CC image courtesy of Flickr, Daveynin.
Editorial note: The following is reprinted with permission from Laurie Works’ blog. It was originally published on July 23, 2013.
I was talking to a friend the other day and describing some of my childhood, and I realized that I haven’t written much about it here. I’ve written about it in vague, hidden descriptions only. Like a warning sign over my heart. Maybe because that part of my life feels like a minefield. I’ve dealt with a lot of those issues, but I never know when one will explode and hit me in the face.
There’s one I’d like to describe right now though, a behavior I described to my friend earlier. I’m going to call it Learned Pretentiousness. My dad, who completely believed that we would be the recipients of billions of dollars gifted us by God, taught us this interesting behavior. The first time I can recall using it was when we did a walk-through of a 5 million dollar house that we were going to buy when “The Money” arrived (which was an imminent event, of course). I remember assuming the behavior of a rich little girl, trying to pretend like my family wasn’t living in a tiny 3-bedroom apartment where I shared a room with my twin sister. Instead, I discussed what kinds of things we would buy to put in the living room, or how we would arrange the basements, or what the room above the stable would be used for.
I was 10 years old at the time of our little walk-through (and no, The Money has still not arrived 14 years later). There were so many times I put on the “little rich girl” throughout the years that I don’t even remember all of them. My family would often frequent 5 star hotels just to sit in the lobby and pretend like we were one of them. Or, more often than not, we would visit the local corporate airport to look at the planes, and MAYBE WE WOULD BE LUCKY AND SOMEONE WOULD MEET US THERE WITH THE MONEY! You could never be sure.
One time my dad actually talked a jet chartering company into flying a large corporate jet into Denver for us to see. My dad had great powers of persuasion and is probably the most charismatic man I’ve ever met. I remember sitting on that jet feeling like I was living a complete lie but struggling, trying desperately, to pull it off like I knew what richness felt like. I was crawling with anxiety and trying to hide the fact that I so obviously didn’t belong.
The behavior actually became so ingrained that if I walk into any luxurious atmosphere now, I have to be on guard so I don’t assume it and therefore assume a personality that is not myself.
Looking back on the strangeness of my life, I can easily see why alcohol and love addiction became such a big issue for me. First of all, I had no idea what living in reality was like, since my dad and therefore my family avoided it at all costs. And second, besides my dad creating this strange, cult-like family (me, my mom, and my sisters) and convincing us to buy into this delusional idea, he was also abusive and angry if we ever crossed him. None of us dared speak up and say that he was wrong about this money idea. The closest any of us got was my twin sister repeatedly speaking her doubts about God really saying it, and my dad spending hours trying to convince her that she just had to take it on faith. She eventually bought into it more than any of the rest of us. Yet the one time I remember my mom slightly disagreeing with him about his ideas, he forbid her from taking part in family conversations until she apologized. (About a month later)
By the time I was 15, I was at least slightly aware that I wanted to escape, and that was when most of my acting out started. It was like I was a snake itching to get rid of my skin, my isolated and bizarre little life. The anxiety exploded and I grabbed men, alcohol, a knife – anything that could get me out of the feelings I had of my life imploding on top of me. Outside, I was walking into 5 star restaurants and pretending my life was grand.
I am scared to post this. Scared to open up this part of my life. I’ve talked about it with my therapist and my close friends. But I think only to my therapist with as much detail, with the dots and lines that include every detail of how I was trained to act. And most recently, of the shame I have carried for buying into this delusional world. Because I did. I never thought I’d have to cook my own meals. I expected to marry a rich man, even a prince. I expected to wear Chanel and have my own horse or several. I expected to be able to travel to Dubai and stay in my favorite suite in the world. I have been ashamed for the time I spent buying into it all when I was a teenager. I’ve long since stopped believing the lies, but the shame remains.
I guess one of the biggest reasons I want to post this is to give back that shame by opening up my story to the world. It’s my way of doing what my therapist described yesterday about the day I went into Cartier when I was 16. I put on a $50,000 diamond ring (or maybe it was $25,000… I can’t quite remember), fell in love with it, and my dad embarrassingly slipped in a mention to the sales person that we would be back when his “investment paid out.” (Investment meaning God would give us The Money we had been waiting for) Instead of standing there in my embarrassment, pretending that I was a spoiled little teenager, here’s what I would want to say now:
“Sorry ma’am. My dad thinks God is going to give him 1.7 billion dollars, you see. Just out of thin air. He has it all planned out and is just waiting for God to give it to him. He has a company formed in the state of Colorado so that there is a place for the money to go. I have a trustee for a trust account that has no money in it. He even thinks a man in Iran is going to gift it to him, which is illegal in fact. So as you can see the whole idea is pretty laughable. This ring is gorgeous but I will probably never buy it. Thanks for the chance to put it on.”
You don’t need to be ashamed of that fake rich girl behavior, because your dad taught it to you. As a little kid, you had no reason to believe your dad was wrong, and as a teenager, it’s not like it would be easy to throw off a belief system that had been drummed into you for years.
Also, your dad sounds like he was having delusions of grandeur. Now, I don’t think all delusions require immediate intervention, especially if nobody other than the one whose delusion it is gets caught up in it. However, the minute other people, particularly those like you and your mom who cannot defend themselves from the delusion’s influence, get caught up in someone else’s delusion, that is well past the time when the deluded individual requires more intensive help (Ideally, the time to get it would be when delusions significantly interfere with one’s ability to live in the real world; mild delusions do not do so.) Your dad’s delusion was by no means mild, and when he roped you and you mom into it, it became a sort of mini cult. You are no more guilty of buying into your dad’s delusion than cult joiners are of being suckered by a cult; that is, it’s not your fault. Period.
Of course, if you can’t help feeling shame, that’s one thing (we cannot always control how we feel), but if you realize it’s not your fault, you will eventually feel less ashamed, even if it takes a while to do so. That’s how it worked for me when I realized that the emotional abuse heaped on me by many teachers was wrong.
I remember some programs on TBN that these prosperity preachers had, where they told us the audience that if we gave sacrificially to THEM,of course)God would open His windows from Heaven, and bless us beyond measure. It sounds like your father, a classic narcissist, bought into this doctrine. Never blame yourself for trying to psych yourself into the faith mindset of those times. American churches ans Christians are just too materialistic, and poverty-shame single mothers , and others who come to church poor. We quit going after all the discrimination and child abuse we saw !! Do you still see your mean parents anymore ?
This must have been so difficult. But your father is not alone. Right now, people like Ted Cruz’s father and the Dominionists are talking are talking about a huge transfer of wealth from the wicked to the Christians, which will solve everyone’s money problems, and allow them to take charge of the 7 mountains of society. It is both delusional and frightening. I don’t recall Jesus ever talking about a wealth transfer. Our riches are not of this world.