Backstory Part III: The Cure

BackstoryPtIII

In July 2015, I found myself at a new clinic with a new therapist. My new therapist (we’ll call her R) was middle-aged, soft-spoken, willowy, and elegant.

In my first session, I spent most of the time sobbing. I was so broken. I told R, ‘I don’t want to be here.’ As in not on this Earth. I wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. At that point, it was taking everything in me to not kill myself. The only reason I hadn’t killed myself was because I didn’t want to hurt my family. But by this time, even that wasn’t good enough.

R said, in a gentle voice. ‘You’re thinking this because you feel like you have no worth.’

Worth?

I had known about self-esteem. I thought self-esteem pertained only to how you felt about your looks. Since I had spent my entire life thinking I was a deformed monster, I always had zero healthy self-esteem.

I had never known of self-worth. She told me I had value as a person. That despite anything I may think, I still had worth and value as a human being. It was a concept so foreign to me that it wouldn’t sink in at first.

R was incredibly perceptive. She would cock her head and peer into your eyes. And she’d just know. She would hold my gaze. At first, I felt so uncomfortable—mainly because I never liked having someone look directly into my face —but she made it easy to want to look back. R would pick out the words and phrases I’d use and then ask me what I really meant.

R would point out the underlying message of what I would say. The message that screamed: “I am not enough!” I never thought I was pretty enough, thin enough, talented enough, educated enough, lovable enough. How could I be enough if I couldn’t even save my own mother? My mom had looked to me to console her, give her advice, to take care of her, to help her but it never worked. It was never enough. I had failed as a daughter.

Mom told me the story over and over of how when pregnant with me, dad lost his job and they were poorer they’d been in awhile. She was deeply depressed not knowing how they could possibly raise one more child? They had enjoyed a little more when my second oldest sister was starting out in life.

The message I received was this: I added so much strain. I was a nuisance. I was extra hardship. I made it harder on everyone else.

I felt unwanted even before mom would vehemently say the actual words to me as a teenager.

R was unlike any other therapist I had had. She would give me different exercises to do. Life questions to mull over. She told me she knew I was an old soul. So I liked her mental exercises.

She wanted me to write down what my strengths were , what I was good at, and most importantly, why do I matter? I couldn’t answer that last question right away. In fact, I struggled over that question for weeks.

I had believed for so long that I was nothing, that I could never be good enough at anything, let alone just be good.

But I asked others and they’d give me a long list. Of course, I didn’t believe them then. What did they know? They didn’t really know me. But I believe them now.

Little by little I started talking about my childhood and adolescence. I talked about my dad some but I had already touched on that the first time I was in therapy at 20, written him a letter, and like I said in the previous post, he’s remorseful and has apologized.

So, I talked of my mother. At first, guilt consumed me. I felt like a terrible person. But the more I talked, the more I remembered, the more I let myself remember.

I poured out my soul. I became more and more confident with my story because I had someone tell me, ‘Kristin, that wasn’t normal. That wasn’t healthy. That wasn’t loving. That was abuse. That was wrong.’

I knew these things were wrong subconsciously, but I was always too afraid to speak out. To bring things to light and have someone outside my family say that how I was parented was unacceptable. I was freed little by little.

This time around in therapy, I made it a point to pass on medication. Medication is helpful when treating mental illness. Some people can’t function without it. And for some, it aids in transitional periods. But for me, I didn’t want it. I’d had too many bad experiences already.

I was only ready to get to me. The core. Strip away all the debris and baggage and damage. I was ready to clean house and renovate the hell out of it.

One of the first things R taught me was boundaries. Boundaries? Another term foreign to me. We weren’t allowed boundaries in my family. I didn’t even know one could have boundaries. I was unaware that a person has the right to not allow others to invade their privacy or demand all their time and sanity. It was strange to me.

She recommended Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. That book was the beginning. It rocked me to my core. I walked around for 31 years and I had no idea. I learned about enmeshment. I learned that I never learned healthy ones but harbored unhealthy ones. By the end of the book, I was sobbing. It opened up a whole new world for me.

In the book, it advised grieving for what you never got and what you never will. To quit searching for it, because you’ll never find it.

So, that’s what I had been searching for all this time and didn’t know it. An intrusion on all of my boundaries—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.

Not long after Boundaries, I read The Mom Factor, another book by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.

I was progressed more and more in therapy. Starting to believe in myself and slowly recognizing that maybe, just maybe, I had something to offer the world.

But I’ll admit that the second half of 2015, I was quite a train wreck. I stayed out late, I drank too much, I tried dating. I took a lot of things very personally. I was very hard on myself for every little mistake. I felt stupid for even trying.

So, in early October, R introduced me to shame. I looked it up and did some research.

I knew of guilt. Bone crushing guilt. Little did I know that the majority of times I had felt guilty, it was actually shame. One of the first articles I stumbled on was Shame: The Quintessential Emotion by Holly Vanscoy. The following passage started to nudge something deep within me open, something that I am still examining and learning about.

“Early in life, individuals develop an internalized view of themselves as adequate or inadequate within the world,” she said. “Children who are continually criticized, severely punished, neglected, abandoned, or in other ways abused or mistreated get the message that they do not ‘fit’ in the world — that they are inadequate, inferior or unworthy.”

I have written poetry and diary entries over and over about how I felt like I was mistakenly placed into this world. That this human shaped hole was meant for someone else because I felt like I had never fit. My eyes were opened once again.

Unfortunately, R left the clinic shortly after and my last session with her was October 12th. She told me, with tears in her eyes, how proud she was of me and of how far I’d come. She was genuinely proud of me for me, as a human being. Of course, I cried. Someone proud of me? Not because of my job, or what I did for them, or how much money I could make, but just of who I was? I’d never had that and it meant the world to me.

I continued with a new therapist, K. She is sweet and understanding. I’ve delved in more about my marriage and divorce. And not surprisingly, everything in that relationship correlates to my relationship with my parents.

Back in 2013, a therapist had recommended a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy workbook. It’s a workbook of how to manage stress, intense emotions, reactions, and curb the need for self-destructive behavior. This is practiced and learned mainly through meditation and mindfulness. I had barely made it past chapter one for two years. But in February, K urged me to pick it back up again.

I used Lent to start , stay consistent, and to uncover more messy layers. I read Toxic Parents by Susan Forward, Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, Healing the Child Within by Charles L. Whitfield, and I’m currently reading Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw.

I’m committed to continuing my therapy, healing, and to recovery. For the first time in my life, I feel like an actual adult and I’m reparenting all the hurt, younger parts of myself: the unloved frightened child. The rejected awkward teenager. The wounded rage-filled 20 something. I talk to all these parts of myself when they bubble up and need to be heard.

31 years of abuse, trauma, thought patterns, and toxic self-destructive behaviors do not disappear in a few months (like I had originally thought and hoped for). But with Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and all the wonderful books I’ve read, and the therapy I’ve received, I’ve been able to get to the heart of everything that plagued me for the entirety of my life.

I wouldn’t say that I’m “cured”. There’s been plenty of epiphanies and lessons, but learning is a life-long process. My recovery is on-going. I will be in recovery for a long time and keep learning beyond that. And I’m more than ok with this.

I have spent the last 9 months untangling and extracting myself from who and what I thought I was. I’m rewiring my brain so I can unlearn bad habits and destructive behaviors and learn the healthy ones. I’m getting to know myself. I learning to love myself, love others, and how to interact inside different kinds of relationships. I am choosing who I want to be. I can be whoever I want to be especially the girl, the woman, the human being who had been there all along. Rooting for me, cheering me on, hoping that’d I’d find her eventually. I am so glad that I have. She’s better than what I could have ever hoped for.

Check out Part I and Part II if you haven’t already!

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Backstory Part II: The Cause

BackstoryPtII

I knew, on some level, that my childhood was far from ideal. I was born and raised in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in southeast Kentucky. My family lived in poverty much like many other families in that area.

We moved around a few times. We lived in unfinished houses, shacks, and government housing. There was always a lot of settling going on. No matter where we settled, the place would succumb to cockroaches and cats and dogs running in and out of the house. When we lived in shacks, things were dirty. Why bother cleaning?

Without proper insulation in our housing, winters were freezing. We had to rely on kerosene heaters. The smell of kerosene still makes me shudder. And it was miserable during the summers. On the hottest days, we’d wake up early and go sit at McDonald’s until nightfall.

We had plenty of food at the first of the month but barely enough at the end. My family was dependent on food stamps and welfare. No surplus of money was ever saved. Always blown. I longed for ballet lessons but that was never even a possibility. I longed for a lot of things.

Growing up, I thought my mother was the best. She kept the family together, she did all the work, nd sacrificed so much. She loved us more than anything and would do anything for us. We owed her everything. During one of my therapy stints in 2013, though, I started getting an inkling that this was bullshit.

My siblings and I spent our lives consoling our mom. She had it the worst and she was always depressed. She had a hellish childhood and the rest of her life was one big painful experience. We all felt bad for her, it broke our hearts, we yearned to make it all go away. Her children wanted to save her, to fix her.

To ever speak out against mom, to pin any responsibility on her was a breach of trust and she’d quickly withdraw her love as a punishment. Guilt squelched any “rebellion” against our golden goddess of a mother.

But I started tracing my behaviors back to my relationship with mom. My other siblings weren’t ready to face it, so I buried it. I kept my mouth shut like always. In 2015, my second oldest sister started to go to therapy and coming to terms with the reality of the past. I felt brave enough to face it and to begin speaking out. When I started back to therapy last year, I started to dig into the very core of my being.

I had been in denial for 30 some years and I finally felt like I had permission to face the truth and in turn, tell my story. That’s the ugly thing about a traumatic childhood. You’re entirely dependent on others no matter how they treat you. Many parents and caregivers think that having their child not die means they’ve done a great job. My siblings and I were fed and clean. As long as we looked alright and remained alive, that made my mom the World’s Best Mother.

But there is so much more to raising a child.

See, the brutal truth is that my mother was and is abusive. We walked on eggshells, being careful where we tread. Holding our breaths, we never knew what would set her off. She threw temper tantrums and still hiding a wounded little girl inside who was always afraid, hurt, angry, and sad. Our home life was a war zone. Anything she said—went. She is the mother, no one is allowed to defy her.

It’s an unsettling feeling to know that I had been manipulated, practically brainwashed into believing my mother was a saint. That it was the world’s fault, my dad’s fault, our fault that life was so terrible for her.

No one’s problems were worse that mom’s. No one could compete. Life was a competition to mom. She always needed to be the victor. Winning through control, manipulation, and playing the victim/martyr.

Her unpredictable mood swings, rage, spewing spiteful words, throwing things, smacking our faces and in our mouths more times that I can count. We were called bitches, stupid, smartasses, even as very small children. We were told we were hated, that she never wanted to be a mother. That she wished we’d never been born. But other times, she’d tell us how we were the best things that ever happened to her. I never knew what to believe.

She never asked us how we were doing, how we were feeling. We weren’t taught to express ourselves. Of course, when we had problems, she’d relate them back to herself and we’d leave those conversations knowing that our problems never took precedence over hers. We couldn’t leave her sight in public. But at home, she wanted us to leave her alone.

We weren’t allowed over at anyone’s house, especially if a male was present. She trusted no one. We trusted no one.

No apologies were ever given after her infamous meltdowns. It was swept under the rug and she would smooth it over with a joke or some banal conversation.

We weren’t allowed or taught independence. No chance of becoming capable individuals. We weren’t expected to clean or cook for ourselves. We weren’t assigned chores. We weren’t taught discipline or hard work. Why earn anything if one could receive handouts from others? Our mother decided everything for us. We couldn’t be trusted to make the right choice.

While my mom was extremely aggressive, my dad was passive. An enabler. He never intervened. He never protected us or stood up for our rights. My parents fought constantly. Big blowouts that always ended up with him packing a suitcase and leaving for his mom’s house. He’d always come back, though. But sometimes we never knew. My dad had always been the bad guy growing up because he was lazy and in and out of jobs. I didn’t learn until later that he had/has anxiety. Avoiding responsibilities is seen as laziness. But anxiety can cause one to go hide instead of providing for a family.

He constantly promised us things. To take us camping, take us fishing, take us somewhere there’d be some excuse the day before to not go. I didn’t go camping for the first time until I was 26.

Our family was enmeshed. The children were not individual humans but appendages. Only extensions of our parents. They owned us. We took on emotional and mental responsibilities that we should have never taken on.

Our mom saw us as the substitute family she longed for as a kid. We had to fix her, to save her. My mother was always waiting for someone to save her. She unloaded all of her needs and baggage onto us.

My siblings and I didn’t have great relationships growing up. She divided and conquered. She hated it if she thought one of us were taking someone else’s side over hers. She was very competitive and jealous.

I’m close now with my sisters. I don’t speak to my brother. Only texts on birthdays and holidays. My eldest sister is taking medication for OCD. My brother has rage issues and his health has been declining the last few years. My other sister suffered with anxiety and has been in therapy since last year. It pains me to think we all thought/think there is something wrong with us. But we all have a common denominator.

Being the youngest, my mother set me apart. I was the baby, the favorite, the last hope. She told the others this. They, of course, being children rejected and resented me. They teased me if they were brave  enough and often left me out. They were too afraid to be around me all the time. If they made me cry, my mother would dole out severe punishment. I had to live with the guilt. I didn’t have my siblings and my mom was too consumed in her misery to be there for me.

So, I was alone. Even with 6 people in the house, I was alone. I was an omnipotent monster that sat on a pedestal in the dark.

Throughout life, I was told how talented I was but was never congratulated on my accomplishments. I was always reminded that I could be doing so much more with my life. What was the matter with me?

We did not have boundaries or any privacy in our enmeshed family. My mother and I were the most enmeshed, though. She never saw me for me. She doesn’t even know me now. She repressed my individuality and constantly told me how I was exactly like her in every way. I had nothing of my own. I put on a show and was whoever she wanted me to be to try and protect myself from her rage. I never fully escaped it, though. I lived in constant fear. A constant unease and expectation that things were going to turn bad. Because they always did.

The day I got a divorce I called my mom to tell her. The first 5 minutes she told me how stupid I was and how it was the biggest mistake of my life. The next 8 was conceding that I’ll do whatever I want, even though she wouldn’t have done what I did, and she can’t do anything about it. Then the next hour was spent analyzing all of her problems and woes.

So, as of right now, I have nothing to do with my mother. Her toxicity is too much for me. I am deep in recovery and having a relationship with her impedes it.

I do love her. I love both of my parents. Growing up, mom read to us. She gave her children the love of reading. She corrected our grammar. She urged our educations. She inspired in me, the love and fascination with pioneer life. She has a sense of humor when she lets down her guard. My dad inspired the love of nature and the outdoors in my heart. And later in life encouraged a gentle, loving relationship with God.

My dad is mostly different now. He will sit and listen to us. He has apologized for his parenting. He tries and that is something. My mother, however, is so entrenched in her negativity and pain that she doesn’t recognize how toxic and abusive she was and is. Her life’s motto is, “Life sucks and then you die.” It is people’s behavior now which determines my involvement with them. My love is unconditional, something I was never gifted with.

I know why they were like they were. They both had abusive childhoods. Abused in every way. I pity them. I am truly sorry that their childhood was filled with pain and abuse. But my mother’s toxic shame and instability and my dad’s fear and anxiety have stolen most of their lives and produced four very sad, lonely, and miserable children.

I also know the past is the past and you can’t change it. People say, “Oh you can’t keep blaming your parents. You have to take responsibility now.” It’s true to a point. One has to be aware first of all those demons and understand how and when they got there. You can’t have power over anything until you name it.

At 32, I am finally aware and able to name all of those little demons. Give everything a name. I have been putting in the work. I didn’t want to live my life the way I had been living it. I wanted help. I wanted to change. And my mom and dad could have done the same.

Everyone can do the same, especially when it’s not about you anymore. When you bring children into this world, you must break the cycle. Abuse begets abuse. Change it. My mother thinks that because she didn’t drink, or beat the shit out of us, or touch us sexually, that she didn’t abuse us.

I had to learn that that is a lie. Emotional and verbal abuse leave scars just as deep. I had to learn that it isn’t my fault; it never was. I walked around for 31 years searching for the truth. Once I found it, I’ve had to take responsibility. Just like my dad had to and just like my mom has to.

There is no excuse.

Go on to Backstory Part III: The Cure here

Backstory Part I: The Condition

BackstoryPtI

The majority of my life—say the first 31 years—I felt wrong. Like I was wrong. I hated myself. Simply put, I loathed every single thing about myself. I could never do anything the “right” way. I was never good enough.

Depression and anxiety have been my constant companions.  I have viewed myself through the lens of Body Dysmorphia.  I’ve been desperate, melancholy, sad, and aching for as long as I can remember. I could never trust anyone. I expected nothing good out of my life because there was nothing good in me. I had given up on ever wanting children because of this.

I was lost and fearful. No amount of prayer, church-going, and Bible reading—despite what my dad always said—ever remedied it. I was adrift, enraged, brokenhearted, full of despair. I was always searching and searching for something but I never knew exactly what I was searching for. I only knew that I had lost something important. I tried finding it in other things. But I would always find that those things weren’t what I was searching for either.

My earliest memories are dreams. I was 2, maybe 3. My dreams were strange. They started out in black and white, progressed to tones of red, and finally to the vivid colors I still dream in today. They were often hectic, frustrating, and I wore clothes too big for me. I was either running away from something or I was alone and searching.

My earliest real life memories were of me hiding. Slinking against walls, scurrying behind or under furniture, and gazing out at the horizon at the setting sun and feeling very sad. I felt this intense longing of wanting to escape. Like I didn’t belong on Earth. I climbed trees and traipsed all over my family’s mountainside which is part of the Pine Mountains in southeast Kentucky. I felt at peace once I could touch the rocks and trees and the rich mountain soil. I marveled at how the sun glittered through the leaves of the trees. I have a distinct memory of watching ants cover and consume a dead mole, feeling such pity and grief. That memory for some reason has stuck with me.

I don’t remember talking much my first few years of life. Only of me observing and feeling anxious about something; often feeling secretive and hurt.

Then something happened when I was around 5 years old. I was in an upstairs bathroom of my family’s apartment. For some reason I decided to climb atop the sink, all by myself, and look in the mirror, preparing to really look at my face for the first time. (Though surely I had seen my reflection before?) But I distinctly remember this being my main objective. I climbed up and looked at my reflection and felt…disappointed. I thought I was so plain and ugly. I don’t even know what I expected to see. From then on out, I had a laser focus on all of my perceived flaws. (Which everything about me was perceived as such.)

At age 7, I started having my first reoccurring thoughts of suicide. Suicidal ideation would plague me for the rest of my life. I kept hoping God would come down and sweep me up to Heaven so I wouldn’t have to do it myself. As I got older, I started detailing out how I would do it without God’s help.

I was an emotional preteen. I cried at a drop of the hat and always felt embarrassed over it. I was alone. A lot. I did play with my sister, who is 3 years older, when we were younger. My two oldest siblings (another sister and a brother) were there too sometimes. But they were all too old and cool for me.

I lost myself in books, in my fantasies, and in my mountains. I would draw characters and write stories and in my diary. I was a bit of a bully in elementary school. I was kept in for recess often. I started to get a little chunky at 10. I felt enormous, though. I started making myself throw up at 13. I would battle anorexia and bulimia off and on for the next 7 years. Entering middle school, I lost all of my elementary school friends. I had to make new ones. I became withdrawn and painfully shy. During my teens, I wouldn’t let myself cry in front of people. Doing so made me feel stupid and angry.

At 15, my anxiety became overwhelming, so I started homeschooling. At 18, I moved from my hometown. Throughout my young adult life, I held many jobs. Some as little as a few days to maybe a few months. I went to therapy at 20, diagnosed with depression, and was prescribed antidepressants. Two years later, my therapist (a sweet older man) moved out of state. I would quit therapy and my antidepressants altogether because I didn’t want to be on antidepressants forever, plus at the time I was about to get married.

In my early to mid 20’s and during the first half of my marriage, I was full of rage. I threw things, I threw punches. I screamed, I cried. My marriage was a rollercoaster. At 25, my then husband became deathly ill and hospitalized due to untreated Crohn’s. It shook me to my core and my guilt subdued my rage. I dropped out of college for a year to take care of him. He recovered. I drank a lot. By 27, I was an alcoholic. For years, I downed pills—prescribed or over the counter—mixing a cocktail that could make me not feel.

At 28 I went back to therapy, diagnosed with Bipolar II, and placed on medication. I gave up drinking. I filed for divorce. I lived with my sister and brother-in-law. I dropped 20 pounds. Even at 105 pounds, I still felt enormous. I maxed out credit cards.

A month after I filed for divorce, my husband admitted to cheating on me the year before. He was remorseful. I was quick to forgive. We tried again. My therapist decided I didn’t have Bipolar II but Borderline Personality Disorder.

I moved back in with my husband and experienced one the darkest bouts of depression I’ve ever had. Suicidal thoughts plagued me. I had to grit my teeth every day to not do it. Fought it tooth and nail. I spent most of my time high off of Gabapentin and hydrocodone and a lot of Benadryl. And I’d give myself quick little cuts to my arm, appeasing my longing to gash open my wrists.

By 2014, I was losing my short term memory. I weaned off of my medication. I quit going to therapy. In August of 2014, my then husband and I separated. I lived with my sister and brother-in-law again. I refiled for divorce in April 2015. We were divorced the following May.

I was numb and excited and relieved at first. But I started having panic attacks at work. I lost that job at the end of May. I sank into another deep, dark depression. I ached with it. I ached with wanting to die. I went on a week long road trip alone to clear my head. It “worked” momentarily.

But in July of 2015, the numbness, the hopelessness, the battle with wanting to commit suicide flared up again. I was bitter and broken. I had no self-worth. I despised myself. I was lonely, alone, guilt-ridden, and regretful. I was crippled by perfectionism and sickening low self-esteem. I felt like I had failed at life. I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. I felt like a wild animal clawing desperately out of a self-built cage.

I found myself stumbling back into therapy once again.

Continue on to Backstory Part II: The Cause here