Why the Bullying Pattern in My Life Re-Surfaced
Why? I kept asking. Why, why, why? Though in the beginning, the question wasn’t Why? but Who? I was trusting the wrong person, taking his word for everything because of his position, and because I really–really–did want to like him. Instead, I was repeating a pattern I’ve seen a number of times in my dysfunctional family and in one major relationship, all without knowing it.
I know Who now. I know Why now, too. I know why I’m having to go through the bullying and the emotional manipulation yet again, and why this has got to be the last time for me to endure this pattern. Because once you break the code, once you acknowledge the dynamic you didn’t know existed, then you can break the pattern and move on to…that inner peace you didn’t know you were missing.
I am ten years old, lying in the backseat of the car on the way home from church, staring through tears at Betelgeuse bright in the night sky through the rear window. I clench my thighs together, wrapping one leg around the other, knee over knee. I clutch my belly, guarding against every bump in the road as we creep toward home at, what Mama has bemoaned to Daddy, 30 miles per hour. I hurt so bad I don’t know if I can make it home but if I can’t, I’m sure I’ll be in trouble for wetting the back seat. I just can’t hold it any longer, but I do. It’s not the first time; it won’t be the last. I know from Mama’s tight voice that she’s in as much pain as I am, and I know she’ll let me go first if we ever get to our one-bathroom house.
“Can’t you please drive a little faster?” Mama begs him. “We have both got to go!”
The car seems to slow down a few notches. Why did she have to say anything? He might have forgotten and driven the speed limit on this lonely, isolated stretch of road between the church in the town and our house. Even with stopping at all the traffic lights in town, it was normally a ten-minute drive home, but tonight, it would take forty minutes.
“You should have gone before you left the house,” Daddy grumbles, and I feel the car slow even more.
“We did,” I murmur, but he doesn’t hear me. Or he does but he pretends not to. He’s waiting for me to cry out in pain, to let him know he’s in control.
Mama and I both had angered Daddy with a last-minute, last-thing-before-walking-out-of-the-house trip to the bathroom because we knew how the rest of the night would go. I had purposely not had much sweet tea to drink at supper. We’d finished eating and headed immediately to Sunday night services at the Baptist church, where there was no time for a pre-church potty stop and no slipping out afterward. Many times, Daddy had friends he wanted to talk to after church, but when he didn’t want to socialize, it meant we half-ran from the front door steps of the church to the car and headed home. No time and no allowances for a bathroom break before making the short-distance trip home. So by the time Daddy cranked the car to go home, neither Mama nor I had seen a bathroom in nearly two hours.
This was not something Daddy didn’t know or didn’t understand, and if we complained, he wouldn’t just not drive 55 mph–he would not drive over 30 mph all the way home. He delighted in torturing us this way. We were at his mercy because we felt we could never say, “No, I’m making a pit stop!” We felt that way because if we did, we would incur his wrath later, or he would leave us behind.
But sometimes, if I cried or Mama begged, when he’d gotten from us what he wanted, he would hit the gas and we’d be home in five minutes.
I grew up in an extended family that was so dysfunctional that I can now think back on the dramatic daily lives of each and slot them according to their personality disorders and mental illnesses. Though there was one dysfunctional relative on the other side of the family, the bulk of them were in one particular branch of the family tree, the spindly and twisted branch where I spent most of my childhood because Daddy insisted on it to the exclusion of all my saner relatives. To me, it was normal life with people with narcissistic personalities or with borderline personalities, and the rest of us–me included–tended to be self-sacrificing, people-pleasing, codependents because that was how we survived. Too often, when other opportunities had been exhausted and there was no fighting with people outside the family, they turned in on themselves…on each other and those of us just trying to stay out of the way so we didn’t get slammed against the wall or run off the road would end up becoming targets. And no, I’m not being dramatic or hyperbolic when I provide those two examples. That was normal life to me.
Daddy was one of the worst, but at least his emotional manipulation and button pushing took place at home and in private. His mother would taunt me in front of her friends, if she could get attention for it. Other adult relatives would bully me in public, tell lies about me in front of me. Some, like the one who told me my maternal grandmother’s cancer and her death were my fault when I was seven years old, whispered their emotional manipulation in my ear when no one else was around, then shrugged it off that I was being dramatic or acting out when I couldn’t stop crying. Any time I tried to talk back–talking back being a good excuse for a “whupping”–if I was successful, the manipulator defended himself with, “Aw, I was just joking’ wi’ ya. Why you gotta be so mean?”
So there were the relatives who liked to get a reaction out of me and knew exactly how to do it. What fun for adults to torment a child, and then wonder why I turned my back on them when I grew up! But I hadn’t turned my back on them. Far from it. It’s just not possible with that in your early years. I’d incorporated that programming into my life from the time I could walk. Always defending myself and my integrity, always feeling guilty for my feelings, always having to explain myself and defend my right to my feelings, my body, my dreams.
I carried that with me later into a serious (in my opinion, at least) relationship where I felt like I was on a perpetual roller coaster. It wasn’t until that relationship was over that I understood how often he pushed my buttons to get a reaction. I stayed upset almost all the time, and every time things settled down and were great in my life, he’d threaten suicide or threaten to disappear or threaten to break up with me over some alleged cheating that he admitted I hadn’t done but might one day if given the opportunity. It was always something, and if things were peaceful for more than three weeks, something big and dramatic and upsetting was waiting for me, to turn me inside out. He, like Daddy, thrived not on his own emotions but on mine. Thelag reflected all those oh-so-familiar patterns from childhood, from my father and other relatives, and after Daddy was dead and after I’d broken up with Thelag, I understood those patterns.
Not that I saw them at first when dealing with new people of their ilk. I let myself slip back into those familiar patterns, so sweetly enticing and programmed into me like a sense of home, and then kicked myself later when I realized they’d pushed my buttons and I’d reacted like a well-played instrument.
Two years ago, before I asked Who of the person who orchestrated my buttons and before I asked Why of the same, I sat across the table from someone I’d not known long but trusted because of who he was. I’ll call him Surrogate because that’s what he’s been for Daddy, and Thelag, and a few more people from my childhood. The only time I’ve kicked myself more for such a private and heartfelt talk was when I asked my then-mother-in-law to help me save my marriage because I was sure I was 100% to blame for whatever it was that was wrong in our long relationship. I still can’t believe I sat with Surrogate and asked, thanks to the manipulation of someone working by my side every day, for help with the very situation he’d set up. It’s one of those things that in a movie, when the audience sees the protagonist open up and share a hurtful secret with someone who promises to help her, they forget they’re in a movie and shout at the screen in the theater because they know something she doesn’t. I sat there and took a deep breath, and I admitted my biggest concerns and weaknesses because the third person in the room with us had information to give him that was the reason for me being there…but the third person fell silent as I talked, leaving me feeling even more awkward as I opened up and showed Surrogate my emotions and how I was being wounded and asked his help. I knew nothing then. The wound I was concerned about was one that the third party had told me about, now minor in the scheme of things, and now suddenly my real concerns that I shared at that table were public. I’d been tricked into exposing my weaknesses to someone who would later toy with them and toy with me as Daddy and Thelag had, stirring shit, looking for emotional reactions, getting them in spades.
Damn it–I’m too trusting. Or was. Because if you’re not trusting, then you’re a bad person. At least, that’s what I learned as a child. Because you trust the people, the family, around you who are in authority because you’re trusting them is about your worthiness, not theirs, and because you trust them, therefore they must be trustworthy. Only…they’re not. The person who trusts is at fault for trusting too easily or wrongly but also at fault for not trusting. Sometimes the people you’re supposed to trust are the most screwed up people on the planet. But you’ve done your part by being a trusting person, which means you’re a good person. Right? Um, right?
After Thelag, my sense of trust was deeply broken but before it could heal, Surrogate had gotten his fingers into it, swirling it around. It took a personal act of bravery and an offer to champion me to get me to trust anyone again and start the healing process. It also took sitting with Surrogate again, being chastised yet again, to realize very quietly in some still and almost forgotten place deep within, that he was channelling Daddy one minute and channellingThelag the next and then a few phrases here and there from the adult relative who doused me with gasoline when I was eight years old and told my parents it was my fault and told me that gypsies were coming up through the suddenly crumbling septic tank in the yard to take me away so that I hid in a musty wardrobe full of clothes and old hats and I got beat for it. I sat very quietly and listened, heard those phrases and words from manipulative people in my life and wondered how Surrogate could have known those exact syllables.
He pointed out to me other people, people with severe problems I’m personally aware of, and told me how brilliant they are and how much better than me they are and how I should be more like them and turn over any decisions to them because they were worthier than I was. He called me disloyal if I disagreed, called me horrible, called me weak and lazy, and divided me from people I had counted on by telling me how much they disliked me and how they were secretly turned against me and how they were spying on me for him. When I asked who-who-who for the last few years, he’d pointed to everyone else but I knew in that moment that it was him. And I knew because I recognized Daddy in him.
He was charming and yet knew the exact things to say to get an emotional reaction from me, so that I reacted emotionally first, trying desperately to defend some calculated allegation before pulling back and looking logically at how ridiculous the assumption was. He knew I had firm supporters and proceeded to try to separate me from them, telling me suspicious things they’d supposedly done or passing on information to me via someone I did trust to separate me from that ally. He closed down my world bit by bit until I had to rely on his word because I didn’t trust people I had trusted before. And in that moment, I saw Thelag in him, isolating me from my support system so that I had no one left but him, jacking up my emotions so that every simple question that came up was the end of the world instead just a simple question that was an easy answer. Mountains and molehills and emotional turbulence every which way I turned. Like Thelag. Like Daddy.
I talked about these insights with Kelley, wrote raw self-discoveries for the What It Is Wednesday blog, and tried to figure out why, when I thought all the bullying and manipulations I’d been programmed to accept in childhood and relationships was going on, still. Why was this still happening? I’d noted it, I’d acknowledged it, and I’d put it to rest. I thought. I’d written blog posts and almost all of a memoir that dissected how I’d grown up and had healed so very much, and yet, the bullying and manipulations I’d thought were long over with were back in my life and worse than ever.
Not so bad as to make me take my life–no worries on that: after what I’ve survived, I’m not going to make it easy on bullies and ditch this incarnation on my own. But just soul-sucking, happiness-sapping misery for no reason other than a dislike for how I think and how I live my life…which does not hurt these bullies and manipulators in any way. Still, if it weren’t for a home repair that has kept me hamster-wheeling in place of the last year, I would have walked away from everything I’ve built here just to find peace away from here. I would have declared, “You win!” and been done with decades of effort.
Kelley sent me a message about one of my off-the-cuff essays on hating it when I don’t realize people are pushing my buttons and not being able to stop myself from reacting emotionally. I read it in the car when I got to work and as I was walking the 700 steps from my car to my office, I was thinking about why. Why did I have to keep looking at this pattern? Why wasn’t acknowledging it good enough to shut it off as is the usual case in spiritual growth?
And then I had an epiphany.
Surrogate really is a surrogate. I was born into this dynamic and raised in it, fell in love in it. But I’ve never been able to call it what it is and banish it. Never able to handle it from a place of power by naming it and knowing what it is and where in the other person it comes from. Always looking up at it like a victim to the victor, like it was named Methuselah or Mephistopheles or some powerful name that demanded me to bow before it and take whatever it doled out instead of me being the one in power, me being the one to name it Skippy or Scooter and pat it on its head and send it to its corner. I’ve never seen this all the way through to the end and called it what it is while in the midst of the tempest and calmed myself if not the storm.
Daddy died before I could confront him and tell him, No, I will not let you push my buttons any longer. Hey, let’s be honest. He died at age 80, almost ten years ago, and if he’d lived to be 180, I still could not have confronted that dynamic with him. I grew up both hating and fearing and sometimes loving him, and that dynamic was never going to go away. I couldn’t confront his toxicity in life. All I could do was to remove myself from it in his last months. But I never dealt with it directly. Never let his emotional manipulations roll off my shoulders with a shrug because I knew what he was doing, whether I said so to him or not. I just took it. Just let him spin my world when he felt like it. I couldn’t fight the programming because he was the one who’d programmed these things in me. And because I didn’t deal with it during his life, it was left undone at his death.
With Thelag, I left the relationship before I realized…or rather when I began to realize…the extent of emotional manipulations. I never confronted that either, partly because he couldn’t man up and face me with what he’d done, and partly because it took a few years for me to understand exactly what had been going on that I’d missed because I trusted him, and I’d trusted him blindly because I’d loved him. But I never dealt with that dynamic with him, never called him out on it to his face or realized he was pushing my buttons and stepped away.
And that’s why the situation is repeating itself with Surrogate. The trick is to recognize what he’s doing before an emotional reaction kicks in. I can never do that with Daddy or Thelag and anyone else in my past who is long gone, and in one case the manipulator is dangerous enough to hurt someone I care for if I confront him on things he did to me as a child so it remains unspoken and only partially written. Because I’ve let others push my buttons and upend me because of an emotional response in the past, I’ve never been able to deal with bullies and manipulators from a place of strength. At best, I’ve dealt with them as a survivor and been proud of that. That’s what it was all about when I was a little girl–surviving, not confronting and not winning. So this is my chance to call it what it is, to recognize it, to shine a light on it. If I’d done that with Daddy years ago, before I buried him, and found a way to move past that childhood dynamic, then maybe Thelag’s roller coaster would never have happened and maybe the current skewering I receive regularly would never have happened.
But I’m ready to be done with this pattern now, and the first step in doing that is to recognize it and recognize it well enough to see it before it throws me against a wall and runs me off a road. I survived my childhood even though it followed me into adulthood. I know exactly how this looks now.
Key Takeaway: We have to learn to recognize and label toxic life patterns and eventually stop it or move away from it before situations escalate and we get harmed again.