You and I are never too smart or too old to learn something new and did I ever learn something! I can’t wait to share it with you.
Over the years, I have observed that I can go from 0 to 200 in a split second when something upsets me. This is nothing new. My whole life has been like this. I believe it is called catastrophic thinking.
Below is a conversation I had with a neighbour years ago. She was in full blown catastrophic thinking mode. It went something like this:
Wow! She went from owning a large home with multiple tenants to homeless in less than a minute. This was definitely catastrophic thinking.
Here is an admission from my life that happened eons ago while I was a student at the Nova Scotia Teachers’ College. Forty years later, I can still recite the conversation. The Christmas break was over and I had returned to the home where I had been boarding. I was ready to begin the second semester. Over the Christmas break, the homeowner decided she had a change of heart and no longer wished to have boarders in her home. I pretended to take it in stride when in truth, my heart plunged to rock bottom and immediately I was in the depths of despair. You see, I had not wanted to board off campus in the first place but due to a paperwork mix-up, I missed the opportunity to live in residence.
I was crushed, even devastated by this news. Calling home did not seem wise because I believed that Dad would get mad at the homeowner and Mom would panic and take to her bed. Neither of these behaviours would be helpful in the long run.
With help from a kind-hearted pastor’s wife, Yvonne Reid, I found the perfect place to live. Only then did I feel I could tell Mom and Dad. It went exactly as I had predicted; Dad got mad and Mom grew bitter.
Now I realize that I have engaged in catastrophic thinking my whole life. Moreover, I accepted it as normal…until today, that is. Today I read a piece written by one of my favourite authors, Anne Lamott, an authentic, brutally honest woman who is also a communicator extraordinaire.
I was experiencing something that is common among children of alcoholic parents and children with a mentally ill parent. I have provided an excerpt from Anne Lamott below. Have a read and let me know if it explains something about you or someone you love.
“Early this morning, I went through an episode of the Kitten is Dead. It goes like this: The kitten has slept with us every night since we got her five weeks ago, and is always asleep against our legs when we first wake. But this morning when I woke, the kitten was gone. Therefore, the kitten was dead. I must have left the front door open at dawn when I let the dog out to pee. The kitten has been out for two hours, and has frozen to death.
Or has been killed by coyotes.
And it is my fault.
And Neal will not be able to love me quite as much, since I killed the kitten.
The wedding will be ruined, if we even go through with it, what with the new underlying thrum of pain, resentment and bitterness, what with my having killed the kitten. The tiny five pound Christmas-stocking kitten.
This all unfolds in under 10 seconds, beginning with the realization that the kitten is not snuggled up against me. It is familiar to the grown children of alcoholics and the mentally ill. Catastrophic thinking means that as a young child with inconsistent parents, you have some measure of control over the terrifying realization that your parents probably shouldn’t have gone ahead with the second date, let alone the marriage, and might have been better off raising orchids, or teacup poodles instead of children.
If we, the kids, anticipate and then take responsibility for the kitty being dead, then at least it means the parents are not kitten-killers, and are capable of nurture. Insane people are not running the ship of home and state. It’s you who are ruining things, and so you have control: Try to do better. Be best.
However, the first rule of being the child of alcoholics or the mentally ill is to agree—by three or four years old—not to see what is going on, in the kitchen, at the dining table, when the lights go out. And definitely don’t say out loud what you most fear is going on. If you do, you get in trouble, and (in the Fifties) get sent to your room without dinner, and are mocked for thinking such crazy thoughts, i.e. that your parents have tiny problems in their marriage, such as that they hate each other, and are crazy.”
Anne Lamott, Facebook Post, December 26, 2018
Please know, my parents were not alcoholics, anything but. In fact, there was never a drop of alcohol in our home…never ever…except for the pure vanilla my Mom used for baking. We had no inkling that some people actually drank it.
Mental illness, however, was very real. Dad was the melancholic poet, who experienced dark periods. Mom suffered from debilitating depression and anxiety which left her unable to cope with life. Both of them tended towards the worst case scenario in every situation.
The child in this situation feels responsible for whatever takes place. I believed that if I behaved well, excelled in school, helped out at home more or attended church several times a week, that Dad would not be melancholic and Mom would not be depressed and anxious.
This is disordered thinking, but this was all I knew. When I read Anne Lamott’s post, a wave…no, hurricane force waves of relief washed over me. Everything that happened was not my fault. I wanted to shout it from the mountaintops.
The good news is that when we know better we can do better. The next time my thinking spirals downward, I can stop myself from plunging to the depths of despair. Thank you, Anne Lamott for this wonderful Christmas gift.
May 2019 be kind and generous to you.