"I broke one night. And when I say break, I mean I felt something in my brain snap. A switch flipped." [an interview]Read Now
The one thing I’ve been trying to come to terms with lately is having a mom who pretty clearly has a mental illness but has never been diagnosed. She would never get any treatment beyond pill medication. Coming to terms with that and understanding that really took a toll on me growing up and I certainly understand that it took a toll on her as well. I don’t know… there are things that just never really occurred to me as weird or off until I started talking about it with a therapist and she said, your mom might be sick. Your mom might be a sick person. And I was always like, well it was never that bad. The one thing that always comes to mind is after a particularly bad episode where she was being very mean or harsh… if I protested it was always like, it's not like I beat you. Which was… sort of this… underlying notion of, I could beat you… but I’m trying hard not to.
MW: And also… as if beating is the worst thing that could happen to a person. People act like physical pain is the only pain but… there are worse things.
There are, and that’s how my mom was raised. My grandma was not a kind person. My mom and my aunts definitely got knocked around a bit and manipulated, and in terms of that my mom is far and above but… one of the things that struck me as interesting in therapy was that I don’t remember a lot of my childhood. I don’t remember alot and neither do my cousins. We don’t remember a lot of anything. I mean maybe all together we could remember a full childhood but... I know memories are sort of a film roll and people remember what they remember but...
MW: That’s a sign of trauma…
And I didn’t realize that until I looked up the symptoms of people who lived with parents with a mental illness, and you know it's a fog. You don’t remember a lot. And I was like, oh, that explains alot. (laughs) So you know, that’s been the big thing, trying to have sympathy for myself while also having sympathy for her and the stuff she’s trying to work through.
MW: Which mental illness do you think it is?
I would venture to say Borderline Personality Disorder. Maybe Narcissism but that would be an extreme case. But BPD seems to be the one that seems most accurate. Just with the sort of like, manipulation and ups and downs and putting all her hopes and dreams and expectations onto me and others instead of like, doing it herself. So… yeah. It’s hard. It's hard trying to cultivate that compassion and sympathy.
MW: It is. I’m sorry. This hits close to home for me, because someone close to me also has BPD, and another close relative is a Narcissist, and I pretty much just figured it out. I had to get a book from the library to help me understand, what the fuck is this? Because it's not something that people… you sound crazy when you explain what it is. That's one of the things the book said was that it's something they can click on and off. They’re not trying to click it on and off but it only presents with certain people, with family members. And it talks about how hard it is be the child of someone like that. And it's very difficult to come up with a language for this because you literally become tongue tied. Its like you feel like you're crazy because you don’t know how to act around that person. You don't know what set them off, you don’t know what you did, you don’t know the rules. And you try to explain it to people and you sound crazy.
Yeah you do, because when you try to break it down and you say, this is what happened and this is what it was like, as part of the trauma and the survivor’s guilt, you start saying… well I personally… would say, it wasn’t that bad. Or, it could have been worse. I'll find myself talking with my therapist and saying, there would be hard days or whatever but it wasn't like she hit me. Or, it wasn’t her fault, or I’m probably being ungrateful, or, I’m not sure whether or not I’m making this up.
But there are things that are just… she rewrites history. When I was in middle school I had a therapist and I told him I’d been sexually assaulted and he told me that I needed to tell my parents. It was this big thing and I told them, and obviously my parents were upset. And years and years later after I graduated college, I brought it up on the phone with my mom in passing. I said, you know, that was around the time I was sexually assaulted… and she was like, what are you talking about? And I said, I was sexually assaulted, I told you this. The therapist told me to tell you. It was a really big deal. And she said, I would remember something like that, you never told me anything like that. And I felt like I was going crazy. I felt like I was losing my mind like, oh my God am I making this up? But I’m not.
I even went so far as to call my therapist from that time and I was like, I know we haven’t talked in fifteen years but I feel like I'm going crazy. Did I tell you? Did I tell you that I was sexually assaulted and did you tell me to tell my parents? And he was like, I don’t remember the specific event but I know personally that if you had disclosed that to me I would have encouraged you to tell your parents.
MW: When you told them, did you know who had done it to you?
Oh yeah, it was four boys I was friends with. I was in middle school at the time -- junior high. At my school they didn’t call it special ed, they called it specialized support and it was for all the kids who had dyslexia, and focusing issues. We got untimed testing and I had to stay late and all these guys did untimed testing with me and we had a free hour or whatever and they took me… they were my friends. They were some of my closest friends at the time and they took me to a playground and we had no adult supervision. It was 1990-something and it was a different time. It was just one of those situations where something that was probably normal and fairly innocent for kids, like experimenting, took a really weird and dark… I was with some friends and playing around and then it turned into something I couldn't get myself out of. And it wasn't rape but it was a sexual assault.
I carried it with me for a very long time before I told my parents. I haven’t even talked to my dad it about it again because I'm afraid that if I bring it up with him he’s not going to remember either. So I’ve sort of accepted that there's parts of my childhood that are… I don’t know… not going to get the sort of validation from her that I want. And it is what is. I get that validation elsewhere and that's ok. But it's only now at like 30 years old that I’m even doing decent work to move through this process.
MW: Yeah… because you have to move through it.
Yeah. And I wasn’t for a very long time. I thought I’d dealt with it or compartmentalized it but I didn’t and it was just sitting in me and becoming this toxic thing. It just builds up and before you can move forward with anything in your life and you have to get that stuff out. There’s a lot of weird internalized self loathing and self hatred and self harm that I kind of do that I didn’t even realize that’s what I was doing, honestly until I started working with kids myself. I was seeing these kids going through things that I had gone through and seeing their reaction to it - because they're kids and they react and they don't always immediately suppress - and you always see the signs of anything if they trust you and feel like they can unload on you. And was like, holy shit, no one was taking care of me. No one took the time to say, something's wrong. It was always this sort of, you’re really acting out, let’s try and fix you. Let’s give you this medication and let's do this thing, and let's do this other thing. But it was never like, what's wrong?
MW: And that's hard because the people who would ask you what's wrong, if they are the ones doing it to you, they aren’t going to ask you what's wrong because they’re the problem. My younger sister is a psychiatrist and as I would talk to her about certain things -- you know she’s diagnosed all these patients and she’d be like, oh shit, that's what that is! (laughs) And so you finally begin to have a language for it and understand this thing. It’s a fog really if you’ve dealt with it your whole life and you don’t know anything different, you just know something's not right, you just know that relationship is strange, it's weird, you always get a little tongue tied… you seem to keep hurting them… but when you get hurt it's not real or it’s not validated or no one cares. My sister tells me that she sees so many children come in with their parents and she can tell that the problem is the parent and there's not a way to reach the child without the parent being right there, still messing it up. And how you were saying that people would treat you like, I don’t know what's wrong with her, fix her -- my sister was saying that some parents will bring their kids in like, I don’t know what the problem is, but the problem is actually the parent themselves.
Right. And it's also hard because people with these personality disorders like BPD and Narcissism, on the surface they look...
Like normal people. They look fine. They're charismatic. They’re charming. My mother is charming and she's funny and she's smart and she's assertive, but that was all presented to people. So any other adult in my life outside of immediate family wouldn't know. But my immediate family, they’re all… my dad was I think after awhile, I think he was just like, I have to go. They aren’t still married. They can’t stand each other. The only reason they talk at all is because of me. My mom has told my husband, the only reason she married my dad was for security and the only reason she had me was to make sure he would stay. And my husband was just sort of like, uhhhh, I don’t really know what to do with this information. And its sort of of like great, thanks, sorry I didn’t really work out for you.
And you don’t have the language. You really have to take time away from it. I mean I left, I left home. I never went back and felt guilty about it but then I realized that going away was probably the best thing for me. It was only with that distance that I was able to learn and see what was happening. And I was allowed to get that language and allowed to learn how to take care of myself. I mean I was already taking care of myself, because I was taking care of myself and her emotionally. I had to be the parent fora very long time. There was a good eight years or more where she didn’t get out of bed. Pretty much after the divorce, she didn't get out of bed. She decided that she was done trying. She didn’t get out of bed. She didn’t work. She didn’t get a job until I got out of high school. She stayed at home sleeping, watching TV and I was on my own emotionally for that stuff.
MW: How were the two of you financially supported?
My dad’s alimony and child support. He was able to afford that. And he was willing to pay that. But yeah, she didn’t work. She hates to work. Like I said, she only got a job when I got out out of high school. She's now working… but I still have to support her a lot of times financially because she can’t really control her spending. Because she has a personality disorder. (laughs)
MW: And see, for years I didn’t know what it was called. It’s textbook once you know what the textbook says -- the reckless behavior, the depression, the not able to function, not able to hold down a day to day job but not having a reason why, being charismatic, being brilliant, being artistic -- all the things you think should make you okay but the person is just perpetually unokay. And the hard part is the way that people who are their relatives have to behave in order to not… first of all, you have to learn how to not trigger them, which is impossible.
MW: For their mental well being, you have to understand how to not trigger them and you have to understand how they’re so sensitive and it's hard because it takes a lot of forgiveness because for so long you felt like they didn’t care about you. Like all you have ever done is care about and tiptoe around their feelings… and now they have a diagnosis that means you’re supposed to care even more about their feelings. You have to check how you’re breathing. Like, am I breaking okay? Did I offend you by how I walked into the room? And you’ve always offended them by how you breathed and how you walked into a room but now, you have to take down the defenses which say, fuck this, I'm okay and Imma walk how I wanna walk, in order to consider their feelings about your breathing and its like… first you just need a moment to sit and understand what happened to you. It's like, I don’t even know if I'm ready to move into coping or compassion. I’ve only just been validated. Let me just sit here in my anger because it finally has a reason. Let me just get used to the fact that I ain’t crazy and this is real.
Yeah. It's kind of… you just assume afterwhile… you know something's not right but you sort of assume that's how everyone is.
So you assume this is how everyone operates. I assumed for years that this is how… I’ve always been super hypersensitive to people’s emotional shifts. And that's not to sound like, ooh I’m so special...
MW: But that’s what happens with abused children! I am the same way. And it's because the way other people feel determines how your life is going to go. And that's not normal with most people. You know, if you’re having a bad day it doesn’t mean your kid has to have a bad day, because you know how to separate the two… but for kids with parents who don’t know how to separate the two, then the kids learn to watch out for how other people are feeling. It becomes a survival mechanism. I think its called hypervigilance.
Yeah. There would be times where if my husband is having a bad day and something happened -- even if I wasn't consciously aware of it...something… something just clicks and I go, what's happened, what's going on, what's wrong with you, you look really upset, what's happening? And he’s like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Nothing’s wrong. And I’m like, yes there is, yes there is, you just don’t know it yet. Maybe because he talked to his brother and his brother said some shitty. And he'll look back and say, well I guess my brother said something that kind of pissed me off. And I’m like... (exhales sigh of relief). And I assumed that's how everyone was. I just assumed that everyone was paying attention to everyone else's emotions all the time. It wasn't until college that I was like oh no, some people are like that, sure, but some people are not like that. And it's exhausting. It's exhausting constantly having to be in survival mode all the time.
And even now, I say that and immediately I want to say, but it's not like I was in danger….
MW: But did you know that’s a classic sign? If you look up the symptoms of kids who’ve been traumatized, that's one of the symptoms, what you’re doing right now. They tend to say it wasn’t that bad.
And see I didn't know this until I started going to a therapist for postpartum depression and she was very adept because her mom was a Narcissist. It was just… she was like, she would tell me, these are signs of trauma. And I was like, what? Nooo. I’m not traumatized. I’m just sensitive. My mom always said I was just really sensitive. I was too sensitive. (laughs) And my therapist was like no. No.
MW: No, yeah, that’s trauma.
So now there's a re-traumatization because you realize, oh wow, that is trauma, and you’re like, oh my God and sort of going over it in your mind. I read a book called Understanding the Borderline Mother and I couldn't get past the 20th page because I started having panic attacks and I was like, why am I feeling like this? I couldn't breathe and my heart was racing and I was scared and I had to call my therapist and she was like, you’re just triggered. You’re okay. You might not be able to read this book in one go. You might have to take it...
MW: Real slow…
MW: Oh honey, I understand.
I know. And it's really great because we’re both like oh, we both went through this and that's really validating to know we weren't alone… but at the same time… when you get off the phone, take care of yourself. Go drink some water. Take a deep breath. Take care of yourself because it's intense. I’m sorry you had to go through that too. That’s really hard.
MW: Thank you for saying that. Shit it was hard.
I can imagine. It's rough. I know that's not easy to come through. You should be really proud of yourself for coming through it the way that you have and becoming the person that you are.
MW: Thank you. You too. And you’re such a good mother. You should be proud of yourself too. And the fact that you’re committed to your own healing… that’s a step a lot of people never take because it's not a small step. They will admit stuff is jacked up but to confront it every day and say, I’m gonna look at these patterns and get out of these patterns.... It's not easy.
It's not. I did it because I was in a depression and it was like, I can't do this. I don’t have the luxury of doing this, I have a kid. That sounds weird but I’d had a mental breakdown in college and I was really sick for a long time, but when my son came, it was like, I can’t do this this go round. I have to get help, I have to find a therapist, I have to get on medication, I have to do something. I have to be present for him, I can't not...I have to do better.
MW: So you said that you’d already struggled with depression before you had a baby. So after you had him… was it just your normal depression that returned or did you feel like it was a different kind of postpartum depression?
I’m a person who has general anxiety all the time and in college, junior year was the first time I had a big emotional break and I spent a long time building myself back up. I would not have said while I was pregnant that I was depressed… and I was pregnant, went through labor, and had my baby and two days later I completely crashed. And I said something's wrong. Something's wrong, this isn’t right. And my hormones were going up and down and trying to regulate themselves but it didn’t go away.
MW: How did you feel?
Um… I felt like I wanted to die. And if something would have come along and put me in a life threatening situation, I would not have fought it. I had a hard time bonding with my son. I had a really hard time breastfeeding,. I had a lot of guilt around not wanting to breastfeed but breastfeeding. I had a lot of guilt around feeling pain.I had a lot of guilt around not being an exuberant mentally healthy mother. I had a lot of fear that because I was so exposed and raw like a raw nerve and my husband was seeing that - not for the first time but for a real intense period - I thought, he’s going to leave because I am a fucking wreck and he's going to go because I am not worth the space I take up in the world.
And… so there was a lot of that, just old self loathing and old self hatred coming up in the postpartum and I had to struggle to get the help that I needed. The nurse practitioner who is my gynecologist didn’t want to put me on antidepressants. And I said, if you don’t put me on antidepressants, I don’t know what I’m going to do. And she was like, well I'll do it but I’m not going to give you a long term prescription, and I was like, whatever, I just need something now. And it went away but it came back when my son was a little over a year old, and that's when I started seeing a therapist.
MW: I’m just so proud of you for recognizing you needed help and getting help. I’ve been depressed after having babies before but I’ve never… you know you hear the term postpartum depression and you feel like, everybody has babies and everybody feels like their life is over so what's the big deal? I felt depressed and I would go to my postpartum check ups and they would go, how many times have you cried in the last week? And I would go, every day. And it was the worst after my last baby because I was trying to adjust to having four children after having three children for four years and I was really used to that dynamic, and I had stopped being used to having a little baby and not sleeping. And then still having to parent three other children with a newborn - I was overwhelmed but I tried to just pop back into my life. I had to go back to work really quickly, too. And I do remember being at the doctor and sort of crying out for help and feeling ignored. She started telling me about her health problems. She was like, you're fine, you’re just talking, girl everybody feels like that, now let me tell you about me, and I was like…? So for you to be able to say, no something is wrong… I think as women we don’t put our foot down and say, no, something is wrong. Because I think with women, something is always a little wrong but we limp along and deal with it so we don’t know when to stop and say, someone help me.
Yeah! Everyone just tries to treat it as hysteria and say I'm overreacting but I would say, no, I'm really not. If I had not had the emotional break I had in college I may not have fought for myself as much, but in a weird way, I guess that emotional break was a blessing because I knew, something is not right. This wasn't baby blues, this was wrong. So I guess in a way, yeah, that first emotional break allowed me to know myself enough to say, I know that this is not typical stuff.
MW: And that's a blessing that you could say, ‘this isn’t baby blues,’ because with this being your first child, a doctor could easily dismiss you with, how do you know? Maybe this is what it feels like. And so it was a blessing that you could say, I may not have had a baby but I know myself. I’m not myself.
Yeah. (sigh) (laughs)
MW: Yeah. Do you want to talk about the break in college?
Yeah we can talk about that. It was precipitated by a lot of things. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t getting enough rest. As happens in college with a lot of people, I'd done too many recreational drugs. I’d been drinking too much. And I guess it just all built up inside of me. And I broke one night. And when I say break, I mean I felt something in my brain snap. A switch flipped. I literally felt a snap almost. And for three days I didn’t get out of bed and I was eating even less. It's weird to talk about. The way it manifested… and I believe things manifest they way they do to give you a message about what it's trying to work through...and this was right around the rime of Katrina. I was catastrophizing and having end of the world anxiety. I just believed in this really dark and twisted way that I was being given some kind of prophecy or omen, that I was being shown something and that the world was going to come to an end. I would read about all sorts of conspiracies around that kind of stuff and I could not pull myself out of it.
I wound up calling my parents and being like, something's not right! (laughs) They were like, oh shit, and they came out and wanted to commit me but there was part of me that was like, no, if I go home, it's gonna get worse. If I go home, I'm going to get sicker. There was a tiny pleading voice inside of me that was like, if you go home you will never get better. You need to fight to stay here. So I said no, no, no, don't send me home, I’ll go to my classes, I promise. And it took years. And I feel for my friends at the time because this was junior year and we’re in our early twenties. They didn't know what to do with a friend who was mentally ill so they just failed in a way. I mean they were there if I came around but I spent days in my apartment with no human contact. I finally had one friend come and be like, what is wrong with you? And I was like, I’m going insane, thanks.
MW: I don’t mean to take you back there… but what were those days like? Were you laying there thinking? What was going on? Were you sleeping?
I was sleeping, I was not sleeping. I was sitting there with the tv on. Actually a lot of the stuff that my mom did. I would get up and go to class because that was the way that I was like, if I can go to class then I won’t have to go home and be committed. So I would go to class and that was it. I wasn't really doing my work, I was just sort of there. I wasn't eating. Everything was grey and everything was heavy and everything was pointless and empty and I had no energy. I had no desire., I had no motivation. I had nothing. All I had was this fear. That was the only thing that was there. I even hallucinated for a brief period of time. It was just not right and it took years just to get to a space where I can hold down a job. My memory gets clear around 2006. Everything before then -- people would be like, don’t you remember this thing? And I would be like, I absolutely do not remember that thing! They would say, don’t you remember this person? And I’m like, nope! (laughs) I have some memories of some people and some events, but don’t you remember when so and so dated so and so? And I’m like, not really! Sort of…(laughs) I’ll take your word for it.
But that was when I started working with kids and that’s what started bringing me out of that funk was that purpose.
MW: And giving them what you needed? Like oh shit, no one gave me this!
Yeah, I say that a lot. If I’d had the program I work for when I was little, if I’d someone really truly paying attention the way that we do, I’d have been a completely different person. I don't regret who I am but I feel there was a lot of time wasted or misused because there was a lot of time where I was not moving forward. And I would have these kneejerk reactions to the kids and my co-workers would say things like, you need to watch your music with this one because she’s had this experience, and in my head I would be like, no one would fucking do it for me, and I’m fine. And then I’d be like, you need to stop, power down, she is 8, she needs your help. And then I’d just power through. But there was that immediate reaction of, no one fucking cared about where I was or what I was doing. Why do I have to bend over backwards? But that’s my mom talking.
MW: And I read online that children of people with BPD tend to be depressive. That’s their manifestation of their parent's illness. That reaction of, why do I have to be considerate of you and your feelings when no one was considerate of mine?-- I think our parents said that times 1000. Because whatever happened to them to make them how they are-- my sister explained to that with people with BPD or clinically narcissistic people -- something happened to them before they completely formed a personality. So their personality disorder is a result of trauma so extreme that they don’t know who they are. They don’t have an identity.
Yep. That is absolutely my mother. My mom doesn't talk a lot about her childhood… it's kind of foggy… but she does tell stories. My grandma beat her with a butcher knife. Not the sharp end! She would say, she didn’t beat me with the sharp end, she beat me with the flat of it.
MW: The person close to me who is a narcissist talks about their mother pistol whipping them for missing curfew. And I just wonder… you know when you were saying if someone had just talked to you when you were a little girl… but when you’re the child of a parent with a mental illness, whether it's depression, BPD, narcissism, whatever -- first of all, if -- you even say something to the parent and the parent is the problem, and the parent is charismatic, educated -- God-- they will make it their personal life mission to make you look stupid. They won’t stop until you’ve apologized 50 times. There's so many gatekeepers between children and healthiness when their parents are not healthy. And it's a tricky thing as a kid too, because no matter what happens, at the end of the day, that kid has to go in the house with that parent and there is no one there to help. How do you help those kids? And I’m not asking as a grown up doing Marrow Women, I’m asking as a kid, shit. (laughs) How could someone have helped me? How could someone have helped you?
Exactly. And in my role as a facilitator, there would be times when we would have to call child services in, either to the center or just to report, and we knew nothing would happen and sometimes we have to be like, this could make things worse. We determined our role is to be a safe place. To be the one safe place. They come there, they get some food, they're around other kids and adults who let them be who they are, and that's what we do. And if I’d had a safe consistent place like that, that provided consistent care… it's not like I would have been taken away but I would have had a place to go. And we have kids that grow up and come back to work with younger kids.
MW: And that's beautiful. Its beautiful when people give back in that way. Because there’s no cure all, there's no quick fix for the things that ails us. You gotta learn it, and turn around and help somebody else. One person at a time. That's awesome. That means that y’all do is working.
Yeah. It's the highest praise, I think, that they want to come back and be involved. There's nothing better than having them come back and say, I want to be here because I want to spread the word and be that person for someone else. It kind of changed my life.
MW: Wow. Thank you honey. Do you have one final thing you want to say that I didn’t ask?
The best thing I learned from all of this - and that I’m still learning - is that your body is your own best friend. That is the one thing, the one person, the one entity that is going to tell you what you need and what you’re going through and what you're dealing with. Trust that. Even if it's sounding or doing something that you’re like, this isn't right, it's because something's coming up that isn't right. But you can do this, you can get through it. Your body is your greatest tool. The one thing I learning in my thirties is how to trust my body and give it the support it needs to push all this shit I had in there for years, out. Get it out.
MW: Girl that's powerful. That's body wisdom. So many women don’t have that. Don’t eat when they’re hungry or sleep when they're tired. Don't ask for a hug when they need a hug. Don't let themselves cry when they need to cry. We’re just trained to ignore our body and push through with our mind. Logic over everything. And our bodies are very important and so wise if we listen. Thank you dear.