Photo credit: Revel Recovery
I saw the words in the title of this post captioning a Facebook post for ‘She Recovers‘ recently. The words — the level of mother-child estrangement in them — made me catch my breath. They are the title of an essay written by Rebekah Christofi. And that essay may be the most potent writing I’ve ever read about childhood abuse and neglect and subsequent parental estrangement. You can read it here. I hope you do. Her writing helped solidify for me my conviction about my own recovery and my estrangement from my parents and most of my family as a necessary part of that. She gave me strength.
Thankfully, I see some posts about parental and sibling estrangement on the smaller blogs I read written by adults who were abused and neglected by their parents or other family members as children. I say ‘thankfully,’ because I need — yes, need — to read those posts. My recovery — the recovery of my self that was blotted out in my family when I was a child and as I got older — depends on it.
I very rarely see writing about parental and family estrangement on platforms with larger audiences, though. And especially not such skillful writing done on the subject, nor writing done with the confident blatancy and bravery of Rebekah Christofi’s piece. Nor writing as raw and as heartbreaking as Christofi’s. The details she shares from her childhood are realities not often acknowledged by the wider world. Children’s voices, their pain, is too easily quashed; the things that go on behind closed doors too easily ignored.
My situation isn’t the same as Rebekah Christofi’s. My parents weren’t addicted to hard drugs and I didn’t have to suffer the abject physical neglect that she did. But the level of dysfunction in my family was — and still is — high. High enough that the psychic and physical survival of its youngest and most vulnerable members was threatened by the behaviour of the adults who were supposed to be in charge.
But the preferred and dominant stories about families in our society don’t do a very good job of reconciling the fact that while families can be a source of love, strength and devotion, those same blood ties can threaten the very survival of their members. The preferred stories don’t do a good job of acknowledging that although sometimes abuse in families is obvious (reports of children terribly abused by their parents can be found in the news every day), abuse is often undetected, underground.
And the dominant stories don’t tell of all of the slow deaths of people from toxic blood ties. Deaths that can begin in childhood, unnoticed, from injuries on the inside, to the mind and the spirit. And sometimes the beginnings of those deaths isn’t from heavy physical blows or abject neglect; often death begins from emotional cruelty. And the emotional wounds don’t have to be heavy either. Small or subtle acts of cruelty are still cruel; death can occur from so many tiny cuts. Moreover, a slow death from family doesn’t necessarily complete itself in childhood. Rather, a person’s self may be erased over years.
Our society’s preferred stories would have us believe that if everything looks ‘okay’ on the outside of families — and with people generally — then all is well, inside. Those stories would tell us not to dig too deep. If the children are fed and clothed and well-mannered, then all is well. Those stories pay attention to bruises on bodies, but they don’t often acknowledge bruises to the psyche. Granted, those bruises may sometimes be very difficult to detect; they may even be invisible to the naked eye. That doesn’t mean they’re not there.
Sometimes, I’ll admit, I waver about my estrangement from family. Like when loneliness gets to be a bit much, and the shame of that comes creeping in. My mind can get sidetracked by the dominant stories about ‘loving’ families I see all around me. And the rest of my family isn’t estranged from one another and for that reason I can start to feel that something is wrong with me, too. Because my experiences aren’t widely represented in the larger society, I sometimes feel judged. I judge myself.
But my wiser self knows that reconnecting with my family isn’t the answer to my healing. Loving myself fiercely is the answer. And for me that means standing up for the child within me whose wounds were and are still denied in large part by my family. I know that if I don’t do that, then my wounds — the adverse mental and emotional health effects of the abuse — won’t heal. If my wounds had been tended to when I was a child, then I wouldn’t have to be doing this healing now. But they weren’t and I do.
What I’m saying is, I’m trying to save myself here and I need to know about the experiences of others in similar situations. In the face of the deluge of stories about ‘happy families,’ broader publication of honest and raw writing about childhood abuse and neglect and subsequent parental and family estrangements in the name of healing and recovery would help. More societal acknowledgement about the reality of children in pain because of their families would help. Despite the fact that, as Rebekah Christofi writes so eloquently, these truths are ‘uncomfortable.’
Rebekha Christofi, I’m so sorry for what you had to endure. May your healing inspire many others, like it has me. May your writing be widely shared.