A lot of what I have been processing in therapy over the last year and a half is my identity. Specifically, my identity without my family. If I don’t have them around to tell me who I’m supposed to be (and remind me of that over and over again) how do I know who I am? It has been challenging to pull apart what is genuinely “me” (“us”?) and what was built in by my parents.
I was talking about the way my parents molded their children to be a certain way. Some of that was based on who we were, naturally. They sorta expanded on what was already there, but made it even bigger (for their own benefit, not ours). I explained that they basically used our inherent characteristics to both build us up and then tear us back down again.
My older sister was valued for her academic performance. She was always the quiet “book smart” kid. She sailed through school and got into a top college. Once she actually went to college she did very poorly, much to everyone’s surprise. My parents’ response was to call her stupid and lazy and withdraw all support (financial and otherwise). She never recovered from that. Losing her identity as the “bright academic” destroyed her. Last time we discussed it, she mostly blamed me because that is around the time I initially went inpatient for suicidal ideation and eating disorder treatment. I missed her high school graduation because I was in a hospital. And all the attention I got for “being psycho” essentially stole her thunder.
I know she might think that’s true, but when she talks about it, she sounds exactly like my Mother. I told the therapist that I always wonder if my Mother didn’t plant that idea in her head – that I am the reason my sister’s life completely fell apart in college. The therapist sighed and rolled her eyes a bit. I gave her a questionable look and said,
“What? What’s wrong?”
“No it’s just…I’m so frustrated with your Mother.”
I chuckled a bit, but I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to. I wanted to just stay in that moment for a second. A lot of therapists have felt frustrated with my parents (among other things). Rather than just explicitly sharing that with me, however, they emote it all over the room. Since they’re nor explaining their emotions, I am left to make sense of them and (of course) I always assume it’s about me doing something wrong. It was glorious to have this woman just tell me that she was frustrated because my Mother is an actual horrible person.
Then I talked a little about how my brother was the star athlete and when he (rather predictably) sustained a shoulder injury in his senior year, his whole life came crashing down just as quickly as my older sister’s did when she flunked her classes. My parents didn’t have much use for a kid they couldn’t build trophy shelves for anymore.
As for me, I was their golden child. I had it all. I was intelligent, beautiful, talented, outgoing, and artistic. I excelled at every activity they put me in. Although my sister was the “smart” child, I was the one who was invited to join the educational program for “exceptional” children. My brother was the athlete, but I had my own trophies from dance and vocal competitions to match his swimming and baseball statues. Unlike either of my siblings, I was also artistic. So I had ribbons from art competitions and my parents littered the house with my various drawings, sculptures, and paintings. And although we were all fairly attractive, I was extraordinarily beautiful.
I was the perfect child until I wasn’t. Then I was the volatile, depressed teenager who was cutting up her arms and refusing to eat. So they tossed me in a psychiatric cage and threw away the fucking key. I told the therapist,
“I was everything to them. I was always their favorite. My siblings hated me for it. Here I was: smart, beautiful, talented. Everything they wanted. They praised me for it constantly. They were always bragging about me to everyone. But then…when I wasn’t those things…when I became ugly, fat, and crazy, I wasn’t gratifying enough to deserve even basic attention. When they couldn’t parade me around anymore, they forgot I existed. I was nothing to them. I was utterly disposable”
“Well that’s awful. But it’s not true. You are none of those things.”
I reacted very viscerally and only made this strange, strangled sound. It felt intensely uncomfortable to hear her say that. I couldn’t even speak. I just made fists and punched them into the seat cushion. I felt dizzy. Eventually she asked if I was okay.
“It is just really hard to hear something like that from you.”
“Ah. Well…more for us to work on then.”