By Caris Adel
I drank too much wine the other night. My husband asked me why. My answer was existential dread.
I was serious.
My heart has twinges of pain sometimes. I manage to convince myself that I am both having a heart attack and of course I’m not having a heart attack. I envision myself walking into the hospital, given a nice bill while being laughed out, and also walking in and having the doctor exclaim, wow you’ve survived 300 mini-heart attacks, can I write a paper about you?
I’m being ridiculous and I know it.
I start paying attention and realize I feel my heart when I’m stressed. Or anxious. Which is kind of a lot of the time, all of a sudden. I used to not have trouble sleeping. I’ve had trouble sleeping for about a year now.
(Pay attention; the year part is important. I actually just connected this particular piece of information in the writing of this. Huh. So that’s why I can’t sleep.)
In the meantime, melatonin and a glass of wine usually works.
I have these dreams at night. Not frequent, but not infrequent, either. I am always screaming. But almost always no sound comes out of my mouth.
I learned about flight or fight in school. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I learned about freeze. That’s what I do. I freeze in my dreams. I freeze in real life. I freeze when I feel the weight of expectation on me. Because I don’t know how to respond. If I do A, maybe your reaction will be B. But maybe it’ll be C. And if I do D, maybe your reaction will be E. Or A. Or B. What am I supposed to do? Which option will make the most people happy and the least upset with me?
For a person who has strong opinions, I’m surprisingly indecisive.
I have a story.
When I was in 6th grade, I lived a block from our small school. For once I had a really cool book bag. A hot pink rectangle duffle bag type of bag. I had noticed last year all the cool kids had them, so I got one. We were poor, so having cool things was rare. (Of course they were out of style this particular year, but WHATEVER.) One day, my brother stayed home from school, sick. He was going to be home for a couple of days, so my mom told me to bring his books home.
I went down to his classroom and his teacher took me to his desk. I started stacking the books in my bag… and there was kind of a lot of them. She asked me if I could carry them all, and I said yes. I actually wasn’t sure if I could or not. I was starting to think not. But all I could picture was showing up at home without all of the books and my mom yelling at me. “Why didn’t you bring all of his books home? How is he supposed to do his homework. We only live a block away. It’s not that hard to carry the books.” Complete with huffing and puffing and sighs indicating I can’t do anything right. I knew the likelihood of that response was high.
I remember standing in that classroom, weighing the risks, feeling very worried and afraid.
I piled the books in. Of course I did. I dragged my cool duffle bag home, because of course it was too heavy to carry. The pavement tore huge holes all along the bottom of it, so I had to throw it away. I got home and my mom looked at the pile of books and said, “Oh honey, you didn’t need to bring all of them home.” She says honey, which is a kind word. Am I making all of this up?
So it was my own fault for ruining my awesome bag, right? I had nothing solid to point to to explain my fear.
My body is on high alert. All the time. It vibrates, hums, pounds. I lay down at night and my body is so alert I wonder if my husband can hear the thumping of my chest. He can’t. Maybe it’s all in my head. But why does it feel so real?
I’ve started needing to leave the room when there are awkward, tense scenes on a TV show. I was watching the end of a close football game and I was intensely nervous. My palms were sweating. That’s new. There was a story during the Olympics of an athlete’s grandmother who needed to be told the results of the race before it started so her heart could handle it. That suddenly made sense.
I’m anxious a lot of the time. Subconsciously, unconsciously. I read articles and listicles about anxiety, social or otherwise, and IT ME!
Before, I would have said that I have never been an anxious person. Instead, for most of my life I have been a fearful person. Afraid of people mostly. And not in a, I-think-everyone-might-kill-me kind of way. But in a, I-think-everyone-is-staring-at-me-and-thinks-I’m-a-horrible-person kind of way.
But then suddenly, instantly, I wasn’t anymore. Suddenly. Instantly. It’s been a year since that layer of fear vanished. Since that weight was lifted. I felt it physically, viscerally. My chest wasn’t heavy and tight anymore. My body might be humming and pulsing now, but that’s not new. It was there all along. I just couldn’t feel it under all the fear.
I was 33. It was at the end of my Jesus year. You know, Jesus died when he was 33 so you want to make 33 kick ass like he did. And if you’re still alive at the end, hooray. You did something even God didn’t do. Or something like that.
But I guess in a sense I did die at the end. So maybe this last year has been my slow resurrection. Maybe when I turn 35 next month I’ll have something Easter-like to show for it.
My mom has Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s undiagnosed, of course, which is part of the diagnosis. She’s a textbook case. While learning about BPD I learned about the freeze reaction to trauma. I learned that those dreams I have where I’m soundlessly screaming at my mom, the memories I have and the constant questioning and re-evaluating I do of them, the feelings of fear and of always wanting to escape, my startle reflex—those are some of my symptoms of PTSD.
I didn’t know living with a parent could be so traumatic. I didn’t know so much of my relationship with my mom could be considered emotional abuse. And I didn’t know I could put a stop to it. Until I did.
September 28, 2015. A Wednesday.
My husband was gone. He had moved in June for a new job three hours away. We wouldn’t move until December. We being me and our five kids, which I homeschooled. I had just started going back to college, taking classes two times a week on campus.
Five kids. College. Homeschool (and teaching a class at our co-op). Single parent. Packing. You know, not overwhelmed or anything. Totally in a place where I had the emotions to deal with a massively stressful situation.
We had gone back home fourteen hours away for a family wedding for a few days where we saw both of our families. A week later, this particular fall Wednesday, my mother calls.
She calls to tell me that she has started standing up for herself and she doesn’t like how I acted when I was home. She’s mad that I wasn’t enthusiastic about her latest man in a long line of men. She’s mad that I had homework to do while I was there. She’s mad that I avoid her as much as possible and never talk to her. I talk to my dad. I talk to my siblings. She just wants to know why we don’t have a good relationship. And she is able to say all of this to me because she is at a point in her life where she can be honest with me.
As if I’m the reason.
You know how Sheldon Cooper says things like, “And I’ve done such a good job keeping my opinions to myself!” and everyone stares at him? It’s like that. As if she hasn’t been able to say what she really thinks because of me. It’s a double lie, and it’s such a mind fuck.
She acts as if she is doing this emotionally courageous thing by telling me how rude and selfish I am, while I quiver in fear of her. Here I had spent months in therapy because of her, and yet she all of a sudden has the strength to “confront” me. As if I am the oppressor here.
I lost it.
I had gone outside so my kids wouldn’t hear. My face was hot, my heart thudding loud and fast. I was outside pacing on our concrete driveway, phone to my ear and I just started yelling No, No, NO! It just burst out of me, and once the gates had opened, there was no stopping it. I told her I had PTSD because of her. I told her I was in therapy. That she needed to be in therapy. I told her it is not her place to parent my kids. That she is not to tell them Harry Potter is the devil or argue with them over the existence of Santa Claus (she thinks it’s her right as a grandparent). I told her about walking on eggshells, how no one can ever disagree with her, how I don’t have to be forced to be a fan of her dating and marriage decisions.
At some point she hung up on me.
I just kind of gaped at myself. What in the world did I just do? I called my husband and then my sister and brother. They both said that they’ve been waiting years to see me stand up for myself. And now that I’ve started it, I need to finish.
So I sat down with a bottle of wine and the computer and wrote an email. I explained the arc of my emotional life and the lessons I learned from her. I told her I lived my life in fear of her opinion and when I knew she wouldn’t like something, I lived in avoidance. I told her how I learned to treat people and all the shame I had always felt.
She wrote back saying horrible things.
I sent one more, trying to make her see. I opened up about how my life has affected my parenting, my marriage (Tom Hanks/Joe Fox voice—”I was eloquent!”). She returned with gaslighting and more abuse and wanting to have a family meeting to fix my faulty memories. She tried going through my in-laws, and manipulating my husband. The verse about casting your pearls came to mind.
I haven’t talked to her since.
A few days after I stood up to her I was out driving. I parked in a parking lot and didn’t do a good job. I had to readjust the van a couple of times. Normally when I drove and I messed up at all, I would get hot and sweaty, embarrassed and flustered. I would get that way whenever I messed up on anything, actually. I never thought anything of it because I had always been like that. I knew people were watching me drive, and when they saw me mess up, I knew they were probably cussing me out. They were thinking what a stupid driver I was. I knew they thought these things about me and I didn’t want them to. I wanted them to know I knew what I was doing. I parallel parked perfectly when I got my license, for goodness sake. No one had to know I never did it again, but still. I wanted the world to know I was a capable driver and I hated that small mistakes showed I was worthless.
So that day in the parking lot, I was adjusting, and all of a sudden I had a realization. I was maneuvering, I was imperfectly driving, and my chest felt light and weightless. All of a sudden, I didn’t care what other people thought when they saw me, and immediately on top of that thought was the understanding that no one had been watching me in the first place. No one was watching me in the grocery store evaluating how I put things in my cart. No one was irritated because I took an extra minute at Redbox. No one was judging me as I strolled the rows at the library.
Instantaneously I realized that all of the pressure and guilt and abuse my mom had heaped on me, I had assumed that everyone else in the world was doing to me as well. But they’re not. It’s one of those obvious things that all of a sudden becomes obvious.
And even if they were – it didn’t matter anymore.
I suddenly realized that who I am is not up for debate. My perception of my life, my choices, and priorities are not dependent on other people’s opinions of them. I was crushing my soul every time I let someone else set the standard for how I was supposed to live. There is more good in me than bad. If someone doesn’t like me, cool. There’s billions of other people they can go hang out with. Someone’s opinion of me is not an indictment of me.
It is entirely possible—and I told my mom this—that I am not okay for her. That my edges might be rubbing up against hers and maybe she needs a break from me. There are reasons and causes for her behavior and I understand that. But at the end of the day, if you can’t respect my boundaries; if you consistently tell me terrible thinks about myself without at least being in therapy and acknowledging your own issues, then you don’t deserve a place in my life. For the first time in my life, I felt no shame for choosing to prioritize my well-being.
I’m not afraid anymore.
I have a vivid memory of being afraid of my mother in kindergarten. I have lived in fear of her since I was at least five years old.
I. Am. Not. Afraid. Anymore.
Since that day, I feel free and alive and myself in ways I never have before. And for all of the times I question my own perception and memories—for all the times I wonder if the problem really is me—I think of the weight that has disappeared. That came from somewhere. Thirty years of fear instantly vanished. This feeling of freedom that I have never, ever experienced—this is real.
I used to be drowning in fear. Now I’m merely treading water in anxiety.
Being aware of my anxiety is new. Because that burden of fear is gone, I am aware of my feelings in a new way, and I’m slowly learning how to handle them. I’m slowly doing the work of becoming myself, and it’s amazing. I did the hardest thing I will probably ever have to do, and it didn’t kill me. That’s a super kick-ass thing to do and I’m really proud of myself.
Of course I’ve also learned that being free isn’t the same thing as being happy.
But I’m getting there.
Caris Adel is passionate about justice, history, and how they intertwine (or so often don’t, as the case may be). She is pursuing a degree in American Studies and Public History, and while she can often be found with a book in her face and a coffee in hand, she also spends some of her time homeschooling her five kids. After living in small town downtowns for the past eleven years, she is adjusting to life in the mountains (no cell service! data caps!) in central Virginia. More of her writing can be found at www.carisadel.com.