Posts Tagged ‘active neglect’

Okay. So it’s true that I complain about things my parents failed to do as much (or more) than things they did do. Today in the “stuff they didn’t do, but should have, and it should have been obvious” category, I offer proof from an unlikely place: the Family Feud.

That’s right, the game show.

Not the original, 70s-tastic version hosted by Richard Dawson (unfortunately).

Today, on a 1990s-era rerun (thanks Game Show Network!), contestants were faced with the following survey question:

“Name a home repair that is necessary no matter how broke you are.”

Hmmm. I struggled thinking of possibilities…in my experience, we just never fixed anything. This has made me hypersensitive, so now even little things like light bulbs get insta-replaced in my own house.

Eventually, the contestants gave all four correct results:

1. Plumbing

2. Leaky Roof

3. Refrigerator/stove

4. Hot Water Heater

Interesting.

Breaking this down, my parents go 0/4.

0/5 if you count the refrigerator and stove as separate items.

1. Plumbing. The plumbing in my childhood house went out when I was in grade school. We had raw sewage running down the side of our house and driveway for over a decade, because instead of fixing the septic tank, my dad just disconnected it. My mom, brother, and I had to throw our used toilet paper in a trash can (because apparently it was more sanitary if we just flushed the poop). My dad couldn’t live with that, of course, and continued to flush everything to its final resting place directly out my brother’s bedroom window. No wonder he left home at 16.

Unfortunately, I can’t find the super-classy picture of when the chain in the tank broke, and there was a fire poker stuck in there for flushing.

Moving on…

2. Leaky Roof. Small potatoes. Try having the living room doors leak and soak the entire carpet every time it rained, making it necessary to wear shoes indoors just to get to the bathroom, unless you wanted to walk in mud. The roof in our entry room did actually partially collapse due to a leak when I was about 14. I have pictures, but I need to scan them. Proof from the eventual patch job that happened 10 years after the fact though:

It’s hard to get a clear sense of it here, but the floor was so wet for so long, the book case actually warped away from the wall. You can also see the mold line on the back wall marking how far upward the moisture wicked into the walls. Classy.

3. Refrigerator/stove. To be fair, the refrigerator actually did work until I was 16. 3 of the 4 burners on the stove did work, but the oven went out when I was about 8 and was never fixed. My brother and I determined to purchase my mom a new stove when I was 16 and had a job; in a freaky coincidence, the week we slated for a Home Depot trip, the refrigerator also crapped out entirely, so we ended up buying one of those as well in the same trip. It’s like even the appliances knew my dad was never going to fix them!

d-con in the kitchen? Sure. Why not? No fire hazard here, either. Safety first.

Which brings us finally to…

4. Hot Water Heater. I’ve complained a lot about the water situation at my house growing up. In case you missed those posts, our water came from a box spring, and emerged from our (very dirty) taps in roughly a 40:60 mud and silt to water ratio. I used to have to ring mud out of my hair after every shower. Gross. Showers in themselves sucked, because our hot water heater was dysfunctional, and had to be reset on an hourly basis. Taking a shower meant going into the front room, tripping the reset button, and waiting an hour for a whopping 5 minutes or so of water that was either lukewarm or scalding. Generally, I jumped in, got wet, turned off the water while I lathered, and then rinsed as fast as possible, because the longer I stayed in, the more mud I had to contend with. How we never had a fire in this house I will never, ever, understand.

The entry room where our water heater was located was always very inviting…for rats.

I like that this question included the line “no matter how broke you are.” Because even the survey of 100 random people understood that certain maintenance things aren’t negotiable. Failing to fix one of them is bad enough…failing to fix all of them is almost incomprehensible. How my parents could have ever thought it was okay to raise kids in that would be a lucrative and interesting study (take note, Family Feud question writers…)

What really hurts me is the reality that a new stove, refrigerator, and hot water heater cost significantly less than the price of one tractor. My dad had friends who could have fixed the roof for a minimal cost, and we had a neighbor who offered to fix the septic tank. My dad turned them down because of the cost. It was literally better to let us live in squalor than give up the chance to buy another D-4.

When should children be removed from a home?

Before this happens.

It’s true. Because of my childhood, simple things like light bulbs now hold an extraordinary amount of symbolic power over how safe and secure I feel.  It all stretches back to being a child and learning very early on that just because something that broke around the house was an easy fix didn’t mean it would be taken care of. Replacing light bulbs for instance.

The bathroom in our house in California only had one light fixture in it. It was in the middle of the room (which was small) and it was a glass globe that shielded a single bulb. If that single bulb burned out, there was no light in the bathroom. When it did burn out, it generally didn’t get changed for a while.

Because of where the bulb was placed, it couldn’t be changed without a step stool. My mom had neck and back problems that made it increasingly hard for her to handle reaching overhead to change the bulb, so for a long time, I suspect my brother was the one who took care of it. He left home when I was 11, and after that, there were lots of times that the light burned out and just never got changed. My dad just didn’t do it. It never occurred to me that that was odd, because that’s what I was used to.

When I got old enough to reach the bulb from the top of a step ladder, I started changing the light when it burned out. But there was a period in the middle there where no one changed the light. The idea of candles still brings my dad to tears because he’s afraid the house will burn down (a real possibility considering the hoarding, but I’m quite certain he’s never put two and two together). The only option left was a battery-powered lamp, which provided just enough light to figure out where things were.  Now that I think about it, it almost made the situation more pleasant…dim lighting made it harder to see the worst of the dirt…

There's only so much dim lighting can do...

Flash forward to the present, and sometimes the simplest of things jolts me back to that place where the people who were supposed to be taking care of me quite simply failed. The house that I currently share with my boyfriend has standard lighting fixtures in the bedrooms upstairs that cover two bulbs each. Since we have three bedrooms, a master and two smaller ones, my boyfriend and I each have an office. As a general rule, I stay out of his and let it be his man cave full of computer equipment I don’t understand and various other odds and ends that cover the floor. I stay out of the man cave because it looks like a tornado hit it, and it drives me nuts. It’s the messiest room in our house, and sometimes it gives me flashbacks to my childhood home. When it gets too bad, I complain, throw around official-sounding words like “peritaxis”* and eventually boyfriend gives in and cleans it. (His version of cleaning does not equal mine, but I try to compromise).

So imagine my reaction a few days ago when I ventured into boyfriend’s man cave to collect some stray dishes, flipped the light switch…and nothing happened. Nothing. The bulbs were burned out, and instead of replacing them, boyfriend elected to use his desk lamp and ignore the overhead lights. I marched into the master bedroom, where boyfriend was sniffling with a cold and watching TV, and gave him a short, concise lecture on how his failure to replace the light bulbs made me feel like I was back in California.

This is one of those situations where tiny things turn into happy reminders that I’m in a much different place now. The next day, the lights had mysteriously been replaced everything was back in working order. Now if I can just get him to clean up the floor…

*Peritaxis, as my therapist uses it, refers to situations where the present is experienced as more than just what it is. In my case, for example, it means experiencing the past, and the neglect I suffered, in situations in the present where something is occurring which mimics certain aspects of something I’ve gone through before.

It has been a crazy couple of weeks. Grad school does not believe in time off, so as usual, I’m trying to find a balance between getting projects checked off my to-do list and finding time for me. Lately it seems that most of my “me time” is consumed by worrying about what I’m going to do when I finish grad school and worrying about what I’m going to do when I have to deal with my parents next…

The holidays are always hard. Since I’ve been dating my current boyfriend, I’ve spent Christmases and most other holidays with his family. I appreciate the time I have with them, and I’m grateful that I have them in my life. At the same time, it always brings to the forefront how dysfunctional my own family is.

I realize that no childhood is ever perfect. What my parents, and lots of other people surrounding this whole dysfunctional family fail to realize, is that I’m not upset that my childhood wasn’t perfect. I’m furious that my parents didn’t live up to the responsibilities inherent with having children – protecting me, and providing a safe, healthy, nurturing environment. After years of therapy, I’ve arrived at a place where I’m not even so much angry anymore that it happened…I’m angry that they still don’t think they need to take any responsibility for it.

One of the terms that stands out to me as  I learn more about hoarding and parenting and the strange combination that results from mixing the two is “active neglect.” As I understand it, this basically implies that parents are present and meeting the basic needs of the child – food, warmth, shelter – etc. at the most fundamental level, but failing to remedy problematic situations that arise from hoarding, like cleaning the house.

I spent most of my life believing that I couldn’t have been neglected…how could I have been “neglected” when both my parents were at home with me every night? It has been a process of learning that neglect is more complicated than that. My parents were physically present, but emotionally unavailable; they provided me with shelter, but it was a shelter that was unfit for human habitation, hazardous, and unsanitary. On some level, they knew there was a problem; how many times was I told that it was my responsibility to “clean up this house a little bit,” in my dad’s favorite way of putting it? All the hours my mother and I spent commiserating about how filthy the house was were times when my parents should have taken responsibility for fixing the situation. Active neglect.

When I see it on the TV, it brings up a lot of the anger I’m working through. The last episode of “Hoarders” on A&E featured a woman who threatened to leave her family and move out of their hoarded house if it wasn’t cleaned. Then the cleaning crew came in, and it was the mother who refused to let any items go. She wanted the house clean, but wouldn’t take any responsibility for letting go of the things that made it filthy in the first place. I wanted to climb through the TV and smack her for not being able to take responsibility for what she was doing to her family in much the same way that I feel an overwhelming urge to smack my dad for exactly the same reason.

Back to the same conundrum…how do you explain to someone that they’ve hurt you when they aren’t capable of understanding why? How can I explain to my parents that even though they were physically present, they neglected me? I’m continuing to ponder this as I try to work through the experience of going back to my childhood house in California, and the process of grieving for my grandmother. Sometimes, yelling at the TV in lieu of my own parents really does help.