Like most people, at the end of each year I think about resolutions or goals for the next year. As I entered the last quarter of 2013, I made a decision to reach out to a family member with whom I had a difficult relationship. A relationship that had been rocky since I was an adolescent. My goal was to start 2014 repairing that relationship so that we could move forward in the last years of our lives. I wanted a more traditional relationship with this person that would also extend to my children.
I had spent the previous few years dealing with end of life issues. My father died in 2008 after two tumultuous years of decline. After that, I helped my sister and brother-in-law with his parents – their aging, decline, and subsequent deaths. Then this same brother-in-law learned he had cancer. I spent the next 18 months helping him and my sister until he also passed away in July 2013. I saw many of my friends dealing with aging parents and their anguish over that, but I also saw many of them having some really great relationships with their older parents, too.
David, my brother-in-law, and I spent many hours talking about life and love and family. He had a difficult relationship with his only sibling, a brother, and, sometimes, with his folks. In spite of that, they had always remained connected. We talked about my extended family and the impact the acrimonious divorce between my parents had on us that resulted in a lifetime of cutting off behavior. Behavior which followed a pattern that existed, historically, with my aunts and uncles and among their children, too. It’s interesting how some families stay connected no matter what and others cut off from each other over the most trivial things. Research bears out that these patterns tend to exist in families.
After my brother-in-law died, I spent a lot of time taking a 360° look at my life. I looked back. I looked at the present. And I looked forward. When I closed my eyes, I pictured myself standing in a field on a sunny summer day with wildflowers up to my knees as I turned around and around with my arms outstretched and eyes looking up into the sky. The realization that life can be so fleeting and short made me decide to do two things in 2014.
#1 Repair the relationship with my family member.
#2 Take a year off. A year off from doing most things other than the basics. A gap year. A sabbatical year.
I started working on #1 by sending a letter to my family member in December 2013. I knew it was a difficult letter. I asked difficult questions. I made difficult observations. But they were my questions and observations. I felt that my emotions and desires came through. I did not call names. I did not make accusations. I stated what I felt were facts. Facts that I wanted changed for what I felt were all the right reasons. It was heartfelt, and I thought it was obvious I was hurting.
I was wrong. I was wrong about how it would be interpreted. I was wrong about how it would be accepted.
I learned a few months later, via email, that the letter, the private letter between me and this person, had been scanned and disseminated among a select group of family members where I was vilified. Where my feelings were dismissed and misconstrued.
I made a mistake by responding to the question posed in the email, the email about the letter that had been inappropriately shared.
I didn’t respond in anger, but I did share some of the most egregious actions that impacted me and my relationship with my family member. These things were not pretty. They were pretty awful in fact. But they asked, and I shared. I shared with only those few people who were included on the email. People who were there and had knowledge of these events. I was hoping that by sharing these things that there would be a greater understanding of how I felt hurt, and how I wanted to mend.
I was wrong. I was wrong to respond to the email. I was wrong about how it would be accepted and interpreted.
My response was then shared without my knowledge or consent with a broader group of family members including many nieces and nephews. Nieces and nephews who had no knowledge of what had happened all those years ago. Nieces and nephews who were now traumatized to learn of the actions of this family member. This family member with whom they had a good relationship.
One of my nephews, “speaking on behalf of the family” told me in no uncertain terms that I was no longer going to be considered to “exist” as a family member and that I should “drop dead.”
So, the cutting off behavior was going to be continued to a new generation of family members. Our children.
It wasn’t over yet. My family member, perhaps emboldened by the support of all of the others, decided it was their turn to weigh in with me.
I received a letter. A letter so filled with vitriol and hate that it made my head spin. I was accused of being the one and only reason there were problems in the family. I started this 45 years ago. When I was 12 years old. I was living in the past, and I had a significant mental health issue for which I needed help and medication. My husband and children were “saints” to have put up with me for all these years. I was just like my father. The worst insult one in my family can receive. I was not worthy of having a relationship with, and I was effectively cut off from the family. I was “garbage.”
Was I really this horrible person?
So #1 expanded to include a trip to therapy. A trip that I should have taken years ago. A trip that allowed me to finally let go of my past and my goal to create a family where none really existed. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear is the saying that comes to mind for me now.
Therapy helped me to understand what I already knew intuitively. That some things are just not repairable. That some things will just never be fixed. That it is okay to let go of significant family members in spite of what the pundits and memes all expound.
I also learned that I do not have a significant mental health issue, and I do not need medicine.
Hurray for me!
But, seriously, I knew this already. And so did those who truly know and care about me. My husband, my children, my two closest sisters, my really good friends. These are people who have spent much more time with me over the years than many of my own family members. These are people who have been in my life for decades. They all knew I was okay, too, but they all encouraged me to seek validation from a professional.
I would encourage anyone who has considered therapy but not taken the step to do so. I was lucky to find someone with whom I connected, and I walked away a much happier person.
It did take me all of 2014 to process my pain and grief, though, and I’m glad my immediate family, my new and improved smaller extended family, hung in there with me because I went through some pretty shitty emotions in 2014.
Rejection is never easy especially when it comes from someone who is supposed to be there for you, to love you unconditionally, and to help you if you are in need.
So, my family circle got significantly smaller in 2014. Apparently, there is now a “good” side of the family and a “bad” side of the family. Guess which side I’m on.
Being bad never felt so good. I am still sad. But I feel free. And that is empowering.
The consequence of my initial letter is that there is a more permanent rift in my family which is the opposite of everything I have worked toward for over 40 years. A rift that had existed for a long time, but had been simmering below the surface.
I’m sad that this happened. In fact sadness is not a strong enough word. The word that describes my feelings about this is sorrow. Deep, deep sorrow.
Is the rift permanent? I don’t know. Probably. While I have learned to never say never, I have no great expectation that this will ever change. And I’m okay with that.
So the other unintended consequence of #1 is that I really needed my sabbatical year which was goal #2 for 2014.
I took a year off from just about everything. Yes, I still took care of my home and my family. I kept up with the basics. I just didn’t take on anything extra. I spent a lot of time in introspection and self-reflection. I felt that I was at a crossroads in my life. In my life as a wife and mother and daughter and sister and friend.
I allowed myself a year to go over my past, look at my present, and prepare for the future. And, yes, I know that I am exceedingly blessed to have a loving, supportive husband who allowed me this time along with two sisters and many precious friends who have always been so kind and understanding during the ups and downs of my life (and now my sabbatical year).
I took a year off from volunteering. That was hard since I’ve been an active volunteer for all of my adult life.
I took up reading for pleasure again and escaped by reading 80 books in 2014.
I spent a lot of time writing. Writing stuff I will never post or share. Writing stories. Writing about my life, but also writing fictional stories about people in my imagination.
I worked on my garden and yard and other projects around my new old home. Doing work with my hands, physical work, is a way for me to relieve stress and feel a sense of accomplishment. I learned new things that I never thought about doing like upholstering chair seats and other DIY stuff. My sister and I do a lot of antiquing.
I went through the grief process with my sisters as we processed the death of my brother-in-law, but also the loss of a large part of our extended family. Us baddies have to stick together.
In 2015 I will step back into volunteering. I’m signed up for the citizen’s police academy in the city in which I live. I asked to be considered to be a third-party reviewer for family support team meetings for kids in foster care. I will continue to read and even joined a book club. I am committed to writing something every single day. I will continue to work on learning new things – I have quite an extensive DIY list for my home, my yard and garden, and our little cottage at the lake. Our two youngest children will graduate from college this year, and we will transition to being full-fledged empty nesters.
And I will continue to work on my new-found happiness centered around those people who truly take the time to know and love me. I will no longer waste time and energy on those who are not interested in having a healthy relationship with me. Life is just too damn short.
My husband and I have a key word for 2015. Understanding. He will need it as he now deals with the issues of aging with someone who is very important in his life.
I hope that I will be able to give him back some of what he gave to me in 2014.