May 7, 2010
Wow, what a prick I was.
That’s my first thought. I feel embarrassed by my childishness, even as I demanded to be treated as a man. The first letter was a follow up to a ruined vacation (I was 22) in which I felt like I was being coddled and not given opportunities to do grown up things like drive a boat. In the letter I called him out for that and not treating me with the respect he’d afford a random 22 year old. My tone was petulant. That doesn’t mean what I said was untrue, but it certainly didn’t come from the place of respect I was complaining about not getting, if you follow.
My dad gave me another gift – some notes he jotted down after he read that first letter. The first note was how he was feeling. Hurt, angry, resentful, betrayed, guilty, afraid, vengeful. The second note was some thoughts. The first thought came down to “when you act like an adult you get treated like one” and was followed by a list of the ways I approached the trip without helping to plan it, or on the trip, helping to cook, clean, and so on. Then as another item under that heading, was the observation that I don’t pay back my debts. That was true. I pissed off a lot of friends by not returning money, tools, movies, and so on. I was too self-absorbed to make that important, too involved with myself to care about things like “doing right by others”. I recognize that now, but seeing that written as a thought as my dad prepared a response – it made me cry. I don’t know why exactly – partly, I think, out of guilt that I really did hurt him with that letter, where my tone of self-righteousness was betrayed by my behaviors I wasn’t even aware of. I know guilt isn’t useful here. How could I be aware of things I wasn’t aware of? But still, I felt the pain I inflicted on him.
He also asked, what kind of initiation had I undergone that made me a man? And wryly asked, “want to be man? pay for your health insurance”
Of course, none of those thoughts or feelings made it directly into the response he sent me, which he also included in a draft form. His response was measured, acknowledging his being hurt by my letter, but also the truth of my observations, and praising the adultness of sending a letter (rather than doing nothing, or forcing some sort of damaging face to face confrontation). He related my observations about how he treated me to his own relationship with his parents at that age, where his actions were more damaging and he spent a lot of time beating himself up for that. In that way, he was able to direct his “real” responses – those in the notes mentioned above – at himself, putting himself in my shoes. It was a remarkably mature and sensitive way to be true to his own thoughts and feelings without undermining or dismissing mine. Wow.
Finally, he included a follow up letter I had written to him. This letter was written following an intensely powerful introspective experience I’d had with the aid of psilocybin mushrooms. During the trip I’d connected with what it felt like to be masculine, and it was a new feeling. I finally understood what it was like to meet the world head on, without fear. I rocked out with my cock out. I wanted to get into a fight – something I’d never done before. I was a big pussy growing up, and now I had felt what it was like to not be a pussy.
Of course, after the euphoria of the experience, I felt resentment. Resentment that it had taken 22 years to know what it feels like to have balls. And that resentment was aimed directly at my dad. So, full of the cockiness one might expect after a night like that, I penned a letter to my poor dad. I am way more embarrassed by this letter than the first, mostly because of the cockiness. But as with the first letter, there was truth in there.
I said that our family had made it a tradition of losing touch with what it means to be a man, because the fathers were all unavailable and the sons were raised by the mothers. I said that I wished he had taken the time to teach me self respect, how to stand up for myself. I wrote “All throughout school, it seemed normal to be the target of humiliation.” This is something I had “discovered” recently so to read it from my 22 year old self was surprising.
I went on a diatribe about what it means to be masculine, to establish turf, protect it, to be competitive, to prove oneself, to act without deference or accomodation. It was what I had connected with earlier. In retrospect, it was a narrow definition of being a man. The ‘toughness’ angle. There’s a lot more to it than that. Yes, being a man means being tough-minded (toughness is mostly mental). It also means paying the bills and taking responsibility for your actions. It means having maturity and character – being willing and able to delay gratification, and doing right by yourself, those you love, and others, simply because it’s the right thing to do. A lot of that applies in general to women too. But those are the things that stand out today, when I think about manhood, who I am, and who I still aspire to be.
My dad did respond to that letter but didn’t save it, and though I may have it somewhere in the attic, I doubt it. I don’t remember what his response was but something tells me he answered it in a way similar to the first response.
The bottom line is that I had a lot of pent up resentment for my upbringing and I used those letters to try to hold him accountable. The way he handled it was all about being a man. He accepted and acknowledged what I needed him to, and he held true to his own feelings without diminishing me. I love him for that.
May 7, 2010
My dad just sent me some letters I wrote to him in my twenties (per my request)… letters in which I had a lot to say, some of it angry, some of it introspective. But I haven’t opened them yet. I thought I would write about my anticipation and the feelings I have before I open them, and then write again after I read them.
These letters are a gift. That my dad saved them is a gift, because I think what I wrote to him was probably pretty painful for him. It is a gift in a couple ways – one is that they will hopefully be a window to fifteen years ago, when I first started on my journey to healing and self knowledge. I hope they will give me some memories of things I have since forgotten. But also I can see how far I’ve come since then. Finally it is a gift in the sense that it speaks the to the relationship I have cultivated with my father over the years, that he would willingly send them back to me without succumbing to the fear that it may damage the relationship somehow. The unopened envelope has been sitting on my desk all day. My thoughts have come back to them throughout the day, wondering what kind of Pandora’s box it will be.
I am feeling fear. I’m afraid that the memories will be painful. If time heals all wounds, this has the potential to rip some of them open again.
Most significantly, my dad recently made a suggestion – surely after the letters were sent (meaning that he surely would have re-read them before sending) that I believe relates to something in the letters. I would go into specifics but it would take too long. Suffice it to say that I’m afraid that the suggestion he made reveals that he is still sensitive about some of the things I said 15 years ago. Without having read the letters yet (and confirming my suspicion) my guess is that I will feel the need to write a new letter which deals with that sensitivity as well as other feelings that may arise. In the end it will be a good thing but I am nervous about it.
December 17, 2009
Recently I came across two science articles that are relevant to Adult Children.
This article from Discovery suggests that children can inherit the brain-changes related to abuse that their mother has suffered. In other words, when someone experiences abuse and neglect consistently, it leads to changes to that person’s DNA – not the DNA code itself, but what parts are “switched on” and which are “switched off”. Children inherit these kinds of changes from their parents’ DNA, and this study shows that changes to the system responsible for the “fight or flight” response can be inherited from the female parent. Presumably this means that kids’ triggers are more sensitive.
This is an intriguing biological (as opposed to psychological) mechanism that shows how dysfunction can be passed from one generation to the next. This goes beyond “bad genes” such as those that dispose one to alcoholism, and suggests that what happened to a person can impact what their kids are like, but purely on a physical level.
This article from Futurity.org highlights new research out of Duke that shows that people who suffer abuse/neglect in childhood develop higher risks of poor health as adults. Maltreated kids were twice as likely to suffer depression, chronic inflammation, and poor/isolated kids had a higher risk of age-related illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and dementia.
This just highlights the importance of recovering and not passing dysfunction on to your kids. As if we needed more reasons!
November 12, 2009
I know it’s been a while since I’ve written, but it’s not because I’ve stepped away from ACA! I haven’t missed a meeting in months and I’m in the midst of a step 4 meeting (which lasts 8 weeks). Lots of good stuff happening – I got a sponsor, and I’ve been calling him every week. Someone even asked me to be their sponsor. I’m noticing improvements in lots of ways – for example, I haven’t had a screaming match with my wife in at least three or four months. That used to happen once a month or more.
Another improvement is that it’s become much easier for me to keep my mood steady even if my wife is in a bad mood. In other words, it has become less important for me to try and change or control my wife’s mood.
But by no means am I completely recovered. Probably my biggest challenge now is my temper. I don’t boil over very often, but when I do I feel totally out of control. About a month ago I screamed at my 4 month old son to shut up because he wouldn’t stop crying. Last week I spanked my daughter because she wouldn’t go back to sleep or stop crying (she’s been sick) – and I’ve never done that in her three and a half years. It was totally unwarranted – I was throwing a tantrum. Lack of sleep had a lot to do with it, but that’s not an excuse.
My father’s biggest challenge right now – he’s been sober for 20 years – is likewise his temper. Obviously when he was drinking it was just as bad if not worse… which is what I grew up with. I don’t have many memories of that, but some stuff has been coming up thanks to the 4th step meetings.
All in all, I am extremely grateful to have found ACA. It has literally saved my marriage and given me hope that my dysfunctions won’t work their way into my children’s innocent psyches. I now have a lot of tools for dealing with the difficult aspects of raising kids and being in a relationship. I don’t need my wife or kids to be perfect, and I find it easier and easier to not criticize my family or manipulate them. The clutch of codepency is releasing, and it’s the best gift I could give myself or my family.
And it’s all because I kept coming back. I don’t really know why or how it works, exactly. It just does. I’ve struggled with what my Higher Power is, but the idea that I don’t have to understand how it works probably brings me closer to my Higher Power than anything else. I just show up, do my thing, and let my Higher Power do its thing. I guess that’s one form of surrender, for me anyway – not needing to know how it works.
June 9, 2009
This was another of the finds in my recent perusal of childhood memorabilia. This was a poem I wrote probably in middle school, something like 12 or 13 years old.
Noone heard the moon as it sulked across the sky As it told of its loneliness, noone even sighed As it begged for attention, noone cared a bit Even as it crossed the sun, the attention was not on it All of the telescopes were focused on the stars, Or on the distant planets which were much too far It had no importance, as far as it could see And Earth's nagging pull would not let it free Then one day it hid itself from the black night sky And as it went to hide it secretly bade goodbye Then someone sighed And some children cried They all wanted the moon, and they all wanted it soon Then the moon peeped out, in a crescent form And all the people begged the moon for some more It then came halfway out, and the people cheered Then the moon gained all its confidence and fully appeared
It’s hard for me now to not see this as a metaphor for my own loneliness and isolation, the effects of the neglect that my upbringing inflicted on me. The poem reads like a suicide warning, although I can honestly say I was never so depressed that I ever considered that. The conclusion of the poem redeems the darkness of the poem, in a way that serves as a warning to not take things for granted. Which is great, but to the extent that it was a reflection of my own loneliness, I think it was fueled more by my tendency to fantasize (especially at that age) about having all the traits I lacked.
The Earth’s nagging pull is my mother.
June 9, 2009
Recently went through some old memorabilia from when I was a kid and found a couple of gems. This one is from when I was little, probably seven or so.
Danny came home from school very sad. He had a zero on all of his reading, and he forgot to bring his homework for when he was absent. His mother had to sign three papers and he knew he would get into trouble. He hated himself and school. The reason why he hated himself is because he forgot all that homework and the reason why he hated school was because they wouldn’t even let you have another chance to bring your homework back the next day. So he went home feeling depressed. Meanwhile all the other kids were being very noisy and the driver had to stop on the side to tell the kids to be quiet but unfortunately the bus skid on the gravel and ran into the ditch! It was a good thing nobody was hurt and that nothing went wrong. It was also good that there was a house nearby and ask to use the phone to call there moms and tell them to come there. Danny was thrown on to the floor when they crashed but he was alright. Danny finally got a chance to call his mom he was reliefed because he hadn’t of got hurt. Then he called his mother and she came and they went home. He got home and boy was he surprised when he heard this. Danny, said his mother I wouldn’t blame you for not bringing your homework to school because you didn’t have one bit of time to load all of those books in one tiny napsack, but I’m going to make one suggestion eat your breakfast faster! and they both laughed. The End.
The first time I read this the line about hating myself jumped out. Also, “boy was I surprised” when my mother said something to make me feel better. My self-hatred was about not being perfect and expecting the inevitable criticism. All this from a 7 year old.
By the way you have to love how all stories written by kids this age are so transparently autobiographical. 🙂
June 9, 2009
The other night I had a pretty significant dream… enough to write it down, something I rarely do. Here’s what I wrote:
Dreamt that my dad and I were looking at the stars at the old house, kinda reminiscing [my parents were both astronomy buffs]. [My wife] was there too.
It was cool, I asked him about a (fictitious) grouping of stars and he remembered “discovering” a constellation that when we were little we called “Lion’s Head”. Intrigued, since I had a dim recall about this, I began to ask him questions about that memory (was it north of Scorpio) and after a few questions he seemed to get a little agitated. Then [my wife] asked him some kind of sensitive question and it seemed to feed his mood. He was ranting and his mood was dark – at one point he exclaimed “I fucking hate him!” and I knew he was talking about his dad. I was lying on the ground, still looking at the stars, and I let his anger wash over me, and I let myself remember being little, in bed, and afraid of my dad in the midst of an angry spell, afraid of the next impulsive act, loud noise, broken thing. I actually had a feeling of gratitude for the opportunity to do this, in the midst of the dream. I wasn’t actually afraid of my dad, but I let myself feel that remembered fear because I wanted to.
Since I recall so little of the abusive stuff from my childhood, this dream was a real gift. It sounds odd to say that since it was not a pleasant memory by any stretch, and yet, this is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been looking to reconnect with. I never had any delusions that recovery would be pleasant.
Since then I have gone back through some old photos of me as a kid and my dad from that time. I definitely see him in a new light – not with anger or anything, but for the weak man he was at that time. He has been sober for a very long time now and he has been a solid presence in my life. And oddly enough that helps make it harder to remember things like this, because I think on some level I’m not willing to tarnish my image of him. But that kind of denial is half of the problem – he is who he is, and he was who he was.
April 27, 2009
One other thing to write about tonight before I hit the hay.
I had an interesting insight into my control issues. Today I had a mix of little and big chores I wanted to accomplish. My wife had some idea of what I wanted to do but she wanted to sort of “sync up” so she could plan her day out as well. She made a list (as she usually does) and showed it to me, asking if we were on the same page. I said we were.
Fast forward to a couple hours later and I can sense that my wife is being short with me. As per the previous post I assume this is still fallout from the in-laws visit. When I asked her about it she told me she needed to get more in depth about what our plans were for the day… when was I planning on doing what, and so forth.
After a little back and forth I realized that I had resistance to telling her what my specific plans were. Why? Because telling her how I want to go about my day would mean risking the control I have over my plans. Now that’s coming from the dysfunctional perspective – the need to control my plans – because obviously it’s good if we’re communicating, and she can suggest things I didn’t consider and so on.
But that little example is a microcosm of my greater fear of intimacy – of letting my wife into places where I fear to lose control. I am afraid that I will lose myself, somehow, to my wife’s needs. In a healthy relationship, both partners care for each other’s needs, and work it out when both have needs that need to be dealt with. But growing up in my family, my needs really never mattered much, so caring for someone else’s needs feels very scary – I have to let go and trust that my needs will matter too.
My mother was very controlling, but at the same time she was very distracted, by my father’s drinking, and by her own need to decompress and unwind. That meant that when she was paying attention, it meant she was telling me what to do. When she wasn’t paying attention, I figured out quickly how to exploit it, and surprise surprise: I became hypervigilant to her presence and her moods. I learned how to present a surface (doing homework, practicing my french horn) when I knew she was paying attention, and to do whatever I wanted when she wasn’t. I think I’m codependent more because of my mother than my father, ironically. But once you realize that dysfunction is a family disease, it really doesn’t matter too much who the alcoholic is.
Today, my default mindset is this: I know when I am being watched or judged. I’m usually scheming for ways to get what I need. I react poorly to being told what to do. I don’t have much respect for rules, unless I can see how they benefit me. I have grown up to be a self-absorbed adult child, finding it hard to trust that others want to help or love me. I am ethically challenged, because my self-interests come first. These are all traits that are borne from growing up with my mother.
I learned early on the “value” of independence, of self-reliance. I use quotes around “value” because it sounds like a virtue, doesn’t it? But people who praise “self-reliance” are usually people who have learned how to survive in an environment where nobody was looking out for their needs. In a world founded on mutual respect and trust, this is an unhealthy adaptation. Healthy relationships require that we cede control, and become a little less self-reliant.
April 27, 2009
I had a depressing moment today as I lost my temper at my almost-3-year-old daughter. I had been dealing with a lot of other crap and shoving it down like I usually do. My in-laws spent the night and while I have a good relationship with them, my father in law in particular can be a real dick (without realizing it), and he usually succeeds at stressing my wife out, and this time was no exception. In fact, this time, my wife got very angry, but like me she also buries her feelings. That usually means my wife and I don’t uncover that stuff until we fight about something stupid.
On a positive note, I did recognize that I needed a little time to myself to decompress, but the bad news is that I didn’t make that a priority – I ended up doing more chores and yardwork in the hope of making my wife happy. Then when my daughter threw a little tantrum about not getting the kind of snack she wanted, I lost my shit and yelled at her about as loud as I can to “knock it off!!” … probably any of my neighbors who were outside today heard it. My wife gently encouraged me to take a break and I immediately regretted what I did. What really killed me was that this was exactly what my father used to do. Overblown reactions to minor “infractions”.
If I don’t find a way to break that cycle, my daughter will grow up to be codependent, always walking on eggshells around me or being hyper-vigilant to my moods. Fortunately I am working the program and I have the tools. The good news is that I can see that I almost did it right, but that I didn’t take care of myself and I can identify how that led to this incident.
April 14, 2009
Went to see my brother (who I’ll refer to as O) who moved to another state recently. Fascinating trip. I had a long and overdue conversation with O about our home life growing up and how that has led to dysfunction in our current lives. The best part for me personally was that O remembers a lot about our upbringing – and I don’t! One of the more shocking things he told me was a story of flying to visit family, and goofing off, pressing the “call stewardess” button, and my dad freaking out, turning around in his seat (they were in the next row up) and threatening that if O pressed that button again he’d break his arm. Loud enough for everyone to hear.
His characterization of growing up in our house was one of constant fear. Minor infractions were dealt with through anger or rage. To this day I hate the sound of loud footsteps above, because of watching cartoons on weekend mornings downstairs. If we woke my parents up due to horseplay, the angry footsteps above us and down the stairs meant that something bad was going to happen.
Getting sent to the principal’s office at school for acting up was extremely scary. I’d go to tears in fear of retribution at home.
When I was 13 I got hit by a car riding my bike. We were riding on a fast road that we were not allowed to be on. I flipped through the air and landed on my hip. My bike was ruined. I got up, basically ok, but one look at my bike and I was crying. I knew I was going to get in trouble for being on a road I shouldn’t have been on – that was the overriding thought.
Even as I write this my urge to deny or minimize is strong. I shouldn’t have been on that road, I deserved the angry retributions I got. I’m carrying on about nothing, I’m too sensitive. It wasn’t that bad, lots of people have grown up in much worse circumstances.
I really want to remember more about my childhood. The talk with my brother made me realize how profound my memory loss is. It also raised some questions about why I repressed so much and he didn’t.