wearing a cloak of invisibility in dysfunctional family systems #recovery #mentalillness #mentalhealth

August 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

I can tell I am making progress on my mental and emotional growth. Yesterday I had a great exemplar case to demonstrate the situation that I live in with my family. I was able to laugh about it this time, which is new. In days gone by I would have been so upset my day would have been consumed with tears, depression and rage.

I can now identify the ‘cloak of invisibility’ that is my position in this family.

A little background. In the early 2000s my father and his sisters were deliberating what to do about a family vacation property they owned jointly. There were three of them, Dad, DadSister1, and DadSister2. In the end they threw up their hands and decided to simply bequeath their 1/3 shares to their children and let the next generation sort out ownership and management of the property. My Dad has 6 offspring. DadSister1 has 5, and DadSister2 has 1. Eventually this arrangement would put 12 individuals on the title of one piece of property. Six of those individuals would own 1/6 of 1/3 of the property. Five of those individuals would own 1/5 of 1/3, and one of those individuals would own 1/3 of the property. On top of that recipe for unmanageability, none of these groups of offspring had a history of property management, financial decision-making, or shared property ownership.

My husband and I had just been through 10 years of trying to resolve inherited property jointly owned by siblings who had no history of communication or problem solving on his side of the family. It was quite obvious to us that being 1/6 of 1/3 owner of a vacation property was not a situation that I would enter into. I contacted a lawyer and discussed the situation and was advised that this scheme would prove unworkable and could result in extra legal costs to untangle. I talked to my father, my aunt, and two of my brothers about the situation, to no avail. I was dismissed, shunned, scolded and otherwise ignored. I consulted my own lawyer on what to do if I were bequeathed shares in this property and set the matter aside.

These conversations took place between 2010 and 2012.

Brother1 wrote to me yesterday:

FYI There is a number of conversations taking place ad-hoc amongst various relatives about the future of [summercabin] property.

From what I hear so far (which is nothing official), because of a multitude of succession and financial issues across the board, they plan to put the cabin up for sale in a few years. They feel it’s the simplest way to manage their own lives etc. [Wife] and I agree, and are nothing but thankful for all the cabin has given us.

I just wanted you to know so you could think about that and consider your own interests should any viable plan amongst various family members develop to purchase/secure the property for future generations etc. No rush.

In that last paragraph I realize the cloak of invisibility that covers me in this family. I had brought up these topics for discussion. This very same brother had schooled me on respect, inheritance, and home country inheritance traditions when I told him I would not accept any bequeathment pertaining to this property. And now, only two years later, he is informing me of developments as if I had never expressed my interests or my concerns.

I just had to laugh, it was such a clear example of my lack of presence in this family. This didn’t stop me from writing an email articulating my confusing position in this family:

Hi Brother1,

Ha ha about [summercabin]. I am glad to hear there are productive conversations taking place. I started talking to Dad in 2011 about this, shortly after we had finalized property title changes within Husband’s family. I realized how tricky it is to handle property in family, especially when that family does not have a history of property management, decision making processes, budget management systems, or property affiliations and bonds. I consulted a friend, who is a Queens Council lawyer here in [mycity]. His speciality of practice is inter-generational property inheritance situations. He has a busy practice. When I described to him what our elders were planning for [summercabin] he advised me to stay clear, because he had never seen anything like that work, and when these arrangements fall apart there can be a lot more at stake that simply signing a few papers to undo the complications.

When I talked to DadSister1 about the situation, and the possibility of unimagined difficulties arising, she was very upset and has not spoken to me since. That was on November 4, 2010. When I revisited the situation in January 2012 with Dad, he basically shut me down and would not discuss it. So I consulted with our family lawyer and make my own plans. I remember you writing me a long email about inheritance and [homecountry] when I told you that I would not accept inheritance of any share of [summercabin].

This does confirm for me, though, the seeming cloak of invisibility that I wear in this family. I was able to talk to Brother4 about my views of the situation, and I wonder if he hasn’t spoken up to bring the issue forward for consideration. Perhaps other family members are alert to the problems of multiple property owners on one, emotionally significant piece of property. Gosh, I have seen so much strife in Husband’s family because of this.

I often ask myself why no one in the family calls me to check in, to say hello, or to pass the time, much less share significant events that are playing out in their lives. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I initiate phone calls, I really get the feeling that family members do not like me or consider my presence in the family important.

It is doubly confusing, because I also don’t get personal invitations to family events, just the equivalent of ‘gig’ announcements as an email broadcast. I interpret these invitations as casual, and it doesn’t really matter if I respond. Given my recent (say the last 5 years) encounters with different family members at these events and feeling invalidated, dismissed, ignored, or even shunned. And a family culture of not discussing difficult encounters and resolving misunderstandings or hurt feelings. I don’t want to put myself at risk attending family events because I never know when a rude, or insensitive comment is going to be directed at me, with no recourse for resolution.

However, I also get these sidelong critical swipes, nothing up front or clear, but comments about how I am ‘freezing family out’, or ‘shutting family out’. It is as if my position in the family is to disappear during the period when there are no family events, but show up for family events to be included in the photos. As if my missing the event is in someway an affront to family members, but it doesn’t occur to them that they actually haven’t called or shown any interest in me for months or even years.

Never a question about how I am doing, what I am doing, much less debriefing the events of our family history that have so profoundly shaped our identities and our mental and emotional health.

I have come to the conclusion that this collective behaviour amounts to a family system of blind spots and blind sight – that I have never figured large in the family system, nor important in the family narrative, just a side, or bit player that is expected to show up at certain times and then disappear the rest of the time. Blind spots are perceptual voids, wherein we can be looking at something, but because we are not accustomed to seeing that thing, we actually do not ‘see’ it. The void gets filled in with surrounding patterns and the object in the blind spot disappears. Read Banaji and Greenwald’s Blind Spot: Hidden Biases in Good People. It isn’t that any one incident is particularly noteworthy, from one person to the next. It is more that a lifetime of such treatment is extremely difficult to deal with, especially when there is no opportunity to discuss the effect of family members’ words or actions, no matter how seeming inconsequential they feel in the moment.

I am sharing this with you, Brother1, not because I want to lay blame or send your blood pressure through the roof. I am sharing with you in hopes that you might understand that the position I occupy in this family is very different from the positions I perceive that any of my other siblings occupy. I realize each one of you have unique experiences of being members of this family, and I wish we could talk about it, so as to develop the possibility of changing the course of these family relationships. I cannot do this alone.

I didn’t send this email, because I know that the casual cruelty of invisibility is wholly unconscious on his part, and also that it serves as a protective device to shield him from the real pain and terror of our shared childhood. It feels good to put it out here, though, and to know that I am not crazy after all.


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