the importance of separating the illness from the person

March 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

No matter how much I wish I could change the mental health of members of my family and my own husband, the fact is that I cannot. Their mental health is their responsibility. There is nothing I can do to change it. Believe me, I have tried! Perhaps a sign of my own increasing mental health and maturity is realizing that this is true, and there is no faint hope clause that is going to make it possible for me to change their minds.

Just writing this out helps me to realize how futile my efforts have been over a lifetime of trying. I have been attempting to change other people’s mental health. I have tried appeasing, manipulating, arguing, raging, withdrawing, and isolating. When these failed, I turned my anger and frustration on myself. I tried eating, exercising, co-dependence, sex and romance, work, drugs, and alcohol. When my abuse of substances and relationships proved utterly destructive to my own well-being, I had to find other, more creative ways to release my pent-up emotion. I tried counting, hair-cutting, and compulsive lock checking. I got stuck in academia for 10 years. My house is in a constant state of renovation. I can safely assert that none of these things has changed the mental health of my immediate family members or my husband.

And so I arrive at my next stage of development. I can love these people but I don’t have to love their mental illness. I don’t have to change it, but I don’t have to love it, either. But I can love them.

I do feel a little better about the whole situation with this new perspective.


the effect of depression on relationships

March 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

It is as if I am finally waking up from a long, uncomfortable sleep. I have been so immersed in academic studies for so long that I wasn’t aware of other effects on my quality of life. I have to wonder if my prolonged attachment to the stress of academia wasn’t in some way associated with avoiding the stress of depression in my marriage.

I wonder how many marriages end because one of the partners suffers from chronic, untreated depression. I know I have often contemplated ending my marriage because of the mental state and behaviour of my spouse. But there has always been this other part of our relationship that was stronger than my discomfort. I love my husband. I don’t love his depression. Am I going to leave my husband because he is depressed? The answer, after 20 years in the relationship, is, no.

That said, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have to come to terms with his depression. And, because the brain of a depressed person is not great at processing relational difficulties arising from the depression, it isn’t something I can actually discuss with my husband on a day to day basis. Sometimes he has moments of clarity about his depression, where he can discuss it as something that actually exists outside of who he is. Most of the time his brain is affected by the depression and he has a hard time grasping concepts that threaten to expose the depression for what it is, mental illness.

I am no stranger to the effects of mental illness in my intimate family relationships. That is probably why it has taken me so long to ‘wake up’ to the effects of depression to my own well being. I’m curious now to apply my hard fought research skills to the effects of secondhand stress, especially the effects of a loved one’s depression, on subjective perceptions of well being and the quality of life.

This feels positive. It feels like a positive step I can take for my own health and well being that is not dependent on what my husband does or does not do about mitigating the effects of his depression on our relationship. It feels empowering, it gives me some autonomy from my husband’s condition without actually having to fully separate from my husband.

secondhand stress

March 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

I was listening to The Psychology Podcast interview with Tom Rath on positive psychology. He was talking about what we have learned about happiness and developing a sense of meaning. Near the end of the podcast he discussed factors that contribute to improving day to day encounters for a better experience of life. One of the things he mentioned offhand really stuck with me. He mentioned secondhand stress as a factor that can have a negative effect on one’s efforts to implement practices to develop a positive psychology.

This factor really struck home for me because I live with a husband who suffers from daily bouts of depression and anxiety. I have struggled to find my own equilibrium when facing my husband’s chronic negative emotional and mental condition. I know my husband is working hard to live a good life, but I had seriously underestimated the toll his mental health was taking on my own.

I have started implementing my own preventative program to ease my exposure to my husband’s stress and it is helping reduce my ambient (resting) stress level. Just this morning I found this article in the Harvard Business Review, “Make Yourself Immune to Secondhand Stress” by Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan. I am already starting to feel a little better, realizing that I am not crazy, and that I have been affected by loved ones’ secondhand stress all my life.


how to change your mind

March 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

I am now 60 years old. This actually means something to me. What it means is that I do not have to put up with nonsense that I thought was normal. It is amazing to see old family systems persist in their efforts to coerce me into participating in family entrancement.

I did something new yesterday. This new thing is an indicator that I am actually succeeding in actually changing my mind. What I did was to delete voice messages from two of my brothers. Not only did I delete the voice messages, I did not call them back. This is new for me. In the past I would have felt compelled to call them back and talk to them. But not today. The compulsion has been reduced to the point that I can ignore it.

The first call had come in the day I sent out an email saying I would not be participating in a planned family event next September. I had decided it would not be a good event for me to attend (ie. not emotionally safe) and chose to opt out. I worded my opt out email in the kindest and loving possible terms. But I was firm that I would not be participating. I immediately got an email from my oldest brother putting pressure on me to attend. As if I owed family members my attendance. Within minutes he had called and left a message. I did not listen to the message for a couple of days because I knew it was going to be difficult to maintain my own sense of well-being and equilibrium if I listened to his message.

The second call came in yesterday in the middle of the afternoon while I was at work. I did not feel obligated to answer the phone and later I decided I did not feel obligated to listen to the message. This second call was from my youngest brother, who had just gotten back from visiting my oldest brother. Coincidence? I think not.

Last evening I decided I no longer need voice mail because I rarely listen to my voice messages as a matter of routine. I checked my voice mail and the mail box was full. To delete the voice mails I had to review them. I did listen to each of the messages from my brothers before deleting them. I was right. If I had not taken time to strengthen myself to be the recipient of codependent pressure, I would have had to spend time recovering my equilibrium.

The first message, from my oldest brother, indicated that he was angry with me by the tone of his voice and subtle emphasis on certain words. He said he wanted to talk. The second message, from my youngest brother, said he just wanted to check in. What I noticed about both these messages is that they were both positioned as casual, and that each of my brothers had orchestrated their calls so they only had a few minutes to spare for me. In the first call, my oldest brother put it this way, “I have a few minutes to talk, please call me in the next 17 minutes if you are able.” The call from my youngest brother was, “I am riding my bike home from the boat and had a few minutes to talk.”

I have been reading and listening lately to discussions about micro-aggressions and their affect on health and well-being. Most of the discussions have been about the effect of micro-aggressions perpetrated as racism, homophobia, and transphobia. But it has gotten me thinking about the use of micro-aggression in family systems to coerce behaviour and compliance to family ‘norms’.

I came into recovery from drug and alcohol abuse in 1996. Since then I have been working very hard to make sense of the family conditions that had such a debilitating effect on my health and well-being. As I have been working to come to consciousness I have become aware of what I call the ‘casual cruelty’ of my family members toward me. This casual cruelty results in me having to deal with mental and emotional distress, pretty much after every communicative event with my family members. I think, now, that what I have been trying to identify as instances of causal cruelty could also be defined as micro-aggressions of coercion.

It has taken me this long to get this close to a sense of what the truth is about my relationship with my family and individual family members. The good news is that I am getting better at predicting how encounters with individual family members are going to turn out, and becoming more selective about when, where and how I choose to engage. In this way, I am changing my mind. I am re-training my mind to extinguish the faint hope that anyone in my family is actually capable of showing a respectful interest in me, in making time for me, or wanting to form a healthy, authentic relationship with me. I am changing my mind to accept the reality of my individual family members, and to take steps to protect myself from their casual cruelty.

I feel pretty good this morning. I don’t feel as exposed, vulnerable, or susceptible to others irresponsible or anti-social behaviour.

Time to walk the dog.

taking steps

March 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

This last incident with my oldest brother has been the final straw. I have put a new rule on my email that will block all email coming from family members other than my own children. I have left facebook and no longer monitor posts from family members there. I still have to block their emails on my phone and iPad. I think I actually have to go onto my mail server and block them there so they just don’t show up anywhere.

I recounted to my husband last night recent incidents – within recent memory – that have happened with each of my family members that have been hurtful and harmful to me. It was not difficult. I did not have to search far for these uncomfortable or disrespectful moments. Each incident was a good enough reason to end relations with these people. Coupled with this history of patterns of disrespect and disregard, is the fact that there is no place in this family for discussing issues or solving problems. It is just not done. There is no opportunity to actually talk about what is going on and see if there might be a way to improve things. That just does not happen. It is not part of the culture. So these incidents happen and there is not way to revisit, debrief, or discuss lessons learned.

I have taken this step before in my life, I have cut off ties with my family because I found staying connected was too expensive for my mental and emotional health. This time feels different because… I am 60 years old! I am just too old for this nonsense anymore. My family is a toxic system of relationships that are predicated on a delusion of exceptionalism and megalomaniacal pursuit for fame and fortune through music. I have been taking baby steps toward my own musical expression outside this pervasive, crushing family obsession. The only way I am going to find my voice is to continue to build a place for myself that is not constantly invaded by their insanity.

So my next step is to actually go to my mail server and institute an email filter that will delete any email from family members. It isn’t going to take much to set this boundary. Its not as if they seek me out for communication. Really the only time they make contact with me is to make sure I attend to fill in the picture at their annoying events.

Yes. I am hurt and I am angry. I miss not having a family that I can trust, that I can feel secure, that I can share my life journey with. But that is all. And I have reached the end of my tether with this whole family system of dysfunction packaged as ‘normal’.

the continuing process of making sense

March 14, 2016 § Leave a comment

One of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional family is the crazy making cognitive incongruity that makes it impossible to build authentic family connections. My family system is no different. This year I am facing one of the greatest challenges to my recovery in the form of an upcoming family event. The work of processing this event is going to mark a turning point for me, for my maturity and for my self-care.

Right now I am hurting and angry. I am abstaining from attempting to convey my feelings or my reality to any family members because there isn’t any one of them that has the capacity to authentically engage with me, my experience, or the reality of my feelings. I know this fact from hard won experience. I have tried many times over the last twenty years to be known by any one of my family members. I have tried to convey what it feels like to be the underdog in the family, the one that no one pays any attention to, but insists that I hold my place in the family photo as if there is nothing wrong. The one who has suffered egregious incidents of abuse or disenfranchisement, but whose experience of these events is invalidated, ignored, or denied.

Well, I turned sixty this year and I don’t have to take it anymore. And I am not going to. Right now I am feeling the pressure because I have opted out of attending a ‘family’ event next September. I put the word ‘family’ in quotes because my family’s definition of a family event and my own definition of family event do not synch up. For my family, a family event involves renting a hall, alerting the media, hiring musicians, and arranging for various family members to get up on a stage and perform songs. These performances are nothing special for my family members that are professional musicians, of which there is a disproportionate representation, but they are not relaxing or easy experiences for those of us who do not play musical instruments or feel comfortable performing on a stage with other family members.

There is this idealized mythology that circulates within my family, that is really the lifeblood of this dysfunctional family system. That mythology is that, because my family can play music together, they are exceptional, and their demonstration of this exceptionalism, as evidenced by public music performances, is evidence that the family is coherent, that the family is secure, that the family is healthy. In actual fact, at least in my experience, the family is discordant, chaotic, incomprehensible, and emotionally depriving.

I have spent my lifetime surviving the insanity of my family, which seems to serve all my other family members as if it were intact. Well, this time I am saying, no, I don’t want to participate in the insanity. That feels good. The email I got from my brother, however, exposes the dark underbelly of the beast.

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