An old family friend commented on one of my blogs about a week ago. He said that while he respected my memories of growing up, he didn’t recall the emotional abuse and neglect that I spoke of in my recent blog post. The only memories he could recall were of my being loved and respected by my family. Nor did he believe that my parents were anything but caring and nurturing. Besides being a covert challenge to my authenticity and the credibility of my memories, his comments did get me a little panicked about whether my abuse was “objectively true”. I questioned whether I could really trust my experiences of growing up in my family. The voice that whispers, “You’re fucking insane, man, and everyone else thinks this too” crept in. Could I be wrong? Could all those visits to psychiatric wards (both voluntary and involuntary), the suicide attempts, the confusion, the panic and shame attacks, the alienation and chronic fear of intimacy – could all that have been the result of some chemical imbalance, something unfixable, or inherently arbitrary? Could my parents have been as loving and nurturing as this friend of the family seems to recall?
I decided to delve deeper in to my memories. Perhaps my experiences of my dad insistently berating my mum for every damn thing she did wrong, insulting her intelligence and her dignity were not real memories, or at the very least were not real instances of domestic violence. Perhaps the memory of having to cover my ears to muffle the overwhelming booming sound of my father’s voice as he hurled insults at her and at us in the car trips to Sydney at the age of twelve didn’t really feel as though my fragile boundaries were being shattered. That even though I felt like a trapped rat in a cage with a cat, I couldn’t escape my family? That this feeling felt threatening to my very survival?
If the authenticity of all these experiences were subject to questioning, then maybe other memories were too. Shit, maybe I didn’t really have those thoughts of wanting to kill my dad when I heard him hit my mum in the other room, and maybe I didn’t really feel all that powerless when he would storm in to my room and proceed to hit me and my siblings too. Perhaps being whipped with a belt at the age of five was common practice, along with threats to “Shut up, or I’ll do it again!” Perhaps I developed an identical inner dialogue whenever I feel a similar feeling of distress out of nowhere, and perhaps I am intrinsically hostile towards myself for no apparent reason.
Still, I played devil’s advocate in my head, wanting to be sure that I’d covered all bases; there was still a chance that my family friend was not ignorant, and rather that he knew what he was talking about. Years of psychotherapy had imbued in me the sense that other people were the experts on my life, and that I couldn’t trust my own crazy mind. Doctor knows best. Such a dangerous mentality to foster. Nevertheless I thought to myself, ‘Even if such memories were that bad, maybe my parents were still nurturing, loving, and caring. After all, they’d provided a roof over my head and kept food in my belly. What was I complaining about? My basic needs were being met, and I wasn’t homeless. My basic needs were met…And besides, I turned out alright, right?
…Well, no, not exactly. I’m not saying that I’m a hopeless case – far from it. The best years are still to come I’m sure. But taking an honest inventory of one’s self means just that. In the last fifteen years I’ve: been hospitalised voluntarily and involuntarily; been called a liar and told to get over it by my father, stepmother, and extended family members; been victimized by the mental health system, by clinicians who told me to swallow pills that made me put on 15-20kgs, and that numbed my feelings of rage and grief – feelings that needed to be out rather than in – and when the pills didn’t work I was told that I was “treatment-resistant.” I’ve been chronically bullied in school systems by teachers and peers, chronically unemployed at times and underemployed all of the time, and I’ve been told that it’s “just depression and anxiety: the common cold of psychology.” Truth is, at face value I look like the guy with it all, though I’ve suffered chronic low self-esteem. Something’s amiss, surely.
Which begs the question again: Am I wrong to call a spade a spade just because someone calls it something else? Were my experiences not as bad as all that? And if they were that bad, perhaps there really is something inherently backward about me to not have “gotten over it” by now? Perhaps I really am treatment resistant? Hmm? Well?
…Well, the answer is Nah. As in Nah, fuck that. I am unequivocally right. I know what I experienced, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to entertain someone else’s denial or ignorance. Been there, done that, and got the t-shirt that says “It Doesn’t Work To Do It That Way.” Part of my recovery is to set internal boundaries, to stop listening to the people who try to instill in me, for their own personal or professional reasons, why I shouldn’t feel a certain way or question whether a certain thing really happened in my past. I see those people now as dead weight on the recovery journey. Because really, what do they know? Were they there? Can they really be so arrogant as to tell me what my reality was? What it is? Do they realise how ridiculous it sounds to tell someone that what they experienced didn’t happen the way that they remember?
I’m not sure. I’m powerless over others, but not over myself. Now, I start to recognise when someone is trying to deny my reality. I put my breaks on it as best I can. Though it’s rarely expressed as such, I am mindful of words people use like “ought to” and “should” to describe my recovery journey. When I share my reality, and when the response is a vague or sharply defined sense of ‘No’, I give myself permission to mobilise, to set standards for who’s worthy of my time and my reflection, and to walk the other way. That’s my right in recovery, because recovery is and always should be self-defined. Case closed.