Before I started university a shocking revelation about child abuse in the family came to light. It rocked me to my core, and my bipolar stepdad had a rather extreme reaction: self-harming and being violent, as he felt responsible.
I worked hard to escape this situation by going to university to achieve an honours degree. I was offered a place to do a PhD but found it hard to make friends. People have remarked that I have a “the world is out to get me” view. My family has little interest in my studies. My own father was divorced last year and has had four breakdowns since. He called me at university with suicidal thoughts, so I decided to come home and look after him. I was struggling already with workload and a long-distance relationship in America. My boyfriend knows about my situation and wants me to move over there. I find it very hard to believe him when he says he loves me and wants a future with me. I feel as though I have been let down by all the male figures in my life. Would I just be putting myself in a vulnerable position giving up my career for him?
This problem first appeared in the Observer.
This is a fascinating letter, full of secrets and ambiguities. It seems as though you are asking for advice about whether or not to go to America, yet the letter is full of child abuse, mental illness and violence. You know you need help but don’t seem to know what the problem is.
‘Shocking revelation’ and ‘rocked me to my core’ are both very dramatic phrases designed to grip the reader and convey the enormity of a situation that is then not discussed. In what must be some kind of re-enactment of whatever the child abuse entailed, there is a lot of reaction and chaos but no examination of the abuse itself. It feels as though something unspeakable but extremely important has been lost in the ensuing mess – perhaps your own mind and emotional life. The way you write is so dramatic that I suspect you are rather dissociated from your life, perhaps viewing it somewhat from the outside.
In the first two sentences we have child abuse and a violent bipolar man both situated in your home and your mind. You say you tried to escape by going to university but the fact that you found it hard to make friends and that your father, also seriously mentally ill, followed you to university with his problems, suggests that the escape was not felt to be real. Perhaps your life does not feel very real – there is an empty quality to your letter.
You make it clear that you did well at university but somehow this feels negated by your family’s lack of interest and praise, perhaps meaning that you left and returned to care for your father as a way of achieving something worthwhile in their eyes – caring for the sick rather than studying. It sounds as though you have been forced to be an adult too early in life and have parented people who should have been looking after you. I wonder what else this role reversal entailed and where you mother is in all this, where she is in your mind? As you point out yourself, you are very male-dominated in a damaging way and there does not seem to be a nurturing mother figure anywhere in the atmosphere of what you write.
You say people think you feel the world is out to get you and I wonder what you really feel is out to get you? You may well have had a frightening childhood in which your development was indeed thwarted by forces beyond your control – the adults around you. You sound very lonely in this letter – profoundly unsupported and stuck in quite a narcissistic position (entirely self-sufficient and fearful of dependence) – quite blank.
It is impossible to guess at your boyfriend’s character. He sounds loving and supportive, but it’s not clear how long you have been together, how well you know each other, or how you feel about him. You say you don’t trust his feelings for you but I suspect you are flipping the doubt and fear around and are in fact unsure of your feelings for him. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had sought out another ill and needy man who needs your support, though there is no hint of that here. The fact that you wonder whether you would be making yourself vulnerable by, as you say, ‘giving up your career’ for him suggests that you know very well what you would feel. You don’t say; ‘Perhaps, I would feel happy and looked after.’ While you remain so afraid of being dependent on someone, especially a man, it would clearly be frightening to put yourself in that position, though it is also clear why that would be tempting in an addictive way. Even if your boyfriend is not ill, disintegrating and possibly violent, it is possible that you, with no apparent knowledge of anything else, might seduce him into behaving in these ways if you don’t look further at the way you have always been taught to behave around men and the ways in which you are still obeying these childhood rules.
The main message I take from your letter is that you are far more unwell that you allow yourself to know. You project the illness and the dramatic reactions into the men in your life and you yourself remain ‘sane’ and fairly capable. Like the abuse in the letter, your own illness remains secret. Your apparent sanity is a defence against disintegrating as they have done, and against the damage done by the child abuse that ‘came to light’.
You seem dissociated and distanced from yourself and your mind, hoping that by making the right decisions you might be okay. It seems to me that this terrible chaos is likely to pursue you to America or wherever you go until you get some help with your own rather hidden and secret mental state.
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