#17 in my book blogs from “Don’t Try This at Home,” Chapter 3
I bet that title got your attention. Hey, most of my life I thought it was no big deal. I just always took it for granted that Mom didn’t like me much, and so what? Lots of people simply don’t get along. Mom was kinda like the weather: a fact of life about which one couldn’t do a thing, so why fret? You don’t like the weather, you move. So I graduated high school a year early and got moving. Problem solved.
Or so I thought. But in 2008 in the hospice with Mom, the problem was back in my face. And didn’t start when I quit med school at 25. That’s me at 8 in the photo. What kind of face is that on a kid?
I reported last time that in 2006 at her 50th anniversary dinner, Mom looked at me out of the blue and said, “I nearly died having you; you almost killed me. You gave me an infection that put me flat on my back for weeks…” Huh? This was the first time in my life that I’d ever heard of that. It seemed so unimportant, no one ever said boo.
When I was a kid, Mom did sometimes show me her scar, say I was an emergency Caesarian, and hint I was an unplanned pregnancy. When I hit puberty she’d warn me hard against boys. “It’s the woman who pays,” she used to repeat, “You don’t want to end up pushing a baby carriage.” It wasn’t banter; it felt anxious and scary.
Later in 2009 I learned that at birth I was instantly put into incubation for many weeks since I too had that infection, one so bad it nearly killed me as well, not only Mom. She never mentioned that.
At about 4, I swallowed a penny and was rushed to X-ray. I was terrified by the huge cold black machine, by being held down, and by Mom’s anger; I thought she’d kill me for causing all the commotion. Another time before I was 5, Mom took me aside and said of one of my playmates, “I don’t love Michelle; she’s not my daughter. But I like Michelle. I love you – but I don’t like you.” I tried to ignore this stuff, like the weather, but that one stung. I realized just last week that I can still see the family dining table where it happened.
I recalled cowering in the kindergarten bathroom at 6, trying to erase a B grade and pencil in an A, afraid to come home with less than perfect – and then Mom’s fury at the lie. Washing my hands in school at 12, a tiny ring Mom gave me slid down the drain and she didn’t speak to me for weeks. I felt complete panic.
Suddenly in that 2008 hospice it hit me: I’d always had some underlying feeling of fear, because I knew: Mommy doesn’t like me.
What child, you ask in disbelief, grows up thinking “Mommy doesn’t like me?” Don’t all children think Mommy likes and loves them? Hey, when I was a kid, I’d never been through childhood before, so I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to feel that! And didn’t dare discuss it.
All I knew was: Mommy doesn’t like me, she told me so in person, and I believed her. And in early 2008 when I interviewed five older relatives as instructed by the Inner Child Workbook, they confirmed it in spades: “Your mother never seemed to like you much.”
I was in this hospice because Mom was my Mom, and my beloved sister had commuted from New York to Florida for months to help first Dad, then Mom. Now, Linda had to stay in her law offices on Wall Street; she had a husband, two sons, a large dog and a sailboat to support. But Mom didn’t care. She just didn’t want me around.
My Wasted Life
I tried the compassion route to the best of my ability, which was probably pretty meager, but I tried. I sat with Mom for hours. I said, “Mom, it must be scary to have a heart attack and be in here; why don’t you let me just hold you and support you emotionally?”
“I don’t want you to hold me,” Mom finally said. “I don’t want you anywhere near me. I sat on the living room couch and cried after I got off the phone with you, every Sunday for 25 years.” (About seven minutes into my weekly Sunday phone calls to her, as noted last week, Mom did have a habit of hanging up on me… for 25 years.)
“Is this a good time to focus on bygones?” I persisted. “I’ve had a rough time with my divorce, the loss of my home and the collapse of the job market, and I could use emotional support, too. Can’t we do that for each other and just be mother and daughter?” I asked. But no. Now, the years of hang-ups were about to be explained.
“I’m not interested in emotional support. Your sister helps people every day. What have you done with your life?” Mom said. “You have a brilliant mind and we gave you everything. It’s your own fault you married Larry.
“It was a wasted life, a wasted life! You deserve what you got. Emotional support doesn’t mean a thing. The only thing which means anything is money. If you care about someone that’s what you give them.”
Again we ask: am I imagining this, projecting my own neurosis onto Mom? I wish. And who brings a voice recorder into the hospice with their Mom? Yet not only did she say it – I believed she was right.
I even called my sister to ask desperately: “Is it true, is it true, did I really waste my entire life?” Sis was kind and said, “Of course not,” but she was so preoccupied with Mom’s illness that that was it. My situation simply was not that important.
In fact it was the logic of history. It’s not as if I disagreed with Mom. I’d long heard her say “I don’t like you,” and to a kid, Mom is Authority. The Authority must be right, so I must be Bad. I’d felt that forever, long before my first therapist Dr. Matt spelled out the science that “rejection creates a false belief structure deep in a child’s subconscious that ‘I am bad.’ ”
I must have led a wasted life. In fact, I had fully internalized that – taken it into my heart – ever since I could remember: Mommy doesn’t like me, so I must be worthless.
It’s Not My Coat
On days like that (most days) my cell phone kept me alive. I placed a lot of calls from that hospice to friends in California and Virginia. When my sister couldn’t help me, I was reduced to calling my ice-queen second therapist Dr. Rita. “Is it true, did I have a worthless life?” I asked her in panic.
Dr. Rita had always refused to talk by phone, but under these circumstances she agreed. I figgered my shrink must be the sane one since by now I sure did feel as if I were going stark staring mad. And God is merciful. Dr. Rita actually did help some; she gave me one of her textbook examples that’s had lasting catch-phrase value.
“No one cries for 25 years for someone else; it’s all nonsense,” Dr. Rita said. “Your Mom projects her psychological problems onto you, and you take it on yourself.
“If she’s so miserable, then she’s the one with the failed life and she’s crying for herself, not you. If she wanted to go to medical school, she should have gone herself, not tried to break you over over it, to force you to do something she wanted to do herself. Why should she make you a pariah for marrying anyone? This is her psychic garbage, and you’ve been assuming it for years.
“It’s like a big ugly hairy coat that comes in the mail that you didn’t order. You open the box and find a coat in some horrid shade of orange or vomit yellow-green, with things sticking out of it. Your mother says, “I ordered it for you, it fits you perfectly, this coat is You! You must try it on.” So you try it, you walk around for her, you hate it. You hate the style, the color, it does not fit you at all – but she makes you wear it.
“It’s time for you to take off the coat and say: ‘Mom, this coat does not belong to me. This is not my coat. I did not order it – you did. I think it will fit you better; please wear it yourself.’ Tell her to wear it. Let her be responsible for her own resentments and complaints. Or send it back, because the point is: This is not your coat.
“This trip to Miami is an opportunity for you, if properly taken. You have a better chance of pulling yourself together now, to separate yourself from Mom now, while she’s still alive. This is not your coat. You’ve got to take it off and emotionally separate from her. Do not tear yourself to pieces. Use humor. Step back. Go out and take a walk. Take deep breaths, don’t let it all choke you.”
Fabulous insights, I now see, typing up my 2008 hand notes; if only I had been able to “get it.” Back then I did see the logic; it did help logically. It’s a great story. But it didn’t calm my heart for beans.
Because this was the same Dr. Rita who also told me to lock myself up alone and relate to myself by myself. That had shut my emotions down with a bang. Without any bonding with Dr. Rita or anyone else, I still was so alone, terrified, and in a state of clinical shock that I couldn’t “get” much of anything – except that I hurt like hell.
And Rita still wasn’t doing emotional support. Instead she concluded the call with her same old “go support yourself” Inner Child mantra. “When you have these panic attacks, you must talk to the Inner Child inside you and tell her ‘That authority figure was ridiculous. Mom was ridiculous, you don’t treat a daughter like that.’
“Just disengage,” Rita concluded. Terrific. I was alone in Miami, 1,200 miles from my sister in New York, 3,000 miles from Rita and any new friends in California, sleeping in Mom’s retirement complex surrounded by people on walkers, completely isolated from the rest of Planet Earth. Go tell Daniel to “just disengage” from the lions.
This is from Kathy’s forthcoming book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series of excerpts from the rest of her book each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.
Tags: Adult Attachment Disorder, Adult Attachment Theory, Adult Attachment Interview, Emotional Support, Grief, Incubation, Inner Child, Therapy, Unplanned Pregnancy
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