Stories Become History

As a teen my family spent hours in family therapy. I was the focus, as I was the “problem”. I was the 1st of my siblings to fall apart, calling attention to our family. As I deteriorated, we were all forced into increasingly awkward hourly sessions, during which my parents recounted my transgressions and called upon my siblings to support the tales. And they did. Each of my siblings, one by one, jumped on the bandwagon of “truth”, calling me out as the problem with our family. Occasionally, one would point out, in a whisper, that there were reasons for my behavior, but these claims were quickly squelched by my parents. We were not in therapy because of them; we were in therapy because of their incorrigible teenage daughter. As the years went by, I added to my list of transgressions, and all members of my family leaned more deeply into the story that I was the problem. By the time I was a young adult, this was no longer a story – it had become fact. The history of my family became the picture of a family of 6, all of whom were “normal” except me, the outlier.

In later years each of my siblings broke down. Two dropped out of college at pivotal moments. The third grew increasingly attracted to drugs, and struggled nailing down a career. None of these events though, changed our family story, because we no longer had a “story”, we had a “history”. Years later, my father got sober and admitted to a life time of functional alcoholism. He went to AA and my mother went to Al-Non. Despite all of this, our history never changed. If you were to ask any of them today, they would gloss over the deep dysfunction in our family, and would inevitably end with the fact that I was the real problem.

This was heavy for me to live with. I did put my family through some serious traumas. I ran away often, always gone at least 2 weeks, one time 4 months. I went after my older brother with a knife once. I spent time in mental hospitals, a drug rehab and foster care. I stole from my parents, although I don’t think they ever really noticed. What I did was easy to see; easy to point to. Everyone knew I attacked my brother with a knife and it is a story still told today. No one talks about why, just what I did. Everyone knew why I ran away from home, but no one ever talks about it; just what I did.

My siblings are not bad people. In fact, they immediately gathered from all over the country when I was diagnosed with cancer, and we had some of our most memorable gathering during this time. I adore all of them. If I need them, they are there for me. If they need me, I am there for them. In the quiet moments, usually one on one, we can whisper the truth. We can talk about the stories behind our history, but these moments are rare any more. It is exhausting revisiting these traumas. We all want to move on. We all have our own children and have faced our own problems as adults, softening how we feel about our parents, making it so much easier to fall back into the habit of revisiting history instead of reliving the actual stories.

It was with this background that I became easy prey for a covert narcissist. I’m sure that for someone looking for a victim, I wore the placard like a scarlet letter. A scarlet S for scapegoat. I was the poster child for willingly taking on the role of scapegoat. After years of therapy, introspection, self examination, I was a master at assuming responsibility for all going on around me. In a perverse way, I suppose it gave me a sense of power and belonging. (*must remember to write about the power of being the scapegoat)

If you read my last entry you know that my ex gave our children a flash drive filled with videos from their early years. They watched it excitedly. I have not yet watched it. I was ready to watch it when this happened:

My eldest son made the comment that he was surprised to see how involved I was with them when they were little. He said “she was always sitting with us, talking with us or playing games, or teaching us”.

I couldn’t figure out what bothered me about this at first. Here I was being complimented on my parenting. Clearly my son was happy to watch this, and was seeing me differently; but differently than what? As I pondered this, I realized that these videos were calling into question my children’s history.

The early years of my marriage, my children’s early years, were speckled with various “stories”. They were similar to the stories of my teenage years. When looked at in isolation, they were clearly true. I was often ill, therefore missing events with my in-laws. I was often unhappy, spending time alone in my bedroom. It was not unusual for me to leave the dinner table early, upset at the turn of conversation. It became common place for the children to be with either me or their dad; rarely the two of us together. All of this was true. Each story told was an event that had happened. None of the stories detail what happened before the story began. None of the stories ever considers what happened before. Together though, these stories became our family history.

This, then, is the life of the scapegoat. The scapegoat learns that what happened before their transgression is irrelevant. Whatever they have done is so inherently horrible that nothing else matters. Slowly but surely, the scapegoat comes to see themselves as a loose cannon, an over reactor, a ….. whatever they have been told they are. A hypochondriac. A drama queen. A dreamer. A notoriously unreliable narrator in their own story. Eventually, after years and years of hearing these messages, the scapegoat learns to fall asleep every night running through that days’ transgressions. Shame is their constant companion, as they have learned that whatever lead up to their behavior was irrelevant. All that mattered were their numerous, repetitive failures.

What my son was saying when he made his comments about these videos was this:

Perhaps our history is not what we thought it was.

Our history has changed since their dad and I separated. In the 1st two years, as he was wooed his new GF, now wife, he put on a show. Part of love bombing his new GF involved convincing her that he was father of the year, so he was extra attentive and generous to the children. This supported what they had come to see as our family history. Dad was the good guy, mom the absent mess. Once married though, dad has fallen back into his old ways. Gone is his attentiveness. Holidays pass with barely a mention. He vacations frequently, never inviting them. They move and he is too busy to help; they have a problem and he is out of town. Each of these new stories is rewritten by me as well. I am present for all of it. I carry out holidays as I always did. I am there for each move, each problem, each sucess. I am the mother they saw in the videos. I am siting with them, talking to them, playing games with them, teaching them. Loving them.

Eventually I will watch the videos, because I now understand how important it is for me to rewrite our history. While I can put this all in words, and I know, on an intellectual level, that our “history” is a fiction made up of stories I am ashamed of, seeing it in action is completely different. I suspect watching what should have been our history will be very painful for me. I am comfortable being the bad guy in the story. I’ve spent a life time being the bad guy. As much as we don’t want to, it is easy to slip into the comfort zone we grew up with.

Not so easy – watching the proof that we weren’t who we thought we were.

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