Trauma Happy Finance – Falling into the Empathy Faucet

Welcome to Wednesdays at Trauma Happy Finance! Every Wednesday I write to my younger self and give him some much-needed advice and self-compassion. In reality, Younger Miguel didn’t know he was suffering from real trauma having lived with paranoid schizophrenic mom for years. He’s got a lot of bad thinking habits and well-worn scripts in his head about himself. I want to take some time each week writing to that angry youth. I want to tell him all the things he needed to hear. 

If you’re also someone who grew up with a parent who suffered from a major mental illness, I hope my letters to Younger Miguel speak to you too.

Hey Miguel,

You’re sixteen and feeling pretty shitty every single day. You’re angry inside about Mom and you don’t know how to handle all these strong emotions. Worse yet, your grades are faltering. That makes you feel like garbage. School used to be the place to relax for you! It was a separate location for you to be away from Mom for hours. You got to be with friends.

A decade from now you’ll hate school so much that you leave. For a while you leave college and boy is it hard to make the decision to go back. You resent the fact that school no longer is a refuge for you. The expectations in your head of lasting friendships and new identities for yourself fall away as you fall behind. Regardless of schooling’s costs (Dad paid a lot of money for you to go to private elementary, private high school, and four different colleges) it’s the emotional part (duh) of it that will hold you back from returning.

Your perspective right now that the universe owes you something because of the effort you put in with wrangling Mom and the stress you’re carrying in your shoulders because of her? It’s a strong feeling, sure, but life is not quid pro quo. You don’t deserve ease and relaxation because of your trauma.

Yes, school used to be a refuge for you and you were excelling in writing and math in previous grades. But the truth is, Mom is falling down on the job. Yes, because of her brain disease it’s involuntary. But the fact remains that she’s not supporting you or nurturing you properly. You’re a growing human. You need help and you need guidance. She puts so much stress on you that you don’t have the opportunity to learn good study habits. She may print out study tips on computer paper for you but why would you trust the advice of a woman who often needs your help with picking brands of bread in the grocery? You’re so entangled in her successes and failures even with such minutiae as bread choice. You never had the time and space to learn about your own inner life. She just lassos you into her fractured view of reality. She turns to you to anchor herself to reality when the paranoia gets too loud. It’s an important role, but it comes at the price of your childhood.

With Mom’s fragility when she falls down, you fall down too. And you’re gonna spend the next decade trying to pick yourself back up after leaving Mom behind. It’s gonna be hard. That codependent lasso is unfortunately resilient. You’re gonna not find the path a whole bunch of times. You’re gonna get so confused and sad that when you’re falling down you’ll sob into the arms of women once you realize no ones falling with you. And no one even notices that you’re falling.

But I got there. I found our path. I’m going back to school. I’m scared. The lasso’s still pretty tough.

You have a vision for how you want your life to be. That’s why you fought so hard to keep things as together as possible in that house with Mom, your sister, and Yaya. You have a vision for how life should be. Not everybody has such clear visions. Not everyone fights hard to make them come true. You were fighting for an impossible vision, but how could you know that Mom has a reality-breaking brain disease? No one knew. But you try. No one told you to try. But you feel it’s the right thing to do. Listen to that fire that tells you to try. It won’t make school a refuge again but maybe you’ll use that flame to carve out an alcove in your heart that you can snuggle into when you feel like you’re floating away.

You are overflowing with empathy. you cannot turn it off. You are always trying to suss out what other people are feeling. And you want to sincerely help them, care for them. You will take your spring of empathy and drown yourself and friends with it. You will overbearing with it. You will lead with it and it will hurt you. You’ll be scared to care. But you’ll learn when it’s appropriate to be very empathetic because not everyone knows how to give themselves boundaries. Not everyone learns to cares for both themselves and others like you do. You just have to find the right pulpit and the right audience.

Empathy could be the end of you. Or the source of your strength. If you don’t learn to master it, it’ll just be another lasso.

I love you very much,

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