Underneath my yellow skin

Tag Archives: family dysfunction

Untangling the webs

It’s hard to talk about family dysfunction for several reasons. One, it’s considered taboo. There is a strong feeling that family is everything in America* and to say anything to the contrary is outre. There was a thread on the weekend post at Ask A Manager from someone who wanted to know how to tell her father that she’d be spending Thanksgiving with her mother’s side of the family. The original poster (OP) made clear that she saw her father regularly as the only sibling who lived near him. It wasn’t as if she’d never see him again. Many people were supportive, but a surprising number of people scolded her and called her selfish (because she said as one point that her mom’s side of the family was more ‘fun’. That wasn’t the only reason she gave, though.) A not-small number of people acted as if she said she was going to shun her father and never talk to him again. It was so bizarre. Her question was how should she talk to her father about it and more than a few people took the opportunity to scold her instead. Even the context of she was the only sibling who was there (because of pandemic) and her father went on a cruise one year instead of stay for the dinner did not dissuade some people.

My own view which I did not express was that fuck holidays. More nuanced than that is in this case, she spent time with her father (which she noted). It wasn’t as if she was going to cut him off completely (which can be merited sometimes). She just wanted to know how to tell her father she wanted to spend Thanksgiving with her mom’s family. But, no, she was selfish for even considering not spending Thanksgiving with her father.

You can probably guess that I’m not a big fan of tradition for the sake of tradition or ‘but faaaaamily!’. My mother once told mem that tradition wasn’t bad. I agree. Tradition isn’t bad in and of itself. But, it’s also not good in and of itself. In other words, question everything. That’s pretty much my motto.

Back to the matter at hand. If I told you I took a morning walk with my parents, you’d probably think, “Oh, that’s nice. What’s the problem?” Because if I’m mentioning it, you know there’s a problem. I’ll get to that in a minute. The way it works is that I walk as fast as I can on the way out. That means I’m way ahead of my parents because I walk much faster than they do. Then, I wait for them and we walk back at a more sedate pace .Fine. Dandy. It’s worked pretty well. Except in the past few weeks, my mother has taken to saying, “Are you cold?” when we meet at the halfway point. One day she said, “I bet you’re cold!” So one day, she asked if I wanted t go for a walk I said yes as long as she didn’t ask if I was cold halfway through. It wasn’t the smoothest way to bring it up, but it wasn’t terrible, either. A bit passive-aggressive, which is the way of our family.

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Keeping my mouth fucking shut

I have been practicing Taiji for roughly fifteen years. I practice for half an hour to forty-five minutes a day, which is up from five minutes, begrudgingly, several years into my practice. In fact, I started attending a second class a week (and then a third) because I couldn’t make myself practice on the daily. Once I broke the seal, so to speak, I added more and more to my daily routine until I couldn’t think of doing anything before doing my morning Taiji routine.

I bring this up for background. I wanted to learn a martial art to defend myself. I carry myself in a manner that will put off 90% of attackers. I am solid with a hard stare and a broad frame. I wear sunglasses when I am outside (and all black), which adds to the whole look. One time I was out to eat with my bestie. Afterwards, as we were walking back to the car, there was a woman tottering towards her car on heels that were making it hard for her to walk, her arms laden with shopping bags, and she was fumbling with her keys. I immediately thought, “I could take her” because she was so oblivious to her surroundings. I realized that I did not want to be like that and even though my demeanor put off most people (90% as I mentioned earlier), I needed something to back me up for that last ten percent.

I hated it for the first year. The Solo Form, I mean. It hurt my legs and my back, and it made me want to be doing anything but the Solo Form. I was frank with my teacher how I felt about it, but i knew somewhere deep inside that it would do me good. How or when, I didn’t know, but I believed that. And my teacher told me to hang in there with her; she assured me that it would eventually grow on me. I must say that that particular form never grew on me. I still don’t like it, which is too bad because her teacher brought it back after a long hiatus (with tweaks). The Medium Solo Form (that’s the Long Solo Form) is much preferable and enjoyable to me. It also doesn’t hurt me, which is a bonus. The Medium Form is the basis for the Fast Form, which is really fun.

Anyway, I didn’t really get into Taiji until–weapons. My teacher urged me to try a sword for over a year with me resisting her mightily. I was horrified at the thought of weapons because I was not a violent person. My teacher tried to convince me that doing weapons was not a signifier of being a violent person.

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The only person I can change….

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. 

This quote is attributed to Einstein even though there is no evidence that he said it. Regardless of origin and questionable wording, the message itself is true. It’s folly to keep doing something in the same way and expecting the end result to be different. Tangentially related, I had a friend once who said that he considered me an optimist, which offended me to my core. I was a cynical realist, jaded by what I’d seen of life. This was when I was in my early twenties and I thought I’d seen it all. He calmly pointed out that I expected the best out of people and was disappointed when they inevitably failed. I opened my mouth to protest, but then shut it again. He was right, damn it. Part of the reason I was so cynical was for that very reason.

Thirty years later, you’d think I’d know better. People–including me–are often not their best selves. In fact, we often do the very thing that makes a situation exponentially worse, fully aware of what we’re doing. Or maybe I’m giving people too much credit. I know when I am making a situation worse, even if I feel powerless to stop myself. Other people may or may not have that same insight–I just assume that they do. There’s my damn optimism again.

On a related note, there’s a reason that family therapists talk about family systems. The way people interact become enshrined over time and can be nigh impossible to change if you’re not willing to tackle the whole system. You can evoke some change by working on one piece, but it’s better to work on the system as a whole. The reason I’m saying this is because in my family, I’m the one who speaks out against the abuse and then get turned on by my mother and brother. Or rather, by my mother with my brother helplessly standing by. We all have a different way of dealing with the abuse. Mine is to fight back (after years of just taking it). My brother’s is to play up to my father or stay silent. My mother’s is to actively play into the system with brief bouts of rebelling. As a result, I’m the scapegoat. If I would just shut up and take the abuse, everything would be OK! My mom all but said that when she admitted last night that she just wanted peace. But that peace, like the cake, is a lie because one acquiescence is never enough. I apologized to my father a week or so ago for something and he acted like he didn’t even hear it while simultaneously acting as if it were just his due. It was infuriating when I already had to swallow my bile to apologize in the first place.

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But faaaaaaamily

Family is considered sacrosanct in society. At least, the idea of family is. It’s given lip service and dragged up any time a Republican resigns in disgrace (as in spending more time with his family–and it’s nearly always a ‘his’). Prejudicial attitudes are wrapped in faux concern for the children, which is laughable because it’s always things like trans women in the bathroom–which has no affect on anyone other than the trans woman who would just like to use the right bathroom, thank you very much.


When I woke up in the hospital and realized my parents were in Minnesota, let’s just say my first reaction was not one of gratitude. In the Caring Bridge journal (which I read later), there was mention of how great it is to have family around is such difficult times. That is predicated on it being a supportive and helpful family, which is most emphatically not the case with my family. Or rather, one member of my family.

Let me illustrate with a story. The second or third day I woke up, my parents came to visit me. My father started rambling about missing my childhood and wanting to bring me to Taiwan so he could protect me and we could be a family. Keep in mind that I’ve lived in Minnesota for the vast majority of my life and consider it my home. Also, there’s a reason I only talked to my parents once or twice a month before I landed in the hospital–and it wasn’t for a lack of time to chat. I had plenty of that. The idea of being dragged off to Taiwan was horrifying to me. The last time my brother and his family went to Taiwan, I most adamantly refused to go. Why? Because the last time I went to Taiwan, I became deeply suicidal and had to stop myself from walking into the ocean. I’m not being flippant or hyperbolic here. I was deeply depressed the entire time I was there and I vowed never to return. I would qualify that now, but the idea of living anywhere near my parents, permanently, is the stuff nightmares are made of.

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The real and the surreal

Family dysfunction is the gift that keeps on giving. I’m 50 and still have to deal with the ramifications. The pandemic has really brought up the issues in part because Taiwan is going through a strict lockdown.

Side Note: It’s killing me how seriously Taiwan took one spreader. Granted, they are a landlocked country with many people and little space, but, my god. Back in the beginning, Taiwan took it very seriously. They have a culture of mask-wearing, anyway, so that wasn’t a hard sell. But, they heavily enforced it by fining the offenders and telling people to report their neighbors for not wearing their masks.

Now. This would not work in America for many reasons. One, it’s problematic to have people policing their neighbors–I should hope that is evident without me saying anything. In addition, Taiwan is tiny in comparison to the United States. Anyway, the result was that Taiwan did not have a case for several months. I want to say nine or ten, Then, they had a careless pilot who had Covid and went all over town in one night. That’s how they got their current breakout case. They went into immediately lockdown and were sternly warned about the consequences of breaking the regulations. They reached a high of 800 cases a day and now have had 0 cases for a few days this last week.

Here’s the problem. My father is an extreme extrovert who doesn’t exist without the attention of others. He can’t entertain himself and he’s used to others doing things for him. He was the president of a research company and had an EA who did everything for him, including printing out his emails so he could read them.

In addition, my mother has treated him like the most important person in the world ever since they got together, which was over fifty years ago. When I was a kid, there were things my brother and I weren’t supposed to tell our father because he couldn’t handle it. We were not supposed to upset him and he was the only one allowed to express any emotions.

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Minor stressors becoming a major stress

My previous post was about a family issue that is compounded by a bad habit of mine and now it’s threatening to bring about a migraine. You can read about it here. Yesterday, I had to take my Migraine Excedrin (generic) for the first time since I started my caffeine regime. My sleep has gone directly to shit and I’m stressed about it even when I’m not looking for it. The document, I mean. The problem is that there is three or four places it should be. Three or four places where I would put it, I mean. I remember my brother bringing it to me and me putting it in something and putting it on the shelf under the coffee table. Which is funny because he remembers me putting it on the coffee table, which I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t do. He added, or on the table by the couch. The one with the lamp. Also not what I would have done.

I’ve checked the three or four places several times and now, I have no idea where else to look. There are places that it’s not possible at all because I don’t go into those areas. There are places that are highly unlikely because I just simply would not put anything there–but I’m getting desperate.

The hidden part is that looking for this blasted thing is draining my energy–not that I had much to begin with. I’ve been making deals with myself like, “Check this area, then you can have your pudding.” And not the British version of pudding, but literal pudding.

By the way, sometimes, the simplest things are the best. Instant almond milk chocolate pudding plus a plant-based whipped cream with blueberries, chopped cranberries, and chocolate granola FTW.

Anyway. Gotta keep looking, but I’m running out of ideas.



Minor stresses bringing major headaches

I was talking to my brother yesterday about something we need to get done by the end of the year when he brought up something else. Ugh. Ok. It has a long backstory that I’ll try to keep short. In order to be declared the children of our  parents in Taiwan, my brother and I had to get it declared to be true by the Taiwanese kids department in Chicago. Not the actual department, of course, but that’s the purpose. We had to send them our birth certificates in order for them to verify we were, indeed, the children of our parents. Which, I mean….ok. Whatever. It was a chore because Taiwanese people have a very different way of doing business, but it got done. I put the document away ‘in a safe place’ and promptly forget about it.

Fast-forward to the phone call yesterday with my brother. He mentioned that our mother had informed him (because this is always how this happened) that our father had been furious because he needed copies of this for some family land thing and we didn’t give them to him. But, we didn’t know about it and neither did our mother. Which is totally in keeping with my father’s M.O. I have no doubt if you asked him, he’d insist that he told someone about it–probably my mother. He’s a raging narcissist and assumes that anything that is important to him is important to everyone else and they should KNOW–at least by osmosis if nothing else. So, of course, why my mother conveys it to my brother and/or me, there’s a sense of urgency about it that is strongly impressed upon us. My brother is able to  ignore this pressure to a certain extent, though it can get to him as well.

I was sure I knew where this document was. Under the coffee table on the shelf that is there. That’s where I would have put it, probably in a book to be ‘safe’. I’m not saying this is a good idea, mind, but I know the way I work. This was several months ago, and I probably promised myself I would put it somewhere safer when I got around to it–which I never would. Wait. That’s not exactly true. I thought it was in the first drawer in the kitchen because that’s where I put everything important. I rummaged in that drawer while talking to my brother and he mentioned he didn’t think it was there (because we had ransacked it several times when looking for a key we couldn’t find). He said he thought it was on the coffee table (he was the one who brought it over to me so many months ago) and it clicked in my brain that this was correct.

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Analysis in the aftermath

self-imposed timeout.
Who could resist this face?!?

The parental visit is finally over*. After I dropped them off yesterday, I did a few things, and then, I just vegged out for the rest of the day. I mean, I did the things I had to do, but I did them MY way. Shirtless, to be more specific. With my parents in the house, I couldn’t be as stripped down as I normally am. My usual wear in the summer is boxer shorts and a tank top or no shirt. When my parents were here, I wore gym shorts** and a t-shirt. It may not sound like much more clothing, but for me, it is. I have both sensory issues and heat issues, and I felt as if I were dying much of the time. I had a personal fan blowing 24/7, and it still wasn’t enough.

By the way, the single indication of my father’s narcissism that stands out the most for me is how he keeps asking me if I’m cold/will be cold/might get cold. No matter how many times I’ve explained to him that I don’t get cold (for the most part, but he doesn’t do nuances), he can’t let go of the idea that if he’s cold, other people must be cold, too–especially someone whom he views as an extension of himself. On one of his many rambles, he opined on how he couldn’t understand people in India being able to tolerate living there. I admit I got impatient with him because he lives in fucking Taiwan! I don’t know how the hell people live there! (I mean, I do, but it’s a valid comparison.) I pointed out that people say the same thing about Minnesota and cold. He said you can put on more clothes when you’re cold (yes, you can, Dad. Which is my argument when he says 78 is too low for the AC), but you can only take off so many layers. I said only to a point. When’s it’s -35, there really isn’t much you can do other than go some place heated.

The point is, he can’t see anything outside his own purview, and it’s fucking irritating because it seems so basic to me. But, then again, that’s one of the characteristics of a narcissist–they literally can’t understand how anyone can be other than they are in any way. Also, a man. Too. As well. I try to tell myself not to get drawn in, but when he says something as egregiously ignorant as, “I don’t understand how anyone can live in India”, well, all my patience goes out the window.

I digress as is my wont, though.

This visit wasn’t the worst by far. Does that sound like damning with faint praise? Well, it is, but it’s worthy to note how much better than the worst it was and how I still passively felt like killing myself almost every day. In the past, I’ve actively wanted to kill myself during visits with my parents, and I’ve felt physically uncomfortable being in the same room with my father, so this is definitely progress. I’m not being flippant even though it sounds as if I am. Several years ago, when I was coerced into going to Taiwan on a ‘family’ trip, I had to stop myself from killing myself more than once. We’d be looking at the ocean–my spiritual home, the Pacific Ocean–and I had to restrain myself from walking into it until I could walk no more. When we walked across a bridge over the Taroko Gorge,*** the impulse to throw myself off it was so strong, it made me nauseated. Then, I thought, maybe I was supposed to have died there when I almost drowned in my early twenties, and I couldn’t shake that thought from my brain for the rest of the trip.

I was, to put it mildly, a hot mess for the entire trip, and the worst part was that I did it to myself. I knew it would be horrible for many reasons, but my mother wore me down. Every time we talked, she nagged me about it and guilt-tripped me about it until I gave in. That’s her M.O., by the way, talk and talk and talk until you agree just to shut her the fuck up. She did that to me about having children for fifteen years (going on and on about it every time we talked), and if I hadn’t been so deadset against having them, I might have given in. As it was, I once thought, “Maybe I should have a kid so she will shut the fuck up about it.” Fortunately, I realized that was a terrible reason to have children, but it just shows how much pressure I felt from my mother to even reach that moment.

By the way, my brother said on the way back from the airport, “Mom just won’t stop talking.” It was something I’d noticed over the past few years, and it was a tremendous relief to have it validated that it wasn’t just in my head. My parents are masters at the unconscious gaslighting (they don’t do it intentionally, but they are willful creators of their own reality), and if left to my own devices, I would question many of the observations I’ve made about our family. Then again, my brother can also do this to a certain extent, so it’s a double-edged sword. Everyone in my family, including me, is very invested in his/her own version of what our family looks like.

I asked my brother if it had gotten worse over the past few years. He agreed that it had. My mom has always talked a lot, but as he said, at least she would listen in the past. Now, she just goes on and on and on. And on. And on. It’s especially frustrating when she asks a question, but then will not pause to actually hear a response. My brother cuts in telling her she needs to listen. I cut in and tell her to stop for a second. Both of us say it in exasperated tones, which isn’t ideal, but understandable.

Here’s my theory. My father was forced to retire three or four years ago. That’s around the same time that my mom’s chattiness has gotten worse. My theory is that she’s gotten used to talking compulsively around my father because of their unhealthy dynamics. She’s always trying to please him, and he extends his approval and snatches it back at random. Well, not random exactly, but according to his byzantine inner rules about when someone has slighted him (which is more often than not). In addition, he’s probably in early onset dementia, which means he has no memory of anything said to him.**** So she has to tell him time and time again the most basic of information. In addition, his critical nature jabs at her anxieties, and that’s what the chatter is–her anxieties outwardly manifesting.

On the way to the airport the second time, I realized that she did not take a breath for the entire forty-five minute drive. There were stretches when I didn’t say anything at all, and there were other times when all I said was, ‘uh huh’ and maybe, ‘right’. I will admit at that point, I was doing a bit of a scientific experiment to see how long she would go without any encouragement, but it was mostly because I was exhausted and did not feel like talking. Also, she wasn’t looking for a dialogue. She just wanted to monologue about whatever it was that was in her mind at that moment.

I will say in that way, she and my father are alike. Neither of them cares about their audience–only in the reflection. What I mean is, with my father, he just wants to pontificate, and he wants you to reflect back what he wants to hear. You can tell by the way he crafts his questions that he is aiming for a certain response. That’s when he has a strong opinion on something (which is almost everything. Another thing all of us in the family have in common.) If he’s truly asking a question about, say, why squirrels go down the tree head first, then it’s a straightforward question. It’s still annoying because I don’t know and I don’t care, but it’s easy enough to ignore or to utter a platitude. It’s when he has an opinion such as America is so great and Taiwan sucks that I have a hard time just biting my tongue.

My mother, on the other hand, just wants what she calls a sounding board but I call a dumping ground for her woes. It leaves me feeling battered and worn, especially when I know that she will not do what it takes to change the situation. What’s more infuriating, she rewrites history so she ‘forgets’ what she was complaining about (or what I actually saw with my own eyes) happened. That’s what I mean about gaslighting, and that’s why I’m very particular about the truth. It’s hard for me to witness my father emotionally abuse my mother, and it’s even harder to listen to her deny it happened. Or ‘forget’ it happened.

I have much more to say, but this is running long as usual. I will save the meat of my musing for the next post.





*A day later than planned. My brother and I dropped my parents off at the airport Sunday at around 5:30 p.m. This was after having a tea at Starbucks for about an hour. I went with my brother to run an errand, and I made it home by 8:00 p.m. He called me ten minutes later to tell me that my parents’ first flight had been delayed to the point where they wouldn’t catch the transfer (2 hour delay), so they needed to come back home. I almost cried because I was so looking forward to having the place to myself and because driving back to get them–and then back home–was too much to bear. There is so much fucking construction that getting there and back nearly doubled the trip, and I hate driving in general. Fortunately, my brother was able to pick them up and bring them back here, but I was still irrationally pissed off at having to push off Freedom Day by fourteen hours or so.

**Both the boxers and the gym shorts I found in the men’s department. It’s hard to find women’s gym shorts that are baggy and have pockets (what the fuck is it with women’s clothing and pockets in the year of our lord, 2019????), and there is no such animal as women’s boxers. Unfortunately, men’s boxers seem to be dying out as well, sadly. Sigh.

***Where I almost died in my early twenties. I was in Taiwan during my semester abroad, and me and a bunch of the other women were swimming in the Gorge. Not a smart idea because I’m not a good swimmer. The rapids swept me away, and if one of the other women hadn’t grabbed me and pulled me out, I would have died.

****This is complicated because he’s always ignored anything that doesn’t interest him. So, part of his current not remembering things is hard to parse. Is he not remembering because he doesn’t care to remember or because he truly can’t remember? I think it’s mostly the latter because it happens even when he asks a question, but there’s also some of the former, especially if the answer is not what he wants to hear.

Point the finger back at me

There is a theory in psychology that something about another person that really bugs you is because you’re projecting, and it’s something you do yourself. It’s a simplified theory, of course, and it’s only one of the reasons, but I’ve found it to be true. The other night when I was pointing out to my mother that she wasn’t the savior of the world and that the world wouldn’t end if she wasn’t the one to help whomever it was in crisis at that particular moment. She came back with reasons why she HAD to do it, and I shut my mouth, even though I was fuming inside.

Of course, you can see where I’m going with this. I am the same way myself, especially with her, and while I can advocate setting boundaries all I want–I can’t do the same with her. In my last post, I talked about the period of our relationship when I held her at a firm arm’s length away. It was because I couldn’t set reasonable boundaries, so I just threw up walls. It’s actually the earliest stage of setting boundaries, and I thought I had moved past it by cautiously lowering the boundaries until they were appropriate.

I was fucking wrong. One and a half weeks to go, and I feel beat down. I’m so worn, and it’s because I can’t enforce reasonable boundaries with either of my parents. With my father, it’s because he’s a petty tyrant. If you don’t do what he wants when he wants it in the way he wants it, he either throws a major tantrum or he gives the silent treatment (which is where I get it from. Though I don’t go to the extremes he does, my immediate reaction is to shut down or lash out, the latter if I feel cornered). The latter can go on for hours, and he’s like my cat in that he makes it pointedly obvious that he is ignoring you. Unlike Shadow, however, my father is neither adorable nor lovable when he does it.

I have learned to choose my battles with him and only stand firm on the important things. One was the thermostat thing. I was not budging on it, no matter how pissed off he got or how ‘hurt’ my mother got. But, with other stuff, I just give him as minimal information as possible. Like today, for example. He wanted to get into his gmail account. He was trying to type in the password, and he asked me how to put a space. I told him that passwords usually don’t have spaces. When he asked me again, I told him to press the space bar. In my head, I added, “Like you do on a fucking computer”, but I refrained.

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Fool me a hundred times

My heart is heavy, and I’m grieving the loss of a relationship I never had. Or rather, two relationships. Or one relationship with two people. My parents. My relationship with my father has ranged from nonexistent to frosty to cordially distant. Right now, I would classify it as parent-child–with me being the parent. His faculties have diminished to what I suspect is early onset dementia, but it’s hard to say because he refuses most testing in that area. Funny because he’s a hypochondriac who goes to the doctor at a moment’s notice, but like most hypochondriacs, if there is a potential serious issue, then he refuses to go. And if it’s something that has a negative connotation about his brain, well, forget about even mentioning it.

To be fair, my mother told me that Alzheimer’s is looked upon as a personal failing and weakness in Taiwan, so I can understand not wanting to open yourself up to that. I suggested he get tested here, but his English is nowhere near as good as it used to be, and it wouldn’t be fair to use a test he took in English as a barometer. On the other hand, the longer he goes without treating it, the worse it’s going to get.

Do you notice how I immediately started talking about my father? I meant to talk about my mother as a starter, but my father is such the focal point of the family, it’s hard to avoid, even here. Why am I grieving my relationship with my mother? Sit back with your favorite cup of tea because this is going to take some explaining.

If you asked my mother, she would say we are really close. She made me her confidante when I was eleven, pouring out all her woes about my father and her marriage into my very unwilling ears. She would cry about how he treated her (very badly), and I would listen until I couldn’t take it any longer before telling her she should divorce him. Then, she would shift to how he wasn’t that bad. I would feel like a dupe, and I would vow never to say anything again. She also told me how depressed she was and how much she hated her life. Not in those exact terms, but that was what she meant.

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