Part 8. The Genesis of My CPTSD: Mother as Mentor

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From Jasmin Lee Cori:

Here Mother is teacher not simply of some isolated subject but of a much bigger curriculum. She orients the child to successfully living in the world. She teaches her child how to get along with others, how to make good decisions, and how to manage time, meet responsibilities, and pursue goals. Mother is in this sense the first “life skills coach.” Each of these capacities is huge, and any particular woman may be better at teaching some of them than others.

from The Emotionally Absent Mother [affiliate link]

It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that the woman who hissed “Saggy Tits” and “Chicken Chest” at my increasingly slumped teenage shoulders was perhaps not the best mentor on how to make my way in the world.

My mother had good skills for nursing, household tasks, as well as all kinds of handwork, including counted cross-stitch, crewel embroidery, and knitting. Self-worth, managing emotions, navigating interpersonal situations? Not her strong suit. The three of us cringed, muscles tensed, faces carefully neutral, on the rare occasions we dropped something on her antiseptic kitchen linoleum. There were no mistakes, only catastrophes that made her mouth form a tight line and her pale eyes harden.

Between the outright neglect during the decade of her Valium addiction to the general absence of verbal assurance, she was not equipped to teach anyone how to hold a conversation, pursue goals, or make good decisions. Time management meant two things: never be late and work without ceasing. The first has served me well. And I do have a strong work ethic, but it took me decades to feel okay about time off and relaxation.

Photo by Kim Gorga on Unsplash

Two incidents were a revelation that there were other ways to live. The first was when I was 12. A friend’s parents drove us home from the movies and interrupted my normal staring out the window reverie to ask me what I’d thought of the movie as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I tentatively offered my opinion and held my breath. The dad agreed and elaborated as in an actual conversation. I exhaled. Years later when I saw Little Man Tate, I was equally amazed that the mother (played by Jodie Foster) did not berate her son for spilling his milk. She was more concerned with him than the mess. She gave me a new model to break old patterns.

Part of breaking these multi-generational cycles has been learning some of these life skills and passing them on. At a round table, my kids and I shared dinner conversations, working out problems, being silly, learning from each other. Sometimes we solved the world’s problems, though they had to pick up navigating office politics on their own. We all have our limits. It’s about opening up more than we were allowed to with progress, not perfection. They’ll do even more for their future children.

Next week: Mother as Protector

Part 7. The Genesis of my CPTSD: Mother as Cheerleader

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Mother As Cheerleader

From Jasmin Lee Cori:

A mother may have difficulty cheerleading for several reasons. She may be so undermothered and unsupported herself that she doesn’t know about cheerleading, she may be more focused on her own needs for support, she may be unaware of her child’s needs, or she may be threatened by her child’s achievements and growing autonomy. She also may be too harried or depressed to have the energy to cheerlead.

from The Emotionally Absent Mother [affiliate link]

My mother had no capacity to cheer anyone else on, including herself. She sought healing most of her life to no avail. She was definitely undermothered and certainly unsupported when she tried to get help against her stepfather’s rapes. She responded to her own children with abuse and neglect, continuing the generational cycle. She swung between feeling threatened and betrayed by any autonomy shown by her children and being too depressed to leave her bed. When her two sons left home, she took it as a personal betrayal.

Here’s one small example of my mother’s version of cheerleading: when I was 12 or 13, I was practicing in the backyard because I couldn’t do the splits or a cartwheel. I was frustrated that I couldn’t seem to make progress. She responded by doing a bunch of cartwheels around me, mocking and denigrating me the entire time. It felt like the opposite of cheerleading. She did not pause to teach, much less encourage me, and I gave up.

Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

Feeling unsupported is lonely.

Decades later, I learned that it’s not unusual for abuse victims to have tight hips. All the trauma and emotion is stored in the body. The body remembers everything. Thanks to the work of Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, Pat Ogden and others we’re finally learning the importance of discharging old trauma stored in the body. Learning to do so is one more tool in healing from abuse and breaking familial cycles.

Part 6. The Genesis of my CPTSD: Mother as Mirror

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Mother as Mirror

From Jasmin Lee Cori:

A mother’s role in providing reflection is one of her most important. It is how children feel known and come to know themselves.

Mirroring happens both verbally and nonverbally, and there are several levels to it. The first is one where children feel contacted, met. When a child feels seen, she can recognize herself as a developing person. If the child feels invisible or not seen, often that child will feel not fully real. So the most fundamental message of mirroring is “I see you – and you are real.”

from The Emotionally Absent Mother [affiliate link]

For most of my life, I never admitted this even to myself, but I check mirrors, photos, and film of myself to see if I exist. It’s part of why I did some modeling for photographers and a painter. It’s why I’ve watched film of myself – to see myself or, more accurately, to see that I have a self, and to try to figure out how I might seem to others. Now I know that being an “invisible child” to avoid my mother’s wrath came at a price. As a result, I’ve been invisible to myself. Even when I have seen myself, it’s like looking in a funhouse mirror after all the public humiliation, ridicule, mocking, and other abuse from my mother. I wonder if childhood abuse is why some artists paint self-portraits. It’s not always narcissism. Sometimes it’s to confirm one’s own existence.

Photo by Kaleb Nimz on Unsplash

Not surprisingly, mirror work is difficult for me and I resist consistency. Some prefer to use an internal “spirit mirror.” Either way, you literally face with all those voices that are normally white noise in the background of your life: denigration, hatred, mocking, etc. in order to counter them with positive affirmations. Louise Hay says it’s the most effective tool she’s found for learning to love yourself:

Because the mirror reflects back to you the feelings you have about yourself. It makes you immediately aware of where you are resisting and where you are open and flowing. It clearly shows you what thoughts you will need to change if you want to have a joyous, fulfilling life.
As you learn to do mirror work, you will become much more aware of the words you say and the things you do. You will learn to take care of yourself on a deeper level than you have done before.

https://www.louisehay.com/what-is-mirror-work/

For those of us who did not get the healthy mirror we should have had as a child, it’s another tool in the arsenal to well-being, peace, and self-love.

Part 5. The Genesis of my CPTSD: Mother as Nurturer

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Mother As Nurturer

From The Emotionally Absent Mother by Jasmin Lee Cori [affiliate link]:

Since a child’s first language is touch, much will be communicated by the mother’s holding and handling of the infant as well as by the way she continues to touch her growing child. Does the touch communicate real caring and love, or is it simply accomplishing the task at hand?

The main message associated with this function is “I love you.” This is crucial to the development of self-esteem. When it is present, the child thinks, Mommy loves me, so I am somebody.

It is my father who holds me in the photos from my childhood. I don’t remember any loving touch from my mother. She was in many ways a human cactus. My mother’s mother didn’t love her and my mother didn’t love herself. I’m not sure my mother loved anyone. A few dogs perhaps. My daughter maybe. African violets definitely. The rest of us were bystanders.

Her touch was utilitarian. Checking temperature, accomplishing the task at hand, punishment. My late brother and I never had the sense that she loved us. She presented one face to the world and a different, meaner one at home. According to her, everything wrong in our families was the fault of our respective fathers. My mother’s family had a long tradition of tall tales meant to obfuscate serious problems within the family. My grandmother lost her favorite daughter in infancy and all of her nurturing – if she had any – vanished. My mother was not nurtured and her nurturing only came out in her nursing career. Not at home. All we as her children could do was nurture our own children, giving them what we wished we had.

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Part 4. The Genesis of my CPTSD: Mother as Modulator

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Mother as Modulator goes hand in hand with the First Responder role, this time, teaching the child emotional regulation that in time becomes self-regulation.

From Jasmin Lee Cori:

When Mother is modulator, she helps us transition from negative emotional experiences to positive ones. One way she does this is by first empathizing with what is going on, and then leading us to more comfortable territory. She shows us how to let go of one emotion and move on to another, and in her own cheerfulness gives us something brighter to join with. We see this in the mother who meets her child’s tears with a sad face and soon has her child laughing.

from The Emotionally Absent Mother [affiliate link]

Or not.

As a survivor of incest and other abuse, my mother could not regulate her own emotions, let alone teach that to anyone else. She never once told any of us “it will be all right.” She didn’t believe it would be, not for herself, not for us. She didn’t much care about the emotional states of anyone around her, unless they were one of her patients while she was a nurse.

This hole in our learning as trauma survivors means we are wide open to triggers that can shut us down, prevent us from thinking clearly, or cause dissociation. Self-regulation can of course be learned, but the road there is often bumpy and painful. Access to a therapist trained in complex trauma is incredibly helpful and something we need to focus on if we’re to improve overall mental health, given the alarming statistics on child abuse.

My mother was ambivalent at best about her role, about having children. She was born in 1919, before birth control was an option. She aborted her stepfather’s twin boys, presumably before attending nursing school. I was not ambivalent about my own children and perhaps that’s the difference. Mirroring and modulating their emotions, guiding them from distress to calm came far more easily to me than to my mother. Given that my mother’s mother was never warm to her, my mother never received that comfort as a child. And that is how generational cycles continue.

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Next week, Mother as Nurturer….

Part 3. The Genesis of my C-PTSD: Mother as First Responder

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Mother As First Responder

From The Emotionally Absent Mother (affiliate link)

A very important role that secures Mother in her role as place of attachment is what I call Mother as First Responder. The “first responders” in our modern world are firefighters and police officers, the folks you call when there is an emergency. Imagine your home is on fire and no one comes. How would that affect you in terms of believing help will be there when you need it?

My teenage brothers used to put me on top of the refrigerator when I was a toddler. I screamed to get down. When my mother finally showed up, she was annoyed with me, not them. It is telling that her solution was to wait until I was big enough to climb down to the counter then the kitchen floor without help. I never thought of this as other than an oft-told family joke until a former boyfriend and single father said in response, “One of my kids ever did that to another, it would be the last time.”

Oh.

Cori goes on to note:

It may be hard to remember how your mother responded to you as an infant and small child, but often a telltale clue is how you feel about your needs now. Are you respectful and attentive to your needs, or so ashamed of needing that you try to hide them?”

For years, I denied that I had any needs and our culture tends to expect and reward self-sacrificing women, making it easy to assume the problem was having needs rather than ignoring them. An important step in recovery and healing is to determine legitimate needs and growing the boundaries to protect them.

For those of us with chronic childhood trauma, the failure to have a mother as First Responder was akin to the house burning down with all of our needs and unanswered calls for help or assistance inside.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Next week, Mother as Modulator

Part 2. The Genesis of My C-PTSD – Mother as Place of Attachment

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I realized that stating “The Genesis of CPTSD” in the title for this series was open to misinterpretation. This is very much about how mine started and so I made that adjustment. Your mileage may vary.

Mother as Place of Attachment

From The Emotionally Absent Mother (affiliate link):

Jasmin Lee Cori writes:

Here we focus not on Mother as the ocean we come from, but as the more immediate place where we are attached….

When you watch securely attached toddlers and young children with their mothers, they are in constant physical contact, climbing over, pulling on, sucking, and hugging the mother’s body.

I don’t remember any contact even approaching that kind of intimacy with my mother. As with her mother, grandmother, and all the female relatives on her side of the family, there was no physical contact. No hugs, no kisses, no leaning up against them. Holding hands was rare, usually a means of yanking us into submission or crossing the street. The only pictures I have of anyone holding me are of my father or brothers. There was always space around my mother in family photos as in real life and there were unpleasant consequences for breaching that space. Not unusual in an incest survivor/victim, but still detrimental for her children. My brothers and I were very affectionate with our own children, having missed out on it growing up.

Attachment for the young child brings the feeling I belong to you. And because I belong to you, I have a place. Without this, we are untethered, adrift well into our adult years.

From The Emotionally Absent Mother

Driftwood is an appropriate metaphor since I grew up near the sea. Floating on unpredictable waves, adrift well into my adult years is a very good description of my experience. The thing about driftwood is that it’s had all the life sucked out of it and lies dormant, lifeless. It took years of work to recover my creativity and sense of fruitfulness.

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Next week – First Responder.

Part 1. The Genesis of My C-PTSD – Mother as Source: The Hostile Womb

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In her book, The Emotionally Absent Mother, Jasmin Lee Cori cites ten faces of a good mother, which I’m considering as I finish writing my trauma memoir. Her list of ten are Source, Place of Attachment, First Responder, Modulator, Nurturer, Mirror, Cheerleader, Mentor, Protector, and Home Base.  Unfortunately, my mother – as her mother and grandmother before her – did not succeed in any of the ten areas. Not even close. As I finish writing my book, I’m going to examine each of these in their own post over the coming weeks, first with Cori’s definition, followed by how I experienced my mother.

Mother as Source

From The Emotionally Absent Mother (affiliate link):

“Mother” is what we come from and what we are made of. In mythology and religion, this source is often depicted as some kind of mother goddess, often an ocean goddess. Just as life is said to have evolved from the ocean, human life evolves from the mother and, more specifically, the womb. Thus, at both the mythological level and the more mundane, the source of life is Mother.

When the child has a positive experience of Mother, he gets the sense, I am of Mommy. I come from her. I’m part of her. I’m like her. This becomes a building block of identity.” (pg 22)

Source was definitely not a positive association for me to the point where the phrase “knit together in my mother’s womb” makes me nauseous. It was not an inviting place and she did not want me. She drove that point home, taking me to tea every month with her abortionist when I was a kid. That behavior even shocked a very experienced trauma therapist.

My mother did not have a warm, nurturing relationship with her mother and so it went back through generations. What happens when you are rejected and humiliated or, in her case, simply not loved by your earthly source? In my family’s case, it meant neglectful and outright abusive behavior. It meant sexual abuse. It meant ridicule and humiliation. It meant a dearth of emotional resources. It meant the kind of chronic trauma that results in Complex PTSD.

I don’t remember ever feeling a sense of pride being her child. When I was 21 or 22, I was visiting my brother and one of his childhood friends said I looked like her. I didn’t understand why he felt the need to insult me other than he was always laughing at someone else’s expense. He knew who she was and the dig was intentional. Appalled and mortified, I replied that I looked like my dad – something everyone else said. That “friend” was the outlier and though he’s been dead for decades, I still hold it against him.

Not identifying with her as Source meant feeling adrift growing up. I never had a strong sense of belonging in my immediate family. I suppose it’s fertile ground for the creative life, but at a cost. My strongest sense of family came from the theater, film, and my great escape was books. Victor Hugo’s Paris, Edgar Allen Poe’s colored rooms, and Thoreau’s Walden Pond were far more real to me than the house I grew up in. Books, art, music, theater, and film became my Source, along with the ocean. Staring out at the ocean I was lucky enough to have nearby was a balm in a way my family never was.

Photo by Camila Cordeiro on Unsplash

Next week, Place of Attachment.