Confronting traumatic childhood memories is a painful but necessary path to personal freedom
A family unit is a complex beast held together through intricate dynamics that are unknowable to anyone outside of its structure. As cloistered and private worlds, families have their own distinct norms, rules, and attitudes. From strange little in-jokes to playful eccentricities and odd habits, each family is its own distinct universe. A family is a club, a clique, a set, a tribe. Members only.
At its very best, the family unit is a sanctuary in an ever-changing and difficult world. A familiar, reliable, and supportive family provides a psychic and emotional buffer of sorts against the sometimes bruising reality of day-to-day life. The parental home is a fixed point in an uncertain world—a place to feel welcomed, safe, and loved.
But at its worst, the family home is a cage, a battlefield, an emotional maze with no exit. When a family is dysfunctional there is only confusion. The norms, rules, and attitudes are unhealthy, extreme, or even abusive. The family rules of engagement don’t make sense, even to its own members. Life feels like an endless and exhausting war of attrition.
The tricky thing is learning where the line is drawn between normal and abnormal family unhappiness. What is a normal family, anyway?
The truth, of course, is that normal is whatever you are used to. Normal is yourfamily.
With the exception of the darkest of family crimes — domestic violence, severe neglect, abandonment, and child sexual abuse — we generally believe that most family dysfunctions are just part of the strange patchwork of the family unit.
In other words, normal.
Children have a primal, desperate need to be loved by their parents.
We like to imagine that bad and cruel parents have malicious intentions. That their cruelty is calculated, pointed, and obvious to all. That they are bad people with no redeeming qualities. The reality, unfortunately, is much more nuanced and fraught with complexity, guilt, and shame.
Many parents, for myriad reasons, are simply ill-equipped or incompetent when it comes to fulfilling their role as parents and fail to adequately love and support one, or all, of their children.
Children have a primal, desperate need to be loved by their parents. The desperation is blinding and children will do almost anything to secure their parents’ love. They will accept mistreatment, especially if it the only form of love and attachment they have ever known.
In the fantastic novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, the protagonist recalls seeing a sculpture of Ugolino della Gherardesca that forced her to reflect on her own lonely, abusive childhood.
Ugolino, an Italian nobleman who appears in Dante’s Inferno, was imprisoned with his sons and condemned to death by starvation.
The sculpture depicts his desperate children clinging to his legs, happily offering their own bodies for him to eat. Anything, anything at all, to save their dying father and stop his suffering.
Such is childhood for those lost in lonely, abusive, neglectful, or damaged families.
Insidious emotional and psychological family abuse and dysfunction are too often ignored or simply accepted. Family history repeats itself. Adult children of dysfunctional families might find themselves attracting or seeking out the wrong type of romantic partner, not realizing that they are repeating the only relationship dynamic they have ever known.
They might have feelings toward their own children that make them feel ashamed or confused. They, too, might end up being ill-equipped and incompetent at parenting.
The trauma will transfer from one generation to the next like a line of dominoes being knocked over. It will linger unseen, but deeply felt, like a black magic generational curse.
The same behaviors, the same awful wars of attrition, the same shame and unhappiness will endlessly repeat until someone in the family, finally, painfully, is able to recognize the rot and say, “No more!”
Confronting traumatic childhood memories can be agonizing and deeply lonely. Therapy or counseling is essential, if you can access and afford it.
As you work through your trauma, your family may not understand your choices or behavior. You might be seen as spoiled or ungrateful for dragging up the past. Your memories might not be validated, you might start to feel like you can’t trust your own experiences. You might be treated as though you are deliberately trying to cause pain or conflict. You might unintentionally hurt your parents, who raised you the only way they knew how.
You might find yourself questioning your sanity and your entire perception of reality when trying to make sense of your childhood experiences. You might be told you are misremembering the facts, or that you are being unfair and cruel. You might be called crazy, unstable. You might feel crazy.
Society idealizes the institution of the family and we are plied with wisdom and platitudes that uphold that institution. You will remember that children should always honor and respect their parents. You will be told that your parents only wanted the best for you. You will remember that your mother carried you for nine months and sacrificed her body. You will be told that you have a duty to your parents. You only get one family and you will miss them when they are gone.
You will understand that perhaps your parents did think they were doing the right thing, but they were wrong.
You will panic and doubt your memory. You will feel alone. You may be ostracized. You may find yourself estranged from your family without the catharsis of an emotional showdown. You might just slowly drift apart. You might not get an opportunity to talk honestly and openly with your family. You might become the black sheep.
Eventually, however, with time and care, you will begin to trust yourself and the knowledge, deep in your very bones, that your feelings are justified. You will face your past and, in doing so, you will find the catharsis you crave.
You will understand that perhaps your parents did think they were doing the right thing, but they were wrong. You will see that your parents were damaged and did not behave as they should have. You will see that they were fallible, weak, and troubled. You will see that you were just a child and you were failed by those responsible for you in some fundamental way.
You will know that you suffered and you will know that you do not want to suffer anymore.
You will accept the complexity of your situation and you will feel the poison start to seep away. You will exorcise that old, indescribable anxiety in the pit of your stomach.
Finally, you will be the one to stand up and say, “No more!” and you will break that dark spell that was cast across your family line. Finally, you will be free.