Family occasion

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.

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17 comments
  1. leb105 said:

    I suppose no one has ever tried to explain ‘the rules’ to you?
    It seems as if they are unconsciously avoiding emotion, and staying on the surface.
    “I cannot bear to have this kind of non relationship with people, and am not that reserved.”
    You must be a threat!

    • Ellen said:

      I think that would spoil the whole set-up, if someone actually verbalized it! That in itself would break the rule. Yes, I suppose I am a threat. A very mild threat. I need to find people who are not like this. Thanks Laura

  2. this sounds terrible! I just would not want to be around any of them! but then I am a social person. If you werent brought up that way it would be hard to be like that. But it sounds like you’ve tried to break away and out of their rigid rules! xxx

    • Ellen said:

      I have tried to break away from their rules, but it took me a long time to first see them. I’m also more social than I used to think. Thanks Many

  3. Ellen, I’ve been going through old pictures, letters, and stuff from my past. Boxes and boxes of memories. As I read your post I understood how difficult it must have been to go and remember and physically be there. Spinning in the past is ungrounding and really I find it depressing. Becoming someone we were are or maybe we aren’t or never were. My reality versus this strange reality that no longer seems real. That doesn’t even make sense does it?

    • Ellen said:

      Revisiting past times, whether places, people or objects and mementos, is definitely triggering. I kind of do it in order to observe – see how it is, trying to see without the blinders of self-hatred and of being powerless. I figure I can learn things. It’s hard though – lots of troubling feelings. Thanks AG

  4. That sounds painful. It was good you kept trying to be who you are without fitting into what your family rules say.

  5. Rachel said:

    I thought I responded to this post, I guess not. When I read it, my initial response was this feeling of how repressive and stifling your childhood environment was for you. No voice, no acknowledgement, no room to grow and be a unique and autonomous person. It sounds incredibly isolating and painful. Even to this day. They literally cannot tolerate your individuality, therefore constantly reject you. I get why you still return to them, and even the knowing their limitations does not make it hard to not buy into their bullshit at times. Or be affected by it. I’m really sorry Ellen. You were shortchanged in the family department. Wish you had had people around you who appreciated all of your qualities and offerings.

    • Ellen said:

      Yes, it was stifling. As a child, I felt it was basically my fault, my badness, as you do.

      I’m actually returning to them only sporadically – I want to see where I have come from. I don’t have it all figured out in my mind – it was a mixed situation. Plus, I’m alone an awful lot…I know we’re supposed to build new families, but I can’t seem to.

      Thanks for the sympathy. We were both shortchanged, and that’s life. Just have to try and see things for what they were now, and it’s not black and white for me at all.

      • Rachel said:

        Yep, thats life. I agree, not black and white at all. And the more I start to tune into my needs and meet them, the more clear I get on who my family is, how we differ, and that the differences and how they act has absolutely not a thing to do with me or whether how I am is “wrong.” It is just differences, we landed together in this life, they are just being who they are (which sometimes means they act in ways that hurt me or dismiss me). Somehow that is freeing.

        • Ellen said:

          Yes, your family’s behaviour had nothing to do with you. For sure. Me too. My family is acting out generations of pain, basically, IMO. Thanks

          • Rachel said:

            I agree, generations of pain, and if you think historically, the pain is not limited to our families either.

  6. My family is a lot like this, too. I feel sad and sometimes angry that I can’t have a closer relationship with my mother, but she just pulls away when I try to talk about important personal issues. When I told her last year that I was depressed, I didn’t hear from her for a couple of months.

    I’m closer to my sisters–sort of. I laugh with them a lot and feel relaxed around them. But if I tiptoe up to a truly personal, scary topic, they change the subject. I started to tell my one sister about the creepy neighbor who molested me. I always find it the least scary of my stories when I am just testing the waters to see if I can talk about it with a new therapist, for example. My sister just couldn’t do it. She said, “oh well, that was a long time ago” and completely shut me down.

    All this was to say, I get it; I think my family might be related to yours. No wonder I find it hard to ask for support, hard to share my thoughts and feelings. It wasn’t exactly something I got to practice growing up! But it can make for a lonely existence. I’m trying to let my walls down so I can connect better to a few trustworthy people, but I’m not really succeeding very well lately.

    How do you feel about all this now, returning home from the event and reflecting on people’s behavior?

    • Ellen said:

      Wow, your mother responding like that when you’re depressed must have felt awful. I would not share anything like that with my mother, because I can’t bear her pity or whatever it is. She’s never dealt with any feelings herself, and is not about to start accepting mine or her own now.

      Glad you have a better relationship with sibs, though it is limited. I would again never share anything like what you describe with them, because the response is just too hurtful. With my brother, I tried talking a bit about our grandparents’ lives, and how hard they must have been, and already, that topic was too much and he changed the topic right away. I guess….I think it’s a similar dynamic as what you’re describing, but maybe even more so in the repression department. Any feelings, or talk about the past are basically out of bounds altogether.

      I felt depressed the next day, but was able to snap out of it later. I think – I have trouble having a continuous opinion. Sometimes I’m glad I have a few crumbs of family, and we can joke around a bit occasionally. Other times, especially with touching on these issues in therapy, I’m overwhelmed at how awful it felt to be young and vulnerable in this strange family situation.

      Thanks Q.

  7. e.Nice said:

    In some ways it is good that you can observe and see these dynamics at play. To understand that it wasn’t you that is screwy. But being around them and having to deal with it again has got to be so exhausting and triggering.

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