Another long holiday weekend in the US has come and gone. For the past couple years I have been avoiding large get togethers with my family up north… I would call them the Mormon family, but many of them are no longer Mormon. At this point six of my father’s nine children are not LDS. My sister and I never were, but now four more have left the flock. Regardless of religion, however, immediate family gatherings are quite large, and emotionally cumbersome for me. This year Blue Eyes and I decided to go up for just one of the family events happening over the long 4th of July weekend. Last year we drove half way there, then turned around and came home. (Torn) This year we made it all the way. The triggers from making that drive are gone, and I no longer feel compelled to tell any of my family what I have been through, or what Blue Eyes is. In a conversation about books we are reading, my sister Elizabeth, the one who was betrayed by her husband who eventually came out as gay, talked about how at one point she couldn’t read anything, or watch anything, or listen to any music without being triggered. Boy do I know how she felt, but I didn’t say anything.
The theme of the whole trip for me kind of centered on the concept that often family dynamics are fraught with frustration and discord. We choose friends because we like being around them, we have things in common, we enjoy their company. This isn’t necessarily the case with family. I have mentioned many times how much I really do love my family. A couple of my sisters I find particularly difficult to be around, but hey, I am sure I drive some of my siblings nuts as well. Family is family. We’re born into it and many of us put up with a lot because we feel it is part of the deal. Well, it isn’t necessarily part of the deal. This I have learned the hard way. Sometimes you just have to walk away.
On the drive up, we listened to an NPR (National Public Radio) program called ‘Invisibilia.’ I wanted to listen to ‘Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,’ but Blue Eyes is kind of infatuated with this Invisibilia. Their little blurb on the NPR podcast directory says: Invisibilia (Latin for invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions. Invisibilia interweaves narrative storytelling with scientific research that will ultimately make you see your own life differently.
The title of the episode was The Problem with the Solution and it was, in a nutshell, about the theory that people with mental illnesses are better off surrounded by non-family members. It is a very interesting show and absorbed our thoughts for a good hour of the two hour and 15 minute drive. In this particular segment, one of the show’s hosts visits a town in Belgium where families board people, strangers, with severe mental illness. Sometimes these people live with them for decades. This practice in this town has been going on for a very long time, making the town’s people well trained and better equipped for the task of living with a mentally ill person, at least more so than the average person might be. Ellen Baxter spent her graduate fellowship studying this Belgian town and then later, she worked for a social welfare agency that aided the mentally ill and the homeless. She eventually founded Broadway Housing Communities, a NYC low income housing option where the mentally ill and non-mentally ill live side by side. The concept that mentally ill people do better living amongst virtual strangers is solidified in the success of these two separate scenarios.
In the end there was talk about the feelings and emotions surrounding the mentally ill and the complexity of a successful living situation. Generally, when living with family, they feel like the family wants to try and cure them. That there is something wrong that must be dealt with and the expectations of the family members is often that the ill will somehow get better and this is stressful and triggering for the mentally ill family member. When living amongst non family, however, those same expectations do not necessarily apply. Non family don’t have the same buy in. They don’t carry the same baggage. Live and let live, so to speak.
Most of the segment seemed to be focused on the feelings of the mentally ill and on alternate living solutions. Personally, coming from the other side of this having lived with a mentally ill sister for some of my life, I find the issues to not only come from the family, but also the mentally ill sometimes hear and feel things that aren’t actually there. With their illness, they carry this notion that their family is constantly judging them, or constantly wanting them to be different when I know that isn’t always true. I know my sister often talked about what she thought our expectations of her were and that she just wasn’t good enough. But the thing is, we didn’t have those feelings or expectations of her… they were in her mind. We just wanted her to stop hurting herself. I think my sister would have been better off living away from us, living amongst people who had no real personal connection to her. I think, frankly, it would have been better for her because she would have had to take responsibility for more of her own care. She could no longer use us as scapegoats. Without her family to constantly bail her out, maybe she would have let go of those false notions that she wasn’t good enough.
In dealing with Blue Eyes and his addiction, I find the same to be true. He put me in a box, just like my sister had put me in a box. She felt like everything came easy to me. That I couldn’t possibly understand her. That she could never be the sister I wanted. In the case of Blue Eyes, I really believe that he gave up on himself a long time ago. In not being able to live up to his parent’s standards for him, at least the standards he perceived from their words and actions, he constantly made the excuse that he wasn’t good enough. That excuse became the impetus for his acting out behaviors. If he blamed his inability to live up to someone else’s standards, then he could rationalize why he needed a secret life. I never really asked for much. I never should have been used as an excuse for why anyone behaved badly.
I liken the living amongst strangers scenario to Blue Eyes’ 12 step group. He walked into a group of strangers who had absolutely no expectations of him. He knew that going in. They had compassion and understanding, but no preconceived notion of who he was “supposed to be.” Without the expectations of others, maybe the excuse of “I’m not good enough…” goes away. In the end, this is not about the people they surround themselves with, or the people who raised them, but in fact, it is always about how people feel about themselves. No excuses, no rationalizations.