I have been incomprehensibly exhausted and and relentlessly sick for nearly four weeks. None of it made sense. All I had been doing was sleeping, cooking, reading, and if I was really feeling up for it, walking down the street to sit at a coffee shop for a maximum of two hours or going to a restaurant to watch a Colombian soccer game. How could I still be feeling this bad? It didn’t add up but the exhaustion was constant and radiated out from the center of my being with such force that I was powerless to its will. While I knew that I was fighting a super virus and had some sort of infection, the exhaustion had to be more than just an illness. As weeks went by without improvement, it became clearer and clearer that the exhaustion likely had roots in emotions. I was tired of maintaining my old patterns.
One of my greatest attributes is that I am observant, often times to a fault. I am able to pick up information and cues from my surroundings and use that to act in ways that I think will keep me safe. Or whatever that means. Growing up, this skill was particularly useful in picking up on my family patterns, and through this, I learned how I was supposed to treat my mother. She was supposed to be taken care of, always, especially by her daughter. It was exhausting but behaving this way was better than the consequences of challenging the system. In my family, like many, I was conditioned to pick up on the cues to know how to behave in certain situations and then act accordingly by walking on eggshells. I learned quickly because if you failed at this dysfunctional game, you were punished, shamed or blamed. I could tell immediately when I displeased my mother. There would be a sudden change in the temperature of the room, a look in her eye and a higher tone in her voice. In the background, I could hear the whistling of a teakettle, slowly increasing in agitation and needing to be simmered down in order to avoid a disaster. I could pick up on my mother’s mood from the way she navigated through the kitchen or drove down the street. Any banging cupboards or slamming of breaks indicated that my guard needed to be way, way up. She wasn’t a yeller, not often, but body language was almost more terrifying.
I quickly learned that my mother is always the victim and her power is being pathetic. The perpetrator is always the one who falls out of line and challenges the system. In my family, the world revolved around women who were believed not to be capable of taking care of themselves. Except, they were capable. No one allowed them the chance to take responsibility for their experiences or mistakes. There is no room to grow when you are never called out for your behavior. And if you did call them out then YOU were causing problems, an inconvenience, stirring up trouble to make everyone’s life difficult.
When I left my mother’s house at the age of 19 and changed my role in the family system everything imploded. In asking for my mother to show up for me and my brother I was instantly transformed from the observant, obedient, and appeasing child to the problem child – at least in the eyes of my family. In speaking the truth about why I left, no one felt bad, not for the bullying in the household, not for my mother choosing her husband and stepchildren over her biological children, not for the promises made, and then broken, by members of our blended family. Nobody seemed to care about what I went through. All they knew is that I was upsetting my mom and therefore causing problems. I, the daughter, was blamed and responsible for the current turmoil in the family and my mother’s distress. And I, as the daughter, was responsible for fixing it. For the first time in my life, I refused.
My refusal to fall back in line was not taken well. In an attempt to get me back in the system, and to avoid the truth about what actually happened, my mother was painted as a weak damsel in distress. Rumors circulated and I was told that my mother was devastated at our limited relationship, confused as to the reason and that she would do anything to get me back. I had attempted to leave the system and yet by painting my mom as a victim and believing in her limited capacity, everyone was trying to suck me back in.
I bought into it. Full heartedly. Reluctant reflection throughout my healing crisis made me realize that I am still walking on eggshells. I am toeing the line, afraid of crossing it in fear of punishment. In the back of my mind, with every move I make towards self-liberation, capability and independence, I am picturing my mom’s reaction. I see her fuming in my head, slamming around the house, ticking like a time bomb waiting for the wrong move to make her explode. It makes me angry that after so many years a part of me is still afraid.
There is a part of me, larger and stronger than the fear that is so much reduced from when I was a child, that empathizes with her. I have been there. I know how hard it is to try to break your conditioning and be called out on your shit. I, like many, know the feeling of shame in the center of your heart, the very core of your being, when you realize that you have messed up. I know what it is like to be frustrated, time and time again, as you work to break your old patterns and yet keep falling back into them. I know what it is like and I can relate to the struggle of anyone going through it. My God is it hard. But, what I need to realize is that I am not my mother and I don’t want to be like her – a pathetic damsel in distress. I keep trying to pull away, distance myself from her, let go of my conditioned obligation but it is keeping me hooked.
I. Am. Not. My. Mother.
I owned my mistakes and am working through my shame. I have admitted the ways in which I betrayed my dad and Maureen, threw them under the bus, and kept living my life thinking of no one but me (and my mother who I was trained to give up the last piece of my soul to protect). I apologized to my brother for the times that I bullied him when we were children and am working, consciously, to never fall back into that pattern again. And with my sister, Marae, we’ve talked, several times, about why she can’t trust me. I don’t blame her. And I am working, again consciously, to have my actions meet my words to prove to her that I am someone who she can trust. Honestly, I make mistakes ALL THE TIME. And it drives me crazy and takes me straight back down Shame Lane. But, when I fuck up, I own it (at least most of the time) and take responsibility by changing my behavior. THAT is working on it.
My mother doesn’t own it and therefore can’t change her behavior. She has never admitted that her house wasn’t safe. She has never told me that she understands why I left and removed myself from an unhealthy situation, even though while we were living in the same house she told me several times that she was worried about how Hunsicker children’s behavior impacted my brother.
My mom acts like she still doesn’t understand what happened and I continually fall into the same trap of believing her. I continue to behave in the same way that I was trained to behave since I was born: take care of your mother. Rationally, I know that isn’t right nor normal nor healthy. And yet, the more I mentally distance myself from the behavior, the deeper part of me still feels tied to that old emotional pattern. I hold onto it like a lifesaver floating in the ocean, believing that it is saving me even though it might be better for me to let go and drown. This pattern does not serve me anymore and I choose to let it go. Rationally. Emotionally, I need to find the key to unlock my stronghold grip. It is safe. She is capable and it isn’t healthy for either of us if I keep holding on.
And as I write this, the piece I knew I have needed to write since I realized my illness was not going away on its own, I am starting to breathe again. The exhaustion, tension and pressure that has been consuming my body for the past several weeks is easing up.
Through this reflection, I realized that my mother chose to lose her relationship with her children rather than see the truth and make the changes she needed. I was tired. Tired of my old patterns. Tired to a point where it consumed me in an exhaustion the likes of which I had never experienced. So I sucked it up, processed and started to let go of old stories. I had believed that my mom was not capable, believed that she was trying her best, believed that she really wanted to change. I don’t believe that anymore.
Mom – if you wanted to change you would have held your stepchildren accountable for the way they behaved in your household. If you wanted to change you would have made space for Charlie and me in the house that we grew up in. If you wanted to change you would have admitted that you made mistakes and named them and apologized with all of your heart and stopped continuing to behave in your old patterns. If you wanted to change you would not have allowed the lies and stories spread about Charlie and me in the community. If you had really wanted to change you would have risked conflict with your new family in order to save your old.
If you wanted to change you would have never told me that you have empathy for what I went through in your household. Not after you stood by and watched it all happen without saying a word. Not after watching your children pack up their rooms never to return. Not after your unwillingness to make the changes needed to welcome us back into your life, the life we so desperately wanted to be a part of. I have empathy for you. For growing up in a system that taught you that you weren’t strong, brave or capable. For being conditioned to take care of your mother and then, when you brought me in this world to take care of you, I failed at that job. You paid your dues and were never compensated. I have empathy for your fear of standing up to your husband and his children because he might not like it and leave you. I, too, am afraid of being abandoned and alone. I have empathy for the terror you must feel at changing the patterns that you have lived in for 51 years of your life. I really do. I, too, was terrified to change and I only started when I was 19 years old. I have empathy for you but I do not feel sorry for you anymore. I know you are capable. I know you can do better. But do you?
I felt bad, believing what everyone told me – you were trying and would do everything you could. But were you? You were given countless opportunities to change. Countless opportunities to have Charlie and I back in your life. The more you resisted the worse things got and the harder it would be for you to recover. Each time you talked us out of our experience, discounted the trauma we experienced in your household and tried to trick us (or bribe us) into coming back into the dysfunctional system, you set yourself back. We told you what we needed. Several times and in several ways. We asked you, clearly, for things that shouldn’t be so hard for a mother to give and yet there was always a catch that left our heads spinning and our hearts broken. I do not know if you realize how detrimental it was for you to try to skirt around the issue and walk on eggshells. You tried the easy fixes and it just made things worse. The hard stuff, the stuff that we told you that we needed, was pushed aside. Just like I have done throughout this month-long illness as I resisted my diagnosis and eventual antibiotics. However, when my poor health put in doubt my ability to stay in Colombia, which I so desperately wanted to do, I stopped resisting. And I got better. You, despite losing your children who you supposedly so desperately miss, continue to resist.
I do not know what was said about me to your friends, John’s friends, Maddie, Jack, Caroline and Helen’s friends but I have heard things. I heard that I abandoned you, that I left the house without explanation, have avoided conflict, disinvited you from my graduation and have been, overall, mean. And people believed these things. I, your daughter, was made the villain for leaving your house and removing myself from your toxic household. You have created a world where you are a victim. When I speak my truth about what happened I still get approached, frequently, with excuses like you are trying, you are in pain, you don’t understand. Can’t I just talk with you? Can’t I just explain what is going on? Can’t I just grow up and spend time with you and your family, at least for the holidays? CAN’T I JUST…
No. I am not the daughter who care takes her mother and waits patiently for the time when I can get married and have a husband and children who take care of me. That will not be my life. I deserve more than that and you deserve more than a daughter who sees you as weak, pathetic and unable to take responsibility for your own actions. It is not loving, it is not kind and it is not fair for me to treat you in the way that you conditioned me to treat you. Just like it is not fair for anyone to expect me to fix a problem that is beyond my control. And me continuing to believe that you are not capable of doing anything more than what you have done is exhausting. You may not choose to do it but you sure as hell have it in you.
So I am done. Done believing your stories, done listening to the pleas of your family, done sitting in an apartment in Bogotá exhausted and done being sick. I am breaking free of this system and my conditioned behavior.