The lived experience, Episode 4 – This week: Mirjam, Part 3 (final)

Last week, we read quite a number of Mirjam’s sad experiences. This week we take a more analytical look at her life.

Mirjam tells how new life experiences gradually offered her more insight into how serious the situation at home was. She considered cutting the family ties at times, but became anxious about what that would mean for relationships with sisters and other relatives. Would she herself then confirm that she was indeed a difficult child…? “To this very day I notice that I try very hard to earn love, while at the same time I have a lot of trouble receiving love. Am I worth it? After all, what I did for my mother was never, never enough. I feel that because of that, I am still yearning for people who will accept me for who I am, not for what I do. That sometimes makes relationships with others difficult, because you long so intensely for… well… actually to curl up in someone’s lap in loving arms, to experience security… That longing characterises my life.” Together we sit in silence, moved by this candid analysis of what childhood engendered well into adult life.

I talk about the balance we seek as a child between attachment and authenticity and what the consequences can be if a child has to suppress that authenticity for the sake of attachment, that the child loses the connection with their true self – the foundation of trauma.
Mirjam is silent and thinks and then says: “Yes… I recognise that… I have completely lost myself in trying to earn what I never got and at the same time I find it difficult to receive love. The children are an exception; with them it works.”
I ask her if she is proud of how she has been able to break a pattern in her own family. With some modesty, but also determinedly, she answers: “Yes, I am proud of that. I was sometimes unsure about it, but I now see, also with the grandchildren, how different things have gone with us.”
That did not come naturally; sometimes she worked like a lioness to protect the children against the negative influence of her mother, who considered the grandchildren’s music performances embarrassing, immediately after departure threw away crafts made for her, or disapproved of the grandchildren’s study choices. “The faces of the children when their grandmother treated them like that… then my heart broke. She destroyed so much beauty on a structural basis.”

I ask if Mirjam has an idea why she kept ending up in environments that were difficult for her, both privately and in terms of work. “I don’t know… I don’t know… [silence] I don’t know.” She talks about the desire to really be seen and how her mother sometimes even on a birthday in Mirjam’s presence complained about how she looked, that the dress was not modern enough, that the jewelry did not shine enough. “Really everything was seen and commented on, but I, as a human being, was not seen. I was under the impression that she was ashamed of me.”
The constant judging by her mother served as a worrying example. When I ask if she has anything she classifies as a bad habit, she says, “The judging.” She is silent for a moment after this conclusion, before continuing: “More and more, I have learned to look at others with an open mind, but that is a choice I consciously make; it is not yet my default. Not judging is a skill I am still training for.”

Looking back, what does Mirjam see as her saddest and fondest memories?
“One of my saddest memories is the period surrounding my HAVO/high school exam. My grandfather died then; I partly cared for him and was very sad. As a result, I had not been able to prepare properly and I had to re-examine one subject. My father said it did not matter that I failed because I was a girl. My mother said she was sorry I failed; it would not have been necessary, she said, if I had concentrated better. I stiffened and looked at her wide-eyed, whereupon she said: ‘You can cry, if you like’, but she offered me no comfort or acknowledgment of my grief. That made me decide on the spot never to cry at home again. It was not until some twenty years later that I could really cry again, when someone did something very sweet for me to spoil and nurture me; then the tears came.
My fondest memory is the winter when my little brother was born. It was around Christmas; my mother was in childbed.” She smiles and begins to whisper: “We took care of that little baby as children and it was the first time that we did not have to work over the Christmas holidays! There was an air of endearment in the house and we cuddled up with that little fellow.”

When I ask about the essential aspects of her childhood for her development as a human being, she thinks before she searchingly and tentatively formulates her sentences: “What I was very determined to achieve was that I want to do my best to see and recognise the other person as they are because I missed that so much myself. I was constantly told and threatened that there would be severe consequences if I did not behave the way my mother wanted me to. A car, my wedding… the others got paid for it by my parents, but not me, because I had made choices they considered inappropriate. I have often felt very powerless and can really imagine things like self-mutilation and suicide. Those are attempts to be seen and heard. If you have the feeling that at the very core you do not matter, you lose all meaning. Fortunately, what always drew me out of there was my love for our children.”

Although she was greatly affected by the situation at home, deep down she always felt that it was not right. There is more passion in her voice as she says: “That on the day of my seven-year-old sister’s funeral, we had to get up extra early so that the cleaning could still go on… I was twelve, but I definitely felt that was idiotic! I wanted to say goodbye to my deceased sister; my other sister and I stopped cleaning and walked to the door, where we saw and heard the hearse drive away over the gravel. I already said there and then that this was not normal. Anyway… even when I once contacted the GP and said that my mother was completely hysterical and seemed to be going mad, it only led to a shot of valium, not a thorough investigation into how things were going at our home. As children, we were not protected from what was happening and at a  moment like that, my mother was actually kept calm with medication.”

I suggest you could see this as an addiction, both the endless cleaning and the medication. It is said that not everyone with trauma becomes addicted, but addicts almost always have a history of trauma. I share with Mirjam Gabor Maté’s definition of an addiction: everything you do and need to generate temporary relief from pain, behaviour that you cannot part with and which is harmful in the long term and disrupts your life. Mirjam listens attentively, is silent for a while and then asks me to repeat the description. She lets it sink in again and says she can relate to it. “I think my addiction was that I always kept going, not being able to rest, because continuing helped me to not feel the pain.” In recent years she has set aside more time for this, sometimes forced by illness, and she feels progress. For example, she has now decided that she will call in sick for her work, now that another difficult process awaits her for cancer treatment. The interests of the family weigh heavily here, because when it comes to what gives her life meaning and purpose, the children and grandchildren are her number 1 priority. What is also very satisfying is working with patients: “What I myself lacked is what has also made me strong in my job: really seeing people and spending time with them and then seeing the healing effects of genuine attention to people. Then I am very authentic. I listen carefully and see the person in front of me for who he is. I feel comfortable in that. I have nothing to lose and I don’t have to defend myself against anything. The moments when it is not possible to be authentic are the moments when I again fear that my individuality will lead to me losing people – just like it used to be.”

She concludes that it is an art to learn to receive what you did not receive at the beginning of your life: “It is often easier to have compassion for others than for yourself. In this sense, I am also concerned that there seem to be so many children who struggle with life at a young age and lack a basic sense of security. I have the feeling that adults often don’t pay enough attention to this. Children are required to adapt a lot and their basic needs are not always paramount. That basic need is love, in the form of security, safety and attention, and I am grateful that we have been able to give our children a much better start in that regard.”

With that we wrap up. We talked for a long time. In the course of the afternoon the sky has closed. The sun is gone, it is colder than I expected and it drizzles softly as I drive home.

The lived experience, Episode 4 – This week: Mirjam, Part 2

Last week we started the series about Mirjam, who candidly speaks about her childhood experiences. This week we continue her story.

We talk about her father, who she describes as ‘invisible’, often away for all kinds of meetings. She has the idea that he fled the situation at home. Her mother had experienced the war and was very fearful, especially because her father (Mirjam’s grandfather) developed some resistance activities. Her mother’s fear was such that grandpa stopped those activities, fearing that his daughter would unwittingly betray the matter by the expression on her face.
Her fears made her try to keep a firm grip on everything in life: “When we started dating, my mother told my husband-to-be that he needed to know one thing, which was that she had control over all her children. “I’ve got a hold of them all”, she said, and he did not know what to make of such a statement. Like me, however, he has discovered that it was true and that my mother really had a lot of control over us, causing division between us as family members. Recently, uncles and aunts have also indicated that my mother was not an easy one to live with in her family in the past. Her fear that things or clothes would get dirty caused my mother’s presence to regularly be experienced as oppressive. I get it; I, too, would like to be free from her judgment and finally not let it affect me like that anymore.”

Mirjam thinks back to the unhealthy dynamics in her grandparent’s family and illustrates once again something that is so often the case, namely that problems and trauma have an intergenerational history. She recalls painful memories. For example, she once went to the zoo with her sister on a Sunday, which was very exceptional. The loving, childless neighbours wanted to take the girls out for a day, because they always worked so hard at home. Sunday was problematic (the ‘Day of the Lord’), but Saturday, the day of the cleaning, would be even worse, so they went on Sunday. “My mother had warned in advance: ‘Well, then, you can go, but you cannot buy anything, because then you will go to hell.’ My sister and I had decided beforehand not to buy anything, but when we arrived we realised that entrance tickets had to be bought, of course, and later the neighbours wanted to eat and drink something in the restaurant. We tried to prevent that, but it didn’t work. That night we begged God on our knees to make sure we would not be lost. So, all in all, my mother’s cleaning was even more sacred than Sunday, because she would not let us go on Saturday and put us in danger of hell on Sunday for possible misbehaviour. The dear neighbour knew nothing about it. My sister told me that not too long ago she froze at the zoo and the sight of the restaurant. So thoroughly mean, to indoctrinate your children like that…”

She talks about her younger years, how she was cared for by a neighbour, because her mother was busy on the farm or cleaning. She was also often with the living-in grandfather and grandmother from father’s side, who lived in the front house with their handicapped son (her uncle). They were sweet people, whom she loved very much and who sometimes explicitly stood up for her, for example when her mother said several times after she was born that she thought her daughter was so ugly. Her grandmother once said: “You should stop doing that; two eyes are looking at you and they are asking you to be a mother to this child!” Her mother also said this in later and even quite recent years and when Mirjam asked why she thought it was so important to repeat this over and over, she said: “Well, the truth deserves to be told – you were just ugly.”

After high school she moved out and found a room because of her studies and for that reason her parents did not pay for her wedding. They thought she should stay at home, where she had been caring for her grandmother for years and later on also for her grandfather. Mirjam’s limit had been reached, however: she refused to take care of the disabled uncle after the family moved, and considered that as a task of the uncles and aunts. Social workers said that if there was even one person against the uncle staying at home when things were getting worse, he would move to an institution. When Mirjam indicated that she was against him staying at home, however, her wishes were not taken into account. Social work was of the opinion that she was not able to understand the consequences of her choice: “You will regret doing this to your parents”, was their statement. Then she said: “If he comes in, I’ll move out.” So it happened, but her mother was angry about it and said: “Just wait, if you later have a disabled child yourself, you may sometimes think back to this selfish choice.” With every pregnancy she went through, Mirjam thought about that and she felt fear, fear that she would have a handicapped child as ‘punishment for her sin’.

The children developed their own coping strategies; one child regularly held her breath and then fainted – a very adequate method of ensuring she was spared. Another child also had regular physical complaints, such as severe eczema. Only Mirjam was in good health and therefore often had to suffer.
Living on her own was therefore a liberation, but one that was accompanied by lies about her study/work schedule, because if her mother knew she was free, she wanted Mirjam to come home. Mirjam then had a good conversation with the supervisor of her training, in which she indicated that she did not give permission for the passing on of her schedule. Mirjam thinks her mother was ashamed that her daughter chose to move into rooms. Like her sisters, Mirjam was offered a car if she would continue to live at home, but Mirjam declined the offer. As a result, she had to pay for her own education and, unlike the others, did not get a car for traveling back and forth. Nevertheless, her study time was a wonderful time, a period that she would have liked to extend a little longer: a life of her own, with friends and freedom.

“My mother felt that the education I chose was well-suited: I would probably find work in it quickly and that was necessary, because I was so difficult and critical that I probably would not get married. With a permanent job in care that also required me to work on holidays and weekends, nobody would be stuck with me.”
But she did get married, at 24, and when the eldest child was born, she realised that the freedom of those studying years would not come back that way and that her childhood was really over. She was overjoyed with the children and was determined to give them a different childhood than the one she had had. Nevertheless, she felt: “You can always make all kinds of beautiful choices later, but the open-mindedness that you should be able to experience in childhood or study years will then be over.”

We are talking about an aspect that is often overlooked, namely that trauma experts are increasingly emphasising that not receiving what they expect to receive (namely loving attention and safety) is often more harmful to children than being given something they have to find a way of dealing with. The lack of loving attention makes it more difficult to love yourself and that has a huge impact on how you approach life and whether you feel that you matter. Mirjam recognizes this: “I still find it very difficult to go a beauty salon or to buy something for myself, or to let myself be pampered. I am very generous towards the children, but towards myself… really very difficult.”
She tells how she, with respect to the children, has always looked at what they needed. That was her intrinsic attitude: asking and probin, also regarding feelings and experiences, and looking for the best for that specific child. “That is not comparable to how my mother dealt with things. When I got cancer twelve years ago, the first thing she said was: “Then you come to me even less often? That something like this must now happen to me again. And what a shame, for your employer, that you cannot work now.’ All those kinds of situations are still very sharp in my mind and they continue to hurt…”

We talk about possible causes of such family dynamics. “Our home was very much about what other people would say about us. The bar for judging ourselves was even higher than for judging others. As a result, everyone was constantly on their toes. The biblical ‘honour thy father and thy mother’ was leading, but my mother forgot that it also says ‘do not embitter your children’. My mother was in the victim role; throwing and visiting birthday parties, being waved goodbye on a school trip, being brought and encouraged at diploma swimming… no time was made for it: work always came first. On Sunday, the day of rest, we were allowed to read, do puzzles or do homework for our religion class, but not play outside or do anything that could make you dirty. Only later, with friends, did I discover the cosiness that can be present in families and I really eagerly drank it in.”

Next week you will read the last part in the series about Mirjam.

The lived experience, Episode 4 – This week: Mirjam, Part 1

It’s sunny when I arrive for our conversation on a late summer Monday afternoon. Just as I want to ring the bell, her husband comes walking towards me from the garden. I ask him how things are going and say that I am very shocked by the news. When Mirjam and I tried to set a date shortly before, I asked if it would fit, despite the imminent moval to elsewhere. She said the moval was not so much a bottleneck. What had coloured everything differently in recent days was the message that the biopsy result was not good: the lump she had discovered under her arm turned out to contain cancer cells, despite the lighthearted reaction of the radiologist. Considering she thought she had overcome the cancer twelve years ago, this was a huge blow to her and her husband, as well as to the children and their families. We discussed whether an interview was a good idea. I kept the option open that perhaps it was even more important now that her story was recorded and heard. Mirjam wanted to think about it for a bit and I said that whatever decision was okay and that it was entirely up to her to decide if, and if so when and where we would meet. It was not long before she replied: “Yes, perhaps my story does need to be heard. It may also give recognition to talk about it. My mother passed away this spring and after everything that happened between her and me, I had so hoped to be able to live a more relaxed life for a while. We are all very sad.”

Her husband looks at me and says, “Yes, it’s intense. It goes up and down. Sometimes you have a bit of courage and at other times you really cannot believe it and you get that helpless feeling of not knowing what to expect.” While we chat for a bit, she opens the front door and falls into our conversation. We look at each other and eyes fill with tears. The fear and uncertainty cast a great shadow over what, after her mother’s death and the moval, would have been a fresh start, a phase in which she was freed from her mother’s judgmental gaze.

I step inside, into the hall; I untie my shoes, take them off and then we hug. I hold her in my embrace for a long time and feel the restlessness in her body that is so understandable.
We walk into the living room and while Mirjam makes tea, I look around. I see that the bookcase has already been partly dismantled: empty shelves, packed books. There is a table and chair by the window that I have not seen before. When I inquire, it turns out that they do indeed come from her deceased mother’s inheritance. On the table is a bunch of sunflowers with yellow gerberas and there are flowers elsewhere, too. On the plateau next to the fireplace are a dozen handwritten cards from people who want to support her. Mirjam serves the tea and starts off with one of the things that have happened in the past few days in contact with healthcare providers.

Various events painfully remind her of what happened twelve years ago: a general practitioner who thinks it is not too bad and initially hesitates with a referral, nurses who provide information that is not relevant because of previous surgeries, radiology employees who look ignorant when she comes for an examination, a radiologist who says she cannot find anything at all: “Is that not reassuring?” “No,” she had replied, “that is not reassuring at all, because you said that twelve years ago, and it was completely wrong then.” He had been a bit annoyed and had responded: “Well, if it reassures you, I can take a biopsy, but these are not very nice interventions, so you can also decide to skip it.” The air of trivialisation in the tone of voice had struck her, but she had insisted. When she came for the results a few days later and saw two people sitting behind the desk, she knew enough, with all her nursing knowledge: they only sit together when they have to have a bad news conversation. It was, indeed, and now she is awaiting follow-up examinations. Later in the conversation we address the question whether it is the experiences in the now that make her so angry, disappointed and sad, or whether those experiences touch on all the pain of the past, causing them to tear open the old wounds time and again.

We sip our tea, surrounded by the smell of freshly baked butter cake. Mirjam tells how heartbreaking it was to have to tell the bad news to the children. Unlike in her parental family, their own family culture is not one in which there is no time and attention for such sad things, but one of openness and sharing. She therefore looks back with painful feelings at the passing away of her mother and how as siblings they sat at a distance from each other around the bed, a physical representation of the lack of contact that she had experienced all her life. Almost apologetically towards her mother Mirjam says that of course there were also happy experiences, but it is the adverse ones that have left distressing, limiting scars. An example is the last Mother’s Day, on which she had not visited her mother due to circumstances. The reaction of her very old mother: “I am very disappointed; it is typically you again who won’t come… Will your own children come to you this Sunday? No? Oh, so they do not consider you important enough to come? Well, then you know what awaits you and this is only the beginning; it will all get much worse. I always said: you do not sin cheaply by not visiting me, because what you do to me, you will get back tenfold.”

We are silent together; I notice the goosebumps on my skin and I look at Mirjam as she continues: “I have never had such a bad Mother’s Day; it really felt like my mom just put a curse on me. I was absolutely devastated. You don’t want to let it in and hit you, but it does. And this was the last real contact I had with her. She passed away shortly after that and because I felt so broken, I had not called her for a while. This conversation was such a blow to me that I did not tell the children until after her death…” I ask what her reasoning was to not share it with the children right away. She falls silent and searches for words. “Perhaps fear… or shame? Suppose she is right after all…?”

Mirjam’s voice trembles; she tells what she had tried in the past and in fact is still looking for an answer to the question of what she could have done now to prevent this kind of reaction from her mother. When I ask if she has any idea how this behaviour might be explained, she says: “I think that my mother herself had a big inferiority complex, that she was actually a psychiatric patient, although she wouldn’t admit it herself. Her whole life has been devoted to cleaning the house. Everything had to give way to that and it was her way of being the best at something. Our own birthdays, classmates’ parties, weekend outings… there could be no question of it. Even the wallet had to be cleaned into the corners with a screwdriver, spice jars dipped, lamp sockets swept with a brush… I still have scars from the hydrochloric acid used to polish the stable floors. And if it went too slow or not good enough, she could get hysterical.”

Mirjam continues: “She called her own mother every day, but we did not do that with her and she found that very disappointing. When she wanted something from us that we did not comply with, she mentioned people who actually willingly did this for their parents. If we visited a friend, she would say: ‘Oh, so that is something you do have time for?’ She continuously tried to feed into our feelings of guilt. For years, such statements were mainly aimed at me, but in recent years others in our family have also had to deal with them. This opened their eyes to what was going on for decades and where I was not taken seriously. It has now hit them hard, too.” She tells how she actually has always known the relationship with her mother as one with many reproaches: “My mother thought it was very annoying that I was born in the spring. My birthday was only celebrated when it fell on a Sunday, because on other days the big spring clean-up had to be done, then the cows had to go back to the pasture and the stable had to be cleaned. Having your birthday in the spring was thus very unwelcome… I was very unwelcome… As we cleared her house, a written note with words to that extent was found… in her bible.” Again we are silent together.

Next week we will continue Mirjam’s story.


The lived experience, Episode 3 – This week: Isis, Part 3

Last week we ended with a sad conclusion from Isis that she has lost herself over the years.

After a moment of silence, Isis recounts her own rebirthing experience, in which the therapist asked if Isis might have been born after an induced labour. She could not answer that question, but her mother confirmed it. The healthcare providers were not waiting for a delivery on Sunday, so her mother was induced on Saturday evening. “I experienced that I was born powerless, that I couldn’t do anything… The birth went too fast and was too intense and I can often still experience that feeling of powerlessness. Strangely enough… Robin was born after a natural home birth, but a day later I developed childbed fever and I was taken to the hospital by ambulance. I was suddenly very ill and that was probably also traumatic for Robin and for the eldest. So here, too, there is an overlap with my own life.”

I ask Isis what it is she thinks of when she hears the word ‘traumatic’: “That’s a broad concept, isn’t it…? I am thinking of a sudden event or of neglect or other chronic conditions…”
I share what many trauma experts see as the essence of trauma: being alone with the pain of difficult experiences. It is not about that experience itself, but about what that experience does to your inner, emotional world and how that limits your behavioral repertoire and makes it less flexible. You quickly fall into the well-known survival strategies: fight, flight, freeze and fawn (to fake, to ‘please’ your opponent in order to escape sanctions). The earlier in life this happens, the greater the consequences. Isis had tricks not to incur her father’s wrath and to avoid name-calling and imprisonment, but the fear was always there. She was forced to sacrifice some of her authenticity. She didn’t show certain parts of who she was so that she could maintain some degree of security in the relationship with her parents. She says that because she was often out and about, she did not know everything that happened and was not strongly aware of it. Nevertheless, the impact is usually there, because while we cannot reproduce everything we experience through our narrative memory (we can’t tell the story), we do store the imprint that our stress hormones have left in our cells. So we do have a physical memory of it, even if it is not conscious, and that physical memory is triggered by situations that resemble what we experienced before. What we experience in the ‘now’ is therefore often a reminder of what happened ‘then’ and in which we were alone, because there was no buffering protection from an adult to provide co-regulation and reassurance. Then we look for other ways to feel safe and satisfied, which are often ‘bad habits’ and addictions, due to their hormonally satisfying effect. They are no stranger to Isis either: she mentions smoking, drinking, sleeping medication and coffee.

Addiction has long been viewed as a behavior to be punished, then as a brain disorder, and now among advocates of a more holistic view as a solution to an underlying problem, which is almost always trauma. Not everyone with trauma becomes addicted, but people with addiction almost always have trauma in their history. From this perspective, we can look at what is going on with more compassion. It also shows that it is likely to be difficult to end the addiction if there is no genuine attention and recognition for the underlying trauma.

We note that there have been many moments when Isis could not maintain the connection with herself and that in many situations in her childhood her parents were not there for her to lovingly guide her: “It never occurred to me to discuss difficult things with my parents. I got through it and made sure I had a relatively good time.” She has been carrying a great burden for a long time and as sad as she is right now… she is also tired of it and not having to take care of Robin for a while, feels partly as a relief from that burden. This also makes it clear that body and mind are closely linked: what we experience as a heavy burden mentally, has consequences for our physical well-being. The powerlessness that Isis currently experiences is very old, she has indicated, because it dates back to her birth. It is impressive to be able to see these kinds of connections and to experience that we should not think too lightly about how we treat our little ones when they come into the world and in their first 1000 days.

We agree that it can be very confronting for you as a parent to see that your children mirror you. What you find difficult in them is usually what deserves healing in yourself. The self-reflection that is required for this, however, requires a safe environment, one in which you do not immediately fall back into your coping strategies, into behavioral patterns that you once logically developed in order to survive. Only when that safety is there can you look at and question your own pain with compassion. Then you can learn to listen to your intuition again and determine what you want to take in from your interaction with others and what you want to leave with them.

The Buddhists say: if you give a present and the recipient does not accept it, then the gift remains yours. That applies to beautiful things (attention, love, joy) and also to your anger: if the other person does not accept your anger, it will come back to you, often doubly, and then that anger can trigger all kinds of things. When we can learn to see that underneath anger is often very deep pain, we can experience more compassion, both for ourselves and for others.
“I like that”, says Isis, “about not accepting that anger… I also try that with Robin. I can’t change Robin’s mind about me. I said ‘I love you’ and that’s all I can do now.”

My thought is a bit more positive; I do think she can influence Robin’s feelings. I mention another Buddhist wisdom, which says that if you fail to achieve active growth or improvement, it is already progress if you stop doing harm. Then the dust of the battle can settle and there will be a better view and breathing room for everyone. It also allows everyone to feel more closely into what is happening in their own body and to reflect on it, without the escalation that is ‘heavy on the stomach’ or that ‘takes the blood from under the nails’ – talking about the language of the body. Moreover, creating more space means that you do not burden each other with what you want and expect from each other. Robin cannot give Isis what Isis missed as a child. Isis also can’t give Robin what Robin missed as a child. They both have needs that they cannot meet in one another. That is on the one hand a sad and on the other hand a crucial insight for both of them to move forward. If they can both find a conversation partner with whom they feel safe, who can listen to them without judgment, without threatening sanctions and without creating shame, to everything they feel and experience, they can slowly but surely reconnect with themselves. And that, say trauma experts, is the essence of healing: restoring the connection with your authentic self. That connection is the basis from which you can recover or build the connection with the other.

We conclude with that hopeful thought. The coming time will show how things are going with Isis and Robin and I wish Isis and Robin all the best in the world!

The lived experience, Episode 3 – This week: Isis, Part 2

The practice room is well heated; the candles are burning and there are fresh flowers. From the window I see Isis coming and I walk down the stairs to welcome her. It is nice to meet each other now, after a brief telephone exchange. We start our conversation with a short creative check-in and then we lay the Mattenspel to visualise how Isis experienced her own childhood and which relationships were important to her at the age of 16. During the laying, already certain things come up: “I tried to turn it into something cheerful”, is her reaction when I point to the happy smileys that are added to a number of places and people only at a late stage. Later in the conversation we come back to this common need to uphold an image of a happy childhood for the inner and outer world, even if deep down it did not feel that way. When in Isis’ opinion the laying is ready, we look at it extensively together, for example at the anger that lies with father. “I had tricks to make him happy. I knew what to do to avoid punishment. For example, you should not say anything wrong at the table, because if everything was not decent and appropriate enough and you ‘misbehaved’ despite a warning, you were locked up in the warehouse behind the store. Unlike a sister, it never happened to me, but the threat was always in the air. So I kept quiet, or I would hide myself, and I always felt that tension. Sometimes I got grounded when I was caught lying. We were not seen for who we were and I did all kinds of things to get attention, such as stealing things from my parents’ store, or money from my mother’s wallet. I confessed to her about that not so long ago and although she didn’t want to believe it, she finally accepted my refund. Things were not easy with her either, but as a child I still felt relatively safe with her; she was more of a stable factor in our family, although at times I felt more comfortable with my father’s greater light-heartedness and acting silly.”

Isis tells how she sought refuge outside of the family with friends, how she skipped school and did wild things. She started a relationship with one friend, but at his home the situation was almost as difficult: unrest, tension between the parents, a rude father… the dynamics were familiar. They broke up, later reunited and married when Isis turned out to be pregnant. After a miscarriage, three children were eventually born, but the marriage did not last and resulted in a fighting divorce, which had a major impact on the partners and the children. When, during our conversation, we look in more detail at the situation of Isis, whose father died young, and that of her own family, in which the children lost their home base at a young age, there are striking similarities.

The reason Isis visits me is actually that her middle child, 30-year-old Robin, is not getting their own life in order. After an improvement last year, when Robin returned to live with Isis in an attempt to develop more structure, there is now a relapse. Isis is sad and fears to lose the connection with Robin, also because she feels overwhelmed by everything that is evoked in herself by the unrest. “You could put the pictures on top of each other and you see that there are many overlaps in what happens in our lives. Robin and I both left home at a young age and fled into going out and addictions.” We speak about the different forms of addiction out there that are much more than just drugs or alcohol. Also always being rushed, constantly working, demanding attention in a negative way… these are all behaviours based on a deep desire to numb feelings of pain and loneliness and create the conviction that you belong, that you are being seen and heard. They are helpful in the short term, but cause damage in the long term and you can hardly let go of them.

The fact that Robin does have contact with father makes it emotionally extra complicated for Isis, who is very busy pondering what her own role can be for Robin, what is needed to experience connection again. We talk about what happened when the lucky clovers were placed in the Mattenspel; several people already had clovers, but not yet with Isis herself and she had asked, while looking at me: “I can also put clovers with myself, I guess…?” I had replied that that was totally up to her. Her response was: “Hmmm…yeah…I’m kind of forgetting myself…” I mention that later in our conversation and Isis indicates that she herself had been aware of it, too. Now that I explicitly ask about it, she says that it is a familiar theme in her life, that she tries to do things right for the other person, but does not often ask the question whether those choices are also good for her. We speak of authenticity in that context and Isis says: “No, my authenticity does not hold up well in all of that; I realise that and lately I have been working on that somewhat more. I just find it difficult to distance myself and guard my own boundaries, because people crossed them so often when I was a child. I keep asking myself: ‘Was it good enough? Couldn’t I have done more?’ So complex, all of this…”

We are quiet together for a while; I pour another cup of tea and I ask her how she feels right now. She thinks; her eyes fill with tears as she responds: “I feel sorrow; I wonder… how does all this relate to my relationship with Robin? I experience that sometimes I just feel so lost, that I don’t know what to do anymore. Robin did try things during the divorce to bring us back together, but the meeting with my ex and me Robin once organised unannounced was intense. I felt manipulated.” She is aware of Robin’s almost certainly good intentions, but it still didn’t work out. I look at her and feel her inner struggle. Manipulation… I’m reminded of another interviewee who used that word about herself and we went into more detail about it. We found that it was a term that reflected the pain of the past, which was about how she was treated by her parents, after which she came to believe in that mantra. To what extent was Isis manipulated as a child and did Robin’s action trigger the pain that had previously been caused? I ask Isis when she first felt manipulated. She mentions her marriage, but if we look further, it was already present in her home situation, where relatives said they did not feel like listening to Isis. “They still say that and then a very deep pain comes up in me; I feel sadness and anger.”

We talk about her earlier statement of the ‘relative safety’ that she felt with her mother. “I knew it wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, but I settled for it. I had no choice and had the feeling that I had to deal with this and that they did not know and could not do any better. Since then, I have achieved quite a few things in life and then it may be tempting to explain everything away and downplay everything again, but…” She falls silent and the tears flow again: “Many patterns from the past still exist and I have a deep fear that I will lose Robin. I now indicate my boundaries, but at what price once again? My fear of losing Robin was already there at birth… the fear of losing that little one… but maybe it was me myself…”
We are silent together, deeply moved, because she now almost literally says what she means, what she feels as a result of what has happened, namely that she has lost herself in the course of her life. She now sees that reflected in her child and that hurts intensely.

Next week we will analyse some of the points Isis raised.