I am frustrated. Perhaps I always have been. To me, some things are obvious. Actions have consequences, oftentimes painfully predictable ones. Sometimes I refuse to watch. “Take your dysfunction elsewhere” is my attitude. I don’t need to put myself in the middle of situations that have no possibility of turning out well.
Probably my favorite author is Gabor Mate. I think he is a genius because he connects the dots better than anyone else I have ever read. But here’s the genius part: what he is saying is not new. He just delivers it more compassionately and with more common sense than anyone else on the planet in The Myth of Normal. (This is similar to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, a book that has no radical new information but is presented in such a simple and easily-memorized format that it is probably taught in every business school in America.) Addiction? Rampant. Racism? Not news. Male dominance? Not news. Health care system not working? Definitely not news.
I watch YouTube videos. I like Mate’s because of his simplicity and emphasis on attachment versus authenticity. His delivery is simple, kind, and easily understood. No expertise is required to grasp what he is saying, but I likely know more than the average person regarding the topics of childhood trauma, addiction, recovery, unhealthy family relationships, etc. I am a widow of an AA man of 30 years. I have two brothers with cirrhosis. I spent seven years in Al-Anon. I have read most recovery literature. And, oh yeah, I have spent most of my adult life in psychotherapy. One of the comments on one of Mate’s videos referred to his video as “a raft with a lot of unexamined assumptions” or something like that. I replied to that person that Mate’s opinions are an indestructible, unsinkable steel ship based on sound scientific research. Nothing Mate says is simply his own personal opinion. He has decades of research on his side.
My frustration comes from how much we know and how little it has changed anything whatsoever. The “Adverse Childhood Experiences” study is from the nineties and should have revolutionized medicine permanently. It created not a hiccup. Freud quickly discovered that most of his female patients had been sexually molested. He couldn’t handle it, nor could psychiatry in general, so that got buried. World War I created the diagnosis of “shell shock,” which was then ignored. World War II and Viet Nam vets came home with what became known as PTSD, which was then promptly forgotten. We keep having to “rediscover” things that are obvious.
My personal perspective, that I consider to be basic common sense, is that it is always, 100% of the time, cheaper to prevent a problem than to treat it. I can’t think of an exception.
The problem? There is zero money to be made in our profit-driven healthcare system in telling people, “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t do drugs. And, oh yeah, wear sunscreen and your seat belt.” A healthy populace is death to a profit-driven health care system. Many hospitals only survived the pandemic because of their ability to continue elective surgeries. Unnecessary tests and procedures are the life blood of American health care. In a nation with real health care (taxpayer-funded), a healthy population saves the government millions, if not billions, of dollars. In a profit-driven system, healthy patients spell the end of hospitals. Common sense would finish off our entire medical system. Keeping you sick puts money into the doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and the insurance industry.
We know everything we need to know. Now. And somehow we act like we still live in the Dark Ages.
One of my personal issues is that I need to take myself, my own opinions, more seriously. Lip service is easy. What would my life look like if I acted as if I truly believed in common sense?
This is the problem with denial: part of you knows something (subconscious) and part of you can’t imagine a thing being true (conscious). That’s where the anger comes in. The forces of denial are strong, whether in a family or trying to defend a system that only serves the wealthy at everyone else’s expense.
I need to just start acting like I believe in common sense and listening to my body and intuition. That would be the ultimate rebellion.
I am convinced that I have nothing to do with the family’s drama. I firmly believe that even if my mother had divorced the boys’ father and never met mine, the current result of my brothers having cirrhosis would have remained exactly the same. I am not a factor in the equation. Period.
There are some ironies. I also believe that my anger has been my subconscious attempt to support the family. In addition, I feel that my mother’s scapegoating of me was her subconscious attempt to include me in the family. In our own dysfunctional way, we attempted to remain tied together. Ultimately it failed. Because none of this is about me nor can it ever be.
I see the current drama as having been meant to be from the beginning of time. This is the way it was always going to be. My existence is irrelevant.
And that is my problem. I do not feel like a major player in my own life. The only thing tying me to the family was my anger and, as I let go of it, my tenuous connection to them is dissolved. I am left with a gaping hole in my life. The pretense of having a family is over. What do I want to do? I have never known.
I remember being about 18 and someone asking me what I wanted to do with my life. My response? “What does that have to do with anything?” Like Sheldon from TBBT, the question did not compute. I was so dissociated from anything resembling a feeling that I truly could not imagine anything more irrelevant than what I wanted or felt.
As a married woman, your life is not about you. It is always about him or us. When Barry passed almost 5 (!) years ago, I knew my life could really be about me for the first time.
The problem is that I have always found safety in invisibility. Staying out of situations that cannot end well has been survival. I know what danger looks like, but I am unsure of what a good or positive situation would look like. I am attracted to screwed-up situations and then get out by the skin of my teeth, feeling fortunate to have gotten out at all.
I feel like I am the opposite of a narcissist. I am still looking for a situation that is about me, sniffing around like a bloodhound. I see myself and all humanity as having been born into the current situation not of our choosing. Can we make it about us or is our eternal task just to clean up the disaster created by our forebears? How do we not resent that?
I had a very interesting encounter today. I was at Meijer, a local grocery store, looking for a lock for my work locker. Suddenly, I was glommed onto by a group of teenage girls. Say, what?
They were evangelicals. The lead one asked me if there was anything I wanted prayed over. My thought went immediately to my oldest brother, Dave. He has already admitted his liver has stopped working and he may as well keep on drinking. I thought it would be a good idea if he stopped drinking and got his affairs in order with his daughters and son. So I asked them to pray for him to stop drinking. They did so. They were so earnest and true. I was touched by the purity of their intention.
Little did they know that I used to be evangelical and then Greek Orthodox. As if I had never prayed for anyone in my family. They meant well and I didn’t think about them again until I got home.
Wait a minute. Did I just pray for Dave to die? I already know he has no intention of stopping drinking. If he continues to drink until he dies, then I just semi-knowingly prayed for him to be dead, because I already know that the cold, clammy hand of death will likely be the only thing that breaks Dave’s grip off that can of Bud Light.
When I was younger, the hope was recovery. Perhaps my brothers could get straight and sober and my husband Barry could lead the way. At this stage of cirrhosis, recovery is not an option, only death. The only hope now is for the next generation not to destroy their brain cells and to be much more honest with themselves than anyone in this family has ever been. (“This family”, not “my family”, because I have never truly been a part of it on any level.) Dysfunctional systems can end in two ways: recovery or death. But change is hard and many people would rather die than change. We all make choices.
My attitude now is simple: as long as the pretense of this being a normal family continues, I’m out. The system needs to die. My hope is for the next generation to find recovery while young enough to do so.
Still, I am terribly curious as to what, if anything, prayer will do. It would be nice to find out a decade from now that Dave made things right with his children during a brief stint if sobriety. Only time will tell.
Probably a year or so ago, I read Gabor Mate’s book When The Body Says No. I felt like every word was about my mom’s sister, my aunt Mary. Mary was that person talked about who was simply too nice and ended up with all these auto-immune problems. She died in the mid-nineties at about my age now. She had maybe four or five fatal auto-immune problems. Her life was one of such suffering that she gave her body to science, to Michigan State University, so medical students could maybe prevent some small amount of suffering in others. She was a walking medical experiment.
The theme of the book is that anger is normal. Anger performs the same function emotionally as the immune system does physically: keeping the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. The suppression of anger leads directly to the suppression of the immune system. The mechanism is not mysterious. The body sends out signals that something is not right and we ignore these messages at our own peril.
I have been feeling my anger at my family lately. I think my shrink is scared for me, that I will give myself some bad consequences with my unbridled anger. I believe the exact opposite. For the very first time in my life, my anger is properly aimed. I am not tearing off my fingernails or toenails and I am not having massive shame attacks. This is huge progress. Also, I have never had sufficient energy to feel this much anger. Anger is a privilege for those who have been chronically emotionally exhausted.
But I also see her point. It hit me that feeling that much anger towards people I have nothing to do with is a backwards, up-side down way of maintaining loyalty to a system I want no part in. It was my subconscious way of maintaining some small connection with them without inserting myself into their drama. My willingness to bear the subconscious burden of my family’s karma or dysfunction or whatever has always been a big, fat zero.
I remember being in my late twenties and realizing quite suddenly that my brothers and I were taking turns with our drama. There never seemed to be two of us at the same time under duress. I thought that was odd. I decided I wanted out of the rotation. Permanently. They could have all the turns. I wanted something better for myself. I redoubled my efforts to live a healthy life.
For my oldest brother’s family, the “Mary” of that generation is his youngest daughter. She has way too many problems for a girl as smart and young as she is, but, unfortunately, she is the “nice” one. I know her needs never got met. She was about three when her oldest sister was run over by a drunk driver. They got the big house, which feels like a shrine to the dead one. It is hard for parents to be present for a child while in the throes of grief, which, of course, never got dealt with. It is all quite creepy. I always get that “eeeeuuuuwww” feeling there.
A couple years after Mary died, her dad (my Grandpa Siwek) died. A couple years after that, her and my mom’s brother went into a nursing home with some kind of premature dementia. Their mother (Grandma Siwek) died with Alzheimer’s in the early nineties. The system started dissolving immediately after Mary’s death. I am hoping that withdrawing my energy will have a similar effect on my family.
What can I do? Continue with my efforts at compassionate inquiry into myself. Live as healthy of a life as possible. Make the subconscious as conscious as possible, which includes listening hard to my body and what it is trying to communicate.
I have watched enough Gabor Mate interviews to know that anger is the normal response to boundary violations. My family, especially my mother, is a monumental boundary violator. Anger is the normal response to my family that does not recognize the concept, let alone legitimacy, of boundaries. However, I don’t need it so much now because I never plan on putting myself in harm’s way again. I can keep myself safe now.
Perhaps every generation has to have someone to bear the family’s dysfunction. I’m out. Any volunteers?