My never-ending family story has always been a hard scene in which I am very young and small and terrified. I’m staring at my parents and brother locked in combat. There may be no action, it usually flashes at me in tableau form, but there is plenty of rage, fear and hurt. There is a pause between shouts, threats, perhaps punches, hands at a throat, something grabbed and about to be thrown, once even a gun.
I can see the fixed scene of confrontation, the outbreak of fighting between my father and my brother, who is giving the shout and the fist to my mother’s hoarse rage.
I am in the midst of the fighting but have to hold back.
No one can hear me, though I am trying to be heard, to get them to stop fighting.
I can’t step into the fight because then everything will break apart.
I know I am the only thing holding them and the household together, and I do this by not jumping in, taking sides, joining the fight.
I love them all and don’t want to hurt anyone, I want us to stay together
I am afraid that by getting into it with them, everything will fall apart, I will lose this home, I will be alone, homeless, lost … ?
In the family, everything was at the breaking point in every one of these fights, everything was at stake. I was sure of it. The danger was too great, the need to exert my responsibility to keep them together by not joining in, by not being like them, by not becoming violently angry as they were, was uppermost. The essential thing.
Yet I was afraid and aware only of the fear and my immobility. I felt I was failing, that I was a coward, that I should be stronger, step in and fight – who? my father? Why? because my mother hated him and my brother was following her direction?
I hated myself for acting in this way out of fear that I would lose my home and whatever security there was. I was more aware of fear, cowardliness, failure than anything. It was an impossible situation.
So the pattern was my standing there, dissociated in a way – taking it all in, yet staying back. The people in front of me looked bigger than I felt, more alive, more real. I became invisible. Until my mother turned to me, perhaps in passing as the scene was breaking up and called me a traitor for not defending her.
Later in life, the people and places, of course, were different, but I kept seeing the same pattern. Each time, I had to pause to sense the danger as feelings intensified. I usually had to do something, but often acted through fear, or else through anger when anger was covering fear.
Guided by these feelings, I so readily did the wrong thing, turning away when I wanted to embrace or yelling in anger when I wanted to be close and loving. I easily said the wrong words because I wasn’t listening to myself, or tried to shut down the feelings of others as I had shut down my own.
My instinct was to control from the old pattern, to be the one whose inaction held everything together. I was safe as an observer. I watched what I was doing, evaluating, directing myself to play the scene in a certain way. Each experience tended to be a puzzle, a challenge. How should I approach this? I put a big space, a long pause, between the stimulus and my reaction.
Going through life in this dissociated way became normal for me. It could be useful, but it was also frustrating. If I felt something intensely I forced a space between the inner experience and any outer reaction. I didn’t want people to see me in the immediacy and intensity of feeling. I didn’t want the feeling to take over my body.
I could not change the story easily because it protected me in some ways. For decades it was my unconscious guide, always there to script a scene before I could step into it, before I could live it. That kind of life felt safe but became bleakly unfulfilling. There was little trust. I became wary, alert, using my powers of perception to anticipate and shield myself and those I cared about from the dangers I imagined.
It filled my being so deeply that it became the scene I tried to put myself back in, though I was rarely conscious of what I was doing. It gave me the default stance in any situation. Let the others show the feelings that filled them before sharing any of my own. My sharp senses needed to pick up from them the first hint of anger, fear or contempt – those flashing lights of warning.
I needed the acute awareness, the sensitivity to every shift of a muscle because it was tied to feeling. But I wanted to be aware and relaxed enough to be involved, not standing back, pretending to be a detached mind with no physical presence, a ghost. Yet I was always there, and by not taking part, by remaining silent, I was really shouting in pained discomfort. People looked at me, as if saying: We need you to come closer. We need you to be here. Now.
My never-ending story had an almost magical power. I could break the spell by letting myself say to someone out loud what I was feeling. Then the still scene came to life, and I was a part of whatever was going on. I was no longer controlled or frozen by the spell of a long-ago past. I could choose what I wanted to do and say, feel what I needed to feel. Open my eyes to see that the people around me were not my old family, stuck in anger without resolution. I could see that the original family story had ended long ago, and there was no use in repeating it over and over again.
Breaking the power of that story was one of the first steps in healing, yet its power was so strong and resilient that I had to keep breaking it many times. I can still find myself behaving as if I were part of the same family scene I grew up with. A big part of the work of staying well is maintaining my awareness of its shadowy influence.
Do you have a never-ending family story that still shapes the way you relate to people? How have you dealt with it?