The Joke's On Me

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

My path to becoming a functional adult has required loads of work.

Without dredging up the whole experience (once was enough, thank you), I had sustained some ongoing abuse as a child that left me without boundaries. The abuse was so bad that when I showed up at the pediatrician's office with yet another injury, the doctor asked my mother to leave the room, so he could ask me privately if my mother and father were hurting me (they weren't). He didn't ask me who was hurting me, and I didn't tell anyone until decades later. And that was just the physical. The emotional torment was far worse.

When I reached adulthood as an anxiety-ridden disaster, I established my first boundary, even if just a physical one: I moved far away from my hometown and stayed away for a decade. When my mother told me I couldn't run away from my problems and that they would follow me wherever I went, she was only half right. While a lack of boundaries would indeed follow me in a series of bad relationships, terrible boyfriends, and a few abusive and compromising situations, I could also be in charge of what to do about it.

I worked with a counselor who was trained as a physicist, so her approach was not exactly textbook psychology. A short Italian woman as wide as she was tall, she had a brilliant mind and even better culinary skill. Not only did she teach me some recipes and gift me with my first-ever sourdough starter, she also put some organization around the noise in my head and settled it down, while we rolled noodles and made sauces. My world got brighter and came into focus, and I started to breathe a little deeper, stop apologizing for merely existing, and realize my own worth.

When I did move back home at almost 30, even my therapist supported the move and kept in touch periodically as my life went through some big changes. I got married, bought a house, had a son, got a dog, and was living the life, when those pesky boundaries somehow again evaporated. This time the abuser was attempting to reach me through my then-husband, who unlike me, had great boundaries and was having exactly zero part of this drama.

Lovely guy that he is, he set me on a course with more counseling, where I learned that dealing with sociopaths is really just textbook. All of us will come across people who have no respect for our own boundaries, and we all will either have to reinforce those boundaries or watch our lives devolve into chaos. Avoidance can work for awhile, but it's not a sustainable strategy. Abusers will find a way to reach you unless you build yourself an emotional fort.

Building the fort was difficult, and my marriage didn't survive it. It also required uncomfortable conversations with my parents about my childhood. New memories were popping up for me regularly after decades of squashing them down. The worst memory - the one that made sense of all the following events and behavior - I needed them to confirm for me, as my own memory and recurring dreams about it had all melted together in some kind of surreal horror show.

But the outcome of that work was transformational. Boundaries are the building blocks of healthy relationships. Your problems are not my problems to solve, and vice versa. Guilt trips don't work on me (my mother wishes, she'd tell you so herself), and I do not take the bait when dysfunctional people try to drag me into their bullshit. You can call me any name in the book (*any* name), and even that won't get a response from me, not even a counter argument. At work a guy recently screamed at me on the phone that he couldn't believe how fucking stupid I was, and I said in my nicest voice, "Well then I guess I won't be able to help you." End of call.

It's like boundaries are my new superpower, and my life got exponentially better when I figured that out.

And yet now it all feels like a joke.

It's like God, the universe, the cosmos, the aliens, the creator of this particular video game of which I am a player, has a wicked sense of humor. All that work was for....what, exactly?

Living with a demented person feels like constantly being violated. You could try to establish boundaries, but doing so would just cause chaos, abuse, and violence.

How's that for irony? I establish boundaries to prevent chaos, abuse, and violence, only to find myself in a situation where establishing boundaries results in chaos, abuse, and violence.

Starting with the physical space, my father wanders. He goes in my room and goes through all of my things. He will come into the room where I'm working and interrupt meetings or conversations. Of course he does none of this on purpose; he doesn't remember whose room it is or that I'm working. When I find him in my room, and ask him to leave, that it's my room, he can erupt in anger saying that it's his house. I once shot back, "it's my house too," and he exploded. Likely, he thought in that moment that I was a child in his custody, not the working adult paying the mortgage. But I learned quickly to just agree, yes, it's your house.

Then there's the your stuff, my stuff boundary. He takes my things and does what he wants with them. One day while I was working, he went into my room, into my bathroom, took my small stained glass trashcan, and threw it into a bigger trashcan. Whether he didn't like it or was incompetently trying to take out the trash, we'll never know. Because of course he didn't do that, he would tell you.

He's not accountable for a single thing -- just like a sociopath -- except it's because he doesn't remember, not that he's purposely gaslighting you. You could tell him he did something, and he'll argue that he didn't. And you just have to agree. Argue with him, and you just get him emotional and upset.

And if you get upset, he can be fierce. He can say terrible things, he can slam doors and have tantrums, and yes, he can threaten violence, and he does.

The most violent he ever got with me, when I was sure he was going to hit me, my mother stepped in and settled him down. I can do the same when it happens to her. But a better plan is to not get him upset in the first place.

And that means having no boundaries. You can't call him out on anything, and you can't have anything of your own (except the alcohol under lock and key, and if I dare slip up, I then have a drunk and angry man, way worse than a sober, angry one).

It's so difficult for me to not take this personally. I have always been closest to him, and he was the one person - more than anyone else - who always respected my boundaries, even when they were no stronger than the wisp of a cloud. He was like the safe place in the storm, the one certainty that I have always had in a head full of noise and horror. Even when the relationship with my parents was strained, my father would call me every week to check in on me, no matter where I was in the world. He was my person, my safety net, my trampoline if I leapt out a window.

But that father is gone. I know that, one of the challenges with dementia. The person you know is gone, though a shadow of them remains as a constant reminder you of what you've lost. The kind of dementia he has impacts all parts of his brain, so it's not just his memory that is eroding, but emotions, intelligence, and physical ability too. He's afraid and confused and so much more emotional than he was before, and what used to be his very long fuse is now an instant spark. He's different, and it's not his fault, and he's no longer safe.

I try to take comfort in knowing that I'm his safe place now, after a lifetime of it being the other way around. But some days, I just feel violated and want to establish some boundaries.

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