Overcoming family denial and secrecy, and learning to trust people who can help
Both sides of my family are dysfunctional. Lucky me! My dad’s family members argue, yell, and drink…a lot. He can tell stories of a very traumatic childhood. They don’t try to hide their dysfunction, but he also looks down on therapy as “stupid,” and thinks others need to toughen up. My mother’s side was not so obvious, but was far more toxic. She used to scapegoat my father as a horrible drunk, and she made her self the sad victim, but under her false front was pure evil. I preferred the honest anger of my dad’s family to the two-faced backstabbing of my mother’s.
I always knew something was severely wrong, but when I spoke up, I was beaten and shamed for “talking back” and “disrespecting” my mother. No one wanted to address the lies, manipulation, gossip, fake Christianity, addictions, and worse that were floating around in their pseudo-good religious family. My mother is a narcissist with hints of Borderline Personality Disorder. She could play very nice at church then come home raging and threatening to kill me. But, I didn’t have a name for what was wrong with her until I was in my 30s. In her family, denial and secrets were more important than getting functional and mentally healthy. This link about dysfunctional family dynamics is a good summary of what life was like. As I started learning, many times I tried to share my feelings and some literature with her, and she mocked me, rolled her eyes and was not willing to listen. (This link about narcissistic mothers is one of the ones I sent her in hopes of getting her to open her mind.)
When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you learn to cope in dysfunctional ways. Even though I knew something was wrong, I still didn’t know how to live like a normal person and overcome that dysfunction. I coped by being a doormat and “compromising” so much that I totally ignored all of my needs and desires. After all, I had learned to trying to speak up for myself led to whippings!
When I married a covert narcissist who acted quite a bit like my mother, my first reaction was to blame myself and hate myself for making people treat me that way. But, I knew that it was time to figure out what was wrong. I started reading self-help books for the first time. I wanted to learn everything I could to figure this out! I had thought that if I just married a good man and found a new family, I could escape mine and all would be well. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy when I married the male version of my mother! I started going to therapy and really opening up to the idea that it could work. I had tried it a couple times previously, but always put up a big emotional wall instead of trusting a stranger. But, I was miserable and willing to do whatever it took. So, I started pouring out everything to my therapist. She was able to help me grasp that my family really was as sick as I thought they were, and I was not “crazy.” She also helped me start getting on the right track to realize how I could stand up for myself and choose to escape their cycles of abuse.
That was over eight years ago, and it was my first step to becoming a whole person. I now strongly believe that therapy is essential–even if your life isn’t that bad. There is always something we can learn from others–especially those who are trained to recognize and understand human behavior. All therapists are different, but when you find the right one for you, they can become an amazing mentor. You just have to open your mind and trust that there is a problem and it can be fixed.
I’ve been reading self-help books and keeping up with new ideas and research ever since, which led me to start this web site. One of the first books I read that helped me release the guilt of wanting to escape my toxic family was: Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. This author is a great resource and just one of the many good books to help validate the pain those of us with abusive/dysfunctional parents have had to live with while our parents denied everything that happened.
In dysfunctional families, denial, emotional walls, secrets and lies are common, but to heal, we have to be honest with ourselves and others. For me, opening up to a therapist, and opening my heart to the words of others in self-help books was the beginning.