"Not everyone can be an orphan."
January 27, 2014 8:02 AM   Subscribe

I live in another country separate from every member of my small family. After seven years of difficulties, I've had to cut contact due to proselytizing, trauma, and untreated mental illness. What steps can I take to come to terms with this decision?

How do I stop feeling so guilty and alone because of this decision? Most of all, how do I convince myself that this is the best step to take for my own health and happiness? Especially when taking into account that almost every previous point of contact with my family has been negative and distressing.

For background: strict, multi-generation pentecostal Christian family, long history of abuse and abusers throughout, mother has Borderline Personality Disorder that is untreated. (Though in her words: "God cured me".)

Regardless of the close friends and acquaintances I've made in this country, I've never really felt like I had a support network. I left home when I was 16 and never thought I would need anyone in my corner. Now that I'm facing Adult problems in life, I have nowhere to turn. In the past I've tried to turn to my family for support or love or acceptance, mostly to be met with attempts to convert me, followed by scorn, guilt-tripping, and really, really bad advice. I lessened contact to just holidays or special events, but even those short phone calls became overwhelmingly uncomfortable and unkind.

Part of what fuels my guilt is the fact that my family is all very low income, and my grandmother is nearing the end of her life. I would be overjoyed to have a relationship with her (or any family member) that was fulfilling and happy, especially before it was too late, but it just doesn't seem to work that way.

I realise that walking away was absolutely necessary, but it doesn't make me feel any less sad, anxious, or alone. Where do I go from here?
posted by Vrai to Human Relations (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm in something close to your position; I haven't spoken to a member of my immediate family since 2002, for similar reasons.

Coming to terms with it was extremely difficult, and included two rounds of therapy. But (and this is important for you) I did manage to make some peace with my decision, it did get a lot easier, and I'm completely confident that it was the right thing to do.

Here's the thing: by making the decision, you show that your conscious mind recognizes that this is the logical thing to do. Peace will come when that knowledge filters down into the subconscious, emotional parts of your brain. Part of that is time. Part of that is walking yourself through the chain of reasoning that led you to this, and reiterating to yourself that yes, this is the right thing to do.

One thing that helped me a lot, too, was talking to people about it. Particularly my wife and my therapists. Even if the "this is the right thing to do" argument starts to feel hollow and shopworn to you, it can feel really liberating to lay the case out for someone else, watch their eyes widen, and recognize that oh yeah, there's objective verification that this was bad shit and I'm right to walk away from it.

I know this is incredibly hard, and I feel badly for you for having to deal with it. But it really does get better with time.
posted by COBRA! at 8:28 AM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh: and consciously refute the guilt every time it comes up, until that sinks in. You have nothing to feel guilty about. There's a point where it comes down to either immolating yourself for family, or walking away and taking care of yourself. Immolating yourself doesn't help and just creates more misery in the world; walking away reduces the collateral damage by one person. That's something.
posted by COBRA! at 8:30 AM on January 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

I had to cut most of my family off at a young age too. Just as it is for you, it was matter of survival for me. What really helped me in addition to therapy was creating an alternative family of friends of varying ages- surrogate aunts and uncles and cousins and siblings. One of the ways that people forge such families is through a place of worship. If you're averse to any form of organized religion consider getting to know neighbors. Or volunteer somewhere and get to know other volunteers.
posted by mareli at 9:21 AM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

We have very similar backgrounds! Evangelical Christian family in mine, multi-generational abuse (with one exception in mine: my paternal grandparents were atheist sweethearts), mother has BPD that she takes no real responsibility for. (To the difference of people with BPD who do work on it. My mother revelled in the fact that she was cruel and was constantly lying to her therapists, getting them to believe her... according to her, anyway. I certainly hope her therapists saw through it, but even if they did, there's not much to do with a patient who gleefully lies to you.)

I'm also in another country. Haven't spoke to my parents and maternal grandparents for 10 years now. My paternal grandparents, the kindhearted ones, have both been dead for several years.

Time. Definitely, time. Focus on things you love; work/job is good too since it does double duty as taking your mind off things and helping you feel productive. Plus you don't necessarily have to love it. It's kind of a nice, neutral placeholder (so long as it is indeed decent, anyhow).

In time, your baseline will change. You don't notice it at first. It took me, like, three years no-contact before I started to notice it had shifted. With ten years behind me now, as well as several in therapy, I'm finally starting to feel "normal". Where "normal" is based on self-acceptance, not a societal template. It means that I accept my foibles and strengths, and see myself as human, not as "other". You know, the "other" for whom negativity, abuse, contempt, and intolerance are acceptable. There is no "other". We're all human. When you've been abused, though, it can take time for that realization to sink in and become second nature. It's only normal. Abusive families overstep so many damned boundaries, you have to relearn (or just plain old learn in many cases) loads about them.

That takes time. And forgiveness, of your own missteps. Sometimes those missteps will seem huge. After ten years of friendship with two people I appreciated a great deal, it was only last year that I realized, holy crap, these people have been awesome friends and I'm sitting here still afraid they'll reject me. Why would they reject me? "invalid query" went the finally-empty "because family always did and if family did then anyone would!!!" part of my abused-childhood-heart. In other words, I had lived long enough, come to know myself (separate from cacophonous "u deserve to DIE u evil GIRL u can't hold it against us u DESERVE IT" messages from family), that I could finally see my friends' gentle, accepting, trusting, reliable friendship for what it was – friendship. And I was all, "holy shit it took me ten years to realize that omigod what have I done with my coldhearted distancing omigod they're awesome people" at which, I was able to forgive myself and say, "okay hon, it's sweet that you recognize their friendship and take it to heart now, no worries, not the end of the world, y'know, they're still friends, so, like, be friends n stuff."

Sometimes it's missteps like waking up to the reality that you're in another abusive situation, too. Forgive yourself for those as well. Remind yourself that even the healthiest of people can be taken in by harassers/abusers, recognize your strength in seeing it for what it is, and do what you can to heal.

As for the loneliness, I still have a hard time with that. But it has gotten better in time as well. The friends I mentioned above, and also other friends around the world. Every once in a while I really DO wish I had a family to call up, as it sometimes seems everyone else around me does. But I also am surrounded by some pretty frank, up-front people who occasionally sigh and say, "y'know, I wish I knew what it was to be totally independent like you are. You're free. You get to choose your life, really choose it." Sometimes I remind them that includes choosing between food or plumbing repairs and not having anyone I can ask to clean up the thousandth iteration of cat barf, but all in all, it's true it has its perqs as well. And even people with families to call up find themselves with choices like that.

And, again in time, you do start to feel the perqs more strongly. They serve as a gentle counterbalance to a childhood out of control. You can look around your life and say, "hey, I did this."

If it can help, because I know other abused-children-become-adults for whom this is very true: one of the greatest feelings as an adult is simply opening my front door every evening when I get home from work. I know I'm safe. I know my home is my home. It's meditative. Peaceful. Filled with love. No one can take that away. Sure, it might be robbed someday. But no one can take away the experience. One you lacked so painfully as a child, where "home" is a place that hurts. I guess what I'm saying is – don't overlook the little things, either, because they can have big meanings. If something makes your heart swell with a peaceful joy, listen to that. It helps.
posted by fraula at 10:31 AM on January 27, 2014 [12 favorites]

I know that sometimes reading words from other people going through similar situations can make me feel less alone or lonely. The blog No Longer Quivering might be worth checking out for that reason. They write a lot about experiencing abuse as part of fundamental Christianity, and they often link to other great resources.
posted by jaguar at 10:39 AM on January 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think you have to work on accepting that you will probably always feels, in varying measure, emotions of sadness, regret, guilt, or loneliness in this regard. But you will also feel the complete opposite at times, too.

For me, some days I am so happy that I made that choice and don't have to deal with XYZ, and other days, I am so sad that I don't have a "family." So my goal now is to develop and maintain that support system that my biological family was lacking and consciously re-framing what the world "family" even means to me.
posted by sm1tten at 11:00 AM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had to cut off contact with my family for a while when I told them I had left the religion they had raised me in.

When I cut them off, I had very similar feelings of guilt. Something that really helped me get through it was knowing that I had in no way chosen that family. It was for purely selfish reasons (whether internal or external via religion) that my parents decided to have me. It was their moral and societal responsibility to take care and provide for me.

When you finally hit adulthood (16 in your case, 18 in mine), you have the choice if you want to have them be your family. I realized that I didn't have to choose to be a part of their life if it wasn't beneficial to me. I was free to seek out my own 'chosen' family from wonderful people from all around the world.

Secondarily, it was also me accepting them for who they are without putting "shoulds" on them. Sure, parents "should" take care of their children and accept them, etc. But I realized that my parents were raised in the same religion that I was and didn't have any frame of reference to see past what their own church had taught them. They were victims of this particular religious cycle. I accepted them for their current 'nature' and I put up and reinforced boundaries to protect myself and keep the relationship in a healthy manner. It wasn't my responsibility to change them and I refuse to try.

We now have a fairly decent, if limited, relationship.
posted by Nerro at 11:26 AM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Check out the excellent site by Kathy (?) McBride called something like 'Will I be ever good enough' and good enough rocks radio.. all about the hidden hell of having had a narcissistic parent.. Alice Walkers daughter is interesting to read up on too.

Know people will judge you about it for the rest of your days because a) they know nothing or b) they really wish they had done it.

Know that we all have to do what we have to do to survive and that's the bottom line.
posted by tanktop at 11:57 AM on January 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's hard when you have to draw boundaries that remove your family.

Finding surrogates in your friend group is one way to provide the comfort a family should provide. I'm older than many of my friends, so I'm viewed as an auntie in addition to being a buddy.

I can tell you that you didn't determine the relationship you have with your family, they determined it. It's not as though you turned your back on good people, you left a harmful and hateful situation. It's hard to accept because when you hear "grandma" you think gingerbread, hugs and sun-dried quilts. Not, "lady who called me a whore because I didn't wear a bra with a sundress."

If you can, go into therapy with someone who can guide you through all the emotions of this. It's not easy to do, but we're so wired to give "family" second, third and fourth chances, that we blame ourselves if the people who share our DNA are just not-nice people.

You deserve to live a life with people who affirm you, who love you and who respect you. It's okay to be sad that none of these people are your relativees.

Hang in there.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:16 PM on January 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

I want to second mareli: It helped me a lot to join groups that had varying ages. I found them in dance and music communities. For example, a band or dance performing group is a lot like an intentional family -- some potentially conflicting personalities get together to create something bigger than any individual, and they form a bond based on common passions, shared experiences ("Remember that time when the stage collapsed?") and by the simple challenge of working well together despite different personalities, backgrounds, and ages.

So I recommend exploring local arts groups, sports teams, or other social scenes in which people form groups and commit to maintaining the group in a healthy, fun way.
posted by ceiba at 12:46 PM on January 27, 2014 [3 favorites]

"I realise that walking away was absolutely necessary, but it doesn't make me feel any less sad, anxious, or alone. Where do I go from here?"

I think maybe your expectations are too high for yourself right now.

You're basically grieving the loss of your entire family. In some ways, it's more hurtful and stressful than if they all died in some tragic accident because if they'd died it wouldn't be their fault and you wouldn't have to second-guess accepting that you can no longer have them in your life.

Feeling sad, anxious, and alone are aspects of the grieving process and grief just takes time to get through. Instead of beating yourself up for not being a robot, acknowledge that this loss is a big deal and that you are going to feel shitty about it for a long time (but not forever).

For a long-term solution, befriend others without close family ties and make yourself a new "found family" to be your support network.
posted by Jacqueline at 2:28 PM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

You cannot control people and how they treat you, even if you set healthy boundaries, some people cannot or choose not to recognize and respect them. Your sanity and health are priority here. Guilt has no place where happiness lies. Which would you rather have? You chose to break the cycle and find happiness for yourself, it's sad that your family cannot be the family you wish you had. You didn't choose them, you just happened to be a part of it. And you're choosing to no longer be a part of it for valid and necessary reasons.

Happiness and health are most important. You do not want to be like them, that's why you no longer have them in your life. Someone I used to know used to say, "it's hard to understand why memories hold your hand, but people let go." I find solace in happy memories which I can remember as I want to even if I can no longer re-create them or make new ones. But you can't change people, even if you want to. You want a relationship and are grieving for what could have been. Sadly, no amount of wishing will make it so. But finding peace and solace and creating your life the way you want it to be, without anything you don't. Great advice upthread, but it is infinitely better to feel sad for x amount of time under your own conditions, than feel y at someone else's whims. Feel free to me-mail me if you wish.
posted by lunastellasol at 6:55 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, you could do it my way instead - spend 75% of your life or more trying for all you're worth to iron things out with people who are not going to back up or change one tiny bit ever; take time away from your own life - years, that is - and from your own children and spouse beating your head against the wall with your parents, believing them when they tell you how worthless you are, if you cared about them, you'd ..................; run to their rescue every time they "need" you because you set yourself up with guilt - what if they die and I could have prevented it?; it's wrong for my children not to know their grandparents (no, it isn't - anymore than it's wrong for your children to know the neighborhood drunk or abuser). Years and years and years of wasted time and effort.

You could try that way - or you could be smarter than I am and be glad you got out when you did, while you're still able to find a nice path for your life where the sun shines - and while you still have energy to dance on that path.
posted by aryma at 10:16 PM on January 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

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