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.

Narcissism, Lies and Other Reasons I’ll Never Be Good Enough.

Trigger Warning: the following contains a discussion of rape.

Graduation day: I won a university medal and my mother kicked me out of the family. While I’m sure that she would not claim a direct causal relationship, I’m starting to wonder. It seems that the more external validation I receive, the more caustic she becomes.

I’ve been playing over in my mind the events that have led to all the dramas, and I’m starting to think that this just isn’t even about me but rather the role I play in my mothers life, namely that of the black sheep, the trouble maker, the ‘bad to her good’, and the cause of all her problems. If I don’t adhere to that role, then she would have to readdress her own responsibilities and failings. I’m starting to think that she desperately needs to believe that I am a bad person because if I’m not, then maybe our relationship and our history has had something to do with her.

I have just finished a fine art degree. The week before graduation we (the honours cohort) held our final exhibition, the culmination of our years work. I invited my family. Normally I don’t bother, but it was the last show, I was nominated to MC the event, and I thought it would be nice to have some guests there. The night went by without drama, although my mother and stepfather left shortly after the speeches.

Two days later, as I was cleaning the house and getting lunch ready in expectation of my mum and my stepdad’s arrival, I received a phone call from mum cancelling their visit. She said it was because things were too tense due to the fact that her and her husband were fighting. Also, she just wanted to let me know that their fight was entirely my fault.

Apparently he had been deeply offended by the speech I had made at the exhibition. This instantly struck me as odd; the speech I had given was a very stock-standard thank-you to the staff on behalf of the students. I followed the traditional format – welcome everyone to the show, thank the lecturers, thank the tutors and support staff, thank industry professionals for coming, thank friends and family for their support, and then introduce the next speakers. How could any of that have offended anyone? Well, because it proves my “extreme ingratitude” of course. The worst bit for my stepdad was when I thanked friends and family. As my mother told it to me, this was “just the final straw”, and he “rolled his eyes and thought ‘yeah, she’ll thank everyone but me”.

As I’m sure you can understand, I found this rather exasperating. I mean seriously, he doesn’t think he is included in ‘friends and family’? Although I tried to reason with my mother, she wasn’t having a word of it. In her view, he was right to be hurt; while I might have thanked her before, I had NEVER thanked him and he had only wanted to be singled out and thanked personally during my speech for their financial support over the course of my degree. I’m just completely ungrateful.

Again I tried to reason with her – of course I’m grateful, of course I’ve thanked him, no it wasn’t accompanied by fanfare and applause, but NEVER is a bit of an exaggeration. And it wasn’t MY speech, I was speaking on behalf of the entire cohort; it would have been inappropriate of me to start naming my own individual family members without thanking everyone else’s family individually. This wasn’t an Oscar’s acceptance speech; it was an exhibition opening, and the last opportunity for graduating students to thank the university staff.

At this point in the conversation, my mother brought out the big guns. “Well think about this,” she said. “I overheard some of the staff talking about your artwork and they said ‘This artist makes very narcissistic work’, so I think you better think about how you are coming across to people. I am just so embarrassed by the things they think about you”.

Using other people’s opinions as weapons is pretty typical warfare for my mother. Whenever she feels that her position or logic is challenged, she lashes out with comments like, “this is why your sister/partner/aunty, etc. says *insert random insult about you*” or just “this is why people don’t like you”. Half the time the things she says are either incorrect, out of context, or just plain untrue. The thing is that I have received more validation at university then anywhere else in my life; my confidence has grown exponentially and as a result, likeability just isn’t the issue for me that that it once was. Not everyone is going to like me; not everyone is going to like my artwork. I’m ok with that, or at least I’m learning to be. But in spite of this, my mother’s comment hit me hard. I was furious. Not because someone had called my work narcissistic, but because how dare she attempt to undermine my confidence, hard work, and the relationships I had developed in the university.

What I find funny and also incredibly frustrating, is that narcissistic – as a term to describe the artwork in question, is actually quite apt. It is narcissistic; purposefully, knowingly, ironically narcissistic. To give you a bit of an idea, it is a self-portrait for a start (inherently narcissistic), also it is a video performance work (arguably the most narcissistic of art mediums), but I take it further: I pose for the camera while a leaf blower blows my hair off my face. Diamonds swirl in the background while kittens and unicorns fall across the screen. To anyone who has noticed that we are currently living in an unprecedentedly narcissistic age of profiles, statuses, and selfies, the work could be considered humorously, critically narcissistic. I did actually intend it to be funny, but obviously any humor was lost on my mother.

Even if my mother’s reality of the overheard comment is true (as an insult and attack on me personally), it was a pretty classless move to repeat it to me in that context. I was still waiting for my results and had the next three years of my life dependent on them. If I didn’t receive first-class Honours I would have blown my chance at an academic scholarship and doctorate. Despite very kind and reassuring support from the uni staff, I still felt ill with self-doubt and anticipation. What if they don’t like my research? What if they don’t like my work? What if I’ve completely messed up? What if, in the final moment I’ve finally revealed my fraudulence? What if they don’t want me? What the hell am I going to do with my life? Impostor syndrome or not, waiting for results is stressful. I think it was unnecessarily mean for her to come in at that point and state that in her brief time overhearing a conversation, she has uncovered the staff’s true feelings about me – the same staff that are currently marking my work, assessing my application, and who I hope will become my colleagues in the future.

She didn’t actually listen to any of this. The conversation went downhill very quickly. She insisted that I just couldn’t take criticism. I can’t remember which one of us hung-up on the other.

I couple of days later I wrote to my stepdad. While I needed a day to let myself simmer down, the truth is that it bothers me that he feels I am ungrateful for all their help, because I’m not. If I haven’t made my gratitude clear to him then that is an issue, and I have no problem with addressing it and saying thank you again. So I wrote to him and I apologized for appearing ungrateful and clarified to him that my speech was in no way designed to exclude him. I explained that I was speaking on behalf of the class, that it wasn’t my speech alone and that I was following the script. I reassured him that I considered him to be family and that my generalized thank-you to family and friends had been directed at him. I also thanked him as sincerely as I could and told him that I am very aware I could not have done finished my degree without their help. And I meant it. I am grateful.

In his response he explained that he had been in a particularly bad mood at the time (for very good reason – he had just been made redundant) and on top of that, Mum and him were fighting about issues over her unwillingness to help out with his elderly mother. He said that the conversation with mum had gone too far but that he thinks some things he said were taken out of context. He also accepted both my apology and thanks. We were good. Lets move on.

If I only had to deal with him we would have moved on, by now I had my marks back (100% 1st class) and I had just been notified of my acceptance to the doctoral program. I finally felt proud of myself; I had clawed my way from being a high-school dropout and teenage runaway to becoming a university graduate. Now, two days out from graduation, I was in the mood to celebrate, but unfortunately this is the point where things were about to turn really bad.

*Cue dramatic music. Mum called.

Right from the start she had ‘that tone’. You know the one – the mother tone: the tone typically reserved for disobedient teenagers. It normally consists of abruptly short sentences followed by tightly pursed lips and a scowl. For example, “Now that’s enough!” or “You listen to me”. Having three children myself, I know the tone well, but I have become much more accustomed to giving it than receiving it.

“Right.” she said with the warmth of Nurse Ratched, “I’m sorry for my part in what happened”. Purse, scowl, and pause.

That pause is my pre-scripted place to apologise to her in return, at which point she will agree that yes I should be apologizing to her, because she was right all along. If mum does anything well, its passive aggression; she is a master at it. This time I really didn’t feel like taking the bait. “Ok mum”, I replied. “But I don’t think you understand why I was so upset at your comment about overhearing the staff say my work was narcissistic.”

“What?! I never said that!”

“Yes Mum, yes you did.”

“No I didn’t! And I can prove that I didn’t, because I know who it was that said your work is narcissistic and I know they’re not staff.”

‘Well who was it?”

“I’m not telling you.”

“Well it’s actually irrelevant anyway mum. I’m not upset that someone thinks my work is narcissistic. I’m upset because…”

She wasn’t interested in hearing a thing. For the next little while we spoke over the top of each. I tried to explain that artworks can be called narcissistic without implying that the artist is necessarily a narcissist. She tried to explain that I am definitely a narcissist – she had googled it. I’m narcissistic with a false sense of entitlement, and everyone thinks so. Also I’m a liar, clearly – because I’m accusing her of saying the staff said something when it was actually someone else. My complete lack of gratitude and unwillingness to thank my stepfather just proves everything.

“But I have thanked him.” I insisted. By this stage I was offended, hurt, and frustrated.

“Not good enough. Now stop talking and let me tell you what you should have done.”

“Ok Mum, but I’ll make you a deal. You tell me what I should have done, and I’ll listen. But then, we are going to talk about what you should have done and you can listen.”

“Well, what the hell do you mean by that?”

And out it came…the first thing that popped into my head… “How about what you should have done when I was raped at 13 and you refused to talk about it”

I actually added a couple more things to the list but it was already too late. She had given the phone to her husband and walked away. The shock of suddenly hearing his voice on the phone and the knowledge that, once again, she wasn’t willing to listen to me, was too much. My partner, who by now was standing next to me listening, took the phone from me and attempted to talk reason. It didn’t go well.

First he argued with my stepdad about why he wasn’t willing to put me back on the phone so that he could give me a stern talking to about upsetting my mother. Then my mother got back on the phone and he argued with her. Their argument – what I heard of it anyway, sent chills down my spine. Although I couldn’t hear what she was saying, it didn’t take a lot to work it out. For the next 15 minutes my partner argued empathically that “It did happen…She was raped…She’s not a liar…You can’t say IF it happened; it DID happen…What has your embarrassment got to do with anything?…” and on it went. She was completely adamant that I was lying. Eventually someone hung up. Afterwards, my partner cried. I stopped crying and entered a state of self-preserving numbness, a familiar state I remember from my teenage years. My partner did try to talk to her once more the following day, but it just got worse. She remained completely unwilling to talk to me.

Needless to say, she didn’t come to my graduation. Instead of congratulations, I received a text message stating that I was no longer part of the family. Thanks Mum.

If you have managed to make it this far through my post and are still reading, let me express a little gratitude: Hey, thanks for listening. This is long and convoluted and I’m sorry that I feel compelled to vent it out in a blow-by-blow account. This has taken more explaining and time than I had anticipated. I opened this blog by suggesting that I had come to a realization about why this situation has become so out of hand – that I’m starting to think that her view of me has much more to do with the view of herself that she desperately clings to than any kind of reality, and I do plan to get back to that point eventually. Hold tight for chapter two and the next exciting adventure – joint therapy with my mother.

Spoiler Alert: Things aren’t going to get better.

Chapter two can now be found here

I believe you and it’s not your fault.

TRIGGER WARNING— the following contains discussion of rape and victim blaming. My mother and I are currently fighting. There is the long story and the short story. This is the short one. Actually, no it’s not. It’s not the story at all. What this is, is one small manageable chunk, a deflection/distraction/diversion/sideline/footnote from the story. Ok, so let’s just quickly get you to the point where I’m going to start. Here is the relevant background that you need to know. My mother and I are fighting. She’s wrong and I’m right (of course). In the progression of our arguing the fact that I was raped when I was 13 came up. I wasn’t believed then, and as it turns out I’m still not believed now. The moment it was mentioned my mother ended the conversation without a word; she just walked away. I haven’t spoken to her since then but my partner has. According to my mother- she doesn’t need to listen because it didn’t happen. She doesn’t remember it – it didn’t happen. She would never NOT believe someone – so I must be lying (oh the irony of that one). I’m a liar. I lied as a child. I’ve always been a liar. I’m very overemotional. I’m a narcissist. I’m just not grateful. She has asked her sisters and friends if they remember me being raped, and they don’t remember it at all, so it obviously can’t have happened. Apparently my aunt’s response to hearing about it was “well, she has always been melodramatic”. No one else believes her either. And this where I want to start, with my aunt and her comment “well, she has always been melodramatic”. Now I know, I know. Why am I locking sites on my aunty when the mothership of all problems is hovering right there? The simple answer is, this is one of the main things that has been playing over in my mind since it happened. I don’t really know why. Maybe as I suggested at the beginning – it is a distraction from facing bigger issues. Removing it from my mother makes it slightly less emotional and easier to make sense of. Or maybe it is just a desperate attempt to stop the spread of pernicious lies and a clamouring for any kind of understanding and support. In fairness to my Aunt, she did not make this comment to me. In fact I can’t even be sure she said it all. This was only her response according to my mother and my mother is hardly a reliable source. And, even if my aunty did say that, I cannot be sure of the context that it was said in. I don’t know how my mother presented the information, I don’t know what segue was used or how the conversation went that followed. Maybe my aunt was just placating my mother, trying to show her sister support. Maybe she would never have responded like that if she had known it would be repeated to me. But here is the problem – I don’t know. I don’t know what she meant. What I do know is that this is how my mother said that my aunty responded, and she delivered this information in a way to suggest ‘see, your auntie doesn’t believe you either.’ Regardless of whether she actually said it or not, I’m left with the repercussions of feeling isolated, ganged up on, and disbelieved by yet another person who hasn’t even spoken to me about. My aunt doesn’t know that I have been told this, so even if it’s not true or completely out of context, she has no way of correcting the situation unless I confront her about it first. The trouble is, in order to confront her I would need to be willing to talk to her about things that are painful, important and difficult, but the idea that she already doesn’t believe me makes this all too much of an emotional risk. Once again, everything is on me. I’m not going there. I’m doing this instead. So, assuming that my aunty did say that… Dear Auntie, What the hell do you mean by “well, she has always been melodramatic”? My mother told you I had said I was raped and your response was “WELL, SHE HAS ALWAYS BEEN MELODRAMATIC”. I have been trying to get my head around what you could have possibly meant by this. Do you mean melodramatic as in, I am just trying to create a dramatic situation in which I can control or win a fight with my mother? Do you mean melodramatic as in, something might have happened but I’m just being melodramatic by calling it a rape? Or do you think melodramatic people are perhaps more prone to being raped? I don’t get it. How, in any way, was your comment an appropriate response? My mother says you don’t remember me being raped. This doesn’t surprise me – I certainly never spoke to you about it. It doesn’t surprise me that she never spoke to you about it either. What I imagine she would have spoken to you about is how she was taking me to the doctor’s to put me on the pill and have me checked for S.T.D’s now that I was sexually active. Do you remember that? I remember that doctor’s visit. I remember the look on the doctor’s face when she was asking me about my sexual history. I remember my mother answering for me, “we don’t talk about that do we”. I remember the doctor pulling out the most terrifying instrument I had ever seen in my life, the speculum, and announcing that I had nothing to worry about because it was no bigger than a penis. This not only filled me with unbearable fear because my only experience with a penis had fucking hurt, but also made me feel like the doctor thought I was a slut. I remember that it felt like everyone in the world thought I was a slut and was looking at me differently. Maybe I was just being melodramatic. I was only 13 and children can be prone to melodrama you know. Does it make me more or less dramatic if I tell you that there is not one rape story but many? Is it melodramatic to claim that the way the first incident was handled had a profound influence on my reaction every time after? I never reported anything ever. I didn’t feel like I was being melodramatic every time I stayed silent, I thought I was ‘moving on’. Is it melodramatic that I am bringing it up now, after so many years? ‘Moving on’ feels like a rather strange concept right now. Is it melodramatic to feel like this is just history repeating itself? Right now I feel like I haven’t moved on at all. Neither has anyone’s opinion of me. I am still a liar. Am I being melodramatic when I say that this repetition of history is deeply scarring? You may not understand the weight of this situation and maybe you never will. There is no way to adequately express how it feels to be called a liar, again, after all these years. If I were to try, surely you would just think me melodramatic. I could go on at length about, mum said this…., then I said…, then she replied …..etc. etc. etc. But how much of it really matters to you? What would it change? I can’t change the past, so lets talk about now. Have you even considered the possibility that maybe I’m not melodramatic; maybe everything I am saying is the exact truth? If you are able to entertain this possibility, have you thought about the damage mum must be doing? Don’t you find this situation sad and tragic? Don’t you find it strange that mum came to you to talk about my rape but she won’t talk me? Doesn’t it strike you as odd that no part of her wants to hug me or say something comforting? Where do you even think she plans to go from here? She hasn’t given herself much of a way out. Look, maybe you were just placating her, maybe you didn’t know what else to say, maybe she has taken your comment out of context, but she is using your comment to hurt me, to make me feel isolated from the family, is this ok with you? If you were just saying what you think she wanted to hear, you need to stop doing that now. What I don’t understand, is why the hell no one is saying to her “at least hear your daughter out”, or “don’t say something you’ll regret”. Why is no one even raising the possibility that it could be true? It’s really not that hard to believe! Doesn’t everything else that you know about me seem to make more sense now? Leaving home at 14, dropping out school, and everything else that would come after. For fucks sake, look at the statistics! Even mathematically, the odds are on it being the truth. 1 out of 3 women! And don’t you think a child out in the world alone would be at greater risk? In terms of this stuff, I am fucking textbook. Maybe one day I’ll embark on a cathartic purging of stories, but I want you to know that I don’t owe you the details. I wasn’t looking to talk to you about what happened to me. This is being said in response to you. You already had your turn when you said, “well, she has always been melodramatic”. You may find this unfair, but I don’t really care. If you feel angry, you can blame your sister. You don’t get to ‘fact-check’ my story for inconsistencies. I am not accusing anyone that you know or love, and I am not on trial. What my mother has roped you into, willingly or not, are some of the most insidious areas of rape culture – victim blaming and denial. This is not ok and you should know better! She should know better! So just for the record, just so it has been said, even if I have to say it myself – It doesn’t matter if I was the most melodramatic person in the world, I did not deserve to be raped. No one, under any circumstances, ever deserves to be raped! If you do ever read this Auntie and you think to yourself ‘No! That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I think”, I imagine you will feel rather attacked, embarrassed, uncomfortable and might not know how to address this with me. You might not even want to. But if by chance you do, I’m going to make it really easy for you and give you some advice on what I think you should say. It’s pretty simple. It’s the same thing I have always wanted to hear from my mother… I believe you and it’s not your fault.

Impostor Syndrome

The writing of my first university assignment was a traumatic event. It was 1000 words of pure hellish agonising torture, with alternating episodes of dramatic wailing and pitiful sobbing in front of my computer screen.

I was convinced that this assignment would reveal my inability to go any further with the degree, and as a result I would be taken aside and quietly asked to leave. Now I know that that seems a little melodramatic, but there were good reasons that I doubted myself. The last year of high school I completed was year 9. In my favourite high school subject – and incidentally the one that I was now pursuing in uni – I received a final grade of only 17 and a half percent. I applied for uni as a mature-age, full-fee-paying student, and during my application interview I literally begged. They kind of had to let me in. Now that I was in, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was terrified and completely intimidated by the aloof and relaxed faces of my classmates who seemed in no way daunted by the task ahead.

That short 1000-word essay was one of the most terrifying endeavors I have ever undertaken. When the results were returned, I discovered that I had received a high distinction. I hid in the toilets and cried. First, out of relief, pride, and feelings of sheer luck, and then out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to fluke it again.

The writing of my second university assignment was yet another traumatic event. 2000 words of pure hellish agonizing torture, again with alternating episodes of dramatic wailing, pitiful sobbing, and even a little yelling and swearing in front of my computer screen.

This time I dreaded the eventual embarrassment that would follow the assignment. I feared the look of disappointment on the face of the teacher who had given me that first HD, and the expression of resigned pity from friends and family that surely had known it was a fluke all along. I wished I had been unmasked the first time. This seemed like a lot of work for something that surely was doomed to fail.

The third, fourth, and subsequent essays went more or less the same way, although I did find a few more things to panic about as I went, like: ‘maybe I’m just cheating the system because I put ‘too much’ time and effort into my studies. I bet really smart people do this easily.’ And then, as my results came in: ‘maybe they felt sorry for me’, or: ‘maybe they didn’t even read it and gave everyone the same grade’. As I look back, the idea that the markers weren’t taking their job seriously seems ridiculous, if not a bit offensive.

I finished the year with a perfect GPA. Secretly I felt crap about it. I comforted myself by thinking that even if I had just cheated the system, surely it was proof of at least some level of intelligence as obviously I had been clever enough to crack the secret university code.

The rest of my degree was hard won. I soon lost my perfect score – I handed in an assignment late under the incorrect assumption that I had an extension. Under my faculty’s rule, late assessments get an automatic grade of 0. This will do terrible things to your GPA. I have always wished that I had just handed in what I had by the due date. It would have been incomplete, unedited and ugly but maybe I could have just scraped a low pass out of it. Even a failing grade of 3 would have been better than the big fat zero I ended up receiving. However, to say that I worked hard during my undergraduate degree would be an understatement. Even I am able to recognize that I did in fact put in the effort. Furthermore, over the course of those years, a lot of ‘life’ happened that didn’t make studying any easier. Of most lasting impact was the surprise pregnancy and birth of my third child, after which I went part-time for a while, and pumped breast milk between lectures. It was hard and there were moments when my confidence bottomed out and I genuinely considered leaving. I am pleased I didn’t. Despite all my self-doubt, I made it to the end of my course. And while I may not have finished with a perfect score, the 97.8% that I did manage is undeniably impressive, especially given the circumstances. I received first class honours, a university medal, and an offer of a full scholarship to complete a doctorate. Not bad for a high school dropout.

Reflecting on my achievements, my intense fear and self-doubt seems like a completely melodramatic overreaction. And it is. But apparently it is also quite common. Introducing…. Impostor Syndrome – the feeling that despite your accomplishments, you are actually a fraud.

It appears that not only am I not a complete raving lunatic, I’m also in quite impressive company. Apparently Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, the amazing Maya Angelou, and a string of other celebrities have all suffered from feelings of fakery. Impostor Syndrome is also rampant with academia, particularly in female academics. The first time I heard of it was when one of my lecturers posted an article on her Facebook. While I feel awful for taking any pleasure in someone else’s discomfort, the idea that this particular lecturer believes herself to be anything other than absolutely amazing, is both absurd and a little comforting. If she can’t always see herself objectively, then surely Impostor Syndrome is a real thing, and so maybe I haven’t been seeing myself completely objectively either.

If you would like to know more about Impostor Syndrome, or Impostor Phenomenon as it is often called, I would recommend Dr. Pauline Clance’s website. It was Clance, along with her colleague Suzanne Imes, that first described Impostor Phenomenon back in 1978. Continuing her work since then, her website includes an extensive reference list from 1978 to present.