Bulwarks, Battlements… & Ducks

Strange title, eh? I was trying to figure out how to share about a particular set of personal flaws i’m trying to master, and i thought it might serve me well. Maya Angelou once spoke about not allowing oneself to be “pecked to death by ducks.” I understood that only years later, when i was extricating myself from friends and family who took little pieces out of me every chance they got. The backhanded compliment and the voice of disdain and the subtle eyeroll… It was difficult and scary to move away from these relationships until i clued in to how much better i was feeling. These people “meant to have my life,” a piece at a time, and i was bleeding to death slowly, from a thousand little bites.

Getting space from them –which is all i’d intended to do when i began– allowed me to start healing from these attacks. After a while, i had an experience of peace, so much so that even i, in my generally dissociated state, was able to easily mark the anxiety that welled up inside me at the mere prospect of any contact with them. I’ve been happily estranged from all of the pecking ducks in my life for nearly 10yrs now.
It’s only been in the last year or so that it’s come to my attention that i can also be a duck sometimes. And i’m guilty of pecking at those with whom i share living space, particularly my husband and my sons.

There are reasons i do this, of course. Everyone has reasons – genuine, legitimate reasons. The people i left behind that did it to me probably have some fine ones. However, that does not excuse crappy behaviour. The behaviour i’m currently focused on eliminating is entrenched, and broad in scope. It’s manipulation. It’s an ugly trait of mine – a ubiquitous stinkweed in my garden, and i’m pulling it out at the roots, wherever i find it.

It was taught to me, and modeled for me. My mother was a master manipulator. By the time she had me, i think honesty and forthrightness were already well behind her. And once she made the decision to use me as a commodity, i doubt she drew an honest breath. Whatever her own reasons, she snuck up to whatever and whomever she wanted. If she ever came at anything head-on, it was calculated, and generally secondary to what she really wanted. I am convinced that people were sport for her. We were all mice in her maze, and she took pleasure in seeing what she could make us do. We were either utterly clueless, or wrong about her true intentions.

When i was barely out of toddlerhood, she taught me panhandling and shoplifting. I would stand outside the local bar, while she was inside, targeting some drunken mark. It wasn’t as big a deal for a child to be out on their own back in those days, and if anyone ever expressed concern, i knew what to say and how to act to allay their fears. I was always tall for my age, and i presented as older than i actually was. I was the perfect blend of innocent and precocious. I was always clean and well groomed in those days. I looked nice – but not too nice. After speaking with me for a couple of minutes, many people were charmed into believing i wasn’t being abused or neglected, but my mother and i could sure use a couple of bucks, which they thoughtfully tucked into my pocket or purse.

She taught me cold reading, too. She was a skilled fortune-teller. I’m not here to speak on whether or not any of it is for real, i’m only saying that her “gifts” were pure con. I knew what to say to whom, based on how they dressed, how they spoke to me, what they drove, whom they were with, what purchases they might be carrying… As i got older, she taught me palm reading, reflexology, reading auras, etc. She also taught me how to shoplift food and necessities from grocery departments. Knowing what i know now –that she worked good jobs that paid a living wage– i don’t know why we were so poor. I think it was mostly selfishness with a little bit of lousy money management, but whatever it was, i grew up extremely poor. What little we did have was tightly controlled by her, and could be given or withheld based on her whims.

What methods of control and manipulation she didn’t teach me outright, i picked up by how she treated others. She could get what she wanted from me or my stepfather or siblings with a variety of recognisable methods:

– a withering look;
– an eyeroll;
– a dangerous glare;
– a deep sigh;
– the silent treatment;
– a sarcastic comment;
– a pointed question, e.g. Do you think you should be eating/wearing/saying/doing that?

I know a lot of people do these kinds of things. They’re easily identifiable as manipulative by anyone who’s even half paying attention. My mother had developed these methods to a fine art, though. And as with most families, a lot of how we acted and responded to each other was unconscious and reflexive in nature. Plus, we were all afraid of her – every single one of us. She could escalate a situation, going from zero to light speed in seconds flat. And she wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone –oh, she could play scared and hurt and sad when it suited her purposes– but i’m convinced everyone was a mark to her. Underneath her sweet and jovial facade lay a deeply dangerous woman, full of white hot fury that could quickly manifest in a capable, easy violence.

I grew up thinking that sort of behaviour, that kind of treatment, was normal.
If i thought about it at all, that is. (I did not, until i was an adult.)

I can be petty even now, sure. I’m far from perfect, like most of us. But i’m specifically posting today about some of those sneaky, petty, duck-bitey ways of getting something from someone. It’s a way to get what i want without actually having to ask for it.
It’s about control, and avoiding rejection.
Repeating that last bit louder, for my friends in the back row:
It’s about control, and avoiding rejection.

I’m working at removing all of those behaviours from the above list. Those petty, passive-aggressive, nasty tendencies that were bred into me, that i thought were just the price of 2 human beings doing business with each other. One had to get over on the other. Life as a zero sum game.
(To be honest, you will pry my sarcasm from my cold, dead hands… But i will use it judiciously, okay?)

I found out a few years ago, that there are not a few people intimidated by me. I was surprised by that. After giving it some thought, i figured out where the disconnect was happening. I see myself from the inside, and i interpret things through my experiences, my opinions and beliefs, my filters. I have blindspots; things i’m unaware of, things i haven’t learned yet.
I see myself as this sweet, nice, funny gal with a salty tongue and twisty sense of humour. I’m privy to how insecure and frightened i can be, and how intimidated >>i<< am by other people and the world around me. >>I<< know that some of how i present is a facade, created out of childhood trauma, mental illness, neuroatypicality (if that’s not a word, it is now), a desperate need for connection and yet a colossal fear of rejection.

The truth is i AM sweet and nice. I am kind and empathetic and generous. The truth also is that it can be hard to get past all of my protections to have a genuine experience of me as who i am. Another truth is that it is no one’s job to get past my myriad defenses.
It is MY job to lay down my weapons, lower the drawbridge, stand at my battlements, and invite those i will to come in.
And who’d want to approach with snapping, cavernous-jawed, toothy creatures in my moat and a cannon at every embrasure? Why come in to break bread and drink a toast when the hearth is cold, the hallways damp and drafty, and there’s nothing in the pot, bubbling away and wafting a welcoming smell?

Enough imagery – now to the meat of the matter. Heh.
I’m working hard to drop all of my passive-aggressive defenses and manipulative conduct. There’s no longer any need for it. I am not in danger anymore, i am surrounded by loved ones who dearly love me. They have proven already that they will not reject me, nor betray me, and they are willing to take the time and effort to work out any issues between us or difficulties we may have navigating a relationship with one another. From this bastion of comfort, care, and commitment i can venture out or invite others in to take a load off and set a spell.
If a visitor overstays or otherwise becomes unwelcome i am free and well within my rights to bid them adieu. I needn’t fear that, or an outright rejection of my invitation and hospitality. My castle is filled and fortified and guests may come and go as either of us will it to be so.

I ask for what i want and i state what i do not, plainly and without fanfare.
I do not take to my chaise longue with a case of the vapours.
I no longer treat others as if they’re stupid for not knowing something that i do.
I’m not playing for the power position.
I don’t view asking for something as a vulnerability, nor do i see it as a loss to have to ask, or a victory to receive it without using plain language.
I’m not expecting everyone to eventually hurt me and leave me.
I act on the outside who i am on the inside, because i know for a fact that rejection won’t kill me.
I seek kindness, generosity, understanding, and willingness in others as i do in myself.

No more pecking.
I won’t allow anyone to nip little bits out of me anymore.
And i hope that anyone who reads this and knows me personally doesn’t tolerate that crap from me.
At least, not ever again.

And if I’ve built this fortress around your heart
Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire

Then let me build a bridge
For I cannot fill the chasm
And let me set the battlements on fire
~ Sting, Fortress Around Your Heart


With Thought and Care,
~H~

*As she aged, gained weight, and became more of a shut-in, it slipped more and more until she wasn’t fooling anybody anymore. At the end, the only people she could exert control over was her husband, her kids, and various members of her 12-step program and her church.



IMAGE: Robert Gramner

Still Not A Bitch

PART III

Lately i’ve been thinking on the reactions to this person that i’m becoming. I’ll tell you flat out and straight up that i’m incredibly self-focused. It’s not that i don’t care about others – i’m chock full of sympathy and fairly bleeding empathy. I believe that turning an intense and unflinching eye inward is how i not only saved my life, but made myself into a decent and functional human. My mother intended for me to be someone quite different than who i am today. To put it mildly, she wanted me as slave labour, as a receptacle for her rage, to worship her as a deity (you think i’m kidding… ) and as an ever-flowing fountain of unconditional love for her and her alone.

The best gift i got from her other than my life, was her early death. It might have been my only chance to escape her conscious and deliberate indoctrination of me. I’m not sure i would have had the insight, the will, or the strength to free myself from her iron grip. When she died, while i was immediately emancipated from serving her, i was still left with a personality and behaviours that had been designed to ally myself with selfish manipulators who mostly took and rarely gave. I was a slave without a master.

My system didn’t just save me from the horrors of my childhood, they kept me from bad relationships, and some potentially awful friendships. I still managed to make best friends with 2 of the kind of people i’ve described above, though. Not deadly like my mother, but toxic AF. They both did me the favour of ending our friendship, which i’m grateful for today. (More commentary on that later.) Some of my more developed and powerful parts would exert their influence in other areas. For instance, i avoided roommate situations, preferring to live alone. I could perform the sex act, although it was mostly other parts in control when it was happening – or i was heavily medicated with alcohol and/or other drugs.  What i couldn’t do was commit. I never thought about marriage or children. I became pregnant due to unsafe sex practises, and was engaged for a time because i was asked and i was very religious and thought it was expected. It was my system that made the decisions to keep the baby and ditch the dude (to be clear, he wasn’t the father).

When i accepted that i was bipolar and a multiple (years after these events), my level of function plummeted. I practically abandoned my children and nearly destroyed my marriage (a different, way more suitable dude). On the plus side my crap friends ditched me and i became estranged from what was left of my family. I had no one to pretend for, anymore. All that was left was my husband, my children, and a couple of excellent professional health care providers – one medical, and one therapeutic.

Everything inside me fell apart. Some fully sentient creatures (by the broadest definition), some feelings and memories that had developed their own personalities, and then all the other things that make up a person, like: my good qualities, my flaws, my skills, how i coped (besides being crazy), my hopes for the future (mostly for my loved ones, and for my relationships with them – i never really had much in the way of life goals or aspirations – too busy just surviving, i think).
Everything that made me who i was became detached and scattered about. I’ve spent the last dozen years or so trying to put myself back together. I’ve spent it trying to become the captain of this ship of fools. Learning to read the stars. Making repairs. Trying to fix the goddamned rudder.

I started out with a blueprint, but somewhere along the way i decided it wasn’t mine. I decided on a major overhaul. I decided i would be the architect and i would have precisely the ship i wanted.

I didn’t know enough about myself to know how to rebuild me, let alone how to REMAKE me, but i didn’t do this much work at this much cost for this much time not to have exactly what i want.

I started out with only the vaguest ideas, mostly based on not wanting to be in pain or stuck in chaos or hurting those i loved anymore. But somewhere along the way i discovered that there was more to life than that, and i wanted some of it. I discovered that i was a capable and talented architect. I discovered that i already had almost everything i needed to build the ship of my dreams. I discovered good and hopeful dreams inside me. And i discovered that i knew how to get, or at least could figure out how to get, anything i didn’t already have, in order to be shipshape.

Some of the changes i’ve made have upset those around me, and a lot of those people are now gone. Mostly it was their choice, and it happened before i realised what i was doing or how it was affecting them. And all the leaving hurt. Often, it hurt so much i would fall into a deep depression or act out in some way that caused chaos. But i kept doing the work, the remodeling and the cleaning up after, and now? It still stings a bit occasionally, but less and less all the time. Now i know i have choices, too.

Some of those toxic people have tried to contact me. Sick, passive-aggressive bullshit that’s so obvious to me now. And those parts of me that my mother built so carefully, those parts that think that people who love me abuse me because i’m bad and i deserve it? Those parts that think abuse IS love? I’m gathering them to me and showing them what love really is – by keeping the bad people away. By helping them form alliances and friendships with protectors in my system, including me.

Those sick and dangerous people who wove a false narrative. That told me not to tell the truth. That told me not to be angry or sad. That expected me to act like everything was okay and no one is bad (except me) and no one is hurting and everything is great because Jesus and the Cross. Those people that never, not one of them, not one, single time, said sorry to me for anything they did to me, ever.

My ship is a sailboat: small, sleek, mostly slow and just soaking up the sun, but fast as fuck when she wants to be.
Underneath, my ship is also a submarine, full of sailors who love the life, and we’re slowly building a yacht.
(This is almost more allegory than analogy, because the way they treated me is a moral issue.)

My mother made me a tugboat and she used me constantly, with no decent or regular maintenance. I was already in terrible disrepair when she died, but it didn’t stop the rest of ’em from having me haul their shit around. None of them believed there was an invisible submarine underneath. I’ll bet if they saw me, they’d still see an old tugboat, too.

Well, they won’t get more’n a glimpse, and no Ahoy! cuz i’ll trim the sails and hightail it outta there, lickety split. They can just stay on the shore, danglin’ their feet in putrid water and tellin’ each other how fine the day is.

If these parts don’t seem quite connected, stay tuned. Heh.

I’m Not A Bitch, Pt. I

I’m not a bitch.
I’m changing though, and that can be hard for people who’ve known you a long time, i think. It can be difficult for my partner, my children, my close friends.
I developed a truckload of traits to survive my childhood and cope with the trauma and dysfunction it’s caused in my life.
Even after it had stopped, my brain and my body kept living as if trauma was still occurring, or was just around the next corner.
I discarded some parts of my personality for the same reason.

I’ve gotten to know my system fairly well, and yes, they’re all me, but some of these quirks and qualities are no longer necessary. Well, not currently required.

I don’t see this as integration.
This is a first class vacation for some stressed little Bits.
This is the Rolex/beach house retirement for some exhausted parental types.
This war is long over, and it’s time to clean the weaponry and put it in its pristine arsenal, where i’m the only person who has access.
No one’s leaving and nothing is being tossed.

I know who i was and i know who i am. Now i’m on to the part where i figure out/decide who i want to be. I’m poring over it all, scrutinising everyone, and we’re building me together, fresh and new, from the toes up.
No one left behind. Everyone has a say. Everyone gets to feel.
And to that end, some things have been happening in my personal life that’ve triggered some voices with some things to say, some feelings and thoughts to express.

I hesitated with this piece. I didn’t sleep well last night due to some in-home upheaval, so when this stuff started pouring out on the page, i pulled back. Body vibrating. Hands shaking. Guts churning.
Do i let anger out? Resentment? Bitterness? Indignation? FURY?
What if i scare someone?
What if i come off as a bitch?

My therapist has spent these last months gently convincing me that these feelings need to be felt if i want to move on to some reward-rich, next level healing.
And why wouldn’t i want that?
My childhood didn’t kill me, and all i did to live with it, handle it, bury it, dig it back up, look at it, hear it, feel it, cope with it, heal it, hasn’t ended me either.
So bring it on. Lay it on me. Let’s do this.

**********

Today i’m not terrified.
Today i’m pissed off. I’ve been scared and felt vulnerable these last few months but made it through with no serious wreckage to clean up around me, and i can handle this anger just as well. I neither need nor want to pull my world down around me. I have no wish to torpedo any relationships – i’ve already eliminated all the toxic ones. I have one seriously problematic relationship right now, one that has perhaps triggered this anger (i’m not sure though, because this emotion was going to come up and require processing, regardless of my interactions with anyone in my current circle), but it isn’t toxic.
I think it’s probably normal AF to have ups and downs with loved ones – to have to work through difficulties and navigate some rough patches.

And while i am experiencing some dissociation, that’s just who i am, and i’m aware of it and i think i’m handling it fairly well. I’m not leaving the face and hiding from the conflict. I’m here, i’m in it, i’m the one feeling it and deciding what to do about what’s happening.

This is an emotional purge – a spring cleaning of some brain-clutter.
I’m fine, and the person i’m in conflict with is safe.
I don’t break people, and i don’t even break stuff anymore.

**********

I was taught to do as i was told and never complain.
I was taught that other people’s feelings were more important than mine.
I was taught that grownups, those having jobs with authority over fellow citizens, and males were my superiors.
I was taught that i was property.
I was taught that i was responsible for the “negative” feelings of others.

I learned that if those to whom i belonged or was beholden were in a good mood i was less likely to experience physical pain.
I learned that if these same people liked me i usually received better treatment overall.
I learned that if i could hide, or at least be quiet and blend in, i could sometimes avoid being targeted for abuse.
I learned that if i “absorbed” those emotions of them with power and authority over me, that the abuse might stop for a time, and i’d occasionally be rewarded.

I learned all these things long before i set foot in a school.
Fortunately?
Because school, which should have been a break from the Hell i lived at home, quickly became just another torture chamber.

I had a couple of excellent teachers, and i had a couple of absolute crap ones. Mostly though, they were mediocre and clueless. Maybe some were willfully ignorant, but i’m hesitant to apply the label because my mom could put on a good show when properly motivated. I was bright, i had a sunny disposition and an animated personality. So, even if i was clearly poor and my hygiene needed work and i never achieved the grades every teacher probably knew i was capable of, and my mother was hard to reach and the fattest person anyone had ever seen in real life – that wasn’t necessarily a red flag…

Right?

My tone is sarcastic and i’m testy this morning, i admit it. I’ve given a great deal of thought to if and where my teachers bear responsibility for the treatment i endured in school, and i don’t find them culpable. I told my favourite teacher in high school that i was in a bad situation at home, and he acted as if i hadn’t said a word – shocking and revolting a complete abandonment of his fucking mandate sure, but i’d already moved out and was living with friends, so what was there left for him to do? Besides, we functioned in an atmosphere where one of my fellow students favourite teachers gave precedent to the popular kids, and flirted outrageously with all of them that were female. No one seemed to be disturbed by it at all. (He was one of the crappiest teachers i ever had. He thought he was funny and charming, but even in my dissociated state, i found him a repulsive creep.)

I can’t fault them for not protecting me from bullying, either. I tried never to let any student see that they hurt me, so what was there for the teachers to see/hear? I would insult myself first, or laugh along with them, or ignore, or sometimes (i know now) someone else in my system would handle things.
With their big, obnoxious mouth. Heh.
Which only ever caused more bullying, but my life was so filled with stress, i don’t blame anyone who lives here in my brain with me for needing to vent. Those occasional blurts may well have kept me from exploding. Or imploding.
Or whatever – i’m here and i’m alive and i’ll take it, with thanks to my beloved Peanut Gallery. Wah wah wah wah.

At least i never got the shit kicked out of me like i did if i beaked off at home. It was an exceedingly rare occurrence for me to get mouthy with my mother, but it did happen.
Maybe i never pushed any of the bullies too far, or maybe being Amazon-sized was off putting. (Or maybe bullies are actually pathetic cowards. Hm.) I guess i’m saying it’s possible that teachers didn’t see how awfully some of the other kids treated me.

It’s possible.

Everything i’d been taught/learned at home worked both for and against me at school.
I managed not to be the most picked on, or least popular kid in my grade (every time but one – and that, thankfully, only lasted half of 1 school year*), but i think i might have had it easier if i’d stood up for myself, even one time.
I didn’t stand up for myself, though. It didn’t occur to me.
In fact, i thought everything those horrid kids said to me was true, and it was appropriate to pick on me, because i was fat, and i was weird, and dirty and poor and whatever other label they ascribed to me.

I’m moving on from the teachers. On to the students. I’ll be brief, but i’m going to be brutal and blunt:

The ones who picked on me were jerks.
I have 1 friend today who confesses he was a bully in school, and he is one of the kindest and best people i know. Due to him and also the kind of human i am, i’m going to say that it’s possible that some of those kids grew up to not be jerks.
But i don’t think it’s likely.
(One of the meanest girls i’ve ever known immediately resorted to calling me names when i stood up to her as a grown woman.)
I hope they did change though, of course, because my heart breaks for the selfish, cruel, and clueless generations they might inflict on other hurting and lonely children. I know how hard it is to survive that, and i know not everyone does.

From school i could move on to shitty former friends and estranged family, but i’m not going to. One, i’ve processed former friendships well and moved on, and two, i don’t discuss family, because that might look like an invitation to them to come back and have an opinion about me and my life.
And they aren’t getting one.
Besides, they weren’t where these parts were focused. I’m listening, but more importantly, i’m feeling these thoughts and these memories. The fear, the hopelessness, and the terrible aloneness and otherness and wrongness that these crappy human beings visited upon me, Monday to Friday, for a solid 10 1/2 motherfucking years.

I’m dealing with a current relationship that reminds me of needing to be liked by a loved one in order to avoid being hurt, and whose treatment of me brings back all that pain from school.
I’m not cool.
I say dumb stuff.
I talk too much.
I’m weird.
I’m wrong.
I’m awkward.
I’m too big – i take up too much space.
Nothing i do is good enough.
I’m defective.
I’m not welcome. GO AWAY

*Fuck that school, fuck those lousy teachers, and above all, fuck those incredibly cruel and arrogant piece-of-shit students that are probably every bit as stupid and petty and shallow as they were when i attended their crappy school in their crappy town.
You’re the most popular kids in a school of less than 300?
Wow. What an accomplishment.
Generations of your family have grown up and raised their families there?
So amaze. You managed to live out status quo.
Very greatness. Such awards.

Thanks for adding to the burdens of an already battered and broken child. I’ll bet your kids would be proud of you. Heck, i’ll bet they’re just like you, you big, important fish in a tiny little pond.
Go you. Cue the marching band.

**********

I have more to say about my current situation, and what i’m learning about myself and who i want to be, and i want to share some super positive and exciting things that are coming about as a result of this absolute shit situation, but that’s enough for today.

The parts inside me that have held these feelings deserve for this piece to stand on its own. Writing it made me angry for them, which helped me be properly angry for myself.
Which helped them tap into their anger – their entirely, wholly justified anger at terrible treatment from terrible people.
I’m going to think about it today, and i’m going to listen to and feel what’s going on inside of my body (below the neck) as a result of thinking about this stuff.

Cleaning out my closets and junk drawers. Bringing all my muppet-monsters out to play.
My toys, my room, my house.

My weekend is here, and i’m going to do my best to rest and enjoy.
Thank you for being here and witnessing my process – you’re helping me create myself and my life.
Love and Peace,
~H~