Escape from ‘codependency’ treatment

At the time of my first hospitalization for depression and suicidal urges, during my junior year in college, I was badly broken by the loss of a relationship, again.  The term ‘codependent’ was a hot new thing back then, so both in the hospital and subsequent residential treatment I was required to participate in addiction groups. I had no problems with substance use — I was just supposed to mentally substitute the idea of a boyfriend in the place of alcohol or drugs whenever they were mentioned by the group or in the reading materials. People kept telling me: “You can’t love anyone else until you love yourself.”

As someone who was raised to hate myself, I found that statement a vicious circle, a trap, one of the most depressing things ever. I was a psychology major and I knew enough about unconditional positive regard and secure attachment and so on to know that people don’t develop healthy self-concepts in a vacuum, they do so through loving relationships. What is a person supposed to do, then, if they didn’t receive what they’d need to love themselves, and therefore aren’t equipped to love others but only get addicted to them and hurt by them?

The impossible instructions I got were that I shouldn’t be allowed to become really attached to anyone until I had spent enough time alone to somehow figure out a way to love myself. OK, not entirely alone, because I could still have my therapist, and my addiction group. As if their alienating piles of pamphlets about alcohol and higher powers were going to comfort me, let alone help me feel something for myself that I didn’t know how to feel.

I felt that I was being criticized and blamed for still wanting relationships. I was being seen as leaving too large of a relationship footprint — after all, in my hand, a loving hand became nothing more than a dangerous substance! In this view, my basic need to connect with others was destroying more than it was helping, making me a burden. Seeing myself this way only strengthened my wish to die, and I started fantasizing about ways I could get myself killed and turned into food for homeless cats.

What I did instead was leave residential treatment with another patient, to start a life together – after we signed forms acknowledging that we were going against medical advice by doing so. Our relationship, which didn’t last, was difficult even from the very beginning. But it was a way out and a way forward for both of us.

I fully understand that people with low self-worth are in danger of being mistreated in relationships, and are unlikely to be able to enjoy or give as much healthy love as others without this vulnerability. Treatment should help us to get better at recognizing when we’re at risk and thriving when we’re not. But a treatment that teaches us we’re unfit to be in relationships is not going to improve our self-worth or our relationship skills. I was lucky to escape.


Being unfuckwithable

Last year I was bullied by several students who thought they could pressure me into giving them higher/easier grades. They tried everything they could, including manipulation, lying, disrespectful behavior, turning their classmates against me, and complaining about me to other faculty. In the end, all my students received the grades they had earned based on my syllabus and grading rubrics, so the bullies did not succeed. But the bullies did manage to make me feel so awful that I stopped bringing my class the level of enthusiasm and finesse that my non-bullying students deserved. Now that I am preparing for the Fall 2016 semester, I find that planning the course material is the easy part. What I am most worried about is preparing for how I’d handle it if a student tries to bully me, so that it doesn’t take so much of a toll on me and my work.

I’ve come to realize that while student bullies can be a challenge for any professor, I have a particularly hard time with them because after being mistreated early in life by my father, my more popular classmates, and others, I spent too many years believing I didn’t deserve any better. For instance, among the people I considered my closest friends as a teenager, several openly excluded me from many things because I wasn’t ‘cool’ enough, another threatened to hit me, and a third offered my boyfriend a secret sexual relationship on the side. How did I respond to my so-called friends when they behaved like this? I made efforts to please them by trying to accommodate the new terms they were setting for our friendship, and even gave them elaborate, hand-made gifts! Similarly, even after relationship partners repeatedly cheated on me or engaged in other manipulative behaviors, I stayed with them until they decided to break my heart by moving on.

I think this history helps explain why when someone treats me with disrespect (or worse), my first reactions are to freeze and to doubt myself, thinking that I must have done something to deserve it. But such reactions are particularly problematic in the classroom, because when my students begin to perceive cracks in my authority, their bullying attempts quickly escalate. As a result, even students who aren’t bullies have complained that I seem to lack the personality of someone able to stay in control of the class.

Armed with the realization that my students’ behavior is triggering painful memories, my plan is to try to focus on the ways the current bullying situations differ from the earlier ones being brought to mind. I do not care if my students like me; I do not need them to like me. I completely reject the idea that only naturally dominant, extraverted people can be effective college professors worthy of respect. Regardless of whether any student perceives me as authoritative-looking, I actually HAVE authority over my class, in that no amount of bullying will stop me from grading each student according to my own standards. I am hoping that reminding myself of these facts will help me feel less flustered and self-blaming the next time students try to pressure me, and in turn, help me come across as more authoritative over time.

Not forgiving, but moving on

Many have suggested that forgiving my father would be a fundamental step in recovering from how he treated me. Of course my father is among those who have repeatedly tried to make this point with me, arguing that my failure to forgive him is yet another of my many self-sabotaging character flaws.

But I think the emphasis on forgiveness in our culture places an unfair and unnecessary burden on victims. Not forgiving doesn’t mean I am “stuck” in the past, on the contrary it means I am refusing to let my abuser continue to dictate the terms of our relationship. I am moving on by walking away.

An essay that I wrote about this, called “On not talking to my father” was published in an on-line magazine on 9/30/15, though apparently the link is now dead and the essay nowhere to be found. Since this piece was far too difficult for me to write to let it just disappear, I’m going to re-post it below. (I’ll remove it from here if the published version is restored, but I have no idea if that will ever happen.)

On not talking to my father

A few years ago, I decided to end my relationship with my father. I would still be polite to him at family gatherings, but would not engage in private conversations with him or read his e-mails. I told him I needed to set these limits because he had hurt me so badly growing up and had continued to say things that took a toll on me — and because I had come to realize he was never going to understand, feel sorry, or change.

His primary response was to become preoccupied with the question of whether or not I thought he was a monster, and also to become very insistent that he was not one. For months, he repeatedly went on rants about this to anyone in the family who would listen. From my perspective, the whole monster/non-monster question was irrelevant, but also more evidence of the futility of trying to mend things between us. He was trying to reduce the concerns I had expressed to a ridiculous caricature that could be readily dismissed, and to frame the impasse between us as if he were the one being victimized. Once I reassured him that he was not a monster, his concern about my decision to keep my distance from him subsided, and we went several years with only minimal contact.

My father’s anger is extreme and extraordinary. When he thinks that someone is doing something wrong, he becomes fixated on the idea that everything is about to be ruined, and becomes completely focused on getting this person to change his or her ways. Typically, this involves a loud stream of insults and expletives, accompanied by dramatic gestures. Once in a while he kicks or smashes and breaks something, cries, spits, threatens suicide, or suggests that the person making the infraction may as well kill themselves (since they’re ruining everything anyway). Afterward, he explains the whole incident in terms of something having made him “blow up,” as if he had little control of his actions once that something occurred. Over time I’ve come to realize that he doesn’t even remember most of these incidents or what had triggered them – because those memories are obscured by whatever is making him upset today. The current issue is the only one that matters, and it obliterates everything.

Apparently, sometime in childhood, I developed a habit of constantly doing things that could ruin everything. I got off to a bad start by not being born a boy, an extravert, or athletically talented — so when I came home in tears because I was being bullied in school, my father lashed out at me for not having been popular or tough enough to have won the bullies’ respect. I was also somehow incapable of writing a college-level paper at age 14, and while I had excellent grades, I never did anything that would make me a star. But I have to admit that some of the ways I most seriously disappointed my father were by choice – choosing to not to be interested in sports, wearing what my friends were wearing rather than styles my father would have found attractive, becoming a psychologist rather than a medical doctor, and so on. Often I was so oblivious to the objectionable nature of my choices that my father’s hateful reactions to them took me by surprise. One Sunday morning when I was about 8, I was quietly entertaining myself with a craft project when my father came into the room, grabbed my creation out of my hands and threw it away, shouting “What the fuck is this garbage?!!” Another odd violation I once made was to put sugar on my waffles rather than maple syrup. Suddenly my father was yelling at me that I was stupid and going to get fat and lose all my teeth — and my attempt to explain that maple syrup contains just as much sugar did not help matters. In fact, as I got older and tried harder to defend myself, he started mocking my voice in some exaggerated aristocratic tone, and saying that I might have friends if I didn’t act so uppity.

After his explosions I’d go to my room and cry — a lot. I found it very hard to stop crying, in part because I knew that what I was expected to do was to come out of my room and smile and act like nothing was wrong. Even just thinking about that would get me to start crying again, because it felt like having to betray myself. My father never physically bruised me, and in the presence of others he was the charming, actively involved parent many kids might wish they had. The brutality I experienced about twice a week for more than a decade seemed invisible to everyone else and I was determined to bear witness.

Often, after these incidents, my mother would tell me that I had to stop crying because it was making my father upset. A few times my mother started crying too, and said that since the rest of the family couldn’t treat each other decently, she wished she could just leave us and live on an island alone somewhere. I couldn’t even imagine losing her, and I was frightened and ashamed to think that in her eyes, I had done something to deserve that. When I was hospitalized for depression, anorexia, and suicidality at age 20, and a therapist confronted my mother with questions about abuse, she finally acknowledged that my father had been emotionally abusive to me. It meant a lot to hear her say that — but even then, she was quick to say that my father had never intended to hurt me. Apparently she had married a rare specimen of man-toddler who was capable of all kinds of intellectual accomplishments and other admirable things, but simply could not be expected to control the tantrums of the two-year-old inside him. She was trying to say, in other words, that he wasn’t a monster, but someone worthy of our care and helplessly in need of our patience.

Seeing my father’s cruelty as merely incidental to his good intentions kept me trapped in self-doubt. Why was I too stubborn or stupid or spiteful to be grateful for the intensity of my father’s commitment to my well-being? When I was in high school, he had cared enough about my future to tear up a several-inch-thick college guidebook with his hands and leave it at my place at the breakfast table where I would find it the next morning in the presence of a friend who was sleeping over. Just looking at that pile of torn pages, the conviction and rage required to have done that was obvious. It was as if he symbolically tore me to shreds to show me how wrecked and useless he could see me ending up if I kept failing to take his educational/occupational advice as seriously as it was intended. Perhaps my friend, who probably didn’t have a father who cared enough to leave a hand-shredded book at the breakfast table, should have felt jealous?

My father cared so much about me fulfilling his dreams that he was incapable of appreciating the person I actually was — and this did not make me feel grateful, it made me feel hurt and angry. Yet because my father continued to hurt me without intending to or even knowing that he did so, my anger was targetless and voiceless, much like the nightmares I still have in which I’m trying to yell and unable to make a sound. As I got older and saw friends grieve the loss of their parents, I started to wonder if I would someday be glad that I was continuing to try to understand and comfort my father after more than 40 years as the recipient of his oblivious disdain. But eventually I decided that the answer was no. Although I can’t predict how I’ll actually feel when he dies, I’ve come to realize that I have the right, as well as a need, to not maintain a relationship with him.

After several years of not talking, my father and I were recently forced to spend a lot of time together while waiting to visit another relative in intensive care. As I watched him try to exert control over several family members’ lives — and disrespect their own choices — I felt overwhelmed by emotions from the past, and told him so. His response was, “I know I wasn’t perfect as a parent. But as a psychologist, what do you advise a parent to do when they have a child who is like a drug addict, throwing her life away?” I was so stunned by his question that my response was incoherent. But I know what I’d say now. If I were advising the parent of a child with a serious psychological problem, I would suggest that the child get professional help – the thing he repeatedly prevented and dissuaded me from doing when I needed it. Moreover, what he views as me throwing my life away were just examples of me making age-appropriate choices that happened to differ from his own preferences.

The thing is, even though I knew by early adolescence that I often disagreed with my father and the tactics he used to teach me lessons, I absorbed his lessons anyway. What he taught me is that I am undeserving, selfish, stupid, ugly, backwards, uppity, friendless, crazy, and unable to trust my own judgment. Not talking to my father hasn’t erased those basic views of myself, but it has definitely been a step in the right direction.

Finally the shades are raised

Over the last several weeks I’ve been trying to finish an essay that is expected to be published in the near future, about my decision to stop talking to my father. Working on this essay made my recurring nightmares about him much more frequent and intense, so I hope it will be worth it.

At the risk of stating the obvious: Pearl Jam songs have been one of my main sources of comfort for over 20 years. I was first drawn in by how much I could relate to the heartbreak expressed in “Black,” a staple of the radio station I listened to in the early 90’s. But when I first saw the band perform on Saturday Night Live in 1994, they did a pair of songs about childhood abuse that took my breath away  – and I still can’t watch that performance of “Rearviewmirror” without getting chills.

Verbal/emotional abuse and neglect were a routine part of my upbringing – but there was never any physical or sexual violence, and with my parents’ encouragement my sister and I were very well-behaved, high-achieving kids. I never felt like I had the right to my real story and these songs helped clarify it for me in a way that nothing ever had before: my father’s cruelty to me had hurt me irreparably, and the futility of continuing to trying to please him was still hurting me. Though it took me another 20 years to say it, eventually I did tell my father: Don’t call me.

“Daughter” tells of a young girl striving to be worthy of her parent’s admiration. But behind the clean pretty façade of this family life, there’s something wrong. The lyrics can’t seem to decide whether it is the parent or the daughter who is unworthy (“unfit”) to claim their relationship with the other, and the daughter is apparently trapped by this same confusion, as she holds the hand that holds her down. As the song ends, the shades go down, both hiding her suffering and leaving her in darkness.

“Rearviewmirror” describes someone who left an abuser behind, and saw things clearer as a result. “I gather speed from you fucking with me… Once and for all I’m far away… hardly believe, finally the shades are RAISED.”


Breaking news: Invisible injuries can hurt for real

Compared to experiencing physical and/or sexual abuse, experiencing psychological abuse is associated with later problems at equal or higher rates, according to a relatively recent research article that I read this morning (Spinazzola et al., 2014). Reading this made me feel better, for a brief moment, and I had to think about why that might be. Certainly this isn’t good news, or even “new” news. But I think at least for me, part of the cruelty of psychological abuse is the ability of the perpetrator and everyone else to claim that no “real” abuse is taking place.

When I was first hospitalized in the late 1980s, I faced pressure from my treatment team to recall repressed memories of sexual abuse, and I consider myself extremely lucky that I was unable to come up with any. During these years, the idea that patients with symptoms like mine would have had to have been sexually abused — and could only really recover if they remembered and told the stories of what had happened to them — contributed to unprecedented frequency and severity of accusations, retractions, and lawsuits that tore families and individuals apart. Therapists of this period were making a well-intentioned over-correction for the long history of ignoring sexual abuse in the field and in broader society, but lacking sufficient understanding of how suggestion can influence memories, they harmed patients in the process. Notably, alongside this trend was the fundamental assumption that in the absence of any physical/sexual events, psychological abuse alone could not explain severe symptoms like mine.

Consistent with this assumption, I meet all the diagnostic criteria for PTSD except for one really crucial one. According to official diagnostic rules, psychological abuse without a physical or sexual component does not “count” as a trauma. Though I otherwise appear to have PTSD, I’ve never experienced a qualifying ‘T,’ so I don’t. It took me years to realize that I was being (psychologically) abused  and (small ‘t’) traumatized. It took me even longer to stop feeling like too much of an exaggerator/impostor to use those words in describing my own life.

What I felt this morning suggests that to some extent I still do feel like an exaggerator/impostor when using those words. Because after all this time it somehow meant a lot to me to hear that a research study confirmed what I’ve always known but not always been able to defend:  psychological abuse can hurt for real.


Spinazzola et al.(2014):

Another new study on this topic:

Vachon et al. (2015):

Shit clueless parents say to their children with mental illness, part 2

My father was really obviously nasty to me on a regular basis, so by the time I started therapy in college I knew that my relationship with him had been a problem. What was much harder to come to terms with was the ways in which my mother — someone I really love and admire – didn’t try to help me through this. I could readily see that my father’s rejection of me was often unwarranted, but my mother’s rejection was harder to dismiss because I believed that somehow I must not have been worthy of her care.

So here are my mother’s top three:

1. “You have to stop crying, because you’re making your father upset”.

Each time my father went on screaming at me and calling me a whole string of awful names over some very minor thing I did that disappointed him, I went to my room and cried. I usually had a lot of trouble stopping, and sometimes cried so hard that I got sick. My mother would often come to my room and her only concern was with keeping the peace, in other words, trying to make my father happy.

2. “Ohh….I’ll have to talk to your father about that and he is not going to like it.”

My father often called my crazy and threatened to take me to a psychiatrist. But during a depressive episode at age 14, I cautiously approached my mother and asked her if I could please really see someone for help, and those words were her only response. We never spoke about it again: maybe because my father reacted very negatively to my request when she brought it up with him; or more likely because she never even mentioned it to him at all.


The blank space above reflects what she mainly said or did which was NOTHING. My father went on tirades against me at least once a week starting when I was around 7, and I only remember one or two instances when she ever stepped in or said anything at all on my behalf. I didn’t think she necessarily agreed with him (e.g., that I was stupid and ugly and all those other things he said), but over and over again she didn’t challenge him, didn’t support my efforts to defend myself, and didn’t try to comfort me.

I know she regrets a lot of this now and her understanding means a lot to me (even if it is a few decades late). But still…

Here is where you can read part 1 of “Shit clueless parents say”:

Mushrooms part 2: Understanding and re-thinking a lifelong irrational fear

After years of thinking about it, the best explanation I could come up with for my fear of mushrooms is a metaphor: You think you have a lovely flower bed, but underneath lies a web of fungus that feeds off of death and decay, showing itself in ugly alien forms that appear seemingly out of nowhere, overnight. In other words, I think mushrooms are a symbol for my difficulty trusting people — because of what goes on beneath the surfaces people present and what awful things they may be suddenly capable of.

Though the untrustworthy friends and romantic partners that I had when I was young didn’t help change my greatly pessimistic view of humanity, this view clearly originates in my relationship with my father. Growing up, nearly everyone characterized my father as a well-intentioned and charming person, though he did get a bit more irrational and upset than other people when disappointed. Since I hold the dubious honor of being the person who has probably disappointed him most, to me he has often become terrifying and (verbally/emotionally) cruel without warning.

My therapist speculates that some scary incident probably occurred to classically condition me to have a phobic reaction to mushrooms. Though I lived in the city for nearly all my life, between the ages of 2 and 4 I did live in the suburbs, and it is plausible that I would have seen mushrooms there. Perhaps one day I expressed curiosity about them, and my father reacted by screaming at me that they were poisonous and going to kill me and that I was stupid for going near them and so on. Or maybe my father went on some random tirade at me in his typically terrifying way over something else entirely, but since mushrooms were nearby I came to associate them with the terror I felt. Of course we’ll never really know, and it hardly matters. Somehow this strong association developed, and here we are.

To start thinking about mushrooms differently, I talked with a mycologist to learn more about them and what he appreciates about them. So instead of thinking of mushrooms as a manifestation of death and ugliness, I try to remind myself that they are part of a process that makes life possible, and a process that contributes to things I like (e.g., cheese, wine, and beer). Also, when I see a mushroom, I try to focus on the interesting scientific aspects of it rather than aspects that frighten or disgust me. Finally, my therapist suggested that when I do start to feel fear in the presence of a mushroom, I should remind myself that my father’s unwarranted rage and cruelty are the cause of my fear, not the sort of silly-looking thing in front of me.

It has become easier for me to think of mushrooms in non-frightening terms when I am not around them, though it is still hard to maintain this perspective while walking across the lawn. But I’m working on that too.