Codependency and Dementia

My FIL and my husband enabled my MIL to not deal with her control issues and her dislike of me — which was probably because I defied her attempts at control, from the get-go.

Planning the wedding was a nightmare (and, needless to say, I did not have an older sister or a mother helping me out on that one).

We were planning the wedding in Boston, long-distance from Texas, long before the internet would have made it so very easy.  His mother had it all figured out:  we would get married in the chapel of the school at which she worked.  I didn’t much care where we got married, but I wanted the processional and recessional to be the traditional (secular) selections, and kept after her to make sure her chosen venue would allow it (some church venues don’t, because it’s secular music).

I suspect I earned her enduring wrath the day she called and told me, “I found out about your music.

“You can’t have the music you want, but that doesn’t matter.

I immediately replied, “Well, we can’t have it there then.”

And apparently to say that to her was unthinkable.

It wasn’t unthinkable to tell a bride she can’t have her chosen music, mind you, but it was unthinkable to deny her what she wanted.

Looking back, I’m surprised I prevailed, but I did, and without even a fight.

Something in my voice must have told her that this was Not A Thing To Mess With.  I got the music I wanted, in a 130-year-old church instead.

And I got one pissed-off mother-in-law, who basically, childishly, pretended I didn’t exist for the rest of her life.

(After they both died, when we were cleaning out the house, I was talking to a neighbor who had been close to them.  Along with praising my MIL for how warm and wonderful she had been to her — “treated me like a daughter” — and if you don’t think that was a twist of the knife, you are much mistaken — she also said, “I’ve never heard a thing about your wedding.  You could have been married in Jamaica for all I knew.”)

In the nearly 20 years that I was married to her son, no one put a foot down and said, “Look, she’s here to stay, you need to figure out why you don’t like her and deal with your issues, because they are YOUR issues.  She hasn’t done anything to deserve the way you treat her.”

Well, that isn’t 100% true.  It happened a time or two, with varying degrees of success.  I can remember a meal at our previous house where the four of us actually had a 4-way conversation — the only one I can remember — and it was really very nice.  And it happened once.

Most of the rest of the time, in person or on the phone, his parents spoke to their son, and not to me.

At one point during that visit, we took them to a place they wanted to see.  There were walking paths, so my husband and I went for a walk around the perimeter.  His parents walked for a bit and then sat on a bench.  When we walked back up to them, his mother looked directly at him and asked, “[name], how was your walk?”  She made sure it was clear that she was not asking both of us.  Only her son.

Standing in the bookstore, his dad came up to the two of us and said, “[name], did you ever read The DaVinci Code?”  My husband said, “Yes, we both did.”  That small statement changed the conversation to be among the three of us, not just the two of them.  But his mother was nowhere nearby.

Another episode occurred when she and I were buying tickets for a ferry.  The woman at the window asked my MIL where they were from and why they were visiting.  She replied, “Oh, we’re here visiting our son.”  With me standing a foot away.  I said pointedly, “And his wife.”

I also distinctly remember another meal during that same visit.  After I had cooked it and served it and we all ate it, his dad looked not at me, sitting across from him, but diagonally across the table to his son, and pronounced, “She cooks a good meal, [name], you can keep her.”

At the time this infuriated me.  I considered it belittling, to refer to me as some kind of property, even one “worth keeping” — and was angry as hell that he apparently just couldn’t bring himself to look at me and compliment me directly.

Now I know that he wasn’t allowed to treat me nicely.  If he had looked at me, spoken directly to me, and complimented me, there would have been hell to pay, I am sure, in the form of his wife’s wrath.  But it was OK to speak to me in the bookstore, because she wasn’t there with us.

We once got a phone message on our anniversary.  His father left a message saying, “[Name], this is your father calling to wish you a happy anniversary.”

Never mind that by definition, an anniversary is celebrated between TWO PEOPLE.  Without me, there wouldn’t BE a damned anniversary.

But of course, there was that thing with the wedding and the fact that she didn’t get her way…

(there is in fact whole a list of weirdness and conflict that happened around our wedding and his mother, including that she used the same pattern for her dress as I chose for the bridesmaids.  And she doubled the cost of the dinner without telling me, and then skipped out on paying the bar bill after she said she would.  The best one was when she decided that an usher (her other son) wasn’t quite good enough, and she wanted her son the groom to leave the altar and come to the back of the church to escort her to her seat.  I have a fond memory of telling my mother this, to which my mother replied, “If she gets both of hers, I want all four of mine.”)

Over time, his dad started signing cards “Don or Dad” which I took to at least be a tacit admission that I existed at all.  I’m not sure how he got away with it.  I figure he probably signed the card after she did, and put it in the envelope.

Because no one could call her on the carpet about it.  There was way too much history there.  She had an alcoholic mother — she became parentified and had to do her mother’s job.  And from a very young age, she had to be in control.

When it came to the wedding planning, we later joked that I was probably the first person to tell her “no” in 40 years.  (And I figured out why her own daughter flat-out refused to have a big wedding.)

My MIL (and everyone around her) would probably have benefited from some therapy, but she was of a generation and a culture that didn’t do that kind of thing.  You toughed it out.  Maybe you prayed, but you kept it to yourself and god.

And, you ruined relationships — because prayer is a shitty substitute for therapy.  Therapy actually works a lot of the time.

The result of her inability to grow, to work through her own issues, affected three relationships.  Four, actually, if you count theirs.  When she was suffering from dementia later in her life, there was a lot of anger that came out against her father, and was directed against her husband, who was trying like hell to take care of her.  It was so much more difficult for him than it had to be.

And that’s not love.

“There is a difference between helping someone who is disabled, incapable or otherwise infirm versus helping someone who is resisting growing up and taking care of what every adult (or child, for that matter) has to be responsible for: herself or himself. When you find yourself in any way paying for someone else’s responsibilities, not only are you stuck with a delayed ending, but you are probably harming that person.”  ~~ Dr. Henry Cloud

If not actually harming, then at least you are enabling them not to face reality, denying them a chance to grow as a person.

I can see the same thing happening in my FOO.  My sister doesn’t let her husband contact us.  This controlling behavior spills over into the rest of the family as well.  And it goes without saying that Joe can’t be friends with us, even if he wanted to.

But dictating who another person can be connected with is inappropriate and manipulating.  Make your own choices, sure, but don’t force those choices on another person, no matter how close.  You get to be responsible for you — they get to be responsible for them.

Anything else is just a way of avoiding hard work.

If you have to control others’ interactions, if you can’t deal with letting other people be responsible for themselves, if you have to force others to also pretend that a family member doesn’t actually exist because you can’t deal with them — then you probably need to do some.

After seeing what my FIL went through, I can’t imagine how my brother and my BIL will deal with their wives if they ever develop dementia.  As with my MIL, unresolved issues from childhood can be reactivated, but by then it’s too late to deal with them cognitively.

“Relatives and front-­line care staff often notice a history of trauma in the lives of people with dementia. Investigations into the backgrounds of an initial 51 people with dementia identified what appeared to be unusually high levels of childhood loss, particularly the death of fathers…

“When I was considering with the son of one of them the concept that the burying of traumatic memory might constitute a route into dementia, he commented that his father and numerous uncles and aunts had the advantage of being able to complain heartily to each other about their childhood experience whenever they met at family gatherings over the years because their father was profoundly deaf and couldn’t hear what they were saying(!)

“Having someone to believe and validate one’s traumatic experience is an essential part of the healing process. Siblings may, at least sometimes, be able to help each other keep painful memories within conscious awareness rather than feel obliged to bury them.”

But of course, you’d have to love the other person, really care more about them than you do your own comfort, to go and face your issues and deal with them, after a lifetime of trying to bury them.  Of course my sister and SIL won’t do it for me, as my MIL did not.  But maybe they should do it for their spouses and children.

capture(from “Creating Moments of Joy for the Person with Alzheimer’s Or Dementia“)

The Importance of Kindness

Some notes from this excellent article, written about married relationships, but with concepts applicable to any relationship.  There are three parts that I found most applicable.

As I read the first, I thought about how I spent years – decades, really – trying to somehow earn a place in my own FOO, and how those attempts almost always started with my sister, and how they were always unsuccessful:

…partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

 The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.

People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t—those who turned away—would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”

Boy does that feel familiar.

How many of my bids were rejected over the years?
How many suggestions did I make that were rejected?
How many bids to me were never made, as they were to others?

Yet my sister (and apparently others) got upset over the fact that I didn’t make the “right” bids at the last reunion:  “I know that I specifically asked you about your knitting classes, and whether you were doing anything with the house.  In contrast, you did not ask me about ANYTHING — how difficult would it have been for you to say, When does school start for you? or, What are you teaching this year? or, How do you feel about being a grandmother?  It was interesting that the universal post-reunion comment last year was that [you] did not ask anybody anything about what they were doing”

The fact that during the first 12 waking hours of that weekend, I had been deliberately snubbed by her, as well as attacked and yelled at by my youngest brother, of course had no bearing on this at all…

Why would anyone feel like asking someone anything, when they have made it plain that they can’t even be bothered to give you a hug after not seeing you for a year?  Or when the first thing they do when they see you (again after a year) is invite you out for a walk, and then yell at you?

Yet it is expected that I will continue to be interested in THEM, no matter how they treat me.  And the obviousness of the score-keeping is just disturbing.

Of course, not every interaction with every FOO member has been horrible.  There have been good times, with some people.  But the alliances that those people have with the other ones prevent them from being allowed to extend any bids, or accept any that were made.

Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there.

I wrote about this idea before, with respect to my parents’ relationship.  But it’s also applicable to a scapegoat.  Blaming and criticizing the scapegoat is so important, it’s nearly impossible to admit that they could ever do or be right.

And finally, there is this section:

One of the telltale signs… inability to connect over each other’s good news… being there for each other when things go right is actually more important for relationship quality. How someone responds to a partner’s good news can have dramatic consequences for the relationship… in general, couples responded to each other’s good news in four different ways that they called: passive destructive, active destructive, passive constructive, and active constructive.

Let’s say that one partner had recently received the excellent news that she got into medical school. She would say something like “I got into my top choice med school!”

…In the third kind of response, active destructive, the partner would diminish the good news his partner just got: “Are you sure you can handle all the studying? And what about the cost? Med school is so expensive!”

Reading this just stopped me in my tracks, because once again — there’s a name for it.  I recognized this behavior long ago, but I didn’t know what to call it.

Years ago, in April 2008, I got an email from my FIL that simply said, “Funny pictures of cats with captions,” and it had a link to a website where I was fortunate enough to fall into a group of the funniest, cleverest, and above all, kindest people I had ever known.  I’ve traveled the world to meet them:  New Zealand, England, and The Netherlands, as well as too many meetings to count in the US.  (This year, we’re going back to England to spend Xmas with a couple of them.)  Many of them have supported me steadfastly through this journey of  jettisoning people who refuse to love me.  They have, in fact, become, in large part, my new family.

In 2010, I was pictured and quoted in the New York Times after attending a Mariner’s baseball game with the site CEO and hundreds of other fans.  Can you guess what my FOO’s reaction was to my fun and awesome news?  Oh yes.  Passive constructive, at best.  I especially remember my sister greeting my news with less than lukewarm interest — which was odd, given that she seemed to appreciate that I would email her a selection of the funniest postings every week.  (Of course, that was of some benefit to her.  Being happy for me about the article was, of course, asking too much.)

But it goes a lot deeper than that.  When my husband and I were planning our trip to New Zealand at the end of 2008, I was hesitant about posting anything about it in the group.  I distinctly remember that being an issue for me.  For weeks I was actively resisting my natural impulse to post about the trip.  Not because of safety:  because, I realized later, I was expecting to receive criticism, jealousy, disinterest — anything but “active constructive” responses.

I was afraid of ruining my new-found friendships with my good news.

How fucked up is THAT?

The reason I know that’s what I was expecting is that I was both shocked and overjoyed when the responses were, instead, overwhelmingly “active constructive.”

My friends were EXCITED for us!  My friends wanted us to post pictures!  No one was jealous of us being able to go on such an exciting, expensive trip.  No one was telling us how crazy we were to be meeting up with an online friend.  Everyone was so positive and happy for us.  Not one negative or jealous thing was posted on the website.

And I was grateful, as well as stunned.

One member in NZ privately contacted me, and offered her help with the planning.  We ended up going to meet her, and we stayed at her house, watched a beautiful sunset off her back deck, met her cat, and spent New Year’s Eve and Day with her.  What a great time.  (She didn’t even get upset when we accidentally backed the RV over a small retaining wall and crushed it.)  We had the World’s Most Not-Northerly Cheezemeet.  She died of breast cancer a few years later and I still miss her.  But I’m so glad we had the chance to meet in person, even if only for a day, and I got to hear her voice, which was beautifully deep and rich, with that wonderful New Zealand accent.

That experience of getting a friendly, kind, “active constructive” response from a bunch of people who at that time were essentially acquaintances was the very beginning of this journey.

That was when I started figuring out that the way my FOO acted towards me was not the same.  They did not act towards me the way that nice, normal people, with no axe to grind or psychological baggage about me, acted towards me.

Side story:  In fact, the one person attached to my FOO who has always treated me similarly is also a person with no baggage about me:  my BIL.  My sister’s husband has always been kind to me, and I was able to recognize this even at the age of 13, when my oldest niece was born, and my siblings and my mother and I all traveled to their home for the baptism.

During this visit, one evening after dinner “the boys” were going to watch a Dirty Harry movie (this was back when VCR’s were a new-fangled thing and watching ANY MOVIE YOU WANTED, or at least any one they had at the video rental place, was incredibly novel).

I wanted to watch too, but my mother didn’t want me to, saying I was “too young to understand it”.  I now think what she really wanted was for me to “help her with” (in other words, “do”) the dishes in the kitchen.

But my BIL stuck up for me, saying I was plenty old enough to watch the movie, and he even let me sit in his recliner with him, and I remember him telling me, “If there’s anything you don’t understand, ask me and I’ll explain it.”  I’ve always remembered that small kindness, probably because it stood out like a fucking beacon from my normal familial interactions.

Getting back to the NZ trip:  in contrast, I know that not one person from my FOO ever asked us about it.  How’s that for scorekeeping?  But you have to understand that this was a huge event for us:  a three-week trip to the other side of the world, further than anyone else had ever gone, except maybe my father during his days in the Coast Guard — as well as it was in celebration of my husband’s earning his first sabbatical.  Lots of milestones.

And I remember that we brought our laptop full of pictures to the next reunion, hoping to share about our wonderful trip, and finding no one cared.

And it’s not that they aren’t capable of doing it.  Now that I know the difference, I know it happens between others in the family.

You would think that all these clues would have added up a whole lot sooner for me, but what this shows is that up until I met my online group, I had very little “normal” to compare and contrast with my lifetime of experience.  In the same way that an abused kid grows up thinking abuse is “normal”, the three negative modes of response were what I was used to, and what I thought was more-or-less “normal” among people who professed to love each other.  I’m so thankful that I found a place to learn otherwise, and real friends who truly love me, and who will hug me tightly whenever and wherever we happen to meet.

Traumatic Loss

A Crisis of Meaning

In grief, mourners often experience a “loss of meaning,” some way in which the order of the world is disrupted and must be mended again. This commonly occurs because we have, consciously or unconsciously, held an important “meaning” story related to that which we’ve lost, be it a person, a job or perhaps cherished items stolen from us by a house fire or theft. We feel the sudden void left by this vanishing, and a sense of meaninglessness can ensue.

When it comes to traumatic loss, the crisis of meaning can be profound. Trauma is identified as a special circumstance precisely because of its ability to undermine meaning, destroy one’s sense of “self” and cause entire belief systems to collapse.

Philosophers, psychologists and other “thinkers” aside, most of us don’t spend too much time identifying and evaluating the myriad assumptions and beliefs we hold that describe our view of “how the world is supposed to be.” We operate in a universe to which we have, usually largely unconsciously, ascribed a set of rules and orders.

A traumatic loss is often one that strips away the veil of our illusions and shows us a world that has much less structure and predictability in it than we’ve come to rely upon.

Life can suddenly become terrifying — or just random and empty. Where we once we may have looked upon difficult situations with some sense of optimism, we may instead… see with startling and cruel clarity that we can’t take anything for granted anymore, and sometimes this awareness initiates an existential crisis. This often manifests as profound wondering, with great heartache or cynicism, about the meaning and purpose of life and feeling reluctant to make close connection with others. People struggling with an existential crisis often say, to themselves or others, “What’s the point if we’re all just going to die anyway?”

This crisis may be understood as a significant challenge: To resolve it poorly can result in chronic, persistent feelings of depression or anxiety; to resolve it effectively means to come to acceptance of life’s unpredictability and learn to embrace the present moment, perhaps even allowing one to cherish life and relationships more than ever.

Although most of us have the innate ability to pass through grief and heal from loss, a crisis of meaning is one that often requires some help from others to successfully overcome. Counselors, pastors, spiritual mentors and thoughtful philosophical friends may all be of help in this situation.

(But not family.  Not THIS “family”, at any rate.)

…the main power that transforms such events from upsetting experiences into trauma can be found within the stories we tell. Trauma tends to undermine preciously held belief systems, be they naive (e.g., “Bad things only happen to bad people”) or more complex (e.g., “I am capable of defending myself”).

When a belief system collapses in the face of disturbing and powerful contradictory evidence, narratives of shock, injury, loss and despair often emerge first from the powerful emotional and psychological fallout. These stories are real and meaningful. Alas, when they dwell primarily in the wounding and do not evolve, they tend to embed trauma more deeply and reframe our worldview with afflictive perspectives that serve as a barrier to healing.

Recovery involves a widening of the narrative lens, an exploration of alternative ways to look at what happened. It’s not about spinning a yarn of fantasy; new fictions are undermined just as easily, if not more so, than the original belief. Rather, it becomes about exploring the trauma fallout for even bigger and more powerful themes that often emerge from traumatic events: of personal or community resiliency, shared humanity, the grace of survival, transcendence, transformation.

Find Compassion and Forgiveness 

To the injured, ideas of compassion and forgiveness often sound like exoneration of the perpetrator that could allow traumatizing behaviors to continue unfettered. To the contrary, when it comes to trauma recovery, compassion and forgiveness are tremendous sources of healing that transcend traditional notions of assessing fault and of the guilty making their contritions.

One hard truth about trauma is that many who suffer it never get to confront the sources of it…

In the end, we must learn to release ourselves from the grips of our own anger and outrage. For this, there is a tried-and-true cure: compassion and forgiveness.

Compassion is often defined as a deeply empathic response to the suffering of others. Indeed, it can be helpful to seek understanding of those who caused the trauma we experienced…

Often in trauma recovery, the greatest compassion we need is for ourselves… we may need to show ourselves kindness and compassion in recovery from hurt and injury, releasing expectations we may have about being who we “used to be.”

And forgiveness? Well, it is most important to differentiate that forgiveness is not the same as condoning, excusing, forgetting, pardoning or promoting the undesired behaviors or events that transpired. Rather, it is about releasing deeply held afflictive feelings about them, such as wishing them harm or the desire to seek revenge.

When we set down bitter and acrimonious feelings, we spare ourselves. We cease to deplete precious resources of energy otherwise used to maintain these feelings. Forgiveness is the process not by which we let the perpetrator off the hook; it’s the means by which we liberate ourselves from the lingering effects of their deeds.

If trauma is the experience of having one’s worldview intimately undermined or damaged in some way, it’s generally impossible to return to the old way of seeing things. We discover the world is not as we assumed, and the heart aches in acknowledging it.

“A loss is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning; if it is untimely; if it involves violence; if it was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm; if the survivor regards the loss as preventable; or if the survivor regards the loss, or manner of loss, as unfair and unjust.”

After a Traumatic Loss One May Experience:
Shattered assumptions about the world, themselves, and others: 

Many people live with the assumption that the world is a predictable, fair, and just place.  They believe that they are in control, that they are generally safe and secure, and that other people can be trusted.  Experiencing a traumatic loss, something that feels profoundly meaningless and unjust, can shatter each of these assumptions and lead to a sense that the world is unsafe and unpredictable, that others are malicious and evil, and that one is powerless in protecting themselves. 

( At least from a certain, formerly trusted, group of people.)


It is common to ruminate about a loss regardless of the circumstances.  However, someone who has experienced a traumatic loss might experienced increased rumination as they seek to answer questions such as…

  • Why did this happen?
  • Who is to blame?
  • Could this loss have been prevented?
  • What is the meaning, reason, or purpose for all of this?

Unfortunately, many people fail to find the answers they are searching for and they continue to struggle with the randomness and senselessness of the loss.

Poor social support:  

Evidence suggests that social support can reduce the impact of stressful life events.  Sadly, after a loss many people don’t receive effective support for a number of reasons.  This is especially true after a traumatic loss when the enduring impact of acute grief can last much longer than society has been taught to expect it.  A few reasons why people do not receive effective support after a loss include:

  • People don’t know how to provide grief support
  • People make comments that minimize grief, discourage expression of grief and discussion of loved ones, and push mourners to move on
  • The bereaved may be inclined to physically and emotionally isolate, especially when they feel misunderstood by others
  • The bereaved may feel they feel ashamed, abnormal, or weak because they continue to struggle
  • The bereaved may seek support from therapists who are not trained in grief and/or trauma
  • (The bereaved may have had their entire lifelong support system turn on them.)

First, let’s do a refresher on what forgiveness is, and what it isn’t.  There are many definitions of forgiveness, but the one we prefer is:

A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior to one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her” (Enright et al in Enright and North 1998).

Some important points there – forgiveness does NOT mean excusing something or eliminating the mistake.  It means you make decisions about what to let go of and what to hold on to.

(Choose to let go of unloving, unsupportive, hostile people, regardless of cultural notions of family or “blood”.)

The problem isn’t the missing witness, but the missing listener

Missing in most cases is not the witness, but the conscientious listener.  A survivor can know her own trauma without others to hear it, but healing takes place when someone listens carefully, over and over and over again.

An understanding listener will be present tomorrow and the days after that.  It’s not the narrative that heals, it’s the relationship with the people who listen, ask questions, make small talk when necessary, while remaining a trusted and reliable presence.  It is the attachment to this trusted presence who is willing to hear the unspeakable that heals.

…a relationship with someone who cares and listens to the victim’s testimony over and over again heals.  

…trauma cannot be told unless there is someone there to listen. 

It’s essential to talk about it, again and again. It’s a way of remastering the trauma, although it can be retraumatizing when people refuse to listen. In my case, each time someone failed to respond I felt as though I were alone again in the ravine, dying, screaming. And still no one could hear me. Or, worse, they heard me, but refused to help.

Listening well and carefully, being present and available over some period of time–that too is a type of love.  It can be given by a friend, a spouse, a support group, or a therapist.

…we really don’t want to hear them… Of course, sometimes the traumatized say that their experiences are indescribable.  Sometimes they say this when they don’t want to talk about it.  Other times when they are afraid no one will really listen, an experience familiar to many.

Severe trauma is an accident of private history, even if it takes place within a world historical context, such as war.  But finding meaning and purpose in life is not a private act.  It requires others who care enough to listen.



  1. the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.

“…the problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence. So you have to mold the evidence to get the answer that you’ve already decided you’ve got to have.”

~~ Bill Clinton


The Narcissist’s Prayer

fe18f17651503c323e9a100e591e65fbI didn’t write this.  But, I did indeed get at least five of these six excuses, at one point or another.

Yet more proof that narcissists exist, that this is exactly what they do, and that it isn’t that complicated, nor is our situation so special, that no one else could possibly understand it.  It’s well understood and it’s not uncommon.

These are exactly the bullshit things that Joe & Susan said, and the bullshit that everyone else allows them to get away with.

Because they were all born and trained to believe this bullshit, to accept these excuses, instead of seeing who is really responsible for their own actions, responsible for the pain and the dysfunction, and holding them accountable.

It’s not their fault that it happened, and that it was possible, in our fucked-up family, for bullshit things like these to be said and believed.

It IS their fault and their moral failing that they refuse to re-visit the problems with adult eyes and adult understanding; refuse guidance by anyone, even professionals, outside the “real family”; refuse to accept the truth of what we all were taught by an unhealthy, mentally ill woman; and refuse to do the right thing, the healthy thing, the moral thing, which is to hold those responsible to account.

It DID happen.
It WAS that bad.
It IS a big deal.
And it IS your fault.
I have no idea whether you “meant it” or not.
But I sure as hell did NOT deserve it.


Cleaning House

2016-08-29 11.22.51Man, it is annoying as shit, the painful ways your past finds to ambush you when you least expect it.

I cleaned out a bunch of books this weekend.  There are cabinets in our bookcase that I probably haven’t opened since we moved six years ago.

And what did I find but eight — EIGHT — Thurber books.

To understand the significance of this, you have to understand that Thurber is practically a religion for my sister (venerating our mother, of course).

The holy book of this unholy maternal worship is The Thurber Carnival.  There is a dingy brown-and-orange hardback copy of it that was our mother’s, which I am sure is in my sister’s possession now.

This is the only Thurber book that counts, of course.

Yet over my younger years, I apparently collected EIGHT different books of Thurber.  There is a kids book, which I am sure no one else has ever read.  I even read his biography once.

Thurber is something that never fails to make my sister laugh.  But in her hands, it is humor that excludes:  a kind of a specialized language that the older siblings, especially, use to communicate among themselves, and exclude anyone who isn’t really in the club.

I guarantee not one family gathering goes past without some reference to Thurber.  Just a few words of a cartoon caption from someone (but it has to be the “right” someone), and they are off and running and laughing themselves sick.  Most of the time they don’t even have to finish the sentences.

Which would be fine — except that in-laws, for example, don’t have a hope of understanding what is going on, let alone of joining in the fun.

And for some reason, this conversation always seems to happen in the kitchen, or some other public, central place — and because it is so loud, with (certain) people shouting bits of prose at each other, and gasping with laughter, it grabs everyone’s attention, and takes over the entire gathering when it happens.

It is so much a part of my memories of family gatherings:  it always happens.  I can remember witnessing this display, trying to join in even, and eventually being pointedly aware that I was being kept firmly on the outside, looking in.

The humor of Thurber generates power for my sister by strengthening the bonds of the Triumvirate, and excluding anyone who doesn’t “get it” (because of course, they weren’t there) — thus neatly defining who the “real family” is, in a very subtle way, as it also emphasizes the all-important connection to Mom.

Today, I immediately recognize my Thurber collection for what it was:  another sad, desperate, failed attempt to be accepted by my own family, to be admitted “into the club” — by my sister, and probably by extension, my mother.

It’s sad, but it didn’t make me cry, or want to cry.  Instead it made me super angry by about the time I found the fourth one.  It made me so angry to see this physical remnant of how I stupidly tried to earn acceptance into a group — or more specifically, acceptance by one person who runs the group — that has never had any intention of truly accepting me.

It’s funny how well I understood the unspoken communication, telling me that I am not a part of the “real” family, and it’s sad that I so diligently tried to find a way in anyway.  Like it was my job to somehow become worthy of acceptance.

And it’s infuriating that my maladapted sister has the power here.  Who died and made her the fucking arbiter of who is worthy to be in the club?

Oh, wait, yeah.  Dad and Mom died.

And my sister has, equally desperately perhaps, tried to make me into nothing ever since.  Her job would have been a whole lot easier if Mom had managed to hang on longer.  Then again, maybe I would have figured everything out a whole lot sooner, in a post-Dad world, a world once again run by my mother.  Who knows?

Normally, the chore of dropping off donations at various places is my husband’s job.  But there is one box of books that I will be taking personally — or just possibly setting on fire.


Independence Day

14100339_508486292684313_6929781733484702103_nToday is my own personal Independence Day.

It’s been four years since I sent that first letter of resignation to my FOO, and started out on a journey of trying to figure the whole mess out.

Four years since it finally got so bad that it was more painful to have a “family” than not have one.

Four years since I realized I did have that choice, and that there was a better chance for me to be happier if I made it.

Last night I dreamed I got an email from one of my nieces, telling me that one of my brothers was dead.  It was very realistic:  I could tell you exactly what it said, who sent it, who had died.  The dream woke me up, and I was a little startled, and a little sad.  Because if I find out at all, that’s how I’ll find out.  I know that.

And I know that’s how this will all end, because — barring an act of god or some other form of miracle — I know this is how it will all stay.

And while it’s a shame, it’s still better for me than going back to the way things were.

I’ve made this decision, knowingly, consciously, rationally, because things were shittier for me without this decision.

That is my reality.  That is what is real for me.

My FOO will instantly say that I’m wrong — because they have no other option.  I cannot possibly be allowed to be right, even about myself and my own reality.  Is that the epitome of arrogance, or what?

But they need for me to be wrong, so they can continue to be right.

That’s why nothing is going to change.  Because what needs to be true for them is to deny me my reality.  They need to erase me and diminish me, and hurt me — or at least, allow me to be attacked and hurt, and refuse to do anything about it:  refuse to protect me, defend me, or even just to listen to me.

And what I need from them:  justice, fairness, and accountability, for the Susan Incident — along with equality, respect, and acceptance, for the long term, the things that are missing which allowed the Susan Incident to happen — they are still adamantly unwillingly to give me.

Given all that, it should have been an easy choice.  It wasn’t.  But my choice was really between two shitty things.  For me, there was no “good” option.  The choice to keep the peace, not make waves, not stand up for myself, just “forget” about the horrible way Susan and Joe acted towards me on the worst day of my life — that was also a shitty choice.  It was an easy choice for everyone else, so for years I tried it.

Then four years ago, my youngest brother just had to throw it all back in my face, and that’s when I finally had had enough.

I am sure no one has blamed him for picking that fight.  I am sure I get the blame for that too, right along with the fight I supposedly picked with Joe and Susan.  And they can, and will, go on believing what they need to believe in order to make it all my fault.

I’m definitely better off without that bullshit.  Easy choice, no.  Right choice, yes.


Our Little Sister

This is the title of a Chinese movie.  It’s not something I’ve ever been called by my FOO.

The movie is about three older siblings who, upon the death of their estranged father, find out that they have a much younger half-sister.

The older siblings have a shared history, lots of memories, which leave the half-sister out entirely.

She is the daughter of the woman who “ruined their family” – the woman their father left their mother for.

The older siblings are still angry and resentful towards the father — whereas the half-sister clearly loved her father.

An older woman in the film suggests that this is a good reason not to take her in, not to accept her, not to love her.

The half-sister understands the situation and internalizes this scapegoating:  “Someone is always hurt, just because I exist.”

But these sisters can see the truth:  “It had nothing to do with you!”  And they invite her to live with them, to become part of their family.

The movie could have been over in the first 15 minutes.  They could have gone to the funeral, met the half-sister, decided to be angry at her too, to blame her, and to push her away.

Instead they make the healthy, positive decision to love her, to include her, and not blame her for things she didn’t do.

And one of the older sisters says:  “Maybe father was a kind man… He left us such a lovely little sister.”

Such a different ending to the story.


Just Joking!

Amazing the stuff that keeps coming up in this election that illuminates family things for me.  This is a series of tweets from Dallas lawyer Jason P. Steed, who was previously an English professor. He wrote his PhD dissertation on “the social function of humor” and here he is writing about Trump’s “jokes”:

1. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the social function of humor (in literature & film) and here’s the thing about “just joking.”

2. You’re never “just joking.” Nobody is ever “just joking.” Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).

3. To say humor is social act is to say it is always in social context; we don’t joke alone. Humor is a way we relate/interact with others.

4. Which is to say, humor is a way we construct identity – who we are in relation to others. We use humor to form groups…

5. …and to find our individual place in or out of those groups. In short, joking/humor is one tool by which we assimilate or alienate.

6. IOW, we use humor to bring people into – or keep them out of – our social groups. This is what humor *does.* What it’s for.

7. Consequently, how we use humor is tied up with ethics – who do we embrace, who do we shun, and how/why?

8. And the assimilating/alienating function of humor works not only on people but also on *ideas.* This is important.

9. This is why, e.g., racist “jokes” are bad. Not just because they serve to alienate certain people, but also because…

10. …they serve to assimilate the idea of racism (the idea of alienating people based on their race). And so we come to Trump.

11. A racist joke sends a message to the in-group that racism is acceptable. (If you don’t find it acceptable, you’re in the out-group.)

12. The racist joke teller might say “just joking” – but this is a *defense* to the out-group. He doesn’t have to say this to the in-group.

13. This is why we’re never “just joking.” To the in-group, no defense of the joke is needed; the idea conveyed is accepted/acceptable.

14. So, when Trump jokes about assassination or armed revolt, he’s asking the in-group to assimilate/accept that idea. That’s what jokes do.

15. And when he says “just joking,” that’s a defense offered to the out-group who was never meant to assimilate the idea in the first place.

16. Indeed, circling back to the start, the joke *itself* is a way to define in-group and out-group, through assimilation & alienation.

17. If you’re willing to accept “just joking” as defense, you’re willing to enter in-group where idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable.

18. IOW, if “just joking” excuses racist jokes, then in-group has accepted idea of racism as part of being in-group.

19. Same goes for “jokes” about armed revolt or assassinating Hillary Clinton. They cannot be accepted as “just joking.”

20. Now, a big caveat: humor (like all language) is complicated and always a matter of interpretation. For example, we might have…

21. …racist humor that is, in fact, designed to alienate (rather than assimilate) the idea of racism. (Think satire or parody.)

22. But I think it’s pretty clear Trump was not engaging in some complex satirical form of humor. He was “just joking.” In the worst sense.

23. Bottom line: don’t accept “just joking” as excuse for what Trump said today. The in-group for that joke should be tiny. Like his hands.

The whole thing is fascinating, but around #6 is where I learned why I have never, ever been able to make my sister laugh.