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Acting Based On What We Know

I am frustrated. Perhaps I always have been. To me, some things are obvious. Actions have consequences, oftentimes painfully predictable ones. Sometimes I refuse to watch. “Take your dysfunction elsewhere” is my attitude. I don’t need to put myself in the middle of situations that have no possibility of turning out well.

Probably my favorite author is Gabor Mate. I think he is a genius because he connects the dots better than anyone else I have ever read. But here’s the genius part: what he is saying is not new. He just delivers it more compassionately and with more common sense than anyone else on the planet in The Myth of Normal. (This is similar to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, a book that has no radical new information but is presented in such a simple and easily-memorized format that it is probably taught in every business school in America.) Addiction? Rampant. Racism? Not news. Male dominance? Not news. Health care system not working? Definitely not news.

I watch YouTube videos. I like Mate’s because of his simplicity and emphasis on attachment versus authenticity. His delivery is simple, kind, and easily understood. No expertise is required to grasp what he is saying, but I likely know more than the average person regarding the topics of childhood trauma, addiction, recovery, unhealthy family relationships, etc. I am a widow of an AA man of 30 years. I have two brothers with cirrhosis. I spent seven years in Al-Anon. I have read most recovery literature. And, oh yeah, I have spent most of my adult life in psychotherapy. One of the comments on one of Mate’s videos referred to his video as “a raft with a lot of unexamined assumptions” or something like that. I replied to that person that Mate’s opinions are an indestructible, unsinkable steel ship based on sound scientific research. Nothing Mate says is simply his own personal opinion. He has decades of research on his side.

My frustration comes from how much we know and how little it has changed anything whatsoever. The “Adverse Childhood Experiences” study is from the nineties and should have revolutionized medicine permanently. It created not a hiccup. Freud quickly discovered that most of his female patients had been sexually molested. He couldn’t handle it, nor could psychiatry in general, so that got buried. World War I created the diagnosis of “shell shock,” which was then ignored. World War II and Viet Nam vets came home with what became known as PTSD, which was then promptly forgotten. We keep having to “rediscover” things that are obvious.

My personal perspective, that I consider to be basic common sense, is that it is always, 100% of the time, cheaper to prevent a problem than to treat it. I can’t think of an exception.

The problem? There is zero money to be made in our profit-driven healthcare system in telling people, “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t do drugs. And, oh yeah, wear sunscreen and your seat belt.” A healthy populace is death to a profit-driven health care system. Many hospitals only survived the pandemic because of their ability to continue elective surgeries. Unnecessary tests and procedures are the life blood of American health care. In a nation with real health care (taxpayer-funded), a healthy population saves the government millions, if not billions, of dollars. In a profit-driven system, healthy patients spell the end of hospitals. Common sense would finish off our entire medical system. Keeping you sick puts money into the doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and the insurance industry.

We know everything we need to know. Now. And somehow we act like we still live in the Dark Ages.

One of my personal issues is that I need to take myself, my own opinions, more seriously. Lip service is easy. What would my life look like if I acted as if I truly believed in common sense?

This is the problem with denial: part of you knows something (subconscious) and part of you can’t imagine a thing being true (conscious). That’s where the anger comes in. The forces of denial are strong, whether in a family or trying to defend a system that only serves the wealthy at everyone else’s expense.

I need to just start acting like I believe in common sense and listening to my body and intuition. That would be the ultimate rebellion.

Is Anything About Me?

I am convinced that I have nothing to do with the family’s drama. I firmly believe that even if my mother had divorced the boys’ father and never met mine, the current result of my brothers having cirrhosis would have remained exactly the same. I am not a factor in the equation. Period.

There are some ironies. I also believe that my anger has been my subconscious attempt to support the family. In addition, I feel that my mother’s scapegoating of me was her subconscious attempt to include me in the family. In our own dysfunctional way, we attempted to remain tied together. Ultimately it failed. Because none of this is about me nor can it ever be.

I see the current drama as having been meant to be from the beginning of time. This is the way it was always going to be. My existence is irrelevant.

And that is my problem. I do not feel like a major player in my own life. The only thing tying me to the family was my anger and, as I let go of it, my tenuous connection to them is dissolved. I am left with a gaping hole in my life. The pretense of having a family is over. What do I want to do? I have never known.

I remember being about 18 and someone asking me what I wanted to do with my life. My response? “What does that have to do with anything?” Like Sheldon from TBBT, the question did not compute. I was so dissociated from anything resembling a feeling that I truly could not imagine anything more irrelevant than what I wanted or felt.

As a married woman, your life is not about you. It is always about him or us. When Barry passed almost 5 (!) years ago, I knew my life could really be about me for the first time.

The problem is that I have always found safety in invisibility. Staying out of situations that cannot end well has been survival. I know what danger looks like, but I am unsure of what a good or positive situation would look like. I am attracted to screwed-up situations and then get out by the skin of my teeth, feeling fortunate to have gotten out at all.

I feel like I am the opposite of a narcissist. I am still looking for a situation that is about me, sniffing around like a bloodhound. I see myself and all humanity as having been born into the current situation not of our choosing. Can we make it about us or is our eternal task just to clean up the disaster created by our forebears? How do we not resent that?

What Will Prayer Do?

I had a very interesting encounter today. I was at Meijer, a local grocery store, looking for a lock for my work locker. Suddenly, I was glommed onto by a group of teenage girls. Say, what?

They were evangelicals. The lead one asked me if there was anything I wanted prayed over. My thought went immediately to my oldest brother, Dave. He has already admitted his liver has stopped working and he may as well keep on drinking. I thought it would be a good idea if he stopped drinking and got his affairs in order with his daughters and son. So I asked them to pray for him to stop drinking. They did so. They were so earnest and true. I was touched by the purity of their intention.

Little did they know that I used to be evangelical and then Greek Orthodox. As if I had never prayed for anyone in my family. They meant well and I didn’t think about them again until I got home.

Wait a minute. Did I just pray for Dave to die? I already know he has no intention of stopping drinking. If he continues to drink until he dies, then I just semi-knowingly prayed for him to be dead, because I already know that the cold, clammy hand of death will likely be the only thing that breaks Dave’s grip off that can of Bud Light.

When I was younger, the hope was recovery. Perhaps my brothers could get straight and sober and my husband Barry could lead the way. At this stage of cirrhosis, recovery is not an option, only death. The only hope now is for the next generation not to destroy their brain cells and to be much more honest with themselves than anyone in this family has ever been. (“This family”, not “my family”, because I have never truly been a part of it on any level.) Dysfunctional systems can end in two ways: recovery or death. But change is hard and many people would rather die than change. We all make choices.

My attitude now is simple: as long as the pretense of this being a normal family continues, I’m out. The system needs to die. My hope is for the next generation to find recovery while young enough to do so.

Still, I am terribly curious as to what, if anything, prayer will do. It would be nice to find out a decade from now that Dave made things right with his children during a brief stint if sobriety. Only time will tell.

One Every Generation

Probably a year or so ago, I read Gabor Mate’s book When The Body Says No. I felt like every word was about my mom’s sister, my aunt Mary. Mary was that person talked about who was simply too nice and ended up with all these auto-immune problems. She died in the mid-nineties at about my age now. She had maybe four or five fatal auto-immune problems. Her life was one of such suffering that she gave her body to science, to Michigan State University, so medical students could maybe prevent some small amount of suffering in others. She was a walking medical experiment.

The theme of the book is that anger is normal. Anger performs the same function emotionally as the immune system does physically: keeping the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. The suppression of anger leads directly to the suppression of the immune system. The mechanism is not mysterious. The body sends out signals that something is not right and we ignore these messages at our own peril.

I have been feeling my anger at my family lately. I think my shrink is scared for me, that I will give myself some bad consequences with my unbridled anger. I believe the exact opposite. For the very first time in my life, my anger is properly aimed. I am not tearing off my fingernails or toenails and I am not having massive shame attacks. This is huge progress. Also, I have never had sufficient energy to feel this much anger. Anger is a privilege for those who have been chronically emotionally exhausted.

But I also see her point. It hit me that feeling that much anger towards people I have nothing to do with is a backwards, up-side down way of maintaining loyalty to a system I want no part in. It was my subconscious way of maintaining some small connection with them without inserting myself into their drama. My willingness to bear the subconscious burden of my family’s karma or dysfunction or whatever has always been a big, fat zero.

I remember being in my late twenties and realizing quite suddenly that my brothers and I were taking turns with our drama. There never seemed to be two of us at the same time under duress. I thought that was odd. I decided I wanted out of the rotation. Permanently. They could have all the turns. I wanted something better for myself. I redoubled my efforts to live a healthy life.

For my oldest brother’s family, the “Mary” of that generation is his youngest daughter. She has way too many problems for a girl as smart and young as she is, but, unfortunately, she is the “nice” one. I know her needs never got met. She was about three when her oldest sister was run over by a drunk driver. They got the big house, which feels like a shrine to the dead one. It is hard for parents to be present for a child while in the throes of grief, which, of course, never got dealt with. It is all quite creepy. I always get that “eeeeuuuuwww” feeling there.

A couple years after Mary died, her dad (my Grandpa Siwek) died. A couple years after that, her and my mom’s brother went into a nursing home with some kind of premature dementia. Their mother (Grandma Siwek) died with Alzheimer’s in the early nineties. The system started dissolving immediately after Mary’s death. I am hoping that withdrawing my energy will have a similar effect on my family.

What can I do? Continue with my efforts at compassionate inquiry into myself. Live as healthy of a life as possible. Make the subconscious as conscious as possible, which includes listening hard to my body and what it is trying to communicate.

I have watched enough Gabor Mate interviews to know that anger is the normal response to boundary violations. My family, especially my mother, is a monumental boundary violator. Anger is the normal response to my family that does not recognize the concept, let alone legitimacy, of boundaries. However, I don’t need it so much now because I never plan on putting myself in harm’s way again. I can keep myself safe now.

Perhaps every generation has to have someone to bear the family’s dysfunction. I’m out. Any volunteers?

No “Before”

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.

Education Not Relevant

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.

Do Normal People Feel Like This?

I have experienced something, but I am not sure what.

I have spent the past few years trying to re-regulate my dysregulated nervous system, thanks to my shrink, Gabor Mate, Pete Walker, and the Crappy Childhood Fairy. Lots of tears and meditation. Now, something has happened–or perhaps I should say, nothing has happened.

The incessant rumble of infantile terror seems to have stopped. Not everything stops my breath.

What do I feel? Emptiness. It is questionable whether or not that is actually good, but I can say that it is a million times better than unending fear. I look inside and don’t feel anything. This might be the feeling that everyone is trying to avoid with various addictions. But it is such an improvement that I don’t care.

This is not the same as meaning or purpose, but I feel like I am wrapping things up, dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s. I don’t know why.

I am not freaking out and that is good enough.

Been Reading “the Myth of Normal”

I might be quoting this book forever. This book is not simply interesting; it is important. I believe every healthcare provider, teacher, psychotherapist, and even daycare worker should read its contents. So not going to happen. Like the Adverse Childhood Experiences study of the 1990s that should have revolutionized healthcare and didn’t even cause a blip on the radar, the impact of this book will likely be close to zero.

Mate’s premise is scientifically sound (even beyond dispute): early childhood experiences, including in utero, shape the very anatomy and functioning of our nervous systems permanently. But, of course, there is backlash. When people understand the implications of his views, they are horrified. He wrote an article in 2006 saying that babies should not have to cry themselves to sleep. One reader of the article was indignant:

“One of them was priceless: ‘The article is nothing more than prefrontal lobe BS. There is no way an infant’s brain patterns are permanently psychologically damaged at such a young age. There is no way your prefrontal cortex will permanently adopt patterns that will translate into adulthood. No way. If that would be the case, then the last 3 generations to rule this earth (boomers, pre-boomers, Generation X) would have all been emotionally unstable and plagued with psychological issues.’ ‘Well, then,’ I thought to myself, ‘I rest my case.'” (p. 171, the Myth of Normal)

This person wrongly thought they were contradicting Mate’s sound scientific opinion, while in reality they were actually proving it. Apparently, this person lived in a cave. I cannot imagine trying to defend the mentally unstable “leaders” of today.

When basic human needs are not met, and you multiply this over billions of people, what you get is what you see–utter social and political chaos. As my friends at school always liked to say, “Good luck with that.”

Did It To Myself Again

I have a habit of doing this to myself: skipping steps and missing very important points.

In my last post, I mentioned getting Brene Brown’s book, Atlas of the Heart. I felt judged because I have gotten out of the family and am not interested in restarting those “relationships.” Even though getting out is a simple choosing of my sanity over social convention, I felt like Brown would disapprove when I looked at an advanced chapter.

Reality check: read the introduction!

“When people are being hateful or cruel or just being assholes, they’re showing us exactly what they’re afraid of. Understanding their motivation doesn’t make their behavior less difficult to bear, but it does give us choices. And subjecting ourselves to that behavior by choice doesn’t make us tough–it’s a sign of our lack of self-worth….[S]ometimes, even when the pain takes your breath away, you have to let the people you love experience the consequences of their own behavior. That one really hurts.” (p. xix)

Her words reflect my entire life philosophy. They could have been taken out of any Al-Anon meeting.

That’s what I do to myself: I skip steps and then miss what I need. I have always been able to advance faster than most intellectually. But then it is easy to miss the point and the support that I need that is available.

But I am 55 years old now. The time to skip steps is over. I am currently trying to catch up all the various parts of me to the same level. I have a lot of time to make up and I don’t know that I have it. None of us knows if we have it.

Brown’s book is not about family systems. It is about giving language to the terrain of emotions. She considers herself both the topographer and the traveler. Giving emotions a nuanced vocabulary helps to connect the different parts of the brain, parts that I know Gabor Mate would agree get disconnected in trauma. That is a worthy endeavor.

The (Karmic) Momentum Has Stopped

A few weeks ago was my birthday. About a week before that, my mom sent me something in the mail. The envelope was thick and had no return address, as if I was incapable of recognizing her printing. I pitched it in the dumpster in the parking lot of my apartment complex. After the past year, that was exceptionally freeing. I spoke to my shrink. The following day, I felt like something had shifted, but I didn’t know what.

This past week, I got another “bill” from this weird company claiming that I owed them almost three thousand dollars from the accident from last year. I have already contacted my insurance adjustor and he said he had not received a claim from them and suggested that they were scammers. Getting an unpaid “bill” of that size made my heart stop, again. I will contact my adjustor again and I might contact the appropriate regulatory agency. I don’t want a legitimate bill to go unpaid, but my latest letter to them made it clear I need proof that they have submitted the bill to State Farm (my car insurance) first. I gave them the claim number and everything. Any legitimate health care provider should get paid by them and BC/BS of Michigan, and I will pay the balance after the insurances have paid their amounts first. I pay my bills, but I am a widow and scammers are after me all the time.

I know I have made huge emotional progress because that stepping-on-my-chest feeling was so dramatic and I instantly realized that I used to feel like that all the time. Twenty-four/7/365. That was my usual mode of being. I suddenly felt compassion for the young adult that was me, trying to deal with Barry, supporting his sobriety, dealing with my family, school, and/or work. I truly used to live like that, in a continual state of emotional overwhelm. My nervous system has been seriously re-regulated. I give the credit to Crappy Childhood Fairy, my shrink, Pete Walker, and Gabor Mate. Nobody should ever have to live like that routinely. The tools are out there.

But I digress, maybe. Part of the reason the scammer issue is so crystal clear to me is because of this shift I have undergone. I have been doing a lot of meditating lately. I have known something has changed, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. This is what it feels like: a lifetime of momentum has come to a grinding halt. That pushing, pushing, pushing feeling has, uh, ended. Gone. With absolutely nothing to replace it. I have stopped feeding the engine of the barreling train. Without me or my family fueling the motor, it has puttered to a stop. Without my family in the equation, what I put my energy into is strictly my choice. And I am unwilling to fuel the drama.

I believe that I always performed two roles in the family: 1) I am the person my mother could always freely disapprove of and 2) I acted as a buffer between her and her self-destructing sons (as a distraction). My brothers could do anything and we should should all have compassion on them because they have had it so hard. However, when I would do anything one one-millionth as bad as anything they did, I should have known better and how dare I. And we all know Cindy has emotional problems. Without me as a scapegoat, my mother is probably going nuts. I believe that the letter or whatever she sent was her desperate attempt to restart the family karmic train, with me as the emotional dumping ground for her toxic waste. Now there is no distraction. Everything she sends at me rebounds back onto her. Not. My. Problem. Freedom for me.

But still, I don’t know what to do. Is this what normal (non-traumatized) people feel like? I feel lost. Perhaps I have self-esteem now. I’m not sure. All I am sure of is that my former motivation of internal rumbling terror has relented. Fear maybe drives 10% of my choices, whereas it drove 100% of my choices in the past. Part of me feels like, if I died tonight, I finally have some peace. This is what I have been working towards my entire life.

I just received The Myth of Normal by Gabor Mate. It is a frickin’ tome. Of course, it is amazing so far. I hope I have something to offer the world in terms of creating a more trauma-friendly world. I also received Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown. I peeked ahead and feel judged because I have cut off my family. But I would rather feel judged than to resume those toxic relationships. Not all relationships are worth investing in. My physical and emotional health are worth more to me than any relationship. Period.