How Disney started arming their little fans against emotional abuse

When it came to recognising and defeating emotional abuse, Disney films were not always very much help. I am an 80s kid, and so it’s the second wave of Disney princesses that I grew up with – Ariel, Belle and Jasmine . Let’s deal with them in turn.

Ariel was a 16 year old who had an interest in a foreign race/culture. When she met someone from that culture, she was attracted to him and wanted to meet him again. Her father had prejudices about these people though, and when he found out about her feelings he destroyed her collection of artefacts from the other culture and asked a member of his staff to follow his daughter around to ensure that she couldn’t see the boy any more. But in the end it was all OK because after spending 3 days with the boy unable to speak, he decided he loved her and they were immediately married and she was reconciled with her father.

Belle was 17 when we met her. Her father was abducted and held captive by a man who owned a large castle. Belle agreed to become a prisoner in exchange for her father, who was dying from untreated pneumonia. Belle remained a captive until she “fell in love” with her captor, at which point he let her out briefly to see her father. Soon after they were married.

Jasmine was only 15 when we met her, but the race to marry her was already on. Having turned down a large number of princes, her father was making preparations to have her marry his middle aged vizier when as luck would have it, she ran into a boy she’d briefly met a few days ago on her one and only trip out of the palace where she was born. In the nick of time she agreed to marry him and then they fought the vizier and won and lived happily ever after.

What lessons can we take away from the fate of the three princesses?

  • It’s right and normal that fathers should control, or want to control, who their daughter dates and/or marries even to the point of spying on them and doing violence to their things e.g. trashing their room as a punishment
  • If you fall in love with someone, you should totally marry them, even if they have treated you badly
  • If you fall in love with someone, you should totally marry them, even if you’re barely 16 and you’ve only met them twice and that was the first time you were ever alone with a boy your age or spoke more than 5 words to one. Oh and you’re a princess and he’s so poor he has to steal breakfast.

It’s not great, is it? I admit I’m being a bit unfair. The original stories are all pretty old, and values have changed. And the age thing is a bit of a red herring – as a kid, there’s nothing more compelling than stories about people not much older than you doing stuff that adults do. And lastly, you could argue that Disney didn’t expect girls to really see any of the three protagonists as direct role models. I mean, one is a mermaid! Who can see themselves as a mermaid? Or Arab? Or French? Oh wait no, I don’t think that’s what I meant…

But let’s not bother making excuses. It wasn’t great. It’s got much better. My kids  were born in this decade, and we’ve had Tangled, Brave and Frozen. Let’s deal with them etc, etc

Tangled is one about an emotionally abused daughter of a mother who so typifies NPD that there should be a picture of her next to the definition of it in future versions of the DSM. She comes to understand that her mother is abusive when she goes out into the real world and deals with all sorts of situations that she thought would be scary, but turn out to be OK when she realises that you have to judge people by their behaviour and not by their appearances. She does all this with the help of a handsome thief and although, yes, they do marry, they wait until they’ve got to know each other properly.

Brave is basically Aladdin, but Scottish. And with no bad guy, or at least not a bad guy who wants to marry a princess who’s barely of age. Because in 2012, the idea of a middle aged man wanting to marry a 15 year old girl is significantly creepier than Disney or anyone else wants their bad guys to be getting. Oh, and it introduced the world to the word “geemy”, which is just awesome in itself.

But Frozen. Frozen is the one.

Anna, as the sister of a princess with scary ice powers, experiences a lonely and cloistered childhood, followed by the early death of her parents. Starved for love, she jumps at it the first chance she gets, with a handsome prince whose emotional abuse is so standard that you could believe that when Richard Grannon made this video on the red flags of emotional abuse he was babysitting someone’s 4 year old girl and being made to watch Frozen on endless repeat. Grannon makes 5 points in his video. They’re all in the film.

  1. Whirlwind romance – this arse goes along with everything Anna says in order to make it feel like they are cosmically matched. It’s  beautifully sent up in  this song. “I mean it’s crazy, but we finish each others’ – sandwiches – that’s what I was gonna say!
  2. Too much, too soon – the guy proposes on the same day they met. Kristoff takes the piss out of this beautifully. “You got engaged to someone you met THAT DAY? What’s his second name?” “uh… of the Southern Isles?” “Favourite food?” “Sandwiches” “Eye colour?” “Dreamy
  3. Button pushing – at the end of the coronation party, after Elsa’s powers have been revealed, Hans is… a bit off. First he says to Anna “did you know?” and she says “no” and the next thing, he gets this little pleased look on his face. And then later in the same scene Anna gets on her horse to go and save Elsa and she says “I leave Prince Hans in charge.” And then he says a thing. He goes, “can you trust her?” And the first time I saw it I was like what was that? Trust Elsa? What about trust you? She met you fucking 5 hours ago and she’s just made you the regent! But he draws focus away from himself using this piece of information he’s just gained – that Anna didn’t know about Elsa’s powers, and is therefore probably feeling a bit betrayed. It’s the only chance he really gets to push any buttons like that, as the next time they meet, he unveils himself as the bad guy in a way that has to happen in a kids’ movie and would never happen in real life. But I feel confident that had the marriage panned out, he’d have been a skilled button pusher.
  4. Isolation from support network – when Anna is sick, he takes her from Kristoff and Olaf, and literally locks her away in a room.
  5. Erosion of values: you see this more with Elsa than with Anna, where before trying to kill her out on the ice he convinces her that she has killed Anna, when actually it was his later action of putting out the fire and locking her away that almost does for her. Up is down, in is out – the victim is invited to examine herself to find blame in her own (accidental) actions and give the real villain the benefit of the doubt.

To top it all off, when Anna finally gets it together with the guy she’s supposed to fall in love with – Kristoff  – he completely breaks with Disney prince/ fairy story convention and actually asks her if she wants to kiss him. Consent! And cute, as well.

I love this shit. I love love love it so much. Disney comes into people’s houses with very little filter. This shit will be playing on terrestrial telly on random bank holiday mornings for the next 50 years. Kids in the shittiest setups – and kids like me, physically cared for, involved parents, high achievers, but who’re gaslighted and controlled and fucked in the head – are going to see this shit, they’re going to see Prince Hans playing his mind games and being marked the bad guy, they’re going to see Mother Gothel playing her mind games and being marked the bad guy – they’re going to see it when they’re 4, it’s going to furnish them with a view of a world out there where people who love you don’t make you unhappy, and people who say they love you and then fuck with you are bad guys and end up turning to 500 year old dust or getting a smack in the teeth and then put in jail. It is brilliant.

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The false relief of knowing you’re the best-behaved person in the room

If you came from a crazy-ass toxic family, then you were programmed with guilt really early, and you make shitty decisions to avoid feeling that guilt again.

Here’s how it works. As a kid you hung around with parents who had CPTSD from the abuse they suffered, only they didn’t call it that, they called it something like “my dad used to knock seven shades of shit out of me every time I was disrespectful and it didn’t do me any harm”. Because of the CPTSD, they would have lots of frightening and unpleasant feelings of guilt and fear and shame every time they experienced anything that reminded them of their childhood abuse, and as you were there, being a child, they were reminded of it a lot. Because they never learned to take responsibility for their own feelings, and because you were small and easy to shout at, they would look around at this moment and find something you were doing wrong and fix on that as the reason for their overwhelming bad feelings.

You, standing there holding the paint brush, or sporting the dirty socks, or staring at the broken glass you had just sent skiting off the table as you barelled into the room playing chases, would be having a really shit time at this point. Scared, confused, and guilty. But you at 3 or 4 or 5 or 7 or 10 were an awesome little dude, and you were full of hope and dedication and enthusiasm for life and you would try desperately to learn the lesson of how not to get shouted at like this in the future. Only you would be fucked, because the next time you dropped the glass/dirtied the clothes/repainted the hall you wouldn’t get the same response, or you’d get no response, or they’d be angry about something else, or fuck knows what. Because it was never really about you.

Fast forward to your life as an adult. You’re in a job. You’re at school. You’re in a relationship. You’re just at the bar with a bunch of friends.

Are you good enough?

Do you work hard enough? Are you cool enough to hang out with these people? Smart enough, attractive enough? Talented enough? How can you ever know? You might be shit. These people are so nice. These people are so good. Why would they like you? How are you going to fit in? Life is hard, happiness is fleeting, and there’s a million reasons why everyone might reject you.

And what about when they aren’t nice? When your boss lands you with lots of work and takes the credit. When your other half never helps with the housework. When your friends spend hours and hours complaining about all their problems but never listen to yours. How does that actually feel?

It feels like a relief, doesn’t it? I mean at first you are a bit discomfited, but that’s only because you’re thinking something negative about someone and you don’t know if you’re allowed. Is that person taking the piss, you’re thinking. The amount of work I’m doing is far more than them! Isn’t it? You count it up. If it’s just one or two things you’ve had to pick up the slack on, then you mostly feel guilty. But if it’s a significant margin more, like they are really taking the piss – what you feel is relief. Someone is being a bastard hereyou think. And you’re used to someone being the bastard. And it’s not me.

My wee dad never got past this point. He would save up my mother’s injustices and pour them out to me over the phone. “You’ll never guess what she said to me now” he would say, and I’d say to him “you don’t need to take this shit. You could leave.” And he’d say “you’re right. Nobody would blame me.” Nobody would blame him. And for him, that was enough. The rush of not being to blame was heady, for someone who’d been to blame for everything.

Don’t settle for being not to blame. Don’t let yourself get comfortable in the pit of being hard done by. Instead, learn to be jammy. If you don’t know what jammy means, it’s a Scottish word – it means lucky – but it’s undeserved luck.

Every life has good luck and bad luck, deserved and undeserved. You had undeserved bad luck if you grew up in an abusive household. See now, it’s time to embrace undeserved good luck whenever you find it. Enjoy the company of friends who just seem to like you, just because. Go out with people who make you laugh. When it’s 4pm on a Friday, and there’s no more work to do – leave. And go and do stuff you like, because you like it. Because nobody deserves a bit of undeserved good luck more than you do.

Jane Eyre and being believed

I was rereading Jane Eyre. If you’ve not read it, here’s the background: when she is orphaned, she’s taken in by her aunt and uncle – the uncle’s the blood relative, and his kindness balances out the emotional abuse from her aunt. The uncle dies, having extracted a promise from the aunt to keep looking after Jane – thus the kid is set up in a situation where someone who has no love for her and much resentment is nevertheless obliged to look after her. She eventually farms Jane out to a charity school where they freeze their arses off and don’t get enough to eat. Nevertheless Jane starts to make a go of it – she moves up in her class, and makes a good friend. But all her progress seems to be torn down when the charity school owner comes in and tells everyone that Jane’s benefactress has told him she’s a liar and not to be trusted.

I think this is a situation that will be familiar to a lot of adult children from abusive families. The only thing that is probably different in real life is that you don’t often get to hear what your abusers have been saying about you. It’s usually done behind your back. For me, I only picked it up once or twice, as an adult, out on the piss with cousins I hadn’t seen for years. You’re so normal, they would say. You’re so down to earth.

I can imagine what impression my mother had made of me: this child prodigy so packed full of scary intelligence that she could barely relate to normal people. I guess it served the twin purposes of discrediting me in the event I should ever tell the truth about her, and allowing her to bask in the reflected “glory” of a kid who did pretty well at school. “I feel as if I’ve sat these exams myself” she said to one of our neighbours during my GCSEs, hinting at a level of effort and worry she’d put into helping me pass my exams that was entirely in her own head. I spent that exam season and all others in the library, safely out of her way.

As part of my recovery I’ve accepted that I can’t control my mother’s behaviour, and one implication of this is that if I was to tell the truth to the family and family friends, they might never be prepared to believe me, because of things she’s said about me in the past and is no doubt saying about me now.  I am at peace with that, and I haven’t told any of the family anything. But I am starting to wonder if I’m too at peace. I like some of those people. Is it really the best thing to write them all off, assume they’ll have heard her version of events, and that they’ll believe her? That none of them can see through her? Is it right not to even try?

In the story, Jane gets the chance to tell her story to a sympathetic listener.

I resolved, in the depth of my heart, that I would be most moderate — most correct; and, having reflected a few minutes in order to arrange coherently what I had to say, I told her all the story of my sad childhood. Exhausted by emotion, my language was more subdued than it generally was when it developed that sad theme; and mindful of Helen’s warnings against the indulgence of resentment, I infused into the narrative far less of gall and wormwood than ordinary. Thus restrained and simplified, it sounded more credible: I felt as I went on that Miss Temple fully believed me.

I feel angry on my behalf and on Jane’s that you have to give such attention to how to tell your story in order to be believed. But she’s right. There’s lots of things people would rather do than believe. They might try and normalise it – it was the 70s, we had it worse, never did us any harm. They might try to “respect your point of view” while assuming that it was all a misunderstanding and your abusive parent acted out of the best of intentions. Or they might just not believe you, and listen along to what they think is your attention-seeking slander of a perfectly nice person.

So how to be believed? Well, again, I have to say – you can’t control whether someone will believe you. But you can have influence – both over how convincing you are, and over who you tell, and what it costs you to do it.

 

  • Start small. If the opportunity arises in conversation, mention something in passing. Watch their reaction.
  • See if they respond appropriately – in other words you want them to look angry on your behalf. If you get the impression they are uninterested, or too interested – stop. It’s hard for people like us to have boundaries and stop ourselves from oversharing. But you absolutely should protect yourself if the other person is not prepared to meet your revelations with kindness.
  • Do like Jane says – if you can, tell the story without much emotion and with only the main points included. It makes it easier to dismiss you if you add details of small slights that they can focus on. Some people will be told “she hit me forcefully and repeatedly for coming home with wet winter boots, and I hadn’t even wanted those boots, I wanted the cheap wellies” and they’ll come away with “I think I was abused because my mother wouldn’t buy those cheap wellies I wanted when I was 7.” Don’t let them away with that.
  • Monitor your own feelings. Stop if you feel like it. Trust your intuition.

We’ll see if I end up taking any of my own advice. In Jane Eyre, Jane’s great friend Helen tells her that it doesn’t matter if not a single person believes you:

Besides this earth, and besides the race of men, there is an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits: that world is round us, for it is everywhere; and those spirits watch us, for they are commissioned to guard us; and if we were dying in pain and shame, if scorn smote us on all sides, and hatred crushed us, angels see our tortures, recognise our innocence… and God waits only the separation of spirit from flesh to crown us with a full reward.

I don’t believe in God, but reading that, I hope she’s right.

 

I’m no long for this world

My granny worried, about everything. One of us kids getting onto the balcony of her high rise flat and falling out, about the kids hanging about the flat entrance, about someone from the TV rental company coming to repossess the television they had made a present of when, 20 years after she first rented from them, they could no longer compete with foreign imports and hire purchase and wound up their business. But more than anything she worried about her health.

It was a sort of free-floating worry, not without reason. I don’t think she ever ate anything but biscuits, or drank anything but tea: she claimed to have no appetite, but was morbidly obese, and suffered from varicose ulcers that had to be re-dressed every other day, and would itch so badly under the dressings that she would take a knitting needle and scratch under the bandage, opening up a whole new set of cuts to be infected. She could only walk short distances, and only left her flat once a week when the pensioner’s club came to get her. We went with her once, me and my dad, and it was the only time I ever saw her outside her own house until she was taken to hospital suffering from the stomach cancer that would kill her, 20 years after her husband died, and 20 years after she started telling her family to prepare for her passing.

It was like a family joke. You’d sit there waiting for her to say it. I loved listening to her: her dialect was older than mine, and broader, more musical. Proper Glasgow. Words like “winching”, and “whit dae ye ca’ it”, and looking at my dad, recalling the abusive husband she mourned for 20 years: “aye, the auld man’ll never be deid while you’re still alive.” She loved the wrong people, my granny, and took the right people for granted.

I was thinking about her today when I went into the doctor’s. A year or so ago I checked out my blood pressure, and after years of having a reading so low it was like “are you dead” I’m suddenly at 140/90. I ignored it, and put it out of my mind. Then I checked it again a couple of months later and it was still high. Still, ignore. Then something shifted, I don’t know what. But a month ago I measured it, and it was still about 140/90, and my magic powers of denial must have been offline because I worried about it all night and then phoned the GP.

I thought I was for the chop. I was convinced, this was it. Cholesterol, or blood sugar, or liver function were going to give me away – the effects of all the little comfort blankets that get me through, the evening glass of wine, the crisps, the replacing of sleep with food  were going to be recorded in black and white and unavoidably off the table. Conversations would be had, about what my hopes were for the future, about the changing metabolism of the middle aged woman, what you can get away with at 20 that you can’t get away with at 40. I’ve often felt like I was clinging on, just barely managing life, with my habits, my overeating, the nervous nailbiting, the clothes just always ever so slightly too tight and no time to buy more, or at least as a kind of self care it never comes far enough the list of priorities to want to do it. Just a bit of a break would make it easier, just a bit of pressure off. But when things improved: a promotion, more money, lost a bit of weight, whatever – it felt like I adjusted to the new normal almost instantly. And there was always the opportunity for things to go wrong. Couple that with the inevitable slide towards middle age and I’ve felt like I was fighting a losing battle, my whole life.

Anyway, blood and wee was taken and I was given a date to take home and wear a BP monitor for 24 hours. Man, that shit is irritating. It was about 30 degrees yesterday, so the cuff was stuck to my arm in a slick of sweat. It was fucking enormous, designed for someone about a foot taller than me, and I could hardly bend my arm. It went off at the most awkward moments, including when I was holding my daughter down to try and let the A&E doctor examine the massive hole she gouged in her chin yesterday playing on a slide. Because what better day for that to happen? After receiving 3 doses of sedative and utterly failing to fall asleep in any way, the wee one was eventually distracted long enough to get her stitch* and we came home and had dinner and all went to bed early. I had one of those nights you get while camping and while looking after tiny babies, where the periods of sleep mix up with the wakefulness and you get the same thoughts, or music, repeating over and over in your head. I got really lucky – this time it was Depeche Mode’s Cover Me, which is actually an awesome song and I haven’t heard it 18 million times. The last time I had a night like that I got Sofia the First’s I’m Not Ready To Be A Princess on repeat, and I’m not going to link to that on youtube, because I’m not a dick.

So this morning, I went back to the GP’s and gave them back the BP monitor and got the verdict.

Normal. All normal. Cholesterol, liver function, blood sugar. BP is on the high end, but not so high that I need tablets yet. At the next checkup maybe, in 2 years’ time. Or the one after that. But not now. And she showed me the trace. Look at how your BP goes up here, at 2pm. (I was carrying daughter into the hospital). But by 2.15 it is straight back down where it was. And look at the nighttime – it goes right down. You relax into sleep, and your body stops struggling, and it gets rest. That’s how it should be. Some women, she said – is there a family history of high blood pressure? Yes, everyone, pretty much – some women find their blood pressure does begin to climb between 40 and 50. Irrespective of whether they’re fat or thin. You can still be fit and have high blood pressure.

The thing is I knew that. Look at Andrew Marr, a marathoning overachiever about the size of a whippet. Lifestyle can have an effect on blood pressure but genetics does too. But I was always going to blame lifestyle first.

I remember when I was about 8, I think. I started getting these brown stripes on my front teeth. They weren’t sore, it wasn’t decay, but I couldn’t get rid of them by brushing my teeth. I know that for a fact because when my mother noticed them, she eventually (after about a week) took matters into her own hands and held me down and brushed my teeth until my gums were bleeding. Didn’t work.

It must have been my fault somehow, she mused. Oh yes. About 6 months earlier, school had invited in a dental nurse who had emphasised to us the correct way to use a toothbrush. I’d come home with a new toothbrush and disclosing tablets and proudly showed off my great brushing technique to my mother, who had to have all her teeth removed at the age of 19, and who dismissed the nurse’s advice as nonsense.

Now, this night was being recalled to her. Had I been brushing my teeth the way the nurse had said? I had, hadn’t I? And now after 6 months the effects were being seen. Not brushing properly had resulted in these deposits on my teeth, that now were too fixed to the enamel to come off with brushing. (I imagine it was the same sort of irremovable grime that attached to the hairs on my top lip when I rubbed my nose with my filthy hands. The hairs did not become noticeably darker until I was 12, but it must have taken a while to build up. And it could be lightened back using the bleach cream that Boots sells to women and teenage girls who have naturally dark hair on their top lips. I suppose I can just be happy that due to the fact that there are women who are in genuine need of such products, filthy nose rubbers like me can also benefit). Time to go to the dentist.

“Does she drink a lot of tea, Mrs ___?”
“What do you mean by a lot?”
“Every day?”

I drank 3 cups of tea a day, tea being the only drink available in our house other than cold water. I’d once seen my gran being offered hot water and asked if I could have that too, only to be summoned out to the hall and told that my gran had constipation and needed to have hot water to alleviate it, and that I was to stop trying to draw attention to myself and drink my tea. Oh and sometimes there was irn bru if my dad went to the ice cream van.
I don’t remember what my mother said to the dentist and I didn’t feel any sense of victory, only relief. I was told to back off the tea and it would right itself, and it did – a few weeks later the stripes were gone and as an excellent side effect, the number of drinks allowed in our house had increased to 3, with the addition of a bottle of fruit squash to the weekly shop.

But everything was like that. When I got whooping cough, she went about for 2 weeks telling me I was prolonging my cold by swallowing the phlegm and not spitting it out. When I got chickenpox, she spent the hours before my spots came out lecturing me on how I could hardly expect to feel well if I spent my whole Sunday lying on the sofa in the house instead of coming and playing outside like a normal child. I swear to god, the concept of “I wonder if that kid might be coming down with something” did not exist in her world. I was always to blame for my failings until I got absolved by the GP – the GP being higher than my mother in the social hierarchy. I can be glad I was born into a working class dysfunctional family because I’ve no doubt that if my mother had my education she’d have written off the GP as a quack whenever he didn’t agree with her. Or if she’d been into alternative health. Lavender enemas or fuck knows what. You always have to be grateful it wasn’t worse.

These days I find it hard to acknowledge that any difficulty (physical or otherwise) I have might not be my fault. It feels like it’s always going to be my fault. The psychology books say we learned to keep ourselves feeling safe by blaming our parents’ abuse on our own behaviour. It’s seductive, supposed to be, the feeling that everything is your own fault, because then surely everything is under your control? I don’t know – as an adult I’ve never found it anything other than onerous, the feeling that you could probably fix every damned thing in your life if only you tried hard enough. It’s the serenity prayer, isn’t it? The courage to make changes, the patience to live with what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. I’d include in that the wisdom to trust the right people – your doctor, teachers, mentors, people who have your interests at hear – when they tell you, it’s OK, you don’t need to worry, you didn’t cause this and you don’t need to fix it. I’m gradually replacing the voice of my mother with other, caring voices in my life.

 

What we mean when we say “I don’t want to deprive my kids of a relationship with their grandparents”

I wanted to talk about this because I think a lot of us get stuck on this point when we are starting to recover and considering cutting contact with our parents.

I don’t want to deprive my children of a relationship with their grandparents.

What do you mean when you say that? Do you really mean it, that you want it, that you are going to be happy watching your kids grow to love our abusive parents? Really? Here are these two tiny, vulnerable, wonderful people who I produced out of my own body and who scare the crap out of me when they get hurt to the point that I had to be sat down with a glass of water in the GP’s surgery the time one of them fell off a park bench and cut her lip. And here is the woman who once when I was 9 grabbed me by the hair and threw me to the floor for scratching my nose.* Am I going to be happy if these people make friends? Am I fuck.

OK, then I don’t feel I have the right to stop my parents having a relationship with my children

But why don’t you feel like you have the right?

Who should make the decisions about who my kids? You, right? And your other half. And the kids, as they get older – but right now, they are under 6, they are still learning to judge character, and it’s not only your right but your bloody job to keep them safe from abusive people.

Maybe I don’t have the right to call my mother abusive? Maybe it’s not my place to label her that way? I strongly believe she has NPD, but we have to leave the diagnoses to the psychiatrists, don’t we?

I would say that if you have lived with a person day and night for 16 years or more, you have a far better insight into their personality than any psychiatrist. But it doesn’t even matter. As Richard Grannon says: if someone’s being a dick, they’re a dick.  You don’t need to have the formal diagnosis to know someone’s an awful human being. The diagnosis is useful when you’re first coming into recovery because it lets you find descriptions of the behaviour, and it’s labelled abusive, and you feel validated. But it was always abusive, even before you knew it was called NPD (or BPD or paranoid PD or whatever the flavour is).

But my abuser has met my children and they were lovely to them.

Sometimes they are, specially if the kids are too small to argue back. You probably discounted the boundary-pushing shit: when they took the baby off you and wouldn’t give it back despite you asking politely several times; when they called themselves “mum” and you “gran” (don’t make that face, my mother actually did this); when they fed the kid fucking chocolate at 4 months old. You turn the other cheek because what is the other option? It’s all so fucking petty, you don’t know how to tackle them.

It won’t stay petty though, will it? And you know that. If you do call them out on their behaviour there’ll be a massive fight and at the end of it they still won’t stop doing the things that they do. And as the kids get older, it’ll get worse – massively overgenerous birthday and Christmas presents, constant feeding up with sweets, needling about how they would let the kid do this and that great thing only mummy won’t let you. They might not be the slightest bit interested in abusing your child, actually. They might just be back to have another shot at you. Gaslight you into believing they are awesome grandparents and were probably awesome parents too; it’s just you, you were always the problem. Or they might be in for a game of setting siblings against each other, one golden child and one scapegoat. The possibilities are many and varied. It’s never good.

But… they’re my parents. 

They are. Poor you. You deserved love and care and safety, and you got abuse and fear and control. You don’t owe them a thing.

But what will other people say?

Other people might judge you harshly, it’s true. But you can take it. You’re a great parent, you’re such a loving parent that you would actually have considered keeping the person in your life who most betrayed you, just because you don’t want to deprive your child of a few goes on the swings and a bit of cake baking. You are seriously fucking nice. And you have a responsibility to keep your children safe, which is why you also going to be awesome when you cut contact with your abusers, when the shit rains down from friends and family, you are going to be like an umbrella and shelter your kids from all of that.

 

 

 

 

*If you had a nice childhood (or if you had a shit one and you’re still in “it never did me any harm” denial about it) you might be sitting there thinking, that’s not that bad, I mean if that’s the worst she ever did… it’s hardly putting out cigarettes on your arms is it?

I would ask you to come with me on an imaginative journey. You’re on the board of your kid’s school and you have to interview teachers for your kid’s class. One of them has a history of extreme violence to kids (the cigarette thing maybe), one only minor acts of violence like the hair pulling, nothing that would cause an injury, and the third candidate let’s say they’ve never laid a finger on a child, preferring instead to humiliate them with names like “stupid”, “fat”, “ugly”. Which one do you choose? I tell you who you fucking choose you choose none of them because that’s your kid and why the hell would you let someone with a history of abuse within 10 feet of them?

Right?

I blame the parents

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.” Laozi, Chinese philosopher, 500 BC, via the Kaiser Chiefs (don’t say I’m not keeping it highbrow)

It was blazing hot here yesterday so I took the kids to the outdoor pool for the first time since last year. My god what a difference 8 months has made to them! Last year I was wall-eyed trying to keep track of them and the little one kept hanging onto my arm. This year they can swim a bit, and are massively more confident in the water and on the slides and stuff. I’ve finally got to that blessed state of motherhood where I can go to the pool and sit on the edge with my feet in the water and do fuck all while the kids go “look at this mummy!” and jump off stuff. It was pretty awesome.

Then, one of their little colleagues from kindergarten showed up. She’s a couple of years older and in school now, and was under the extremely light supervision of someone else’s mum, and my kids started playing with her at the pool. They then asked if they could take their towels over to where she was, and the three of them spent most of the afternoon going between the pool and their towels with me hanging about nearby.

I can imagine what this felt like to them – proper grown up freedom. They spent most of the afternoon alone with their friend, going from the pool to the poolside, deciding what to do together, all that. I faded right into the background. But from my perspective I was still busy looking after them – I had eyes on them all afternoon, as it’s a busy pool. I was not sat there reading my phone.

I can imagine that a successful childhood feels like this most of the time. You take steps towards independence when you’re developmentally ready, and while your parents will be right behind you cheering you on, they’re doing it silently, exercising judgement about when to intervene and when to stay the fuck out. You feel like you’re doing it all yourself.

Contrast that with your typical dysfunctional, abusive upbringing. You lack key life skills because nobody could be bothered teaching you them or because it was a convenient way to keep you dependent. Responsibilities and freedoms come when it’s convenient for your parents – you might have to fight for ages to be allowed to do things your friends have been doing for years, or you might be saddled with responsibilities you’re too young to have. And among all of it, your parents, their mood, their approval or disapproval, loom large in your mind.

My intuition is that one of the hallmarks of a successful childhood, therefore, is that as you grow up, and once you’ve grown up, you don’t really see the role your parents played in helping you develop. It feels like you did it yourself. Not to say you’re not grateful, but it’s more for the tangible things – the food on the table, the roof over the head.

No wonder then, if normal people perceive adult children of abusive families as total whiners. “My mother never showed me much love as a child, and now I have self esteem issues.” “My father was unpredictably angry and now I have problems trusting people.” “my family treated me as the scapegoat and I take too much responsibility for other people’s feelings”. God, they must think, what is wrong with these people? Couldn’t they just… develop, like I did? My parents did nothing special. I just grew up. They were just there.

I think that when you are recovering from an abusive childhood, it is essential to understand that your parents did wrong by you. You need to know, so you can stop them abusing your children. You need to know so you can understand what you need to fix. And you need to know so you can get angry, and thereby reawaken the sense of self-preservation that’s been suppressed since forever, and protect yourself from awful people in the here and now. It’s not self-indulgence, it’s not refusing to take responsibility for your own problems. Normal people can have the luxury of pretending that they got here all by themselves, but we have to acknowledge the invisible work that parents do for their children’s psychological development, because our parents didn’t do that work, and the effects are still on us.

All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer

There’s a thing that happens to medical students, they say. Every time they learn about a new illness, because the signs and symptoms are at the front of their minds, they will tend to notice and remember if they have any of the symptoms (while failing to notice any evidence that suggests they don’t have the illness). They’ll spend their first year in med school convinced they have one after another of the illnesses they study. Underactive thyroid one week, menopause the next. Even the blokes.

There’s a name for it: perceptual set. The other example you always hear is cars. When you buy a car, you suddenly notice the same model of car on the road everywhere. You look for it, you find it.

When I first realised my mother probably has NPD, I spent a couple of days experiencing what I thought was perceptual set. I thought about that irritating “friend” who ghosted out of my life when I got a new job. The boss who would let you joke in her meetings, but only if you were one of her favourites. That guy who asked me out on a date like 10 times and then disappeared the second time I saw him. Can these all be real, I thought?

It’s easy to conclude that since you’ve found a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Or that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice, you find yourself thinking. Maybe the problem isn’t with all these other people. Maybe the problem is me.

Honestly, if you’re even thinking that then you’re probably not the problem. But as a scientist, when I read that around 2% of the population has NPD, but the proportion of significant figures in my life who had NPD appears to be more like 20% then I think there is something going on. And it is not perceptual set, it’s not me trying to overexplain my life with my new toy. It’s this. If we grew up with an abuser, we are primed for relationships with people who grew up in similar environments.

It can play out in different ways.

You can go straight back in for another dose of abuse, that’s the simplest way. You fall in love with someone with NPD – the initial love bombing makes you feel awesome for the first time in forever*, and then when it all goes sour and you’re walking on eggshells and fighting for crumbs of affection, it’s all so familiar that it’s hard to know when it all went wrong. You can find yourself in “friendships” with NPDs and wondering why they remind you so much of your mother and why it is that they have this knack for always saying the most hurtful thing at the most hurtful time, apparently by accident or for the best of intentions.

You can also find yourself making friends with other victims. I think there is just something in the demeanour, maybe the way we hold ourselves, the way we speak. I’m almost at the point where, when I make a new friend, I’m just waiting to be introduced to the overbearing father or the emotionally absent mother. It is so weird. Where are all the normal people? Do they walk among us, unnoticed

Do you know what happens to us when we find normal people? We don’t click. It doesn’t work. We find them boring, or we misread the signals. We mistake their directness for bluntness, we look for the hidden game and when we can’t find it, we assume it’s just more deeply hidden than we can see. We fuck it up.

I went out with a normal person really briefly, 20 years ago. She was lovely. We were young, we were a bit drunk, it was dark – these are the only reasons I can think that we got together, because how I would have had the courage to come onto someone so exotic and sophisticated and… happy, I don’t know.

We tried to date, but it was hopeless. I was sort of overwhelmed by all these feelings of “oh my god this might be the one who saves me, oh to be lifted ashore and live in the balmy warmth of your presence (come on act normal act normal)” and she’d be like “I notice you’re a bit quiet, is there anything wrong?” I actually ended up dumping her during one of these talks because I thought she was trying to dump me, and I thought it would be easier to anticipate her by doing it first. I think I was trying to be helpful. It just did not occur to me that she thought it could be worked on. I just thought she’d sussed me, that she’d seen me for what I really was. It was a confusing and difficult experience for both of us.

Anyway, the point, and there is one, is to say that when you learn about your own dysfunction and then see it all around you, trust your instinct**. It’s there. You’re not imagining it. We do attract people like us into our lives.

 

*If you have small daughters you might get this reference, and yes it was totally deliberate.

** You should just trust your instincts anyway. A feature of an abusive upbringing is being taught not to trust your instincts. In reality, gut reaction might not always be right but it’ll be right a damn sight more often than whatever fucked up scaffold of intellectualisation you put over your mess of childhood-programmed fear, obligation and guilt.

Parents were also children

I’m not talking about the cycle of abuse and forgiving your abusive parents and all that stuff. I mean sure. But not today.

No, what I mean is that I notice in some of the childhood abuse recovery literature that there’s a bit of a mismatch in what we expect off of parents and what we expect off of adult children – who also often become parents.

OK so now I’m going to be really unfair to my two favourite abuse recovery gurus and quote them out of context.

First here’s Richard Grannon talking eloquently about how we have to give ourselves access to the “negative” feelings of fear and anger if we want to heal from narcissistic abuse. I think this is brilliant and I can personally attest to the fact that it works. I used to get this thing where if I woke in the middle of the night I had about 50% chance I’d spend the rest of the night awake with my inner critic reviewing every major life choice of the last 20 years, and slagging them all off. It was like a kind of midnight feast of toxic shame and fear. Then one night I decided to follow the advice to sit with the feelings, so instead of trying to find solutions, to justify my decisions to myself, instead of spending my night anxiously jumping from one thought to another, I just lay there and felt the feelings. Shame, fear, regret – so much regret. It was sore. But it passed. And I haven’t had a night like that since. I don’t wake so often in the night, and when I do, I usually go straight back to sleep. So I know how important it is to feel your feelings even when they are negative.

Then there’s Pete Walker, in his book “The Tao of Fully Feeling”. He says at one point

children need a great deal of permission to explore their immediate environments… It is an awful state of affairs that so many mothers in our culture routinely arouse sympathy with the exasperated complaint “He’s into everything!” when they should instead be proudly exulting in their child’s wonderful sense of exploration.

I thought I could go round my house taking photos of my kids’ wonderful sense of exploration but we moved when they were three so I’ve only got the one.

IMG_20170503_143942799

IDK if you can make it out, but my kids were measuring themselves and marking their height on the wall like that bit off of Bing. I didn’t have the heart to tell them off and also I had no idea who did it so I just pretended I hadn’t seen it.

I mean obviously the house is also packed with great pictures of princesses and sparkly unicorns and awesome grinning frogs and dogs, and I love all that stuff. They’re having a star pony party right now (no idea) and the house rings with the sound of giggling singing voices. It’s great.

But it’s not always great. It is annoying when they empty an entire bottle of your favourite bath oil down the toilet, or walk straight out the door and through a big puddle and get soaked to the skin and you’re late for your work. And although you can be very switched on to the idea that you want your kids to express their emotions, your heart sinks when the emotion is AAAAAAARGH and you’re in the queue at Tescos. Add a bit of sleep deprivation and you’re basically talking actual torture. I mean, what the fuck?

It should be fine, it should be acceptable, to Pete Walker and everyone else, that I feel this way. Annoyance at my kids making a mess is an emotion like any other and I should be able to honour it, just as I honour my kids’ right to feel their emotions. If feeling the feels about my shitty childhood is good for me, why is feeling the feels about my trashed house so bad?

I definitely get the feeling that it’s a bit The Patriarchy – mothers are mothers, not people – so it is hard to think of them belonging to another category, that of adult children with feelings and parents and a childhood of their own. But I think it’s also to do with incomplete recovery and incomplete models of what other people are like.

There’s this thing you see on survivor websites where someone will go “there was this time when I was 9 that I made a pizza and I burnt it and then my dad knocked seven shades of shit out of me and locked me out the house, I put the oven on fan assisted but I set it to the non fan assisted temperature, my mother always said the oven fan didn’t really work but I guess it must have or maybe I put the pizza too high in the oven…” and so on and so on, tons and tons of stuff about whether or not they were to blame for the burnt pizza and you’re like “DUDE. It does not matter what you did or did not do to the pizza. The pizza is not the issue. There is NO good reason to knock seven shades of shit out of a nine year old.”

It’s like because we didn’t experience a normal childhood ourselves, we never learned what a normal childhood is, so we carry around this idealised view, a diametric opposite to our own experience. The kids are perfect, the parents are always perfectly pleased with them, and that’s why nobody ever gets slapped. This serves us well in the early stages of recovery, when we feel we need to justify whatever action we’re taking – NC, LC, simply breaking the dysfunctional family rule of “don’t talk about it” – we want to make the gap between normal and abusive childhood to be as wide as we can make it. After all, nobody put cigarettes out on us. There were never any broken bones.

But as recovery progresses, it should give way to a more realistic view of  childhood, with fewer expectations of everybody. Normal children do annoying shit. Normal parents get annoyed. But the key is that nobody gets abused. How does that work?

Well, clearly if you’ve never been abused, you don’t have that menu of abusive parenting techniques at your fingertips, which makes it easier. But for all parents, even the potential abusers like us (yep, there you go, I said it) there are healthy behaviours we can use to defuse irritation and anger. Like having a whinge to your friends. Pete Walker thinks that complaining about your kids makes you a worse parent. I think it makes you a better one. I think that demanding of yourself that you will constantly be delighted by your kids is far more likely to lead to abuse, because it’s not a toddler’s job to be constantly delightful, and if we expect it, we’re one step down the road to making them responsible for our feelings.

 

The five or so levels of lifetime codependency

I had this great idea for a blog post, I thought. The five levels of codependency recovery. Then a quick google put me back in my place. Lots of people thought of this already: you can already recover/succumb in three stages or four stages or even eight stages.

But reading those processes it felt like there was something missing. Maybe it’s just me. But they always seem to tell a story of a person – a woman – whose only sign of codependency is the shit relationships she gets into. The rest of life seems to go OK, only if she could just stop attracting the wrong sort of bloke. And then the recovery process focuses very much on copping on to how shit your current or most recent relationship was and focusing on how to manage your reactions next time, with the single goal of getting into a healthy relationship.

I don’t mean that stuff. I think that’s only half the story. Less than half. There’s a ton of other relationships we have to negotiate in our lives, including our relationship with our kids, ourselves and the things we own and the things we do. And if you were traumatised early enough, I think all of these can be affected. (Anyone else out there still apologising to the furniture when you bump into it?)

So here’s my 5 stages of “lifetime”codependency as opposed to individual relationship codependency. I think they might be aspects actually, as I’m sure these run in parallel. Oh anyway. Here are five things about codependency.

1: Let me atone for the sin of being alive

At this stage you’re still living hour to hour in the trauma. Your default emotions are guilt and fear. The only thing that assuages that is being useful – in your work, with other goals, or by helping other people. You’re uncomfortable with accepting compliments or help, only comfortable when you know you’ve been more helpful to others than they have been to you. You’re probably most comfortable with a job where the tasks are very well defined and you’re able to exceed expectations a lot of the time. You find it damned near impossible to enjoy your free time unless you’re doing something demanding or useful. And it’s not a narcissistic thing – you don’t want to show off, you just need to know you’ve got a store of worthy acts in the bag to earn you your place on this earth.

2: I’m going to be a better person, but don’t anybody feel threatened by that

I’ve put this as 2 because it happened to me when I was quite young. It’s that first inkling that, while you of course had the perfect upbringing and your parents are utterly blameless and when you were punished you deserved it and it’s just a reflection of how bad you are that you sometimes questioned how harsh the punishments were (I AM BEING SARCASTIC HERE, YOUR PARENTS WERE AWFUL, NOBODY SHOULD TREAT A KID LIKE THAT), perhaps there is a nicer way to live your life. So maybe you got really into religion or spirituality or environmentalism, and you found a community of people who tried to use non-violent communication, or had “progressive”, “hippy” (=kind) ideas about how to raise children. Or maybe you were gaslighted (gaslit? That sounds like someone was setting fire to your coat) so you embrace truth and rational thought and you end up becoming a scientist or a statistician or some other job where you regularly get to go “actually if you look at the data, it’s a bit more complicated than that”. The key with all of this is that it becomes your “thing”, your foible, and so it allows you to choose your own values without challenging your parents’ way of life. Which is a lovely thing, or at least it would be if your parents weren’t abusive nutters and your values weren’t TOTALLY STANDARD don’t-be-an-arsehole things like telling the truth and letting your kids choose their own clothes and stuff like that.

3: I’m going to be a good girl even if nobody else is

I think this is a move forward. This is the point where you realise that your relationships may be asymmetric, that your parents have not been nice, but you’re still wedded to the idea of being a good person, so you continue to give all that one-way help and patience. I did this for years with my mother, turned the other cheek to the nasty comments and the occasional dramas, listened to the hour long rants about disappointing family members, did all her little and not so little favours, didn’t think too much about why I could never ask for her help with anything, why I would be unwilling to risk even admitting to her that I needed help with something. I said nothing when my stuff disappeared when we stayed at her house, only to magically turn up again a few months later when I’d done something that pleased her. And so on. “I don’t have control over her behaviour, only my own,” I’d say. “I choose to stay in contact with her and deal with her bullshit so that I don’t have to feel guilty when she’s dead.” But it’s not much of a choice, is it, when you’re doing it to avoid feeling a guilt that your rational brain believes you shouldn’t have to feel? You’re still enslaved at this point, the shackles of guilt are still on you.

4: If I am an arsehole then so be it

This is getting a bit more stagey again. This definitely follows after 3. It’s what happens when you’re still feeling the guilt and perhaps mentally assenting to the idea that you should be feeling guilt, but you’re not willing to do the things to assuage the guilt any more. This is when 20 years of dieting goes up the spout and you gain 2 stone and you’re having cocktails on a Tuesday night because why not? It’s when you go NC with your abusers – probably not in any sort of preplanned way, and probably because of a final big thing that happens but because of some back breaking straw. (This is why estranged parent forums are full of people going “I just can’t understand why he would be so petty as to estrange from us because we wrote his ex-wife’s name on the Christmas card by mistake” and you know they’re thinking “yeah because when he was a little kid and he got bullied at school I’d take him home and beat the crap out of him for not standing up for himself, and he didn’t estrange for that, why the hell is he so upset about the Christmas card?”)

I think in this phase you just can’t be fucked any more, and all the rules go out the window. I reckon if you make a big enough mess of this stage you can probably go back in at about stage 1 again for another go on the merry go round, only this time with self esteem even lower because look what happened when you broke the rules? The key to surviving this stage is to start sorting out the rules that keep you safe from the bullshit rules that keep you shackled to people who don’t deserve your time. This is difficult, because it’s the same people taught you all these rules. You know? My mother taught me that the world is a scary place and that I’m so pathetically unacceptable that only a saintly martyr such as herself would ever really care for me, but she also taught me how to use a pelican crossing. So you have to start examining the rules on their own merits, or else you’ll end up either back in codependent hell or flattened on a level crossing.

5: I’m not perfectly good, or perfectly bad – I’m just normal, and that’s OK

Last stage. Lasts a lifetime. You start identifying the rules of life that you need to live by, the ones that keep you safe and healthy and get you the things that make you happy, and you reject the rules that were about keeping you cowed and compliant and afraid of shame. You start defining what your responsibilities are, and what sits with other people. You stop managing the emotions of adults.

This doesn’t stop the fear or the guilt, athough it puts a good dent in it. You come to the rational conclusion that you are just an ordinary person – neither shameful and unacceptable as you’ve been taught, nor the saintly superhuman you tried to be to keep the guilty feelings at bay. Then with a bit of luck, and a lot of recovery work, your feelings eventually catch up with your thoughts and you can live your life for the first time as no more and no less than a normal adult person.

Any day now. I have high hopes.

I’m going to assume that’s just a thing your face does on its own

I have a workplace superpower: I’m the Awkward Bastard Whisperer.

The first time I realised this was a talent of mine was when I was trying to introduce a new way of working to a team headed up by one of these charmers. He shouted all the way through our first meeting. He started off angry shouting because he couldn’t see the point of this new technology I was hawking, and he ended up enthusiastic shouting once he understood how useful it would be to his team. My boss was delighted, and rewarded me by giving me all the other awkward buggers to work with.

 

It was a skill that continued to be useful when I changed career. First month in my new job I got sent to attend a regular external telecon. One of those nightmare gigs where your boss wants “presence” at the meeting but you’re so junior in your own department that you’re not allowed to tell them anything, and so insignificant to the meeting attendees that you’re not allowed to ask anything either. So your impact is limited to passing the odd well-timed, apposite little gobbet of data along the table while the call is running, and maybe making an intelligent comment before or after the call connects. And the meeting chair has a habit of looking at you like you’re something she just scraped off her chair. Yet somehow, you manage to make friends or evince sympathy or something, to the point that she gives lovely feedback to your boss. And months after the calls are finished she still favours you with a smile in the corridor, an experience so terrifying that you can never quite put your finger on whether your fear is coming from worry that her face will break or whether it’s simply the racial memory of some small primate ancestor, looking up into the grinning maw of whatever pointy-teethed horror was about to bring its life to a premature end. Either way. It wasn’t an easy place to work. I’ll count it as a win.

So what’s my secret?

Dead easy. It’s a strategy I call “I’m going to assume that’s just a thing your face does on its own.” When someone sneers at me, shouts at me, makes passive-aggressive comments, or uses an unpleasant tone, I just pretend they’re basically nice people who have no control over their manner. Their face just does that. It’s not about me.

I mean, it’s probably rarely about me. Who the hell acts like that at work? Most of us have friends and loved ones who we can take all that stuff out on. No look I’m being facetious, but it’s kind of true – most of us can put up a bit of a mask of professionalism at work, be pleasant enough to people we might not ordinarily get on with, in order to get through the day. People who can’t manage that are either overinvested in their work because they have nothing else going on outside of it, or they’re so enslaved by the raging storm of whatever is going on in their heads that they don’t see or can’t control when they’re being unpleasant. Either way, they are not making themselves many work friends, and I can only imagine that it is a relief to them once to see a face not reacting with fear or anger.

It’s a rubbish superpower, though. I wish I didn’t have it. Sure it’s easy for me to read your  cues and see how to calm you down. It’s an absolute breeze for me to be afraid of your aggression, yet step to the one side of it and behave as though you were normal, I was normal, and we were all friends. Talk you off the ledge. Lead you back to normality. It preserved me throughout my childhood, it saved me lots of times. Pete Walker calls it the fawn response. I learned it before I knew how to speak.

Fuck you all, you awkward bastards. Do you know what you look like, when your face does that? Do you know what you sound like?

I’ve learned a new response to those people in the last few years. Turn 180 degrees; walk; keep walking. Sometimes my feet are doing it before my brain even knows what’s happening. It feels so good to let go of the responsibility of taking care of angry people. Our brains are trained to do it but in your heart you don’t want to, you can’t. fucking. be. arsed. Walk away one time, and it becomes so much easier to walk away the next time, and the next. This is a pattern your brain wants to learn. It feels good: let it feel good. Give in. You’ve done enough of this work for one lifetime.