Today I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving and gratitude and creating the life I want to live. This month has been hard. My Kindergartener got sick and was home from school almost a whole week. Then I crashed on my bike and sustained some injuries. Then I got sick and was in bed for several days with fever, chills, a wicked sore throat, and the usual yuck of fall illnesses. Finally, I strained my ankle at the trampoline park. With all of this I have had a resurgence of depression symptoms including some pretty intense episodes of suicidal ideation. My counselor contracted pneumonia and has not been available. Naturally I was very unhappy when family-of-origin drama began.
At the beginning of this year I did a cut off with my parents. I have avoided writing on my blog about this for a couple of reasons. First, it is extremely painful and for those who have experienced it, you understand just how painful and why I wouldn’t want to post about it. Another reason is that I’ve been afraid of the backlash I might get from well meaning family members with little to no mental health experience. I thought that perhaps if I veiled some of my expressions in poetry that I might avoid some of the latter. Unfortunately, I have still managed to garner the backlash I tried to prevent.
As I have reflected on my blog’s purpose, I realize that I have been holding back useful information from my intended readers. My intended readers are those who have some experience with mental health or at least some desire to learn more, help loved ones, and build a more nurturing environment for our minds. My intended readers are familiar with phrases like “family of origin,” “childhood trauma,” “suicidal ideation,” and “recovery journey.” My intended readers understand that the world of mental health is complicated and that it is best to withhold judgement of those who suffer and their loved ones who suffer with them. My intended readers deserve more vulnerable and direct communications than my poetry posts this year.
This is not the first cutoff I have done with my parents, but this is the longest one. I tried to resume some limited contact with my mom around mother’s day, but we are back to no contact until after the holidays. Family of origin drama is just too much for me right now. I have to be there for my children for the next six weeks.
It’s hard to cope with the reality that you experienced serious trauma as a child. It is almost unbearable when those you love who hurt you so badly deny and minimize your experience, make excuses for themselves, and then shame you for the pain. I have been accused of being ungrateful, unforgiving, and cruel. Those minimizations and accusations hurt more than the original offense. I am comforted to think that the Savior knows the pain I feel. Perhaps he alone will ever truly understand. He whose piercing gaze fell upon the leper and resisted looking away will not fail to see me in my broken state. Like them, I cry out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
This post is for those who, like me, who find that in their recovery journey, that they must limit contact with people they love. Love is not a purchased commodity. Those we love have not earned our love. In order for love to be real it must be freely given with no expectation of reciprocation. Sometimes we have built empathetic connections of love with people who continually hurt us and keep us from building a healthy and happy life. They sabotage our efforts, contradict our therapists, and pressure us to continue harmful behaviors. These relationships are unlikely to change unless the empathetic connection changes. Sometimes the relationship can’t continue without great harm to recovery.
Cut offs are so hard. We love the person. We want them to understand. We want them to see that they are hurting us and for it to matter to them. We want the unconditional love from them that we have been giving. Some people are just unable to give that kind of love. It’s okay to let go. Sometimes it’s important to let go. This is hard for people raised in codependency.
My family of origin has a lot of problems with codependency. I was raised to believe that I needed to be unselfish to be good. That belief system has driven me repeatedly into burnout. I am finally making some progress in rooting out those codependent virtue/vices and replacing them with healthier values.
Virtue/Vice One: I need to put others first. Selfish women don’t deserve love. I was taught that women feel fulfilled in the home taking care of their family. I was taught that good wives and mothers put their husband and children’s needs first, often go without and make sacrifices for their family. I thought that when I skipped meals, showers, personal growth opportunities, and social activities that I was being a good person. Over time, resent built up and motivation evaporated. I thought that my sacrifices would make me feel fulfilled and that my efforts would be reciprocated and rewarded. Instead it seemed that everyone became accustomed to my behavior and even felt entitled to it. The love I craved felt insufficient and it was. I wasn’t behaving virtuously, I was being codependent. I was expecting my husband and children’s love to sustain me and make up for my neglect of myself. It left everyone frustrated and resentful.
Now I understand that putting others first doesn’t make me a good person, it makes me a resentful person. I understand that I don’t have to earn love. My husband and children love me because they are empathetic and loving people. I love them because I am an empathetic and loving person. I don’t earn their love with my unselfish behavior. I model healthy self care for them and teach them to do the same. They aren’t responsible for my happiness and I am not responsible for theirs.
Codependency keeps us in unhealthy relationships for too long. It is a habit of thinking that shifts responsibility. “I am responsible for everything,” says one codependent person. “You are responsible for everything,” says the other. Because neither of those statements is true, no progress is made. Codependency is like a tug of war, two people waste time and energy pulling against one another and getting nowhere. It isn’t going to be enough to stop pulling. Its okay to put the rope down and walk away.
Virtue/Vice Two: It is unkind to distance myself from people who hurt me. Christ commanded me to love everyone which means I need to put my mental health at risk rather than set healthy boundaries. This is a classic codependent virtue/vice. Keeping toxic relationships and people in your life is not healthy. Proper self care requires you to keep yourself safe from harm. Sacrificing your safety to enable someone’s toxic behavior is not a virtue, its a codependent vice.
Virtue/Vice Three: Doing family cut-offs is cruel. Family relationships need to be preserved no matter how detrimental they are to your mental health. For many years I have kept family relationships in my life that have hurt my recovery. Some family members have repeatedly reinforced toxic narratives, minimized abusive behavior, and blamed victims. Because I believed in the sanctity of eternal families, I kept trying to change toxic family members.
The truth is, eternal families are healthy families. Each individual is accountable for their own behavior within the family system. Not every individual has equal power within the family system. The parents have the bulk of the power and the responsibility for the overall health of the system. Children within the system, even adult children, have little power to change the system. Eventually healthy adult children will outgrow an unhealthy family system. That’s not cruelty, that’s life. If you want an eternal family, you need a healthy family. If your family isn’t healthy, it won’t last anyway.
Habits of codependence are reinforced with practice. It takes two to tango in the dance of codependence and the steps are unconscious. I’ve had to surround myself with people who have healthy boundaries in order to begin to see my own codependent habits.
Unfortunately, that has restricted my circle of friends to a very small group. Churches sometimes teach codependence as a virtue. Women at church are especially proud of their codependence. It is the whited sepulchre of mental health sins. On the outside they are virtuous servants of mankind while inwardly they are seething with the sickly rot of resentment. From such stay far away!
When it comes to relationships, I’ve prioritized quality over quantity. I have also prioritized relationships I feel I have some power to influence. I’m not investing in relationships with people who are rigid, defensive, and self-righteous. The truth is, there are not a lot of mentally healthy people in this world. There are enough mentally healthy people, but you have to look for them. You might find them in unexpected places.
The holidays are a strange mix of emotions for me. Being in recovery isn’t easy, but I have enough faith to believe it will be worth it. My best to all of you who find yourselves in a complicated place this season. You aren’t alone. As I celebrate the birth of the Savior, my model of mental health and altruistic virtue, this month, I hope I can better emulate Him. I hope my words bring you light and hope and not despair.
The axe forgets. Only the tree remembers.
You had an ideal childhood.
We played games
We went on vacations
We loved you
Those things are all true
But you don’t remember
Feeling your throat in your mouth
As each smash of your hand
Reverberated through my body.
Afraid to run.
Afraid to breathe.
Seeing stars come into my eyes
Terror mixed with shame
You don’t remember the thrill of fear
Travelling up my spine
When I heard the door open,
And I knew you were home.
The rush to hide.
To make myself small.
You were fear personified
And I ran from you.
Like a child runs from
A monster in the closet.
You don’t remember
That desperate need to please
To be good enough
To earn your love
Like a famished beast
It consumed joy and peace of mind
In the womb
Before it could be felt.
Or maybe you do remember
But you want to forget
The memories of your own small self
You defend the ones who hurt you.
You side with them.
They still have the power
And you are still trying to earn their love.
The axe forgets, but the tree remembers.
Can the axe remember that it was once a tree?
Long ago before it became a brittle and dead thing
Designed to destroy its children,
It was green, and it swayed in the wind,
As it flowed through the branches.
Can the axe remember?
Let’s write a different story.
Let’s change the ending.
The powerful can remember
The pain of their choices
On those they forget.
Let’s give the future fertilizer,
And put the axe in the shed.
A timeout for a while.
Let's dig a hole in the Earth
And in that soft soil,
We can grow some seedlings.
And they won’t fear the axe.
And they won’t remember
What they don’t have to forget.
The axe can remember
And the tree can forget.
Cold and hard
Silent and still
My heart raging
My throat bursting
My shoulders constricting.
“YOU DID THIS!”
The echoes reverberate
Off the empty chairs
They stand accused
With no defense
“YOU DID THIS!”
The sound blossoms
Across the generations
Like the ripples of a fetid pool
A pool they made
And I had to live in.
“YOU DID THIS!”
And there was nothing I could do
To help you
To protect myself
Powerless, alone, silent, still.
“YOU DID THIS!”
Tears stick in unfocused eyes
As blood drips down my face
At pain unfelt
At justice denied.
“YOU DID THIS!”
And I paid the price
For your mistake
The sacrificial lamb
“YOU DID THIS!”
But I won’t become you.
They won’t atone for our sins.
I won’t curse the future
To justify the past.
“YOU DID THIS!”
And it isn’t my fault.
I can walk away
From the darkness
Into a rebirth
A new beginning
As I’ve progressed in my faith journey/crisis, I’ve pondered on what values I want to pass onto my children. Society is at a crisis point in values. Is it virtuous to wear a mask, or stand for freedom and go without? Is it virtuous to welcome refugees and desperate migrants into your nation, or to build walls to shut them out for the safety against those who would do us harm? Conflicting messages, laws and policies are shouted from leaders. “Defund the police!” “Build the Wall!” “Don’t tread on me!” This is a confusing time to live as an adult, let alone as a child. I have my work cut out for me in raising my children with a coherent value system.
As I’ve tried to orient myself and discover my core values, there are a few things I’ve learned. First, the value of a joyful life. I’ve lived poor and I’ve lived with money. I’ve lived in bad weather, and in good weather. I’ve lived in sickness and in health. I haven’t lived in joy very often.
I remember in my childhood, my Grandma Henrie’s apartment complex had a swimming pool. I looked forward to our visits to see her each year mostly because I got to go swimming. I would cling to an inflatable tube and spin in circles for hours. That exhilaration was something I looked forward to through all the months of snow and ice in Idaho. Now as an adult, I have a community swimming pool nearly in my backyard. It is so close, we can walk to it in less than five minutes. Yet for the four years I have had access to it, I have hardly ever used it. When I would take the kids swimming, I would usually stay in the shade on the side of the pool and watch them joyfully splash and play. Maybe I thought joyful living was supposed to be for kids.
I got an Apple Watch for my birthday this year, and one of the features it has is the ability to track swimming for exercise. This changed things for me. By the middle of the summer, I was going to the pool with the kids every day. I would swim laps while they played and I would get my exercise in. It was a little boring after a while, but it was refreshing and it was good for the kids. Austin would cling to my back as I plowed through the water. I taught him the strokes I was doing and he picked them up. It was beautiful to see him relax and learn to move in the water with confidence. Later, I watched a synchronized swimming routine in the Tokyo olympics. I read about artistic swimming. I watched videos on how to do a few moves. I ordered a swim cap and some nose plugs on Amazon.
I went from swimming laps in the pool for exercise, to doing somersaults, handstands, and all kinds of acrobatics in the water. It was fun! I remembered what it felt like to be a child and rejoice in the ability to move joyfully. I stretched and swam and spun in circles. I felt alive in a way that I hadn’t felt for years. I felt awake after years of sleepy depression. It has been almost a month since I rediscovered the joy of swimming. I’ve been doing it every day. After my morning swim, I feel energized, and clear headed. I feel a rush of ideas about other joyful things I could do to fill up my days. Planting a new flower, making some delicious food, planning lunch with a friend, or doing some art; these ideas prance through my joyful mind and the anxieties of the pandemic and Afganistan crisis fade into the distance for a while. No matter how stressful the circumstances of my life are, a few moments of joyful, purposeful living can make those burdens easier to bear.
The value of joyful living is one I want to pass to my children. Rather than pack their schedules with classes, chores, and activities and then nag them all the time to practice and work harder, I want to instill in them the need for regular joyful living. I want them to find the thing that makes them feel alive. They don’t need to do it for a living or even become good at it. It isn’t the task or activity itself that matters, it’s how you feel when you do it. God said that men are that they might have joy. When we live joyfully, we fulfill our highest purpose. When we deny ourselves of joyful living, we deprive ourselves of a core need.
Another value I want to pass on to my children is the value of kindness. We live in a world full of people. There are millions of us interacting with one another on the roads, in the stores, and online. We are witnesses to thousands of deaths, births, sicknesses, failures and triumphs every day. It is easy to begin to believe that people are not valuable and that our lives have little meaning. Each act of kindness renews our faith that there is worth in the human soul. When our act of kindness blesses another person, we make an impact on the world. We matter. Even if the person we are kind to is most insignificant and the kind act imperceptibly small, it makes the world better.
The third value is introspection. It is so easy to see sin and folly without. It is much more difficult to see it within. Introspection is the often uncomfortable scrutinizing of our own selves. We get to see our flaws with razor precision when we introspect. When we are familiar with our own soul, its strengths and flaws, its twists and turns, its folds and flaps, we are less vulnerable to flattery, less desperate for affirmation, and more realistic with our expectations. This leads us to the final virtue. Compassion.
Anyone who has done much introspection knows that compassion is the only remedy to the pain of self knowledge. To see yourself accurately, you have to reckon with the painful reality of your own sins and fallen nature. If you have children, this pain is compounded with the knowledge that you have passed these things on to your posterity where they will likely repeat themselves in an eternal dance of despair through the following generations. Compassion is the ability to love fallen things; to see beauty in broken. Our children, our parents, our family, our friends; we are all broken and fallen things. We cut one another with our broken parts. We bleed because we are alive and we dare to love one another in spite of the risks. Compassionate eyes can look at this messy scene and see the beauty in it. We can love the participants without judgement and without shame; knowing that we are all in need of redemption. Somehow, all these things will work together for the benefit of all of us.
These four values are the core values I want to pass on to my children. I hope that I can teach them through example the benefits of living this way. I wrote a short parable I am planning to share with them tonight at dinner. Hopefully this will help instill in them the values I want them to learn.
The Joy of Thy Lord
“The baby is crying again!” he said with disgust. “What’s wrong with it now?”
“He just wants a little snuggle,” his mother said softly as she picked up the squalling child. “See, now he’s feeling better.”
Later, at play, “Mom, I stubbed my toe!” he screamed in pain.
“Here, let me kiss it better. Do you need some ice?” his mother replied.
“No, I’m a tough kid,” he said, rubbing the tears from his eyes. Somehow the kiss always made it feel a little better.
Later at school the child saw a boy teased and rejected, chased away from the others. “What’s wrong with him?” he thought. He remembered his mother and thought, maybe he just needs some love. And he invited him to play with him and his friends. The playground was a kinder place.
Many years later the boy sat trying to do his schoolwork as his younger siblings played loudly behind him. “Can’t you make them stop!” he roared to his mother.
“No, I can’t, and if I could I wouldn’t. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to concentrate, isn’t it? Try to be patient. They are young. They will learn to be quiet just as you have learned. Some things cannot be rushed,” she replied.
He went to a quiet place to finish his work. He thought angrily of how easily the other students seemed to complete their assignments. Why could he not learn this faster! Then he remembered his mother and he thought, “Be patient with yourself. You will learn it, just as they have learned it. Some things can’t be rushed.” He took a deep breath and started again. The bedroom was a kinder place.
Years later the boy came home to visit from college. He ate a full meal and packed up food for his small apartment pantry. “Thanks Mom! I’ve been SO hungry. I wish I could cook as good as you can!” he thought of the macaroni and cheese he had been eating for a week.
“It takes time to learn to provide for yourself. You will learn. There is always food waiting for you here until you do,” she said as she kissed him goodbye.
On the way home he saw a weather beaten man with a cardboard sign that said, “Hungry. Please help me.” He thought of his mother and wondered why this old man hadn’t learned to provide for himself. Sometimes these things can take time, he reasoned. He took some bread he had taken from his mother’s kitchen and gave it to the man. The neighborhood was a kinder place.
And so the boy became a man and he learned patience and love. He gave to those in need and he waited patiently as the Lord worked his miracles in the life of each person. And he knew God. And the world was a kinder place when he left it.
“Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful over a few things. I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Matthew 25:21
Anger in. Self hatred, regret, despair. Why did I share? Why did I speak? I am broken and they are too. There is no point in expression. The fruit of it is judgement and gossip and pain. Stay hidden. Stay safe. Stay alone.
Why hope that someone will care? Why hope that someone will understand? Why hope that by sharing my broken, that someone else might not feel alone?
This life is darkness and despair. Expect the worst in others and yourself because then you won’t be disappointed.
But he didn’t hide. He shared. He spoke. He gave hope because he revealed himself. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoso believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life! There is hope in him.
So I will set anger on the table and look at it for a while. Anger in. Anger out. Broken relationships like shards of glass scattered on the table. I will wait as always…..on my face, at His feet.
It was a beautiful day in September 2001. The sun beat down on the fragrant gardens of temple square, and I looked and felt radiant in my wedding dress. There had never been a finer looking man by my side. He was tall, handsome, strong, and righteous. We had made it to the temple having kept the law of chastity and we had a bright future ahead. It would be our happily ever after. As my face scanned the crowd, I saw him. My smile faded a little. Why did he have to be here? Why was this dark cloud of dread on the horizon of my day in the sun?
My father-in-law looked handsome. My sister even commented at how nice looking he was with his graying beard and sunglasses. Fit and trim in his tuxedo, he looked dashing even for a man in his late fifties. With elegant features and natural good looks, he blended nicely with the gathered crowd. His speech and manner seemed more refined than his brothers and sisters and other family who tended to be boisterous and rough around the edges. I knew he had been the only one of his many siblings to graduate from college. He had taught middle school for many years. Still, I much preferred his unpolished relatives to this man. I knew who he was.
Months before I had lain on a couch frozen with fear as I heard him verbally abusing his wife. He sounded like a monster. When I confronted my husband-to-be about the terrible things I had witnessed, he confided his family’s secrets to me. Some of them. His dad had a dark side. As he explained his dad to me, I felt a revulsion combined with heartrending sympathy. I wished I could unhear the jarring things that I had heard.
He said his father had been sexually victimized as a child. He had depression. He was unemployed and abusive to his wife. He had walked down the highway naked in an attempt to end his life. He had struggled with an addiction to masterbation on his mission that had caused self-esteem problems. It was later that I became aware of his more troubling history.
He had been caught peeping on his bishop’s daughter when his family lived in Vernal. Ben was just a baby then. They had left Vernal. Later he was found using mirrors to peep on women in the J.C. Penny dressing room in Logan. Peeping was something of an addiction with him, I was told. I marveled at the planning and premeditation that must have gone into such a plan. This was a dangerous man. But Ben insisted that all that was in the past and that his dad would never hurt me.
In the first year of our marriage, we went up to Cub River to visit Ben’s family almost every week. It began to interfere with my schooling because I didn’t have enough time to study. Ben’s mom and sisters were fun and kind and eager to build a good relationship with me. And then there was Ben’s dad, always on the periphery. He said very little, but his presence was large. I didn’t like him, and I made little secret about it. Mostly I ignored him.
When we got back from our honeymoon after the September 11th attacks, Ben’s dad gave us an impassioned speech in which he said that the United States deserved the attack because of the legalization of abortion. He insisted that Ben enlist in the army as soon as possible. He knew that this was the beginning of world war three and that enlisting was the only way to avoid the draft and being sent to the front lines, “where the stupid people are sent.” I felt a mixture of terror and dread and rage. My father-in-law was insane. Would my husband enlist? He had blamed my country for horrible terror attack and then implied that the only reason someone might fight on the front lines in war was because they were too stupid to game the system. Who says stuff like that? When we got into the car to leave the house, I said to Ben, “You aren’t going to enlist are you?” Ben said, “My dad doesn’t make my decisions for me. We will look into it. That’s what I told him I would do.” Ben eventually joined the ROTC.
At a family function, we were all seated at a large table. Ben’s extended family were all around and we were discussing something. I had a great love and respect for Ben’s dad’s mother and I asked her a question. Ben’s dad interrupted and answered it. I interrupted him and said, “Yes, but I asked her.” There was a very awkward silence. Later, Ben’s sister confronted me about the way I had treated her dad. I can’t remember what I said, but something about that I didn’t like the way he treats her mom. That set her off. She was livid at the disrespect. I was not allowed to have negative opinions about her dad. After discussing the situation with Ben and enduring many awkward hours, I finally decided to apologize to Ben’s dad and make nice. He apologized as well, and everything was okay again. Except I started getting sick whenever I went up to Cub River to visit.
It wasn’t intentional, although I’m sure it seemed like it was. We would make the drive up the canyon, turn onto the winding dirt roads, and park in front of the beautiful cabin with the fantastic mountain view, and I would find a bedroom to lie down while everyone socialized. Sometimes it was a headache. Many times I was sick to my stomach. I would sometimes vomit.
I tried to pretend that everything was okay, that everyone didn’t treat Ben’s mom like crap, that his dad wasn’t creepy and that this family wasn’t all wrong. Sometimes it would get easier. Then we would get a phone call from Ben’s mom.
She would call every couple of weeks and talk to Ben about what his dad had been doing. She and his dad seemed to have a weird connection. It seemed like she would know when he had been messing around sexually, and he would tell her what he had done. Sometimes she would tell the bishop, or she would have him tell the bishop; I’m not sure which. It was always a big crisis and then when she decided that he had repented, we were told to forgive and forget. I told Ben that was what abusers want you to do. Then they can keep hurting you.
One day Ben was on the phone with his mom. He was white and clearly devastated. He said, “How can we know that our wives are safe? What about our children?” I knew this was big. Ben told me that his youngest sister, who was fourteen, had her best friend over to spend the night. Ben’s dad had groped her. For a while, I just sat there in shock. I thought of that poor girl and her parents who had trusted the wrong family. I thought of the betrayal of a young girl by her father. This was her best friend. What else was this man capable of? I felt the shame of being in his family. I knew that what he had done was criminal, but I had no proof. I had heard the story from someone who heard the story from someone else. I knew I was supposed to forget what I had been told, but I never did. Later, when the sister got married, her best friend was in the wedding line. It was jarring to think that this was the girl my father-in-law had abused. She was so beautiful. One of the prettiest girls I had ever seen and she was standing in the wedding line only a stone’s throw from the man who groped her in her sleep. I wondered how he had managed to get away with it. The girl must not have known what happened. For a moment I wondered if I had remembered correctly. I checked back in my journal where I recorded what I had been told. The girl’s name was the same.
One of the most disturbing things I witnessed was at a birthday party for Ben’s dad. Ben’s mother had bought her husband a high powered telescope. I was appalled. I looked at Ben and there didn’t seem to be any concern in his eyes. Was I crazy? I knew they had said he had an addiction to peeping on women and no one bats an eye when he gets a high powered telescope for his birthday? To watch deer? I wanted to run down the mountain and tell every woman in the valley to pull her shutters. I felt so helpless.
When Ben and I moved to Texas, that meant that we had some good distance from Ben’s dad. It was only occasionally that we had to see them and gradually his hold over Ben receded. I was a little relieved that our first child was a son. Our second son came soon after. Even though they were boys, I still couldn’t quell my anxiety. I remember preparing for a trip to visit Ben’s family and I gathered my two toddler boys close and talked to them about appropriate and inappropriate touching. Ben saw what I was doing and became enraged at me. We both knew why I was doing it. He said, “You give them those talks every time we go and see my family and they are going to put it together!” I was hurt and angry. Did my children not matter? I didn’t even want to think about me. I didn’t matter either. What if I woke to find his hand in my shirt? What would happen? I knew that I would be expected to forgive and move on. If my children were victimized, I would be expected to do the same. I felt so unloved and afraid.
Eventually, after my third son was born and I was in therapy, I talked to my bishop about my anxiety about Ben’s dad and my children. I told him that my father-in-law had a sex addiction and a diagnosis of NPD. I suspected that he had victimized children in the past and was concerned that he would hurt my children or me. I told him that he was going through a second set of church authorized sex addiction recovery sessions, but that I had doubts they would be successful. He assured me that my concerns were valid. I also talked to my counselor and he encouraged me to take measures to protect my children. Still, I didn’t have the courage to do it until I prayed and knew it was the right thing to do.
First, I had to talk to Ben. It started out really badly. I told him that I no longer felt comfortable spending the night at his parent’s house or allowing his dad to have any time with our children without direct supervision from one of us. He was angry. He told me he should never have told me about his dad. He should have known that I wouldn’t understand. That hurt. I remember asking him some hard questions. What would he do if his dad victimized me? Did I matter to him? What would happen if he hurt one of our children? At first he denied that possibility, but I persisted. Did he think his dad was capable of sleeping with a prostitute, visiting strip clubs, or groping a teenager in his home? Did he really know I was safe? I’ll never forget the tortured expression on his face. He knew I was right to be concerned. There was a risk, and he knew, maybe better than I did, that no one mattered in his family except his dad. If one of us was hurt, his dad would not be held accountable. He agreed to the boundaries.
Second, I had to tell my mother-in-law we would not be staying with them. I insisted that we just loved Ben’s sister and wanted to stay with her. She insisted that Ben’s dad would be so disappointed if we didn’t stay. She lovingly asked if there was anything that was making me feel like not staying at their house. I knew that she knew why. I decided to tell her the sexual addiction was a problem. I wanted to prevent a bad situation. She insisted that if I didn’t stay with them, that his depression would get worse. I held my ground and she did too. Finally I said that the three incidents that caused me concern were, the peeping on the girl in Vernal, the J.C. Penny peeping, and the groping of the fourteen year old friend. Her tone changed instantly. “How did you hear about those things?!?” Then she pivoted, “Those things never happened,” she said emphatically. I said, “I would never make those things up. You told Ben those things and he told me. Do you think Ben made them up?” She changed tack. “I know that (he) would NEVER hurt you. I can promise you that! I have received revelation and I know that he would never hurt you or your boys.” I guess I was supposed to take comfort in her supernatural ability to know what her husband was capable of, but I knew she didn’t protect Joann’s friend, and I knew she couldn’t protect me or my boys.
I was at my parent’s house at the time of this conversation. I was devastated by how my valid concerns and efforts to protect my family had been received by someone I thought cared about me. Ben’s mom announced to everyone that Ben and I would no longer stay with Ben’s dad because of me. Ben’s dad called Ben and said, “Just let me know if I need to go away for a while so that you can stay at the house.” Some family members were very angry with me, but others were surprisingly sympathetic. I found out later that another sister-in-law had expressed similar concerns and set similar boundaries.
Ben went up to visit his family first, and I drove down to meet him later. His family seemed to go out of their way to be nice to him and treat him special. He assured me that everything was going to be fine and that no one was going to be mean to me. We ended up staying in a hotel which made everything a lot easier. It was awkward, but our new boundaries were respected and although they were challenged regularly in our yearly visits, we maintained them and our children were safe. I would have talks with the boys about sexual abuse before each visit and check with them after.
Ben’s dad would toy with me. He would go out and mingle with the grandkids when he knew I was visiting with other family members. I had to stay vigilant and always be aware of where he was. I would feel a jolt of panic if I saw him with the children. I would approach them and watch from a distance. Once he locked eyes with me and then took my son around a hill to where I couldn’t see them. I didn’t know if I should panic and make a scene. I was sure he was hurting my boy, but then a moment later, they were back. He did that with two of my boys that day ages 10 and 9. The first chance I got I asked both of the children directly, “Did your grandpa touch you?” They both said no. It was just a game for him. He wanted me to know that it didn’t matter how hard I tried to protect myself, that he was in control. He could have hurt them. He didn’t. My concerns were invalid.
He was a cunning abuser. His abuse of his wife was obvious, but he was subtle with everyone else. He was condescending and cruel to his wife, but she played her part so well that it almost seemed like she deserved it. It was almost impossible not to despise her. Aside from the victims of his sexual abuse, he was very indirect. He never said an unkind thing to me in all the years I was married to Ben. He used his enablers to keep me in line. The sister who dressed me down for disrespect, his wife who pressured me to put my children at risk; they were his flying monkeys doing his dirty work for him and all the while he could sit back and look like the innocent victim of my judgemental cruelty. He was very subtle and shrewd.
One day I overheard Ben and his mom discussing his dad’s latest plan to make money by making some kind of investment in Thailand. I knew that Thailand was the pedophile capital of the world and my stomach dropped. He was going to go there to victimize vulnerable children in a third world country! I decided to call his bishop and express my concerns. His bishop was aware of his plans and knew exactly why he wanted to go to that particular country. It was a relief to talk to someone who seemed to be as concerned about his behavior as I was. That bishop, as well as many others and a family counselor, tried to help his family and hold him accountable, but that was difficult to do. He had a superhuman ability to justify his behavior. Nothing was ever his fault and his web of enablers constantly fed his need to feel superior.
Still, I could tell his power over the family was fading over time. His two sons had encouraged their mother to leave him. When Ben’s grandpa died, his mom made the trip to be with her family for her father’s funeral. Ben’s dad was angry that he wasn’t getting her attention and he took his revenge by going to a strip club instead of being there to support his wife of over forty years bury her father. Her family was livid. Even her children were angry. He had been unworthy to attend the temple for years even missing the weddings of his children. He still tried to command religious authority, even insisting on making a speech before a baby blessing in which he was unworthy to take part in, but such displays only seemed to make him seem more pathetic. He still had a hold on several family members. Ben’s brother had joined the army after his mission. He didn’t go to college, choosing a career in sales instead. These things were in line with the values of his father. Ben’s sisters were likewise influenced, but they were putting time and energy into their own families. Ben’s dad’s constant demands on the time and energy of his wife made things difficult for them too. His assurances that this month he was going to start making his fortune in his network marketing business, started ringing hollow as grinding years of poverty passed. I saw several healthy signs that perhaps the iron grip of the abuser would not crush the family after all. There seemed to be more acceptance and empathy for me and other family members who stepped outside of the controlling grip of the web the abuser had woven.
Then Ben’s dad was diagnosed with stage four liver and colon cancer. I felt a wave of relief. He would be gone, and I could enjoy family gatherings without the stress of making sure he wasn’t going to hurt my kids! Everything was going to be okay. How wrong I was.
The cancer re-established his complete dominance over his family. He was no longer a weak and tantrum prone narcissist, he was now a cancer victim. This rapid transformation from abuser to victim was a frightening thing to observe. A narcissist is at his best when he is seen as a victim, so he relished his new role. He was intoxicated by the idea of beating the odds and overcoming the cancer. His family was elated when he told them he would repent and get his recommend renewed. He was going to be a new man, but first, he had chosen the most unconventional and expensive treatment plan available which would involve an extended stay at a health spa in Mexico. Ben’s siblings immediately began taking out loans to make it happen. He gave stirring speeches, and brought my own teenage son to tears. I was terrified at the power of his manipulations. I suddenly understood cult leaders and the power they had over their congregations. I was sure that Ben would fall for it and we would be sucked in financially. Fortunately, Ben and I agreed to limit our support to what we could handle in spite of incredible pressure from family members. They did make it happen. He had everything he wanted, but even so, he was going to die. He came back from Mexico, he “repented” of his sins (which sins he repented of are unclear) and had his temple recommend restored before he passed away. Now everything is forgiven and forgotten for good…….except no one is allowed to talk about what happened and the ways it has impacted our lives. At least not openly.
For a while, I hoped that now that he was gone, that we could talk about what he had done to us and how we could move forward and heal, but such openness about the past is not allowed with most family members. I have talked to Ben’s mom who has admitted that her husband was abusive. Unfortunately, she wants to think that the abuse was not that bad. Sometimes she assures me that she plans to have some family counseling sessions. Nothing comes of it. I suspect she is telling me what I want to hear. I sent a letter to one sister that I felt a close connection with. The letter was an explanation of my feelings about her dad and how I would never see him the way she does and if that is something we can agree to disagree about. I didn’t hear back from her. When I brought it up weeks later, it was really awkward. I broke the one rule in the family that is not forgivable; I refused the family narrative.
In a narcissistic family system, appearances are the only thing that matter. Looking good is essential. In order to feed the insatiable ego of the narcissist, even in death, he must be praised and felt sorry for and his perfect family must live out his narcissistic fantasies. The family narrative is that he lived a tragic and flawed life, but he has been redeemed. His spirit apparently appears in the temple from time to time according to some family members. The family narrative is that everyone has healed, except Ben and me. We were told that we project our own dysfunction onto them (My dysfunction in particular since I am the outsider). In spite of that, there is ample evidence of serious psychological dysfunction in almost every family member. The carnage is undeniable, but the victims are unable to see it and unwilling to confront the awful truth about the abuse that they suffered. As always, the victims don’t matter in a narcissistic system. They need to forgive and forget as soon as possible and then go back to playing their assigned roles. And the cycle of abuse repeats itself within the family. New abusers and new victims, but the same abusive patterns modeled and practiced for generations.
A year ago in therapy, I spent hours and hours writing letters to different members of Ben’s family. I was convinced that if I said the right things, that they would love and accept me, that they would understand that I was not to blame for the situation that their father created. If I just wrote convincingly enough, they would heal and we could be an eternal family. Eventually, after literally hundreds of type-written pages, I wept. I wept and wept and wept as I said goodbye to my husband’s family. I still love them, but they don’t love me and they probably never will. I can’t change them and I’ve finally accepted that. They want me to do the one thing I can’t do; deny my reality and trade it for theirs.
Last summer we visited Idaho. We didn’t see any members of Ben’s family. I don’t know when or if we will see them again. Even the thought of it makes me physically ill. The only people I allow into my life now are people who respect my boundaries. The only relationships I invest in are those that feel good and allow me to speak openly when they don’t. Life is too short to cultivate the other kind.
I still love them. They were a part of my life and my husband’s life and our shared history. They are valuable children of God who were abused by someone who should have loved and nurtured them. They were betrayed, manipulated, exploited, and lied to. The wounds in my relationship with them are just a fraction of the sad consequences of his terrible choices. I don’t blame them, but they aren’t safe for me. I love them too much and I feel too sorry for them, and I’m too eager to save them when it isn’t within my power to do so. In the end, God is the only one who can sort it out. They have their path and I have mine and those paths diverged. Thankfully, my husband continues to walk the path with me. We have plenty of problems in our little family, but we are honest and authentic and strive to meet the needs of our children rather than exploit them for our narcissistic supply.
Some may question why I call my husband’s father a predator. To me, a predator is a complex part of an ecosystem that is cunning and exploitative and I feel that word encapsulates my observations of him and the web of enablers that surrounded him in life. I don’t use the word predator to dehumanize him. On the contrary, I hope my account reveals the man behind the epithet. He was not a monster, he was human, but he was as dangerous as a monster. He was clever and manipulative and I indirectly enabled his behavior with my silence. I know that because I was never completely under the control of the family system, I was not privy to most of their secrets. In the beginning, they let me in on a few things, but I had a troubling habit of remembering them. I don’t think they ever really trusted me. I’ve always seen his abuse as an iceberg in which what I saw was a small fraction of the whole.
Once, Ben’s sister was in a custody dispute with an ex-husband over their two daughters. She called Ben in a very angry and defensive tone and demanded to know what he had told her ex. He confronted her with the fact that their dad had groped a teenager in their home. She said dismissively, “That is nothing. What do you know? What have you told him?” Ben said he had no idea what she was talking about and that he had said nothing. I have often thought about what we don’t know that would make the sexual assault of a minor child “nothing” in comparison? What was Ben’s sister so desperate to keep a secret from her ex-husband that would endanger her custody bid? How many victims did this man have? What is the shape of the iceberg beneath the surface?
I may never know. I was never meant to know. I was only meant to supply. I supplied my children, my facade of normalcy, my smiling face in family photos, and my silence. Until now. I am silent no more. All predators and their enablers have been given warning to stay away from me and everyone I love. I will expose you. I have no sympathy for you. I will not be manipulated or made to serve you. I will set boundaries with you, I will call law enforcement on you when you break the law, and I will report you to the church authorities. Enablers slander my reputation, but they know the truth even if they don’t want to look at it. The truth has a habit of resurfacing no matter how hard you want to deny it. I will never again be made to stay silent.
Dropping off Austin at preschool today felt so amazing. There is nothing better than to walk with your head up, not having to wrestle with a little ball of energy that tries to dart into the path of every passing car. With my brain free to focus for a few hours on whatever I choose, I decided to write for a while.
I’ve been doing a lot of pondering on transgenerational trauma, which is a growing area of scientific research. Check out an excellent article from Psychology Today called “How Trauma is Carried Across Generations.” One of the groups of people most often cited in studies of transgenerational trauma is children of holocaust survivors. The idea is, that the holocaust was so horrific and the trauma so great that one generation could not absorb it all. Holocaust survivors had to pass their trauma on to their children and grandchildren. Some studies even indicate that our genetic makeup can change in response to trauma. This article explores some of those ideas.
I wrote a blog post some time ago about my parents’ families and the trauma that has been suffered and the ways I have seen that trauma effect me, my siblings, and my cousins. In my scripture study, my internet research, and pondering on the experiences of my own life, I am coming to a greater understanding of the crucial role that family, and particularly our ancestors, play in our lives.
Parenting is so hard. This weekend was particularly crazy. Breaking up fights, taking sharp objects from the three year old, helping a child work through a melt down……all of those things are commonplace in our home. I have depression, we pretty much all have ADHD, and we have a toddler, which is like having a blender with no lid spewing chaos in his wake. We threw Austin’s shredded pacifier in the trash two weeks ago. He is still not sleeping well. I have resorted to driving him around in the van so he will take a short nap. If he doesn’t nap, he will scream constantly. A couple of days ago he was screaming at me, for twenty minutes non-stop. You try to tune it out, but it wears on your nerves. Eventually, I tried offering him some hot chocolate. He likes to eat the whipping cream that I put on the top. I tried giving him a spoonful of the white fluffy goodness half melted in chocolate. He turned his face away. I ate it myself and he was clearly offended and screamed even louder. I got him another spoonful. He was starting to get red in the face. Finally, after a loud game of toddler charades, I figured out that he wanted to spray the cream into the cup himself. I let him do it once and he was happy. Of course, he was furious again when I wouldn’t let him endlessly spray cream into the cup. So he was back to screaming.
If he is not screaming at me, he is finding scissors, knifes, paint, or breakable things. Sunday I thought it would be fun to have him play with some playdough on the kitchen table. A few minutes after starting the activity, there were playdough toys scattered in a twenty-foot radius. Pieces of playdough littered the floor in a ten foot radius. In the middle of this cyclone of stickiness, there was Austin, his church clothes embedded with orange and green splotches, standing on the table. With an expression of maniacal glee, he stomped and threw stuff.
“No, no,” Momma patiently insists. I take him off the table. “You sit in your chair.” I start sweeping playdough and picking up toys. Austin sits for less than a minute before trying to climb back on top of the table. “Austin, you need to sit and think about it?” He seems to ignore me, but my voice triggers a response in him. It seems as though the threat of consequences switches the chaos into high gear. With a swift gesture, he sweeps all the remaining playdough supplies onto the floor; a dramatic climax to an ill fated adventure. No more playdough.
I’m not even going to go into Devin and the adventures of teenager angst. The glazed expression of annoyance, the condescending tone, the irritation that we don’t understand his terms or care sufficiently about how cool or uncool we are. Sigh.
Parenting is so hard. We tried to gather the kids together on Sunday for our weekly gospel study. Austin sits for no one. The other kids are wandering around looking for scriptures and journals. Then they get distracted and need redirection. By the time everyone is sitting and ready to start, the tension is already high, and inevitably one of them needs to go use the bathroom. Mom and Dad start firing questions to get brains engaged. “Who remembers who John the Baptist was?” Stunned silence and vacant expressions. “Wesley, who was John the Baptist?” After a pause, “He was a baptist??” And so we work like house elves to draw their thinking out and get them to put something in their study journals. Yesterday at family dinner we talked about the importance of personal scripture study and prayer in developing strong testimonies. I asked them how they felt like they were doing in developing their testimony. Crickets.
Every day the impossible expectations of parenting weigh me down. The patient attentiveness, the alert awareness, the interactive presentness of good parenting is so hard to maintain for any significant length of time. With four children, the individual attention and love each child requires to function optimally seems eternally out of reach. If only I could clone myself!
I share these things with you, not just for you to laugh at, but also to consider the magnitude of the task each parent faces. We as parents stand in the place of God himself to our children. We are the all powerful creators of their reality. I feel much more like the Wizard of Oz with plenty of smoke and mirrors as I threaten my children with “serious consequences” for their disobedience, than I do a wise and judicious God who is in control of all things.
When my children become parents, perhaps they will understand me better. Perhaps they will find some empathy for what I was doing and have mercy on me for the multitude of ways I have fallen short in my parenting. One thing I will never do is hold myself up as the one who had it all figured out, with a set of rigid expectations for how they need to parent their own children. I plan to explore this issue in future posts, but I’m going to go in a different direction today.
Our parents shape us. There is no question about that. I have observed that the default human tendency is to exalt our parents. If we have superior parents, that follows that we are superior. That can feel pretty good. It’s also easy because we can parent just like our parent’s did, and all will be well. When we find fault with our parents and the way they did things, we are by extension, finding fault with ourselves. In addition, if our parents messed up, that means we have to work hard to do something different. This is so much more than just blaming parents, it is setting aside the illusions reinforced in the family narrative that is driving dysfunctional thinking and depressive symptoms.
Therapy is, at its core, intense and rigorous introspection. Like a cancer screening, you must enter each psychic cellular crack and crevice to find the places where unhealthy thoughts and behaviors take root. Sometimes those poisonous plants have seeds sown in previous generations. More problematic still, the prior generations are not likely to take kindly to suggestions that their methods were hurtful and wrong.
Ideally, we can split off from our parents, make our own paths, take the good that they gave us and go a different direction. Unfortunately, in dysfunctional families, that is almost impossible to do. Like crabs in a bucket, a dysfunctional family will pull one another back into the bucket each time one the members tries to escape. Scapegoating, gaslighting, and projecting are all too common in these families. The therapy patient can be overwhelmed with the reality of the awful state of things as they confront the larger systemic problems in their family.
Looking on from the outside, is recovery even worth it? Isn’t it better to follow the family narrative, make everyone happy, and live depressed? I’ve often wondered the same thing. Why confront the family illusions? Why rock the boat? The answer is in the faces of my children. They deserve better.
They deserve a mom that is not depressed. They deserve a family narrative that is honest and holds up to scrutiny. They deserve better and I am going to give it to them. I have a dream of a family unencumbered by the cancer of shame and the demons of depression; a large and prosperous posterity that can realize the potential that lies in each individual member. I pray to my Savior that I can have the courage and wisdom to depart from the sins and errors of the past and bring my family onto a better path, a more perfect way. My Savior is the Father of my destiny, the pilot of my tomorrow. He will guide me and my little ones to lie down in green pastures. I put my trust in him and no one else.