Confession time. I am going through what Brené Brown calls a midlife unravelling. No, it’s not a midlife crisis. It’s not a mental health collapse, either, although it feels like it. It’s an undoing. An uncontrolled and uncontrollable breakdown of what has been assumed and is assumed. What was certain is not. What seems to be reality is actually a foundation of quicksand. It’s a curious No Man’s Land of stripped back limbo where I’m questioning my decisions, and the preceding groundwork and reality on which I have based those decisions.
This unravelling is, I believe and to a large extent, underpinned by childhood trauma caused by abuse. There’s no other way to say it. And this trauma, which I thought I had dealt with, has bubbled to the surface, needing my urgent attention. Again.
Six months ago, I was ok. Even though life was not perfect, and it never is, I has happy, satisfied, content. I thought, after a false start, that I had found love. I was living bravely. Embracing vulnerability. Taking risks. Having smack downs in the arena and getting my arse seriously kicked. I was cool with that because I was living the life I wanted to live: a life of courage, of interest, of meaning, of relevance. Or, at least, thought I was.
But things have changed. I’ve changed. I’m not that girl who landed in Vietnam almost three years ago, full of hope and joy and awe and excited anticipation. Sure, an essence of her remains — like a shadow — and probably always will, but she (me) is a darker version. A more mature version, knocked around by the undertow of being in a foreign country without a life buoy. A version that has seen the greedy, selfish, dysfunctional underbelly of human nature and is yet to come out the other side fully intact. She is more cautious, less carefree. More introspective. Much more guarded. Suspicious, even.
Question: so what’s brought this midlife unravelling on?
Answer: a couple of Serious Things, and one Dangerous Thing.
If you look at each midlife “event” as a random, stand-alone struggle, you might be lured into believing you’re only up against a small constellation of “crises.” The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK. ~ Brené Brown
Thing #1 (Serious)
In October of 2018, I tried to renew my business visa. I failed. To cut a long story short — and it is a very long story — the “friend” who had organised my business visa the year before (in 2017) had registered me with a fake sponsor under a ghost company. The ghost company was raided by the finance police or the tax department or some official office in Vietnam, my record was found, and I was blacklisted by immigration. I didn’t know until I tried to renewed my visa and couldn’t. At no point did this “friend” say: If you want a business visa, this is what I have to do to get you one. These are the risks. This is what might happen. Do you want me to proceed? He made a decision without consulting with me. He made a decision that I did not know was being made and therefore couldn’t say no to, and it fucked with my life.
I lived day to day, on edge, waiting for news that my name would be cleared from the blacklist and I would be allowed back into the country.
I was stuck in Bangkok, trying to get it sorted out. It took one month. One very stressful and expensive month. A month where I was planning my exit strategy from Vietnam, concerned about my cat (in 2017, I had brought Bella from Australia in good faith thinking I would have a long, charmed and problem-free life in Vietnam) and how to get her out if I moved elsewhere. I was thinking about packing up my apartment (I literally had no time to pack my stuff, because I had to exit Vietnam quickly to avoid overstay penalties in case I could actually get back) and how to get my belongings moved. I lived day to day, on edge, waiting for news that my name would be cleared from the blacklist and I would be allowed back into the country.
I was (again, a long story), but it didn’t end there. Two months later, I applied for a visa extension, and discovered I was still on a blacklist, despite assurances I had been cleared. In fact, it took me six months to sort out (another long story). Six months of acute stress, worrying about whether I would be allowed to stay in the country and about Bella, and where I could go with her if I couldn’t stay. I worried about my finances. I worried about how sustainable it actually was living in Vietnam in the long term. Most of all, I worried (and I still worry now; the worry hangs over me like a dark cloud threatening heavy, dank, drowning rain) that I had made the biggest mistake of my life leaving Australia. Is this what I want? Do I still want to be here? If I’m not here in Vietnam, where else would I go? And if I have made a mistake, how do I undo it, knowing I have to consider Bella (who’s an innocent in all this) and quarantine regulations if I take her back to Australia, or any other country for that matter?
Thing #2 (Serious)
Just before Christmas last year (2018), while I was still dealing with Thing #1, I had a severe case of jaundice. I knew my liver enzymes were high because I’d had a health check for my work permit (to resolve Thing #1) but never having had liver issues before (that I knew of), and what with the doctor not making a big deal of it, I ignored it. I was drinking much less alcohol anyway (mainly because I didn’t feel like drinking), and kept up my intermittent fasting regime and moderate fat/low sugar intake (I was determined to lose the 10-15kg that had crept on over the last two years). I was training in the gym every other day, running and weights.
I ended up in hospital for 10 days with a toxic liver (acute hepatitis) and was on three drips per day plus medication to get my liver enzymes under control.
I was feeling off by the time my skin turned yellow. I was tired, had no energy and felt like I had a permanent case of flu. I couldn’t keep food down, and had lost my appetite. Weight was falling off me. I ended up in hospital for 10 days with a toxic liver (acute hepatitis) and was on three drips per day plus medication to get my liver enzymes under control. It was serious, but the doctors couldn’t find a cause. No Hepatitis A, B, C, D or E (D and E are Asian varieties). No cirrhosis. No pancreatitis. No gall bladder issues. No cancer. Cause unknown, but possibly related to the antibiotics I had taken for a UTI two weeks earlier. No one could say for sure.
I think my liver was toxic in Bangkok. I was vomiting and lost a lot of weight while I was there. My poop was a pale colour and my pee was dark (but only in the morning), which are hallmarks of elevated bilirubin levels and signs that my liver was not functioning well at all. I would hazard a guess (but I don’t know for sure because I wasn’t tested for this) that because of all the stress I was under, my cortisol levels were through the roof and this affected the functioning of my liver.
It has taken six months of medication and careful nutrition and zero alcohol and gentle exercise and minimising stress for my liver enzymes to be back in the normal range. My liver is now functioning properly and the damage has been repaired. Six months of worrying about my health and trying to figure out what the cause was. Stress? Pollution? Chemicals? Some other unknown variable that no one knew about? Is it coincidence that this occurred during one of the most stressful periods of my life i.e. Thing #1 and Thing #3?
Thing #3 (Dangerous)
Dating has been quite easy for me in Vietnam. I guess I’m seen as exotic, despite my age. A single, white woman with green eyes, long silver hair and my body shape? Men notice me, and I often turn heads. It’s flattering not to be invisible like I am in the west. I’m out and about, easily recognised and usually happy to talk to people who want to have a chat. The Vietnamese are often pleasantly surprised when I start talking in their language, because they know how difficult it is and appreciate the effort I have taken to learn it. I figure the worst that people can say about me is that I’m friendly.
I met Hung in July last year, three months before I was stuck in Bangkok, and three months after I ended it with the fucktard. He said he’d met me before and I believed him because the facts were correct, despite me not remembering him (and I have a very good memory for faces). In hindsight (which is always 20/20) I should have asked him about the nature of our conversation to see if he really had met me before. I didn’t because I took him on face value. Big mistake.
Our relationship lasted an on again/off again 10 months. I was the one who kept trying to end things because there was something not quite right about it. On the surface, he was kind, loyal and reliable — he looked after Bella while I was stuck in Bangkok, and while I was in hospital — but. At a deeper level, where intimacy grows and thrives, something was missing. There was an emptiness and disconnection that I couldn’t put my finger on. I wanted a close connection, but he was unable — or unwilling — to accommodate me, despite my communicating my needs at every step of the way. Being Vietnamese, I wasn’t sure if these issues were related to him or language or culture or his (what I assumed to be) avoidant attachment style. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Not once, not twice, but one hundred times.
I did this because he was an expert manipulator, and I didn’t see it. I knew something was going on, something was amiss. What that something turned out to be, as I discovered, was emotional abuse. It just took me time to figure out why he was secretive and controlling and grandiose and gaslighty and lacking in empathy. Time to see the patterns. He was using one of the most manipulative tricks in the Cluster B personality disorder handbook on me: intermittent reinforcement. And what he created was a relationship where I was trauma bonded to him, not dissimilar to Stockholm Syndrome. I was being held hostage emotionally and I didn’t see it. Couldn’t see it.
In these kinds of relationships, the person in control often intermittently reinforces their partner only to withdraw reinforcement completely. For example, they occasionally give their partner closeness in the beginning, only to later deny them closeness completely. Despite this complete withdrawal of reinforcement, the partner stays and persistently tries to get closeness because they have already grown accustomed to periods of starvation and have been trained that occasionally they do in fact get the closeness they want. So they are hooked on the hope that they will. They push harder than ever for the closeness that they occasionally got in the past that they may in fact never get again. ~ Teal Swan
Towards the end of our 10 month on again/off again relationship, when I was playing detective (never a good sign) trying to work out what the fuck was wrong with me, I was horrified to discover I was in a relationship with someone who had all the traits of a covert narcissist. He played me. He whittled away my boundaries, sucked out my soul and had me questioning myself and my reality. He underestimated how strong I was though, and how smart — and I finished it as soon as I figured out what he was. I was lucky. I escaped. Some people stay with covert narcissists for years, their spirit slowly wasting away, with suicide often being the only option for escape. Covert narcissists are notoriously difficult to spot, even for experts, because they seem so kind and loyal and reliable. They hide well, because they want to fly under the radar. Make no mistake: this niceness is all about them, and how they perceive themselves, which is superior to every other person on the planet. And they are incredibly dangerous.
Some people stay with covert narcissists for years, their spirit slowly wasting away, with suicide often being the only option for escape.
The first hardest thing for me to come to terms with about Thing #3 is that my relationship with Hung was a lie. It was manufactured by him to get narcissistic supply. I was an appliance. I was useful, like a television or a phone or a computer. The intimacy, that connection that I craved with him was missing because his humanity — empathy, compassion, conscience, vulnerability — was missing. He pretended very well — enough to fool me — but, like all narcissist, coverts or overts, play-acting humanity isn’t sustainable. And all those things that made me an excellent supply — empathetic, trusting, intuitive, a problem-solver, curious — served me well in the end. I figured out the patterns. I figured out that my emotions, my vulnerabilities were being used against me for his gain, his satisfaction, his pleasure. It all became so very, very clear. In the end.
The second hardest thing that I had to come to terms with was that my mother had primed me for this emotional abuse. My tolerance for bad behaviour in an intimate relationship is greater than someone who was raised in a loving relationship. I overlooked red flags. I allowed my boundaries to be busted. I stayed because he seemed like he loved me. While I’ve never been in a physically violent relationship — I know the signs on an intuitive, cellular level — emotional abuse is a whole different, insidious, dangerous ball game and one for which I had no offence or defence strategy. I was — am — a walking target.
My dear, wise, young friend Robyn understands because she too, is feeling and dealing and healing with her own childhood trauma and abuse. She is 26, maybe 27, and she explained it oh so well as a lifelong sentence that’s worse than being locked up for murder, because you are never really free. We sat, the other day, her and I, drinking our iced sugar cane juice, the hot Hanoi summer breathing down our necks, talking about the damage our mothers — who should never have been mothers — have inflicted on us, their children. She is angry, and she has every right to be. I was angry once, so I know that anger.
The imprint on my soul from childhood, from an abusive, violent mother, has left me a wilted flower, delicate petals torn and ragged, battered by life’s storms.
Now, I’m just so very, very sad. I’m sad at the injustice of being born to someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t honour me as their child. I’m sad at the waste of time, in many respects, that my life has been. I’ve always been searching for love, to be loved, and it has, for the most part, been fruitless. I’m jaded enough, cynical enough to realise that love is just brain chemicals, and that with my history of childhood abuse, I will invariably choose the wrong men to become attached to, even with all the education and knowledge and self-awareness I’ve acquired over the years.
I can hear you all say that it doesn’t have to be that way, that there are good men out there who will love me and that I am enough. I am worthy. That someone will come along when I least expect it. That I’m not sending the right vibrations out into the Universe. That I can be my own mother. All that is probably true. Trust me, I have been down the unexpected meeting path and it never ends well for me. Ever. I have sent good vibrations into the Universe and that’s not ended well either. I have seen women with good men, and I envy them and acknowledge the amount of luck involved. At an intrinsic, cellular level I know I am enough, and I am worthy, and I calm and care for my inner child, but it doesn’t help.
The imprint on my soul from childhood, from an abusive, violent mother, has left me a wilted flower, delicate petals torn and ragged, battered by life’s storms. I am damaged. I have been primed for emotional abuse by the very person who was supposed to care for and nurture me. Of all the betrayals that I have experienced, and there have been many, this one is absolute. A betrayal so insidious, so harmful, so dangerous, so primal that the imprint is branded forever on my soul. I have tried so very, very hard not to let it define me, but I feel like I am failing. That I have failed.
How on earth do I ever, can I ever, get past all that?
This post may seem a like a cry for help. It’s not. It’s me working out what I think, processing things with words, like I usually do. I’m not about to swallow a bottle of arsenic for breakfast any time soon. I’m physically safe, but I’ve taken an emotional and spiritual battering so I’m taking this time to work on my mind, my body and my soul. I’m meditating, exercising, reading, learning, creating and writing. I’m doing lots and lots and lots of writing. I’m working, and staying connected with my community here, ever grateful for the small group of wonderful, supportive Vietnamese and expat friends I have.
If you are interested in reading about the effect of childhood trauma and abuse, and the repercussions in adulthood, I can highly recommend Ariel Leve’s An Abbreviated Life. The similarities between her life and mine are eery.
“A beautiful, startling, and candid memoir about growing up without boundaries, in which Ariel Leve recalls with candor and sensitivity the turbulent time she endured as the only child of an unstable poet for a mother and a beloved but largely absent father, and explores the consequences of a psychologically harrowing childhood as she seeks refuge from the past and recovers what was lost.
Leve learned to become her own parent, taking care of herself and her mother’s needs. There would be uncontrolled, impulsive rages followed with denial, disavowed responsibility, and then extreme outpourings of affection. How does a child learn to feel safe in this topsy-turvy world of conditional love? Leve captures the chaos and lasting impact of a child’s life under siege and explores how the coping mechanisms she developed to survive later incapacitated her as an adult.”
Note: this is a Book Depository affiliate link. You can also buy this book via my Barnes & Noble (Nook) affiliate link.