Friday, February 22, 2008

Closeted skeletons

My family, on the surface, is a pretty normal bunch. No divorces in three generations, no epic rivalries, pretty close-knit. As such, my childhood was fairly unmarred by prototypical family drama.

It is funny when you get past a certain age, and begin to realize that members of your family have lives that extend beyond your knowledge of them in their family role. It is an interesting revelation that your parents are indeed real people.

It was never concealed growing up that my mother’s upbringing had been tumultuous. It was common knowledge that my maternal grandfather was a recovered alcoholic, overt in his avoidance of alcohol. However, it was only upon a cross-country trip with my mother when I was 22 that the full story began to unfold, and scattered pieces begin to interlock to form a picture. How my grandfather had another family before he met my grandmother, who later disavowed all knowledge of him, and my mother has two half-brothers she’s never met. How he cheated on my grandmother with her close friends, and, like clockwork, she would take my mother and my aunt, move into a cramped apartment for 6 months, only to return right on time. How my grandparents still rented their home, for despite both having outwardly successful careers, my grandfather’s drinking and my grandmother’s affinity for shopping led to the draining of any form of savings. And how it was my birth, and my mother’s assertion that my grandfather would be denied any contact with me unless he stopped drinking, that led him to near instantaneously stopping, cold turkey, a state he has maintained with inspiring strength and no slip-ups for over 26 years.

All these things I was blind to while in the middle of a lake, fishing pole in hand, with my grandfather, or on a balcony overlooking the mountains playing cards with my grandmother.

Since then, I have been suddenly exposed to the reality of a whole slew of mixed-up family dynamics—like the glaringly apparent underlying currents of resentment between my grandparents, who remains living in adjacent suites in an assistant living facility. Or how my aunt has become the defender of my grandmother, who has suffered injustices throughout her marriage, while my mother has become the guardian of my grandfather, who is still seeking forgiveness after nearly three decades sober.

And, as they do in old ages, things have been further complicated by health problems. My grandfather’s degenerative blindness has left a formerly active man, despite an active mind, reliant on others for so much. Perhaps worse, though, is my grandmother’s progressing Alzheimer’s Disease.

I fall into an interesting role in family. Anyone who is a psychologist, particularly in a family where an undergrad degree is the exception, rather than the norm, knows how you become the default mediator, how your knowledge on every family conflict is sought out. It’s frustrating, because sometimes I just want to be a daughter, a cousin, a granddaughter, rather than our resident psychologist. I want to have the luxury that everyone else in the family has in debates of being emotionally guided, rather than logical. I don’t want to have the pressure of always being neutral and level-headed. But my knowledge pulls me in, and I can’t help myself but intervene, but ask about my grandmother’s treatment and test results, and surmise about how to best cope with her deficits. It doesn’t help that I did a practicum in geriatric psychiatry, and thus have dealt with these issues head-on—granted, while in my “professional headspace”.

And it certainly doesn’t help that I know intimately the painful decline my grandmother is in the process of undergoing. How she is retreating to the past as her only solace, for the present is becoming such a jumble. How her seemingly nonsensical explanations for commonplace events, such as losing her keys, are only going to increase. How her calling me her cousin or niece is only the first step in an eventual forgetting of me and the memories tying us together. How the mood swings my mother speaks of now are only going to escalate.

At times like this, I hate that I know any of these things. I wish to rip this knowledge straight from my brain, because it is too overwhelming to focus on. I want to just know her in the moment, to turn off my head, to stop analyzing how things have changed from my last visit and the implications of that.

I don’t want her symptoms to be seen in the framework of her and my grandfather’s relationship anymore. It is beyond all that now. Her mood swings and forgetfulness are no longer tied into him—they just are what they are. I don’t want everyone to point out to her every time she makes a mistake—we all know what is going on, her included, why do we need to twist the knife in anymore because she told the same story early that day or she forgot where she put her jacket? I don’t want everything to be judged by the negative framework of the past. I want to celebrate the good memories instead, both her accomplishments and the happiness that her and my grandfather did share, because there are so many of these memories to get lost in instead.

I just want to scream at my family that now is the time to put these skeletons to rest.


Tina Vaziri said...

My grandparents and family are in an eerily similar situation. I'm sorry you are feeling trapped in your roles. It's very painful to see them this way. I'm sending you many hugs from here.

Surfergrrl said...

I think anyone who is the level-headed one in the family often gets caught in the or no degree. I think these kinds of things are very common in families. I don't have any thoughts or advice, just wanted to let you know you're not alone.

Anonymous said...

Oh hun, I know this too well. Even without the psychology degree, it can be disarming to find all the layers you didn't know were there. Or to be the guardian of layers visible to you, but not to others.

Sometimes, it can just be really hard pretending to be the sane one when you're not exactly the most sane yourself. *hugs* By the way, we're long overdue for a chat!

Z said...

It's always interesting (though not always pleasant) the things you find out about your family as you grow older that you could never have imagined when you were younger...

There is no quick fix to situations like this - really, to any family's skeletons. I hope it all resolves itself, somehow, in some way, for all of you to feel the degree of resolution you need.

Therapeutic Ramblings said...

My professional opinion seems to be sought much more often now, by my extended family. There is a reason why it is called, "work"....because I don't want to bring it home with me. The ALZ stuff is hard, as I know where it is headed and what the tests mean. A part of life I guess....a crappy crappy part of life.

Katelin said...

It's always to learn things like that after being so "blind" aka young for so long. I definitely have experienced revelations and problems like that in my own family.

I just hope it works out for you soon and you can just be that granddaughter, niece, daughter and not mediator and psychologist.

JEMi @ InMyHeels said...

Excellent post

I can relate to this in such a big way - once that veil is lifted off your eyes, you see a whole lot of somethings that were kept from you as a child.

Going into the field of mental health, I worry that I'll feel the way you've described. I'm no professional but I've experienced some of this already- and sometimes all you want to be is family.

What an experience - (( hugs ))

Half-Past Kissin' Time said...

You should set up a video camera and ask your grandma to tell you some stories. My niece did that, and the tape is a family treasure, especially because the dynamics between my mom and dad are so evident in the video (in our case, it is kind of charming). A video tape will help you remember her the way you want to (and will be a treasure to those who follow you). Think about it...

P.S. just have to ask, after all this you happen to know a child psychologist by the name of Nicki (who went to the University in Seattle a couple of years ago?)

Mamabeek said...

Ooo... me too this could almost be my own story, complete with the psychologist part. Except it's my parents, not my grandparents. My mom has a progressive vascular dementia, but in the end it's just as painful.

In the midst of all this agony, switching roles with my parents; watching the fear in their eyes that we kids might 'put them away' and negotiating all the difficult matters with my sisters... one of my teachers brilliantly decided that her class needed to watch "Away From Her." Beautiful movie. NOT anything I needed to see right now. Ouch.

I feel your pain and your frustration.

Anonymous said...

I identify with this post so much. The so-called normal family, the undercurrents that were hidden and then not, the pysch degree in a family without degrees, and being drawn in.

I hope it gets easier for you but also remember that you are allowed to take a step back and just be a daughter, granddaughter, sister, cousin. Sometimes you need to do that for your own sanity.

Psychgrad said...

Ah yes...the family mediator. I know this role very well.

I'd probably rather be the one driven by logic than participating based on emotion. But, it can be isolating to feel like the only sane person.

Part of me wishes my parents/grandparents were as infallible as I believed them to be as a child.

Good on you for celebrating the good memories. I think it's a great goal. I probably let negativity memories affect me more than they should. Also - good for your mom for putting her foot down and not carrying the drama over in her own life.

Ant said...

Makes me think of that issue you had with your sister and the chap that wanted to take her to the Caribbean, where again, you appeared to be the only sane one as the madness unfolded...

Stay logical, stay cool. Else you'll fall victim to the family stereotypes that these tensions inevitably lead down. Then you can focus more on the good stuff - I'd also recommend that you actually cherish the memories, good and bad. It's what defines us all.

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

For a family to be normal, it HAS to be dysfunctional.

My Mum's mum slept with half the town before her parents divorced and she was fostered. One of her brothers died of AIDs.

My parents are still married, but are the only family couple in the UK, never to have divorced.
Of the family back in Ireland, several are separated (divorce isn't permitted). In one case, the wedding should never have happened, my cousin wanted to cancel, but was lirtally forced up the aisle by her Mum and my grandmother.

Dieing of drink, serving time etc, well, that's several family members :)
And the wierd thing is? The only family member everyone gets embarrased about is Cousin John, because he lives openly with another man, in Paris. :)

benjibopper said...

i'm largely known as the uncomplicated one in my family, the easygoing peacemaker. sometimes i wanna shoot them. douglas coupland said it best, all families are psychotic.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the skeletons are just too difficult to let go of, until it's too late. I just hope that is not the case in your family.

It's funny how sometimes your knowledge of something, while often a plus, can backfire on you. I'm sorry you can't just be a normal daughter/granddaughter.

Yoda said...

Its just too painful for me to even think about. When my grandma died a couple years back of a heart attack, I just shut up after that. I didn't speak of my grandma at all. Until one fine day it all came out amid a shouting session with my ex.

Maybe you should really do what you say in your post. Shout at your family that let bygones be bygones.

singleton said...

Oh, feeling for you. This one's very very close to home...Wishing you peace, little one, and strength. And deep breaths in between each step. Hugs

Sheila said...

Wow PP, I can relate to a lot of what you've said.

I think that some people believe that if they forgive past wrong doings that they are saying "No harm done". But that's just not true. As one who has forgiven and moved on, I have learned how freeing forgiveness can be. I cannot forget the things that were done or said (believe me, I've tried) but how I let it affect my life is my choice. I have relatives who choose not to forgive and it really saddens me.

Sending you cyber hugs!

Anonymous said...

Oh goodness. I wouldn't want to be in the middle of that either. I guess I would try to push out the psychology part of me when I'm around family. That's the best advice Ic an give, even though you didn't ask me for it :) I hope it gets batter.

Maxie said...

I can totally identify with this. I always end up being the level-headed one in my family's arguments. It sucks because sometimes I just want to be the one to FLIP OUT. ugh.

brookem said...

My dear, this is just such a tough situation to be in. I hear you. I think it's so wonderful how devoted you are to your family and the wonderful relationship you have with your grandparents. From chatting with you I know that you are all very close.

This situation where there is the conflict of the professional you and the daughter/sister/grandaughter you can be a tough role to switch between. Keep strong my friend, and know that you always have this venue to vent it all out in.

Jess said...

It is so weird when you grow up and start to figure things out about your family that you had no idea about before. Sometimes it can explain a whole lot of things but that can leave more questions than answers, too. There are some things I'd rather not know.

EF said...

You know this just crushes me! I thought Canadians lived free of this shit! :-) I was thinking it was better north of the border.
Seriously, though, at least you aren't alone in your knowledge of the past and can discuss it with others.

cdp said...

This speaks to me on a pretty base level. In the sense of my role in my own family; in the sense of the skeletons in my familial closet; in the sense of coming to a certain age and learning about people and places and things that seem to make your life make that much more, and that much less, sense.

you are good people, princess. and you seem to understand a lot more than most folks do about the ties that bind (and sometimes gag?) us.


Anonymous said...

I had simliar experiences growing up and as I became an adult, saw the what lay beneath the seemingly normal exterior was in fact a family with many, many flaws and skeletons.

thank you for sharing this.

ana said...

Being trapped in a leveled role can be nerve wrecking. My family has some similar underlying issues. I was oblivious to them. It is strange how age fine tunes the perception and yet somehow, the details are lost. Families do not practice forgive and forget too well, after all they have a "dysfunctional" reputation to uphold *hugs*

Lisa said...

I'm sorry you're going through this. I want to say something encouraging and comfort you somehow, but the words sound trite in my head (even though they aren't). Just know that I think of you and wish you find the strength you need to cope with all this.

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

My grandparents bicker like crazy.

I don't get drawn in though, probably because my dad bears the brunt of it.

My advice would be to just try and let it wash over you, if, of course, advice was being sought.

Jocelyn said...

I think this is my favorite post of yours.

Because? yes, yes, and yes.

The last five years of my life have been all about this kind of stuff.

A Lil' Irish Lass said...

There are over 200 posts in my Google Reader that I have to attend to and I was planning on simply skimming through. This piece, however, drew me in at the very beginning. Drew me in so much that I read it twice.

I can only imagine how terribly difficult this is for you. My thoughts are with you.

eric1313 said...

I've only had one grandparent for what is effectively my whole life, since both my grandfathers died when I was about one year old, and my dad's mother died in the sixties. I'm just thankful that she isn't facing the decline that you are witnissing in your own grandmother. She's not in the best of health; her heart is winding down, but she's still has a fire that drives her every day.

Everyone has flaws, and I think nobody can root out these flaws like family. If I were to hold the past against anyone who might seem to deserve it, there would be almost nobody that I could love.

It's good that your family has you, and I'm being very serious. You didn't mention anyone else in your family with a growing but noe the less important support role to match your own, so I would say that probably makes you indespensible to them. Not to stroke your ego, but who else would be able to fullfill that role. There are probably some who could, I have no doubt about that, but I think they are realizing more and more that you are a rock, to put it simply. And your misgivings are mostly due to feeling the presure that you releive from the minds of those who lean on you. And this role will only expand. That also has to unnerve you just as much as it helps the rest of your family. I think that you know that you can do this, but you are being realistic and leaving room to be ready for some shrouded future failure that you percieve could possibly happen. You don't want to let them down, or lose esteem in their eyes.

But that won't happen, trust yourself. You have made very far in life by trusting yourself. Your family sees that and they admire you for everything that you are doing, make no mistake. And if any breakdown in the family does occur, just remember that it takes all the members of a family to really screw up, not just one. They sound like they too are level-headed for that to happen.

This entire experience shows the kind of stuff you're made of, you know. Your family knows it, we know it from your musings, and it sounds like you know it, but don't want to believe it, or at least are resistant to the thought on some level.

Just don't worry about it. Relax, keep embracing your studies for the short time left (on the grand scale) that you have them going on, and keep being yourself here and in all other aspects of your life. And keep us posted about anything else, the way that you have been doing. It helps yourself just to see your words coallesced on the page, and we love reading them.

This post also made me think of your earlier observation/rumination about how some posts are more comment worthy than others. I think that this is a very deep posting in your eyes, and in everyone elses's. Just as your true supporters will come out and voice their opinions and utter ecouragment, there are many who this post strikes chords with who don't want to talk about their family experience, and so don't want to even start one sentence of commenting in order to face as little about the subject as neccesary. Likewise, there are a lot of people blogging only for the social aspect, and don't like getting into the grittier, emotional side of life. They'd rather join in with anecdotes about occasional binge drinking and light relationship oriented conversation, or trash talking.

But you're always interesting, I give you that. Just look at how long the comments are on this page. You have emotional appeal to a wide range of people. Quantity is no replacement for quality, I guess you could say. I wonder the same thing about my own posts. Sometimes, I could get fifty comments on the oddest little thing. The poems I really like or worked hardest on would be commented on less. But often times, I was rewarded with larger, more in depth comments, ones that told me quite a bit about the people who read at my blog. Only once did the two coincide, and that was for the "Spirtis Live in Fire of All Kinds" poem back in October. I knew it was great as soon as I wrote it. Singleton wasted no time telling me I better post it before she did! I had the hutzpa (in know I missed that spelling!) to think of it as my Mona Lisa. And it got a lot of attention and comments. A lot of my good stuff did well, but not like that one. It's a subject I wonder about, too, and likewise, I have no idea what makes the blogging public tick when it comes to art.

Well, it looks like I have my 1000 words for the day. Another stream of consciousness out of control.

Just remember when doubt starts grumbling in the back of your mind that it's only there at your request, and use it to your advantage. I'd say that that negative side, that invisible sea of doubt, has been a help to you. If you can perceive negative consequences that strongly, it helps to balance your reasoning process. So much better than being a cocky, meglo fool who walks into metaphorical walls or minefields, thinking that they can't fail, so they end up thinking about what they are doing only in the regret stage.

Anyway, I think I should go. I could talk about this a whole lot more. I'm just kinda like that, an inner Freud who spouts off whether he's right or dead wrong. So take it easy this Monday morning, and talk to you again some time soon, OK?

Peace and love, you!