Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Repeat After Me

This morning, we had a little craziness in my house as we all prepared for our days. I was getting myself ready to leave at 7:30, my kids were finishing up breakfast, and my wife was in the bathroom finshing her business. As I headed out the door, I said goodbye to everyone.

Less than a minute later, my phone buzzed in my pocket. In my pants pocket. I was on a two lane residential road with unpredictable patches of ice. There were school busses and other commuters moving in both directions. I was buckled in with two layers of coat over my waist and gloves on my hands, and I'd already spilled tea onto my breakfast of toast and peanut butter. I realize, every time this happens, that the caller has no idea of this--they are only calling for what they perceive to be a good reason--but each time it happens, I feel anger.

Repeat after me...

I got the phone out too late to answer, and in the process spilled more of my tea onto my center console. So I wouldn't have to repeat the previous process of unbundling the damn thing, I set it down next to me. Immediately it lit up again. It was my wife, saying she'd tried to flag me down when I pulled away because our son was late for orchestra practice. Knowing what was coming, I asked what she wanted me to do, and heard the answer. This is when the stress reaction started: fight or flight.

The fight or flight response was originally intended to save mankind from sabertooth tigers and ensure he had the strength to respond when assaulted by an enemy. It still serves a purpose. For example when stepping off a curb, if we hear a horn close by, our senses are heightened and our blood quickens, our muscles become instantly ready to react when we realize a car is heading for us, and we're able to back up in time to get out of the way, thereby saved by our cavedweller instincts. However, although our social evolution and lifestyles rarely demand a real life-or-death fight or flight reaction, one still takes place upon perception of some stress. Our blood vessels still constrict, our hearts begins to race, muscles tense, adrenaline is released... the whole biopharmaceutical package is delivered, even when we get a call from a bill collector or we suddenly realize... oh shit, my son is late for orchestra practice.

Back to that moment on the road: even before my wife answered my question, I knew she was going to ask me to turn around, come back home, and take our son to school. For some reason, this enrages me. Rationally, I of all people understand forgetfulness, even the occasional willful negligence. This is what happened to my wife and son: they forgot. My wife's alarm went off right about the time I probably put the car into drive and then they remembered. It makes all the sense in the world that she'd try to stop me so our boy could get to where he needed to be.

Emotionally, however, I was livid. All manner of questions about unmet responsibilities that weren't mine crossed my mind in an effort to justify telling her hell no, take him yourself. Fortunately my higher thinking intervened and I made the decision to help, but not without some malicious flavor. Because I was right near an intersection with no nearby traffic, I didn't take the time to answer the question, hang up the phone, and proceed back home. No, what I did was throw the phone onto the passenger side floor and do a quick U-turn. This is the only seemingly angry part of my reaction I can justify, as it really did save me probably two minutes--remember I'd only been on the road about a minute at this point. But everything after that, until my son exited my car, was pure dysfunctional response. The only part of the return trip I really remember well was getting caught driving like a crazy man by my neighbor as he walked his dog past my house.

Repeat after me...

By the time I'd pulled back into the driveway, I was fumbling around trying to find a place for my (wet) toast. It only took a few seconds for me to decide to just go back inside and grab towels. The door opened and my son exited; I told him to get in the car and headed to the kitchen as my wife stood there with wet hair and my daughter sat on the floor donning her boots. I flashed a mean look at my wife to express an ambiguous rage for being asked to come back home. I got my towels and stepped back through the foyer, again throwing as much angry energy at my wife as I could muster. I knew beneath my raging that she didn't deserve it, but I dished it out anyway, not because I didn't care that I was wrong to do it, not because I don't love her, not because I think she ought to be treated that way... just because my reaction had taken over, and some part of me insisted on driving home the point that I'd been horribly inconvenienced by her (yes, perfectly normal) forgetfulness. I know my rational mind was present because I expressly avoided eye contact with my daughter, with whom I not only had absolutely no quarrel, but also was terrified that she'd pick up on the way I was treating her mom and realize her dad is, in fact, a monster. My wife said, "Thank you," timidly; I grouched, "You're welcome," back; and stepped out of the house, slamming the door behind me.

Repeat after me...

I even grilled my son in the car. This was completely unfair. I know he's learned his share of dysfunctional responses because he replied to me with a raised, angry voice. I was reasonable enough to use words that expressed my simple need to figure out what had gone wrong, and tell him not to yell at me, but my tone was a million miles away from my intent. Hopefully, he'll remember that I told him I loved him when I dropped him off more than he'll remember the rest of it. Of course, that doesn't mean the rest of it won't have an effect on him, not to mention the impression my daughter got when I left the house.

Repeat after me...

None of what I can remember takes into account what may have happened in the house this morning after I left. I can imagine my wife and son's reactions upon hearing the alarm and realizing what it meant (panic?) I can imagine the mad shuffle to get me on the phone, and the response my wife may have had when I tossed the phone away (confusion? anger?) I can imagine the meaning of the words spoken as my son hurried to get his stuff together (your father is angry and it's all my fault? your father is angry and he's an asshole for acting this way?) I can imagine the thoughts of my daughter as she put on her boots, seemingly outside the situation, but completely immersed in the reactions both her parents were having (why is daddy angry? why is mommy crying? why didn't he say anything to me? why did he slam the door? why do I get punished when I slam a door?) Of course, all of this is speculation.

Repeat after me...

It is in this way that my wife and I perpetuate the broken and dysfunctional behaviors we learned in our families of origin. These reactions are a disease with which we were infected as children and continue to be affected as adults, and we are fully engaged in the process of passing it along to our own kids.

Today, for example, the lessons were:

  1. Even though you're not perfect, it's okay to expect others to be
  2. You should hold other people's mistakes against them
  3. If you are asked to help someone who's made a mistake, they should pay for it somehow
  4. Someone else's mistake is a cause for you to be angry
  5. The proper way to act when angry is shows of verbal and physical violence
  6. If you make someone angry, you deserve to be mistreated
  7. The proper way to react to an angry person is to yield to whatever abuse they dish out, or lash back at them with an even bigger reaction

Thinking about some of the arguments in my house in the past, I know my kids are learning these lessons well, and using each other to practice their own dysfunctional behaviors for when they are grown and have families. As I look back on it now, I am ashamed, as I am every time something similar happens. Deep down, my heart breaks for it. I am working hard at just being able to recognize these behaviors. I know the only thing I can do afterward is apologize. Many days I still have no idea how to prevent the reactions before they occur, but when I am able to, I am met with a special brand of resistance only a fellow dysfunctional person can deliver, which only deepends the mess.

The fact is I am sick, and at this point, I am always left wondering how to move forward. As with every day, there is work to be done, and I can't afford to stop for long. Rarely do I have the luxury of stepping away from my existence and responsibilities to examine the behaviors that tear apart my relationships, and even when I do, I'm out of the context of those relationships, so any proposed solution is only experimental until I'm back in my 'real world,' and therefore subject to a response by the people in those relationships (who are also sick) that might completely dismantle whatever outcome I may have hoped for.

Rays of such sunlight are ever fleeting and must be appreciated when they appear, or healing will never happen. To ignore the problem just keeps the brew acidic, and every new episode of dysfunction sours it further, poisoning the family and ensuring future generations will be just as messed up. This cycle must stop, and I yearn with every breath I draw to find a way to start over.

For now, in this moment, I must concede that the only way to start over is with each new moment, each new day, and each apology and admission of guilt or explanation I give the kids in the hope that they won't grow up and repeat my unhealthy behaviors. I also hope that, as I strive toward emotional and spiritual health, I will also demonstrate an increasing number of behaviors that enhance their ability to function as healthy people: to have fun and be frivolous, to believe in themselves because there is no legitimate reason not to, to take risks that might create a better life for themselves, to love vigorously and loyally, and to only accept vigorous and loyal love.

Oh, what I wouldn't give to break these chains, but the fact is I wouldn't know how to live without them should they all just fall immediately. They are safe and familiar. They were forged one link at a time, both by my parents when I was a child and by myself as I've built an adult life using the rules I was taught. Breaking them will only happen with the same slow process.

Repeat after me. SCWA.

Addendum: I owe many of my original realizations, and some of my continued recovery, to the book Repeat After Me, by Claudia Black. Anyone who finds themselves in similarly distressing and confusing situations should definitely give it a look. Dr. Black is a pioneer in studies of children from addictive and dysfunctional homes, and I honestly don't know what kind of mess my life would be without the intervention of a counselor and the realizations of Repeat After Me and other books, videos, and meetings I've needed to realize what was happening to me emotionally. I'm still a long way from being truly healthy, but I'm on the right path.
This one....................................not this one.
No infringement is intended on the book Repeat After Me, its cover, or the images of Claudia Black, Ph.D or the actress Claudia Black. Please email me should you have any issue with their being included in this post.

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