Friday, March 13, 2009

Familial angst

Lately I have been wondering if my blog should be called very nutty rather than slightly nutty.

As usual at times like this my thoughts turn to my family but not in a good way. I’m full of blame, angst and bile.

The thing is I am caught between two competing positions. The first is that my parents are responsible for scrambling my brain and therefore should do everything within their power, alter their lives in significant ways if need be, to assist me (even though they’re now in their 70s – shouldn’t I be assisting them? – but this is no longer a new position for me).

This position sees my mental illness as no different from a physical one. What if I had been confined to a wheelchair? They couldn’t have ignored the problem even if they’d wanted to. Imagine the ignominy, the opprobrium of their many parish friends if they had done nothing to help me, say by placing me in a home. And of course they wouldn’t have done such a thing. But their lives would have been different – harder, with less time for socialising (they are deeply social people, and in my mother’s case more bonded with friends than immediate family).

My parents have always been extremely uncomfortable with my mental illness because acknowledging it fully would have opened up too many cans of worms. They have therefore never been able to intervene in any significant way to ‘save’ me (more of saving later). At a critical time in my life – the age of 15 – they stood by as I went into a shell I would never fully emerge from (like an obedient child my illness took a form that was never dramatic enough to warrant hospitalisation).

In theory they have always offered sanctuary (ie allowed me to move back home, but very much on their terms) and when I had a breakdown at 21 my mother gave me a fair bit of emotional support. But they’ve never actively assisted me, apart from giving me the kind of practical help they give their other daughters, for example, when moving house. And since I’ve been living close by, my father to his great credit comes around on call to mow my lawns and do any handyperson tasks that I can’t.

So, when I take this position, how would I like my parents to be? My fantasy parents would have long ago renounced their Catholicism, spurning it because its rigid doctrines and twisted representatives had helped to bring about my emotional demise. Instead they would be exploring non-denominational spirituality. Needless to say, they would have come to terms with the fact that their basic incompatibility was a huge cause of my problems and would have reached a level of emotional maturity unthinkable if I had not been ill.

And decades ago they would have urged me to see a psychologist or psychiatrist (instead of the GP and gestalt therapist I mainly saw for years) and to pay for any expenses or at least helped. They would have gently pointed out that I was going to need to pursue a career that could be managed within my anxieties and offered to help financially with any study expenses.

And when they decided to buy an investment property ten years ago they would have bought one with an eye to me moving in there somewhere further down the track (paying rent of course, but with some degree of security). And long ago they would have come to terms with the fact that I probably wouldn’t get married, and given me a nice little payout equivalent to the cost of their other daughters’ weddings.

It’s such a lovely fantasy. Who would want to abandon it? I can’t, not completely. But let’s face it, it’s based on the lives of secular, middle class baby boomers. My parents are religious and more than half a generation older than baby boomers, their lives relatively untouched by feminism and the other social movements. Inexplicably, my father still enthusiastically attends events run by the Catholic, socially right-wing political organisation he so adored when I was a kid.

It also ignores the obvious – that some mental illnesses, or at least the way they present themselves, are the result of family dynamics. In my case, I think I was trying to adapt to some impossible contradictions in the family. So how could my parents possibly be part of the solution? We had one session of family therapy when I was 21 but it threatened to uncover some uncomfortable truths, and my mother put a stop to it.

But there is also another position. This position is partly based on new age ideas about responsibility but it’s also more grounded in psychotherapy. It says that on one level I am responsible for everything that happens to me (I can’t buy that completely) but, on a more mundane level, that I’m an adult and have to take responsibility for myself.

In fact, the last psychiatrist I saw, around five years ago, said at one point something to the effect of ‘isn’t it about time you laid off your parents?’

And this is the nub of it, the sticking point.

Because despite the bad start they gave me, despite the part they played in ‘stuffing me up’, I’d reached a point about ten years ago where I had grown in many ways, and could have made a very fundamental change in my life.

This was at at time when I had finally accessed some psychiatric help (far from perfect, but good in some ways) as well as spiritual help through a 12-step program. I understood that it was possible to go out on a limb – I had seen people in the program grow in amazing ways and take on new challenges. I also had plenty of people who could have helped me make this leap (in fact one of them belatedly tried to help me for weeks).

This leap would have freed me from my emotional reliance on my family, at least temporarily. And I chose not to make it.

Yes, it would have been incredibly difficult – for about 5 minutes. But I decided to play it safe.

Of course there had been many times earlier than that when in theory I could have broken away. But it really wasn’t possible before then. This was a genuine choice.

So I’m stuck between the two positions. I guess in some ways I have no choice but to take up the latter position – that I’m responsible for myself and my life. But this is very difficult at the moment because I can’t work or socialise much. I still equate work with taking responsibility, so if I can’t look after myself financially where do I stand?

Do I need to let go of that connection and see myself as still dignified even if the state is being a parent of sorts and helping me out financially? Of course, but it’s hard. It’s also hard because I believe very deeply that I am never going to be able to work in a way that frees me from this dependence. (Possibly this is in itself deluded but that is the way it feels at the moment.) And that makes me want to turn back around to my parents and shake my fist at them: ‘You caused all this! What are you going to do about it?’

And it’s also hard because I know that at one point things could have been different. I can’t really blame my parents for that, much as I’d like to.

So perhaps there is a dual responsibility? That still doesn’t change my parents’ behaviour or attitude towards me.

When I was in my mid-20s I assumed a faux sense of independence from my parents, convinced it was better that I asked nothing of them. This hid many unconscious resentments, and I slowly came to realise that they did indeed bear some responsibility. I’ve since accused them of all sorts of shortcomings. But that time of acute grief and anger is past. Although I may not stop feeling angry, I need to let go of the belief that some time in the future, they will look after me. There really is no choice now but to do so. That’s what I have to work on.


  1. Why can't religion be a personal thing, and not a major political avenue to take? It is important to believe and to whom and why not so important. Life has many ups and downs, and we have to weather the daily storms. Having a sense of purpose and internal dialogue is very important.

  2. I agree that religion should be a personal thing, and that my parents have the right to whatever religious beliefs and political views suit them.

    However, too often religion is not personal, and people with strong religious beliefs foist them on others, and sometimes on the political landscape, in ways that are destructive (and I'd argue immoral), particularly to women and minorities such as gays and lesbians.

    I believe very strongly that no child should be brought up within a particular religion. Instead they should be taught ethics, spirituality (meditation and so on) and comparative religion. Then they can make their own choices as adults.

    It's a basic human right for children to be given a choice, just as adults are. If this occurred, it would weaken, at least, some longstanding, intractable religious conflicts. It would also remove the risk of religious abuse and the psychological difficulties that can result.

    I also think there's a big difference between religious beliefs -- abstract and historically unprovable -- and spiritual experiences. We should go on our own experiences of the divine, not abstract belief systems that others have told us are the truth.