No Longer Walking on EggshellsPosted: February 11, 2013
Have you ever had a word or phrase pop into your head so seemingly out of nowhere that you can’t get it off your mind? That happened to me a few weeks ago. I was responding to Cathy’s comment on So This is 2013 . . ., thinking about Dad, kind of shaking my head, wondering why he goes along with Mom even when she says something he knows isn’t true or does something to one of us that’s unwarranted, vindictive, or hurtful and BAM! There it was. Stockholm Syndrome. It kind of threw me because I’ve only ever heard the term applied to hostages–think Patty Hearst–who instead of trying to escape or fight back, actually bond with their captors and even help them. Bizarre, right? I mean Dad isn’t exactly a hostage. He was the breadwinner when we were growing up. Mom was dependent on him, not the other way around.
So I googled SS and discovered it can also apply in family relationships, where the mother or father (or anyone else in a position of authority) is extremely controlling or intimidating. You can read the complete article here.
Dr. Carver, the author, seems to use “controlling” and “abusive” interchangeably. That makes me slightly uncomfortable. There’s no question WHATSOEVER that Mom is controlling. When Mom wants something done, she means now and you better be in the middle of a bowel movement if you don’t intend to drop everything and comply. Hahaha, drop everything. I crack myself up.
But where was I? Oh, right. Controlling, absolutely, but abusive? Jerri says yes, Mom was abusive. I say, really? Because abusive is like battering women, beating and raping children, torturing prisoners. That’s not what happened to us. Granted, as kids, we were spanked frequently, often with a belt, but I don’t recall welts, bruises, or broken skin. I mean, no one ever pointed and asked “what the heck happened to you?” And spanking was, at the time, a socially acceptable form of child discipline. Growing up, I didn’t know any kids who WEREN’T spanked.
No, what we experienced was more of a psychological conditioning, an emotional penetration, the inflicting of someone else’s will on us and not for the purpose of growing us into better human beings. One blogger I follow uses the term “white collar abuse” which seems a little more palatable.
Dr. Carver describes four conditions that have to be present in order for Stockholm Syndrome to develop. These can be found in both hostage and abusive relationships:
I can only speculate on how these apply to Dad. But I know how they apply to Jerri and me. Because, yes, after reading the article, I believe Dad, me, Jerri, and my nephews and nieces who’ve been raised by my parents have all developed Stockholm Syndrome.
Perceived threat. That one is easy. Mom could fly into a rage with very little provocation and sometimes, none at all. She was unpredictable, like a volcano that isn’t even smoking and then spews a lava stream fifty feet into the air. She’d scream, jump up and down, totally lose all control. It didn’t matter if we had friends over or if we were in a restaurant or at the mall. It was incredibly embarrassing when it happened in public. Most spankings happened when Mom was in this state. Talk about terrified. We’d hide the belt before telling Mom something that might bring out the worst in her. I’d confess every possible thing I could think of, hoping to circumvent the rage. Jerri, on the other hand, was nonplussed. She refused to conform, even went out of her way, to defy Mom’s rules. I became a horrible tattletale because it didn’t seem to matter which of us, Jerri or me, committed the crime, we were both in trouble. I used to have this recurring nightmare where I would wander through the house and find Mom in the kitchen, at the stove or the sink with her back to me. I’d start chattering about my day and as Mom turned, I’d realize she was the wrong mother. Instead of Momma Jekyll, I’d see the face of Mother Hyde.
Small kindness perception. Dr. Carver states that in threatening and survival situations, we look for evidence of hope — a small sign that the situation may improve. Sometimes that sign is simply the controller not subjecting you to verbal or physical abuse in a situation when she normally would. My mother’s anger was anything but predictable. There were many times I expected her to explode and instead she’d be quite understanding. My relief was always tethered with confusion. Had I misread the signs? Maybe Mom wasn’t so bad after all. Maybe I was making the whole thing up.
Isolation from other perspectives. If there is one quote in the article that truly hits home, it’s this one:
In abusive and controlling relationships, the victim has the sense they are always “walking on eggshells” — fearful of saying or doing anything that might prompt a violent/intimidating outburst. For their survival, they begin to see the world through the abuser’s perspective. They begin to fix things that might prompt an outburst, act in ways they know makes the abuser happy, or avoid aspects of their own life that may prompt a problem.
Ah. Now we get to the crux of the matter. “Walking on eggshells” describes Dad’s behavior and I know all too well what that feels like. Funny how I always hated how controlling Mom was and yet I’d do my best to control her by trying to avoid any missteps that might set her off. For example, whenever I visited my parents, I would spend all of my time with Mom whether just keeping her company in the kitchen, antiquing, or running errands. I wanted to hang out with the nieces and nephews but knew if I did, Mom would feel neglected and that was a trigger. This explains, too, why we could all so easily make Jerri the scapegoat. Mom said our family issues were Jerri’s fault. We all knew better than to disagree with her. Devour or be devoured. That was the choice. I can see that now. Dad, like all of us, was, and is, simply trying to survive.
Perceived inability to escape. Obviously, as kids, we were trapped. Until we were old enough to get jobs or husbands to support us, it wasn’t perception; it was a fact. There really was no way out. Even after I moved out, Mom still tried to maintain control. For years, she encouraged me to divorce Stan. Without him, I would be more vulnerable; I would need her more. Mom has also found ways to keep everyone else on a leash. JM, Jerri’s youngest son, still lives with her and Jerri has to toe the line if she wants to be allowed to visit him. Mom wrote her daughters out of the will and made a point of informing the nieces and nephews the inheritance would be split among them–I suspect so they’d realize what is at stake should they ever decide to cross her. And Dad? Well guilt is a powerful motivator. I suspect one of the reasons Mom was so keen on getting custody of Jerri’s kids was to keep Dad ensnared. She’s told him Jerri’s addiction was caused by his drinking. If he’d been a better parent, Jerri would have been able to raise her own children. How could he live with the guilt of failing his grandchildren on top of failing his daughter?
Wow. Who would have thought it? As angry as I’ve been, as hurt and sad and torn about the rift with my parents, all things considered, I’m the lucky one. Of all my family, I’m the only one who is truly free.
Photo credit: bp6316 / Foter.com / CC BY