Part 10. The Genesis of My CPTSD: Mother As Home Base

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from Jasmin Lee Cori:

The message associated with this is “I’m here for you.” When you really take that in, then even in adulthood you will reference Mother as the place you can always come back to for refueling, comfort, or support. When the world beats you down, when your marriage falls apart, when your feelings are hurt, you can always turn to Mother.

and this:

If Mother is not consistently available, is self-absorbed or absorbed elsewhere, is erratic and unstable or unable to be emotionally present for the child, then we don’t experience her as home base. There is no Mother’s lap. This may show up in adulthood as difficulty establishing a sense of home.

from The Emotionally Absent Mother

There’s nothing easy about having a narcissist for a mother. Probably no picnic for her either. We never lived up to her expectations or filled the void inside of her.

There was no mother’s lap in our house. If she was sitting, she was knitting or doing other handwork that was not to be disturbed under any circumstances. The only sentient creature allowed in her lap was a miniature dachshund.

The last time my late brother saw her, he drove nine hours out of his way to visit, bringing his son along. After ten minutes of her not saying a word to them, he got up, took his son and left. When she was dying, I asked if she wanted me to call either of her sons. The answer was no. After decades with her children having no sense of a place for “refueling, comfort, or support” she knew they were unlikely to come in any case. We always think we need to point out others’ flaws and limitations. In almost every case, people know their failings very well.

It was lonely for her partners and children and lonely for her. No home base leads to wandering through cities, countries, relationships. For years, I found my sense of home either on sets or stages or on the road. I felt most myself while traveling. A sense of possibility opened up. Sets and stages provide a temporary sense of family, sometimes functional, sometimes not.

I was able to give my children the home base I did not have and in turn experienced a sense of reparenting. It is yet another piece of how to break toxic generational cycles. If you have or suspect you have Complex PTSD, please read Pete Walker’s book about it. Consider the innocence of your child self without the shame and blame around abuse and then embrace them and give yourself the sense of home you did not have growing up. As Walker says in one of his other books, The Tao of Fully Feeling, “Many survivors suffer intensely from a lack of love without knowing that it is lovelessness that causes them so much pain.”

Every child deserves to have this kind of joy:

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That’s all for this series. I haven’t forgotten about my father’s role in all of this, but that is still in process. I am preparing to launch into a new phase in a new city as I finish up a book, so posting may be light for now. Thank you for your support, especially on Patreon. [books links above are affiliate links]

Part 9. The Genesis of My CPTSD: Mother as Protector

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From Jasmin Lee Cori:

With separateness comes danger. In the best of circumstances, Mother is there providing protection. A very young child often senses Mother as all-powerful. She shatters the darkness, shoos away noisy children and barking dogs. If the mother consistently protects the child from intrusive and overwhelming stimuli, the child feels safe. Mother here is morphing from safe enclosure to Mama Bear.

and this:

How well Mother fulfills this role of protector cannot be reduced to only whether she provided protection but must also include how she provided it.

from The Emotionally Absent Mother [affiliate link]

No one protected my mother from her stepfather’s assaults and she either didn’t know how or didn’t have the capacity to protect her own children. She was either immersed in some form of work or raging at us. There was no middle ground and I did not have a sense of safety. Her method of keeping me safe was constantly warning me about murderers that apparently congregated in front of our house nightly, ready to enter as soon as the lights were off and murder me in my bed.

The great tragedy of my mother’s life beyond the incest and emotional neglect – substantial enough – was that there were no remedies for her. There was no trauma therapy and it was a time when assaults against children were never mentioned.

The great puzzle is why the cycle gets perpetuated instead of interrupted. There are so many factors including environment, biochemistry, resilience, and more that mental health professionals are only beginning to understand. One factor has to be the way emotion is stored in the body and what happens when that is never addressed. There is discomfort that causes some to withdraw and others to lash out. There’s a proverb that says a crushed spirit dries up the bones and that was my mother’s fate. She lived with pain in the bones of her spine, especially later in life. Today, she’d be treated with somatic therapy, but she’s been gone ten years this month.

In many ways, I merely did the opposite of what I experienced growing up. No imaginary murderers, no scare tactics, no oversharing, age appropriate discussions, and so on. Knowing what it was like without protection, I protected my children and they always felt safe with me. That is one more part to breaking generational cycles.

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Next week, the last in this series, Mother as Home Base.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.