Making Room for Happiness

My mother was a chronically angry person. When I think of her, I think of her bitterness about lots of things and her anger. Whenever she got mad, she could never argue the merits of any point, she just lashed out at people at made personal attacks — whether it was Dad, any of us kids, her sisters, etc. She could be vicious. I spent much of my life trying to be anything but my mother.

That said, I have been reading a book about a man who grew up essentially alone. His parents died tragically when he was young, and he was continually let down by the foster care system. He hardened his heart and largely pushed everyone in his life away to keep from being hurt. After a medical emergency during which he ended up in a coma, he meets Jesus, and realizes that his heart is a broken down and empty shell because he has made no room for God. While I am not finished with the book yet, the message I am getting is that he his method of closing himself off from potential hurt is also limiting his chances of experiencing any happiness.

Beyond that simple message, I am recognizing that I may not be so different from my mother. Just as she let anger control her, I am allowing anger to control me. Recognizing that and doing something about are two different things, but it is freaking me out a bit to realize that I may be more like my mother than I might like to admit.

Pushing People Away

Driving up the Interstate today, I was thinking about how often people (friends, students, co-workers, neighbors) confide their problems to me. I find that exhausting, but I am not sure why. I don’t know if I feel obligated to solve their problems, or if it just makes me sad that I don’t really feel like I can truly confide in anyone what my issues are, so I have noticed I have started pushing people away. I haven’t really thought about it until now, but it seems that I am pushing people away instead of dealing with listening to their problems. I have had one friend since college. Her husband cannot keep a job, and none of her four kids has really turned out like she had hoped. Her life has involved a lot of drama. For years, we talked a lot, but in the last four years, I have found myself avoiding her. I couldn’t explain it to myself until recently. I think I feel like every time I talk to her, it’s about drama. I don’t know why I find her drama so exhausting, but I do. I feel like the drama in my head is too much, and dealing with anyone else’s drama is more than I can handle.

My Own “Proust Questionnaire”

I love the “Proust Questionnaire” page in every issue of Vanity Fair. For whatever reason, I decided to answer my own version tonight.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? I cannot even imagine a state such as perfect happiness. I know when I snuggle under a blanket with my pups is about as close as I get to feeling contentment.

What is the trait you most deplore in others? Having a closed mind.

On what occasion do you lie? Many people in my life might argue that I am too honest for my own good,

What do you dislike most about your own appearance? Pretty much everything — my mom reminded me all the time that I am ugly.

What words or phrases do you overuse? Now.  Seriously? All the swear words.

What talent would you most like to have? I would love to be a more patient and better listener. I am working on that.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be? That they would love me.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? Not killing myself despite all the times I have wanted to.

What is your most treasured possession? My vision

What is your favorite occupation?  Reading a good book with my pups sitting with me.

What is your most marked characteristic?  My candor

What is the quality you most like in a man? Sense of humor

What is the quality you most like in a woman?  Compassion

Who are your favorite writers?  John Steinbeck, Phillip Roth, Liane Moriarty

What is it that you most dislike? People who abuse animals

How would you like to die? Quickly

What IS Family?

What makes a family? Years ago when one of my favorite cousins married her husband, he had a grandfather who went by the moniker of “Happy.” I truly admired “Happy,” and one of frequent expressions that I remember to this day is “Your family is the only the only family God gives you so must find a way to get along.” That thought seemed to work well for HIS family, but it somehow never really made an impact on my family. Over the years, as I have trudged through the quagmire of clinical depression and anxiety (most of which my family cannot or will not understand), I have felt increasingly alienated from the brothers and sisters with whom I grew up. They all seem to move through life managing whatever troubles and stresses they have without therapy or medications in a way that is completely impossible for me. Moreover, they seem to judge me for my reliance on therapy and medication. Add to this delightful mix the unresolved conflicts from childhood that cognitive therapy frequently demands be addressed, despite the fact that my family believes that re-visiting the past is both stupid and pointless unless you are telling a story to embarrass someone, and I feel trapped in my misery.

At this stage of my life, my parents are dead (and my mother haunts my dreams enough to make me fear going to sleep some nights), my favorite aunt and my favorite cousin are both deceased (cancer), one of best friends is dead (heart virus) and I rarely see my siblings. My youngest brother barely talks to me unless he needs something. He and his wife never invite me to their kids’ events. My sister has hated me for decades for reasons I honestly do not understand, and she does not speak to me. My other brother and I have a cordial relationship, but I think that is only because he thinks he almost saw me die once. I do not think any of my siblings honestly like me, and any concern they have for me is based solely on the fact that I am an aunt to their children.

So, I look around and see my friends and neighbors sharing joyous time with families, and I realize my family is my husband and our pets. If my husband were to die tomorrow, my family would be the dogs and me. I am not wallowing in self-pity here, but experiencing a moment of clarity. I think my parents spent so much time cultivating an image of family they wanted people in the community to see that they forgot to cultivate a sense of family among us kids. Or perhaps, my parents had so many of their own demons (many of which they chose to reveal only to me as their oldest child) that they were incapable of really helping us kids bond with each other. Whatever happened, I can see that my siblings have a strong bond with each other that excludes me. They go on adventures together with their kids, and they take vacations together. On the rare occasions when I am invited to be around them, it is painfully obvious that I exist outside of their bond. At some point, I came to be related to them by blood but not by love or laughter. Does that mean it is time to move on?

I’ve Lost That Loving Feeling

My mom grew up in a family in which family members said hurtful things to each other and, instead of apologizing, they then just acted like none of it ever happened. From what I can gather, they all seemed to grow up inured to this way of life, and largely unaffected by it. This dysfunctional scheme for managing conflict oozed into the fabric of the family system in which I spent my formative years. I still cringe every time I think about an argument brewing because I knew whoever was upset with me would NOT make a case for the finer points of view for which he or she argue. Instead, the angry party would merely scream something at me like, “You’re just a fat pig who is weird and has no friends.” Even though deep down inside of me, I knew this was fundamentally wrong, I was powerless to stop it. My parents never did anything to stop, and sometimes my mom did it herself. I can still remember the time she called me a slut, even though I wasn’t even dating. The amazing thing is that no one in my family, including my mother, ever apologized for anything mean or hurtful they say, they just acted like it never happened. I have been thinking about that today because I realize how much that has shaped who I am today — in both good and bad ways.

The Good: In a good way, I am very careful when I am angry. Sadly, I think I am often too careful, but I when I get angry, I am scared to death that I am going to lash out like members of my family effectively trained me to do. I loathe that heritage. So, what frequently happens on those rare occasions when I am truly furious is that I shut down. I stew – sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. I have to chew on my fury until I am able to calmly use to express (to whoever needs to hear it) what I need. I honestly try to use my anger to define my needs and NOT to blame anyone else for my own feelings. Generally, I think I am okay at this, but like any human being, I fail sometimes.

The Bad: Sometimes, I tend to just swallow my anger, and that is not healthy. I suspect that is one of the reasons I struggle with my depression. I have heard it said that “depression is anger turned inward.” Well, I am the poster-child for that expression. I guess I decided somewhere along the way that it was better to turn anger in on myself than to do to others why I thought my family did to me. The worst thing that I am starting to think has resulted from those unhealthy anger explosions is that somewhere along the way, I shut down emotionally.

I just read a book by Melissa Rivers about her mother, Joan Rivers. Some of the things that Joan Rivers did and said to Melissa, I might find unforgivable, but Melissa was able to find the humor in all of it because she loved her mother. I see family situations all the time in which some member of the family does something so horrible that I am flabbergasted that anyone could forgive the person. Not only do family members forgive, but they show love and compassion. Somewhere along the way, I have lost my ability to feel love – at least for people.

I love my dogs, but I think I love them because they are dogs and they can’t hurt like people can. I think I love my husband, but only because I trust him like I have trusted no other human being in my entire life. I sometimes worry that I don’t love him as much as he loves me because I don’t really have the capacity to love anyone because my ability to love shut down decades ago.

I see brothers and sisters who seem to love each other so much on Facebook, and, yes, I know much of what is on Facebook is mythical. Hell, most people who see me on Facebook are generally fooled into thinking I am happy even though I think about dying pretty much every day. My point is that envy those brothers and sisters so much. I would love to think that I could call my brothers and sister for a get-together, and they would delighted to spend time with me. I cannot even think about calling anyone of them without getting the sweats. What would we talk about? How long would the conversation go before I said the wrong thing?

They think I over-analyze everything, so the idea that our childhood was anything but perfect is something they don’t want to hear. Moreover, any problems I have as a result of our childhood are MY problems, and I need to just get over it. Sadly, I am who I am, and I have realized that my emotional health has become far more important to me than playing along.

Commencement Revelations

We all make sacrifices for the ones we love. I have 8 nephews and 2 nieces. Since I do not have children (beyond my dogs), I would do almost anything for my nephews and nieces. This weekend, one of my nephews (who is also one of my Godsons) graduated from high school. Since he seemed to want me to come early for a Friday morning event at this school (Class Day), I left at 2:30 a.m. on Friday morning to make the almost 7-hour drive to arrive in time. I was not in town two hours before my sister (his mother) told me that I was too loud and I needed to be quiet. Were my feelings hurt? YES! Did I say anything? No, I shut up. No conflict for my nephew’s special weekend because he hates conflict.

I was EXHAUSTED, but I was a good sport and went along to lunch. After lunch, I went to nap for a while at the hotel (thank God for the hotel!!!) before dinner. My sister called to remind me to go to dinner with them, and, of course, we dined at a restaurant where they had virtually no gluten-free options. Since I am gluten-free, having no gluten-free options is a problem. She rolled her eyes. I ordered a burger without the bun and went back to the hotel hungry.

This morning, I was the first to arrive at the graduation location. I arrived at the appointed time, but no one was there as I was told they would be. I reserved the seats for the family, but after the ceremony, I turned around for 5 minutes (since my sister ignored me while she socialized with all of her friends), and when I turned around, everyone was gone. I was the ONLY member of either side of our family who made the trip to my nephew’s graduation, and no one seemed to give a damn that I was there. Now, candidly, I do not blame my nephews. They are gracious boys, and they have learned what manners they have from my sister and her husband. I feel like my sister is far more concerned with her status among the people she perceives to be the “important people” in her community than her family, especially. I probably would have told her to kiss my ass a long time ago, but I was a relationship with her sons. They are great young men who, I believe, need me in their lives, and I do not want to risk losing them alienating their mother. That said, however, keeping her in my life makes me feel like shit. Being around my sister makes me feel small.

Tonight, she invited me to attend a graduation part with my nephew, 10 of his friends and their families. I drank half a bottle of whiskey just to get through what little of it I was able to endure. I stayed about 1 hour, but after being ignored by virtually everyone there, including my own damn sister, I left. I went to a local restaurant and had dinner. I promise you, if I hosted a party and noticed ANYONE at the party sitting alone and not engaged, I would do anything in my power to make sure that person was having some fun. I mean, good grief, it’s not as if I am a wallflower! But there was not a person there who gave a damn that I was sitting alone for almost an hour. What really blows my mind, however, is that my own sister is more concerned with showing off that making sure I am somehow included. I cannot believe what I bitch she is. I can only hope her sweet boys inherit more of their nature from their father than from her.

Post-trip Reflections: After a long drive home alone in my car, I had lots of time to think about all that happened this weekend. Sadly, I sense that my sister (who is only one year younger than I am) has  nursed a general dislike/resentment of me for the greater portion of the time we have both been on this earth. Her facial expressions and body language whenever I am in her presence make her look as if she is either (1) waiting on me to say something that will provoke her to anger or (2) merely itching for a reason to put me in my place. As for me, I am no saint, but I sincerely just wish we could get along. I would give just about anything for an hour during which I could feel like my own sister sincerely liked me. It has been evident for all of my life that she would not even give me the time of day if we were not related.

The party for my nephew was so revealing. There were on 42 students in my nephew’s class, but the parents of the 10 most popular kids decided to get together and have a swanky party and a large manor house for the kids, some of their friends and the parents who appear to be living vicariously through their popular kids. Each kid was given a table with designer graduation cakes and stacks of presents and graduation cards. My sister insisted that I not give my nephew his present early so that my gift for him would be added to his table. Even my nephew commented sarcastically, “Oh, because it’s a competition.” Apparently, it was.

During the party, all the parents seemed dressed to see and be seen. I tried speaking to some people, but no one was remotely interested in me. I sat all alone in a chair in the front yard for almost an hour while people walked around me and ignored me. If I were at a party and noticed someone sitting alone, I would have done anything to make sure the lonely person felt included. No there cared. After I left, I think it took my sister another 45 minutes to realize I was gone. She seemed angry that I left. If I had invited someone to a party like that (even her!), and ignored her for almost two hours to the point where she left, I would have felt awful, not angry. Rationally, I realize this should indicate some flaw on her part, but emotionally, I cannot help but wonder why I am so unlovable that even my own sister is unable to like me or love me. If I did not love her sons so much, I would have quit trying a long time ago.

My spirit is just broken.