You know that old cowboy movie saying, “Smile when you say that”? It’s an idiom meaning that you’d better be joking. If you said something shitty and actually meant it, you’re due for a beatdown of some sort. At the very least, if you’re not joking, the other person is going to be very angry or offended by what you dared to say with a straight face. Today, I want to explore the opposite of that saying. Some things aren’t really laughing matters.
Trigger warning– this post is going to be about suicidal ideation.
Recently, I had a rather unsettling experience while witnessing a video call with someone. I wasn’t actually the primary conversant on that call; I just happened to be in the room when it was happening. Bill was talking to his daughter, who was talking about some pretty personal stuff. As she was revealing some painful things about her past, she was laughing and smiling.
At one point, the topic of suicide came up, and she was giggling as she talked about it. There she was, talking about being so aggrieved at more than one point during her childhood that she wanted to meet Jesus. She felt Jesus was the only one who loved or cared about her, and had actually taken steps to make the meeting happen. And as she talked about this painful memory, she was smiling and giggling… which I’m sure she did because she needed Bill to know about this, but didn’t want to upset him. Or maybe it was just too painful and surreal a subject to talk about with a straight face.
Days later, Bill is still a bit apprehensive about that conversation. It didn’t escape either of us that it seems like it would be unexpected for a person to laugh while talking about suicidal ideation. Bill is understandably concerned. So am I. In fact, I wish he could have had this conversation with her in person, preferably in private. Ordinarily, he would have been talking to her with headphones and in a different room. But her call came late and Bill was thinking it wasn’t going to happen, so he didn’t have his laptop handy. He talked to her on his iPad, and was sitting at the table with me when she Skyped. I suppose he could have Skyped her back and spoken to her privately, but he chose not to… and most of the call was mundane, anyway. It was about the usual stuff. But then that topic came up, and it got a bit awkward.
My theory is that many people in Bill’s family, to include Bill himself, have this innate tendency to put others before themselves. They will sacrifice their own needs to make someone else happy or more comfortable. I’ve seen Bill do it many times. I’ve seen his mother do it, too. And now, I think I saw Bill’s daughter doing it, needing to talk about this very deep and painful memory, but not wanting to upset us or herself. Or, it could have been that she was embarrassed about or ashamed of this trauma and wanted to make it seem less serious than it clearly is. I think the laughter could have even been a form of self-protection… a tension breaker of some sort.
I see from reading Psychology Today that laughing about psychological pain is actually not an uncommon phenomenon. In fact, it’s possible that she didn’t even realize what she was doing. This was a very scary, traumatizing, and triggering memory for her, but talking about it with laughter was a way to minimize it somehow. I told Bill that, to me, it seemed like she needed to talk about this, but maybe she was afraid to bring it up because it might traumatize us. That would mean she was at least partially focused on someone’s needs other than her own, although I will say that overall, she’s proven to be very resilient and self-reliant. She couldn’t bear living with her mentally ill mother, so she did what she had to do to escape that environment. But before that happened, she obviously learned to put others before herself, likely to prevent more pain. I also think she comes by that naturally, to some extent. As I mentioned before, I’ve seen that tendency in Bill and his mom. But I also think younger daughter’s mother exploited that tendency and reinforced it. Her older sister reportedly has the same tendency, which is probably why she’s still living with her mom at age 30, taking care of her severely autistic brother.
I heard younger daughter explaining how her mother was “deep down a good person”, as she also talked about how her mom did things like deny her access to her family, force her to take out student loans and give her mom the excess, compel her to change her last name and call her stepfather “dad”, send her off to college and on a church mission with no support whatsoever, deny her medical care, and use money and empty promises as a means of controlling her. I can understand why she does this. It’s not easy to accept that a close family member is not a good person, especially when that person is a parent. When a parent turns out to be a “monster”, the person wonders if that tendency to be monstrous is hereditary. They may try to overcorrect by being overly considerate and kind.
I don’t think younger daughter needs to worry that she’s “monstrous”, like her mother is. I take comfort in knowing that the more younger daughter gets reacquainted with Bill, the more she realizes that she has a lot of him in her… she has a lot of his goodness, kindness, and empathy. But she also has a mother who is truly a selfish, cruel, and abusive person. Her mother didn’t take care of her, and she didn’t have access to her real father. So she’s had to learn to take care of herself by denying herself some basic needs and not speaking up when she urgently needs attention or assistance.
I am pissed at Ex for not taking care of her children properly. It makes me very angry that these things were going on, and Ex apparently knew, and she didn’t speak to Bill about them. She also didn’t do fuck all to help her child. In fact, she even denied her healthcare, even though Bill’s daughters had full access to health insurance through Tricare. Meanwhile, she was telling Bill what a terrible parent he is, and labeling me a homewrecking whore. But this isn’t a surprise. I don’t think Ex is a good person, and I’ve felt that way for many years. I don’t have a connection to her, other than being the wife of her ex husband, so I can safely have these feelings. But her children don’t have that luxury, because she’s their mom, and she’s the only mom they will ever have.
Although people can and do disconnect with their parents, it’s actually a very hard thing to do– to completely cut them off and go no contact. Even if a person dies, as long as any thought of them is in a person’s conscience, the relationship continues on some level. Hell… even many adopted children with excellent adoptive parents wonder about their birth parents. A lot of them do what they can to seek out their birth parents because they want to know their origins. They want to know why their birth parents– particularly their birth mother– didn’t raise them.
Sometimes, the stories adopted children unearth about their birth parents are comforting and reassuring. Birth mom desperately wanted to keep the child, but couldn’t because she was too poor or too young and it was just impossible. But sometimes the stories are painful. Ex was adopted. We heard in Ex’s case that her birth mom was married and had been having an affair with another man. She chose her marriage over keeping and raising Ex. Making matters worse was the fact that Ex’s adoptive parents were abusive, neglectful, and treated her like a second class citizen compared to their natural children. Or, perhaps the adopted child finds her birth parents and neither wants anything to do with him or her. Younger daughter wasn’t adopted. She knows her mom, as well as the truth about her. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t wish it weren’t like that, and have some hope that somehow, someday, her mother will change into a different kind of person.
Younger daughter was told many falsehoods when she was growing up. She was told some outrageous lies about Bill and me, and the nature of how we met. Meanwhile, Ex gaslit her into not seeing what she was seeing with her own eyes. As Ex labeled Bill a philanderer and me a whore, she was shacking up with her now husband while still married to Bill. And they were having a sexual relationship, even though they weren’t married and she was supposedly a devout Mormon. The church teaches that premarital sex, particularly if one is still married and “sealed” to someone else, is morally wrong. The church was used to break up Bill’s relationship with his daughters– Bill was no longer “living the standards”, so he needed to be discarded. But Ex was also not living the standards, and somehow that was okay. The cognitive dissonance was probably incredible for the kids.
Incidentally, younger daughter is still LDS, and the LDS church is good at guilt, too. People are expected to “endure to the end.” I have heard countless stories about people who have wanted to do something for themselves– say stepping down from a church calling or tithing less money– and they were guilted and shamed for that. I suspect that the church has also, in some way, reinforced that tendency to deny problems and minimize or discount them. It’s easier for others when we’re “strong”… at least until it gets so bad that the strength gives out and the strong person finally collapses. And since younger daughter is now a mom herself, she can’t really afford to fall apart.
Is it any wonder Bill’s daughter is so traumatized? Is it any wonder that she laughs and smiles and giggles when she talks about something as serious as suicide, suicidal ideation, or other traumas? I suspect she fears being too “heavy” and turning off her dad, who has been wanting to have a relationship with her for so long. I also suspect that she was trained not to bring any problems to her mom or her stepdad. In fact, I’ll bet Ex’s reactions to her daughter’s pain included anger, derision, or even laughter.
My heart goes out to younger daughter. When I was younger, I had similar thoughts about self-destruction. I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to launch. I didn’t think I had anything to offer the world and I didn’t think anyone cared about me, even though there were obviously people who did love me. Adolescence is hard, though… biological processes during that time can be pure hell. Childhood is hard, too. You have no control over anything, and adults are telling you to be quiet… “shut up before I give you something to cry about”. Being a young adult is hard– trying to find one’s way in the world and make enough money to support oneself. I think the phase I’m in now may be the easiest for me so far, but I am about to be menopausal. We’ll see how that goes.
Sometimes I still feel shitty about myself and want it all to end. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that when I admitted having these feelings to my own therapist years ago, I probably laughed too. It’s just not easy to talk about it, and laughter somehow makes the task easier, especially when you don’t know how the other person will react. My therapist was a doctoral level psychologist with many years of experience. He was in the prime of his career when I saw him. But he’s still a flawed human being with feelings and thoughts. Despite the fact that I was paying him to counsel me, I wasn’t sure what his human reaction would be to my comments. Fortunately, he was a professional and talked me through the pain.
I do remember telling my mom, at one point, that I felt suicidal. I don’t think I put it that way, but I did express to her the desire I had for ending it all. Her response was to get angry and say, “I know you won’t do anything ‘stupid’.” It was absolutely the WRONG thing to say. She basically discounted my pain and practically dared me to make an attempt. I have never forgotten that she said that to me. If I’m honest, it kind of lowered my opinion of her, although I do love my mom and I don’t think she meant it. I look back at that time and realize that she was under a lot of stress. So I forgive her for saying that, although I haven’t forgotten that she said it. I can’t forget it because it’s shocking to hear your mom say something like that, even if you kind of know why she said it.
I don’t know what Ex said in that situation… but I suspect it was a lot worse than what my mom said to me. My mom is not a narcissist, nor is she mentally ill. My mom has compassion. Ex has compassion only when it makes her look good to other people. And I truly believe that she sees her children and grandchildren as extensions of herself– objects to be manipulated and owned, rather than nurtured, loved, and cherished. I’m sure if younger daughter had succeeded, Ex would have simply felt abandoned. She would have been angry at the imposition and the inconvenience. And she never would have thought to tell her daughter’s other parent, a loving father who would have done whatever he could to help her and ease her pain. Ex was much too “prideful” and vengeful for that.
I really think that younger daughter’s tendency to “laugh” at trauma is a combination of a few things. One is that she’s been conditioned to minimize her own pain, either because no one would comfort her anyway, or because she would be shamed for it. Another is that talking about these feelings is embarrassing for her. Another is not wanting Bill or me to think there’s something “wrong” with her (which we definitely don’t). And then there’s the need to reduce the tension that comes from talking about trauma and pain. Laughter is good for that. It’s close to crying, but crying is kind of “taboo”– many people see crying as “weakness”. So we laugh and that kind of breaks the tension, even if we really just want to break down in sobs and tears and have someone hug us and tell us it will all be okay.
I know my husband well… and I know that if he was in a room with his daughter and she was talking about this subject, he would give her a hug and stroke her hair. He would encourage her to lean on him and cry as much as she wanted. I know he would comfort her for as long as she needed it. I know this, because this is how he treats me. It’s an absolute tragedy that his children were denied this love and compassion that he’s been waiting to give them freely– without any strings attached.
The good news is that she has him now. She’s out of her mother’s house and can heal. No one can tell her what to do anymore unless she gives them permission.
On the other hand, right now Noyzi is telling me to get off the computer and walk him and Arran. So I guess I’d better wrap this up before he has a conniption. I’ll have to give this some more thought. For now, I told Bill that I think he should tell his daughter that he’s here for her and if she needs to talk to him, she can depend on him. He’ll hear what she has to say and won’t laugh at her, judge her, rage at her, minimize or discount her feelings, or treat her like she owes him… or he owns her. I hope that will help so she won’t have to laugh at her own pain anymore when she speaks to him.