Of maybe and no

My mother has an inability to say no. I don’t know why, but she’ll never say no. Ever. To anyone. She’ll equivocate instead. “Maybe,” or “I’ll think about it,” or “We’ll see.”

My sister figured out that “maybe” meant “no” early. Not me. To me, mom was saying maybe, which was an ambiguous answer. As such, I was always more disappointed when the requested thing never materialized. An explicit “no” to space camp, for example, would have been easier to deal with than months of hope and then it never happening. Because maybe wasn’t no, so I’d hope and hope for it, but it would never happen.

My sister was the one who taught me that “maybe” meant “no” when it came from mom. Mom said maybe to something that my sister had asked for, and my sister complained that she was never allowed to do whatever she’d asked for, in the way that elementary schoolers will when they’re told no. This had happened before, but for some reason, this was the time that I noticed my sister had responded to a maybe as if it was a no. My sister stormed up to her room, and I followed.

“Why did you get mad at Mom?” I asked. “It’s not like she said no.”

“She might not have said no, but that’s what she meant,” my sister huffed. She punctuated her emphasis by throwing a toy. I winced as it hit the wall.

“I don’t get it,” I said. My face was blank. Others would call it my “deer in the headlights” face.

My sister rolled her eyes. “Of course you wouldn’t.”

“How did mom mean no when she said maybe?” I persisted. It felt important somehow, in a way I couldn’t articulate.

My sister rolled her eyes again, as if she thought I was being purposefully obtuse. “Mom never says no. She says maybe instead.”

“Why?!” I exclaimed, outraged. It offended me greatly that one would lie by saying maybe when they meant no. Maybe meant there was some possibility. No was, well, no. You couldn’t argue with no. You could with a maybe. Or so I’d thought. Now that rule had a hole poked in it, and I needed to patch it as soon as possible.

My sister shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I just know she never says no.”

The next day, I asked my mom if I could get a snack. She said maybe. I turned to my father.

“That means no,” I said proudly, showing off my knew knowledge. My father burst into laughter.

Excuse me?” my mother almost-shouted. Her voice stabbed into my eardrums.

I winced and plowed on, oblivious to the danger in my mother’s tone-of-voice – I wouldn’t pick that up for another two years. I replied, quite matter-of-factly, “You don’t say no. You lie and say maybe instead. When you say maybe, it means no.”

My mother stared, speechless for a moment. Her cheeks began to turn red. My father was bent double, clutching at his sides in mirth. Mom smacked him to shut him up.

“But I don’t understand why you lie. If you mean no, why don’t you just say no?” I asked. “Why do you lie about it?”

My mother sent me to my room with a stinging cheek, and I went, at once angry at finding yet another example of my parent’s mantra of, “You know you can ask us anything,” being a lie and puzzled at why it was wrong to point out when an adult was lying. My sister shook her head as I climbed the stairs, a wry grin on her face. “You idiot. What did you do that for?”

“I wanted to know.” I shrugged.


I did talk about some of the problems with my relationship with my sister, but it wasn’t all bad, so now I’m going to talk about the upsides.

I love my sister, but she’s as extroverted as I’m introverted, and sometimes as a kid, I just needed to get. away. She literally could not grasp that I was getting recharged by reading a book (she always has found reading draining) so if she saw that I was tired or drained, she’d try to get me to do stuff she found relaxing. I think she knew I was about to blow up and was trying to direct me to relaxing things to defuse me, but she didn’t have the emotional maturity yet to realize that what she found relaxing stressed me out.

Once I got old enough to realize that I didn’t have the emotional control to not hit her when she tried grabbing me and pulling me with her to go socialize with her friends when I was that exhausted, I’d sneak off and go hide from her when I needed recharge time. I only realized this past year what she was trying to do – she and I can drive each other up the wall at times, but she’s always been the one most tuned-in to my moods and feelings, and I think it was her way of trying to help me avoid trouble with our parents.

She’d also try to play interference with my parents when she knew I needed a bit of time after school before I had any demands lest I blow up. She’d burst in the door, chattering merrily away about school and her friends and so on in a verbal wall of text while I snuck away to my hiding place before my parents had a chance to tell me to do my homework or clean the dishes.

She was really more of an older sib to me growing up in some things even though I’m actually older – she led the way in social situations and when we were older, she made sure I remembered to eat when parents were away. For my part, I helped her with schoolwork (around when I figured out the magic that is social flow charts in high school, I figured that I could apply my social flow charts to math algorithms she could memorize, and it worked like magic for her because it did the pattern recognition that was giving her trouble. Her problem was never one of not being able to do the computation, it was one of not being able to recognize which computation she should apply and for some reason all the teachers thought it was a problem with not knowing how to do the arithmetic. To this day, when she takes a math course, she calls me up and has me help her with writing the flow chart for it) and taught her how to fidget without the teachers seeing – she had ADHD and so was fidgety like me, but unlike me, she needed to run and jump and so on. When my parents were angry with her, I’d act up to redirect their anger to me. I didn’t mind being grounded – but for her, it was torture to not be allowed to run around and be wild. Me? Oh, I’m grounded? Whatever. I have books.

I started doing that when she started sobbing on the way home because she’d got detention in school that day (more torture, for a kid like her – sit in a desk and don’t move or I’ll make you sit in the desk longer) and usually our parents would ground us if we got in trouble at school. I offered to act up and see if I could get them to forget that they’d been called. That was when it started. Thing is, I didn’t get why she was so upset about getting grounded, but to me, I accepted that my sister was different from me and different things upset her. I didn’t want her to be upset, so I figured I’d take the punishment for her, if I could. Because, to me, oh, I get to stay in my room and not be bothered by anyone for a few days? Awesome!

(Now, I realize that being grounded to her room was as bad for her as writing lessons or being made to sit in my desk with nothing to do or gym class or being forced to eat lunch in the school cafeteria was for me. But for her, it would last days or if she reached a point of can’t-take-it-anymore and broke the grounding, weeks).

Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that for all the problems in our relationship, and for all that I will never willingly live with her again, she is my sister, I do love her, and our relationship isn’t all bad.

Sibling bullying, pt 2: middle school

Trigger Warning: bullying, sibling bullying, victim blaming, sexual harassment, assault, etc.

Part 1 is here.

By the time we hit middle school, any semblance of “normal” sibling rivalry had long since passed. Avoiding conflicts with my sister dominated my day.

I’d have to wake up early, sneak into the bathroom before my sister woke (since the moment she woke, she’d monopolize it or throw a tantrum if I was in it when she wanted to be until my parents threatened to haul me out mid-shower just to shut her up, even if I’d only been in for ten minutes) to shower. If you’re wondering why I never showered at night, thank my parents for that – showering was a morning-only thing by their nonsensical rules. Then I’d wait with my bedroom light off until she was in the shower before I got changed, hoping she’d think I was still asleep and that she would be content  with “just” monopolizing the bathroom all morning then spreading it around school that I was dirty and didn’t shower. If I made the mistake of trying to change before she started her shower, she’d see my bedroom light was on and throw the door open so she could humiliate me in a state of undress.

You may ask why I didn’t get changed in the bathroom. The answer to that is that, thanks to my coordination problems, it would’ve required getting up an extra half hour early, and I was already getting up at 5AM to get a shower before her. Since she wouldn’t let me sleep until 10PM, getting up any earlier would’ve meant even more sleep deprivation, which I have never tolerated well. As for why I never told my parents about this, see the part of the previous post in this series re: punishment for being the victim. Also, my parents refused to give me the ability to lock my door, refused to respect my privacy (they would barge into my room at any hour without so much as a knock and then yell at me as if it was my fault when they found me changing), and routinely humiliated me in public for their own enjoyment (I’m not talking “give me a hug, teenager who doesn’t want to be seen with me,” I’m talking “loudly relay in graphic detail stories of me getting horrendously ill to anyone who would listen as retaliation for who-the-hell-knows-what” and “Threaten to strip me and spank me loudly in public well into my teen years on the rare occasions I stood up for myself at all”). I didn’t exactly feel confident that they were my allies in the fight for dignity and privacy.

In addition to the bullying I was receiving at home, my bullying at school was worsening during this time, too, and given the way my sister and the school bullies played into each other, I can’t talk about one without talking about the other. A kid at school, one of the popular crowd “befriended” me so that she could steal my diary and read it to the class. My sister, for her part, told this kid that I kept a diary and where I kept it. I’d been a regular journaler until then, but I stopped thereafter because I didn’t feel safe that my diary wouldn’t be stolen.

Shortly thereafter, another kid “befriended” me, and my parents started noticing expensive stuff missing whenever she came over to visit. My parents eventually caught her red-handed stealing something from us, and that was the end of that. My sister, for her part, painted the kid stealing stuff from them as if I was complicit and ensured I got punished for essentially not having the social skills to realize my “friend” was a thief. This was also when my parents started to view me as a liar: given my rage at a false accusation vs my sister’s charm and charisma, most adults sided with my sister’s charm and charisma. We couldn’t both be telling the truth in such a situation, so they assumed I was lying and my rage was just me putting on a show of innocence.

A third situation that happened was that a high school boy started sexually harassing and groping me on the schoolbus. The school refused to do anything except punish me for being a “tattletale” when I complained until a teacher hitched a ride on the bus to her place when her car was broken one day. She saw him harassing me and the school bus driver ignoring it and raised hell to the school over it. He was banned from the bus for a year.

My sister, who rode the same bus as me, tried to paint it as if I was leading the older kid on, but since the teacher made it very clear I told him to leave me alone repeatedly, she didn’t manage to get me in trouble for that. My parents did, however, lecture me about the importance of coming to them for stuff like that, which given their past conduct and my experiences with adults in general just came off to me as so much bullshit. From my point of view, they wanted to feel as if I could trust them with anything, without actually putting in the effort of making sure they were in fact that trustworthy. By this point, I viewed my parents as beings fundamentally uninterested in my welfare, who only cared about how good or bad I was making them look (since a lot of their lectures focused on reputation and appearances – I wasn’t supposed to “look like an [ableist slur]” or be embarrassing or what have you).

Kids on the bus retaliated by beating me up every day and his cousins at my school likewise would hit me, slam my head in a locker or otherwise hurt me whenever they passed me in the hall, as if it was my fault he’d been harassing and growing me. Even when the bullying happened right in front of a teacher looking right at me, the school did nothing, and the one time I complained about that, I was threatened with a suspension for “fighting” because having my head slammed in a locker and having other students pummel me as I lay dazed on the ground was fighting, apparently.

Being the at-face-value person I am, I entertained the notion that my parents were sincere about coming to them when people were hurting me, so I told them about the bullying. They responded by lecturing me about how to be less weird, how to fit in better, and that I should fight back and defend myself physically. I was still very small for my age at this point, and the other kids usually outnumbered me 5 to 1 or more, but my father responded to me pointing that out by telling me to quit making excuses and that I shouldn’t “let” anyone bully me.

That year, I started refusing to take the bus and instead walked the six kilometers to and from school. I spun it to my parents as wanting more exercise, since they were berating me for being overweight. This had the added benefit, for me, of getting me away from my sister for two hours a day. I would never ride the bus again. Nor, for that matter, would I ever tell an adult about anything bad going on in my life after that year. I’d received the message loud and clear: I was on my own, and I’d better make damn sure nothing came back to them in a way that they felt it would make them look bad.

The second resolution would come back to bite me in high school.

Sibling bullying, pt 1: Elementary school

Massive TW: Bullying, abuse, victim-blaming, assault, depression

I read about a study yesterday, where they found that sibling bullying is as damaging as peer bullying, which makes me roll my eyes in aggravation and the surprised tone all the papers are taking with it. Abuse has similar psychological consequences if it comes from a sibling as if it comes from a classmate or parent? You don’t say. It’s almost as if abuse itself is a bad thing! */sarcasm*

So, today I’m going to talk about my experience of sibling bullying. Just to illustrate why that finding does not surprise me in the least. I call it part 1 because I decided to split out stuff by school-age block since this post got really long as I wrote it.

My sister and I had a strange relationship. I’m older, and had a lot of the things that go hand-in-hand with being older: I was expected to be more responsible, I was in a higher grade at school, etc.

For her part, she’s only about a year younger.

Because I was sick and a VLBW preemie, I was very small growing up. Thus my little sister was usually my size or a bit bigger. Because she didn’t have severe asthma and at the time I did, she was stronger. And because she was so close in age, she was jealous that I was “allowed” to do more at school, that my parents left me in charge when we went out, etc.

So she bullied me, and I retaliated. She bullied me physically and socially. I was not strong enough physically to give her much of a fight, so often she would wrestle me to the ground, pin my arms with her knees and sit on my chest, slapping me in the face. My parents at best did nothing, chalking it up to “normal” sibling rivalry. At worst, they punished me since as the older sibling, I was expected to be able to defuse the situation… somehow. I can’t really social very well, so expecting me to “defuse” my sister’s bullying was about as sensible as asking a person with fine-motor coordination problems and no training to perform neurosurgery. My clumsy attempts at defusing usually blew up in my face and in short order I gave up.

Knowing I had no support from my parents, and knowing fully well that I could expect punishment if I went to them for help, I retaliated with practical jokes that were downright cruel. I hid things she’s phobic of around her room so she’d find them. I booby-trapped the door to her room for stuff to hit her or mess up her cleaning or what have you. And so on.

So she retaliated socially, at school. I was hopeless with social stuff in general. A year where the kids in my class were content to just ignore the fact I was there was a success to me. Because the other years, they bullied me mercilessly.

And my sister gave them ammo, providing embarrassing stories, photos, and bits of information for them to use against me. She made up names for them to call me, and I knew the names came from her because she would test them at home to see which ones hurt the worst before spreading them at school. When she didn’t have real stuff to hurl at me, she made up stories – I was secretly a boy which was why I sucked so bad at being a girl, for example. That one led to kids stripping me at a birthday party so they could see whether or not I was a boy or a girl. It also led to me getting grounded to my room for a month for “letting” them gang up on and strip me. My sister received no punishment for spreading the rumor, and my parents chastized me for “letting” the rumor get out of hand. This sort of thing ties into the whole “feeling all adults hated me” thing I mentioned in an earlier post. This was the first of many rumors my sister spread that would lead to me getting punished.

My parents picked up that I didn’t do so good in the social department, and that my sister was as good as I was bad at it. People – adults and kids alike – are drawn to my sister’s charm and charisma, neither of which I really have, nor have I ever been skilled enough at emulating those qualities to compete to any extent. That I was kind of a goofy-looking kid did not help matters. I honestly think they were trying to help me find friends and get better at social stuff with this move, but they bungled it horribly: my parents decided that any extra-curricular my sister went to, I went to. They told my sister that I wanted to go with her and told me that I “had” to go with my sister because they didn’t want her to feel left out. Since we were required to do all of the same extra-curriculars and my sister threw bigger tantrums, I was pretty much never allowed to do something I wanted if my sister didn’t want to do it or wanted to do something else instead. My sister saw this as me “copying” her and resented me for it. For my part, I saw it as my parents favoring my sister’s activities by refusing to let me do anything I wanted to do, so I resented her for it. Which worsened our relationship even further.

The other thing I think my parents did to try to make us more civil to each other was to force us to share a room, even though there was enough room for us to each have our own in my parents’ house. Two adults, forced to be around each other 24/7, will eventually get on each other’s nerves. That’s even more true of siblings, and my sister and I had the same recess and lunch hour, the same school, the same room, and the same extra-curriculars and were never allowed any time or space to be ourselves away from the other.  So we needed space from each other, and were acting out because we needed space, and they responded by taking away what little space we did have.

Things would get worse when I reached middle school.

Part 2 is here

Trap questions

First of all: I hate trap questions.

Okay, that out of the way. I’d better explain what the hell I mean by “trap questions.” Because different people mean different things by that phrase.

Here’s what I mean when I use it: Questions that give the appearance of a real choice when no real choice is present. Often, they come with consequences (being chastised, punished, thought rude, etc) if you don’t answer “appropriately.”

What they look like: When a parent asks a child if they want to do a chore and the option to decline said chore is not really present. When a friend asks someone to go out with them but isn’t actually willing to accept a no. When your boss asks if you’d be “okay” with taking on some overtime, and, legal protections aside, you know damn well it’ll bite you when it comes time for promotions or what have you if you decline. Etc.

Growing up, trap questions were a favorite of my mother. As a kid, it felt like she was purposefully trying to trick me so she could have an excuse to punish me for being honest. Giving her as much benefit of the doubt as possible, she has mentioned in the past that she feels she’s being rude when she makes outright requests of people so it’s possible she felt she was being polite by resorting to trap question and there’s some unspoken social rule I’m missing there. I miss a lot of unspoken social rules, so that’s not nearly as unlikely as it is for most people.

Which, actually, brings me nicely to the major problem I have with this form of question: It’s dishonest. And for people who are utter shite at reading social cues and body language (like yours truly), we get tricked into thinking there’s a real choice when there isn’t and then are blindsided when the other person is hurt or offended by our answer.

It didn’t help at all that my response to my mother’s offense (and often doling out of punishment for said offense) was less-than-helpful for resolving the situation, as I was usually both completely bewildered by her reaction and outraged at what – to me – was an unwarranted and disproportionate punishment: What do you mean I’m having an attitude? You asked if I wanted to vaccuum the floor! You know I hate vaccuums! I answered honestly! Why is that wrong?! No, I am not being rude, I’m being honest! I’m not talking back, I don’t know why you’re angry! Why do I have to go to my room?! 

…. annnnd initiate meltdown, end scene.

The problem here, I say with the benefit of hindsight, is a fundamental breakdown in communication caused some people’s tendency to say one thing while meaning something completely different interacting unfavorably with the fact that I don’t do subtext well. Now that I’m an adult, you might have to hint at what you’re talking about a dozen times before I go, “Oooooh, you mean Park and Josie are dating! I get it! Wait, why are you shushing me?”

As a kid, I didn’t do subtext, figurative speech, or hinting at stuff at all until I was about 17. I averaged 85% in high school English, and only lost marks on symbolism. Symbolism was worth, *drumroll please* 15% of the final grade. I was bad at it. Really bad. I was the kid who would respond to, “Zip your lips!” with “But my lips don’t have a zipper” and genuine confusion and who thought that the Robert Frost poem about stopping in the woods on a winter’s night was about some guy on a long trip who really needed to find a rest stop.

So when my mother chose to hint at what she wanted with a trap question rather than being explicit about it, I missed the hint. In effect, she was saying, “Please vacuum the floors,” while I was hearing, “Do you want to vacuum the floors?” and responding to that mentally with, “Dafuq? Who wants to vacuum floors? Why are you asking me this?”

And so when I responded, “No, I don’t like vacuums,” what I meant was, “No, I don’t want to vacuum the floors because I don’t like vacuums,” while she heard, “No, I won’t do my chores! Neener neener!” And she responded accordingly.

This ongoing conflict (among others – many, many others) helped to make me certain of three things: Firstly, all adults – my parents included – hated me. Nothing I could do was right to them, and since my peers and sibling seemed to be able to talk back with relative impunity while I got hammered into the ground every single time for stuff that wasn’t even talking back as far as I could tell, the only other possibility, as far as I could tell, was that they hated me. Secondly, all adults enjoyed seeing me suffer, and doled out severe punishments for their enjoyment rather than for my benefit. And, thirdly, that when I wasn’t giving them sufficient cause to punish me, they would set up a trap – like with those trap questions – to get me anyway. Now that I’m older, I’m not sure how much of this is true, but I mention it to illustrate the view I had of parents, other kids, and adults in general at that point. They were things to be wary of, and not to be trusted, because in my view, they were actively malicious towards me.

Things improved to some degree when I adopted, “No, I don’t want to, but I will if you want me to,” as a scripted response sometime around when I turned 11 or so. I was still genuinely confused about whether or not I could take my mother’s questions at face value or not, and so I always responded with that to illustrate my confusion with whether or not I legitimately had a choice. My mother would still passive-aggressively snipe at me about being snotty if I read a trap question as an ambiguous one (which was pretty much always), but she usually wouldn’t hand out punishment for it. Unless I responded with, “How am I snotty? I’m being honest!” innn which case it usually ended up with us screaming at each other and me grounded. Again.

So around 14, I started to assume that all of my mother’s questions were malicious traps and that I needed to just say yes to everything so she wouldn’t be able to punish me anymore. Problem: This means everything. My mother had accidentally (or, perhaps, not-so-accidentally, but I’m trying to give the benefit of the doubt here as much as thinking about my parents’ actions in context with the rest of my childhood and growing-up make it difficult to do so) trained me to comply and acquiesce to everything and fear every question as a possible source of punishment. Do you want ice cream? Can’t say no because I don’t know if it’s a legit choice or if I’ll be yelled at for not being gracious so I’ll say yes. Do you want to learn guitar? Not particularly since I’d prefer the violin but I don’t know if I’ll get yelled at for pointing that out so I’d better say yes. Etc.

At 14, I still was unable to tell trap question from legit question (and, at 25, I still can’t), so the only other possiblity, as far as I could see, was to assume everything was a trap and comply, comply, comply. It has taken me the 8 years since I moved away from home to go to uni to unlearn terrified compliance and realize that it’s okay for me to say no sometimes. Now that I’m older, as well, I’ve changed my scripted resposne from “comply at all costs” to “ask for clarification.” “Do you mean ‘please do _____’ or are you asking me whether I want to do it?” This can sometimes get others rolling their eyes at me if their meaning seems obvious to them but thus far it has avoided huge blowup screaming fights with the extended family like I used to have.

And, anyway, that’s why I hate trap questions. Because 1, I can’t tell the difference between trap and legitimate question, 2, I fear social sanctions for misinterpreting, 3, trap questions have a lot of emotional baggage attached to them thanks to misinterpretations as a kid, and 4, I don’t think it’s too damn much to ask that when people present a choice to me, that choice should be a real one.