Sunday, June 4, 2023

I was brought up in an abusive family. Should I cut them off? | Ask Annalisa Barbieri

I’m going through prolonged issues that have churned up painful memories of my childhood and adulthood. It’s difficult to know how to go on, as my daughter is getting older and I want to be strong and supportive for her.

I sought counselling and was told to never see or speak to my family again. It sounds easy, but I’m drawn to them like a drug habit. I know they are bad for my health, but I continue to attend family gatherings and invite siblings or parents to mine.

My father is in his 80s and dying. My parents’ marriage was tempestuous and codependent. My siblings and I witnessed and were in receipt of aggression, and hitting was a common occurrence. My mother would punch me and knock me to my knees for a minor misdemeanour. I have my mother to thank for being able to read people, as I’d watch her breathing or how she placed things to gauge her mood and avoid being hit. My father would kick or punch through doors. The threat of violence flaring up at any time was very stressful. There were also verbal put-downs and invalidations. I was often ganged up on by my siblings, who were spiteful and degraded me – something my mother found funny. It was neglectful, loveless and abusive on many levels. I felt unsafe and unwanted.

One day, when I was a teenager, my mother was approached by a man in the street who asked if he could take me out. She gave him our address, and after taking me out he sexually assaulted me. I’ve heard similar things happened to my sister with my mother’s blessing.

Now we are middle-aged and have our own lives. I am a mother (a very good and loving one). How do I heal? What do I do? I get depressive episodes.

I guess what I would like to know is how to carry on with the people I grew up with. I certainly don’t want to get close to them. When I’m with them I get so wound up and stressed.

Your original letter was very long and made me very sad, and angry for you.

I’m not sure that you have fully taken in how abusive and exploitative your childhood was. It’s as though you can list the things that happened to you (some of which I have excluded) and yet you divorce yourself from it. This is the mark of trauma. No wonder you get so wound up and stressed when you spend time with your family – your body is trying to tell you what your mind refuses to accept.

I went to psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and trauma specialist Dr Jo Stubley with your letter. She said that part of a parent’s job is to teach siblings to learn to get along and love each other, yet yours seemed to do the opposite.

“I can see,” said Dr Stubley, “that counsellors have told you to stop seeing your family, but if that’s coming from an external source, that’s not going to work. What has to happen is that you have to make a very active decision and ask yourself: ‘Is this causing me more harm than good?’ and ‘Why do I want to keep seeing them if they cause me harm?’”

I receive a lot of letters from readers who want to cut themselves off from their family, but it’s not easy, even if they move many miles away. I asked Dr Stubley why you “kept going back”, something else I see a lot. She said this was called “the repetition compulsion. We keep repeating things because we can’t really remember them, haven’t processed them, instead keep going back in the hope that something different will happen – and this hope is the addictive part you talk about.” You keep going back in the hope that you will get “the parents and family you hoped you would have”.

You need to grieve for what you didn’t have and what you can’t have. But in order to do that, you have to “properly remember, think about and feel what happened to you”. And who can blame you for avoiding this?

Going back to therapy is a good idea to start the healing process. “You need to get long-term space for yourself,” said Dr Stubley, who also suggested looking into peer support survivor groups such as Survivor’s Voices. She also recommended Oprah Winfrey and Dr Bruce Perry’s book What Happened to You?.

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How do you carry on? By asking yourself: “What do I need?” before each and every interaction with your family and listening to the answer. And if that answer is to not see them or speak to them, do that. On another day the answer could be different. Block their numbers to give yourself some space; it doesn’t have to be for ever. Limit, and control, contact. Put yourself and your child front and centre (and safe) in your world. It doesn’t sound like your family knows how to do this.

You’ve worked incredibly hard to become a good mother, and you told me you have friends. Your love and attention has a place to go where it’s valued.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the article. Please be aware that there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.

The latest series of Annalisa’s podcast is available here.

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