CW: Mentions of Southern Evangelical religious beliefs that are pretty darn scary and in my mind qualify as genuine trauma. Also mentions of other forms of childhood trauma. All from the past, though, not the present. So, don’t worry!
I promised….about two months ago…to tell the story of how I unmasked about trauma and neurodiversity for the first time at work. Then, the universe decided that it would be hilarious if my own irony magnet powers combined with my Partner’s (less often mentioned) power to cause streetlights and other forms of electronics to short out in his presence to mock another ill-advised blog boast of mine that cable had been good to us by sending us multiple cable modems that inexplicably shorted out in a row.
During those rare periods wherein I both had Internet at home (I’m still not daring enough to write anonymously about my work on a work computer, after all) and was feeling well enough to post, that particular story just didn’t seem relevant enough to what was actually going on in present time to be worth telling. What can I say? ADHD is not known for a linear sense of time or for conventionally progressive narrative storytelling.
It is, however, known for leaping between stories in such a way that nobody else can follow the time jump – and throwing in pronoun confusion to boot. Thus, you will probably (ok, maybe…) finally get the story of how I unmasked at work next post anyway – not because that particular story relates to anything in my current life, but because it seems very relevant to the challenges my Partner is currently facing around talking about trauma and neurodiversity in his own less-than-ideal environments.
I’ve mentioned on several occasions that my Partner’s parents are a confusing breed of blood-is-thicker-than-beliefs Southern Conservative. My Partner’s calls home will inevitably devolve into political debates that leave him pacing the complex hallways for three hours, yet he will still choose to call every few months anyway because both sides manage to remember to hang up with an “I love you” before anything too unforgivable is said. I’ve mentioned that they manage to simultaneously disbelieve that mental health and neurodiversity are legitimate things to seek help for while accepting me and my Partner’s own “neurodiversity” as cute “quirks.” And, I’ve mentioned that they can contribute their own experiences to their parents’ and siblings’ jaw-dropping Thanksgiving #metoo discussion, somehow simultaneously agreeing with us that it sucks that they have those stories to contribute at all but also agreeing with the rest of the family that if they could both manage to flee from offending bosses and unwanted advances, then they don’t see why everybody else is making such a fuss about things that are just an inevitable part of life.
Have I mentioned explicitly that they are both survivors of childhood trauma? Probably not, because I’m not sure my Partner fully grasped that they were until recently. I suspected it of my father-in-law, at least, because when my Partner’s sibling had a child, I did what any research-trained trauma survivor terrified of the prospect of ever being responsible for not passing on the legacy of her own childhood would do when confronted with a flesh-and-blood member of the next generation. I numbed out and stared glassy-eyed while reciting things I’d learned about the development of infant eyesight and why babies like bright primary colors instead of waving a brightly colored rattle to interact with any baby at all. Most of my Partner’s family assumed this was par for the course given my “quirks” and “over-education.” My father-in-law, however, ever-so-casually whispered to me, “Whatever you are remembering right now, it doesn’t have to be that way for your kids. You’ll figure it out the same as I did when the time comes.”
He mostly did figure it out. My Partner doesn’t have any of the classic ACES. For most of our relationship, he claimed he had no trauma at all. After several years of being dragged to my own therapy sessions because I don’t quite trust even a good trauma therapist without backup, though, he’s come to realize that not having any ACES – narrowly defined – doesn’t necessarily mean he doesn’t have any trauma. His parents both broke from their family’s own Evangelical religious upbringings. They raised their children with an understanding that they were loved and without any religion in their own home.
They also, unfortunately, had to rely on family members for childcare outside the home while they both worked to make ends meet. Economic mobility in America too often means choosing between paying the bills and shielding the children from external sources of toxic stress. My Partner did experience, as he put it, “enough trips to Bible camp to learn it was easier to just acquiesce to being born again and again and letting strangers lay on hands rather than objecting and drawing attention.” He also experienced the warped Evangelical family definition of “saving someone” that demanded his grandparents and aunts remind him of the supposed reason he was doing well in school and staying on the straight and narrow – while his cousins dabbled in substances and got in trouble with the law – instead of just saying “good job.” (Spoiler alert: that reason was not that he was simply intelligent or a hard worker. It was, instead, that he was part of The Wicked, aka an unbeliever. The Devil, apparently, doesn’t need to tempt The Wicked the way he does the Righteous because he “already knows he’ll have them in Hell anyway.”) As my Partner explains Evangelical self-justifications: If you are successful and you’re a believer, it’s because God is giving you your just rewards. If you are unsuccessful and you’re a believer, it’s because the Devil is acting against you as a mighty opponent. However, if you are successful and you are an unbeliever it’s because the Devil is so convinced he’s got your soul already he doesn’t have to tempt you. If you are unsuccessful and an unbeliever, it’s because God is punishing you.
It took my Partner one un-hand-waveable meltdown in a completely non-Evangelical, LGBTQ-friendly Progressive house of worship – after a guitar chord reminded him a little too much of the songs at the services of his childhood – to recognize that he might have some lingering “stuff” about having to go No Contact with the worst of his extended family. It took the rest of his family almost twice my Partner’s lifetime to date to recognize their own “stuff.”
In the past few months, both of my in-laws have had to confront their own pasts in ways I don’t envy. My Partner has had the equally unenviable task of trying to figure out how a grown child who, on the whole, does have a good relationship with his parents – but is not of like mind with them on key topics – is supposed to support them through it.
First, one grandparent that his family hasn’t spoken to in years dealt with serious health problems of the “you should get down here because he likely won’t make it through this” type. The extended family expected his family’s presence and “prayers.” My father-in-law finally had to admit that he didn’t want my Partner to fly down because what I have suspected since that whispered pep talk two Thanksgivings ago was entirely correct. He also didn’t really want to go himself but felt compelled to.
Second, my Partner’s sibling and the mother of the aforementioned child ended their relationship in a very messy way. Among other irreconcilable differences, the ex has returned to the Evangelical religion of her youth, and – now that they are splitting custody – she is introducing that child to that same form of religion. This has set her in direct opposition to my mother-in-law, who responded to her belief that her child should not celebrate Halloween because it might draw the attention of The Enemy by immediately finding the nearest children’s Haunted House and booking family tickets.
Did I mention that my Partner and I are geeks who have slung a few twenty-sided dice in our day? Did I mention that D&D has become sufficiently mainstream that even my Partner’s parents recognize pop culture references and even his brother – not a traditional geek – has taken up the hobby? Did I mention that my in-laws generally enjoy horror and sci-fi movies, and one or two will usually be the focal point of a family movie night when we visit? My father-in-law is a nerd who would likely have evolved into a full-fledged geek if he were born a generation later.
Also, did I ever mention that my Partner and I can and will use gallows humor to cope with even the 9th Circle of Hell? It doesn’t always work, but when it works it is just about the only thing that works. (And, when it doesn’t, nothing else will anyway because dissociation sucks.)
Quips about “can’t trips” and Halloween dungeons actually did take some of the tension out of an otherwise upsetting building discussion of what to do about baby beliefs. Taking it one step further and mentioning that most ridiculous (at least if you’ve only ever been exposed to it through MST-3K like my Partner) of all Halloween/D&D/general 80s panic cartoon’s line about how we’ve got a while until the baby is high enough level to learn any “real power**” didn’t. At least not this time. My Partner is triggered by real-world examples of Evangelical religious trappings, and you couldn’t pay him to set foot inside a megachurch. But, Chick Tracts themselves still have a certain aura of “was that even really real?” even having known his own extended family. They are (were?) still within the realm of exaggerated geek humor rather than something anyone IRL would ever actually believe.
His mother, it seemed, did an even better job of “figuring it out” than his dad. For most of his life, jokes of that nature – or really any mention of his overt non-religiosity – would be worth a non-commital chuckle and a reminder to be polite around his extended family. In one of their most recent conversations, however, it prompted a semi-ranting reminiscence about his mother’s own real-life childhood handing out similar fliers instead of Halloween candy – as well as the bullying and social isolation that inevitably sprung from being the family that did that sort of thing. One too many even minor re-exposures to trauma triggers can break the lock on anyone’s trauma box, and the prospect of a grandchild forced to repeat her own worst experiences with Evangelical extremism isn’t exactly a minor re-exposure…
I used to be the kind of girl who could glibly discuss my worst triggers with a smile on my face – or defend my thesis while the world fell apart around me. No one ever suspected a thing about my history with the 9th Circle of Hell when I was outside of it. I lost that ability only last year. I have no idea why last year, in particular, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t like it was the first such crisis, and C-PTSD will forever assume it won’t be the last. My in-laws appear to have held on to their abilities through to their fifties. I think they think they are still holding on to it. But, my Partner has learned enough from Hell to see through their own masks.
What do you tell your Partner to tell his own father about why it’s not selfish to not want to be the caregiver for an abusive parent? What do you tell your Partner to tell his mother about how the intensity of her need to embrace all of the things that her grandchild’s mom doesn’t want might be a “trigger” from her own childhood just as much as having a panic attack during a guitar solo in a liberal church (or staring glassy-eyed at a rattle) is? I have no idea. The same gentle conversations about “your childhood experiences aren’t normal and it’s okay to be hurt or angry about that fact” that my Partner once gave to me still don’t quite work with an older Southern generation that is still just a bit too Conservative to view therapy, or peer support, or self-help trauma workbooks as anything other than weakness. My Partner actually asked me to ask my readers, especially any readers who are older than us and/or from a childhood trauma background wherein they specifically grew up with specifically Evangelical Southern parents.
He did not ask me to also add in my own addendum. But, I will anyway, because he knows me well enough to suspect I will. And, I know him well enough to know that if he really didn’t want me to he’d explicitly say so. Silence is therefore tacit permission. Because his, “Yeah, okay my interactions with my Evangelical extended family telling me I was destined for Hell over and over again were maybe a little traumatic. But, they are still nothing compared to my dad being beaten or my mom handing out proto Chick Tracts. Whatever overflow from their childhoods I got is nothing compared to what they shielded me from – and it’s definitely nothing compared to the 9th Circle of Hell! I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve been more traumatized by a few months in Hell last year than my entire religious exposure.”
What do I say to him when he steadfastly maintains on the one hand that “all trauma is valid.” Yet, on the other hand, he shrugs his shoulders when I point out the inconsistencies of that professed belief with his own response to what he’s feeling about the health issues of family members who were cruel to him in the name of “love the sinner, hate the sin” or still decides his own feelings don’t warrant self-care in the face of the much “worse” experiences of his parents – or me?
** That link goes to the Dark Dungeons Chick Track. While it might be humorous to some, it clearly is a little too close to the kinds of abusive Evangelical ideologies a lot of readers are still recovering from. Read at your own risk. Also, realizing this made me feel like posting a meme about D&D clerics. I did warn everyone we’re geeks, right?
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out my Glossary of Terms