No matter how much my family tried to pretend that we were a normal and happy successful family, this was just not the truth. I have since realised that this is true for many other families, that we all want the narrative of a happy family. And yet, family is the source of so much mental illness and distress.
As the poet Philip Larkin famously said in “This Be The Verse”:
‘They fuck you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do, they fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra just for you.’
The influential psychotherapist R.D Laing put it more bluntly, placing the blame for much of mental illness squarely on the shoulders of the family institution. His own family was no exception to this rule. He was also a depressive himself, which perhaps gave him the insight into this observation, though it has also been used to discredit his ideas. His own children do not have many positive accounts of their life growing up with him.
How my family behaved and treated each other, and how they treated me might have been familiar to me growing up because it was all I knew. But it is never normal to be abused within your family. Just because it happens to millions, in every generation, still does not make it normal.
I realised this truth like a gradual dawning, an understanding that slowly evolved as I grew up and read so many books and recognised that the families of friends were different. That slow recognition culminated in a blinding flash. It was shocking, but a relief at the same time. I remember I was gardening at the time when it all fell into place for me.
This a seminal moment in your life, a game-changer. It means you face a whole new load of challenges. It also means this is the beginning of the end of the damage being done to you.
First is the choice to leave, and to what extent you might want to go.
You might want to walk away and go no contact, and that is undoubtedly one very positive but challenging step.
You may want to step right back and let them get on with it and just pop up when you feel able to.
Or you may decide to stay and try and work it out.
Let us examine each of those choices in a little more detail.
Stay and try and work it out
Yes, this is a possibility. It worked for my relationship with my own sons, but not with most of my family of origin.
Life and becoming a parent softened me up and prepared me to do the necessary work, but this was not reciprocated with my family. I was still and always would be the problem for them; they were automatically exonerated.
Life may soften family, parents, and or siblings, and allowed them to self-reflect enough to recognise they may not have been all that fair as a parent, or not that skillful. Parenting was my healing journey from my own abusive past and acknowledging all this family history allowed us all to grow closer and work together to put the old narratives behind us. Contrast with my sons and the rest of my family is stark, because only one or two cousins listens have come to me and listened.
If this is possible, I urge you to give it a really good go and send you all the love in the world that it gives you a happy ending. But do be careful. This is not only down to you to do the work and. It is not only your role to heal the family.
I had to do this with my sons if I wanted to stop repeating the patterns I had been born into, and I was not going to collude with the cover-ups either. As a child myself, I had a profoundly traumatising life. I had to make these choices for myself. So when I realised my own sons had struggled and suffered with me as a mother, I knew I had to work it through with them to help them get over what I had been working through myself. No matter how hard you try, if you are damaged by your past (and so many of us are), unless you face and deal with your trauma, you will pass it on.
You might think you are doing the opposite, but opposites can have similarly damaging outcomes. For instance, I tried to be democratic with my sons. But that was seen as weakness. Inside, I was still a terrified child, they did all they could to walk all over me.
But at least I was not the authoritarian nightmare my parents had been, or so I thought. I still got it wrong for them both, though we have since resolved it all through years of counselling support for us all and lots of forgiveness all around.
But I stayed and tried to work it out with my own family because I came to the understanding of how toxic they were for me too late. I was well and truly trauma bonded with them, my siblings and my mother, but not my father, who had saved me from his additional negative influences by cutting me off instead. A gift that I felt for years only as more rejection.
For those who do not know trauma bonding is common in an abusive relationship, similar to Stockholm syndrome, where the abused start to identify with their abusers as a form of survival. Victor Frankl also noticed it in his book Man's Search for Meaning about his experiences and observations of people in the Nazi concentration camps and how people sought meaning in their lives through siding with the Nazi guards against other Jews and inmates of their camp.
The risks of this strategy, remaining and trying to repair, is that you are probably banging your head against a wall and will never break free or resolve the situation. But it may be worth a try.
I remember how jubilant I felt when my mother agreed to go for counselling and told me her first appointment had been beneficial. I remember phoning her a few weeks later, and she had no recollection of that conversation, and there is no way she needed to see a counsellor. She had been lying to me, gaslighting, and my heart dropped like a stone. I was devastated and felt abandoned all over again.
I shut her out after that but went to the next stage. I also cut my sister off, more or less. She was a very negative relationship and certainly not a help for me with mother as she was mother’s golden child, though I did not understand that dynamic back then.
She and my mother decided I was jealous of her, but when she confronted me with that, I laughed out loud as this was so far from the truth. I had sisterly love and a desire to bond with her. I felt slightly protective of her as she was four years younger than me. But I had little or no trust or respect for her as a person. Sibling relationships are often just as much a casualty and nightmare as parenting ones are if the family is dysfunctional enough, and developing close sibling relationship against those odds may well not work out either.
But I thought if I could just get it right, mother would appreciate me as well. I only wanted equality but am not prone to jealousy, which is against the person when you want what they have. The equality option was never available to me because my mother was a narcissist with psychopathic overtones, but I still hoped back then.
So then I tried what many people take as an option, which may or may not work for them, which is the number two option on my list of choices you are faced with.
Stepping away but not breaking contact
You may want to step right back and let them get on with it and just pop up when you feel able to. This may work but don’t expect them to welcome you in with open arms when you do arrive. My mother and extended family harshly judged and scolded me for being low contact, say there is something wrong with me for withdrawing from my family and suggest I might need help to sort out my priorities, or attitudes along these lines. It could never have been about them.
The more I went into studying psychology though, and counselling, the more they ridiculed me for it. Anything I said that should have enabled change to occur just got ignored at best and wholly held up for denigration as the most common outcome. Everyone took turns in being superior to me in my madness of the ‘psychology psychobabble nonsense’ I was into. The smugness when they returned the books I had written, unread, to me was astonishing, and I realised they would never be open to me.
But after some final uttered betrayals around my father’s death, and my mother’s death a couple years later, I finally realised I must walk away from my family unless they were willing to listen to my story in its entirety. I believe it was what they also wanted — it seemed mutually agreed at the time. I was by now in full-blown PTSD breakdown, and they showed no compassion or interest in my wellbeing anyway.
We are so often hoping that we do not see what is in front of us, but this was so loud and clear that I could not pretend they cared one jot for me at all and I was too ill to be able to respond to them positively either.
Leaving and going no contact.
The final and ultimate step in survival, this is a huge statement that will have a massive impact on you and your life. Still, it is also often the default position for so many because other alternatives may have been tried and not worked out. I was lucky. I was in an amazingly healthy and loving marriage at the time, but for many, this is their last option, and they do not have that kind of support.
Often the fear of loneliness and not belonging is more than anything that stops people from taking this final step when all other options have been tried and failed. It can feel as if it will crush you and I have been through this stage elsewhere in my own life too. This is what I learned from those times, though.
Loneliness is different from being alone. It is a state of mind rather than a lived reality. All the times I felt and faced loneliness; in fact, it was only a day or two, a weekend or an evening perhaps. It never lasted too long because new people always came into my life to fill the gaps. My fear of not having anyone never materialized. I just had to remain open to the possibility of new people. Some who came were reminders of what I had escaped from, but many were also moving along in their own journeys and needed new people to walk this next part of that journey with them.
I remember reading the meme ‘nature abhors a vacuum.’
So you can fill the spaces in your life with fear and anxiety so there is no room for new, or you can leave enough space for new to come in and show you what next.
Some people come in as echoes of what you left behind so that you are fully awakened to what you must look out for and be aware of in future. Some come to fine-tune your intuitive choices as you move into the future. And some come to lead you on, to take you by the hand and say ‘this way now’. However much ridicule I got from my family for my interest in psychology and meditation, outside people were giving me publishing contracts and teaching jobs and signing up for my mindfulness meditation groups, even back in the 1990s when it was less trendy.
One of the things I noticed was that the family voices in my head were still so loud that they often drowned out all these positive affirmations of where I was heading, until I was able to recognise that too and gradually tune them out and silence them. That was such hard work but it was achieved in the end.
Every stage in this transition away from abusive families is hard. It takes courage and determination and enough self worth to know that this is for your own wellbeing. It felt like velcro tearing apart in inside me. I read books about how to do this and memoirs by people who had done it. It gave me hope and inspiration that I too would make it, of how to move forwards. The right books always seemed to come to me and the right time, the rule of synchronicity. The right teacher will appear when you are ready for them, and that is exactly what happened to me. I had both teachers of love and light and teachers darkness, who taught me how to embrace that the darkness in all of us.
I also felt such a failure and had to re-appraise that too. It is too easy to compare yourself with others and find yourself coming up short. But when we do this, we are not taking in the whole story, either our own or possibly theirs too. So many people who appear calm and successful on the outside are also hiding traumas and secrets on their inside too.
I never forget how I was stopped short in my tracks when I read that if you want someone else’s life, you must take all of it, not just the bits that appeal to you. That put things into place for me. Yes if I compared myself to those around me who had not faced what I had faced, then I seemed superficially a failure or a loser to some extent. I felt like an inferior human being to all others, regardless of who they were. Like most people who feel so inferior, I was often judgmental of others too, as a way of lessening that sense of worthlessness.
But over time, and especially after writing the whole story down in my memoir, I realised how heroic I had been. I realised my story was one amazing tale of triumph against all the odds, that my story should and could so easily have led to suicide, ( it so nearly did) drug addiction and street life in all its glory. Still, instead, I struggled through and got to a place of great happiness, in a strong marriage with two great sons, and found that I had talent as a writer and poet. WOW! Who would have thought.
My family certainly didn’t want to countenance that, AND they will not like the memoir I wrote either, (well some of them are OK about it but some are not). That journey and my family have given me sooooo much to draw upon, with compassion, non-judgment, and brutal honesty. I have now let them go with all the love I once felt for them, without any bitterness or regret, knowing it was the only choice I ever really had to make. I understand they were all damaged by their own lives just as I was, but I didn’t want to pass it on any more.
So I learned gratitude for all experiences in the end, and I realised that this journey away from dysfunctional family was a great adventure, a great escapade that had made me a much better person for all that. I no longer judge others even though I find the behaviours and attitudes some people enact cause me great astonishment and pain and sadness, I know they are on their journey, and I am on mine, no judgments needed.
You are amazing and astonishing and so brave and great, just plain great.
This is what all people from abusive families should take away. You are amazing and astonishing and so brave and great, just plain great. You may be a little messed up inside still — you may have a long way to go to get to stable and healthy and able to trust and love honestly again — but you are well on your way.
And so I hope this piece has given you some hope or encouragement or even just stopped you and made you rethink something or someone in your life.
But if you are thinking of breaking free then recognize the risks each option holds and the challenge each one presents, and then make your decision. It is never the wrong one, just the one you made for now. Any decision can be adapted, updated, or ditched. Getting to a place of emotional safety where you can heal is what really matters.
Sylvia Clare is a mindfulness teacher, poet, author of ‘The Well Mannered Penis’, ‘No Visible Injuries’, ‘Living Well and Loving ADHD’ ‘Julia’ and others.