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Holiday guilt: “Goodbye, deranged-acting relatives!” edition

December 25, 2010

I am not trying to insult anyone with the “deranged-acting” label, especially as much as I’ve worn it myself. In this case, it’s about the mildest flatly descriptive choice.

Not too surprisingly, I’ve been running into more guilt and grief around the holidays–and questioning my decision not just to live on the other side of the Atlantic, but to go No Contact or Low Contact with most of my relatives. Depending on how respectfully they can behave, and how invested they are in keeping narcissists appeased.

Even knowing full well that this guilt is coming from a series of buttons carefully installed by a pretty messed-up family. Mindfulness–recognizing what it is and how it’s affecting me–seems to be the least harmful approach there. These responses are deeply enough ingrained that they’re taking a while to untangle, and I keep coming up with new layers. Which kind of reinforces the idea that staying the hell away from people who would use this to their own ends is a good plan.

As I’ve mentioned before, I had no idea just how crazy my family was driving me until I moved away. I was accustomed enough to being treated with very little respect, basically no boundaries (hell, I had a hard time getting the concept down), and constantly shifting expectations that I actually went into a tailspin for a while after moving in with someone who treats me with respect. I had no idea how to deal with it, and kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and for Nigel to start acting unpredictably nasty to me. (This still hasn’t happened.) The serious depressive episode I fell into after moving to the UK and getting married–lots and lots of disconcerting change–offered the first clue that maybe there were sound reasons for my previous experiences with depression, beyond some biochemical Broke Brain Syndrome or other form of personal craziness.

At any rate, the fish flopped and flapped around wildly for a while after jumping out of that particular water, but it was possibly the best thing she’d ever done. Finding out that she has absolutely no obligation to flip back into a toxic pond, but rather a strong responsibility not to knowingly expose herself to chaotic bullies? Priceless.

See also a good post I ran across a few days ago: Depressed or Just the Child of Childlike Parents?. I actually spent hours that night reading through most of the archives at Guess What Normal Is, keeping recognizing myself and my relatives, whether or not alcohol and/or other chemicals have been involved.

Some of the similarities I’ve noticed between common alcoholic family dynamics and what I grew up with (not to mention that I ended up with a lot of the same learned patterns that lead people to abuse drugs and/or alcohol) will have to wait for another post, but the “childlike parents” title says a lot. Her points can apply to growing up in any kind of chaotic environment. I keep getting the impression that James Lee Burke has a point in Swan Peak, when a character reflects that “the chief symptoms of alcoholism were guilt about the past and anxiety about the future, that the booze and the coke and the weed were only symptoms”. Looking at the wider pattern in my own family, that seems to be a reasonable description.

Yes, you’re liable to end up depressed and anxious from growing up in a chaotic environment, but if the causes aren’t addressed, standard approaches to managing depression aren’t going to help much if at all. Complex PTSD and very possibly multigenerational trauma (absolutely classic in my family)? Totally different ballgame. Actually, I suspect that similar injuries are behind an awful lot of depression and anxiety getting treated as individualized Broke Brain Syndrome, but that’s another topic.

I’ve written some before about growing up around multiple malignant narcissists and “secondhand narcissism”, besides the straightforward PTSD-driven rageaholics. I was trained to see this as a normal situation, I was groomed to attract other narcissists and people with bad intentions (including rapists and stalkers) in my personal life, I had no idea that you could learn any kind of emotional regulation, and I thought that the kind of anger described at The Tao of Chaos as “Like Cheesegrater Toiletpaper” was also normal. I was taught (perversely, half-proudly) that this was just the way we are: prone to fits of rage, and unable to back down. Great way to live! *facepalm*

The way I grew up was responsible for all of that–and I am responsible for sorting it out and arranging some balance in my life, so that I can be decent to myself and the people around me. I got seriously destabilized with suicidal thoughts the last time I spent any amount of time around my extended family–after working on some emotional regulation. I know that I don’t have to act that way, and that–duh!–interacting with unstable people destabilizes me. (That’s before you even throw in the complications of being on the autistic spectrum and living in Intense World.) And still, the idea that maybe avoiding them means that I’m a bad person keeps turning up like a bad penny. (Bad, bad, bad! *wry smile*) Yeah, it’s all obviously connected, but still difficult to deal with sometimes.

As I put it in an earlier post:

If you haven’t learned to manage emotional turmoil, it’s going to spill over onto other people around you. It’s also likely to leave you wide open to emotional abuse from other people, who can easily see which chains to yank.

The chains are still there, if weaker now, and I know that it would be foolish to offer them to people who have enough problems of their own that they couldn’t resist jerking on them to see me jump. That’s just basic self-preservation and self-respect.

One of the big problems I’ve been running up against is my cultural background, which has made going No Contact both more difficult and in some ways more necessary. More about this–what I’d intended to write about, starting out ;)–in an upcoming second part.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Raven permalink
    December 27, 2010 5:41 am

    Sympathy on the family drama — I’ve been struggling with that one too. Irish Catholics, your family is supposed to be everything. Cutting yourself off from the problematic ones in substantial degree is a big, big deal. I’ve had a lot of guilt over what a terrible child and terrible person I must be to do that to my poor mother. On the plus side, having already processed all of that has made it easier for me to be here for my siblings when it’s their turns to go through similar wringers.

    That Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers link is shockingly familiar sounding. I’m not a diagnostician or anything, but wow. I don’t see a lot of myself in the daughter psyche part… I think I’m pretty awesome and have not had problems with self esteem. But then again, Mom was pretty stable until I was out of the house, so it makes sense that I wouldn’t get the negative outfall of having grown up with a parent like that. She didn’t start being like that until after I’d left. Thanks for the link, and best of luck sustaining your chosen strategy towards your family. I’m here if you want someone to talk to.

    • urocyon permalink
      December 31, 2010 10:23 pm

      Glad somebody got some benefit.🙂 These dynamics really aren’t unusual AFAICT, but it’s frequently hard to put a finger on what’s wrong. Yeah, given the somewhat similar Irish cultural approach to family (another reason various of my ancestors probably got along so well!), I’m not surprised that you can get the guilt going too. (Sorry I haven’t been doing so well with commenting lately, but I’ve been following the saga. Sympathies!)

      It’s good in a way that your mother wasn’t acting as unstable while you were at home, but I bet it’s made the change in behavior that much more difficult to figure out how to deal with. ISTR that her behavior changed after the divorce, and that actually made me think of my grandmother too. My grandfather basically had a full-time job trying to keep her happy, calming her down, and, frankly, covering for some of her stranger behavior. After he died almost 25 years ago, her behavior became a lot more noticeably off, and she started leaning on my mom and me more for support. I suspect that living with him also moderated some of her behavior, just because she knew he would not tolerate it. For one example, the hideous racist/homophobic/etc. comments only started up after he was gone, though I’m pretty sure she was thinking it all along.😐 I have no idea if similar might have been happening with your parents, but I couldn’t help but think of that pattern.

      I’m here if you want someone to talk to.

      Thanks–and the same here. Good luck dealing with your family drama, as well!

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