Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Before, I've Always Played Along Nicely

Me, in a red dress, at 3, playing along nicely, as expected.

***Before, I've always played along nicely.***

This post is my response to a meme that I read on another unschooling Mom's blog, Open-Hearted Life.

The rules for the meme are simple.  All I had to do was go to my 23rd blog post , First Week of School?  Not for Us! and copy and paste the fifth sentence.

Here it is again, in case you missed it:

Before, I've always played along nicely.

The point of the meme was to find your true nature and, -although this was a post involving the first week of school the year Annalise would have entered kindergarten, and my reflections on the differences in our lives because we did not send her - I think there is a lot of truth in the idea that this short sentence might offer a window into who I really am, not just at the point when I wrote that sentence - September 13, 2009 -, but also now, today, right where I am in the living of my life.  

I spent nearly my entire childhood "playing along nicely".  I was so accomplished at this, in fact, that my parents would assign me a seat between my warring older brother and sister when we went for car rides, because they knew that I wasn't likely to cause trouble. I was so accomplished at it that I continued the habit well into adulthood - so far into adulthood that I still sometimes need to slow down and examine my tendency to not say things that I really need to say, call people on treatment no one deserves, remember that everyone's pain and discomfort is not my fault, nor my responsibility.

Hanging with the goats at Catskill Game Farm....I was  11.  I often found more comfort with animals than people, as a child, and well into adulthood.
Before, I've always played along nicely.

And, in so doing, I have neglected something that wound its way into the deepest places within my soul the first time I heard it, and has been with me, ever since...
This above all: to thine own self be true.

I thought that the playing along nicely was who I really was.  The truth is, I do tend to be nice....I feel the emotional energy around me intensely, and respond  equally intensely to it.  Being unkind or unpleasant can make the energy around me decidedly - well, yucky.  That energy twists into my guts and my mind and my soul.  It's toxic.  It kills me a little, every time I'm exposed to it.  It's far, far worse to think that I have caused it.

Before, I've always played along nicely.

And so, not liking the volatile energy of my family of origin when it exploded, even when I wasn't directly involved in the resulting emotional carnage, I did the best I could, for most of my life, to appease it, to soothe it, to calm it down so that I could relax in peace and calm.

And when I couldn't appease it, when it did explode, as it inevitably did, in screaming, hitting, knocking down, dragging by the hair, humiliation, verbal cruelty,  harsh punishments, icy silences that might last weeks, slammed doors, or hurled insults, I blamed myself. Surely I had caused that incendiary reaction, and certainly I should have been able to defuse the violent conflagration that followed. 

Before, I've always played along nicely.
 I am no more perfect than anyone else.  I get angry, sometimes.  Up until a few years ago, when I read several books specifically dealing with emotional, spiritual, and conscious living*,; I was as highly reactive as anyone else in my family of origin, and as defensive.  Although my reactions generally fell into the "get quiet, refuse to talk to anyone, hide away and have a good cry while my soul lies in tatters from the attack", those were still very rending reactions, internally.  They kept my hurt always at a simmer, because, most of the time, I would just end up pushing the bulk of those feelings down, because....
Before, I've always played along nicely.
There are people who have known me for a long time, and who would vouch for my being unwaveringly even-tempered and patient. 

I am neither.

I've always described myself as having a remarkably long fuse.  As a child, I once kept still while my sister  slapped me 100 times.  I know it was 100 because she counted aloud.  She was still bigger than me, then, and often angry.  I bore the brunt of her frustrations and hostile reactions to them.  If I had tried to escape, she would still have caught me - we shared a room ,and there were no safe havens in our home, anywhere.  It was easier to let her hit me, because I knew that, sooner or later, if I didn't react, she would have to stop.  And, eventually, she did.

Before, I've always played along nicely.

I insisted on adopting Knock-Knock - not playing along nicely, that time.

Years later, when she and I shared an apartment -  a cute little place that might have been filled with mutual love, respect, and enthusiasm as we took our places in the world of those who lived independently, but which instead devolved into a battleground where hostilities might commence anytime, with utterly no warning, since flashing reactivity is all either of us had ever known - I once hid in my room while she stood outside my locked door, hitting and shaking it, screaming obscenities and vulgar names at me the entire time...

When I finally could no longer bear it, when I whipped that door open, and flung her back into the opposite wall, I felt guilty at what I had done.  I reasoned that I should have done more to control myself, to not react, to not, in the end, have resorted to violence.  I should have kept the peace, and my self-control, because, of course -

Jeremiah, age 10, inverted.
Gappy grins from Annalise, age 7.
Before, I've always played along nicely.

And it occurs to me that I was raised and groomed to do so.  It was more than my nature; it had become a survival tactic.  There were many ways to play along nicely -  I didn't make many waves.  I wasn't quick to hit or scream, most of the time.  I tried to be as sweet as I could.  I spent countless hours in conversation with my mother, or rubbing her feet.  If she needed me, if I helped her to feel heard and important, if I was agreeable, and not too loud, there were fewer frightening interactions.

But it made me a target for my siblings, and even my parents, at times.  I think it was obvious from the time I was very small that I was a sensitive soul, and I could be easily wounded and kept in my place.

That's a part of playing along nicely, after all - playing along.  No matter how you feel, you tend to make that less important than the other's feelings.  You invalidate yourself, and subjugate yourself.  You learn to make yourself small and still, like a camouflaged prey animal.  When shadows pass over, you hope they won't notice you, won't find something you've failed at.  You live a life edged in anxious uncertainty, knowing that your own emotions and body could, at any moment, become a battlefield.

Being true to ourselves on the Washington DC Metro, 2008

And when the explosions inevitably come, you blame yourself,as though there was something else you could have and should have done, as though you should control yourself even though the adults around you are clearly and terrifyingly not in control of themselves.

Now, writing it, I see immediately what an inverted and impossible view that is.  Children raised by parents who cannot or do not control their violent emotions and reactions are far too busy trying to avoid becoming a target.  Without an example of what non-reactivity looks like, without tools to deal with emotional storms, those storms will come, and wash them away.

It was not my responsibility to temper my parents' or siblings' emotions.  It was my parents' responsibility to help their children learn to deal with strong emotions and violent impulses, and to find a balance that protected all their children from harming themselves, and from being harmed, by themselves, each other  - and from the violent reactions of the parents, who,after all, are larger and far stronger when children are small.....

Yet, I was raised to believe that that was my responsibility, or, at least, it was my role within a family where everyone had a role.  To soothe.  To appease. To take the punishment and the ridicule.  To do as I was told.  To make others feel good about themselves, even when they were actively trying to make me feel that there was something wrong with me.

Being true to herself, red-tongued and soaking wet, talking with her cousin.
Before, I've always played along nicely.
But I have come to the point, during the last several years, where I no longer can.

As we've moved further and further toward establishing and maintaining a harmonious marriage, family, and home, I have learned, more and more, how to treat my children, my husband, and myself with gentleness, kindness, trust, and respect.  The journey hasn't been an easy or smooth one; none of these were regularly part of my own childhood.  We were, in general, assumed to be either up to no good, or about to be.  There were a good many rules, and often harsh and humiliating punishments meted out for going afoul of them -  or even having been presumed to have run afoul of one.  My parents, although their love for each other was evident, just as their love for us was, did not value or respect their differences.  There would be harsh words and hostility over such things as whether the Yankees or the Dodgers were the better baseball team, or who was going to vote for whom for President, or any other matter upon which they didn't agree and wouldn't simply accept that they each held their own opinion for their own reasons.

Often, I acted as something of a calm go-between for them; yet another way I played along nicely and tried to make myself useful and necessary.

Being true to himself can mean 8 hours of odd jobs after 3 hours of sleep.

It was not at all an uncommon occurrence, in my childhood, to be severely and sometimes violently punished for an infraction that wouldn't have been considered one, if the punishing parent hadn't been angry, or frustrated.....

While I was living it, and while I was enacting the same types of patterns within my own family, I did not yet know that, in abusive situations, the victim is not the cause of the abuse.  They are only the trigger; however, the abuser is not likely to understand that on a conscious level.  They believe they are acting in a fair and just manner, that the abuse is the "logical consequence" for the "bad behavior."

When one partner in a marriage does this to the other, no rational adult would call it anything but abuse.

But when a parent does such things to their child.....

Too often, those on the outside never see it, and never suspect.  Children who love and desperately need to trust parents that they cannot truly trust are in a hugely vulnerable situation.  They are also young, and their minds easily convinced that they are at fault, which brings a certain shame.  And the abusers -  who have almost certainly also been abused, by others who were abused - cultivate this feeling, because only secrecy allows them the outlet they need for their own pain and frustration and fury.

I experience the memories of those years,  today, as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome wherein my main focus was protecting myself from bullying, manipulation, humiliation, and outright abuse as best as I could.  While I was within that dynamic, still neeeding the love and approval of my parents and my sister, my physical and emotional safety still depending on keeping them happy, I could not see the ways in which I was being manipulated to feed their own emotional needs, at the expense of my own.

I only knew that people that I loved, that I wanted desperately to like as much as I had when I was very small, who were bigger and more powerful than I was, could and would willfully hurt me.  And I knew that when they did it, they enjoyed it.  There is no way I could mistake that.  I feel the energy around me as surely and palpably as I feel the press of the computer keys beneath my fingers, right now.  I could read the glee in their eyes  - not glee at hurting me -  in those moments, I do not believe I registered as a person on their psyches, because  I do not believe these people to be capable of hurting someone they saw, in that moment, as equally as human as they are.

No.  I was a proxy, I believe, for their pain; their need to strike back at those who had hurt them, soul-deep.    I paid the price, but it wasn't intended for me.  It was pain and hurt and rage that had been crushed too far inward for far too long, and, when the pressure became too great, they exploded outward, and I was collateral damage.

The fact that  I played along is proof of the wounding.  Why would someone play along, being as sweet and unobtrusive as they could manage?  And still, I was, always demanding more of myself; nothing less that perfection was acceptable, as though, somehow, .perfection would save me, if only I could attain it.

The cruellest punishment ever inflicted upon me was not a physical one, not yelling, not shaming, even.  No:

It was the certainty I carried so long that, because I was not perfect, I was worthy of nothing better.

Emotionally healthy people do not play along, let themselves be damaged by another's pain and woundedness.  They can see it for what it is, and understand that  they are responsible for their actions and reactions, and do not own the actions and reactions of anyone else.

This above all - to thine own self be true. 

Emotionally healthy people know that no person is perfect, and that there is a certain unspoken arrogance in
expecting oneself to be perfect.

They know that their self - those characteristics and combinations that make them unique in all of existence - are all they have to offer up to the world.

And they know that, if they do it freely and honestly, it is enough.

They know that what they offer will suit some, and not others.  They are not offended by those who find little value in their offerings, nor are they angered at those whose offerings so not suit them.  They respond with civility to those who are civil.  They learn to distance themselves from the hostile who seem to find their very existence an offense.  They don't play along at the cost of joy, peace, or selfness.

They are whole -  or as whole as they can become, with the damage they have sustained.

I will never play along again.  The cost is far, far, too high. It is my self, my soul, and my peace -

And that ripples outward from me, in ways that are obvious - snapping at my husband, denying my children their simple requests, a lack of patience on the roads or in the stores,  a general apathy to the needs and emotions of others.

It doesn't make the world a better place.  It doesn't serve peace, or joy, of selfness.

No.  No more.

For me, now, there is instead the message I knew was meant for me, when I was 9 years old.
This above all - to thine own self be true. 
If something in myself, as I am, resonates with you, I am touched.  If something in me spurs you to defensive anger, it may not have as much to do with me as it does with the hurt within yourself that you are as yet unwilling or unable to face.

If I have wronged you, I will apologize.  I will not, however, accept punishment from you.  If I have hurt you, I have not done so with intention, and will do the best I am able to make things right, between us.  If you have wronged me, I will forgive, but, if there is a pattern of cruelty, I won't forget.  If I try to resolve this with you, but you will not respect my right  to my own opinions and my own life,. you will perhaps stop being a part of my life.

I do not do this to punish, and I would not.  I do it to protect my right to simply be my self, truly.  I do it to spare us both the pain and hostility of interacting with one another.  I do it to preserve peace within my family and within myself.

I do it because to do otherwise is not, and never has been, true to myself.

Baby me - at 9 months, I was still true to myself. 

And that is reason enough.  


*Book list cited above included:  
 Angerby Thich Nhat Hahn; Living a Gentle Passionate Lifeby Robert J. Wicks
Dance of the Dissident Daughterby Sue Monk Kidd; Emotional Vampiresby Albert J. BernsteinThank You for Being So Difficultby Mark I. Rosen; Zen: Its History and Teachings, by Osho; Succukent Wild Woman, by Sark; The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present in the Life You Have, by Mark Nepo; and A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose and The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, both by Eckhart Tolle.


alberta ross said...

great post - well done for your courage - it is the hardest thing to look at oneself so closely-realize and then to take action. One has to find oneself and be kind to that self - and to find ones place in our worlds - many never get there- you have - be proud - all the best

Shan Jeniah Burton said...

Thank you, Alberta. I'm more "there" sometimes than others; I have yet to be able to say these words, or ones like them, to the people I most want to say them to. There is still the knowledge that these are still hostile people who have been damaged, and have (and are) inflicting damage, even now, although they would argue that point.

I'm learning. I'm getting stronger. I understand things I didn't, once.

And I've learned to cut my losses when it seems there is nothing else I can do.

My parents live just a few hundred yards from us (for now; we are planning a cross-country move). I do not see them. I have no desire to see them. Our last interaction was the final chapter in a lifetime of abuse, and I want no more.

I am fortunate to have dear, delightful friends who accept me as I am, the good, the bad, the lovely and the ugly, and who feel far more like sisters to me than the one who can biologically claim the title.

Blood may be thicker than water, but it doesn't excuse cruelty.

I hope that posting these words, making them public, may help someone else who wonders why they've always felt their self was a hostage to those around them.....


alberta ross said...

not sure about blood being thicker than water - my friends are the bees knees - we chose each other for what we are - families (just read the history/anthropology'political books) can be among the most destructive forces invented -not all of them of course - I add hastily before I receive a torrent here:)

Keep your head up

Anonymous said...

Thank you for having the bravery to write this post. It resonated deeply with me, as much of what you describe happened in my early life.

I, too, have had to cut a family member out of my life; a therapist told me once that biology did not make a family. In that freeing moment, I began to make my own family.

You're well on your way in your journey to be yourself; you deserve to be proud. :)

Elizabeth Anne Mitchell

Eden "Kymele" Mabee said...

I have so much I want to say, Sys. So many thoughts (as you say helping--considering--others and how we all are shaped and molded in the world) turning, notes building... Love flowing...

I suspect a blog post will be coming up for me too now. Inspiration.... smiles, tears...


(and a very cool capcha: "artankei" which evokes thoughts of destiny and fate and power and earth and heaven... oddly appropriate)

Shan Jeniah Burton said...

Elizabeth - I am myself, imperfect as I am, striving to deepen and broaden.

I am blessed with a rich and vibrant chosen family spread liberally across the globe. Some are dear to my heart, known for a lifetime, almost (Like my Sys, Eden, down there. She's been part of my life since we were four; she's been my best friend since 9 - and my Spiritsyster almost as long). Some I have not actually hugged yet. Lots are somewhere in between.

Family are those who accept me as I am, see more in me than I do in myself, delight me with their presence (and sometimes infuriate me, too!), and inspire me to be more me.

Biology doesn't factor into that, at all!

Shan Jeniah Burton said...

Kymele - I keep thinking, through all our visits and chats and snippets these last few months,

"If only we had known, we could have been sweeter with each other, long ago, instead of being barricaded in our private miseries and sometimes lashing out at each other."

But that's part of the nature of things. I was ashamed. I wasn't perfect.

You, maybe more than anyone, understand how I was SUPPOSED to be so smart, and so perfect, and the little golden-haired wonder-girl.


I am remembering those two little girls playing under the old tree in the schoolyard, plotting to run away and live there, or maybe take Keko Bert Leo and make a run for it.

I'm remembering grand plans to put a Ford engine in a starship, and escape, to buy an old church, and turn it into a refuge for castaways of all varieties.

I'm glad we don't need to hide, anymore - or, at least, that we are learning how not to.

There's a reason so much of my writing deals with predators and prey.

You made me cry, too - in the best, my heart is so swelled with love, and memory, and tenderness, for you, for me, for those two little outcast girls, for those lost adolescents and young women pretending they had it all together and didn't need each other...

And for the ripening women who can see that we are, perhaps inextricably intertwined, you and I.

I think we're Spock and McCoy, but we keep changing off roles. =)

Anyway, I think you may be my truest touchstone to who I was, and who I've become. You mean more to me, by far, than I can ever put into coherent thought.

But I hope you can, at last, feel that its based in acceptance and not desperation.

From the fulness of my life today, I tell you;

"I have been, and ever shall be, your friend."

Enough sap. Wanna be old crones together, too? ;D