Growing Pains

No one can become a truly biblical adult without setting some limits… Otherwise, we never know if we have forged our own values, beliefs, and convictions – our very identity – or if we are mimicking the ideas of our family… if you have never questioned, set boundaries, or experienced conflict with your family members, you may not have an adult-to-adult connection with your family… You may be afraid of separating, individuating and becoming an autonomous adult.

From Boundaries in Marriage by John Townsend and Henry Cloud

(as quoted in the ‘Boundaries’ email devotional from biblegateway.com)

Well that seems very pertinent to me, both from the perspective of a woman who never had the opportunity to ‘grow up’ properly – a combination of illness, abuse from brother and (first) spouse, and a highly passive aggressive mother – and from the perspective of the same woman with two teenage children who are testing the boundaries and trying to establish their own sense of autonomy, one of whom has autism and learning disabilities so may well have limited autonomy. They never actually say these words, but the majority of what they do seems to be saying ‘who am I?’ I pray Prince and Fluff find their answers framed by Christ, but they have to be given the freedom and respect to discover Him for themselves. I can’t worry and fret over them or I’ll smother them, despite wanting so desperately to protect them and to share with them this gift of grace.

Plus, I have two teenage children. That makes me so old. Of course, when you’re a teenager anyone over 30 seems positively ancient, but I have to remind myself that I’m not yet 40. I have plenty of life left, God-willing. The bizarre thing is that, because of everything I’ve been through, I’m still figuring out who I am, so it’s doubly difficult to be able to parent someone else through it (the only conclusion, so far, is that I am somewhat eccentric). But we muddle through, by grace. Always by grace, thank God.

Boundaries

emergency

Another trip to Accident & Emergency last night. I’m sure all parents can relate. We used to go several times a year because at least one child would have injured themselves falling off a skateboard, jumping off a swing, or hurtling down the stairs. I wonder if children in families with restricted television go to A&E more often, statistically speaking, than whose for whom telly/social media is unrestricted?

It wouldn’t be so bad but the nearest A&E is a 30-40 minute drive and it wears me out, so no church this morning (also 30 minutes away). Fluff’s friends, Pippa and Caitlyn (aka The Twins), came with us because they were already with us for a sleepover, so it made for a rather raucous rabble entering the hospital (in a way that only 13-year-old girls can be). I was glad, in some ways, because they kept Fluff entertained and even carried her from the car to the hospital entrance.

Fluff and Chip did their first ever show jumping yesterday afternoon and Fluff’s horse stood on her foot. When the foot turned blue and swollen later I didn’t want to risk not going to hospital. But I really miss it when we don’t go to church. We didn’t go last week either because Fluff was at Pippa and Caitlyn’s for a sleepover and I had to pick her up.

If you have children, do you sometimes get the impression that your role is chiefly that of general dogsbody and/or chauffeur? My life seems to exist as a sideshow to that of my kids, especially because I end up wearing myself out doing it all, so have no ‘spoons’ (see Spoon Theory) left over.

So what are you going to do about it? That’s what I’d like to know… ~ Paul Simon

Christ calls us to be servants, and this is why I do serve, but I have begun to wonder if I am actually indulging my children in my ‘serving’. So I have ordered a copy of Boundaries with Teens: When to Say Yes, How to Say No by John Townsend, who also co-wrote the life-changing Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life. The latter should be required reading for anyone who has experienced abuse or co-dependency, or who grew up in a dysfunctional home. Many who have not experienced these sorts of problems don’t realise quite how much ‘self’ is lost, or how incredibly damaging that is. I didn’t even know that I could make boundaries between myself and other people before I read this book. I had the vaguest idea because I’d heard other people talking about it, but because childhood abuse (particularly sexual abuse but not exclusively) robs the victim of personal boundaries, people could impinge on me with impunity and I didn’t even know they were doing it. No wonder I ended up in an abusive first marriage. I just thank God that He eventually put a stop to it all.

‘Boundaries…’ is full of sound, practical advice and the authors are devout Christians so each part is linked to the bible and the wisdom within. An excellent and life changing book, I also have high hopes for the ‘Boundaries with Teens’ version.

Thoughts on Samantha Morton, Childhood Sexual Abuse and Co-dependency

I was pleased (if one can be pleased about such things) to learn of actress Samantha Morton’s interview in which she spoke of the way she was treated when, as a child in care, she was abused by her carers. Actually, ‘pleased’ is not the word. The interview is outstanding, or rather, Samantha is outstanding; she speaks the brutal (painful) truth with courage and dignity. Although her circumstances were very different to my own – I cannot claim to know what it is like to have been in care – the response Samantha received from the police and from those in ‘authority’ sounds suspiciously like the response I received. In essence, they were not interested, and the victim was made to feel as if she was the one at fault by both the abuser and those around her, who colluded by doing nothing about it. My heart goes out to Samantha in this interview, and to all those like her who were removed from abusive families only to be subject to round after round of abuse from countless different people. Samantha’s courage and ability to carve for herself a brilliant career as an actress is nothing but inspirational. In that sense she is like Wess Stafford, former CEO of Compassion International, who also experienced childhood sexual abuse and, despite everything, grew up to be a courageous, compassionate, intelligent adult.

Personally, I have made the decision not to pursue any civil action against the police (after they told me last year that there was ‘not enough evidence’ to take my case to court whereas there would have been plenty had they acted on the information they were given 20 years ago) because a family member said she couldn’t go through it all again. I have to respect that, despite the fact that sometimes I want to shout and scream and show the world how unjust it is while it pretends to be civilized. Jesus’ words to the scribes and Pharisees seem particularly apt for describing those who abuse, and those whose behaviour condones abuse (including those who look the other way):

You are like white-washed tombs, which look fine on the outside but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all kinds of rottenness. For you appear like good men on the outside—but inside you are a mass of pretence and wickedness.’ 

Matthew 23:27 (JB Phillips)

In addition to watching Samantha’s interview, I have been thinking about the effects of abuse and how victims can lose, or rather, never gain, ‘normal’ boundaries (by which I mean a sense of ‘self’ as separate from others, which is something we usually learn in childhood and it grows stronger as we get older). This lack of ‘self’ leads to co-dependent behaviour. ‘Co-dependency’ is one of those words that are frequently thrown about and oft misunderstood. I remember when I first came across the word I thought it must be to do with being an alcoholic – which it is, but that is just one of a broad range of behaviours that can be associated with being co-dependent. At this point I want to stress that being co-dependent is not just the result of abuse. It can begin in many ways.

Recent events (i.e. something that happened yesterday) have left me considering again the nature of co-dependency. It is a complex issue, but at its heart, in its most simple form, co-dependency consists of two things:

1. The belief that others are responsible for my feelings.

and/or

2. The belief that I am responsible for others’ feelings.

Of course, there are occasions when a person’s actions will deliberately and directly affect my feelings and in that sense the one ‘causing’ the situation can be said to be responsible for my feelings. Also, of course, there are degrees to which I am responsible for the way other people feel. I am responsible in no small way for the feelings of my children, for example. I also choose to interact with people in a kind and sensitive way (for the most part), which is a way of taking a degree of responsibility for others’ wellbeing.

So where does the line lie? When you’re co-dependent, this may seem an impossible question. Or, you may know the answer rationally, but fail to act accordingly (denial being a very prominent feature of co-dependent behaviour). Both of these were true for me, in the past. Childhood sexual abuse can take away your boundaries until you have no sense of ‘self’, and too much sense of ‘others’. This can and does last well into adulthood. Everyone around you may seem as if they have huge, overwhelming emotions; this is scary. Your own emotions were buried somewhere, a long time ago. In order to survive, the sense of ‘self’ became locked in a nuclear bomb-proof vault. I don’t know if this happens to everyone, but it seems to be what happened to me. My instinct, even well into adulthood, was to placate those big, scary emotions. Sometimes the other person doesn’t cause big, scary emotions, but they impose upon you all the same. I have family members who do this and I don’t think they even realise they do it. I believe this more subtle imposition is called passive aggression/manipulation.

Back to my question – where does the line lie? Well, if another person has deliberately set out to hurt me, they share some responsibility for my resultant reaction. But feelings are not behaviour, and the onus is on the individual to take responsibility for their own behaviour. When you begin to take responsibility for your own behaviour, particularly in the way you respond to other people, your feelings change too. First, you take responsibility for your behaviour, and then you take responsibility for your feelings. You learn to separate those things which it is reasonable to be happy/sad/angry/scared about, and those things about which it is not reasonable. You learn that, even if you have some big emotions from your past clouding your judgement in the here and now – you are still responsible for you. For clarity: feelings are not wrong. Anger, sadness, bitterness even, are not wrong; they’re all phases we go through in response to certain situations, e.g. abuse, grief, etc. If you’ve been abused you’re allowed to be angry! Jesus had some very strong words for those who took advantage of those weaker than themselves:

“…if anyone leads astray one of these little children who believe in me he would be better off thrown into the depths of the sea with a mill-stone hung round his neck!”

Matthew 18:6 (JB Phillips)

In conclusion, this is the most important lesson: you can’t change other people. You can only change you. If you’re a follower of Christ, you do this with grace. It is no longer ‘there, but for the grace of God…’ but ‘there, with the grace of God…’ and you begin the first, tentative steps on the most wonderful journey towards healing and peace. God is good. God is always.