The Apple and the Tree, Part II

I am my mother’s daughter.

I’ve always known I had a great deal in common with my mother, but only recently have I acknowledged some of the less-attractive traits.  I have known for sometime that my CDO issues come from her.  When she bought her last new car, she dragged my brother and me to car dealers five days out of the week.  We went to three or four a time.  On the road, she would ask my brother the make of every car (he knows his cars).  She would talk incessantly about this car and that one until I wanted to scream.  This went on for three weeks.

When I was trying to decide whether to go to SF to get my MA in Writing & Consciousness (yes, it was a DFH program at a DFH school which has since lost its accreditation, damn it), I did the same thing.   I obsessed over what might or might not happen.  What if I couldn’t find the BART station?  What if I got mugged on the way home?  What if I didn’t like any of my cohorts?  What if they didn’t like me?  What if I found out that I couldn’t write after all?  What if I hated my housemates?

I was ruminating like this in my therapy session one time, and my therapist cut in gently and said, “Minna, half of the things you think will happen, won’t, and things will happen that you never dreamed could happen.”  I know, it sounds so simple, but it really cut through my stream of thought and got to the heart of the matter.  All that fulminating was a way to avoid making an actual decision.  I am very bad at making decisions, so I use ‘thinking about it’ as a way to put off making an actual decision.

My mother is the therapist to all her friends.  They tell her their problems, and she wisely counsels them.  However, I can’t think of anyone she talks with about her problems–except me.  She made me her confidante when I was eleven or so, and she hasn’t looked back.  I got to hear about her troubles with my father (NOT what I needed to hear) and to her complaints about life in general.

I used to be like this.  I could talk to my friends about many things, but I locked up the truest emotions.  I still do that to some extent, but I’m much better now at talking about my pain, if not exactly at showing it.  I can call a friend (or, more likely, email) and say I’m feeling down.  I can post something as my FB status and have people cheering me up in no time.  I am slowly beginning to understand that it’s not necessarily a weakness to show vulnerability.  And, more to the point, I have friends I know will still love me even when they see the ugly side of me.  I’m not sure my mom has that or thinks she’s worth that.  My father is not very nice to her, and I think she’s come to believe that the way he treats her is the way it should be.

Like me.

For so many years, I believed that the way my family treated me was the way I should be treated.  I still struggle with it today, as evidenced by my trip to Taiwan.  During that trip, I erased all signs of me because I didn’t feel she deserved to exist.  I see my mother do that around my father.  She is much different when it’s just the two of us than when he is around.

My mom is the queen of criticism.  Well, she was.  She’s mellowed in that area over the years, but she used to always find something wrong, no matter what.  Sadly, I am like that, too.  I focus on the little things that go wrong rather than on the majority of things that go right.  I hate that about me, which makes me lash out at her when she does it.

Another way in which I am like my mother.  She has the amazing ability to spin the past into a rosy vision of how she wants things to be.  She glosses over the negative experiences or forgets they happen because they don’t fit in with her inner narrative.  I do the same thing, except I spin things negatively.  I overlook positive aspects of an experience or forget they happened until I am reminded of them somehow.

I can see why my mother spins things positively (so she doesn’t have to remember the unpleasant shit), but why do I spin things negatively?  I have a feeling it has to do with Carl Jung’s theory of the shadow side.  Bear with me.  In brief, Jung believed that everyone had a shadow side, the icky stuff we would rather not see about ourselves.  Many people deny their lesser-attractive traits, which only serves to reinforce said lesser-attractive traits in action.

I, on the other hand, live in the darkness.  For most of my life, I have been aware of my flaws and my negative attributes.  I focus on them and cling to them as if they were part of my religion (which, in a way, they are).  I am comfortable with my negatives, in part, because I used to think that I was only a compilation of said negatives.   I didn’t think I deserved to be alive, so really, focusing on my flaws was a great way to reinforce that belief.

A really basic way in which I am like my mother is our shared interest in psychology.  We both find people fascinating, but I think it’s on a different level for each of us.  I find people fascinating (individuals, not the masses) because each story is different.  When I drive, I think about how every other driver on the road has a compelling life story (ok, most of them), and I would love to hear that story.  My mother, on the other hand, likes fixing people, I believe.  She gets satisfaction from helping someone through a particularly hard point in her life (as she works with professionals in the social work fields, most of her clients are female) and coming out on the other side.

One way in which we are different (as are the regulations between the US and Taiwan) is that she regularly injects her religious belief into her work.  She freely tells her clients that she is a Christian and what her Christianity means to her personally.  In fact, ironically, one of her difficulties with sandplay therapy (her specialty) is that most of the other practitioners are Buddhist or simply enamored with Eastern religions.

It’s harder for me to separate what is my mother and what is me because we have been enmeshed since I was a little girl.  I was taught that I was responsible for her emotional well-being, and that’s not an easy thing to shed.  I had a mini-victory lately, though.  She has cataracts in both her eyes.  As is her wont, she let them get really bad (to the point where it’s scary riding in the car when she’s driving).  She is having surgery this summer when she visits the States as the situation has reached critical mass.   So, she emailed me and asked me to make the appointments (one for each eye, two weeks apart) as there is a fourteen-hour time difference between Taiwan and MN.  She gave me her schedule and her restrictions (she’s going to a conference in CO, for example), and I called to set up the appointments.

Done.  Right?  Wrong.  The doctor’s assistant called me back to say the doc was taking a vacation during the time we had scheduled the second appointment.  Since I knew my mom would be in town two weeks before the first appointment, I set the appointment for then.  This was when my mom’s OCD issues sprung to life.  She was going to the conference two days after the first surgery, and was that OK?  In addition, a cousin was getting married four days after the second surgery (in Las Vegas, and no, Mom, I am NOT going), and would it be ok for her to fly?  She wanted me to call back and see if I could change the appointments.

I called the assistant, and she reassured me on all accounts.  My mother would be fine to fly after surgery as long as she didn’t do any heavy lifting.  I emailed my mom, and that should have been that.

Except, not.  My mom called me, and she went on and on about having to present at the conference, and she would have to carry her luggage, and what if there were complications, and it would really be better to have different dates, and what if California slid into the ocean besides?  OK, she didn’t include the last, but she might as well have.  As I was conversing with her and trying to be reasonable, a voice in my head was saying, “Not my problem” over and over again.

Finally, I reached the end of my wits.  I told her to call the assistant herself.  That, of course, set off a new round of ‘what ifs’.  What if she’s not there?  (VM, we all have it in the States).  What time?  She (my mom) is so tired at night.  Couldn’t possibly stay up past eleven.  I told her that the assistant had left a message for me on my VM before nine in the morning, so she (my mom) could probably reach her (the assistant) around eight (MN time, 10 pm, Taiwan time).   My mom had a few more what ifs, and then she was back to, “What if I can’t reach her?  It’s so difficult to reach people these days.  You always get a machine.”  I was thisclose to telling her to fuck off, but I managed to rein it in and said, “Call her.  If you get a machine, leave a message telling her what dates and times you prefer.  Then, have her call me.”  I had to repeat this a few times, but my mother finally acquiesced.

I get an email a day later saying that she had reached the assistant and set the dates, no problem.

This incident made me realize that I have let my mother get away with acting more helpless than she really is.  I didn’t mind setting the initial appointments, but when things started to get complicated, it really made more sense for her to contact the doctor’s office than for me to have to be the liaison.  I didn’t abandon her totally, as evidenced by my saying the assistant could call me if my mother couldn’t reach the assistant personally, but I forced my mother to take more responsibility for herself.

Listening to her come up with a hundred and one reasons why she shouldn’t call the assistant and all the things that could go wrong was really an eye-opener.  I mean, I knew, vaguely, that I operated in a similar way (all the suppositions and the worries so I don’t have to actually take any action), but it really smacked me in the face to be on the receiving end from my mother after my newfound awareness that I need to set boundaries with her.

I am my mother’s daughter.  In this, I am not as sure how to disengage.

8 Responses to The Apple and the Tree, Part II

  1. I don’t know if I’ve said this to you before, but parents are usually good at pushing our buttons because they’re the ones who installed those buttons in the first place.

    You may have been programmed with many of your parents’ attitudes and methods of dealing with things, but you’re starting to be aware of these things. Noticing these things and clocking them when they come up is a huge first step. And even though I know you want to move immediately to altering the behavior, you’re going to have to live with it a while and figure out alternate ways of reacting. (Yup, that sucks; sorry.)

    As you get better at this, you’ll get better at disengaging from your mother… and, more importantly, you’ll get better at disengaging from those parts of your own personality that she programmed which no longer work for you.

    It may (or may not) help to stop thinking of your mom’s problems as actual problems you need to solve — she’s not looking for solutions, she’s looking for someone to listen to her complain and make it okay for her to continue to misbehave. And that requires an entirely different way of dealing with the situation. And I’ll bet the same goes for your behaviors that you’re looking to change!

  2. Like I told the Professor today, Minna. The first step to fixing the shit that’s wrong in your life is to recognize that it’s bad shit. Then comes the next step: deciding to give yourself the power to fix it. That takes effort, dedication, and strength. And only you can make that choice. No one else.

    You’ve already got the strength. Now you need to figure out if you’re ready to make the effort. We’re with you every step. But you have to move your feet first. =) (And be careful you don’t step on Raven when you do!)

  3. Good for you!

    I’ve fallen in that trap in the past with my mom, and later with others (holding myself responsible for their emotional well-being, letting them be too helpless).

    And now you’re seeing you have another option, with clear eyes (NOT a dig on your mom’s cataracts). A big step away from enmeshment.

  4. Alex, I love that phrase of yours because it’s so fucking true. You are right, too, in that most of the time when my mom talks about her problems, she is not looking for a solution. And, yes, you are even more on-target in that when I obsess over details, the obsession is the end rather than the means. Thanks for your support. I need it right now.

    whabs, knowing me, I’ll sulk about it first, whine about how hard it is to change, and then slowly make my way towards a different way of being. That’s just how I roll.

    Kel, you have been a stalwart bulwark (love those two words) for me, and you are so damn right. I have to take the steps. I have to make the change. Damn it. (See what I mean about sulking?). And, I will after much griping about it! P.S. How did The Professor take your sage words of advice?

    Choolie, yeah, I knew you could relate. You are right that I see differently now. Again, I just have to start moving in another direction.

  5. Do your parents have really nifty tats? Do your parents dig Johnny Cash? Do your parents make snarky comments on blogs?

    Of course your parents helped shape who you are, and I’m sad that you’re so dissatisfied with the result. But it’s important to remember that for all of that, you are not your parents, either of them. I am not sure exactly how you’ll disengage either, but as Alex said, recognizing the pattern is a key step towards breaking it, so break it you will.

  6. Well, at least you’re figuring out that you’re worth the whole damn cupcake and not just a dried out crumb. That’s a start. You’ll get there, and I’ll be there every step. It’s what twins do.

    The Professor agreed with me. (And then the Artist actually got the same talk last night, too.) They are both kinda lazy by nature, so they know that I can support them, but I cannot do the work for them. It just doesn’t worth that way.

    So the bottom line to them and to you is, How bad do you want it?

  7. Gregory, I can count on you to be relentlessly logical, can’t I? I cannot deny a single thing you said in the first paragraph, and yet, I find myself wanting to try. On my good days, I know I am more than an amalgamation of parts my parents installed into me. On my bad days, I can’t see past their programming. As you know, I have way more bad days than good ones. However, recognizing it is, indeed key. Now, I just have to find a way to stumble down the unknown path.

    Kel, I know. Baby steps. I get discouraged because progress is so damn slow, but I have to keep in mind that any progress is better than none.

    I am with The Professor and The Artist in that I am also lazy by nature. How bad do I want it? I just can’t answer that yet. I wish I could.