10 Consolations Of Having A Dysfunctional Family

1. Your home life never gets boring.

You don’t have to worry too much about getting enough material to write a potentially bestselling memoir (“Running with Scissors,” anyone?)–what you’ve gone through is so strange and harrowing that you’re sure you’ll still be shuddering from it even when you’re seventy and different. Your household could have taken its inspiration from those mental asylums of old, what with the screeching matches that come like clockwork at 2 AM and a cookie jar whipping past your head and missing it by inches. Yep, you don’t even need imagination for embellishment–you can tell it as it is, and you’ll be sure to elicit some sort of reaction from your unfortunate audience.

2. You become very critical and questioning, and you suspect that the world is quite upside-down.

If somebody gives you a piece of information or advice, you instinctively inspect it with a hint of suspicion before accepting it as true. If there’s anything that you’ve learned, you can’t take things at face value–a smile can turn sickeningly sinister within a second, and the most well-detailed stories can be utter tripe. The world doesn’t make sense. It’s not linear. It’s not fair. It doesn’t bow down to your expectations. Rather, it’s unpredictable and paradoxical and terribly chaotic. And crazy, just plain crazy, although in your better moods you acknowledge that’s exactly why it’s charming.

3. You learn that age and wisdom do not go hand-in-hand.

The more time you spend walking on this earth, the more cells you shed and regrow; the more oxygen you exhale and inhale; and the longer the tape of your memories spins on and on. You’re thrown curveballs that you’re supposed to grapple with and mature from. Slowly, you figure out through a laborious process of trial-and-error what works for you and what doesn’t. But as much as you get a larger pool of experiences to draw from, there’s always the easier possibility that you’ll ignore them and keep going round in circles. Your mom was maxing out her credit cards as early as when you were a toddler, and the years never made a difference. Your uncle’s still downing bottle after bottle even though he’s woken up in the hospital twice. Age doesn’t guarantee wisdom, and you stopped taking their word as law long ago.

4. You become aware of the terrible power of words.

Bitch. Asshole. Get the f*ck out of the house. You’re so worthless! Combine any of these phrases with a voice several decibels higher than normal so that it echoes past the walls, and your chest will hurt. Your ears will complain. Even when it becomes garbled noise, it doesn’t become any less ugly. The hate behind the words hangs just as heavy, and you retain a perfect replica of it that you recall at odd moments–no black-and-blue bruise on the skin, if you’re lucky, but what remains locked in you is the piercing tone. The tense atmosphere, the sharp stab in the gut. The desperation of not wanting to believe it, even as a part of you does. Words are ephemeral and are hardly ever truth, but they can suffocate someone’s soul as efficiently as poison.

5. Solitude is awesome.

Best partnered with earphones, or a locked door, or a book, or anything that saves whatever remaining peace of mind you have. Being alone isn’t about loneliness, but rather freedom, no threat hanging in the air, having the space to breathe. You become very good at shutting out all of the distractions and getting lost in whatever you’re doing, because that’s the best escape that you have. A poem reminds you of beauty found in dusty corners, a good song can drown everything else out, and even cranking out your homework gives you a dose of Zen–a headache about organic compounds is infinitely better than a headache induced by analyzing your dad’s cocaine dependency.

6. You’re tough, and you don’t cave easily.

You roll with the punches. When life gives you lemons, you don’t exactly make lemonade, but you’ve been in enough trying situations–getting thrown out in the middle of the night, taking care of your siblings every time your parents can’t, being at the receiving end of out-of-control anger on a fairly regular basis–that it doesn’t faze you as much anymore. They’re surging underneath the surface, of course, but you can hold your emotions at a distance and let go only when it’s safe. Your friends turn to you when they’re miserable because you can usually find some sort of sympathy or practical advice to give–you’ve been through hell, and you know very well what it’s like to feel alone, or abandoned, or unloved.

7. It’s a crash course in psychology, complete with case studies you get firsthand interaction with.

Because they refuse to be scrutinized by a psychiatrist, you’ve taken matters into your own hand and scoured the internet for diagnoses. You’ve read the descriptions of borderline disorder, narcissism, depression, paranoia, and whatever else seemed pertinent to your situation, including very spot-on articles about dysfunctional families; you’ve printed out lists of symptoms, getting queasy when you realize you’ve checked nearly all of them. The lack of a good role model is probably why you’re addicted to self-help books–they tell you you’re okay when the voice in your head insists otherwise, and you hold on to them for guidance. Aside from book knowledge, your intuition is also well-honed. Years of growing up amidst conflict–and children are always sensitive–have made you alert to slight changes in pitch, flarings of the nostril, small movements that herald the transformation of a seemingly calm person into somebody screaming, violent, and irrational. You can navigate emotional landmines skillfully, steering clear of topics that can trigger the usual issues. A+, for self-preservation skills.

8. Skeletons in the closet don’t faze you, and you can keep your lips sealed indefinitely.

When you were a kid and you had to talk about your family, you skipped over all the bizarre details. You gave vague descriptions of family outings that made it seem like it was all dandy and fine, and you did it so well that everyone took it at face value. Even with your friends and your significant other, it takes a lot of trust–and time–before you give them the unedited version, which is still glaringly incomplete. The secrets go both ways: you compartmentalize your family from the rest of your world because you don’t want the mess to spill over. You go home late because of a party, and you explain that it was for a project. As much as possible, you don’t invite people into your house because you’d rather not risk any collapse in that neat, harsh division, the same way that you hold your family at arm’s length, hiding away a huge part of yourself so that–despite whatever they think–they never quite know you.

9. You easily recognize–rather than deny–the darker side of you, your flaws and blemishes, all the sharp imperfections.

First, the tendency to retort and yell just as harshly, with a genuine desire to hurt whoever’s on the receiving end. Or maybe the unwillingness to talk about what’s wrong, to be cold and stoic, to demand that trust be proven before you give it. Regardless of whether you recognize their behavior as wrong, somehow you still end up mirroring it unconsciously–and the one who points it out to you is somebody you love enough to allow to get close. Your view of human nature has never been one-dimensionally idealistic. You know from experience that people are complex, that they can have good intentions but wreak the worst havoc precisely because of that, and that they tend to be blind to the consequences of their actions. Aside from all these, you’re very familiar with rage that you couldn’t express because you were dependent and powerless, anger locked in and accumulated so that you’re forced to deal with it if you want to be healthy.

10. You promise to become better.

Because you’d never want to inflict what you’ve gone through to somebody else, much less your own children. Your parents are a good example of what you would never want to be, and you promise that you will be different, that you’ll work through all these issues and you won’t pass them on to the next generation. It sounds easier when you’re making a grand proclamation–that’s in-depth childhood conditioning you’re rebelling against–but nobody can dictate your future except for you. If you succumb to the same vices, then that’s already your fault. They were wrong, yes, and you deserve to be very much angry, but you’re responsible for yourself now that you can drive to the grocery and read articles online. You are never completely your past. You’re grateful to it because it helped you grow so much through struggle: Nietzsche’s “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a fitting summary. Whoever you are, I’m proud of you for living through it, and I salute you. TC mark

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