...The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof...

Richard Bach, Illusions

No one in my father's family became involved in our lives when our mother died. When my father was 15, his father had died suddenly, and perhaps the death of our mother reminded them or brought them back to their own uncomfortable memories or trauma.

Many females at 16 years of age might have been able to take enough responsibility in the household to compensate for the loss of a parent. However, I already had serious problems with functioning myself and had tried to commit suicide some months prior to my mother's death. I didn't ever receive effective treatment.

My maternal grandfather seemed devastated by my mother's death at age 37 of a burst aneurism. It was too much for him so soon after my grandmother's death 5 years previously - she had died as a result of complications due to rheumatoid arthritis after a lengthy illness.

A year and a bit after our mother's death, he remarried. At first (when he and his future wife were dating) we were invited to visit more frequently than in the past, but eventually the pattern changed. We used to spend all Christmas Eves with our grandfather, but we ended up usually going for the Christmas dinner during the last weekend of November - in order to accommodate his wife's busy schedule. Her family took priority. I wondered if there was something embarrassing about us, and I think there were definitely some value and tradition differences that were fairly major, but eventually I wondered if it was about me specifically.

My mother's sister and her husband had no children of their own, and this was probably by choice. Not only did they not become involved in our lives, but my mother's sister appeared to take out her unresolved issues with her sister, as well as her grief, on me in irrational (contradictory) ways on the few occasions we did see them.

My mother's family provides an example of Catholics who do things 'just for show' or 'just in case'. I was christened, and I had godparents. My godparents were my mother's cousins. One was a neurosurgeon, and the other was a female Vice Principal of a school. They never became involved in my life, even after my mother died, although they had sworn at my baptism to provide spiritual guidance. They both came to the funeral. When I think about what they could have done to provide spiritual guidance (without much effort or expense) it is this: they could have provided a suggested reading list.

I heard this secondhand, so I am not completely sure it is accurate, but apparently my godfather had said that if my mother had been taken to a better hospital, she could have been saved. (She died of a burst aneurism in a small Northern Ontario hospital - he was a Toronto neurosurgeon).

Both sides of the family continued to celebrate Christmas and to remember birthdays, but everyday life was something they never had to know about. We all learned to present an acceptable face on family occasions. For me, this became increasingly difficult, and I started making up excuses for lack of attendance. I felt a lot of guilt, and was always torn over the decision, making and unmaking it many times, with no decision bringing a true relief.

My mother had probably moved with her boyfriend far away to Northern Ontario for the following reasons: to get away from my father, in large part so that he would have less involvement with us; to escape the shame of divorce (her Catholic family did not believe in divorce, and had disapproved of my father); and eventually it was to take a big risk in order to have a chance at a better future.

If she could have sought more support within her own family, would she have died at 37? If she had an aneurism that she had been born with, is it possible that she could have been effectively treated if we had still been living near Toronto?

It could be argued that her pride and spite were motivations that cut us off to some extent from some of the experiences and resources we might have had access to. However, I think that the four of us all remember the Northern Ontario summer resort with a particular nostalgia. Of all the places we have ever lived, I think that the four of us would agree that it was the one that had the greatest impact and of which we had the fondest memories. I think she made a brave alternative choice.

But my mother told me that her boyfriend would kill her and/or her children if she left him. A very large number of people had attended my mother's funeral. Apparently there wasn't anyone (family member or friend) who had attended who could have helped her or who she thought she could turn to.

There is a kind of open-mindedness and acceptance in the family that is admirable, but at times this represents not questioning things that by rights should be questioned, and at times it disguises the underlying reality of judgment and prejudice, and a secret competitiveness.

The family code resulted in me spending many guilty and shameful years trying to conceal the truth about my life, without me moving forward or getting help. I was not questioned about my patterns. I was mostly ignored, and for many years I spent a lot of time alone. I was completely conscious. I did not use alcohol - I had no way of getting it, and at that time food was my drug of choice.

The immediate family had an accepting attitude: my past academic achievements weren't important - I could have a different path in life. People judge things in ways they are brainwashed to judge. None of this was verbalized - it was just accepted that there was something 'off' with me and I could no longer be expected to live up to normal standards. In a way, I wonder if it was a relief. There was intense unconscious sibling rivalry, and if there was one less in the competition for love and praise, the others could shine. Also, my accomplishments may have been a lot to live up to, and when I failed, it took some of the pressure off the others.

'good of the species' is really about each selfish individual within a species trying to gain more benefit than it could alone, or if it did not contribute to the group...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Maybe I eventually came to the conclusion that I could gain more benefit alone than I could with the aid of my family, and that in fact there were attitudes present within the family that diminished my possibilities.

I don't want to be homeless. I don't think that I will be; I have changed my ideas about what is likely for me. But it does say something that as much as I wouldn't want to be homeless, I'd find it a lot more difficult to stay even temporarily with any member of my biological family. The reason is that they don't really know me and understand my situation. I would feel an incredible panic that would be utterly unendurable to ever go back to a situation in which I can't be myself because my self is not acceptable or because our paths have diverged so extremely that I cannot fit their ideas of what is appropriate or positive considering the circumstances.

They did lots of things for which they deserve credit: they attended family therapy once a month for almost a year, my father made efforts to invite everyone to Sunday dinner and to provide (when we were adults) a dinner for birthdays and holidays as well, for a while he took me grocery shopping, one brother created an unusual homemade gift to tell me he loved me, my sister offered a couple of times to let me stay with her, and did make a few efforts to express her feelings for me. When we were still all living together, the other brother had one xmas gone out and bought Santa presents for all of us, complete with handwritten individual notes.

When people observe us interact as a family, I think they notice something different from any stereotype of a family. Or it used to be this way. I think some people envied us, or thought us closer than normal families. I think my siblings and I became closer through my mother's death. We experienced a range of things that not all families experience. There is a kind of humour and affection that is noticeable, and not typical.

Many people comment about how isolating depression or various disorders can be, but maybe it is compounded or even to some extent caused by the actual situation - leaving behind old contacts and not having activities that provide replacements. And as you accumulate unusual experiences, it may be harder to find friends in new places who can relate to you and vice versa. Normal relationships may feel strangely unsatisfying.

Mostly as I got older I saw my siblings only a few times a year, although we lived in the same city. There were a couple of periods in which we socialized more, but very often much drinking was involved. When I stopped all that, the few invitations I got a year eventually stopped.

I made efforts to change the mistaken ideas they had about me, but was always left with the feeling that I had overstepped or been inappropriate - and I was sometimes told that I had been inappropriate.

I can only imagine the pressure my father was under when my mother died. But I felt pressure too. I felt a massive emotional responsibility for my siblings which may have had something to do with being the oldest. I was most of the time the oldest person in the house. Our father always had a social life during the many years when I did not.

Over the years I learned that love encompassed a wide range of emotions: our father could say he loved us, and it could be true that he wanted us to be happy, but it could also be true that he himself would be happier if he didn't have to support us, if we had never been born. He could say that he never knew what he'd find when he came home - he made me feel bad about his thinking I'd commit suicide - but he had already in his mind accepted that I would kill myself before I turned 21, and even seemed to want it, and then to be disappointed when I did not kill myself. At other times he admitted fantasies and delusions/hallucinations about having killed us all, he told his second wife in front of all of us that he didn't really want to marry her, he could call my sister 'stupid cunt' at Christmas with no apology after the fact, and these contradictions were part of human nature that a person who was truly human would understand did not deny the validity of love.

His love was a heavy weight for me to carry, and I think it had something to do with me making his worst nightmare seem likely - that he would never get rid of me.

If from ages 16-23 I made a few efforts, two serious ones, to get myself together, the fact is that the majority of those years I was completely abandoned to my own devices. That is an extremely long time not to notice the pattern of isolating myself, not to notice my lack of resources in a practical sense, and to not care that I wasn't doing anything with my potential. To think I was just not really 'there', not really aware or conscious. Am I supposed to say it had no impact on my development and my future functioning?

I don't expect strangers to comment on my thoughts, or my life experiences. I hope that they will, and I appreciate it when someone makes the effort. The thing is that strangers can't be expected to take an interest in my life or struggles. I would think, however, that a 'family' would.

The words I write are a contrast and might be construed as out of touch with reality by family members, who perpetuated the same myths every time we got together, told the same stories, and kept alive an image of the family that was far from complete.

Am I supposed to say that it doesn't matter that the family traumas resulted in me not knowing what it's like not to live in panic, let alone how to be happy? Am I supposed to say that all the years of isolation, agony and guilt don't matter? The stigma, social rejection and judgment others have shown me all my life? Using the family's philosophy, that's exactly what I did. I took it all on myself, I thought it was no one's fault but mine.

I was not from birth the most wimpish and complaining child of the lot. I was an extremely responsible child. I was shy, but I faced my fears. In all of the new schools I attended, I was faced with some bullying, but I never processed it that way - I just accepted that I had to stand up to it in every new school once again. I never received help with my homework. During all the many moves (of both parents), I stayed awake and helping until the end, capable of lifting and moving things at a rate that was pretty phenomenal for a kid my age. I had to put up with some pretty erratic behaviour on the part of both parents, the tension of their violence toward each other, as well as their spite and immaturity. I was often praised for being more rational than the adults were able to be. I was never allowed to feel sorry for myself for having ichthyosis (referred to even by my father as 'alligator skin') - other people had much more serious problems in life.

Even when I was 30 and my siblings were in their 20s, if we had gone out dancing in a group, no one could have pointed to me in that group and said I was the one who looked like I lacked spirit or energy. Why was it so easy for them to believe that I had given up, that I didn't try as hard as they did in life? That I had always been 'off' and that it was no big deal that I didn't leave the house for years at a time? Why would my 'spirit' be likely to apply to dancing only?

When I was 30, my brothers, their girlfriends, my boyfriend and I all joined a coed baseball team. Out of all of us, I was the only one to win awards voted by the team: I was voted Most Improved Player and female MVP. I don't even like baseball, hadn't played it before and never enjoyed playing it. But I applied myself as well as I knew how to learn it, and I practised. I showed up to every practice and every game. Initially, I had been told it was 'just for fun'. But when I showed up for practice, initially some members of the team had laughed out loud at me, and some had grumbled or expressed irritation.

...What is it that you contain? The dead. Time. Light patterns of millennia opening in your gut. Every minute, in each of you, a few million potassium atoms succumb to radioactive decay. The energy that powers these tiny atomic events has been locked inside potassium atoms ever since a star-sized bomb exploded nothing into being. Potassium, like uranium and radium, is a long-lived radioactive nuclear waste of the supernova bang that accounts for you. Your first parent was a star...

Jeanette Winterson, Weight

I think a lot of parents have superstitious beliefs about having children and how they will turn out. Without any evidence of brilliance or exceptional talent in the family, the children are seen as potentially very special, evidence of the latent talents of one or both parents that have waited until now to manifest themselves in the offspring.

Although my father's success occurred as an adult, I think he was under the impression that a child showed promise only if it could do a thing immediately. I think this is part of my issue regarding scrutiny. When it came to the things he did, I don't think he ever had to practice anything long-term or learn all there was to know - he was a 'natural' at the things he tried, and bursts of discipline were sporadic and not sustained. I may have inherited this pattern, without having as much talent in some areas, or the same areas. However, when I think of things that are related to physical fitness, I doubt he could have ever put in the efforts I have to achieve considerably less impressive results.

...Moments of kindness and reconciliation are worth having, even if the parting has to come sooner or later...

Alice Munro, The Progress of Love

I had contact with family members in late 2008. There had been a legal obligation to contact me with regards to a will, and through that something of a correspondence began.

The correspondences couldn't continue. We went through a speeded up version of the past. There was no chance for anyone to really see or accept who I am, for us to really get to know each other. The old memes are still in effect. I have spent years questioning them and making my escape from those memes. However, I can't fail to recognize that my siblings are intelligent, unusual, and decent human beings. I can see the gulf between us is one of extreme variation in experience - and without complex communication, it can't be bridged.

I can't go back to old roles. I can't say the appropriate things at birthdays and holidays. I can't ask the acceptable questions and stick to the acceptable topics. I can't be a part of it. It is not acceptable to me. A family should be about more than acceptability and structure. If you can't turn to your family when you are in desperate straits, if no one is truly interested in getting to know anyone else except at arm's length, in appropriate terms and measures, I can't see how that's a family. If people are so laidback that they think it's natural that one member has lived in a state of distress for more than 20 years, and wouldn't notice if that member died, what's the point of a family vs absolute strangers?

My years of isolation and social stigma have not been spent in blissful unconsciousness, nor a compensatory fantasy world. I have been painfully conscious throughout, perceptive, thinking, and at least early on judging myself by the same standards as my family and the society in which I lived.

I am not seeking to place blame, as it is clear to me that there was an unusual amount and extremeness of events for all concerned. What is necessary to me is awareness. I want to be seen, I want my life and experience to be seen and not brushed off or misinterpreted.

Years ago I could have returned, seeking validation and approval through listing my marriage, my travel, etc. I wanted to avoid doing that because I had changed, and wanted the focus to be on the real, not the pretended. The way that things sound, and the shape of 'accomplishment' do not necessarily give an accurate picture. It is not that I am incapable of appreciating the good things in my life, it is that I don't want to share them in a false way, and I don't want to give the false impression that in the overall sense that I believe I have achieved self-realization when I have not. I am still limping along. I can't participate in communication that doesn't challenge the old familial or societal beliefs. I can't remain silent, and if it seems that my stance is unacceptable, inappropriate or out of touch with reality, I must continue to seek a new family.

When it comes to my massive personal website, family members have never commented on the majority of what has been expressed. Possums seem to be 'acceptable' territory, but I do not want to be seen as a Possum Lady in order to fit in. I do not see the rest of what I express as nonsensical blather. I know it is a bad idea to assume anything, but I can't help but wonder if the reason no one will comment on the darker or more complex material is that I am seen as out of touch with reality, someone who is overly negative, who blows things out of proportion, or as someone who is pretending to be more helpless than she is out of some character flaw.

Whether it's to question me further, point out mistakes in accuracy, or offer some kind of sign that what I have said and who I am has been seen, no 'family' member has attempted to communicate with me regarding what I have expressed. I don't know for sure if this is related to stigma associated with what I have expressed, if it is about anger toward or judgment of me, if it is about modern passivity in communication or a traditional familial communication style where it is an unspoken rule that things remain on the surface/adhere to a certain level of 'appropriateness'. [update]

I have done what I can to express myself. I cannot approach others through their frameworks, as I am shut out in the early stages by consideration of appropriateness; judgment; stigma; and lack of a Positive Plan of Action For My Future. I am not OK, and maybe it is not OK to say that and expect 'family' to care.

I think the main issue is that I spent so many years composed of months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds, in which I was existing in isolation and agony. How can I expect others who have not gone through it to know what that means or what the repercussions are? That does not mean that I don't realize the others have also had to face extreme and much higher than average stress over the years. But the way I developed changed the way I processed every bit of information coming in. I was not the same as when we were all influenced by similar ideas and experiences. In any relationship, my requirements had changed, and I could never go back. Even with an acknowledgement that I am 'seen', I am not sure that there are 'authentic' ways of building relationships from where I stand.

I don't think I know everything, and I don't think I have seen every side to the story. However, my point is that increased communication is essential for me to feel like a 'real' member of a family. I have been flailing around trying to figure out how to get it for a long time, and can only bend so far. I believe that the members of my biological family are capable of understanding far more than they appear to or are willing to articulate at present, although it may be that there are evolutionary reasons for us to explore our individual niches to the exclusion of the others.

See also: alternative.















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