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Hanna Goes M.I.A.

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Niko is a good man, an intelligent man, an interesting man, and a gregarious man.

So far, so good.

Niko is also a man of great appetites, a man with high expectations, a man who insists upon his creature comforts, and a man who has trouble taking “no” for an answer.

In other words, Niko is high maintenance.

I’m not sure I would have sought Niko’s friendship if not for the fact of his marriage to my best friend, Hanna, but we had become close. Looking back from my current vantage point, I realize how much I had Hanna to thank for brokering the relationship. And how hard I had worked at it because of my love for her.

When it came to Niko, I took my lead from Hanna. Niko suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. What if I had not been able to distinguish personality quirks from manifestations of illness? I trusted her completely when she explained what he required; and why he could or couldn’t manage this, that, or the other. I imbibed deeply when both of them told stories of his traumatic childhood and his continued mistreatment at the hands of, well, just about everyone. Almost no one understood him, evidently. He was special. He was fragile. He needed preferential treatment. I never questioned this. It was just this way.

I have voiced negative sentiments about triangulation but in this instance, I found it helpful that Hanna could translate Niko to me and visa versa. Hanna had gladly assumed the roles of spouse and caregiver; and the title of caregiver called for stints as go-between, mouthpiece, and champion. Due to her more stable mood and reliable judgment, she was also their family C.E.O. C.O.O., and C.F.O.

It was natural for her to advocate for Niko. On the other hand, Hanna had a good sense for the times when Niko wasn’t living up to his potentials. She knew when and how hard to push. Hanna knew when Niko needed a reality check–both figuratively and literally–and when the best medicine was a good swift kick in the ass. When we spent time together, we made a nice little three-legged stool. I didn’t realize that Hanna’s leg was about to give out.

Shortly after their arrival from Germany, I briefed Hanna on my decision not to allow Niko to use my laptop. She wished I had told them sooner, and she anticipated his upset. But she saw my point and agreed the decision was a fair one. I breathed easier knowing she understood I did not mean harm. I counted on her to help Niko towards acceptance and to help me work towards a solution.

Learning of my decision, Niko was quick to embark on a campaign to charm or cow me into giving over my computer. Failing to win my submission, he continued to needle me throughout the visit. Now and again he lobbed some outright grenades.

As far as I could tell, Hanna left him to it.

In past years, Hanna had made it her habit to help with dishes, laundry, and cooking. This visit was different, and I am coming to a place of greater kindness regarding what felt like an abandonment. I am more in touch with my feeling of ownership as well, that vague twinge of security in thinking that Niko had her on loan during those months and years when we could not see one another. A few years removed from our unhappy end, I am especially able to appreciate how exhausted and broken she must have been when she arrived hoping—knowing, really–that J.A.N.E. spelled H.O.M.E. She had needed a safe haven for care and recovery.

Hanna had attained middle age, and the demands upon her had only increased. I had witnessed over several years how hard she had worked in a physically-demanding hourly position to give Niko as much as she could. Her steadfast provision had taken a harsh toll. Either our friends lacked support at home or they had rejected the terms of this support; and so providing for Niko’s essentials and extras frequently meant breaking the bank, her back, or both. I have thought often about how spent, betrayed and alone my dear Hanna must have felt that summer, and I will say more about this in time.

Without Hanna’s help, I was hard pressed to manage my family, the household and my part-time counseling job, let alone attend Niko in the fashion he desired.

Sociable between rounds and ever in need of conversation, Niko set up court on the patio with his coffee and smokes. He loved the peace and quiet, and this is where he lived when he wasn’t in the basement—at least until relations between us went from iffy to rancid. He was without his default entertainment, the computer, and was not often able to muster the energy to leave the house.

When Niko asked, early in their stay, why I was avoiding him and why I never made time to talk, I was at a loss. As taxed as I felt, I had been making a point of spending time with him daily. In fact, I was spending more time with him than I was with anyone else, and our children were starting to grumble. He seemed to have forgotten our pre-visit talks and the fact that I was no longer the stay-at-home mother of small children.

Hanna failed to show up in my defense. There was none of her humorous chiding: Niko, don’t be an ass. She spent two hours with you this morning over breakfast. Jane has other things to do besides entertain you, you big lug.

In her absence, he pouted, hounded, and accused. And not always subtly.

One time, further into their visit, Hanna and Niko arrived home after a long night at their new favorite hangout, a biker bar in a nearby town. They had taken to sleeping until about 1:00 or 2:00 p.m., puttering around the basement apartment, going to the bar until closing, and then having drinks with the owner for a few more hours. Since their arrival, Niko had not had the stamina to do much outside the house; and I imagine this outlet helped him meet his social needs while assuring minimal contact with my family.

This particular night, something had gone wrong with our refrigerator and the kitchen had flooded. Tired and seeing no effective way to help, Hanna passed through the kitchen with a sympathetic glance. The moment Niko walked through the door, however, he began bailing and mopping as though possessed. Wide-eyed and alarmingly animated, he told a disjointed story about spewing sewage. He appeared to be seeing it in real time. Worried, I shared with Hanna my suspicion that he was becoming psychotic.

The following day, when the two of them ambled up to the kitchen, Niko launched a sudden verbal assault. His rage caught me off guard. My legs turned to rubber, and I gripped the table to keep from going down.

How dare you talk behind my back? How dare you tell tales about me? How DARE you tell Hanna I was psychotic? I was recounting a story which actually happened when our building’s sewage system backed up into our apartment last year! You knew that! I had told you about it!

Where was Hanna? Three feet from us, looking quietly away.

I explained that I must have misunderstood. I tried to explain. I apologized profusely. I thought that all those years had earned me the benefit of the doubt; but they had accrued no interest, and my account was overdrawn. I knew that day that Hanna would no longer keep my confidence.

When it became apparent, not long after the flooding incident, that Niko was indeed on the verge of a break, Hanna actually spoke these words to me. They were intended as solace: Don’t feel too bad. I’ve made him relapse before too.

The hardest part may have been Hanna’s final vanishing act.

About ten days before their scheduled departure, Hanna approached me quietly: Niko wants to re-book the flight for a later date. What do you think?

My response was a diplomatic but firm N.O. I was concerned for myself and my family. I was concerned for Niko’s mental health. I was concerned for Hanna’s job. Her boss had been upset at the length of her original vacation request.

Hanna stated her agreement. She said she was relieved to have her own views validated, and she would just have to break it to Niko.

A few days later, Niko invited me to the basement apartment for a discussion. He informed me (informed) that he and Hanna had decided to extend their stay. Not having the use of my computer had set them back, he said, but he was certain that 10 more days would be sufficient for them to do all the traveling and sightseeing they had originally planned. He knew they could still make the trip a success.

Hanna was as quiet as a church mouse.

I stayed calm. I explained why I thought this idea was likely to lead to further disappointment. If four weeks had not been long enough to get him out of the house for sightseeing, what made him think 10 more days would do the trick?

Hanna remained silent.

I explained why I thought this was a risky plan.

Hanna remained silent.

I said that though it pained me greatly, I would not be able to support their plan. I told them they had to leave the house as agreed.

They extended. Hanna extended.

For several tense days, I watched and waited. There were no signs of packing. I didn’t know what to do.

On the evening of their original departure date, there was still no movement, and I was desperate. I was halfway through my preparations for a late dinner when Hanna emerged from the basement to issue Niko’s invitation for a Greek dinner out.

I can see myself standing stupidly with the pizza dough in my hands.

Niko wants to leave at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.

I declined. The situation felt surreal.

She continued: But Niko has been trying to take you guys out ever since we got here. He saved up his money for a long time to treat you. He will be so hurt.

Disbelieving, I responded: Yes. But we have had this discussion again and again. I told him several times that we would love to go but we really need to make plans ahead of time and consider whether or not it is a school night. Niko likes to start planning at dinner time to go out the same night.

She retreated to the basement to deliver the bad news.

A short time later, Niko thumped up the stairs, wronged and angry.

I can’t believe that in the four weeks we have been here, you have never once been able to find one night to take me up on my invitation!

Again, I explained.

You will never guess what happened next: Hanna remained silent.

Soon I heard the sound of showering and a flurry of packing. My best friend and her husband departed around midnight. I guess you could say I kicked them out.

I saw them one last time before they left for Germany. I’m still debating whether or not to tell that story.

This post is part of The Story of Hanna. For the prior installment, click here. For the next installment, click here.

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Plan D

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

September, 2012

As Henry and I decided on some boundaries for our upcoming visit from Hanna and Niko, I made the decision to pilfer about 10 pounds of East Coast road maps and Guidebooks from our local AAA office. OK, OK. It actually involved my membership card and a lot of eye batting.

Niko enjoys researching but does not respond well to pressure, so I sent them to him in Germany months in advance. These would help him plan while Hanna was at work. They would also eliminate much of his need to use a computer during their extended stay. This was Plan A.

We blew through Plan A within a few hours of their arrival: Niko explained that he had felt too stressed to do any advance planning. He had not even looked at the materials. He needed my computer. Please.

Plan B was to ferry Niko to and from the public library each day. He would not consider it. He had had a humiliating experience while using a computer in an internet café, and the idea made him too anxious to contemplate. He needed my computer. Soon.

Plan C called upon the generosity of our youngest daughter, Claire. She had purchased a tiny netbook, and she offered it to Niko on loan. It was too slow and cranky to be of any real use. It was actually crap. He needed my computer. Now.

Do I sound like a good friend? Or do I sound like a patsy? Or maybe a martyr with whipped cream and a cherry on top? I was working hard to get Niko to a computer which was not mine, and part of my effort was motivated by cowardice. I dreaded turning Niko down, and all my planning was meant to minimize the fallout.

I could just have said, way back when, “We won’t have a computer for you to use, so please bring your laptop.” This never even occurred to me. This was probably due to reasons mentioned earlier.

I doubt this approach would have gone off as smoothly as one might hope. It would have tipped Niko off to the fact that the wind was shifting, and this would have precipitated the interrogation I was keen to avoid. But it would also have given him and Hanna time to set up proper accommodations–or conclude before plunking down thousands of dollars and boarding that plane that I was a sneaky, backbiting asshole who was encouraging their visit for the purpose of malice.

In any case, Niko declared he could not survive without a computer.

I declared I would not give him mine.

He was not satisfied with my no. Niko was determined that a compromised would be reached. And to be fair, why wouldn’t he? I had rarely, if ever, denied him any request reasonably within my power.

Niko pounded me with question after question about my work schedule, my home schedule, and my computer habits. He was certain he could get screen time without causing disruption to my routines. He worked tirelessly to open a loophole, and I worked tiredly to clamp them shut. I adhered robotically to my script: I need my computer for work. It is starting to fail. I can not afford to replace it.

My continued deflection, in the absence of reasons he deemed adequate, caused Niko to deduce that there must be More To The Story. The house vibrated with tension as our cat-and-mouse game escalated.

After a few days of relentless inquiry, I concluded that sticking to the script made me sound defensive and unfriendly. Niko’s illness lends itself to paranoia, and I did not want to feed it. We had always had an open give and take. I wondered if withholding the other reasons behind my refusal was tantamount to patronizing him, and that was never my intention. I concluded that our friendship deserved better. I didn’t want to come clean but…

I sought a private meeting.

Niko declined my request and then my appeals. He insisted I speak freely and that we have no secrets among us. I hoped that the intimacy and strength of our relationship over many years would suffice to remediate any damage my confession might cause.

This was not the case.

My concerns, however gentle, and my speculation, however tentative, were incredibly wounding. I spoke in German so that our children could not understand. However, they saw our faces and absorbed our emotion. Henry already knew what I was going to say, of course, and didn’t need to understand. I allowed that Niko’s behavior had taken place during prodromal and illness phases. I assured him that I was, in no way, making a statement about his goodness, character, or intentions. Niko accepted my words graciously at first. I suppose he experienced a kind of shock at these revelations. It didn’t last long.

I had not been able to protect his dignity, and we were no closer to solving the problem.

In our family, each child receives a laptop on her sixteenth birthday in anticipation of college. These are prized possessions. Two of our girls had already received theirs. As Niko’s disenchantment grew, he began to set his sights on their computers. He was a fox watching a hen house. Why hadn’t I anticipated this? I wasn’t sure what to do.

Did hospitality require that I “command” our daughters to hand over their nice computers when I would not loan my crummy one? Should I “allow” them to make the decision for themselves?

I had some idea of the conflict the girls must be feeling. They adored and wanted to please Uncle Niko but they had not forgotten the monopoly of 2006. They were older now, no longer wide-eyed and naive. They were starting to become disillusioned, and his behavior was starting to grate. Any generosity was more likely to be the result of capitulation than an act of heartfelt sharing.

I was buckling, and the visit had just begun. I was in danger of losing my cool with Niko but I was afraid of being unfair. I toggled back and forth. Was his behavior a manifestation of his illness? If so, I would manage compassion and fight for patience. I wasn’t eager to apply the labels “childish,” “demanding,” or worse.

I had forsworn my dysfunctional training in hospitality, and I had not yet developed another set of skills. I have replayed this scenario in my mind countless times since then, and I still find myself wondering how I should have responded. Nothing I came up with seemed right.

Since I couldn’t figure out what to do, I resorted to Plan D. D as in Deserter. Desperate. Defeated. Dumbshit.

Plan D was my escape plan. It called for me to abdicate my corner of the drama triangle. While this may have been an example of healthy boundary setting under other circumstances, the real-life result was not one I wish to repeat: I served up my children and beat a hasty retreat.

When Niko asked me if he could use the girls’ computers, I told him, “Ask them.” When my daughters asked me if they had to let him, I told them, “Do as you see fit.”

Under duress, Lindy, our oldest, refused; and she fell from grace.

Under duress, Bec, our middle child, complied. She was elevated to Confidante.

What strikes me, as I contemplate the aftermath of our weeks together, is that nobody ever even hinted that Henry give up his laptop, which was also used for work. Nobody blamed him for the way things unraveled. He was beyond reproach.

I see that the splitting had begun early on. Henry, Bec, and Claire were emerging as “good.” Lindy and I were rapidly becoming “bad.”

Hanna had begun to go M.I.A. More on that later…And Niko had begun to evaluate each of us in either-or terms: sympathetic or unfeeling, understanding or unfair, for him or against him. Hanna’s behavior, and later her words, made it clear that she and Niko were a package deal. Any “unkindness” towards Niko counted as an act against them both.

This is the twelfth installment of The Story of Hanna. The story, in sequence, can be found under the tab of the same name. Installment eleven can be found here.

Family Math

triangle

We do math, together. It is a fun family pastime. In fact, it is a Family Rule*.

Geometry is our favorite. Because WE. LOVE. TRIANGLES.

Geometry can be a great family activity. You might want to try it yourself! I’ll type out some of our math problems for you so you can get the hang of it.

Exhibit A:

I.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: Have you heard from your sister lately?

Me: Not since last week. Why?

Mom: Oh. It’s just that she seemed so angry. I was hoping you had resolved things.

Me: Gwen’s angry at me?

II.

The phone rings. Gwen picks up.

Me: Gwen! What’s going on? Mom said you were mad at me.

Gwen: She wasn’t supposed to tell you.

Me: Why are you mad at me?

Gwen: I can’t talk now. I have to call Mom.

III.

The phone rings. My mother picks up.

Gwen: Mom, what did you tell Jane?

Mom: I did not tell her about the restaurant thing.

Gwen: Mom! That was a private conversation!

Mom: You know she didn’t mean to. She can be insensitive but it’s not her fault. She inherited it from your father. You should just forgive her.

Gwen: Mom!

IV.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: Your sister is mad at me. What did you tell her?

Me: Well, you told me she was mad at me. I just called her to find out what was going on.

Mom: I know she can be a bit dramatic but she can’t help it. It’s her artistic temperament. Just let it go.

Me: Mom!

Or maybe Exhibit B will help:


(Translation is included, gratis, for the uninitiated. Take it with a grain of salt—Seamus is actually a really good person.)

The phone rings. It’s my stepfather, Seamus.

Seamus: Hi, Jane. It’s Seamus. Your Mom’s fine. How are you?
This is not an emergency. This is a friendly chat.

Me: Hi Seamus. I’m fine. How about you?
A friendly chat is good.

Seamus: Fine, thanks.
Chatting.

Me: Great!
Chatting.

Seamus: I mowed the lawn today.
Watch how I subtly steer this conversation.

Me: Uh.
And I scratched my bum.

Seamus: And I weeded the garden.
I’ve got this.

Me: That’s nice.
Scratching.

Seamus: I picked up the mail too. And bought milk.
Because I am a good person.

Me:
You may have one gold star.

Seamus: Don’t worry about your mom. I’m taking good care of her.
Because I am a really good person.

Me: That’s great. I appreciate it.
I smell a rat.

Seamus: We haven’t heard from you in a while.
Your mother feels neglected.

Me: I called Mom last week. And you know, I told her to call me on my cell any time but she—
That’s not fair!

Seamus: You need to call your mother.
So she will stop sighing loudly.

Me: Uh, ok. I’ll do that.
Grrr.

Seamus: Actually, she’s just right outside feeding the birds. I’ll get her.
I am a hero.

Me:
Punked!

Seamus: Carol! Carol! Jane called for you!
I’ll even let Jane take the credit!

Mom: Jane! How wonderful to hear from you!
Jane! How wonderful to hear from you!

Me: Sure, Mom. How are you?
Sigh.

Gwen and I have had a lot of therapy over the years, and we are graduating from triangles to lines and rays. Conversation is a lot more efficient these days but nowhere near as fun.

Thus, Exhibit C:

I.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: Hi Jane! Have you heard anything from your sister lately?

Me: Nope. Bye.

II.

The phone rings. It’s Gwen.

Gwen: I’m mad at you, and I don’t want to talk to you.

Me: Ok. Bye.

III.

The phone rings. My mother picks up.

Gwen: Hi Mom! Jane and I had a fight but we worked it out.

Mom: Then why are you calling me? Bye.

IV.

The phone rings. It’s my mother.

Mom: I miss you.

Me: Well, then! I’m so glad you called!

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here.

Full Plate

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I created a rule for myself called “One Friend at a Time.” I had to.

This is one of the junctures. It’s one of the joints where Family Rules and The Story of Hanna dovetail. They lean against each other like a house of cards.

I have explained trying, and failing, to create closeness and safety within my family of origin. You can go back and read about it if you want but I’ll sum up here: I was never going to get everyone in my family to get along at the same time AND the effort was taxing AND I kept trying. Just call me Sisyphus.

This dynamic is one I have played out many, many times: finding, or happening, or arranging myself between two individuals–or as a hub for several–who then begin to relate to one another through me. I try to be all things to all people. I don’t do it on purpose. At this point, I have become so conscious of this trap that I rarely get too far into it before I smack myself silly.

I see my counselees doing this all the time: they unknowingly recreate their painful pasts in the hope that their story will eventually end happily. This madness even has a name: repetition compulsion. ‘Round and ’round and ’round she goes. Where she stops, nobody knows….It can’t be an accident that I sought specialty training in couples therapy. At least now I use my damage for good. And in most cases, we all get a better outcome.

Back to the rule.

I knew how to be a friend. That wasn’t the problem. I just had a hard time being friends with more than one person at a time. I sought one-on-one interactions because they were the safest. Being with one person made it less likely I’d disappoint, annoy, or get stuck in a triangle in which I had to manage more than one relationship at once. I do mean manage. Parties gave me palpitations well into my 30’s. I had to have a single neat box for each friendship. On my plate, the peas; carrots; and mashed potatoes weren’t supposed to touch. Mixing them could get too messy.

The best way to work the one-at-a-time method was to have only one really close friend. I took the title “best friend” as gospel. I had to find one person—Karen was my first best friend–and squeeze close enough so that we practically heard each other’s thoughts.

I don’t think I would have betrayed my family in any serious way; but in in day-to-day matters, I chose my best friend over my family every time. When Karen came over, I played cruel pranks on my sister and made rude gestures at my mother’s back while she stood at the kitchen sink. When Karen went home, I behaved differently. My conscience troubled me but my best friend thought I was funny; and securing her was paramount. I needed a sure thing.

Hanna was my last best friend. I am no longer willing to use that designation for anyone except my husband. I’ve retired her jersey.

I always said my husband was my best friend because that is what wives are supposed to say. I’m not sure I was completely truthful. Maybe I crossed my fingers behind my back because he was my best male friend and there was no competition.

Hanna and I had been “family” for over a decade by the time I met Henry, and it was as though we agreed to shove over a bit and make room on the plate. Did I love him? Yes! Did I want to want to spend the rest of my life with him? Yes! Did I want to have his babies? Oooooooh, yes! He was and is the only guy for me. But did I actually leave and cleave?

Well.

Yes.

It just took me decades to complete the process.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the trouble this hanging chad has caused. Maturity came late in this area of my life. I’m glad I’ve grown up a bit but the collateral damage has been considerable.

This post belongs both to Family Rules and The Story of Hanna. You can find the prior post in the Family Rules series here and the next post in the series here. You can find the prior post in The Story of Hanna series here and the next post in the series here.

A House Divided

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

I could have Mom or I could have Dad. I couldn’t have them both. At least not at the same time. But it never stopped me from trying.

I was kind of a double agent–except I wasn’t a spy. I tried thinking of myself as a mediator but that didn’t fit either. A mediator is a neutral party. No, I was a confused sort of ambassador. An ambassador is an emissary loyal to and invested in the well being of a specific country. Guess what? I was a dual citizen! Anxiety around matters of loyalty has tormented me throughout my life. After you read this piece, you will understand why.

You’ll need to understand a bit about my parents.

My father William was an odd fellow. He was a tall, bent, reed of a man who enjoyed oil painting, classical music, cooking, foreign language, and mystery novels. He loved to learn and experiment. He taught me how to plant a garden, check my oil, play chess, and knit. My Dad loved to travel, and he kept up with individuals all over the world using his ham radio. My father was respected at work, and he mentored many young men in their careers.

Lest you think him too cultured, it is important to note that he was also “Billy Boy,” the barefoot son of a quiet, uneducated carpenter and his domineering wife. My father relished his sweet iced tea and his corn bread with pinto beans. A times, he brewed alcoholic beverages in the laundry room and bathrooms. He thought it funny to sneak up behind my mother when she was washing dishes and her hands were occupied. He would nuzzle her neck, squeeze her love handles, and call her “Flabber,” a nickname which never failed to humiliate and incense her. I can still see him shaking with silent laughter at her impotent rage. I suppose you could say my father was a study in contrasts.

My mother Carol, being a more conventional soul and wishing for conventional happiness, found herself frustrated with the gulf between her husband’s prowess at work and his slovenliness and inconsideration at home. In some ways my mother was very much the archetypal warm, wholesome, cozy Mom. She was outgoing and social. She kept an orderly home, and she made gingerbread houses and chocolate chip cookies. Mom was the kindest and most wonderful nurse imaginable when we were ill. Unlike my father, she was an excellent athlete.

My father possessed little physical vigor, and he avoided joining us in any play but his own. His “play” involved the creation of prodigious messes which he left where they lay. He dirtied every dish in the kitchen to produce one batch of bread. He used our basement to build television sets for friends (for free!) while completely ignoring all chores. When invitations for neighborhood social functions arrived, my father was entirely uninterested. My mother responded by staying home to sulk or else attending alone and fabricating an excuse intended to protect them both from shame. She thought it an enormous and delicious act of rebellion when, many years later, she began to tell the truth: “William didn’t want to come.”

I suspect my mother might have been better able to tolerate my father’s eccentricities if he had left her alone to rule the household as she saw fit. Instead, he acted as overseer. He believed her somewhat lacking in brainpower and in need of supervision. My mother responded by using her “stupidity” to manage regular bank overdrafts and other ploys to make sure that we had tasty food and clothing which was not embarrassing.

I could think of no other way to affect conciliation than to hold the confidences of both Mom and Dad while trying to help each understand the other’s point of view. I have intentionally avoided the word reconciliation because they didn’t learn to enjoy and cooperate with one another until I was grown and out of the house.

My father frequently asked me to accompany him on weekend errands. During our times in the car, he entrusted me with adult concerns: “I love your mother but you have to understand that she is like a child.” He implied that she wasn’t very bright. His manner communicated that we had a special bond and that I was able to understand things my mother couldn’t. I listened quietly or else I tried to help him understand my Mom. I felt special. Surely I must be a very mature and smart girl! At the same time my father’s confidences were tainted. I was ushered into a realm of emotional intimacy which should have been reserved for my mother.

My father’s attentions were never sexual but they had a quality of intimacy which confused me and which I still find difficult to describe. Perhaps an example will clarify: Several times, immediately after flying into a rage and administering corporal punishment for minor misdeeds, my father came to me as I cried on my bed and calmly rubbed my back. He sought comfort and empathy. He wanted my reassurance that I understood him: He had been compelled to punish me this way because of his love for me. It had been done for my own good. Now that his rage had achieved release, I probably should have offered him a cigarette.

My mother found in me a convenient outlet for expressions of frustration involving my father. Having been influenced by my father’s assessment of her defects, I found Mom’s confidences less satisfying. I was torn between my desire to be her friend and ally and the guilt I felt when I failed to remain loyal to Dad’s agendas. I explained my father to my mother as best I could, hoping to win her compliance and bring about harmony. I was drawn to her by a child’s need for closeness, yet I was repelled by the contempt I felt. Her loyalty was two-sided as well. On occasions when we children misbehaved a bit more than she could manage, my mother appealed to my father to discipline us the moment he arrived home from work. When he was stressed, he lost his temper and raised welts on our thighs while my mom, once again in the role of good guy and advocate, begged him to stop.

My parents were either unaware of their nauseous dance or else too deeply entrenched in their power struggle to resist childish misbehavior. I tried to stand between them and connect them. I recall one very painful incident in which my father gleefully offered to take us kids out for ice cream. The offer followed directly on the heels of a heated argument between the two of them.

Going out for ice cream was a rare and valued treat. We excitedly hopped in the car, relieved that safety had been restored. We waited for my father to pull out of the driveway but he did not. After a moment, he declared that he wouldn’t take us unless my mother came too. I ran into the house and asked her to come. Still furious and hurt from the confrontation, she refused. My father innocently responded that my mother was the one with the power to decide whether or not we would get the ice cream. I reasoned (and pleaded) back and forth with my father and my mother while my siblings looked on, begging and sobbing loudly. Finally my mother changed her clothes and slipped into the car. She looked straight ahead and didn’t utter a word. My father was positively giddy. I had somehow chosen my father and betrayed my mother for an ice cream cone.

Keeping the peace was a task far beyond my reach as my family culture made it difficult to befriend more than one member at a time. To be close to Dad, I had to snub Mom. If I allied myself with Mom, I had to defy Dad. If Dad’s mercurial anger threatened to alight upon me, I had more complicated choices to make. I became an expert at reading the family tea leaves so that I would know just how to respond. Should I turn off my emotions and try the cool, logical appeal he favored? Should I feign submission and ask for mercy? Should I play dumb and implicate my mother or siblings? Should I inconspicuously ease my way out of the room? Should I run like hell? When push came to shove, I looked out for myself.

My writing is replete with dichotomies, and that is as it should be. I felt divided then, and I feel divided still. This is the kind of confusion wrought by emotional incest and manipulation. Loyalty and betrayal continue to be fraught concepts. Sometimes the line between being a good “ambassador” and being a flagrant codependent or a weasel is finer than one might think. I’ve developed a good professional understanding of how this works. (Would it surprise you to know that I have a specialty in couples therapy?) The summer of 2011 drove the lesson home in a personal way.

I’ve been sitting on this piece for two days. Clicking “publish” is hard sometimes. One betrayal per click. Family Rules breaking left and right. I can feel my stomach churning. But this is my story, and I’m going to tell it. I’m going to sell out my parents for the possibility of a “like.” Think carefully. Do you really want to be complicit?

This is where Family Rules and The Story of Hanna Intersect. For the prior installment of Family Rules, click here. For the next installment of Family Rules, click here. For the prior installment of the story of Hanna, click here. For the next installment of The Story of Hanna, click here.

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