If you hadn’t already guessed, my therapist is into family systems therapy. She’s encouraged me to write about all my different “parts” or personality components. She tells me that acknowledging and expressing gratitude are the first steps in reconciling and connecting the disconnected and warring portions of the psyche.
At 18-months my son is roaring into the “terrible twos”. He is rightfully frustrated at his lack of ability to explain and meet his needs at the same time as exploring his independence. The result is a lot of tantrums.
I’m not proud to say that I’m struggling to keep my cool. The bruiser (see last post) is at the gates and some of my other less attractive components are also coming into play. Not making excuses, but part of this struggle is exacerbated by interrupted sleep (hear my fellow parents moan about regressions). Another part is my own childhood had of a lack of understanding and compassion. In my more desperate moments it’s hard to give my son something that wasn’t modeled for me when I was in his position, with those needs.
But – I want to improve. I want to be better for my son, for my partner.
Today’s topic is the diffident.
In sharp contrast, but complementary, to the bruiser is a component of my personality that is almost completely devoid of confidence. She believes that I am incapable of taking care of myself and solving simple problems. In the face of adversity she freezes and floods me with doubt.
She’s front of mind this morning.
My son was up throughout the night, he’s congested and coughing following what feels like our 300th cold this season (yay daycare germs!). We’re past the bulk of the cold but the cough is interrupting my son’s sleep and at his age there is little over the counter medical relief. My partner was a superstar and got up with him giving me another couple hours of sleep as I also seem to have caught the virus and am struggling. When I got up, I started to make our son breakfast. He had a total and complete meltdown about sitting in his chair to eat – an event which has been happening with greater frequency of late. I froze, not trusting myself to take action. I think he sensed it: wouldn’t stay (screaming and fighting to get away) with me while his dad got dressed, had his own breakfast, got ready to take him to daycare.
The soundtrack in my head was a resounding “you don’t know what you’re doing”, “you can’t add anything of value to this situation”, “you suck”, “of course you can’t comfort him”…
I recognize the irony of my freezing in this moment made the event a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: I couldn’t add anything to the morning to make it better.
I think of the diffident’s role in my early childhood and it breaks my heart. She exists because for a long time it wasn’t safe for me to take action. My father is an alcoholic and like many alcoholics his disease makes him chaotic and narcissistic. Offering a solution or trying to fix a situation was not a safe thing to do around him as a child. The chaos and turmoil was the excuse to drink and standing in the way of that had consequences.
When I try to imagine what would happen if the diffident didn’t freeze, my mind tells me that people will get hurt, bad things will happen.
Like my relationship with the bruiser, I’m told the path forward comes from trying to find a new role for the diffident going forward. To gently show her that the circumstances have changed and despite the great work she did to protect me in my childhood, freezing isn’t the best reaction in my adult life.
For someone with a crushing amount of insecurity and self-esteem challenges, I don’t present that way. This is in large part to a persona that has been a longstanding topic of conversation in my monthly check ins with my therapist.
Recently I’ve decided to call her “the Bruiser”.
The Bruiser appeared early in my life as a response to living in an unpredictable and challenging environment. I am the daughter of a high functioning and unreformed alcoholic. My childhood was chaotic, traumatic, and confusing.
Compared to other children of addicts, my experiences with my alcoholic parent are pretty tame. We were an upper middle class family. My parents are both college educated. We always had food on the table, clothes on our backs. I come from a privileged environment, there is no disputing this fact.
But I wouldn’t call my upbringing “happy” or “easy”.
There was considerable emotional neglect and abuse in my formative years. Not malicious or intentional, but powerful.
My father was in many respects absent and unavailable emotionally. He was an evening drinker, sipping his first beer around 4pm when my brother and I would arrive home from school and retreating to the basement to drink himself into a total stupor after dinner. When he was around his presence was disruptive and volatile. He was often irritated, confrontational and judgmental, often without provocation. Much later I understood this behaviour to be part of his cycle of substance abuse: constantly looking for things to justify numbing his reality.
My mother tried to shelter us from the hardship. She tried to deflect and distract from my father’s behaviour when we were little. I think she thought that it was better to try and shield us from it than burden us with it. When we were older, she continued struggled with boundaries in the other direction, treating me as her friend and confidant moreso than her dependent and daughter.
The whole experience was confusing. I think on some level I understood I was powerless, and vulnerable but accepting that my parents were deficient was a reality that was nearly impossible for my young brain to fathom. Instead, like many children of substance abusers my subconscious attempted to give me some control in my powerlessness by allowing me to believe that I was able to control my situation.
Enter the bruiser. As an adolescent I started picking fights with my father at the dinner table. I began to get satisfaction from bringing on his anger and hastening his retreat to the basement to drink. On some level, I think it felt like I was restoring peace to my world. With the alcoholic out of sight in his lair I had the illusion of safety and control.
Over time the bruiser started working its way into my other relationships and the way I present myself to the world. She gives me confidence and hides my vulnerability. She makes me feel capable and competent. She pushes me forward when I only want to mope.
The downside of the bruiser, however, is that when she is bored she creates chaos. In my current home life she has no clear purpose. I’m in a romantic domestic partnership with someone who is healthy and respectful. She sees danger at every corner and pushes me into fight mode when it is no longer needed. She causes me to be hypervigilant and angry and the smallest slights.
It feels like outgrowing my best childhood friend. I have genuine appreciation and gratitude for all we’ve been through together but she’s annoying as all hell and I shamefully want to ditch her. Her views are polarizing and she has a hard time controlling her impulses.
Instead, my therapist advised me to try and talk to her. Tell her I’m grateful for her actions and sacrifices and invite her to tell me what kind of role she wants in our life going forward.
So far, nothing. What purpose does a warrior have in modern society?
I’m writing this with some embarrassment, but total sincerity.
We met at a strange point in my life. I had just escaped from my decade-long romantic relationship with an end-stage alcoholic. I had just started to unpack the toxicity of that relationship as well as the impacts of growing up with a closeted alcoholic, my father. I knew I was damaged, but I’d only begun to understand the role that codependency had played in my life to that point and had little to no understanding of how to start building a healthy relationship with myself, let alone others. I was lonely and lost. I had no business bringing my baggage anywhere – let alone into your life.
We met on an online dating platform. We had a lot in common and the conversation flowed easily. You were smart, insightful, and interesting. Handsome too, from what I could see of your profile photos. Your story was familiar. You had lost a woman who you described as both the love of your life and a drug addict.
We exchanged letter-like messages for about a month then decided to meet up at a local restaurant.
In person, the attraction was instant. A total babe. Besides the physical I also saw my reflection – rage, my hurt, my shame. It was confusing. I was attracted to you in a way I had forgotten I could be. For the first time in a decade I felt something like hope, like excitement, to connect with someone else. Subconsciously, I had the misguided idea that we would save each other from the unrelenting torment that only someone who has loved a person lost in the addiction abyss can know.
I still remember the 5 hours we sat in that restaurant as one of the best conversations of my life. I felt seen in a way that’s challenging to explain. That truthfully, I still don’t.
Then you ghosted me.
I was even more confused. I felt like a shadow again. Unseen and dark. I had attached significant meaning to our interactions. You had become symbolic of a sense of belonging. I had assigned too much meaning to a “relationship” I had with someone I honestly and truly knew very little about. I’m sorry about that. You didn’t deserve that responsibility.
In hindsight, your withdrawal was for the best. The experience with you forced me into a greater commitment to my recovery and mental health. I had to admit that looking for prince charming to slay my dragons was not realistic. I had to slay them myself. And slowly, I started.
If I’m honest, I still carry you with me. From time to time I look you up, applaud your accomplishments and contributions to the community. I’m not sure why I do this, I’ve long given up the idea that we will have any kind of relationship or friendship. Maybe I still feel you as the mirror image of my pain. I hope, like me you have started to slay your dragons too.
I hope that in writing this, I can let you go.
Daddy Issues and Cake
For as long as I can remember, my relationship with my father has been strained.
This truth is challenged by a small collection of baby photos that suggest we didn’t start this way: young me handling tools next to him working on a car, me standing watching him cook in the kitchen, us playing on the beach at the cottage.. smiling. Even with photographic evidence, it’s difficult to accept that there was ever a point we enjoyed spending time together.
I don’t have positive memories of my father. I have memories of him blowing up at the slightest provocation – slamming things around, sometimes slapping or roughly handling me or my brother. I remember him being angry on every family vacation, seemingly inconvenienced about spending time together. I remember waking up startled as a child with him in my room, drunk and lost coming back from the bathroom. I remember him telling me I was too sensitive or otherwise belittling my feelings at times that, I understand as an adult, it was very reasonable to be upset. I remember him being generally disappointed with choices I made, achievements I earned, and people I chose to spend my time with. I remember feeling that I was never enough, by any measure, to the point that I couldn’t effectively tell when I was making a genuinely poor decision or a positive one.
I don’t remember my father acting in ways that the other dads acted. I can’t remember ever being excited to spend time with him.
When other people tell me about their fathers, I generally get the impression that they feel their dads protect and encourage them, that they always know and trust that their dads love them and have their best interests in mind. Not me; I generally feel that my dad regrets being a father and that I am fundamentally disappointing to him.
I was scared of him as a child. In my adolescence and early adulthood, I was angry and resentful at him for not being what I needed him to me. In my early 30s, I allowed myself to grieve the person I wish he had been. I let myself feel sad not only for the relationship I didn’t have with him, and likely wouldn’t, but also let myself feel sorry that he missed out on what a cool person he had a part in creating. I finally accepted that our lack of relationship wasn’t because of something I lack, but rather something in him he wasn’t willing or able to address.
This process of grief has gotten more intense over the last few years as he’s aged. He’s started to show the effects of a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking. He’s changed from a strong and intimidating presence to a gaunt and sallow man. This shocking decline leads me to assume he’s not well given those types of transformations are generally only seen among the truly infirm. Truthfully, I don’t have the guts to ask.
This weekend we celebrated my son’s first birthday. My father came, looking sicker than ever. In the midst of all the joy and festivities I found myself overwhelmed again with grief. Not only for myself, but for my son, who in all likelihood will not have the opportunity to form lasting memories, impressions or his own relationship with his grandfather. I felt sorry for my father that his life would likely end alone.
And, if I’m honest, I suspect that I just need to be sad about this for a while longer.
Things That Being a Mom have Taught Me (Part 1)
With my return to work and my son’s first birthday on the horizon, I can’t help but reflect on what my first year as a mother has taught me.
Some people say strange things to expectant or new parents.
Before I was pregnant, I didn’t realize how profoundly strange the things people say to new or expectant parents are. Most people react to news of an expected child with the same (but positive) canned responses: “Do you know the gender?”, “got a name picked?”, “that’s so exciting!”, et cetera; however, a surprising number of people we told we were expecting responded with an off-colour joke about how our lives were over with an accompanying story about their children’s worst moments that week. I often found myself thinking “Geez Brenda, can you hold your spoilers? It’s a bit late for me to be pumping the brakes”.
A lot of the advice other parents give me is bullshit, but I should listen anyway.
Most people genuinely want to help make my parenting journey easier. They want to demystify things that challenged or puzzled them, save me the headache and heartache of looking for what works. However, in my experience, although well-meaning, this advice is generally unsolicited and therefore challenging to receive well. I’ve also found that what worked best for our family was seldom a carbon copy of someone else’s solution. This makes sense — it’s no cliché that every child and family is different, of course the rules would be different. However, it was still important to listen. When I was tired, over my head, and desperate for change it was helpful to investigate those suggestions. While they often didn’t hold the answer exactly, they blazed the trail to what eventually worked. It also was good to remember that others had made it through whatever was challenging us that week.
Parental leave is no vacation.
I cringe now thinking how many parents I treated like they were walking into a sweet year off when they headed off on their parental leave. Granted my parental leave was different than most given that it happened during a global pandemic. There weren’t many reasons to leave the house, and there was less help available than I think I would have had if there hadn’t been this disruption. My partner worked outside the home so more days than not, it was just my son and I with nowhere to go. While there were an amazing breadth of indescribably happy moments (seeing my son walk for the first time, snuggling him while he slept at all hours of the day, playing with him endlessly…) there was an equal number of crushing moments. The last year of my life has been one of the most spectacular but also one of the loneliest and exhausting years of my life. It’s bittersweet to be returning to work in a week.
I didn’t know what love was before I met my son.
I knew this when I held him in the hospital. When he woke me up every three hours for months and I rushed to his bedside. When he smiled at me for the first time. But also when I found out that I would need to help him clear his nose with a nasal aspirator.. and that the manual ones are the only ones that really work worth a damn. I wouldn’t do that for anyone else. Period.
It’s hard to keep a straight face sometimes.
My son is starting to test boundaries and explore. It’s clear he’s starting to understand the word “no”, but it’s also clear that he’s inherited his father’s willful disposition. As frustrating as it is, there’s something deeply funny about the light of your life smiling at you when you ask them not to do something and willfully doing it anyway. I’m not sure if there’s a course for parental poker face, but man could I use it.
When I was about 8 years old my father lost his job. Unfortunately, it was part of a string of job losses which lead a once promising engineer-turned-business man onto the path to un-employability.
My father, among other mental health challenges, is an alcoholic. Not in the conventional, obvious “rock bottom” sense, but in the secretly drinks-to-the-point-of-passing-out every night kind. I doubt many people would be able to draw this conclusion about him looking at our upper middle class family. We had a nice house, cars, 2.5 kids, and university educations. We paid our taxes, had nice gardens, nutritious packed school lunches and clean clothes. But – nonetheless, it was true – my father is an alcoholic and has been largely emotionally absent from my life most days and physically absent most evenings. I suspect his substance use was a large part of what lead him to lose jobs; like most alcoholics, he lacks the ability to be truly empathetic and engaged with people and is therefore a liability in a team environment.
At the time of that job loss, my brother was about one year old. My mother had worked a series of mid-range jobs but her career had been hampered by acting as the primary caregiver in our house. We lived in a small town, so many of the more lucrative job opportunities would have meant sacrificing time at home to commute to a larger city center.
Rather than look for another job, my father decided that he was above answering to other people and that working for himself would be a much better use of his time. He opened a small business selling high-end video editing equipment to Canadian animators and small production companies. When I was older, my mother told me in a moment of frustration that the business only ever brought in enough profit to maintain my fathers alcohol and cigarette addictions. After about 10 years of picking at his business, my father started calling himself “semi-retired” and totally excused himself from contributing financially to the family. I heard him justify his decision once by stating that he brought in more income while we were little kids, so it was my mothers’ turn to bear the burden of supporting a family.
The job loss when we were kids was the beginning of my mother’s role changing to include both primary caregiver and primary earner titles for our family. Over the course of the following years, my mother became more and more career focused to make up the financial deficit. She took jobs that required commuting and put in the hours to maintain our lifestyle. This eventually lead to promotions and more senior positions that required her to travel for long periods in order to continue to increase her rate of earning.
If you asked me about my point-of-view of this period of my life, my overall impression was that I was very lonely, sad, and angry kid. Without my mother home, my brother and I spent most of our time outside of school with babysitters. When we were picked up in the evening, my mother often worked through the night (and my father was in no condition to drive) so the opportunity for rides to activities and friends did not exist. I remember giving up horseback riding, afterschool sports, braces, and other activities and expenses in an effort to help balance the family’s finances. Outwardly I started to morph into a sullen and resentful pre-teen.
At that time, I could easily grasp that the family was in flux and difficulty, but I don’t have any recollection that anyone had the time or energy to explain it to me. I recall my attempts to talk about my feelings being met with exclamations that I was being selfish, sensitive, dramatic, or miserable. There were comparisons of my life to much more dramatic cases of child suffering – starving children of Africa, child survivors of rape or physical abuse. The message was an all-too-clear: “stop your complaining and get some perspective, life isn’t that bad”. I suspect that my feelings of unhappiness magnified what I now suspect were my fathers’ feelings of deep self-loathing and frustrated my mother who didn’t have time for anything which wasn’t directly related to the family’s survival.
Looking back on this period, I can see the hints of ideas forming in my child’s mind that would challenge me for the rest of my life. I didn’t have the context or experience to understand what was happening and, without the guidance of my parents, the only explanation my immature reasoning could accept was that the bad things happening around me must have to do with my worth. I’ve struggled for decades with feelings of inadequacy; of being somehow not worthy of love, of compassion, of effort. I’ve also been haunted by the idea that any suffering that I’m experiencing is somehow not valid since there are much bigger issues in the world. These lessons have lead me into more situations than I’d like to admit where I accepted poor treatment or sacrificed my needs for the benefits or convenience of others. They nag at my thoughts telling me that I shouldn’t act as my own advocate or fight for a better seat at the table.
In hindsight, I understand that my parents simply didn’t have the bandwidth to give me what I needed. They were in survival mode and my self worth was an unfortunate casualty.