My Top 5 Reminders for Surviving Family Drama

Morning ends soon. I'm drinking my coffee way too fast and listening to Ultraviolence a lot louder than I usually do.  Behind me, my living room is a semi-organized pile of unlabelled items.  My task this weekend is to sell off my life in the form of a 2-day yard sale.  Books, DVDs, empty plastic containers, and art in frames.  It seems highly inappropriate for me to be trying to blog right now when I clearly have so much to do.  This week was supposed to be designated to prepare for this.  But like I so often do when I have a lot of time to do things… I've taken my time.  My days have alternated by messing up my house in an attempt to make it cleaner and watching episodes of Bloodline.  It wasn't a good time to discover a new series that I didn't expect to like.

It also wasn't a good time to be stressed a LOT this week because of family issues.  Both sides of my family.  Extended and immediate.  It actually started two weeks ago, and hasn't ceased: as soon as I think I'm out of the woods, something else comes up.  No one has a perfect family, I get it.  Most families, like mine, have complications that are rooted out of fear, whether it's from your generation or the one before it, or from the one before that.  I've decided - in my stubbornness and unwillingness to continue the cycle - to go against that fear, bridging negativity into the past into a chance for a happier future.  My own therapist warned me early on that it would be difficult.  But not impossible.  There should be a dramatic pause after difficult because a period and two hits of my spacebar don't suffice.  These are some of the things I've learned from that process, that I can't keep calling my ex-common law to talk about.  So now I'm telling you.

1. This is where every piece of work you've ever done comes into practise.

Every dreaded dollar you paid out-of-pocket for therapy and every time you walked out of that office feeling like an even bigger, steamier bag of shit than when you walked in.  Every time you wondered why you were ripping yourself apart emotionally when no one else is putting this work in.  For every time you felt guilty walking in late because that shit is so expensive.  Or for every time you felt like your therapist was judging you because they think they know you based on how much you're paying. (You can probably tell, I've had my share of not-so-enlightening experiences on the La-Z-Boy - and for the record, not every therapist's office, even in private practise, has a La-Z-Boy.)  If you haven't gone to therapy, maybe you've had to reschedule work commitments or you've had moments in your career where people's shitty behaviour has reminded you of something you've seen or dealt with in your own family.  The truth is, our family structures shape us in a way that is intrinsic to not only who we are but how we experience the world.  We'll observe patterns in behaviour even when we receive and complete the cognitive training to correct it in ourselves.  It never gets easier.  We just get stronger.  We become more aware over time of the kind of thought and behaviour patterns that rule our family members, especially if once upon a time, those same patterns ruled us, too.  Therapy gives us a new layer of understanding other people, as well as ourselves.  When our skills are put to the test when we deal with family drama, they work.  As long as we are mindful and keep our emotions regulated in these often triggering times, we can see every gruelling hour we put in work magic in preventing ourselves from self-destructing while also ceasing to further aggravate difficult situations.

2. Chances are, they didn't do that work.

If your family situation is anything like mine, and you did the majority of your recovery work on your own or in the company of a support network you had to build on your own, chances are the family you're dealing with didn't do the same work you did.  This reality can be both a redundant slap in the face as well as a reminder of the hard work that you did.  It sucks and it isn't fair that you put all the work in to fix yourself, when you were never broken.  Your family was.  Or whatever the situation was that caused you so much pain that you had to rebuild your portion of a mess that wasn't yours.  But it's important to remember that now, YOU have an edge.  You can get through it mindfully and you're aware of the pain you're actively choosing not to take on.  Remember that quote from every group therapy program and DBT program on earth? "Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." Of course dealing with the people who hurt you to begin with is painful, there's no doubt about that.  But the work you've done in therapy has given YOU the power to shut the door in drama's ugly face and say, "no thanks."  You can engage in conversation.  You can sign the papers and make the calls.  But you decide whether or not it ultimately brings you down.  Chances are, you're taking the high road.

This has been especially difficult for me, being the youngest member of a large family where for my entire life, I was not only physically smaller than the others but my ideas and opinions were never valued, either.  This does horrible things to your self-esteem and I've given up on a lot of my own great ideas as a result.  That crippling self-doubt they talk about when people are afraid of public speaking and how people get anxious in the spotlight?  Multiply that by 500 and we'll talk.  I went through life learning, re-learning, and learning again that I could not trust anyone.  It didn't help that getting caught in the middle of my parents' complicated divorce and losing the parent closest to me when I was just 15 happened at the heels of it all.  Therapy saved my life, and it continues to save my life because every conversation with any family member is a trigger.  It's a reminder of being small and powerless and walked all over, by the people I was supposed to be able to trust over everything.  It's a reminder of being buried alive by pain that no one sees.  I've had problems in my intimate relationships, problems with friends, and problems at work.  I didn't know how to trust others, and I knew only to mimic the behaviour I saw.  And while I take full responsibility for the dysfunction and pain I caused others, I realize that the root of this wasn't my fault.  No one needs to live like that.  No one needs to go through life feeling like nothing they ever do will amount to anything because the problems surrounding them are so great.  And so it's a powerful reminder to know that being able to live to tell my own tales is an incredible privilege, but one I wouldn't have if it weren't for hard work.  Therapy, and changing the way you think after decades of being taught otherwise - is the hardest work there is.  It is hard and it is painful and for seconds, days, or weeks at a time, I still feel like I'm ready to quit sometimes.  Take the time you need.  This is your healing.  Your recovery.

3. Forgive yourself first.

This was supposed to be point #5 but I thought I should address it sooner.  If you came from a religious background like I did, "forgiveness" might be a word you hate for the way you grew up being choked with it.  I've contemplated for several hours over my recovering years about what the word 'forgiveness' really means, and I've read countless quotes online embedded in swirly, rainbow typography.  I still see it as a wild card.  I still see it as a word that symbolizes the obligation to make peace with others who have wronged you even when they might have no regard for your wellbeing at all.  Even if they never will, and no matter what you do, they don't let up.  Ultimately, it comes down to this: you can't change other people.  Everyone says it, but the weight of those words won't come down until it makes sense to you.  It seems like common sense.  You can't tell someone to be someone they're not.  You can't make someone else behave.  It isn't just through words though; through your actions, you cannot guarantee the actions of any other person.  You are never guaranteed to influence anyone's behaviour.  What you can guarantee, however, 100% until the end of time is YOUR behaviour.  You can influence yourself as much or as little as you desire.  So whether or not you want to listen to me, this is a damn good place to start: forgive yourself.

Forgiving other people is difficult.  Especially when they're assholes.  So don't.  Everything they say about "lifting the weight" and "letting go" is all fine and good but it means nothing if you forgive others and simply transfer that weight onto yourself.  You will never relieve yourself of ANY of your pain and suffering if you lie to yourself instead and say you've come to terms with terrible things, just so you can save face and let the people who hurt you to begin with walk all over you even more. Haven't you had enough?  It's a disservice to yourself to lie about your pain, to lie about manipulation and emotional abuse.  And if you're anything like me, maybe your tolerance for bullshit has gotten smaller and smaller since you started therapy.  Maybe your patience for lies and excuses has completely vanished and all you'll ever take from everyone else outside your family is the truth, and nothing but the truth.  Why should they be any different?

It's not to say that family can never be forgiven.  I only stress that forgiving yourself should be your priority, not forgiving them.  Simply put: you're the one who has to live through this.  You lived through the past and you have to see the future you're building for yourself.  It isn't about the family you've left or might be leaving behind, nor about a hypothetical family you may have in the future, because they aren't here right now.  Only you are.  And you need to forgive yourself to move forward because the future needs both your hands and your heart.  You won't be able to carry the weight of the things you love, or let the light in for the things that bring you pure, unquestionable joy, if you're stuck carrying the pain of the past, or your heart is closed off because it's still under construction.  Let go, and heal yourself first - for you.  Not for anyone else.

4. There are no bad people, only bad decisions.  You still have yours.

I say this tongue-in-cheek because sometimes I don't believe it.  Sometimes I believe people are bad to the core, like on the days I don't alter between cleaning my house and watching Bloodline, and instead I just watch Bloodline and BoJack Horseman and eat enough sugar to fall asleep in a diabetic coma. (In a past life I would have drunk myself to oblivion, binged on a heart-attack poutine, and sliced my arm up until my flesh was unrecognizable.  Sorry, forgot to throw in a trigger warning.  But for perspective, since I don't like horror movies either.  Sometimes my Facebook feed is scary enough.) On the less-shitty days, though, as the wonders of DBT and hours of expensive therapy have taught me, I can trace back my own bloodlines to the pain of people I've never met.  Sacrifices that needed to be made and decisions that needed to be executed quickly, for the good of everyone else, for a more sound future.  These decisions were bad.  Poor.  Shitty.  Awful.  Selfish.  Inconsiderate.  You can throw any negative adjective on those decisions because they're all true.  They're all valid, all right.  The people who make them?  Well, all people are imperfect.  You know your imperfections as I know mine.  We sure as hell know of the imperfections of the people we know and wish we didn't know.  Maybe this will be your gateway to forgiving others, when you're ready to, if you are.  Maybe knowing this will simply assist you in gaining the clarity of thought needed to distance yourself from negativity when it presents itself to you.  And maybe, by taking into full account just how badly others have fucked up before you, it will help you decide what you want for yourself.

Like me, you might have been born to irresponsible people.  Detached people.  Maybe those detached, irresponsible people were born to equally neglectful, possibly abusive people too.  Repeat rule 3: forgive yourself first.  I'm not about to shove anything down your throat right now, certainly not the big ugly f-word, forgiveness.  Pain and suffering are very difficult cycles to break.  Unconsciously, later generations grow to be complicit in that suffering and even less consciously repeat it.  It's only when we're truly in touch with our pain and suffering that we can react to it in a healthy way.  It takes work, tolerance, patience, and a LOT of heavy realizations that will feel like the entire world got dropped on your shoulders.  And it probably did.  It's so heavy on you because no one else is doing this work.  It's a hard place to be.  Trust me, I'm there - I'm literally between two, sometimes three worlds, trying super hard not to clean up anyone else's mess but mine, despite pressures to do otherwise.

There is power in YOUR choices.  The choices other people have made for you, they likely won't empower you.  They'll usually empower whoever made them, even if just for a short time.  As long as you're alive, awake, and willing to do whatever's necessary not to continue suffering, there is infinite power in your choices.  Choose happiness, choose life, choose the high road, choose change.  It will never be the easy way out.  But sometimes the choice to struggle and the choice to quit isn't even worth a conversation.  If you know what it feels like to be at the edge of life and death, by your own hand, and if you became familiar with that struggle before you met it in your own life, you've carried more pain than anyone ever should.  That kind of pain doesn't just show up.  It shows up because someone else was hurting, and likely someone else before that.  It isn't your job to decide for everyone else how to move forward, because they have their choices.  Make yours.  Just yours.  And make them in your best interest, especially if the choices people made for you in the past, never were.

5. RADICAL ACCEPTANCE.  Possibly even empathy.  But you can be empathic without going back in time, and stooping back to a level that made for you to be caused so much pain.

Radical Acceptance is the one lesson in DBT that blows your mind no matter who you are.  It's the most important lesson, in my opinion, and it's the one that embodies the reason every facilitator stresses how important the skills are in their seemingly unbroken, stable lives.  If you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, consider this: 

  • ACCEPTANCE is acknowledging what is.
  • Let yourself go completely with what is.  Let go of fighting reality.
  • Pain creates suffering only when you refuse to ACCEPT the pain.
  • Freedom from suffering requires ACCEPTANCE from deep within of what is.
  • Acceptance is the only way out of hell by turning intolerable suffering into tolerable pain.
  • To ACCEPT something is not the same as judging it as good.

I really like the 5th bullet: "Acceptance is the only way out of hell by turning intolerable suffering into tolerable pain."  So by definition, Radical Acceptance is essentially the acceptance of what is.  It's a little zen and a lot of amazing.  It's that little piece of information that can change your entire life once you get it.  A lightbulb forever.  (An LED!)  It's amazing because it doesn't make anything good or bad.  People or things.  It's the truth behind that highly-overused phrase that no one seems to use at an appropriate time: "It is what it is."

It is hell.  It is hell on earth and being dead while you're living.  No one should go through life dealing with that much pain.  And you can't call something that terrible good or bad: it simply is.  It is shit.  It is awful.  And it can't be changed.  The clock can't be turned back and you can't account for decisions that were made for you.  You can't erase your childhood, your conception, or any point in history you think could have made your pain cease to have ever existed.  You can only accept it for what it is: a [series of] terrible event(s) in the past which have already happened.  Terrible things that made for devastated consequences.  And things that are over - and now you have the choice to carry that pain into your future, or to tolerate the sting now until it fades.  It might take a long time.  It might take years and years, and you will likely hurt other people along the way.  But it will never happen until you accept just how horrible it all was.  Not make it okay.  Not make it right.  Not force yourself to forgive anyone, or pretend it's all well and good when it sure as hell will never be.  Because if you invalidate your own emotions and experiences, you are no better than the people who hurt you.  If you treat yourself that way, you will treat others that way, and this will simply drag your loved ones down with you into the cycle of negativity that dulled your shine to begin with.  With all the sincerity in my heart, I want to tell you that you deserve better than that.  You deserve to be happy - and not just for a day, but every day of your life.

I developed a motto for myself in the early days of my recovery, and it sounded like this: "I don't have good days anymore.  I have bad days and I have okay days, but if I have 15 minutes of a good day, I'll hang onto it and I'll be okay."  It might be a surprise to some of you to hear this now, but I actually resisted DBT for the longest time.  I was so miserable and had so many negative experiences in therapy that I wasn't buying the idea that there was one cure-all kind of therapy to "fix" people like me.  Oh, was I wrong.  I was wrong first because I bought into the bullshit that told me I was broken and needed to be fixed in order to be worthy of love and happiness.  I had listened to the people who devalued me for so long, that all I knew how to be was wrong.  After that motto, it turned into a willingness to strive for contentment.  I still believed happiness was out of reach because of how much pain I was in.  I physically gagged when people talked to me about "Self-love" because that, and it's old-world, pretentious cousin "Self-respect" were also words that had been shoved down my throat as lectures for most of my life.  I decided I couldn't possibly love myself when I hated myself.  I had to like myself first.  So I made it my goal to like myself: a little bit, for small things here and there.

I can't tell you when I became happy or when I got to a place of valuing myself first and foremost.  You don't just wake up one day feeling like Kanye West - not every day, anyway (and Kanye has bad days too, just listen to Saint Pablo.  Imagine being 80 million in debt!)  I know for sure I can't tell you that one day the bullshit goes away, because it doesn't.  I never would have sat down to write this if I weren't dealing with family drama, RIGHT NOW.  There seems to be no shortage of it.  But I hope that reading through these top 5 reminders have helped you to take a deep breath, eat a cookie, sip your coffee a little slower, and applaud yourself for how far you've come.  I know they help me.  You guys know that everything I write is meant to help myself, right?  If it helps you too, that's amazing.  But I'm just trying to take it day by day.  Still.  That's the only way out.  And even when you're so close that the light at the end of the tunnel is spilling out onto your face, you never know what might happen during that last push.  Watch your step.  Remember to breathe.  While that victory will be yours and no one else's once you get out, know that anything can still happen.  But this time, you'll be ready for it.