TRIGGER WARNING: Some discussion of childhood sexual, emotional and physical abuse
I am now in a position where I can choose where to invest my resources, both physical and emotional. Which begs the question, why go on holiday with the people who continue to invalidate my value as a human being? And in the response to that question lies the paradox at the heart of the relationship between the adult child and invalidating parents.
I have survived a week with my family. Before I started the week, I felt safe doing so, after all I had more than survived my childhood. I have learned to accept that the approval I have always sought from my parents will never be forthcoming. There is no point in me waiting for some miraculous change or realisation in them. After all, no amount of success or achievement in my life ever evoked any level of validation, or at least none that I could assimilate. Instead, the medals I won in my swimming competitions were dumped by me in one of my drawers at home. Even my winning the Ulster Championships and appearing on the back page of the newspaper failed to evoke any level of praise or approval that I could detect as a child. There was no showing them with pride to friends and family, no display cases full of our achievements as children. To all intents and purposes myself and my siblings were a separate entity from my parents, little people who lived under their roof, and who required 'firm discipline'.
Our emotional needs didn't enter into their reckoning of the parental 'contract', after all, we were fed, we were clothed and we had a roof over our heads. The only emotional contact I had with my Dad growing up was when he was angry. And when he was angry he was out of control. The level of physical abuse we suffered would result in our being subject to 'safeguarding procedures' today. However, my parents were good at sidestepping any outside scrutiny of our treatment - for me, it was all I knew. On one occasion, aged 6, I walked to school with a huge red hand mark visible on my bare leg. I thought I had done wrong when the teacher asked me to wait in the cloakroom. I waited until I was taken to the Headmaster's office to find my Mum waiting for me with a face like thunder. I don't remember the conversation with the Head, but I do know I was 'walked' home where I was beaten with the wooden spoon. I had no idea what I had done wrong, I hadn't said a word to my teacher, I didn't know that anything was amiss. As a family we have laughed since about the fact that Mum beat me so hard one time that she broke the wooden spoon on my legs. Then, she replaced it with a Tupperware spoon, which I attested was stronger - oh how we laughed about that one! No wonder that my BPD means that I am confused about appropriate emotional responses in numerous situations.
The conundrum for me as an adult is how I have managed to understand the complexities and deficits in my upbringing, but still I crave the approval of my parents. At times in the past week, my brother and I reverted to competing for our parents' attention. It hurt that no one asked about my recent health issues, or about the exciting opportunities offered to me in church to help use my experiences to help others. I was once again relegated to my familiar role of observer and silent child in the family.
In my first two years at school I was already so traumatised by my home life, that I was effectively mute around all adults including my parents. My friend spoke for me for the first year at school, until they removed me from the same class as him. I was traumatised and ended up lashing out at the teacher - I was the five year who kicked the teacher - hard, in the shins.... no Daily Mail shock headlines in those days, though, just ongoing punishment for the reported infringement at home.
When I finished my DBT therapy, my Therapist reminded me that I had begun the process of healing from the 3rd degree emotional burns, which are at the heart of the BPD experience of life. I have probably managed to develop a thin layer of emotional skin over deep, deep wounds. If I needed a reminder of that truth, then time back in the invalidating environment soon reminded me as my thin protective layer was ripped through once again. Little things, like talking over me, ignoring what I'm saying, ridiculing my weight, reminding me that I am indeed 'a nutter', 'weird', often pre-empted by me in an attempt to take the sting out of the teasing, took me right back to my childhood.
I was always the 'highly strung' one, the one who cried at the pain or suffering of small animals, who cried at the Little House on the Prairie. My family enjoyed laughing at me for my 'softness', but the truth was those occasions were the safe places to release my sorrow over the emotional pain I was struggling with at the time. All my life I've been told that I'm making mountains out of molehills, that I'm overreacting, that my emotional responses don't bear any relation to reality. Is it any wonder that, as an adult I have struggled to recognise what I'm feeling in any given situation, or that my reactions are out of proportion to the triggers, especially to the onlooker.
One of the biggest legacies of the invalidating environment is a lack of confidence in my own reading of situations. Aged 10 I told my Mum that my music teacher had been touching me in places on my body which made me feel uncomfortable. Her response was to tell me that this was a 'sign' that I was growing up and that I should expect men to be interested in me in this way as I 'developed'. My problem was I was an 'early starter' I had my first bra and period by the age of 11 (before I left Primary School). My Mum's response to my first attempt to speak up about something that felt so wrong (it wasn't my first experience of sexual abuse) convinced me that my feelings about what he was doing were mistaken. She told me that I was 'growing up' and that I should expect men to become interested in me in that way. She hinted that it was flattering. This caused me to doubt my own misgivings and feelings of discomfort about sexually abusive behaviour.
My Mum's response laid the foundations for me to ignore my misgivings and led to me suffering more serious sexual assaults and violations from that age, right into my adulthood. After all, I had told an adult about something that felt really wrong only to be told that, I needed to 'grow up' and accept it as something that just happens and is some kind of rite of passage. Why would I, as an adult, trust my own feelings of distress and pain when I had been so wrong in the past? Such is the ongoing conflict for me between what I know as an adult and survivor and what I 'feel' I deserve in terms of justice. I have moved on, I have learned to begin to protect myself and to fight back.
May I make a plea on behalf of any of your friends or family who suffer from the effects of BPD? Please never tell them that they are 'overreacting', or that they need to 'just let the past go'. If it was that easy for me to manage the overwhelming emotional responses I am swamped with at times, then I wouldn't have needed 18 months of intensive therapy. I wouldn't have had to learn to manage them and to learn to live in the present moment, without letting the pain of the past or the anxiety about the future drown me in waves of distress. Imagine if you will that you have a severe burn. How long before such a wound stops being sensitive? My own experience of minor burns tells me that even when new layers of skin have grown, sensitivity to pain remains a long time. 3rd degree burns, will always remain sensitive. So it is with me. I am learning to allow myself to heal, to let new layers of emotional skin grow. My new life is one which is helping me to heal. However, the reality is that a return to the invalidating environments and their complex relationships, rips through new growth and healing.
Therapy means that I am equipped to manage my distress better, it does not mean that I stop feeling things deeply. During my time with my family I used a variety of different DBT skills:
- Distraction - my ipod equipped with positive playlists and some Loving Kindness meditations. I played with animals. I kept to my room when I needed to restore my emotional energy.
- I prayed
- Self Validation - I texted supportive friends, I listened to positive Mindfulness exercises
- Opposite Emotion/Opposite Action - Instead of getting embroiled in family rows. I focused on my environment, read an absorbing book, or watched other people in the hotel. I didn't explode, which is easier to do in my family environment than in other settings.
- Mindful Breathing - I constantly refocused on my breathing and posture when starting to feel distressed.
Above all, I returned home to my world, where I am in control of my environment. I am able to manage my time and space. I am able to choose the relationships that are positive and validating for me. The realities of family life, dictate that as I have chosen not to confront my parents with the impact of their behaviour during my childhood, I then have a duty to relate to them as an adult child. I choose to treat them according to my values and beliefs, not according to how they dealt with me. That means I will continue to face times when I need to return to the invalidating planet of home. More and more they are becoming dependent on me and my siblings. My own sense of compassion and humanity tells me that it matters that I care for their needs, as I am able. I have learned in the last week that I can survive that. I have learned that I don't have to remain hurt and locked away because of those experiences. I have learned that I am able to manage my BPD and allow my wounds to heal. One brilliant realisation is that my resilience against my family has developed - I am able to recover from my visits home quicker.