In the 4 years or so that I have been working on this family’s problem — researching, learning about relationships and what can go wrong with them, trying to find the truth of things or at least exposing the biases — I have often had the experience of coming across a new word or phrase that perfectly describes something that happened in my FOO. And every time, I think, “There it is. It has a name.”
Names are important. Their existence shows that these things do happen, and they happen regularly, and they happen to other people, other families, as well as ours.
We are not “special”. Our family’s story is not some weird anomaly that can’t possibly be understood by anyone else — it is in fact very well understood, and it is pathological. It is not some unique form of “normal” that can only be understood, in Joe’s words, by someone who knows the “history of the family and personalities involved”.
If the story that’s being told can’t stand up to impartial, outside scrutiny, it’s not normal. (But abused children often think abuse is “normal”, because abuse is all they know.)
Not only do these things happen — they are known to have harmful, lasting effects. I am speaking of narcissism and NPD, parentification, parental alienation, blame-shifting, invalidation, scapegoating — just to name a few of my new words. Narcissism and blame-shifting are known to be damaging to relationships. Scapegoats are known to be the ones who seek out the truth. Parental alienation is destructive to a child who naturally wants to love both parents. Invalidation disrespects and destroys a person and a relationship.
Parentification often happens to the oldest child – especially if they are the same sex as the parent who is abdicating their proper role – and “The adultified child takes on responsibilities in the hope that it will hold the family together by keeping mom and dad around.“
My siblings manage to ignore all this information, or explain it away somehow. I don’t know how most of them do it; there is one brother who simply insists that I am wrong about practically everything I write.
Which leads me to another term I learned in all of this: “cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who… is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values,” and that one of the four methods of dissonance reduction, and probably the simplest, is to “Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs.”
Ta-da. There it is. It has a name.
Anyway, the point is, I’ve learned about a lot of concepts that definitely do exist, that are studied and well understood, and that explain most, if not all, of what happened in my FOO.
Up until now, though, I never had a word for what happened to me the morning after my father died, when Joe and Susan attacked me for daring to complain about Susan’s inappropriate behavior the night before — other than that I found out it is called a narcissistic rage attack, which explains what they did, but not what I experienced as a result.
Neither of my therapists diagnosed me with anything very specific. “Therapeutic services” was the billing code the second, better and more experienced one, used.
“Adjustment disorder” was the billing code used by the first one — who I went to for grief counseling, and who I think was not familiar with NPD, and the complicated family problems I presented as a result.
I still remember how she was as mystified as I was, the day she exclaimed, “But you’re not even allowed to defend yourself!” Knowing what I know now, it is clear that what I was going through was more than just normal grief over the loss of my parents — and to someone who did not understand NPD and its effects on others, of course it would appear that my reaction was stronger than expected.
It is obvious that the initial experience was traumatic. There was, of course, the death of the only real, caring parent I had. Then being yelled at, at the top of their lungs, inches from my face, less than 12 hours after the death of my father, by two members of what was supposed to be a family, who all claimed before the fact that they were going to be supportive, especially of me – pretty damned traumatizing, I should think.
And then the aftermath, where they lied to everyone else, blamed me, threw me under the bus, and no one thought twice about what might have really happened – also pretty damned traumatizing.
And finally, that last reunion – when I was physically ignored, yelled at again, and began to understand just how the rest of the family actually viewed the whole incident. Up until then, I had thought that they knew what really happened, but chose to simply sweep it under the rug for Joe & Susan’s benefit. (That would have been bad and unhealthy, sure — but it would also have been “normal” in the context of our family and the ever-present hierarchy of age.)
I didn’t realize until then that Joe and Susan had lied about what happened, and that they all believed those lies: they believed that I had started it, deliberately picked a fight, that I was entirely to blame for it, and that they in fact believed they were being rather magnanimous in not holding my supposed behavior against me! Rather traumatizing to not only have the original incident thrown back in my face, but to realize that their view of it, and me, was even worse than I had thought.
So, for a while, I looked at the idea of PTSD. I found out there is something called “complex PTSD“, which is quite different from “classic” PTSD. “Situations include… psychological manipulation (gaslighting and/or false accusations)… Forms of trauma associated with C-PTSD… [include] emotional abuse…repeated or prolonged traumas in which there is an actual or perceived inability for the victim to escape.”
That had some commonalities with what I had experienced, and for a while I wondered if I had been a whole lot more screwed up than I realized, by the early separations from my mother, and her neglect and disinterest — but it didn’t quite fit. PTSD is a fear-based reaction, and I’m not afraid.
Now, I think I’ve found it. It even fits in with PTSD, in a way, but it is different. By reading about PTSD and soldiers and veterans, I learned about moral injury.
Depending on who you ask, this idea is either new or old. “It’s a new term but not a new concept. Moral injury is as timeless as war — going back to when Ajax thrust himself upon his sword on the shores of Troy…“
Yet the term, and the idea, is very new, at least in the treatment of PTSD and other mental health issues of soldiers and veterans. Most of the work I have found on this is written in this context (probably because the military is where there’s plenty of funding, and by the nature of the beast they are at least somewhat focused on mental health).
One definition is “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” However, this definition doesn’t take into account the effects on the person who actually experienced the act.
Another definition doesn’t rule it out: “Like psychological trauma, moral injury… describes extreme and unprecedented life experience including the harmful aftermath of exposure to such events. Events are considered morally injurious if they “transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Thus, the key precondition for moral injury is an act of transgression, which shatters moral and ethical expectations that are rooted in religious or spiritual beliefs, or culture-based, organizational, and group-based rules about fairness, the value of life, and so forth.”
One expert is a Dr. Shay, who introduced the clinical concept. And his definition is that moral injury can happen when “there is a betrayal of what’s right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high-stakes situation.” Bingo.
Dr. Shay also talks of “authority perceived as violating what is “right” or “fair,” keeping in mind the extreme dependence combat Veterans have upon one another for survival.” Well, when I was very young, and my mother was hospitalized, I learned on some level that I had to depend on these people for survival.
Finally, this definition actually includes a potential victim: …“moral injury” refers to the emotional and spiritual impact of participating in, witnessing, and/or being victimized by actions and behaviors which violate a [person’s] core moral values and behavioral expectations of self or others.
What happened the night my father died, and the day after, pretty much blew away the concept I had had of my “family” as a group of decent, healthy, moral people who could hold it together and maintain a reasonable amount of self-control in a time of crisis.
I never thought they were people who would treat a family member the way they treated me: screaming at me, leaning down to shout directly in my face, with the accompanying threat of physical violence implied by that invasion of personal space.
Or, if they had been triggered by that crisis, and did behave so badly, they would own up to it, apologize, and try to make amends. They would be honest, responsible adults.
I never thought that my “family” were people who would ignore what I politely asked for in a time of crisis. That they were people who would deliberately lie about another family member to cover up their transgressions.
And what happened at and after the 2012 reunion destroyed the idea that my “family” would at least TRY to step up and do the right thing in a difficult situation.
That was when I found out that whatever else they might do in other situations, whatever else they might be capable of, however moral and decent they may be in other facets of their lives — they won’t do it for me.
That was when I figured out that I didn’t have a “family”. At least, not one that was healthy enough to give me the respect, love, and acceptance that I was asking for. My FOO was one where, when I asked for these things, instead I was ignored, invalidated, or criticized. Maybe it is a functional family among the “right” people; I wouldn’t know, because I’m not in that club. What I know is that it is a group of people who are incapable of doing the right thing for my sake. I’m not important enough to them.
“Moral injury usually stems from a precise moment in a [person’s] experience… It’s about reconciling that event that sticks with you… And it’s also about reconnecting with a moral community, feeling connected to your fellow man.“
Between those two experiences — that day in 2000, when my dad died, and that day in 2012, at the reunion — I lost my whole experience of “family”, the people I was connected to by blood, that I had been connected to for my entire life.
Two dozen people, gone from my life.
“Transgressions can arise from… the behavior of others… An act of serious transgression that is at odds with core ethical and moral beliefs is called moral injury… Betrayal on either a personal or an organizational level can also act as a precipitant.”
It’s not a mental illness or failure to cope:
It is the loss of trust:
“Both flavors of moral injury impair and sometimes destroy the capacity for trust. When social trust is destroyed, it is replaced by the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation, and humiliation from others.“
In my case, I got the reality first, and now I have the settled expectation.
I got the reality of being treated like shit at the worst time in my whole young life, by the one group of people in your whole life that you’re always, ALWAYS supposed to be able to count on, for anything, any time, anywhere. The ones who were older and supposed to be oh-so-much wiser.
And, I got the reality that there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
“With this expectancy, there are few options: strike first; withdraw and isolate oneself from others (e.g., Achilles); or create deceptions, distractions, false identities, and narratives to spoil the aim of what is expected (e.g., Odysseus).”
I tried the latter option — to “get over it” — hiding my pain from the wrongs done to me, censoring my feelings, my thoughts, my opinions, my beliefs, in order to “fit in” and not do damage to the “family”.
To accept the act of Susan violently, viciously vomiting her psychological shit all over me RIGHT AFTER THE DEATH OF MY FATHER — traumatizing me, leaving me to deal with it for years and years — and to pretend that it never happened — so that she, and everyone else, can also pretend that it never happened (or if it did happen, it was my fault) and she can pretend that she’s still perfectly perfect.
Never mind that it DID happen. Never mind what it did to me. Never mind that if she gets to be perfect, what’s left for me to be is only the flaws.
I was supposed to allow them to continue to treat me as second-class, as a scapegoat, as if my feelings and my pain and my trauma and my humiliation didn’t matter as much as hers. When it was MY father who had died – MINE.
What is misunderstood is that if this is what the group needs me to do in order to not sustain damage, it’s already really, really fucked up.
After realizing this painful truth, I finally chose the other option, to get away from the toxic people, and the ones I no longer trust, the ones who consider themselves above wrongdoing, the ones who are so very perfect that they would never humble themselves so far as to apologize to ME.
Because to the special arrogance of the Triumvirate, that would be unbelievably humiliating.
And finally, one bullet point that sums up most of what I have felt about this for the past 4 years:
It feels so good to finally have a name for it.
Even better, it feels GREAT to discover that I’ve been doing all the right things, in terms of healing myself.
Not ignoring a problem usually helps, and this one is no exception. Also trying to understand what happened, analyzing it, looking at evidence. Guess what I’ve been doing?
“People mostly try to push those experiences away and not look at them, and they inevitably end up with an oversimplified conclusion about what it all meant,” he said. “We’re trying to get them to unearth the beliefs that are causing their distress, and then help them analyze it, consider the evidence…therapists focus on helping morally injured patients accept that wrong was done [though not by me!], but that it need not define their lives.”
And then there’s this idea:
“…some have devised makeshift rituals of cleansing… At the end of a brutal 12-month combat tour in Iraq, one battalion chaplain gathered the troops and handed out slips of paper. He asked the soldiers to jot down everything they were sorry for, ashamed of, angry about or regretted. The papers went into a makeshift stone baptismal font, and as the soldiers stood silently in a circle, the papers burned to ash.
“It was sort of a ritual of forgiveness,” said the chaplain, Lt. Col. Doug Etter of the Pennsylvania National Guard. “The idea was to leave all the most troubling things behind in Iraq.”
And, I knew that I needed to write this blog.
“Dr. Shay places special importance on communication through artistic means of expression. Moral injury can only be absolved when “the trauma survivor… [is] permitted and empowered to voice his or her experience…”
“We favor the tenet that “treatment” of moral injury must be defined by the individual according to their beliefs and needs. Outlets for acknowledging and confronting moral injury include talk therapy, religious dialogue, art, writing, discussion & talking circles, spiritual gatherings, and more.”
Of course, it’s still a bit of a mixed bag. For one thing, it has occurred to me that at least part of what the rest of my FOO is doing is actively avoiding EXACTLY THE SAME MORAL INJURY that I received.
Those cowards don’t want to believe that Joe and Susan could really, truly have done what Joe and Susan did. They don’t want me to describe it:
Imagine what it felt like to see Susan’s horrible, ugly, angry face two inches from my own, bending down so she could scream right at me, to feel her spittle on my face, to wonder if she was going to physically attack me, to hear the shouts from both of them ringing in my ears — their words just so much angry, hateful noise, because both of them were shouting nonstop, at the same time.
And she lost her shit like that over the idea that I had dared to criticize her selfish behavior of the night before, when she refused to do something I asked for right after my father died.
I didn’t want to believe it either. The difference is, I don’t have the luxury of not believing it, and I don’t have to imagine what it was like, because I’m the one they did it to. (And my husband witnessed it, and he has some moral injury from it too, you fucking bastards, because he feels like he ought to have done something to stop it.)
And I didn’t want to believe that they could lie like they did, and that everyone would believe them like they did.
This would be bad enough on its own – but now add that this was only hours after I watched my beloved father die, and then sat by his dead body, waiting for the ambulance to take him away, all the while forced to listen to her LOUDLY LAUGHING AND JOKING WITH A STRANGER IN A ROOM WITH A CORPSE.
This is in stunningly bad taste no matter how you slice it.
And this was after I even specifically and politely asked them to go somewhere else with their jolly conversation.
Yet, in the presence of that obscene behavior, that outright disrespect and provocation, I STILL managed not to scream at her, not to get up in her face and shout and spit and threaten. I certainly FELT like it, but I controlled myself. Because you just don’t do that shit to people. Not if you are a decent person.
Good thing it happened to the strong scapegoat, I suppose, because having lived through the past few years, if I’m truly the strong one then I don’t know what the hell it would do to any of them.
And, this is never going to happen: at least, I’m not going to get it from my FOO.
“…moral injury affects, and is affected by the moral codes across a community [in this case, a family]… moral injury stems in part from feelings of isolation from [the family]. Moral injury, then, is a burden carried by very few, until the “outsiders” become aware of, and interested in sharing it.“
Finally, this quote was written in terms of therapy, but it works on another level with my own story.