There is an old saying about family. You can pick your friends, but never your family – or some variation of that. I was reminded of this long ago lesson this week and once again the beauty of the possibility of a family like those we see all around us has been crushed.
My family is probably no different than every other family out there. They have their good and they have their bad; but get seventeen members of said family (out of too many to count) in one house for a week of vacation and hell breaks loose.
I don’t know if this is because there are so many people in one space. I don’t know if this is because we are looking at strong and powerful personalities among the women – read a bunch of *itches. I don’t know if the problem is the men are worshiped as the saviors, or if the kids are simply too loud. I don’t know what makes my family one seriously messed up, yet powerful, collaboration of people. I probably don’t need to know.
There is of course, the family matriarch and since the family patriarch died, has begun to finally be unstoppable. An eighty-four year old bipolar sufferer, she if overindulged, spoiled and can be just plain mean. In one of her episodes, when she is taking the hides off my mother and her sisters (never the brother) she is my greatest nightmare. The idea that I will turn into a person who can treat those taking care of me and simply loving me, those that I brought into the world, with such hatred terrifies me. She takes little to no medicine to regulate the disease, and after her hateful episodes have passed will swear on a bible that she did none of the things you have accused her of. And once you try to convince her of her other devil self and of course its existence, she will get frustrated and angry and horrible all over again. It is a vicious pattern that seems like the never ending loop of a broken record player.
Then there are the women. The strong, powerful women. And when I say powerful please note we are talking about power in their minds. They make the decisions where we are going to eat, where we are each going to sleep, and ultimately our fate within family gatherings. They laugh too loud at jokes that aren’t funny and they occasionally take a medicinal swig out of some bottle their children bought to get through the week. And God forbid there is one voice that is not going with the crowd, that poor soul is destined for a week vacation better spent in hell – the city, the real city.
The men are for the most part conditioned to simply stay out of the way. They try to not make any waves either in the ocean or in the house; and refuse to even attempt to stop the female they rode in with. After years of these vacations the men, either the fathers or the sons, know you simply sit down and shut up – oh, and you wear the clothes that have been put out for you. It is a remarkable transformation that lasts exactly one week; these men in their real life are lawyers, corporate presidents, and leaders. They are exactly what their mothers have made them, and whether they are happy or not isn’t really the point.
The small children are deliberately sheltered by all. They are given bribes to keep quiet and to find other places to play when the heart of the argument finally blows through the bedroom doors. Much like the men they are given random assignments, but mostly are asked simply to have so much fun – alone, or at least without parents – through bribery, begging, and freedom that they normally would never be able to feel. Starbursts for lunch? M&Ms for breakfast? It’s vacation, why not?
And then there is my mother. I wouldn’t quantify her as a strong woman. She is the kind of woman that just stays out of the way. She is the kind of woman that doesn’t know which way the wind is really blowing, and every time she opens up her poor mouth, she steps in a pile of crumbs left by her grandchildren. She tries so hard to find herself important, or at least funny enough to be part of the crowd; but the truth is, I suspect that after sixty years of dealing with her family she has resigned herself to never being much more than that. She continues to sit in the corner, because the alternative can be such that her very belief in her existence is often questioned.
I don’t know who and what I am inside my family dynamics. I am a strong woman when it comes to my family and certainly rule my children with a combination of a steel and surprising fun. I believe in setting a line in the sand and standing by it, I never cross that line, but I also believe that there are times the children should be allowed to be just that…children. There are times when children can’t be what we want them to be; there are times when our children simply smile and do their own thing and all you can do is allow it. However, when I am surrounded by family, I get a mixture of horror at my parenting and the simple rolling of eyes. I tend to brag on my children, as I should, but there are so many things they are here at this vacation, that I am not allowed and really can’t control.
I know that my family is aware that I have the same disease that the matriarch of this group does. I know that my family is aware that I have a disease. I know that my family has absolutely no concept of what that means and what the consequences truly are; and I know that as a group they would rather forget that I need seven bottles of pills everywhere I go. It is literally the big elephant in the room. Despite the similarities between me and the matriarch there is never a comparison said out loud. There is never a moment when the knowledge is not there; but there are plenty of moments of ignorance. I always believed that it was with your family that you were most safe; that the diseases you have were the most forgiven within the souls of those that share your blood.
It actually isn’t true. It is a lesson that most of us deal with. My family will never be okay with the disease that I have. My family will ignore this disease, they will ignore me crying in a room that I share with six other people. My family will not acknowledge my anger, my need to clean in an almost OCD fashion. They will never accept that I dyed my hair blue for this trip because deep inside of me I wanted one second of acknowledgement that I was different. That I wasn’t them. That I was the person I was, with all her fingers and all her toes, and yet I was also something more than they could ever be. After the blue hair, I believe that I am beginning to give up those dreams.
I am beginning to give up, finally, the need for my family to see me as something better; something to celebrate. I am giving up on the need for my family to ever acknowledge that the disease I have is not a war they have to fight, nor is it the personality that loves her blue hair. I want my family to give me respect because I have earned it instead of ignoring a very essential point about me.
But part of the journey I am currently on is finding the strength to not care what my family truly feels. Part of the journey I must walk is learning not to lean on those I thought were supposed to love me most, but rather to find my own path, my own materials to build these walls, and to find the ability to stand up straight and smile.
There is this song from the Disney movie, “Dumbo,” that I love. Most people hear the song and only hear the love and bond between mother and child. But listen closer…listen as the mother acknowledges that her child isn’t like the rest, that if they just knew how incredible her child was there would never be another lonely night. Don’t listen to the words that every mother not only says but sings, listen to the rest. The acknowledgement that her child is not perfect but it simply doesn’t matter. I always believed that mothers and family were there to do just that; to love me despite who and what I came from and where I was going. I know that I am related by more than blood to the family matriarch, but it isn’t me that has lost her way. I am a woman with the same horrific disease that has a personality that only the changing tides know.
I believe the most powerful force this world has ever seen is from those that surround us with not only blood but also the commonalities of each other. I always believed that the force of family wasn’t one of destruction or even the wiping of each others tears but rather the power of standing and acknowledging the beauty of each other. I have grown up in some ways and am learning that this isn’t true. But imagine if it was.
Imagine if we had the support of our family; if we didn’t have to go on journeys to find not only our self but the strength to be ourselves. Imagine if we didn’t have to find the answers within ourselves but within the families that we adore. Imagine if the acceptance we needed was already within ourselves because from the day we were conceived our family, rather small or large, near or far, felt the power that is intrinsic in each of us. What would this world be if not love, but the power of acceptance was felt?
It is a naive question. It is a naive question in my own family. For thousand of years people have been preaching love, tolerance, acceptance and yet, even in the most sacred of pacts these things are far from our reach. I will continue my journey (and my blue hair) not because of those surrounding me this week but in spite of them. I will finally find the peace, that single place I am looking for, not for the unburdening of those that are listed on a tree I never asked to be on, but because if I don’t, if I continue to look for acceptance anywhere on that family tree, I will simply continue to be hanging only by my fingernails.