I am not my best when I am around my parents. To be clear, I am not the best ever, but it’s even worse when they’re around. I find myself acting like a child again, and I have walls a mile high erected around me. “They know which buttons to press because they installed them” is so true, and I hate that I react to it almost every time. I wanted to be like David Attenborough and be the detached social scientist, but something in my lizard brain overrides as soon as one of my parents talks to me. It’s almost atavistic, and I feel as if I’m out of control. My mouth is saying things before I can censor myself, and it’s as if my filters are on the fritz.
Side note: I know the meme, “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” is mostly lighthearted, but I really hate the message it sends. That’s what abusers say or imply, and there isn’t anything funny in that. In addition, that’s a strong component of codependent relationships, which is another big no for me.
Anyway, I remember with my last therapist during a yearly visit from my parents, I was saying how I feel like a complete failure as a daughter because I was nothing my mother (and father, but I wasn’t really talking to him at that point) wanted me to be. I wasn’t married (nor wanted to be), didn’t have children (nor wanted them), did not have a steady 9-to-5 job (nor wanted one), was not a Christian (and so did not want to return), and a litany of other things. She pointed out that they were not the parents I wanted/needed them to be, either, and it was as if the clouds had parted, allowing the sun to shine into the fog. I had been so focused on how I was failing them, I never thought about what I needed from the relationship.
That’s part of growing up in a dysfunctional family–I was never allowed to consider my wants and needs as valid. I was made to feel ashamed for wanting anything other than what my parents wanted (which was mostly my father as dictated by my mother). There’s an anecdote that my father still loves to tell about how when I was a kid, he would tell me to put on a coat, and I would refuse. He insists I said it was because he didn’t ask nicely (which, yes, that’s true, but not the whole point) whereas I know it’s because I wasn’t fucking cold at the time. How do I know this? Because I am never cold. I also had Graves’ disease (hyperthyroidism) when I was younger, and one of the symptoms is not being cold.
He tells it now to show how recalcitrant I was as a child, I think, but it reads very differently to me. It reminds me how unreasonable he was and how autocratic. He’s a raging narcissist, and he sees everything through the lens of how himself. My biggest issue with what he said to me, at least in the memory of it, is that he wanted me to put on a coat because he is cold. He couldn’t fathom that if he was cold, someone else might not be, especially a child of his.
I made my peace many moons ago that my parents don’t know the real me, can’t know the real me, and wouldn’t want to know the real me. I keep things close to my vest because I don’t want to expose the real me to ridicule, disbelief, or scorn. It’s difficult because Taiwanese culture in families is more porous than American culture. Much of what I took to be normal in my family is not in America, and there are parts of it that I think would even be extreme in Taiwan. However, everyone is much more in everyone else’s business there (again, within the family), so it’s hard to tease out what is specific to my family and what is culture.
What I do know is that I felt like a complete failure growing up and that feeling returns around my parents. I am the polar opposite of them in almost every conceivable way, and it’s hard to say if it’s more because that’s just who I am or if it’s reactionary. I think it’s a mix of both, but I can’t say with certainty.
I will say that part of my anti-marriage stance is because of my parents’ marriage. I see my mom twisting herself into knots and worrying herself to the bone to cater to every whim of my father which he takes as simply his due, and I know I have that in myself as well. I see her lose bits and pieces of herself little by little over the years, completely subsuming her personality in order to not rock the boat. She’ll come to me in a panic because of whatever he’s focused on at the moment (and it’s nearly always something that isn’t an emergency or urgent), demanding that I do something about it.
My schedule doesn’t matter. Nothing I do is as important as whatever they are doing at that particular moment. I will fully admit my irritation is partly because I am used to going about my day in silence and doing whatever I want whenever I want however I want. Me and my cat, going through life, barely making a ripple. Being on call as it were 24/7 is putting me on the edge. They will interrupt me whenever, and there’s an implication that whatever they needed cannot wait. I may move to the basement just so they have to actually walk downstairs in order to ask me whatever it is they want. For now, they just shout at me from the dining room and expect me to know a) they are talking to me and b) come over and do whatever it is they want/need.
My father is exceptionally good at making everything about him. It’s often easier to give in than to push back because he can be incredibly unpleasant when he doesn’t get his way. The problem is that his good opinion of you is always based on the last thing he’s requesting and whether you do it or not. You can do ten things for him in a day, but if you refuse the eleventh, then he gets mad. You don’t love him/care about him/respect him, and you are to be pointedly shunned until you capitulate.
Even when we’re not actively clashing, I just feel beaten down. I’m waiting for the next jab, the next fight, the next conflict, and it’s never far down the road. Sometimes, I predict what will set it off, and other times, I can’t. The traps are everywhere, and I am a clumsy fuck who can only avoid so many before I step square in the middle of one. It can be something as simple as he made a mistake and I pointed it out. He may not say anything at the moment, but then he’ll zing me for it later.
We have a hell of a time in the car because he should not be driving, but my mother enables him. She lets him drive because he’s worn her down to a nub. I do not because my anxiety goes off the scales when I’m in the car with him. As a result, he gets hyper-critical of my driving, and he’s shouted at me as I’m driving because he’s thought I’d done something wrong (and usually, he was wrong). It’s stressful, but marginally less so than riding in the car with him.
The worst part is that I know many of my own flaws are ones I’ve learned from him. The quick temper. The defensiveness. The hypervigilance in making sure not to be vulnerable. It’s the worst around my parents, but it’s always there. Just as my critical nature is from him–actually, it’s from both of my parents. They are both pretty stuck in their ways and judge other people according to their norms. I do the same, at least internally.
I’m tired. I can’t sleep with them around. It’s part of my hypervigilance, and it’s bad right now. It’s miserable to know what the hell is wrong with me and feel powerless to change it. Every day I wake up disappointed that I am up, and I am counting the days until they are gone. My soul is tired, and I’m just constantly depressed in a way that is scaring me. I’m trying to grit my teeth and bear it, but it’s tough. I need someone to throw me a life preserver.