Monday, April 14, 2008

Ironically, resenting one's mother-in-law is extremely conventional.

When I'm at work--or generally with people who are not my close friends--I tend to pretend that I'm more conventional than I am: that I care about cars, makeup, celebrity gossip (I do care about work gossip). I smile, I make small talk, I laugh at dumb jokes, I stay quiet about my true thoughts and interests. I was thinking last week that perhaps that time had come to stop doing that, and start being more fearlessly myself.

But perhaps I was wrong. Yesterday Eric and I went over to his mom's so that we could visit and he could work on a video he has to do for school which isn't working on anybody's computer but his mom's. When we arrived, she was complaining about something that was wrong with her computer, so Eric naturally said he would take a look at it before starting on his work. Time went on, and his mom said something about it; he said, "I don't want to be working on this, I want to be doing my homework!" and went back to trying to figure it out. She went away. Not long after, she came back and said, "I didn't ask you to work on my problem. You shouldn't have offered if you were going to be that way about it. I didn't like your tone, and I'm tired of your rudeness."

He was surprised, since he hadn't directed it at her specifically, just meant to vent some irritation at the problem itself. He apologized, and she said again that he had been rude. Eventually she wandered away and fell asleep on the couch; he sat at the computer, upset and unable to work, and we decided to go home.

At home, he threw himself on the bed and I tried to talk to him about this, telling him that he shouldn't take it personally, that his mom had been having frustrations all day (she'd told us about them) and she was just blowing off steam. In the middle of the conversation, she called him. She started out asking why he had gone home, and whether he had finished his video. When he answered, she started a long monologue. I couldn't hear most of her words, just her tone; but in the middle she got louder and Eric sat up, and I could hear her say, "You know what it is? It's your haughty, arrogant, holier-than-thou attitude. The two of you think that you're perfect and the rest of us are constantly wrong. You criticize how Addie's being brought up, you criticize me for watching TV and getting text messaging, nobody can do anything right except for you two. It's not just me who thinks so, but I'm the only one who will say anything about it, and I'm sick of it."

She went on and on, Eric trying to interrupt, trying to say "I'm sorry," and being overriden. Finally she told him he should come over and finish his homework, and hung up.

"I guess it wasn't just her letting off steam," Eric said, and started crying.

He didn't know what she meant by most of the things she said, and neither did I--except that I know that we both (Eric especially) certainly do have opinions on things the mothers do, as well as everything else in the world, and we talk about them. So do the mothers. Essentially, Eric said, the rest of the conversation was saying that he was an arrogant, worthless human being, and the time had come for her to tell him so.

He sank into a depressive stupor. He's been clinically depressed before, and we've been thinking it's probably coming on again, especially with the stress of the past several months. Some things he said, then and later, confirmed it: that while in this catatonia he was thinking of different ways to kill himself, that if he were going to kill himself for being worthless--and since his own mother had told him he was, it must be true--he would have to hurt me too ("Sure," I said, "Otherwise, I wouldn't let you go through with it," but he said that wasn't it, it was:) just in case I happened to be carrying his child because he wouldn't want his genes passed on. That he would never actually do it because whenever he was low enough to think of it he never had the energy to carry it out.* One of my tasks today is to find a psychiatrist on our insurance plan. Eventually I got him to sleep.

*(This is why suicidal people first taking antidepressants have to be watched. The drugs give them energy before they lighten the depression itself. Finally, my psych degree comes in handy.)

Two hours later he woke, still wildly unhappy but at least able to move and talk; we had dinner and talked about what we were going to do about his mother. We toyed with the idea of never talking to her again (which had its appeal), of pretending it never happened (which didn't), of asking Edith for any suggestions, since we didn't know how serious Brenda was about what she had said or what she wanted us to do. Finally we decided we would stay away for the next couple of days, then ask Edith what she thought would be best.

(My God, this has gotten long. It's going to be much longer. Well, this is what happens when I no longer use my notebook as a regular journal.)

Not long after, of course, Brenda called. She wanted to come over. Eric agreed. She sobbed in the entryway that she didn't want to fight, though Eric hadn't been fighting and I hadn't entered the issue at all except as accused by her; then she complained that she wanted to sit but didn't want to take her shoes off (as is our rule in the house), so I told her just to walk into the living room in her shoes. "Yeah, but I just walked over in the mud," she said as she crossed the carpeted floor.

She said she knew she was overly sensitive sometimes, but we were so arrogant and cynical, and she was bothered by it. I asked what she wanted us to do differently, and she said she didn't. She and Eric discussed it, and went on a great number of tangents, and it emerged that she didn't exactly want us to change our behavior, she just wanted to tell us that she didn't like it. She couldn't explain what made us so arrogant except that we didn’t seem to like the same things she did, that most people do: that whenever we say we do things differently, that means we think we're better than her. The Addie thing was completely made up, as was the "it's not just me but I'm the only one who will say anything" bit.

"What can we do to prevent this from happening again in another six months?" I asked her, when she asked what I thought and why I was being so quiet.

"Nothing," she said.

She dragged me over for a hug, and joked at me, and asked why I gave her an inscrutable look sometimes and complained that it unnerved her. The inscrutable look is what I wear when I'm annoyed by her (or whomever) but don't want to say so. I will continue to use it. I will try not to spend much time with her. As a friend of mine (to whom I ranted about this this morning) said, I wouldn't want to be arrogant and critical. I will try to be less myself around her.

And until Eric gets sufficient help, I will try to get him to be less himself around her, too. She knows he's had problems with depression before and that he's under a lot of stress now. She doesn't believe in psychiatrists, though he's seen one in the past with excellent results; he mentioned I was going to find one for him, and she didn't actually tell him it would be useless but expounded on how there was no such thing as a good psychiatrist. (She knows I was a psych major too.)

He's feeling much better, now that they've talked. He says that when it happens next, Edith and I are to simply force them into a room together until they talk. We both know it will probably happen again. If she felt justified in attacking him this time, she'll surely feel justified in doing it some other time. He's going over today to work on his video, but I think this soon after this incident they'll be safe.

Now that he's feeling better, I'm free to feel worse, and I am. The I'd-have-to-hurt-you-too thing didn't faze me at the time, but I'm disturbed by it now. (Not that I don't think I could take him. As he frequently points out, I've taken kickboxing and fencing and I stretch daily and exercise semi-regularly, and his exercise consists of pacing in front of a blackboard all day.) I don't want to go through this again. I probably will, sometime in our lives; but I'd prefer it be for a different reason. And I still don't know how much truth there was to her accusations. Maybe I do need to continue keeping myself to myself.