“Don’t trust, don’t talk, don’t feel,” these are the rules of a dysfunctional family.
I read that in a book for children of alcoholics a few months ago and instantly recognised it as a description of my childhood home. I began to devour self-help books and trawl websites aimed at people like me, adults whose upbringing was chaos of one kind or another. Initially just to experience the recognition was a relief. “Yes, exactly” I’d say to myself. Then I began to ask “why hasn’t anyone told me this before?”
Well, some had tried. For example my mother who had gone to Al-Anon meetings for years occasionally said things like “alcoholism is a family disease” and hinted that I might join a group as well. Until my mid-thirties I wasn’t ready to hear or to listen, I was doing OK, wasn’t I. I always have done. I’d found a therapist who helped me recover from bulimia, I’d practically stopped smoking and had even found a kind man with whom to share my life. In time I didn’t even need the therapist any more. I knew that as the daughter of an alcoholic father I had to face a few psychological challenges but I was dealing with them. I was a grown up after all.
I grew up, however, at a huge cost and in an incomplete way. The alcoholism and the madness around it left little room for me to grow up safely and to discover my own needs, capabilities and limitations. Instead I adapted to the violence around me. My mother has always told me I rarely cried as a baby and apparently I was a lovely toddler. As a child I looked after my father, for example by going on walks with him in the vain hope of preventing him from going to the pub or off-licence, and I comforted my mother if only by listening.
I learned to expect disappointment. But I then became an independent and trustworthy adolescent. In a way, like my older brother and sister before me, I brought myself up. Unimpressed with the rest of my family, I chose to go to a far-away university and then travelled a lot, but my family still kept an emotional grip on me, not least by demanding that I collude in the ongoing theatre that all is fine.
I remember when I was seventeen and unhappily in love (the first of many times), how terrified I was that my feelings would not be reciprocated. I was baffled by the powerful but odd feelings. I remember asking myself what this was, this thing inside me that hurt so, almost physically. I recall being desperate to grow up, to understand, to control and to be free of this thing, whatever it was. But life and relationships went on being difficult and often confusing.
For a long time I lived in my head and only “did” a few emotions. I felt a lot of emptiness.
I did resentment, disappointment and frustration really well. Only slowly did I learn to deal with anger and very, very gradually with sadness and fear. Outside of therapy I didn’t have to trust and I didn’t care to talk. I just got on with a demanding academic career and devised elaborate theories about why for me it seemed so much more difficult than for some of my friends.
In a way “don’t thrive” should be added to the mantra for dysfunctional families. In my childhood, promises, both explicit and implicit, were made and broken so many times that it became impossible to imagine that anything could work out. And then when nobody else was there to spoil things for me, I sabotaged my own projects. Perhaps it’s been my way of staying in control.
So there I was, three years ago, in this incredibly demanding job and though friends and colleagues apparently thought I was sailing through, it felt like it was killing me. I wasn’t a poor academic, but I still left. I’d convinced myself I was a failure and decided I didn’t want to fight against my own mediocrity. There had to be something else out there that wasn’t such hard work.
Two years and two volunteer jobs later I felt even more of a failure. Now I punished myself for having left academia! It was clear that I was no good at anything else, I should have just stuck with it. I hadn’t even become pregnant so that was another failure. I’d ruined my academic career, now I was making a mess of everything else too. I could hold onto one truth, and that was that I am useless and nobody wants me.
The best thing was that I could no longer ignore the fact that I was carrying a crippling pain inside me. I had to do something about it. Another year down the line I’m still without a job, and I’d hardly say I’m thriving. But where there was hopelessness, there is now hope. I trust a little, I talk a bit more, and I sometimes feel the anger and the fear, and often I allow myself to cry. At first it petrified me. I thought if I start crying I’d never stop. A few times my husband has soothed me and many times he’s listened to me, helping me extend sympathy to the little girl I was.
I know now that I made the best of being born during a marital crisis made explosive by drink. I understand that I grew up with lies and manipulation. Although I tried to flee them, these things had become a part of me, as automatic as breathing in and breathing out. Without thinking about it I had denied huge parts of myself, learned to make myself invisible and to take care of myself. After all, nobody else was guaranteed to do it for me. Ever since, wherever I went though, the pain came with me. Now I’m getting to know it, to make it a part of me, but this time with compassion and understanding rather than blame and shame.
Over these last three years I’ve gradually acknowledged that I too need help, and quite a lot of it. I’m hopeful that with continuing therapy, support from my husband, friends and a self-help group I’ll be OK quite soon. I trust, I talk and I feel. I even believe that I’ll thrive.