Lightbulb moments

I’ve had a few lightbulb moments over the past couple of years; single thoughts and realisations that took my breath away. Sometimes they’ve been things I’d said out loud in some form or other but had never really accepted their truth. Sometimes they’ve been random thoughts and feelings pulled together suddenly into a coherent whole. 

I’ve given up all hope of ever being happy.

The first was when I decided to leave my marriage. After years of feeling miserable, isolated and inadequate, I had the single clear thought that I’d given up all hope of ever being happy. By making the daily choice to stay in a toxic, dysfunctional marriage, I was choosing a future where I could never be myself or believe that I could be content or happy. 

That thought was the first step towards my decision to leave. If it had just been that thought in isolation, I still might have stayed. I’ve been conditioned to believe my happiness is insignificant, so I probably would have accepted that and continued on. But that first clear thought was followed by the realisation that I was teaching my daughter that this was what she could expect from life too – that as long as her partner and children were happy, then her happiness was irrelevant. And I was teaching my sons that their happiness was the only relevant factor. I probably could have resigned myself to an unhappy life, but I couldn’t do it to them and their future partners. 

I am a victim.

After I left my marriage, I had several people direct me to support services for victims of domestic violence and abuse. Not church friends, of course, they all told me that I simply needed to pray more, read my Bible more, focus on being a better wife, and uphold the sanctity of my wedding vows. Friends from outside of the church, Centrelink staff, my new GP, a psychologist – they used the word victim. They said it with confidence. I shrank away from the reality of what that word meant for the longest time. 

Then one day, I had the clear thought “I am a victim”. The behaviour of others, outside my control, had negatively impacted my life and was continuing to negatively impact my life and cause me harm. I accepted that the word applied to me. It was strangely heartbreaking and liberating at the same time. It allowed me to stop blaming myself for so many things, but it created new pathways for blame and guilt and shame. It’s been a challenging thing to process. 

I have PTSD.

I’d been attending specialised trauma and PTSD counselling for months before this thought truly settled in my mind. I was walking through a shopping centre after a therapy session vaguely reflecting on what we’d discussed, particularly the mechanism of response attached to physical, emotional and mental triggers. Even though I’d used cPTSD (complex PTSD) to describe my reactions in discussions with others and even though it was something I had read about, discussed and thought about in relation to myself, I’d never really accepted that it belonged to me. I think I was somehow holding on to the belief that this was some passing phase of the recovery process with PTSD-ike reactions that I’d get over any day now. 

I have PTSD. I could have sat down in the middle of that shopping centre and wept when the thought appeared in my mind. I almost did. 

The actions of others, their choices and the priorities they’ve imposed on me – my ex, my parents, my church – have rewired my brain and created response pathways that continue to impact my life even though I’m created boundaries to protect myself from them. Other people have used emotional abuse to force me to be the person they wanted me to be, and it has caused me harm in a way that continues to echo through my life. 

Narcissitic abuse is intentional.

Last night, a random meme from a Facebook page for survivors of abuse that I follow popped up in my timeline. It appeared again this morning. It gave examples of behaviours as proof that narcissistic abusers know exactly what they’re doing, including the fact that they’re able to switch their abusive behaviours on and off depending on their audience, their abuse is victim and situation specific, and their tendency to gaslight the victim to convince them that the abuse never happened. 

I’ve acknowledged my ex was and is abusive. I can describe behaviours that have clearly been emotionally and mentally manipulative and harmful. I have pages of examples of harmful behaviour towards myself and the children since the separation, and could write dozens of more pages about things that happened during our marriage. I can now clearly see how abusive the relationship was in a way that I never could when I was with him.

But despite that, despite all that he’s done and all the ways he’s blamed me for the consequences of his decisions, all the times he’s denied things that the children and I have observed to be true, all the ways he’s chosen to inflict pain and attempt to control me, some small part of my brain resisted believing that it was intentional. He’s emotionally immature, self-absorbed, socially awkward, thoughtless – all these things could result in similar behaviours, couldn’t they?

Narcissistic abuse is intentional. He chose the time and place for his abuse and it was never in front of others (although they may have thought he was a little awkward or weird). He never accepted responsibility for anything, ever. In 22 years of marriage, he never apologised for anything. Not once. My feelings were ignored or, worse, I was told I was feeling the wrong things and should adjust my responses. He treated me with no respect – emotionally or physically – while attending men’s Bible studies and support groups that focused on respecting women and rejecting inappropriate sexualisation of women. I baked for those damn meetings, so that he could look like someone with a wonderful relationship. I facilitated the image he wanted others to have of him, while in the privacy of our home he undermined my image of myself until I believed I was completely inadequate. 

My ex-husband chose to treat me badly. He chose to behave in a way that damaged me in order to build up the image of himself he wanted others to believe (and that he already believed was true). He was abusive by choice. He gaslighted me constantly – it was always my fault, I always misunderstood, I was always being unreasonable. Forgotten birthdays? Never once reading anything I wrote including books I had published? Unwanted physical contact? Never using my name, ever, even though I said I hated the nickname he used for me constantly. The fact that those things and so many more upset me were my fault. Always. Now be a good girl and pull yourself together so we can go and play happy families at church and everyone can see how good our life is. 

That’s been the lightbulb moment of the past 24 hours and I still feel sick at the thought of it. How does someone do that to someone else? To someone they profess to love? How can someone put so much effort into creating a fake image for others only to erode the foundation of that image in the privacy of their home, on purpose not by accident. How did I ever think his abuse was unintentional? Why do I still buy in to his distorted view of who I was. And who I am. 

As awful as this latest lightbulb moment is, I’m hoping that like the previous realisations it indicates a step towards healing and away from the trauma of the past. But for the moment, it hurts and I feel betrayed and angry and weak and devastated that my story includes decades of prioritising the happiness of someone who not only never prioritised my happiness, but actively discouraged it.

The trouble with lightbulb moments is that they make you aware of just how dark things were before the light came on. 

Respite Care

I’m revisiting significant memories from my past. My therapist wants me to think about the messages I’ve been subconsciously given about myself through the things I’ve experienced. I’m hoping to gain some understanding of how I ever reached the point where I became invisible. This is part of my backstory.

I lived with my maternal grandmother while I completed my Year 12 Trial HSC and HSC exams.

My mother organised with my grandmother for me to stay with her for the week prior to each exam period and the 2 – 3 weeks of the exams.

My grandmother set up a desk for me in the middle of her sewing room. I remember the bright light and the view of the backyard. I remember the reassuring calmness. 

I remember mealtimes and snacks. My grandmother baked for me – rock cakes and biscuits and cakes and random treats. She made me corn relish dip which I ate with Jatz crackers while I studied. The creamy tangy taste of corn relish dip triggers memories of that study room even now, thirty years later. I remember dinner with my grandmother sitting at her kitchen bench. I remember her preparing the table for breakfast each night before she went to bed, placing a cloth over the plates and cutlery so that all we had to do the next morning was remove the cloth and prepare the food. 

I remember the mantle clock that sat on the end of the bench against the wall, with its dark wood and fake marble columns (two on one side, one on the other, with the key to wind the clock sitting in the empty space left by the missing column). The clock had been an engagement or wedding gift to my grandparents from my grandfather’s mother. While he was alive, my grandfather wound the clock regularly and it ran perfectly. After he died, my grandmother wound the clock and it never kept proper time. She said it was because her mother-in-law had never liked her. We eventually found out it was because the clock had always been close to the stove top and a layer of grease and grit had built up inside that affected the mechanism, but the vengeful mother-in-law creating havoc from beyond the grave was always my favourite explanation. 

I took breaks from my study each day. I spent time chatting with my grandmother over cups of tea. I went grocery shopping with her and sat with her watching TV. I helped her wash up and helped her bake. 

I played my grandmother’s piano, the one she’d had since she was a young girl that her arthritic hands didn’t allow her to play any more. I played some of my own music and a selection of my grandmother’s music; a mix of classical pieces, show tunes, and family favourites from the 50s and 60s.

I wandered to the other end of the block where a boy from my grade lived and we’d watch a movie or chat for a while until it was time for me to wander back home for dinner. I remember him ringing me the day before our English HSC to ask if I had copies of the poems we were meant to be studying because he couldn’t find his and figured he probably should read them at least once before the test. I remember us quizzing each other on chemical reactions and mathematical formulae on the bus on the way to school for exams. 

Those weeks with my grandmother remain strong in my memory – the chiming of the grandfather clock in the hallway, the bright light, the smell of freshly baked treats and the sunlight soap my grandmother used when she washed up. Conversations. The yellowed piano keys under my fingers and the rattle of the various ornaments on top of the piano when I played too enthusiastically. A sense of peace and belonging. 

And here are the things I didn’t say…

My mother organised for me to stay with my grandmother because the school had flagged me as a student requiring support. I was a high achiever whose marks were in dropping and my maths teacher informed the school when she noticed I was struggling during my mid-year exam. The school counsellor talked with me about my studies and my home life, and made arrangements for me to have a placement with a family so I could focus on my studies without the emotional distractions present at home. I’m not sure what conversations the school had with my mother, but the ones I had with her about it were not pleasant. I was informed that the arrangements was unnecessary and would not be pursued or discussed. I was distraught. Arrangements were made for me to stay with my grandmother as a compromise. I can’t remember what role my father played in any of this. Our relationship was barely functional at that point. I wonder how much my mother shared with him about what the school told her. 

I remember a conversation with the boy down the street one afternoon as I was getting organised to go back to my grandmother’s house. I don’t remember what comment he made, but I remember crying and lashing out to tell him how thoughtless he was. It was something about me going home to my parents and the thought made me panic. I’m not sure if I ever apologised. I hope I did. I enjoyed our conversations and he was part of the overall feeling of being in a safe space that I experienced during those weeks, although that was possibly just a reflection of how my grandmother made me feel, or perhaps that the feeling of safety she gave me made it possible for me to feel more relaxed with others too. 

I don’t think I ever thanked the teacher who flagged me as needing support either. She was one of my favourite teachers and I loved being part of her class. I wish I’d been able to admit to her at the time how much her help meant to me, although a combination of teenage self-self-absorption and the chaos at home meant I wasn’t really thinking clearly enough to show gratitude. I do wish someone had pointed out to me that I turned 18 during my Trial HSC. I assume I could have made decisions about my care independent of my mother’s choices so that the teacher’s intervention could have been more meaningful. Sadly that didn’t happen. 

I have my grandmother’s piano and her sheet music. They are triggers for wonderful memories of shared conversations and musical connections. They are possessions I treasure and when I play, I feel a sense of connection with her and all she meant to me.

I’ve realised recently that I’ve never really had a safe space. I have safe people. For the longest time, my grandmother was my only safe person. She was the bedrock of my life. Being near her made me feel connected and cared for. She treated me like I mattered, made me feel welcome and loved, and was a steady, calming presence. She’s been gone for 17 years and I still feel a dull ache of grief at times when I realise she isn’t there to talk to. I’ve missed her practical, calming presence acutely during the trauma of the past few years.

I don’t think I ever thanked my grandmother for what she gave me during those weeks, and throughout my life in general. I wish I could tell her now how much I love her and how my memories of her are amongst the best I have. Memories of moments shared with my grandmother throughout my childhood are warm, happy thoughts, and those weeks in particular remain a strong memory of love and connection and calm. Staying with my grandmother during those exams was like a respite from my life. 

A Married Single Parent

I’m revisiting significant memories from my past. My therapist wants me to think about the messages I’ve been subconsciously given about myself through the things I’ve experienced. I’m hoping to gain some understanding of how I ever reached the point where I became invisible. This is part of my backstory.

I haven’t spent many nights away from my children (although they’ve had plenty of nights away from me at sleepovers, school camps, etc). Excluding a few days in hospital after the birth of each child and a few small overnight trips with only one, I’ve pretty much always been at home for them. 

The reality is that managing the logistics for being away from them was always so draining it was less exhausting to stay home. It wasn’t about separation anxiety (mine or theirs). It was because unable to rely on their father noticing or responding to any needs that didn’t coincide with his own. A case in point: 

When my children were 7, 10 and 12, I organised a night away for myself. I travelled a few hours from home with two friends to get our old lady groove on at a Hall & Oates concert. I checked with my then husband (The Ex) before buying tickets (months in advance) and he said it would be fine.

As the date grew closer, I reminded The Ex that I’d be away overnight. He hadn’t made note of the date and seemed surprised. He quietly made it clear that it would be inconvenient but he’d be willing to help, provided I had everything organised in advance before I left. He’d have to care for the children and supervise care of our pet guinea pigs for just over 24 hours – I’d take the kids to school and then get home in time to collect them the following afternoon.

In the final week before the concert, The Ex informed me that he hadn’t realised it was this week and his work commitments would make it too hard for him to manage things with the children. He couldn’t finish work early to collect them from school. I organised for my mother to pick up the children, spend the afternoon with them and prepare dinner. The Ex was in charge of bedtime and getting the kids to school the following morning. I’d left lists on the fridge regarding pet care, school morning prep, and various other significant details like bedtimes, school hours, GP phone number, etc. The kids were also assigned responsibilities.

I left home enthusiastic about 36 hours where I was responsible for no-one but myself. In theory. 

The trip was great – a French film, dinner in Chinatown, a great concert and interesting conversation. And then…

As I woke the following morning I received two text messages almost simultaneously. One from my older son letting me know that my younger son’s favourite guinea pig (Mojo) had died during the night, then one from The Ex stating ‘It appears we’ve had a death in the family’ before following up with a brief explanation. I rang the house. My older son answered. 

He explained that Mojo had been found dead in the guinea pig cage that morning with the other guinea pig quite distressed, attempting to feed her lettuce to revive her. I asked if his younger brother, our ‘Guinea Pig Whisperer’, knew yet. He said no, he was still eating breakfast but was talking about how he would feed the guinea pigs before he finished getting ready for school. I asked to speak with The Ex. 

I asked how he planned to deal with the situation. He explained he was busy making lunches and couldn’t do anything about it straight away. I said that it was important that our son be told before he discovered the body for himself. The Ex said he’d get to it, but he really needed to concentrate on getting the lunches made and other things organised for school and work. I asked for the phone to be given back to the 12yo. 

Following my instructions, my son sat on the lounge holding his younger brother while over the phone, hours away from being able to hold him myself, I explained that his beloved Mojo had died. With his older brother’s arms around him and my voice in his ear, he cried. My heart broke. 

I comforted him as best I could, and then spoke with my older son again and with my daughter. I guess I spoke with The Ex again. Or maybe not. I hung up and felt the full impact of knowing my children were dealing with one of the significant emotional milestones of childhood on their own.

On the bus on the way to school a little while later, my older son called me with an update and to ask for the phone number for his younger siblings’ school. He took the initiative of calling the office and asking for their classroom teachers to be told they’d had an upsetting morning and might need some extra care during the day. I was so proud of his thoughtfulness and maturity.

At school pick up that afternoon, the younger children started crying as they climbed into the car. I leaned across to hug my daughter, who said it was the first comfort she’d received; that she’d had no hug or sympathy for her grief at home. I’d been so focused on encouraging my older son to comfort his younger brother that I’d forgotten to suggest he hug his sister as well. I felt awful, compounding the guilt caused by my absence at such an upsetting moment for them.

This is not an isolated example. This is how I lived my life – as a married single parent, responsible for everything and everyone, always. I had full responsibility for the emotional wellbeing of three children and almost 100% of the physical, logistical and decision-making responsibilities as well. The only aspects of the children’s lives that The Ex noticed were the ones that coincided with his own needs. I created the image of the family he wanted others to believe we had. He believed it was real. I did such a good job that even I believed it for the longest time, until I was so damn tired I couldn’t do it any more.

My 7yo son lost his beloved pet.

My 10yo daughter was upset and unnoticed.

My 12yo son was sad, but held his brother while he heard the news and did what he could to care for his siblings. 

I broke my son’s heart by telling him his pet had died, offered words of comfort to the children, and organised the preliminary logistics of dealing with the death of a pet while 180km away. I felt guilty and worried and heartbroken for my children and their loss. 

Their father made their lunches. 

Exhaustion by a Thousand Thoughts

Exhaustion by a thousand thoughts – it’s like death by a thousand cuts, but inside my head. 

There’s all the surface thoughts. They’re continuous and the usual mix of good and bad. They’re tiring, but not exhausting and they’re often little more than a vaguely annoying buzz in the back of my mind while I’m focused on other things. 

There’s the thought loops. These are often also in the background. Upsetting, rather than vaguely annoying. Demoralising. They’re the thoughts that take all the positive minor thoughts hostage by reminding me of all the things I’ve been conditioned to believe about myself – I’m not good enough, I’m inadequate, and I’m a disappointment. Everything is my fault and everything is my responsibility. Who I am and what I feel is unimportant. These thoughts are so familiar I’m not sure could call them exhausting either. They just are.

There’s the thoughts I consciously take hostage myself. Opinions, suggestions, thoughts about what I feel, what I want, how I want things to change. Those thoughts aren’t exhausting, but the constant monitoring to make sure I don’t inflict my needs on someone else is. Not that it always works. Those opinions, suggestions, complaints and requests sneak out anyway. And then there’s the wave of self recriminating thoughts that follow those breaches. They’re exhausting too. 

The most exhausting thoughts, the ones that wear me down, are the ones where I’m constantly debating with myself. Constantly reminding myself that it’s okay to want things, to be myself, to make mistakes, to let go of feeling responsible for every one and every thing. The thoughts where I’m reminding myself that my life is good and that I’m so very lucky to love and be loved in the way that I am, that it’s okay to believe that will last. The ones where I’m trying to convince myself that I’m safe now. That I can be myself. 

The thoughts where I’m trying to work out who I actually am and what I want for myself after so many years of prioritising the happiness of others ahead of my own. Instead of my own. Those thoughts are beyond exhausting. They’re a mix of frightening and overwhelming. And they make me sad because I never have any answers. 

Most days I’m okay. There’s a kind of fragile balance. Other days I’m good. My life is genuinely wonderful and I’m exceptionally grateful for all that I have.

And other days, something happens to shift the balance and I don’t have the energy to put forward all those arguments for why I love my life so much. I feel weak and broken and selfish and needy and so incapable of ever getting to the point where the reality of my life isn’t in conflict with all the things I tell myself inside my head. 

So today I will just accept that I am exhausted. Tomorrow is another day where hopefully the fragile balance will be back in place. 

A Tale of Two Grandmothers

I’m revisiting significant memories from my past. My therapist wants me to think about the messages I’ve been subconsciously given about myself through the things I’ve experienced. I’m hoping to gain some understanding of how I ever reached the point where I became invisible. This is part of my backstory.

When I was young (I’m not sure how young, pre-school aged, I guess), I was apparently in a bakery with my mother. The bakery was on the main road in the suburb where my paternal grandmother lived.

According to my mother, she and I were standing in line to be served at the bakery when my grandmother walked in, pushed in front of us so she would be served ahead of us, then left without acknowledging my mother or me. She apparently saw us as she was driving past with her partner, made him stop the car, and deliberately came into the shop to ignore and inconvenience her daughter-in-law before leaving without a word.

I can picture the bakery – where it was positioned on the street and the long glass display counter  filled with all the traditional 70s bakery treats. I have a hazy sense of random people and a wire display rack with loaves of bread within the store filling the space and providing a backdrop for our little family drama.

My memories of the store are an amalgam of multiple visits and probably multiple similar stores, not an accurate backdrop for that specific memory. To be honest, I have absolutely no memory of that event at all. I know that my ‘recollection’ is based entirely on my mother sharing the story multiple times over years. There has never been a spark of personal recognition when she’s told it to me, other than the familiarity of hearing her voice shape the words. 

The story always ended with my mother reminding me that my grandmother’s behaviour was unnecessarily cruel and selfish. My grandmother and parents were apparently at odds about some issue at the time, but to ignore your own grandchild because you are unhappy with their parents was, in my mother’s view, unforgivable.

In the past when I’ve randomly thought about this anecdote, the mental and emotional pathways have been reasonably linear. It’s a memory from my childhood where my grandmother was mean to my mother in my presence. There are no associated emotions. It’s consistent with what I know about my grandmother, but I don’t remember feeling hurt or rejected at the time (because I don’t remember it at all), so it’s not really a factor in how I feel about my grandmother except in a purely academic sense of being another (small) facet of the picture of her that I have in my mind. 

The reality is that this story isn’t really about my grandmother, it’s about my mother. I have no memory of this event, but I have strong memories of my mother sharing it with me – repeating it to me over and over. I have clear memories of my mother using this story as an example of how difficult my grandmother was and how inappropriately conditional her love was, that she reserved her affection for those who made choices she approved of and that she was superficial and inconsistent in the way she demonstrated her love.

And that fact – that this memory says more about my connection with my mother than with my grandmother – means that this is no longer a linear family anecdote, mentally or emotionally. 

I’ve wondered at times about the details of this particular story, although when it comes down to it the details don’t really matter. It doesn’t even matter if it actually happened because I don’t remember it and so nothing I’ve ever heard about it has been about explaining my perception of things. It’s always been about creating a memory, not explaining it or providing reassurance. (ETA: extended family has confirmed that it did happen and it was something my grandmother bragged about doing after the event.)

Taking that into account, why would my mother share this story with me so frequently that it’s become a pseudo-memory that feels like it belongs to me when it really belongs to her? What was there for her to gain in demonstrating to me that my grandmother didn’t care about my feelings? Why would she choose to remind me that I’d been rejected by someone I should have been able to trust unconditionally? If my grandmother’s behaviour was so hurtful and inappropriate, why did my mother put so much effort into making me relive a hurtful moment?

Perhaps she felt she was helping to protect me from my grandmother’s inconsistency – forewarned is forearmed, so the saying goes, and what better warning than a real-life example of her selfishness? That doesn’t explain why she continued to share the story with me into my adulthood, however, and well beyond my grandmother’s death. What protection would I need from her at that point? And I was always encouraged to spend time with my grandmother and to show affection towards her. I was encouraged to stay with her in school holidays and visit her regularly on my own as I grew older, so why encourage me to do that while giving me reasons to keep my distance?

I have several pseudo-memories like this one and as far as I’m aware, my mother hasn’t bombarded either of my sisters with hurtful memories from her life or their childhood. Why was I the one selected to hear my mother’s memories of hurts inflicted by others and reminders of how many times I’ve personally hurt and disappointed her?

And more relevant to my life now, why did my mother put so much effort into passing judgement on my grandmother’s lack of love and concern for her grandchild when she’s distanced herself from my children because she’s so disappointed in the way I managed my separation and divorce? Barely any contact with the children for the first 18 months of the separation and nothing for the past 12 months – no cards or texts for Christmas or their birthdays. She’s even moved to a different town without letting them know or making any effort to contact them, even though they’re all in their teens and she has their phone numbers. By her own standards, her rejection has been heartless and inexcusable and my children will remember not because I embed a pseudo-memory for them, but because they are all old enough to understand that their grandmother rejected them for no reason at a time when they most needed her support and unconditional love. 

In many ways it’s an innocuous anecdote and as memories from my childhood go, this one is far less traumatic than many others. For me, the significance is how it contributes to my growing awareness that my mother’s baseline for choosing right and wrong behaviour is how it makes her feel. It’s a skewed way of looking at the world and it’s given me a lot to think about as I look back over my relationship with her.

Decisions and Expectations

I have, at various times in my life, been quite fit. I’ve had gym memberships I’ve actually used and at one stage even walked to the gym a couple of mornings a week, worked out for half an hour, then walked home in time to get ready for work. I’ve enjoyed bike riding and walking for exercise and pleasure. I even took dressage riding lessons for a year or so. I’ve gone to fitness classes and I’ve worked out at home.

I have also, at various times in my life, been quite unfit. I was a child of average weight who became a teenager of more than average weight in a family of significantly more than average weight. In my early 20s I was seriously under average weight for a period of time.

None of that is particularly remarkable, except to demonstrate that I’ve had the usual range of fitness experiences including fluctuations in weight and varying interest in exercise. I’ve always found focused exercise mindlessly boring, but not stressful – simply a necessary evil to ensure I don’t head down the same path as most of my family.

In theory, that should mean that exercise is a non-issue. I’m currently not happy with my general fitness and weight, exercise produces lovely endorphins to help counteract some of the less happy stuff circling in my brain, and I have a track record of finding regular exercise useful and achievable (if uninspiring). It should be a no brainer. 

But recently, when my husband returned from a run and was talking about his fitness goals, the app he’s using to track his stats, and his plans to regularly join one of the local Park Run groups, the fluttery ache in my chest became more pronounced and my thoughts started to spiral. I could feel my heart rate accelerate.

The train of thought that triggered the anxiety quickly progressed from thinking about exercising with my husband to thinking about how that would involve tracking goals and stats, to feeling completely overwhelmed by the knowledge that I’d never be able to keep up and I’d just slow him down. I felt irrationally pressured to have stats worth tracking. And I was already bracing myself for my husband to be disappointed that I’m not fitter and more interested in running (which he loves) and feeling a sense of abandonment because this would something he would pursue without me. [Those negative thoughts are all a reflection of the mess in my head, not anything he’s said or done.]

By the end I was feeling teary and anxious and frustrated that the thought of exercising (or more specifically someone else exercising) could derail me so quickly, when it’s something I’ve done in the past with so little effort. It’s an overwhelming irony that I seemed to cope so much better with life when my life was so much worse. 

But the anxiety isn’t about the exercise, of course. it’s about the dysfunctional assumptions about  implied goals and targets and expectations. All the expectations of what I should be able to achieve and how I should be prioritising this over something else. The expectation that I should be able to make decisions and follow through without everything becoming some kind of existential crisis. All the things I should do and be and think, that I never manage to achieve. All the ways I think I disappoint people. 

A lifetime of failing to live up to the expectations of my parents and ex-husband and an awareness from my earliest memories of what I should be doing means that just the thought of setting fitness goals made me panic. I felt useless and like a failure before I even started. 

I have a friend who has deal with some tough times by setting herself fitness goals and focusing on achieving them. She’s explained it as something that’s completely independent of others – she sets her own targets, pushes herself to achieve them, then sets the next goal. She doesn’t have to rely on anyone else and she gets the satisfaction of knowing that she’s achieved something by herself, for herself. It’s an empowering thought and I can understand the appeal for her.

But it’s hard to shake a lifetime of being told implicitly and explicitly that my focus should be helping others achieve their goals, or achieving the goals set for me by others. Pushing past those well established mental and emotional barriers is painful and exhausting, as ridiculous as that sounds.

I should be able to push past this – I know exercise and fitness is something I need to prioritise. And if this was the only decision where I was battling my expectation trauma response, then maybe I would find it easier to force myself past the initial resistance. But it isn’t the only decision. I fight this battle dozens of times each day at home and work. I’m exhausted by the constant need to review each emotion and thought to ensure they aren’t shadows of my past rather than a reflection of my present. 

Exercise. Social commitments. Music choice. Work. Parenting. Relaxation time. Family priorities. Writing. Health. Hobbies. Everyday life. The decisions each day seem endless and most of them involve effort to override the anxious thought that whatever I decide, the decision will be the wrong one. 

I’m counting it as progress that I can think this through and recognise the dysfunctional thought patterns. I was able to continue to function after the conversation with my husband, where previously the thought loops would have gained momentum and the rest of my evening would have been lost to panic and damage control.

I’m getting better, I think. It’s slow and painful and exhausting, but I’m hoping that these tiny steps forward will gradually gain momentum. Until then, I’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other (but won’t be tracking my step count).

When Getting Better Means Feeling Worse

I wonder sometimes why I feel so anxious now, when my life now is so much safer and I’m surrounded by so much love and acceptance. I don’t remember feeling anxious ‘before’, when I felt so sad and lonely and insignificant so often. I don’t remember having to talk myself out of panic attacks or even having panic attacks. I don’t remember a constant fluttery ache in my chest or being self-conscious about joining conversations, or avoiding certain places or people or songs or words because I knew the emotions they triggered would feel overwhelming. I would never have described myself as anxious. 

I do remember attempting to get support for depression on multiple occasions. I tried different medications (which resulted in unbearable side effects). I went to several different psychologists over the years, who focused on encouraging me to find ways to take care of and prioritise myself as a way of counteracting my feelings of sadness and lack of energy. I consulted with my pastors and church elders, who recommended prayer, a heart of service and humility, reading the Bible, and focusing on being a better wife and mother. 

I felt sad and overwhelmed and, at times, hopeless, but not anxious. Outwardly I maintained the facade of a happy if tired stay-at-home mother busy with children, volunteer work and hobbies, raising three wonderful children, supporting my busy professional husband, and trying to be an active part of my extended family, church, and school community. Inwardly, I was exhausted and emotionally depleted. Maybe people noticed that, but I don’t think so. If they did, very few cared enough to do anything about it, so that’s pretty much the same as not noticing, right?

While I was undeniably depressed throughout my marriage, I think the depression was a symptom of a bigger problem. I think I felt sad and trapped and inadequate beyond the ability of my brain to process those feelings and that presented as depression. I wasn’t depressed, I was distraught. And abused.

It’s almost three years since I left that marriage. It’s just over a year since the last time I had to talk to the police to report harassment and intimidation from my ex. Almost one year since his most recent openly expressed harassing demands, delivered via his lawyer with the threat of legal action. (More subtle acts of intimidation and emotional manipulation continue.) More than 18 months since my last conversation with my mother (which lasted less than two minutes) and ranting text message from my father. One year since I wrote my parents a letter saying that their ongoing indifference to me and my children and support of my ex meant that I was choosing to no longer include them in my life.

It’s been thirteen months since I commenced trauma/C-PTSD therapy with an incredibly helpful supportive therapist, attending sessions on an almost weekly basis to find ways to understand and counteract the coping mechanisms and conditioned behaviours of a lifetime of emotional neglect and abuse. And it’s been just over a year since I married a man who reminds me daily that I am loved and valued and safe and who always treats me like I matter. Always. 

My children are safe and happy. I’m surrounded daily by people I love. I have a good job working for a man I respect, and I am slowly, slowly regaining the ability to connect with people and with words. I have everything I need, and more. 

Yet the fluttering ache of anxiety in my chest remains a constant companion. I often start the day slowly, not because I struggle to wake up, but because I have to give myself a pep talk to convince myself that I can cope with whatever the day might bring my way. That I’m not useless and inadequate and vulnerable. That I’m safe.

It has surprised me that even though I am in such a safe and happy place, that the anxiety still feels so intense. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that anxiety isn’t a reaction to my environment (as the depression was), but it is now part of who I am. Maybe I’ve always felt this way, but now I’m more aware of physical and emotional signs of my anxiety. Maybe I can simply better recognise anxiety, instead of grouping all my feelings together and labelling them as depression because that was much easier to deal with than being honest with myself about how trapped and hopeless and awful I felt for so long. 

Or maybe I’m still riding the wave of those suppressed emotions now that they are free to be acknowledged after almost 44 years of putting in so much effort to convince others, and myself, that everything was fine when so much of it was awful. I guess it will take time for those previously unacknowledged feelings to run their course (because ignoring them doesn’t make them go away).

I am so much more aware of myself now. I struggle daily with feelings of inadequacy and anxiety and low self-worth (well, mostly non-existent self-worth, actually). I have no idea why my husband loves me. I blame myself for everything (including things I have no control over). I anticipate my failure in every situation and I anticipate the worst case scenario for everything I do. I accept all criticism as being justified, and shrug off compliments as unwarranted kindness. Simple acts of love and caring from my husband and my children leave me feeling overwhelmed and confused. I need to talk myself back from the edge of tears and panic far more often than I should. 

But despite all of this, because of it really, I can see that I’m getting better. Because I can write all of this down. I can see that the way I’m responding is dysfunctional. I can see that my view of myself is distorted through the lens of the disapproval and unrealistic, narcissistic, self-focused expectations of people who only ever valued me for how I made them feel and never for myself. 

I feel worse because I’m more aware of my own emotions and because acknowledging the reality of my past is hard.  It’s all part of the process of recovering myself after a lifetime of abuse that conditioned me to believe that only the parts of me that supported others had any value. 

My anxiety is part of who I am now and I’m finding ways to deal with it. It sounds like things are worse, but the reality is that despite the anxiety and challenging truths and emotional triggers and the effort required to counteract so many emotionally undermining conditioned responses, I am starting to make active choices to care for myself. And I am starting to slowly believe that I deserve to be happy. And that’s a sign that things are getting better.

What’s in a Name

I’ve had several names throughout my life.

As expected, the first was given to me by my parents. My surname represented my father’s family (also assumed by my mother when they married). My middle name was a common one for girls of my generation with a Catholic family background. I was one of a significant number of girls at my high school with Anne or a variation of Mary as a middle name. 

My first name was chosen by my mother at the last minute, when asked by the hospital staff for the name of the baby (or so the story goes). Up to that point she had planned to name me Bernadette, but instead in the moment of truth another name was given. I’m kind of glad for that – that my name wasn’t one she claimed and cherished as she approached the birth of her first child. Given everything that has happened since that moment, I’m glad my name doesn’t feel like something precious that she and I share somehow, but which she retains ownership of. I am me, with a name allocated at random that I’ve made my own. 

The second ‘name’, a minor variation of the original, was gained when I married at the age of 22. I took my now ex-husband’s surname without no thought of considering the options. A church wedding, Christian background, early 90s social expectations. It wasn’t even something I thought about, other than looking forward to having a surname that was easier for people to spell (my maiden name was of Irish origin with a ‘Mc’ invariably spelled as ‘Mac’ and generally requiring repeated spellings to ensure accuracy if I had to give it over the phone). 

I was married for 22 years and that second surname (my ex-husband’s) was a label for ‘adult me’  in the same way the first surname (my father’s) represented ‘childhood me’. 

Then I left my marriage in my early 40s and that second name no longer seemed right – it no longer represented me and it was a reminder of a version of myself that I no longer identified with. I know many women revert to their maiden name in such circumstances, particularly if they are trying to emotionally distance themselves from an abusive relationship (as I was), however my parents made it clear that they remained connected with and supportive of my ex-husband, and my childhood surname no longer felt safe. It was just a further reminder that I was defined by my connection with people who didn’t value me and treated me like an extension of themselves instead of someone with value in my own right. 

I felt like neither name was the right fit for the transition into my new life, but picking a name at random also felt wrong, like assuming someone else’s identity. So, I continued to use my married name, changed ‘Mrs’ to ‘Ms’, and tried to suppress the wave of revulsion whenever I saw it written anywhere (or had to write it myself). 

This revulsion became a particular issue as my third book was published, almost 18 months after I left my marriage. I had one book published pre-separation, and another that was in the final stages of production during those first months after I left the marriage. Both of these books were published under my married name.

[Side note: interestingly, this revulsion was never triggered by my children’s names, perhaps because there is no sense of them being something that belongs to me (like the books I’ve created or my own identity). Instead, their names reflect who *they* are and aren’t connected with the challenges and internal conflicts I face as I redefine myself.]

For the third book, where I had time to consider options, I decided to use a pseudonym, but I once again came up against the challenge of what name to use. I didn’t want my parents’ or ex-husband’s surname on my book (the thought actually made me feel physically ill), but I didn’t have a name that felt like my own to use. In the end, I chose a pen name that was a variation of my own first name and a surname that was a connection with my grandmother. It appears on my third book, and is linked by the publisher with the other two. If I write more books in this genre I will probably use it, but it doesn’t really feel like my name. It’s more like a label. It’s something functional created to solve a problem, not something I feel a connection with. It doesn’t really represent me, any more than my other ‘hats’ of wife, mother, sister, friend, secretary, writer, or any of a dozen others do. It’s a fragment of a whole. 

I’ve married again and now I have another name, once again taking my husband’s surname as my own. This time I thought about it. I considered my options. I’m still working out how this name fits, but it’s a name I selected by conscious choice, shared by someone who made it clear that I was welcome to claim this outward connection to him, but it was certainly not something that was expected or requested. 

And at the other end of the spectrum is this blog, a place where I chose to have no name, because I needed to feel safe and needed a space where I could simply be, without having to conform to or protect a particular identity. There were privacy issues too, of course. I wanted a space where I could write honestly and directly without worrying about extended family, who were actively trying to undermine me, taking things out of context. And I wanted to minimise the possibility of my writing being connected with my children and further complicating things for them as they processed the impact of the separation and divorce, and their father’s past and ongoing abuse. 

But it’s been almost 3 years since the end of my first marriage, and my children have largely worked out what boundaries they need to maintain for their own wellbeing (although this is under regular review). The anonymity of the blog, though necessary, has always felt like a contradiction to its purpose, which was to help me feel less ‘invisible’ after decades of relationships that forced me to suppress who I really am. So, as I head into the New Year, I’m claiming back another piece of myself by establishing some tenuous links between these words and myself. 

Hello world. My name is Susan. 

An Open Letter to a Former Friend

I almost ran into you at the shopping centre today. Twice. 

The first time could have been written off as simply not noticing each other – a crowded shop, busy sales assistants, browsing clothes to select Christmas gifts. It’s easy to not notice someone you know as they walk by, especially if they’re not looking in your direction.

The second time is a little harder to pass off as a failure to notice each other. You were parked next to me in the carpark. We arrived at our cars to unpack our shopping at almost the same time. We loaded up our cars, dealt with trolleys, got ourselves and the child with us into the car and drove away, all without making eye contact or acknowledging each other.

I’m not sure why you made no effort to say hello to me. I can speculate, of course, but I can’t be sure. It could be anything from lack of interest, to feeling awkward, to disgust. We have a reasonably connected backstory, so I know it wasn’t because you didn’t recognise me. I’ve spent enough time at your house and we’ve had enough long conversations for there to be no chance that you mistook me for a stranger. You ignored me on purpose. 

I ignored you too, of course, but I know exactly why. You were one of the Christian friends who chose to disconnect from me and my children after I separated from my abusive husband. You’re one of the people who was supposed to be one of my Christian family who never followed up to make sure the children were okay, or that I was okay. I know that you were there to support my ex-husband, but you obviously chose to believe his version of events without any attempt to contact me.

I do wonder sometimes what version of events he shared with you and other Christian friends and family. I wonder how many of the actual facts he shared, or if he just gave you the same distorted self-focused version of things that he tried to convince me was the truth. 

Did he tell you I kicked him out of the house and took away his home, his children and everything he had to live for? He told me that, repeatedly, forgetting that I was there the night he left, when he crowded me into a wall and demanded that I hit him because he knew that I wanted to. I left instead and when I came home hours later he had a bag packed so he could stay at his parents. 

I am the one who ended the marriage, of course. I can’t and won’t deny that. I told him it was over because I’d finally realised that being with him had robbed me of all hope of ever being happy; because I’d realised that being with him was giving my daughter the message that her happiness was irrelevant as long as her husband was content with his life, and teaching my sons that as long as they were happy, then the happiness of their wife and children was of no consequence. I left him because he made me feel invisible and because I finally, finally realised that I deserved better than that. 

Did he tell you that he visited the house all day Saturday and every Thursday night to spend time with the children? Did he mention that I facilitated this by leaving the house during those times? Did he mention that he used his unsupervised access to the house during these visits to vandalise my belongings and go through my personal paperwork? Did he tell you he regularly spent time in my bedroom with the door closed even though none of his belongings remained in the room and I’d specifically asked him to consider this room as my personal space in exchange for me making the house available to him so he could relax with the kids? Did he tell you that when I changed the lock on the bedroom door, he threatened to break it down (in front of the children) unless I gave him access to ‘his’ room?

Did he tell you I was possessed by evil spirits (the only possible explanation for me saying that I didn’t love him and wanted to end our marriage)? Did you offer sympathy and prayers because he was the victim of spiritual warfare? Did you recommend he purchase books on how to cast out demons? (I know he bought these because he used my customer loyalty card to do so.) Did you know he believed he was getting direct instructions from God about how to convince me to return to my faith and turn my back on Satan? Did you know he did this in front of our children and told them that God couldn’t be with them if they were in the house with me? Were you oblivious to his distorted Christian ravings, or were you encouraging them? 

Did you know he touched me, repeatedly, when I told him not to? That he entered the house, repeatedly, when I asked him not to? That he sent me text messages, repeatedly, sprouting prayers and, when these didn’t work, demands and abuse and false accusations? Did you know that I had to contact the police, repeatedly, to find ways to keep myself and the children safe? Did you know? Did you care? 

Did you know that I endured 22 years of a marriage that made me feel insignificant, inadequate, and invisible and when it ended, people like you who I thought were my friends simply confirmed that I was all those things? Do you know that almost three years later, I’m still attending regular trauma/PTSD counselling to help me process the awful years of my marriage and the abuse that followed my decision to leave (and the childhood that taught me to believe that I deserved to be treated that way)?

Did you know that you weren’t alone in deciding that I wasn’t worth the effort it would take to get in touch to check that what my ex-husband was telling you was true? There was the woman I thought of as one of my best friends who told me I should go back to him despite knowing I was attending domestic violence victim counselling (because marriage is a covenant promise to God that can’t be broken). She and her husband also helpfully offered to pray for wisdom for my children when the kids asked them (and you) to not believe everything their father was saying and to not encourage him in the delusions sparked by his distorted faith. And the woman who thought I should see it as a sign that the relationship could be repaired that after years of saying that we had no emotional connection, my ex-husband was sad to the point of threatening suicide (repeatedly). Wasn’t that what I wanted? For him to connect with his emotions? I should be grateful and return to the relationship to support and encourage him to continue to be more emotionally aware.

And my parents, of course, who have accepted his version of events, informed me they love him as much as they love me and will offer him support, and who have abandoned me and neglected their grandchildren in order to show me that I can’t expect their love or support unless I do things their way. 

That’s why I couldn’t talk to you today. Because I don’t know what you know, and I don’t know if you’ve believed the lies, and I don’t know if I’m safe with you. Because if you’ve believed his lies, and if you’ve chosen to accept his words as 100% of the reality of our situation, then I can’t trust you. It’s not pettiness because you chose him instead of me (which is an insulting concept from all angles), it’s because you never even made an effort to see if the kids and I were okay. Not once. I can only presume it’s because he told you I didn’t deserve your consideration and you believed him. Or maybe you never really cared for me in the first place. Either way, I deserve better than your indifference and I choose to no longer connect with people who treat me with such disrespect and disregard.

I hope that you and your family are happy. I really do. And I hope that you really have been oblivious to all the things I’ve mentioned above (and so much more) that have been my reality for the past 3 years. I hope that you’ve already stepped away from my ex and his toxic narcissism and distorted faith. You deserve better than he is capable of offering. 

I hope all these things, but I’ll probably still pretend I didn’t see you if we come across each other again at the shopping centre. I’ll feel bad about it (as I did today), but ultimately I’ll choose protecting myself over making sure I don’t offend you. 

I Don’t Have The Skillset

I wrote a show pretty much from the pain that being invisible to the world I was born into caused me. And I’m not, I don’t have the skillset, or the sense of entitlement that comes with being seen so thoroughly as I currently am. I’ll get there. It feels nice on some levels, but it’s also very foreign and quite, I feel like it’s some discomfort with it. – Hannah Gadsby

The quote above is from Hannah Gadsby, speaking with Monica Lewinsky in a Vanity Fair interview about dealing with trauma in the public eye sparked by the well-deserved success of Gadsby’s incredibly insightful Nanette. (If you haven’t already, you should definitely watch Nanette and it’s worth sticking it out through some of Lewinsky’s awkwardness as an interviewer for the insights of both women during their discussion.)

I’ve been trying to write a response to this. I’ve written lots of words about how awful it was to feel invisible for so long. About how awful it’s been tor realise that it wasn’t just 22 years of a miserable, abusive marriage that made me feel that way, it was a lifetime of conditioning from my parents to believe that invisibility was all I deserved and attendance at churches where leaders used my faith to convince me that my unhappiness with my invisibility was my fault.

I’ll still write about that sometime.

For now, it simply comes down to the fact that Hannah’s comment ‘I don’t have the skillset, or the sense of entitlement that comes with being seen so thoroughly as I currently am.’ felt incredibly personal.

I want to be seen. I hated being invisible. I hated feeling disconnected and insignificant and unnecessary. I hated feeling generic and replaceable. But now that I’m being seen, I have absolutely no idea what to do. 

I’m exhausted and confused by social interactions that I used to cope with so easily because I had very clear expectations about who I should be. It’s so much easier to follow a script. I’m frustrated that I have no clear sense of who I am, what I enjoy, or what goals I want for my life. I’ve spent too many years being what other people want me to be, prioritising what they enjoy, and directing my efforts into activities that minimised the chances of disapproval. I can’t remember who I am or what I like.

I struggle to find ways to prioritise myself or to even understand what that means. I try, and the mental and emotional backlash is significant. I don’t have the skillset to understand how to process other people prioritising me. The backlash from that is even worse. Kindness towards me makes me uncomfortable and, if I’m feeling particularly vulnerable, distresses me. Compliments confuse me. I am not equipped to process your unmerited kindness or your prioritising of my needs ahead of your own. I am not equipped to value my own opinion and thoughts and emotions and I cannot fathom that you would see value in them.

Being visible feels foreign and uncomfortable. And confusing. Too many years of allowing others to push me to the bottom of the list, too many years of deliberately placing myself there, too many years of dissociating myself from what was happening around me in order to cope. 

Finally being seen makes me feel like a shadow – I’m here, but I lack substance and resilience. It’s so hard to work out how to push back against the habits of a lifetime. It’s not just a matter of redefining myself and starting over. I feel like I can’t even find the starting point.

And while all that is happening inside my head, all the never-ending loops of thoughts and emotions, I’m living my life because I have no choice. I don’t want to go back, so the only alternative is to move forward. I have awesome children who inspire me and challenge me to be a better person and a wonderful husband who is so patient with my confusion and brokenness and who loves me and values me even in those moments when I feel least visible and least able to cope with being seen. 

I can do this. I am doing this. But being seen is so much harder than I ever imagined it would be.