A reader writes in response to the shame post, The Bistro and the Date (below). First he answers those all important questions* then asks
How can I keep my boundaries tight when my family tries to sabotage what I think should be a moratorium (a.k.a. cut-off ) for the sake of my mental health?The reader worked for years to distance himself from his verbally abusive father, a man who denies his emotionally violent parenting to this day.
If I were the reader's therapist, I would explain that it is shame that is buried under those layers of denial, that his father and he may not be all that different. The difference is subtle but important. His father's shame is so tragic, so toxic, that it is no longer conscious, he has successfully defended with that most primitive of defenses, denial, unconscious denial, the worst kind. He has to believe himself a good dad. Anything else would destroy him. He hasn't psychic permission, he hasn't given himself permission, to be imperfect.
An identified patient like our reader will sometimes try to cut off communication with people in the family who were "dysfunctional" "toxic" "violent." He may try to hang onto one limb, to save a relationships with a sibling, the seemingly healthiest member of the family.
But this last branch, his only connection, will eventually become angry and resentful, may even threaten to cut him off unless he reconnects when parents become elderly and physically unwell. Siblings needs one another when that happens, when there's family work to share.
We're addressing cut-offs here, obviously. The reason people cut-off their families is not that they don't need them or feel responsible and connected to them, but their families became sources of pain. Families do abuse and shame, betray members. Mis-steps such as these (including addicted siblings who visit and steal the silverware) make us wary. We put up boundaries.
It's the permeability of the boundary that concerns me. Boundaries need to breathe.
Parents who emotionally abuse with words, who shame their children, who fertilize a child's self-doubt, sense of inadequacy, and unworthiness have to be sealed off for a little while. The fence needs some sturdy nails. Not electricity. No, I won't block the metaphor, let's keep it going.
See, you need a fence, because children who grow up with verbal abuse believe it and when it's a steady stream of negativity will join the dissension, believe the words, find someone else who will abuse them, or do the dirty work themselves, continue the lashing, cut, try suicide. Maybe succeed.
This is why therapists will advise conflicted patients to stay away from the source, to protect themselves from further emotionally violent communications with family. Heal.
But we're all human. We will want to cling to the healthiest member of the family, perhaps the one who saw the abuse, who may have also been a victim. And ultimately cut-offs fail. The family guilt and invasiveness is stronger than the average soul can stand. Therapists often get cases like these when they're sinking, shored up by a quick but ineffective hospital stay.
Sometimes during that stay the family has been involved. A family therapist like me will keep that going if I can, at discharge, will contact family members (with the patient's permission and release of information). I work to convince the family to let me take over for awhile, to give the patient less of themselves, not more. But don't worry. We'll be in touch.
And I stay in touch.
It takes time, but if a family therapist can work with the healthiest branches, things can change, really change for the best. Branches only need be a little green to grow. People change late in life, given the chance, given the relabel, the opportunity to be a hero.
But what do we do when it's too late for that, when the cut-off is fragile and not working, and Dad is sick in the hospital and our Identified Patient hasn't the strength to deal?
Not at all uncommon. The sibling, the one care-taking Dad, wielding the chain-saw (help me or you're no longer my brother/sister), is clearly of the tougher child variety. But even the tougher children wear down when they have to care-take sick parents. They look tough. But it's just for show.
Family therapists push for direct communication. First the identified patient has to be straight with his or her sibling(s), the care-taker(s), either by writing (under a therapist's direction and editorial skill) or calling (in the therapist's presence) to communicate something along these lines:
I'm going to call Dad or write to him and tell him what's going on with me. I'm sorry you're stuck with this, but for the time being I probably won't be visiting. I'm not quite healthy enough yet, but I'm working on it. Here's what I'm going to tell our father:And here is what the identified patient would tell his or her father, either by telephone or in a letter, not face to face, something along these lines
I'm sorry that I'm too sick to reconnect with you right now, that I'm no good to you. Some children, the ones with big issues, get a little funky when parents get sick, and that's what I am right now, laid a little low, too depressed and withdrawn to get out of my shell to help out with you, visit with you.And then the identified patient stops talking or signs off (he doesn't have to write "Love" that's up to him) and hopes his father begins to talk about his own feelings, his own depression, his own childhood abuse, knowing he probably won't.
I know you don't believe in mental illness, but you and I are different like that. You probably see this as a weakness and an excuse. So be it. It's real enough to me to make visiting impossible right now. I just can't do it. I hope that you don't hate me for it. I imagine you do.
One day I'm sure I'll regret this decision, not seeing you, not helping you. It doesn't seem fair to do this to you, especially now. But I don't see life as fair. A parent raises his kids, gives them his all, and just when he needs them, they're gone.
I have bad memories of us, and they haunt me (this is called chipping denial, you're not accusing him of anything). I have to work through things, mostly negative thoughts about myself, nobody else. You did the best you could. You tried to parent the best you could.
I feel like a bad person, a failure, for not meeting your expectations.
I'm in therapy, working on my own set of expectations, and how I'm going to live with myself when you're gone.
Maybe I'll get it together soon. Who knows? I don't expect you to forgive me for this or to really understand me. But despite your take on mental illness, I think everyone gets depressed sometimes. Maybe even you.
But he might. They sometimes do.
This is a strategic intervention, full of lies. The identified patient is not remorseful, probably doesn't even believe his father did the best that he could. The identified patient may never regret not talking to his father, cutting him off.
With good therapy, he will live with himself just fine once his father has passed on. He probably won't care. Some celebrate. It is survival we're talking about here. And you can't always sleep with a person you perceive as the enemy. You can't always go home just because they're ringing the dinner bell.
The therapy, surely, is about changing that perception, the one that identifies the parent as the enemy. If that's possible.
To do that, you need history. You need the extent to which the parent suffered abuse during childhood. If the identified patient doesn't know the history or denies transgenerational abuse, I make finding out a therapeutic objective. It's there.
He was criticized, abused, shamed. Not loved. Abandoned. The child who cuts him off finishes the job. It's the unkindest cut.
In family therapy you want to get to a point with an abusive parent that you can admit you're not so tough. You don't know how he survived his childhood. How did he do it?
Families can toughen us up or wear us down. The resilience variable is having a healthy adult around who counters the abuse, one who puts a hand on the abused child's shoulder and says, "You're a good kid, a wonderful kid. You'll grow up. You'll get out. Talk to me any time. Tell me everything."
We can get into calling authorities about child abuse another day. In a word, Yes. Call.
*Those questions include:
Did (your father/mother/guardian) call (you) lazy?
With gusto? With sarcasm? With hate? Disgust?
Were there tirades directed at making people feel badly about themselves?