I felt some angst after reading an email. Why, I questioned, does my perception of people’s responses to me or to situations affect me so much? Depression dogged me the rest of the day.
The next morning I contemplated my reaction again. And an answer dawned on me. I define myself by people’s reactions. That is why I have difficulty with opposing viewpoints or a lack of acceptance from others; these things become personal threats. Not only that, but I always assume I am in the wrong and must therefore change to suit the person or circumstance.
Two events from the past rose to my mind: one a defining moment and one a reflection of my anxiety. The first took place when I was six years old after my mom returned from her 6 year stay in a mental hospital. I screamed and cried and clung to the front porch of my grandmother’s house when it was time to get in the car to move to our new home. Not only had my Granny been my mom and her home my home, but my biological mom was a very scary person. My first memory of mom is her throwing up in her napkin at the Thanksgiving table after having too much to drink. She was a ghostly figure who came in and out of my life at various times (when she would try and come back)…I didn’t like her and the instability she created. I also had overheard my grandmother call her a drunken slut; even though I didn’t know what that meant I did understand the hatred behind those words. Now I was to live with her and the man who did very hurtful and frightening things to me.
I used to stand on the couch in the living room of our first floor flat and stare out the picture window in what I believed was the direction of my grandmother’s house. In my mind’s eye I can still see my mom passed out on the floor, and my inner ear can still hear her derisive screams that I look just like “her” (my grandmother whom she hated). She embraced my sister, talked with her and appeared to care for her. I was on the outside, and internally I was dying.
One night I awoke, and my sister was not in the bed next to mine. Fearfully I groped down the dark hallway and found no one. I was alone. Panic enveloped me; it was then my needs unconsciously shifted. I could not allow this emptiness to happen again.
I changed from a girl who did not fit into a new situation and with a “new” mom to a girl who needed to adjust or die. When sick, I found mom expressed care toward me. I learned that neediness got her attention. I learned to let her do things for me because she smiled and seemed to enjoy it. I learned to pretend to love her and stand in awe of her. I learned her ways and conformed to them. And, the abandonment never happened again. I was in. I was no longer who I had been, but that awful circumstance did not happen again.
The second flashback was setting the table in the kitchen of the house we built when I was a teen. I would agonize over who’s untensils to arrange first, my mom’s or my dad’s. I felt the order in which I did that would influence their behavior and love towards me. Who needed to be placated; who needed to be appeased? Who was the most unstable; whose wrath did I need to assuage? Who needed my affirmation most; who needed to be pandered to? Who would hate me most for not paying attention to them first? I lived in dread of their anger and chastisement; their disapproval had to be avoided at all costs. That usually happened when I did something on my own, when I did not figure their responses into the equation of my decision.
Following those memories, I became aware of an emptiness in my chest. I recalled the picture of me running between my mom and my granny (described in my last post, Running in circles and set on a rock), and I remembered the image of the metal sheet locked and embedded in my torso (described in Taking it). Those visuals and these flash backs certainly help explain my overwhelming desire to conform to people and situations. Do or die. Conform or be abandoned. Adapt or be hated. The choices were clear. Perhaps they will also provide clues to the vacuum around my heart.
Oh Lord, help me get beyond this mode of functioning. I no longer want to be in this place.