This is my first Christmas without any contact with my family of origin and it is an enormous relief. I plan on going to do the holiday with a friend. It sounds nice.
I’ve been reading a book about childhood emotional neglect, Running On Empty by Jonice Webb, PhD. It answers so many questions. It also addresses the well-meaning-but-neglected-themselves parents. She talks about the things that didn’t happen, the needs that didn’t get met. It answers so many questions. Even playing the obvious scapegoat role, there were just so many good, right, essential, non-negotiable things that never occurred that became the problem. I was never molested or beaten or anything obvious. In some ways, I was the lucky one.
But I entered adulthood without a sense of self or a yardstick for normal or even a language for feelings (alexithymia). I remember being asked after high school, “What do you want to do with your life?” This was my answer: “What does that have to do with anything?” I honestly did not even understand the question. I truly could not imagine a less relevant question. The world was not my oyster. Survival was my only goal, and, oh yeah, getting the hell out of Michigan.
Last night, watching a Kenny Rogers special that brought me to tears, it occurred to me that nobody in my family ever talked about feelings. And there were zero safe topics of conversation. Every get together was a production. The Captain of the Titanic puts on the best shows. Everyone has their pre-determined role to play, mine being scapegoat. Watching TV, it hit me that there were no relationships in my family, just roles. Think about it. You see someone. No safe topics. No emotions allowed. If you express any, then you are at fault and shamed for being a normal human. Is this a “relationship” that you would invest time and energy into maintaining? Hardly. And any amount of time spent with this person solely out of a sense of obligation would be exhausting. I could not relate to “Through the Years” at all.
What is funny to me is that I took all this family stuff and could see it everywhere else, especially churches I attended. I still see it in churches, but I know now that a lot of it was my projection of my family stuff onto them. When demands are made on your time, talents, and treasures, without basic emotional needs being met first, walking away becomes the only logical, rational choice. Or, worse, when the members do treat you like family and assign dysfunctional roles to you, the only real option is to run away and not look back. It reminds me of a Big Bang Theory where Sheldon is at the Cheesecake Factory and Penny asks him why he doesn’t just go to the Olive Garden down the street. “They treat me like family there and I don’t like that.” Amen, Shelly.
I am out of the family. I feel like a rat that just jumped off the Titanic and is floating on a piece of raft or debris.
That captures the feeling perfectly. I am unprotected, un-cared-for. My future is uncertain. And yet it is still brighter than that of those people who are still rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Every time I start to think about them, I tell myself, “Hands off. This is not yours. Get your grubby little mitts off their stuff. Leave them be. Their self-destruction need not be yours. They are not your problem ever again.”
Talking to my shrink this past Wednesday really clarified some things. First, that last letter from my mother was the greatest gift she could have given me. She truly revealed how mentally slow and lacking empathy she really is. She has no concept of how her actions affect people’s decisions. Second, I am not willing to do bad things to my own health to maintain my anger at those yahoos. After reading Gabor Mate’s When the Body Says No, I knew I wasn’t willing to take on the emotional and physical dysfunction of the family.
Now is the final chapter of a book that started being written in the late 70s and early 80s. The outcome was never in doubt. A leads to B. I always understood that much. B has arrived. Everyone is in shock, except me, of course. “When you choose the behavior, you choose the consequences,” Dr. Phil. It’s a truism that never changes. Giving a problem more time only makes for a bigger problem. Times fixes nothing ever. As a snowball rolls down the hill of time, it doesn’t shed layers; it gathers them.
Back to the Titanic. My oldest brother’s wife once screamed at me, “Dave’s not an alcoholic!” at her own child’s birthday party back in the 80s. I simply replied, “Keep telling yourself that.” This woman lost a sister to drunk driving, lost her daughter to a drunk driver, is now watching her husband die as a hard-core alcoholic (won’t stop drinking even after he knows he is dying of it), and has a son with a drinking problem that his sister (one of her daughters) is aware of. I think I’ll just call her “Captain of the Titanic.” Back then, it was Cindy versus the rest of the family. She had the support of everyone, whereas people thought I had an attitude problem. Now Cindy’s opinion is medical fact and her opinion is delusional. I remember going to Alanon many years ago and the topic of conversation always came back to the same thing: How low does “bottom” have to get? I know the answer now: Death. There is no victory here, only escape. I don’t know where I am going, but I do know that it is not down with the ship.
This is undoubtedly the most painful post I will ever put out. I have no doubt about that.
I got a letter from my mother last week. It was truly delusional. I am not joking.
She started out by saying that I was wrong for expecting her and my dad to come get me from the emergency room that they had landed me in. She said Dad was having a hard time breathing and that they were more injured than I was. I am the widow of a man with Huntington’s Disease. If he had had a hard time breathing, I would have called 911 or taken him to the hospital myself. My mom and dad don’t have the common sense to seek medical treatment? What kind of morons do I come from? If they were truly more injured than I was, then we all should have been in the ER together. To know that my elderly parents don’t have sense enough to seek medical care doesn’t reassure this middle-aged daughter at all. I only needed to make certain that I was capable of going back to work. My parents are beyond working age, so maybe they don’t relate to people with jobs anymore. To be told by the driver at fault in the accident that I shouldn’t have taken an ambulance to Sparrow Hospital (because I “should know how they are”), shows a bizarre total lack of empathy for the passenger whose door got hit in the accident. My mom is clearly not the brightest bulb in the box. To say I was stunned would be an understatement.
Then she painted my alcoholic brothers as innocent victims while I just basically have a nasty attitude and drive everyone away. She said that they really struggled financially, while I had everything handed to me. Yes, they struggled–because they spent their money on beer, cigarettes, pot, and cocaine. It’s called “being irresponsible.” Even back then, cigs were $4/pack. Did I have an attitude problem? Definitely. My brothers were literally killing themselves with alcohol and drugs and nobody cared. And my mother basically raised my oldest brother’s girls for a decade or more for free.
Then she painted me as the immoral one because Barry and I lived together before we got married. Reality check: all three of my brothers had pregnant brides and the youngest one did it twice (both of his wives were pregnant on their wedding date)! Out of the four of us kids, I am the only one to use birth control properly. I am the child with the closest thing resembling morals, yet she paints me as the Whore of Babylon!
She also wrote about what a horrible housekeeper I am. She talked about how much dirt was under my bed when helping Barry and I move out of the house and how I wasn’t even embarrassed. That struck me as hilarious. That is her antiquated value system, not mine. I was completely overwhelmed with a sick husband and a house I did not know how to care for (husband or house). I truly cannot imagine caring about something less than my housekeeping abilities. I am getting better, but it is a lot easier cleaning up after just myself and not having a husband to clean up after.
Here’s the kicker of it all: she sent back the gift card I sent her and said I would need it more than them because Joe Biden is the worst President ever (her words, not mine)! And President Biden has what exactly to do with all this weird family drama?…..What? Huh? I cannot imagine anyone more irrelevant to the letter than Biden. Bringing him up just felt so random. She may as well have thrown in Kermit the Frog for good measure.
Lesson: it made no difference whatsoever what I did or did not do. She needs to make me wrong. And it is not working. Scapegoating me won’t help her in the days to come. Now I see just what a deranged, delusional, bitter old woman she truly is. She has no connection to reality. At all.
I actually sometimes laugh at the letter because she still doesn’t get it. Her sons will be dead in a few short years and she is going to want a relationship with me. Not. My. Problem. I was so ambivalent a couple weeks ago. “OMG. Dave is going to be in the hospital dying and she is going to want me to go with her. What am I going to do?” No ambivalence now. She is on her own. Her unmet needs can only gratify me at this point. My compassion for her is history, not current or future reality.
I have spent my entire life trying to make her feel better at my own expense. No more. When I was ten, I decided that my brothers were such f**k ups that my mom should have one child she did not have to worry about. It is now 44 years later and I am just now undoing some of the damage from the worst decision I ever made.
The mystery of where my crippling, toxic shame comes from has been solved. My brothers can literally kill themselves with alcohol and drugs, but shame on Cindy for being a bad housekeeper! Too funny. I am an utter failure as a 1950s housewife and I am good with that.
While talking to a friend, something hit me hard: my nieces and nephews have alcoholic fathers. As the sibling of alcoholics, I can walk away guilt-free. They are grown men. I bear zero responsibility. But my nieces and nephews have a different road to travel as Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs). The son of my oldest brother, in particular, has a tough road ahead of him. He already has an alcohol problem that one of sisters recognizes. He will not even be 30 when his dad dies. Will Dave’s death wake him up? Or speed him down the path of self-destruction his hard-core alcoholic father took? Either way, it is ugly. Dying young is never a good thing, but neither is it fun being the only water-drinking adult at the family get-together where everyone else has a beer or glass of wine in their hand. I can say that from personal experience. There is no easy outcome. There is no way to reject your entire family’s lifestyle without basically giving the finger to their underlying value system. I also know that from personal experience.
This scapegoat is out. Once you realize that whatever you do or don’t do will be perceived as wrong, things become so much simpler. Imagine a sacrificial lamb getting up off the altar and walking away. I know my family would like to have me back. I have a role to play in this family. It just happens to be a role not worth playing or sticking around for.
Part of me wants to see my mother one last time, as she walks away from the grave from the last brother to die so I can tell her a few things: 1) I am the good one! The one that did not self-destruct with substance abuse. 2) I am the moral one, the only one to get married without a baby on the way! And 3) I am the educated one! The only one to get a college education. By her standards, I always was a total failure. Back at her: by my more reality-based standards, she is the failure. I got held to the highest standards and fell short and my brothers got held to no standards–EVER! I am not the failure here. And I never was.
My heart bleeds for all those people that get blamed for things they have nothing to do with. When you realize you are in a no-win situation, get out. NOW. Don’t look back. Time only takes these problems and makes them worse. Time alone has never fixed any problem. Period. Get whatever help you need. The shame isn’t in getting help; the shame is in desperately needing help and refusing to get it and allowing dysfunctional family crap to destroy your life.
It took me too long to figure this stuff out. I always knew some of the stuff going on just made no sense. As I got older and healthier, my tolerance for dysfunctional crap took a nosedive. It’s not just that I don’t deserve this. No human does.
My mom did me a favor by eliminating all trace of ambivalence. Her letter showed me who she really is. There is nothing she can ever say or do at this point to make me want a relationship with her again. No strong-arm tactics or guilt-ridden manipulations will ever change a thing, no matter whom they are done by. It is so too late.
I am conflicted. That is not exactly news.
After all the drama of this past summer, with the accident and everything, I have been doing a lot of emotional healing. It has been exhausting. The little kid in me was hurt badly by my parents and they have always been incapable of protecting me. They were then and are now willing to abandon me when my needs are inconvenient to them.
I need to be the adult in the room. They are utterly incapable of being so.
Do I want them in my life–ever again? I don’t know. What do I say to my mother when she expects me to visit my oldest brother (the one who still drinks!) with her in the hospital with end-stage cirrhosis? Do I simply block her number as well (as I already have done with my father’s number)? At this point, I am hoping that my oldest brother passes without telling anyone, the exact same way he had a heart attack and told no one for months. That would prevent many problems.
As a 54 year old woman, I am trying to figure out what I want the rest of my life to look like. How do I wish to spend my remaining years?
It’s not that I care about what they think. That ship has sailed. It’s that I have to live with my choice for the rest of my life.
The kid in me is voicing her anger. But I can take care of her now. I can give her what she has always needed, for the first time ever. She deserves that. I will not abandon her. I keep thinking that I can find some way to be there for her and to maybe help my mother. However, that has never worked. I need to get honest with myself about what is really possible. It just hurts soooooooo much.