I find myself drawn more and more to the admission and revelation that the pain of my adult life I unknowingly invited. I allowed suffering to take up my heart space, my mind, my efforts. I am coming to understand that at some deep, unconscious level, I enjoyed the pain. It was warm and comfortable. I believed the pain gave me worth and value. The contemporary voices of my religion reinforced this, a twisted faith. This faith taught me, as a child, an adolescent, a budding teenager, that we must suffer to be close to Jesus. We must suffer as he did.
I allowed suffering to take up my heart space, my mind, my efforts. I am coming to understand that at some deep, unconscious level, I enjoyed the pain. It was warm and comfortable. I believed the pain gave me worth and value.– MomLifeCurator
I had suffered as a child, and I unwillingly chose to suffer as I got older. In my late thirties, I have found grace for myself through it all, finally, because I realize I was just repeating a pattern, a cycle I had been taught as a child of domestic violence, a child raised by a parent with mental illness, a child of a preacher, a child of the down South old Pentecostal faith. I learned to hide the truth and suffer in silence, just as my dad taught us to do.
Now, I understand that God didn’t make me suffer. I was taught to suffer. I was taught that I was unworthy, unloved, and a failure, and the people teaching me this lesson did it unintentionally. Don’t get me wrong, there were moments of great warmth, love, and laughter in my childhood always tainted with the looming shadow of pain and fear.
But, if you were raised with domestic violence or raised by a caregiver with a mental illness, you have a choice to stop perpetuating this patterned behavior. I decided years ago that I would not handicap my children the way I had been. That decision forced me to dive deep into myself in order to understand how to change myself, the warped perceptions I had of myself that led me down dark roads and into destructive relationships and cycles of depression. I didn’t need fixing. I needed to understand, to transform.
Psychology Today lists “six core experiences” that mark adults raised by a mentally ill caregiver (Metha, 2017):
- Who cares about me?
- Trauma and Betrayal
- Transferring the pain
- Staying out of the way and staying safe
- Growing myself up
- Transforming the broken childhood
I would propose that the first four experiences are common for most adults if their childhood was fraught with abuse, neglect, or mental illness.
The “who cares about you” question plagued me for years. It was the bully that continued to taunt me every time I felt insecure, which was multiple times a day, each and every day. While I was provided for physically, the emotional push and pull in my life beat me down. The joy of being hugged and cuddled only to be berated, cut down, or punished on a whim. The message my mom would pound into my head that she sacrificed and struggled to provide for us while also telling us that we always messed up everything. My father was distant from me, mostly. He was kind and loving but always kept himself locked away behind a calm facade. He didn’t protect, only covered up. He hid behind his job and his church. These lessons taught me no one truly cared about me because I could never meet their expectations or get their attention.
“Betrayal filled my life. The yo-yo affect of affection followed by abuse followed by affection, the wheel goes round and round, the yo-yo goes up and down.”-MomLifeCurator
Betrayal filled my life. The yo-yo affect of affection followed by abuse followed by affection, the wheel goes round and round, the yo-yo goes up and down. My family “environment was terrifying” (Metha, 2017). I did feel my “other parent was helpless and unable to cope with the situation” (Metha, 2017). I now understand that I welcomed adult relationships that led to abandonment because I could expect the betrayal instead of feeling shocked when it just didn’t work out. I chose distant men like my distant father because it was familiar. I chose controlling men because I had grown up in an environment in which my mother controlled us all.
Trauma is an unspoken monster that has sat beside me all these years . . . “hyper-vigilance” and “extreme anxiety” followed me well into my adulthood (Metha, 2017). I still have violent images and thoughts that explode into my head, reach their way in to squeeze my heart tight and strangle my lungs until my breath is ragged. Trauma made it “difficult to develop healthy self-esteem and a sense of self-worth” (Metha, 2017).
So, what did we learn from these feelings of worthlessness, the experiences of betrayal and trauma? We are survivors. We learned to survive by “transferring the pain” : blaming ourselves, hiding our pain, living in fear of perpetuating this behavior in our own children. We learned to “stay out of the way and stay safe.” We took up a “care-giving role” to replace the parent we never had (Metha, 2017). For me, that meant, I tried to take care of everyone I became friends with or became intimate with.
We hoped to be “overlooked” during the frantic surges that ripped apart our lives and our families. We developed a whole set of new “adaptive behaviors” in order to elicit positive attention. No matter the expectation, we transformed ourselves to meet it. We made sure to find that group or that person to transfix our focus on, to please and shine our light on. If we could make them love us, we would finally be whole. We lost ourselves in this attempt to find someone else. I would go as far to say that addiction was one of these behaviors. If we didn’t find acceptance in a person, we could turn to a substance that made us forget.
These first four experiences, we have down. We didn’t have a choice. But, the last two experiences don’t just happen to us. We have to choose to “grow [ourselves] up” and “transform our broken childhood” when we become tired of the same cycle of pain and heartbreak and depression. Not everyone has chosen this path.
“I can take all the broken pieces and organize them to understand how I persevered through them. I can grind them up into a new foundation and use my natural resilience to build upon them.”-MomLifeCurator
Growing up means that we learn to use our experiences to our advantages. Yes, parts of my childhood were shit, part of my adulthood was shit, and now, I am strong enough to get help and do something about it. I am strong enough to turn my people-pleasing behaviors into empathy and compassion with boundaries. I can take all the broken pieces and organize them to understand how I persevered through them. I can grind them up into a new foundation and use my natural resilience to build upon them. I can turn my “self-hatred into self-acceptance” because I can only truly accept my past, my pain, my children, once I have grace enough to tell myself I did my best with what I had at the time (Metha, 2017).
Transforming our broken childhood means we choose to build relationships with healthy families; we “expose ourselves to families without mental illness” (Metha, 2017). Some of us chose this early on. I made really good friends and spent time at their houses, admiring the ease of their conversations, the stability of their relationships.
Transforming meant we found a way to move out of our comfort zone and find a way out of our situation. For some of us, this meant education or throwing ourselves into a new work endeavor.
There are all kinds of research and studies that I could dig up to explain ways to grow so you and I don’t repeat the cycle with our children. Honestly, I didn’t want children when I first married my ex-husband. I was terrified. I knew I would be abusive and mean and a terrible mother. I just knew it. BUT . . . guess what? I was wrong. I have made mistakes that I daily think about, and I realize that ALL parents have regrets like this.
Several key practices that have turned the tide for me are meditation, mindfulness therapy, and DBT (dialectal-based therapy). This all started with finding the right psychologist and starting a quick two to three minute meditation every morning, so I could just focus on feeling, getting to know myself, slowing down and accepting whatever emotions I had in the moment.
Living with anxiety, fear, and OCD thinking don’t run my life anymore. I have made peace, and I continue to make peace daily.-MomLifeCurator
Living with anxiety, fear, and OCD thinking don’t run my life anymore. I have made peace, and I continue to make peace daily. Every day is a new beginning, and I can remember that every moment can be a new beginning, too. If you want to know more about these three practices, I will be posting more under my “Teaching Through Mindfulness” posts.
A Poem reflecting on my experience with God:
My God used to rant and rave at me
Then, calmly place me upon his knee
Gently caress and strip me bare
to ravish my innocence uninvited
My God was a narcissist
Bold and alluring
He controlled and cajoled and captivated
He beat and bruised and performed all
forms of brutality
Unless I was perfect
And unlike me.
My God opened the door
To slam it on my outstretched
My God forced me to watch
as he set me on fire
My God was maniacal, psychotic,
He wound me in chains
tightening, tightening, tightening
But That is not My God
He is not that filthy man
who called me a whore
who pimped me out
offered me up
to John after John
who crushed my will
who ceased my song.
The God I know
is a white, fluffy cloud
A soft reminder that I am not alone
arms that hold me close but not too tight
He is a gardener
who sings to his plants,
tenderly speaks, and quietly treads
He isn’t too big and he isn’t too small
He isn’t a certain size at all
He is what I need him to be
A reflection of love,
fully accepting of me.
My God loves and only
wants love in return
He doesn’t cut or scar
or fight or burn
My God is love
He is enfolding
She is unfathomable
It is the swirling unconscious,
conscious being that connects
My God knows me and loves
Metha, V. (2017). Growing Up With a Mentally Ill Parent: 6 Core Experiences. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/head-games/201709/growing-mentally-ill-parent-6-core-experiences [Accessed 29 Dec. 2018].