don’t talk don’t tell: family crazy-making systems #aa #na #slaa #alanon #mental illness #mentalhealth
June 27, 2014 § 1 Comment
I was out for a drive with my friend last evening. I was explaining my deepening understanding of why I am reluctant to attend family gatherings even as I yearn to attend family gatherings and feel that bond of kinship.
I described those idyllic music nights at my family home during childhood. My memories are always of summer evenings, and the wonderful feeling of hiding in the long grass playing hide and go seek, and the sound of clarinet, trumpet, trombone, bass and drums drifting overhead.
As my mother descended into the depths of her mental illness my anxiety and confusion increased. I remember there was this expression she would get on her face, an otherworldly stoniness in her face and especially her eyes. It was like her eyes were black coals staring hard at an unseen enemy. Her facial expression was unsmiling and hard, like an immobile mask of suppressed rage. When she was in this state of mind it was as if her body was radiating alienation and a force field pushing people away. At first these episodes were few and far between, but over time they became more commonplace. They never lost their powerful potency to inspire distress in all those around her.
Mom’s worsening mental illness coincided with fewer and fewer jazz jam sessions, until finally Dad’s friends no longer came to the house. After that, it seemed to me Dad started to go out more, he was away from the house on weekend nights playing music elsewhere. Eventually it seemed like he was away every night. He took a job playing music at a Shaky’s pizza parlour. When I think about it now, I wonder how he could have chosen playing dixieland music at a pizza parlour over taking care of his children and getting his wife the help she needed, but that is a separate line of inquiry. What I remember is that I used to wait for Dad to come home. I used to listen for the crush of gravel in the driveway signalling his arrival. I remember waiting and waiting and waiting, with mounting panic that he would not come home. At this point my Mom was very ill.
No one ever talked about this change in our family circumstances, the transformation of our home from a centre of music, creativity, and fun, to a place ruled by madness and terror. No one ever talked about how Dad went from reading us a chapter from the Hobbit every evening on the couch in the living room to his not coming home every evening until long after we were in bed.
It is this absence of putting things into words that has been such a driving force in my life. The absence of words describing these experiences meant they lived in my experience and memory as shadows, ghosts of a presence that haunted my every waking moment, but wordless, vague, chimera of dread. We never talked about any of it. Perhaps that is why I need to talk about it now.
For me, family gatherings have become worse over time. First, my efforts to build authentic connections have been rebuffed and I feel alienated and isolated from my family even though they put emotional pressure on me to show up for family photos. Second, there have been more unpleasant experiences at family gatherings even up to recent years that also never get discussed or resolved. I feel two forces of resistance to attending family gatherings – I am realizing my pain and suffering is less important than any family member feeling bad because I refuse to attend; I never know when I am going to be sandbagged with a comment or behaviour that indicates a profound lack of caring for me as a person. Hmmm. Is it possible these things are related?
Even as I write this, I am having a thought come up in the back of my mind that I am always the one who has some unpleasant topic or statement to make to my family members. Why can’t I just get along and be happy with them? Why do I always have to be the one who wants to talk about the ‘bad’ stuff or just not attend at all? What is wrong with me that I can’t just join the family and leave all that stuff behind me?
So there you have the tracings of crazy-making. Don’t talk about anything real that would actually build true bonds of kinship, and, don’t even think about not attending a family gathering or other family members feelings will be hurt.
Feel that? Feel that tension? That is what drives my obsession and compulsion to keep thinking about what to say or do about my family relationships.