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I grew up in a household that was simultaneously loving and caring, and very difficult to grow up in. While my family had the best intentions, and did everything they could to make sure I was comfortable and felt loved, one parent was mentally ill, and this would always get in the way of that. It has shaped a lot of how I feel about family, myself, and also present relationships (which tend to run for a while and then fail, and in my head I always feel responsible for this). The sick parent has gotten better with time, and I’ve come to terms (or think I have) with the fact that it is what it is, most families have problems, and that I’m grown up now and can take control of my own life.
The problem is, everytime I think I’ve come to this mature realisation, I find I am still angry, still unable to let go of this idea that I’ve missed out on something, like some version of family or support that other people have had and I haven’t. Instead of just being able to accept it for what it is, I find myself constantly comparing, and then feeling cheated. I think whenever I talk about family, I do so in a negative sense. I’ve tried to deal with this through therapy, but found that even there I was talking in circles, and in very negative terms about them and myself. I want to find a way to deal with this situation in a long lasting way, but I just swing between feeling angry and then guilty, because after all they tried their best, and still do. Any suggestions on where the equilibrium might lie?
-Forgive & Forget
♠ ♠ ♠
Dear Forgive & Forget,
Even though I am a Billi, which means I am the cat’s whiskers, the cat’s pyjamas and the cat’s #100saripact, your question made me fall quiet for a while.
And I got to thinking, how much store we set by the rational, the tangible, the explainable. All of these things that, it is alleged, reside in the head, in the mind. Everything else is beneath – in the heart, in the stomach and so on, lower, lesser, and, it is implied, less real. When they say it’s all mind over matter, we assume mind is not part of matter.
The mind itself is a swirling world of different logics, all equally valid, all in discussion with each other, all trying to find the path to co-existence. This can be a problem.
I mean, this wouldn’t be a problem if the world was organized in neat polarities – enemies and comrades, oppressors and victims, good guys and bad guys, black and white. We would see which side was which and the rights and wrongs would be simple.
Maybe this wouldn’t be a problem if we thought only in terms of some framework of justice – for example, rights. As a child you deserved to be taken care of, to be protected from harm and unpleasantness. If you weren’t then your rights were violated and redress is in order.
But that is neither the nature of life, nor the world, nor the truth – all of which have multiple versions, all of which are born queer.
That’s part of the reason that many of us suffer doubly. We suffer from the feelings of hurt, resentment, anger, betrayal or whatever else we feel. But we also suffer from imagining that once we have understood something intellectually, then every other aspect of our being is required to catch up or it is ungainly. If it doesn’t we are somehow to blame. And that is simply tyranny, a patriarchy of the intellect, that too one type of or aspect of intellect, to which we give supremacy, whose logic is supposed to be the only logic that’s logical.
So, screw that.
You recognise that your family is human. They did their best, they really tried, in trying circumstances, to give you the most emotionally sustaining childhood and youth they could. Their best was not always good enough – or maybe never good enough, even if it wasn’t bad. But you also recognise that a mentally ill parent cannot help being mentally ill and is therefore unable to be a nurturing parent in the most traditional sense, so though one wants to blame the source of hurt one is painfully aware that they are not really responsible for their actions.
Your ability to see your family and your own difficult, painful past compassionately are an act of love, and I will make an assumption – as I know very little about you – and say that it is the nobility of a family struggling to keep all things going for everyone that equipped you with this ability to see everyone’s subjectivities, not simply your own. That’s a great asset to have, though right now it may not feel that way, an emotional habit that eventually clears the path to greater peace than you can currently imagine. So remember you got it here, an essential masala for generosity and kindness, not always given to those much cossetted and attended to.
The reason you can also understand where everyone and everything is coming from is that you were forced to be more grown-up, more aware of the world’s complexities, faster than other children – what you rightly call, maturity. That can be lonely, because you’re in a different place from your peers.
Moreover, you had to learn not only that you could not be put first most of the time, but also, that you could not put yourself first. That’s a hard habit to break. And you are struggling now, trying to stay inside that habit, feeling you will abandon your family if you abandon it and then you will also be abandoning your small self.
You have intellectually understood why your childhood was difficult, and because that’s supposed to be the holy grail, you are punishing yourself for all the other logics swirling inside your mind. The experiential logic for instance, where just the accumulated emotional and maybe physical experiences of neglect, bewilderment, embarrassment, which have had to be borne and then explained away, are demanding to be heard. Your mind tells you that you experienced these for a reason so they are useless things to dwell on. It’s true that you need not feel them anymore, but you did feel them once and the scars and pointy places and tight psychological knots they have caused need some time to breathe and be loosened.
OK, yes, the path to moving on has a progression – recognition followed by understanding and acceptance and then moving on. But it’s the middle part that’s the biggest and requires staying power.
You are scolding yourself for having feelings that have no ‘basis’ but they do have a basis. You experienced them. You need time to recover from them.
They say memories fade, but really it’s more like they just fall to the back of the line for a while and sometimes suddenly come to the front and make a scary face at you. You can’t keep them at the back of the line no matter how you try like a stern principal commanding a neat assembly. When flashbacks do their jack-in-the-box move, you react, and that’s ‘normal’, until you learn to look them in the face and grin.
So, it seems it is, even with therapy. You feel like you must be dutiful towards therapy. That you must, now that you’ve expressed a layer of emotion, quickly respond by getting well. Anything else, would be self-indulgence, putting yourself first. Perhaps in relationships too, you are on tiptoe, ready to go in some disguised fashion. You expect not to be put first. You imagine that to ask yourself what you want, is to put yourself first. You might end up creating an air of being a person who understand ‘things’, understands that your partners can’t put you first, that they can behave meanly, inconsiderately or casually, because they have some reason, some emotional handicap that must be ‘understood’ and hence, accommodated. To want to ask for attention, or to have yourself considered – why, that’s the equivalent of wanting to be pampered and indulged, to be given a birthday party like a fairy-tale piece of 8 mm Americana – when the movie you are in is really German Expressionism.
Maybe you also want to make people feel better for failing you, telling them it’s not their fault, because that’s the emotional habit you’ve acquired by what your family life required.
But the thing is, you also want to be held tight and taken care of and told that other people understand this – that just because you feel fragile and vulnerable and pissed off at life and people or needy for care – it doesn’t mean you are weak and selfish and self-indulgent. It just means you need to have the behavioural equivalent of a good cry so you can move on.
But by putting a deadline on this stage of your journey you are not letting yourself do this. So you are angry at yourself in so many time dimensions ( If this Billi were to write a sci-fi film it would involve emotions in dimensions, not dopplegangers I tell you). You are angry at your child self for feeling lost and lonely; you are angry at your young self for feeling vulnerable and angry; you are angry at your present self for being an emotional slacker who isn’t catching up to the intellect; you are angry at yourself for being angry. Most of all though, one self inside you is angry with you for not letting them be angry without being scolded that it’s not logical.
Screw logical. Or rather, screw the tyranny of one logical and let the other logical out to do its thing. Be nice to that unappealing self, pamper it a bit, indulge it if that’s what’s needed, so it can get over not having that time and attention.
And by that I don’t mean you should read bot-books about healing yourself through spa visits and candle weaving or however candles are made (it is beneath any Billi to know this kind of new-age plebian stuff, babe, sorry).
You say therapy hasn’t helped – and that could be because you didn’t have a therapist who fit well for you and perhaps need to find another one. Maybe it’s because you want to use some other form of therapy to complement or substitute conventional psychotherapy. Meditation, healing, 100 surya namaskars a day – whatever works.
Maybe it didn’t work because you think therapy is like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, when it is really, like a fitness trainer, who helps you understand your body’s strength and weaknesses and build on both; or a yoga teacher, who helps you understand posture and balance and the rhythms of your body till the inside and outside achieve a certain harmony.
Therapy guides us to strengthening our emotional muscles and unfortunately it requires us to lift a lot of weights in the process.
You feel you lost a childhood, a sense of family, time in which you could have been happy or been sent to music class or guided into being better at something. And you know what? You have lost it. We all lose something with time and this has been the loss you had.
And no matter what that poet-lady said, the art of losing is very hard to master.
So don’t be angry with yourself that you aren’t clearing this exam in the first round because, oho, look, there is no exam. Time is on your side, asking that you take it, so it can be the healer it is famous for being. So take it, with both hands and use it to run in all the circles that you must.
It’s training time you need, to be the long-distance runner you must be, to chase the things you want – love, harmony, the strength to last out in the H&M queue. You know what I mean.