Sunday, February 1, 2009

Communication and Abandonment

I've realized that I really am quite an oddity. In spending a good deal of time with girlfriends lately, it's become clear that I communicate far more than "your average bear." I don't know how NOT to talk about what I'm feeling and thinking...sometimes to my own detriment at times. It affects my relationships. Hopefully, the folks who love me understand where this comes from and will have patience with me while I muddle through some of the muck. There will always be muck in our lives, won't there?

My friend Tammy and I were talking today about my need to communicate. And last night, I was talking with my friend Alla about this same topic. Yes, it's an actual need for me. How did it become that? Well, many years ago, when I was a kid growing up, I learned that to have feelings of my own, to have thoughts of my own, made me selfish and self-absorbed. To express feelings of any kind that weren't empathy for the crisis of another family member (ok, realistically that was mom), I was sure to receive a reprisal of some sort. Usually a tongue lashing and withdrawing of affection and the ever-present "knowledge" that I thought only of myself. (Side note: I realize now that kids and teens ARE's actually TYPICAL, not uncommon.)

When I started in therapy, I was 12 years old. The reason for my therapy? I had an eating disorder. I was anorexic, which led to anorexia/bulimia. There were many therapists in the beginning. I liked some of them very much…but I guess mom did not and so, the therapist was switched. And finally, I decided that to be a “good” anorexic I needed to not talk at all. I spent months going to weekly therapy sessions where I didn’t speak a single word. Instead, I sat there and I peeled away the dead foliage from a hanging spider plant in the shrink’s office. I can’t remember why exactly I finally did start talking…I only remember what the experience was like. I was sobbing because I was opening my mouth, sharing the thoughts in my head, and so once again I had “failed” at doing something well…being the best at something. In this case, being a tough nut to crack anorexic. I’d opened my mouth.

Therapy became the only place that I could talk…well, until the therapist I saw for a while (that I HATED) basically said I had no reason to be afraid of my mom since she didn’t physically beat me. I didn’t realize that emotional abuse and withholding of affection couldn’t elicit fear in a child…someone never told my BRAIN that. And so, I was afraid of losing her love, disappointing her, and I never wanted to let her down. But I apparently did quite a fine job of letting her down and disappointing her and pissing her off on a pretty regular basis. Most of the time I thought she hated me and wished I didn’t exist. Because my mom didn’t beat me, he felt there was no justifiable reason for me to be afraid to talk to my mom about things, feelings…and so he told her that because my fear was not based in reality, I was a pathological liar. To this day, I am brutally honest with everyone because I fear being caught in even the slightest exaggeration/non-truth and being deemed a liar again. I’ve chosen partners who have lied to me ad nauseum…I know what a pathological liar is. I am not one, never was. I’m not even your generic, everyday liar. I don't lie. Never did.

I digress. When my dad died and I ended up in the hospital, the principle of communication as a basic need was stressed as necessary to my very survival. How? Well, in a psychiatric hospital, there is such a thing as constant observation. That means being in a group with others who are constantly monitored/in the presence of a staff member. Sometimes, you're on "one on one", one staff to one patient. This can actually be better in some ways. But what it means as a group is that no one in the group could go in the kitchen to get our own coffee/cereal because there were sharp/dangerous objects in there. We couldn’t shave or use razors. We couldn’t shower without being watched, go to the bathroom without being watched, sleep in a room without a staff member there to watch you all night, sit in the dining room with others to visit or go in the TV room to watch a show unless everyone else in the group wanted to do that.

Being in a psych hospital meant that every physiological symptom, mood, etc. that you had was under scrutiny. Have a headache? What stressor caused it? Upset stomach? What prompted that? The goal of the staff there was to get you to talk about your feelings...communicate. There were many means to encourage this. The threat of being put on constant observation was one. I remember having a migraine and asking for aspirin and being told by the nurse that she’d be happy to give me aspirin right after I sat with her and talked about what was going on to bring on my headache. I didn’t want to talk. I told her to fuck off and keep her aspirin. That landed me on a six-week stint of constant observation.

I spent a lot of time on constant observation because I wasn’t going to follow their rules. I also employed distractions to not deal with my feelings. I crocheted massive blankets. You know what that got me? Put on crochet restriction. Yup, they basically told me that I could not isolate myself that way and so, I was only allowed to crochet for an hour a day. Things that people take for granted in their day-to-day lives as hobbies, distractions, tools for coping/escaping from the everyday stuff that can get you down? Well, in a psych hospital where everything is examined and there are no accidents and everything has a motivation, those kinds of distractions are not allowed to be employed. Unless you want to be restricted in every means possible, you learn to communicate. It’s drilled into your being that what you are supposed to do is talk about your feelings and your thoughts. If you keep them secret, they keep you sick. You verbalize them and work through them, health is restored.

I guess I learned that lesson really, really well over those two years. I don’t know how to NOT talk now…and I find it’s not always a good thing. The rest of the world doesn’t operate under these same rules/guidelines…and so, I’m perceived (or maybe just am?) intense. I’m often misunderstood as I muddle through an explanation of the rawest of my emotions. Oftentimes I am making sense of it AS I SPEAK…it doesn’t all make sense when it first comes out. And that, well, that leads to some pretty difficult relationships sometimes. I’ve probably hurt more than one relationship in my life unintentionally by being this honest, open and direct person in a world of folks who don't typically do or understand or maybe even want that.

One of the things that my mom used to do when she was having a hard time was to take off. Leave us. Literally, she would disappear for a few days. Her friend would call us and tell us that she was ok, but that she was overwhelmed and was going to be away for a few days. On occasion, this came on the heels of one of her attempts to kill herself. We had no means to contact her directly, only could contact a friend of hers. We didn't know where she was, how exactly she was, what we had done to upset her, or when exactly she'd be back. When we were younger and this happened, we would be sent to stay with friends for a few days. One of my best friends, well, my mom abused the ability to call on her family so much for help/assistance that I was no longer allowed to have my best friend's phone number. Her mom and dad decided that if I had the number, my mom would pester me for it at some point and use it to call them and ask for favors...which they didn't want to have to oblige. And so, I was unable to call my best friend for years...wasn't allowed to have her phone number. I also knew that if I did anything wrong (sometimes I didn't even know what I had done wrong, and I suspect that sometimes mom's disappearances weren't even related to anything I did), mom would take off/abandon us/me (her doing this continued until my senior year of high school when she finally had a therapist who told her he would help her work through her feelings, but she really needed to return to her child). In hindsight, it really doesn't or shouldn't surprise me that I have issues with people abandoning me when I'm less than perfect. I never expect anyone to stick around for me long-term.

So, lessons learned for now…communication is good. I believe that. Honest communication is imperative. But learning how to communicate honestly and openly with finesse? Well, that is an art form…one I wish to cultivate in myself. I think it will save me and others a great deal of heartache. Oh, and learning to recognize that if others don't communicate as openly as I do does not necessarily mean they don't care, love me, or are about to leave me. Of course, sometimes that IS the case, but not always. Abandonment issues die hard I guess.

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