So, we’ve reached the stage in therapy where we are looking at how our past baggage is affecting our current problem. J’s family was solidly upper middle class and almost Leave It To Beaverish, although he has realized that while he saw his parents fight, he never saw them make-up or work out differences – the problems just went away. He also recognizes that when there are serious emotional issues between us, he wants to run away because he doesn’t know what else to do.
I, on the other hand, come from a very loving extended family with solid middle class roots, but one that contains ever kind of dysfunction you can name. Every family interaction contained the possibility of chaos, but everyone ignored it and hoped for the best, using equal parts secrecy, a refusal to recognize or acknowledge truth, and the sure discovery/revelation of truth in the most embarrassing place and time possible. A few examples?
- Around the age of 8, I realized, although I didn’t know what it meant, that my parents had swapped partners with the neighbors, since we were spending a holiday with my mom and the husband of a neighbor at his family’s home, while my dad remained at home with the neighbor. His family was very nice to my sister (aged 6) and I, but the confusion and disapproval was palpable. Both of my parents had other affairs while I was growing up, were obvious about it, and never explained or appeared to be experiencing the sort of devastation I have dealt with for the last year. They did, however, periodically have an impact on my life, since my some of my neighborhood friends in junior high were not allowed to spend time at my house because their parents knew my mom had a “friend” spending the night while my dad was overseas in the Air Force. I, meanwhile, submerged myself in Zane Grey’s and Barbara Cartland’s and Agatha Christie’s – and the women were sweet and pure and the men where experienced but honorable and true, and people had a code of behavior. While reading helped me cope, my parents’ behavior from childhood until I left for college demanded certain survival behaviors – the ignoring of unacceptable behavior, the implicit agreement to the need for secrecy, and the understanding that such matters were not open for questions or discussion.
- My dad’s mom was bipolar (untreated) and her behavior, especially with her own children, was unpredictable. One Christmas vacation while my sister(8) and cousin(7) and I(10) were staying at my dad’s parents, my dad and his mom got into an argument on the phone, he drove eight hours to pick us up and she threw all of our stuff out in the driveway, while he collected it – both screaming the whole time. This type of interaction happened every few years, and they would not speak for months, until eventually, for no apparent reason, they would go back to normal without even acknowledging there had been a problem. No matter what her relationship was with my dad, I always remained a favorite and still received phone calls, letters, and presents. My sister – not so much. Even as a child I realized that this was unfair, but didn’t really know what to do about it. No one ever suggested that their behavior was unacceptable, or that they needed to sit down and have an honest conversation about their relationship. Result: my dad is 71, his mom died in 2004, and he still veers wildly between disillusion verging on hatred, and nostalgia and love.
- My dad’s younger brother stole his identity and left him (us) with a pile of debts when I was about 12, but it didn’t cause more than a temporary rift because they never talked about it, my dad managed to straighten it out without financial ruin for us or jail time for him, and after all, that was just who my uncle was – since he did the same thing to both his other brothers and my grandparents. He also remarried his high school sweetheart three (3!!) times. She was a beautiful, educated, self-supporting professional woman, so how he managed to persuade her to keep trying again has always been totally beyond me. Sometimes, even at 11 or 12, it seems like I was the only person in my family who remembered his actual behavior rather than his charm. For 40 years, whenever someone has referred to “poor Bobby”, my response in my head (and sometimes out loud) has been “poor Bobby my ass!”
- My mom’s dad picked fights with everyone – for entertainment. He loved to argue, but didn’t read or watch the news, so the arguments were always personal. If he provoked someone, he was happy, but family he came in contact with ended up angry, hurt, confused…or sometimes homicidal. He set arbitrary rules, and then canceled them suddenly. My mom was allowed to date, but her middle sister was not at the same age – so she climbed out her window and did what she wanted. He would take books away from my youngest aunt and make her dig holes and then fill them back in – just to make sure she was busy. After my middle aunt married, he would arrive at her farm and wake her and her husband up because he felt that as farmers, they were not getting up early enough to do their jobs properly. My mom always refused to argue with him, and if he continued to push she just went home – even if that meant leaving Oregon for Texas. He was a petty tyrant, but could also be a lot of fun. I generally, even when little, did the fun stuff – motorcycles, the beach, the riding lawn mower, the three-story trapeze swing in his shop – and then curled up with a book and ignored the rest.
- My mom’s mom and my dad’s dad were both much more stable and rational than their spouses, but they also enabled/controlled/ covered up the erratic nature of their spouses’ behavior – which meant they were never held accountable, and their behavior never improved.
- My mother’s youngest sister is less than five years older than me and has always been one of my favorite people. She is the one who explained sex to me, lent me clothes and gave me music when I was in junior high and high school, and invited me to spend the night when she got married and had her own home. She also gave me a preview of what a truly unhappy marriage can be. Her husband made her feel inadequate, unattractive, and unwanted, and had a series of affairs that started just after they married, including one with my sister. She told me that she knew she wanted out in less than a year, but even with all of this, she waited for 7 years to get divorced because she was embarrassed and because she didn’t want to disappoint my grandparents. Meanwhile, my grandparents hated him and really felt like the world would have been a better place is she had ditched him immediately. A little honesty here could have saved everyone a lot of anguish.
- When my sister and I were little, my parents’ will left responsibility for my sister to my mom’s parents and for me to my dad’s parents. We didn’t really think about it when we were little, but I have had adult friends express horror at an arrangement that split us up. Practically speaking, my sister has been a hellion from 2 until 49 – adorable, active, mischievous, moody, always stretching limits, and a little loose with the truth and taking responsibility. My parents were convinced that my dad’s parents wouldn’t survive my sister, while I spent most of my vacations with them and adjusted smoothly to their lifestyle and my grandmother’s moods. The problem was the reverse with my mom’s parents – they weren’t sure I would survive my grandfather. Even as a child, I didn’t engage in provocations to argue with him, and read instead. By middle school, I enjoyed occasional vacations there but I always arrived with a strict set of guidelines from my mom – no physical punishment, no punishment for or restriction on reading, and strangely, no forcing to eat food my mom found unacceptable – like boiled okra.
- My dad periodically had temper fits throughout my childhood and still does occasionally today, which usually leave his audience hurt or bewildered rather than angry. The next time he saw whoever, he generally acted like nothing had ever happened…which inevitably led to questions about his behavior – but never to him, always to someone else – and by high school that someone was me. How do you explain the unexplainable – and why should anyone need to explain someone else’s behavior?? In high school and during his military career, he led an intense, adventure filled life, but since his retirement he has become less active, more bipolar, and seems to have developed a somewhat fuzzy relationship with the truth. Best illustration – when I was about 11, my dad, both granddads and all my uncles went deer hunting. In Texas, people plant oats outside a deer stand, get the deer used to eating in that area, and when hunting season opens, they sit in the stand and shoot the deer (hunting?). In Oregon, hunting involves camping in the back country and tracking deer through the woods and up and in the mountains. During this trip, my dad got separated from the group, and spent the night hiking in the dark through the woods attempting to stay ahead of a bear. His dad and my uncles spent the night tracking him – and the bear – rescuing one and running the other one off at daybreak. The whole family came home early, filled with the story and while it sounds like a fish story, everyone told the same story, the details never changed or got more dramatic, and the excitement and adrenaline were still pouring off of them. One truth I have learned since then is that men active in wild settings end up having improbable and dramatic adventures. This story is , however, no longer enough for my dad. Sometime in the last 15 or so years, he has managed to convince himself that he was being tracked by a Sasquatch, yes seriously, a Sasquatch. He is not pulling a joke, he really believes it.
- My mom is warm, loving, creative, and generally very practical, and most of the stability in my childhood came from her. My friends in high school congregated at my house – there was always plenty of food, plenty of music, and an extra bed or two or six and plenty of friendly but unobtrusive supervision. Before we could drive, she would haul us around, once we had a license, she would lend us her car. HS friends who have reconnected with me on Facebook always ask about my mom – they loved her. She does, however, have her own quirks. She believes the most random things with every fiber of her being – including that the pyramids were constructed by aliens. She can be very critical (my dad insulated me from that); she is an ostrich and just ignores anything that she doesn’t want to handle, and she tries to avoid strong emotions, including dealing with illness, death, or funerals. I didn’t have a curfew because my mom knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be and would call and ask if plans changed.
- By my senior year in high school, my family really began to disintegrate, as my dad showed more and more symptoms of bipolar disorder – moody, sleeping much of the time he was at home or staying up late into the night, buying things beyond our budget. He was having migraines and angina attacks, knew something was wrong, was seen by several doctors, and prescribed a variety of medicines which only made him worse since the bipolar problem went undiagnosed and he was treated for depression and stress. My sister started acting out, accumulating wilder and wilder friends. She never seemed to have any idea of consequences, or that showing responsibility would earn her more freedom. She always ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had a pattern of planning to go one place, ending up in another, and then getting caught. My last two summers of high school were nightmares because the whole house would fill up with her friends before I was even awake, and then disappear before my parents got home. I place a high value on calm, peace, and a somewhat controlled environment – I wanted to be able to get up, drink some tea and read a little, take a shower and start my day – all impossible with guys I didn’t know filling my living room and kitchen. Finally, during spring break of her sophomore and my senior year, she went to spend the night with a friend, who had told her parents she was spending the night with someone else, and so on – 5 girls spending the night at the lake with other friends. Unfortunately, the dad of one of the girls had a heart attack, her mom tried to collect her, and the entire thing came unraveled. When they returned from the lake, and went to drop off the first girl, they saw their parents’ cars all in a group and freaked. Some faced the music, others stalled, and my sister disappeared. We didn’t know where she was for a week. My parents were close friends with the police chief and his wife, so the chief pulled every card he had. She turned up at her college boyfriend’s apartment – and stayed there. Yes, my parents let my sixteen year old sister move to a college town 4 hours away. If she got sick or needed something, she would show up in the middle of the night, and I would wake up to find several guys sleeping on the family room on the floor.
- When I left for college, my dad retired and my parents moved to Oregon, my sister’s boyfriend graduated from technical college, wanted to move back to the little east Texas town he was from, and so they got married. A wild 19 year old with drug issues married a wild 16 year old with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and moved to a tiny town 20 miles from my college. I ended up as de facto parent. I was the only relative at her wedding, took her to the doctor when she was sick, and tried to support her through one of the worst marriages I have ever seen. He cheated on her within 6 months of the wedding, and she responded in kind. There was a lot of yelling and hitting on both sides, but somehow they managed to stay married for 12 years and produced 2 children. Their house was constant chaos,I never knew who would be coming or going, what they would be doing, and I never felt safe there, especially at night.
Result of my upbringing? By the end of my first year of college, I had made some concrete decisions about how I intended to live my life, and have managed to live by them for most of the last 30 years:
- Most importantly, see the people in my life for who they really are – love them, value the good in them, recognize the unacceptable and set clear limits, including eliminating destructive relationships.
- I was determined to live a STABLE life – no comings and goings, no drugs, no random sexual behavior.
- No ignoring or fudging or excusing inappropriate behavior – refuse to accept it, accept an apology and move on if one is offered, or walk away if the behavior doesn’t change.
- Work hard to recognize and tell the absolute truth as nicely as possible ALWAYS. I have broken that rule only a few times since I turned 18, and always when the truth would have hurt an innocent person much more that the guilty person the lie actually protected.
- I have approached my own life with the attitude that if I don’t want to admit to it and I don’t want it discovered, I shouldn’t do it – and I take the same attitude towards those I am close to – no secrets, no lies. I don’t mean that I feel the need to shout all of my business from the rooftops, but no lies.
- If I make a mistake or hurt someone or damage a relationship, I make every effort to take responsibility, admit it, and apologize for my mistakes. I expect the important people in my life to behave the same way. No ignoring, no fading away, no pretending.
- I don’t expect other people to clean up my emotional messes – no matter how hard it is, I try to meet conflict head on and fix it. No ignoring, no fading away, no pretending.
OK, I’m completely aware that I’m not perfect, and that attempting to live by the “no lies, no secrets, take responsibility for your own actions, behave like a grown up” motto has made me a little judgmental, especially with my own family and friends, although much more accepting with those not directly involved in my life. My need to be honest and receive honesty in return occasionally makes others a little uncomfortable, since I am unexpectedly direct sometimes. I have really tried to live by the behaviors that I value – I have only had sex with my husband (although I didn’t expect him to be the only one, it has just worked out that way), I have never done any illegal drugs (perhaps because my introduction to pot was not someone passing me a joint at a party, but the discovery of my brother-in-law sitting at my sister’s dining room table, splitting a large green garbage bag full of pot into small baggies, and the later discovery that he had borrowed my car, stuffed those same baggies under the front seat, and then forgot to remove them when he returned the car, so I was driving around town and left my car with the flashers on in the driveway of my dorm WITH A POUND OF POT IN INDIVIDUAL SERVINGS in it.
After two bouts of very thorough therapy in the last twenty years, I also know that I have a strong co-dependent streak that I think actually comes from the determination to face truth – I don’t cover up others behavior, but I have a strong desire that sometimes feels like a responsibility to help them fix themselves…. Both therapists have assured me that I need to work on the co-dependency, but I am actually very well adjusted for anyone, let alone for someone who was raised in my family. I chose my husband because he was in touch with and open about his feelings, honest about his past, and clear about his behavior. And for over twenty five years, I stuck to my life rules and my image of him. I thought we were happily married, and then along came his affair…and all of my beliefs and interactions were turned upside down.
How about you – has your family of origin affected your present?