January 21, 2009

Finally Break Free From Your Irreparably Dysfuctional Family

If you are blessed with a wonderful family, I hope you not only appreciate it but tell them and show them so everyday. Not everyone is born into a family which they can love, be loyal to, trust, depend on and with whom find emotional and spiritual succor.



The picture perfect family or at least something close to it does exist and those who have it are blessed indeed.


Much is often said about the breakdown of family life, particularly among certain socio-economic and ethnic groups. Despite the much written about plight of fatherless children and lack of parental supervision among African American and Afro-Caribbean families, it has been noted by sociologists that among this group the “ideal of family ties” is still extremely strong. Among Afro, Indian, Syrian and families of Asian descent living in the West, there is a much stronger emphasis on family than their European and European descended fellowmen. Extended family is still important as is regular interaction with relatives, even the “pumpkin vine” family. Most importantly, young people are more likely to stay with parents longer among this demographic. You simply do not get black, Indian, Syrian and Asian children legally emancipating themselves from their parents. Kids take longer to leave the nest compared to our European descended counterparts, particularly from the middle- classes. As a rule, we tend to stick it out with our family even when it may not be in our best interests.

Imagine if you were not related to this person, would you of your own volition invite them into your life, knowing what you know about them? Think about that for a moment and now weigh the illusion of “blood-ties” against the effect this person has had and is having on your life. Is the tangible or intangible benefit of the blood tie worth the effect on your mental, emotional, financial, spiritual well being?


In Trinidad and Tobago, family is family even if they are poisonous to your health. With the rarity of professional family counseling, personal therapy and just good old fashioned self-sufficiency, dysfunction is often the glue that holds households together. Blood is thicker than water and will cover everything from neglect to abuse to outright hostility. I know of friends and relatives who torture themselves time and time again by actively seeking out the company of family members who make their lives a living hell. Why? Obligation, guilt, low self-esteem, desperation for approval, dependency and a habit of thinking others come first and self-sacrifice is nobler than self-preservation. Many of these attributes masquerade as, “Family loyalty,”.



In Trinidad and Tobago, like most of the Caribbean, family ties, extend to "pumpkin vine" and tend to be extremely strong. Most will put up with almost intolerable dysfunction because of this tradition of family loyalty.


That is not to say true family loyalty based on uplifting virtues does not exist. I think those with great families are truly set apart. They must have conquered major karma in their past life to be given such a wonderful vacation from family strife in this life. My awe of them is all the more potent because I was not born into a great family. I won’t get into the horrific details because I now choose to dwell on the precious few moments of joy and positive interactions I can remember from my childhood. Despite forgiving and choosing to re-shape my memories, I am not stupid. I am not going to place my trust in those who have proven themselves unworthy of it. I am not going to give credence to their opinions or live according to their expectations. Many may say, “Well that means you did not really forgive your family.” You see, for some people, forgiveness means falling back into the same old pattern of victimization as before. In other words, a woman who forgives a man who has raped and murdered her child must demonstrate her pardon of him by allowing her other children to fraternize with that same man again. Ridiculous isn’t it? So is setting up yourself to be hurt by your kin over and over again.


I have been essentially on my own since I was 19, with just my partner and true friends forged over many years, as my adopted family. My exile from my family has given me tremendous freedom but it comes with many complications. For example it was necessary for me to make living will and power of attorney documents to specifically bar family members from having any say in health and financial decisions for me, should I be incapacitated. This is something many never have to think about. They simply trust their family will have their best interests at heart and respect their wishes. Yes, it’s kinda sad knowing that you are unable to trust those responsible for your birth and upbringing. Anyone would want to hold their daddy’s hand and have mummy comfort them in times of sickness and not worry if their parents will be opportunistically looking for a way to take advantage of the situation. Trust seems like such a basic right a child ought to have towards their parents. So much so, that many kids with untrustworthy parents continue to delude themselves and trust them anyway just to satisfy that need.

For some people, forgiveness means falling back into the same old pattern of victimization as before. In other words, a woman who forgives a man who has raped and murdered her child must demonstrate her pardon of him by allowing her other children to fraternize with that same man again. Ridiculous isn’t it? So is setting up yourself to be hurt by your kin over and over again.


Even my lawyer was stunned someone so young was asking for a living will and power of attorney and admitted it was rare in Trinidad and Tobago. The times I have been hospitalized and asked, “Which family member to call?”, I have had to be very firm about insisting my partner is the only family to contact, even if I cannot prove relation and our status is not legally recognized by this backward government. Fortunately, private clinics and hospitals are flexible because you pay for your care and the customer is right regardless of whether the head matron likes gay people or not. My honeybunch stayed with me all night when I had to have surgery and doctors briefed her on everything that was happening. Still we had to pay through the nose for that privilege.

So, what about you? Are you having problems with your family? Is there a grown child, parent, sibling, in-law who has proven time and time again to be toxic to your emotional, spiritual and physical well being? What are you going to do about it? Are you going to operate under a misguided notion of “family loyalty” because of culture, religious and societal dictates for yet another year or are you finally going to set yourself free. Does the thought of setting yourself free make your heart fall into your stomach and panic set in? Do you immediately think, “I will be a bad, ungrateful, disrespectful daughter, wife, sister, niece, aunt etc. if I do that!”

Relax, take a deep breath and consider a few things for a while. Imagine if you were not related to this person, would you of your own volition invite them into your life, knowing what you know about them? Think about that for a moment and now weigh the illusion of “blood-ties” against the effect this person has had and is having on your life. Is the tangible or intangible benefit of the blood tie worth the effect on your mental, emotional, financial, spiritual well being? Get downright practical and do a PROs and CONs chart if need be. If the CONs seriously outweigh the PROs, you have some serious decisions to make.

Of course, you still have to manage the situation and many wonder how to do so. Here is what I can suggest.

1. Communicate about the problem. Let the person know how they have and continue to hurt you. If verbal communication is fraught with too much anger and is unproductive, write a letter or e-mail or diffuse the confrontation with a moderator (a family member who is impartial, loves both parties and just wants you to make peace). Make sure to be respectful and reinforce that you really do love this person and your greatest wish would be to have a great relationship with them. Allow time for their response and resolution.

2. If their response is one of further escalation of their ill-treatment towards you. You must GIVE THEM ROOM. Remove yourself from any more interaction until such a time the situation can be resolved in a mature, respectful, productive fashion.

3. If their response is one of denial or obstinate refusal to change even justification of their ill-treatment, depending on the threat level to your well-being, you will have to make a decision. If what they do is detrimental to your health, you MUST cut them off. I am sorry. There is no other way to say this. Just to be sure you know the degree of threat I am referring to, I am not talking about a nagging in-law who is just unpleasant to be around. I am talking about a nagging in-law who deliberately seeks to sabotage your marriage or harm your kids. Just so you know the difference.

4. Stay calm. Stay clear. Stay loyal to your self-worth and self-preservation. It is best not to make it about the other person. This is entirely about you! When asked for an explanation for your absence from family events or interactions with them, simply say, without vitriol, “It is better for my sanity and my well being to stay away from you and simply not engage in any conversation, comments with or about you. I am in neutral position as far as we are concerned. Please be assured that I will not do or say anything against you. I love you, forgive you and wish the best for you (if you can bring yourself to that point) but this is an unhealthy relationship and it seems that I am the only one who acknowledges it and wants to change it. Without your commitment to making it better, I have no other choice. I will continue to hope and pray this will change one day. Till that time, please respect my stance. God bless.”



If the person is truly a bastard and continues to provoke, stick to your guns. DO NOT BE BAITED INTO INVESTING YOUR ENERGY IN FURTHER ENTANGELEMNT WITH THEM!


If the person is truly a bastard and continues to provoke, stick to your guns. DO NOT BE BAITED INTO INVESTING YOUR ENERGY IN FURTHER ENTANGELEMNT WITH THEM! This pacifist, neutral position, based on forgiveness and surrender to a Higher Power is a POWERFUL and PROTECTIVE one. You are given a vacation from the pain and time to heal. The other person is forced to confront their demons now that they no longer have you as their punching bag. In addition, your refusal to engage in hostilities earns you respect and credibility where it counts.


While you stick to your guns, here is a little analogy to ease your guilt and steel your will. I call it “A Choice Of Swimming Pools.”

A long time ago, before this life, you were shown an endless field, dotted with a vast number of swimming pools of every kind. You got to choose which pool had the right temperature, depth, chlorination, salination, swimming companions, life quards, pool toys, microbes, size and shape for your soul’s educational needs. Your pre-born, conscious soul, from its pre-earthly vantage point was of course a lot more “in touch” with the master plan of your Creator. It knew then and still knows now that both perceived pain and pleasure are necessary for your education and evolution. Without contrast there can be no momentum, no momentum means no growth and no growth means no life.



So your soul chose the best swimming pool with the right pain:pleasure ratio to teach you what you need to know based on your needs and your energy debits and credits to the universe (karma). For some, their soul chose a swimming pool with a pleasant temperature, wonderful swimming companions and features that completely satisfies and bouys them up throughout life. Initially, you might think them lucky to be born into such a swimming pool. But every soul needs contrast to climb. They too have challenges to trigger growth in their personality, intellect and health.
In your case however, your soul decided you needed an icy cold pool that was heavily chlorinated, extremely deep, with no toys and stingy, cruel swimming companions who would not be generous enough to teach you how to swim and instead dunk you repeatedly until your lungs scream and eyes burn red.

Now here you are today, still in that pool. The cold water is as torturous as it ever was even though it made you thick-skinned and hardy. The chlorine dried out your skin and is damaging your eyes but it made you care less about superficial appearances in others. Your unpleasant swimming companions inadvertently taught you how to hold your breath for a long time and be a stronger swimmer because of their bullying ways in the pool. You may not fully understand why you were so “unlucky” to have been born into such a hostile swimming pool but you have reached a certain point in your personal development where you know for sure that you are no longer in need of such a harsh swimming environment. You look around you and there are other pools and some of them look nice, warm, fun , inviting with caring swimmers who take care of each other. While you are grateful for all the good lessons so harshly learnt, your home pool is now doing more harm than good. You should leave. So what is stopping you?

Well, even though they hurt you, you cannot help but feel a certain familiar affection for your sadistic swimming companions. Suppose those seemingly caring swimmers in other pools reject you? Better stay with the devil you know right? Yes the water in your pool is chemically harsh and cold but it at least it is familiar. Your skin has been damaged for so long, suppose nice clean, warm water puts it into shock? Then on top of everything, every time you peer longingly over to the other pools and approach the ladder to climb out, your brutal swimming companions tell you,
“Hey! This is YOUR pool! We are YOUR swimming companions like it or not! You do not deserve anything else. You cannot leave and we cannot leave. If you leave it means you do not love us!”

At first, you believe them. Then one day, a final straw of suffering breaks your back and you find yourself darting up that ladder and climbing out the pool that has hurt and helped your soul grow at the same time. You look back just one last time as your former swimming companions watch on in shock and dismay. You are scared but you steel your will and tell yourself, “I have learned what I had to learn and paid my karmic debt to the Universe.”

You had no idea this self-preserving part of you was inside all along and it had a voice. Even though you do not realize it yet, this is the soul part of you that knows things your ego and emotions do not. It knows that the time has come to evolve in this life and build your credit by living a peaceful, contented life that allows you to contribute more to others.

“Who the hell do you think you are?!” scream your former swimming companions.
“I deserve better! I know everyone thinks I do not but for some reason I cannot understand, I feel like I should love myself!” you say and never turn back.

Bravely, you approach a brand new swimming pool and put your toe in. It is luxuriously warm. To your great pleasure and relief, the swimmers in the pool smile at you and beckon you in. You dive bomb with joy and proceed to spend a few years of productive, healthy recovery and growth in that pool. You don’t grow as much as explosively blossom. After years of hardship, your strength makes you unstoppable in this new, softer environment. Your only handicap is guilt, doubt, self-punishment and thinking you do not deserve such goodness along with the fear it is too good to be true and one day your new swimming companions will ask you to leave.
“If they reject me, my old swimming companions are just waiting to laugh at me and throw it in my face.”

You worry and obsess over it so much, you actually attract it and one day you are asked to leave the nice warm pool that was like Nirvana to your once battered body. This is bad. Quite a let down! For a while you are crushed and stand up, pooless, torn between trying another new swimming pool or going back to the swimming pool you were born into.
“I can’t go back! No matter what, I can only go forward!” you say. It is not easy for you. Your first ever swimming companions are laughing at you and saying, “Told you so!”. Your new swimming companions have tired of your neediness and lack of self-worth. You are all alone.

Or are you?

It is at that moment you realise that your skin, once damaged by the harsh chemicals of your home swimming pool has long healed and is healthy and glowing. Your eyes have long recovered from the chlorine damage. You still have your strength, which is remarkable for someone your age, with the disadvantages you have suffered. Despite everything, somehow, it seems like there is a plan that takes care of you. You decide to trust it. It tells you,
“Did you know little child that you do not have to join anyone elses’ swimming pool? You can design and dig your own pool and fill it with just your kind of water and invite just your kind of swimming companions. You have the ability to do it!”

Wow! You had no idea! You decide to give it a try and as soon as you resolve to make it happen, the tools appear for you to do it. In time, you have a nice pool all your own. It is your design, your colour, your kind of water and just right for you. Well, not just you. Lo and behold, a friendly person shows up, tips their toe in and asks if they can join you. You let them in and they turn out to be a wonderful swimming companion who also wants to help you maintain the pool and add their little touches to it. In time, you have a gorgeous lagoon-like pool that could rival that of the Playboy Mansion, grotto and all.

Sadly, you cannot invite your old swimming companions into your pool because unless they are willing to completely change, they will contaminate your hard earned swimming space. And you cannot return to their unhealthy swimming pool either. But if unconditional love prevails, there is no reason why you cannot both step out of your pools and meet at the nearby gazebo.


Still, it bugs you that your first ever swimming companions are so far away now. It bugs you even more that they are still in such unhealthy water back at the old swimming pool and still being so unkind, especially now that you know how wonderful life could be for them if they could only see beyond their own experiences. Sadly, you cannot invite them into your pool because unless they are willing to completely change, they will contaminate your hard earned swimming space. You call them from time to time but they keep on insisting,
“If you want to have a relationship with us, you have to come into our pool and swim our way. If you love us, you will come back into our swimming pool.”
“I cannot do that,” you tell them. “It is unhealthy for me! Can’t you see how radiant I am now? I don’t want to go back to how I was! It does not mean I do not love you but what I have built here is beyond anything I have ever had!But I am willing to compromise, we can both step out of our pools and meet by the gazebo nearby.”

Although they hate to admit it, the proof is evident. They can see how well you look; how strong you are; how happy you are and how well you are doing not just for yourself but for others as well. They have before them ample evidence that happiness, fulfillment and love is not contingent on their way of doing things and perhaps even that their way hinders it just a little bit.

You are not about to wait for them to change because it is not about them anyway, it never was. You are now challenged to learn how to accept the good in your life with total gratitude and a feeling of deservedness no matter which pool you started off in.



You were given an amazing ability. Once you are able to take responsibility for your soul's growth, you can design and dig your own pool and fill it with just your kind of water and invite just your kind of swimming companions. So do it and dive in!

3 comments:

Guanaguanare said...

Beautiful! Very moving. There are many, many people who need to break away and will appreciate and act upon this message. The guilt can be crippling even after you've left.

In your case, one of the strengths that you've developed is your ability to empathise. You remind me again of Alice Miller's work on the sometimes destructive influences in early childhood:

"...a person who has consciously worked through the tragedy of her own fate will recognise another's suffering more clearly, though the other may be trying to hide it. She will not be scornful of others' feelings, whatever their nature, because she takes her own feelings seriously and knows how to work with them. She surely will not keep the vicious cycle of contempt turning.

...People who discover their past with the help of their feelings, who learn...to clarify these feelings, to look for their real causes, and to resolve the transference, will no longer be compelled to displace their hatred unto innocents in order to protect those who have in fact earned this hatred. They will be capable of hating what is hateful and of loving what deserves love. Once they dare to see who brought them to their plight and how it was done, they will be better oriented in present reality and able to avoid acting blindly, unconsciously. They will no longer behave like the mistreated children they were, children who must protect their parents and who therefore need a scapegoat for the buried emotions that torment them."

---"The Drama Of The Gifted Child" by Alice Miller, 1997, p 114-115

Thanks for this post.
Blessings

Kemar said...

Hey my friend,
We are social beings. No one is entirely perfect. We each have our good and bad characteristics. Yes, while one at some point in one's lifetime, a relation has to dissolve but we have to learn to live with them. I am also sensing again a strong feminine push. Hey, you go girl but be remember to use your discretion.

Jessica said...

Kemar,

Of course nobody is perfect. We are all in a state of development; works in progress.

If anyone is hindering your development as a being, soul, mind, it is important to address it. Distancing yourself from those who continue to either deliberately or unintentionally hinder your soul development even after you have made an effort to develop a healthier positive relationship is not saying, "I am better than you!"

"Who she feel she is? She think she is better than we!" is a common Caribbean sentiment towards those who try to lift themselves out of the muck of their dysfunctional family. We like to guilt each other into staying in unhealthy relationships because our self esteem is so low. Instead of celebrating each other's progress we envy because it reflects our own deficiencies....again, low self esteem. You'd be surprised how many people would rather everyone they know to swim in shit together than to see some rise out of it.

That is something hopefully more people challenge.

I say, "Nope I'm not better than my family. I just want what is better for me MORE than THEY want it for me."

Learning to love yourself is truly the greatest love of all. You are an image of the Creator, within you is Divine expression of the Supreme Being's energy. Cherishing that, loving that, nurturing that by treating yourself with value is the same as showing thanks, honor and love for the One that created you.