I had a dream recently in which I was in a rage. My father was there, though it didn’t look like him. There was fire everywhere; I was yelling at my father, breaking things, threatening him. He kept moving away, dodging my blows, telling me to stop, but it only infuriated me more.

My accusations took the form of: “Why ______? That’s right – because you’re DEAD!!!” and I would swing at him again.

Finally, I had him cornered. There was a wall of earth behind him, curved like the inside of a clam shell, and fire completely surrounding us both.

I … I can’t bring myself to write the final accusation I made, which took the form of a yes/no question.

“I’m sorry!” he pleaded.

I took it to be a ‘yes,’ my worst fears confirmed.
He tried to get away, but I blocked him.

“How could you?”
“I’m sorry, so sorry,” he wept.

I … I don’t remember what came next. I think I woke from the dream. I couldn’t get back into it. And I don’t know how to respond. I’m just …

There’s a choice in that moment. I could be violent, which might be cathartic but would ultimately make me feel worse. And it would make me no better than him – the worst of him that is in me, honestly.

I could forgive him, treat him with compassion. But it just … I’m tired of forgiving, continuing to love someone after they’ve taken so much from me. It feels too soft, too incongruous with all this fire.

I could just walk away and let him burn. Or let him past me. But he’d still be out there somewhere and if this is anything like superhero comics he’ll come back as some kind of twisted villain. I need closure, dammit!

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A New Milestone in Therapy: Part 2

[CW: descriptions of ways alcoholics and people under the influence of alcohol behave that can be harmful, especially to others]

In my last post I described 3 of the people I’ve been working with, ways in which some of their behaviors are reflective of (and/or caused by) the influence of alcohol, and weird psychological dynamics I’ve been experiencing with them. Today’s session with Wakana, which just ended, expanded on that discussion.

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The Drama of the Gifted Child

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.

Image Description: Mother holding infant and frowning, not making eye contact even though the baby is looking at her. from News In Health: Understanding Postpartum Depression December 2005 National Institutes of Health

Mother holding infant and frowning, not making eye contact though the baby is looking at her.
National Institutes of Health

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 - and the surrounding area image by Markus Griesser

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.

Take this. I’ve been carrying it for you for 16 years.

Insight by itself isn’t particularly useful. You need to actually do something with it in order to benefit. I’ve known for years that I never fully mourned my father’s death. That the knot in my shoulder probably has something to do with him. That I’m angry with him for hurting Mom and me, lying to us, and abandoning us. That I’m not going to recover from my depression until I forgive him.

But today was the first time I actively expressed those emotions to him. With Wakana’s support and guidance I propped up a stuffed animal to represent him and yelled and cried and stood with my hands on my hips and didn’t hold anything back. I wasn’t nice about it at all. I was brutally honest.

Something came out that took me by surprise. Something extremely familiar, yet completely unexpected: Disappointment. I’m disappointed in him. It seems absurd, what right does a daughter have to be disappointed in her father? Well, this daughter is all grown up. And yes, I’m disappointed in him.

When he married my mother, he made a promise. I’ve made that same promise to Fox, so I know how important it is and how difficult it can be to keep. But I’ve made a commitment to keeping that promise, to always working with Fox to keep that promise no matter what. My father broke his promise to my mother. I am very angry with him for that. I am very disappointed in him. These are my emotions that I feel, and I feel them toward him because of something he did.

When he helped to create me and took on the role of father, he made a promise. It might never have been spoken, but it was a set of expectations I had for him: that he would protect me, that he would live by the values he taught me, that he would be there when I needed him, that I could trust him. He broke his promise. He hurt me both physically and emotionally. He lied to me after teaching the importance of honesty. He was a hypocrite. He abandoned me. And he taught me to value and respect him more than I valued and respected my mother. For all her flaws, she deserves at least as much respect as him. He should have modeled that for me, but he did the opposite.

I am very, very disappointed in him.

Here’s the thing: I’d been directing that disappointment at myself. I’d taken on the guilt I imagine he would feel, were he alive to hear the things I said today. I took responsibility for his failings; I believed I was the one who’d committed the sin of betrayal; I thought I had to redeem myself and did everything I could to do so and felt crushing guilt when nothing I did was enough. Maybe it’s possible for a father to make it up to his daughter after disappointing her as my father disappointed me. Maybe. But for a daughter to make it up to herself? Impossible. Nothing I can do will make my disappointment in my father go away.

But now I am directing it at him. I am disappointed in him. I am giving him the responsibility I’ve been carrying for the things he did to hurt me. It’s his responsibility. He’s the owner of the guilt. He’s the one who, if he were alive, would have reason to feel like he has to do something to redeem himself. Not me.

I am the one in control, the one feeling the disappointment, the one with the ability to sentence or forgive. I am the Judge, the Warden, even. I was never on trial. He is.

I’ve expressed my anger, my rage, my disappointment, my hurt, my sorrow. I’ve yelled and cried. I’ve handed him the burden I’ve been carrying. It’s his burden, it was never mine; it belongs to him.

And under all of that, I love him. I’d been saying I wanted to punch him, but when I had the stuffed animal standing in for him I decided it wasn’t worth it. I didn’t need to become violent, to have that violence on my shoulders. I hugged him instead. I chose to express my love for him.

Now it is time to let go. To say goodbye. And to forgive.

Can I really just walk away from all of this?

Well, I have lots of people whom I love and who love me. I’m married. I’ve already lived 16 years without him, carrying a burden that was never mine. I’ve experienced success and I’m learning to tolerate failure, as much as I dislike it. I’ve been and will continue to develop my talents and skills. Some day I might even have meaningful employment. Children of my own. A legacy.

Yes, I can leave this burden in the sand. I can walk away from it. That is what I choose to do.

You disappointed me, Dad. You weren’t the father I needed you to be. But I know that you were human, and humans make mistakes. And I still love you, Dad. I’ll always love you. So I choose to forgive you. And I need to live my life. Goodbye.

Mushussu-Sirrush: Babylonian Dragon of Chaos

It’s 15 years to the day since my father died from cancer. I … have been trying not to think about it too much.

When I do think about it, I’m sad. I miss him. I mourn for the relationship we could have had, now that I’m an adult. I mourn for all the things he has missed and is going to miss: graduations and my (someday) wedding, for example. Meeting Banji and Fox – I think they would have gotten along with him rather well.

I’m also angry. I’m angry that I keep repeating the same response I had when I first learned he had died: I freeze, unable to think or move, feeling empty. The emptiness is the worst. I’m not angry at myself for doing it. I’m angry about the harmful impact it has had on my life.

I’m also angry and sad that my (someday) children will never meet one of their grandfathers. I never met one of mine, and I still feel like something is missing. At least I have some vague, but fond memories of my very limited time with the grandfather who died when I was in preschool. The one I never met is like a hole in my life. My children haven’t even been born yet and that same hole is in their lives, too.

The anger I feel now is not rage. It’s that cold, calm, simmering anger that often masquerades as sorrow. A tense feeling that something is not right; some injustice has been done. It’s far more dangerous than if I wanted to stomp around screaming and breaking things. I probably won’t express it; it will just eat away at me.

But I’m used to it. We can sit here, side by side.

I struggle to remind myself that Dad is the one whose life ended on that day. My life changed drastically, but I continue to live.

And live I have. I’ve done a lot of awesome things. I’ll do even more.

I’ve done things I might not have been able to do, had he been around to think he had a say in the matter.

So why does the title of this post reference chaos?

I’ve had a fairly awesome book for some time now: Ralph Masiello’s Dragon Drawing Book: Become an artist step-by-step. Today I decided to make my first attempt at drawing one of the dragons – admittedly, as a way of shutting out the world and doing something for myself that required relatively little verbal thought. It worked fairly well.

As I flipped through the book, the dragon that called out to me most was Mushussu, also called Sirrush: the Babylonian dragon of chaos. I like its mischievous grin and, well,

My first attempt. I loved the look of the dragon's face, but I hadn't given myself enough room to draw the flame, etc. so I started over.

My first attempt. I loved the look of the dragon’s face, but I hadn’t given myself enough room to draw the flame, etc. so I started over.

There’s been a lot of chaos in my life. Dad and his side of the family certainly contributed quite a bit of it. Their actions toward and the direct effects of their actions on me did not make for the most stable, healthy childhood and adolescence. They also hurt Mom in ways that created more chaos for me; her stress became my stress and our relationship has always been at least a little strained.

My second attempt. Once again, I didn't have enough room to draw the legs. So I switched to a bigger piece of paper and started over.

My second attempt. Once again, I didn’t have enough room to draw the legs. So I switched to a bigger piece of paper and started over.

Sometimes it feels like chaos runs my life. My room’s a mess; I often can’t find the thing I need. Interactions with people I care about often feel chaotic. The world, crowded places, and the sounds of life (especially unwanted background music) are chaotic. My brain …

I frantically do stupid things, often harmful things, to try and control things I can’t. To find a small bit of calm. To organize my brain enough to do the things you keep asking of me …

I mean, to function.

My first successful drawing of a dragon's entire body.

My first successful drawing of a dragon’s entire body.

I can’t even control my pencil as well as I’d like; I try to draw the shape I see in the book, but my pencil goes some weird direction that is not what I intended. I have to erase, try again, really concentrate …

I added "fish scales" by drawing "U" a plethora of times.

I added “fish scales” by drawing “U” a plethora of times.

And at the end of the day, it feels like none of it matters. I’m still hurting. I have vague ideas of what I want for the future, but I’m not entirely sure I see them happening. I don’t know if I can. Everything is a grey blur.

Mushussu-Sirrush, dragon of chaos. Drawn in mechanical pencil. Colored with oil pastels.

Mushussu-Sirrush, dragon of chaos. Drawn in mechanical pencil. Colored with oil pastels.

Is it so much to ask, to just have one day to sit here and cry?