Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Big Shiny New Year: how a party about new beginnings set the tone for a spectacular collapse into depression

The last few months of 2013 were a horrible, terrifying slide into Major Depression. I tried all the tricks, followed my treatment plan, and still nothing. I wasn't eating, I wasn't smiling, I wasn't even able to laugh. It was pretty darn bad. So imagine my surprise when my friend P from church invited me to a dinner party on New Year's Day. He said no one would pressure me and I could hide in a corner if I wanted to, but that we would play games, and I would have fun. So, for the first time in my life, I went to a New Year's party. I was really looking forward to it!

We played a super hilarious game called Braggart (I think that was it, anyway) with cards where we made up stories and then stole the good bits of other people's stories. Everyone was so entertaining, and I had fun. I felt like I hadn't had the chance to even pretend to be happy in so long.

It was a very cold day, thirty below freezing or so, but the condo was toasty from cooking and company. While I was doubtless the boringest, wort guest ever (hello crippling depression), I was happy to be there. It was especially nice to be out of the house and away from my parents on the first day of the new year. New starts and all that.

As a thirty-year-old paying rent, I knew I had every right to go and and do whatever I wanted to do, even if I was still living with my parents. But, in some sort of bizarre quest not to be a total bitch, I did try to be considerate of them. So I told my mother that if I didn't call by the 9:00 train I'd be taking the last one of the night. I'd also arranged with a friend that if something went horribly wrong I could stay at his place. I had this shit under control.

Because I think it's rude to have telephone conversations while you're at a dinner party, I turned my phone off and left it in my bag by the door. To be honest, I also didn't want to risk having everyone find out that my mother still checks up on me - that my own family doesn't think I'm capable of running my own life, that my mother still treats me like a child. Even though I was sick, it's not like I didn't have my shit together on this one.

But I hadn't counted on my mother waking up at 10:00 pm and deciding it was too cold for me to walk home, and single-handedly scrapping my entire plan. She texted me a couple of times, and of course when I didn't answer because my phone was off, she started calling and leaving messages. Not one to be put off by the fact that I was obviously still having fun with my friends, and was an adult fully capable of taking care of myself, my mother put her detective skills to good use and somehow located the phone number of the place I'd gone. She then proceeded to call them and ask for me. The second I heard their phone ringing, I had this cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, and started feeling lightheaded and disconnected, like a deer caught in the headlights. I knew - I just knew - what was happening. And I so wasn't prepared to deal with it.

Once our host figured out that the person on the phone wanted to talk to me, he handed over the phone. It was obvious that he was as taken aback and embarrassed as I was. Since there was nowhere for anyone to go, everyone got to listen to my half of the conversation.

Like talking to a two-year-old, I kept my voice calm and level, speaking clearly and simply. I told my mother that everything was fine, and reminded her that I'd already told her about my plans and there was no need to be calling. But it was no use. My mother was already in a full-throttle fit, yelling at me that I should have answered my phone, and insisting that I had to take the metro home immediately so my father could pick me up in Laval and drive me home - it was absolutely too cold out for me to walk home from the train the way I'd planned. Never mind that I've spent my whole life weathering cold winters, or that I was capable of making my own decisions, or even that being a renter in my parents' home didn't give them the right to control my life. She'd made a decision and wasn't about to be mollified or dissuaded or derailed.

So I gave in. I 'okayed' and 'fined' until I finally got her off the damn phone. Then, of course, I had to explain to my hosts that I was leaving because if I didn't give in to my mother's irrational demands she'd be having a fit for hours - maybe even days - before I'd finally be able to calm her down. That I'd spent my whole life hostage to her moods and didn't know how to stop giving her what she wanted, even though I knew that just made things worse in the long run.

Everyone was incredibly nice about the situation, telling me that it was alright, but for me it absolutely wasn't.

I felt completely humiliated. My mother had embarrassed my in front of everyone by treating me like a child in public.  I felt ashamed that people knew that this is my family, this is my life, that I wasn't allowed to be a grown-up. I felt deeply ashamed at having allowed this to happen, at not having kept my phone on because I know how my mother is. As I bundled myself up and left I felt so small, and so hurt, knowing that my mother would do that to me just to make herself feel better, that she'd cost me a chance at friendship and that I'd probably never be invited over again (and, of course, I haven't been).

As I rode the metro, the shame started to fade and be replaced by anger. Rage, even. How could she do this to me? It was completely inappropriate! I felt so, so angry! By the time I got to Laval, this too had faded, and I just felt weary. Weary of the life I was living, of the way people treated me, of being depressed. When I got to the car, my brother was there, too, and it turned out that everyone in my family thought I was wrong and should have had my phone on, and needed to do what my mother said. I felt so betrayed: I felt like no one in my family ever protected me from anyone else in my family, and I was all alone. I wanted to cry.

The next day, I went to work and realized that someone had to make the first step in repairing this mess, since my mother had decided she was still pissed off and not speaking to me. On my way out of the office, I texted her to say that, while I understood her perspective, what she did was unacceptable and I wouldn't tolerate it, and that she was never to do that to me again. She totally flipped out, telling me that I  was the wrong one, and everyone knew it, but that I'd find a way to save face with my friends, probably by lying to them and saying that she had a serious mental illness.

I couldn't take it. I just couldn't. It was such a hurtful and personal attack. I saw that she didn't understand how I was feeling at all, and didn't want to. She didn't see that there were boundaries, and I apparently wasn't able to enforce them. I was so unhappy, and so sad, and I didn't want to go on struggling so hard against my pain for nothing, just to be shot down. So I went straight to the store and bought my favorite cutting knife. I hadn't owned a serious knife like this in years, intended only for this, to hurt myself, to open my skin, to cut myself wide, to end my life with precise incisions. I felt like, even in this, I was giving my control over to someone else, and I didn't know how to get it back. I just knew that this was one straw too many - one weight too much - and I couldn't stand against the tide anymore.

When I told a shorter version of this story in my DBT therapy group as an example of an invalidating environment, there was an audible intake of breath and one 'eiiigh' when I got to the part about my mother phoning the party host to make me come home. In the back of my mind I'd always been thinking that I'd overreacted, that the situation wasn't that bad and that, really, I was the one in the wrong; since I'd made a mistake, I deserved to be punished by being humiliated. Sharing this story, I felt for the first time that maybe the way my family treats me, and has treated me, is not okay. It's really not okay. And maybe it's not my fault. And maybe that makes it okay to stand up for myself.


  1. Not a fun way to end the evening at all. :( I can only imagine how you must have felt. It's interesting that you wrote about how hurt you felt that she would do that to you just to make herself feel better. She did have a plan for you that night that she believed was best and in her resoluteness and need to communicate it, she lost sight of your feelings. There may very well have been some anxiety on her end that she needed to appease. There was likely a genuine concern there too, but in her lack of perception, she was unable to see what you may have needed most: her trust. Trust in your ability to manage the situation, to take care of yourself, and even to reach out if you did need her.

    Being an adult living at home can definitely blur those boundary lines sometimes, I think. Independences one might have grown used to when alone can be challenged by parents who revert back to their roles of being the adults in charge, the ones to make the decisions, the ones meant to know best. The ones having to make calls based on reason rather than emotion. Sometimes what comes naturally - and just a family's dynamic in general - can be hard to break, and it can be challenging to find that place of equal ground or for parents to accept being spoken to in grown-up terms. Regardless of whether or not any of these factors played a role in her actions that day, they are not meant to be excuses. I don't believe you were in the wrong and I wish her own sense of what was best could have been put aside to better see your perspective. It sounds cliché, but maybe she needed to know how it made you feel and why it upset you so much. But it still wouldn't have been a guarantee for empathy.

    It can be really hard to feel invalidated by those closest to us. It can cut deeper and hurt more - more than any self-inflicted cut I imagine. I have thought a lot about the different ways in which we intentionally or unintentionally seek validation. As much as we may sometimes like to think that the way we feel is completely independent of our connection to others and/or their perceptions of us, I think much of our sense of self-worth or confidence is linked to these relationships. Strangely, the confirmation of our value doesn't always come from the people or in the forms we hope, want or need.
    In sharing your example of an invalidating environment, you were gifted with support and the validation that your feelings were justified. You were heard and understood and you were no longer made to feel alone. And it's no surprise this can matter so much and can often be enough to lift some of the burden.

    I don't think we were ever meant to go through life feeling alone or unvalued. I'd like to think we were made to give and receive love, to lift others and allow ourselves to be lifted. And that in this sense of togetherness, we find our true worth.

  2. There is a line between an appropriate parental response and going too far. If you had just gone off without a plan, your mother might have been justified in worrying. But even then, once she got ahold of you, and knew you were ok, that should be the end of it. In a situation where you have already spelled out your plans, there is no excuse for her behavior.

    What saddens me is that you worried that her actions would cost you a chance at friendship and future invitations, and that this proved true. But what bothers me most of all is that you have reinforced it with "of course, I haven't been", as if it is justifiable or understandable the friendship should be contingent on a healthy mental status. Friendship certainly shouldn't be contingent on your MOTHER'S mental stability! If I had been the host of the gathering, my reaction to the situation would be to invite you over MORE often, just to piss off your mother...but maybe I'm just overly spiteful...

  3. I learned this joke somewhere along the way in my own recovery

    Question: Why are parents so good an pressing one's "buttons"?

    Answer: Because they installed them.

    You can't control the avalanche of drama that comes tumbling out of the past when you get triggered by parental actions. There is a lifetime of history and memory there no one else can really understand. Only thing you can hope to control -- maybe not in the moment, maybe only later in reflection -- is how you react.

    The feeling of shame that comes up after you are triggered is something you can hope to control. True, someone else would have reacted to your mother in a different way, maybe a better way.

    BUT they are not her daughter and don't have that "button" which unleashes the avalanche of old drama, feelings, resentment, and awkwardness with her either.

    So, realize that first: You are not a freak for feeling like a freak ... so don't freak-out about that avalanche of old feelings that come up. It is not your fault. You are not a freak. So don't let yourself feel like one.

    That is step 1 to defusing the "button". You can't control her. (Lord knows you have tried!) But you can hope to get out ahead of the avalanche of emotions that come up. Watch how you react to those feelings. Don't let them spin into shame.

    Once the avalanche settles back into harmless snow once again, then (and only then) do you look to calmly work out with your mother about how she can be helpful in your recovery.

    Until then, learn to snowboard the avalanche ! It is going to happen. Can't stop that. But you can learn to navigate its course with some practice