If You're Looking for Signs
That's a sign
Much as I love it, it is sometimes hard for me to watch The Bear (don’t worry, no spoilers coming). It’s the scenes with Sugar, constantly asking her alcoholic mother if she is okay. It’s cringe-inducing for me because I relate. I was never one to ask my mother whether she was okay, because it was clear to me that she wasn’t. But that tendency to be on high alert, to look for the signs that the evening might take a dangerous and painful turn, is one I know all too well. It’s a weird thing to grow up feeling dread and underlying panic every time a bottle of chardonnay is opened, and it’s one I never shook, even years after I’d moved away from home.
I was on high alert at my dad’s house, too. I’d be watchful from the moment he picked me up at my mom’s, until our arrival back at his place where my stepmom would be. I was forever reading the adults in my life, looking for the markers of trouble, and ways to avoid it. With my dad, trouble might come the moment we left my mom’s apartment and hit the street. He might casually announce to me that we were going to visit a lady friend on the way home, and my heart would sink to my feet. He’d always say it with excitement, as though this was going to be an adventure for me, too, even though we both knew all that it meant was that he was going to sit me in front of her tv in the living room, while he went and banged her in her bedroom. Of course, he didn’t say that, and I didn’t know that - he was always “rehearsing” with these women and they all just happened to be actresses - but kids know when they’re being lied to, even if they don’t know exactly what the lie means.
Then we’d get back to his place, and I’d be watching my stepmom to see if she was going to believe it when my dad said we’d stopped at a playground or the Museum of Natural History, or that we’d gone for a hot chocolate, or any number of things I actually would have preferred we’d been doing. She usually seemed to believe him, probably because she wanted to, and certainly because she wouldn’t have wanted to believe that the man she married involved his tiny child in his constant hook-ups, or his lies. If the phone rang, though, all bets were off because if a woman called the house for my dad, my stepmom would spend the rest of the night sobbing in the bathroom. She knew, even if she didn’t want to know. It’s a weird thing to grow up being scared of a ringing phone.
I’d love to say that because of these experiences I grew up searching for people who were consistently one way or another, that I craved stability and honesty and an environment where I could relax, but that is not what happened. I suppose I understood well what it was to love people who made insane demands, so that felt like home to me. It can take years to unravel a lifetime of gaslighting. I learned quickly that it wasn’t okay to question the adults in my life. My mother adamantly refused to admit she was an alcoholic, and she had a team of people around her who backed her up. Alcoholics and enablers travel together and often drink together and god help you if you’re the lone, tiny voice in the mix asking if something might be wrong. No one questioned my mother. For all of her incredibly wonderful qualities, she was never wrong and you’d better get that part right. When you grow up and you can see with your eyes that something is not okay, and hear it with your ears, and find yourself backed up against your bedroom wall with your arms over your head because your mother is enraged again and coming at you again with her wild eyes and twisted face, and everyone tells you this is normal … good luck figuring out what normal is.
People who have disorganized attachment style or insecure attachment are people who grew up never knowing what to expect. I always wanted to be at my mom’s more than my dad’s because some nights everything was okay, and some nights things were good. There were nights she drank, but not to the point of rage, just to the point of slurring. It would make me anxious of course, but it might end up okay, where she’d just go to bed and the night would have been mostly good. Many nights she and my stepdad would go out, and I’d be home taking care of my brother. Those nights were my favorite, they were calm and quiet, unless she came home angry and flipped my light on and let me have it for reasons I could never understand at the time. Hadn’t I been good? Hadn’t I done my homework and taken care of my brother? Fed him dinner and given him a bath and read him a book before bed? Hadn’t I done everything right? Also I loved her so completely and just wanted her to love me back, whereas my dad confused me and burdened me in ways I found very hard to carry. I didn’t know where to put all his cheating and concurrent victimhood - even then I think I knew he was doing some kind of advanced mental gymnastics to think of himself as the aggrieved party of his own infidelities.
When you grow up watching for signs so you can know whether you’re safe or not, you develop a certain skill set. This involves figuring out what you need to do to keep everyone around you happy, satisfied, pleased, calm … or at the very least, not enraged (mom), not sobbing in your arms (dad), able to avoid the truth of a situation (stepmom). Which means when you head out into the world, you will not understand what healthy relationships look like, or what your possible function might be if you end up inside of one. This applies to friendships, romantic relationships and the way you interact with colleagues - basically, what happens between you and all other human beings you encounter. You’re not going to have a framework for calm, consistent, loving behavior. That doesn’t mean you might not find it, but it does mean that when you do, you won’t know quite what to do with it.
I found myself pulled toward people who needed help in some way, because I knew how to be helpful. I entered relationships not wanting to be hurt or left, and understanding my job was to be useful. That was the best way to not be hurt or left. That’s just another way of saying I had no feeling that I had any value just for being myself, because I didn’t know who “myself” was. The other giant hurdle is that if I began to grow close to someone, and then one day that person did something cruel, confusing, demanding or frightening, I wouldn’t take it as a sign to run like hell, I’d revert into that old pattern of flight, fight, freeze, or far too often … fawn.
There are not too many things that will disgust you or make you feel more horrible about yourself than accepting treatment no kind hearted person deserves. By excusing it or tolerating it or pretending it wasn’t really that bad - by elevating the other party’s trauma and dismissing your own, telling yourself they’re behaving this way because their dad used to beat the crap out of them, or their mother smothered them with too much attention and now they’re understandably afraid of intimacy and pushing you away out of fear. My god the hours I wasted making excuses for other people, going so far as to forgive them without even requiring an apology or acknowledgment of my feelings to do so. I was just doing the math on both sides of the equation, wondering why it made me feel like I had zero value.
The reality is, most of us have some trauma and by the time you’re twenty-five or twenty-six and your frontal lobe has come fully online, your behavior is your own. If you’re treating people badly because of your own unhealed pain, that’s your responsibility to figure out, just like mine belongs to me and so on. We don’t get free passes to treat people without sensitivity, compassion, respect or kindness because someone else treated us poorly first. That’s lame.
Have you ever been in a relationship with someone and you suddenly realize you cannot stand the version of yourself that you are when you’re with them? I was in a close relationship with someone once, and he was moody and mean and occasionally kind. He was haunted by his own demons and he had all kinds of ways to numb them out or try to make them disappear, and none of those ways were fun to be around. When I would sense that he was starting to spiral, or when he would be gruff or answer me in monosyllables, instead of excusing myself from that ridiculous behavior, I’d ask him if he was okay. I’d chase after him if he seemed upset and ask if he was angry with me, even though I hadn’t done anything at all, except exist. It makes me cringe to think about it. It’s not on him, it’s on me. I stayed and tolerated that crap until I didn’t. But it wasn’t an isolated incident, I had run into trouble in some of my friendships, too.
There’s a normal give-and-take in any long term relationship. We’re all going to have chapters when we need more, when we’re really struggling or feeling lost, and there’s nothing better in life than those people who know how to show up. But if you find yourself in a relationship where you are always the one giving, and the minute you ask for anything, all you get are excuses, that’s not the mark of a healthy friendship. If you have to walk on eggshells with anyone, because history has taught you their wrath is swift and intense, the repercussions extreme, forget about intimacy. You can’t have intimacy and walk on eggshells at the same time.
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Most people with trauma in their pasts are going to go through life utilizing the coping mechanisms they developed in order to survive … until they come to that moment when they realize just surviving is not a very high bar. That life can be experienced and enjoyed, that it can be a great adventure with love, joy, passion, heartbreak, loss, and everything else under the sun, and that your past, whatever it may be, does not have to screw up your present or your future. You don’t have to be married to it, and you are not required to drag it along behind you like some dreadful weight, sucking the happiness out of everything for all eternity. No one makes us drag that load of bricks around, and when you finally arrive at that moment of being utterly exhausted from it, or one hundred percent bored with your old stories about why you are the way you are … when you have your enough moment, it’s such a relief. It’s such a liberation.
Also, when you decide that you are, in fact, worthy of love, at least as much as anyone else, people who treat you like crap are no longer interesting. I don’t chase people and I haven’t for years. I don’t want anyone in my life who has to be educated on what it means to be kind and considerate. Life is way too short, and that’s an exhausting undertaking that isn’t fun. Why would I spend my time that way? That’s not my job, and it isn’t yours either, unless we’re talking about our kids. Then it is very much our job to teach what it means to be a loving, thoughtful, generous person, but the best way to teach it is to show it. Somewhere along the way I began to understand that my parents were just people. Just human beings with their own stories and their own pain, their own traumas and heartbreaks, their own timelines that existed long before I showed up. Whatever happened, whatever they were able to do for me or not, wasn’t personal. I was just a baby, then a kid, and so on. They had the tools they had when I came along.
It’s good to have standards for how you want to be treated, and boundaries. These days I would never shrink myself to make someone else feel comfortable. I cannot walk on eggshells, I’ve spent too much time in my life that way. If someone doesn’t want to communicate, I’m not going to chase like a desperate monkey. Not everyone is meant for me, or you. The people who are will never want you to be any version of yourself except the one that comes directly from your heart. And that is good, and more than enough.
If you’d like to meet me in real time to talk about the repercussions of growing up on “high alert” and the ways to overcome them, I’ll be here Friday 11/10/23 at 11:15am PST or you can wait for the Come As You Are Podcast version. If you’d like to meet me out in the world, I would love that so much. Here are two upcoming opportunities.