How shouting at my kids makes me feel fat

If I had to sum up my philosophy for parenting after trauma, I would say: don’t try to fix your parenting, but fix yourself, and then parent. (That’s very Zen, isn’t it I’m sure I must have read something like that in a book about Zen, but I can’t remember which one.) Kids don’t want your fake parenting, they want your real self. Like, did you ever have the experience that you’re playing with them, and they do something that is really funny, and you laugh – a proper spontaneous belly laugh? And then what happens? They’ll do the thing that made you laugh, over and over again, trying to provoke the same laugh that they got the first time. Because that genuine burst of emotion felt so good.

But what about the bad emotions? The “bad” emotions? You know – fear, anger, sadness? I think you have to take a bit more care – I see this as a gradual transfer of responsibility where you should only really be sharing your feelings fully when your kids are adults, or near to it. Smaller kids need to feel safe, they need to not be parentified – so you need to choose what you share with them, and they need to know that whatever emotions you’re having, you’re OK, they’re OK, and nothing bad’s going to happen.

I find all this fairly easy and instinctive when it comes to fear and sadness. My kids are fine seeing my genuine fear of, say, rollercoasters, and being “booed” at 7 in the morning when I’ve just got out the shower and the house is still silent and I think I am going to have my breakfast in peace, but as they’ve just been starting swimming lessons I’ve been trying not to make it obvious that I don’t like the water on my head. I’m fine with them seeing me crying at the kitten book scene in Despicable Me, but if someone starts shouting at me in the supermarket car park because whatever, I’ll sniff the tears back and say I’m OK. That sort of thing. It feels instinctive, what to share and what to quietly keep to the background of their life. I mean, it’s one of the reasons I think you need regular breaks and adult contact if you look after kids, as it causes stress – but I think it’s right. If we were all in those fabled sort of Back In The Day When All Was Well extended family units with older relatives sharing childcare and everyone sitting round the table shelling peas, this wouldn’t be a source of stress because you’d be in constant contact with other adults and you wouldn’t have to carry the full burden of conversation with a small, crazy person and it would be easy. I mean, it would in your family. My family’s all fucking mental.

But that leaves anger, and I’m not all that good at anger. It’s a common unwritten rule (ha – they’re all unwritten. That’s half the fun!) in narcissistic families that only the narcissist parent’s anger is acceptable: not only acceptable, but righteous and justified. (I’ve just quoted the KLF, haven’t I?) Kids’ anger is utterly unacceptable. It’s almost the worst thing you can do, be angry. It makes you unacceptable. Unlovable. Wrong.

You carry it into adulthood, the toxic shame. I’ve had so many experiences where someone would be an utter dick to me, and I’d get like the slightest bit angry and I’ll start this panicked run-through of everything they said and did, trying desperately to convince myself that I’m not the hideously awful person  I now feel like. I sometimes have to go and do nice things for other people to convince myself I am the sort of person who does nice things.

It makes it bloody hard to parent small children. I wanted to create a home where people could feel free to express all their emotions. I did all that stuff of sitting on the floor in Tescos empathising with their tantrums. “You’re angry. You’re so angry that you can’t eat the toilet block. It’s so annoying! Why do they make it a nice colour if you can’t even eat it?” But I wasn’t doing any work to make my own anger more acceptable to myself, and the asymmetry was going to bite me in the bum.

I grew up in a house where only my mother’s anger was acceptable, and mine was abhorrent. I was creating a situation where my kids’ anger was acceptable, but mine as a mother’s was not on. Look who’s the arsehole in both setups. I’ll give you a clue, it’s the woman who’s standing in the kitchen at 9am inhaling a family bag of artisanal crisps.

The kids were getting older and more annoying, and there’s only so many  steak and mustard crisps any one person can eat. The anger started leaking out of me in other ways. I was shouting at them – I’d be nice faced, patient, till maybe about 2 in the afternoon I’ve taken all I could deal with and I’d then I’d blow my top and yell at them both.

It was shite anger. First of all, because it happened as a result of an accumulation of annoying things, it didn’t relate to the small, straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back incident I’d blown up at. They’d be looking at me like, I’m sure the last time I rubbed playdoh into the carpet you just laughed it off. Did we… get a new carpet?

Second, it didn’t actually make me feel any better. You’re supposed to feel better after you’ve had a good shout, but this was end of my tether shouting, not get it out of my system shouting. And it was coming with a big helping of toxic shame.

So what did I feel ashamed about? Being too angry? Too loud? Scaring the kids?

No. What I felt shame about, specifically, as I was shouting, was that I was fat.

Let’s just cut away for a minute and talk about this. Now, I am fat. My BMI is firmly into the overweight category. I come from a stock of people who managed to survive in a country where the best growing crop is the fucking turnip and the winter days are about 25 minutes long. I know how to sit still and conserve energy. And add to that the artisanal crisp-inhaling tendencies, and it adds up. I am, as Kevin Bridges would say, not “documentary” fat – but definitely on the porky side.

I wasn’t fat at all as a kid. I left school aged 17 and I was somewhere between a size 12 and a 14 – average if anything. And yet I’d felt fat my whole childhood. Fat was a massive thing for my mother. She’d been extremely thin as a child, and a teenager – she’d look at her wedding and first anniversary photos, and remark wistfully that she’d been so thin before I came along and ruined her figure. Every few months or so she’d look at me appraisingly, remark that my dance classes didn’t seem to be working, and launch another  diet. Her and me. She’d go along to Weightwatchers or the local one at the leisure centre, bring it home and we’d pore over it, try and figure out how we’d survive on it. Diet foods would be bought, and I’d be warned how hard it would be: no food after dinner time, no snacks, no sweets. The diets would normally last as long as I lasted: after a week or two of undressed salads and a single weetabix for breakfast I’d break and ask for more food. Regretfully she’d comply and the diet would be shelved, for her as well as me; it was a relatively painless process for me because she was never particularly angry at me for falling off the diet. It was the one thing I was allowed to fail at.

I mean she’d fat shame me for it later: it’d come up when we were buying clothes, an experience so painful I’ll be giving it its own post at some point, and it was one of her go-to insults when she was yelling at me. IIRC it was presented as a moral failing, a sign of my inner rubbishness that I had been given a healthy body but I still wanted to fill it with junk and ruin it.

Anyway, if you’re still following this, let’s cut back to the floor and the playdoh. I’m sitting there shouting and suddenly I get this feeling of toxic shame and it’s got a real flavour of “you’re too fat”. And my conscious mind is sitting there going “what the fuck? We’re going to talk about the crisp habit now? What the fuck is going on?

I’m not saying there was nothing to be ashamed of. Massively losing my shit at my kids is not on. Sending them the message that mum’s disapproval is random and different on different days, is really not on. But what has fat got to do with it? It spurred me to start reading around it all – anger, and abuse, and then emotional flashbacks and CPTSD, and it started to fit into place. My expression of anger is triggering an emotional flashback of being unloved and being unacceptable. It fit. It felt like coming home.

Nowadays I make an effort to express my anger with the kids at the time it happens, in proportion, and with the proviso that we all still love each other and you can still have a hug (quite often 2 of 2 will ask for a hug in the middle of a telling off, have the hug, and then listen to the rest of the telling off). At first I felt the toxic shame response rearing its head whenever I raised my voice but I told it to fuck off, and after a while it did. And the kids are calmer, and listen to me more, and if anything are happier than before. A little bit of anger, appropriately applied, has made our lives a lot better.

The arrogant codependent

I can only remember getting into trouble once in high school. It was just as well, because I couldn’t cope with it at all.

I was nearly 16, it was early May, and I was just about to sit my exams. I’d started studying in the local library that Easter, I was still going down at weekends and I was planning to do the same as soon as we got released for exam leave. We had about a week left to go of actual classes, and it was all revision and past papers. Even though the hardest bit was still to come, it felt like the end of term. Relaxed, the normal rules nearly suspended.

Nearly. I was in my English class digging around at the bottom of my bag for a book of poems or something. I lifted the contents of the bag onto the desk for a second, and when I look up the Head of English is looking down at me.

“Is that a Walkman?”
“Yes, sorry, I don’t listen to it in school it’s just in my bag. I took it out-”
“You aren’t allowed to bring a Walkman to school. You’re not allowed to bring valuables.”
“I know, it’s just I’m going straight from here to the library so-”
“I’ll let you off this time, Felix*, but if I see that Walkman in here again I will have to give you lines.”

That was it, and then he went and talked to the teacher. I excused myself to go to the toilet and I had, IDK, is there a name for it? A crisis, a meltdown? I cried a lot. I was shaking. One of my colleagues was sent to retrieve me. I couldn’t explain to her why I was so upset. I didn’t know myself.

The truth is, it was pretty much the first time I’d experienced reasonable discipline – you know, someone telling me off, not particularly unpleasantly, reminding me that there was a rule I was aware of and that I’d broken it. That had just never happened to me before. That’s not to say that I wasn’t punished – there was summary justice at home, swift and brutal – but it was for anything and everything, about as predictable as my mother’s mood, and bore very little relation to my actual behaviour. As a result, I had developed a great deal of control over myself so that I gave her very few pretexts to get angry at me. It was like an exclusion zone of good behaviour, 3 ft deep on every side, to try and buy myself a quiet life. And naturally that applied at school as well. There wasn’t much that made my mother angrier than the thought that people might be saying bad things about her. And if she’d ever been contacted by the school about my behaviour – well, I guess at the time I still sort of believed the “loving but overprotective”narrative and I thought that I had to prove myself responsible enough to be allowed to go to university, have a social life, have a boyfriend. Now I’d word it more like she deeply resented me getting any of the trappings of a normal, free life, and if I’d given her the slightest pretext she’d have taken them off me. So I had a lot of incentive not to get into trouble.

The perfect behaviour got me the things I wanted – relative peace from my mother (as a successful student, I was a good enough source of vicarious narcissistic supply that she mostly left me alone) and a good university place. But it meant that I never really experienced what it felt like to be told off, to have to say sorry, to be sorry, to know you were in the wrong.

Fast forward many, many years to this weekend (Holy fuck. It is 25 years since I sat my exams. How the hell did that happen?) and I’m reading the Saturday Guardian and they have a thing in there about a new website for people with crazy-ass parents. And one of the website founders says

“When my mother was elderly and had dementia, I visited her every week. And people who knew us thought I was mad; but I did it because the last thing I wanted was to be like her. I wanted to behave properly, and I always have wanted that.”

I did this for aaaaages. I used to say to my husband that I didn’t want to have to waste my time feeling guilty when my mother died so I was going to be the bigger person and do all the running and maintain some sort of relationship between us and between her and my kids. Under this plan nobody was going to be deprived of anything. Except me, except the peace I bloody deserved, but that was fine – I was still maintaining my three feet of good behaviour between me and anyone’s reasonable expectations of me.

So far, so typically codependent, right? That good behaviour, motivated by a fear of anger, a fear of being bad, so strong and so young put into us that we’re hardly aware it exists. I get it, I know it.

But that’s not all that was going on, was it? Fear and guilt? There’s something else. After a lifetime of living perfectly, of maintaining that cordon, you’ve never known any discipline than your own. Never said sorry. Never been wrong.

It’s pride. Pride kept me in that situation, pride at myself for turning the other cheek, pride that I could plug the gaps, do the running, and somehow make all the relationships work. Never acknowledge what it costs you, because you’re addicted to the fiction that it costs you nothing, that you’re strong enough to deal positively with every negative comment, every acting out, ever jibe, every attack. Don’t do me any fucking favours.

They say pride is the worst of all the cardinal sins, because it prevents you from changing. I think that’s true. We can only get recovery when we admit that we are neither especially good nor especially bad – just normal people, not deserving of abuse, not capable of saintly self-containment 24 hours a day. That normal is enough, in all aspects of our lives – that just because we can cope with the abuse doesn’t mean we have to, or that we should. That good behaviour can be motivated  by love instead of anger if you let it, it doesn’t have to insulate you from the rest of the world, and that it’s by clashing with other people and working out your differences that you actually make friends, not by being a highly-polished stone that slips out of others’ grasp.

*I’m not really called Felix, in case you were wondering.

 

Joining in

We’re away skiing.

I say we. The kids are in a “ski kindergarten” and my other half is away skiing, but I don’t ski. And when I say “I don’t ski”, I don’t mean in the sense of “I’ve never tried it, but it looks kind of cool, so maybe if I ever got the chance…” – I’ve tried it, I didn’t like it, and I’ll poke anyone in the eye who as much as tries to measure me up for a pair of skis.

There’s loads of reasons I don’t like it. Lots of them are to do with kit. I’m always that person fiddling with their laces for the umpteenth time and grumbling that I should’ve worn my old boots even though they’re not waterproof anymore. I hate the way everyone tells you that the fit of the ski boots is essential and then gives you their personal recommendation of sock/thermal tight/boot tightness setting but then when you go to the boot hire place, there’s always like 10,000 people just arrived and they sort of eyeball your feet and go “38 or 39, fuck it here’s a 39.5” and you try them on for 10 seconds and they go “how do they feel” and you go “fucking terrible” and they go “that’s probably about right” and then you’re out the door. My other half always says reassuring words to me at this point but I notice that one of the first things he did when we moved to a place where you can go skiing as a day trip was to spend a good hour at the ski shop getting fitted for his own boots so he can avoid this bit.

Anyway supposing I manage to get the things on and get the planks strapped to my feet and the sticks in my hand (I know they have names, shut up), then I have to get on the ski lift, and I hate that too. Well I don’t mind getting on so much – it’s the getting off. You watch skier after skier neatly drop off and ski round in a nice circle, draw to a stop and then head off joyfully down the slope. Each time I just hope to fall off far enough away that nobody has to pick me up and drag me out the way. This seems the harshest bit of skiing to me, as an adult learner. Once you’re off of there you can fall over and nobody bothers but you need that sort of baseline of competence on a pair of skis to be able to get to the actual slope. One time I did an adult beginner’s class hoping I could learn this most basic skill but guess what, everyone else managed to get off the ski lift without falling over except me, even the people who’ve never been on skis before, so I think I even lack the ability to be a beginner at skiing.

But I think the worst bit for me is the joining in. All the people in the bus, doing the same thing: the routine of it, having your toilet breaks together, and… having to enjoy it. Looking around at all these happy faces, and I’m hating it. WTF is wrong with me? Why can’t I enjoy this? Here are all these other people enjoying it. It’s cost so much money…

…and I’m having an emotional flashback.

I can sense them now. They come with the same flavour: a mulish awkwardness that I don’t think belongs to me but I’ve inherited it anyway. My parents went big on holidays, relatively speaking: we were that brand of very traditional respectable working class who lived in more style on holiday than at home. My mother being an NPD would then get really really angry if you weren’t happy with a rictus grin plastered on your face 24/7, and of course there was no getting away from her, sharing a room, doing things together all day. The best two holidays I ever had were the two years when the Christian Union was in town and I gladly converted for the week or fortnight, in order to have organised events to go to that kept me away from my mother’s beady glare. But outside of that my behaviour would be policed constantly and I’d be shamed for not showing the appropriate holiday emotions. That’s my feeling whenever I go on holiday, then – fear that I’m not like the other people who’re all enjoying themselves, and shame that they can see that on my face.

Compare and contrast. This morning my kids went off for their first morning at ski kindergarten. There were about 20 of them, loaded onto a little tractor trailer together, ill-fitting shoes, runny noses and one or two dummies included. There were tears from some of the kids and most of the adults as we waved them off, and seeing 1 of 2 (shy, has issues with socks) waving out with a smile on her face brought tears of relief to my eyes too. Then we got the talk from the ski school boss. Don’t go out to the ski lift where they’re skiing: don’t go skiing there, don’t go walking there, and if you want to take a picture of them do it from the other side of the valley where they won’t be able to make you out. It’s like the first day of kindergarten, he said – we need to develop a relationship with your kids, so you need to stay out of the way.

It felt like part of what it is to be a German kid. It’s one of those moments when you’re going to be out on your own doing something new and uncomfortable, and the people looking after you will make it happen as easily as possible without letting you fail to do it. So you put your tiny person in the trailer, the same little person who this morning was crying because one of their 8 teddy bears had fallen out of bed in the night, and you trust that they are old enough or young enough or whatever to learn this skill. I love it. I love that it’s acknowledged that they might not like it at first, that they might find it hard. That you’re out here and you’ve driven three hours and spent 2 grand for a holiday to do an activity that in all likelihood will make your kid cry, at least at first. But it’s worth it. And at the end of the week it’ll hold no fear for them, and they’ll have had the irreplaceable experience of having not liked it at first and then gone on to enjoy it.

Coming from an abusive background it’s really hard to know what a normal childhood should look like. I often wonder whether my kids cry and moan too much, are they specially unhappy, am I doing something wrong? (When I was a littler I was constantly cheerful and pleasant – constantly – because I’d been trained to be. You’d never have known I was unhappy. I know that’s not right either). It was validating this morning to be worrying about the kids, putting them on that trailer, welling up because they were smiling and waving back – and then looking about and seeing other parents with tears in their eyes as well. I think I’ll never be much of a joiner in, but I was glad to be in the same boat as everyone else this morning.

 

The late winter self improvement death spiral

I hate this time of year. I mean, I am not a huge fan of winter in any case. I believed for a long time that I had Seasonal Affective Disorder, although I wonder now whether actually my mother had it, and I just have emotional flashbacks related to being stuck in the house with a depressed and angry narcissist. Or maybe she had flashbacks to being stuck in the house with her depressed and angry… etc. I don’t know. When the kids were toddlers, they couldn’t stand more than about an hour playing in the house before they started to get bored and rageous so we would be out at the park at like 8.30am, getting lots of sunlight. I actually didn’t feel depressed that winter so perhaps I do have SAD.

But it’s not actually the darkest days of winter that mess with my head: it’s now, when spring is so close you can nearly touch it, when the mornings are light for the first time and everything is just about to happen. And I get this huge burst of energy, followed by a massive upswing in my mood. The only problem is, there’s about 3-4 weeks between the energy burst and the mood upswing, and this leaves plenty of time for what I like to call the late winter emotional flashback-inspired self improvement death spiral. Catchy, right?

It’s a lot simpler than it sounds. Basically, through most of winter my energy level and my mood are kind of similarly shite and I’m fairly content to feel the feels. I’m bored. Meh. I’m a bit lonely. Yeah, sucks. I’m tired. Yup. Like that. Then the last week of February, suddenly I become all fucking solutions mode. “I feel a bit lonely.” “Why don’t you join a club? A choir! And sign up for an intensive language class, look there’s one three evenings a week in the next village over, it starts in three days, let’s commit to that! Let’s start couch to 5k! Come you can do it!” And then my true self is kind of like “um, listen, I know I said I was bored, but that sounds like a lot of work and I’m not sure…” and then my internal critic comes and goes “well if you were really that unhappy surely you’d be willing to put in the effort” and then I’m like OK, wow, way to gaslight me into feeling guilty that your insane plan doesn’t appeal to me, mum. And then I remember something I read somewhere in a book about CBT or NLP or transactional analysis or possibly a combination of all three from like the early 90s that said I should thank my inner critic because it only wants the best for me, so then I start to feel guilty about resenting that it made me feel lazy, and also resentful that I have to thank it, and then guilty that I’m not thanking it with appropriate enthusiasm, and and so on.

This once again makes me really grateful for Pete Walker’s books (I do read other books, I should really start quoting more widely so people think I’m better read) because one of the things he does is give you permission to tell your inner critic to fuck off. I’m sure he was more polite than that. He’s from California or somewhere. I’m from Glasgow, the rough bit. You’re just coming from a different baseline in terms of the vernaculars. I bet when he was in the deepest throes of primeval rage about his abuse, his language was still softer than mine is when I drop my pen.

Anyway this year I’ve been cheerfully telling my inner critic to, you know… be quiet, and it puts a stop to the death spiral, and that’s a relief. But it kind of worries me. I’m like one of those sharks that needs to constantly be swimming to get oxygen – if I’m not being purposeful, making something better, then I’m dying inside. Part of the sickness, I know. And I get nervous that with the inner critic silenced, I’m going to lose all motivation and sit in the house doing nothing. But that’s such a bullshit worry. It’s part of the loveless childhood, to have a belief that motivation without fear and guilt is impossible. It’s wrong thinking to believe that all that guilt and fear-motivated activity, my whole life long, was useful – the degrees obtained, the overtime worked, the gym hours racked up. Did they help someone else? Did they make my life better, in any other way than by temporarily relieving the guilt and shame of being alive? Inasmuch as they did, they were useful, but as the Beatles said, there’s nothing you can do that can’t be done. I wasn’t needed, in those jobs, working away – it could’ve been someone else, I could have been doing whatever I wanted, if only I’d known what it was.

And, finally – is there anything fundamentally wrong with doing nothing? No self improvement, no projects, no plans, just getting through the day? Just being? I think that’s pretty necessary in my life really. At least a bit. Slowing down and realising that to some extent, in the context of having escaped an abusive childhood at least, or maybe just anyway, just no conditions on it – wherever it is I’m supposed to be going, I’m actually already here. That make any sense?

NPD survivor syndrome, twins and perfect parenting

washingsettings

If you had a parent with NPD, twins are the best thing ever. Looking after two babies is WAY easier than looking after one. I know how mental that sounds. Bear with me. There’s a thing that NPD parents do to your head. It’s like you get imprinted with a negative of the NPD. It sort of looks the same from the outside, but the motivations are all the wrong way round. (And having twins is a great antidote).

Where the NPD parent thinks that they are so amazing that they can do anything that anyone else can in half the time and with twice the results… the abused child thinks that their own achievements aren’t  worth anything unless they’re of a similar size.

Where the NPD parent values achievements validated by external sources because it gets them positive attention and narcissistic supply – think big house, car, passing your exams, getting your degree… the abused child values external validation because they have no faith that their own opinion of their achievements is worth anything.

Where the NPD parent will never be content because they need more things and medals and stickers to constantly garner them more narcissistic supply… the abused child will never be content because no matter how hard they tried, they could never guarantee themselves their parents’ positive regard.

This results in a way of behaving that I like to call crazy-ass NPD survivor overachieving syndrome. It’s a hair’s breadth from being actual NPD. Sometimes I think the only difference between us and them is that when we feel like shit about it all, we blame it on ourselves.

So. I was pregnant with twins. I was nervous. How would I cope with two babies at once? I would have to leave aside perfectionism and embrace a little chaos, I knew. 80/20 rule. Winging it. All the baby books I read confirmed how important it was to cultivate a relaxed, mistake-tolerant attitude. But then they also had things about  using cloth nappies so that you’re not starting your child’s life with a massive environmental burden on the planet, and co-sleeping, and pages and pages and pages of “don’t feel guilty if you can’t breastfeed, we’re sure that your kid will do well in life despite being a short-ass asthmatic with bowel problems and a lifelong preference for eating pies.” (I might be paraphrasing that one slightly.) So, having decided already to formula feed and use disposable nappies it seemed like there wasn’t much further for my standards to slump. I felt a bit rubbish and underachievey.

I kind of figure this might be the space that a caring family might step into. I kind of imagine a no-nonsense, tough but caring mother/older sister figure coming into my house and making me a cup of teas and saying things like “don’t worry about all that shite with preparing the bottles at 70 degrees and flash cooling them, we all did them cold and stored them in the fridge and it never done any of us any harm.” (I actually do imagine this, in some detail, with the mother figure being played as Catherine Cawood out of Happy Valley. Let’s call it a reparenting exercise.) But with nobody around who could do that we had to just sort of wait out the pregnancy and hope for the best.

Then they arrived. Yay, everyone’s still alive! I don’t really remember much about the first 4 months – there’s the odd fragment, like lying on a park bench at 2 in the afternoon with the pram parked next to me and wondering if it was irresponsible of me to just tie the pram safety wrist cord to my ankle and go to sleep – but it’s all quite horrifically dreamlike. It was a very bright summer. Light everywhere. Birdsong the volume of an airhorn, and the feeling of constant inescapable wakefulness. You get the picture.

But then they turned 4 months and it all got a bit better. Feeds spaced out to one every 4 hours at night, so you only had to do 7-11-3-7. My other half did the 11 o’clock shot, I did the 3am. They started to be a bit more relaxed about how they were fed, so I could stand between the cots and hold their bottles while they drunk lying down. (This was totally awesome until they were about 16 months and we went to London zoo and I was doing them a post-nap bottle in the cafe and the two of them saw me and went and lay down on the cafe floor.) Suddenly I was getting basically a normal amount of sleep, and then the crowning glory of all this sleep-related goodness was that we tried putting them down in their cots for their lunchtime nap (instead of walking round and round and round and round town till they fell asleep and then trying to choke down a Waitrose pastrami sandwich in the 4 minutes before they noticed the lack of movement and woke up again) and they really went for it. For two hours. Two hours a day of nothing to do! I started playing xbox games while eating lunch. It was amazing. And the added adrenaline spike of listening for crying on the baby monitor really heightens the experience of sniping your way through an ancient Nord tomb. There was a real routine to the day, a feeling that leisure when it came was hard won, and therefore deserved. It was contentment- I felt for once in my life that I was doing enough, and what was even more amazing is that I’d had that feeling while living a life that was actually quite comfortable. For once it hadn’t taken 12 hour days and punishing gym schedules to let me off the hook of being a person in the world.

But about that time we started going to the children’s centre baby groups, and that’s where the perfectionism started creeping back in. Oh look, that lady there is holding her baby up to let them walk. Should I be doing that? I’ve never done that, I can’t be doing that all day with two babies, are they never going to walk then? Will they just have to bum shuffle everywhere until they go to nursery? Wait, is that baby having sushi for his lunch? Is that allowed? Why are they all so much less messy than mine? Are all the other mums on a diet? And then the health visitors, the ones who don’t understand averages and will take you aside for a quiet chat if last week’s weight gain was in the 75th centile and this week’s was in the 9th. I’d love to let them see the diet of 2 of 2 these days, who like any princess, mostly survives off of game, out of season soft fruit and cake decorations. About once a week she’ll have a protein loading moment and eat two chicken drumsticks for lunch and then steal all the sample cheese at the supermarket deli counter while I’m looking for yoghurt. I had very little control over all that stuff when they were babies, and I’ve totally lost the plot of it now.

But it was fine. Every time the little arsehole of an inner critic went “you’re such a mess, why don’t you make things like vegetable frittatas for lunch for your kids, why are they eating peas and plain pasta for the third time this week” or “the only reason you’re back in your pre-pregnancy clothes is because you were a fat arse then and you still are” or “one of your ex-colleagues is on facebook and her baby is 6 weeks younger than yours and she’s just done a Tough Mudder” my brain would just flash up a big card that said “TWINS” and my inner critic would sit the fuck back down. It was awesome. It was like, this trumps everything. I did actually do twice as much as everyone else, it is an externally-validated Hard Thing To Do… and also, actually, it takes so much out of you in the early days that once things settle down, there is a sort of contentment, even if it’s only the absence of pain.

I wish I could give everyone with an abusive childhood my TWINS card. Imagine your life if every time your inner critic started up, you just held the card up and it shut the fuck up? It feels like having solid ground to walk on. That pain in your heart, that wobbling trembliness that’s always there – it’s gone. You’re doing fine, it tells you. Everything you’re doing is just fine.

You know what though? Everything you’re doing is fine. Yeah OK, if you’re stealing cars for a living, maybe not. But if you’re just trying, and succeeding, to get through the day – that will do. You can like yourself now, you’ve done enough. You might wish your life was better, your bank balance, waist measurement, whatever – wish away, and work away, if you like – but you are OK right here and now, you really are. I can’t give you my twins card, but we all have the right to play the human being card – we are human beings, and we deserve to live our lives free of toxic shame and be allowed to like ourselves and be content even if we didn’t do everything twice as well as everyone else and in half the time, and even if we never really did anything very special at all. It’s your head. Have it how you like.

I find babies easier than toddlers. Am I a narcissist?

No.

OK that’s quite a short blog post. Let me flesh it out.

No, because if you are questioning whether you’re a narcissist, you’re almost definitely not a narcissist.

That’s still not very long, is it? OK, this is what I’m thinking. I’ve come across internet descriptions of mothers with NPD and the story is often that they are good with babies, but don’t like toddlers or older children. And so you know I had my kids, and even though I had twins and I was definitely hallucinating from lack of sleep a lot of the time in the first few months, it was actually all right. And then they turned 3, and it just became so. fucking. stressful.

Shit! I’m a narcissist. I knew it. I’ll never get away.

It’s all right. I’m not. I’m not. Come back. Let me explain.

Narcissists love babies for a couple of reasons. First of all, babies are entirely reliant on you, so you are godlike in your power. (I suspect this is considerably less fun for the narc mother of twins, where seeing to their needs is a struggle – but then on the other hand you can just blame the babies for being too needy.) Then also, because they can’t argue with words, you can project whatever whacked-out explanation you like for their behaviour and it can be one that reflects on you really positively. You know, like you take them out and parade them in front of the inlaws all day and then when they get really grumpy and overtired you can say it’s teething and then stay up half the night walking the floor with them. Tiring, but validating.

But once you have a toddler, they don’t need you for so many things, and the job starts to be to sit back and let them try themselves – that’s no fun, who can compete to be the best at that? And it becomes harder to ignore when they don’t want the same things you do – certainly when you’re standing in the lady products aisle at Tescos watching them make angry dust angels because you won’t buy them the shiny box of lollies that is actually tampons – and also they start using their words, and it overall just becomes very clear that they’re an own person with own feelings and priorities and likes and dislikes. Terrifying for the narcissist, who takes every difference of opinion as a personal attack, and also it tends to interfere with whatever vision of perfect family they are trying to shove the kids into.

So when I hit the wall as my kids turned 3, I was fairly horrified. Am I a narc? Do I start to hate my kids as soon as they grow a backbone?

No, thank fuck. Let me explain. My Pete Walker 4F type is fawn/freeze, so I am really, really bad at saying no. I just fucking love being helpful, and the gentlest maintaining of a boundary will make me want to go and lie under my bed for about a week.

So when I had babies it was a piece of piss, or at least, my preferences were aligned with the right action. You’re crying? Let me use my superhuman abilities of hypervigilance to figure out what the hell is wrong, and fix it straight away! Any time of the day or night, you just let me know, and I’ll be there. Saying yes. Anything you want. I just love saying yes.

Then they started biting each other. Shit! There’s no way I can say yes to this. It was fine when they were just making my life hard but if they are hurting each other… being hurt… you’ve got a duty to protect them, you have to do something. But otherwise, no, I was still as permissive as hell.

I remember 2 of 2’s little monthly nursery report coming back and in the “My mummy and daddy can help me by…” section it said “by encouraging me to hand my plate back when I am finished dinner instead of throwing it on the floor”. It was far easier for me to clean the floor than it was to say “no don’t do that” to my kid, and so I hadn’t until then. I womaned up and started putting in boundaries, but I felt sad. I felt lonely. I felt like I was trapped in the house with two people who now saw me as the enemy.

Another thing made it more complicated as my kids got a little older and started to be more involved in the world, and they (and I) were therefore vulnerable to other people’s judgement. I never knew where the boundaries should be, I didn’t know, and I doubted my own judgement. My own childhood was no guide – I was like a china doll, never allowed to do anything that would make a mess or cause a noise – and being told off by an elderly lady was quite triggering for me, to the point that I was tensed against it every time the kids were out the house. I remember watching them, aged 3, on a boiling hot summer afternoon running through a fountain and screaming with laughter and while I was standing there trying to let them enjoy it I felt like I was being crushed from both sides – their wish to keep playing (past nap time) on the one hand and my fear of me being told off for letting them in the fountain on the other. My own preferences were just out the window. Just don’t let anyone be pissed off at me. That’s all I care about.

And finally, what was really hard, was that there comes a point where you start to have to bring out your real self, because kids can spot a fake, and they’re not interested in the fake. When my kids were 3, 1 of 2 (an incredibly bright and insightful kid) would sometimes say to me “why you not happy?” and it would just enrage me, like it made me more angry than anything else. I was being forced to admit my real feelings to a bloody 3 year old! Why did I have to give account for not being happy? I  was there, I had a smile planted on my face, and I was helping her with her shoelaces: why wasn’t that enough? I’d bought peace from my mother with a painted on smile and perfect school reports. I bought peace from the world in a similar way. I didn’t want to show them my true self, I was too scared that my true self was not nice enough, was too vulnerable. I wanted to continue to care for them with my perfect false self, endlessly helpful, always calm. I wanted to hold them at arms’ length, I wanted the love to go one way only. But she wasn’t having it.

So that’s it. I try to be real, I try to trust that they will be safe and I will be safe if I actually react to them like a real person – although it makes me need even more time alone in order to feel sane, and I don’t think that will ever change. As regards the boundaries, I’ve got high hopes that this might have been a bit of a crunch point – that once the boundary-testing phase kind of moves on a bit, the skills of being a total pushover willing to listen and accomodate their wants and needs will be useful. Parenting is a process of transferring authority from parent to child – I think the hard bit for children of narcissists is not giving up the authority, but taking it in the first place.

CPTSD + dissociation doesn’t look like CPTSD

I didn’t realise I had CPTSD at first. As with most of the insights I’ve had into my state of mind and my childhood, they sort of have to come in under the conscious mind, they have to sneak in.

I’d heard of CPTSD before – course I have, I hang out on adult children forums – but it wasn’t an idea that gained traction in my head. I had the risk factors  – early childhood scapegoat to a batshit crazy primary carer with  anger management issues  – and the symptoms – pervading sort of low level guilt and shame, horrifically bad memory, trouble with concentrating, tendency to daydream my way through anything unpleasant – but the mechanism, the bit in the middle, wasn’t something I could relate to. Emotional flashbacks? Means nothing.

I think for a while I was hung up on flashbacks from regular PTSD, like flashbacks of episodic memory. Christ, I can hardly remember anything from my childhood when I calmly and consciously sit down and think about it, never mind in th heat of a stressful situation. I think I would notice if I was getting vivid flashbacks to early childhood. I’d write them down. It would be good to be able to fill in some of the gaps.

But even when I got over that and realised we were talking about just feeling emotions, without a memory alongside, I still didn’t relate. Pete Walker describes an emotional flashback in his CPTSD book, like this:

It felt like a fierce hot wind. I felt like I was being blown away – like my insides were being blown out, as a flame on a candle is blown out.

Walker, Pete. Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A GUIDE AND MAP FOR RECOVERING FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMA (p. 4). Azure Coyote Publishing. Kindle Edition.

I don’t think I ever feel anything so vivid. I would say I have two feelings: shite, and OK. And possibly sentimental, but that might just be drunk. So although I shared a common common cause and common symptoms with CPTSD sufferers, I can’t have CPTSD, right?

Then one day I was listening to a Richard Grannon video on youtube and I was doing something else at the time, I think I was batch cooking bolognese sauce, I just had him on in the background and he said a thing and I was like what was that now? It was like my ears pricked up. And it was just a feeling, that I’d heard something significant but I didn’t know what it was, so I went back rewound the video a couple of minutes, and then again, and again. It took a few goes to get it into my conscious mind where I could catch it.

So what was it he said that set off my spidey-sense? It’s in the video I linked above, I can’t find it, but basically it was about a thing you might do, if you’ve been abused, if you have complex PTSD, where you have an emotional flashback, and then you start searching for reasons for the feelings but you can’t find reasons in the here and now.

Searching for reasons. I do that, I thought. I remember doing that. I don’t remember the negative emotion – that seems to just slip away from me. But trying to reason out what’s bothering me – and the resultant endless cycles of change in my life, new jobs, new exercise regimes, all that sort of stuff, that never seems to actually make anything better – the constant rearrangement of the pieces resulting in no net change at all – yes. That I know I do. That’s a CPTSD thing? And so I started reading all I could about CPTSD, Pete Walker’s book, about the fawn and freeze responses,  the lack of a sense of grounding, all this stuff, and so much of it fit that I had to say to myself this is a useful way of thinking about the relationship between your trauma and your problems which is to say, finally… I think I have CPTSD.

But what about the emotional flashbacks? What’s going on there? Why is the sound turned way down?

I don’t really feel fear. I remember my actual NPD mother remarking it once, in the car with me.

“What I really like about you is…”
This should be good, I thought.

“…how calm you are while driving.”

Eh? That’s what you really like? 40 years, two kids, a PhD… and you like how calm I am. I’m an excellent taxi driver. Bloody narcissists. Glad to have been of service.

“When your auntie and uncle drive me they’re always effing and blinding and complaining about other drivers. You never do that. You’re really calm.”

Well, well done me. But I thought about it, and it is true. Rush hour traffic with a car filled with two toddlers and my batshit crazy mother barely registers for me. My face stays calm. I even feel calm. But am I calm?

I thought about other situations where I feel like I’m keeping my cool.  Public speaking. In my old life as a scientist I sometimes couldn’t avoid having to Do A Talk to my colleagues. The sort of “my boss thinks I might be promotable this year but then I have to raise my profile by saying clever things in front of a large assembly of my peers”kind of talk. I hate them. I underprepare for them. I get existential angst and review all the major and minor life choices leading up to me having to give talks like those.

When I get up in front of the powerpoint, what happens is really weird. I’ll do the talk, and while I’m doing it I’ll feel – not great, but not terrible. I won’t feel at all scared. I’ll finish up, and then afterwards I’ll notice that I’m drenched in sweat. If someone is there who will give me honest feedback, I’ll hear that I looked really nervous. That at a point very early on my voice sped up, and that I started overexplaining things, and that it got worse as the talk went on. I’ll remember seeing someone give me a questioning look early on in the talk and that’ll turn out to have been the point where I sped up and became incomprehensible.

And that’s when I started to realise. I am not calm. I can act calm, and I can remain unaware of my fear in my conscious mind – but it is coming out of my body in sweat, in my heart rate going up, it’s coming out in my automatic fawn response of overexplaining. People are watching me panic while I am standing here completely unaware of my panic.

This, my friends, is what dissociation looks like.

And that’s the answer, for me. I have CPTSD but because of my awesome powers of dissociation, I’m not aware of the emotional flashbacks at a conscious level. They’re just happening and wringing the crap out of me, so that I feel constantly tired and a bit shit. Trudging through the days. It doesn’t look like CPTSD, but it is.

Why being shit at self care doesn’t mean you don’t love yourself

I’m a bit rubbish at self care. Everything takes too long, I resent having to spend the time to moisturise or cook or go to the doctor. I have a habit of inadvertently eating crisps for lunch, and last year I weathered a chest infection without antibiotics because I’d been up the doctors’ 3 times with the kids already and that sort of used up all my GP receptionist-dealing fu for the month.

It comes up the whole time in recovery, about how it’s a part of self love and we don’t care for ourselves because we don’t love ourselves because we weren’t loved and all of that, and I get that, but I think I do actually quite like myself. Maybe I’m misunderstanding. But I’ve been pursuing half-arsed recovery for years now, not really understanding exactly what was wrong but definitely trying to apply principles of honesty and kindess to myself as well as others. And I do do self care, it’s just that the self care I do is the clumsy, misguided self care that a child would do. I feel bad, I retreat to food and alcohol and computer games. They do make me feel better, at least in the short term, and as such they are loving acts, although they aren’t good for me in the long term. I’m not going to beat up on myself for that.

But when you’re parenting, you don’t stuff your kids full of crisps and plonk them in front of the xbox and call it love. (OK maybe Saturday mornings. I will admit that.) Lots of the effort you have to make for your kids is in establishing boundaries and sticking to them for their own good. Not infinite amounts of sweeties, not the whole day in front of the telly. Sometimes you have to be creative and inspire them into doing something healthier, sometimes you just have to hold the line and say no. It’s all tiring. That effort is love, it’s an aspect of love, and that’s what my attempts at self care currently lack.

Recovery, parenting and the limits of goal-oriented thinking

Positive thinking is doing my head in.

I am coming across it in stuff to do with recovery from an abusive childhood and because I become a pedantic bull-headed slow person when I am thinking about emotions, rather than just move past it and say “this isn’t what I need right now, what else is out there” I thought I would do a bulleted list of reasons it’s not working for me.

  1. I don’t know what I want. I had a sort of fairly standard upbringing for a child of a narcissistic headcase, and so I put away my own wants and needs fairly early and concentrated on the survival job of learning the needs, wants, whims and tells of my mother. I’m really, really bad at telling whether I’ll like something when I get it. I suppose I could visualise myself discovering what I want, I could use it that way, but that’s quite abstract. I can’t help feeling it’s going to be less effective than if I was trying to visualise myself into a better job, lots of money and a sixpack.
  2. My decisions affect other people. I have two little kids. If I could freeze our house at 6.15 am and go out and live a secret life for a couple of weeks and then come back in to the house and the clock starts ticking again, I’d do tons of great stuff. I’d go and climb up jaggy mountains again, I’d go to gigs, I’d visit all sorts of places, Japan, New Zealand, back to South America… people’ll say “well why don’t you do those things anyway? Take the kids with you!” Sigh. Going travelling round Japan is not the same as dragging two little children round Japan. Mountaineering is not the same as going hillwalking with a protesting toddler in a backpack. How do you even do that? Where do you do the nappy changes? Anyway ours are too big for that now – they’re in that awkward “too big to carry, too small to walk long distances” phase that lasts from what, 3 till about 10? There are lots of cool things we can do with them, and we do, and that’s great – but it’s not my heart’s desire. The amazing moments happen when you’re not expecting them, a lot of the time. And on other, bigger stuff – I don’t want to do any sort of house move or job or course of study that takes me or the kids away from the place where we live now. They are settled in school and I don’t want to move them. This feels OK to me. I’m in my 40s. My life is optimised. Any large change we make for the better is likely to make something worse. I think that being a stay at home with a line in arguing with people in the internet is fairly close to me living my values, really. I just want to enjoy it a bit more.
  3. Lots of the important things I do do not lend themselves to that sort of adrenalised “I’m going to bust this to pieces!” positive affirmation stuff. I used to work in the City, and before that I was a chemist, and I’m very used to rushing into work and Doing Things and being very precise and writing instructions and having them be followed. It is not like that with the kids.  Most of my job with them, specially now that they are getting older and more independent, is to shut the fuck up, put my hands in my pockets and listen and watch while they learn to do things for themselves. I find it very hard. It is a new skillset full of things like patience, slowing down, keeping the heid and paying attention. I do not know how to build these things into positive affirmations. I don’t think that getting all enthused and full of energy is going to make me better at not getting really, really frustrated when we are late for kindergarten and I am trying to let my kid take 18 tries to get her jacket zipped.
  4. Lots of the important things I do don’t have measurable outcomes. Success at looking after my kids is difficult to measure. I suppose I could look forward to 15 years’ time when they are grown up and out of the house and they’re successful and all is well – but I don’t know what successful will look like for them, and to be honest I wouldn’t want to prejudice it by visualising something that they wouldn’t want. I also don’t want to rush forward to the end because the point is the process, and when they’re successfully out of the house, I’m out of a job; and the success will be theirs anyway, not mine. It’s the day to day I need to be focusing on, the virtuosity of it maybe, of showing patience, of right action – something like that.
  5. I’m not sure that pursuing happiness through external things is the point of all this. When I was a little kid I remember one day going out into a summer day, the sky was fresh washed blue with big puffy clouds and the gate swinging on its hinges as I walked out and up our street to go and find my wee friend and maraud around the neighbourhood for the day together. That’s the feeling I’m trying to get back to. Just effortless feeling good. And feeling bad, and generally just feeling. I think that reaching for external things to make it better is just the flight response, really. I’m not saying we should all be content to sit around in our pants eating crisps all day (although kids take that to an art form, have you ever noticed? Kids can eat crisps in their pants with a contented happiness that I envy and adore) but I feel like targeting external goals needs to at least be not the only thing I do to get better.