One of the great side effects of having a child in therapy for many years has been my blossoming understanding of some of my own issues.
I’ve learned a bit about OCD and finally can acknowledge that, given a chance, most psychologists would diagnose me.
I have a lot of counting behaviors. I count random stuff aimlessly all the time, and I look for certain number sets. Just for fun, I used to tell myself, but I’m recognizing it as a function of OCD now. I make lists about anything and everything, and then I rewrite the lists, and I number the lists, and then I reorder them, and count again to make sure I haven’t dropped items, and so on. I used to lie awake at night, obsessively counting how many years of my life are likely to remain, as compared to the years that have passed, and calculating how many days of the remainder of my life I would actually spend with my parents (pretty depressing calculation when you live thousands of miles away, really). I’ve tried to cut that out, but recently I realized I’ve just replaced it with counting days and hours. How many hours until I have to pick up the kids; how many days left in the week; how many weeks left in the school year. I can spend a whole day checking in every 15 minutes or so on how much time I have left before I have to go get Jesse from school. It can be debilitating. I’ve set five weekday alarms on my phone for place markers through the day, as an aid in getting me to stop checking the clock. They help a little, but only a little. I spend my time counting the minutes until the alarm will go off.
I become obsessed with tasks. Badly, down to tiny details. Anthony is kind and says it’s just how I do things. I read and plan and read and plan before I start home improvement projects. I buy too many books, I make the inevitable lists and develop pages and pages of calculations about costs and materials and time and so on. Yes, some of this makes sense, but I inevitably go too far. It’s overkill — it weighs me down and slows me down, without adding value at some point.
I’m a disordered person, but in certain limited contexts I become extremely and unreasonably obsessed with having things a particular way, and I’m hypercritical of jobs that I do. The tile that didn’t go in just exactly right, the wood finish that isn’t perfect, the seam that has a bump in a stitch, the sentence that isn’t quite right. It drives me crazy.
And worst and most important of all, I apply an extreme moral code to myself, one that I can’t meet. My behavior is never good enough, my choices never mature enough, my communications never thoughtful enough, my actions never responsible enough, my heart never generous enough. And as a parent? My god. I’m a walking fail. I should have the word tattooed on my forehead. Everything is my fault.
It turns out I picked a couple perfect professional venues for expressing these qualities. As a classical musician, I walked into a world that’s well suited to someone who counts obsessively, focuses on minute details, and is hypercritical of herself. The harsh feedback from teachers was never as harsh as my own inner voice, so I could take it. As a billing attorney, I stepped into a world where I could break down my hours into 3-minute segments (.05 of an hour) and count my days out beautifully. And also there was the constant criticism, the threat of malpractice and incompetence and failure leering over my shoulder, perfectly in tune with my own self-loathing.
* * * * *
But there’s another aspect to my self loathing, which I’ve refused to acknowledge openly until now. I think I’ve been the subject of abusive gas lighting my whole life.
I know, I know, I make fun of pop culture phrases like gas lighting, and they’re emotionally monosyllabic. But it happens to be a perfect fit here. I have a brother, three years older than me, who’s spent my entire life putting me down. Hard as it is to admit it, I’ve allowed it to shape my self image.
When I was little, he told me I was a cry baby and a big baby. But it wasn’t really as normal as it sounds, I realize now. As little kids he would punch me so hard it left bruises, and then mock me when I cried about the pain. He never apologized. Instead, even into adulthood, he would complain that I bit him so hard I made him bleed and show people some alleged scar. He didn’t mention the way he beat me up. I was the bad one.
As the years progressed, the words and accusations changed, though the physical abuse attending the words didn’t. You’re stuck up. You think you’re better than everyone. Shut up, bitch. Punches and shoving were inevitable, and bruises. He never apologized.
You’re a tattle.
Only I wasn’t. I didn’t show the bruises to my parents. I was ashamed of them. I kind of felt like they were my fault. If I were tougher, and not a cry baby, and if I could gain a little on the 50 pounds he had on me (probably closer to 90 by the time we were in high school), I could stand up for myself better. If I weren’t so stuck up he wouldn’t get so mad. Was I stuck up? I wasn’t sure. I was willing to ask myself that question. Why else would my brother beat up on me so much and put me down so much and pick fights with me so much?
He punched holes in the walls of our house, screamed at all of us, intimidated everyone. I helped mom patch the holes. So I was a kiss ass. I thought I was helping mom through a really, really hard time because her son had screamed at her and called her names and wrecked the house. But the gas lighting, combined with my own OCD, worked. Was I a kiss-ass because I helped mom? I couldn’t help but wonder about it. It never occurred to me that this idea was pure nonsense.
By high school I was an A student. I didn’t especially like being an A student. I didn’t really tell anyone. There was a voice in my head, in my real world, and in the bruises on my arms. My brother never congratulated me about my academic successes. He put me down because of them. You’re a stuck up bitch, you think you’re better than everyone because of your grades. Did I think that? I couldn’t help asking. I didn’t want to be stuck up. I just wanted to get into college on scholarships because my parents couldn’t afford to pay and I really, really needed to get out of my home town, plus my mom told me she would probably kill herself if I didn’t have a successful run through college. So I needed to get A’s and be on top of things. I should have been proud, but I wasn’t. The gas lighting worked.
When I was 16 and my brother was 19, I was trapped in a car with him driving to our parents’ small business. He was doing his road rage thing, and scaring the crap out of me, and I asked him to stop. He started punching me in the arm as he drove, tailgating all the while, and yelling at me. He punched me over and over again, deliberately in the same spot, and in that moment I did something I’d never done before. I mocked him. “Oh big maaaan,” I crooned, “Aren’t you the tough guy, beating up on your sister who weighs a hundred pounds less than you. Tough guy, what a tough guy.” It didn’t stop his punches, but it stopped my tears. When we arrived, he got out of the car, still yelling. He stuck his head back in and spit a giant wad of spittle in my face, called me a “F**ing C**T,” and stormed off.
I never got an apology, though it was the last time he ever hit me. That event was my fault, in his view. He was stressed out. He had this issue and that issue. I was a bitch. I was stuck up. I always got everything I wanted. I did this bad, and I was that bad, and I was bad bad bad and it was all my fault, and it was never his fault.
And so it has continued through the years, through the half century of my life. After we were adults, the put downs and insults continued, though there haven’t been as many opportunities for them, and though there have been moments of calm when the ugliness doesn’t rise up. Even with this blog, where I mock myself frequently without mercy, my brother likes to pile on. Yeah, that’s true about you, he’ll comment about some self-criticism. There’s no irony in him.
As adults, he also added a new element — the threat of disowning me. “You’re not my sister anymore.” “I’m done with you, have a good life.” “I never need to speak with you again.” “If you don’t blah blah blah, you don’t ever need to be part of my life again.”
And every time, I’ve let it go. I’ve made excuses for him. Maybe I was too harsh. Maybe I was unkind. Maybe I wasn’t sensitive enough to his profound self esteem issues. Family first. Mom needs us to be a family. And so on. He never apologizes, because it’s never his fault. It’s always mine.
So it happened again over this weekend. His daughter, my niece, and I had a back and forth that devolved to her doing the same stuff he’s done to me for my entire life — calling me names. I’m disrespectful, I’m rude, I’m a bully, I’m this, I’m that. For some reason, this weekend I just couldn’t take it anymore, and I hit back.
The details don’t matter. What matters is that I went low. I definitely did not go high. I was acutely upset and I spoke harshly, including criticizing my brother. My niece shared my words with her dad (is that tattling? I’m not sure), and then he sent me a text chewing me out for going after his kid and telling me to “have a good life.” Also the classic: “You don’t know me.”
But I do, I thought sadly. I’ve known you my whole life. You’re the jerk who’s been gas lighting me my whole life. This is what I wrote back:
I’m sorry. She was really nasty to me. And had I not been so angry and hurt, I would have added that you’ve changed so much. I love you. I’m sorry you want to reject me. It feels like a lifelong story of you looking for reasons to hate me. I guess you finally have a reason. But I would still throw myself under a bus for you.
And still I couldn’t help it. I still felt like the bad person.
I know, all the way to my bones, that my brother will never apologize to me for anything. Nor will his daughter. It is not in their constitutions. And they will say I don’t know them at all, but on this I surely do. Nothing is ever their fault; it’s always someone else’s.
Actually, it’s always my fault, because I’m rude, I’m stuck up, I’m a bitch, I’m nasty, I’m a know-it-all, I’m a horrible person.
They are gas lighters.
* * * * *
I cried about it for a while, with Anthony beside me, thinking hard thoughts I’ve had almost since I can first remember having thoughts. Am I a bad person and a cry baby and a stuck up bitch and a know-it-all and too pushy and everything else this person has ever called me?
But last night something new happened. A light dawned unexpectedly, one that’s been waiting to dawn for a long time. Anthony had read the entire exchange between my niece and me, and between my brother and me. I wanted his insight and advice. He spoke these simple words, from the place of love and compassion that he’s always reserved for me: “Please don’t beat yourself up too much, Carla. It’s not your fault. Sometimes we get pushed too far. You’re allowed to be human. You tried your best. They went too far.”
I think maybe it’s the years of therapy with Jesse paying off for me. I finally felt it in my bones. Racing thoughts filled my head. Am I being too hard on myself because of an extremist moral code that’s a symptom of OCD? Is it actually rationally possible that everything is my fault and the other humans involved did nothing wrong? Is it rationally possible that Anthony, who’s always brutally honest with me, is lying to me this time instead of letting me know I really screwed the pooch?
* * * * *
I went to sleep with a surprisingly light heart and woke up this morning from a sound night’s sleep. I felt at ease as I drowsed in bed, which is really unusual for me under any circumstances. Many thoughts swam through my head, as Nick snuggled up his little body next to mine:
I’ve been really patient with my brother’s abuse of me through these many years. It’s okay to not feel patient anymore, especially when one of his children looks to be carrying it to the next generation. Last straws happen, and it’s okay to draw a line in the sand. It’s okay not to accept his false image of me anymore.
Anthony has offered me an alternative truth about myself through the years, persistently, despite my rejection of it. He has told me so many times that I’m a decent person, a kind person, a good person. Why does he have to keep telling me? Because I keep rejecting it. Maybe it’s time to see not only my flaws through other people’s eyes, but also the things that make me lovable and good. Maybe Anthony’s truth about me is more true than my brother’s.
I make friends. I’m always surprised by this, and I sometimes express that surprise aloud. Why are we friends? Why do you like me? It’s kind of embarrassing. Pathetic, really. And how many times have my friends answered me with jolly kindness and an eye-rolling head shake. I guess they don’t think I’m a selfish, stuck up, self-aggrandizing bitch. They think I’m okay. More than that, they seem to think I’m a really good person. Maybe I should respect their opinions.
It’s very hard to explain how profoundly difficult that is for me to accept. It actually makes me weep, to realize I’m okay. I have to rationalize it, still, over and over again, like Stuart Smalley.
I know I listen to others about myself, because otherwise Anthony would stop bothering to be honest with me about my negative behaviors. My friends wouldn’t mock me and laugh. You can’t do that to a person who takes stuff personally and thinks she’s right about everything.
I know I’m open to debate and different world views, because I have open exchanges with conservative friends about big issues and we don’t tell each other to go away. That wouldn’t happen if I were disrespectful and rude.
I have easy-going, healthy relationships with my other brothers. We speak openly with each other about our weaknesses, without anger or bile or accusation. If the problem was me and only me, that could not be true.
And the hardest thought, but one I’m feeling at ease with today, is this. A person who says he’s disowning me over and over again, through decades of my life, isn’t just making idle threats. He’s bullying and abusing me. I have the power to dismantle the threat by acknowledging it in the open air — as I am boldly doing right here, right now, despite some misgivings — and simply accepting it. So I accept the very real possibility that this relationship is over. I didn’t end it, but I don’t need to try to rekindle it anymore. I accept the very real possibility that I may never again spend time with a person who brings a lurking sense of hostility to every encounter with me, a person who has spent a lifetime making gaslit, false accusations that I suck to the root of me. I’ll be sad for sure, because family is family, but I think I’ll also enjoy the absence of this source of stress.
I’m not saying I’m perfect. I’m always going to take responsibility for my own words and actions, and of course I feel badly about word-battling with a grown-up teenager. I should have gone high. And yes, I suck, because well, people suck and I am a people. But also, I’m allowed to look after myself. I’m allowed to feel good about myself, even if I make big mistakes. Not OCD nor some mean-spirited gaslighter is going to take that away from me anymore. Not without a fight anyway.