Someone once said that we could sweep away all the self help groups: Adult children of alcoholics; adult children of drug abusers; adult children of mentally ill parents, etc, and replace them with a single term “Adult children.”
He was wrong. Growing up (or living) in an abusive environment does many things, but none of them is make you an adult. At least not a “fully functional/operational adult.”
It can give you the marks of adulthood. Most children who grew up in abusive situations, ranging from casual abuse in that you and your needs weren’t important to your parents, to actual physical abuse aren’t adults. Sometimes they aren’t adults as adults. This is because they have trouble individuating and separating themselves from how others perceive them. When it’s a matter of survival being aware of your parents’ moods, you’re likely to always want to be in the “right” with people around you, in your group, in your work place, in your church, in your family. You live in function of how others are going to react.
You can appear very mature from the outside, because the spontaneity of childhood is mostly gone. You’re always calculating for effect. And in a family where everyone is slightly (or very) off kilter, this can give the impression you’re “the adult.”
You also acquire habits of always blaming yourself when everything goes wrong, of trying to take care of everyone around you, and blaming yourself when something goes wrong with them, of accepting abuse (of the same type you endured, for which case it is worse to be used to getting “hind teat” and “blamed for everything” than to be sexually abused. Though one wonders how many of the Hollywood victims of Weinstein were used to sexual abuse growing up) from your employers and colleagues.
This is not true confessions, and my own personal childhood has bloody nothing to do with it, except to say my relationship with my mother is peculiar. Yes, I’m sure she loves me — though I only realized it at 16 when I fell in the bathroom and lost consciousness, and woke up to her crying and begging me not to die — more so now, as an adult. But the fact that I didn’t realize it and the fact that she still (guys, I’m 55) thinks I can’t possibly be able to look after a family/etc. is indicative of some of our problems.
Having seen this from the other side, and not going into other issues, I think part of the problem is that mom’s childhood truly stank on ice, particularly in terms of family relationships, and therefore she tried to “protect me”. Some of the “protecting” though took the form of — since I had it so much better than her — making sure I was “motivated.” This meant in practice that I could never do anything right. EVER. (The fact I was competing with a brother who was ten years older and had an eidetic memory didn’t help in this.)
The other part of our relationship is that I was severely premature and very sickly. I once read an article (pre-internet, so I can’t find it) that explained that mothers of premature babies often have lousy relationships with their kids, more so if the kid is the second or third, and the first one or two (or more) were normal.
Subconsciously (these things never rise to the conscious level, and I wonder if it’s part of the same reaction that makes cats kill or abandon kittens who are defective or ill) you are disappointed in your baby. They can do less, they are weaker, as they grow up they’ll have coordination issues (in spades in my case) and are generally odd and stick out.
The fact the doctor with, I’m sure, best intentions in the world, told my parents, hours after I was born, that I’d probably be mentally slow/damaged because of being so premature didn’t help. Also, I don’t know if it’s true. I know that until I got accepted into college, my parents’ explanation for my academic achievements was that “Someone made a mistake.” (Note here that I also get this having seen it from the other side. If younger son hadn’t been tested and if they didn’t tell us he has the highest IQ in the family, things he does with … oh, laundry…. would lead me to believe he’s not very bright.)
In fact a lot of us “Odds” get this reaction and have weird relationships with our parents. Particularly if the parents aren’t odds themselves, or if the parents have suppressed their Odd side so far back they don’t remember. We just don’t do what they expect, aren’t what they expect, and they don’t know how to love us.
I think there is a good dose of that in my relationship with my mom because of two things: first, her battle cry when my brother and I were discussing a book or movie, or having a multi-quote “conversation” or taking prizes in things she didn’t get was “I wish I had normal children.” She once came home from shopping, and she’d met an elementary school friend whose kids, our ages, were a mechanic and a seamstress. My brother was at the time working as an engineer, and I was in college — rare and something to aspire to in Portugal those days, as college was strictly on grades and there were no private colleges — and she looked at both of us and informed us she wanted “normal children” and “children whose goals I can understand.” (Note that she herself pushed us to achieve and get into college. These things aren’t always straight forward.)
Second, I once heard her complain to a friend that I had such crazy notions of the world, and she didn’t know how I would survive.
Note she was right. I did have crazy notions of the world, including for a while that we could abolish money. But none of it had anything to do with how I actually lived in the day to day, and none of it was UNUSUAL for an Odd child my age.
Note I’m not complaining about my upbringing. Mom did the best she could with what she had to hand, and it’s not for me to stand judgement over her. I wasn’t a wanted child (I think I’ve mentioned that before) and I am proof that unwanted children can grow up to be happy and for that matter to be loved by the parent who initially didn’t want them. She certainly spent years of her life trying to push and pull me through severe illness, when just a bit of neglect would have had me die.
Anyway, that’s enough about me, because this is not the point of this. The point of this is that I could have been defined as and often functioned as an “adult child” managing mom’s moods and her reactions to me to the best of my ability — hell, for years after I’d moved away and was a married woman. I think it took me ten years to stop taking mom’s opinion into account when I dressed myself in the morning, and being afraid she’d have disapproved.
The funny thing is that in the family, they often told me I was emotionally immature. They were right, of course, but probably not the way they meant. In public, however, I was considered way too mature for my age, and told things like “you’re an old soul”. Also that I overthought things, but never mind.
The point is that I’m 55 and I’ve only recently come across the scars and become aware of them.
Because psychological scars aren’t the same as physical scars, and you don’t necessarily know they’re there. And people who see you might THINK there’s something odd, but not what it is, necessarily.
I’ve come to notice my scars by seeing them in other people in whom they’re way more obvious and who sometimes engage in outright suicidal behaviors because of them.
EVERYONE is scarred by their upbringing. This is part of being human. It’s the size of the scars and how non-functional the behaviors are that make a difference.
And you might not even notice them, because in the space behind your eyes that’s “normal life.”
That whole failing to separate thing?
Dan and I take in strays. We’ll probably always take in strays. BUT the hyper-responsible causes us to continue feeling responsible/trying to help long after it’s started to hurt us physically/emotionally/financially and long after it’s become obvious that we’re not doing good and are on the contrary creating learned helplessness.
And I realized recently my entire relationship with publishers/employers mimics my relationship with my mom. Hell, for a long time, until Dan so did my romantic relationships.
At some level, I was aware that I was sickly and a lot of trouble, and that she had better things to do, so I tried to keep quiet, not obtrude. Yeah, I’m sure I was still tons of trouble, because sickly, but the thing is that I somehow internalized that I didn’t have a right to be sick or take up her time. Which is part of the reason I tend to ignore it when I’m sick until I land in emergency, and why I try not to bother employers or publishers.
In this if nothing else, I’m not just the prototypical female employee, but female employee with an additional jet pack for extra timidity and helplessness.
This feeling of “And I’m lucky to get hind teat” means I’ll get sick with stress but not demand clarification or payment or– Because I’m afraid it will be worse for me if I do. They’ll notice how much trouble I am and just drop me, say.
This has been, possibly, the worst thing for my career. In any artistic field, if you act like a field mouse, they’ll assume you’re not very good. You have to sell yourself to publishers, before you sell to the public. I tended to count only on my skills, and when those didn’t get appreciated, I tried not to make noise.
To make things worse, when my stress ratchets up, the autoimmune kicks in. And since keeping quiet while I feel ignored/undervalued is inherently stressful, I get sick… a lot. Or I enter six-month long depressions
Yeah, I only realized that in a sense I look for/mold the relationships into this, because that’s what’s familiar and comfortable. Oh, not comfortable, but known.
In the grocery store, they have a product called Scar Fade for physical scars.
I’m trying my darndest to do that with psychological scars. But it’s not easy. Most of the time, as I said, you don’t see them.
So am I going to strut out and be super aggressive and self selling? Ah! I still feel guilty when I say things like “self care” because it seems to selfish.
But if you find you’re seeing some scars in yourself, I found this helps, a little:
1- Remember you’re not perfect. No one expects you to be perfect and you can’t be perfect. Even your parents/whoever didn’t expect you to be perfect. You just got this idea because you were young and didn’t understand what was going on.
2- When you fail/do something wrong, from the big to small, forgive yourself. Don’t dwell on it, just try again.
3- You’re not responsible for the actions of others. No, not even if they tell you that you are. Even if you enabled someone’s learned helplessness, if that person is/was an adult, they made the decision to let you do that. Not your fault. “Look what you made me do” is not a defense. And it’s not your fault. Others have agency. Let them have it. Let it go.
4- Identify your bad patterns, such as drifting to abusive relationships/work situations and consciously try to avoid them. This sometimes means doing the opposite of what you “feel” you should. That’s fine. Weird and scary as h*ll but fine.
5- Value and take care of yourself. No, I don’t mean become a self-centered *ss, but be aware of when what you’re giving is so far that it’s damaging you. Stop it. Moderate it. Find another way.
6- Complain. Yes, it’s entirely possible your employer values you so little, particularly because of the image you’ve projected, and particularly if you’re a writer in the current stressful environment for publishing, that they just let you go. So? Find another way. You don’t deserve hind teat. No one does.
There are other things, I’m sure, things I’ll need to learn.
What seems normal to you in the space behind the eyes isn’t. What you do for the best is sometimes the worst thing you can do. This is true for others too. Understand them, forgive them and move on.
In this space between ape and angel, sometimes all you can do is try.