Looking For A Future: Jane’s Story
CC image courtesy of Flickr, Ksushik.
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Jane” is a pseudonym.
Tomorrow I take my final exam for my first semester of nursing school.
I am one day away from finishing the first leg of something I almost never started. I am also one day away from maintaining a 4.0 GPA. Instructors, friends, classmates, and my therapist all say they knew I could do it. They also express surprise, remind me of my successes, or even become irritated and annoyed when I still feel anxious about the upcoming summer semester – not to mention fall, spring, graduation, boards, job…you get the idea.
I do not know how to explain it to people who have not been there. If you’re like me, you might already know it. We are the kind that had to fend for ourselves, and had frequent stretches without formal education with lying parents to cover up the gaps.
In my life, the root was a mix of my father’s cult paranoia and my mother’s illnesses.
My father was a Scientologist before I was born and converted to a fringe movement of fundamentalist Christianity sometime early in my parents’ marriage. We were in and out of churches over the years, and we frequently lost many relationships through explosive exits. My father would accuse a church of being cult-like, or he would insist on challenging the leaders until there was enough conflict that we either had to leave, or chose to do so. There were many of these situations, and I’m unaware of the details of most of them except that my father always believed he was right and portrayed himself as the victim.
The result was that we rarely had roots in any community of faith and were taught to always be on guard against false teaching. Since we were fairly isolated, and the only person in our family that could be trusted to provide truth was my father, my brother and I have occasionally described our own family as being a cult. No one could be trusted. Churches could lead you astray, schools were wells of evil, and even the homeschooling organizations could be suspect of bringing subversive teaching and evil influences into the home. So we hunkered down in our isolated country house and listened to or read only the material approved by my father.
There was never reason to question his motives or methods.
My mother said he was the best teacher she had ever met and deferred to him in all matters of faith and schooling. She would sometimes beg him to be quiet about church issues because she didn’t want to lose her new friends. However, she believed in his “gift” of discernment and teaching, so in the end she always accepted his beliefs. We were taught that women were especially vulnerable to deception, and my mother believed she was dumb and incapable of sorting out complicated issues.
Speaking of my mother… My mother is a type 1 diabetic. I say this and expect it to summarize my life, but I forget that this label might not mean anything to others, even if they have a basic understanding of the disease. For me this label holds a dizzying reel of images that play over and over in my head. It holds the fear that my mother might die and the question of who would look after us. It means that I spent sleepless nights checking on my mother when my father was working for fear her sugar levels would dip too low in her sleep.
We always had a list of questions to assess her condition at any moment. Sometimes she would identify her name, where she was, what we were doing, – and it wasn’t until we got to the question of “what day is today?” that it would be clear our suspicions were correct and we needed to act.
For our particular situation, it also meant that we were responsible for assessing and treating my mother’s hypoglycemic episodes. We had been instructed not to call 911 “unless it’s an emergency”, but a low blood sugar episode did not qualify unless she was dying. We were out of our depth and could only operate on knowing that if she woke up to EMTs around her, she would be pissed and we would be in trouble.
There are too many experiences to relate here, but there were many times I was afraid for her life, or even my own.
My mother also had other complicating mental health issues and she did not manage her diabetes well. She spent extended periods of time in bed. As a child I did not understand this, but accepted it as a normal part of her illness and our life. Now that I am older and understand more about her health and particular set of issues, I believe this was usually because she did not manage her diabetes properly and frequently lived with extremely high blood sugar levels. I’ll spare the detailed explanation, but this is actually one of the true dangers from the disease process and makes a person unable to function and gradually destroys organs, nerves, and other body tissues.
So, as you might imagine, our schooling was not a priority during the weeks and months my mother spent most of her time in bed. We did have an extensive selection of books (even if subject matter was controlled) and I spent much of my time reading. When we had curriculum available, I would do what book work I could on my own. Unfortunately, due to the stringent beliefs, the curriculum we used was frequently based on Biblical literalism. Women could only expect to be submissive house wives, the Loch Ness monster actually existed, disobedience to parents could mean eternal damnation… bonus points if you can identify that particular curriculum!
This was our normal all the way through middle school.
Some years were better than others, but there was always the nagging feeling that I wasn’t keeping up with my peers. We would get so behind during the school year that my mom would promise to school us through the summer, but then somehow fall rolled around without doing anything new and we were bumped up to the next grade level.
I remember overhearing my dad filling out the required forms after one particularly empty year. They couldn’t admit the shortfalls and created a lot of excuses to fill in the blanks for what we were supposed to have accomplished that year.
We moved when I was 13 and then shit really hit the fan for our entire family. My mom had found a functional balance when I was 11-12, but she lost all of her structure when we moved. We joined a more contemporary church, and although I made some friends, it became painfully obvious how socially awkward we were. Our clothes were different, we believed strange things, we didn’t understand cultural references and common slang (I didn’t hear any secular music until I was 14, and nothing other than hymns and classical before I was 12), and I quickly discovered these kids who were supposedly getting an “evil and dumbed down education” were doing things in school I didn’t even know were required. I was suddenly worried about high school and college.
I adjusted by being painfully quiet so my ignorance wouldn’t show. I only wore jeans and t-shirts and never cut my hair because I was scared to make myself noticeable. I slowly made some good friends who accepted me even though we were a bit odd, but it wasn’t long until I became extremely depressed. I didn’t understand what I was feeling or why – it hit me out of nowhere like a ton of bricks.
One day I was trying to fit in and figure out this new world and the next I wanted to die all the time.
My mom was in bed again, school was done in occasional spurts (one class at a time when they could find one offered locally), and I also found myself responsible for most of the housework at home. My brother retreated to his room and rarely talked to me, and my dad spent any of his time at home in front of the computer or the TV. It wasn’t long before I discovered the idea of cutting – and it was an easy coping mechanism for me because I had already used other ways of injuring myself physically to deal with anger as a child. I’m not going to go into details for this part of the story, but ages 15-17 were pretty awful for me.
My parents isolated me and blamed my friends and church when they discovered the self-injury. My dad made me believe I was crazy and that no one cared about me. My mom got out of bed, but used me as her confidante and told me all sorts of things that were symptoms of her mental health problems. I wasn’t equipped to deal with what she told me and I had no outlet to process what was happening.
They took me to a therapist and psychiatrist, but I was forced to take meds and it felt too unsafe to talk to the therapist. I joined a choir and our local community theater when I was 16-17, and that helped some, but I was so afraid to make friends that I remained on the fringes while suffering from some pretty terrible anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and still hurting myself physically in ways I could hide more easily.
Needless to say school went by the wayside during these years.
I picked back up a few things when I was 16-17 – algebra, and even a dual enrollment English course at the local community college, but I don’t remember much else. My senior year was stressful and I was still depressed. I took the ACT and scored well except for math. My math score was barely high enough to qualify for the state scholarship, but there was an obvious gap in my education.
I remember my dad sitting me down with a geometry book and then a few minutes later saying, “You don’t need this. You scored higher in geometry than algebra on the ACT anyway, so I’m just going to mark that you’ve had this.” Then my mom wanted me to apply to graduate with honors. I didn’t want to, but she insisted, so I filled out the paperwork. I hated it.
I knew I hadn’t had the opportunities to earn the grades.
Most of our curriculum had been a joke and yet my parents had reported me as a straight A student – even for the classes I never actually completed. I graduated and started college intending to major in music. After all, at least I had years of piano lessons going for me and I did love music.
Unfortunately, I was too afraid to attend the state university and chose the local community college with some additional pressure from my parents because they wanted me to live at home. I actually did very well with a full-time class load and while working full-time. I maintained a 4.0 GPA my first three semesters.
I moved out of my parents’ house during my first semester because of major conflict over my boyfriend. They weren’t completely wrong with their concerns, but how they handled it made me think that they were going to attempt to completely isolate me again. I continued working and going to school and then married that boyfriend the next summer when I was 19.
I quit school after taking a reduced load my 4 th semester because I couldn’t handle the stress and anxiety. I also couldn’t handle the dilemma of knowing I needed to move on to university the following semester. I did not think I was capable of the next level.
I was always waiting for my lack of education to be discovered.
The future has always felt empty for me. I may have ideas, but when it comes to actually envisioning myself doing it, or making the small choices to get there, it suddenly seems meaningless because those things cannot possibly be for me. It doesn’t matter how much I prove to myself that I can work hard and earn the good grades, I second guess myself and think I do not deserve it.
There must be an external reason for my success, and eventually I will fail. I will not be able to fully integrate all of this into a capable self. I have never applied for a scholarship in spite of almost 90 college credits and a 4.0 GPA because I feel like I either do not deserve it, or cannot handle the pressure of having to maintain the image of a smart, “A” level student…even though perhaps it isn’t an “image” at all, but I am actually smart and capable.
I have gained confidence as I proceed, but the “next level” always brings heightened anxiety, or even panic attacks. I was accepted to nursing school in 2014, but I dropped due to overwhelming anxiety related to school, the fear of hospital nursing (more issues from my mom’s health), and marital issues that were complicated by my upbringing in a strict fundamentalist religion. This was the point where I knew I needed help addressing my past, and I sought out a therapist and have been knee-deep sorting out my life ever since.
I applied again for the nursing program and started in the spring of 2016.
I don’t know how to describe how it is now. I am still seeing a therapist weekly. I separated from my husband and am parenting two children solo while attempting to start something I never thought was mine to do. There are so many complicated feelings. My anxiety is high all the time – sometimes swinging into periods of depression when my body crashes and can no longer handle being constantly alert.
I have more tools for coping now, a supportive therapist, and friends who have been there for me, but I still find life extremely difficult. I am 28 years old and I feel like I keep throwing myself at a wall believing that eventually I will get through it. There are days where I feel so beaten and bloody that I don’t know how to pick myself back up off the ground. I have few transferable job skills, my marriage is irreparable, and my young children need a competent mother when I did not have one myself.
Most days I still do not believe I will have a future that involves me as a member of the world.
I think that has been the absolute worst outcome from my homeschooling experience. I have been able to compensate for the educational neglect, and my social anxiety has decreased over time, which enables me to socialize and try to build friendships.
However, the feeling I cannot shake is that I was not raised to be a member of the world. I feel like I am always an outsider. The only purpose of my upbringing was to make sure I was a Christian – and the right kind of Christian. I was not prepared to live normally, and I didn’t even have the example of a parent (or any other adult) who could deal with the day-to- day routine. The isolation and educational neglect, the religious fundamentalism, other emotionally and physically abusive experiences, and the constant severity of my mom’s illness led to this existence where it seems nearly impossible to envision a future where I am connected, accomplished, adapted, and whole.
So, tomorrow I’m going to take my exam.
I’m going to blindly stumble into the summer semester like I’m throwing myself into that wall again. I feel numb – like I am going through the motions of what I have to do. It’s a checklist of all the right things that are supposed to add up to a whole person, but I still feel fragmented into pieces of myself that I cannot fully feel or understand.
I’m so sorry for all that has happened to you. There are lots of people here who are wishing you good luck on your exam.
Best wishes to you in your future endeavors. Sorry to hear about your crazy upbringing. Glad to hear that you are seeing a therapist. I’m sure you will do better as time goes by.
Thanks for your story, deeply moving. You will be okay, trust in yourself, you have come from far, you can do this…Baby steps.
Baby steps is right. You’re not the only one to feel that becoming part of mainstream society after this type of upbringing is a near insurmountable task, but it looks like you are on the right path with nursing school. Don’t give up on the things on your checklist, because those are the things that let you get your feet under you and find solid ground for yourself. It makes sense that you still feel deeply fragmented. Figuratively, try to hold that reality, that your history and emotions and story are all still confusing and unknown, in one palm – and in the other palm, your checklist, since completing items on that practical life checklist is one big part of self care. Those daily, practical steps, including also going to a therapist, will slowly slowly get you to a place where you are less fragmented, and more solid. From personal experience, I know that with time and attention that process will happen, and I applaud you and want to encourage you in continuing that daily long term self care of getting your nursing degree and getting your feet solidly beneath you. I was an undergraduate overachiever in an effort to to do the same, and after undergrad and a year of work it all fell apart, because I needed help addressing my past (related in nature to yours, and I’d been trying to shove it all aside) and confronting the past left me unable emotionally to hold my practical shit together. This has gotten me into trouble financially and professionally because I still haven’t gotten my feet onto solid ground practically after years of focusing on trying to address my past. This is why I really want to give you the advice I needed and encourage you to keep focusing on the practical, day by day by day, even if it feels like throwing yourself against a wall, while making a little room, every week, to look back at the fragments, without getting so overwhelmed by them that you stop functioning. When you are throwing yourself against the wall, remind yourself that you are building something, and that your future self will thank your for your efforts every day to create that strong foundation for your future. Please choose to take care of yourself, every day. Over time those fragments really can come together and they will, and that experience can be devastatingly powerful if you’ve experienced abuse and neglect, so approaching all that gently is key. You are doing the right thing, for now, by focusing on your work while attending therapy consistently. Keep it up! Being on your feet financially with a job can offer you some safety, and facilitate creating space each week to confront and process that difficult and confusing past. It’s all about taking care of yourself, and I hope you can believe that you deserve to be taken care of, gently and well, by you yourself. Go you for doing that so far! The space will be there for the unknown and fragmented parts. Tell those parts of yourself that they will be welcome in your life and you are working to create space for them in the future, since those parts hold an important part of your story. Don’t fight the unknown, fight FOR yourself – to take care of yourself – and that’s what you are doing. I think you can do it, and I am doing the same!
I just found this and got chills while reading. other than a few comparatively minor details this is my story. my exact story. and I’m thirty now, back at college, pecking away at my degree one paralyzing assignment at a time. just like you, I think.
I’m not sure why I’m commenting … I’m just completely amazed that someone else out there shares my story. bless you for sharing. I wish I could meet you … though i suppose the anonymity of the internet is kind of reassuring. ❤
I hope life is giving you all that you deserve, and that your educational career is transforming your self-concept into one of worthiness and belonging. hugs to you, Jane.