Friday, December 2, 2016

Thoughts about thoughts

A very clear memory from my childhood is of doing the dishes. Once my oldest sister got married, I was assigned to a night of dishes, just like my other sisters. I can remember being bewildered at first, and it didn’t really improve from there. 

My mom didn’t skimp when it came to meal time. She used as many pots and pans as needed to create a main dish, one or more side dishes, and a vegetable. We all sat at the table together, which had been set with plates and silverware in their proper placement, a butter dish, filled glasses, and salt and pepper. We served our meal from the table as well, which meant serving dishes and hot pads and anything else that was necessary.

After a meal like this, doing the dishes meant doing everything – clearing the table, rinsing the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, putting away the leftovers, washing the pans, cleaning counters, and sweeping the floor. And most of the time, it was really just up to whomever was doing the dishes to get it clean. My parents or sisters (or me, when it wasn’t my turn!) didn’t take pity on you and pitch in. It was just you and a very dirty kitchen for the next 45 minutes to an hour.

What I remember from this chore isn’t really the amount of work involved, even though it was a lot. What I remember is standing at the kitchen sink, angrily washing pan after pan, and ruminating on how unfair it was that I was left to do them. I thought about what jerks everyone was for not helping me, I railed against my mom for how many pans she used, I would internally complain at the latest way one sister or another had been mean to me, or I would think about how I was the best dishes-doer in the family and that no one appreciated it.

I’m sure that all kids have these exact thoughts when doing a chore (in fact, Ben said just as much to me this morning when I asked him to clean out the dishwasher!), so I realize I’m not really unique in this. The important thing about this memory is remembering how loud my thoughts felt, and how those thoughts made me feel such anger towards my family, and yet: I never spoke those words to anyone. Oh, I might complain here or there, but I had real, honestly painful feelings or thoughts that I would ruminate over but never felt safe saying them.

Which is really

I didn’t feel safe telling my mom my feelings. I couldn’t tell my sister I was angry with her. I didn’t have words to express any negative emotion. I didn’t have confidence that it would matter to them or that it would get solved. I taught myself to think about my feelings instead of feeling them. I taught myself to bottle up my words, which caused resentments to build that could have otherwise been worked out without much trouble.

Rumination became my way to “solve” my problems. Ironically, tasks that occupied my hands like dishes or cleaning freed my mind to wander in all the places that it wanted to. A slight from a friend was irresistible thinking fodder; all of the words wanted to use to defend myself could be thought over and perfected; their words could be imagined, although often, ironically making the point that really showed me how it was my fault, just so I could justify myself again. I would replay situations over and over, wishing for a different outcome, playing all the roles of myself, the other, and the morality judge (an internal moderator who was never on my side because they could always point right at the element of guilt that I was really at fault.) It was automatic and I never made any attempt to corral it or think it irrational, untrue, or undeserved.

This approach to life would have been great if I could have locked myself in a cabin where I never interacted with another human being. This inability to let someone know that they had hurt me was later extended to friends and boyfriends and coworkers and pretty much anyone with whom I eventually had conflict. And I never saw any reason to change it.

It served another purpose to work out my anxieties. I say “work out,” which is completely inaccurate. If I couldn’t find something that I had done wrong, I would find loved ones to worry over, replaying their situations and thinking up better solutions that would make them happier or safer or whatever-er. Often these worries came with an extra dose of internal guilt at my own feeling of failure in not being a better (insert relationship here) to this person, because obviously, I could save them, but was too selfish and caught up in my own life to do so. (I told you a few paragraphs ago – it’s messed up.)

It was the perfect forum where everyone was fair game, and no one, including myself, got off too easily. 

Enter midlife crisis. Enter an internal dialogue that already turns to over-examining each detail of painful events and thoughts. Enter panicked event that eroded my faith in my physical well-being and ability to be safe in both my thoughts and my body.

It was bound to turn on me eventually.

To be continued. And sorry for the swears.


Feisty Harriet said...


I miss you.