Human Beings, Human Failings, And Just Being Human
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
- Leo Tolstsoy -
Having this vulnerability to emotional disorders was exacerbated by the very people who gave me this genetic inheritance -- my mother and father. This put me at risk for being more sensitive to the eccentricities they exhibited.
This is the basic theory behind the Stress-Diathesis model. An inherited or given predisposition combined can potentially lead to a vulnerability to mental illness. Environmental factors exacerbate this vulnerability and can result in all manner of emotional dysfunction -- from mild to severe.
My father's contribution to my life was essentially a "crime of omission" -- his physical absence and lack of emotional support of any kind. My mother was my tormentor and I had no choice but to live by her rules, without questioning or understanding, to survive.
My Father: The Kindness Of A Stranger
As an escape, he resorted to hoarding knowledge at the cost of human interaction and adult responsibilities and spent a good deal of his time in the library, reading incessantly trying to "know everything." He also procrastinated and avoided until he was forced to take last minute actions.
He could become upset or enraged if faced with the reality that his actions or inaction were destructive and this further fueled his sense of failure. His irresponsibility so enraged my mother she often used it to attack him about anything at any time. He however rarely took out any rage on me. He was most of the time very gentle with me, and we shared many good times. My memories have faded with time, but I can't recall any arguments with my father in my entire life. Perhaps we avoided confrontations, as our relationship was so fragile. I’m sure we must have had some disagreements, but I really don’t recall them.
I now know my Dad never owned more than a few essential pieces of furniture -- a bed, a dresser, a desk, and a lamp. He never cooked for himself as he had no kitchen supplies, but ate at the hospital, or at a few local restaurants he frequented.
It wasn't until recently that I realized my father never had a place for me to stay. I couldn't sleep over at his apartment, and rarely visited there, as there were no accommodations for me -- no bed, no toys, no food or snacks, or a even place to sit down save the floor.
None of this was intentional, this was part of his illness. Though it seems difficult to understand, he was terrified of making the wrong decision when purchasing anything. And he seemed incapable of fully comprehending the needs of others, particularly the needs of a little girl, though I believe he cared about me and loved me in his own way.
I cannot find a photo where my Dad and I are anything but happy in each other's company. I believe I loved him dearly as a child, and he loved me dearly in return. Unfortunately he was the victim of his own illness, inadequacies, and my mother's wrath, and disappeared from my life emotionally very early on. He essentially disappeared from my life after my high school graduation.
Since his passing, I don't truly feel love or loss, or any real anger, for a man who was a kind, "gentleman caller," 53 years my senior, who moved in and out of my life, incapable of performing his duties as a father. And yet I'm confused. How could I not love my own father? Here is where I don't think I have integrated my ambivalent feelings about him, and perhaps I never will.
My Mother: A Woman Of Rage And Independent Means
She was a savvy business woman and antique collector. She was a world traveler. She was bilingual. She was as handy at plumbing and pruning trees as she was at building her own harpsichord.
But despite her being an internist and later a psychiatrist, my mother was completely lacking in compassion or empathy. She despised weakness in herself or others. She detested men and repeated it was imperative for a woman to be completely independent of any man. She had few if any close friends, only colleagues and "close acquaintances." I don't believe she ever really loved anyone -- her parents, her sister, her brother, her first husband, my father, AnnieBelle (my "nanny") or me. Although it is true I don't know what her definition of love was.
As a psychiatrist she embraced a strictly biological model of mental illness, yet vacillated constantly between defining her psychiatric patients as incurable genetic aberrations, or in need of extensive psychoanalysis.
She was an outspoken atheist who refused to have me baptized yet initially sent me to a Catholic Convent for primary school. She was an outspoken racist who believed that IQ was clearly related to the color of one's complexion -- "the darker, the dumber." She felt any woman who had more than one child was "a breeder" and expressed this openly to her nieces and nephews who had two or more children.
And she was paranoid and filled with rage. Few slumber parties were allowed at her house as she was certain my "little hoodlum friends would steal the silverware." She was certain I, and most everyone else, was out to undermine her every undertaking -- I was a liar, we all were liars and users and sycophants, ultimately out for her money.
Her most “shameful” secret was that she had been to a psychiatrist during her first marriage for "some kind of rage problem" in the words of her first husband (and I only learned of this by accident from him). However in her unpredictable way she often expressed pride in having been psychoanalyzed by a direct protege of Sigmund Freud (which was indeed true). She claimed this was a requirement for her psychiatric training; that may very well have been the true as well, but I will never know if she was actually still trying to understand and "cure" herself.
There was no opportunity for me to be her daughter or for her to be my mother in any sense of the word. We were adversaries from the day I was born when I "made her vomit up her chicken dinner during labor."
Her rage fueled my fury, my father's fury, and our sense of worthlessness. My mother emasculated my father and had the power to make him cry. She prevented me from believing any emotion I felt was real.
My mother passed away unexpectedly on September 12, 2001. I have addressed some of my feelings about this in Postscripts.
"... We tell you tapping on our brows,
The story as it should be --
As if the story of a house
Were told or ever could be;
We'll have no kindly veil between
Her visions and those we have seen --
As if we guessed what hers have been,
Or what they are or would be.
Meanwhile we do no harm; for they
That with a god have striven,
Not hearing much of what we say,
Take what the god has given;
Though like waves breaking it may be,
Or like a changed familiar tree,
Or like a stairway to the sea
Where down the blind are driven."
- Edwin Arlington Robinson -
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