Forging positive relations

You need more than a psychology degree to cope with my family

I have always been and will always be open about my rather conventionally unconventional family background. Although in Britain nowadays, it can hardly be considered uncommon for a child to be brought up by divorced or separated parents when I have considered in a linear fashion, the exact events that took place in my childhood I allow myself to safely consider my own childhood somewhat uncommon. But even if I disregard such events, I remember always feeling that my family set up was very much different from my peers whether their parents were separated or not.

Growing up as a younger child in the not so wealthy part of South Liverpool bordering on Toxteth, I met many children who’s parents could be considered unusual on the basis of age, sexual inclination, marital status or socio-economic status. However one thing that they all seemed to share that I didn’t, was the existence of a substantial extended family in close proximity to themselves. Whether little Chloe’s mummy left her daddy and ran off with one of the dinner lady’s son or not, the fact remained that both her and her sister still benefited from a wider support network of a family. Various aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins; there would be no end of support and guidance for the two girls.

In contrast, little old me had no siblings and certainly no other physically or emotionally close family members on either my mother or my father’s side. To make matters slightly more different to those of my peers, my mum moved a considerable to distance from my dad to the other side of Liverpool making it a sizeable commute to go from parent to parent especially for a youngster who could only rely on such parents to negotiate her way from one to the other. Apart from other things it meant that I experienced a rather disjointed and diluted social life for a considerable while.

The lack of a close family network made the inevitable difficulties of parents’ new partners, their failings, challenging step siblings and huge bouts of loneliness and worry a lot harder and more confusing for a developing child and then teenager to deal with. Even as I have gotten older, the fallout caused by the various step-parent dramas not to mention my own parents’  misdemeanors has highlighted the lack of a family unit for support.

A couple of years ago I had decided that I would spend Christmas alone abroad somewhere as it has never been a particularly joyous occasion for me for one reason or another. My dad was naturally dismayed at this and tried to come up with a Christmas that I may actually enjoy where I could feel part of a family. He organised that we would go to Ireland to spend it with the Aunty and Uncle that I have always had more of a relationship with than any other family members (still not exactly close) but I did rate them; my Uncle being hilariously funny in an almost accidental sort of way and my Aunty being a lovely, caring person.

So it was agreed that we would go. The problem was the day before we were leaving to go my dad told me that he and his partner were of the opinion that I was unconscientious, self absorbed and ungrateful and impolite. I won’t labour the conversation that we had or even justify these past allegations but safe to say I was hurt beyond words at yet another betrayal from my father and -needless to say- the sanctimonious full on character assassination. Thus it made for a very hard trip to Ireland, where I could barely stand to hear my dad talk and make falsely affectionate gestures . Needless to say my mood was dark and this definitely showed to my not so understanding relatives, as of course my father didn’t want to admit how he had conveyed his and his partner’s opinion of me to me. Not only would they be shocked at how they could be so callous but they would also presumably make him see that this was wildly inaccurate.

Instead I was presented to them as a problem child (as usual) with no further explanation other than I was finding it difficult to adjust to his not so new girlfriend. Pardon me when I say, “what a dick.” So my Aunty and Uncle who also happen to be my Godparents were too left under the impression that I was rude and ungrateful and all the rest. As there was no wider close-knit family to give the event some context, so their opinion remained, pushing me further from any sort of happy family relationship. Needless to say I was wounded that they allowed their selves to form such an opinion without any consultation or reaching out to myself and even after I returned to England and called my Aunty to apologise and explain I received to comfort or words of reassurance and understanding.

A couple of  years later on the day of my – what should have been a proud – graduation, the lack of a wider family was accentuated as it has been so many times before. A few days before my dad had once again put it to me that I was proving to be a problem for his extraordinarily sensitive girlfriend. Apparently my instances of lack of punctuality were in fact indications that I was rebelling against their relationship; my use of my phone at the dinner table was a direct shun to all present telling them I did not want their company; and my failure to gush over standard practices of decency from the demon-step mother herself was as good as me attempting to shove her head in the oven.

On this particular day, after the repetitious fall out, my dad turned up without any camera and with apparently no desire to buy graduation pictures or do any of the normal activities that the proud parents surrounding us were doing with their newly graduated off-spring. He came with no words or cards of congratulations of other would-be family members, no promises of a later celebration with more of the family clan, just a horrible atmosphere stinking of “my partner’s telling me you’re a witch and I don’t have the balls to say any different”. Sad, but terribly true.

As a result of instances such as this, without the solid, steady and unconditional support of family I am ashamed to say that I had become somewhat bitter and resentful about the concept of families. In a similar way that someone deprived of an obvious talent may become resentful of those who have been blessed with one such talent and indulged with compliments and praise. Although this may legitimately strike you as an odd paradox I can only be honest in my complete sense of having been deprived of the basic privilege of a family. Something which I so badly desired.

Consequently I have always been aware of my sensitivity towards fitting in with other peoples’ families whether it be friends of mine or the family of a partner. I was – childishly so – terribly jealous of the fact that they had one and I had none. It also meant that the inevitable event of family gatherings made me terribly uncomfortable as I had no previous experience of such events. No schemas in these areas had been able to be generated having been completely without exposure to this type of event and the consequential dynamics, etc.

Having such negative experiences in the “family” that I have experienced and having developed an acute sensitivity and resentment to other people merely enjoying their right to have a close family, I considered myself surely doomed. Done over by childhood experiences, in a true Freudian way. I was devoid of the tools and motivation to forge positive relations…

Good news though. It turns out that this is not the case! Having been dropped in the metaphorical deep-end, by the (turns out) happy circumstances of being temporarily homeless during relocation to London, and having to stay at my boyfriend’s parents’ house for around a month has done me the world of mental good. Although I observe that coming from a bigger family is not without its own challenges, I still see these as comparatively small to be in the fortuitous position of having one. Being emerged in someone who is pretty special to me’s own family has shown me that I need not bear the weight of a lonely only child of a broken family of two! I am actually in the incredibly fortunate position to join someone else’s family and perhaps even one day, create a happy one of my own. (Don’t worry darling, not for a few years yet, eh?!)

But much more remarkable than this realisation (I always knew it was theoretically a possibility), is the fact that I can also happily appreciate how wonderful having a family truly is without an ounce of resentment. This probably sounds a minor achievement but to me it is really quite astounding. I know now what an amazingly basic but shockingly beautiful and inspiring pleasure it is to be a part of something almost of inexplicable stability and the amazing thing is… this incredible phenomena doesn’t need good fortunes nor riches nor power to have… and now for the cheesy part…. it just needs love with a hint of compassion.

I have always been living proof- if only to myself- that the past can exert weird influences over us, but now I am happy to say that these can also be overcome as we also have the ability to open ourselves up to experience. In my case, it is an undescribable love for and trust in my partner, that allowed me to open myself up to situations that I whole-heartedly would have shied away from. This has had an effect on my own “pseudo-family” relationships, which have in turn also become much more positive and healthy.

Now it is not so much forging positive relations, but allowing them to happen.

(Apologies for the long post)

… I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.Blaise Pascal

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It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day

Just over 6 months ago and things were very different. Considering the nature of my last post my silence is likely to be interpreted as everything got too much! I’m happy to say that the silence is a result of quite the opposite. During the darker hours of my ordeal with a malfunctioning bladder/urethra/does-anybody-really-know? it seemed like there would be no end to the traumas. Although it hasn’t been as straight forward as “and now you’re better”, I have made significant progress which I can only be forever thankful for.

But it’s not just the condition of my health that has changed; in fact it seems that life as I had come to know it for the 6 months after Uni has completely changed. Rid am I of an innocuous self-centred flatmate, rid am I of thankless and insensitive employers and rid am I off a desolation that knew no bounds. Instead I find myself happily ensconced with my ever-supportive boyfriend, the both of us now proud parents of a tiny Dwarf rabbit. I now face the exciting and gratifying prospect of moving our little “family unit” down to the Big Smoke where I shall be studying a Masters in Health Psychology whilst making a freelance living from the marketing skills I have acquired over the past two years.

And just like that my big sources of woe have been dissolved. I no longer am stuck in a scenario of no social life or even proximate social support network and thankless employers begrudging me my illness (how inconsiderate of me!) My dad being a part-time Buddhist constantly reassures me of the concept of “impermanence”. Of course nothing ever remains the same and that is the one consistency of life. But this is of limited comfort in a limited amount of situations; if you’re happy at that particular moment in time, it’s disheartening to know that this shall not remain the same and if you are suffering at another moment in time it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can manage to feel any better about how things are.

So what can give you solace in the good and bad times of life? The answer to this is never going to be a straight forward one unfortunately but having been very much down and out, despairing with no means or will to turn things around I am fascinated with my own case of astounding recovery. “Recovery” in this instance does not exclusively refer to my physical health problems but also my mental health. To paint a picture of my mindset and health but half a year or so ago:

A broken girl, who barely had the inclination to raise her eyes from the floor to focus on anything within the immediate vicinity of herself. Suffering 3 to 5 hour migraines daily, sometimes twice a day, it was no comfort to shower and be clean or lay in bed under the safe of duvets when the necessity to was to be stuck stead-fast to a toilet. I had no desire to socialize as such social settings were anxiety provoking if anything, not feeling myself and considering myself a failure in many social exchanges – not to mention that the constant nagging urge to relocate to a nearby toilet to relieve but a drip of urine. Yes. Very pleasant times indeed.

It had gotten to the point that I couldn’t see an end, didn’t want to face the struggle of coping in the circumstances and fighting for regaining my life and health left me distinctly underwhelmed. So what changed to allow the close of night and rise of dawn? It certainly wasn’t an abrupt change that snapped me back to “normal” but however subtle, it was hugely significant. I must first acknowledge the role of Feverfew. For anyone who is suffering regular migraines (or even infrequent ones) that seem to be unwarranted, this may just be a miracle cure. It’s a herbal tablet that when taken once daily can completely eliminate the occurrence of migraines at all. As I was saying, I was literally experiencing a minimum of one migraine a day for up to 5 hours for at least 2 weeks with no end in sight. As soon as I started taking Feverfew I had one last half-hearted migraine which more closely resembled a bad headache and since then I have not suffered one.

As miraculous a cure for migraines as Feverfew was, this barely made a difference to my mental health at all and this alone would not have lead to the return of my volition. A hollow shell of myself, one night I lay listless on my dad’s couch barely tasting the food that he had made and offering nothing for conversation or comfort to my worried parent. He suggested that we watch a DVD of a support group for chronic pain patients that could no longer be helped by drugs and the pharmaceutical industry. I didn’t want to watch it, having no interest in watching other “fellow sufferers” yet I didn’t protest.

The DVD (Healing and the Mind by Bill Moyers) was a documentary focusing on the treatment of chronic pain using the Buddhist based practice of mindfulness. The mindfulness practice was lead by John Kabat-Zinn who had detached the religious context from the highly beneficial practice of mindfulness in order to allow the adoption of it into a Western society. Initially the people attending the 8 week program are shown to be skeptical, disheartened by the fact that they have come to the end of the line of modern medicine’s answers and remedies. Faced with the prospect of living with the current chronic conditions for the rest of their lives, their hopes had been shattered, nerves and resolve battered.

As the DVD continued my dad and I became privy to the almost intimate process of the lives of these people improving and improving, their spirits rising and rising as they now enjoyed and envisaged a life without the awful suffering that they had had to endure for so long. As the documentary progressed it was as if certain neurotransmitters in my brain started firing again, gradually allowing cognitive functions that I had lost the ability to muster and exercise. From that evening on I began to make plans again and to feel the strength to fulfill them. I regained my control and resolve, I saw a light where once there had just been darkness and I found that I was able to allow stumbles without remaining helpless on the floor.

The dawn of a new day began with the glimmer of hope that has been realised almost every day since. And long may it continue.