rebuilding family relationships and connections #alanon #emotionalincest #alcoholism #mentalillness

June 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

Photo on 2014-06-22 at 8.13 AM

When I came into recovery in 1996 I was determined to rebuild my family relationships and connections. I had come out of an 18 year marriage to an abusive pot addict. During that 18 year period my connections to family had dwindled to nothing and I thought I was to blame: I had moved away, my ex-husband had encouraged me to cut my ties to family, I had been working with therapists who helped me understand how my mother’s mental illness had caused psychological and emotional scarring during my developmental years. I had not been around my siblings since we were living at home, I had not had much connection with my father or mother in the intervening years. When I came into recover I had hopes that I would re-connect with my family.

In the newness of recovery I made overtures to connect with my siblings and parents. I orchestrated visits, I attended their various shows and exhibitions (all my family members are professionals in various arts, mostly music), and I attended family gatherings and reunions. At first I felt welcomed, like there was a genuine interest in me and in building new relationships with me. Early in my recovery I started visiting my mom once a week to get to know her after my long absence. It was much more difficult to see my dad. He was married to his second wife, my step-mother. She did not like to have me over to the house, and Dad always seemed very busy with various other family members. When I put on a show or an exhibition there were usually some family members who attended, even if their reception of my work was somewhat luke-warm.

Everyone attended my wedding in 2007 and that could be marked as the watershed in a change of feeling that had been growing up to that point, but became more marked afterward. I was having problems adjusting to married life so I embarked on a second round of therapy with a marvelous art therapist at the incest survivors centre. I was extremely baffled at my reaction to being married – I was feeling trapped, I was sure I had made a bad decision, and I was constantly withdrawing and isolating from my husband. I could not understand what was wrong with me when I had such a picture perfect family gathered in the wedding photos.

What was revealed through this round of therapy was not the effects of my mother’s mental illness, which I had covered in a previous series of sessions with the same therapist. What was revealed was the effect of my father’s response to my mother’s mental illness, and the subsequent effect he continued to have on the family culture as forming the mental, emotional, and psychological state of the family. During these therapeutic sessions I got in touch with the quality and character of my connection (or lack of connection) with my father, and how that was driving the problems I was experiencing in my marriage. The therapy took pressure off my marriage that was coming from my unresolved issues with my father and his decisions and behaviour toward me over the years. When the pressure was taken off my marriage, it was put where it rightly belonged, on my father and my siblings. I wanted to talk about what had happened, how it had affected me, and how it had affected them.

Since that watershed work my family connections have been undergoing changes. First, I have been working very hard to understand the role of scapegoat in the family, and what it feels like to be treated like a second class member of the family. Second, I have been attempting to communicate to my siblings and parents that I am no longer going to be the locus of family pressure release through passive aggression or control. Third, I have been setting boundaries to keep undesirable attitudes and behaviours away from me and my husband. It is very difficult work fraught with uncertainty and second guessing.

What I am noticing is that I have been sensing growing pressure from various family members to ‘change back’, to put the genie back in the bottle and return to business as usual. But that is impossible for me, because, in my family, for the family system to operate as business as usual I have to be willing to be subjected to neglect, dismissal, invalidation, control, and disrespect. When I refuse to allow this to happen to me, I am being accused of shutting out or freezing out family members. Ah the crazy!

So here I am today, a beautiful summer Sunday with a quiet day of domestic and academic bliss ahead of me. I know my thoughts will compulsively turn to family and what to do about the enmeshed tangled web of mental illness, narcissism, addiction, anxiety and depression that is the warp and weft of my family coherence. It is okay for me to identify, name, and act on my new awareness. If anyone wants to join me, they know where to find me.


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