I spent most of yesterday with my parents, and interestingly and painfully, ended up with another cracker tension headache.
It all started out well enough: I had invited my father out for a slightly belated Father’s Day lunch at the local club. Initially I had planned to pick him up from his house, but early in the morning my father rang to tell me that he will meet me at the club instead, and tell me why when we get there.
I turn up to the club and meet my father in the foyer, where he tells me that my mother was rushed to the local hospital by ambulance the night before with chest pains; the main symptom of the suspected heart attack. His description of the proceedings of calling the ambulance, the journey to hospital, and the lack of obvious diagnosis is quite emotionless, and focuses more on the details of the story than on how he or mum feels about being rushed to hospital like that. I’m a little stunned and numb; I think over the years I’ve got used to this emotionless technically detailed level of storytelling from my father.
After telling me that his wife for 50 years in hospital, he notices a freight train go by outside, and starts talking about the type of train it is, and the management of the railways on which runs. I’m pretty sure that he spent more time talking about the train outside the window, than he did about my mother in hospital.
Over lunch, I notice myself becoming increasingly bored and depressed at my father’s detailed yet a emotionless and irrelevant (to me at least) storytelling. The more he drones on and on, the more I feel myself switching off. I sense a depression growing, and feel that I need to do something, fast.
I feel nervous about saying it, but sensing that my mental health is at stake. I say to him: “Dad, I’ve got to be honest with you. I find myself switching off when you tell me stories like that”.
His facial expression changes, and he goes silent. It could just be my paranoia, but I sense that he’s angry. I feel even more nervous; I don’t know what’s going on.
I ask him “Dad, are you okay?”
He says nothing, continuing to eat his veal snitzel lunch. It’s possible that he hasn’t heard me; after all, at 83 years old, his hearing isn’t as good as it used to be. But I’m pretty sure that he’s at least heard me say something, and he’s not asking me what it was. It’s like he’s pretending that our last exchange just didn’t happen; kind of like he does when someone asks him what’s going on when he’s muttering angrily to himself. He just pretends it’s not happening; which I find really unnerving.
He launches off into another story that I can’t remember, which is testament to just how interesting I found it at the time. I say to him “Dad, I’m wondering what’s going on for you?” He looks at me quizzically. “I just made a comment about that last story you were telling, and then asked you if you are okay, but you didn’t say anything.”
Again, no reply.
When my father is angry, he seems to going to this weird mode when he just will not communicate. Even at 47 years old, I still find it really frightening. It’s like he’s pretending that everything that’s going on, isn’t really going on. I never know where I stand when people are pretending like that.
I want to know what’s really going on for him, but I got a very strong sense that he doesn’t wanna talk about it; he just keeps changing the topic as though nothing is happened. No wonder I felt so uncomfortable growing up around this man, given the way that he deals with his emotions. He pretends that they just don’t exist, even when they’re written all over his face.
My father launches off into yet another boring story, and I start sensing an increasing frustration that he’s not asking anything about me: the stories are all about him, and other people of no interest or relevance to me, in excruciating minutia. But then a voice in my head says “Why hassle the guy? I know he enjoys spending time with me, and he is clearly enjoying telling the stories. He’s getting old, and I have limited time with my father now, so I might as well just make the best of it.”
After a little while, I’m surprised to find that he does actually ask something about me: he asks “How is your business is going?” I tell him “I appreciate you asking that. I did a life coach training course a few years ago, but I never really finished it because I never became qualified. So I’ve started working to get my life coaching qualification, and I’m working with a few clients.”
Then he launches back into get another story of his own that appears to have no relevance to the thing we were just talking about. I can see why my mother finds him so frustrating sometimes.
I don’t really know what to do at this point, I sense that if I’m honest with him it’s probably not going to go down all that well.
With lunch done, we both head off to the hospital to visit my mother. I get there first, and after winding down the hospital passages to find ward 8, I find my mother lying almost asleep on the bed. I haven’t seen my mother in almost a year, since we had a big argument that led to me requesting that we introduce some new ground rules in our relationship so I can feel safe around her; ground rules that she refused to accept. Given that she was in hospital with a suspected heart attack, I figured I could put the ground rules request aside for today at least.
My first impression was how much my mother looked exactly like her sister of 10 years older; her hair is greyer, and she looks more frail than when I last saw her.
“Hi Mum”, I say. “Oh, hi Graham”, she replies. Clearly she is glad to see me, and she seems to be in a pretty good mood. I think I like my mother better when she’s sick than when she’s healthy: She is less feisty, and seems safer and less aggressive to me. I’m the other way round: when I’m sick I get really miserable and cranky.
Mum tells me about how she came to be in hospital, and all the doctors, and nurses, and tests that they’ve run. I can hear a sense of disapproval in her voice, and imagine her thinking that the whole hospital system is inefficient and could be improved. Like Dad, there’s more focus on the mechanics of what’s been going on than on how she feels about it all.
I would imagine that if I were in hospital after a suspected heart attack, and the doctors couldn’t find out exactly what was wrong, I’ll be feeling pretty nervous. Maybe she’s on frightened to, but she is certainly not about to tell me.
Dad soon arrives and the three of us get into some light banter. We even start joking around at one point, as Mum and Dad tell me a story about a recent visitor who arrived unannounced and who they really didn’t want. She spent three hours ear-bashing my father outside in the garden, while my mother hid inside the house thinking “She’s really annoying, don’t let her inside the house!”
We all have a good laugh at the idea of annoying people, and how we would just like them to stay away from us. Everyone is in a pretty good mood, and we’re all getting on quite well, especially given that my mother and I haven’t been speaking for the previous year.
My mother isn’t particularly mean or critical to me or my father today. I mention that “I have been really enjoying going body boarding at the local beach” near where I now live, and she responds “What about the sharks?” But that was about the level of the negativity today. For the most part, I think she is just genuinely glad to see me.
Mum says “My hair really needs a wash; I look like such a mess”, and Dad says to me “I find her really attractive.” This is my signal that it’s time to head home. “Well, I’ll just leave you two to it then”, I say awkwardly.
On the way home I feel a mounting tension headache coming on. I had planned to head out that night and do some open mic comedy, but the tension headache put the kibosh on that.
It seems like every time I spend time around my parents, I end up at the cracker tension headache. Even when their behaviour is pretty reasonable, like it was yesterday.
So I’m a little perplexed as to why my body react this way. It reminds me of a childhood friend of mine who developed the CFS in her 30s, and found after she moved overseas that her symptoms got better when she had no contact with her family of origin. She had grown up being the “good girl”, but had some really big issues with her father that hadn’t been dealt with well by her family of origin. “They’re cowards!”, she said referring to her brothers. Name-calling is always a sign of unprocessed anger and I remember in my conversation with her that she still seemed really angry with her father and her brothers. The best explanation I could come up with for why her symptoms would reappear whenever she had contact with the family, was that it was some kind of physical response to her internalised anger.
I have felt a lot of anger towards my parents in the past which I’ve talked over endlessly in therapy, but it’s all old stuff from the past. I felt a little angry with my father over lunch, but my mother’s behaviour this day was pretty reasonable.
It seems as though my body feels differently though. I still don’t feel comfortable telling my parents how I really feel when I’m around them. It just doesn’t feel safe, never really has.
I have read a lot of books on psychology, done a lot of personal development courses, and had a lot of therapy; and I can’t ever really recall anyone talking about physical tension in the body arising in response to anger. But my coaching clients seem to get this to. It seems that if you suppress your anger enough, you can end up feeling the physical sensations (notice how the veins in a person’s neck stand out when they’re really angry) without recognizing the emotion. Makes it kind of hard to process though when you don’t know for sure what it is, or what it’s about.
I find this really frustrating, because I really want to be getting on with my life; and these headaches are a real showstopper when they hit me. I can’t commit to anything, because I never really know if I’ll be OK on the day.
One of my mentors suggested to me recently that the best way to deal with parents like mine is to simply visit them less often for shorter periods of time. I also realize that there are many other people out in the world who are happy to hear how I feel, and don’t respond in ways that I find really triggering. I plan to spend more time with those kind of people.
I got up this morning and belted out a little “Angry Young Man” by Billy Joel on my keyboard, and smashed my drums for a while. I still feel a little tense in the head, but it does feel good to get to anger out, and to be doing something physical. Sure beats the hell out of lying in bed feeling anxious, or angry, or ruminating on how unfair this all is.