Love Me, Love My Dog

in #life3 years ago (edited)


love me love my dog cover image.jpg

I recently published a post that disclosed personal information about my past. As a result, I received threats from a family member who felt particularly pricked by it.

The problem with threats is that they have to actually have substance to be effective. For someone to tell me I have no right to share my story--well, I hate censorship. I hate being told to shut up “or else.” Southwest Virginia found out exactly what happens when I am told to shut up or else. I’ve considered writing about personal things before, but knew I should wait until I could be more objective. I still have no desire to write a detailed play-by-play about my life, past or present. But I won’t be silenced about my own experiences. Especially when the truth is so easy to verify, and when others are so determined to twist it.

I have never understood how a person’s reality can become so distorted that it becomes a caricature of the facts, but I’ve seen it happen time and again. I’ve also seen a whole lot of psychological projection, which is attributing one’s own flaws to other people while denying their existence in one’s own self. But, before I go any further with terminology or names of disorders, let me establish that I have been in and out of professional counseling for years. As a result, I’ve been given the tools to understand what happened to me as a child and throughout early adulthood, and to take a step back and evaluate my own responses and defense mechanisms. My children have not been afforded such an opportunity because my efforts to seek help on their behalf were thwarted by the removal of them from my custody.

When he was an elementary school student, my son became the patient of a Blacksburg, VA, psychologist to be evaluated on the suspicion of narcissism and borderline personality disorder. The diagnosis could not be conclusively made because he was abducted across state lines and could never complete the assessment. These appointments were scheduled after he attempted to set our house on fire and after school employees observed him engaging in other anti-social behaviors. His history of that went back several years, including accusing his father of forcing him to bathe in ice cold water. As much as I would love to crucify my ex-husband for abuse of both our children, I have no recollection of this event or other events he’d been accused of by our son, so I have to assume they were complete fabrications. Or, at the very least, a perversion of actual events that were distorted by my son to evoke sympathy from anyone who showed concern about his behavior.

I have been accused of many things myself, but when those accusations come from someone with a history of mental instability during the years in question and, later, illicit drug use and suicidal ideation, those accusations have to be viewed through a different lens. This same child who leveled all those accusations drowned at least one kitten in a barrel of water and would have fits of rage that were uncontrollable and sometimes violent. Those fits of rage were also manifested frequently by his father so it is possible there is a genetic component. We will never know, because both sets of grandparents were resistant to the idea of mental health assessment and counseling, and as far as I know, never sought any for my son or were even aware that he was using drugs or considering self-harm as a teenager.

I will be the first to agree that the childhoods of both my children were catastrophic. I will also agree that I was ill-equipped to make anything better for them. My biggest life regret is moving to live directly behind my adoptive mother and father when the kids were small and allowing their influence on the lives of my biological family. In my thirties, and as the result of professional counseling, I came to understand that I had been raised by narcissists and that I had tried to live the first half of my life according to their values and mores. As could be expected, I failed miserably and my children suffered as a consequence. Because I put my two children directly into the same sphere of influence that damaged me, they were subjected to the same distorted reality that I had been subjected to as a child and there the troubles began.

My adoptive parents placed great value on maintaining an appearance of status quo. Don’t rock the boat, don’t ask the hard questions, don’t draw attention from anyone who might criticize. They were stragglers from the “silent generation,” by-products of the McCarthy era. But there was more to their coldness than just silence. I grew up overhearing and observing subtle judgments that we were a notch better than our neighbors, a notch better than other family members, therefore we needed to remain slightly aloof and constantly critical. All the while, both worked very hard at affectations that made them seem friendly, caring, and generous to casual acquaintances. In private, things were much different. In private, my adoptive parents were emotionally unavailable and never demonstrated empathy for others in need, only pity. There is a difference. A major, critical difference that can literally define the parameters of narcissism.

They did make some effort to socialize me. They enrolled me in dance classes, which I hated, while dismissing my interest in piano lessons altogether. I loved horses, and when I was finally able to connect with a riding instructor, my adoptive mother kept my lessons a secret from my adoptive father for quite a while lest he disapprove. Later, when I expressed a desire to attend college after high school, they discouraged me despite my 4.0 GPA at graduation and told me that I would get no support from them if I decided to pursue further education. In conflicts with other people, I was always to blame in their eyes, and they frequently sided with whoever it was who had hurt me, including husbands one and two, particularly the childrens’ father who exposed all of us to HIV by his reckless and utterly selfish behavior that nearly drove me to the brink of emotional breakdown. I am happy to report that neither my children nor I contracted HIV, but that cannot in any way be attributed to any effort my ex-husband made to protect us.

None of these circumstances I’ve described are overtly abusive. Regardless of that, growing up in a home where emotional responsibility and the development of empathy are not priorities for parenting can severely impact a child. According to my own rounds of assessment testing, I do not fit the criteria of a narcissist. However, the evidence of narcissistic influence on my personality and character are clear and I have worked for nearly twenty years to purge my life of those traits. I believe I have been mostly successful at this point, but there are times when my searing judgment of others still affects my ability to form healthy relationships, and it takes a real trooper to point out those instances in a way that doesn't activate a thousand triggers and send me spiraling down the rabbithole of perceived rejection.

Sadly, both of my children were imprinted at a very young age by the same environment in which I was raised. Combined with a genetic tendency toward mood instability and emotional volatility from their father’s side of the family, it’s safe to say neither of them had a chance. Neither did I. However, with very limited means, I tried to remove both the kids and me from those influences once I began to understand them. As a result, not only did my adoptive mother and father deliberately withhold assistance from me during this time, they told me that “the kids can stay with us, Rhonda, but you can’t. I don’t know what to tell you. You’ll have to find somewhere else to live.”

Red flag? Of course it was. I lacked the social intelligence at that time to understand what it meant. Their lack of support in any form soon turned to blatant undermining, and eventually the kidnap of both children across state lines. My daughter came back with the help of law enforcement, but my son claims he hid from me so he wouldn’t have to return. That strikes me as odd. He was eight years old. What would motivate an eight year old to reject a parent in favor of living with grandparents?

He says it was because I abused him. But did I? Somewhere in the archives of a psychologist’s office in Blacksburg, VA, it’s noted on a medical chart that my son considered me making him do household chores as child abuse. In contrast, the grandparents would make him do no such things. Was his “choice” fueled by the fact that they gave him all the things he wanted, like a PlayStation that I couldn’t afford? Was it because he found them easier to manipulate than he found me? Was it because he felt threatened by the counseling I’d put him in? Did he really believe he was being abused? Did he forget the lies he told our neighbor so the poor fellow would be as angry at me as the grandparents were? I will never know.

What I DO know is that I had all the documentation on my side, including that medical chart I just mentioned, cancelled checks from childcare provider services, and backing from the Virginia Department of Social Services who had launched an all-out effort to pursue the kids’ father for child support so that, according to Virginia law at the time, I could receive food stamps and Medicaid for the children. In other words, I could not obtain government assistance unless every attempt was exhausted to recover child support from the absent parent. I had no choice but to cooperate if I wanted state help raising my children.

Well, of course their father objected. And he fought it. Removing the kids physically from the Commonwealth of Virginia was a very clever move by the grandparents and my ex-husband. It was also clever of them to exploit the mental instability of my son to build a court case in Georgia against me based entirely on his fabrications, since not a single bit of “evidence” from Virginia would support his claims. By the same token, not a single bit of “evidence” from Georgia was based on any events that actually occurred in Georgia, only the word of a child with a documented history of lying--the Georgia "evidence" was, in fact,a collection of anecdotes about events that occurred in a completely different jurisdiction.

If the custody hearing could have been held in Virginia, the outcome would have been radically different. But since my son had been in Georgia with the grandparents and enrolled in school there based on a paper I had signed giving my adoptive parents the right to seek medical care for him in case of emergency, Virginia no longer had jurisdiction over the custody case even though I had lived in the state for more than six months. My son acknowledged in writing recently that he knew I had fought very hard to regain custody of him. If he knows that, he should never have abandonment issues, should he? Yet he once shared with me that family members continually told him that I didn’t love him at all because I had given him up. If that’s true… and knowing his history of lying to gain sympathy, I am suspicious that it might not be...then where did the mental abuse come from? Me, or them?

Another recent accusation that has been lodged against me is that I “stole” a house from my daughter. This is a prime example of the distorted alternate reality I mentioned earlier. FACT: my name was on the deed as well as hers as co-owner. FACT: in 2015, she moved to North Carolina and left me alone with the house and all responsibility for its upkeep. FACT: I provided the entire downpayment and made every single mortgage payment on the house from 2015 until I finally let it go in 2019. She contributed nothing whatsoever during that time. FACT: she sought to kick me out of the house in 2018 and threated to try and have me declared incompetent if I did not move, despite the fact that I was paying the mortgage and all the bills at that time. FACT: I contacted her in 2019 and told her my health had become so critical that I could no longer live there on my own and was willing to help her put the house on the market. FACT: she refused to work with the real estate agent or the bank to keep the house out of foreclosure, despite the fact that she could have made a small profit if the house had been sold instead of auctioned by the bank. This is all very well documented. Unfortunately, in her version of reality, it was “her” house when it was easy for her to accuse me of living there as an unwanted squatter, but it was “my” house when someone had to make the payments and deal with putting it on the market, and then suddenly it’s “her” house again when it’s convenient to say I stole it. The whole scenario is absurd. Painful, but absurd.

Finally, I want to address the last attempt I made to make peace with my adoptive parents. This happened in 2019, not long before I left the country. It was the dealbreaker for me, the last bit of convincing I needed to sever all ties.

Michel and I had arranged to spend a few days at their home while we were traveling around the East Coast to various bookstores promoting our publishing company. Naturally I had one of my service dogs with me and Michel also had his dog with him. Both dogs are housetrained and nondestructive. My service dog has public access rights that permit me to enter all public spaces with this dog, including restaurants, grocery stores, to fly on airplanes with the dog in the cabin, for no extra cost. My adoptive parents knew we were traveling with dogs because I had told them in advance. And at first, all seemed to be well when we arrived in Georgia with these dogs in tow.

The first inappropriate thing my mother said to me was about my hair. “How do you keep the bugs out of it?” She was referring to my dreadlocks, which I wear to mitigate the extensive hair loss caused by lupus.

The next inappropriate thing she said was a backhanded swipe at Michel: “I’m sorry, but he looks like a child to me.” Hello? Michel is in his thirties. He’s a grown man with agency, completely undeserving to be a target of such judgmental passive-aggression. But this is exactly the kind of narcissist attitude that I grew up hearing and seeing and that I have come to expect from both of my adoptive parents. It’s the subtle edge of superiority that “might” be offensive or “might not” be offensive, that can never be challenged directly because their response will always be, “well, that’s my opinion,” as if the right to state opinions with the intent to disparage other people is somehow an inherent right.

Because of the years I’ve spent in self-discovery and counseling, I understood the mechanism behind these remarks and had the coping skills to ignore them. So I did not react. Her third jab at me was to say, point blank, that she did not regret her actions of taking my children away from me. “I just don’t think it was the wrong thing to do,” she said. Later, she evidently told my son that I “attacked them for no reason” about the past and conveniently forgot to disclose anything she had said or done to me that might have precipitated it.

However, again, I was able to ignore the remark and not react. The final devastating incident came when I fed Michel’s and my two dogs a bit of dry kibble dog food directly on the linoleum floor tile. My mother jumped up from the sofa with a disapproving scowl, jerked a paper plate or bowl or something from the cabinetry and proceeded to scoop the kibble off the floor, saying, “you know we don’t live like this.”

Well, most dog owners know that in a situation where dogs have not eaten for a long time, as in the case of travel, growls and arguments may occur when they’re fed from a single spot. Yes, I could have put the kibble on two separate paper plates, but the best solution is to scatter it a little bit so the dogs are so busy chasing it down that they don’t think to fight with each other. But instead of reacting in a sane and rational way over what I perceived to be a completely harmless and totally correctable situation, my adoptive parents proceeded to call me out onto the back porch and inform me that I had disrespected their home for the last time and that if I ever wanted to visit them again, I would stay in a hotel.

Right or wrong, defensible or not, I unloaded both barrels. I told them exactly what I thought about their parenting skills, both with small children and with me now, as an adult. And I have not spoken with them since. Nor will I. For my own sanity and self-respect, as well as to protect the people around me in the last half of my life, I simply cannot allow that kind of venom in my orbit any more.

Michel was horrified by what he witnessed. It’s one of the things that occurred over the last few years that solidified the bond between us. Recently, he received a hate-filled message from my son. In this message, my son described the incident I related above about our visit with my adoptive parents. His version of it was so distorted and parts of it so blatantly untrue that I needed to say nothing in my own defense. Michel had been physically present in the house when everything happened. He knows for himself how things went down. Hearing my son’s version of it was all he needed to understand that my family’s accounts of things are unreliable at best, malicious at worst, and utterly malignant in either case. Michel’s own childhood was not a storybook upbringing. It was filled with dysfunction on every side. Still, he doesn’t hold his mother responsible for all the things she had no control over, or for how well or how badly she performed according to everyone’s else’s expectations of a parent. They have a very close relationship today and he is a well-adjusted adult. Therefore the dynamics in my family are completely untenable for him. He has seen firsthand the level of toxicity I grew up with and lived in for so many years, and I can’t blame him for wanting no part of it.

I will not for one millisecond suggest to anyone that my two children had an ideal upbringing. Even after I left Georga with them and tried to start over, me as a single parent with zero support from family or their father left a lot to be desired. I often wonder what life would have been like for all of us if, instead of judgment, my adoptive parents would have extended mercy and offered me a place to stay with my children soon after the divorce. If they had stood with me through the weeks and months of testing to confirm whether or not my childrens’ father had infected me with HIV, if they’d had any emotional depth at all to offer us during those awful times, if they had helped me form a support system based on trust and genuine empathy rather simply dismissed me with smug reminders of my constant failure… who knows. They blame me for everything, anyway. I would never, ever be able to do anything “right” in their eyes.

The good news? My future is bright and these days I’m surrounded by caring and brilliant people. Therefore I can move on without constantly feeling the need to reach backward and reopen old scars. However, I will not be silent. I owe discretion to no one. Perhaps my experiences and how I’ve been able to overcome them will be helpful to someone. And maybe, just maybe, my verifiable accounts of things that happened in my family will be of some use to my grandchildren, who I will most likely never see in person. Whatever the case, time marches on. I am happy with the direction life has taken me.

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Hi Rhonda

Wow, what a powerful post! I am reading this at exactly the right time and see so many similarities with our stories, it is quite surreal to be honest.

I admire your courage on not being silent. I have not yet reached that point. Perhaps one day I will reveal my story, but you are so right - your ability to tell it will help people probably more than you know. The problem with narcissistic family dynamic and dysfunction is that anything that occurs that doesn't fit the social grade score of being known by anyone outside of the family is rebuked and they will do absolutely anything and everything in their power to stop anything from smearing their image. I know it all too well and seems to be a very common trait amongst dysfunctional families.

Also rules for thee but not for me - which really just pisses me off no end. They are allowed to be as abusive, discouraging, demeaning and outright nasty as they like but you are never ever allowed to question that behaviour or call out that they are frauds and hypocrites. They will also never own or take accountability for their own bad behaviour - it's always somebody else's fault. Sigh. It's a sad reality when you grow up in that environment.

It has taken me years to unravel why I am socially awkward, irrationally fearful of family gatherings, have an absolute abhorrence to Christmas, why I hate my birthday and why I have felt like an absolute failure my entire life even though I have earned some great achievements and life experience. When your core values are self defeating and critical to the point of paralysis, you start asking the difficult questions and the answers aren't easy to digest.

It's not an easy road to travel but posts like this are very encouraging along the way reminding us that our reality is our own and should not be pummelled into something else by someone else who has a very skewed recollection of events. The truth is a powerful tool in self discovery and growth.

Thank you for sharing.

I am socially awkward, irrationally fearful of family gatherings, have an absolute abhorrence to Christmas, why I hate my birthday and why I have felt like an absolute failure my entire life even though I have earned some great achievements and life experience.

You just described me to a T.

Thank you so much for this response. I do hope that my speaking up will empower others besides just me. Otherwise, what's the point, right? My family will never read this. So it's not like I want to lash back at them. It's just a personal step in the journey for me, being able to talk about it. I'm sure it will be the same for you.

It's so true. Speaking out is probably one of the most important parts of breaking out of the vicious cycle of dysfunction.

I know that your aren't doing it to lash out. I simply haven't garnered up the courage yet because I know the absolute lengths these people will go to absolutely destroy you if you speak out. They will target your career, your personal life, they will stalk social media accounts, they will send threats and they are psychopathic to the extent that when they become unhinged, they will break the law and even commit physical harm to get their revenge. Our daughter is only 4 and we were able to get out and away when she was 2,5 so I am hoping that the exposure to those people will have a very small impact overall. When we left, we were even threatened that they would go to the police and lay kidnapping charges against my husband for removing myself and our daughter from their clutches.

So I totally understand. Those of us that get out should be very proud, it's not easy but it's absolutely worth it.

Have a great day

What a story you have. But you are right--people can be ruthless if they fear your words.

wow! I feel for you, @andrastia. Thank you for sharing this. Almost my entire life, I've believed that myth that in ALL people, there is goodness; we just have to look for it. No. No, some people are so evil, the only "good" is a facade they put up in order to get something from you. This:

I know the absolute lengths these people will go to absolutely destroy you if you speak out. They will target your career, your personal life, they will stalk social media accounts, they will send threats and they are psychopathic to the extent that when they become unhinged, they will break the law and even commit physical harm to get their revenge.

For me it's still so hard to cut anyone off, to sever ties, to stop trusting, hoping, and believing.
Especially "blood" kin. To me unending amazement, the worst harm seems to be inflicted by one family member upon another. Father to daughter, sister to sister, you name it....

Rounding up the hearts and hugs emojis, but never did find a way to post them here. Others do. Well, {{{ hugs }}} to you all, cyber hugs, no physical arms fumbling for you.

Peace. So easy to *wish it for others, so hard to achieve!

Hi Carol
Sorry this is so late, I've been off Hive for a bit while I prepared for our daughter's 4th birthday.

Thank you so much for writing to me, yes it is the most difficult thing to understand and even more so once you are out of it and see it with some perspective, it is absolutely heartbreaking to know that those that are meant to care for you can do the most damage.

I told an acquaintance of mine recently what happened and she left her family and cut them off for similar reasons more than 8 years ago, it seems that there are many people that have HAD to do this but will not mention it as so they feel that so few will understand it.

We all have our roads to travel and sometimes we have to leave family behind if you want to move forward.

Thank you for the hugs, I'm sending you some too (I also don't know how to do the emojis in Hive lol), I think that we could all do with more hugs whether virtual or physical.

Have a beautiful day Carol :)

Now I'm the one who's late with a reply - daughter's birthday! - "too old" for doll cakes and balloons, but her children are ages 4, 3, and 1, that age when BIRTHDAYS and BALLOONS are the BOMB! (Does "da bomb" date me? Well, I am a grandma)

Thank you for sharing your perspective on family. "Some people are easier to love at a distance," a wise woman said, she whose PTSD from childhood is beyond all comprehension. She amazes me every day .... haven't seen her since 1979, when we rode the same bus to school, and only recently learned from her what horrors may be hiding in plain sight behind a neighbor's closed doors. #TooSad to speak of....

Lol Carol, don't worry, I still use the term "da bomb" and sometimes get looks hahaha. At those ages, Balloons and Buntings and all things shiny are definitely still a hit and birthdays are a lot of prep but it's easy to please a kid below teenager years.

I think childhood PTSD is largely overlooked by society as a "pffft - here we go again" kind of thing which irritates me no end because it's something that affects anyone that has lived through it their whole lives, it's not "that happened so many years ago, why is it still bugging you?" Some people just don't get it I suppose and those scars tumble down onto the lives of the next generation if it's not worked through and resolved. That's what I'm doing, trying to break the cycle so that my daughter doesn't have the same experience. It'll never be perfect because that's not humanly possible, but if it can be a lot better, then that's definitely a step in absolutely the right direction.

We all have a journey, I just wish that more people were able to acknowledge that childhood damage is a real issue and one of the largest plagues of society at the moment.

Have a good day Carol. Chat soon.

I'm a month late finding this post - mea culpa! -and haven't finished reading it. I got this far:

My adoptive parents placed great value on maintaining an appearance of status quo. Don’t rock the boat, don’t ask the hard questions, don’t draw attention from anyone who might criticize.

It isn't a uniquely Southern thing. That said, I'm revisiting a novel set in Georgia, The Tea-Olive Bird Watching Society by Augusta Trobaugh, and she says the same thing about that aura of politeness and silence.

Ok back to reading you....