Programming Tells, Intercultural Relations and Picking Husbands.

The last few weeks have been rough, but perhaps necessary. I have found the process of venting to an invisible listener helpful but not without its own issues. Over the last couple of days I have been feeling slightly vulnerable and overexposed. I have also been questioning my own sanity and validity and needing to work hard to remind myself that I am not insane or worthless. Someone much wiser than me suggested that I make a list of things that I think I do well. This is what I have so far.

Things I do incredibly well.

Studying. On a good day I have to admit that I have been a very good student. On a bad day I have to admit that I have been clever enough to convince everybody that I am a good student. If it is the latter, I still think the fact that I’ve managed to fool some of the brightest academic minds is pretty impressive.

Picking husbands. Ok so the pluralisation of that statement seems a little self-defeating I know, even I am laughing a little, but let me explain. I met my first husband when I was 19. We were doomed to fail from the start but we made a go of it for almost 10 years. Aside from the fact that I probably should never have married him in the first place, it was kind of ok. We really enjoyed each other’s company, had two children and parented very well together. He wasn’t abusive or mean, and up until the end things were peaceful and nice. My next and current partner (technically not yet married but details, details) shares many of my ex’s good traits, but if I had to choose only one word to describe them both, it would be KIND. Either of them would help anyone and everyone if they could. They are also both loving, caring and attentive fathers. Between the three of us, our kids have received so much love, support and parenting, that it can’t help but show. We have worked through all the crap and manage to have a friendly, civil relationship where we parent like a team. We have had birthday dinners and BBQs, and most years we all spend Christmas together. It hasn’t always been easy but we have made it work. I think that if it wasn’t for the extraordinary kindness and compassion of both of these men, my children would have missed out on feeling like they had a unified family. Things could have been so different for my children so easily, and given my history I think that it is kind of amazing that I didn’t end up in really abusive relationships.

Making the most of limited resources. By first-world standards I’m poor. Student poor. Student with three kids and a partner on minimum wage poor. It’s not easy but I think I have managed to give my children a good life. One of things that has always been beyond our means though, is traveling, and we have never taken a family holiday together. It makes me a little sad. I want my children to feel like they are part of a bigger world than just what I can show them here. I think travelling is good for the soul and for humanity and I don’t want my children to think that the world stops at their doorstop or with their perspective. So because I wasn’t able to travel with the kids, I brought the travelling to them. Around 10 years ago now, we opened our house to overseas guests, families that wanted to come to Australia, learn about the culture and practice their English. This has been one of the most rewarding decisions I have ever made. We have all gained so much out of it and we even found a new family.

One of the first families that came to stay was a woman from Japan with her two little girls, 5 and 1 years old. They lived with us for three months over the Christmas period. Despite not speaking the same language it only took a couple of moments for the children to become best friends, and to say that the mum and I shared a connection would be an understatement. The children (and the rest of us) learnt so much about communication, understanding, and patience, it was so beautiful to watch. Together as a big blended family, we just worked. Since then, the same family has returned every single year (except for one, but one year they came twice so that makes up for it) so we can spend time together. On a few occasions her husband has been able to come too. Our oldest kids are now teenagers, and despite still having very limited language between them, they are like cousins. The Mum and I have become sisters. Whatever we are doing together, there is constant laughter. I just love them. I love them all.

A couple of years ago, my middle son who must have been around 10 or 11 at the time, was having a problem. His birthday was coming up and I had agreed to let him have 6 friends come round for a party and water balloon fight. He had already chosen the friends he wanted to come, but as he informed me, was now facing the dilemma of needing taking one of his friends off the list and didn’t know which one to choose. When I asked him why, he explained to me that a new boy had started in his class and he wanted to invite him instead. This new kid had just moved to the country and didn’t speak any English yet. My son was concerned that he might be feeling nervous, shy, and left out, and he thought that if he invited him to the party he could feel properly included because you don’t need a common language in order to have fun pelting someone with water balloons. My heart just burst at his empathy and compassion. Needless to say, he ended up with 7 boys coming round for the party.

Handling my children. There are a million things that I could do better, but every so often I come up with a nugget of pure parental genius. One of my most devious but absolutely brilliant techniques has been to deliberately give my children a tell: I now know when they are lying even before they do. Now I’m going to tell you how I have done this, but first you must promise not to misuse this new power. This kind of devious manipulation is not for the faint-hearted or inconsistent parent. I know that somewhere out there, someone will say “but it’s wrong to lie to your children like that!” To them I say: Oh puh-lease. Last Christmas, I told my 4 year old that he had to go bed nicely because Santa was watching. Soon the tooth fairy will be starting to visit and I will be telling my son that she doesn’t visit messy bedrooms, so go put your toys away. The only difference with this trick is that it’s a long con.

So, timing is everything. You are going to need a child of around the age of two, and then you need to wait until you catch your child in a blatant lie. It MUST be so obvious, and you need to know with absolute certainty that they are lying, like when you ask them if they ate the chocolate biscuits and they reply with their gorgeous little chocolate-covered faces, no mummy. Or when you ask them, did you paint all over these walls? And they cutely reply with full conviction, ‘no mummy. It was the cat. I saw her do it’, while they try and hide the paintbrush behind their back.

At this point you say to them, show me your thumbs. Stare at their thumbs for a moment, tell them you now know that they are lying, and then continue with your parenting. Repeat this trick every time you catch them in an obvious lie and soon they will be walking off into time-out, staring at their thumbs and wondering what it is that gives their lie away. As they get older and start to ask, but “how do you know?” tell them it is a little bit like how the police use fingerprints, but this is an old family secret handed down from generation to generation on the day someone becomes a parent, and one day they will possess the power also. Before you know it they will be coming at you with hands wide open when it’s the truth, and hiding their hands behind their back when it’s not. Of course, just as it is with Santa and the Easter Bunny, it’s not going to be too long before they cotton-on and realize that they have been fooled, but I swear that to this day, my teenagers still tuck their thumbs in when their have something to hide. Lets hope none of my children ever hope to become professional poker players.

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Narcissism, Lies and Other Reasons I’ll Never Be Good Enough, Part 2: Therapy With My Mother

I lost my mother to rape. That is to say that I was raped and she would rather lose me completely than face it.

Welcome to chapter two of narcissism, lies and other reasons I’m not good enough. If you want to catch yourself up, chapter one is here, but if you can’t be bothered, the TL: DR version is….. Mum has convinced herself that I am a narcissist who is lying about being raped in order to win an argument. She refuses to talk about it or even hear me out once.

Yesterday I walked out on our joint therapy session. The pointlessness of the process just became overwhelming. It doesn’t appear that she is interested in working on anything other than trying to prove herself right. She sat there flinging accusations, excuses, and hatred. She glared, she scowled, she rolled her eyes, and dismissed every single thing I said. There wasn’t a single word or action that would indicate even a fraction of remorse, but there was a whole lot of blaming and contempt. It was heartbreaking.

Before I go any further, I would like to describe my mother to you. If you were to meet her, I could almost guarantee that you would like her. She is a pediatric nurse and is liked by both the children and the parents. She is kind to strangers and feeds her neighbor’s pets while they are away. Typically, she is a nice, intelligent, well-spoken woman with a sense of humour and a social conscience. For the most part our values align, we agree on many things, and in many ways we are quite alike. Oh, my mother is also a trained therapist. Yep, a therapist. If you wanted to talk to my mum about your mother issues or your history of sexual assault, I’m pretty sure she would listen and say the right things. And that, for me is one of the real kickers. She should know better. She does know better.

Ok, so lets backtrack a little to where I left off last time. As a result of her refusing to talk to me and then sending me a text on graduation day telling me that I was no longer part of the family, we haven’t been speaking. A few weeks ago I received a phone call from a family therapist saying that my mother had asked her to call to see if I would be willing to talk. I agreed and appointments were made. We would both have an individual session first and then come back, a few days later, for a joint one. For a brief moment I thought Mum actually wanted to talk about it and would be willing to listen. Boy was I wrong.

Mum decided to have her individual session first. Maybe this was just a matter of scheduling, but the paranoid part of me can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t a plan to try and taint the atmosphere and the therapist’s impression of me, because when I arrived for my session I discovered that Mum had given the therapist a completely different version of events.

As I was informed, mum saw the problem as: I refuse to say thank you and I’m angry with her for telling me that someone thinks my artwork is narcissistic. I knew all of this stuff, but she also said – she feels very sad that I was raped and it is very upsetting that she missed the signs, but I need to stop blaming her. Also, I have decided, on my own and by my own accord to no longer have anything to do with the family and she doesn’t know what to do. Poor Mum. It’s all so unfair on her.

As I had to explain to the therapist… um no. Mum has offered no indication whatsoever that she believes me or feels sad about it. Although she has had a couple of yelling matches with my partner where she has been completely adamant that I am lying. Mum and I have never actually spoken about it at all. We didn’t speak about it when it happened and we have never spoken about it since. And as for it being my choice to ‘leave’ the family… again, just no. Rather, I was informed via a text message that I was no longer a part of it.

So the therapist and I talked. I liked her. She asked what happened when I was 13 and I told her in full messy detail. Her response was exactly what you would hope it to be. She told me that she absolutely believed me; I wish I could remember her exact words because they were incredibly comforting. She explained that she has worked with many victims of sexual assault during her time with the Department of Child Safety and with the Abused Child Trust and that she knew a genuine account when she heard it. She said that in my case, it is really the only thing that explains everything that came after (I don’t mean to be cagey here, but ‘what came after’ needs be a different story in its own right, although definitely much of my anger at my mother is wrapped up in this. Lets just say for now that the aftermath of sexual abuse has a habit of turning into a shitstorm of fuckery, and in my case it did. But lets get back on track). So all in all, my first session went well. I got to talk and I felt like I was being listened to and more importantly, believed.

The Second Session AKA Therapy With My Mother AKA An Exercise in Frustration AKA How to Recognize Denial.

Wow, ok, I’m not even sure how to explain what happened here so I’m just going to start throwing adjectives around loudly. BIZARRE, RIDICULOUS, ILLOGICAL, UNREASONABLE, CHILDISH, MEAN, INEXCUSABLE and SAD, REALLY REALLY FUCKING SAD. There were moments when she just looked broken and confused, in many ways this was heartbreaking – this really is her reality (albeit one she has created herself) and it is absolutely unfathomable to her that she might be wrong. This doesn’t bode well for any kind of rational discussion that deviates from her version of events, or for that matter her sanity.

Everything I said, she denied. If she wasn’t rolling her eyes and being defensive, she was crying and being defensive. I would say something about my teenage years and she would instantly jump forward on her seat like she wants to leave, bury her face in her hands, start shaking her head and crying “How can you say that? I would never! I didn’t! I can’t believe you would say that to me!” She certainly put on a good show but here’s the thing: lets give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she genuinely doesn’t remember saying or doing anything wrong when I was a teenager. I mean it was a long time ago and certainly I can’t assume that just because something was burnt into my permanent memory, it should be also burnt into hers. If this is the case, why isn’t her response, ‘I don’t remember’, rather than “it never happened”? By refusing to even consider the possibility that my memory may be better than hers on some issues, she is effectively saying one of two things: either, I am delusional, or I am lying. Whichever way she goes on this, she cleverly manages to avoid any opportunity of being reminded, but I’m sure that this is all unintentional on her part – it’s not like she’s a trained therapist or anything… oh, wait.

As for the poor therapist there to do her job, she tried. She really did.

Among Mum’s complaints, accusations, and reasons she didn’t have to listen to me, were things like, “you ruined your sisters wedding and then ruined the birth of her first child” (proof that everything has to always be about me), or “you are just jealous of your other sister” (due to my narcissistic sense of entitlement). If I didn’t know me and I was only hearing my mothers account, I think I would start to develop a picture of a daughter that must be bordering on hysterical; a thrower of tantrums, and a causer of scenes.

For the couple of weeks following our appointment I thought about my mother’s examples of how I am a bad person. Could she be right? Is there any validity to her claims? Maybe there is. Lets take her last illustration, the jealously of my youngest sister for example. This one really got to me because it’s kind of true. I am jealous of my sister. Just to be clear, this sister is not actually mum’s daughter but my father’s daughter to his new wife. We didn’t grow up in the same house and our upbringings were very different. The most obvious difference would be that she grew up with money and I did not, or on second thoughts maybe the most obvious difference is that she grew up in a house with a father in it and I did not. But what Mum is referring to specifically in regards to my ‘deep and pathological envy’ is the fact that my youngest sister, who incidentally is in the same field as me, has gone over to Europe to study master’s classes, and I had mentioned I felt jealous about it. Does this make me a horrible person? When I say that I “mentioned” my jealousy what I mean by that is that I mentioned it. There were no angry outbursts, no fits of rage, no temper tantrums, I didn’t sulk or brood or run around screaming, IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ME. What I did do though when my sister first told me she was applying, was write a letter of recommendation and act as one of her referees. I haven’t told my sister I’m jealous because I don’t think my jealousy has anything to do with her. It’s not her fault that things have been different for us. She was presented with a fantastic opportunity and she took it. Good for her. I had children very young and money has always been an issue, so traveling hasn’t been an option for me. Although I wouldn’t trade my children for anything, sometimes I think it would have been nice to travel and to have an opportunity to take my research overseas. Am I being unfair? Is it really that unthinkable that I might have had a moment of self-pity and mentioned my feelings to my mother? Does having any kind of jealousy make you a bad person?

Well my unnecessary answer to those rhetoric questions is, no. Any moments of jealousy that I have, typically collide with the days that my self-esteem is at it’s lowest. Sometimes, when I watch other people do things that, for whatever reason I can’t, (like, find time for regular exercise or keep a spotless house or win lotto or look like Angelina Jolie) I feel a small tinge of envy. Other than on a few very rare occasions, these moments go by quickly and I don’t ever feel a need to express them. So I don’t understand how my feeling a little jealous of my sister has become such a big issue for my mother. Jealousy may not be the most attractive emotion but I always thought it was a really human one.

Round Two AKA Why Am I Even Bothering? AKA Get Me The Fuck Out of Here

I managed to keep my cool for around ten minutes and then just completely crumbled. Having thought so much about the issue of my jealousy, I began with that. I explained, clearly and calmly, that I felt that if this were someone else’s feeling and not mine, she would be able to understand and empathise. I explained that I didn’t think that my jealousy was unreasonable, or for that matter, inappropriately expressed. I told her that even if it was, I didn’t feel that any of the points she was raising had any bearing whatsoever on the issues between us, and that I thought that she was using them as deflections from talking to me about anything important, namely the rape. I told her that the way she was talking to me and the examples she was giving felt petty, as if she was purposefully trying to find excuses to blame me. I told her I felt hated and unwanted. I told her I felt scared that she would never be willing to listen.

Her response: “I didn’t say you had expressed your jealousy inappropriately. I said it was proof that you only think about what you don’t have. You didn’t even listen to me.” Then she started to cry uncontrollably. The therapist asked her if she could explain why she was crying and mum’s response through dramatic tears was, “I’m just so worried about the children.”

And now that we are at the ten-minute mark…enter sarcasm: “Well at least you can worry about someone”.

Back to the therapist: Ok, so what about the children? Am I going to let Mum see the children?

Me: “I’m not actually stopping Mum from seeing the kids.”

Mum’s reaction to this was almost comical. Mouth wide open she started gasping and shaking her head from side to side as if in utter disbelief.

“Ok Mum, this has got to be good. How have I stopped you from seeing the kids?”

Mum: “You haven’t returned any of my texts!”

Me: “You haven’t text me about seeing the children (she has text me about things like, picking up mail or dropping off keys). The two oldest kids have phones and Facebook accounts, we also have a home phone, skype, emails, you could have called my partner. You haven’t tried to contact the children.”

“Well the only reason I haven’t contacted them is out of respect for you.”

“So which one is it, you’re not having contact with the kids because I’m not letting you, or you’re not contacting the kids out of respect?

Scowling at me like I had just performed a clever yet devious act of mental manipulation, she spat, “It is out of respect! I don’t want to make the kids have to choose between us.”

Enter scathing bitterness: “ I don’t think you are ever going to need to worry about the children choosing you over me mum.”

Mum: “why are you so cruel?”

To say that I was just plain mad by this point, would be a totally fair statement. I could feel the regression into a full teenage meltdown brewing.

The therapist stepped in at this point. She turned to my mother and said that she understood how incredibly hard this must be for her, that as a mother herself, she knows that having to face facts that are as brutal and traumatic as they are must be beyond excruciating. She told mum that she understood that maybe she wouldn’t be able to hear it all at once, maybe she wouldn’t be able to hear it at all. Then she turned to me and said that maybe mum not being able to listen is just going to be a great sadness in my life. She then asked Mum directly if she felt like she would ever be able to listen. Mum replied that she would listen to me when I was no longer angry about it.

This set me off on quite the rant. The short version of which goes, I AM ANGRY. I AM FUCKING FURIOUS AND I HAVE A GODDAMN RIGHT TO BE.

I can’t even imagine a time when I am no longer going to have any anger, so if she wants to wait till then, I guess she’s happy to wait a while.

Things went downhill very quickly from here. She added more incoherent items to her list of reasons that I am a bad person and she doesn’t need to listen to me. In return, I bit and scowled and snapped and threw back my own examples of her mistakes. The last straw though was when Mum turned to the therapist and said that she would have listened to me, but what was the point because my account of the rape kept changing – “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? HOW THE HELL CAN MY STORY KEEP CHANGING WHEN YOU HAVEN’T EVEN HEARD IT ONCE?”

She rolled her eyes.

I left.

Despite that fact that it was me that physically left and walked away, I feel that it is my mother who has abandoned me.

Speaking to a therapist in the waiting room after my dramatic departure, I explained I just couldn’t do it. It’s too painful and too costly and way too familar. Self-esteem is a hard and ongoing battle for me, and at the end of the day I need to be ok for my children and for myself. I can’t live through the flashbacks and digging up of trauma only to have her spit in my face and make me feel worse. She asked me what I wanted to do, and I replied that I think Mum and I need to work on our own stuff for a while and maybe try again later. I need her to be able to listen to me without all the defensiveness and hatred in return. The therapist then asked me what I wanted to do if that was never going to happen. Well, if mum can’t ever listen to me and just wants to attack me and call me liar, then I am willing to walk away for good for the sake of my own sanity. She said that she understood and asked if there was anything I would like her to tell mum. I told her to tell mum that I hoped she stayed and talked, that I hope she gets help and I hope that one day she will be in a place where she is able to listen. Then the therapist said something really interesting, she said that she didn’t think Mum would be coming back to see her because my mother is really angry with her too. This surprised me. I guess I was so wrapped up in my own feelings that I didn’t pick up on mum’s anger towards anyone else. But it did start to make sense of a confusing comment that was made at the beginning of the session. Right at the start, the therapist had told my mother that, ‘yes, she had spoken to someone (I didn’t recognize the name), so thanks for that.’ I didn’t know who or what they were talking about and I hadn’t asked. But now the therapist explained that that was my mothers other therapist. Mum had given this therapist her number and asked her to call. It wasn’t until I was driving home that I came up with a theory as to why my mother would be angry at this therapist, who by my account was likable, professional, reasonable, and did the best she could, and why she would want her to call another.

So here’s my theory: Mum feels like I have tricked and conned this therapist into believing me. She’s looking for back up and thinks that this other therapist will corroborate her account of how she tried with me, she really tried, but I was just too difficult. She is the real victim here. She was an excellent mother but unfortunately I was just a terrible daughter; a liar, a narcissist, a manipulator of facts.

We have been through this before. Right before I moved out of home I went into foster care. They were a nice family, they had a uni-aged daughter who was ‘super cool’ and let me hangout in her bedroom with her sometimes. The mum taught me how to make banana bread. I don’t remember much about the dad, but in the evenings we would all sit around watching TV. It was peaceful. I was there for 28 days but because there were no ‘issues’, that was the longest that I could stay in the system. I remember them telling Mum that they hadn’t had any problems with me. I remember Mum later telling me that I was obviously very devious and clever to have convinced them that the problem wasn’t me. I never went home.

As a child I felt powerless, frustrated, and alone. How would anyone ever believe me next to my mother? She is a grown up and I’m just a kid. She is a respected nurse and therapist and I’m just a dirty street-kid. She knows things and I just dropped out of school. She is on some kind of ‘path to enlightenment’ and I am just her ‘karmic challenge’. She is articulate and knows all the buzzwords and I just have a lump in throat.

But things have changed. I’m no longer the street kid, dropout, and runaway that I used to be, and I think I may finally be starting to find my voice.

I have three children of my own now. I think Mum has been waiting for my relationship with the children to fall apart like hers did with me, but that hasn’t happened. My kids are now 16, 13 and 4 and I have a wonderful relationship with each of them. I’m not claiming to have been a flawless mother but I do know that I have not repeated her mistakes.

It is so incredibly painful to watch someone who is otherwise reasonable suddenly turn into this vicious force of defensiveness and denial. My mother was not all bad. There are actually many things that she did well but I’m just not in a place where I can stroke her ego while simultaneously deflecting her attacks, and also trying to explain the profound and traumatic impact that the mistakes she did make had on my life. The more I think about it, the less likely it seems that Mum and I will ever sort this out. I don’t think she is even going to be able to listen to me, but if she does ever try, I don’t know how much she will be able to take. I think that Mum has created a sense of identity for herself that is 100% reliant on the idea that she did absolutely everything she could under extraordinarily hard circumstances. This would almost be true, if not for two important factors; she never really saw me, and she never, ever listened.