Dysfunction

Why Tell the Story

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”— Maya Angelou

There is an interesting phenomenon when things happen that hurt. People don’t want to talk about it. When sexual abuse happens children become silent. It is common for a child to want to hide from the reality of abuse. They don’t tell anyone because they think the behavior is their fault. For many the story is not told for many years. For some, it is never told. 

When I disclosed to the church judicatory officials about the details of clergy sexual abuse perpetrated toward me and others, the church blamed my parents for being troublemakers. The judicatory official told my sister, through my dad, to keep her mouth shut after she had confronted another person, who had made inaccurate remarks about the abuse. My dad followed orders and my sister kept quiet. I learned only a few months ago about the inappropriate behavior to my sister from the church official. It has been over 50 years since the abuse took place! 

The tendency to remain silent when abuse and injustice takes place occurs at different levels of our society. For example, a recent 50-state survey of Millennials and Gen Z participants found that over 60% did not know 6 million Jews were killed. Approximately half (49%) of them have seen Holocaust denial or distortion posts on social media or elsewhere online (Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany). 

This troubling trend is assisted with a mentality of embracing the improbable and ignoring the obvious which exists in many dysfunctional families. If you don’t talk about it, somehow it doesn’t exist. It’s out of sight, out of mind. This thinking contributes to abusive behavior being passed from one generation to another. 

The reason to tell the story is to stop the abuse. Secrets carry the shame to the next generation. Shame influences the creation of abusive behavior that dominates others. Abuse hides in secrecy. 

Telling the story stops the crazy-making. When silence covers abuse, healing stops and reparations do not happen. It is imperative that the stories of abuse be told. This includes physical, sexual, religious, emotional, and intellectual abuses. To avoid the stories is to pass the mantle of shame to the next generation who will suffer the past generations’ unwillingness to speak to the issue. It likely recreates the abusive dynamics in their own day and time. It takes courage to stop an abusive and unhealthy legacy. Some day your children will thank you for doing so. 

The deepest truth is found by means of a simple story. To me, the greatest single tool for my personal healing has been my own story. Powerful stories of healing are housed in average everyday living. Contained within every life story is the truth that liberates. This is why Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has been so powerful for so many for so long. Within the community of alcoholics, there are “shared stories.” Each unique story is tied together through shared weakness. Nothing changes until it becomes real. No one goes through childhood and avoids disappointment and other hurts. 

There are “Big T” and “Little T” traumas. All are significant. The accumulation of major/minor traumas creates a pool of pain that must be drained for personal healing to occur. That pool of pain encompasses the average everyday experiences of our childhood that were hurtful, whether major or minor. Understanding the impact of these “minor” traumas in average everyday living takes focused effort. 

Many of us sort of walk “around the dead dog” in the living room when it comes to recognizing unmet emotional needs from ordinary past experiences. It takes courage to tell our stories and deepen our awareness of what is real. We are often afraid to unravel the uneventful uncomfortable times of our past. We fear that if we do so, our notions of reality will disintegrate, and all that we have always thought to be true will crumble into nothingness. Yet, personal healing demands that we tell our story to uncover the meaningfulness that exists when we allow ourselves to lean into the pain. 

Carl Jung concluded that every person has a story. When derangement occurs, it is because the personal story has been denied or rejected. Healing and integration come when people discover or rediscover their personal stories. Voicing our story is that important! One author declared that stories are memory aids, instruction manuals, and moral compasses. Sue Monk in The Secret of Bees wrote that “stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we are here.” 

Collective and individual healing is dependent upon you and I telling our story.

Ignoring the Obvious While Embracing the Improbable

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

“Who so loves, Believes the impossible” — Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Addicts ignore the elephant in the living room. It is obvious to everyone that dad, mom, brother, or sister is acting out in addiction. Yet, nobody confronts the issue. Everyone pretends that there will be a better day. Nobody admits that addictive behavior is running rampant. You drink the Kool-Aid of denial and project that the family is good and everything is going just great. 

Families with untreated substance addictions are not the only ones who ignore the obvious while embracing the improbable. There are families who project being very religious while ignoring that dad is a serial philanderer. There are couples who project the image of harmony and happiness in public but who privately barely speak to each other. Is it hypocritical? Sure! Yet, over time those who ignore the obvious gradually learn to believe the improbable is real. There really isn’t a dead dog in the living room!

Businesses and institutions also ignore the obvious while embracing the improbable. There is a certain type of game that is played. Once I worked as one of the ministers at a large dynamic church. It was promoted as the largest of its kind. The lead minister avowed and reported that several thousand people attended his church each Sunday. It was questioned so he asked that I organize a count of worship goers for six weeks. After the allotted time, I reported that there were 1000 fewer people attending the worship service than he boasted. He was very angry and insisted that his estimate was correct and my count was wrong. So we pretended that 1000 people were there that were not. Eventually, the infrastructure of embracing the improbable implodes and reality deflates perception like a deflated balloon. When you ignore the obvious it will eventually become devastating. 

Everyone is tempted to embrace the improbable. We don’t want to face the obvious when the reality is disappointing. 

Historically, many did not want to think of John Kennedy or Martin Luther King as philanderers but they were. Many wanted to ignore that steroids in baseball were a problem, but they were. I wanted to believe that Lance Armstrong was an unbelievable athlete who did not cheat, but he did. What is obvious, and that which is improbable, bump up against each other throughout life.  How do you sort or sift what is real in your life?

1. Don’t play games. Face what is real in your personal life. There are payoffs for people who play games. The games that I reference are not “Ha-ha” games. They are games that you keep you safe in a dysfunctional family. Every family creates rules and gives messages about what is OK and what is not. Family is the cocoon in which children learn to interact with the outside world.  When a family is unhealthy, a child will not know the difference between what is hurtful or not. The sphere of their family world is all they know. Unhealthy families become rigid so their rules and regulations become gospel and make it difficult for new information from the outside to penetrate the protective sphere of family influence. So if dad gets drunk on Fridays and screams at everyone or slaps mother because she said something he didn’t like, it is easy for a child in that environment to interpret that all families live like this and that walking on eggshells around dad, with fear and anxiety, is a normal part of everyday living. It takes time and deliberate action to demythologize your parents and the family rules that dominated you. You must first recognize how unhealthy family rules and messages impact you in a negative way. Without this deliberate action, your tendency will be to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable. The process is unnerving and likely will trigger guilt for questioning the fundamental beliefs that your parents taught, depending upon how dysfunctional your family of origin is. If you learned that you are not to question the authority of your parents, then be prepared to struggle with guilt.  You may need the help of a therapist to detach from the guilt and the rules of your family. They are powerful.

2. Once detached, train in observing your behavior around authority figures and the culture you engage at work and other organizations. It is normal to want to please those you work for or with. When things don’t go your way, pay attention to how you respond. Notice when you become triggered and overreactive. Pay attention to what goes on emotionally underneath the surface about the issue that triggers you. If you have a patterned history of struggling with authority figures, it is a signal that you have unresolved family-of-origin issues to address. Maybe your struggle is that you tend to go along to get along. It might mean that you won’t address a principle that you believe in for fear of rejection. On the other hand, you might find yourself quibbling and irritated without knowing why. What you think is a personality conflict might be an issue of unresolved family-of-origin work with your parents. If you don’t address these issues you will repeat ignoring the obvious and embracing the improbable. You must pay attention to your behavior and the games you play as well as the rules of the games other people play. When you learn to detach from both, you will respond from a position of strength and not weakness.

3. Embracing the obvious opens the potential for the impossible. Nothing changes until it becomes real. When you identify the elephant in the living room, you can do something about it. You can separate destructive behavior from the person. You stop playing a game and identify the destructive behavior for what it is. You transform behavior that is experienced as nonproductive to being a curse and destructive into a blessing of resolution and relational connection. This is the essence of what love is about. It is not ignoring what is hurtful but it is leaning into the obvious. Seeing the obvious with mature compassion and love is the way to responsibly create a different world. Love teaches you what is beneath the surface. It helps to see what is hidden to the eye but known to the heart. When you embrace the obvious you can allow the wisdom of love to work its magic in transforming relational dynamics in family, work, and the culture at large. Breaking through denial and facing the dead dog in the living room is necessary to heal unhealthy relationships. This form of love is the dynamic that transforms the impossible within you and creates possible healthy relationships with those whom you engage. 

Walking Away From Crazy

“We come from fallible parents who were kids once, who decided to have kids and who had to learn how to be parents. Faults are made and damage is done, whether it’s conscious or not. Everyone’s got their own ‘stuff,’ their own issues, and their own anger at Mom and Dad. That is what family is. Family is almost naturally dysfunctional.”  

—Chris Pine 

Family is a powerful dynamic. It’s the place we come home to every day. It’s a place where the fundamental supplies to do life are provided in order to function and thrive. Family is where the emotional, physical and spiritual needs are furnished and developed. Most families do not provide enough for these needs to be met. Essentially, bonding is a critical need that when left unmet without sufficient amounts of mirroring, engagement and attunement to children increases the likelihood of addiction  Addiction most likely occurs when an individual cannot find meaningfulness in everyday experience. This is not addressed by providing more things for the child to do, but rather by participating with the child’s activities with sufficient amounts of time. Connection is critical and ofttimes missing. Without connection the possibility of addiction increases. For certain it contributes to the creation of crazy-making life experience. 

I tell people we had 12 kids in our family. In reality, there were 9, 4 girls and 5 boys, and I was the youngest boy. I say 12 because my parents raised my oldest sister’s 3 kids from school age to teenage. My sister’s kids were dropped off at our front porch and abandoned by their parents, who were unwilling to raise them. I often think about how crazy-making this experience was for them. Including them into our family would be a bare minimum expression of care.

My dad was a World War II vet, a foot soldier for two years. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I learned after his death that he was a decorated soldier with 2 Bronze Stars, 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, and a Purple Heart.  He took his World War II combat PTSD out on the boys in our family. Once one of my older brothers, Jimmy, thought he was big enough to take on my dad. He had disobeyed and smarted off to my mom. My dad told him he couldn’t talk to his mom that way and to apologize. Jimmy told him that he would not apologize and wanted to settle the matter, mano a mano with my dad. My dad gave him a beat down. It was awful. He never stopped until my mom begged him to stop. It became pretty clear to me that any kid who received a beat down like my dad gave Jimmy would have a ton of rage inside. This was the type of crazy-making I grew up with. 

Then there was church which doesn’t have to be dysfunctional. Yet, in my experience, it reflected the reality of the home I grew up in—crazy-making. We all had to go to church twice on Sundays, to a midweek prayer meeting, and all the revival meetings which took place twice a year for two weeks straight every night.  

Our preacher’s name was Gravitt. My dad liked to call him “Doc” Gravitt. He was no doctor I would ever choose to visit. He was a rough rogue. He would call people out by name during the worship service and accuse them of not paying their tithe. He was known to stop preaching, walk down from the platform, and spank a kid for misbehaving in church. He would challenge men who he thought were malcontents to meet him in the parking lot outdoors for a fight. He was unpredictable and very abusive. My parents always thought he was God’s anointed and that you had to tolerate the negative in order to get the positive. They would cite some of the antics of characters in the Bible that God used and were satisfied that Gravitt was like one of those. They would say that it took a character like Gravitt to drive out the riffraff so that the church could grow. All my brothers and I  thought that Gravitt was the riffraff. We all used to love it when my one of my older brothers, Dave, would mix it up with Gravitt when he would try to get in Dave’s face and tell him how he should live his life. Dave would not tolerate Gravitt’s bullshit!  He would challenge Gravitt to meet him in the parking lot for a fisticuff.  We all looked forward to these encounters. We thought they were entertaining. In truth it was crazy-making!

My parents had little time to spend with their kids. Geez, if they were paid full time to only raise kids, there still wouldn’t be enough time to spend with each kid. As it was, my dad worked 2-3 jobs at a time and my mom was a domestic worker. In our home, everything was rationed.  Baths, the amount of milk for breakfast, food, and electricity were all rationed in order to cover the expenses of 14 people. There wasn’t any personal time for affection, attunement of spirit, and emotional support from parents. 

Martin Luther King once said that “violence is the language of the unheard”.  In the family I grew up in there was little experience of being heard. My parents tacitly agreed to not fight about disagreements they had. The anger that was avoided between them was played out between my siblings and me. I was the youngest boy so I had experienced a shitload of hell from my older brothers. To say the least, it was crazy-making.

The lack of touch, attachment and bonding that my parents missed in their childhood was passed along to me and my siblings. It became a mainspring to the years of intimacy disabled-ness, struggle, and addiction that would later develop and come to fruition in my life and that of some of my family members. There was little touch and affection and nurture was scarce. It was crazy-making.

How do you walk away from crazy-making? Addicts experience dysfunctional dynamics within their families of origin to one extent or another. There are many effective suggestions for addressing the crazy-making. Here are a few to consider.

Tell your story. Make your rags into a tapestry. It is a worn-out metaphor, yet many addicts continue to want to walk around the elephant in the living room. Our families of origin have taught us well how to compartmentalize dysfunctional pain and pretend it does not exist. We embrace the impossible and ignore the obvious. Shame is passed from one generation to the next and the conduit is secrecy. We create secrecy by hiding what we don’t want others or self to see and thus avoiding what is painful. Addicts are great with knowing how to compartmentalize. 

Show your family rags in 12-step groups. Let this sharing be a stepping stone to open your heart and share with your family, your partner, and your kids. They will truly benefit. Through your sharing, your kids will be able to stand on your shoulders and make a better way for their future. It is an excellent beginning in unraveling the crazy-making from your family of origin. It is a way of making a tapestry from the rags of dysfunction.

Scrub the wound. So much in recovery is counterintuitive. When hurt we want to roar with anger, whereas healing requires us to embrace our anger, fear and sadness with vulnerability. Overcoming the crazy-making that exists in our family of origin insists that we lean into our fear, fragility, and frozen emotional experiences. 

Like scrubbing a laceration on your knee, the last thing you want to do is what is demanded. Scrubbing emotional wounds is painful. It is automatic that you would want to shy away and procrastinate scrubbing the wound. When we don’t, the infection spreads throughout our relational lives and appears every time anxiety and threat surface in our lives. Crazy-making family dysfunction must be scrubbed. You must drain the pool of pain that exists through identification of hurt, grieving the losses, and validating your experience.  

Anchor to your true self.  Tolerating the crazy-making in your family of origin required you to create a false sense of self. Survival in your dysfunctional family called for people-pleasing, caretaking and approval-seeking behaviors. Often your inherent value was not nurtured and was forced into hiding in your family of origin. You may have learned to seek identity and validation through the services you rendered to others. This can set you up to do more to keep from being less. As an addict, this is a common place where you lose your sense of self. This becomes a perfect place to escape emotional pain with your drug of choice.  Ending the crazy-making handed to you from your family of origin requires that you anchor to your true self. Crazy-making experiences in life come to an end when you anchor to your own sense of worthiness. It demands that you embrace your own feelings whatever they are. Rather than being dominated by what others feel about you, your true self will give birth to authentic congruence.  Your feelings begin to line up with your values which are expressed by what you say and how you live. It’s being anchored to your true self that separates you from the crazy-making in dysfunctional family living.