Thursday, 30 October 2008

Part #24

I have read a post on a blog called So Much Straw recently, entitled Punching Bag. It's a very thought-provoking piece, describing this woman's desperation and bewilderment at how her daughter is making her feel responsible for her eating disorder.

I get very mixed feelings when I read posts from parents who are caring for their suffering children. It must be hell on earth for them. It must be awful to be blamed for something which they are trying so hard to support and doing their best to facilitate recovery. I have seen families, from first-hand experience, trying to help their children to get better at an in-patient clinic when I admitted myself privately for a mental health problem (not an ED) a number of years ago. Some mothers were in their 60s and still trying to help their adult daughters. Without wanting to garner any sympathy, I was the only patient there who had no visitors or calls from family. 

I can't, in all honesty, lay total and complete blame at my parents' or my ex's doors for my succumbing to anorexia and, previously, bulimia. That would be wrong of me. None of them have starved me, forced laxatives down me, stuck fingers down my throat. I did that all by myself. So there are times when I feel somewhat guilty for writing about things I have experienced in my life which have left residual hurt and insecurities as the implication is: look what they did; look what I became.

It's a bit of a can of worms when you start to analyse it.

I have only had one 'significant other' in my life to support me through an ED - and that is Ian. The ex had no time for it at all and if I sloped off to toilets after meals or took laxatives I was berated purely for having 'wasted' the food or the laxative money. His oft-repeated snarl to me was that he might as well get a plate of food and flush it down the toilet, to cut out the middle man.

My parents, when I finally revealed I had bulimia, were somewhat ignorant of its implications. This was a problem which wasn't that well discussed in the UK at the time - we'd all heard of anorexia due to the deaths of Lena Zavaroni and Karen Carpenter - but bulimia was still an unknown quantity. OK, Princess Diana had this 'strange' problem, but the press didn't really go into great detail about its physical manifestations. By this stage, though, I had read some books about its triggers, the side-effects, the long-term damage and was a bit more clued up. My father asked to read the particular book I told him about and upon my next visit to their house, I asked what they had thought about it. A frosty atmosphere already abounded upon my arrival directed at me from my mother, but at this point, she stormed out of their lounge, returned with aforesaid book and with dizzying hubris at what rubbish it was, hurled the book at me, catching me square on the side of the head.

And thus ensued a diatribe of what an ingrate I was; how rude I was to suggest that she or my father were to blame for the ED; and that I was probably doing this to attention-seek anyway.

The ironic thing was, I hadn't pointed out a single chapter to her, yet she had picked up on the one which suggested that critical and conditional parenting could have a profound effect on the self-esteem of a child or young adult and could contribute to the emergence of an eating disorder.

This happened in my early 20s. I had just got married and was hoping to start a family at some point. I had moved quite a way from my home town and was trying to find my feet in a very small Yorkshire village. I made some wonderful friends through the church where the ex and I had wed, some of whom became almost surrogate parents to me. It was also at this time that I bought a book called 'My Mother, My Self' by Nancy Friday and, boy, did it open my eyes! It propounds that 'The greatest gift a good mother can give remains unquestioning love planted deep in the first year of life, so deep and unassailable that the tiny child grown to womanhood is never held back by the fear of losing that love, no matter what her own choice in love, sexuality, or work may be.' I was able to relate to many of the interviews contained within the book; many of the disfunctional relationships which were described and how the women had been affected.

The common thread was that none of these women had been given unconditional love from their mothers. It wasn't a concept I had come across before as, despite having studied Psychology at college, we looked more into the effect of sleep deprivation on monkeys, and other bizarre studies from the 60s! Being able to empathise with the different experiences in the book gave me an inordinate amount of guilt trips. I felt very disloyal to my mother for recognising certain characteristics and suspecting having been subjected to similar withdrawals of affection. It felt very, very wrong to make these associations.

As time went on, with the insight of this book, I started to feel rather bitter towards my mother. I discussed this with a counsellor I was seeing at the time, and she suggested that I asked my mother to attend counselling sessions with me for a short period. This would mean driving over to Cheshire to collect her and take her back the next day, and I was prepared to do this in order to heal the rift I felt could get worse and worse. Well, I approached her and was met with the hysterical rant my ex predicted would come: there was nothing wrong with her; nothing wrong with the way she had raised me; I was the mental case not her...And so, ignorance is bliss.

But there are parents out there who genuinely want to help their children and will work through any amount of baggage to arrive at equanimity. And it is these parents who I feel the inordinate amount of pity for (in an extremely non-patronising way). I am a parent to two daughters. One is almost 14; the other almost 12. Perhaps they will have issues with me as they get older. I know the divorce affected them deeply as have other events in their short lives. I know that Rosemary blames me for a lot of things - even down to her leaving her school shoes at her father's house, one memorable occasion! But I feel that, on the whole, we always talk things through when the dust has settled, and both of us are able to discuss where we went wrong; why an argument has happened; and we can both apologise and make up.

And I know for sure that if she needed me to attend counselling with her, I would. Because I have. And I have heard things which hurt, but which I will also address. And maybe that is the difference between my mother and some other mothers who have children with EDs. The latter mothers, although it is painful, can be willing to listen and help. And this is possibly why they feel like punching bags.

As it stands, my mother is speaking to neither me nor my brother (or to be more specific, my brother refuses to countenance her). My own daughters do not like her for her manipulative tactics and avoid any contact with her if they can. She speaks to only one of her siblings on a regular basis and criticises the others as if they were social pariahs. Yet she is always in the right, and hard done-to.

Any parent who believes they have no part in the negative behaviours of a child should not take any credit for the positive behaviours. As parents, we nurture and encourage (or discourage) our children. They take their cues from us as well as their peers. And we can get it wrong, repeatedly. But, I believe it's when we are so arrogant that we believe our absolute 'rightness' that we are failing our offspring. And arrogance can only breed malcontent and chaos.


Ian T - Parsnip no longer... said...

And it's admitting that fallibility that takes strength and courage.

As a new step-parent (and parent), I constantly question my actions and words. Was I too harsh? Was I too lax? However, I do believe that honesty in admitting when I've made a mistake garners respect. It's a fine line though.

Total belief in ones self-righteousness is not good. After all, making mistakes is one of the things that makes us human.

It takes a strong person to admit they have done wrong. But once that admission is made, it can be learned from. Maybe that's why some people don't do this. To err, for them, is something that is un-acceptable (or even impossible); therefore to admit error is also to admit imperfection - which is impossible in their dysfunctional throught processes.

And I would lay the blame at their door. Would you be anorexic without their influence? I don't think so from what you've told me about the "good" things that have happened in your life.

This is not your fault Annie. Yes - you are the one responsible for getting yourself out of it, but you weren't responsible for starting it.


Mars said...

there's a saying my dad has: "you can't clap with one hand".

sure as you said, they're not entirely to blame. but they still have a big hand to blame. even if your choices were/are wrong, they played a major role in sending you down that path to begin with.

anyhow, i learned that trying to get better isn't really about placing blame. it's about understanding the problem, taking steps to correcting it, and actually sticking by it, to preserve your well-being and sanity. which you are already on the road to doing so :)

MelissaS said...

annie; i was initially thinking that your daughters liked being with your mother, so maybe there was reason to talk to her. i'm sure you've thought of this, but why not cut off contact for a while? who cares what she thinks? can anything be worse than what she says and does when you are in contact? hope i haven't over-stepped. also, i don't sense that she's coming from a place of strength. she sounds so insecure and tortured. not to diminish all the excruciating things she says and does - just to diminish her power. that posting about parents helping their anorexic daughters got me too.

Karen ^..^ said...

Oh, that last paragraph was such pure genius, I may quote it in a blog of my own. You say so many things, so well, in such a way that it makes perfect sense, Annie. You have outdone yourself with this post, it is utter genius, and really seems to dig out the root of the issues. Yes, your mother did horrendous damage. Yes, she is a very sick woman who will never, ever as long as she is alive, take responsibility for her actions. You have had to pay the price for that, and now you are having to struggle through a way and a means to live with that damage that was done, in order to not further damage yourself. I think you are doing an admirable job of it, and I love you for it.

Rock on, my friend.

Annie T AKA Agnes Mildew said...

Ian: Well, both of us know people who believe in their own infallibility, don't we? And we both know how frustrating and destructive it can be. As parents, we can only hope to do things differently, and with any luck, for the better.

Mars: I haven't heard that saying for a very long time, but it is a salient one. And it is about correction of things. And attempting to 'walk around in someone else's shoes'. I'm not quite capable of doing that where my mother is concerned - at the moment - because there was never anything to question. Her word was Gospel, no negotiations, no questions asked. It's difficult to understand that type of dogged self-belief.

Melissa: When my mother refused to talk to me back in November 06, she wrote to me stating that she would continue to see 'her' grand-daughters, come what may, by going through the ex. I wouldn't be able to stop her. The thought hadn't even crossed my mind, to be honest, as they have no argument with her. But she has been hoist by her own petard with her pettiness and bitterness which the girls quail from. She calls them at their father's but they now refuse to speak to her - particularly after Beth told her she didn't like the way she was behaving towards me. And it would appear from their silence, that my parents don't want to have anything to do with her any more, either.
That's what happens when you stand up to my mother and criticise her. So, my 11-year old is also in the dog-house...

Karen: Thank you for those kind words. I actually considered it a very wishy-washy conclusion but if you want it, you can have it!!
The greater and longer the distance between me and her, the more I feel I will strengthen to be honest. There are certain family members who can be toxic to people's lives. And I am sure it is a minority. But we wouldn't keep toxic friends, so I cannot see why we should keep hold of toxic family.

Karen ^..^ said...

Brilliantly stated... At least we have a choice over what friends we pick, and keep. We are given what family we have, but that doesn't mean we have to keep them! No matter what, if they treat you like garbage, then garbage is where they belong. Time to take out the trash!

I'm proud of you, you know that?

Bob J said...

Dear Annie,

Figuring out how a person got into this mess can indeed be a can of worms. When we are searching for an answer and looking for reasons, it's hard to avoid the necessity of placing blame. And "blame" as a concept has become a particularly sensitive and slippery topic in these post-modern times.

None the less...

"...The common thread was that none of these women had been given unconditional love from their mothers..."

I'm reading a wonderful book right now called "Sensing the Self : Women's Recovery from Bulimia." It's written by a woman from Harvard, so...she's got a little cred, I think. And perhaps it's approach is indeed old-fashioned in that it does examine "common threads" of the....psychological and developmental persuasion.

And yet she pretty much locates exactly the same common thread that you did : A lack of what she so accurately calls "emotionally attuned responses" between child and parents during the developmental years.

Can you say that you regularly received emotionally attuned responses from your parents ? Then or...even now ?

We know them when we receive them, I think. In part because for some of us, they have always been so incredably rare.

Which is, and remains ( no matter what your stance on the causes of EDs) an authentic human tragedy for anyone.


federoff9 said...

I refuse to be absolved from all the blame of my daughter's anorexia.... and yet, no family is perfect. I tried to correct the mistakes MY parents made with me, and I wound up with a very needy daughter- who thinks she can stand on her own as a 16 year old anorexic. I think after a certain amount of time of refusing to eat, the brain just goes haywire. The starvation-induced euphoria is like a drug, as well. So I know it's not totally environment.

Linda and her Twaddle said...

Blame is not the word to use as years pass on and your parents are not responding. It is pointless to lay blame unless a parent is prepared to at least acknowledge they made significant mistakes along the way. That kind of helps in the healing if they do. Otherwise it just makes you feel like you are the one who caused the problem.

All you can now do is look objectively at the reasons behind the formation of your problems. You had bad parents, you were an intelligent and sensitive girl who was treated apallingly so it is no wonder you have an ED now.

Your first husband made the issue worse by offering no sympathy or empathy or anything. (you sure he was not chosen by your father?). A spouse is meant to support you, not punish you.

Is it no wonder you had to struggle? The more aware you are of how it all started, the more able you will be to realise that you are not the one who has done wrong, that lies in the hands of others who are in denial. It may well be part of your history, but is sure does not need to define you.

Annie T AKA Agnes Mildew said...

Bob: That book sounds very interesting and I wouldn't mind getting hold of a copy. I shall see if our library can order it for me, initially, and if not, have a scout on Amazon - thanks!

No, there is and was no 'emotionally attuned responses'. I didn't even have to think long and hard about that. And it does make me very, very angry in some ways - which is better than self-pitying! I don't think my parents would be able to tune into their own emotions if they were given a diagram! That may sound blasé, but fundamentally, it is the truth. Which, I believe, is a great loss for them. If you're not tuned into your own emotions, you're missing out on a hell of a lot of colour in your life.

Federoff9: Thank you for your visit. I admire you for your admissions - not every person can do that, particularly not in a mother-daughter relationship. I do hope things improve for all of you and wish your daughter much love in her recovery.

Annie T AKA Agnes Mildew said...

Linda: For some odd reason, I am losing comments hence why I haven't yet responded to yours - only discovered this lurking in the back office today!

I agree with what you say about the healing. I just know that a move like that from my mother and father will never happen. And as for the ex, well, pigs might fly! Even to this day he refuses to accept his part in the downfall of our marriage - due to his affair.
Amazing how the blinkers can be so firmly placed on the eyes, isn't it?

fishwithoutbicycle said...

I wonder if your mother was so quick to get upset after reading the book because deep down she did/does feel guilty/responsible for your ED and has closed her mind to being able to fully appreciate the triggers of your illness.

Annie T AKA Agnes Mildew said...

Fish: Thanks for your visit - lovely to see you here and I hope the trip to HK was a good one! Yes, I have thought along the same lines over the years. The reaction was intense and violent. I just, honestly, wish she would try to take a step back from things and see what she is doing to herself and her family.

I have a new post ready to be written which sort of continues on from this - and it is dealing with very current events. Give me some time to get it up and then things may become a wee bit clearer.

Great to see you here, petal!