This feels like one of the harder blogs to write. I did not know where to start. I have written it so many times and hesitated at posting it.
I share this journey because I recognise there is likely other people struggling through similar challenges and whilst I recognise no one has all the answers I often find myself wishing I had a point of reference before I started on this path. A similar experience to draw on. One to help inform my own decision making. So when I find it hard to write I think of you, looking for a way forward. This as always is only my experience and may not be the right path for you or a path you need to tread. I will share it in the hope it provides some comfort knowing you are not alone.
This challenge is all about speaking to family about a traumatic past, about maintaining healthy relationships with people who hold strong undeniable links to those times in life you need space from.
As you know throughout this process of therapy I have been learning to tune back in to my emotions. To feel to full effect of the joys and lows of life. It has been transformative, from the little things like enjoying a warm embrace to the big things like finding sleep again.
One of the things I have found increasingly challenging is how, where and, what, family members choose to bring up in conversation. Let me be clear I know they don’t mention mum or dad with the intent to hurt or upset me. I know that they have spent years dropping them into conversation and I have never asked them not to or broken down in tears in front of them. I would just suck it up, hide the pain and deal with it…or not, often struggling later when I was alone or facing nights of horrific sleep. Or sometimes just not noticing the effect.
I understand I did myself no favours. I was always so positive and I have always worked so hard to achieve a happy life. No one (well apart from Stephen) knew anything was wrong.
Now I am learning. Learning that I deserve some real happiness, learning that it is ok to have needs and ask the people who love me to meet those needs. I don’t have to accept that for the rest of my life, be it in the middle of a restaurant or around the Christmas table people will talk about my abusers.
So a couple of months ago I asked my closest relatives to please stop mentioning mum and dad. I was clear and specific advising this could be in any context, good or bad. I told them gently how upsetting I found it and offered to explain my reasons further if they needed to understand. They all just accepted that they would not mention them in front of me and no one wanted the explanation.
Roll forward, one of my family members has been struggling to stick with that request, I have already been to visit them again to ask them face to face not to mentioned them and they have agreed and again declined the explanation. This was after at least two other occasions I had asked over the phone.
I had arranged a birthday meal for one of the family, eating out in a lovely new food hot spot, looking forward to seeing them all. But what should happen, this same family member mentioned mum and dad. Some of the statements vague and intending to be positive. “I just have to say after all you have been through I am so proud of you.” some specific “Your mum…” and most upsettingly some statements with the forerunner that they knew I didn’t want it mentioned… “I know you don’t like me to talking about this but…” followed by recollection of specific events (none of which at first were related to traumatic experiences but all related to mum and dad.)
One of my siblings tried to step in “I don’t think we should be talking about this.” But the train had left the station and others jumped into to the discussion which inevitably resulted touching on some horrid points in my history.
I tried my best to ignore the conversations, I moved around the table striking up little side conversations. I grasped the opportunity to leave for a bit and go to pick up my sister. But even when I returned they were still on related topics and I eventually just cracked. I sat in the middle of this restaurant just hysterically laughing and crying for a good five minutes. I even managed to annoy one family member as they talked about ECT (Electroconvulsive therapy) and I just couldn’t stop laughing. “Why are you laughing about ECT it’s horrible you should not be laughing at this.” I could only apologise and say I was not laughing about that but I just couldn’t explain. Still creasing at the sides and continuing to cry and laugh.
What to do…
I came home broken, slept alone on the sofa and spent the next day dreading their visit. Would they bring up mum or dad again? I knew I had to speak to them. Not that day with the kids around but soon. I needed to make a last ditch attempt to really drive home my need to be free of these conversations, thrown at me without warning.
I sent them a message to explain…
… I was thinking it might be good to pop around and have a bit of a chat about mum and dad, I know we said we didn’t need to go there but I think it might help to understand a little (about) why it’s so upsetting and why I want to avoid the topic at special occasions. Would that be ok? Are you free Friday Morning?
I booked a day off work, I lined up Stephen to come with me. Then I laid the groundwork. I called their son in an effort to provide some support should they find what we discussed upsetting.
Shock and disbelief then overwhelming support…
I felt a little guilty as I told him massively high level headlines of what I was going to touch on. Wonderful as he is the first response was “Did this really happen?” I think he was just in shock although later in the discussion he did say something along the lines of “Well if that’s what you remember and you are they only one…” I realised I had a another point of living reference who could validate many of my recollections. My eldest brother, he had legally become my mothers next of kin so when much of the horrific things were being managed he would be forced to sit through protection meetings and be told the horrid facts of what I was being protected from.
I rang him after the phone call. I could tell it was hard for him to speak about it but he offered to be a sound board if anyone wanted to confirm anything. I was so grateful to have him there to validate at least of these traumatic events.
The son of this relative really was hugely supportive, it’s just easy to notice the possible moment of doubts. He offered his full support, agreed with everything entirely and said he would do what ever I needed.
So everyone was ready. After a quick chat with Chris at the end of a session I also took the time to speak to Stephen. We discussed what I needed from him. Just to be there, but he was welcome to chip in if he felt the conversation was going in the wrong direction.
The day arrives…
The morning is difficult for reasons I won’t bore you with. Possibly exasperated by what I was about to do. But I made it there by the skin of my teeth.
Once we had sat down with a cuppa I explained again why I was there…
“As I mentioned before I find it really upsetting when mum or dad are mentioned. It can be in any context…”
I went on to explain how upsetting I find it and that I was already anxious about occasions like Christmas Day because I worry they will come up.
“…do you recall much of what was going on back then?”
The conversation halted nothing really came, so I started to lead with one of the points I wanted to land. I had already decided prior to the session I needed to give a couple of specific examples of things which happened in enough detail to hopefully put the matter to bed.
“…you know that mum had many suicide attempts, overdoses, cutting, train tracks, it was not unusual to find her with tea towels wrapped around her arms and blood dripping from them… Well the first night I learnt about something being wrong with mum…”
I described the night I had snuck out of my room to investigate a commotion downstairs and when I thought I would be discovered darted into the bathroom to find myself stood in a puddle of blood. With blood all over the bathroom. It was so helpful that I had worked on this one with EMDR. Before therapy I just don’t think I could have spoken about it. I got a little upset but managed to explain.
Later on in the conversation I also explained how I was not just a bystander to these events. That both mum and dad has abused me in all sorts of ways and I described in limited detail how mum had tried to end mine and mels life.
Of course there were lots of points of reference in between but these were the key things I wanted to land.
- I was not just a witness to some horrific events I was the target.
- These things still impact me now.
So how did it go…
Sadly for most of this conversation. I was interrupted and I never heard a single word of sympathy or love. The only question I continually got asked was how was old were you? Now please understand we didn’t argue and they did again agree to do their best not to bring them up. However I need to reflect on the tricky bits as they are challenges I think others might find.
I was ready to give them lots of space to share their own experiences. I knew stuff would come up and it did. It’s normal for people to try and find points of connection. However in hindsight perhaps I let the conversation get taken a little far in their direction in future once they have a moment I might say thing like “I really do want to hear about your experiences and give them the space they deserve could we come back to this another day…”
At one point they said come on please let’s inject some humour into this. At the time I said nothing but after the conversation this was one of the points which left me ragging. It is not a subject I want to inject humour into. I get it is hard. But no let’s not! In future I would love to just be able to say “No, I can’t find the humour in it, but if you need something to help you feel better perhaps we could go for a walk or…”
You know your memory…
Lots of schooling about how memories are not perfect. Do I understand how they work. Trust me I have probably read enough self help books to get into the book of world records for trying to understand trauma, memory and emotions. I know they are not exact but please don’t diminish my experience of them. I should have been firmer if my position. I which I had directly questioned them “Are you doubting these events took place?”
Did you know…
Man I think this was one of the hardest bits to take away. I knew my mum had been abused as a child. I didn’t need to know the detail. Kindly though this family member described a situation in some detail of the abuse. “You know your mother did not like mirrors…” They went on to describe a bedroom with one of those old dressers with multiple mirrors which turn in different directions and how my mother would have to watch as the abuse happened. This tormented me for days after. It was said in a way to try and justify what she did because of what she went through. I was fuming, that excuse never stands with me. Pretty sure I am up there for horrific experiences and I would never let them influence my actions like she did. I know better and so should have she. I wish I had shut down the story sooner, although at the time I had no idea where it was going. Perhaps if I ever had to have the conversation again I would lead with. “There is no excuse, reason, justification for what happened to us.”
So how did I leave it…
I left the conversation kindly and we said our usual goodbyes. For a couple of hours I felt good. I had managed to do something I could not have done last year. I had advocated for my needs. I had talked.
But after the elation of getting it done dissolved I was so upset and increasingly angry. Why had they tried to minimise my experiences, why had they told me such horrid things I didn’t want to hear. Where was the empathy or love?
And the point which made me most annoyed. Why did they try to justify what mum did because she suffered abuse. This argument just infuriates me. As someone who has suffered their fair share of abuse this has only ever driven me to be kinder, to take better care of my children.
I am sorry but anyone who has been abused should know exactly how damaging it can be and this should be reason enough to NEVER repeat the pattern. It is just not an excuse. When the family member was making these defensive statements all I could say was ‘… and it makes it so sad that she repeated the same thing.’ She should know better.
Stephen and I had both reflected afterwards that we held no real hope they would stop bringing mum and dad up. It was like everything I said never really landed. It fell on deaf ears.