Have I accomplished the goal I set with this blog?
I’ve chosen estrangement from my parents. That feels like failure, so I’m inclined to answer, “No.” However, my stress set-point is reduced. Knowing I expect nothing from them has calmed me down. I still get depressed; I still get annoyed; I’m still attitudinal. I’m less defeated. Until I sent that letter to dad after Thanksgiving, I still hoped to someday be included in the circle of things/people they accept/love. Now I don’t. Nothing’s changed. Any change took place more than a year ago, when I realized, “Holy crap, I’ve been delusional. They’ve never accepted me and they never will.” Once dad saw that I would never tow the line, I became second-class, a stepdaughter. Mom is silent. I am the former Mormon whose disapproving family merely tolerates her. Somehow, writing them off, literally, put me at ease. It’s profoundly sad, but it’s done. Now I can heal.
I feel like I’m lying to myself, that the only true healing is reintegration with them. Maybe that’s the lie. I don’t know how I feel about my progress. I guess I’ll tell the story.
In November 2011, I was fired from a job I worked for over 5 years. It was a very untoward sacking, and I didn’t handle it well. I had a breakdown and called my mother for support. She panicked, hearing only my “attack” voice, and began attacking me. We have never communicated successfully, peacefully, or even kindly. Since I was born, it was war or walking on eggshells. Offended, and out of habit, I did, then, attack her. She went crazy. It actually scared me. She was speaking nonsense. It was so strange and confusing it shocked me out of our pattern, fight to the death. (In my youth, I won by getting smacked around. “When you lose your temper, you lose,” she advised me, not intending irony. “Brain over braun,” I gloated. I remember taunting her that she had to hit me because she couldn’t outwit a 6 year old.)
On this day in November 2011, I realized for the first time, “Wow. I cannot turn to my mother for comfort. She has none to give.” It was ultimately softening as to my lifelong strife with her. She is at wit’s end at all times. There’s no comfort, even for herself. I was sad for her, and ashamed for taking so long to notice that my continued demands on her were chipping away at her sanity.
I was disappointed in myself. I have wonderful support. I couldn’t be satisfied by my mother’s past attempts to help me, because I wasn’t satisfied by her understanding of me. And I didn’t trust her. Anymore, she can’t even try to help. She’s… different. She’s old. She doesn’t have to do this anymore! It was actually one of the most freeing, loving moments of my life. At the time, I was in such a state that I simply got off the phone quickly and called my best friend, as I should have done in the first place.
Then the texts started. Mom has generational electronic anxiety. She’d never texted me before. The messages were vile. They were crazy! I asked her to stop. She didn’t. I called and explained precisely what I wrote above, that I understand now something I’ve never seen before. “I was wrong to keep coming to you. I’m so sorry.” But she wasn’t listening. She was screaming more disturbing, frightening things than she’s ever said before. In our long violent history, she’s hung up on me innumerable times, often rightfully so. This was the first I’d hung up on her. The texts kept coming. I took the bait, and three days of verbal volleys ensued.
Finally, I sent an apology to mom for participating in the latest battle, and promised it was the last. I told her I loved her, but wouldn’t be speaking to her for now. “I have to set new boundaries in order to avoid falling into our traps.” She mocked my new-found maturity, finding it “interesting that [I] would set these boundaries without first consulting [her].” (“Personal boundaries don’t require consensus!”) My friend forbade me reply.
(I saved the exchanges for weeks, rereading and reliving them until my friend insisted I delete them. I needed my proof and righteousness so badly I’d let it kill my soul, but she loves me too much to watch me choose my demons over my truth.)
I called dad. “Obviously, you’re privy to what’s been going on. I want to apologize for my participation in it. I was wrong, and I’m done. I tried to explain it to mom, but she can’t hear it right now so I want you to understand that this time is different. I see things in a way I never have before.” I explained the life-altering epiphany I had, that she has no comfort to spare and I was hurting, even damaging her by continuing to demand it. “I’m telling you, this will never happen again. I’m sorry it took so long for me to see.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
“Thanks, dad. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
I was nervous, but excited to see my mom. I felt, like I said, a new softness for her. I regret the years I’ve made her pay for the abuse that started my life and shaped the way I see the world. She made very serious mistakes that caused me real, lasting harm, but I see in the lines on her face how deeply she regrets her choices. I’m her greatest heartache. That makes me sad. She’s just a little girl with a cold, disapproving father (spare-the-rod sort), who’s known since she was twelve that she was depressed, whose life ran away from her, whose anxiety took over in the form of blinding rages against her mouthiest child. (No, I will not shut up!) I hate to say it, but I pity her. I love her so much and I admire what she survived. I admire her convictions. I admire her intent to live a righteous life. She is the least hypocritical Mormon out there. She lives her life quietly, honestly, honorably, by the credo, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” She is self-sufficient and shy, and loves the Church for reminding her to extend a hand of service to her fellowman. She’s just the well-meaningest thing you ever saw. I feel so bad for her.
At dinner, my father and brother in-law started throwing out hypothetical situations in which to hate homosexuals. I hate my sister’s husband for this change in my family, and I am endlessly disappointed in my father for not noticing, and participating. We didn’t spend all of our time judging others before Dan appeared. Now it’s all they talk about! My sister married a good ol’ boy from Mississippi, who told her when they were engaged that he left his home because he didn’t want to raise his family around black people. Now, we’re from the potato part of Idaho, not the neo-Nazi part, but a boy that far away wouldn’t know to make the distinction. He handpicked Idaho for reasons of complexion. Once there, he found the Mormon church. I’m ashamed of how easy it was for a weak white man to find empowerment in the priesthood, as well as a pretty girl who survived a turbulent family by disappearing into the woodwork, a properly opinionless woman.
You might think, knowing me as you do, that I disliked him from the beginning. Well, yes, I did. I was bratty and snide. But I grew up. I began to appreciate his talent with animals. Mostly, I came to respect how much he adored my sister’s growing family. My biological father didn’t care if I lived or died, as far as I knew, and it meant the world to me that my nieces knew their daddy loved them. I thanked him again and again for that, and for being a good provider. I went out of my way to use specifics and make it personal. My sister is happy, and I’m grateful. I gave my brother in-law thoughtful presents, like Church magazines on Daddy Daughter Dates and a framed black-and-white I took of his beloved golden retriever, Maggie. I took endless photos of him and his daughters laughing and playing. He’s never spoken to me, except to make fun of me once in front of his buddy. (I didn’t know that Bear Lake is one body of water straddling Utah and Idaho and not 2 lakes with the same name.)
One time, I complained to my brother before driving to Mel and Dan’s for Easter dinner. “Every time we’re there, he’s going on and on about another group he hates.”
My little brother was in junior high then. “You don’t know him,” he responded. “You haven’t been here for a long time.”
“You’re right,” I thought. “I haven’t,” and off we went. Walking through the door, we were greeted by Dan’s voice and the end of a conversation. “Well, I don’t know about you,” he jeered, “but I wouldn’t want to live next to a bunch of Jews either.”
I shot my brother a look.
“Don’t!” he ordered.
“Mmm hm.” I walked off, sanctimonious.
No, I never liked my sister’s husband. It is with much chagrin that I think of my girls learning his values. But it is in this that I find purpose. That’s what Fun Aunt Christie is for! Someday, somehow, they might see, “There is another view.”
Christmas 2011 was different. It was never so egregious as to take place at the dinner table, or if it started to, dad would joke, “Watch out for Christie.” (Hilarious.) Til now, it had always been conversation I could avoid or disagree with in a passing manner. I knew Dan would rather I just shut up, but I had a job to do. And for heaven’s sake – literally! – can we not talk about hatred on the night of our dear Savior’s birth? You call him your Lord and yet you seem to forget the very message of his life: To love the OTHER. This is holy celebration! And you’re using it to advance hatred? I expect as little from that Klan member Dan, but not my dad. I sat in silence for as long as I could, but I just kept thinking, “What if one of my nieces is gay? What if a little heart is breaking right now? What if someone at this table at this second is just dying inside?” I don’t really think any of my nieces is gay, but that’s not the point. It’s not okay to teach that, ever. At Christmas, it’s downright sinful.
I was adversarial, I won’t deny. I didn’t yell, but I was self-righteous. “I cannot believe you’re sitting here spouting off [such and such]…” and “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”
Dad argued that a gay urbanite would be more likely to die in the Alaskan bush than a straight city-sweller. I think sexual orientation has no bearing on adaptability, but in our
dictatorship family, dissent is not allowed.
I’d never seen my dad so angry. He’s very mild-mannered, but he was hateful. “You can call me a bigot if you want, Christie,” he snapped, “but that’s how I feel.” Whoa. I never saw my father as a bigot, until he accused me of calling him one. That’s what bigots do. My sister’s husband is a bigot, racist, sexist, all of it. My father’s just a guy from another generation who’s only ever known people who look, think, and act like him.
(I consider my restraint heroic for never having screamed at him, “How do you not see that your brother, the tap-dancing rancher, is GAAAAAAAAAAY!???) (I admire and love my uncle more and more. Faithful practicing Mormon, celibate, never-married, one of the most pleasant, generous, loving people I know. A kind, joyful man. And fabulous.)
My folks left after dinner. Mom thanked me for their gift. Dad wouldn’t speak to me.
Before bed, my sister pulled me aside. “Christie,” she started, “I don’t know how to say this.” My stomach dropped to my toes. “Don’t go to mom anymore.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“She can’t handle it anymore.”
“I know. What are you talking about?” I asked again. “Oh.” It all made sense now, dad’s hostility. He didn’t believe me when I shared my epiphany, or if he had, he didn’t care. He was still mad at me, and talking about it behind my back to the rest of the family. They get together, decide what my behavior means, and tell me about it during the holidays.
“You can come to me,” my sister offered.
“I’m the one who said I wouldn’t turn to her anymore.”
“I don’t want to hear it,” she cut me off.
“Melanie, you just said I could come to you…”
“Go to bed, Christie,” Dan ordered me from upstairs. I looked at him, then turned back around and continued with my sister.
“You unload misinformation on me and then won’t listen to my perspective?”
“I don’t want to hear it,” she said again.
“Are you even listening to yourself? ‘Come to me. I don’t want to hear it.'”
“I’m not as smart as you, Christie.”
“Wait a minute. It didn’t happen like that. I told dad I wouldn’t go to mom anymore – and I haven’t – so there’s no point in you saying it now.”
“CHRISTIE!” Dan roared.
“I’m having a conversation with my sister,” I sneered.
“NO!” he screamed. “SHUT UP, you BITCH!” My face must have registered shock, because he said, “You are a bitch!” (I was surprised. At his behavior. My brand new sister in-law was in the house and all 4 of my nieces were sleeping in the living room. I could see them!) (Oh, and… all strong-willed women are called Bitch. Idiot.)
“My sister and I are working this out just fine, thanks.”
He charged down the stairs with his fists clenched, chest pushed out, face purple, and veins bulging. Melanie jumped out from behind me and held him back. The whole time he’s screaming, “Shut up, you bitch! You’re a bitch! Shut up!”
“All I’ve ever said to you is thank you,” I yelled back. “I’ve always appreciated that you’re a good provider, Dan! I’ve never said anything but thank you!”
“Shut UP! Shut up! Don’t you ever shut up? Shut up, you BITCH! You’re a bitch!”
Melanie finally screamed, “DAN!” and broke his gaze from me. I ran upstairs. I couldn’t sleep, cried all night, and had my brother take me to the bus stop in the morning. “I don’t want to put words in your mouth,” I said to him, “but I won’t mind if you tell Dan that you don’t appreciate him talking to your sister like that.” (He didn’t.)
Later, instant messaging, Melanie denied that Dan tried to attack me. “His veins bulge all the time,” she excused him. “And you didn’t seem scared.” (So it’s okay what he did?) I reminded her that I grew up being beaten, and learned to choose Fight over Flight… to the death. I remember 2 times specifically as a small girl that I believed I was going to die, once while I watched my arm turn blue and once running down the street in stocking feet in the rain. I didn’t get far. Flight failed. Stand your ground and show no fear.
New Year’s 2012
I began having a strange cluster of health problems and pain that ultimately resulted in a diagnosis in March of auto-immune disease, but not before going under anesthesia for tests. I reported a reaction to Sudafed when I was a baby. The doctor wanted to know what happened, and I couldn’t tell him. He wouldn’t put me under until he knew, so I called my parents. They, of course, screened the call so I left a detailed message. And another. And another. Finally, I said, “I understand. I won’t answer when I see it’s you, but it’s very important that I get this information. Please leave me a message. Thank you.” NOTHING.
I left one last very stern but calm message. “How long are you going to shut me out? This has gone on long enough!” I scolded them. “I require medical treatment and I cannot proceed without information that you have. You should be ashamed of yourselves.” Within an hour I received a breezy voice mail with the info I needed and not a hint of acknowledgement of having ignored my pleas for weeks.
We never spoke again.
My parents have held Thanksgiving for my immediate family at their new house in Twin Falls, ID, for years. I didn’t have a car so I rode with my aunt to Thanksgiving at Grandma’s in Pocatello. I’ve been the only representative from our branch for years, so I had no expectation of seeing anyone last year other than cousins and my beloved grandmother.
Imagine my surprise when, days before the holiday, I received a text from my sister. “Mom, dad, Ren and Alicia (brother and sister in-law) are coming over after dinner at Grandma’s. You’re more than welcome to come.” I was sick. (And astonished. In what world am I welcome in that house? WHAT COLOR IS THE SKY ON YOUR PLANET?!) I was only just beginning to look at the pain from the year before. Whenever that anger and heartache would boil, I just looked away. That’s not my style. I believe only by facing our fears can we hope to understand, learn from, or conquer them. This one was so big I gave myself permission to pretend it didn’t exist. It worked. And then that first anniversary was here. I had to look. I was furious. I allowed myself to seethe. I know me, and I know anger is part of my process, but I was terrified to see those people. I was too bottled up, too disgusted to see them. This was a holiday, a time to celebrate gratitude and grannies, not a time to explode.
I sought the council of my best friend. “What do I do? I can’t talk to them! I can’t face them!”
“Stick to your Grandma,” she advised me.
“I can do that.”
Wednesday night, I had total insomnia. Thanksgiving Day I was fairly twitching with fear and lack of sleep, but doing okay. I was enjoying the company of my cousins and nieces and feeling like maybe I’d worried for nothing. Coming down the stairs, however, I realized that dad and I would be bottle-necked alone and I began to panic. In my mind, I was running. Looking back, it feels like I had tunnel-vision on the bottom of those stairs. My dad elbowed me in the side and laughed, “You still not talkin’ to us? Har har.”
ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!!!
I flipped around, finger in his face. “You owe me an apology!” I yelled under my breath. “You accused me of calling you a bigot. I have never called you a name in my life!” No one was the wiser and I took a seat with an uncle’s family rather than with my own.
I didn’t sleep again that night. I didn’t sleep for sixty hours straight.
I wrote my dad a letter apologizing for snapping at him. “I’ve learned that anger is easier to feel than pain and that pretty much sums up the first half of my life,” I wrote. “I really want a better second half.” I told him that 2012 had been one of the most difficult and rewarding years of my life, “and I did it completely alone, without support from my family and very little communication. I must conclude, then, that I’m better off that way for now. May it bring peace for all of us. I love you both.”
I don’t know. I’m still in it, I guess, far from forgiveness. I look at what I just wrote and think, “Is this just more evidence-gathering?” Am I just arguing my case to an obliging faceless, virtual public? “I’m RIGHT!” Is that all this is? It might be.
Or… Is this out of me at last? I’m the kind who has to tell the whole story until I’ve worked it all out. I try to be conscious of that dangerous place where you switch from working it out to rehearsing the script. I’m not even close to getting stuck in this. Right? I feel like I’m barely beginning to look at it. I was so raw last year, I couldn’t even think about it. It took more than a year to process the indignity of how I was fired! I only started looking at the holiday collapse of my family during the holidays. I think I’m gonna cut myself a break and say it all this once without judgment, without questioning my own motives. That’s my experience of what happened. There. It can only get further and further behind me.
Cluck like a chicken if you read all that, ha! That’s alright. I wrote it for me. Now I’m done.