Cutting Yourself Off from a Toxic Family Member

Many of us are forced to navigate the very turbulent waters of a relationship with a toxic family member.  It can be a parent, a sibling or, even more heartbreaking, a child.  I have noticed over the years that therapists are far more encouraging of such a cutoff than is society, as a whole.  As a therapist, I must say I, also, fall squarely on the side of those who support cutoff, when necessary.

The work of Murray Bowen was central to my education and early training in the field.  Bowen was a brilliant and very original thinker and spent a goodly amount of energy exploring the magnetic psychological relationships within one’s family of origin.  There are 8 essential precepts of Bowenian thought and one of them involves the discouragement of emotional cutoff.  In Bowen’s world, cutoff prevents us from working through and resolving the earliest of our emotional relationships, leaving us vulnerable to being upended when these relationships – or their echo in our current lives – assert themselves. I have come to believe that this position is not tenable.  Just as the orthodox Freudian can wrongly attribute deep distress only to childhood fantasies, Bowen, I believe, under-appreciates the freedom and relief that can be experienced by stopping a relationship with a toxic family member.  While “society” may bombard us with its incessant “shoulds,” as in, “How can you abandon your parent? sibling? child?” – the answer is quite simply, “I must do it so that I can flourish in my own life and not be derailed by the consistent drama and pain associated with a relationship which, after all, is not voluntary.

This insight was clearly and eloquently stated in a recent Washington Post opinion piece by Harriet Brown, a Syracuse University journalism professor.  I encourage you to hear what she has to say.  There is enormous freedom in the voluntary estrangement from the toxic family member who brings you grief.  This will almost always be difficult, as the exceedingly strong force of guilt pushes you back into a destructive and distracting relationship.  This is where a counselor who can support you in your quest for freedom and self-actualization may be the most important person for you during this journey.

If I End Up With Alzheimer’s…….

When we baby boomers get together, I find that the conversation often migrates over to talk consistent with our age and stage in life.  Our bodies are no longer taken for granted, as they are with my daughter and other young people we are blessed to know (all in their 20’s and 30’s).  High on the list of topics is the frightening specter of Alzheimer’s, which can slowly rob us of our identity.  No other organ can fail and strip us of our sense of self like our Sandy.Bembrains.  In a brilliantly written, deeply felt and penetrating piece in the 5/17/15 New York Times Magazine, Robin Marantz Henig tracks the degeneration of Sandy Bem, a woman of unfathomable life force who was diagnosed at the age of 65.   Upon presentation with the unalterable diag – and prog-nosis, she made the decision that when she had deteriorated to the point of being completely dependent and unable to “be myself,” she would voluntarily end her own life.

I cannot count the times I have heard friends and comrades in my generation utter with complete assurance that if they were diagnosed with a degenerative dementia, they would choose to end their lives before they reached a certain point of cognitive deterioration.  I have known people in my parents’ generation who said the same thing, and who invariably failed to do so.  Such a statement is like the thoughts that ease the pain of depression – “I could kill myself.”  Yet such thoughts, which promise relief from the pounding, dominating inner pain, are not, in themselves, a plan to suicide.  Similar is the, “If I get Alzheimer’s, I’ll…..” statement.  Sandy Bem, however, followed through in a thoughtful and very focused manner.  The story is one of fortitude, grief, and devotion.

I have never rSandy.Bem.2ead, in so short a space, a clearer portrait of the unrelenting loss of person-hood.  As her time for action on her commitment approached, her husband (from whom she had been separated, but never divorced) was her constant companion.  Her adult daughter resisted the decision and wanted one more year – one more month – whatever she could get – for her mother to spend time with her baby.  I have a good friend, Don Desonier, who has transitioned from a family lawyer and mediator to a caregiver/coach and family mediator for families struggling with this dark and painful challenge.  He was a long-time caregiver for his wife, Nancy, who died two years ago after her losing battle with dementia.

There are many changes that our society will experience in the coming decades.  My daughter’s whip-smart boyfriend said over dinner this weekend that the political landscape will be completely different in 20 years.  As we have come to accept – actually embrace – same sex unions, I believe we will accept – even embrace – conscious dying, as we struggle as a culture to address the new challenges wrought by longevity and medicine’s maintenance of the physical body.  The New York Times essay, together with the most affecting piece I have ever read  (in which Katy Butler describes the mental deterioration of her brilliant father who had been a professor at Wesleyan University) are but two of a growing number of personal reflections which wrestle with one of the great personal, familial and cultural challenges of our age.

Our Families of Origin

We sat around with some good friends this past weekend and, perhaps inspired by the wine, one of us looked at our neighbor and said, “What words or phrases would you use to describe your mother?” There were 3 women and 2 men. We went around the circle and each of us uncovered our little nuggets – the first words that came to mind. Here in this group of fairly satisfied, positive people in their 50’s, the power of our parents in our psyches rose up luminous. Some associations were painful – “angry” “frustrated” – others were romantic – “brilliant” “loving” – but none were flat. “Mother” and “Father” have the capacity to evoke our deepest feelings, well into middle age and (I’m guessing) beyond. Handling all that in therapy is interesting and tricky. Truly our families of origin have an enormous molding influence on our lives, but as a wise friend likes to say, “It’s fine to look at that past, just don’t stare.” I like that one. I think therapists need to carefully balance acknowledgment of the past that brings a hurting person into our office, with a deep appreciation (honestly conveyed) of its impact – yet at the same time our lives are most definitely in the present and it will be in the future. People who come to us and are hurting are experiencing a painful present and if we are able to work well together, a positive, productive, less painful future is the goal. I heard a therapist say this weekend that people come in oftentimes with the attitude, “I will not be happy until my parents were nicer to me as a child.” The power of this past can never be underappreciated. Yet dwelling on this past in the hope, somehow, of understanding something that will set us free, I believe, is like trying to get some sunshine by heading for the Canadian North in December. Ain’t going to happen. Freedom comes in mastering our lives today – in whatever form that takes for each of us.

Pleasure in the Little Things

Tonight I got to hang with my 16 year old daughter. We had leftovers, hung out for about a half hour and then went our separate ways. She’s doing her homework and I’m here typing this. Her mom’s with a good friend who fell a month ago and broke her arm so bad that a piece of the bone was found a couple weeks later in the flower bed. I’m serious. I’ve heard of bone meal fertilizer, but I think that’s taking gardening too far. Anyway, she is in recovery, but still needs a good friend’s help and TLC and that’s where my love is tonight. My girl is a teenager so “Mum” is definitely the word. She knows this drives me nuts – I took her to the bookstore yesterday and I asked, “What are you getting?” and she replied devilishly, “A book.” Well thanks a lot for the deep info. I log onto the online news and I see that the AIG execs are trying to use our dollars for multimillion dollar bonuses. Our country’s drive for more, bigger, richer is what drove us to the current brink and I think it arises in part from our collective failure to embrace the pleasure in the little things. They’re really not so little. To hang out with my beautiful child tonight and engage in a 20 minute “nothing much” conversation over leftovers was very sweet. Asking a question and getting a real answer feels like hitting a vein of gold.