As I have recovered, I have strenuously searched my memory for any kind of abuse. I have found a little, but nothing major. The strength of my search has come from my crippling shame. Where on earth did it come from?
Gabor Mate would refer to my childhood as trauma with a small “t”. Not much in terms of overt abuse, but not much in terms of getting basic emotional needs met, either.
I have always been fascinated by the concept of transformation. People make massive changes when something specific occurs which often cannot be reversed. A death or terminal illness. An accident. The loss of a job. That’s it. People make the changes they need to make and do not care how things appear anymore.
I wish I could point to a moment in my family’s history where something devastating happened and everything fell apart after that. An event that explained a lot. But no.
I believe that I never bonded with my mother. Never. My normal childhood needs for affection and attention were treated as overwhelming and superfluous. My needs were seen as the problem, instead of my mother’s inability to have empathy for her own children seen as problematic. I got older. I learned how to meet many of my own needs. My parents were gratified at how easy I was to deal with in many ways. Of course I was. I had learned early on that they were worthless. My needs were not going to get met. At least by them. I learned how to entertain myself. I cried myself to sleep. I used my intellect to distract myself from my misery. I got good at it.
But I never had a sense of meaning or purpose. I never felt a desire to live. I have always struggled with that. It only occurred to me maybe a month ago that my brothers never had any meaning or purpose in their lives, either. People with a reason to live do not drink to the point of cirrhosis. Cirrhosis does not shave off a few years from one’s life; it shaves off a few decades.
The pretense of normality is collapsing. The tragedy of the family is becoming obvious. In Al-Anon, I saw people screw up their lives and then, step-by-step, proceed to fix them. People learned. Then I went to family functions and stepped back into the 1980s. No learning or growth had transpired. When you are in your twenties and do stupid crap, there is understanding. We have all been young and stupid. But when you are pushing sixty and doing the exact same stupid behavior, the tragedy is laid bare. The mask is ripped off. People start looking for reasons you might be brain damaged. I have seen many, many people drink like fish in college and slow way down by the time they hit thirty. They are married, have children, and hang-overs get real old, real fast. Learning happens. Unless you belong to my family.
Because there is no before-and-after event, the family is desperate to act as if all families are like this, that this is par for the course. Anyone not living in a cave, however, will be unconvinced. I realized recently that I could probably have a relationship with my family if I had never left Potterville, gone to college, gotten married, or been in the recovery community. My mistake was learning and growth. If I had continued to be the person I had been when I was eighteen, things would be much better with the family. They continued to be the people they had been. What was my problem? I was exposed to maturing, developing, empathetic people. I saw not only that there was a better way, but that virtually any other way than the family’s was superior to what they were doing. When you are scraping the bottom, pretty much any direction is up.
When my brothers were younger and the booze hadn’t destroyed their livers yet, they could all say that I was wrong and didn’t know what I was talking about. Now their self-destructive ways have produced the inevitable consequences.
I have spent my entire life looking for better alternatives than what I was raised with. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helped me to function, but did not solve the basic problem of why I was doing what I was doing. Psychoanalysis is what saved me. And Gabor Mate. And Pete Walker. And the Crappy Childhood Fairy. I now understand why. And I have the ability to re-regulate my nervous system. I don’t have to settle for what I was raised with. No one does.
I have spent the past few years learning how to love myself. The past year has been very intense because I have seen just how shaming my mother has been clearly for the first time. This past year has been truly revelatory. My chronic, crippling toxic shame has an obvious source. I had always wondered why on earth someone with as much education as I have attained would have zero self-confidence. I always (mis)took the shame as my issue–and went to therapy most of my life to no avail. The reality is that you can never resolve a feeling that is not yours to begin with, no matter how strongly it was imposed upon you or how disabling it may be–and all the talk therapy in the world cannot help. You can only recognize it as being external and not claim it as your own.
It was with the help of my current psychoanalyst and her suggestions of Gabor Mate and the Crappy Childhood Fairy that I came to understand that my continual shame attacks were little more than being neurologically dysregulated to an extreme degree. Now I can deal with the symptoms instead of feeling like I am unfit for the world I live in. The dysregulation came from not getting certain basic needs met as a very young child. My dysfunction was pure survival back then. Trauma with a “small t,” as opposed to being actively abused, which would have been trauma with a “big t.”
Self-hatred served me well as a small child. But it has crippled me as an adult.
However, now, through meditation, I have continual awareness of my self-hating thoughts. They are beyond tiring. But I have space between them and myself now. I hear the thoughts and I no longer believe them.
And I have been getting glimpses, or perhaps hearing saner voices in my head, of wiser thoughts. One such thought recently was, “It doesn’t matter how much education you have if you hate yourself.”
I have a Master’s degree. And I still feel like I am always doing something wrong at work. I see the disconnect. I feel the irony. Every single little thing that comes up in my life is just a variation of this issue. And it exhausts me. I hope this phase does not last indefinitely.