invests say that this is a huge priority for her. It is quite the production. Imagine a play on Broadway and the amount of time, effort, and money it takes to make the show go on. The difference is that the play on Broadway has an audience that is fully aware that what is going on on-stage is a play. It is not real life. No one pretends that it is. The family pretends these productions are real life.
Knowing that this cannot represent normalcy, I asked my shrink what a normal person would do. We ended up in a discussion regarding how I would like to define normal. I guess that’s all there is anymore. Everyone has their own definitions. Think of the opinions of various politicians. How connected to reality are they, the politicians or their opinions?
My underlying belief is that everything comes down to meeting human needs. If needs are not met, people are forced to move on. Optics are not relevant. It really just does not matter what the opinions are of people who have never done anything for you. As a Christian, I saw churches demand my “time, talents, and treasures” when I had done all the reaching out and many of the members were unaware of my existence. Walking away was a no-brainer in those circumstances.
The word “family” is devoid of all meaning and importance when it does not include flesh-and-blood relationships–the kind where you can share anything at any time and have a safe space. Without that safe space, “family” becomes the new F-word. It all becomes quire surreal.
Do you ever keep guessing wrong about something?
I always seem to get wrong what others know or don’t know. One example was my husband Barry, who had Huntington’s Disease. Toward the end of his life, I was very frustrated. If I thought he could not do a particular thing, he would prove me wrong and do it. On the other hand, there were things I assumed he could do and then, often at a later date, I would realize he could not have done no matter how hard he tried. I think now that he would rather have had me believe that he was a stubborn, pig-headed man than to admit that he could not do something. The point is that I was consistently wrong about his abilities.
My mother is the other obvious example. Sometimes, you hear stories from middle-aged people saying that they now understand their parents’ wisdom in a way they could not when they were new adults. As young adults, they were arrogant and thought their parents knew nothing. As they matured, they found out just how much self-control their parents actually had in keeping their traps shut about the young adult’s various decisions. This is the polar opposite of my experience. I entered adulthood assuming that my parents fully understood how destructive my brothers’ drinking and drugging were, but didn’t care.
(There is a greeting card that shows a very-wise-looking cat on the outside and says, “Cats know exactly how you feel.” You open up the card and it says, “They don’t care, but they know.” That was my assumption regarding my parents until just the past few years.)
I was so wrong. I saw last year how my mother is frantic about Dave and Bob. Now that the denial has broken in the family, my mom is worried sick about my brothers. Suddenly, she cares. Such concern is approximately 40 years too late and consequently worthless. Now that absolutely nothing positive or constructive can be done to address the situation, she is upset. Recovery is no longer an option.
I used to be an algebra tutor. That is easy. Algebra must be taught in a particular order. You can’t learn long division until you master addition, for example. You start out with variables meaning nothing. Six plus A equals nine. Solve for A. Swing the six and the A to opposite sides and subtract the 6 from the nine. A equals three. I could figure out exactly where students got stuck because there is no variation in how algebra is taught. I would ask a question, get a blank stare, ask another question, insult their intelligence, and then narrow down where they were stuck through the blank-stare-and-insult process. Ding ding ding! We have a winner. Now I can help the student overcome the current hurdle and see if they want a preview of the next one.
In organizations, one must always make the assumption that people know both more and less than you probably think they do. One person may not know everything, but they know when something has changed. Now multiply that by everybody and you have a great variety of knowledge levels. Also, some people are intuitive or perhaps psychic and you can see the issues. When there is not communication coming from on high, it is inevitable that people will cluster and share bits and pieces of what they know. Sometimes the correct conclusion will be reached, sometimes not. Oftentimes, people don’t realize how close to the truth they have come.
Are there ways to know the knowledge level of people? The quality of their thinking?
I am pushing sixty years old and only now am seeing the low quality of my parents’ thinking. I am unsure of what, if anything at all, my parents understood when I was twenty. I believe that the child part of us needs to believe that our parents are wise (if not particularly caring, like the cat on the card). We need desperately to believe that our caretakers can be there for us when needed. Even, and perhaps especially, when it is not true.
I am obsessed with connecting the dots. But it is hard when you don’t know how many dots other people have nor do you know their ability to connect them. I get tired of playing the blank-stare-and-insult game with everyone. So I usually don’t say anything at all, even if asked to contribute. Pissing people off is not my goal in life. But I am still left with my own bits and pieces that don’t always make any sense. I suck at this.
I keep running into this theme of husks and kernels. A husk is a protective outer shell. The kernel is the valuable meat inside in need of protection from the elements. Husks are essential only to the degree that they protect something worthwhile within. Without the kernel, a husk is suitable only for discarding and recycling.
Roles are husks. Relationships are kernels. My family possesses husks only. There are no relationships in my family of origin. When my “father” told “his favorite daughter” to “call a cab” and was going to abandon her at the emergency room he and his wife, my “mother”, landed her in, the pretense of any real relationship was over. The role of “favorite daughter” is clearly worthless and was obvious at that moment. To have to beg for a ride was humiliating and removed any delusion that they ever truly cared about me. The masks were removed and my eyes were opened.
I used to feel strange that I had no real relationship with my brothers. I saw other adult siblings that seemed close and I wondered what was wrong with us. However, at the age of 30 or 40, it dawned on me that my mother had zero relationship with her brothers. Where was I supposed to have learned such a skill from?
In the same way, religion is the husk and spirituality is the kernel. Religion is rites, rituals, traditions, and dogma. However, without relationships and spirituality, religion is worthless. Who wants to receive communion from a pedophilic priest? Without the ethics, morals, that kind of thing, the emptiness of religion is obvious, suitable only for discarding. I saw in the Orthodox church people coming into the front door, avoiding the service, and going straight into the social room. As an ex-Protestant, that made no sense to me. Why would anyone go to the trouble of driving to a church when they believed none of the dogma? Relationships. All their friends and family attended. I saw babies blessed and then never again brought back to the church building. Huh? Why would they do that? Because Grandma was a member of that church her whole life and she was going to see that child blessed before she died. Never mind that the parents believed nothing the church teaches; it was all about keeping Grandma happy.
On the one hand, it is easy and only obvious that people would throw away an empty husk. But giving people empty husks places the burden on them. It is easy, in some ways, to walk away from my family of origin because they offer nothing of value. I am not rejecting anything real and I know it (and I believe they know it, too, on some level). But the empty box they handed me, “favorite daughter,” is awkward, bulky, heavy, and burdensome. It is my job to call Granger landfill (my psychoanalyst) and pay for its disposal. In other words, I have to clean up their mess. Resentment is perfectly normal and inevitable in such a situation.
I believe that sometimes our decisions have far-flung consequences. I am not joking.
I just realized that a choice I made in middle school has pretty much determined the course of my life.
When I was young, my brothers were creating problems: drinking, doing drugs, getting their girlfriends pregnant, etc. (Are they going to get married, have an abortion, keep the baby? OMG. Drama, drama, drama.) I remember thinking to myself that I would be the Harry Truman of Birth Control (as in “the buck stops here”). I remember thinking, “I know how miserable I am. Why would I ever want to create someone this miserable? This stupidity ends here. I am the end of the line. The reproductive train stops here.” I wasn’t even in high school yet.
I expressed my determination through a suicide attempt. Then, through dating a man 16 years older than I was who was newly sober. Then, marrying him and supporting his sobriety until death did he part.
Whatever my family stood for (stupidity, illegal behavior, substance abuse, etc.), I took a common-sense stance against. I distinctly recall thinking, when I was 15, “If and when I ever get a car, no one will ever smoke weed in it or leave pot seeds in the ashtray.” One of my brothers had been jailed for exactly that nonsense. I also recall being 18 and thinking, “If I ever get a place of my own, I will never allow any illegal activities to be conducted in my residence.” I felt as if I had to be a serious hard ass to simply be a law-abiding citizen. It felt ridiculous and totally necessary.
Now my remaining living brothers have cirrhosis and have learned little, if anything. Time has marched onward. They have aged without maturing, grown older without getting any wiser. Their dysfunction has now been passed down to their descendants wholesale, unhealed and unredeemed. Their children are having various difficulties and having zero idea as to where they come from.
I have never had a real relationship with any of them, nor desired one. I deluded myself into thinking I had a relationship with my parents but the accident last summer and my mother’s letter last fall disabused me of any such notion. I can’t imagine making that mistake again.
My decision still stands. And I am now realizing that it has colored all other decisions to this day. I have worked very hard at my own physical, emotional, and spiritual healing. I have never been willing to take on the consequences of their bad behavior because of some genetic connection. I have always worked hard to be clean, sober, and wholesome (there’s a word never heard anymore). Read anything by Gabor Mate. It is very easy to just take on the subconscious crap of one’s upbringing and claim it as one’s own. I refuse.
One of the main things I have learned lately is that my problems are everyone’s. The shame I was raised with actually belongs to other family members and does not belong to me on any level. We subconsciously take on the issues of our families. It is completely inevitable. It is called “karma.” Some of it we create, but much of it we inherit. There is nothing I could have done as a child that would have earned the venom of my family members for so many years. No child could.
Here I am, trying to heal myself emotionally and spiritually. I believe my healing could, theoretically, heal family members. But if it does, they will have no idea where it comes from.
I took a stand in middle school not to participate in my brothers’ stupidity. That decision still stands to this day. I do not regret it at all. It just stuns me that the choice of a 13-year-old still is valid over 40 years later. I wish I could tell that teenager, “You go, girl!”