If You Don’t Understand It, It Must Be Drugs
“Are you on drugs?”
That’s the question my 70-something mother asked me, a year after I (at age 49) moved back home (you remember the ’08-’09 recession, right?) I instantly flashed back to my teen years, when she asked me the exact same question, in the exact same bedroom. And once again she was very wrong in her assumptions. No offense to pot users, but I’d never tried it, never wanted to try it, or any other drug, for that matter - except alcohol of course. A girl still needs her Guinness, after all.
I didn’t know how to answer her. The truth was a resounding no, but the implications of the question opened up something in my head. Finally. My entire life, I thought something was wrong with me. Nothing I did was ever good enough or smart enough. I couldn’t make love last and I didn’t know how to love myself. I didn’t retain any of the friendships I was convinced would be lifelong. I’d done two years of therapy and anti-depressants, which helped. A little. But it wasn’t until this moment, when my overly critical mother asked me THAT question that I had my Oprah ah-hah moment. There wasn’t anything wrong with me. Something was wrong with my parents.
You don’t want to see your parents as mentally ill. They should be your protectors, gently guiding you into the perils of adulthood, always with your best interest at heart. But sometimes they don’t. And sometimes it takes a few decades to see it. Even when my therapist blanched at my family stories and tossed around the words “mental abuse” it never registered. Until now.
Your parents are not supposed to talk to you the way my parents did to me. Just because it’s not physical abuse, doesn’t mean it can’t be damaging (although there was a little bit of inadvertent physical abuse, but with my parents’ generation, it was the only way they knew to raise children). I spent my whole life wanting their approval. Imagine the lifelong frustration of never achieving that. They even indulged in the classically psychological archetypes of having a scapegoat and a golden child, my brother being the latter and guess who as the former? And I never knew any better. Because that was our reality.
My father was raised by verbally abusive people. Bigoted even. He rebelled by being very liberal, joining the Peace Corps, and being very, very angry. And he never let go of that anger. His parents are now dead and he’s still waiting for apologies. Of course he took it out on us – well, me. I mean what are the odds that if you were abused, you would out turn be an abuser yourself? Exactly.
My grandmother spoiled me when I was a child, which just fueled that resentment fire for my dad and he never, ever let me forget that his mother doted on me until she died. So my younger brother got constant parental praise and devotion and I got condescension and scorn. And in trouble for an A-minus instead of an A. Naturally I exploited this victim mentality as a child, which only made everyone dismiss me all the more. I was “dramatic”, “selfish”, “overly sensitive” and “sneaky”.
The sneaky part came about as I learned that my opinions were unworthy, so my voice remained unheard. I didn’t share things with my family, as they could always be used as ammunition in arguments years later. Even when I was sick, it was somehow my fault for not taking better care of myself, even as an adult. When I got divorced, the first thing my mother asked me was, “Is that why you got so fat? Because you were depressed?”
My mother was a middle child in old generation South America. They had no teenagers. You went from child straight to adult, so the idea of talking back to your elders was unheard of. She had no frame of reference for me, so our relationship was nothing but a series of fights, with the occasional fierce embrace as she tried to love me.
We moved to California from Kentucky when I was young and instead of opening up exciting new possibilities, it somehow did the opposite, ending up demoralizing my parents and they both became more and more reclusive. The social clubs and parties they attended in Louisville were no more and they hunkered down in a rented home and worried for the future. They spent all their money on expensive schools for us and the drain of debt dragged them down and all they could see of the world was that it was a place to fear.
Because the universe is black and white to them, with no greys, anyone coloring outside the lines is confusing. I had creative bents, like writing and acting and while they dutifully came to see my shows, and even didn’t say (much) about my theatre degree, I know I puzzled them. And still do.
I’ve gotten disturbing emails from them over the years, which is actually a modern blessing because it means I now have physical proof of their nuttiness for all my therapy sessions. Once they sent me a few paragraphs on the inappropriateness of having a MySpace page (see how far back this goes?) and they periodically send me something-is-wrong-with-our-daughter rants, which often hark back to events from over 30 years ago. Because my family never lets go of past insults, real or no, even that time your sweater had a hole.
I got briefly involved with the Catholic Church in 2001, the year of the fallen buildings and my divorce. I sought solace. My parents pictured me on a soapbox in the park, wearing burlap. Nothing I said would convince them otherwise, even when I was so clearly happy, letting my voice soar free to sing in the choir. It was all nonsense to them. My brother had recently shared a personal revelation of his own, which was of course met with warm tears of support. I thought since they were so accepting of him, they might be open to my sharings. Nope. The three of us ended up not speaking for almost a year.
I started looking back at some recent disturbing relationship patterns. So many controlling women who constantly criticized me – I could never do anything right with these friends either. Somehow, the worse I felt about myself, the more I surrounded myself with people who were happy to point out my flaws. Because I believed them, I never stood up to them. This affected not only my personal life, but my professional ones, as I easily burned out in jobs, exhausted from worrying about making wrong decisions. I kept downgrading to more assistant positions so no one would ask too much of me. And then my husband left me when our marriage turned into passivity, and I was in danger of becoming a shrew.
How had I become this indecisive stress monster? What was wrong with me? Nothing. Nothing is wrong with me. Except that the original critique was still in my head, festering away. I might wish I’d had this revelation sooner, but no worries - I’m having it now. Being raised in scorn and derision, even when no one “means it” bombards your self-esteem. No wonder I’m a late bloomer. I was never allowed to find myself.
The first time my mother asked me if I was on drugs, I was being silly with my friends, after one of my theatrical performances, and we were just giddy off that applause high. Since my parents had never seen me that way, as I was always careful to hide my emotions from them, it meant something was wrong with me. And now today, as an adult, forced to move home because it’s too damn hard to live on my own in my non-profit way of life, they see me stressed out when I work long hours. My mother is convinced I smell of marijuana (I still don’t believe she knows what that smells like), mistaking my patchouli bath gel for pot. Or maybe for the neighbor smoking cigarettes next door which filters into our house? I have no idea where she gets it from. She sees my red eyes (from computer strain and a medical condition of under-produced tears) as drug-related, as well as any slight allergic sniffle (that has to be cocaine). She lives for the slightest misstep.
The fact that she condemns me over such superficial evidence, that my saying it’s not me (over and over) falls on deaf ears, tells me she has made up her mind about who she thinks I am. My father tells me that if he had to choose between my mother and me, he will choose her “every time”, because she has never deceived him. The implication being that I am the untrustworthy one. So much so, that “they don’t need to see me doing drugs to know that I am doing them”. Precisely what a once-doting daughter wants to hear from her father.
I realize this insanity must come from fear. And lifelong sheltering against the real world. My father was recently seriously hospitalized and has had a long recovery. Plus they both worry about sustaining their lifestyle into older age. Since we live in the Bay Area, that’s a definite challenge, as it gets more and more expensive here. They are both retired - and tired. But my family never addresses the real world. They would rather focus on what they think they can control. And because my brother never cared what they thought, it means torturing me. And it never felt like torture before, because I truly believed I was unworthy and that somehow life would never work out for me. When decent and worthy people praised me, I’d think something was wrong with them, and when the worst low-life people made fun of me, I felt compelled to agree.
People say that the only person who needs to believe in you is yourself, but you are never going to see it until you see it. My parents have never seen me as an adult. And that’s because they don’t want to. These are our family roles. I’m the “problem child” because I don’t think or act the way they do. But I no longer see myself in that way. I remember a friend of mine telling me that fathers normally dote on their daughters, but that mine gave me a surprisingly hard time (this was after my dad made sarcastic fun of my sense of direction in front of everyone – this from the man I once used to worship).
In addition to being broke, I originally wanted to move back in with the folks to mend fences. I lived in Los Angeles then, and as the years went by, I felt I should be closer to home, to take advantage of having living parents and to finally foster the relationship with them I’d always wanted. Alas, it was not to be. As my therapist had vainly tried to explain to me, I could not change them. I could only change me.
But each patronizing incident (calling me a liar merely for changing my mind about wanting to go to grad school, telling me to “shut up” when I snapped and yelled at my mother for falsely accusing her grown ass daughter of being on drugs for the 4th time, and countless more examples, believe me) has proven my shrink right. They will never change. The insidious side of their gaslighting technique is to be extremely offended at my adverse reactions to their accusations. How dare I get upset that they think so little of me? Any normal human emotion I may demonstrate is unforgiveable. Trying to see something from someone else’s perspective is utterly foreign to them because they are so mired in their own self-imposed misery.
How could I have thought all this was normal, you ask? I know, this is not how human beings should treat each other. To my folks, being well behaved (their version of it, anyway) is the only acceptable norm. Not making waves is the only way to stay safe. Never questioning authority is the only way to be good. And I’ll never be the good little Ecuadorian quiet girl with the tasteful attire and the demurely fawning personality. So I will never be accepted.
My parents are “so nice” to the outside world. Sweet and unassuming. But the way our family talks to each other is far from charming. Because the guest is always right and appearances are the highest priority, they will do anything to maintain that fantasy. They sacrifice health and safety to look good (my mom will give herself asthma bleaching the bathroom tub white) and they will be markedly uncomfortable at inconveniencing anyone outside the immediate family. This unachievable perfection ideal will never manifest. So they will always be unhappy. That doesn’t mean I have to be.
When I ran the Los Angeles Marathon, as part of my getting-over-divorce strategy, my mom came to “cheer me on” (meaning worriedly calling my cellphone every five minutes to see when I would be done). After the race, I was supposed to ice my legs in 20-minute intervals, but because we had relatives crammed in my studio apartment, waiting around, my mother pressed me to go with them to dinner. I limped on. When I visited a friend in Ireland, my mother called the host family to check up on me. No matter how old I am, I will never be able to take care of myself, even though I’d been doing just that since college. And now that I made the mistake of moving back home, God help us all.
But when she asked me that question – the drug question, I realized how absurd it all was. Why was I knocking myself out to prove to them I had value? If they didn’t think well of me now, they never would. It’s a hard truth. But a valuable one. Because it means I can finally let go. I no longer need to worry about what they think, because I already know. To hell with my angry father – that is his burden to bear, not mine. I can learn the lesson of what bitterness can do - how it can blind you to humanity. I don’t have to drink that poison.
It’s not too late for me to be the person I was always supposed to be. How freeing. I don’t have to hide my wolf tattoo, or pretend I don’t like the things I like. I can openly be the weird sci-fi adult fan girl and not have to explain myself. The world is big enough for me to exist without their opinion.
I like who I am now. And who I am going to be. And it’s not OK that my parents don’t. But I no longer have to care. And at age 49, that’s fine with me. Now I just have to find 10 roommates to be able to afford to leave.