No Longer Walking on Eggshells

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:

  • The presence of a perceived threat to one’s physical or psychological survival and the belief that the abuser would carry out the threat.
  • The presence of a perceived small kindness from the abuser to the victim
  • Isolation from perspectives other than those of the abuser
  • The perceived inability to escape the situation
  • 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.

    20130211-010800.jpgAh. 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

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    A Tale of Two Goats

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    If you ask half a dozen people the origin of the term “scapegoat”, one of them will likely know it’s from the Bible. What they probably won’t know is there are two goats in the story. God tells Moses to sacrifice two goats to atone for the sins of the people of Israel. As with any sacrifice, the goats had to be perfect, that is, without flaw or blemish. The Talmud stipulated the goats be as alike as possible in size, color and value.

    Each goat played an important role. Aaron, the priest, cast lots between the two. As a result one goat was chosen for God and the other goat became the scapegoat.

    The goat chosen for God was sacrificed as a sin offering. His throat was slit and his blood was carried into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place inside the tabernacle, and applied to the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, the altar, and to the tabernacle itself. This goat’s blood cleansed the house of God.

    But the other goat, the scapegoat, was presented live to God. Aaron put his hands on its head, confessed all the wrongdoings of the people of Israel over it, and then a man was selected to lead the goat out into the wilderness and release it. The scapegoat carried away the sins of the people.

    Note, the scapegoat was the goat that got out alive.

    I’m the other goat, the one whose blood was used to clean the house. In the standard list of family roles, the child who fullfills the role of “other goat” is known as The Hero  although I like  Trophy Daughter better. In public, the trophy child is the one parents hold up with pride as a shining example of their good parenting but in private, the trophy child sits on the family shelf, ignored and collecting dust.

    Jerri, my sister, is the goat who escaped but not before being blamed for everything wrong in our family.

    As kids, the two of us were so alike we were frequently mistaken as twins. Jerri was 18 months older but by the time I was two, I’d caught up in size. Add in our parents infinite wisdom in blessing us with rhyming names, and you get the picture: two goats, as similar as possible.

    I don’t know how the decision was made between the two of us, who to blame and who to clean house with. Those who study family systems say the decision is subconscious and can be based on any number of things. They also say the decision is made by the whole family and is not the choice of any single individual. But when I rewind my internal DVR, it seems Mom was the one always pointing the finger at Jerri. They are a lot alike and that would have worked in Jerri’s favor if Mom had a healthy self-image. You see where I’m going with this.

    As kids, Jerri could do nothing right. I, on the other hand, could do nothing wrong. She was constantly compared to me. According to Mom, I behaved better, slept better, ate better, made better grades, had more friends, more talent, more coordination, more maturity, and was more responsible. In other words, I was just more. Jerri was less. Jerri, quite naturally, hated me.

    Years ago, I ran across an old sketch book from high school and showed it to Dad who’s always had a bit of an artistic bent. Dad flipped through the drawings and said, “Your sister was the one who took all the art classes, but you were the one with the talent.” Waves of pride and then shame washed over me. That’s what its like to be the Trophy Daughter. You’ll do anything for your parent’s approval, even if it means your own sister has to be thrown under the bus.

    It didn’t surprise me to learn the scapegoat is usually the strongest one in the family. She has to be. Carrying the guilt for the entire family is a lot of hard work. The scapegoat is usually the one who first identifies the actual source of the negative family dynamics and pushes back. Because of her courage, she is first ostracized by the problem-causer and eventually, the entire family. Jerri pushed back with drugs, alcohol, sex, smoking, and suicide attempts. She was banished from our family at the age of 16. Eventually the scapegoating drove Jerri, quite literally, out of her mind.

    And what was the Trophy Daughter doing all this time? Why, cleansing the family name, of course. She was bringing home A’s and making the honor roll and the dean’s list. She was yearbook editor, homecoming candidate, stat girl for the basketball and soccer teams, and treasurer of the youth group. She was in the Pep club, the Chess club, and the marching band. She was graduating 11th in her high school class of 330 and earning a Presidential Scholarship to the college of her choice. And she was pretending that she was the goat who got to live.

    About five years ago, Jerri and I reconnected and instead of the addict I’d always been told she was, I found a woman struggling with mental illness and poverty and with little hope of maintaining stability long enough to get her life back.

    Now in our late forties, my sister and I are both trying to leave our old roles behind.

    What strikes me now, more than anything, is how our parent’s words defined us. Words are powerful. What we say to each other matters:

    A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! –The Message, James 3:3-5

    Jerri was told she would never succeed at anything. When she decided to take some classes at the community college nearby she was told, “Why are you going back to school? You’ll never finish. You never finish anything you start.” She has been unemployed the majority of her adult life and is barely scraping by on disability. I was told I could be anything I set my mind to. I went on to college, graduate school, and a career at a major pharmaceutical company. We started out the same, two goats equal in size, color, and value. We were not different; we were only told that we were.