Have you ever picked a scab until it bled or poked a sore tooth with your tongue, then wished you’d left it well alone?
My hurts are invisible, but they sting and bleed regardless. They are healing, but it’s a slow process and I’m an impatient person.
Memories can torment us, slowly healing wounds that we pick at like a scab. They can also be like precious treasure, sparkling, beautiful, something to be cherished. The balancing act for me is to not let those toxic and tragic memories overshadow the treasure.
Something I’ve observed in non-Autistic, people is that they can be skilled at smothering the memories they don’t want to think about. They can bury those memories that would otherwise torment them. The lock the vault, throw away the key. They don’t just lock away that which has hurt them, they bury the memories where they have behaved badly, where they have hurt others. Maybe it’s down to survival instinct? Or maybe they find it harder to reflect and learn from past mistakes?
In contrast, Autistic people like me may find it impossible to escape the hurts of the past, cannot hide from our mistakes. Let me explain why.
It all began with Dinosaurs
Some of my earliest memories are visiting Crystal Palace Park in London with my mum to explore it’s famous, prehistoric monster trail. I must only have been 2 years old. Mum would have been 18. Apparently I walked and talked very early and I was often the only one Mum had to talk to during those long and lonely hours when my dad was out at work or down the pub.
The gigantic dinosaur replicas lurking behind the trees and in the lakes filled me with awe. I still remember the little animal farm and queuing up to ride a pony. When I try and picture myself or my mum, my mind draws a blank. But the gaze of those magnificent dinosaurs stay with me.
Over the years I’ve often revisited my memories of Crystal Palace Park, but have never actually gone back there. I suppose because things that you recall with affection and wonder from your childhood and adolescence can disappoint when you revisit them in adulthood. There’s a disconnect, a gap between the original memory and the reality you experience when you revisit it.
Mind the Gap please
There’s many a movie I’ve adored in my younger years, that my adult eyes see as horribly dated or just plain cheesy! Or places that don’t affect me the same as they once did. I returned to my high school in my early twenties to deliver a careers presentation and was shocked by how small and ordinary it felt compared to the echoing, winding maze of the school in my memories.
Autistic people often have very specific recall of situations, places and people. We remember not just the event, or the conversation, we remember the smells, sights, sounds, emotions that we experienced in that moment. We can access our past in full technicolour, surround sound, we can rewind the full sensory experience.
The downside of this, is that negative memories can live inside us for a lifetime, with the power to injure and traumatise us like it was yesterday. Forgiveness is always possible but we can’t forget our hurts. They fight for headspace with the reliving of our past mistakes. Only answers can alleviate our pain, knowing why or how someone could cause us suffering. But the answers rarely come; they are buried in the brain vaults of the people who hurt us.
The upside of our detailed memory recall is the happiest memories, the moments of joy, the triumphs, times of peace and connection with your environment when you see a place so exquisitely beautiful…those can be called upon just as easily. These I’ll gladly share; screaming with laughter as I sled down the icy Cowboy Hill with my brother and cousins during snowy winters in Kent; sitting on a riverbank in New Zealand as the sun set, listening to the song of the Tui bird while Nick fished and I lost myself in a book, the sun warm on my neck; daytime naps on the bed with Leo and Henry when they were babies – the way they curled into my tummy as if they were trying to get back inside! The incredible relief I felt at discovering I am Autistic, as if I’d finally been handed the instruction manual to my brain. The gratitude I felt towards those friends and family who chose to learn about my differences.
For those of you that are new to my blog, I’ve been estranged from my father for ten years, since I was pregnant with my second son. I’ve been ‘no contact’ with my Mum since last June, after many years of fighting to get answers that were buried in her brain vault. Finally her silence and the conflict this caused became too much.
I asked for understanding and support from my 5 younger siblings and my grandparents – I have always loved and supported these family members and believed they loved me back. I did not ask them to take sides. I just didn’t want them to reject me like she always rejected me when I stepped outside my role of loyal, unquestioning servant.
To my complete shock my brothers, their partners and my grandparents, all chose to take sides, gaslighting me, blaming my mental health, calling me a liar, or just plain ignoring me. I was scapegoated because none of them wanted to address the inter generational abuse that had been swept under the carpet in our family for so many years. It was ugly and inconvenient. Blaming me was far easier than unlocking the horrible past we’d shared.
So effectively, I lost my whole birth family at once, overnight, and it broke my heart. How’s that for a memory? How’s that for an oozing, itchy scab crying out out to be picked? My innocent sons (age 6 and 9) also lost their extended family overnight which was tough for them to comprehend. Thankfully they have healed far quicker for being young and for being truly loved by their parents.
I have treasure a plenty too. I have a wonderful husband who stood up to my birth family and called them out for their cowardly behaviour. I also have a great psychologist who has helped me see how I’ve been groomed since childhood to take responsibility for my family members. He helped me see how one sided and harmful those relationships have been and how I’d never been accepted or supported with my differences (I am late diagnosed Autistic at 42 and have bipolar 2 disorder, the latter due in part to the trauma I experienced in my childhood and adolescence).
It’s been almost a year now with no contact. I’ve had a few horrible messages from two of my brothers via my blog; spiteful comments from my grandfather; but largely just silence. My life is undoubtedly calmer, happier and safer without them in it. I’m stronger mentally, I laugh more, I’m thriving in my career. My sons are enjoying a more relaxed and fun Mum and my husband is the glue holding us together.
The problem is those old wounds. Those traumatic memories I can’t stop picking at. I keep having bad dreams about my mum. She often had poor health and in my dreams she is walking up a steep hill, but she falls and stumbles. I am in my car and I get out and try to help her up but she snarls at me and pushes me away. I wake up crying.
When I was growing up, I adolised my mum. She was only 16 when she had me, and she told me she was forced to marry my dad who was violent to her even then. As a child I saw her as someone I needed to save and protect. I feared and hated my father but I was besotted with my mum and just wanted to make her life better. I think it was almost a codependency. She leaned on me heavily and I accepted that role. I wanted to be her saviour.
In my teens I started to stand up to my dad when he would turn on her, and his response was to redirect his violence and aggression on me. The tipping point was that she did nothing about this. She ignored it, turned a blind eye. When I tried to get help from my Aunt, Mum beat me herself for sharing private family issues. She became more physically and emotionally cruel towards me than my father ever was. To this day I don’t know if her actions were deliberate or as a result of her own poor mental health because of the abuse she suffered.
Contributing to the growing separation between me and Mum was my high school experience. High school helped me develop some independence and self esteem. I realised how clever I was, that I could have a bright future. I saw that other families were not like mine. I realised that my Mum should have protected us children from growing up amongst alcoholism and domestic violence. I realised that I wanted to escape the family home and be nothing like my parents.
I suspect now, that in striving to be independent and by showing my unhappiness with the way I’d been brought up, my mum must have felt deeply rejected and pushed away. I had loved her so completely and that must have meant a lot to her when my dad was treating her so badly. I do believe she really loved me as a child and that my unconditional, naive love was a lifeline for her. I feel sad that in trying to save myself and build a better life for me, I must have really hurt her. I never meant to do that.
I still carry anger and resentment towards my parents and my siblings for the way they have behaved towards me over the years. I’ve had fiery and emotional confrontations with them when I’ve felt mistreated and misunderstood. My psychologist says I shone a mirror on them, challenging their destructive behaviours and their refusal to change and do better. I wanted them to take responsibility and not to repeat our parents mistakes. I truly thought I could help them save their marriages, reconnect with lost children, look after themselves better, be happy. But they didn’t want to change or admit they had problems. I was trying to save them like I’d saved myself but I now realise that my honesty and directness only upset them and alienated them from me. They never asked for my help but I kept on trying to give it anyway.
Despite the fiery adult relationship I had with my mum, I tried so hard to involve her in the family I built with my husband. I supported her emotionally, practically and financially over the years and most importantly I loved and cared for her when my brothers were too wrapped up in their own lives and only came to her for money she didn’t have or for child care. Save random grand gestures, they were not there for her on a daily basis like I was. I still felt that responsibility for her and thought I could save her. Give her a better life. I even imagined her living with us in her old age.
She was by far a better Grandma than she’d been a Mum and we had some truly happy times together. But periodically, when her life felt difficult or unfair to her, she’d blow up at me out of the blue and send me hurtling back into the shoes of my 15 year old self. The rejection, the degradation, the judgement would wash over me like a tidal wave. I’d feel literally terrified, she held so much power over me, and her desire to be right, to appear blameless would override any guilt she should have felt for her irrational attacks. She told terrible lies and twisted the truth to make herself look like a victim. Again, I have no idea if her behaviour was calculated and manipulative or simply her survival instinct kicking in after the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of my father.
Finding Peace without Answers
I still love my Mum and still worry for her. But I will never try to re-establish contact because I know she will never change and because the only person I am responsible for saving is myself.
I suspect that she never truly forgave me for ‘leaving’ her as a teen. She sacrificed her freedom and lived under my father’s tyranny so she could raise my brothers and I. In comparison my life must have seemed easy, even selfish to her – the way I built my career, my happy marriages to truly good, decent men who didn’t bully me or expect me to serve them like her husbands did to her. My financial independence and security. She has never had those things and I think that resentment and jealousy drove her to mistreat me even whilst she loved me.
I also realise that my brothers will never understand and respect my experiences because she treated them entirely differently to me. My attempts to speak up and address the abuse I suffered was a massive inconvenience to them. I was expected to keep my head down and take that broom they are so fond of and sweep it all away under that carpet. Just to make things easy for them. They tried to blame my Autism and my mental health for my struggles. They told me I was the one that needed to change.
But I gave them back their broom and I held up my mirror and they turned and ran, rather than face themselves. Part of me doesn’t even blame them anymore. They’re just different to me. I miss the innocent little boys they were when I look at childhood photos on my wall. I feel sad at the way they’ve all struggled as adults. I know there is a good heart in each of them. I miss the nephew I’ve been kept from. But my brothers made a conscious choice to run away, and I won’t be looking for them again. I wish them well and hope they find peace and happiness with partners who will help heal them, instead of hiding their problems.
I had been thinking about writing Mum a letter to tell her that I wish her well, that I love her and hope she can be happy. I guess I want a calmer, gentler closure than the the eruption of emotion that happened last June when I ended contact. I wanted to explain why I made that decision and that I didn’t do it it to hurt or punish her, but to save myself. I’d tried to do it so many times over the years but it was my brothers that kept handing me that broom and I was weak and tried to sweep it all away, like they did and do. Because I truly loved her and I wanted her to love me back.
Now I realise, contacting my mum would be like picking that oozing scab. In my heart I’m still seeking validation, craving for her to apologise and admit the things she’s done because her denial is the hardest thing to bear. But I think she is incapable of self reflection and honesty when it comes to me. I think being the victim is her survival mode and she’s afraid her world will collapse if she unlocks that vault. I have to learn to live with that. She is not a pantomime villain, she’s lived through her own difficult and unhappy childhood, a violent marriage and had to raise 6 children on her own. I was the thing that got sacrificed, the place she could unleash her frustration at the world and the mistreatment she’d suffered.
I’m never going to be ok with that, but I hope she is ok. I hope my brothers step up and repay her for single handedly raising them. I hope her parents respect her right to her health and happiness. I hope she finds someone to love her the way I loved her as a child, unconditionally. And I hope she goes back to Crystal Palace Park one day and revisits happy memories under the gaze of those magnificent dinosaurs.
There is a wonderful American drama series ‘This is Us’ that follows a family of adults siblings and their parents from childhood to adulthood. My husband teases me because I cry at every episode. I cry because no matter what ups and downs they experience, that family loves and supports each other. They overcome conflict and just grow stronger. I suppose some people would say it’s cliche, that it’s make believe. But to me, it’s beautiful. It shows me what a functional family looks like and yes, it makes me sad because I never had that with my birth family. But I have that with my husband and our children and I know my children will have that in their futures.
And for now while I’m still healing I will put a plaster over the wound, try not to look at it or pick it and wait for it to be gone. I figure it will leave a scar. I’m ok with that. This is ME and I am learning to accept me, warts and all. I was brave enough to look in that mirror, I faced the bad in me, head on. I learnt to be a better person; I found my true self and I found my happiness. My life will not be plain sailing. My bipolar means my mind drops away to sad and dark places more often than I’d like. Being Autistic means I’ll always be misunderstood by some people and feel hurt and rejected as a result.
But I will keep on healing and fixing myself because that’s my responsibility and my husband and children deserve the best of me.