Ever since reading Hillbilly Elegy something has been niggling at me. It isn’t that I related to the poverty, misery or even the daily life situations of the hillbillies in Appalachia. What I related to and what bothered me was not even 1% of the book and I would venture to say 99% of people who read the book missed it. What struck me most was his difficulty (which he only mentions a few times and even then briefly) in forming and maintaining his own significant adult relationship. Because his upbringing was fraught with adversarial and antagonistic primary relationships, he had no foundation on which to understand and then build a solid adult relationship. And well, I totally related to that. Being in a relationship with me is not for the faint of heart. I know that. It isn’t that I’m high maintenance necessarily. It’s more like on any given day I am a piece of work. I am my own exclusive battlefield. Live my personal life as if on the front lines. I am always on the defensive. I am always postured and prepared for insult.
In many ways, I am my father’s son. My father was gregarious and charismatic outside the house. He made friends easily, was funny and fun to be with. Most everyone liked him, considered him a friend. At home he could be surly and distant. He was quiet and kept to himself and had exactly zero patience. He showed my brother and me a lot of affection but little of his feelings, who he really was inside. Here’s a hug, ruffle your hair and go play outside kiddo.
I am a lot like my father. I am gregarious and superficially friendly out and about, but prefer to be alone, quiet and keep to myself at home. I love my family very much. I am demonstrative with my children, but I do not share my deeper self with them or anyone else. When I get home from a long day of constant and forced relating to others, the things I want to do most are crawl into a globulous amorphous cocoon of sweats, hunker down, and knit or read. Preferably without interruption.
I’m just beginning to understand these behaviors as problematic; that just as much as I hate being interrupted out of my silent swaddle, my family hates my distance. They genuinely want a piece of me, a real piece of me. Which, for some reason doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m hoping that it is through learning and nurture that I developed these poor habits slash defense mechanisms and not via inherent nature that I’m like this. I understand that I’m not all that pleasant (to put it mildly) to be around at home. I know this, because that’s how I felt about my own father. I’d like to do something to change. But change is hard when behaviors are based in fear and necessity, having developed for good reasons.
I learned to be like this, to protect myself, especially from those closest to me. My mother is intrusive and without boundaries. She is competitive, compulsive and critical. She is also mean. She is the epitome of a child mid-tantrum – saying or doing whatever they think will hurt others the most. Her mentality of – anything I could do she could do better – only worked when she could outdo me. If she couldn’t she would shame me into not wanting to do whatever it was I could actually do better. I learned very early on that anything I said could and would be used against me. If I shared a secret or a yearning I could be guaranteed it would be thrown back in my face as a reproach or to belittle me. Being no dope I learned to keep myself secret. My inner army always poised against breach.
My father was only slightly better in that at least he wasn’t mean or petty. But his distance was palpable, painful, and told me in no uncertain terms that I was a bother most of the time. He came from a home and culture that believed in “toughening kids up” by teasing and irritating and intentionally trying to aggravate them — albeit playfully(sic). I believe the theory behind this was to learn how to deal with adversity at home from the people who supposedly loved you before having to face it in the harsh cruel world. Not sure how well that worked. Really, we didn’t do feelings as a family at all. As kids if we were happy and joyous we were loud and obnoxious and told to simmer down. If we were sad, we were told “don’t cry, it makes mommy sad”. We were diverted from disappointment and distracted from difficulty. Feelings just weren’t in the curriculum in our house.
My parents’ marriage was like a sparring match for half-desired dominance. They weren’t a team. They weren’t friends. Gibes and digs, snipes and sarcasm made up the bulk of their relating. Often it was done “in jest” and honestly they could be quite funny sometimes. But as Shakespeare and others have told us more than once, many a true word is spoken in jest.
That playful bickering was also inherent in certain social strata of the times. Lucy and Ricky were always going at it in just that same way. The Brady Bunch was a constant battle of the sexes. Actually, Nina recently stumbled upon a Brady Bunch episode and rolled with laughter. I watched next to her horrified. There was a scene in it where Mike and Carol realize they have to share a closet. They set a hook in the exact middle of the closet so that each gets half. They then spend the entire episode sneaking, first one then the other, into the bedroom to move the hook so that they get more room. Of course it ends with Carol in tears because she needs more room for her *pretties* and when Mike gives in Carol looks duplicitously into the camera to show she’s actually played him like a fiddle. It made my skin crawl.
The lessons I learned from my parents’ relationship? Never let down your guard. Even at home. Any slight is intentional. Especially at home. There’s a weird kind of comfort zone when we experience as adults the environments we grew up in. Even when they are toxic. I’d feel more comfortable, confident, know how to respond if Emily would be snarky and mean to me. When she is nice to me I am just suspicious and feel off balance. When she goes out of her way for me, instead of “thank you” I respond “why”.
The best things Emily can say to me (and she probably has to say them far too often for her liking) are: I didn’t do it on purpose and It wasn’t intentional. I’m open to the idea that she is telling the truth. Or, at least to give her the benefit of the doubt. Recently she found a soup slash chili recipe that I loved – healthy, delicious, veggie happiness. I expected her to never make it again once I told her how much I liked it. But she did make it again. The third time she made it she used roasted corn (which I hate) and it completely ruined the soup for me. I was sure she’d done it on purpose. I know it’s stupid and petty and ridiculous and I’m embarrassed to admit it. But there it is. That’s how I expect to be treated. In addition to Emily telling me that she didn’t do it on purpose or with any intent at all (it was all we had in the house), she went out the following day and bought all new ingredients to make the soup. Just for me.
It’s going to take a lot of deep breaths and reprogramming, but I’m determined to try. It is going to take a lot more effort, energy and intentionality than I am used to. I’m going to have to choose to hear and experience things differently, to not believe the worst, to not let an insult fall into the rut of my brain that says ON PURPOSE. I am choosing to do this because it is important to me and my family. And because I believe I can change.