Some Thoughts on Family

This is a little off topic here, and I have about ten other posts I really want to write — none of them easy — but I think I have to get some of this out before I can even touch any of the other stuff.

I had an incredibly shitty weekend, which peaked yesterday with a day of crying and shaking and feeling close to falling apart. I had been trying to push everything away, to have a good time with friends and hide my feelings from family. Of course, that never really works.

One of my aunts, one of the few people in my family I’d actually like to know better, recently put herself in the hospital because she was so depressed. “There’s nothing you can do about this,” my mother told me. “She doesn’t want to talk about it.” She had obviously been anticipating that I’d want to argue with her about it. On Friday evening, not two minutes after arriving at my parents’ house, my mother told me that my aunt had tried to kill herself, had been put back in the hospital, and was going to be receiving electroshock. (Again, prefacing this with a reminder that there was nothing I could do, and that she didn’t want to talk to anyone.) My mother also told me that when my aunt had woken up in the hospital, the first words she’d said were “I hate mom.”

“Clearly,” my mother said, “she isn’t feeling herself.”

This, from the woman who’s told me the most horrific stories about the abuse she and her younger siblings endured from her mother. This, from the woman who had to essentially raise her sisters when her mother was “too busy” to bother feeding or bathing them. And, worst of all, from the woman who’s still suffering memory problems from the long periods of electroshock she was put through herself.

I understand that some people reading this may have gone through the psychiatric system and feel that they have benefited from drugs and treatments like electroshock. But if I haven’t made it clear in my earlier writings, I am pretty firmly opposed to psychiatry in general and electroshock in particular, in part because of my own experiences in that system and because of having watched my mother disintegrate under the effects of electroshock, losing her memory, becoming an invalid, incapable of working or doing anything other than watch television.

At the time, I wrote her a long letter about why I felt she should stop electroshock. We talked about it, a little, but I was so afraid of hurting her feelings that I let it go, because she seemed to feel that she had no other choice — and I didn’t really have another one to give her. Years later, she found the letter again, read it, and found that she had no memory of its contents or our conversation. We talked about it again, and she admitted that she’d had strong reservations, that she’d tried to ask questions of her doctor, but had only been able to do so while they were strapping her down and injecting her with sedatives. She said that she felt like a cow being led to slaughter. And yet, she refuses to do anything about it, and hasn’t ever spoken to me about it again. And now, her younger sister is in that cattle line, and she tells me this as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

My reaction, as it always is, was to nod and ask a few minor questions, but not to bring up any opposition or show any sign of distress. Instead, I made excuses to leave early, to escape.

I did not go with my parents to visit my extended family for Christmas, and turned down an invitation to have a smaller family gathering next weekend, closer to home. This is something I’ve been struggling with for over a decade, but last weekend’s events have brought everything into clearer focus, and I’m beginning to finally loosen the bonds of family, bonds tied not out of love but of obligation and guilt.

When I was about thirteen, I started to realize that I didn’t feel a very strong connection to anyone in my family, my parents included. This began to hit me especially hard during Christmas, a holiday I felt forced to pretend I cared about, and during which I was expected to enjoy the company of extended family — people I only saw once a year, at most, and whom I’d never had a real conversation with. I never understood how I was supposed to form any sort of bond with people I barely knew, how I was supposed to love and care about them simply because of a blood relation. And while I lived with both of my parents until I was sixteen, I felt alienated and distant from them as well, largely because our family culture was so steeped in avoiding and hiding problems, lying to each other, keeping secrets. When I was let in on some family drama or secret, it was always incredibly awkward and formal, and always with a tone of “I don’t expect you to do anything about this or talk to this person, but you should probably know.”

(See above.)

The events of this past weekend really tied everything together for me, and I realized just how much I didn’t want to be part of my family any longer. It isn’t just that I have little existing connection to them, but that I have no desire to be part of a family in which the acceptable way to deal with problems is not to talk about them, but to deal with them privately and out of sight of the rest of the family; not to get out of bad situations or prioritize one’s own needs, but to do what is necessary to make the family comfortable. My aunt, for example, is in a long-term relationship with a woman who loves her, but who has coerced her into having one child with her already and is now trying for a second, while my aunt is very uncomfortable with being a parent at all. My mom has stayed with my dad despite the fact that he hasn’t supported her through her own depression and has largely ignored it or treated it as an illness to be medicated away.

To me, the only value that “family” offers is as a support structure: economically, emotionally, and socially. I’ve certainly enjoyed the financial component, especially while in school and in the promise of a future inheritance, but have never felt comfortable in being open with my immediate or extended family, and have largely felt that how I feel doesn’t matter, when it comes to how my family works. And because most of my family members live fairly far away from me (and have little in common with me), the social component isn’t really there, either.

For most of my life, I’ve felt intensely guilty for my desires to break away from family, to say no, to do what I want to do rather than what I’m expected to do. Instead of following my instincts and desires — for example, to drop out of high school and to reject college, two things I still regret not doing — I simply went along with what my parents wanted, what would make them happy. Of course, I’ve always had some limits: I’ve known for many years that I’ll never get married or have a child, despite their intentions for me to “settle down” someday soon, as they did. But I spent many years trying to act “normal” and to hide the parts of myself that I knew they wouldn’t understand and that would make them uncomfortable. I felt so guilty for not loving my family enough, not feeling anything towards them, not being the good daughter and granddaughter and niece and cousin, that I forced myself to put on a show, to have pleasant, boring conversations on the phone once a week, to go to the family Christmas party, to keep my mouth shut when I felt angry about something going on or something said. I thought that all of this would make my mother, in particular, happy. And this would absolve me, this would at least do something to help me atone for the sin of not loving and respecting my elders. Did I mention that my family’s Catholic?

And now, I say, fuck that. Fuck guilt, and fuck obligation. Fuck feeling that I have to celebrate religious holidays that have absolutely no meaning for me, and fuck the fear that’s kept me from saying anything against the way my family deals with emotional problems.

Outwardly, this won’t change much. I’m not breaking away completely, or calling all my relatives to tell them what fuck-ups they are. But I am going to try to contact my aunt, despite what my mom tells me, and I will never again let them coerce me into doing anything I don’t want to do.

2 comments so far

  1. alterisego on

    Sadly, this time of year seems to create more familial tension than it does bring families together.

    Good luck.

  2. maymay on

    Frankly, I have never understood why people treat family members so differently than they treat other people in the outside world. What’s the difference? Blood relation? Time spent with that person? Connections made, or connections imagined? Seriously, if people would look at the reality of a situation instead of the social mores they are expected to follow, many things would be better. Not least of all, our own families.


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