221. gibbosity

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parent-yellingAt our last session, my therapist said something interesting at the end: “We need to find your inner nurturing parent.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that the past couple of weeks. We’d been digging into the idea of me becoming my own inner, harsh parent as a child when my parents relaxed more after my youngest sister was born.

As I wrote last time, I’ve been doing some revising of my childhood narrative, getting away from this notion I’ve had over the years that my parents were awful, emotionally abusive people. To be sure, they made mistakes. All parents do, especially with the first born. The first born is the trial run kid, the baseline.

By the time my youngest sister was born, my parents pretty much figured out by then that, aside from some basic necessities, babies are low-maintenance. That, and making mistakes is a normal part of the growth and maturing process. I can recall the feeling of being a disappointment to my parents, of not living up to the expectations they had for me. They would get exasperated or impatient when I’d drop something or make a blunder.

After my youngest sister was born, as I wrote, they lightened up a bit. For me, that was a shock to the system that I grew accustomed to as a child. The expectations were almost like a structure upon which to pattern my life as I knew it. The more they backed off, the more the anxiety and negative self-talk ramped up, crying out for the familiar structure.

  • “What’s wrong with you?”
  • “Your sister got it sooner than you did,”
  • “Why can’t you be more like ____?”

These strident voices were with me throughout my childhood and young adult years, and even now. Thinking about it now, my parents must have been mystified at my behavior. I’m not even sure where my models came from in building this parent persona. Television shows? Movies? I must’ve unconsciously sought out every angry father and spiteful mother represented, patterning the self-responses in my mind after their likeness rather than engage with the actual parents I had.

So much of what I’ve done has been in the service of placating these inner parental voices. I had to become the best at the piano. I had to become a great writer. I had to become a first-rate composer. And every time I didn’t meet those expectations, to be everything that my angry, hateful parent demanded that I be — to win, to annihilate the competition — then it meant that I was an abject failure, and a bad person.

Add to this the lessons we were being taught in church and at home:

  • “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)
  • “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” (Romans 5:12)
  • “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9)

To quote Christopher Hitchens, we’re born sick and commanded to be well. Because of the sin of Adam and Eve, we’re fucked before we even have a chance to screw it up on our own. Before we can even wipe our own asses, already we have the weight of several millenia of sin and guilt on our tiny shoulders.

And, of course, the key to not being damned to Hell for all eternity is to confess all of your sins (1 John 1:9), even ones that you didn’t know were sins, because God sees everything. So on top of the neurosis of having an inner parent from hell, I was also being taught to be self-critical, to the point of obsession.

One of the things we talked about a lot, both in church and at home, was being a “fake Christian,” or “casual Christian” — or, more plainly, a hypocrite. I haven’t watched Jesus Camp, mainly because of the memories and emotions that it triggers for me. Thank humanity, then, for YouTube. This excerpt is something I heard a lot growing up:

“Name it out loud.”

Shame is an integral part of Christian fundamentalism. It was no stranger in my childhood or early adult years, especially once my sexuality became evident. It was something I never said out loud, not until 2008, when I attended a “prayer healing” seminar and was prayed for by a Christian husband and wife. I sobbed for nearly half an hour the first time I ever said, “I’m gay.”

This is the result of pathologizing otherwise innocuous, normal human nature on the so-called authority of a nearly two-thousand-year-old book and its Bronze Age morality.

Teaching children that they’re broken and sinful is sick. It’s wrong. It’s deplorable.

And it must stop.

But back to therapy.

One of the side effects of jettisoning my Christian identity in the way that I did was that I’ve developed emotional amnesia about everything prior to 2011. This is probably a defense mechanism, but memories from that period seem like dispassionately watching a movie of those events. I can see them happening, but can’t recall the feelings.

So, like a literary critic deconstructing a novel, I can see with almost sickening clarity what a monster I was during my early adult years, what an emotional terrorist I could be at times, and how devastatingly unhappy and hopeless I’ve been for most of my life.

I can’t recall the fact of ever feeling truly safe or secure with anyone, perpetually terrified that someone would find out my secret and punish me for being gay.

So “being kind to myself” seems a Herculean labor. It doesn’t make sense.

The angry parent in my mind has been the familiar voice for as long as I can remember. It’s been there to beat me up after a rejection letter. Tell me how I fucked up and sabotaged yet another failed relationship.

The sick thing is… I still believe that parent is telling the truth.

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4 thoughts on “221. gibbosity

  1. It does sound like you’re making progress.
    You have to always remember your relationship with your parents and how you all view/treat each other is simply an accident of circumstance. Sometimes I still linger on how X or Y was unjust- that I deserved more, better or simply different; and then I remind myself it could not have been any different.
    Neither they nor I had the skills required to have had better interaction, to have made a more positive contribution to each others’ lives. And so it was a tragedy of errors.
    Let me give you an interesting example. When I was in first grade I was given a standardized test which led to me being put into a program for gifted children. My parents were told I needed to be constantly challenged. Their interpretation of that was that I could and should figure out how to do most things on my own; and so I don’t have a single memory of being ‘helped’.
    They simply presumed I was clever enough to never need help with school/growing-up/relationships/choosing a university/first car/first apartment etc. It was an exhausting and excruciating process for me.
    Most interesting is that these things become cycles. People thought I didn’t need help, so I thought I should never need (or ask for) help, so I never did (still avoid doing it like the plague), so people continue to believe that’s the case. Add to that another layer which is my automatic reaction to not being able to do something is interpreting it as failure. It means I’m actually an idiot- which in turn means I’ve been fooling people all my life by pretending to be smart, which means the world will hate me once they find out the truth…
    Life is composed of a multitude of these entirely imperfect situations. So your alleged emotional terrorism was simply ‘what you knew’. You were a part of a machine. You helped the machine run, but you certainly didn’t create it. The trick now is to identify and then stop or remove yourself from the negative cycle 😉

    • David

      That’s really excellent advice. I’m trying out some narrative therapy on myself right now, treating my past like a story that happened to someone else, to get much-needed distance between visceral emotions and reality. I recognize that I was born into a system that has been operating long before I came around. It’s a system that my parents were drawn to for whatever reason, and so on and so on. But you’re right: I didn’t create it, and I’m not responsible for it. I’m responsible only for getting myself free of its influence.

      • It’s not just your parents 🙂 You and I are from different socio-cultural backgrounds and yet we share many of the same ideas and insecurities. Traditional patriarchy reigns supreme.

        • David

          Perhaps these ideas and insecurities are the consequences of growing up gay and being raised by parents, in a community, of a certain generation. Our world has gone through a significant shift in terms of acceptance of non-traditional groups–some places more than others. But traditional patriarchy still seems the default, hardwired into our social consciousness like an outmoded instinct.

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