Are You Okay?

A reader alerted me to an article about the children of a mentally unstable parent. 

Just when I think I have a handle on all the reasons I am who I am, I read an article and another vein opens.

It sucks, you guys. This is hard and unpleasant. I don’t like examining pain. I don’t like having to find ways to change.

But here I am. Ready to tackle the next goddamn thing.

I understood every word of this article. I saw myself in every sentence. I am hyper aware.

I’ve written about this before, but in a completely different context.  I wrote about the exhaustion of constantly looking for the next awful thing. I didn’t write about how my hyper awareness affects people around me.

If I had to guess, I would say the one thing my sons and Randy would say is the most annoying thing about me, it’s that I constantly ask them if they are okay. I don’t think a single day passes that I don’t ask one of them “are you okay?” or “what’s wrong?” Usually, more than once a day. Sometimes, more than once an hour.

Mostly, they are kind about it. But they also sometimes let me know that I’m bugging the shit out them. But I don’t stop. It has never occurred to me to stop. How can I emotionstop when something might be wrong?

The article talks about magnifying nuances because it was often the little things that would cause our mentally unstable parent to lose their shit.

The article said it differently and with less cursing. I’m paraphrasing. 

So, I learned at a young age, to read the cues. To pay attention.

Paying attention would at least give a little warning when everything was about to turn south.

The thing is, if this is what you do, then this is what you do. I never stopped magnifying every eye twitch or body shift. I never stopped listening for a slight tone change when someone speaks. I also apply this scrutiny to every person in all situations.

I’ve been in meetings where someone melted down and I knew it was going to happen well before it happened. In every case, I find myself looking around thinking “Holy shit…don’t they see what is going on? And why in the fuck would they say that when it’s obvious he’s about to blow a gasket?”

I am very good at reading emotional weather.

I can sense tension without any problem. When people attempt to send non-verbal cues to each other, I almost always intercept them. I see every set of drumming fingers and hear every single sigh, no matter how subtle.

The author writes about how this behavior is toxic to him and damaging to his relationships.

I physically feel those lines. Yes. Yes, I can see how this behavior has been toxic for me. It never makes me feel better. Trying to constantly gauge emotional weather only causes me anxiety. And no matter how many times I have asked my family those questions, “Are you okay?” “What’s wrong?” regardless of their answer, I’ve never changed the situation at all. Not once.

The most I’ve done is get on their nerves for badgering them. For years.

I took a few moments and considered their perspective. First of all, how many times can you hear the same goddamn questions and not lose your shit? I also never considered how terribly intrusive it is. Just because I am constantly scanning for change in emotion, doesn’t mean that the people I’m scanning want to share. Do I want to share every fucking feeling I’m having while I am having it? No. No I do not.

I have no idea what I am going to do with this information yet. I don’t know how to go about undoing this, other than just forcing myself to not voice those questions.

You have no idea how hard this will be. Just considering giving this practice up makes my throat tighten up a little. I don’t know if just swallowing the words will help my mental health, but at the very least, it will give my family a break.

Does “fake it until you make it” work in all situations? Because so far, that seems to be my go to for personal change.

Photo courtesy of Kat Jayne

 

 

 

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Add your comments below. Profanity is encouraged, but not required. ;)
  1. Pam says:

    Yes, fake it ’til you make works! Because it is forcing you to practice the goal behavior. Every single time you fake it, you’re training yourself to use the new skill.

    I grew up with a much less volatile patent, though few would call her emotional swings stable, but still have frighteningly empathetic behaviors. And I have an inner pit bull who will defend the underdogs savagely if I feel authority is treading too heavily.

    I’ve always justified the pit bull as righteous and praised her. Not sure I’m ready to examine that shit.

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      Yeah, I have that same pit bull. I will go to battle for other people..I just have a hard time battling for myself. But I’m working on that as well.

      Reply
      • Sarah says:

        Definitely have that inner pit bull, and I don’t know that she’s a bad thing. You just have to stand up sometimes, mYbe it is because we’re really defending the long-ago us that we couldn’t defend back then. And it’s hard to get rid of that need to make sure everyone’s ok. Don’t want to give up the hyper awareness, maybe just tone down the behavior…

        Reply
    • Spiked Lee says:

      I have an inner nervous angry pekinese with a bad underbite. I would love to have an inner pit bull!

      Reply
  2. Lorraine says:

    Insight and a quarter used to buy you a cupping coffee, we’d say in the therapy world. Hi Michelle. The gift of insight gives you opportunity to practice a new response. I’d let go of the burden of change -as it’s already happened. If you can keep the insight in your consciousness you will make an adjustment. Perhaps, offer your loved ones incentive ——such as if you ask 2x in an hour/day you have to pay $1. One thought that helped me was to acknowledge the adults around me were responsible for A+ communication rather than that subtle non-verbal shit I couldn’t always understand! If they didn’t “say it” I didn’t “have to” respond as though they did! I practice NOT being a mind reader as sometimes I was wrong. Imagine that!

    Seeing it as a choice (“it” being a behavior) is often a helpful first step to change and you are already there girl! Good luck.

    Reply
  3. Jacquelyn says:

    Honestly, therapy work on “the inner child” helped a LOT. I thought it sounded like complete bullshit and little woo-ish, but it turned out that I was functioning at the level of a terrified 6 year old always vigilant so that no one would stop loving her. That “parent your inner child” stuff actually works. Now I mostly deal with things like a 47 year old woman. MOSTLY.

    Reply
  4. Jenny Joy says:

    Oof. “I am very good at reading emotional weather.” Ummmm… yes. I can feel a room before I even enter it. I notice everything. EV-ER-Y-THING. In my mind, that’s how you survive. Intellectually, I’ve known for a long time that it affects me and causes me to be anxious. But sometimes I forget the magnitude of it. Even decades later.

    This all makes me wonder, though, if I’ve taught my own kids to be on edge like this because *I* notice nuance so much? They can all feel a room, too. They’re often anxious. Is that my fault? Crap. It might be.

    The good news? At least we know what the hell is going on with all this. And using the adage of “fake it until you make it” seems like a damn good strategy to me.

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      I’ve never even considered how that behavior contributes to my anxiety, so this is new to me. As far as my kids go? Both of my boys have a level of anxiety and I am sure I played a big part in it. I’ve done the best I can to forgive myself. And they know they are loved. That is what I always fall back on..they know they are loved. That is something I never had from my father.

      Reply
  5. Troll says:

    I’m as fucked up as most people who’ve been constantly told they are fucked up by everyone

    Sucks

    I’m better at telling those people to fuck off Pro tip Paper towels beat the shit out of KleenexHello Michelle

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      Well hello there! Nice to “see” you again!

      Reply
      • Troll says:

        Thanks. Nice to be recognized. 🙂 I’ve read previous posts here but never said anything due to fighting that continuous bullshit pounded into me by all of the haters around here that think I’m stupid and not worth talking to because I don’t know anything. Fuck! I get it everywhere here and I planning my escape as I write this.

        None of these motherfuckers and bitches have had the critical clearance necessary just to view the documentation behind a contract or work as a partner in kind with Sandia National Laboratories. When you retire you’re dumb, according to the story I ‘m told every day.

        I was able to retire at 48 and have been leeched off since then. I allow it and I lose more and more of my personal space, Fuck the fucking fuckers who are fucking trying to fuck with me. I think they’ll miss me when I disappear but maybe not. I am not alone. I’ll be fine and check this out from time to time because it basically rocks. And so do you. I’d grab a motherfucker by the throat and pin him up against a wall for you. Lol.

        Reply
        • Michelle says:

          Hey, so it seems like you are really suffering here. I hope that you are safe.

          Reply
        • Lisa K says:

          H Troll!! How weird is it that I was just thinking bout you the other day (within the week!!) and wondering where you had gone??
          I’d grab a motherfucker by the throat for Michelle, too 😉
          Glad to see you <3

          Reply
  6. Sherry Bucalo says:

    Michelle, Your right the fact that your kids know they love you makes up for a lot. Another thing I do is tell my kids I am sorry…A Lot. Never would I have heard that growing up. Closest I got from my mom was her therapist told her there were things that it was better that she not remember. She actually said this to me with a straight face. I have never laughed so hard. Everyone else remembers things wrong and she blames my drinking ( I’ll have 20 yrs sober 11/3) even things that happened when I was 4-5. Or things that all four of the kids remember almost exactly, LOL. I finally figured out one of us had to grow up and it sure as hell would never be her so… Helps my kids that she has been living with us for the last 10 yrs. My 18 yr old thinks I deserve a medal for not killing her, and my 13 yr old who she adores finally figured out grandma acts like she hates me, so at least they know some of what I came from and thankfully my oldest has said if I become like my mom he will gladly kill me before I realize it LOL

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      I have also been quick with apologies to my kids when I’m an asshole. I never heard apologies as everything was my fault. I won’t do that to them. And I know I’m flawed. But that’s okay..we all are. xoxo

      Reply
  7. Deborah says:

    I had to manage intrusive thoughts a lot, as someone with OCD. What helped shut down the impulse was a quick “replacement” message. I hate to put it this way, but it works like when Cesar Milan makes that sharp mouth noise when a dog is obsessing and they relax. Something as simple as saying or consciously thinking “they’re OK,” when you feel the urge to ask, but before you say anything. It can also help to get up (or if you can’t get up) look at a different point on the wall, anything to break your focus and gaze and allow the thought to reset. It won’t change the root need, but it will form a new response pattern and lessen the intensity. It works through repetition.

    Reply
  8. Elaine says:

    Wow, just wow. Thank you for this insightful post. My husband is bonkers with my “are you okays “ all day. Yes, I am a noticer and quick observer. Sometimes it serves a purpose ( if only to annoy others) when I can see what will or will not happen and want everyone else to see this and move on! And they rarely think – how did she know?
    I am giving your suggestion a try – stopping myself before I ask about the “okays”. But, the noticing part can be a good thing… sometimes.

    Reply
  9. Spiked Lee says:

    as they say in 12 step groups, it’s easier to act your way in to new thinking than to think your way in to new acting. So yeah, fake it til you make it.
    I totally get the hypervigilance around other’s emotions. That stupid walking on eggshells book is supposed to help, but I refuse to read it.
    What helped me most so far was to realize that when I ask other people if they are okay, I am not expressing concern (like I thought) but telling them that their feelings are not okay for them to have. Especially because then I try to fix their feelings. Because I am the great and powerful oz, don’tcha know? It turns out it is so much easier for me to only have to control my own feelings, and not have to control theirs too.
    Of course, all that bullshit is so much easier to think and to say than to actually do. Sometimes I do better than others.
    I bet you do better sometimes than other, and that after this, it gets easier. Ain’t it grand to wake up in the morning?

    Reply
  10. Connie says:

    I also am always gauging people and picking up nuances that don’t seem like nuances to me. They seem like screams.
    One counselor wanted me to stop being hyper vigilant but I was under a tremendous amount of stress so that wasn’t happening.
    I got rid of her and asked my next counselor about my hyper vigilance. He said “well that’s how you survived”. Suggesting it was no big deal. And I have to agree.
    One of the results of this isn’t asking my family if they are okay but if someone is relating an interaction that involves me or my family that I feel is important I can dig and dig about behavior, “what exactly was said and how it was said, were they mad,”? And on and on.
    I found out this was a symptom of OCD.
    (I actually love finding out about this stuff because it confirms to me, in a clinical way, that my resulting behavior is normal for the things I endured.)
    It’s a tough one when our behavior affects others. But I think hyper vigilance is okay in general as long as it isn’t driving us crazy. It’s just evolved into who we are.
    Anyway I guess my point is some behaviors probably need to be modified but some of it is just fine imo.

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      Oh, there are benefits. No doubt about that. But I do drive myself crazy with it and I am relentless in my questioning of my family. It’s not fair to them. I will always be the way I am. I just need to modify some behaviors to keep from driving everyone mad.

      Reply
  11. Heather C says:

    Fake it til you make it has been my motto since I learned it in high school camp counselor training. Who knew it would be so freakin handy?

    I had a moment about 4 years ago, where I realized I was the only one thinking so hard about a situation (I was sure the other person involved was secretly laughing at me behind my back and thought I was dumb as dust), and the other person wasn’t even perceptive enough to know I didn’t like her to begin with. Then I felt both relieved (that the imaginary feud in my head was over) and embarrassed (for projecting so hard) but I *still* could not understand what about ME makes this overthinking scenario so damn common.

    Ex-hubby, and fiance both have had those moments with me, “I’m really fine, but this is the 18th time you’ve asked me what’s wrong in half an hour and I am about to get really irritated by it.” And I just took learning to accept their answers (maybe they don’t want to talk about it right now, I am an adult who can give them that space. maybe it’s nothing for real and I am imagining. maybe it was just a shitty day at work and not worth rehashing and they just need quiet time to unwind.) as part of my education in sitting with uncomfortable feelings sometimes because life isn’t always comfortable.

    I was really glad to read the article and see someone was able to put into words WHY I am like this.

    I am still way too in tune with the emotional weather, that will likely never go away. But I *have* been able to mellow out the internal freak-outs pretty well, in case that gives you some hope. I still see things and note them, but I temper it with a healthy dose of “Have they already told me they are fine?”, “Is this person an adult fully capable of dealing with their shit however they need?” and “When was the last time an angry partner [of mine] turned into an actually dangerous situation? (answer, for me: never)”

    Fake it til you make it.

    Reply
  12. Mary-Anne says:

    I can so relate – finally went to a recovery group for ptsd and am trying to let some of these behaviours go, at least a little.
    I have been missing in action in the blogging world I think because so much of what I want to right about will be triggering for family members who read my blog. I am thinking of starting a new blog that will be more anonymous.
    I will call it
    Going dark to find the light.

    Anyways, just wanted you to know I am here. For you. For Me. For all of us struggling with our ways of surviving from such an early early age.

    Reply
  13. Doug in Oakland says:

    Just in case it helps, there have been many times, perhaps due to my own communication shortcomings, that I have wished someone would fucking notice that something was bothering me.
    Do I tell them about it, or would that be “starting shit”?
    If someone genuinely cares about me, I probably won’t get too annoyed if they ask if I’m OK a lot.
    Being hypervigilant has been a survival skill of mine at times, although I don’t really know if I was ever any good at it, partly because the dangerous situations that required it were mostly populated with thick-headed idiots who didn’t make useful reference points.
    My only advice here, not that it was asked for, is to be careful about adding this to the list of things to be hypervigilant about.
    Trusting yourself can be really hard, but I find that earning my own trust really turns down the volume on many of my anxieties.
    Your mileage may vary.

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      oh yeah, no good to trade obsession for obsession.

      Reply
      • Doug in Oakland says:

        OK, it just occurred to me that I have an expected response to inquiries about my mental state. It comes from a long time ago when my film maker friend Carson had us all watch the David Cronenberg movie Videodrome and his girlfriend Linda said that one of the characters had my manor dead to rights. In the movie, someone asks him if he has been hallucinating lately, and he responds “Should I have been?” and Linda said “That’s Doug” and everyone seemed to agree.
        So most likely if someone asks me if I’m OK more than once, I will respond by asking “Should I be not OK?”

        Reply
  14. Shani says:

    This is one of your posts that I will find myself thinking about a lot.
    I totally do this. And ironically, the person I learned to do it for, my mom, was the person who would completely lose her shit because she HATED that question. But it’s like I couldn’t stop myself from asking it because I was always so worried that she would snap (of course many times she snapped and it had nothing to do with my question. So I learned to be on guard…vicious cycle I suppose). Because whether I asked or not may not change the result, but there’s a part of me, logical or not, that at least recognizes that I asked…and I asked because I did want things to be better. It may have been annoying, but you know what, I have honestly good intentions. I don’t like it when someone around me is “off”…I want to help them.
    And now I think I have some sort of aura because a lot of people tell me what’s wrong, even if I don’t ask. I think there’s a part of us that are so super intuitive that people know that we know…I find it hilarious that I really am not a people person, but I know a lot about people.
    I don’t even know if this reply made sense lol…but it has me thinking. I don’t know what to do about it, I don’t even know if I want to bother “fixing” it because it’s just another thing and maybe I can’t handle more to work on right now…
    And maybe that was the point of my reply. No matter how you decide to go about it, whatever you do or don’t do, I hope you give yourself a break.

    Reply
  15. laura says:

    I cant give advice, because I am a forest fire of a human, but two things helped me with hyper vigalance. One, I found a job where it was super useful, as a critical care nurse. everyone thought it was just amazing, the stuff I noticed. Now in retirement, I’m doing history and genealogy, again something that benifits from my laserbeams.

    two, I’ve started asking the family, or saying rather, : it looks like things are going well, and I’m proud of you as a son. but you know I’m a worrier, so reassure me if you need help your come to me.
    and they laugh and say “of course, mom!!”. just a slight switch.

    Reply
  16. mydangblog says:

    All this, yes, but don’t forget that sometimes there’s an upside. I got a vibe from a guy I work with a while ago, so I asked him if he was OK. Turns out he wasn’t. He opened up about depression and stress over a couple of things going on in his life–long story short, he said it meant a lot that someone had actually ‘seen’ that he wasn’t doing well, and that talking about it had really helped.

    Reply
  17. Sandee says:

    omg – this happens so often at work/in life…and I could never understand why people couldn’t see 15 steps ahead. Sometimes I’m so far ahead in the parade, that no one else knows there’s a parade.
    Keep on writing – your words are insightful, with that delightful dose of humour and take no shit swearing!
    ——–
    I’ve been in meetings where someone melted down and I knew it was going to happen well before it happened. In every case, I find myself looking around thinking “Holy shit…don’t they see what is going on? And why in the fuck would they say that when it’s obvious he’s about to blow a gasket?”

    Reply
    • Michelle says:

      I was in a meeting where the boss just lost his SHIT. And he kept asking questions and one dude KEPT ANSWERING. I am thinking…dude..no..there is nothing you can say that won’t make him scream. He’s at toddler level right now.

      I lived in a small town then. I got my hair done that night and I hear a voice say “Hey, Michelle.” It’s my boss. The one who lost his shit. And I said “Oh, wow. If there is anyone I didn’t want to run into tonight, it would be you.”. He said “Yeah, I guess I was pretty out of control.”. I said “Well, I thought you were going to stroke out. If that had happened, I swear..I would have called 911. Right after I got a cup of coffee.”

      And he didn’t fire me.

      Reply
  18. Lisa K says:

    Yes, my Friend. ‘Fake it til you make it’ is the survival skill/public viewing mode I adhere to.
    I even ‘practice’ my game face at the gas station where I get my morning food and cigarette supplies… “How’s it look from there, Karen? Did I pull it off?”
    The ones who get me, these days (OK, The ONE who gets me these days) is totally unreadable.
    On the days she’s ‘nice’ I can’t tell until she leaves and my stomach isn’t all clenched and I lose the air buildup in a relieved sigh.
    On the days she’s ‘inner fuming’ which isn’t always obvious until I say/do something I think is helpful/positive/happy/shareable and I end up crying/shaking/arguing with the 3 shut up voices and burying my face in my computer screens until she leaves.
    I use the one word answers from an emotionally flat face to alert her to my distress/warn her of my impending reciprocating aggressive stance if she attempts any more communication and THOSE are the signals she finally reacts to.
    In some ways, I’m glad I’ve had all this training in defense, but, in most ways I wonder why I have to be reduced to crying bitch status before I matter…
    I would rather someone continually check on my ‘OK-ness’ than feel like I know way too much about why they are behaving so atrociously.
    *hitches up big girl panties*
    Going in… sacrifice that goat for me.. 😉

    Reply