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.

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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.

Identity and the tyranny of self doubt

One of my brothers alerted me to several relatives in Holland who have made contact with him through Facebook. Presumably they knew to make contact with him because of their shared second name.

Once again, I was saddened by my concealed identity, hidden by my married name.

More and more as I grow older, I resent the loss of my maiden name. Not just my maiden name, but the name of so many other women from my past who married and then seemingly disappeared from the world of possible connections.

Every time I try to befriend someone on Facebook who travels under my father’s family name, my so-called maiden name, I need to identify myself as a Schooneveldt and not some random stranger who’s approaching them for friendship, as if an unwanted spammer.

A number of people have asked me why I don’t assume a false identity online so as not to create problems associated with my other roles in life, as a writer, as a therapist, and given my familial ties with some people preferring that all things family stay offline and some friends likewise.

But if I assumed a false persona wouldn’t I have to give all the ‘real’ people in my life a false identity too, not that I identify people online unless they’re in the public domain. Still after a while it all gets too hard.

I prefer to start from the point of myself as a real person, however many identities I might assume under that guise.

And maybe it’s just a rationalisation, but as Margaret Atwood writes ‘All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read.’

Too much time has elapsed between composition and publication. She’s talking here about published books and their authors but maybe the same could be said of blogs and so much writing that appears online.

In the immediacy of a chat room or on Twitter or Facebook, maybe it’s safe to assume the words and the person who typed them are one and the same, but the very fact of writing them changes things.

Nothing stands still even as words on a page can appear fixed. Once read by another person those written words can shift around. They’re open to different interpretations and perspectives even after they’re published.

We all imagine the words differently.

Identity is like this, too. It’s fluid. It shifts and sways and refuses to stay put.

I hesitated to post these meandering thoughts until I read Adam Phillips “Against Self-Criticism” from his book Unforbidden Pleasures. (Thanks Christine Brett Vickers for putting me onto this.

If you’re anything like me, these words might give you the courage you need to go on in defiance of that ‘obscene superego’, and the internal voice that tells you to shut up.

Phillips writes:

“We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people. A life without a so-called critical faculty would seem an idiocy: what are we, after all, but our powers of discrimination, our taste, the violence of our preferences?

Self-criticism, and the self as critical, are essential to our sense, our picture, of our so-called selves.

Nothing makes us more critical – more suspicious or appalled or even mildly amused – than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism, that we should be less impressed by it and start really loving ourselves.

But the self-critical part of ourselves, the part that Freud calls the super-ego, has some striking deficiencies: it is remarkably narrow-minded; it has an unusually impoverished vocabulary; and it is, like all propagandists, relentlessly repetitive.

It is cruelly intimidating – Lacan writes of ‘the obscene super-ego’ – and it never brings us any news about ourselves.

There are only ever two or three things we endlessly accuse ourselves of, and they are all too familiar; a stuck record, as we say, but in both senses – the super-ego is reiterative.

It is the stuck record of the past (‘something there badly not wrong’, Beckett’s line from Worstward Ho, is exactly what it must not say) and it insists on diminishing us. It is, in short, unimaginative; both about morality, and about ourselves.

Were we to meet this figure socially, this accusatory character, this internal critic, this unrelenting fault-finder, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel.

We might think that something terrible had happened to him, that he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout, of some catastrophe. And we would be right.”