TW: descriptions of physical and emotional abuse
Reading The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller has helped me put a lot into perspective: I’m actually very fortunate and blessed to be precisely where I am in my life, right now. It may not match my ideals of being successful in a meaningful career, living on my own, and starting a family – and that hurts, a lot! – but it gives me the foundation I need to be able to build those things while also being true to my “inner child,” my genuine self.
book cover – The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self by Alice Miller – links to Amazon.com
If I take Miller’s argument to be true for me – and it probably is, because I relate very strongly to it – my parents were unable to love me as I truly was from very early in my life, possibly birth. My mom recently revealed to me that my birth was a very stressful experience for her – involving pressure from in-laws, feeling unsupported by my father, and concerns about her own health. The hospital staff separated me from her – now understood to be one of the worst things you can do – and brought me back when it was “time to breastfeed!” I was “fussy” and she didn’t know what to do, was probably uncomfortable trying to figure it out with someone watching, and the field of lactation consulting didn’t exist at the time.
Right there, in what was probably my first interaction with my mother as a separate human being, my emotions (“fussiness”) were a problem that interfered with our ability to bond and my ability to have a basic need met (food). Never mind that she probably wanted to love and nurture me, and I imagine she did the best that she could, given the circumstances. When I was traumatized from the birthing experience, hungry, and at my most vulnerable ever, I needed to look into her eyes and see unconditional love (and have my brain be flooded with oxytocin). Instead… I probably saw her pain, insecurity, frustration, and sorrow – in that moment I wasn’t what she had hoped I would be. (And great, she was stuck with me for 18 years, at least.) The very first thing I did was let her down. For all I know, trying to imagine an experience I can’t even remember, she might not have even made eye contact with me.
This is the part where I’m supposed to get angry with her for letting me down, but all I feel is a deep sadness and emptiness that I find intolerable. (Like a fussy baby?) It’s a beautiful day, let’s enjoy some time outside. How can you wallow in these emotions on a bright sunny day like this? I took a look outside at the glorious green grass and the sunlight glinting off the beautiful green leaves on the trees and felt a cool breeze and smelled the crispness in the air that means it’s autumn. Mmm, these are the things that keep me alive! And now I’ve settled back down at the computer with some food. Silencing my inner newborn’s cries with a burger and fries – an adult approximation of formula.
This is what Miller would call repeating the harmful behaviors my parents imposed on me, behaviors that prevent me from expressing my “unsavory” emotions and keep my true self in torment. I’ve used food to avoid feeling difficult emotions for as long as I can remember – from accepting chips and sour cream as a substitute for emotional bonding while watching TV with my mom, to stuffing my face at social gatherings to smother my feelings of anxiety and isolation (from being surrounded by people I didn’t think could understand me, and who wouldn’t accept the real me). More recently it’s helped me finish papers for school (that earned grades of “A”) and write particularly difficult blog posts.
In short, I adapted. I had to, because when I felt my emotions I couldn’t help but express them, and doing so put me in very real danger. I remember my father becoming terrifyingly angry, dragging me from the first floor of our house to the third, spanking me for several minutes on my bed, and paying no heed to my pleas for him to let me go use the bathroom; I wet myself, long after I’d stopped having any of the normal childhood issues with such things. For most of my life I was convinced that I’d done something horrible to deserve it – until only a couple of years ago when I learned that it was physical abuse. Maybe I’d done something for which I should have been redirected, disciplined, possibly given a “time-out” to consider how I could have responded more appropriately… it doesn’t matter. He hurt and humiliated me.
It was like I wasn’t even there; my feelings and my needs didn’t matter. All that mattered was his anger.
My mother wasn’t aware that my father had done that to me. But she did know something that I did not: he also slapped me. It was horrifying to learn there was an episode of abuse I don’t remember – if there’s one, how many more are there? What else did he do to me? It was also horrifying to learn there was an episode of abuse she didn’t remember. I would hope she would have remembered if he’d talked to her about it, so I’m inclined to guess that he didn’t. My father didn’t tell his wife that he had lost control and beaten the shit (well, pee) out of me. That would have been the first step to taking responsibility for his actions and trying to avoid such behavior in the future.
He never took it.
So, you’re probably thinking: Ziya, all these things you’re writing about are pretty horrible. What makes you say you’re fortunate to be in your current situation?
Well, in a nutshell, I’ve been in therapy for about four years now, and I’ve learned a lot about myself. There was a time when I thought my parents were wonderful for pushing me to focus so much on academic success and having a successful career. I was at the top of my class, went to the best high school my mom could afford, went to a rather prestigious university with a semester’s worth of credits already under my belt, completed a double major and a minor, and graduated magna cum laude. I needed my academic adviser to convince me not to do an honors thesis because I didn’t want to do one, but thought I should because I was so used to being an overachiever.
But my social skills are nowhere near as developed as my academic ones, and I have a lot of social anxiety. I miss out on great opportunities to make friends and otherwise have fun socializing. I feel isolated and lonely. In college, the semester I was the happiest was the semester I got the lowest grades because I decided not to do my absolute best in all my classes, but rather focus more on developing my social skills and enjoying extracurricular activities. (I was also taking Wellbutrin, but it caused increased irritability, dry mouth, and other side effects I strongly disliked. I made the rookie mental health consumer mistake of going off it cold turkey when I thought I was “better.” I thought I could leave psychiatry behind me…)
I used to be so proud of all my academic achievements – okay, I still am – but that pride came at the cost of believing that they were what made me a worthwhile person. (Miller calls it grandiosity.) The more time I spend as an adult, the more I realize that my grades matter less than, well, the skills I’m not as strong in and have trouble accessing when my mental health symptoms flare up. If the thing that makes me worthwhile isn’t really worth much in the real world, what does that say about me?
In therapy I realized that part of why I got such good grades in school (besides being very good at academic learning) was because it was one of very few things I had control over, and it provided some of the stability my home was otherwise lacking. My parents would have awful fights – but at least I would bring home a report card they could be proud of and display as proof that things were going well in their lives; they’d reward me with the affirmation that I took in place of love and craved like most people crave air.
In one therapy session I likened this process to Kudzu, “the vine that ate the U.S. South.” It is not indigenous to the Americas, so the local flora have no defense against it and there are no insect predators. It climbs up bushes and trees, covering the whole trunk and leaves until they can no longer access the sunlight. Countless plants have become corpses supporting this vine, no longer able to exist for their own sake. In my metaphor my parents urged me to grow ever taller, reaching for the sun, so that they could climb my trunk and spread their leaves high above the obstacles imposed on them by their own life circumstances and relationships. But in the process, they smothered all my access to air and light.
kudzu vines covering a vaguely anthropomorphic figure that looks like it’s reaching up to the sky with both arms
image by Markus Griesser
There was a time when I thought my childhood had been very happy and I missed it, horribly. I think my image of my childhood was based on my memory of the home-cooked dinners my grandmother served every night, and the whole family gathered around the table, complete with our golden retriever’s head in my lap. That was quite awesome and I was more physically fit, so I could run and climb and ride my bike and roller skate and play sports. I suppose I can still do those things, but not as well and not without a lot of physical discomfort and difficulty breathing. I was also less inhibited and had less access to electronic entertainment back then, which made it easier for me to have fun playing outside. And I truly believed that I could grow up to be anything.
Therapy has helped me face the reality that, while there were definitely positive experiences, I did not have an overall happy childhood. Perhaps you could say I had a neutral childhood – the best and worst parts of it kind of cancel each other out. It certainly wasn’t idyllic. According to Miller, people who seek therapy often think their childhoods were happy. Therapy enables them – us – to remember and re-experience the parts of our childhoods that were too painful to remain in our conscious experience. The goal is not to “correct” the experience, but rather to express the emotions that had to be repressed at the time in order to survive. Only by expressing and accepting these emotions (and having the world, e.g. the therapeutic relationship, not end) can we begin to heal.