I used to be a charge nurse in long-term care facilities and later owned my own home care company. Over the course of my career I had to call many adult children and tell them the death of their parent was imminent. Once, when I called a local son of one of my dying patients, he said, “So, what the hell do you want me to do about it, why don’t you call my sister?” and slammed the phone down in my ear.
If the adult children did come to the bedside, these are the scenarios that usually played out: One child sobbed over their parent at the bedside, holding their hand, and doting on their every need. They’d run to the nurse’s station with yet another request and plead with tears in their eyes, “Is there anything else we can do?”
As we talked, they would say things like, “we’ve been estranged for years,” “flew in despite what’s happened,” “couldn’t please him,” “didn’t approve of,” or “was never enough.”
Ah, the Black Sheep. I knew the title well. Life for us is always like a funeral. No matter how perfect or successful we make the rest of our lives, there’s always something or someone missing. We can never truly have it all. It’s a cruel and unusual punishment for crimes we didn’t even commit. And what we are really grieving for when our parents die is how things could have been, and now there is no hope of ever reconciling our relationship. The thought of having an entire family around a Thanksgiving table or a Christmas tree are gone forever. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
The other adult child, usually decided to come, but they stood pissed in the hallway with their arms folded across their chest.
As we talked, I’d hear statements such as, “he was such a pain in my ass,” “he never respected my boundaries,” “thought he owned me,” or “as long as I kissed his/her ass.”
Enter the Golden Child. They didn’t speak to until spoken to, but had a lot to say. They grieve for the loss of their lives spent in cages, they grieve for the loss of their voice, and the loss of their individual identity. They’re finally seeing that the reward of being favored and accepted came with a price. Sure, it was wrapped up like a gift with a shiny bow, but has taken all but their lives. They’ve existed. And what are they now if they aren’t praised at every turn? Saved? They don’t know and aren’t sure they want to. —
My father was a Golden Child and then raised my brother to be a Golden Child. These tend to be their characteristics:
Golden Children are highly favored, given praise for the littlest of things, and are accepted the way they are, no matter what. There is no reason for them to ever change because the narc parent has sent the message that they are perfect the way they are. Golden Children can’t stand up for much of anything that is opposite the narc parent because the message is: “You had better tread lightly or else.” Some Golden Children are easily swayed by promises of gifts, inheritances, and lavish attention, praise and ego-stroking. They sometimes join in on abuse of other family members, parroting the narcs words, tone and even inflection. You sometimes find yourself wondering where the narc abuser ends and the golden child begins. They value safety and familiarity over the messy unknown life of the black sheep. The narc needs this triangulation of the golden child for back up. For their own validation and acceptance. Things they will never give anyone else. They need it in order to do their dirty work. Deep down I wonder if they know they are sell outs? But, the world tells us that golden anything is better than black anything else. Golden is accepted. Sought after. Bright. Gold means #1! But, Golden Children rarely if ever reach their magnificence. Some ask for handouts their entire life, and the narc parent is just too happy to bail them out again and again. Money? Cars? Lying for them? Fixing it? Protecting them? You name it. Consider it done. But, bailing someone out all the time or spoiling a child, is abuse. When parents do this they clip their child’s wings. The child can flap their wings against their entrapment, but they’re not going very far anytime soon. If they do try to go beyond the pale, they are quickly blinded by the light of complicity and their own illusions of perfection. They go along to get along. That’s how they survive. And there’s nothing more that can be done. — And when the parent that’s caged them dies… they are lost, pissed, and confused.
So, there they stand, along the dank nursing home hallways, arms folded across their chest and the person they’re really mad at — is themselves. They’ve sold their souls for the fake love and attention from a sick individual that needed some back up in the convoluted mess that is their inability to deal with their own pathological issues. Bullies. Always stronger in groups. A life triangulated away into nothingness. They’ve been duped.
Black Sheep (me) are never bailed out, helped, selected, chosen or favored. We muscle through life on our own, like scrappy wild children looking for food, and nothing we come home with is ever good enough. We could have always done better. We grow up without love and nurturing and by some miracle known only to God, end up capable of pulling ourselves up and out of some of the muckiest, hurtful places in life, only to smile and give to others another day. We know no one is coming to save us and know that it begins and ends with us to be there for ourselves but somehow we remain open to hearing from God at anytime now. See how much I help myself? Do you see me now? In essence, we’ve become stronger for being discarded. We’ve had to figure shit out, and overcome painful negative loops playing in our heads to accomplish anything. Black Sheep can do whatever we put our minds to, and we tend to be over-achievers. We love with our whole hearts. And because we know how it feels not to be, everyone’s included at our table because we know that exclusion is deadly painful. Hell, we even have compassion for our abusers. We’ve loved deeply, even in spite of knowing we were being used and merely tolerated in return. But, yet, Black Sheep are out in life trying to create beauty out of our pain, families out of fragments, and feasts out of scraps. And when our ailing parent dies, we, the Black Sheep: seekers of answers, ask, “Is there something else we can do?”
My brother used to tell me before my dad triangulated him to his side, “You are the strongest woman I have ever met.” And, I’m still not sure, if that was meant to be a statement about me, or about his own limitations.
I don’t hold a grudge against my brother. In fact, I love him very much. Both the Golden Child and Black Sheep are abused children that grow into abused adult children. Both are molded, scolded and imprinted with shit that takes years of counseling to unravel, let alone understand. And sadly, unless we seek counseling and explore our own pain, sometimes we don’t even realize the deeper family dynamics that are so ingrained in us that are passed on from generation to generation.
I haven’t seen my brother in nineteen years, and I doubt I ever see him again. When I think about him, I get sad. Not so much for me, but for him. I can only imagine what kind of hell his life has been and how controlled he is as an adult. The last time I saw him, he sported purple bags under his eyes, had a flat affect and although he was alert and spoke, he did so with a reluctancy about him. It was as if he had accepted his fate of, “this is my lot in life and I had better keep quiet about it, or else.”
I wish him nothing but the best in life. I wish him the ability to see through this one day and feel his way out the other side like I did. I hope he seeks help with his depression and finally lands in Wrongville with me. I hope that he was also able to break this cycle of abuse in his own family and do what my father wasn’t able to do in his. I hope he stands up one day and tells his children about their Aunt Robin. I doubt they know I exist. That makes me cry.
But, I’m glad to be the Black Sheep of my family sitting over here in Wrongville. We’re not complacent over here. Not willing to go along to get along. We stand and deal. I think if we’re going to be abused, it’s best to be excluded from the family dynamics of narcissistic abuse than it ever is to be encased in it like a bug captured in resin.
I will remember and recover. Not forgive and forget. My heart can only take so much.
When I sought counseling after being discarded by my mom, the counselor asked what my goals were for my sessions with her. I said,
“Help me grieve the death of my parents — who are still living.”
It’s been sixteen years since I was discarded by my dad and brother, and three and a half years since being discarded by my mom. All of these discards caused tremendous damage, but being discarded at age forty-six by my mom, dredged up everything for me. Absolutely everything. Things I thought I was completely over, now sent me reeling into the abyss.
This is an article about the how the death of a parent impacts the adult child psychologically and physically. The pain and torment of narcissistic discard is no joke.
Even as a nurse; someone well aware that the grieving process isn’t a linear, chronological undertaking, and is something that looks different for everyone, I think I still naively hoped for a process that would be something I could just breeze through like steps one through five, check, check, check, check, check. Like homework.
I was in so much pain from being discarded by my mom, that somedays I thought I might die from the sheer weight of the pain I carried within my chest. Other days, I wanted to die just to to be done with it all. I couldn’t get my head from spiraling, “What did I ever do to deserve this?” — As all this was happening, I also had a few long-term friendships that were falling into disrepair, marital problems, and ‘other’ family issues I’ll get around to discussing with you all some other time.
I thought the counselor could give me some tool to help me get through the pain I was grappling with so I begged her for reading material and homework on anything she thought would help me. I needed answers.
I told her one day as I arrived with my homework in hand that I wanted to stop writing my memoir and focus solely on the grieving process and heal this shit once and for all. She smiled and let me tell her what I thought I needed as she sat quietly with her hands folded in her lap.
Oh, how funny that is to me now.
And I did stop writing my memoir. For a while. I had to. I was advised to stop when I started to stutter in counseling as I did in childhood as I sat and talked about what had hurt me. I was reeling with emotions I had buried for four decades. I had to get out of the tail spin I was in and regroup and refuel.
So, with some time and a few months worth of sessions under our belts, my counselor led me to the conclusion that within the rubble of my despair I wanted to put aside, lay the rubies and diamonds I needed for the long haul. I needed to put “that” together with “this” and tether it together somehow into a meaningful life. I had to integrate what I was learning there, with where I had been, and where I saw myself going. I had to stop compartmentalizing. I had to stop disassociating. Wounded child by night. Extra Super Do-Gooder by day. She reminded me that letting the dream of writing my book go in order to process yet another discard would only hurt me and stop any progress I had made in my self-discovery and recovery of my strength. So, with her encouragement, I decided to use the pain of my mother’s discard as fuel for my journey to write Steel Town Girl.
Grieving the death of parents and a sibling while they’re still alive is a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s a confusing grief. Even this far out. Even with writing a childhood memoir about it, it’s still a muddy pit of despair I have to dig through alone, sometimes daily, in order to survive.
I find myself asking, “What is this I’ve found? Why does it feel this way? Is this mine, or does it belong to someone else?” I’ve definitely found some jewels to keep, but I’ve found a lot of rocks I had to throw back in.
It hurts to be rejected by the very people who made us. How do we trust others in a world like that? How do we learn to love others with role models like that? How do we believe in a god after being handed this lot in life to carry?
The answer is, “I don’t know?” My question is: “What else can we do?”
With the tools I was given in counseling, I now know that healing this abuse pattern is a lifelong journey, not something we do once and we’re done. Just knowing that provides a sort of acceptance I didn’t have before. We will grieve now, and grieve again at the time of our parents ‘actual’ death and at various points in between. There’s no way around it, really.
Another tool I was given that has proven to be invaluable in feeling your way through the convoluted mess that is the narcissistic abuse cycle of idealization, devaluation and discard is trusting yourself and your intuition regardless of what others tell you. If you feel abused, you are. If someone tells you otherwise, ask yourself if they could in fact be one of your abusers.
Turns out, that once you know about this spectrum, you see it everywhere; some people in your life will be high on the spectrum and will be unreachable, while others will only have traits. But, you’ll be delighted when you’re able to go back and see old behaviors and people with new eyes. You’ll see why those old friendships crumbled and people left your life. Hint: You’re growing, they are not.
Somedays I think I’m closer to healing than ever before. I’ll feel like a snake that’s shed its old skin and I’m ready to take on the world. Other days I can barely breathe from the black pit of sorrow that still lurks in my chest.
I am not the same person I was when I started this memoir writing journey. And, if writing my memoir has taught me anything about myself it’s this:
I’ve done a lot of grieving in my lifetime. And I’ve done most of it alone. And I’m still sifting through. A day at a time.
They say in order for a wound to heal we need to stop touching it.
As a nurse, I can tell you with a hundred percent certainty, you not only have to start touching it — you have to debride it if it still hurts and is not healing. Really get in there and dig around. Pull gunk out and look at it closely. Is it sticky? Bloody? Filled with pus? Necrotic? Does it smell? Does it smell like rotting flesh? Yeast? Is there a musty odor? Does it cause pain? Is it numb? Are the edges of the wound red, black, gray, green? What stage is the wound? Is it superficial? Is it down to muscle and bone? Sometimes we find that a tiny wound that looks like it’s healing is actually a huge tunneling wound that snakes down deep…
Sometimes, as wound care nurses, we debride wounds by pulling the top layer of skin off with wet-to-dry gauze or chemicals to get to the healthier, pink tissue underneath. We are ripping out the bad cells on top to get to the good down deep. Sometimes we debride with tools, sometimes with our gloved fingers. It’s barbaric. It can be painful for our patient, and us. But, we dig and dig, and sometimes make things look much worse before they become better.
You document and report your findings and come together with other people to make a plan to heal it.
Leaving things to heal without this exploration usually makes for a failed healing process much like the tunneling wound. The germs that are lurking just beneath the surface of a wound are a lot like the demons we push away and ignore. They want to be brought out into the light, explored and cleaned up or they can tunnel. Deep. — Only after this step is complete can we even begin to talk about healing.
It’s a big job. Wound healing. Memoir writing. Same difference. It hurts like hell. You’ll writhe in pain and hate every step of the exploration of the things that hurt you along the way.
But, we have to do it. It’s our story and we alone have to debride it to make it better.
I heard an awful racket outside this morning and dismissed it as the neighbors moving in next door. Then, I saw my cat at the back left area of the screened in porch on alert; tail-wagging, ready for something to appear, as the clawing sounds continued. They stopped as I got close, so I stood and listened, and soon there were the sounds of tiny nails scratching down metal. I ran upstairs and told my husband I thought there was a squirrel caught in the downspout, so he came out and disconnected the bottom rubber portion of the drain, and there he was.
We both thought we saw him move a bit with the movement of the pipe. He had one eye open, but I didn’t see any breathing, he just laid there frozen. I told my husband I hoped we got to him in time. We didn’t want to traumatize him if he was alive, or get bit, so we left, and let nature take its course.
I wondered about him all morning. I checked on this cutie about an hour after finding him, and he’s still lying in there.
Then, I thought… was he stunned and scared, still thinking he was stuck, and wasn’t yet strong enough to back out and free himself because of all the struggling. I doubted this fierce little guy would have resigned himself to dying in there.
And, it got me thinking about how I handle my own panic. I too, hunker down and go small when I’m scared or I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time fighting. It’s necessary for us C/PTSD sufferers to regroup, catch our breath, and assess the situation before re-emerging back into our habitat when life throws us for a loop. But, it’s equally important not to resign ourselves to labels, detach so much we don’t even try, and to just give up that this is our fate.
Some days, I’m hunkered down and quiet, like this scared little squirrel, trying to find my center. I’m recuperating and trying to trust the Universe again. And some days, there’s absolutely no time for that — only time for doing — and you can hear my nails scratching down the slick metal tube that is life, trying everything in my power not to die.
Both are survival modes.
Squirrel mode is quieter than my other mode and may look like dying or giving up to those on the outside. This mode occurs more in my head, and is purposeful. —It’s here where I tell myself to “Just breathe”, “Everything is o.k.” “Don’t be scared.” “Not now.” —Here, I don’t do much. I stay small. I even shallow breathe. I do a lot of piddling around the house, crafting, art journaling, painting, cooking and wearing pajamas. And, all that is super awesome to my quiet, inner-dying and hunkering down, squirrel self. I come out of this mode much quicker lately. I tended to dwell here while writing my book. But, I re-emerged stronger, all by listening to my body’s messages of what it needs from me, the operator.
My other mode is more expressive and loud. Tiger Mode. This mode occurs in my heart, and makes me fight like a caged, wild animal trying to get myself free because “something” tells me to stand up. In this mode, I don’t allow anxiety, depression, panic attacks, or any other C/P.T.S.D. symptom to have control. In this mode, I barrel through. Challenging myself to go further and do more. Less feeling. More doing. I hold my head up, stand in my courage, speak while my voice cracks, and acknowledge I can still feel fear and anxiety, while feeling courageous and getting shit done. The fear can remain if it chooses to, but I move on with or without it, knowing I can hold both modes at once. I can be a tiger now, and come back to squirrel mode later.
I show up because I am stronger than fear.
I call holding both modes at once my even-steven mode. For me, it’s equivalent to driving a stick. Too much gas and you’ll jerk yourself violently and chirp your wheels. Too much clutch and you’re going to bog down and stall your engine until you finally sputter and come to a complete stop.
Even-steven mode is a place where I am able to have an eagle’s-eye view of myself and can see clearly what I’m doing, and how I’m being. In this mode, the eagle doesn’t let me go to far left or right of center. No wallowing, spiraling out of control, or using excuses, on the left. And on the right, no out of control busyness, doing or striving that takes me too far out of myself. Midline is where it’s at: Not too much IN your business, not too much OUT of your business.
Both modes: Squirrel and Tiger are absolutely necessary for our survival, and both are completely normal. One mode is comfortable, and one is not. Even-steven mode is both modes at the same time, and is the Goldilocks of where I’ve lived my life. You can get there too. Just follow the inner Eagle.
I was curious as to whether our squirrel friend was hunkered down and scared, or had just resigned himself die, so I ran outside to see. — Turns out, he could be both too! He rested, surveyed his habitat for danger, then, when it was safe, he high-tailed it outta there! I’d like to think he’s now comfy and cozy in his tree nest with his squirrel family hunkered down and resting his inner tiger for his next adventure.
And that’s what C/PTSD feels like: Resigning and dying one day, and/or fighting and lurching forward with the ferociousness of a tiger the next. Sometimes being both in one day.
And get this: When my husband came home a few hours later, I yelled down the steps that the squirrel was free! He yelled, “Yay!” and said he’d be outside reconnecting the rubber drain to the steely downspout. A few minutes later he texted me this picture as I sat writing this post:
With this text: “I’m glad the squirrel got out. There was a little frog down in there too!”
Nature has a lot to say about living if we just listen. Today’s message: If you save yourself, you may just help save a friend.