Chaos and Control

My mother would be the first to point out that you could eat off my floors. But the way she would tell you was as if to mock me, as if to let you know of the drastic and rigid handicap I’m cursed with; some death-grip, psycho inability to let go. She’d monitor me at parties, but especially take notice if visiting me in my own home. I was once with all my siblings in a thunder storm in metal kayaks in the middle of a river. My baby sister stood in the river, popping her hip, holding a lightening rod, aka paddle and advised, “duuuuuude, just relax”. A familiar theme throughout my life had been feeling like I’m the only one who can see impending doom on the horizon and therefore must take full responsibility for it.

I started worrying at a very small age, for all good reasons. My first memory is a nightmare of my mother turning into a giant and cutting my body in half while I sat  in a yellow booster seat. My second memory is of my uncle’s face over mine. My mom never actually divided my body with a sword, but she has always had the capacity to cut. When I saved her the trouble and started doing it myself, she actually got quiet. In a small way my gouges worked. By dying I had found a temporary way of making the responsibility stop. I was too sick and fragile to help, fix or do and the consumption of my illness shifted my presence of mind to the obsessive tasks of anorexia. There was still a 24/7 requirement from me to give everything I had and more, but my energies weren’t going to saving my family, solving a problem, fixing, worrying, smiling or being used up. When you haven’t learned the real skills, like boundaries, and you can’t actually get away from your present or your past to yet live in your own future, you craft an eating disorder that trumps every one and everything.

Where does it come from? people ask. It comes from the same place all addiction and dis-ease comes from; pain, dysfunction, nameless hurts and generally everything most people don’t talk about. Our apartments were too small and cluttered to contain everyone and everything inside them. It would give me this feeling like drowning and being several steps under all the other people, requirements and expectations that were coming on us whether we were ready or not. Our houses weren’t dirty, they were just mismatched hodgepodges of that’ll do; one crooked towel away from looking like a crime scene. Random buckets and bowls of collected crap on top of the fridge, the corner of a counter or stuffed under a table. There was mostly no real furniture, or if it was a time when we had a couch or mattresses, it was someone’s old things that didn’t go together and looked forgotten, outdated and sad. The smell of pot, stale alcohol, dead animals, fish and cigarettes are many notes away from the inviting and reassuring fragrance of say, a Pottery Barn or a forest. Add this to ill-fitting, donated clothes, inconsistent food and being carted off to alternating relatives houses every weekend, where you’re always the gracious guest and never truly ‘home’ and you begin to see where the need for control gets born. I couldn’t pick my father’s next mood, the things my mother said or ignored, the next ugly apartment we were moving to, if we’d have hot water, if he’d be occupying himself with my body again, what we were eating tomorrow, or if Tina Cottin was going to rip another mailbox off a unit and take out someone else’s eye. Eventually I’d discover cleaning and controlling my weight somehow eradicated all of it. Being on hyper-alert helped me save us. Hiding my brother and sister in the closet and using all my emotional energy to worry, care and notice how they felt, how my parents felt and what everyone else needed to feel better and protect them, clean up the mess, solve the issue, reassure and continue to pretend that I never felt anything but fine, evaporated in the empty and satisfying perfection of eventually, shrinking into nothing. A sense of calm would wash over me when I organized things, even things that weren’t mine. I could stifle anxious feelings by vacuuming long hallways in places I worked, knowing in every unit carpets were brushed the exact same way, pens were precisely parallel to comment cards and every blind was level. I also discovered the right responses occasionally shielded me from flying fists. Compliance and submission were useful in speeding up other kinds of requests I wouldn’t have fulfilled if I thought I had a choice. Soothing egos and needs by absorbing another’s bitterness into my sponge-being and regurgitating something sweet; codependence as human lemonade dispenser. These were the things I invented to hold myself up and keep myself steady. They made me feel good but came with labels that don’t: Control Freak. Stick. Moody. Obsessive. Goody Two Shoes. Rigid. Masculine. Crazy. Perfectionist. Princess. Poverty-Mentality. Snob. Stuck-up. Slut. Faithless, know-it-all, analytical, skinny bitch.

The disorder of chaos and chronic, too soon, heavy responsibility gives you two choices:  join the mess or attempt to supersede the terrifying disarray with paramount and sometimes merciless order. Step One was admitting my life had become unmanageable. My previous aversion to the 12 Steps was in the illusion that I wasn’t the one with problem; clearly one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever told myself. The first person to invite me to a meeting was my father’s social worker. He wanted our family to go. I dug my heels in believing it was his job to get well. It wasn’t until I found myself divorcing an alcoholic and addict  that I decided to claim responsibility for my life and the choices I’d  made. Together with my sponsor, nutritionist and pastor I arrived inside the eye of the storm. Remains of a former life were slowly tossed into a red dumpster which faced the balcony of my studio apartment. Three suit cases, a beige shag rug, sink, toilet, closet, one blue wall and two books with all the skills I’d ever need; the extent of my possessions. I wanted to keep as much of this new order as I could, but feelings and people got in the way, along with my own messy needs which I opted to finally address. In the moment of breakdown we’re given this opportunity. I recognized and embraced it with the same squished up face I make when a slobbery dog is hell bent on kissing me. OKay. OKay. I’ll hug you. I’ll pay attention to you. I see you. I get it! Recovery work was brutal but still easier than breathing each breathe for another human being who could’ve, but kept refusing because I’d gotten so good at doing for them. Why had I waited so long? Fears of repercussions, conversations I didn’t know how to have, being ostracized, believing I was powerless, fears of hurting a thousand family members, getting screamed and yelled at, being shamed and finding it impossible to imagine my life could be anything other than what had been. I am only these sad stories. I’m only crap. I’m only smart. I’m only stupid. I am only this. Across three years of learning to inhale, exhale, and speak life I began finding my voice. The pivotal emerging difference was letting go of control fueled by fear and replacing it with control fueled by faith and love.

4 thoughts on “Chaos and Control

  1. I am so sorry that you went through all these pressures in your childhood and adolescence. 😦 I think it’s great you are sharing that “inside look” in public, because reading this kind of thing will educate people about these kinds of issues. Many truly have no idea. I don’t know if you ever read “The Guardian” – just before Christmas they happened to have an article on how to survive Christmas aimed at people who have difficult relatives. I thought it was great that someone was taking the time to say, “I know this isn’t fun for everybody – I know for some of you it really hurts.”

    Man, you should have seen the commentary section. It was majority negative blowback, when that is actually quite atypical of Guardian readers who tend to applaud efforts at social justice and so on and tend to support the underdogs. People were saying things like, “Get a grip, how bad can it be?” and “Some people seem to consider themselves too good for their relatives” and “Well, when your parents die, then you’ll appreciate them and see how selfish you have been” and “The Guardian is so anti-family, always writing articles to cast aspersions on the value of the nuclear family.” I’m paraphrasing from memory, but there were rows and rows of comments like this, as well as, “Well, *I* enjoy hanging out with *my* extended family for Christmas.” (and one person said in response, “Well, bully for you, not everyone is that fortunate.”)

    I was just so taken aback by the sheer volume of that kind of commentary, and in that sort of paper where that isn’t “normal operating procedure” – and I thought, no wonder people affected by these things often don’t speak out, feel alone and discouraged, are often invisible in the margins, if this is the kind of stuff they get if they say anything. You pointed out in a recent article that there is this dichotomy between the kind of harm that comes with hero status, and the kind of harm that comes with silence and avoidance and marginalisation – too right. It’s such a pity, I wonder what it will take to turn that kind of thing around. No wonder that the rates of depression and suicide aren’t falling, if this is what happens…

    So thanks for raising awareness and for eloquent “inside looks” at the kind of “alternative realities” there are to growing up in psychologically healthy, nurturing families.

    Another thing I don’t get: Most people would have compassion on children growing up in difficult circumstances, if they knew what they were going through. But when these children have grown up, that compassion seems to fade and they seem to be expected to have no after-effects.

    All the best to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sophie. Thank you again for those rich responses. Please know that I’m in such a happy, grateful place in my life now! In many ways I believe it’s all the better for how tough it was at first. I’m aware of the Guardian and those responses to the Christmas article do make sense. Many well intended Christians say the wrong thing because they simply aren’t aware of the pain and abuse going on around them. Churches are beginning to teach trauma-informed ministry and I’m thrilled. The world needs your curiosity compassion and open mind! I’m thankful for the dialogue. Be well. 🙂


  2. Hi E, how marvellous that you are in a happy, grateful place! 🙂 It can be such a long road.

    …speaking of such things, over the past week there has been an inspirational story here at the Australian Open Tennis, where a survivor of horrific physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her father had to flee from Croatia to the US as a teenager (then a tennis prodigy and up-and-coming) with her mother and siblings and then fell upon hard times, and 18 years after her best previous result, a semi at Wimbledon just before she fled, and after not playing for many years she made the semi over here aged 34! The smile on her face was luminous, and as she has been quite open about what happened in her life, there were hugs and tears all around and the tennis fans cheered her on with gusto. So nice to see and here is her speech:

    It’s good to see people in the public eye talking about it and breaking down the stigma some more.

    I love these sorts of stories, they offer so much hope and joy. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sophie. What a beautiful story! My mom and step father got into tennis a few years ago and love it. I wonder if they know this woman’s story. I’ll share it with them. Thank you. I agree, sharing the stories of what we’ve overcome from a place of love have the power to normalize the human experience and effect positive change. No one should be abused but it exists. Rather than ignore it we can share and learn from each other as to how to turn our challenges into gifts. I hope it’s a beautiful day in Australia.


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