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“A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse on the part of individual parents occur continuously and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Children sometimes grow up in such families with the understanding that such an arrangement is normal.”
That’s pretty much the standard definition from most psychology texts, and when I first read it, it sure sounded a lot like my family picture could be right beside it. How about yours?
I am one of eight children, five girls and three boys (of which I’m the oldest male and third from oldest overall). And irrespective of any adverse impact it may have had on us, our parents moved us over 70 times between my birth in 1956 and my leaving home in 1975 to start an Air Force career. Large green garbage bags were our luggage of choice. I didn’t return until 2003.
As we endured that blur of trying to adapt to one new neighborhood, cockroach infested apartment, and school after another in and around the city of Boston, all of those moves, combined with our parents steady provision of physical and psychological neglect, certainly found each of us kids doing all we could, collectively and individually, to “accommodate” such actions, all while scuffling to survive from our respective place in the birth order. That’s really all you could do as a kid.
But what happens once all the kids are grown up? How did everyone turn out as they ultimately would–and why?
Well, that certainly depends on a whole bunch of factors, that’s for sure, but one determinant that relates strongly is the role each child chooses to “accommodate” the family dysfunction. This “role” not only helps the child to survive the day-to-day when growing up, but also tends to be the role they maintain moving into adulthood and even when creating families of their own.
I’ll write more about these roles, and share some good resources on the topic, but these roles (as described by Sharon Wegscheider) include among them “The Enabler,” “The Hero,” The Scapegoat,” The Lost Child,” and The Mascot.”
In researching the dynamics of dysfunctional families and roles such as these, particularly those with a large number of children like mine, it was obvious that I’d assumed the role of “Hero.”
The Hero allows the family to be reassured it is doing well (he graduated high school!), and this child can be at least one source of pride or “normalcy,” which the parents may claim. He or she is the “appeaser” and/or nurturer for the parents and others in the family, and carries around a lot of unwarranted shame and guilt–again, more on this over time.
Growing up, I realized without knowing the textbooks, that I was this kind of kid. After leaving for the Air Force, I spent the following 28 years believing I’d pretty much left behind all the sad and unfortunate family dynamics still raging back in Boston–in spite of the occasional forays back into the goings on back home, where, in the meanwhile, I’d earned the name “Mighty Mike.” More on that later as well.
Everyone was grown up and my father had died in 1981, yet coming home in 2003, I found my family still mired in past hurts, resentments, and estrangements. I was back in the vortex.
And being back and in spite of having been gone and unavailable to fix everything, Mighty Mike was back, and inexplicably the main source of physical and psychological support for my mother, by then estranged from all but three of her now adult children.
Part of my laundry list of “taking care of Ma” included shopping for her every couple of weeks at the Hanscom Air Force Base Commissary where things were cheaper. Ma was very picky about everything on her list, and I didn’t dare to buy the wrong brand of graham crackers or forget the Pinwheel cookies lest she have a “nervous attack.”
It was during one of these shopping trips when a profound dread swept over me at the first, full realization that I really was back in that vortex!
So many years had passed, so much water under the bridge, so many chances for the family to have repaired at least some of the residual damage from a childhood and a growing up. But no. 2003 felt a lot like 1975, and there still wasn’t much I could do about it. What else could there be but for Mighty Mike to take his cape out of the cleaners, and try to help the family using anything I could, anything I’d learned, in my 30 years away.
Those thoughts led me to start putting a story down on paper, just to get it out, just to try to “accommodate” my being home again. One paragraph and page led to another, and here I am, on the verge of completing a memoir I call, “The Last Ride In To Readville.” My attempt to piece together the jigsaw puzzle that was my life growing up, and to give my own insights to my family, friends, and readers, into what I believe is the secret to moving on.
Yes, my family had and still has challenges, isn’t that true for almost all of us?
But in spite of all that, and all the years and “damage done” by our parents, now gone, my sisters, brothers, and I all came out together on the other side. And even though we may be still yet a bit “sideways,” we’ve still got each other, and the laughs outweigh the rest.
Here’s a quick excerpt from my book, that maybe says it best.
“And I didn’t get drawn into family drama because I needed any type of inner healing or apologies. It was just that no matter how much I had let go of any residual crap like theirs, there was a part of me that would always react with emotion to what was going on around me, because like it or not, it came with being part of a family. And in spite of how sideways this one may have been, it was the one I had, and I just couldn’t help but care, even if there wasn’t anything Mighty Mike could do about the most troubling things.” – From my forthcoming memoir, “The Last Ride In To Readville.”