Persecution of the internal kind

At night he calls out in his sleep to unknown assailants who populate his dreams. ‘Stop it’. He calls these words out repeatedly and when I reach over to urge him into wakefulness and away from these demons he falls silent as if I have chased them away for long enough for him to get some relief and slip into a noiseless sleep but they will be back later the next night and the next whenever he finds himself tortured by too much pain in the world.

My husband grew up in the generation that taught young boys to be tough and strong to withhold their tears and to take responsibility. Fathers were breadwinners and mothers were homemakers and although today he lives in a world where his wife shares the financial burden, he cannot escape this belief that he is only as good as the money he earns and if he stops earning then they might as well put him out to pasture like an old race horse, no longer able to compete on the track of life.

‘You made a bad bargain’ he says to me in moments of despair, as if our relationship was one long contractual economic arrangement with monetary value its only currency.

This morning he did not want to get out of bed even after an early night. He woke at four and from his perspective has not slept since but when I heard the alarm ring he did not stir, though my husband is adept at closing his eyes even while sitting on the couch, even in the company of others and he gives the appearance of a man asleep but he’s not, he tells me later, when I urge him to go to bed if he’s tired. He’s thinking behind closed eyes he tells me.

Sometimes his thoughts are taken up with plans to build something: a gate, a table, a new attachment to the salami-making machine so that he can improve the output of his sausages. But other times he ruminates. I know this when he scrunches up his face, eyes closed as if some monstrous thought has crossed through his mind that is almost unbearable.

Therapist that I am, I put it down to the difficult relationship he had with his mother, an unhappy woman herself overwhelmed by the burden of six children very little money and a husband who drank too much and flew into rages especially with his sons. His father did not help much but it was his mother who visited upon him all manner of cruelty.


My husband was the second born son and he arrived in the world healthy, unlike his older brother who suffered mild cerebral palsy at birth and could never attain his full potential. My husband on the other hand was a bright boy, a quick-witted boy, a boy who refused to do exactly as he was told when he was told and in his mother’s eyes he was naughty.

‘You ungrateful wretch’ she said to him whenever he challenged her authority.

My husband believed his mother preferred girls to boys, a view which clashed with my own experience of a mother who to my mind preferred her boys.

We came into this marriage with different mind states therefore, made worse by the fact we had four beautiful daughters, four daughters who became my husband’s pride a joy, the reason in his mind that he continued to work hard, the reason he went back to study law, the reason he left the Commonwealth Public Service and sought to develop his capacity so that he could earn enough money to pay for their schooling to renovate our house and to cover all the costs associated with a large and growing family. In his mind he did it all for them.

I have argued with him that this is not entirely true.

This is the myth of the old generation: man as bread winner; man who justifies his existence by going out into the world each day and bringing back the bacon, the bread, the money, the means by which the family unit can continue.

But my husband was not the only one to earn money. I helped, but somehow my work and earnings count less in his mind than his own.

Beyond his work, he took on hobbies, multiple hobbles and tried to perfect them. Here lies the rub. He tries to perfect things to the point where nothing is ever good enough. Nothing reaches his standards of acceptability and so he chides himself for his lack of standards.

He expects too much of himself. I fear he expects too much of me, too, but at times I morph into being as his mother, who also expected great things from him. He is in the grip of his mother’s criticism these days and no sooner do I ask him to do something than he hears me issuing commands.

Many years ago my husband taught me the importance of honesty in my requests. Don’t ask ‘Would you like to do such and such.’ Don’t ask ‘Are you doing anything tonight?’ as a precursor to asking more. Don’t ask a person indirectly in that not so subtle manipulative way that women of my mother’s generation used in order to get their way. Be direct.

I agree with him, the direct request is one to which a person can respond with a clear yes or no. An indirect request, a manipulation is harder to tackle.

I have learned to ask directly but even now my direct requests come as commands to my husband’s ears so I become wary of asking even as I all but ordered him out of bed this morning.

‘You’ll feel better,’ I say, once you’re out and about. If you lie in bed you just torture yourself.’

In my mind’s eyes I see his father, a man who spent the last several years of his life in bed, sly drinking and listening to the races until the Korsakoff’s (brain damage from too much alcohol) hit and he lost his memory and wound up in a protected facility with minimal control of his gambling card and a life of inertia.

My husband seeks oblivion he tells me, an escape from the endless tyranny of his mind.

I do not remember a time when he was happy for any extended period of time. He had his moments of fleeting joy but nothing sustained. Contentment is not a word that comes to mind, just this endless cruel striving and a man who continues to say things like: I still haven’t figured out what I want to do when I grow up.

For a talented man, a man who can do almost anything he turns his mind to, in the preparing of food, of cooking, of word turning, jewellery making, photography, house building, interpreting history and the law in its many manifestations, writing, reading, and when he was young running long distances, all these gifts and more and yet he cannot find happiness at his finger tips, only this endless restless search that is more often than not punctuated by cruel persecutors who tell him he is no good.

7 thoughts on “Persecution of the internal kind”

  1. I know this man, Elisabeth. He worked until he died, for the sake of his family.
    I also know a mother’s place is in the wrong. No matter what our motivation, we will always be held accountable for the worse.

    1. We can get so restricted in our roles, Karen, so caught up in how we’re meant to behave that we stop living. I sense you have an experience of similar men, your father, your husband perhaps. I hope the next generation of men are not so tortured. I reckon if they’re less tortured they might find it easier to be less persecuting as well as persecuted. Thanks, Karen.

  2. It’s odd. I’m not much younger than your husband and my own father was very much a product of his time and yet somehow the one thing he never chided me about growing up was crying and I did a lot of that growing up. I was a sickly child and I suppose that’s partly why I got away with it but they’d also waiting twenty-one years for me and I was loved far more than I ever realised: it, indeed, came as a great shock to me to learn in adulthood that I was my parents’ favourite; I had always regarded myself as the black sheep which I also found out at the same time was precisely how my sister and brother felt about themselves. Strange family mine. So physical weakness was tolerated and because of that I got away with emotional weakness too. The drugs were blamed; they affected my nerves, made me shake (a common side effect of Ventolin which I slugged in liquid form at the time). How much it was to blame we’ll never know but extremes of emotion were not good for me and brought on bronchospasms. For years it seemed like everything triggered spasms. My dad tried to keep a track, look for a pattern but finally gave up. In my early twenties (coincidentally when I moved out for the first time) I grew out of it.

    I grew up in my father’s shadow. Only in time did it dawn on me how flawed he was. I hear him every now and then when I say stuff to Carrie, a phrase (or more of a tone, usually one of annoyance) and that’s enough and I’ll dial it back. I’ve no desire to become my dad even though he wasn’t without his redeeming qualities. The one thing that bothered me after he died was how my siblings didn’t have a good word for him; that wasn’t fair even if it was understandable. Mostly I’m nothing like him. Apart from being bald I don’t think I even look much like him although I’ve never seen myself in my mother either. Perhaps if I had I might’ve felt more their son than I did.

    I am not the breadwinner and haven’t been for something like eleven years now; I’ve lost track. I would be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me a little but not enough to do anything about it. When asked I’m happy to refer to myself as a househusband although for all intents and purposes I’m retired. I’m a frugal Scot anyway but because none of the income coming in—bar some bank interest—is in my name I find I watch what I spend not that I do without but I don’t waste money of frivolities. Occasionally I do surveys—for some reason I’ve always enjoyed them—and I love when they ask me about mobile phones; I get to tell them I’ve been using the same phone for some thirteen years and spend less than £10 a year on calls. Why would I buy a new phone just to have a new phone?

    I do understand the perfection thing. That’s bugged me for years. When I taught IT I used to have a trainee whose name I’ve forgotten (in fact all I can remember about her was she was short, wore round glasses and showed a little more cleavage than I was comfortable around) and once she’d finished her course with time to spare she stayed on and did some odd jobs to help me out only here’s the thing: she would only ever do a job once and if it wasn’t up to my standard (which it never was) she’d say, “It’ll do.” No. No, it won’t do. I tried to explain to her what I regarded as a basic real world truth but she genuinely didn’t get it and has probably never held down a full time job since then. I think that job went a long way to helping me realise that perfection is not all it’s cracked up to me. I didn’t have the time to do everything perfectly and had to lower my standards to ‘good enough’. Good thing too or I’d have never finished my first novel for taking commas out and putting them back in again.

    1. Sorry for the delayed response, Jim but as you perhaps know, I’ve been away this past week on a writing workshop. I didn’t realise that you had such severe Asthma, and the horrible side effects of that Ventolin, yuk. It’s funny how our views of ourselves within our families of origin can change over the years from imagining we are the favourites or the least favourite, to their opposites. I suspect it’s more of a burden being favourite than not, though I suppose it depends on individual circumstances. As for perfectionism, I’m with you here, I reckon it’s a problem unless it can be modified, though of course slap dash ways can also bring folks down. Thanks, Jim.

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