Internal Injuries

Internal Injuries

 

She came for the weekend with a bottle of SAMe. It will lift your mood, she said. She had not tried it herself. My mother has always had an infatuation with alternative remedies. Their house is full of vitamin supplements and herbs. She is always looking for something to make her better. Her insomnia is caused by her being a night person. She would take Valerian but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because of her antidepressants and she’s just a night person. It has nothing to do with the fact that she drinks up to six cans of Diet Coke a day. Sometimes she drinks it because it’s good. Other times she drinks it because she is convinced that the caffeine gets her medication into her system faster. It is about everything else other than her own part in her own problems. Once when a stitch on her arm became infected, she became obsessed with thyme water. I just need to put some thyme water on it and it will clear up. She didn’t try to find or make thyme water, she just knew that was what she needed. Finally, my sister took her to the local immediate treatment centre where some Neosporin and a band-aid cleared the infection in a day. Believe me, the irony of what I point out is not lost on me. I know the part I play in my own loneliness. The difference between my mother’s situation and mine is that I do try to put myself out there as best I can. Putting myself out there has always been difficult, and it has not gotten any easier with the passage of time.

The plan was she would take the train in on Friday morning and we would go to breakfast. I’m never quite sure what my mother communicates to my sister, so I texted the plan to her. She must have forgotten about my birthday party, she said. She must have, I replie. I didn’t know my sister was having a birthday party. I was not invited. What more could I say? I texted my mother back with a new plan. I would get a car, drive out for the party, and she would come home with me that night. The rest of the weekend would involved lunch with friends, shopping (one of her favourite activities), a free screening of Turandot in a local park, a visit to a favourite kitchen shop, exploring the city, and talking. I hoped we would have a nice weekend like we had a month before where it was just the two of us, not like the day two weeks before with my father.

Saturday I woke her at 9:30 and found her in good spirits. She asked what the plan was and when I reminded her, she was excited about lunch. After lunch, her mood began to change. I brought up the possibility of my taking a vacation in the spring and she began to fixate on places in my neighbourhood where she could get food and supplies. She started reading every sign and every menu. When I brought up the opera she began to hem and haw. When I found out it had been postponed due to rain she was relieved. I tried to talk politics with her, but she shut me down saying I was yelling. One did not raise one’s voice in my parents’ house, so anything above quiet is yelling. Putting a finger in someone’s chest or threatening them was acceptable. Then it started. Maybe guys think you’re a lesbian. You are very interested in gay rights and reproductive rights. You’re very opinionated. Maybe men think you’re gay. My mother thinks I am a closeted lesbian. I don’t know where it came from but she has been harbouring belief for close to 30 years. Actually, she’s probably held it for longer but she first articulated this belief the night I told her I had been sexually assaulted. I was 19. She has this in her head and nothing I do or say shakes it.

The following morning I woke my mother up at 9:30 and told her if we wanted to get to the kitchen store before it closed at 1 that we needed to get going. I felt how my father must feel. He had told me countless times how he has to prod my mother into action. She asked what the plan was. I told her kitchen store in the morning and opera in the afternoon and whatever she wanted in between. The visit to the kitchen store went fine but I found she got more disagreeable as the day progressed. She kept asking for the plan for the day. When I brought up the opera she became distant. Finally I asked her if she really wanted to go. She said if I wanted to go she would go. I told her, no mom because if you go and you don’t want to be there you’ll be miserable. Forced to make a decision she opted not to go. While walking to get snacks she started in again. You should grow out your hair an inch. Not much, just an inch. Why don’t you wear contacts? You practically begged for contacts when you were in high school. Why don’t you wear them? When did they get uncomfortable? When you were in college? Technology has changed. They’re better now. Once again, it was about my appearance, my attitude. With my mother, something has always been wrong with me. There were times when I would see her after a prolonged absence and the first thing she would say was, your skin’s breaking out again or your skin looks good. My father has, so far as I know, never defended me. In the midst of yet another barrage I texted my sister, Shoot me.

She started, Shoot me. In the days before text messaging she would phone and whisper Shoot me! Shoot me! to my voicemail. I would phone her back and she would regale me with tales of what our mother had done this time. My father barely engages when he visits.  I would tell her I was sorry and to hang in there. When I texted her with shoot me and followed with her haranguing me about my appearance (again), she told me I should be more forgiving. Instead of my sister, I got the Relief Society president. My heart sank and I put my phone away. Our evening was to be spent watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.  Midway through an episode she pronounced, she’s a loose woman. I said, no she’s an independent woman of means who solves crimes, enjoys sex and has it with whomever whenever she chooses. Hmmpf, was her answer. Hmmpf is her answer whenever I defend myself, which I do more and more these days. I must defend myself and there is not one else who will defend me.

I put her on the train the following morning and went off to Rosh Hashanah services at a different synagogue. Three hours into the service and hopelessly lost, I left and had lunch with a friend. The next morning I fell into a sobbing heap on the bedroom floor and smashed a plastic hanger on the closet door. Later, I recovered myself and went for a walk. I bought my first tube of waterproof mascara. That night I phoned my father to wish him a belated birthday. I told him what happened and while sympathetic he didn’t have much to say except, you know, when your mother is with you she’s with you. When she’s with your sister, your sister shuts herself away in her office and your mother spends most of the day alone. I had often wondered how my sister managed my parents’ visits and now I knew. She avoided them for as long as possible. The laser focus of our mother’s criticism stopped for her when she left home the first time. She’d stopped engaging our mother after that. I continue to be the focus of my mother’s criticism because I have no place in which to hide while she is here. I have no choice but to engage. I had the answer to the question my therapist had asked weeks ago. My sister avoids my mother’s criticism by hiding. My father and I have no choice but to be present.

My mother and I are going to have a talk when she returns in December. I have decided that she needs to know that she her constant criticism isn’t helping, it’s hurting. She is doing what my ex-husband used to do. His criticism was relentless compared to hers but the end result is still the same. She needs to know that when I come to her I need support not advice. I am fine with the way I look, even if others are not. I know what I need to do. I do not need her to tell me that it was time to stop grieving the end of my marriage. Grief is not the way in our family. Your marriage is over. You dodged a bullet. You’re better off without him. There is nothing to grieve. I didn’t need her to tell me any of that. The bottle of SAMe she brought did the trick.

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Mother, May I?

Mother, May I?

I saw my parents on July 4th weekend. The  build-up is usually the worst part of their annual summer visits. I find it’s best to get the initial visit out of the way early that way I get a better sense of what the rest of the summer holds. Usually she greets me with a comment about my skin: oh, your skin looks great or oh, your skin’s breaking out again. She’d comment on my hair. When it was long she’d ask, you’re wearing it curly? When it’s short, like now, she says, it’s a little short. Why don’t you grow it out? That bob was so cute. Then it was my clothes. I got on the train and got off in 1987. One day she said that she still saw my sister and I as 7 and 4 (respectively). My heart sank a bit. That was probably the last time my mother was happy.

As she has gotten older she has retreated into a world of her own making. A black and white world of moralistic assertions and harsh judgment. She still asserts that we can talk about anything. I just have to steel myself to either icy silence, harsh criticism, or crass cluelessness. It’s a trap into which I fall continuously. I so want to believe I can tell her anything, so I do. I tell her what I see, what I hear, what I experience only to be met with derision.30 years you’ve wanted to be treated like men, no wonder they don’t want commitment. She can’t be that conservative or she wouldn’t have slept with a married man. . If you’re going to sleep with him go ahead, but don’t be surprised when he dumps you. My declaration that I was not getting married again but was looking forward to a full and rich sex life was met with a set jaw and a sigh. It was then that I realised that my mother was not a feminist and modern women were sluts. I would have to watch what I say around yet another person. That I never, ever fit her mold of proper female behaviour. That what I wanted to be more than anything else was a normal woman.

She and my sister met me at the train station. She made a comment about how bright my hair was these days, nothing about the length. We’d had that discussion on the phone two weeks earlier. It had gone like it usually does. She said nothing about my skin or my clothes. She didn’t ask how I was doing. It was all very light and breezy. My father, who has also outgrown his filter, told me about his medication-induced gynecomastia lifted his shirt and showed me what was left of his breasts just as my mother walked into the kitchen. She had a fit and started yelling at him. He bowed his head and shuffled his feel and tried not to laugh. She stormed off in a huff. I could not help but wonder if the elaborate fantasy she created where I became her sexual rival had disappeared completely. Later she told my sister and I that she thought daddy was slipping.  She told us how one day he nearly went for his walk wearing two pairs of boxer shorts. That he had become forgetful, argumentative, irritable. Around us she’s called him daddy for as long as I can remember, like we’re still seven and four. Having been on the receiving end of her disapproval for so long, I found it hard to swallow.  He’s been getting progressively angrier for the past decade. The world is leaving him behind like it leaves us all. Both of them had become mean and angry and judgmental. He’s getting old, I thought. And so are you, mother.

Them!

Them!

“As you know, Mr. Goodwin is not indifferent to those attributes of young women which constitute our chief reliance or our race in our gallant struggle against the menace of the insects. He is especially vulnerable to young women who have a knack for stimulating his love of chivalry and adventure.” -Rex Stout Prisoner’s Base

Believe me when I say you haven’t lived until someone says to you, you know? you’re a very attractive woman but there is nothing sexy about you. For a moment, I felt vindicated. Yes, I thought, I knew it! I was right all along! It really is me! I think I even raised a defiant fist in the air. Were the world populated by women like me, the human race would have lost to the menace of the insects millennia ago and I wouldn’t be sitting here writing and listening the The Heartbreakers I Wanna Be Loved. The more I thought about it, the sadder I felt. Being told there’s nothing sexy about you is like being told there’s nothing human about you, nothing relatable anyway. I realised that everything I’ve ever thought about myself and how men see me was true. At best, I’m one of the guys. At worst, I’m invisible. There is no word to rally around or reclaim. In the thesaurus, the antonyms to sexy are distasteful, disgusting, unattractive, and unsexy. Not exactly terms to build a movement around and rally behind. My friend out in Seattle told me to relish this and take the opportunity to “get my sexy back”. What does that mean, I asked?

Since this episode, I’ve asked countless friends what is sexy? The men in my life told me all of the things I’d heard before: kindness, generosity, intelligence, a sense of humour, confidence, no drama. (The one who said no drama got an earful.) Not one of them told me the obvious things like long hair, great breasts, long legs; because it wasn’t necessary. As one of the guys, I’d heard it all before. What does sexy mean? As for my female friends, one told me sexy is a feeling. Another told me that one morning while in high school she woke up and realised she was “hot”. What’s that like, I asked her? Another told me it was being comfortable in your own skin. I’ve been given all kinds of advice: wear sexy lingerie, wear red, wear clothes that fit, be yourself (because that’s worked so well so far?), make eye contact, wear heels. Once upon a time I was a secure, self-assured woman who didn’t care if men got her or not. The right ones would, I thought. If hope is the triumph of optimism over experience, I have some hope left-some.

When my brother died, my father gravitated to me and my mother gravitated to my sister. I learned how to change a tire, replace a washer in a faucet (when faucets required washers), thread a fishing line through a bobber, put a worm on a hook and take the fish off. He taught me to pitch sidearm and to walk off pain when I was injured in the myriad sports I played. He took me fishing and we went to baseball games. I helped him strip wallpaper and paint the dining room. Measure twice, in more than two places, then cut once. He taught me the metric system. I became, for those years between six and ten, my father’s surrogate son. Then puberty came. My sister told me she envied the attention I got from our father. It’s very easy to romanticise this chapter in my life. I was, for the most part, free of the gender-based restrictions placed on most girls my age. But it wasn’t me he saw, it was his late son. His attention was conditional, based on my ability/willingness to go along with his wishes.

When puberty hit I was handed off to my mother. It was a little like the urchin arriving at the door. My father withdrew almost completely. My life now had rules and boundaries I hadn’t had before. When my mother took me out to by my first bra she told me under no circumstances was my father to see me without a bra. That he could not see me in just my pyjamas, I needed a robe as well. She told me I could not longer sit cross-legged on the couch, particularly around my father. I now had to sit with my legs or ankles crossed. She had me walk up and down the living room with a book on my head. One day when I took the stairs two at a time (something I still do) she had me walk up and down the stairs, one at a time, twenty times. She told me boys, later men, were only after one thing, and it was up to me to be strong and resilient. I needed to be modest and covered. A girl who slept around was damaged goods and was going to end up crazy “like your aunt”. Yet, as I got older the pressure she put on me to be in a relationship was relentless. One day when I was home on break from college, I went to her for a hug and she said I was too old to get love from my mother. I needed a boyfriend. I went in to my father and said, dad mom said I need a boyfriend. He flipped down his newspaper and said, I got along perfectly well without one, flipped up his newspaper and kept reading. Mixed messages. Diametric opposites.

Being dragged into my mother’s feminine world where I wasn’t pretty enough or deferential enough and too independent killed what little self-esteem I had. She gave me a book that may have been called, I Care About Me. On the cover were two very Mormon, blonde, smiling teens. The book talked about nutrition and hygiene and proper conduct and all those things young people are supposed to care about. It didn’t talk about how you are supposed to feel when your parents are trying to force you into diametrically opposing molds. It was at this point that I found two things that probably saved my life: feminism and punk. Feminism and the punk scene allowed me to start getting more comfortable in my own skin. The punk scene was full of misfit toys. And I came of age when Bikini Kill made it OK for me to get up and say I was sexually assaulted AND emotionally abused AND my experience as a young woman was valid. These were the things that gave me the courage to start speaking up and walking away.