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More Than the Diagnosis

“Wow, you’re a bit OCD, huh?”

No. I am not OCD. Any more than I “am” PTSD. How can one BE a disorder? I have OCD, PTSD, and dysthymic disorder. They affect who I am, but do not define me.

So I’ve been thinking about a few other, similar things lately. I often say my parents are hoarders. Particularly my father–I’m fairly well convinced that my mother hoards by association wit h my father and her tendency to pick up what those around her do, rather than any personal inclination.

Now, looking at this logically and realistically, since they’ve never admitted it or done much about it, they sort of do let it define them. They have not chosen to rise above it, to be more than it. But at the same time, they are more than hoarders–in both positive and negative ways, but more, at any rate.

So I’m going to try to start saying that my parents have Compulsive Hoarding Disorder, rather than that they are hoarders. At least my father does. My mother . . . well, again, it’s a little up in the air whether she has it or whether she’s just absorbing the behavior of my father. But they both certainly have depression (that they see in each other but won’t acknowledge in themselves so they don’t seek help for it) and that’s another way I need to change my terminology. They have depression.

Because, for my own sake, for my own healing, no matter how much I think I may have forgiven them for various things, I don’t think I really have if I continue to define them by their disorders, conditions, etc. I don’t want to be defined by the conditions I have, and I don’t want to define other people by the conditions they have either.

So I am me, and they are them. And these conditions and disorders and such? They’re things we have to choose to deal with, each individually. But they are not who we are.

I would like to offer a disclaimer at the beginning of this: I do NOT believe that being a COH is equivalent to being a slave or to major child abuse. That is to say, it could be equivalent, but it all varies case by case. My case was what I consider “boarderline abuse.” That is to say, I would be reluctant to call it abuse, but it was pretty stinkin’ close. Technically, I think it classes as emotional abuse and neglect, but I still have a hard time calling it that. At any rate, it certainly isn’t the same thing as, say, Dave in A Child Called It, or an abused prisoner of war. Chains of the past that are hard to be released from vary in origin, strength, and even in their effect on various people depending on their personalities and how they react to circumstances. But the extreme chains of one doesn’t negate the lesser-but-still-present chains of another.

For various reasons (mostly related to sci-fi–yeah, that’s my brain) I started thinking about slavery earlier. I was thinking of Teal’c from Stargate: SG-1, who was born into a slave race and fought to escape that slavery, then fought against the slavers to free the rest of his people. Yet it took him a very very long time to trust his new friends he was fighting with, and even well into the series he had a hard time asking for help with personal matters, even though he would offer ideas and happily work with them in professional matters. And this got me thinking of how hard it must be for a former slave, especially one born into slavery, to ever feel “equal” with anyone else, even his friends. If they weren’t also in slavery, I suspect the freed slave may forever feel substandard, though his friends would never (at least never intentionally) do anything to make him feel that way.

I was actually thinking of writing a story involving this element, and as I wrote down a short conversation to later include in the story (if ever I have a surrounding story to go with this brief concept) I realized something very significant: I feel like this too. No matter how kind someone is, no matter how loving, no matter how they confess their faults to me, I never feel like I’m “equal” or “good enough” when I’m around my friends. I mean, a lot of people often have a sense that everyone else has it more “together” than they do. But it’s more than that. I have this sense of being on a slightly lower plane of existence–like I’ve managed to raise up to a higher plane of existence than I was ever on before, but still never as high as those around me. Like I’m incapable of reaching that plateau. Like I’m forever pulled down to a lower level.

Despite my frustrations when my mother-in-law is helping me–which are not based on her help, but my own feelings of failure–I still feel very comforted when she’s around. I feel like she’s a comforting and calming presence, an anchor of sorts.

My sister told me the same thing tonight about her own mother-in-law. And we agreed that we don’t feel that with our mother. In fact, I had two days with my mother-in-law here followed by one day with my own mother here last week, and the difference was drastic. I could talk to my mother, joke with her, but almost the same as I could with a relative stranger. I lack a connection with her, and what connection I really feel is negative. I feel like her very presence, even when she’s here helping me rearrange bookshelves and get more organized (yes, she apparently can actually do that!) is somehow pulling me down to a lower plane. But when my mother-in-law is here it’s like she gives me a temporary free pass to that higher plane that I’m never actually allowed to live on. I never feel like I belong there, but I can at least be there for a short time and have a respite from the stuffy lower altitudes.

And I’m sure it’s the same with abused children. And with slaves. And prisoners of war. And anyone else in such a situation. maybe it’s a PTSD thing overall, or maybe it’s something else. I don’t know. But I know that if I’m ever talking to someone who was in any such situation, though our experiences will certainly differ and though they may be dwelling on lower planes or have a harder struggle to get up with more chains weighing them down, I do know this: I may not be able to identify with everything they’ve been through, but I’ll certainly identify with that particular feeling.

People love to point out–to me, or just in things they share on Facebook–that you are responsible for your own actions and your actions are not the fault of your past. Even when it’s a generic image shared on Facebook, I always feel like that sentiment is being shot at me like a very insulting arrow. Which is funny, because I do actually believe it. But I feel like people get so caught up on that that they ignore the fact that your past does, in fact, affect how you react to things. If I’m cruel to someone, that’s my choice. If I neglect my son, that’s my choice. If I ignore my house and do nothing to contribute to my family’s comfort and well-being, that’s my choice. But if I experienced these things in my life, they will certainly make those choices much harder. If you’ve been given an example of the wrong thing your whole life in one area and the right thing your whole life in another area, doing the right thing in BOTH areas is your choice, but in which area do you think it will be a harder choice?

So yes, if I use my PTSD (which I’ve only recently realized is almost entirely related to cleaning–how strange that the simple matter of how to clean is the area I react as the most “abused”) as an excuse not to clean, that’s a cop-out. But if I struggle with doing the right thing, keeping a clean and healthy environment for my family and teaching my son how to clean, because I was never given that example growing up, that’s legitimate. The point is, however hard it is, I made my choice–my choice is to fight.

Now I just need to figure out how to choose to believe that I really am equal with others, even if I don’t have a perfect house.

Just One . . . .

“If one person in this house put one thing away where it belongs just once, I’d be thrilled!”

There are certain moments in life that stick in your brain for no logical reason. I thought I’d write about one of my own today. I was a senior in high school. We were in the apartment of the year (as we had a different one every year for 3 years in a row), with the same mess that we always packed away, then released from the boxes upon arrival to instantly fill the new place. I was laying on my bed in the bedroom reading a book for English class. And my mother was very loudly looking for the can opener in the kitchen outside my room.

That’s when she shouted the above sentence. And I glared over my book and muttered, “You wouldn’t even notice.”

I would never say something like that within her hearing. My self-appointed tasks in life were to keep my mother from crying and defend my father as not being able to do anything because of his disabilities (even though he could have done a lot more than he did).

But from the safety of my room, I could at least mutter my thoughts. Because honestly, let’s be realistic here. We had access to half the living room in that apartment, the other half being entirely piled up with boxes of stuff that we “needed” to keep. Of course, we survived a year and a half in that apartment–it being the last in our string of moves before moving to the house my parents lived in from a few days before I left for college, until just a few months ago–without any of the stuff in those boxes. But we couldn’t get rid of any of it either. We “needed” all of it.

What’s more, we still had piles and piles of junk EVERYWHERE, and several drawers and fixtures that functioned when we moved in were broken when we moved out. We kids were blamed for this, and I admit we could have done more than we did. You can refer back to my last post, though, about the importance of being taught how to clean. I mean, my siblings and I used to try to make our own chore charts, entirely of our own accord, so we could keep the house clean. We would go on frantic cleaning sprees. They resulted in failure after failure, never sure how to keep up with things, never sure how to stay motivated, never kept accountable or sure how to keep one another accountable, and often yelled at for throwing things out like, say, a meat tray (“Those can be used for paint pallets!”) or a moldy, cat-pee-soaked t-shirt (“We can wash that!” [if we ever got around to getting any laundry washed]). So yes, I admit that there was often more that we children could have done, but please realize that we were kind of flying blind through a very hostile environment when it came to cleaning.

I’m sorry if the last paragraph sounds very defensive, but these are things people have indicated, implied, or directly stated to me somewhat regularly–that maybe the mess really was our fault and we can’t blame it all on our parents. It’s so hard for me to differentiate what WAS my own fault or the fault of my siblings, and what was my parents’ fault, but it’s even harder for someone who wasn’t even in the situation to really be able to accurately identify this. Especially if they came from a home where they were taught how to clean, or a lot (maybe more than they ever realized) was done by their parents.

Anyway. So back to being realistic about my mother’s statement. In the midst of this huge mess, if one person put one thing away where it belonged once . . . who would notice? Honestly, who would? I was actually really upset by her shouted hyperbole simply because I had actually used the can opener earlier that day and I HAD put it back in the drawer where it belonged. Why it wasn’t there then–who had used it and not put it back, or if it was in the drawer and she just wasn’t seeing it–I don’t know. But really, did she honestly think she would be able to tell the difference if one item was put back where it belonged once? She didn’t even know the difference when we spent hours cleaning while they were out to try to surprise them when they got back. Who could tell?

Picture a beach after a hurricane. Picture debris everywhere. All up and down the beach. Now picture 3, 4, maybe 5 children walking up and down the beach for an afternoon, cleaning up as much debris as they can, with no instructions except “clean the beach,” and no idea what half the debris is. Trying to figure out what to do with it. Not even able to lift some things. Just for one afternoon. Honestly, if no one saw them out there, anyone coming along afterward might not be able to tell that anything was done at all.

Generally, you can get a lot done in an afternoon. Several rooms cleaned up. Lots of clothes sorted through. Under the right guidance and instruction. But without that–without guidance, without instruction, without knowing how to do it–you’ll just wander aimlessly and even if you do a lot, you’ll get very little actually accomplished. Not nearly as much as if you’re taught how to be efficient. Especially if you’re a child. So children wandering on a beach full of debris might get some done, more than if they did nothing at all, but not nearly as much as if an adult helps them get organized, teaches them how to do some things, works with them, and gives them specific instructions.

That mental image of adults and children working together to clean debris up from a beach after a hurricane is kind of nice. A “hope for humanity” kind of image. But now picture that, instead of helping them get organized, an adult out there sitting in a chair, yelling at them that they need to get things picked up, blaming them for the mess on the beach (and hey, maybe some of it is their own mess, who knows? but certainly not all of it), and then yelling at them for throwing some things away because “that can be fixed and I can still use that!” while also yelling at them for not throwing other things away that “obviously” are trash.

Yeah. That’s what cleaning in my house was like. Now, in my house, that adult yelling at us for not cleaning was my father. Most of the time. My mother did too, but not nearly as often. She wasn’t home often, busy working and driving people places. My father was home all the time, and my biggest memories of him (except a few precious memories of wonderfully deep conversations about science or philosophy or the Bible or music or whatever else; and a few weird memories when his inability to do anything was suddenly set aside when he wanted to create various artworks or cook way more food than needed to be cooked at once) are predominantly of him yelling at us for not cleaning, getting upset about things not being clean and throwing things around (which just relocated the mess rather than actually doing anything useful), watching TV, or being in his bedroom asleep while we had to try to stay as quiet as possible.

And no, I don’t blame my father for all those things. I understand some of them. He was frustrated at his disabilities, felt useless or like he wasn’t “good enough” because he couldn’t work to provide for his family. His already-night-owl sleep schedule was extra messed up with various medications he was on. I get that. But that doesn’t absolve him, either.

I’m babbling, though. Covering too many topics. My point is, in a place like that, who would ever notice something being put away where it belonged?

It’s one of those stupid little things–just one sentence shouted in frustration–that for some reason has stuck with me my whole life. As I’ve gotten older and learned how to clean on my own, I’ve learned something very important that, in all honesty, I really knew at the time but wasn’t sure how to do: it definitely takes a lot more than just doing one thing every day in order to keep a house clean.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been reading this that housework is not my specialty. I hope you’ve seen that it’s also something I’m working REALLY hard on. It’s crazy having something that seems like it should be so simple–that most of society expects to just be something every adult knows how to do–that I have such a huge learning curve on. It’s so hard for most people to understand that, too. Even if their parents never taught them how to do it, many people still at least watched their parents doing it and could learn by example. There’s a world of difference between that and this cycle:

  • No one cleans.
  • Parents get tired of mess and yell at kids to clean. (Or, alternately, kids get tired of mess and decide to clean on their own–yes, this really did happen.)
  • Kids try to figure out how to clean.
  • Kids get yelled at for touching some precious Puzz3D/moving something they shouldn’t have (but had no way of knowing they shouldn’t have)/throwing something away that looked like trash to them but apparently was SUPER important to keep/etc.
  • Kids get worn out trying to get the whole overwhelming mass of junk cleaned up/trying to figure out WHAT to clean up and what not to.
  • Kids give up.
  • No one cleans.
  • Repeat as necessary–but don’t bother rinsing because, hey, who knows if we really need to or not?

I’m not saying that it’s my parents’ fault if I don’t have a clean house. But I am saying that I’m having to learn a lot of things as an adult that I should have learned as a child, or even as a teenager. I had no idea until college that laundry might ever involve anything other than throwing clothes in the washer, turning it onto who-knows-what setting (I mean, as long as water’s going in, right?), adding some soap, letting it do its thing, then throwing them in the drying and putting them on whatever setting (really, why were there so many choices? couldn’t they just put an on button?) until dry.

I mean, I knew enough to know that the masses of laundry all over the couch and floor probably weren’t the best choice and it’d be great if they were in the dresser. But, hey, that was a luxury, really. I was super self-conscious about the smell that emanated from the clothes I wore, and the fact that I wasn’t always 100% sure whether they’d been washed since they were last worn or not. (Or was 100% sure that they hadn’t been.) But at least I had something on.

Anyway. I’ve learned a lot–SO much–from college roommates and in various ways since college, about how to clean. I know how to clean a shower now. I know how to clean a bathroom sink. I know that the faucet should probably be smooth metal colors and not just mottled toothpaste spit. I know how to scrub a sink, and how to make sure dishes actually have all the grease off of them and not just all the obvious bits of food. I know how to vacuum edges of the room and not just make the middle of the room look good. I know how to mop a floor either with a mop or on hands and knees with a rag, and how to do so in a way that doesn’t involve bathing suits and the floor remaining wet for the rest of the day.

But maintaining a regular cleaning schedule? That’s the hardest thing for me to learn. I’m getting better at it, though. So much better, in fact, that I was almost completely caught up on dishes and it looked like I’d actually be able to stay caught up!

Then, for various medical reasons, I’m not allowed to do any heavy lifting or stand/walk around for lengths of time, at least for the next few weeks. This at the same time that my husband is, when not working, busy studying for an important exam he has coming up–one that will mean getting a required certification for his job. I was SO CLOSE! And now everything is slipping away again.

So today my mother-in-law is graciously here helping me. And I love her for it. And I appreciate her help. I really, truly do. Yet, when I look at her pulling a jar out of my sink that has now-moldy smoothie remnants, and scrubbing my stove of all the random bits of food that I’ve managed to cook but worn myself out too much to clean up after . . . I feel ashamed. I feel like a failure.

I couldn’t figure out what that would be. Feeling like I’ve failed to not be caught up when I really should be is one thing. But feeling like I’ve failed when I have a legitimate medical reason that everything isn’t caught up? I don’t know why that is. I was toying with various reasons. Maybe because she’s my mother-in-law, and even though I really see her as more of a real mother to me than my own mother, I still feel like she doesn’t understand why cleaning is such a huge learning curve for me. And she really had a busy summer, and hasn’t been here to see that I’ve stayed more caught up on things the past couple months (and especially the past month or so). Maybe because she keeps such a clean house that I feel like even at my best I’ll never live up to her standards, even though she doesn’t say anything to me to indicate that she sees me as failing in any way. Maybe because I married her son and I feel like she might see me as not taking care of the house the way her son deserves.

Then I asked my sister why she thinks it is that I feel like a failure even when I know that, at least for this once, the mess is not my fault. I’ve been doing everything I can (and perhaps slightly more than the doctors want me doing right now) and just can’t do it all while having to stay sitting so much.

Her answer hit the nail on the head. She said, “Because dad expected us to just know how to do that stuff. He was so wiling to teach us all kinds of things but with housework he somehow expected us to just know, which left little room to accept failure.”

She’s right. She’s absolutely right. Which means, in reality, it’s linked to my PTSD. Regularly feeling like a failure growing up, because I couldn’t figure out how to keep the house clean the way we were constantly yelled at to do. Because things that society expects me to know,  as a grown woman, are things that I’m still just learning now, and I feel like I should already know them. My siblings and I were always expected to already know them.

There are other things that’s true of too. Cooking–our father always wanted to teach us how to cook, but rarely taught us much, and we were so often left to do it on our own that we sort of just figured things out as we went. (Without even being able to Google to find out how to do it!) But that’s something that we could ask our father about if we had a question, and he would answer us. It’s not something he treated us like we should already know.

Or changing clothes and underwear. I remember one time, when the pipes leading to our shower were broken (or maybe it was during that winter that we had no water in our bathroom at all, and no heat?) and we were going to my grandparents’ house to take showers. I was in late middle school at the time. I knew enough to know that I needed clean underwear each day. (Though I fear some days it was just changed to a different pair of dirty underwear. But I was working with what I could, and figured it was at least better than wearing the same dirty pair of underwear twice in a row.) So, since we were showering at my grandparents’ house, we were having showers in the evenings rather than in the mornings. (That’s part of why, for a very long time, I was extraordinarily particular about showering every morning. I never felt clean when living at my parents’ house, and showering every morning was sort of a way of going against what we’d so often had to do. And a way of trying to wash the house off of me before I went out to face people in the world.)

Anyway! So one morning during that period of time, I was looking for a clean pair of underwear in the morning and my mom said, “Really? I usually change my underwear after I shower.”

*blink* *blink blink* Oh. Because it would still be 24 hours of clean underwear. More or less. Change it after the shower, not in the morning. Pretty sure I was 13 or 14 years old. No one had EVER told me that if I was going to shower or bathe every day, it was most logical to change my underwear right after that, rather than at the opposite end of the day. Why my mother assumed I would just know that, I have no idea. That’s one of several things she responded to, when I was a preteen or young teenager, in a way that seemed to indicate, “But you can do things however you want.” Things that she should have taught me, or my father should have taught me, but neither of them did. And my older sisters didn’t because I’m pretty sure no one ever taught them either!

But most of those things–brushing teeth regularly, changing to clean clothes and underwear after a shower rather than just first thing in the morning when your shower is every evening, various cooking skills, and a host of other things that my parents didn’t take the time to teach us–those are either things that aren’t quite as huge a learning curve (or at least haven’t been for me), or (in the case of cooking) that people don’t really expect every single person to be able to do perfectly and don’t treat you like you’re completely inept if you’re unaware of how to do it.

Cleaning, though? That’s something that you actually have to be taught to do, and yet so many people learn elements of it as a child or by example that it doesn’t even occur to them that someone who struggles with it may not have ever been taught. And it’s something that my parents seem to have expected us to know how to do even though they never taught us how to do it. They yelled at us for not doing it, yelled at us to do it, and on rare occasions sat down long enough to help us pick all the clothes up off our floor and put them in our drawers. But they never taught us how to do it. And certainly never taught us how to do it regularly.

There’s a thing about being a parent, though. Sometimes you can learn along with your child. Learn to see the world through a child’s wonder; learn to think differently; learn to care about the simple things again. And in my case, I want to make sure I teach my children how to clean, and how to do so regularly. So I’m learning along with my toddler.

After lunch today, he took his own plate to the trash and scraped the remnants into it, then gave it to me to rinse. While I did that, I gave him the dish cloth to wash the table. As a toddler, he can already do things (without even being asked!) that I never learned to do until I was in college, or later.

So we’ll keep learning together. And meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to look at those successes, and not focus on feeling like a failure.

Yes, that’s right, two posts in one day. Because it’s just one of those days.

The kind of day where everything feels like too much. The kind of day where our finances are stretched to the max despite our careful planning. The kind of day where the burden of my parents’ lack of financial planning is falling on their children, however indirectly. The kind of day where I so seriously appreciate my husband’s hard work and the income he brings, but the stuff to do around the house is piling up due to my own health issues.

Yesterday was a determined day. The health issues I’ve been having recently (which I’ll be seeing a doctor about tomorrow) are making a lot of things super-difficult, but I was determined to do things anyway so I set up dishes at the kitchen table, with a wash bin, a rinse bin, a dish drainer at the edge, and another bin on the floor to catch the water the drained from the dish drainer. And I’m going to do that again today. Because I will NOT be my parents.

But while I do that, there are other things piling up. More messes that I need to supervise my son in cleaning up. But he doesn’t understand “Mommy doesn’t feel well and can’t move that fast.” He understands Mommy is there to help him clean up his toys and his books, but he doesn’t understand that Mommy can’t chase him around the whole house getting all of them.

But I will not, will not, will not have a house that’s “messy just because of the kids,” or “messy just because I’m sick.” Because that’s what I grew up with. And it’s NOT going to happen to my children. They will not grow up believing everything is their fault. They will grow up knowing responsibility–you took it out, you put it away–but not being told that every general mess is their fault. Nor will they grow up believing that a gross, dirty house is just the way it should be. No. Not my children.

It’s one of those days. One of those days where I just want to cry and eat cookie dough and watch sappy movies. But I’m not going to. Because I am determined to be determined, even when I don’t feel very determined. I owe it to my children. More importantly, I owe it to the adults my children will one day be, and to the spouses they will one day have, and to my grandchildren, not to leave my children with the same emotional scars and baggage, the same sense of everything being their fault, and the same super-high learning curve of how to keep a reasonably clean–not necessarily spotless, but livable and sanitary–house for their families.

I’m writing this letter here because I need to write it somewhere, and cannot send it to the friend I’m writing it to. She once read this blog, and is still one of the very few people who know me and also know I write this blog. I very much doubt she still reads this, but on the off-chance that she does, maybe she’ll see this. Also, I link to an online store in this post. This is not a paid promotion, nor do I receive anything from the site or anyone else if you click the link.

Dear friend,

Yes, I still call you friend. Sister. Outside of my husband and children, you are still one of the most important people who has ever touched my life. And you’ve been on my mind a lot lately. Well, in all fairness, you’re on my mind at least some part of every day. So I make a point of praying for you at least once every day.

I miss you. And I still love you. That’s mostly what I wanted to say in this letter. I may not always understand everything you go through, but I mourn for you, for the pain and hardness you deal with. So much of it sounds so familiar, so much like the things I go through, but I know it’s not the same. I see that in how it affects your life.

I don’t know how you’re doing lately. I don’t have any right to know, I guess. But it does make it a little hard to know how to pray for you. At least God knows.

You know the expression “he’s dead to me”? Or she is, or whatever. Like if someone leaves a strict religious culture or something. In reality, I’ve heard of cultures like that that have actual funeral services, but in the movies it seems like it’s always the father figure just yelling in anger about how the child is “dead” and never speaking to them again. Well, the reality for me is that ever since you told me that I make your life worse, not better, I have felt as though you died. I mourn our friendship as much as I mourned the loss of my grandmother. I see reminders of you every day. I think of you when I’m glancing through Think Geek and spot the tin of Tea, Earl Grey, Hot that I’d always wanted to get you but never had money for. I think of you when I see the mug your mother gave me for graduation, the beautiful friendship box you gave me, all sorts of things. The friendship box is the most precious to me. And when I see these things, my heart wrenches, and I selfishly mourn my loss all over again. But I also pray for you.

The reality is much worse. In reality, if our friendship ended through death, I would have left only the hope of seeing you in heaven. And that’s a beautiful hope, a beautiful reality. But instead, our friendship ended through a . . . a cutting off. I don’t know how else to describe it. All I feel is that one of the most important ties in my life was suddenly and horribly severed. And I live with the knowledge that I could still see you, except that I can’t still see you. And in my selfishness, that hurts enough. But I also live with the fear that something might happen to you, that you might actually die, and I would never have gotten to speak to you again. Other than that brief conversation where I apologized and you apologized and . . . and there’s forgiveness but not complete restoration.

I’ll admit, this fear is a bit more forefront in my mind right now because of the recent suicide of Robin Williams after his battle with depression. But that’s not the only reason. It’s something I fear frequently. And something I write letters to you about sometimes. Maybe one day I’ll send one . . . but I doubt it.

I constantly wonder, knowing how many times you told me that you tend to intentionally push people away even though you don’t want to, how much you were really mad at me and how much you were testing and pushing me. I do know that in my attempt to express my own struggles in our relationship, that I think I misspoke and said things I needed to talk to you about but perhaps at a bad time to try to talk about it. And perhaps not in the most clear way of what I meant, either.

I’d promised you I would do my best to never let you push me away if you tried. But you said the one thing that I couldn’t resolve. You could tell me I’m annoying, and I’d strive not to annoy you. You could tell me you didn’t like me, and I’d strive to be more likable. You could tell me almost anything, and I would try to figure out how to be a better person. Not for everyone, mind you, but for you, almost anything. And you could definitely tell me that you were horrible, that you were no good for me, all sorts of things, and I would say I didn’t care, that we would work through it.

But what you told me is that your life was worse because of me. And I don’t know how to fix that. And if my presence makes your life worse, that’s that. I refuse to make your life worse. Even if I wonder almost every day whether you really meant it or not. I’d rather pray for you from a distance than be near you and risk making your life worse.

I talk to you almost every day too, you know. Argue with you. Not like real fights, but things that I think maybe you wouldn’t understand or agree with. I argue with you in my mind until I determine whether I actually know my own reasoning or whether it’s something I should give up on, or at least research more.

In reality, I should say I argue with the you I knew. It’s been too long, and for nearly the last year of our friendship I felt you slipping away already. I felt like you really didn’t know who I was and I really didn’t know who you were. A big part of that was my own fault too. You once expressed a fear that you would be left out of my life once I was married. I strove so hard to keep you included in my life with my family that I forgot to make sure I was still included in your life too. But the reality, the result, remains: we don’t know each other anymore. Even if our friendship is ever somehow restored, we’ll need to learn one another all over again. Because I know I’ve changed a lot from who you knew, and I’m sure you have too though I don’t know in what ways.

But I do know that you still struggle in darkness. I know you’re still in pain. And I don’t have to know that darkness and pain specifically to pray for you. And I don’t need to know all the specifics to still love you. And I do still love you and pray for you. And that’s what I want you to know.

With love always from your sister in Christ,
[you know who]

Willow tree

So I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed today and came across this picture:

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Don’t you love things like that? So nice and encouraging! In a two-sentence quip, they have told you that you’re fine just the way you are and made you feel better regardless of someone else’s cruelty to you. They’ve made your day better!

Well, maybe. I don’t know, maybe I’m being nit-picky here, but it seems to me like they just gave the entire internet a blanket statement that may not actually apply to, well, everyone on the internet.

For one thing, sometimes people say the right thing, but in the wrong way. For instance, a COH is often still struggling against the chains they were raised with–the chains of guilt over throwing so much as a meat tray or yogurt cup in the trash. The chains of desperately wanting a clean, organized house but never having been taught how to manage things to make it happen. Conversely, a COH can trade the chains they were raised with for new, opposite (but still binding) chains. Chains of refusing to ever keep a single thing that doesn’t serve a 100% distinct and immediate purpose (even if they later discover that maybe they did need that after all). Chains of being so terrified of ever having a house “like their parents’ house” that they clean compulsively, stress out over the slightest thing being out of place, and generally become unbalanced in the opposite direction of their hoarding parent.

So in either circumstance (or a combo platter–paranoid of having a house like their parents’, clean obsessively, wear themselves out, end up not doing enough for several days, and so the cycle goes–yeah, that’d be me), there may be occasion for a friend to speak up in an attempt to help the COH understand this area in which they need growth. And the words the friend chooses may not be exactly what the COH needs–especially if the friend isn’t also a COH. Outside perspective can be good, but can also be frustrating because they don’t really know what you’re dealing with or the building blocks in your life that led to it. BUT that doesn’t mean that nothing the friend says matters. Don’t throw the wheat out with the chaff, as it were. Even if they got frustrated and accused you of things that weren’t even applicable, don’t assume that nothing they said applies.

Of course, there are also circumstances where a friend might say exactly the right things, but the COH feels defensive anyway. Particularly if your whole life has been about trying to pretend there’s nothing wrong with you or your family. It’s easy to feel defensive. It’s also easy to say, “Hey, I’m not going to let someone else’s bitterness change who I am!”

But here’s the thing: maybe who you are needs some changing.

Now, I’m not saying you should change who you are completely, or based on every single thing anyone ever says to you. The very core of your being, the essence of who you are, is something I believe can be disguised but ultimately does not change. But the sum of all the parts of your life, the person who’s too defensive or who’s so guarded they refuse to let anything get to them, the person who takes things too seriously or who uses humor to dismiss serious subjects so they never have to face them, the person who’s ridiculously disorganized or who constantly stresses out about everything–everything–needing to be in its place; whichever person you have become, that is not the person you are at the core of your being.

Everyone is still a work in progress, everyone is still changing, everyone is still growing. And yes, it can feel very frustrating when you are already aware of these things and, in fact, actively working on them, and still people feel the need to make comments–even bitter comments–to you about your faults. But that still doesn’t mean that you should dismiss everything they said as the irrelevant comments of a bitter person.

Because when you refuse to consider it at all, when you refuse to acknowledge your need to change or that there’s still more work to do in areas where you’re trying to change, then that is no longer their bitterness trying to change you.

It’s your own bitterness stunting your growth, keeping you stagnant.

You know what I really love? When a friend is weeding out their clothes and finds a few things that make them thing of me. When that friend brings those things to me and says, “Hey, these made me think of you. I’m not sure if you’ll like them or not, but I was getting rid of them and thought you might want them.” Sometimes it’s a small garbage bag full. Sometimes it’s just one or two things. But I’ve gotten some REALLY nice things that way.

But you know what I really hate? When someone (sometimes a friend, sometimes more of an acquaintance) is going through all their clutter getting rid of things and shows up (sometimes with a call ahead to say, “Do you want to look through a few things?” and sometimes without any advanced warning) and says, “Here, I’m getting rid of these, you can have them or get rid of anything you don’t want, just as long as they’re not in my house anymore.” And leaves 3 giant garbage bags full of clothes. Half of which I couldn’t possibly do any more with than to leave them at the thrift store. Or just throw away. Because sometimes there are things I would be embarrassed to even give to Goodwill.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I really REALLY appreciate when people think of us and want to give us things to help us out. But the thing is, I am not your dump. I really do appreciate that you thought of helping us out, but I’m not an automatic sorter. In fact, I tend to get anxiety when it comes to organizing things–anything, not just clothes–and especially when it comes to then getting rid of those. Lovely side effect of having been yelled at my whole life for getting rid of ANYTHING.

Let me put this into slightly clearer terms. My whole life has involved way too many clothes. Too many things in general, but especially clothes. Many of which I never liked. We were yelled at for having them everywhere, yet we weren’t allowed to get rid of very many. Even when we bagged things up to get rid of, they often just sat there for months and eventually the bags got torn back into (to try to find something, or by cats, or just because so many things had been piled on them that they burst open and spewed their contents). I can hardly remember what the floors of any of our houses looked like, but I distinctly remember clothes. Layers upon layers of clothes. Especially in our bedrooms. Even in the rare instances that our hangers and drawers were full, there were still clothes enough to carpet the whole floor–and thick enough that you had to take a distinct step UP into the room from the hallway.

So at this point in my life, when I’m allowed to get rid of clothes, I’m trying to. I’m trying to downsize. Yet I still feel constantly overrun with clothes, trying to figure out what to get rid of.

But you know what? Despite all of that, being treated as a dumping ground is not the element that irritates me the most. In fact, I still really appreciate people’s attempts to take care of us (however misguided). Know what I REALLY hate? The implications I’ve gotten from some people that I should keep any clothes that fit me, even if I don’t like them, and that it’s rude and ungrateful of me to be particular about style and get rid of clothes I don’t like. Now, this implication has mostly come from a few people who aren’t even those giving me the clothes. They also honestly probably have no idea how many clothes I have or why I need to weed them out. (Not just my own clothes–my children’s clothes too.)

So I can’t really blame them. (Except that they see the clothes I’m wearing and it’s not overly flattering to think that they think I just wear any old clothes no matter what they look like.) But several people who have made such implications are people who knew me my whole life, knew my family and saw all the results of the hoarding. They know how hard it is to get rid of things at all. Some of them have even personally witnessed me paralyzed, trying desperately to figure out how to get rid of something. And yet they seem to think that I should just keep whatever’s given to me.

If you know someone is a COH, or has hoarding tendencies, please don’t treat them like your dumping ground because “they’ll take anything.” That’s enabling. Or worse. And please, PLEASE don’t berate them as ungrateful when they DO get rid of things. When you’ve been told your whole life that you can’t get rid of anything, and you’ve finally gotten to the point of being able to do so relatively guilt-free, having more guilt laid on you for trying to simplify your life doesn’t help anyone. At all.

Common Factors

I’ve been watching a lot of House, MD lately. (Yeah, the show’s finished. Watching it through on Netflix.) And I realized something.

He had a rough childhood. He was abused by a father who wasn’t his biological father. He’s a literal genius, or pretty close. He has a terrible fear of being wrong, which sometimes manifests in saying things as fact when he doesn’t really know and other times manifests in refusing to make a decision because he doesn’t know and doesn’t want to give the wrong answer. He’s wise beyond his years and peers, and yet somehow also stuck in the mind of a middle school boy, or maybe an early high school boy. He loves like crazy, cares and feels more deeply than perhaps many people ever do, but hides his feelings because showing them will make him vulnerable. And he uses physical problems he can’t control as an excuse for avoiding dealing with the much greater emotional pain he doesn’t want to face.

No, I’m not talking about House. I’m talking about my father. There are decided differences between House and my father. For one thing, my father is no where near as crass. For another, all of his medications are taken legitimately and as prescribed by a doctor–he’s not an addict. And for a third, his deep feelings and his fear of being wrong are hidden behind a little arrogance and a lot of extroverted bonhomie, whereas House’s are hidden behind his addiction, rapid-fire insults, and cruel ways of jerking other people around.

Still, the similarities are many and, to be honest, a little frightening. Actually, mostly just amazing in realizing, by observations of the similarities, just how accurately House is written.

I’ve also been studying another character a lot–Foreman. Frankly, Foreman really irritates me. Like, a lot.

Arrogant. Insistence of being different, but really so much the same. Aware of and horrified by the similarities but not sure what to do about it. Also very smart, though maybe not genius level. Also wants to be right, but with maybe a bit less of a fear of being wrong–more a sense that the only way to break with the past is to be able to be right. A sense of being chained to the past no matter what, of never leaving that terrible growing-up place. More connected with humanity, but with a sense of never quite belonging anywhere.

Yeah, that’s Foreman. That’s also me. Honestly, I can’t tell if Foreman drives me nuts more because we’re so similar or because of the ways in which we’re different. (Actually, I think he mostly drives me nuts because he’s so racist even though he’s constantly accusing others of being racist–which, in the way he does it, is often in and of itself racist.) Seriously, though, again, way too many similarities. I never realized how many until I reached an episode where someone said that at least he’d gotten out of the ghetto, and he said, “I’m never out of the ghetto.” It’s amazing how the traumas (yes, I’m using the word “traumas”–I realize there are greater traumas, but just because it’s less traumatic doesn’t mean it’s not a trauma) of growing up in the ghetto, and the traumas of growing up as a COH, are so very similar. Not the same traumas or results of being physically abused or sexually abused. Lots of similarities.

Honestly, I’m not just extrapolating all of this based on fictional characters. It’s based on years of observations, it’s based on my sister’s ex who was always SO much like my father (and is also so much like House) and is also a literal genius (or very close) who was abused as a child. It’s based on conversations with my siblings and realizing just how much at least two of us took away in exactly the same way. It’s based on observations of other people who grew up in bad situations, and it’s also based on people who grew up in really good situations.

I know this. As I’ve been able to face things and deal with them more, that sense of never belonging has dissipated tremendously. As I’ve been able to face things and deal with them, that fear of being wrong has dissipated . . . well, maybe not as much, but a lot. The shame I carry on behalf of my family has also dissipated some, though again, not as much. Having a husband who loves me so much makes a huge difference. Having friends who are there no matter what makes an inexplicable difference. Being able to look at my house and see, not just how much further I need to come (and it’s a lot!) but also how far I’ve already come, makes a huge difference too. Especially when other people notice it.

I do know one thing that many people on House regularly say and I completely disagree with. They say people don’t change. Maybe change doesn’t usually happen all at once, but when I look at who I was a few years ago and who I am now . . . people definitely can change if they put their minds to it and have really good support in it. Definitely.

Things That Are Different

I spend a lot of time in these posts looking at who I used to be, or how I am not yet who I want to be.

In this post, I want to look at who I’m not anymore, and good changes that have taken place in my life. I have a lot of things I’ve worked to change outwardly–learning how to take care of a house, for instance. But there are intangible changes too, changes that are caused by the other changes. These are a few of them.

I am not depressed.

Depression, as a general rule, is not something you can just “get over.” I never had a regular kind of depression, though, but rather, a kind that basically is ever-present under the surface but doesn’t usually interfere with daily life. If left untreated, however, it can flare up and start to act like “regular” depression. And for many years, mine was untreated.

But after finally being treated with counseling and being given tools to use when I start to feel like that, the depression is gone. Oh, I have rough days, still. I have down days. I have days where I sit and berate myself. But I honestly do not have the regular depression there. I was under the impression that it would become under control but not ever actually go away. I don’t know if it’s from hormonal changes from pregnancies and such, or what, but praise God, it’s gone!

I do not constantly feel out of phase with those around me.

I hardly remember times in my life when I didn’t feel like I was just slightly off from everyone around me. Not in an I’m-different-and-that’s-okay sort of way. More in a there’s-some-joke-or-something-and-I’m-missing-it sort of way. I think there’s a way in which a lot of people–especially teenagers–feel like that. Growing up is awkward and it’s easy to feel like everyone else “gets it” and you don’t.

But there’s the way that most people feel–watching their peers and trying to gauge their own reactions to how they think their peers want or expect them to act. And then there’s the way that someone feels when they know that things just aren’t right at home. Simple things, things like walking down the hallway at school or sitting in class listening to a lecture, become burdensome. You are filled with a sense that everyone around you is walking in a parallel reality, that though they can see you and interact with you they are from a world that has entirely different laws governing it. You might as well be walking through a reality where the very laws of physics are different, and your very ability to perceive the reality at all requires seeing it through a haze, though you know the natural citizens of the place see everything with perfect clarity. And though people never (or rarely) let on, you just know that they can all see that you’re from a different place, that everything about you is entirely alien to them.

But I don’t feel like that anymore. Though I have times that I feel like I’m attached to my parents’ house with a chain that can never be broken, overall I feel as though I’ve found my place in this reality.

I do not have to tell everyone everything.

This one is huge for me. I can’t express how big a deal it has always been to me to talk to people. Maybe it was a matter of looking to be loved, not by anyone, but by everyone. To know they all cared. Maybe it was a matter of looking for the right solution, the person I could talk to who would magically make it all disappear. Maybe it was simply that I was so weighed down by everything that I couldn’t figure out how to hold it back and it all spilled over. Honestly, I think it was all that and maybe a little more.

But I don’t need that anymore. I can’t say precisely why. Probably also for several reasons. But regardless of why, the fact is, I don’t have to talk to everyone about all my problems–repeatedly–anymore.

Oh, I still talk to people. I love to talk to people! About all kinds of things. When I have a problem, it definitely still helps me to talk to someone, and sometimes even to a couple of people to get some different points of view. But I certainly don’t have to tell everyone everything.

 

Those are just a few things that have changed. But they’re ones I’ve been noticing a lot lately as I take stock of my life as it is right now, and remember my life as it was 15, 10, even just 5 years ago. Actually, in some case, even just a year or two. And I’m praising God for those changes!

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