“I Don’t Know” Isn’t Good Enough

TW: abuse

My mother has bipolar disorder of some flavor. This impacted my childhood pretty heavily, as you can imagine, since she was often noncompliant with her medication and thus tended to be out of control with her emotions. She was abusive, both physically and emotionally, in indirect and direct ways.

This is just a subtle facet of the whole issue, but I was thinking of a particular thing that happened a lot: She would ask me a question, and I would say “I don’t know.” And she would tell me that that wasn’t an answer (“‘I don’t know’ isn’t good enough.”) and demand that I actually answer her question.

By itself, that doesn’t seem super terrible. Except that, when these situations popped up, my “I don’t know” was a defense mechanism. I can’t think of any specific examples because I’ve blocked a lot of that shit out, but the thing is that she’d ask me something, and I could tell it was a loaded question. I felt fear in those moments, because I knew she wanted a specific answer from me, and if I answered incorrectly, things could go very badly.

I feel like a lot of the time, I didn’t actually have an answer for her. She’d ask me why I did something, but I hadn’t thought it through deeply enough to have a “reason” for it. But I could tell that she didn’t like whatever it was that I did, and that she had no patience for me, nor any desire to actually figure out why I did whatever it was.

It’s almost like she thought I did something stupid on purpose, and she asked me because she wanted a reason to confirm that I did a stupid thing on purpose and freak out about it. I’m actually a little miffed that I don’t have any examples to call to mind.

The thing that got me thinking about this was a very similar situation between my husband and I a few weeks ago:

We buy these nutrition bars, meal-replacement deals. He had previously told me that he doesn’t really want the Fudge Graham ones any more, he likes the Double Peanut Butter ones. I went to the store one night, and there were only three of the peanut butter ones, so I grabbed three of the fudge graham ones so that I could get six. I don’t like the peanut butter ones very much, but I figured one of us would eat the fudge graham ones.

In the next couple days, he was looking in the cabinet and asked me from the other room, “Did you get these Fudge Graham bars for me?” I felt the same thrill of adrenaline that I used to get when my mother would ask me something like that. The question is innocent enough, but there’s just the right amount of restrained calm that makes me realize the question is a trick. I said “I guess not?” And he got upset with me for not directly answering his question. I ended up telling him that, no, I hadn’t bought them for him, because I hadn’t actually put that much thought into it when I was buying them. There were only three of the ones he wanted, so I just bought some other ones because we generally eat them and they’re food.

Don’t get me wrong, Degon doesn’t flip out on me the way my mother did. But I felt that there was a loaded aspect to the question.

It’s kind of like, “How dare you buy these fudge graham bars for me when I told you I didn’t want them right now? Did you intentionally buy me the ones I didn’t want, when there were obviously some of the ones I DID want available right next to them?” The fact that he snapped at me when I didn’t directly answer the question tells me that he was thinking something along these lines when he asked. He was already prepared to be upset with me.

I know that my past as an abuse survivor, and my present as a person with depression heavily influences the way I perceive situations like this. Degon has never abused me physically, but we’ve had enough arguments that I get protective and defensive of myself if I can feel the stirrings of a potential fight. Even brief moments of anger can send spikes of anxiety into my chest, and make it difficult for me to continue functioning for the rest of the day. Especially when I can’t understand why the person is angry or if I feel that their response is disproportionate to the situation at hand.

A long time ago, I read this post from Love, Joy, Feminism called “When ‘I’m Sorry’ Means ‘Please Don’t Hit Me’.” Libby describes how her child apologized to her for accidentally breaking something, and it sent her back in memory, to where saying “I’m sorry” to her parents was a plea for them not to hit her, or to stop hitting her.

“I don’t know” was like that, for me. I knew my mother was angry, or that she was going to be angry. All wrapped up in that simple phrase was a plea: “I don’t know why I did that, but I promise it wasn’t because I’m trying to be bad. Please don’t think I’m being bad on purpose. Please don’t hurt me.”

Note that “hurt” in this context isn’t limited to physical abuse. Yes, she did hit me for things, but it was usually in the midst of an obvious episode she was having. Her anger was as much a weapon as her hairbrush. I feared her words as much as her hands. Maybe that’s because she did follow up enough times for me to learn that harsh words tend to lead to harsh actions.

And now, I have difficulty functioning if someone is mad at me. Especially if I don’t really understand why. This is difficult in my life, because I’m pretty sure my husband has depression or something which makes it difficult for him to moderate his emotional responses to things. So, I spend a lot of my time wondering why he’s getting pissed off about something because my response would not be to get pissed off. Sometimes I get mad back at him, and other times I just shut down.

It makes me defensive, it makes me jumpy. It makes me question my sanity. It makes me hate my mother for ruining my ability to deal with conflict in a healthy way. And it makes me pity myself, because I don’t know if the bruises in my heart will ever fade.


(Thank you for reading through to the end. This was actually really difficult to write, and I’ve had to dry my face more than once, notwithstanding the cold I have.)


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