backstory

It’s taken me a gen­er­ous dis­tance, as well as a healthy break from the pain, to real­ize I don’t under­stand what my mom thought of me. In my ear­li­est years, I believed she loved me, cause none of her demands were unrea­son­able. After all, chil­dren are often help­less and don’t even know what’s best for them­selves. Then I grew up, and devel­oped an iden­tity of my own. That meant I had dis­tinc­tive needs sep­a­rate from hers, and she would deny every one of them unless they were in line with what she wanted. It was impos­si­ble for me to believe there was any love at all when she was the cause of so much of my pain. I’ve since come to real­ize that rela­tion­ships are full of nuances, and that it’s pos­si­ble to love some­one whole­heart­edly and be ter­ri­ble for them at the same time.

Regardless of what my mom thought or felt, the fact that mat­ters most is that noth­ing she did in our rela­tion­ship was for my sake; every deci­sion or action she made was to fur­ther her image as a “good par­ent”. As a result, the rela­tion­ship was almost purely toxic. The last inci­dent was a per­fect exam­ple of how lit­tle my feel­ings mat­tered to her, and how she was more con­cerned about the way I made her appear to oth­ers than for my well­be­ing. Perhaps in her mind, she truly believed she loved me, but any inten­tion was con­sis­tently tainted by the trauma she’d end up caus­ing. The fact that she refused to apol­o­gize — even after she knew she did some­thing wrong, even if it was for the sake of rec­on­cil­ing with her only child — shows how lit­tle I meant to her as a son (and how ter­ri­ble she was as a parent).

Afterward, she’d send me gifts or call to talk, pre­tend­ing as if she didn’t nearly kill me, as if I’d never suf­fered as a direct result of her actions. The only way I could get through to her was by hang­ing up. Disconnecting. Since she couldn’t learn, change, or under­stand what she put me through, I had to take the step of sev­er­ing the rela­tion­ship for the sake of my men­tal health.

It wasn’t until a falling out with an ex that I fully under­stood the impor­tance of tak­ing respon­si­bil­ity for other people’s feel­ings, regard­less of inten­tion. When I con­fronted her about bail­ing on me one day with­out any expla­na­tion, she said she didn’t feel bad and would never apol­o­gize to some­one unless she meant to hurt them.1 That’s when I learned how much it mat­ters to apol­o­gize for some­thing as sim­ple as being late, a les­son I’m grate­ful to have received at an early age. Regardless of how small her mis­take was, and even though we were friends at that point, I didn’t want to con­tinue a rela­tion­ship with some­one who felt no remorse when she’d hurt me, espe­cially after I’d put myself out there and apol­o­gized for my role in the way we fell apart.

This point was espe­cially dri­ven home to me by a per­son I once con­sid­ered my best friend. Before I started ther­apy, I couldn’t help but repeat the unhealthy pat­terns of my youth, and this friend­ship was a sig­nif­i­cant exam­ple of how I’d con­stantly try to get close to peo­ple who wouldn’t return the effort I put in. He hurt me sev­eral times in the course of our rela­tion­ship, but I kept much of those feel­ings to myself, and they ate at me inside. It’s all I knew. I believed that’s how rela­tion­ships func­tioned, and sub­mis­sion is how one showed love, cause that’s what I learned from my parents.

Eventually, the pain was sig­nif­i­cant enough that I had to ques­tion whether the rela­tion­ship made any sense. Through tears and grit­ted teeth, I apol­o­gized for not being open sooner about my feel­ings, for not giv­ing him a chance to under­stand my side, even though I was the one cry­ing. It was a way of tak­ing respon­si­bil­ity for my part in that pain (and cer­tainly not an easy thing to do in the moment). He tried to con­vince me that things would be dif­fer­ent and he’d be a good lis­tener from that point on, but when I brought up how his actions had hurt me in the past, he refused to take any­thing I said to heart. I could have given him more time to learn and grow, but he made it clear he wasn’t inter­ested in chang­ing his behav­iours or even try­ing to under­stand my side. He was who he was, and expected that to be good enough for me. It was com­pletely heart­break­ing; I knew the friend­ship wouldn’t work after I’d already tried every­thing on my end to com­pro­mise, while he thought things were fine. I’d been so much hap­pier and health­ier after sep­a­rat­ing from my mom, and when he tried to reach out to me after­wards in the exact same way — as if my feel­ings meant noth­ing — part­ing ways sim­ply made sense.

This nar­ra­tive has come to affect every rela­tion­ship in my life.

I lived an eter­nity under the regime of par­ents who refused to take any respon­si­bil­ity while they actively hurt me, and con­sis­tently put the blame on me for being overly sen­si­tive. Then for more than two decades, I was best friends with a per­son who’d tell me any pain I suf­fered was unjus­ti­fied or my own fault. At this point, the only peo­ple I choose to spend time with have done enough emo­tional labour to out­grow these attitudes.

After all, much of my ther­apy involves work­ing on myself, and that includes fig­ur­ing out impor­tant duties in my rela­tion­ships, as well as how to func­tion bet­ter with the peo­ple I’m involved with. That also means putting myself at risk of get­ting hurt, by being open with my feel­ings and assertive with my needs. These are all things that take me a tremen­dous amount of effort, and I no longer have the energy to teach some­one how to appre­ci­ate or return that effort.

That’s why I sur­round myself with peo­ple who already know how to take respon­si­bil­ity for their actions, with­out try­ing to jus­tify them with excuses. Who reflect on their behav­iours when con­flict arises, instead of reflec­tively plac­ing blame on oth­ers. Who under­stand how hard it is for me to vocal­ize my pain, and thank me for express­ing it. Who value my feel­ings, instead of hold­ing them against me.

Trolley is a great exam­ple: years after he moved out, he apol­o­gized for host­ing par­ties above my bed­room when he dis­cov­ered how thin the floors were. It wasn’t some­thing he had to do, it wasn’t some­thing I brought up, and I know it wasn’t easy for him, but he did it any­way. Not because our friend­ship was in jeop­ardy, not because he had some­thing to gain, but because some­where along the path of life he learned how to be a decent human being2, real­ized he did some­thing that may have neg­a­tively affected some­one else, and cared enough about their feel­ings to put him­self through the dis­com­fort of an apol­ogy. It was a huge sign that I actu­ally meant some­thing to him, and the rea­son I can feel secure in our friend­ship when we haven’t spo­ken in ages.

Those kinds of ges­tures may not mean much to other peo­ple, but being starved of emo­tional val­i­da­tion means they go a long way for me. It’s the same rea­son I have such a pro­found appre­ci­a­tion for Heather. My capac­ity to love her is directly related to the amount of trauma I’ve suf­fered. On top of that, I’ve always admired her for being far more knowl­edgable in areas where I’ve his­tor­i­cally been weak; treat­ing oth­ers with respect is a sub­ject, after years of learn­ing and growth, in which I’m fairly well versed, and she’s still ahead of me.

I used to think I had to trust that some­one wouldn’t hurt me in order to keep them in my life, but I was wrong. Over the nat­ural course of any sig­nif­i­cant rela­tion­ship, some­one is bound to get hurt, as I’ve learned with Heather. In our time together, some of her hon­est mis­takes, com­bined with my emo­tional dam­age, have left me won­der­ing if I could trust her — or any­one else — again. The thing that mat­ters is that we’ve always been able to work out those dis­con­nects, cause she has no dif­fi­culty acknowl­edg­ing my feel­ings and apol­o­giz­ing3. The times she wounds me become oppor­tu­ni­ties for her to mend my bro­ken hands, and for us to grow closer.

Those are the kind of peo­ple I want in my life, the rela­tion­ships I’m will­ing to cul­ti­vate now, and I’m only start­ing to under­stand how much my past has put me on the path I’m cur­rently on.

  1. I’ve since won­dered what she’d say to some­one if she acci­den­tally ran over their dog. “I didn’t do it on pur­pose, so I’m not sorry”? []
  2. As a cis white dude, no less. []
  3. Fourteen year later, and this fetish has started to make sense. []

4 comments

  1. Jeff,

    You jour­ney is very sim­i­lar to mine. I’m the youngest of 3 boys and grew up with a mother whose iden­tity and appear­ance mat­ters more than the emo­tional and phys­i­cal well-being of her chil­dren. I grew up emo­tion­ally abused by her and phys­i­cally abused by my 2 older broth­ers. I too thought that is just how fam­i­lies truly are, even into adult­hood. It wasn’t until my wife helped me see that my fam­ily life was not nor­mal. A mother who brings up embar­rass­ing moments from your child­hood (that I don’t even remem­ber) just to make her­self look like a saint (and make me feel like crap) to still being phys­i­cally assaulted by my broth­ers (them in their 40s me in my 30s) and I was told to just sit and take it — I thought every­one was like this. My wife, and her fam­ily, showed me what fam­ily really is. People who care, truly care about you, your emo­tions, and deep inside have a good heart.

    It’s been a process for me. I’ve had no con­tact with any­one in my fam­ily for almost 8 years and it is the best deci­sion I have ever made. It sounds like what you are going through now is that you are learn­ing the most impor­tant thing of all, which is to value your­self and love your­self. Once you can do that, lov­ing oth­ers (for me my wife who stuck through it all with me), espe­cially Heather for you makes life that much better.

    For me, read­ing your blog shows me that I am not alone in the strug­gles that I have been through. And for you I hope my com­ments show that it does get bet­ter. It is tough as hell. You let your­self love, be loved, and val­ued by not only your­self but a part­ner, and the whole world slowly gets bet­ter and bet­ter. I some­times look back and see how much time I wasted on my fam­ily. It took 34 years but I finally cut them off and now, at 42, I see those years are a part of me but I am stronger because I chose to cut them off. I choose me, not them, every­day. You are choos­ing you and that is beautiful.

    Your back­story is over.

    Your jour­ney continues.

    Hold onto those who you value, and value you. Enjoy cre­at­ing your story.

    All my best,

    Brian

    • You’re totally right…I’ve cho­sen me. I’ve never looked at my past like that, cause it always felt like I was open with my feel­ings, gave peo­ple a chance to change, and they decided I wasn’t worth the effort. Ultimately though, I was the one who decided to be unsat­is­fied with that response. Thanks for remind­ing me that I took con­trol instead of remain­ing a vic­tim, and it’s deci­sions like those that have made my life better.

      When I hear about expe­ri­ences like yours, my first reac­tion is dis­be­lief, cause I can’t imag­ine how any adult can be so blind to someone’s emo­tional needs. Then I think of my own par­ents — how they’re gen­er­ally intel­li­gent and respon­si­ble, but still capa­ble of so much hurt — and it really helps solid­ify my under­stand­ing that peo­ple are mosaics of competency.

      I’ve con­sid­ered dis­abling com­ments on my site before, but ones like this make me I’m glad I haven’t; oth­er­wise I’d miss out on valu­able sto­ries such as yours. Thanks again for shar­ing a painful part of your past.

  2. I’ve encoun­tered the “I’m not going to apol­o­gize because I didn’t mean to do it” and it really really sucks :(

    But hey, onwards and upwards.

    • Ugh, I’m sorry this has hap­pened to you too, and I sin­cerely hope it wasn’t some­one close who said it, like a par­ent or best friend.

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