Walking on eggshells

Well that was a difficult holiday.

You wouldn’t think a week with my parents would be the cause of so much trauma and soul-searching. But during the holiday, my partner’s stress forced me to consciously face up to the fact that my parents are not normal, their relationship is in fact pretty dysfunctional, especially when they interact with their children (i.e. me and my sister).

I’m not sure how well structured this post will be. I can feel a tidal wave of repressed angst (and anger) welling up, ready to hit the page, and I suspect it will be quite a long post.

I should point out before I really get going that I am not “out” as an Aspie to my parents (though they’re well aware that I’m an atheist).

. . .

Part of the problem is that my father has always gets his own way, because my mother waits on him hand and foot and, because she has been a housewife all her life, always has done. If he professes not to like a particular food, even if everyone else is eating it, she cooks something different especially for him. They never go to restaurants because he’s so fussy. If he decides he wants to watch something in particular on the television, that is what gets watched (or ignored) by all in the room. But the worst is that if it looks like he won’t get his own way, for instance when there are visitors (my partner and I or my sister and her family), he sulks and behaves so passive-aggressively that we normally give in, for the sake of not ruining the holiday.

When driving somewhere, he will often put a tape on of music he likes (usually light classical, which leaves us cold). We don’t complain – it’s his foible. But woe betide if I were to put on a tape of music I liked (progressive rock for example) – that would rate a 48 hour sulk at least, coupled with a supposed ‘migraine’ and so many denigratory comments about how “that’s not real music” that it’s just not worth it.

All the time, his life is carefully managed – by my mother, and by his own passive-aggressive manipulation – so that no-one else’s opinion counts. My mother has always enabled his behaviour and I suppose that by not challenging it, my partner and I are also enablers in a way. Whatever.

And he’s also the worst hypochondriac. At 73 years old he has some undeniable health issues, the precise nature of which are irrelevant to this blog, but he also makes a major deal about a number of things that any normal person would simply deal with by saying “oh well, I’m getting on a bit”. Ironically, over the years he has been given a lot of (probably sensible) dietary advice by various family doctors (no coffee, no alcohol, no carbonated drinks, no spicy or greasy food), which he almost totally ignores. And then he wonders why his health isn’t improving. Or maybe he ignores it because it enables him to continue to complain. I don’t know – and to be honest I’m beyond caring. My mother also enables this behaviour with her “well, a little coffee now and then wouldn’t hurt I’m sure” attitude.

Perhaps because my mother is so accustomed to completely organising every aspect of my father’s life, whenever we go to stay, she automatically tries to organise our time there as well. It’s a hike here, a beach walk there, a town visit, all organised with military precision. She tries to play it down by saying things like “get up when you like, we’ll go when we’re ready” but later gives herself away with comments like “well, it’s good to get there before 12 so there will be parking”, and “if we leave before 10.00 the traffic will be light”. So you know that if you’re not ready by 10, the day will be blighted, even to the extent that my father will sulk yet again because we dare to want to treat the holiday like a holiday and ‘do our own thing’. How ungrateful of us…

It feels totally suffocating, and it was this that finally caused my partner to drag me out to the shops where she could have an almost autistic meltdown with me in an effort to get me to see how imprisoned she was feeling. Because of my Aspergers, I hadn’t noticed how wound up she was getting, otherwise I could have put my foot down and made some changes to the schedule (because it is a schedule, nothing less). My own way of coping is usually to be quite passive and simply think “it will be over soon, I’m doing my duty as a son, I’m flying home in a few days, I can handle it until then”. But my partner isn’t like that.

Curiously, neither was my ex. She also found that one day (ideally one afternoon) with my parents was more than enough – let alone a whole week. Back when we were together, I used to be quite defensive about my parents to her, without really knowing why (some stunted sense of family loyalty, I guess), but now, with my current partner (who has the patience of a saint under normal circumstances), perhaps as time has passed and I’ve become more self-aware, I can see just how intolerable spending time with them actually is.

When I was in my teens, I was certainly less passive where my father was concerned. The household was run strictly (think curfews, physical punishments, emotional abuse and various restrictions), there was not a lot of money to go round (think insufficient ‘pocket money’), and I pushed against every barricade as if my life and sanity depended on it. In a way, it did. Because my father’s intransigence and foul moods governed life at home, I spent as little time there as possible. I found a very ‘unsuitable’ friend and spent most of my spare time with him. I started smoking, because I knew that was the thing that would anger my father more than anything else. Having got good grades at ‘O’ level, I stopped applying myself at school and completely flunked my ‘A’ levels, in what I can see now was an attempt to get revenge on my father for making my life such a misery. I was convinced that he must be ashamed of me for some reason I didn’t understand, and I guess I decided I would give him something to be ashamed about. Luckily I still managed to get a place at a college far enough away that the only practical thing to do was leave home and stay in lodgings.

Now of course, I recognise emotional abuse for what it is. This article on The Mighty describes with eerie perfection how my father’s emotional abuse of me affected me for many years: 22 Things I Do Now Because I Experienced Emotional Abuse as a Child.

. . .

Sidebar: I considered coming out as an Aspie to my parents, but in the end I decided that between my father’s impregnable irritability and my mother’s relentless condescending cheeriness and eagerness to ignore any issue that might cause her to feel a real emotion, that this is something I can quite happily live without. Also, why should I? They don’t have a supreme right to know everything about me. When it comes down to it, it’s none of their fucking business.

But anyway, now my partner and I have reached some kind of watershed, where we know that we can’t repeat this kind of holiday (a whole week with my parents) ever again (let alone every year) and stay sane. In the future we will have to find a way of seeing them less frequently, and for less time when we do visit. I still think I would feel too much guilt if I cut off all contact, but we will have to find a way to make it less. A lot less.

In 2 or 3 years this issue will become a lot easier to handle, since we plan to retire to South East Asia and once there we would only make the long trip to Europe once every two years, with multiple destinations on each trip. So 3 days with my parents (the absolute maximum I think either of us could handle) can be squeezed in between time with my sister’s family, time with other friends and sightseeing time, giving us a fairly plausible excuse for not staying longer.

Within 5 to 10 years I suspect my father’s time on the planet will come to an end, and my mother’s behaviour will probably change for the better as a result. She may even become a real person rather than a butler. But my father’s death, whenever it occurs, will definitely end the hellish experience of family ‘holidays’. That may sound cold but you have to understand that I don’t have any real love for my parents, and if I’m honest with myself I never really have. That particular feeling just never happened for me. Throughout my life they’ve simply been two people that convention says I have a connection to and therefore have to interact with in various ways.

I have a strong feeling that there will be more posts on the topic of family…

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