Yesterday I spent the day traveling to a somewhat distant city and attended a memorial for an uncle by marriage – my mother’s sister’s husband. He was very old when he died and had been sick for a long time, and I hadn’t seen him for many years. When I was a child, it was a family ritual to spend every major holiday with all of my mother’s relatives, so I saw him a few times a year. He was kind to me when I was young. Things were rough for me – I was the scapegoat of the family, and although it made me angry, I also to some extent believed I deserved to be treated as less than everyone else. I was depressed and rarely said anything, but I would talk, if anyone bothered to engage me.
This uncle did. Maybe he was outside the scary strange dynamics on my mother’s side. He was good with people and interacted a lot with the public in his job. He’d ask me questions about school or what I thought about things. I remember him encouraging me to ‘express myself’. As a teenager, I didn’t even really know what expressing myself would entail, to tell the truth, but it felt OK for him to say that. It was like he didn’t agree that there was something dreadfully inferior and wrong about me. My family took that for granted, that I was defective, and mostly, other relatives seemed to agree, but he didn’t.
So I wanted to attend his memorial, although it was a little rough getting there and back. I have a car, and as my brother lives a few streets away from me, we decided to go together. My brother actually did the driving, which took some of the stress of the trip away. We had to leave early Saturday morning to arrive at the cemetery by eleven, which was a challenge. I am so tired from my work week usually, I am not out and about at that time.
My brother is, um, OK I guess. I’m going to explain about my family. I observed my mother’s side of the family at the meal after the service, and my brother has some of their traits. My whole family does, except for my father. The main one is a wish to not discuss anything personal. Discussions of the weather are welcomed, but they do not speak about anything that is not small talk.
I cannot bear to have this kind of non relationship with people, and am not that reserved, so I tend to speak a bit about what’s on my mind. I noticed if I say anything at all negative, no details, but just the fact, my brother would very quickly change the subject. My mother’s brother was the same. I simply mentioned that I was not liking my job, on being asked about it politely, and my uncle immediately stopped speaking with me and looked around for someone else to talk to. I wasn’t going to complain and moan. I just wanted to be a bit honest. But it’s just not OK.
My brother has softened a bit, but not much. I’d noticed in the last year or so, he seemed a bit more willing to engage with me. I had been wondering what had happened. He mentioned, not to me, but to a second cousin he barely knows, that he’d briefly gotten some therapy to help him ‘straighten out his thoughts’, but hadn’t gone long. Huh. So maybe that was the reason he was less rejecting, that tiny bit of probably otherwise fairly useless CBT therapy.
We spent two and a half hours together in the car each way, and on the way back, I became pretty angry with him. I didn’t say anything, because honestly, there is no point – he would simply reject me again. I just withdrew. I’d told him a bit about what was on my mind, while he’d shared almost nothing personal with me. He’s always the star – everyone wants to speak with him. He has self-confidence and calmness, and never says anything that people don’t like. He did grow up in my family, so has issues, but he was treated quite a bit better than I or my sister were. He got lots of compliments on a recent promotion – he has a fairly fancy career that people admire.
I got angry because he so consistently changed the subject anytime I brought up anything remotely personal. Or if I wouldn’t shut up entirely, he turned it on me. I’d said something about how a wedding happened which I was never even told about, and how that was so typical of W’s, that they do not talk about anything. Ah, he said. You’re just out of touch. That happened a while ago. Well, whatever the ins and outs of this particular situation, it’s just undeniable that the W’s are uncomfortable talking about most things. My mother is so remote, she said nothing at all to me all day. She never asked about my cancer scare, whether I’d taken her advice to see our GP. I did ask how she was feeling and she said just tired. My mother is like a child in a dream – she doesn’t engage much. Maybe my brother just doesn’t see it, being like that himself to some extent.
From my brother’s perspective, it is proper behaviour to not tell people things about yourself. I don’t agree with that. I don’t agree that talking about my life makes me less intelligent and worthy than him. It’s just the internal rules of my mother’s family. As if things go away if they are never mentioned – it’s the mentioning them that’s the problem.
This is so very ingrained in my mother’s family and in my family also, that I never clearly saw it until a few years ago. Now I see it, I see the deflection, the changing the subject so fast, the refusal to hear. Even the past – they never speak about the past, recent or more distant, unless prodded. And then, only a sentence or two comes out. Even the benign, non-threatening past is never acknowledged.
Two of my mother’s sisters, although they themselves were reserved, married more social and self-confident men. And so their kids turned out more normal, less inclined to shut away. I kind of like my cousins, this dead uncles’ children. They do speak about their lives, and don’t change the subject if I speak about mine.
However, we do not talk long. We’re not close, living in different cities.
Where am I going with this? I felt it was another chance to examine where I’d come from I guess. Seeing them all brought up some uncomfortable memories for me of how depressed I’d been as a child, and the feelings of not really being accepted. But I’m glad I went. I’m glad I honoured this uncle’s memory, and braved the family dynamics once again. I can see why I was depressed as a child, apart from the actual abuse I suffered. Not being allowed to discuss any part of reality, not being allowed to express any feelings whatsoever, would depress the most cheerful disposition.