To All Of You Out There, Suffering Familial Pain
Many of us are carrying around deep wounds in our daily lives, that for one reason or another, we don't talk about. But they weigh on us every day. You are not alone.
In my last post, I foolishly made the statement that my health and wellness journey had been bearing fruit, and as such, I felt confident I’d be writing more soon. I apparently jinxed myself, and a new bomb (with an old fuse) has gone off in my life since the last time I wrote. In an attempt to deal with it, I’ve spent the first two days of this week writing through it, drafting posts that I have decided will not be published, because they are too personal and too fraught with the delicacy of family drama. There’s no good way to talk about them in a forum like this without unintentionally crossing some line.
So with ambiguity as my friend, I’m taking one last crack at the themes that lie beneath. Suffice it to say: a specific event has shown me the true colors of some people in my family, and this epiphany is forcing the re-structuring of my boundaries. What is happening spans several generations, and the impact is so significant that things may never be repaired. Standing on principle has always come at an extremely high cost for me, and this is no exception.
Even in the midst of betrayal and lies, I feel a strange duty to protect some of the people involved from the kind of scrutiny I could bring to bear. I want to talk about what they’ve done, and why it’s wrong; I want to dive into the details and history of my upbringing, and the role it plays in all of this. I want to unpack so much that has gone on after years of trying to hold things together that are now coming apart anyway. But the irony of having a platform like this is that it doesn’t give you more power in matters like this, it only ties your hands. To use my reach in this way would be cathartic, but it would also very likely be petty and exploitative. And the truth is, I can’t stop what’s happening, so I don’t want to stay bogged down in it. It’s time to mourn what is lost, and do my best to move on.
Today, with this as the backdrop, I want to focus on something else. As I’ve been wrestling with the guilt, the hurt, the frustration, the anger, the loss, the recrimination, and even the lingering doubt that I am in the right — a panoply of complex, difficult emotions — I’ve also become aware of the intense and quiet suffering of many others.
My wife is a very private person, and as such, she sometimes really loathes my confessional writing. Putting myself out there, being vulnerable, letting the things that wound me be picked apart by any stranger who happens along, is not something she enjoys. But she broke down and posted something publicly this week herself, in a place where those concerned could see it, detailing her heartbreak over what has been happening. It was her hope that those who might be involved in this thing that is going on behind our back and against our wishes — we have no way of knowing how many people are in on it — would see her words and seriously consider our perspective, which has been mostly ignored. It was also a chance to tell our side of a story that has been obscured behind lies and manipulation. It’s always a risk that to say anything is to say too much, and to say nothing is to allow yourself to be a doormat, your concerns and feelings trampled underfoot without a second thought.
There seems to be no way to win, only different ways to suffer.
As a result of my wife’s post, we’ve had a somewhat surprising outpouring of support. What we didn’t expect was how many people would reach out to say, “I have endured something very similar, and I know how crushing it can be.” People who know that the pain is not always just caused by the person doing the thing that wounds, but by those who take their side even though they should know better.
Many of you reading this right now know this feeling too. Maybe you’re going through something like this right now. Walking wounded, carrying crosses you don’t know how to bear, having no choice but to forge on. The heartbreak can take many forms: wayward children; family members who gaslight, discourage, steal, cheat, or malign you; estranged relationships with siblings or parents; crushingly painful marriages, including those that involve abuse, infidelity, or abandonment; caring for someone with mental illness or dementia; sons or daughters who are engaged in self-destructive behavior but refuse help; even small children who have suffered unspeakable crimes at the hands of others. The list goes on. Going through life carrying these heavy burdens, trying to simply put on a brave face and function as though everything is normal, can be exhausting beyond measure. It’s as though all the color drains out of life, the volume of normal activities gets turned way down, and you drift in a half-dream state, going through the motions as your thoughts are dominated by the pain. Every day can feel like a battle to just get up and put one foot in front of the other, determination to get through it waxing and waning in a way that seems completely outside your control.
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Maybe you’re trying not to fall into your own pattern of destructive behavior as you try to cope, and this adds an additional burden. How can you be there for the people in your life who are not the cause of your pain when every ounce of your emotional resources are tied up with the one who is? What do you say to your small children who ask you what’s wrong, or need your attention? How do you hide the smudged mascara or the red-rimmed eyes when you finally pull yourself together enough to walk into the store after sobbing in your car? How do you hide the smell of the alcohol on your breath after the drink you had with your morning coffee, because you just don’t think you can get through the day without something to calm your nerves? How do you avoid sending the text where you lash out at the person who seems to have stolen your happiness? How do you deal with the aftermath of your words when you hit send against your better judgment? How do you manage the restless energy that comes with worrying if your loved one is safe, or not knowing why they refuse to speak to you, and there’s nothing you can do about it? What do you do with the guilt you feel when you know that mistakes you’ve made contributed to the situation, but that there’s no power on earth that will allow you to go back and undo them, and your apologies just aren’t enough?
Although it can appear very much the case that they don’t care, we should not be naïve enough to dismiss the idea that those on the other side of our familial rifts may feel a similar sense of powerlessness and loss. They can seem stubborn, insensitive, or even vindictive, but maybe it’s just their hurt that’s causing them to act that way. So much of what goes wrong in our relationships is a result of differences of perspective. I’ve learned a few things about this as I’ve worked to piece my own marriage back together. I’ve come to realize, now that we’re doing so much better, that it didn’t have to be miserable for so many years. The problem was, we couldn’t see the way out of the patterns we were in, triggering each other’s trauma responses learned long before we met, which caused us to see an enemy instead of a lover or a friend. I’ve done a great many things wrong. I’ve made countless situations worse, not better. And I’ve come to recognize that my immediate emotional response to those who hurt me is to scorch the earth. In an attempt to protect myself, I want to destroy anyone who seems like a threat.
I find myself wishing I had a wise mentor I could turn to in moments like these to ask for counsel, but alas, I am not so fortunate. There are a couple of good people in my life who are trying to help me find perspective, and I’m extremely grateful for them. But for the most part, I just have to muddle along the best I can, guessing and hoping that I’ve managed to be fair but firm, and trying to restrain my more destructive impulses. Hoping that I’m standing my ground for the right reasons, all while knowing that our emotional responses are often more complex than we realize.
At the end of the day, you can only do your best. Sometimes, you have to say no. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is to push the people who are hurting you the most far enough away that they can’t cause you any further damage. And you should never sell out your principles just to keep the peace. There is a wisdom to the now-conventional thinking that you have to remove the most toxic people from your life. Yes, even if they’re people that you love. You cannot heal or grow or become who you are meant to be if the people who are closest to you keep re-opening your deepest wounds.
When you’re in a situation like this, every day is a new battle to find the mental and emotional strength to push through the moment, to compartmentalize the fallout that always comes when you stand your ground. In my case, my work, my writing, my ability to think clearly and explore ideas and create all come from the same emotional center that these kinds of life events seem to grind to a pulp. I’ve just spent the past six months climbing out of a depression I didn’t think I’d ever escape, while being tripped up by serious obstacles the whole way. I have to find a way to be stronger than the things that are clawing at me, trying to pull me back.
“You want to know a secret?” I asked my son Liam, as we made a trip back from an errand he was helping me with.
“Sure.” He said.
“Being an adult kind of sucks.”
“I could see that,” he replied, in his sage, 9-year-old voice.
“When you’re a kid, you think you’re going to know enough as an adult to figure stuff out. That you’ll have all the answers. But the truth is, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just guessing a lot of the time. And it’s really hard to know if what you’re doing is right.”
When it comes right down to it, I’m not sure how to handle any of the stuff that’s happening in my life right now. I could be terribly wrong, I could be completely right, or I could be some weird mixture of both. The problem is, there’s no answer key for this kind of test. And there’s never a guarantee that even if you’re proven 100% correct, the people who opposed you will ever admit they were wrong. To be honest, I don’t know if it it really makes any difference at all, if it comes to that point.
There’s no way to know for certain what the future holds. We can only read the signs. But the decisions we have to make today have real and lasting consequences. Relationships will be damaged, or even destroyed. The paths we take through life will be altered, quite likely forever. A lot of the pain, I suppose, comes from not being certain, but feeling forced to make a stand anyway.
So if you’re suffering right now because of family wounds, I just want to tell you that you’re not alone. If you feel that you can’t possibly weather another storm, please know that you are not alone. If you are buckling under the crushing weight of multiple life crises simultaneously, and feel that you don’t have the strength to take another step, know that you are not alone.
I can’t say knowing that you’re not alone truly makes the load easier to bear, but the darkness is always just a little less oppressive when you’re walking with a friend.
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