Once more, I am participating in A Chronic Voice’s monthly linkup.
words: Regrouping, Investigating, Boosting, Setting & Reviving
Today, I want to talk about how very strongly we can be affected by other people and other people’s emotions. I want to talk about boundaries and expectations, and how multigenerational trauma can work. I am using my own life and my relationship with my mother as an example, as I am currently in the midst of an emotional situation whose roots rest in mother’s experiences as a child of parents with their own emotional issues.
Our expectations, assumptions, and general understanding of life are set by our early experiences – our formative years experience sets us up with what we feel is ‘normal’, ‘expected’ and ‘acceptable’. These ideas and beliefs can be changed, but it is a lot of effort and focus to do so, and it takes a lot of focused effort to ‘reset’ these expectations and beliefs, and these are the patterns easiest to fall into if we don’t think about it.
My grandparents hadn’t viewed certain boundaries the same way that many other people do, resulting in my mother knowing her father in emotionally intimate ways that simply weren’t healthy for her. After my grandparents passed, my mother went through a very intensive emotional healing process, recognizing and accepting some unhealthy aspects of her relationship with them, and trying to unlearn these effects.
Unfortunately, mom wasn’t good at setting boundaries herself, and so ended up reflecting some of that abuse by confiding in me about the whole thing.
My grandparents had been alcoholics, and so part of her self-care was attending al-anon, and she would share some of her experiences there, and later when she saw a therapist, she would confide in me about some of what she learned about herself in therapy.
For her, I was the perfect confidant – I wanted the time alone with her(what child doesn’t want their parent’s undivided attention?) and she saw me as like her, as I had been diagnosed with depression a few months after grandma passed.
I certainly wouldn’t have known better, and she didn’t realize what she was doing.
Mom told me about her experiences, and how she had been hurt by her father’s actions and behaviors. My grandfather, a man I loved and only knew in a positive light, had hurt my mother, a person I loved and trusted and depended on.
I didn’t know what to do with this information, this emotion, this betrayal. So I did what was expected, and empathized with mom, listened to her, absorbed her hurt and anger and viewed these from her perspective. I hurt for her and with her, and was left with the knowledge that my grandfather was the reason for her pain, even though she loved him, and had never appeared unhappy with or around him.
My thoughts and expectations were affected and to some degree ‘set’ by this experience – I was mom’s confidant, reflecting her emotions, absorbing her feelings, and putting aside my own fear, uncertainty, and confusion when she needed me to.
Investigating my own history
The unintentional grooming mom did, I mostly let myself forget about. I had more than enough things going on in my own life, and I wanted to be a happy child – and for the most part, I succeeded, despite not fitting in socially, and despite being both mildly learning disabled and tending to be in more advanced classes.
I saw therapists off and on throughout middle school and high school, working on forming healthy boundaries, setting reasonable expectations for myself, and processing my depression and regular life stuff.
I never thought to mention mom’s and my conversations in the years following grandma’s death, because I didn’t know that it was something to mention.
Looking back now, as an adult, I realize that I was trying to protect myself by pretending that the conversations never occurred, even though they put me in a place of fear and doubt.
I didn’t know what to do with the knowledge that grandpa had hurt mom, deeply, but she still loved him. When he was alive there was nothing to indicate that he’d ever hurt her in any way.
I was left with this nagging feeling that it was normal, even easy, to hold extremely conflicting feelings about one person or event.
Mom went through a period of extreme unpredictability and barely controlled anger that was likely part of processing her abuse, but I didn’t connect that at the time. I just was frightened by her unpredictability.
Through therapy, I got help with my relationships with my peers, and advice on how to process and manage my emotions, but never a conversation about my mother’s experiences or the emotional conflict that was lit in me.
I didn’t even mention my conversations with my mom to a therapist until some time after my father died.
Looking back, the relationship that triggered my Functional Neurological Disorder(FND) symptoms was with a man who I thought was like my father(a calm computer geek who could emotionally support me) but became unpredictable, demanding, and manipulative.
While it was the stress caused by his behaviors and our relationship that brought out my FND symptoms(FND is trauma and stress-responsive, but is a neurological condition, not psychological), I suspect the seeds were planted when mom unintentionally overshared about her own experiences.
Boosting the signal with new trauma
Over the years, that interdependence that mom and I developed when I was young faded a bit, and we mostly had healthier patterns.
The exception was when my father died. His death occurred during a very stressful point in my life, as I had just been diagnosed with FND after six months of severe symptoms that cost me my career.
Dad had always been my stable point of reference – always calm and collected, able to handle any situation with equanimity, and very willing to just listen when I had something to say.
Mom’s personality, more similar to mine, would insist on investigating, digging, asking why, and pushing for answers – sometimes when there were none to give, or when I wasn’t able to analyze or verbalize what was happening to me.
In about 12 hours, I went from having the secure knowledge that my calm, self-contained supportive father was there to help me through my struggles, to the shocking realization that I would never have his support again.
I shouldered the emotional burden of not only needing to manage my feelings over losing him, but that mom was depending on me, too, to once more listen to her, empathize with her, and support her through her loss.
Once more, I wasn’t just her daughter to protect and love, but also her confidant. She and I called our extended family to inform them of my father’s death.
I was responsible for giving her comfort when she needed it.
While my sisters were also there, also supportive, I felt like mom’s expectations for me were different, more intense, and more intimate.
I don’t know how much of this pressure came from my own thoughts and expectations, and how much from hers, but I do know that I felt very responsible for my mother’s needs and expectations and that I had an extremely difficult time fully processing my father’s death.
I suspect this is another part of why the following years were so stressful and another part of why I have no expectation of ever completely recovering from my FND.
Reviving old emotions and memories
So why am I writing about all this now? The most recent event mentioned here was 16 years ago.
The reason is simple: my mother is reliving dad’s death now.
At the end of March, a long-time family friend passed away suddenly. He and his wife had been the first people to arrive in the hospital after dad’s accident other than myself and my boyfriend at the time. His wife is my mother’s best friend, and they were incredibly supportive and helpful after dad died.
There are definitely parallels between his death and my father’s.
For both of them, death was sudden – my dad’s more so, as he fell off a ladder, but mom and her husband had dinner with the two of them on Friday night, and he was fine.
Sunday morning he woke up, feeling strange, and was taken to the hospital, and Tuesday afternoon, he passed away surrounded by most of his children and grandchildren.
In three days he went from seeming perfectly healthy to being dead.
He died at the same hospital dad died in. He was in the ICU, which was where they took dad’s body.
I have not set foot in that hospital since dad died(it’s the nearest trauma center but not my local hospital), but I had been mentally steeling myself to go.
My mother had called me on Tuesday morning to inform me of the situation, and I was planning on going to the hospital that afternoon to see the family.
As mom was pulling up the number of a family member for me to call and check in with, she got a text from them that he had passed.
I expected that I would have an emotional response, and possibly a strong one to his death.
The parallels to losing dad, him having been an important person in my life(I hadn’t spent much time with them in years, but they had been a significant part of my life earlier), and I have done my best not to attend funerals without a very strong social obligation.
My symptoms did increase dramatically after his death, but not quite in the patterns I expected. I knew going to the funeral wasn’t going to be easy, and it wasn’t, but I planned and prepared the best I could, and managed it pretty well, all things considered.
I rested up and had nothing else scheduled on the day of the viewing, and the day of the funeral. As I expected, I was symptomatic, but I managed it.
I gave my condolences, shared my respects, and did what was needed.
My symptoms kicked up later, and at the time, I couldn’t figure out why then instead of earlier or later – eventually, I put it all together though.
What brought out my symptoms wasn’t his death, sad though it was.
What brought out my symptoms was my mother’s response.
For mom, this death is much more similar to losing dad.
Her best friend just lost her husband.
She’s putting herself in her friend’s position, empathizing with her, and expecting me to be there for her, the same way that I was when dad died.
My symptoms increased in response to mom’s expectations around my availability and willingness to help her support her friend.
It took a bit to put it together- what I knew, consciously, was that my symptoms weren’t in response to the obvious things, like the funeral.
After some consideration, I realized that the tone of my conversations with mom had shifted.
We’d had a nice balance in the past where it was normal for me to respond to invitations with an implied or stated expectation that the plans could change the day of if I was more symptomatic than expected.
Suddenly, that wasn’t good enough anymore – mom kept pushing for me to promise to be there, to value my presence over my health and safety.
For most of this month, I’ve been having stronger than usual movements, and a lot of head and neck symptoms.
These are the most dangerous movements, in my estimation, as they can make me dizzy, pull neck muscles, and run the risk of a mild concussion from slamming my head into things.
I haven’t been able to go for a walk to exercise in weeks.
Just getting dressed or preparing food has caused head shaking severe enough to make me dizzy or left my head smashing my neck as if I’m a human Pez dispenser.
Doing much of anything has been challenging, and any stress(including eustress) has left me with more symptoms and less energy.
I have gone out a few times, but have had to cancel about half my social plans.
I haven’t been able to work much on my blog, struggling just to get a post out each week.
I have spent a lot of time playing games on my tablet instead of working because that was the only thing I could do.
Any attempt to do something requiring more focus or emotional energy would result in my body freezing still, or my head slamming into a pillow(or worse, if I wasn’t lying down).
It’s been a rough few weeks.
Regrouping: Putting the pieces back together again, but stronger
My therapist and I put it all together this week. She helped me recognize that my symptoms were in response to mom’s requests and expectations, rather than the death and loss.
I am now working on putting myself back together, and getting control over my symptoms back.
Sadly, the most important thing for me was to create some space for myself without my mother’s influence.
I requested that we not communicate for the month of May, and it appears that she has accepted and will honor that request.
This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, so I feel a little like a cartoon character who set a bomb and then was waiting, braced, for the explosion that didn’t happen for some reason.
I’m cautiously opening an eye and hoping the bomb won’t explode the moment I relax.
So far, so good.
While my symptoms are still pretty severe, I do think they are starting to calm down a little bit. I am feeling less anxious, and I’m not slamming into things as much as I had been.
I’m hoping that I can start getting some work done in the next few days.
I am physically sore(keep discovering new muscles I pulled) and emotionally tired.
I know I’ve made some major progress in recognizing the emotions behind the symptoms and in finding a way to manage it(maybe not the most graceful way, but something that will hopefully work).
Every time I am able to recognize what triggered my physical symptoms(I’m very practiced at recognizing and managing my emotional triggers), I am another step closer to improving my life.
I have made further progress in managing my FND symptoms.
The first step to solving any problem is recognizing the root of the problem. The next step is to start fixing it.
I’m proud of myself for recognizing my need, and for asking for it – and for being able to articulate it to my mother in a way that wasn’t accusatory or angry, but still got the point across.
I think the fact that I was able to do so, and she was able to respond so gracefully, is a sign that we both have grown a lot in the last fifteen years. I am proud of both of us.
I’m planning on spending this month rebuilding myself and my work. Get back into my self-care habits(again), and rebuild my stamina while I bring my symptom severity down bit by bit.
Conclusion: learning through self-reflection
I am writing this post as part of my healing process – verbalizing(well, writing) pain that I have been silently managing most of my life.
Shining light on a dark experience, and one where my unintentional abuser is herself a victim of abuse.
My parents committed themselves to not passing their struggles to the next generation, and overall, I think they did a very good job. They did their best to support and protect their children from the fears that life can bring, and for the most part, they were very successful.
As the first child, I bore the brunt of the mistakes that did happen, but that’s what they were: mistakes.
My mother expressed her love as she was taught to, and now, with both of us well into our adulthood, we were able to communicate about those mistakes in a way that will hopefully allow us both to keep healing, keep improving, and keep making our lives better.
I am older now than she was when she lost her parents, and maybe can better understand how she felt at the time.
I am tired and hurting from my experiences this past month, but I am also proud, and feeling hopeful that in May, I can once more be able to be my happy and productive self.
Hi Alison, thank you for joining us again, and for confiding such an emotional and vulnerable part of your life here. I am sure that others out there can relate to it, and that your story is a support to them. I wish you well on your continuous healing journey. Sending much love.
Thank you Sheryl! It is hard to talk about and hard to know how to handle when another person’s story is so imtimately tied with my own…I had to write this, but it wasn’t easy.
Gosh, all very raw and brave stuff Alison. I thought I was pretty clued up on neurological conditions but FND is new to me, so thank you for making me aware of it. Again and again I’m reminded of the impact of child abuse and feel so sad that it’s so widespread. I’m glad you’re working through things and hope for continued clarity for you and strength going forward.
Naomi, thanks! I have been processing through a lot lately. I have also heard some pretty scary statistics…probably half the population has some form of damage to their internal beliefs and expectations about healthy connections with other people. Trauma can carry through generations (as I shared with my echoes). There is a lot at stake and a lot of damaged people out there. FND has only had the name and recognition as a neurological condition for maybe 15 years. Prior to that, it was called conversion disorder and considered psychatric, which was exceptionally unhelpful. It’s actually pretty common, but even a lot of neurologists don’t know how to recognize/diagnose it! Thank you again for your kind words
Hello again Alison
Thank you for sharing such a raw and powerful part of your personal story and your painful journey with FND, I am sure that it is one that will resonate and help other people that are facing similar struggles. Really great use of the prompts for the month too.
Hoping that your continued insights into your past will help you continue with your journey to healing.
Thank you so much! It was very top of mind, so I felt I really needed to get it out. Relationships are so hard and so deeply intertwining and personal that I just had to dig in and find the root there. It’s interesting how devestatingly obvious some things are in hindsight, especially when you miss seeing it for a while.
Wishing you the best as well, thanks so much for reading and commenting!
Hi. Alison! You’ve written such a powerful piece. I don’t have any idea how you wove this month’s prompts into your post. What we learn as children really does have a huge impact on us, and it can be really difficult to discover the root of out adult issues. Kudos to you, for being able to talk to your mom about it, and to her for respecting your May break.
Hi Kathy, thank you so much!
With the prompts, the order didn’t fit my story, but rearranging them did – I have the prompts in the titles for each section – I think it flowed well! Digging to the root is really hard, and I’m proud of myself each time I have a breakthrough on that.
So far, mom and I are maintaining radio silence, but my partner called her for mother’s day and let her know that we were thinking of her. Her birthday is coming up this month too, so I will likely put together a card for her or something similar. I am proud of her for accepting my request, and I just hope that things can restart in a healthier state when I see her on June 1!