abuse, enabler style

I am raised by a family of triangulating enablers and enablees.

The enablers are my mother and two uncles. They are very very smart. Let me qualify that: they are very very smart intellectually. Emotionally, not so much.

The two uncles have PhDs and are professors. They marry wives that are lessor in their view. One tells my mother that he wants a woman who is not as bright as he is. I don’t know if she is less bright, but she is a hella better athlete. I also have the impression that she had a time where she drank too much.

The other uncle marries a woman who tends to be a hypochondriac. He takes her to India, where she gets polio while pregnant. She is then a sick hypochondriac, which is very difficult. The ill can control their families by planning things and then getting sick at the last moment. On the other hand, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia are very real and we are on the edge of figuring them out. That uncle divorces his wife and I instantly like both of them better. They stop being a weird unit and are suddenly individuals.

My mother tells me, when I am in college, “I wondered if your father was an alcoholic when I married him.” I want to hit her. She won’t leave him, she won’t stop enabling him, they scream at each other at 2 am often. Now I wonder about that and conclude that either screaming at someone was something she needed or she was an alchoholic too.

After my mother dies, I ask my uncle, what about his parents? After all, the three of them learned enabling somewhere and it pretty much has to be at home.

My uncle tells me his parents had a PERFECT marriage and that my grandmother LOVED being the wife of a physician and professor.

Um, so, then, why did she pay my tuition to medical school, uncle?

And I think about my mother’s stories. Once, she says, your Uncle Jim bet his friend Dick that Dick was too chicken to shoot a cigarette out of Jim’s mother’s mouth. Ooooo. With a rubber band shooter. Yes, my grandmother. Bob took the bet and succeeded. My grandmother roared with anger and the two boys ran like hell and hid.

And someone in the family tells me: your grandfather helped your grandmother control her temper.

There it is. The enabler/enablee.

The enablers die first. My grandfather of cancer at 79, my mother of cancer at 62. The cousins are all angry at me because I won’t follow the family rules and triangulate in a satisfactory manner, and I don’t care any more. I am ignoring them. I got my father’s banjo back and I am done. The two cousins I own land with jointly are not the worst triangulators.

I have to remind myself: for them, this is love. For some people, controlling or being controlled is what functions as love and intimacy. Fighting and tears when person A talks to person C about person B and person C then lets person B know, that is how they feel close. It is not only families, but communities. Clay Shirky’s description of a group being it’s own worst enemy describes the same patterns: identify an enemy inside or outside the group and then everyone comes together against the enemy. The enemy says the wrong thing, doesn’t worship the right god/desses, wears different clothes, looks different. And the group feels safer once the scapegoat has been killed, the guy has been burned. It would be nice if we could burn a ritual guy instead of torching each other.

The real anger is in the enabler. They control it by having the enablee express it. Then it is not “theirs”. They can feel superior to the enablee who is out of control. Sadly, the problem is only fixed temporarily and they will need their anger expressed again and again and again.

The cycle can be broken. It is a lot of work.



Adverse Childhood Experiences 13: unsense

As a child in an alcoholic/addict household where you can not trust adults, who do you trust?

You either trust yourself or you buy in the alcohol story.

If you buy in, you have a high probability of either becoming an addict or marrying one, depending if you prefer the enabler or the enablee role.

If you trust yourself, you develop certain senses. You pay attention to people’s emotions. You pay attention to what people FEEL, what people DO and not what people SAY. You do not care what they say: what matters is what they do. My sister said she used to walk my parent’s house during high school and try to feel the mood. Did she need to hide?

The enabler role is trying to control the other person. There are amazing variations on this. I cared for a person whose sister would not take care of herself. Every time the sister is hospitalized, the person goes and cleans tons of garbage and rotted food from the apartment.

“Stop doing that,” I say, “You are enabling her. Call Adult Protective Services to go look at it instead.”

It can be very difficult to stop and can take years. People can change.

I have noticed that the enabler role is lethal. The enablers seem to die before the enablee. Certainly in my immediate family and with many patients too.

Enablee is the person controlled. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, anger, emotions. It is very very interesting to watch. I have read parts of my mother’s diaries. She was the enabler, with my father as the enablee. However, the diaries document them fighting in the middle of the night when he is drunk. And I remember high school, putting the pillow over my ears, because they were screaming at each other.

But wait. Why would she argue with her drunk husband? Why would anyone argue with a drunk person? You have to wait until they are sober.

And slowly I realize that my mother too was an alcoholic. I remember her drinking. Best cover for an alcoholic is a worse alcoholic, right? It’s fairly horrid. But it explains some stories and my food insecurity. They would not get up in the morning to feed me. My mother told stories of me trying to feed myself: cheerios and laundry soap. If my father was hung over, ok, but, why wouldn’t my mother get up? I think they were both hung over. That or else she really did not want a child. Especially a nine month old with opinions while she was trying to get over tuberculosis. She never got to hold me after birth until 9 months. And then I did not want her. I wanted her mother.

Trusting yourself, life can be a bit complicated. You sense the emotions others are hiding. Being a physician allows me to ask about the hidden things, very gently. Sometimes they come out right away. Sometimes it takes months. Sometimes years and sometimes never. My sister and I discussed going to parties and thinking, oh, that person is the child of an addict/alcoholic. This person is in pain. This person is quite happy but hiding stuff.

I told a counselor I do not know how to turn it off. She replies, “Why do you think I am a counselor?”

I don’t see auras. I feel things: like a cloud. Like a tiger, like a bear, like a whale, singing.

I think I will go with the whale.

If you have to cry, do it on the boyfriend who wants you to be angry instead of sad

I used to have a temper that could be set off really really easily.

I had a boyfriend right out of college that said that I didn’t get angry “right”. He had a PhD and I was a mere done with undergraduate person, so what did I know? I went into counseling for a year.

Finally I said to him, “The counselor and I have tried presenting anger to you in every possible form and none of it is acceptable. So now she says you need to come to counseling too.”

His response: “What I want is for you to never get angry at me again.”

Mine: “You are dreaming.”

And so he broke up with me. Immediately. And said I was an ogre when I was angry.

I went back to counseling and was depressed for a year. Then I cheered up, met a boyfriend and went to medical school. I worked on my temper, remembering the ogre comment. I did not want to be an ogre. My boyfriend became my husband and he really liked my dark side and my silly side.

My sister was the person who could set me off angry the most easily. She and I fought like pitbulls, like honey badgers. Once we were in Colorado with my husband, her first husband and my parents. The two husbands had an imitation pretend fight acting as me and my sister. They were vicious. It was horribly embarassing and also funny, because they nailed us both.

In residency in Portland, I had a breakthrough. My sister was divorced from the first husband by then, and with the no meat, no dairy, really pain in the butt boyfriend. We were having a big party, lots of people, grilling salmon and cooking in a group. My sister walked in.

“Oh.” I said, “You didn’t RSVP.”

She fired up instantly. “What? Why does that matter? Do you want me to leave?”

I did not fire up. I held my breath and then said, “No. But if you are here with No Meat No Milk, I didn’t make any food for him, because I did not know you were coming. There is lots of food. You are both welcome to stay, but he will have to figure out his own food.” Then I held my breath again.

There was a long pause. My sister had her breath drawn in and held. She looked like she was going to explode. But I had answered quietly. She really had nothing to explode at.

“We will stay then,” she said, grudgingly. And there was No Meat No Milk. I was pretty happy when she ditched him. But I was also happy that I had not exploded back at her.

That was when I really got control of my temper. Not that I never lost it again, but I was no longer an ogre. I could hold it with my sister. My husband could set me off, but when I stepped back and started recording what he said and my responses, I could hold it there too.

After we divorced, I had one boyfriend who moved in. I had joked to a friend that my family had a lot of enablers and enablees, but that the latter lived longer. I said if I had to be one or the other, the latter seemed better for longevity.

And that boyfriend showed up immediately. I had just been “strongly encouraged” by my employer local hospital to open my own private practice. That is, I was not seeing patients. I was writing a business plan. I met him in a bar, salsa dancing. He said I was cute and I said, “No, I’m prickly.” I swear, it was that sentence and my dancing that attracted him. I always grin like a fool when I’m dancing. I love it. It lights me up.

Anyhow, I got mad at him exactly twice before he moved in. Boy did he come down on me for getting mad and punished me very thoroughly. By now you are wondering why I let him move in and frankly I was too. But my intuition was running the show and I just let it.

Well, he had kissed me like crazy at the start of the relationship. He stopped kissing me, almost as he moved in. He had insomnia. He’d fixed up one of the two upstairs bedrooms. He started sleeping with me less and less and sleeping in the other room, on cushions.

I would wake, worry. I started moving too. I moved to the guest room. I moved to the couch. Once I was out of the theoretically shared bed, I could go back to sleep. He protested that I shouldn’t move. Why not? I was getting insomnia from worrying about him leaving more and more.

He said we’d need couples counseling eventually. I said, ok, and scheduled it. He said, “I didn’t mean now!” I said, “Well, seemed like we might as well get it out of the way.”

He told the counselor I needed to either cut my sister off or do what she said, but instead, I was present and disobeidient. My sister had metastatic breast cancer and we came from an alcohol addiction family. Can you say complicated relationship?

I explained to the counselor that I thought many patients with cancer end up in a “cancer bubble”. Everyone tries to do what they say because they have cancer. This isolates them and does damage to the relationship. I was trying to stay present and real. That is, I did not obey. I was getting pressure from other people to obey, because my sister would complain about me. Whatever.

The counselor thought I was reasonable. I brought up the sleep issues. The boyfriend cancelled the counseling, saying that he needed a break.

At six months living together, he was saying that he might need to go back to the city to work. Two hours away. And I still was not doing what he wanted re my sister.

Counseling again. Again my behavior to my sister was examined. Same story. I turned to him. “I hear you saying you may need to return to the city for work. I hear you saying you may need to move there. What I don’t hear you saying is darling, we will get through a long distance relationship. Are you breaking up with me and not telling me?”

Long silence.

The counselor said, “You need to answer her.”

He finally said, “I wasn’t going to tell you until after I moved.”

I cried. We left. I kept crying.

He said, “You are angry and you are going to throw me out on the street.”

“No!” I said, “I am sad! You move out when you are ready! We will remain friends!”

So then I cried buckets. I cried on him, buckets. I cried every time I saw him, I cried daily, I cried about him, about my sister, about alcoholism, about the hospital getting rid of me. I cried about everything. I cried on him daily.

For six months. He kept saying “You are angry. You are throwing me out.” But I didn’t. I just cried more.

He moved out on the weekend I returned from seeing my sister in hospice for the last time. Her birthday was March 23. I saw her last on March 22. My birthday was March 28. She died March 29. He moved out on the 26th and 27th. I was not mad, I just cried and cried and cried.

I think that he was looking for an angry girlfriend. He thought he’d found her when I said I was prickly. He would have been the enabler and I would have been the angry dysfunctional enablee. It turns out that I was not really interested in being an enablee. Now I want a healthy relationship.

So that is my recommendation. If you have to cry, do it on the boyfriend who wants you to be angry instead of sad.