Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Dysfunctional Family Diaries #39: Career Advice

I have been working up to posting a particularly painful bit about my adult life and my relationship with my parents over the past several years. However, I think there is more that needs to be said about what preceded it. But I really want to share this bit, so I will. I recognize what a greedy, selfish, irresponsible, manipulative child it makes me look like. I hate this side of me. All I can say is that I realize I'm not perfect, and I will post in the near future about what happened to shape me into what I became.

Here is an excerpt of an article a friend shared that is a particularly good description of narcissistic parents:

Narcissists view their children as possessions and often have extremely close, exclusive and possessive relationships with them. The narcissist will have complete control over their child and will feel resentful and jealous if the child wants to break free from their clutches and create a life of their own. A narcissist will put the child down to make them feel inferior and worthless so that they struggle to maintain the level of confidence needed to exist independently.

A narcissist will successfully brainwash their child during the early years and switch from kindness to meanness in a flash, so the child will feel constantly unstable and desperately cling to their parent. For young children, the parent is the main influence in their lives; the child trusts their parent and will not realise until later years, if at all, that their parent’s behaviour was abusive.

The child will often feel fearful to rock the boat with their parent, as at any moment the narcissist can unleash a torrent of aggression and anger on them, and then, within moments appear to be the most loving and caring person possible. If the child behaves and falls into line with what their parent wants, all will go smoothly, so the child keeps themselves firmly aligned with their parent through fear rather than love.

Sadly, that means that the child will grow up to be confused about what love looks like and will view love as something that has conditions placed on it. They know that to receive the narcissist parent’s love they must act accordingly and please the narcissist at all times. The moment they turn away from the narcissist all hell can seem to be breaking loose. No child, even an adult child, wants to constantly be at war with a parent, so most often the easiest thing to do is to work hard to please the parent.

I wrote recently about my health problems. Well, I had a migraine every day for years but I was basically able to function that way until I graduated college and got my first job. Going to an office and working every day while your head hurts is really difficult. In March of 2009, with the help of a therapist, I decided not to do that anymore.

By this time, I had the early beginnings of a writing career going. I loved to write. I was good at it. Or good enough at least. I had a few connections, a book that would soon be published, and I had published a few articles before. I decided I would give writing a try. And I decided I would no longer do any job that made my head hurt. Period.

My parents were not pleased. I went from making six figures to nothing overnight.

"Get a job!" my mom instructed.
"I have a job!" I would reply.
"No you don't," she countered.
"Yes, I do. I'm a writer," I would say.
"That's not a job," she answered.

And so on.

Only it was a job. A poorly paying job, but a job. I did a fundraising campaign to ask supporters to help me get started, and I raised a few thousand bucks. It was enough to pay the bills until I could start earning money myself. I bled through my savings. But my head did not hurt and I was happy.

Eventually, I kind of got the lay of the land of the writing business. It seemed like if I just had enough money to pay the bills for a bit, I would have been able to really put the work in to get myself into bigger, better paying publications. But I never had that kind of money. I was always chasing the next $200 or $300 for an article to be published online so that I could get paid immediately so I could pay my immediate bills.

I asked my mom to help me. She refused, and resisted, but eventually agreed to send me $200. Only it was $200 of my own money. I had given it as a gift to my brother right before he died, and he never spent it. My mom got it back after his death and asked if I wanted it back. I was so grief-stricken I said no, I wanted my brother to have it, but then said yes, give it to me. She never did, and I had forgotten. So when I asked for help, she finally agreed to send me my own damn money. But no more.

Later, at one point, she told me she would feel like she was enabling me if she helped me.

This period was also when we had the constant health insurance debates, in which my mom was convinced that if she just nagged me enough about getting health insurance I'd somehow find enough cash growing on a tree to afford it.

The next several years were lived in a constant state of panic. I was always scared about the next rent payment, or the next car payment, or the next anything payment. A few times I ran out of cash altogether. For a short time I got on food stamps, but then I was arbitrarily kicked off them after two months even though I still qualified for them. The financial stress sometimes paralyzed me. I was definitely less productive in getting work done because of it. Sometimes I'd get in these destructive cycles where I was so freaked out about needing money that I couldn't function enough to earn any.

I tried telling my mom how hard things were financially when we spoke on the phone. I rarely asked for help. I think I remember asking outright maybe one or two other times, but no more than that. I just hoped that at some point my mom would love me enough that she would see how hard I was working and how badly I was in need and she would help. That never happened. She helped a total of twice. Once she sent me $1000 as a birthday gift when I said I was having trouble. Another time she and my father paid off a rather large credit card bill of mine - but it was a loan, not a gift. I still owe them most of it. I want to sarcastically tell them to take it out of my inheritance. If I could pay it back, I would. So far I have not been able to do so.

She was always on a mission to get me "back to work" (since doing a poorly paid irregular job doing something I loved did not count).

The thing about writing is that it's somewhat cumulative. You start with nothing and one by one, you connect with editors and publications. I started with one, and then slowly built up from there. The first one is easy to work with but pays only $300 per article. One requires a lot of work but pays $1000 per article. Another requires little work and pays $800 per article, but assigns very few articles a year and takes a long time to pay its writers. A third was good for a bit - difficult to work with but paid $650 per article - but I haven't written for them in ages. And then I got a weekly column gig, which pays modestly but it's consistent and a reasonable workload.

Sometimes, you spend time researching a topic that may or may not pan out into earning income. I found a great story and pitched it to several publications. Two were intrigued but said no. One said probably, talked to me about it at length, and then decided it did not work for their format. A fourth gave me a contract to write it up for them for $900 but then cut it from the magazine before publication and paid me a $180 kill fee. And all of that took a year to play out. That's why I think I would have done better if I ever had the time and space to really do the long term work it takes to build up a career instead of always focusing on the short term.

My parents never understood any of this. At first, I remember spending many conversations on the phone with my mother trying to explain about my migraines. I asked if she'd be willing to do a job and get paid if someone was hitting her in the head with a hammer the entire time. I was happy writing. I loved it. I loved working from home. And my head did not hurt as much. I had a quality of life I'd never had before when I was making more money. But that did not compute to her.

Frequently, she'd call me up with ideas for other careers. "You know, Kathy's son Mark's wife is a computer programmer. She does that from home, and she can do it from anywhere. Why can't you do that?"

Or she'd come up with solutions to my migraines so I could go back to an office job. Botox was her favorite. For years, she harped on me about trying Botox. Wouldn't Botox work? It works for a lot of people. Couldn't I try it? She'd pay for it once. In her mind, she would pay for it once, it would cure my migraines, and then I'd go back to an office job and get a salary and continue paying for Botox myself.

I declined. When I was working as a writer, my migraines were not such a big problem. Ultimately, I tried Botox on my own last year, and my insurance covered it. It did nothing for me.

Once my mom called to tell me she had heard about these three medications that were really successful with migraines. She read me the generic names. I looked up the brand names. Topamax (tried it, didn't work), Depakote (tried it, didn't work), and I think the third was Neurontin, which I did not try because my neurologist concluded that anticonvulsants don't work for me. I've tried about 20 meds in total, so if you ever hear of any med used on migraines ever, odds are I've tried it.

After accepting that I really could not go work in an office while having a migraine every day, my mother insisted that surely there was some career I could do that paid the bills and met my needs. I loved the outdoors. Could I be a forest ranger or something? Or a landscape architect? For the record, forest rangers are horribly underpaid and I assume that one requires training to become a landscape architect. Who would pay for my training if I decided to do that? I didn't get the impression my mom would, and I'm usually pretty accurate in my gut hunches about what she will or won't pay for.

It was a moot point anyway, because I didn't want to be a landscape architect or a forest ranger or a computer programmer. I wanted to be a writer, and I was a writer. I just wanted to make more money at it.

Twice my mother asked me how many hours a week I worked. I asked if she was implying I was lazy. She vigorously denied it and then turned it into a thing about how she is always so loving to me and yet I always assume the worst in her motivations. We went around and around about how many hours a week I work. She wanted to know if I could work more, or take a second job, or something. I didn't - and don't - see how that would be worth it. The amount of stress and anxiety a job that required me to go somewhere during set hours would cause would disrupt my ability to do much writing at all.

So from about 2009 to 2014, this was the dynamic between me and my parents. I would tell them how much I was struggling and how hard I was working, desperately hoping they would give me financial help. They never would. I felt unloved and abandoned. I tried telling them about my successes too, so they would recognize how hard I was working, and when I did something well. If I ever mentioned anything I bought to them, I was very careful to emphasize that I was not frivolously spending money. For example, if I told them I was flying somewhere I would work in that I used frequent flier miles for the plane ticket if that was how I'd afforded it. Or I went to a conference and made sure to let them know that my $600 expenditure for the conference led to a $1000 in income.

In essence, what I was doing was trying to say without saying: See, Mom and Dad? See? I am working so hard, and I am doing absolutely everything I can, and I am not spending one penny extra on anything nice for myself, and I am still destitute. And I hoped they would get the message and then respond by helping me out.

But they did not. They did not recognize that I accomplished anything, in training myself as a journalist and going from nothing to earning thousands of dollars a year from writing. They did not read most of what I wrote, or appreciate it. My mom accused me of spending too much money on nice things, like my ten dollar underwear. And she never seemed to accept that I was doing what I love or that my migraines were really a permanent condition and I really had done what I could to try and get rid of them.

Her constant badgering about this career opportunity or that one, or migraine advice, etc, was incredibly painful. On one hand, she and my father refused to recognize any of my accomplishments writing, or validate that it was my career choice, or help me out with it. They just let me struggle and struggle and struggle. And then on the other hand, she always thought she knew better than I did what was better for me. As if I had not properly considered my options and thought through them, and maybe if she made one more suggestion, it would be the magic thing that had never occurred to me before.

Ultimately, I used what I learned in writing to apply to PhD programs. I was accepted to two. I enrolled in one, which is one of the top programs in that particular field. I got five years of guaranteed funding, which means my tuition is waived, I get health insurance, and I am guaranteed a job as a teaching assistant if I don't find any other funding. I am paid a meager salary for working as a teaching assistant. When I told my mom about my choice, she said, "Well, I think that's very irresponsible."

Yep, irresponsible to go get a PhD.

I think it's quite responsible. I wanted freelance writing to work but after five years, it was not working. I could not make ends meet. So I faced reality and chose a plan B. Entirely through my own efforts, since I am fully self taught in my area of study, I got into a top program and got five years of full funding. I have a career path as a professor after I graduate. And if for some reason it's not for me, my program allows me to get a masters and quit after that, and with a masters I can teach junior college. It's not my intention to quit after the masters, but I like that it's a possibility just in case.

What I've related above, all of this, makes me feel unloved, unappreciated, abandoned, and invisible. It's almost like I don't exist. There is nothing I can say to explain my reality to my mother. There is nothing I can say to be heard. To be understood. Let alone to be helped.

I don't like how I've behaved. I feel like I am laser focused on money, and greedy, and manipulative. But money is given as a proxy for approval in my family, and it has taken on a larger meaning than just money. Essentially, I was begging for love, and love is what was being denied.

Ultimately, my decision to stop speaking to my parents was based on this dynamic. After I was in graduate school, I noticed how I still strategically chose what to tell my parents and how to say it for maximal impact. I would tell them about my successes in school, or describe something I did as a teaching assistant, hoping they would notice that I'd done a good job. I was begging for love. Begging for recognition. Begging to be heard. And I was not being heard, or loved. And each time I begged and I was denied, it hurt me more.

I don't want to be this way. I don't want to act this way with my parents or with anyone else. I want genuine, authentic relationships.

One last thought: I really wonder what others think when they read this. This is my reality and I don't know any different. I think it's screwed up. But I'm very curious about what others think, people who have loving parents or people who are loving parents to their own children. I wonder if I have skewed and limited perceptions because I've never experienced a parent-child relationship based on unconditional love. What do you notice about this that I haven't?

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Your story has given me a lot to think about lately! I am only seeing what you have written, of course, but it does sound pretty messed up. The way your mom acts is not the way my Mom did/does, and I sure hope it's not the way I act. Can I see bits and pieces? Sure, because we are all imperfect, but your mom sounds way far out on the wrong end of things.

    I'm sorry.

    I wish I still lived in WI (Oshkosh) and could meet you!

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