Protecting Myself

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Thirty years without contact with someone – anyone really, is a long time.  We evolve, we grow and change – we become new and hopefully more enlightened versions of ourselves.  We’re older, possibly even wiser – our discernment and judgement are more acute and refined.  The world has turned, most things are not the same – but when I even consider seeing Ed face-to-face I feel anxiety that takes me back to childhood.

I’m not who I was thirty years ago, and I’m definitely not the helpless, vulnerable child I was fifty years ago – I know that, but logic and reason hold no dominion here. Here, I am just Ed’s child; powerless and afraid.

The day Rhonda met Ed for the first time, I had just turned twenty one.  I was usually cocky, funny and passably self-assured in those days, but in Ed’s presence Rhonda immediately noted the changes in me; slight irritability and a marked inability to sit still and engage in small talk – she also saw the beads of sweat on my brow and let me know that my hand, which was holding hers, had become sweaty.  My sense of humor and self assurance had left the building, and I allowed Ed to dominate the moment entirely.  Inside, my heart was racing and my stomach ached.

At first, Rhonda thought I was just reacting to the stress and tension of the initial meeting between she and my father.   Although she also noted my reaction was rather extreme to be only that, she didn’t make too much of it until, through subsequent meetings, she realized my anxiety returned every single time I was around Ed.  She questioned why he unnerved me so completely, but I didn’t know or understand it myself then; I only knew I felt it and that the feeling was profound.

And I feel it today even thinking about seeing him – it is a phantom feeling, more recollection of past feelings than current fear or anxiety, but it is acute …

How do I stand in the presence of a man who beat and humiliated me – made me plead for mercy he never gave and not feel anxious?  How do I occupy the same space as Ed without feeling the full impact of remembered fear and pain?  How do I do that and not have flashbacks?

I don’t want to go back, I can’t go back.  I won’t go back.

I am more afraid of what I will feel, standing in his presence, than I have words to describe.  I’m not afraid of him, not anymore, but I am afraid of what being near him might do to me.   The heart palpitations, the stomach ache and nausea, the irritability, the clammy skin, the need to move constantly, the sense of hopeless dread – all the things that come from having Anxiety Disorder – are all the things I never want to experience again, especially in front of Ed.

I am confident now.  I am secure and successful, I am who I want to be.  I worked hard for these things – harder than I should have had to work for them, and I’m not going to sacrifice the positive feelings that come from knowing and liking who I am for the despair that accompanies anxiety.

A face-to-face will have to wait a while longer, until I’m sure within myself Ed no longer has the power to unnerve me or undo all the work I’ve done to get well.

Dear Aunt Laura – An Abusive Home

Dear Laura,

Now that I have worked through your comment emotionally, I want to respond as objectively as possible.  Please keep in mind that complete objectivity isn’t possible for me – not when I need to delve into my childhood to explain, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

I grew up in an abusive home.  Truth be told, I grew up with parents who probably suffered from their own mental illnesses; no healthy person does the things they did to their own child.

Your recollection,  “when you an your sister came to our house , I saw not a boy who was beaten ( you were about 11) but a happy handsome young man.”  is not false, but it is naive to think it representative of a larger picture – or of our family life as a whole.

There are three iron-clad rules in an abusive home: Don’t talk.  Don’t trust.  Don’t feel.  If I had trusted you, and told you the truth – that my parents beat me, that they were obsessed with how we appeared to the world outside our home – that we knew better than to tell – that they abandoned us, neglected my younger sister’s medical/psychiatric needs – and you didn’t believe me, didn’t take me far away – Ed would have beaten me within an inch of my life, and Pat would have let him.  No, Pat would have expected him to.  There is no exaggeration in my words …

What you saw is what Pat and Ed wanted you to see.  The truth was this:  Pat and Ed drank –  to excess, they were functional alcoholics. Ed was cruel and not involved in our lives except when we needed ‘discipline.’  He didn’t care what we felt, thought, wanted or needed – he told us this – he didn’t care.

Pat sat on the couch at night, drinking cheap wine through a straw – this she told us she had to do to face going to bed with Ed.  She was miserable, and everyone knew it, but instead of trying to solve her problems, she took them out on her children.  She beat us.  She abandoned us.  She threatened us with one of Ed’s beatings if we were too needy or difficult.  She was cold and unfeeling.  Utterly detached emotionally.

This was my day-to-day life, Laura.  Every. Single. Day.  My childhood was a living, breathing nightmare.  An abusive home, even in those moments of relative calm, is an insidious place – dark and terrifying.  In fact, the calm was worse than the storm in some ways because I knew from a very young age that the calm couldn’t last, so I just hunkered down and waited for the beating I knew was coming.  The environment is toxic …

It made me a victim, not only within those walls, but at school.  I was bullied because psychologically being a victim was comfortable for me; at home I was Ed and Pat’s victim – they were the bullies, at school other children were.  And Ed had a Golden Rule – I was not allowed to fight back; I had to stand there, literally, and take whatever abuse the school bullies were giving out.  “Turn The Other Cheek.”  If I fought back, Ed beat me violently.  He wanted me to be a victim – it made me easier to manipulate and control.

I was seldom, if ever, happy.  But I knew how to make everyone believe I was.  Fear is a powerful  motivator, and I was terrified of what would happen to me if I was the cause of anyone outside our house discovering what went on in our family.

You saw us so infrequently, Laura … there is no way you could have gotten a sense of what our lives were all about.

I am sorry your son doesn’t remember the good that you did.  I don’t know why that is in your case, but I do know why it is in mine:

I was too busy trying to survive the bad – the every single day bad – to make mental note of any good.  And now, looking back, I can recall so little good that it feels like there was never anything but horror and pain.  And fear – all encompassing ever-present fear.

I’ve been through hell because of what Ed and Pat did to me.  Hell.  I have medical evidence that proves conclusively that I have Bipolar Disorder, Major Clinical Depression, PTSD and Dysthymia — ALL BECAUSE OF CHILDHOOD ABUSE.  I’ve had brain scans and hormone level tests; I have Metabolic Disorder –  a common comorbid ailment of mental illness caused by abuse.  My ACE score is a solid 8, and should be 9 – I still haven’t claimed sexual abuse although I know beatings like those I received are, in fact, sexual abuse.  I’m a textbook case of someone who was abused as a child and ended up with mental illness.

Please understand, when I say beating – I mean violent, savage beating; no mercy.  When I tell you that Ed was cruel – I mean devoid of compassion, empathy and the ability to feel the pain of others, including his own child.  When I tell you that Pat abandoned us – I mean it literally; she did this purposely – she made us believe she was never coming back.  When I tell you that the environment of our home was toxic, I mean it; it has made me sick.  There can be no ambiguity here – I was horrifically and purposely abused as a child, by Ed and Pat.

I know how difficult all of this must be for you to hear, believe me I do.  And my goal to raise awareness of the connection between child abuse and mental illness – something I must do for my own healing, was bound to intersect with your love for Ed.  Love Ed, Laura; he’s your brother – you’ve known him all of your life.  If he is a good brother, I am happy for you.  I wish he had been a good father, but the truth is – he wasn’t.

Although I know you meant well, and your idea of who Ed is is very different from who I know him to be, it was hurtful to read words that indicated my memories may be false.  I lived it every second of every minute of every hour of every day year in and year out, and when people imply that it didn’t happen, it is emotionally devastating.  And, quite frankly, that kind of thinking is what has allowed abuse to flourish and thrive generation after generation.  Ed claims the reason he beat me was that he was severely beaten by his parents [your parents] as child – if that is true, it is time to shine a light on the atrocity.  It is time to heal.  It is time to commit to ending the cycle, forever.  If it isn’t true, what does that say about Ed’s character?

 

With love and respect,

Tim

 

 

 

Poetry, Prose and Transcendental Meditation

Not long after Pat and Ed divorced, Ed began a casual study in Transcendental Meditation (TM); he sat in Lotus Position, thumb and middle-finger touching, eyes closed chanting Ooooomm …

He also, during this time of being newly divorced, as well as during his time in prison, wrote poetry and prose.

I don’t know what, if he anything, he got from these endeavors, or if he experienced personal growth; I suppose I believe these things – writing and studying  TM, were all part of his crafting and perfecting his ability to manipulate others … it gave him the appearance of calm, of spiritual interest, of being intellectual – of being a normal newly divorced man in American society in the 70’s.

He wrote a poem for my sister and I – the copy he gave me was hand written in bold script, its edges had been burned and it was affixed to a wood block to make a plaque that I could hang on my wall.

This poem made me deeply angry; livid actually.  It disgusted me and made me feel sick in a nebulous way I could not identify at the time …

and finally, one dark afternoon, I took it down from my wall and I destroyed it – smashed it to bits with a hammer, because I couldn’t stand to see it one more time …

but I will never forget the first line – it is haunting:

“Now that you are no longer little kids, but people …”

Maternal Estrangement

She is incapable of feeling love …

Anyone who is able to do to her child the things Pat did to me, as well as condone what Ed did to me, is incapable of feeling or giving love.

The love of a mother for her child is the purest emotion there is – I’ve see the awe in her eyes when my wife looks at our children.  I’ve seen her protect and nurture and cry for their pain.  I’ve seen her fear and panic when she thought their physical safety had been compromised. And I’ve seen her unable to contain her joy and pride in knowing who our children have become.  This is a mother’s love, and the confidence and self-esteem it gives to her child is immeasurable.

I didn’t know anything like this growing up.  Pat was physically abusive – a believer in terrible and humiliating beatings, but even worse; she was emotionally abusive.

In therapy you always get around to blaming your mother – I even pointed out how cliche this felt to the therapist who finally initiated my breakthrough, his response; “it isn’t cliche in your case, in your case it is true.”

You can’t abandon your child in a grocery store parking lot, or leave him home all alone and make him believe you’re never coming back without dire consequences.

You can’t leave him in a crib to scream for hours on end as an infant and expect the mother child pair bond to form.

You can’t allow his father to beat him without mercy and then have him believe you were his protector.

And you can’t control and twist his emotions for your own cruel gain and not have him fear the loss of your approval and love to such a degree he doesn’t become ill later in life.

If my therapist and I had to guess, Pat has Borderline Personality Disorder (this is ONLY a guess) …

She sensationalizes in the extreme – hyper emotional

She creates drama and tries to suck everyone around her in

One minute she loves (what passes for love in her mind) you and the next minute she hates you

She has no control of her emotions- they are intense and change frequently

She misinterprets interaction, falsely assuming insult 

She is given to dark depression

She was (is?) promiscuous

I left her house because she asked me to after issuing an ultimatum:

Pat had a penchant for married men, she’s had numerous affairs – been The Other Woman many times.   One night, my girlfriend (now my wife, Rhonda) was at our house at 2:00am when a very good friend, a very good married friend, of her parents walked through the front door without knocking and went down the hall to my mother’s bedroom. Rhonda isn’t dumb, no explanation for what was going on was needed.

She struggled with this emotionally … but she (Rhonda) decided not to tell anyone what she knew.  Pat even thanked her, through feigned and dramatic tears no less, for remaining quiet- telling her what a good girl she was … This scene made Rhonda sick.

Several weeks later, Pat was sure – had become obsessed with the idea, that Rhonda had told her boyfriend’s wife he was having an affair.  Pat was a mess; ranting and raving at me about the situation caused by my girlfriend. She cried, screamed and would not listen to reason.  I’d never seen her so upset, so dramatic, so ridiculous.

Rhonda, whom Pat had adored days earlier, was now public enemy Number One over something that hadn’t even happened.

Pat told me that if my girlfriend didn’t apologize to her, she would never be welcome in our house again … and then my mother, knowing how she was able to unhinge me emotionally as a child by disappearing and leaving me alone, left me alone for days … I had no idea where she was.

Now, I was twenty-one years old and could take care of myself, but PTSD and severe abandonment issues being what the are, I nearly lost my mind – which is exactly what Pat wanted to happen.

Rhonda calmed me down, but she rightfully refused to apologize to my morally devoid mother for something she didn’t do.

When Pat came home, she refused to speak to me civilly – she was cruel and cold, catty and biting, and finally she told me to choose – “Rhonda or me.”

I chose Rhonda, and Pat told me to leave her house.

I can only imagine what a shock my choice had to have been for Pat, abandoning me and then freezing me out, withholding even polite interaction, had always worked in the past.  Not being able to manipulate me was definitely new for her …

I knew when I left I’d never go back – it was a vague  feeling, but it was absolute.  Within weeks, I felt better than I ever had before – being away from my mother was like having the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders.  I could breathe, for the first time ever, I could breathe.

I didn’t have to walk on eggshells for fear of upsetting Pat.  I didn’t have to worry about her passive aggressive behavior, or her calling me a prude for my silent disapproval of her having sex with married men, most of whom were wealthy, prominent citizens in our community- their money and position being what she prized above all.

And I didn’t have to spend all my energy trying in vain to get her to love me.  I finally accepted that she never had, and never would love anyone other than herself.

I don’t even think she knows what the word love means.

The one thing I’m sorry for is not staying in touch with my mother’s sister.  I have missed her …

But when I left home, it was all or nothing — I couldn’t risk being pulled back into Pat’s nightmare.

Tangled Web

I think when a father becomes agitated by the knowledge that his son, his siblings and niece are in contact after many, many years it means the father has something to hide …

When Ed discovered I was once again in contact with his family, he nearly lost his mind.

He demanded  [of his young niece and siblings]  that attention be paid to the fact that he did not like this development.  He did this openly and in private, on Facebook.

Now why in the world should it bother Ed if I have a relationship with his siblings and niece?

If he had nothing to hide, it wouldn’t bother him in the least.

And anyone with the ability to think critically would know that.

Ed, do you think we’re all stupid?

Do you think everyone believes your lies and manipulations?

What are you hiding from … ?

And what are you so afraid of?

What was of threat to you?

Oh, I see:

The truth.

Just remember:  I didn’t write this story, you did.

I’m just telling it:

For my own closure, peace and sanity, I have no choice.

My silence has cloaked your sins and given credence to your lies …

I hate knowing that now that I’m well:

it makes me feel complicit in your morally bereft life.

 

 

Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant

Munich, Germany
Munich, Germany

 

Munich is a curious place – a beautiful city that struggles to escape its dark and sinister past.   It was here that Hitler and the Nazi party rose to power; remnants of Death Camps lie not far from her borders, and of course the tragic events of the 1972 Olympic Games occurred in Munich.

It is a city that is at once old and new;  allied bombing during World War II left the city heavily damaged, and many of the buildings today are but reproductions of the originals – originals dating back to 1158, the year the city was founded.

On the surface the city is shiny and clean, and it appears to be unencumbered by its illustrious past – but if you spend any time there, you will come to understand there is more to the city than meets the eye.

For all her external beauty and light, Munich can be somber – a feeling that’s hard to escape completely – a feeling connected, undoubtedly, to her crepuscular past.

For survivors of child abuse, Munich is an apt metaphor …

Even when we have escaped the cruelty of abuse, many of us are left with with debilitating illnesses, illnesses that threaten to take away our light today.

We can vanquish the enemy, but that still leaves us with the task of cleaning up the city – a city sacked by a reign of terror.

I’ve been to many European cities, and the overwhelming ambiance is warmth, joy and a love for life.  Munich exists in sharp contrast – she struggles even to breathe by comparison.

When I was sick, every minute was a fight, every day a war.  The blackness from my past threatening to pull me into the abyss and never release me was constant …

Yet for a long time, no one – not even me – knew I was sick.  I was used to the constant pain of Dysthymia.  I had accepted Major Depression as who I am.  I braced myself and weathered the cyclone that was a bout with Bipolar … and I didn’t pay any attention to my PTSD and anxiety, refused to acknowledge the impact they had on my day-to-day life.

On the surface, I was a successful guy.  I had a family and a house and a career and a happy long term marriage.  Guys like me weren’t sick – couldn’t be sick – no one could be sick and still accomplish everything I had accomplished.  Like the fair city of Munich, there appeared to be no chinks in my armor.

But below the surface, everything was dark and unsettled – and the somber feelings connected to my past were becoming harder and harder to run away from.  Harder and harder to cover up with life’s successes and momentary joys.  Harder and harder to ignore.

And one day, emotionally drained from the struggle, I just couldn’t juggle all the balls anymore.  I Couldn’t put one foot in front of the other and go on – could no longer bury and run from the pain and injustice of what my parents had done to me.  I had to face my illnesses and get well, or lose everything I had ever loved.

Munich now deals with her past openly, embracing the philosophy that sunlight is the best disinfectant.  You can tour many of the places that were key to Hitler’s rise to power, and today locals are less reluctant to discuss her notorious history.  The nearby concentration camps stand as a dedication to the promise of Never Again, and plans are currently underway to build a memorial in honor of the Olympic athletes massacred in Munich in 1972.  This fairly new philosophy of openness has allowed Munich to become a major player in the tourist industry – something the city desired but could not accomplish when she tried to hide and pretend nothing terrible had happened there.

And I am no longer silent.  I no longer run.  I no longer hide.  And I no longer passively protect my abusers by burying the sins of their past within me – I will no longer poison myself and my life with the toxicity that comes from silence while Pat and Ed lie to the world, and themselves.

There is tremendous power in voicing the truth …

Munich is beginning to get her fair share of tourist dollars:

And I get the strength that comes from shattering the silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakdowns; Emotional or Psychotic and the Past

A breakdown – emotional or psychotic, is not about what the catalyst is said, or appears, to be.  A breakdown is rooted in the past, not the present.  At some point in your life, if you haven’t addressed your demons, a breakdown will occur; it can be that simple …

Or that complicated.

Often, a breakdown seems to come from nowhere:

I had been depressed for a long time when mine occurred – not unstable at all, but undeniably depressed.   This depression, which I refused to recognize and treat at the time, had taken a toll on me emotionally – and when my oldest son left home for college, I had a psychotic breakdown …

Never mind the fact that we had raised him to do exactly what he did – I even wanted him to go, was very proud of him …

But we have always been a very close family – my wife and kids are my life – and when he left, it triggered my abandonment issues in the worst possible way.

I understand now that it was never about his going away to school, it was about my fear of being abandoned — which of course goes back to my childhood.

Today, I recognize how utterly ridiculous my behavior must have seemed to everyone who knew me, but in my mind his leaving was real, it was powerful,  it was terrifying and it was forever.

Psychoanalysis uncovered the root of my abandonment issues, which led to effective treatment …

It all went back to:

Pat sending me to my room and then leaving me all alone in the house when she was very angry with me as a child …

And Pat and Ed taking me with them to the hospital the day they left my oldest sister there forever.

It is never about the present, or even what triggers the breakdown or addiction, never.

The cause always lies in the past.

 

 

 

 

 

Mental Illness and Accountability

If we are ill, are we responsible for our behavior?

Yes:

We are responsible for being properly diagnosed, and not giving up until we are.

We are responsible for accepting the diagnosis and treating the illness in partnership with a psychiatrist we trust.

We are responsible for researching our condition and learning as much about it as we can so that we are able to help our family and our doctors and therapists help us.

We are responsible for learning our triggers and recognizing when we are feeling ‘off.’

We are responsible, when we’re feeling ‘off,’ for contacting our doctor and/or therapist for help.

We are responsible for understanding why we are sick – without this knowledge [and acceptance] treatment has little chance of success.

We are responsible for the pain we cause, but perhaps we deserve understanding and compassion if we are actively trying to get well; treatment takes time to work.

We are responsible for acknowledging that our illness has an impact on our family; if we are suffering, they are too.

And we are responsible for making things right when we have hurt someone, whatever it takes.

 

 

 

 

 

Reality

Diagnosis of mental illness – any mental illness, is overwhelming when it is first received.  Even when the diagnosis is a long time in coming, and should therefore be at least conciliatory relief, it feels like the world is spinning out of control.

My pervasive emotion was fear.  Fear of the unknown, fear of the future, fear of being stigmatized by a society that doesn’t understand.

I remembered my wedding vows: ‘In Sickness and in Health.’  I was pretty sure my wife hadn’t considered mental illness as a possibility when she made that promise.

And I thought of my children and how I’d let them down by becoming ill.

I worried about becoming homeless if my family abandoned me.

My mind took me straight to the worst possible scenarios; I thought, as I think most people do, that a diagnosis of mental illness meant I was insane.  Insane now.  Insane everyday from this moment forward.  Insane forever.  Insane.

Of course that isn’t at all what it means.  And insane isn’t, and never was, the right word.

It took time, but I have learned – a lot …

People with mental illness aren’t insane – I am not insane

Stable on meds IS stable

The vast majority of the time, I am fine.  Asymptomatic

I am still a good husband

I am still a good father

I am still a good friend

I am still the consummate professional at work

Actually, my life hasn’t changed all that much – and the changes there have been are for the better:

My depression is controlled so I’m no longer irritable, angry and sad

My mania is controlled so I no longer contend with delusions of grandeur and hyper-sexuality

I’m able to think clearly 100% of the time

My sense of judgement has returned

I’ve gotten my short term memory back

And …

My wife and I are still happily married

My children still love me, most of the time they even like me.

Thankfully, much of what we fear never comes to pass …

Reality isn’t always a heartless bitch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Legacy of Abuse

Mental illness hurts everyone involved – the patient suffers, obviously, but so does everyone who loves him.  My family has been to hell and back with me.

My oldest son was away at college during the worst of my illness/psychosis – the months between September 2009 and June 2010, but Thanksgiving of 2010 was an unstable time for me, and he experienced my illness in damaging and painful ways.  The damage was, thankfully, reparable – but it should not have happened at all.

My daughter was protected and sheltered by her mother to an extent I did not know was possible – my daughter remains, happily, my adored princess and I her beloved, daddy – but the sacrifices my wife made to know this end weren’t few.

My youngest son, who is my middle child, suffered tremendous emotional pain.  Too old to be as protected from my raging and psychosis as my daughter was, he saw and experienced his father at his worst.  Thankfully, our relationship to that point had been solid and emotionally close, and he has his mother’s sense of loyalty, so he forgives my darkness and is truly supportive and understanding – but one of my deepest regrets is the pain I caused him.

My wife, in some ways, struggles still …

My therapist and psychiatrist diagnosed her as having PTSD as a result of living with my anger and raging, and at the height of my psychosis she was understandably depressed, but her biggest challenge is knowing what happened to me was the result of child abuse, and thus it was completely avoidable.

To say she is a protective mother is an understatement there are no words to describe, and our children are her life.  She taught me early-on how fragile children are, how false it can be to say they are resilient.  She helped me to become a great father, and I found catharsis in being the kind of father I wished I had had, but …

The thing is, what my parents did to me ended up hurting our children, and that is difficult for  my wife to reconcile.  She never had a chance of protecting our children from knowing  this horror  –  it was set into motion before she knew my name.

I hurt her, too …

Knowing what my family has endured because of my illness fills me with shame – and watching my wife struggle with feelings caused, however indirectly, by my parents, is painful for me … I feel like their victim all over again, and I hate knowing I wasn’t able to protect the people I love most from the monsters I knew as a child.

I cut them out of my life — my  wife hasn’t seen them in almost three decades, and my children have never even met them … and still I couldn’t protect them:

My parents hurt them all, and that causes me more distress, more pain, more shame and humiliation than anything else they have ever done to me.