Unhelpful Parents

Sometimes our parents or other close family are not the supportive people we deserve. It is hard for me to be able to say how common this truly is, after all, if you had them, the odds are lower that you would see me for therapy, and if you didn’t the odds are higher. Letting go of some of the negative or unhelpful people in our lives is a hard but frequently necessary step.

This isn’t to say that all mental health issues are caused by parents – Freud was wrong. Mental ill health can be caused by a number of factors – genetic, enviornmental, biochemical, drug induced, organic brain damage, poor parenting, situational stress, ongoing trauma and so on. Parenting is only one of these, and a person may experience several. Good parenting can help minimise the impact of several of these, while poor parenting can exacerbate them.

Parents are not the only people who can have a strong influence on how you think mental health and your own self esteem should work and be handled. Other blood relatives like grand parents, who came from a quite different era, can give awful advice, your current social group can be bad for you and sometimes work mates are just completely unuseful to you.

Certain people seem to be of the opinion that mental health, managing stress, choosing the right thing and being functional are all a matter of will power, morals and some knowledge that you are supposed to just have.

They are wrong.

Image of angelic moral weakness
Being “strong”. “moral” or “virtuous” isn’t enough. Sometimes we need help.

We don’t live in isolation. We live in complex systems that sometimes fail us. As listed above, that failure can be a situational distress, an ongoing trauma, biological in nature or some other thing that has nothing to do with will power or moral judgement. This doesn’t exclude the occaisional person who is suffering through bad choices – consequences can be hard – but is to highlight that most people who are struggling and need help are generally struggling through things they didn’t chose or control, and being patient and waiting for it to be over is not enough.

These unhelpful people tend to fail to pass on good self management skills, good skills for managing other people and healthy ways to see the world. In short, they make shit parents, friends and colleagues.

Fortunately, as we get older (around 15 or so), pathways open up that allow us to learn from people besides our immediate family. We get to chose our own family, our own community and our own friends. We can go and get some professional help for the tricky bits, be inspired by awesome people for the general model of how to be, and go on a self discovery journey.

By no means is this journey easy. It is really hard. It means going against all of those lessons you trusted as you grew up, recognising that not only were you led astray, but that those who raised you were also led astray and they just got lucky. After all, people who see the world this way weren’t just born that way. Recognise their limitations in being the parents you deserve, their limitations in being able to support you and move forwards with your own path. Sometimes that means leaving them behind. Sometimes that means visiting them. Rarely it means retraining them.

The world is big. It is complex. It is made of more than one kind of people. There generally isn’t a “better” or “worse” kind of people (except nazi’s – they are just worse), there is just different. Some are tall, some are short, some have blue eyes, some are left handed, some have different kinds of blood, and some are very typical of the local group and some are a bit atypical of that group. They are all valid. Don’t blame neurotypical people for being normal, it isn’t really their fault. Once you learn to recognise your “self” and how your differences make some things easier, and some things harder, it makes it much easier to start adjusting to how other people may be.

The long and the short of it is, you are a different kind of people to your parents, or family, or friends, or colleagues (basically anyone that is giving you the “just try being normal”, or “toughen up”, or “moral weakness” or “willpower” style of line). They are, in this case, wrong. Don’t feel that you have failed to be them, and don’t listen to their wrong advice. Learn who you are, and find people who are your kind of people. Be inspired by those who seem to have it together and learn how they do it. And don’t hesitate to get some professional advice to get over some of the erroneous messages, skills and ways of thinking that you were raised with.

Who am I?

As I write this, I find myself currently unemployed. This prompts a lot of questions about self, which launches many questions about the past, present and future.

While I was employed, there were many things I put up with because, well, that’s a job, right? I grew and changed, and that growing and changing did not reflect where the organisation I was with went. I attempted to confine myself within the bounds of my job, but that can only last so long.

Don’t mis-read me here – I didn’t leave the job because they aren’t doing cool stuff, nor simply because I changed. There were many factors. What I am referring to here is what can also be found in relationships, which, in effect, is what a job is. We grew, we changed, and it is rare for that growth and change to be in the same direction. This means compromise with change and goals. It is rare for a work place to compromise and change if you aren’t in charge, which means all the compromise needs to be with you. I am reviewing my compromises and wondering what that tells me about myself.

So my questions about the past become questions about my compromises and my growth. Thanks to where I was working, I have developed a more comprehensive understanding of recovery and thriving. I saw quite early that recovery was an early stepping stone to something else – wellbeing, completeness, EleMental… I wasn’t sure. I have developed my thoughts and have decided that Thriving Is It, although not as Mike Smith defines it. I’ll define it more later, in another post. This post is about me.

I compromised more than I feel comfortable with. The specifics of what I compromised aren’t specifically important here. What is important is that I did compromise, which is human, and it has affected me, because I try to be better than human. Compromise is a natural part of being human in a world of social interaction and difference of opinion. If none of us compromised, we would either all be exact clones, or we would kill each other on site. The world is full of people killing people due to a lack of compromise.

Yet somehow I want to hold myself better than that. I want to go beyond human, creating a dichotomy of “This is right” and “This is wrong” rather than accepting that my “This is” is allowed to be different to someone else’s “This is” and we can both be right. I appreciate that this is kind of vague and hard to grasp. Perhaps an example will help. “Thou shalt not steal” is an example I gave to my daughter. An easy principle to understand, if it isn’t yours, don’t take it. If you do, you are wrong. Yet if my daughter is starving and my only option to feed her is to steal food, then bugger the principle, I am going to steal some food. I hold the principle of “You will care for your child” higher than my moral principle of “Thou shalt not steal”. In effect, I allow that my principles can be compromised by other principles. Therefore, I must look at the context of other peoples actions rather than just judging them wrong. Even when I have looked at their context, even when I feel I can justifiably judge them wrong, I must also accept that I may not understand and could be just as wrong to judge them as I think they are wrong. Still very muddled, sorry.

In short, I want to be uncompromisable, but have to accept that I am human, I live in society with other humans, and therefore I can’t be better. That shouldn’t stop me from aiming to be better, but I shouldn’t kick myself for not being better.

This leads to my future. Where do I want to go? Clearly compromise is a big issue and I want to work somewhere that is more closely aligned to where I have grown and evolved in my present self. I fear that this place does not exist. This is one of the reasons I stayed as long as I did where I was – my fear of not finding it this good. Better the devil you know, isn’t it? Not always.

Some of my wilder futures can be ruled out at this present moment. I will stay in the state that I am in because that is where my daughter is. I will not start my own practice because I do not feel I know enough to do so and I am not sure who I would want as partners, or even if I could find viable partners, to fill up my short comings. I am not going to drive off into the sunset. Mostly because the sunset here is straight into an ocean. By the same token, although for slightly different reasons, I am not going to drive off into the sunrise either as I fear following my fathers foot steps, running away from his life rather than working with what he has.

That still leaves me with a number of uncertainties though. Will I work for a non-government organisation, or a government organisation, or a private practice? Will I be working with children, adolescents or adults? Will I stay exclusive to mental health, or dabble in substance abuse or justice? Where will I look and what will I aim for?

Which leads to the present. To know what to do now, I need to have a fair idea of what I am aiming for. Without having some level of definition of this, I find myself frozen in action as I fear shutting down an option of what is to come. Knowing who I am and where I am heading is so very important.

Mother, will you help me build the wall?

My mother is a far more difficult thing to talk about. For a start, she is still alive and may be directly affected by what I say. Additionally, she is no longer who she was as I grew up. There are still traces and undercurrents, but a lot has changed.

Mother was conceived in Papua New Guinea during world war two. Her parents decided that the didn’t want her to be born or raised there. They had liked Australia, where they had passed through on the way through to Papua New Guinea, so thought they would move back to there and settle down to create their family.

Her parents were quite old to be starting a family, although not the oldest parents in the world. The generation gaps in my family are quite large. My grandmother was 35 when she had my mother. My mother was 28 when she had me. I was 28 when I had my daughter. I wonder if this trend will continue, or if it will be the trend of my daughters mother, who tends to have only 20 year generation gaps. Time will tell.

Mother grew up in a time of hefty discrimination. She was a first generation Australian, with a heavy East European accent trying to fit into a very white Australia who didn’t like foreigners. Her parents put her in the best schools, even though there was no expectation that she would be able to do anything with her educations. Best schools usually mean rich kids, with rich attitudes and loads of privilege. Mothers family were not rich. Mother lost her European accent at school and speaks excellent English.

Two years after her birth, her brother was born. Mostly he doesn’t play a part in my life, so I’m going to skip his side of the family. I just want to flag that he exists. He currently resides in the United States of America, near the border of a country that does not call itself American on the off chance that people would think it is the USA.

Mother was often used by her parents as the mediator, because neither parent would listen to the other. This was quite a strain on her, especially when she was dragged out of bed to do so late at night.  Her father interacted with her via the intellectual medium. She always struggled to be as brilliant as her father, but always felt that she fell short. Her mother wanted her to become a Princess Dianna clone. She struggled against this for a long time, feeling that she was worth more than just a pretty smile and a rich husband. Her mothers communication style was guilt, shame and manipulation.

When mother was 19, she moved out and convinced her embattled father to leave too. He never moved back with his wife and not too long afterwards they divorced. Mothers brother was left behind and shortly after graduating university moved to the USA. He does not talk about his life with his mother.

My mother excelled at high school and progressed to the end of year ten doing subjects such as chemistry, physics, mathematics, latin and english. After year 10, she was expected to only participate in domestic classes, since she was destined to become a house wife. This was the school model and her mother agreed with it. Mother did not.

Mother worked for an insurance company, where her skills and abilities were quickly recognised and put to use. She was placed in charge of a section, but not paid for the extra responsibility, because she lacked a male appendage. When one of the men wanted a promotion, she was demoted to fit him in, since he had a family to support. She was still expected to help him do his job, and still not paid any additional money. This was fairly typical of her employment history, even to this day. She shows promise, she is passed over, and then she leaves.

Mother grew up being taught that she was better than most people. It is a waste of time being friendly with the little people, because they just want to tear you down. What you are supposed to do is aspire to those greater than you, so be friendly to them so you can become elevated. The paradox here is that if they are like you, they will want nothing to do with you.

I, too, was taught this superiority complex. I work hard not to let it interfere with my life. I don’t always succeed.

My mother met my father at a friends party. This has been discussed in my fathers section. Mother was quite blown away by my father, but also quite wary of his girlfriend. They didn’t see each other for several years until mother went to night school to learn more stuff. Here she met my father and she would give him rides to school on her scooter. Slowly their relationship developed and they moved in together (father was no longer seeing the girlfriend, so was single). Mother says that she helped build a more complete man out of him. She describes him as brilliant in so many ways, but completely incapable in so many others.

She became quite frustrated that he couldn’t keep a job. He would get them, easily enough, but would not keep them. This was generally due to him being too smart and not being able to keep his mouth shut. She told me he went for a job with IBM, who did an IQ test on him. He scored way over 150, but he refused to swear their allegiance above and beyond his family.

They planned to have a family, and soon after had my brother. They were together for a good 6 years before making this choice. My brother was born and he was bright, capable and full of energy. Mother found that fathers lack of stable employment was creating quite a strain. Also, he wanted to sit around and talk philosophy too much, leaving the burden of parenting and domestic chores to her. Not long after I was born, she left him and aborted my sister. I don’t tend to think of her much.

She moved back in with her mother and tried to rebuild her life. She spent a few years hanging around a mustached man. I don’t know why that relationship ended, but she met my step father at a party not too long after. He was a ring in from a different state and they had some fun together. He came back about a year later and they had some more fun. He talked about moving his company to the East. Mother thought he meant to do that to move to her and offered to move to the West instead.

It turns out he was considering moving to the East because that was where the business was. He didn’t correct her. We figured it out much later.

So when I was half way through my third year of life, we moved West. She stayed with him for fourteen years. The last few years were very tricky and I was used quite a few times to help her process her feelings and emotions. Deja vu? She finally decided to leave him in the middle of my mid year twelfth year exams. I said to mother “I really do understand why you are leaving him, but your timing sucks”. I stopped taking year twelve seriously after that while I supported my mother through the separation.

She still defends his lack of involvement in the family to this day. I find that somewhat challenging, although I see this more as a reflection of how little she thinks she is worth that she thought he was as good as she could get.

When I was twenty two I met this wonderful girl. She moved in with me and for various reasons I moved out of the share house I was in. We moved back to my mothers house as we were not yet in a position where we could move in together alone, or move back to her parents house (who were still trying to work out which of us was taking advantage of whom – I think it was her taking me).

I had just secured a full time position at a company I had been doing some part time work at, and still servicing the customers I had for my computer business when things came to a head. I was quite horribly sick (a man cold!), had done a full shift at work, then left to fix a computer at a private residence. I got back home at about 2 am, cold, sore, tired and somewhat cranky. As I pulled into the driveway, I saw my mothers light was on and thought “oh crap.”

I went into the house and checked in on her. Her bedside light was out and she was on the “wrong side” of the bed reading from the other bed side lamp. She said “I have been waiting for you to come home and fix my lamp. It is very late.” It doesn’t sound like much, written down, but she had implied that I was guilty for her being awake so late, that all of my hard work was not as important as taking care of her and quite a few other things. Guilt and manipulation.

I asked “Why? Can’t you change a light bulb?” and went to bed quite angry. It took about another hour to calm down enough to sleep.

In the morning I slept in. My partner had got up and was hanging washing when my mother came out and asked her to wake me up as it was time for me to mow the lawn and cut a tree down and I had slept enough. My partner, who had consoled me the night before, layed into my mother pointing out how hard I worked, how late I had worked, how sick I was and how hard it had been for me to sleep being as pissed off as I was. I woke up to this argument and separated the two. I pointed out I was too sick to do garden chores.

The next day, mother informed me she was giving me until the end of the month to move out as she didn’t have to accept that from my partner. I pointed out the end of the month was four days away. She said she knew. I didn’t talk to her again for another two and a half years.

When I did come back, she slowly began to change who she was into who she is now. I know she doesn’t see the difference, but it is there and it is enough.

I am my fathers son

My father was an interesting man.

At the age of 11, he was sent to a fishing village, somewhere on the coast of Victoria. He was sent there to become “grounded” as he seemed to have difficulties fitting in with society and was prone to strangeness. He returned to his mother, brother and sister around the age of 13, to help out since his father was missing.

Not long after this, a drunk driver, a youth with rich parents, ran over his mother and sister. They died. My father never drank alcohol. His brother and he were placed in the care of his father, who had very poor parenting skills. Sometimes they would eat like kings, sometimes they would skip meals. It all depended on the horses, or which ever other bet his father had won or lost on.

My father and his brother got up to a lot of mischief. Stunts like filling up bags full of water and dropping them onto the street from the top of the apartment building they lived in, onto the cars below, or taking a car to pieces, carrying it piece by piece into their apartment and then putting it back together, then starting it inside the building, only to take it apart again and put it back outside so that there was no evidence it was ever there. Without an active, participating father, they got up to all sorts.

My mother tells me he felt responsible for his younger brother and so got a job to pay for his brothers schooling. His brother tells me it was not the case, and that my father did not fit in well at school so thought he would try working instead. As far as I can ascertain, my father never kept a job for more than a year, anywhere, at anytime during his life.

He was dating a lady when he met my mother. His lady instantly disliked my mother and predicted that my father and she would end up together. She was right, however it took about another six years before they re-met, started dating and eventually ended up marrying and having kids – my brother and then myself.

My father was a classical, stereotypical, sixties hippie. That is, he took one heck of a lot of drugs, hated work and just wanted to know why the world could not just run on love, man. My mother told me that it was the drugs the messed his mind up, so I grew up fearing mind altering drugs and what they could do to me. Later I learned about his witnessing the death of his mother and sister. Many years later, I learned about his retreat to the fishing village. This leads me to conclude that his mind was already pretty messed up to begin with. Yet I still fear mind altering substances. It is amazing what fears our parents can instill in us. Losing control of my mind is the only thing I truly fear.

During my gestation, my mother hurt her back. At this point in time, according to my mother, my father was changing jobs, again, going out and partying with mates (that is, doping up and talking philosophy) and then would come home and play with my brother. This meant that all the home chores were my mothers duty, that my brother would only sleep an average of four hours a day and my father was quite unreasonable about taking part in being a responsible parent and husband. Small wonder based on his fathers role modelling. However I have heard a very different version from my fathers brothers family. Still, this was the version I grew up with, so it is the version that shaped my life. Who knows what the truth really is.

Not long after I was born, my mother left my father and returned to her mothers house. My brother blamed me for this. More about that in a later post.

I visited my father occasionally, (I believe it was every couple of weeks), and according to my mother, she would pick us up in atrocious states. She defines this is sometimes half dressed in some of the clothes we arrived in, but wearing nothing else, hungry, sleep deprived and sometimes forgotten. Again, my fathers brothers family tells a different story, but again, this was the story I grew up with.

I was also told by my mother that my brother was my fathers favourite child and I was just “put up with”. I found a different version many years later, yet my mother still tells this view.

When I was three and a half, my mother moved us to the other side of the country. I would visit my father once every year or so, but received correspondence from him in the form of cassette tapes and letters. My brother would have to read me the letters because I could not read them.

After an argument with my brother, he refused to read to me one of the letters. I took this letter to my mother to read to me and she was quite shocked at the content. She called my father up and told him that if he could not write nice letters to us, then he shouldn’t write any letters. Very shortly after that, we moved house and he was not told where we moved to. Remember, we were on the other side of the country from him.

My father disappeared when I was eight. I discovered many years later that he deteriorated badly not long after we disappeared. It may be that he was only just holding on before that, or it may have been coincidental timing. He was living with his father from the time my mother left him to the time he disappeared (about 7 years).

He and his father had an argument. It went something along the lines of this. His father asked him for some contribution to living with him. My father said that he did not believe in supporting the capitalist system and so would not do so. His father pointed out that it was because he was paying the bills for my father that he was able to live there without having to work or receive government support and at the least my father could help tidy up around the place. My father was upset with this and decided to try to live out his dream of living an artists life in Sydney. He left and no one heard from him for about 15 years.

Some time around 1996 a journalist did a piece on a hobo living in Sydney. This was my father and was the first news we had of him still being alive. The journalist had tracked down his father and brother and asked questions. My father believed that he had a separated wife and three children.

My mother aborted a child she was carrying when she left my father, so this may have been a child he was counting. Or he may have been messing with the journalist, or just plain delusional. Who knows?

Anyway, according to the journalist, he was collecting circuit boards from electronic devices and lived in a tent. He would occasionally burn the tent down trying to stay warm.

A few years later, at the end of 1998, I received news that my father was dead. He had been killed by someone near where he slept in the park. Because my father, in his current incarnation, was known by the police as a peaceful man, they knew that his death was unprovoked and so they investigated quite hard. It turns out he was the second victim of the star light killer, who is believed to have five murders attributed to him. My father was known as the umbrella man and was living under a pseudonym, which made finding us quite difficult.

My father was called the umbrella man because of his solution to his housing problem. He had given up on tents and had constructed, from found materials, a shack on the beach near the botanical gardens in Sydney. His shack was demolished by the counsel as unfit for human habitation and he went back to sleeping on park benches. This caused inconvenience when it rained, so he began collecting umbrellas. He had a spot in Domain Garden near the Robert Burns statue, under some bushes, where he stored his stuff and slept the night. He would erect umbrellas in the bush, such that the wind could not blow them away and the rain would fall off them and around him. This kept him dry and somewhat warm.

I went to Sydney to learn about my fathers later life. He never did work for money, or accept any government payment. He did not beg for cash. He would go to soup kitchens and accept food from them, but always turned up early to help set up, stayed late to help clean up and would take some bread away with him for later. He would also accept unfinished meals or mistake meals (you know the standard “that isn’t what I ordered” meal?)  from restaurants near Domain Park. He was known as a peaceful man. Most people I met said I looked and acted just like him. An uncanny resemblance.

I met up with his father, who was dying of prostate cancer. His father at first mistook me for my father and apologised for arguing with me. I accepted his apology. Later, he realised that I was not my father and talked to me as myself.

I met my fathers brother and his family for the first time that I remember. I had met with them many times before I moved across the country, but I could not remember these times. It was the first time that I didn’t feel alone or completely alien that I can ever recall. It rocked me. It is not possible to describe this strange feeling of knowing there is a place that I can feel accepted and understood. It is a pity they forgot who I am in their misconstrued memories of my side of the family. That hurt and again it is impossible to describe that feeling either. I was again alone, but this time I knew that people existed who might understand me, yet refused to do so rather than that no one existed who could.

Sometimes it is better not to know that paradise exists, than to know it exists but you are barred from it.

So, that is my father in a quick nutshell.