Suffering in silence is anathema to healthy family systems #mentalhealth #mentalillness #anxiety #grief

September 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week I had a cluster-f*&k of anxiety that culminated in persistent panic attacks on Friday. The grenade pin that sent everything into hurricane emotional conditions was the mental ill-health of my husband’s youngest brother, BrotherInLaw2. It is a very sad story that has gone on for decades. It recounts a family history plagued by depression exacerbated by tragedy.

BrotherInLaw2 is a handsome, well-educated man of uncommon intelligence. A lot like Husband and BrotherInLaw1. He was a baby the year his older sister, at the tender age of five, passed away from brain cancer. Of all my husband’s sibling group, Husband was nine, and his older brother was eleven when their sister died, I believe BrotherInLaw2 suffered the most profound emotional deprivation during his early formative years. To add to his challenges, his younger sister was born a couple of years after his older sister passed. Not only was BrotherInLaw2 deprived of normal family love and security because the entire family was thrown into grief before he understood what had even happened to the family, but, before there had been any family recovery from this tragic loss, a new baby sister arrived to take the place of the one who had departed. This younger sisters was a golden haired darling who could do no wrong.

BrotherInLaw2 grew up in the dual shadows of is sadly departed older sister and his spoiled younger sister. His parents were both profoundly depressed and bereaved and his brothers were coping with their own individual states of overwhelm at the loss of their sister and the subsequent emotional affect of their family. All of these conditions are in play before BrotherInLaw2 is verbal, there is no one to put into words what the conditions of deprival and emotional abandonment are, and he is not able to put into words, to share with anyone, if there had been someone there who cared to listen, what he was feeling, how he was hurting, the loneliness and the sense of disconnect that he was enduring.

All of this family emotion was being carried out under the cloak of upper middle class affluence. The family was well-educated and well-connected through family ties and community to the highest levels of  social privilege and comfort. Looking at old family photos it is difficult to detect the depression and disconnect that was affecting everyone in the family. Summer vacations at seaside cottages, winter expeditions to ski at Switzerland, family gatherings in lush gardens with neatly manicured lawns and poodles. Smiling for the camera. It all appears so enviable and comfortable.

I really got a sense of the emotional darkness at the core of the family one summer when we all gathered at a storied family cottage on a remote island of the coast of New England. It was a gorgeous setting: an 19th century sheep house converted to a cottage complete with wrap around balcony, surrounded by newly mown fields of hay, the calm seas of Penobscot Bay in the distance; the main living room aged, but comfortable furnishings arranged around a hand tied rag braid rug, and the entire family, Mom, Dad, three brothers and sister, Sister’s husband and children, and me, all gathered as the sun set over Tip Top Mountain. An idyllic scene, supper had not yet been started, the afternoon glow of sunlight was just receding in shadows up the living room wall.

One might expect a scene like this to filled with conversation, laughter, games, music, planning, the kinds of things that families do when they are freed of the daily pressures of workaday life and are together for a reunion after long absence. Instead, the room was filled with an eery silence. No one was talking. I found it unnerving. I couldn’t put my finger on what was happening until I looked over at BrotherInLaw2 and saw that he was reading a book. He wasn’t just reading the book, he was holding it up so that his entire face was hidden from the family, as if he was extremely short sighted and had to have the book an inch from his face in order to read the text.

It was then that I realized how vacant the emotional affect was in the entire room. No one was engaged emotionally. It was this state of emotional death, the affect was of a dull, wet vacuum, where any emotional expression, especially one of joy or friendliness, would be met with a heavy, felt blanket, a muffling thud. I found it so uncomfortable I went outside to play soccer with the little boys, where we laughed and chased the ball. Inside, it was quiet and the room fell into darkness.

I don’t know if you can imagine the effect this kind of emotional deprivation would have on an impressionable child. When I saw BrotherInLaw2 with that book in his face I knew he had suffered, and continues to suffer, unspeakable emotional pain.

To the present day. The settlement of MotherInLaw’s estate hangs in the balance. We have been waiting for a year for BrotherInLaw1, BrotherInLaw2 and SisterInLaw to settle out a deed swap on vacation properties so the estate can be settled. This process has brought the worst of the relational conflict and sibling rivalry between BrotherInLaw2 and SisterInLaw out into the open. They have finally come to an agreement, which amounts to SisterInLaw getting her way and BrotherInLaw2 having to give up his claim to the property he wanted and settled for the less desired property. Yes, I know, the problems of privilege. Anyway, all the paperwork has been executed and everyone is waiting for one signature to wrap up the transactions. Who hasn’t signed? BrotherInLaw2.

All summer we had been waiting for this business to be finished, and finally I asked Husband, “When was the last time anyone actually heard from BrotherInLaw2?” It had been months. I put pressure on Husband to follow up – to actually ascertain that BrotherInLaw2 was okay. It took a few days to get the communications circulating and to finally rouse BrotherInLaw2 to check in and let us know what was happening.

It turns out he has been suffering, the loss of first his mother last year, and now his father this year, is taking its toll. As he put it, he has, “not been firing on all cylinders.” I feel for the guy. But I found the entire episode deeply anxiety provoking. It is not the first time in my life that someone else’s emotional and mental state has a profound effect on my life and my fortune. The feeling of powerlessness and dread hovering on the horizon were overwhelming. I could barely sleep as I waited to hear news of my BrotherInLaw2’s condition.

The fact is that we are dependent on each other’s well-being. The mental and emotional health of family members affect the entire family system. Sometimes, if these affects came into effect at a young enough age, we won’t even know what it is we are struggling with. We can’t put our finger on it because we can’t put it into words. All we feel is a pervading sense of fear, or dread, or the ominous feeling of imminent explosion.

My only recourse, now, in these situations, is to recite mantras in the form of prayers to help my brain unhook from obsessing about the family member. We need to talk to each other, we need to be honest about what we are feeling and what is going on in our minds. Suffering in secret is anathema to family health and well-being. It does not protect the family from our ill health, it subjects our family to the stress of unknown emotional and mental pressure.

As BrotherInLaw2 sat in that room with a book in front of his face, it did not occur to anyone in the room to ask him, with real kindness and caring, “Hey, BrotherInLaw2, how’s it going?”

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