This week, I’ve had a lot of things on my mind. For one thing, I’m failing miserably at convincing my son that the potty should be used for peeing in and not stuffing whole rolls of toilet paper inside. I’m also currently exercising my penchant for strongly worded letter campaigns against my home warranty company for refusing to cover some plumbing repairs.
Oh, and then there is the toxic, irritating, dysfunctional familial mess that I was involuntarily brought into which has exploded into something that may tear my family-of-origin apart. Heavy, right?
I know how much it sucks dealing with family drama, especially around the holidays. It’s an exhausting onslaught of emotions, which forces you to deal with things that you have tried to get over for years. But, in the end…
Your mental well-being matters more than making holidays go smoothly for your family.
Say it with me again so you believe it. I know I struggle with this too.
About a week ago, I made the decision to disinvite a family member to my home for Thanksgiving due to various reasons that are too complicated to enumerate here. The fallout of that decision led me to also disinvite and stop speaking to my father. My father was under the misperception that my reaction stemmed from a recent incident involving the aforementioned family member. I had to explain to him that this break was actually a culmination of things that had been going on for years.
I know all of the above sounds really vague, and I hate to be that person. However, I can’t go too deep into the background of everything that happened without involving a close family member’s legal troubles, which I do not have the right to do on a public forum such as this.
What I can do for anyone else who may be going through similar issues with their family, is talk about why I have come to the decision that my values and my mental well-being are more important than going along with what has been the status quo my whole life.
To do that, I am going to delve a little into some of the family dynamics at play here…
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which the abuser causes you to question your thoughts or emotions. It’s a tactic for that person to maintain power over you by causing you to doubt your mind and feelings.
Gaslighting is commonly used in reference to emotional abuse tactics within a romantic relationship. However, it can refer to any relationship with a power element – e.g. a parent/child relationship.
Within an hour long conversation with my father, he:
- Began the conversation that telling me that he had 31 years of life experience on me so his interpretation of events would be more accurate than mine
- Told me that a memory I had of an interaction I had with him was not true
- Told me that a memory I had of an interaction I had with another family member was not true
- Told me that I had no love for this family member
- Told me that my ideas and feelings were “nonsense”
- Denied that he created an environment growing up where I was unable to speak my feelings honestly
According to the above Bustle article, my father hit around 5-6 signs of gaslighting behavior.
Yet I’m still hesitant to use “gaslighting” as an adjective to describe our relationship. Part of the reason is because, as far as emotional abuse goes, I feel like there are many other children who had it much worse than I. Up until recently, I could maintain a cordial, if not overly friendly, relationship with my father. I’m worried about creating the impression that I was treated much more severely than I was.
On the other hand, I’ve been told by therapists in the past that I tend to repress things so maybe I’ve just buried most of this shit within me.
In Leviticus 16, Aaron uses a goat as a symbolic representation of the sins of the children of Israel, but then literally sends the goat out to the wilderness as a way to banish the sins of everyone to the wilderness as well. So, to be clear, the goat did nothing. The goat was just used as a way to make everyone else feel better about themselves because their sins were now in the goat and the goat was gone.
Hence, the scapegoat was born.
Here is what Good Therapy has to say about scapegoating in families:
“In a family system, the selection process is less overt than Aaron’s… one person is chosen to bear the brunt of any psychological discomfort experienced by the family as a whole. It is justified by repeating the stories that create and then reinforce the image of the scapegoat as being a person who is worthy of disdain and disparagement.”
It’s been about 11 days since my father referred to me as the “problem child”, the one who’s dividing our family. To provide a little context: I’m the child who made straight As all though elementary, middle school, high school and college; who graduated at the top of her class in both her undergraduate and graduate degrees; who has been financially self-sufficient since the age of 18; who is a married homeowner with a child and awesome credit that gets compliments whenever her credit is run (I’m most proud of that last fact).
I’m also the one who has never been thrown in juvenile hall or jail for stealing or prison for stealing again or prison for a second time for assaulting someone. The one who has never had her child taken away from her by the state, who doesn’t steal cars and crash them, who doesn’t steal money and jewelry from her siblings and parents while living in her parent’s home rent free and not expected to contribute to any chores or the finances. The one who has never threatened physical violence against her parents or beat her sibling.
I had a hard time reconciling myself as the scapegoat because I’m the one that everyone in the family comes to with all their problems. When my parents would fight, they would call me and ask me to tell the other why he/she was wrong. When a family member threatened another family member with physical violence, I was called to speak to the former to try to talk sense into them (as if that was even possible). But it makes sense, when you think about it. Instead of dealing with their sins, they placed the burden of their sins on me to deal with. And whenever I expressed my reluctance to get involved, I would be met with admonishments and told I was being selfish. Even if I did get involved, I would be told that I was speaking nonsense for the help I tried to give.
If you are over the age of 18 and no longer able to handle your family’s shit, then stop participating in it.
Most families have a bit of dysfunction. There may be an Aunt Karen who always makes snide comments about your weight gain. Or maybe there’s Grandpa Jim who wants to rant about millenials and liberals and Mexicans while you’re trying to hand him a plate of rolls at the dinner table to get him to eat something and shut the hell up. I believe that family is important and I don’t want to promote ditching your family for being slightly irritating.
But you’re the judge of what you can handle. If Aunt Karen’s comments about your weight send you into a sinkhole of low self-esteem and misery or if Grandpa Jim’s comments start to become a little too racist for your liking, you completely have my permission to tell him/her/them to fuck off.
You will receive responses of shock, outrage, and probably several attempts to guilt trip you into submission. I mostly received the guilt trips. I was told things like:
“This season is about forgiving those who wrong you.”
“Our family shouldn’t be split apart over something like this.”
“What if something were to happen and you never got the chance to make things right?”
I did seriously consider all of the above. Until I realized that my family was placing the onus on me only to make things right, not my father.
Recently, at dinner, I met with a friend to catch up on things and discuss the mutual craziness that was our families. She had been going through something eerily similar with her family-of-origin for quite some time. We had both been told that we were the ones splitting the family apart. We were both being pushed to be the bigger people and forget everything that had happened and “bring the family together again”. We were being pushed to do this even though the majority of the family not directly involved in the fight acknowledged that the other person was in the wrong. But it was being asked of us because it was easier to expect us to change than the other person.
That’s the funny thing about people in a position of power. Even if you are in the wrong, those who are under you are expected to change their behavior to suit yours. This makes life easier.
I reject that. While my parents have some seniority over me when it comes to certain things, they do not have power over me when it comes to my values and behavior. Not anymore. The way I see it is that we are all adults. It should be just as easy for my father to change as it should be for me to change. I have no desire to forgive someone who point blank told me that he had nothing to apologize for. If something happens to either one of us, well, then the failure to make it right should be on both of us, not just me.
But, to be frank, the conversations my father and I have had recently are conversations we should have had a long time ago. There’s always been a certain level of resentment towards him for various things. And if we were to bury everything back in the dirt where it’s been for the past few decades, then any chance at fixing that resentment would have been buried in the dirt as well.
So I’ve made the decision this year to place honest feelings above everything else. Even if that means that Thanksgiving dinner will be just my husband, son, and I.
More turkey for us then.