The current mental disorder paradigm, which transforms reactions to life into medical-sounding conditions, acts as if depression is a disease. We have lost sight of the obvious truth that life can make us despair and that a harsh childhood can build despair into our system. Respondents to my Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire easily draw the natural conclusion that life with an authoritarian parent (or authoritarian grandparent or sibling) made them sad—and continues to make them sad, even long after that authoritarian has died. Here is Joanne’s story.
The term “authoritarian” equals rigidity and abuse in my mind when it comes to thinking of my mom. Her way was the only way. Irrational meanness, anger and rage. She seemed to have absolutely no idea that we had the right to our own ideas. Expressing an opinion resulted in getting hit or belittled with sarcasm. Being called names. Being hit when I was four to where I didn’t know when she would stop. No patience—when I was an adult she admitted that.
At six I froze as she put my two-year-old brother’s head in the toilet when he got pee on the seat. I became pregnant at 18; my boyfriend and I wanted to get married. When we told her, she said “Absolutely not! You will have an abortion!” I didn’t have the chutzpah to say screw you, escape her authoritarianism and run away to get married. Not that it would have been a successful marriage. But I would have made my own choice!
The next ten months after the abortion and before I went to art school were hell. The grief was unbelievable, and grief came intermittently for decades. On the top of what I’d grown up with, the grief landed me in my first therapy experience.
I had a boss from hell who was like being around my mother except he didn’t hit me or call me names. He was a very angry person and we butted heads a lot. But I did my best to get around him for my clients in Vocational Rehab; I would make someone eligible and he would nix my decision. The same person would have been approved in another district. So, I would tell the client to contact the head of Vocational Rehab or the governor’s ombudsmen office, providing them with the appropriate phone number, but don’t tell them I sent them! It always worked. I knew I was right. I wish I’d been able to get around stuff like that with my mom!
My mom was definitely an authoritarian leader. My dad was definitely a follower. He had absolutely no idea what to do with an alcoholic spouse and could be rigid and mostly benignly negligent, not especially present. His authoritarian attitude came across as decisions that were final with no discussion.
What was so weird in our house was that our mom was the one we approached for things we needed as well as money, because we knew our dad in his authoritarian way would always say no. We grew up not approaching him. But we could approach the crazy one! If you were to do cardboard cutouts of my parents my dad would be in the background. Our friends gave our mom wide berth because she could go off.
My mom was an authoritarian through and through. I think a great deal of her authoritarian parenting was due to depression, rage and later, alcoholism. She grew up wounded with her own authoritarian alcoholic parents. Pictures of her from about six years old are so unhappy. Her mother adored her father but knew he had wanted his firstborn to be a boy. Her father was an officer in the service and the son of Norwegian immigrants; he ran away from home at age 15 because his father beat him so much.
My mom didn’t really want to be married and she was trapped with three kids born within four years. She once told me that there were some women who weren’t meant to be a mother and she was one of them. I certainly concurred though I didn’t tell her that. The one really peculiar—but truly good—thing that she did was to critique my art work in a very constructive and supportive way. If only the rest of my life had been like that!
For some reason learning that verbal, physical, mental and sexual violence cause significant alterations of the brain has brought comfort. My difficulties aren’t the result of weakness on my part but on the changes in my brain. This doesn’t absolve me from working to heal the erroneous beliefs and actions that keep me in pain. It is an ongoing process.
Damage to parts of the brain from abuse creates difficulties regulating emotions. Research has also shown that children who grow up with verbal abuse have alterations in their auditory cortex. That was an aha moment for me because I have auditory processing disorder. My slight hearing loss isn’t enough to create the problems I have. Someone can tell me something several times and it just bounces off my head until I finally get it.
I can hear them but my brain is blocking my comprehension. I have to ask people to repeat things several times because I don’t understand the sounds. I don’t catch the start of a conversation until several words down the line. It isn’t a weakness on my part but rather the consequence of my ears shutting down to protect myself from her. I’m not stupid. It was a defense. I grew up having no confidence in my ability to trust my intuition, to make choices or be able to disagree, hold my own in an argument or withstand someone’s anger.
I get very easily hurt and defensive, and feel guilty asking for what I want in the first place in addition to feeling guilty for going after something I want. As a consequence, I came to have a beggar mentality. I have a lot of avoidance behavior and I didn’t trust myself. I’m a lot better than I used to be but I still sometimes go along with things even though I really don’t want to.
I grew up thinking I wouldn’t have a good thing come my way so I better get what I can now. It’s hard for me to delay gratification. I don’t always trust my decision while making with my paintings so it’s hard to finish them. My favorite part of painting is planning them. Usually the titles come at this stage. Even today hearing a baby cry makes my stomach twist.
Seeing others shocked by what I grew up with was profound. I wasn’t being a whiner! And my mom’s behavior really was awful– It wasn’t normal! Acknowledgement from friends and therapists who support me and realize how hard it was for me growing up and understanding the resulting wounds has been very healing. Going through abuse can be very lonely.
Therapists help me see my blind spots and erroneous thinking. I’ve gained confidence by following what I wanted to do, such as going to art school, and doing things that I like and experiencing success. I’ve been told by more than one person that I’m large in spirit (I’m only four-foot-ten and ninety-five pounds) or that I sounded taller over the phone. They would never have guessed what I was like when I left home to go to art school. Art school was jail break for me and that was when I began therapy. These days I’m working with mindfulness to keep the trash in my mind at bay. I have a lot of successes these days but the trash is still there.
All of this has come up constantly in therapy. My mom has been the root of so much pain in my life. Therapy has helped a great deal because I blamed myself for being and feeling so inferior. The thing that’s been found in research is that with authoritarian parents, criticism outweighs whatever praise they dispense. So, getting some praise from my parents didn’t make much of a dent in things.
When I was six I was wishing I was dead and I was diagnosed with depression and began therapy when I went away to art school. We had moved a great deal since my dad was in the service—every year of high school was in a different state. There was no long term local community or friends that we could look to for support that would buffer the home life. In later years, I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD after growing up with my mom, who was so angry, so unpredictable, so dismissive. My youngest brother has been diagnosed with PTSD too. It was a relief in a way because it confirmed that her behavior and my resulting problems weren’t just in my head.
She’d walk into the room and just start whaling on us. We wouldn’t know why. At this point I think that bipolar II is the most appropriate diagnosis for me. And, yes, psychiatric drugs do help me. In 2010, I left the job from hell to preserve my sanity and moved to Salt Lake City. About a month and a half later I ended up in a step-down facility for eleven days after calling the suicide hot line. I couldn’t read for a couple of months and spent many days sitting on my third-floor balcony looking at one leaf on a tree, the same leaf from August until October.
In Adult Children of Alcoholics therapy, I came to grieve what I never had—a mother who could be a lot more even tempered and patient. Rather than a total break I moved away—1500 miles—as did my brothers. I was always apprehensive when she would call. I’d be relieved when she didn’t call me—I just couldn’t stand the waiting for or receiving her criticism. But I would also feel guilty.
In her last year between being diagnosed with colon cancer and her death, neither I nor my brothers visited her. One brother and I discussed it—our consensus was that we just weren’t comfortable around her, and she wasn’t comfortable around us either. She had become close to her stepfamily from her second marriage and they took care of her. I’m sure they thought we were real jerks but they hadn’t endured her hateful behavior.
I think the other thing that was a little conflicting was that she did instill in us good values which we appreciate. She had a strong sense of anti-racism–using the ‘N’ word wasn’t tolerated, and this included living in New Orleans LA in the 60s where the word was everywhere. She had despised the snooty treatment of Jewish girls after WWII at her high school. She struggled in high school but was an avid reader of books and had a love of nature, music and art.
She could have been a brilliant portrait artist but that went out the window with three kids. With each move, she always found an art supply store to work in and she would gift me with art supplies. I still have a watercolor set she gave me in high school—I’m 63. There were times when I would reach out for some serious help and she would come through in an understanding way. I was grateful and as I grew older I came to feel less conflicted. Perhaps she owed me; perhaps this was part and parcel of who she was.
We all cried at her funeral, but not at our father’s. He was in our lives so little. You can’t miss what you never had. My youngest brother refused to bring his sons to visit our dad because he felt that dad would pretty much ignore the boys after saying hello. After marrying into a very demonstrative Italian family he didn’t want to subject his sons to our dad.
In the past, my husband has been authoritarian in his discussions with me and with jokes at my expense. But two times I called him on it and he stopped. He had no idea that he was that way. When I called him on it I felt like a computer chip had suddenly been dropped into my head. It is so hard for me to stand up for myself and I don’t know where the words came from.
As to advice, keep looking for support and help and learn about how to heal yourself. Read. Find people to listen to your story—therapists and friends—but don’t make that your whole life or drive your friends away! You need them! Drop the need to be perfect that makes you put pressure on yourself when you’re working on your painting or writing or whatever you do.
Be curious and follow things that excite and interest you. It will make you feel better and take your mind off the crap you grew up with. This is a lifelong process (sorry!). Develop a mindfulness practice so you can step outside the chaos and not make it you. It’s been extremely effective with people who have suffered abuse growing up.
If you’ve had the experience of being harmed by a family authoritarian—a parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt or uncle, partner, adult child, etc.—or by someone else close to you—a cleric, teacher, boss, co-worker, etc.—I invite you take the Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire, available here. I also invite you to tell your story, as it is long past time that we got this epidemic of wounding exposed—and ended. Come back each Thursday to read more about authoritarians in the family and please think about taking the Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire and about telling your story.
This post was previously published on Psychology Today and is republished here with permission from the author.
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