Monday, October 17, 2011

"Normal" & Abuse

I've been watching The United States of Tara, a show about a woman who has dissociative identity disorder (which causes what is sometimes referred to as "multiple personalities") and the effect it has upon her family. It's an interesting dynamic because, on a certain level, there's a great deal of dysfunction. Tara's alternate selves ["alters"] appear with no warning and inhabit spaces within her life that create a great deal of unpredictability and destructiveness. But on another level, despite these difficulties, the father is loving, the children squabble but mostly get along, the gay child is well-integrated, and Tara and her alters are not particularly threatening to the family. There is chaos and unpredictability, yes. But there are safe spaces, love, support and togetherness too.

Much is made about how "crazy" the mom is, although moreso in a "this is trying" way than a pejorative way. Yet I cannot help but watch and think "I wish I had a family like that." It doesn't seem particularly unreasonable, nor does it seem unrealistic. There are difficulties and hurt, but they are counterbalanced and cared about in compassionate ways. Tara's mental illness is a trial, but there is still a sense of closeness and a palpable sense of love that makes everything manageable. Hard, but manageable.

And it makes me wonder: How much of this is situational dramedy/cultural myth and how much of this accurately reflects contemporary American family structures? Many of the characters in the show focus upon how "abnormal" their family is. But their "abnormal" looks wonderful to me. Does "normal" exist? I don't think so. But perhaps more appropriately, are even the majority of family units close and loving? Do most people actually trust their parents? I honestly don't know.

I remember going over to my friends' homes when I was young and being somewhat shocked to learn that their parents slept in the same bed. My mother slept on the couch for my entire childhood, storing her clothes in the closet in my room and essentially having no space of her own. Not that my sister and I had those either, mind you. We were fortunate enough to have individual rooms, certainly. But if my father wanted in, he'd come in. Perhaps he would knock, but that gave you five seconds before he'd start to yell. "No" and "Please leave" or "Not right now" were not options.

Nothing was optional, where my father was concerned. Everything he wanted to do was mandatory. He'd even make us come out of our rooms to watch as he berated my mother (I don't consider such one-sided affairs "fights") and blamed us. As my sister says, " He would also blame everything on us.  So, as we would watch them fight he would point to that as an example of what our misbehavior (or lack there of in many cases) would cause."

When he did this, he would yell. Constantly. Bellow, roar. And you simply couldn't argue or speak. If he asked you a question, you answered, but his truth was the only one that mattered. My sister, again, "
He would not let anyone else talk.  He would just sort of berate you.  I also found that he would not so much lie as stretch the truth during these yelling sessions.  He would take something said in one context and completely misconstrue it or the events surrounding it." You could not win an argument or ever be right because he would use just enough 'truth' to lend himself credibility but inflect the rest so he was always the sole victim. 

He would threaten to throw things we loved away or take them from us, and once he even threw my sister's cherished blanky in the trash to punish her (our mother fished it out).

Leaving him meant we didn't love him. Telling him "I love you" was met with "No you don't."

And my mother, as a result of him or her depression, more or less shut down. She wouldn't respond unless we yelled at her (we so often did). She would do pretty much anything you wanted her to do, with no sense of her self worth. I almost think of her as a ghost, with the image of her tapping on the door futilely as my father cornered us and berated us locked in our rooms, telling us she was insane and couldn't love us, telling us how wrong we were for hours and her milquetoast protests of "Families don't keep secrets" so painfully inadequate, exacerbating everything.

And I still don't know how frequent this sort of thing is. How many people primarily associate childhood with terror? When people say they don't get along with their parents, what does that mean? I know "normality" doesn't matter, exactly. But I would like to know how many people, in general, relate to this. Because I know being trans is different than the norm. Being lesbian is different than the norm. But is being abused different too? Is Tara's family the ideal or the plurality? And what does the answer to that question mean?

I know "normality" doesn't matter. But it would be nice to have more validation. I might make another post about this, but it was immensely validating to have my sister share her experiences [we're just now getting to the point of trust where we can do that with each other]. You really start to think you've made most of it up until someone else "No, this happened." And I almost want to make a television show that says "No, this happens. All around us. And it doesn't stop once you leave." But I suppose being a psychotherapist will just have to do.

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