hurricane irma, part seven (family drama)

(this is a continuation of my previous entry
there’s also part onepart two, part three , part four, and part five)

[NOTE: I really debated about including this particular experience because it’s more personal than everything else but I decided to just post it. I mainly started this journal/blog 20 years ago to have a place to record not only the day-to-day, but also as a place to record and hash out my feelings about stuff that was going on day-to-day.

If I really want to be able to start writing like that agin, then my relationship with my parents is something that needs to be addressed. In all honesty, it’s probably *the* biggest emotional issue that I have been dealing with for the past six or so years  but I haven’t talked about it because it feels so fragile. I’ve been editing this entry for days and days and if you are reading this, it means I just took the risk and finally posted it.

Also, if I post this, maybe there is someone out there that will stumble on this entry and realize that they aren’t alone if they have a less-than-ideal relationship with their family. There’s this weird fictional narrative that circulates in our culture about what a relationship between adult children and their parents should look like (comraderie, friendship, mutual respect, affection), but very few people I know actually have that. Families are all so individual and the dynamics are all so different. No one is perfect, and I doubt any one family is perfect, either.]

On Sunday morning, the day after Hurricane Irma, Tom, Grace, and I were able to go back home.

The three of us just really wanted to get into our house, unpack, assess the damage, and then take a moment together and regroup. I kind of felt like the end of the storm would mark the beginning of a new phase for us- Tom had his diagnosis, he had the surgery, PLUS we went through the very unexpected hurricane. All of that was done- we were on the other side. So it felt like we had just climbed a steep mountain, and maybe now we could begin the descent.

It didn’t quite work like that, though- there was still a bit more mountain to climb.

We knew when we got home and unpacked we couldn’t rest- not yet. There was a lot to do. There would be a lot to do in the coming weeks- storm cleanup isn’t something that gets done in a day.

But for Tom and I, the idea of cleaning up after a storm was so much less stressful than having to get ready for a storm. There weren’t any unknowns with the cleaning up process. And after several months of constant unknowns (is it cancer? how severe is the cancer? will the surgery help the cancer? why is Tom’s temperature so high? is this hurricane going to hit us? is Tom going to get out of the hospital before the hurricane? do we have to evacuate? is this hurricane going to flood the island? the storm is passed but is our house okay? etc.), it felt like a relief to just deal with something so straightforward. It would not be a small effort (and I’m writing this six weeks out, and it’s still nowhere near being done…) but it was not a scary prospect for us because it seemed so clear-cut. Figure out what needed to be done, and do it.

Tom wasn’t feeling 100%, but he was feeling better from the two days of rest he got during the storm. Grace and I were feeling energetic- she’s an organizer and she loved projects, so we decided that while Tom was handling cleaning up the insulation and assessing the house for damage, she and I could unpack and put things away, get the pets situated and fed, and set things up for the coming days without power. We were all sort of feeling tremendous relief that the storm hadn’t been worse and the three of us all just felt glad to be home, together again, ready to go to work, and ready to face what was next.

We felt better than we had in days, weeks. We felt like what was ahead of us was better than what was behind us.The three of us had a plan and it felt like a good one.

My parents had other ideas. Even though they had their own mess to clean up in the back bedroom of their condo from where the windows blew out, even though they were exhausted from a week of non-stop preparation and stress, even though my dad’s 82 and my mom’s 75 and clearly needed some rest, even though there wasn’t any power to turn on  vacuums or cleaning devices, my mother and father came back to our house and steadfastly insisted that they needed to get inside of our house and clean everything.

If a tree had crashed through the house, or if windows had been broken and there was glass and storm debris all over, I could see them being frantic and feeling overwhelmed and insisting on helping, but that wasn’t the case.  If we hadn’t been responsible up until that point, or Tom was still sick in the hospital, or if he was laying in bed saying he couldn’t do anything, I could see them insisting that they be in the charge of the clean up. But absolutely none of that was the case. There was insulation strewn about, and that had to be cleaned up immediately due to Grace’s asthma, but getting that taken care of didn’t necessitate a major clean up operation by several adults. The power was off, so we couldn’t use the vacuum to clean up, but we did have full charges on a bunch of our hand-held and portable vacuums (yes, we have multiples- pretty much one vacuum for each pet.)

My parents were agitated and they were in high crisis mode and it was like this crazy tornado of anxiety and upset between them and towards the three of us. It was like they were bringing all the anxious energy we all had before the storm and were determined to continue feeling it, whereas Tom and I were trying to approach it different. My parents were very angry that we weren’t as distraught as they were.

When I pointed out that I felt lucky not to have lost the house, my mother looked at me with this look of anger in her eyes and said “what’s wrong with you? This is a catastrophe!”

My patience totally ran out when my mom said “This is a catastrophe!” Things were a huge mess, but things were not “catastrophic”. Not for us. Not for any of the five of us. They had a broken window, yes, and damage to a spare bedroom. We had damage to our house. We all knew this storm was going to be major, and to be honest, I am still shocked we didn’t have MORE damage.

So many people had lost their homes, or sustained significant damage that made their houses uninhabitable. Grace’s old school, the Montessori she went to from when she was 18 months old until third grade, was destroyed. The roof was ripped off. People with older homes lost walls and roofs. There were boats STREWN across the island, out of canals, on people lawns. We even saw three cars crashed on the drive back to our house- one up a tree. In local cities, many homes had been flooded completely. By sewage, as well as rising tides. Those are catastrophes.

In comparison, what we had was REPAIRS. There’s a big difference between what was before us that day and anything that could qualify as genuine “catastrophe.”

Plus, here was a bad situation, and both Tom and I felt like it was actually okay. We had a choice, for once, to be in an incredibly stressful situation and not feel terror or anxiety or overwhelm. That’s so freakin’ rare. And I was so tired of feeling so devastated and so sad and so scared. I was done, I was burned out. If Tom and I had the opportunity to face this situation and deal with it in a way that wasn’t as stressful and intense, why wouldn’t we choose that? Everything was going to get done whether we were in despair and frantic or whether we were calm and organized. Just because Tom and I were able to stay calm didn’t mean we didn’t see the magnitude of the situation. Being calm does not equal some sort of neglect. Maybe it does to my parents, though- I can’t know what they were reacting to, what they saw, or what triggered them to behave the way they did. But the truth is, Tom and I have always been responsible and seen things through, so sometimes it just feels like no matter what we do, we’ll never get it right.

And let me say this: I know, I KNOW deep down that my parents only meant to help. Their intentions were good. That they believed deep down that we needed them to sweep in and fix everything. They were The Parents and we were The Children and we needed them. I genuinely believe that they were feeling extreme anxiety in those moments, and it was guiding their actions- I know anxious emotional states are super real and overwhelming and scary. For some reason they believed that we couldn’t get anything done unless they were there. And they believed that the only way they would feel better was if they stayed.

But the truth is, there’s nothing Tom, me, or Grace been ever been able to do to make their anxiety any better- even when we go along with them. This dynamic (them getting upset about something, the three of just going along with it to try and avoid conflict, them still being unhappy at the end of the day…) has been going on for a very long time.  They do their intense energy thing, it doesn’t make them feel any better, it gets the five of us irritated at one another, then a few days pass and then they calm down and move on to the next thing. And it all starts again. I really don’t see how this benefits anyone. They’re never happy, even when they get what they want, and Grace, Tom, and I feel like we are being steamrolled.

Again, I want to make it clear that I am writing this from my perspective, and I have no idea what my parents were going through or feeling. I never really do. They don’t express any of that to me- my father will lecture me about something he disapproves of and my mom will drop emails about something they are convinced needs to be dealt with right that moment (this past year it’s been mainly about our garden- which they have always hated, Gracie’s school clothes from last year, and now it’s about Gracie’s last baby tooth) – never the “why”.  And that’s fine- I strongly, vehemently believe that my parents have every right to feel what they feel and say what they say and want the things they want.

BUT, as an adult, I also have the right to choose not to be around them when they act in ways that cause more stress than necessary.

So back to the little tension that was breaking out in my living room, right after we returned to our house the morning after the hurricane:

My parents decided that the plan that Tom, Grace, and I had made was frivolous and the three of us were going to do what they told us to do and that’s how it was going to go. I guess in their anxious state, they felt like they had to take control.

I sat there, observing what was happening, feeling the stress just build up and wash over Tom and I, and I could feel Grace getting upset, and I just decided I couldn’t take it. Not after the week we had. I spent the last several months feeling completely steamrolled and trapped- by cancer, by the impending surgery, by the threat of the storm, by my own health stuff (that I’m not discussing), by the actual storm itself- and I was done. I couldn’t do it anymore. What I needed most from my parents was not some massive cleanup effort, but support and calm.

Since I knew that wasn’t going to happen, I needed them to leave.

I was intensely grateful for all their help, and I always am, but what the three of us- Tom, Grace, and I- needed at that moment was some time to unpack, clean up, and uncoil ourselves from the giant balls of stress and fear we had been wrapped up in for weeks. We needed to take a deep breath. We needed to be in a place where there wasn’t all this upset and anger and frantic behavior. If my parents didn’t understand that, the least they could do was just give us some space for a few hours so we could get our bearings. But to them, we were being irresponsible and ungrateful for asking for that.

No roofers were coming out the morning after the storm, no local repair companies could be contacted to come out to us because they were all busy evaluating *their* personal damage from the storm, our landscape guy was still far away, having evacuated last minute. No trash or debris would be collected for weeks. There was no power, only a trickle of water. Everyone around us was in a daze, trying to pick the debris off and figure out what had to be taken care of. Every single person on this island, in this area of Florida, was facing the same challenges at that moment. What more is there to do but take a deep breath and go from there? It was a giant pain in the ass, scary as hell, and the most stressful thing I had ever been through. But it was not “catastrophic”. And it was definitely not the appropriate time to freak out about things that weren’t worth freaking out about.

There was no one to call that day, no one was coming. The three of us wanted to clean up what we could, unpack, and figure out the next step. And the next step after that. And that’s what we were going to do, without any extra drama or stress.

When I told my parents to leave, they were incredulous and angry. And they refused. It turned into a tense situation, a loud argument, but I couldn’t back down. I needed them to leave the house.

I think out of everything that had happened in the past ten days- including Tom’s surgery and including the f*cking “nuclear” storm, the argument I had with my parents that day was easily the most traumatic part of this whole period of time. It was like a volcano erupted.

I decided a few years ago that I just don’t want to have anything to do with that kind of behavior anymore – arguing, yelling over each other to be heard, being pushy and assertive. Accusations being hurtled.  I just *hate* that behavior so much, and I don’t engage in it with Grace and Tom and I just don’t want to do it with my parents anymore. And I usually refuse to do that- part of my reason for withdrawing from them these past few years is because the less I engage with them, the less we argue, and the less we build up all this tension between us.

But since they wouldn’t leave, the argument was unavoidable.

Finally, an hour later, they left, saying they were washing their hands of us.

Tom, Grace, and I felt miserable and exhausted, but we absolutely didn’t regret our decision to push for what *we* needed in that moment. We still don’t. And I know my parents still don’t regret what happened, either. I haven’t spoken to my mother since that day, but Tom and Grace do and she’s made it clear that she feels we were very much in the wrong. It’s just one of those things where there’s absolutely no hope of us possibly understanding what motivated the others’ choices.

I was gutted by the terrible argument, but not surprised. My parents and I go through cycles where they get more and more intense and agitated over something, and I get more and more determined to avoid things that trigger anxiety and stress, and it comes to a head and I go radio silent for a while. I’d rather just not communicate with them than always be arguing with them. So that’s where I am.

It feels like some enormous breakup-  like 100000x that. And every day it weighs down my heart and I rack my brain trying to figure out some magical solution that will fix everything, but nothing comes up. I know how much this hurts them- me being reserved and them not understanding why- and it literally makes my heart just hurt inside my chest to cause them that pain. It’s agonizing. But there’s nothing I can do.

I think the bottom line is that I’ve worked really really REALLY hard this last year to figure things out, to simplify my life, and to start working through the anxiety and crummy feelings that have weighed on me most of my life. I’m tired of being copacetic and compliant- not just with my parents but the entire world and all the things that happen.

I want to be happy, I want to see my husband and daughter happy (I’d also like to see my parents happy, but I’ve finally realized that nothing I do or say will give them whatever it is they think they can somehow find in me).

I want to provide Grace with a peaceful and happy environment to grow up in because she has enough stress with school and just being a 12 year old- I mean, the preteen and teenage years are just a mix of pressure and hormones and social stuff and I remember how awkward and difficult *I* felt during those yearsI want our home and family to be a place she can turn to that’s calm and feels like a place where she can come and recharge. That’s what a home and a family is supposed to be- a safe place. I want our home to be a happy and peaceful place for all of us who live here (Tom, Grace, me, and the pets). I want to be awake and alive and engaged so I can give back to the world. Well-being is not a quick and easy process. It’s going to take time and focus. But I’ve decided that I want it for all of us and it’s worth the work.

If I can’t have the happy family thing with my parents, it doesn’t mean I can’t have it with my husband and daughter.

At some point I realized that in order to do all this I was going to have to stop engaging with aspects of my life that act as constant triggers for me. That means limiting my interactions with my parents. That’s heartbreaking- it is breaking my heart. I think it would be a wonderful thing if we could all go see someone neutral, outside the family, for guidance and advice on how to communicate with one another, but my mom and dad don’t really place value on that sort of resource.

So at this point, I need to preserve what’s left of the relationship between all of us, and prevent more damage from occurring. So I choose to step away and just take a time out.

I think at some point in life, you just have to make the choice to take care of yourself so that you can be better for the people around you, the people who depend on you. If I’m calm, I’m a better mom. If I’m settled, I can be there for Tom when he’s got his health issues. When I’m calm, I’m better able to take care of my own health issues, which means I’ll be around longer for my family and people can rely on me.  It doesn’t make it any easier, though. It just sucks.

(**Ironic note: now the garden’s gone because of Irma. We kept the garden because a) it’s our house and b) the garden was something Tom and I loved- something we cultivated and cared about, and something that brought us joy. But my parents hated it so it became this big issue between us. I know that my parents are delighted and relieved that we don’t have it anymore, but I wonder- has it REALLY made them much happier, overall? I know it’s one less thing for them to worry about, but has it improved their overall level of happiness enough to have spent two years scolding us about it? Was all that tension worth it? Maybe it was, for them. I just don’t know.)

our lanai garden, before the storm.

Screw it, I’m posting this. It’s not well-edited and I’m sure I could spend the next week or ten writing and re-writing this, but I need to move on to the next thing.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. Thank you.

(yes, there’s more – a week without power!)


4 thoughts on “hurricane irma, part seven (family drama)

  1. Dear Chel
    I don’t post often, but I do always read your posts.
    We seem to be going through very similar emotions, maybe we are similar in age and it’s a ‘time of life’ thing?
    This year I’ve also worked very hard at finding (creating) the kind of emotional environment in which I feel that I can grow and thrive. My mother is a big part of my problems, also.
    Over the last twenty years I’ve rarely had an argument with her. In my early adult years, after many sessions with a therapist, I decided to leave childhood issues behind, and not let my mother’s behaviour continously rattle my cage. For many years we got along fine, because whatever she did was fine with me. I have my own home now, I can do things my way, and I felt that she had limited influence in my life. I know now that this is not the solution. By playing along, we become the enablers that allow our parents to push all the negative buttons that they installed in us during childhood, and get the reaction they are craving.
    My mother’s behaviour usually starts with trying to dictate what I should do. Then a pity-me session because she has such a horrible daughter, during which she calls up all her friends and tell them my shortcomings. She makes sure that it gets back to me. After that I get the silent treatment, which could last weeks. When I was a child, this last part was terrifying. I would have much preferred if she shouted at me and got it over with. One day she will just decide that I’ve grovelled enough, and behave like nothing ever happened.
    In the first week of January, she had one of her episodes. I only knew about it because I stopped receiving phone calls from her, and my sister said she was telling everyone what a horrible person I am. I decided that it’s time to finally break this cycle. She needs to realize that it’s not acceptable behaviour. My mother is a coward who causes conflict with her behaviour, but is too scared to enter into an argument. This entire year, she hasn’t been speaking to me, and it eats me up inside. She’s the same age as your mother, I’m terrified that something will happen to her and she would not call me for help.
    Two weeks ago, it was her birthday. I relented, took her flowers and a present, and she behaved like the last year never happened. I can kick myself for giving in. I promised myself that I would break this cycle and not let it keep repeating and ruining my life. Then I gave in. All those months of agonizing has got me nowhere.
    I think now that the therapist from my twenties was wrong. Childhood issues should be examined and dealt with, so that they can be laid to rest. Adult children should talk to their parents, and resolve conflict so that it doesn’t become a cycle that repeats and repeats.
    But I also know that it’s not that easy, and might not even be possible. I don’t think my mother will ever have insight into her behavioral problems. You and I are possibly from a generation that is much more emotionally adept.
    I know that I’ve been the best daughter to her that anyone could ask for, and that I have a right to my own life. If these two things can’t co-exist, then a relationship with my mother is not in my best interest.
    I’m struggling with all these emotions and haven’t found a solution. But I remain hopeful. I do hope that you manage to find a solution to your problem.
    My best suggestion would be to try and find a way to break the cycle, by changing their behaviour, or changing the way you react to it. Try to gain insight into your parents. You might still not agree with them, or be able to handle them better, but at least you will know that you are not the problem.
    A good first step is to write down how you feel. Get it all on paper (or screen) so that you can understand yourself. Then write a letter to your parents, letting them know how they make you feel. Tell them from your perspective why things are not right, but not blaming or accusing them of anything. Ask them to tell you openly why they act the way they do. It sounds to me as though they are putting your sense of responsibility and your ability to handle adult life in question. You can refute that with proof and all your achievements. Maybe if they think about it, they will realize that they need to approach matters differently.
    Good luck
    P.S. I loved your garden. It will grow again. Chuck a hand full of fertilizer on everything for me!

  2. Chel, I’m so glad you wrote this out and posted it. (I’m glad to be catching up on your entries!) When I read your entries, I feel grateful to be shown a vulnerable part of your life, to share in your experiences and thoughts and feelings about those experiences, as well. It’s true, parent/child relationships can be very complex, in childhood and/or adulthood. I think it’s an important thing that you stood up for what you needed, though I’m sorry it was such a painful argument and fallout.

    I just think it’s really amazing the way you, Tom, Gracie and all your animals are just this solid unit that works so well together. Thank you for sharing this part of your story, too.

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