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Abuse

“Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to give this book to my mother. To present it to her as a precious gift over a meal that I’ve cooked for her. To say: Here is everything that keeps us from really talking. Here is my heart. Here are my words. I wrote this for you.” – Michele Filgate, Introduction, What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence

I just devoured this essay collection curated by the wonderful  Michele Filgate (whose title-essay about her mother’s refusal to believe her about childhood sexual assault at the hands of her stepfather is in the book) and it’s really good. There are love and appreciation stories aplenty, though many essays cover seriously harrowing ground around mental illness, addiction, emotional abuse, and other kinds of abuse without holding back. It’s not a light read, is what I am saying.

I feel like almost every piece in the book maps to a letter that someone has sent to my inbox about how to say the unsayable thing, how to know when it’s time to let go, how to tell your own truth, how to dig into the past without letting it define you, how to set boundaries, how to see a parent as a separate person who existed before you, how to honor the gifts our mothers give us and be honest about the poisoned apples they sometimes pass on. I kept highlighting as I went because I knew that some Letter Writer somewhere needed to see that sentence, see themselves on that page. “Mother Tongue,” Carmen Maria Machado‘s chapter about estrangement is one of the best things about that topic I’ve read. Some quotes from that essay:

“Whenever I saw her, she found some way to let me know that despite my accomplishments, I was failing. ‘You need to learn to make better choices,’ she told me, though what choices they were, she never specified. Besides, all I could hear was, ‘I wish I’d made better choices.’ And I couldn’t help her with that.”

“A reader might think that this is, obviously, a kind of misplaced parental anxiety and love. And they might be right. But I felt like I was losing my mind. There was no trust, no affection, no listening, just ignorant micromanagement. It felt like I was existing in a parallel universe, where everything I’d just done with my life, everything I was doing with my life, hadn’t made any difference at all. I was a kid again, useless. Nothing was mine–not my time, not my schedule, not my choices.”

I’ll stop before I accidentally re-publish the whole thing. If you spent Mother’s Day curled up in a ball because of a difficult relationship and/or if you have a letter hanging out in my queue about this topic, this might be a healing book for you. ❤

I’m working on a book proposal for a collection of essays, so I’m on a tear of reading essay collections of late. Here are some other collections I couldn’t put down:

  • Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which is an essay collection about race and politics and identity in America AND a memoir about family and love and being from a particular place in the Midwest AND a chronicle of how the music we love carries our dreams and tells our stories, how the music brings us back to particular moment in time, how it helps us remember and see. It’s a fucking stunner.
  • Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel which is, among many other things, such a love letter to the teachers who taught him to write. Chee has an essay in the What My Mother And I Don’t Talk About collection as well.
  • JoAnn Beard’s The Boys Of My Youth (I discovered her work through the outstanding 1996 essay The Fourth State of Matter which, if you are unfamiliar, could use a content note for everything from “school shooting/gun violence” to “dying pet” but it’s one of those pieces that says EVERYTHING and never lets go).

No comments, as I don’t really like debating about the books I read in my free time, I like what I like and you like what you like, but since people always want to know what I’m reading, here’s some of what I’m reading. I hope you’re reading things that speak to you!

Finally, I just got an advance copy of Jessica Pan’s “Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want To Come: One Introvert’s Year Of Saying Yes” in the mail, I’ll update here when I’m done since I think “What would happen if a shy introvert lived like a gregarious extrovert for one year?” is a question that lots of us might like to see answered, if only vicariously and from a very safe distance.

I’m putting this one behind a cut. A Letter Writer is dealing with some major work burnout and anxiety,  and mentions disordered eating (bulimia) and childhood abuse including sexual abuse in passing (no details, just, mentioned). This is a tricky one.

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If it’s not obvious why from the subject line, we’re putting this post behind a cut so people can choose whether to engage further. FYI there are mentions of past assaults and predatory behavior in addition to describing sex offender registries and designations. Upsetting stuff, though the LW is doing a good job with an impossible situation.

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Hi Captain,

For over a decade, I had a really bad relationship with my sister. She struggled with addiction and suicide ideation and, often, was just plain mean. I enabled her by making sure I was always available to her during her emotional crises and never saying no to anything she wanted. I got a weird sense of superiority from taking care of her, which I realize now, was a really sick source of self-esteem.

Fortunately, our relationship is a lot better now! She’s been sober for nearly two years and has apologized for many of the things she did when she was using. For my part, I apologized for being a condescending goody-good.

I thought things were fine as they were.

Recently, though, she called off her engagement and has started calling and texting me a lot. This is a common pattern. When she’s happy and busy, I don’t hear from her much. That’s fine by me. But, when she’s sad, lonely, or upset, the intensity of her communication ramps way up.

The other day, I asked her if everything was ok – noting that she’s been calling a lot lately. She said everything was fine, she just wants us to be closer. But, this is exactly what I don’t want! I want to enjoy her company when we see each other a few times a year. I want to talk to her maybe once a week. I don’t want to be her best friend or confidante. I’m just not ready for that.

The guilt I feel at not wanting to be close to someone who wants to be close to me is eating me up inside. Does forgiving her mean we have to be good friends? Is it ok to want the best for my sister, admire her good qualities, and still want her to kind of…stay in her own world? Is there any way I can convey this to her without seeming like a monster? Especially, since she’s going through a tough time?

Sister, Not Friend (#1182)

Hi Sister, Not Friend, your letter came in at the same time as some others, I hope nobody minds if we tackle these all together.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a sister who has been bothering me a lot lately. She has depression and a few other minor health issues, she is divorced, on disability. She is very negative and usually only wants to get together to complain about her health, my parents, her kids, or ex husband. She doesn’t have a lot of friends and constantly texts me all day. I would like to put some distance between us because all her issues are stressing me out which is leading to my own adverse health affects and I just don’t have time for them. I have tried to say things in the past but she always says “this is the straw that broke the camels back” or she feels “attacked”. She has always been like this and it’s really starting to bother me. I feel bad saying I need space when she doesn’t have any one else but I’m tired of her drama. I don’t want to cut her out of my life just limit our interactions to once or twice a week. Do you have any advice on how I can achieve this?

Sally (#1183)

Hi Sally, your letter came in at the same time as several others. We’re going to have a group discussion. Read on.

Dear Captain Awkward,

Thank you for the existence of your blog! I love reading your advice and have been slowly trying to implement this into my own relationships.

The problem I have is that I am a very passive, live and let live kind of person, living in a family of opinionated people. My dad loves to rage on about articles he’s read and refuses to acknowledge alternative theories. My mother has an uncanny ability of seeing the world through everyone else’s eyes, and therefore believing she has the authority to cast judgement on their decisions. Loudly.

My sister combines the two and adds another ingredient. Selfishness.  When her friend’s parents were getting divorced, she worried that her friendship with friend would suffer. When her university frienemy announced she was moving in with her boyfriend, to the same county as my sister after graduating, my sister worried that she would be obligated to spend all free time with frienemy, despite living 30 miles apart. My dad once complimented me on my jumper as I sat down to dinner with them. Her immediate response was to cry out: ‘But what about my jumper, dad?’ I bit my tongue so hard it metaphorically started bleeding. Call her out on any of the above, though, she calls me rude and gets angry.

Captain, your scripts and advice have been invaluable in building up my confidence to confront the aspects of our relationship that I’m not happy about, in addition to making everything about her, the way she has targeted me in the past has led to many of my insecurities.

I have put her on an information diet and refuse to engage in arguments. We have barely interacted for a number of months now.

We have recently had some bad news in the family which, I hoped, would start to bring us closer together in a positive way. It has had the effect of her calling me frequently to spill her emotional guts.

I’m dealing with my own fair share of emotions in reaction to the bad news. I don’t feel comfortable enough to share them with my sister whenever she calls, and I’m certainly not about to tell her that my eating disorder has started to resurface, because she will make it into a competition about who is having a worse time. This is one of her patterns and an easy way for her to avoid acknowledging that I have feelings.

I know my own strength and while I know that I can talk to her about family news, I don’t know how to increase the time and energy spent with her knowing that she won’t acknowledge any boundaries I’ve set up. Keeping her on an information diet has helped, but I worry that she’ll try to break past that as our relationship progresses.

I know you can’t choose family, and I want to have a good relationship with my sister, I just don’t know how.

Sincerely,

Struggling Sister (#1184)

Greetings, Struggling Sister! Something’s in the air, right? I hope it helps to know you’re not alone. You’re not alone.

Now that we’re all gathered here together, I think that if improvement is possible in these sibling relationships, there is a common approach that gives all of you the best chance of making that happen.

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Dear Captain,

I’m graduating from college very soon, and I’ll be the first in my immediate family to do so. This road has been a long one, and I am so happy to finally be done. I’ve had amazing support from key people in my life, aka: My Home Team– a mix of family and chosen family.

In an ideal world, my Home Team would have an exclusive invite to the graduation ceremony/dinner. I have a hard time with Big Life Events, and my last graduation ceremony did not go well, so this is bringing up *things* for me. Having only the people there who make me feel comfortable would help a lot.

There are people not on the Home Team who are expecting to be invited. Here are the problems:

– My mom is currently housing a family member who has some serious mental health/addiction issues. This person would expect to come to any graduation events. I do not want this as this person takes up a fair amount of emotional space and makes me/others feel awkward.

– My in-laws also wish to attend from out-of-state. This would mean they would have to stay at our house, for at least 3-4 days (hotel is not really an option). My in-laws are nice people (and they are very excited for me), but I have difficulty spending time with them, let alone hosting them in my house. They often make me feel uncomfortable with the way they talk to/about me. There are more detailed issues here surrounding money, religion, and general boundaries (in-laws, go figure). Also, they have sort of already invited themselves. My husband would be a buffer for some of this but he can’t mitigate everything.

– I have packaged group of cousins who I’m not close with but who have invited me to their events, and I feel obligated to reciprocate. Some of them are very nice, but some of them are awful (like blatantly racist/homophobic/sexist) and their presence would mean that the other people listed above would definitely have to be invited. It would be an obvious slight if they weren’t.

I feel like I only have a few choices here:
1) Lie and tell everyone that I only have limited graduation tickets so as to only invite the Home Team. This would be a very obvious lie. These things can be Googled.
2) Try as delicately as possible to not invite the people listed above. Deal with the emotional fallout, not just for myself, but for my husband and mom, for whom this would be awkward as well.
3) Suck it up and invite everyone and deal with my feelings on my own.

I have a hard time telling others what I want (even/especially with my Home Team), so the “do nothing and internalize” option feels easiest. In theory, this should be simple. You invite everyone and they show up and stay in their emotional lanes. Instead of focusing on this exciting thing, I feel like I’m playing Emotional Traffic Director when I want to be playing Happy College Graduate.

Are there options I’m not seeing? Am I an immature person for even wanting to not invite people I don’t like? I am being a spoiled ass who needs to grow up and not make this about me?

Thank you,
Sad Grad
*(29 yr old, female)

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