Homework Can Be a Dangerous Thing


This is an extra entry for the week, I think. Yay? It will also be a long entry. There will be quotes from my textbook. This is a warning to anyone who wants to stop reading now and my nod that I totally understand.

Here’s the thing about studying in a field like Human Services, especially when you come from a not ideal background yourself – you tend to suddenly find out that things apply to you. There are times when my homework becomes like first steps of therapy and then suddenly I’m in a whole different place from homework and it’s very distracting. Saturday was like that which, for the record, was not great timing because the reading was supposed to be the easy thing that I was just getting out of the way so I could get my paper done. I did get my paper done but not until like 10pm because the fairly short reading ended up being a thing that took several hours to process. I’m still not done processing and in the morning I thought “Hey! I have a blog! It’s practically designed for me to process in. Isn’t that nice?”

I think it’s important to start off by saying that my mother was an alcoholic. Is an alcoholic? Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic? Whatever the case, I have no memory of how I found this out or when I was told. It feels like something I always knew, like how I knew that Jesus was God and that abortion was murder. I don’t have any memory of being told any of these things, although surely I must have been. I assume at some point my mother or my father or both must have told me what alcoholic meant, that my mother used to be one. Maybe I asked why they didn’t drink, I really have no idea. The point is that I always knew it. The other important point to this story is that my mother has been sober since before she met my father. Not like a long time before she met my father, less then a year I think, but still. She has never drank or used drugs during my lifetime. That second part is important because it explains why it never occurred to me to look at patterns of families of addicts for familiar ground. Sure, my mother was an addict I guess. But I didn’t grow up with it.

One of my classes this quarter is Alcohol and Chemical Dependency. I have never had a lot of interest in working particularly with that population but in part due to my mother’s history (and also her extreme reluctance to talk about her history) I find some study of the subject interesting and it has been a good class. Our reading for this week was all about the family structure and how chemical abuse impacts that. And that’s when I found out that my entire family is in this book.

The first thing I saw was 17 common characteristics of adult children of alcoholics. I won’t put them all here but I strongly identified with 10 of them and there were 2 to 3 others that I identified with a little less strongly. That took me aback. Then I found a description of the phrase dry drunk. It wasn’t the first time I had heard it and I’ll leave out the whole piece because it’s a bit clinical and boring. But it’s also my mother. It’s what I’ve been saying about her for a long time. It basically says that the person stops drinking (or using, as the case may be) but is either unaware or unwilling to deal with the underlying issues that contributed to their use. Because they don’t deal with those issues, many of the behaviors continue, even though the use has stopped. There were several important elements to the family narrative around this topic. One was that my mother had been an alcoholic. This was (and continues to be) important to her because it means we are all in danger of inheriting that tendency. The second is that she stopped. It was in the past, it was something she had moved beyond and so, even though it was an almost constant presence in our lives, it was only present in the form of a threat. It was not an actuality. But what if it was? What if it wasn’t enough for her to stop drinking when she never looked at why she needed to drink to begin with? My mother embraced a lot of other things to deal with her life post-alcohol. The black and white thinking patterns got stronger and harsher as the years progressed. The dangers and threats of the outside world became more real and more present in all of our lives as a result of how they were present in hers. She stopped drinking. But maybe if you don’t actively work to change, you only become more of who you are. The idea that maybe that was possible at least helped me wrap my brain around why we might fit so much of what followed and why I resonated so strongly with these descriptions of families with addicts, coming from a family where no one ever used in my lifetime.

Following this was a section on family systems. The very first one was what essentially knocked me over.

Rigid Family System

Rules – Strict interpretation of the rules with no exceptions; inflexibility with no extenuating circumstances. The rules keeper (usually a critical/judgmental father or mother) is exempt from the rules.

Values – “There is only one way to do things and that is the right way – my way.” Things are always black and white, right or wrong.

Motto – Do it right, or else

Communication – Linear, hierarchical. The mother is critical-judgmental, often moralistic and controlling, and the father goes along with the mother, deceptively avoiding conflict and the rage of the mother.

Functions of drug – Suppress feelings, especially anger, and stay numb to the trauma in this family system.

So… that’s my family. No, seriously. I don’t really understand what substituted for “functions of drug” on that last line (I have a few ideas but I’m not willing to voice them just yet) but I know that suppression of feelings, especially anger, and staying numb rings insanely true.

Oh but you think we’re done. Nope. Then we had patterns of communication. One of them was the Intellectualizer.

Intellectualizers discount their own feelings. Their goal is to place rigid emphasis on the cognitive to figure out problems, to deny the role feelings play in relationships and decisions, and to avoid the emotional impact of feelings. Intellectualizers are the brains, the computers, the cognitive persons who think, “If I can only understand this, I’ll be O.K.” They often feel that if they can only find that missing piece of the puzzle, they will find the cause of their problems. They fail to integrate the key elements of the puzzle – their feelings – and fail to realize that the puzzle may not be solvable, especially with their linear approach. Their communication patterns feature the following: 

a. Words that are extremely logical: “That makes sense and is reasonable.”

b. Bodies in control or shut down

c. Feelings: “I am vulnerable and feel threatened when I get in touch with my feelings, especially feelings of vulnerability.”

Hey, that’s me. I mean, not 100% dead on, but like 87%. I’m not exactly a computer and I’ve always struggled with making my languages super logical. Part of my problem with being an intellectualizer has always been that I have a natural tendency to go a different direction at times. But so much of that is me. The thing about feeling like if I can just find the missing piece of the puzzle? That is my entire life. That is why I stayed with my parents for so long, asked so many questions, dug up so much stuff all of the time. I was convinced if I could just find the right thing, I could make it all make sense. I do it in other things all the time as well.

Then we moved on to survivor roles, one of which is the scapegoat child. That’s pretty much me too, but I already knew that one. The child whose problems the family can focus on so that they don’t have to look at their own or whatever. That’s something I found a while back so at least that was old information. There was a whole section about early attachment with parents and things that can damage that and exactly what that can end up looking like that rang eerily correct. Again, that’s not super new info to me and it’s stuff I’ve been thinking about for a while, particularly since taking my Human Development class in the spring but in context with everything else it was just one more thing. There was a small section about how in these family systems, when there is sexual violation it’s common for the families to deny it, to not get help and to take limited or no action to prevent future violations. So that was… true. Finally, we had a section on boundaries.

Disengaged boundaries are overly rigid, with little or no opportunity for communication. Individuals in families that maintain disengaged boundaries have little sense of belonging, often feeling isolated from one another. The family also isolates from community and society. The parents are emotionally unavailable to each other, to the children, and, for that matter, to anyone else.

Overly rigid boundary inadequacy is characterized by patterns of behavior wherein smooth and efficient functioning is a priority over being responsive and adaptable. Adherence to a preset code of behavior is maintained, regardless of intervening situational variables, wherein roles are played and rules are strictly enforced.

Again. This is… my whole life. My entire family, or my experience with them at least. I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information there. Understand this is all stuff I mostly know. I know it because I’ve fought my way to a lot of these conclusions over the last 15 years or so but I was working from scratch. I didn’t know these things had names and titles and words. One of the many problems I’ve had in coping with my upbringing was that the issues always seemed so lacking in shape to me. I knew something was wrong, in fact I knew many things were wrong, but I could never explain how they fit together or what it was that made them actually a problem. I could only point to individual things. “Here. This is a thing that was screwed up. Here’s another thing.” All of a sudden I find out that no, it’s possible there’s an Explanation. A box of some kind that it fits into.

I feel like that should make me happy, should make me feel better. I mean, that’s validating, right? All of these years of trying to explain “no, seriously, there is something really wrong, even if I can’t put my finger on THE THING” and then here is a thing, just hanging out. In a textbook, very official-like. I think I’ll probably get to the feeling better eventually. But right now I don’t feel better. Right now I feel angry. It’s not rational or reasonable and I hate feeling angry even when it is rational and reasonable but I’m trying to just go through it for what it is. I feel like I want to hit something, like I want there to be someone to blame. There should be someone to blame, right? When everything is a mess and people have been hurt and nothing is okay or fair or right, there should be someone to blame. There should be someone to be angry at. It should be okay to be angry. The more I get away from it, the more I realize how insanely isolated I was growing up, how very, very brainwashed I was much of the time. Sometimes my reaction is to be angry with myself for buying in, for not being smarter or more clever than that. Why couldn’t I see through it? But then I think how could I? I had literally nothing outside of this family structure and there was no room for me. No room for me to explore any kind of alternative, no room for me to ask questions. Everything was hanging by a damn thread all of the time. All we ever got told was how much there was to be afraid of and the things I needed to be afraid of most were right there in the room with me and they were the people who loved me and dammit, what am I supposed to do with that? I want someone to have saved me or said something or done something. Anything, really. But there’s no one to really blame. There’s no one to be angry at. There’s nowhere for it to go, so I’m just… sort-of a pointless whirlwind of frustration that doesn’t really make sense, with no focal point. This is one of my least favorite places to be, for the record.

This week I found out that a woman from my parents’ church also volunteers at DVSAS. I was very nervous at first, worried she might report back on me but in one conversation I realized no, she thinks my parents are crazy too. I mean, she didn’t say that but it was implied. When I visited my aunt a month or so ago, for the first time I realized she probably didn’t support the way we were raised, that she probably had all manner of opinions that she never voiced because who knows what would happen.

 How many people knew?

 I was a kid, thinking that I was completely alone in this and I’ve been an adult thinking I was completely alone in this for a good long time now and it turns out that’s probably not true. Probably people knew, probably people looked at my parents and thought they were crazy, thought that something was off. I understand, I really do. They weren’t doing anything that could be reported. No one could swoop in and save me. And no one can really say to a teenager “Yes, you’re right, your parents are nuts.” If someone had handed me this book ten years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been ready for what is in here. I might not even have recognized it. It’s not rational, it’s not reasonable but I’m still angry. I’m angry that I spent my entire life feeling completely alone, that I was the only one who knew something was wrong and I wasn’t. I’m angry that I had to work so damn hard to find words and spaces and ways to describe what was going on and every single inch of that hurt and I thought I was crazy most of the time and it turns out that it was all just right here, that it was a known pattern, an understandable thing and I just didn’t know where to look. I’m angry that I can’t stop dreaming about my parents and they’re all bad dreams and I just want to be done with this, I just want space. I’m angry that my mom couldn’t do the actual work, that she went through all of whatever I assume she went through to get sober but couldn’t do what she needed to in order to actually get well, for us, for me. And then I feel guilty for being angry because what can you do? It’s such a sad life. I know she wanted to be a good mom. I know she loved us. I know I’m hardly the only person who came out of this bleeding.

I guess the bottom line is that none of it’s fair. It isn’t fair that it happened, it isn’t fair that I am stuck trying to sort it now. I’m sure once the initial anger and feelings pass, I’ll feel better because of this. That’s usually what happens. I want to have it in the right box right now. I want to be at the point where I have a label on this and I understand how it fits into the larger scheme of things. That makes it safer, that makes me more solid. But I’m going to (grudgingly) allow for the possibility that what makes me more vulnerable might also make me stronger. I got really angry this weekend all by myself and I sorted it. I talked to a couple people, I wrote this out. I didn’t freak out, I didn’t shut down. I actually kind-of allowed myself to feel what I was feeling. I may hate every second of it but that might also count as a victory in a strange, backwards way. As it turns out, I’m not my parents. I am making active steps. I think that’s actually worth more than the rest.


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