Friday, June 11, 2010

A hole in my heart

Sorry... but I feel compelled to write about this subject again. I just had another visit with my parents this past weekend. It has taken me about five days to pull out of the ensuing depression. They always find a way to throw subtle barbs at me. Others who are in the room may see it as “joking”, but it isn’t. Some people who are astutely observant will notice the undercurrent of contempt toward me.

My husband saw it from day one when he met them. It almost caused him to not marry me – because when you marry someone, you marry their family. Now he tries to protect me by deflecting the barbs – but he misses many of them. He will only realize what happened when I point it out to him later on, at home, when I am crumpled and in tears.

I cannot say anything right around them. I can't even breathe right to suit them.

You can divorce an abusive spouse. You can call it quits if your lover mistreats you. But what can you do if the source of your misery is your own parent(s)? You either cut down on the visits (I’ve cut mine down to about 4 per year) or completely cut things off. I have not had the courage to completely cut things off because if I do so, I will lose my sisters.

Granted, no parent is perfect. And whining about parental failure, real or not, is practically an American pastime that keeps the therapeutic community dutifully employed. But just as there are ordinary parents who mysteriously produce a difficult child, there are decent people who have the misfortune of having a truly toxic parent.

The assumption that all parents are programmed to love their children unconditionally and protect them from harm is not universally true. I know of a really nice person who has been treated for depression throughout her life due to difficulty dealing with her aging mother. The mother has always been extremely abusive of her. She said, “Once, on my birthday, she left me a message wishing that I would get a disease and die. Can you believe it?”

Over the years, she has tried to have a relationship with her mother, but the encounters were always painful and upsetting; her mother remained harshly critical and demeaning. Whether her mother was mentally ill, just plain mean, or both, was unclear. But there was no question that my friend had decided long ago that the only way to deal with her mother was to avoid her at all costs. Yet, when her mother was approaching death, she was torn about whether there should be another effort at reconciliation. Should she visit and perhaps forgive her mother even though her mother will probably once again be extremely abusive toward her and cause her great emotional pain? Or should she protect herself and live with a sense of guilt from “abandoning” her mother, however unjustified?

I have had to deal with the same problem with my parents. Through the years several of my therapists have had a bias to salvage the relationship, even if harmful to me. Most have not been open-minded as to whether maintaining the relationship is really healthy and desirable. And I have found that this is probably due to very little, if any, training in this area. The topic gets little attention in standard textbooks or in the psychiatric literature, perhaps reflecting the common and mistaken notion that adults, unlike children and the elderly, are not vulnerable to emotional abuse.

But we are vulnerable – because with every visit, the healing wound is once again opened until, one day, it can no longer heal at all. My wound does not scab over anymore. I have become extremely sensitive to their words.

My last counselor was stunned by my parents’ implacable hostility toward me – their constant berating – the history of physical and emotional abuse – and became convinced that they were a psychological menace to me. He suggested that for my well-being I might consider, at least for now, forgoing a relationship with them. I have tried to do so, but my conscience or my feelings of obligation (not love) has kept me from being successful at cutting things off. Maybe I have been brainwashed by them, but I felt this was a drastic measure. Yet, in not doing so, I cannot escape the truckload of negative feelings and thoughts that I have internalized due to their abuse.

Of course, relationships are rarely all good or bad; even the most abusive parents can sometimes show love, which is why severing a bond can be a tough decision. Research on early attachment, both in humans and in nonhuman primates, shows that we are hard-wired for bonding – even to those who are not very nice to us. It is similar to an abused pet still being loyal to its master. Though terribly hurt and angry, many survivors of child abuse try to get their abusive parents to change their ways and love them.

Parental abuse of their children, whether physical or mental, can cause lifetime depression at the very least, chronic PTSD at its worst, and an extremely low self esteem. It is no stretch to say that having a toxic parent is harmful to a child’s brain, let alone his feelings. Brains can mend by removing or reducing stress. Prolonged stress can kill cells in the hippocampus, a brain area critical for memory. We know that although prolonged childhood trauma can be toxic to the brain, young adults retain the ability to rewire their brains through new positive experiences, therapy, and psychotropic medication. But the only way to truly mend the brain of a survivor of child abuse is to cut the ties with the abuser(s).

Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, a trauma expert who is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, wrote, “Sometimes we consider a paradoxical intervention and say to a patient, ‘I really admire your loyalty to your parents — even at the expense of failing to protect yourself in any way from harm.’ ” She tries to empower her patients to take action to protect themselves without giving direct advice to cut ties. The hope is that her patients will come to see the psychological cost of a harmful relationship and act to change it. As drastic as it sounds, an adult survivor of child abuse is much better off letting go of a toxic parent.

That’s just it: we survivors do see the harm. We just have trouble letting go because it means we will never be loved by Mom or Dad.

I have greatly reduced my visits with my parents, but their absence in my life is never far from my thoughts. At first I thought I missed them. Now I realize that it is the loving childhood I never had that I miss. It left a hole in my heart that can never be filled.