Today, Jim Hines talks about being on his depression medication for one month. This wasn’t the post I planned to write today, but the hallmark of a good blog entry is that it sends ripples out into the universe.
So, today, I want to talk about my own struggles with anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. Because until about four years ago, I was oblivious to the fact that I had anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. How can that be so?
I am a survivor of childhood molestation. BTW, you need to see this. Project Unbreakable points out how widespread the problems of sexual abuse in this country are. I salute these very strong men and women for sharing their experiences and empowering themselves by speaking out. Go take a look.
There are many psychological ways that people cope with abuse. One of the aspects of abusive families is that in the dysfunction, children are assigned roles to compensate for the unstable nature of the family. I am the family hero. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean I get to hang out with Iron Man and Thor and have a cool costume. Well, I’ll grant you, I did have a lot of cool costumes before. Anyway, what is a family hero?
This is the child who is “9 going on 40.” This child takes over the parent role at a very young age, becoming very responsible and self-sufficient. They give the family self-worth because they look good on the outside. They are the good students, the sports stars, the prom queens. The parents look to this child to prove that they are good parents and good people.
As an adult the Family Hero is rigid, controlling, and extremely judgmental (although perhaps very subtle about it) – of others and secretly of themselves. They achieve “success” on the outside and get lots of positive attention but are cut off from their inner emotional life, from their True Self. They are compulsive and driven as adults because deep inside they feel inadequate and insecure.
The family hero, because of their “success” in conforming to dysfunctional cultural definitions of what constitutes doing life “right”, is often the child in the family who as an adult has the hardest time even admitting that there is anything within themselves that needs to be healed.
Thanks to Robert Burney for that information. Burney also identifies other roles assigned to children in dysfunctional families. My brother Scott, now doing time for beating my mother, is our scapegoat. And my brother Ken is a classic mascot.
All my life, until recent years, my role was to be an incredible competence machine. Honor student, student drama awards, scholarships, undergrad in three years, always the dean’s list, write books, get PhD, shine in pretty much every work environment, drive self to keep impossible schedule, president and officer in most organizations, responsible for organizing social lives of most friends.
What I was doing was two fold: I was trying to ignore myself and my pain from having been abused, and I was trying to prove my worth to the world (and regrettably for a long time, my family’s worth.)
There was a definite dark side. I was hard on myself when I failed. I was hard on my friends when they didn’t measure up to my crazy standards. I didn’t feel secure in my own skin. I figured that people wouldn’t like me if I wasn’t the sum of my experiences and my parts. I was a workaholic. I kept wanting to do things, like write books, but there was never enough time, because I was often doing things that put me on the achievement train–too much work, getting a PhD, being involved in organizations that needed my skills. It is true that I was a bit exploited, but at the same time, I needed the achievement to prove to myself that I was better than where I came from.
Happily, I am a very introspective person, one of the benefits, I guess, of being a writer? Something didn’t seem quite right, and I was dissatisfied. I found myself wrangling with the way I treated friends, or the amount of work I had to do. I sought out some counseling, and learned how to deal in more constructive ways with relationships. I learned how to respect boundaries, which is a common problem in dysfunctional kids who have no ideas what boundaries are. I learned not to pass judgment. (Okay, pass judgment less. 🙂 ) While being a workaholic is a psychological disadvantage approved by your workplace, I even learned to stake out time for me. Counseling helped a lot. There was, and is, backsliding, sure, but on the whole, we move forward in the battle.
Still. Until 2008, my family was very much part of my life. There had been changes in the family dynamic. My abusive dad died in 1993, but his specter lingered. All 3 of we children had been molested, and when my younger brother came out to my mother about me and my dad before he died, there was not the outrage and indignation I naively expected from her, but rather a retrenching that not much had happened to me, my dad hadn’t hurt me, and she still loved him. Ouch. You can see why someone wouldn’t bounce back well from that.
But I hung in there. My family was psychologically ill and they needed me. Even though I resented them, they were my family. (I really didn’t just resent them. I hated them, but more on that later.) They needed at least some peripheral care from me. My mother even had 5 pretty good years when my oldest brother was gone, and we just didn’t talk about the past.
Two things happened in 2008. I hadn’t seen my mother for a while, due to travel and schedule, and when I told her I was coming for a visit, she told me my brother had moved back in with her. She was sheltering a molester again. And my grandmother died that Christmas. These events combined to send me into a deep depression. Pills were considered, at least until the fog lifted.
Pills. I take Wellbutrin, a terribly mild anti-depressant. It was enough to relax me, to let me take things that used to bother me terribly in stride. Hey, the cushions on the couch are crooked! So they are. Hey, you aren’t going to meet that deadline at work! No problem! Hey, you can think before you say the first thing that pops into your brain. Hey, you can think…about your emotional response.
Because of the pills, I had interior monologue. My theory is that I had been avoiding interior monologue. As soon as I started having it, I became angry. I am still angry about my past, and you know, like the eternal flame on Kennedy’s grave, I’ll be burning angry for a long time, because I waited 43 years to allow myself to be angry.
However, as David my counselor told me, it’s constructive anger. I no longer take responsibility for the people who wronged me as a child. I am no longer the victim and the caretaker. How f**ked up was that, anyway? I could talk civilly to my mother, sure, should we ever engage in conversation again, but under no circumstances will I ever go back to where I was.
And here’s something else about the pills and counseling. I have learned to celebrate my family, my real family, the family I have built. I am holding my fourth fake family reunion this summer, to celebrate people who care about me for none of my achievements, simply because I am who I am. It’s humbling every time I think of that. It makes me tear up, because I have spent so much of my life trying to prove my self worth to myself, and in the end, I don’t need to prove myself to anyone.
What’s the take home in all of this? Well, healing isn’t easy for a start, but if you’ve been in any kind of situation where you’ve been the victim, I urge you to consider three things:
1. See a counselor.
2. Get medication if you need it (and you probably do if counseling isn’t enough to make a change in your anxiety or depression.)
3. Take legal action if you need to.
NEVER consider yourself the least important. Even if you are the hero of the family, ask yourself why you do the things you do. If it’s not because you really want to do those things, but that you have something to prove to someone else, get yourself some help, especially if you come from an abusive background.
It’s not been an easy journey. It never will be. But thanks to my friends and the medical professionals in my life, the journey has been made less difficult.