Families, abuse, & hope

Political systems have always been a facsimile of the predominant family dynamics

Parenting for a Peaceful World, Robin Grille

I’m about halfway through this incredibly challenging book. The most difficult and interesting part has been reading through a brief history of different approaches to children and child raising. The brutality and disconnection is truly horrifying. At one point Grille notes that the hysterical dissociation cases so common in the Victorian era are far less frequent now, probably due to very different child raising practices. Yet, I work with many people who’s childhood experiences were neglectful and abusive in probably very similar ways. Each family is like a tiny culture of its own, a mini country with its own customs and political structure. It’s interesting to also consider the reverse – looking at complex politics through the lens of a family. The same questions that can be useful to consider on the small scale are also relevant on the large – who exercises what kinds of power, and how? What is the cost of being the least powerful, or out of favour? How safe are the most vulnerable members?

Rose and I are talking a lot about families at the moment, as we plan our own. I find it interesting that our broader culture structure is capitalist, while our private family structure is closer to socialist, with much unpaid labour and sharing of resources. There’s a tension as we move between these frameworks in public and private spheres of our lives. So we have significant labour such as child raising, or caring for family who are sick, disabled, or frail aged, going largely unrecognised as they have neither job title nor a decent wage attached to them. Family power structures can be fascinatingly complex and subtle. Those who are obviously in power are sometimes only figureheads. Oppressed and brutalised family members are often the most brutal themselves in their enforcement of family traditions and rules. Families create their own mindsets, a framework through which members learn to view themselves and the world around them. When this framework is destructive, “You’re an idiot and you’ll never amount to anything”, “The world is dangerous and will eat you alive”, it takes massive effort to mentally and emotionally challenge these beliefs, break free of their hold, and construct new frameworks. Children basically grow up inside the ways their parents view the world. Many adult children of destructive families find that while they are trying to find their power to built and maintain their own beliefs, they are highly vulnerable to having their frameworks ‘switch’ to those of the family culture whenever they are anxious or in contact with them. Some families navigate such challenges with growth and new connection, others have harsh, rejecting, or even violent responses to what is essentially a war of ideologies. It can be a big challenge to maintain an individual perspective that does not mesh with the family perspective.

A task I once found incredibly helpful was to sit down and nut out the ‘rules’ of my family of origin – not the spoken ones, but the actual way we functioned. Sometimes these align, sometimes they don’t. This isn’t always a bad thing – in the case of a family with avowed ideals of patriarchy or harsh punishments, the reality may be modified and softened by genuine affection and care. No family gets it all right, and many have a combination of generous and altruistic practices mixed in with selfish and cruel ones. Those who have been raised with harsh practices may enjoy ‘their turn’ at exercising power rather than dismantling the abusive structure. But the process of deliberately choosing to observe the dynamics, to note the rules and the roles was extremely helpful for me. For example, many families have a role – the ‘lightning rod’. Whoever is in this role is available to be put down, made the butt of jokes, talked over, doesn’t get to make choices, gets less access to family resources, has to do the worst jobs or so on. This person is targeted as the source of family stress and they are available for the most powerful (not necessarily physically, but politically) family member to work out their frustration on. In some families the lightening rod is always the same person, in others it’s a shifting role as people go in and out of favour. In some families, being able to discharge tension in this way is the sole prerogative of the most powerful member, in others everyone must show their loyalty by treating the out of favour person badly. Sometimes there are factions and more than one lightening rod, with vulnerable members trying to maintain neutrality across all the teams and not find themselves in the least favoured role.

It can be useful to ask questions such as “Who gets their needs met?”, “Who has the most powerful vote?”, “Who’s plans get disrupted when something goes wrong?”, “Who does the most jobs they don’t like?”, “How safe is the least favoured family member?”. And then comes the most interesting part – how would you like your family to function? What rules did you wish your family really worked by? Many of us with challenging upbringings want to do better and can eloquently name the things we hated that hurt us badly – shaming, beatings, emotional detachment, poverty, and so on. Figuring out what we don’t want to repeat can often be much easier than figuring out what we’re going to do instead. For me, one of the things I really wanted my family to be was a nurturing place, somewhere it was safe to come home to when you were sick, hurting, anxious, or had failed at something. I want it to be normal for family members to be kind to each other, to help each other out, and to listen to each other. I sat down and nutted out a bunch of other values and ideas that are also really important to me. I found that they were pretty similar between family and friends too.

The next thing I found helpful was to start acting as if these values and ideas were normal in my family. Instead of instinctively obeying unwritten rules, I chose over and over again to operate from my own values. In my case, I had to do this with my eyes wide open because sometimes the results of breaking these rules were violent. People are often very invested in ‘the way things are’, even if they are suffering under it. Sometimes there’s a lack of hope, sometimes people are trapped by beliefs such as ‘If I was just a better person, everything would work out’. It can take time and coaxing for people to see that there is freedom and kindness possible in change. For those the current dynamics suit – those who are getting most of their needs met, or are comfortably placed within the power structure, or are so entangled with their own demons that they need a painful and chaotic environment around them – the protests can be intense. In some cases, change can expose people to life threatening consequences. This is one, of many complex reasons, that abused partners stay in relationships where they are suffering terribly.

Obeying abusive family dynamics will almost always require a person to violate their own morals and beliefs in some way. It might force someone to be a bystander when they find that intervening makes the situation worse. It might be that blaming and hurting the most vulnerable family member was the only way to be safe. There are often complex trade-offs where children may submit to abuse in the hopes of protecting their siblings, wives to rape in the hopes of protecting children, men to beatings in the hopes of protecting the women and so on. A complex network of attempts at self protection and protection of other family members often results in deep shame and a sense of failure. People in this position are embedded in the family dynamics and take on a sense of responsibility for them. With shame and guilt eroding their confidence in themselves, deep beliefs in their own worthlessness and incompetence, and a powerful and justified fear of the consequences of breaking the rules, it takes extraordinary means for people to start building new frameworks and escaping old dynamics. In some cases people will be harassed or rejected, in others they will be beaten, raped, or killed. In many situations I’ve observed, those who protest these changes do not even understand their rage, there is simply for them a sense that they are less safe, and they use whatever power they have to make themselves feel safer.

None of us is immune to this dynamic, and any of us who exercise any kind of power must consider this if we wish to handle it ethically. Even good intentions can take us down bad roads when we run solely on instinct and the desire to be safe.

The good news is that even the tiniest of gestures to break away from abusive dynamics start to generate a sense of identity and personal power. Within even profoundly abused people, a will to survive and to maintain identity is extremely strong. The entire ‘child abuse survivor’ movement is testament to that – as are the statistics on people – including children – who flee abusive families. While most will return more than once, within the deep conflicts of fear, hope, despair, and bonding, a desire for freedom remains intact. It may not be the most powerful voice, but it is still present. In violent families this change might be done entirely in secret – public obedience, but private kindness. It might be sneaking food to the child denied yet another meal, it might be covering for someone so they don’t get punished. Even secret collusions erode abusive power. They create a sense of personal agency that obedience to the rules takes away, and with that agency comes an awareness that you can and do disagree with what is happening. Environments that strip us of power and choice also reduce our possible responses to two options – we can comply, or we can rebel. In situations where the cost of rebellion is unmanageably high, most people will comply. In situations where the price of compliance is almost or is as severe as the price of rebelling – most people will rebel. Many of us actually alternate between the states, often instinctively trying to find a mid-line where we get the benefits of compliance such as approval, access to resources, protection from violence, some affection, and the benefits of rebelling such as freedom, the opportunity to connect with people outside this dynamic, and a sense of personal power and identity. Like abusers who do not understand their rage when change threatens, most of us engage both submission and rebellion instinctively and are confused and frustrated by our own drives for both.

Being able to truly disconnect from abusive dynamics is about being able to make room for a response outside of the submit/rebel dynamic. Some families (and other institutions for that matter – psychiatric hospitals spring to mind) make this extraordinarily difficult because every action of the members is conceived in a black and white framework of loyalty/disloyalty. They are for us or against us, they are one of us or not one of us, they are a good kid or a bad kid. For me, it helped to be aware of this framing of my choices, and not to mind them. While I engaged conversation about them, I did not initiate them, and I did not expect to persuade anyone. I simply identified what I wanted and acted from that. I wanted a family that was fair, so I resolved to treat members fairly, irrespective of whatever else was going on. This meant my actions were constantly misconstrued, because of course everything I did was interpreted through the framework the family was using. If I gave a gift to a powerful family member it would be assumed I was being compliant and currying favour, if I gave the same value gift to a disgraced member that was likewise a political act. This constant misunderstanding is often exhausting and debilitating to those who are trying to change the way they engage, and if their goal is to persuade people to a new framework, they can become deeply discouraged and give up, or increasingly defensive and get into massive rows. In situations where the stakes are high it’s important to be aware of the politics without subscribing to them. If an act could put you at risk of violence, homelessness, loss of job, custody, or other catastrophes, acting without thought for consequence is foolish. This process of being aware of possible or probable consequences can be immediate in some cases – “Father has always said if any of us drop out of school we’ll be kicked out of home” – in others it’s a slow process of observing the ways the stated rules “In this family we all love each other” and the actual rules “We don’t talk about your brother since he outed himself”, differ. Processing the reality when we’ve been fed a lot of lies and spin can be extremely challenging and confronting, and people are good at obeying unwritten rules while paying strong lip service to the written ones.

However, the freedom to choose your own response is powerful. Instead of merely reacting to what is present, you actually bring into being a new framework of your own, and live from that as best you can. This might cause minor friction or it might involve running to shelters and setting up new homes in new cities. Some of us pay much higher prices than others. Even with the best of intentions, you will at times fail to live up to your own values and standards. But the more you have set them for yourself instead of having them imposed upon you, the more congruent your beliefs and actions become, and the less internal struggling and weakening of identity occurs. It’s a powerful, gradual process, where the first tiny act can be nightmarishly difficult, but each subsequent one a little easier. Instead of being a pawn for the use of the more powerful, you become a player in your own right, exercising freedom of choice over your own actions and accepting the prices if you think they are worth paying. This may be profoundly unfair, involve intense grief and loss, and it can be extraordinarily difficult to maintain a minority perspective in the face of massive opposition or total indifference, but it can be done, and the gains are massive. Being able to have complex, deep, authentic relationships instead of living under the yoke of roles is an amazing experience. Claiming freedom to create a life that is personally meaningful is profound.

Learning to see the giants of our childhood as people who themselves live with the ghosts and shadows of childhood, is a perspective we can only reach when we have somewhere safe in our heads to stand. It can help move us away from attraction/repulsion, submission/rebellion, and into a place where we can see the people behind the roles. This is a much safer place from which we can feel the compassion for vulnerability and loss that may previously have trapped us or exposed us to harm, or likewise the judgement of narcissism or brutality. We can be freed from the black and white thinking where we can perceive only with compassion or only with judgement, which means our actions are more informed by the whole complexity that makes up a family, and less the instincts of ourselves as a stressed child. It can be the start of breaking away and getting out, or the start of reconnecting and making something real – or sometimes both at the same time.

Links between childhood trauma & adult chaos and hoarding

I know these two things don’t seem to be related, but my experience has been that for some people, there’s several links that can be very difficult to manage. Not everyone who was traumatised or abused as a child struggles with mess & chaos as an adult – and vice versa! Plenty of people who’s personal style is more ‘trench warfare’ than ‘glossy magazine’ haven’t been abused. And there’s a natural diversity here that I don’t wish to pathologise! But for those who have experienced childhood trauma this can be a difficult aspect of their lives, one that causes conflict and shame, and can be depressingly resistant to efforts towards change.

I once had a friend, I’m going to call them Nicole, who really struggled in this area. Their living space, and most especially their bedroom, was in a constant state of chaos and uncleanliness. Things were not just messy but in major disarray. Lack of clean clothes, bedsheets unchanged, food leftovers not picked up, mess from pets not cleaned away. Her spaces ranged from untidy to actual health hazards with moulds on walls or tiles surfaces and in food areas, and food scraps attracting rodents and bugs. I remember being initially confused and then repulsed by the state of her home. I couldn’t understand how anyone could live this way. I would help out from time to time when Nicole became really overwhelmed by it all, and between the two of us we would clean everything back to sparkling and she’d vow to do better. It never lasted. The more I helped out, the more I realised that there was more than messiness going on here. I’ve lived with messy people, they’re a pain to pick up after, but if you’re fairly diligent and there’s not too many of them, you can keep up with things. With Nicole it was different, it was more like she was at times actively trashing her space. And yet, she hated it. She wouldn’t invite friends over because she felt so ashamed of her home. When she house-shared, it was a constant source of massive conflict with her house mates who became fed up with promises to change that never came through. She struggled to maintain work when she couldn’t find any of her resources, important documents, or food for breakfast or lunch. When things got very bad her personal hygiene also suffered, without clean clothes it seemed pointless to shower, the bathroom was unpleasant to spend time in so she would also stop brushing her teeth and hair. Profound humiliation set in as she would take long stretches off work on the basis of anxiety, and self harm and suicidiality would be the result of this awful spiral.

It was so distressing to watch. We talked about it and over the years we started to tease together some idea of what was driving it. Nicole isn’t in my life anymore, but I’ll never forget the conversations we had, and my slowly dawning awareness of the links between her mess and her history of child sexual abuse. We coined a phrase – graphic, but appropriate, for the need that the mess sated – it was her moat of corpses. For a child who hadn’t been safe in her own bed at night, surrounding herself with filth and mess made her feel safer. She slept better at night with the comforting notion that anyone sneaking into her room would fall over the trash so she would hear them coming, would be put off by the mouldy food, might decide it was all just too much trouble. Once articulated however, this idea simply made her feel more humiliated and helpless, like confessing as an adult to a fear of the dark or still wetting your pants. (Neither of which are uncommon for people sexually abused as children when they are triggered and stressed) On some deep level, her inner child was still terrified of sleeping in bed, and found the mess a comforting barrier, and the idea of being unclean and unattractive far safer. These needs, difficult to explore or understand as they were, were far stronger than Nicole’s other needs for order and cleanliness and comfort in her own space. The essence of the struggle was a profound sense of not being safe, and a struggle for control between her deeply ashamed adult self, and her terrified and abused child self. (using this language in the sense in which we all have parts, rather than that of multiplicity)

I’ve since come across this dynamic many more times, with friends or loved ones, or people I’ve reached out to in my mental health work. At times issues like this are driving the cluster of behaviours we call ‘hoarding’, although there are many other things that can instead be at play. I’ve noticed a few more links between childhood trauma and chaos, one is that of the child who is raised in chaos and has no models of how to use adult routines and systems. If you’ve ever helped a child to clean up their room when it’s been completely trashed, you’ll know that children struggle to work out how to break such a big task down to small steps. Helpful adults show a child how to tackle tasks like these ones, perhaps like this; start by putting all the laundry and bedding on the bed, then let’s put all the shoes in the shoe box, now the toys back on the toy shelf, now the lego back in the lego box, now we’ll sort the clean washing from the dirty… and helpful adult have set up basically useful systems in their houses – like having a toy shelf and a place for shoes to go, and a routine at evening where everyone brushes their teeth before bed. Chaotic houses are not like this. The adults in these houses are often either distracted (such as with a very sick child in hospital), overwhelmed (with mental illness, grief, or addiction), lacking in these skills themselves, or abusive or neglectful and do not invest energy in the child’s environment and well being. It’s important to note that chaotic households are not always abusive, particularly in the instance of very bonded parents there may be a great deal of love and fun in all the chaos! But without someone to model how to use systems and routines, kids struggle to develop these skills. In houses that at times also felt unsafe and highly stressful, this effect is compounded in that it can be harder to simply tack on a few extra skills once adulthood is reached.

In other situations I’ve seen children who come from highly organised households still have huge struggles in these areas. Sometimes an abusive parent is not chaotic, but rather wears a mask of caring investment in their child. Children of these parents often reject their hypocritical role model – and so also reject the valuable skills around maintaining a home. It takes a lot of processing, maturity, and self esteem to be comfortable in any way resembling someone who has badly hurt us, or whom we despise. Sometimes it is not the parent who is abusive, but in strict households where order and neatness of appearance are prioritised over connection and expression of emotion, children who are traumatised or being abused in another setting can find themselves under tremendous stress at home when their ‘normal’ reactions to those experiences are interpreted as disrespectful and disruptive. Huge power struggles over issues of neatness and hygiene can result, with the underlying issues of poor self-worth, emotional exhaustion, alienation, and intense emotional pain going completely unnoticed. Rebellion against house rules that are perceived to be overly strict, or designed with the intention of ‘looking good for other people no matter what’s really going on’ can become an entrenched behaviour into adulthood. For many people in this situation, arguments about cleanliness with family members continue well into adult life and remain a constant point of conflict. Awareness that developing these skills and resolving the issues around chaos would meet with family approval can completely block any progress in this area when this approval would be distressing. At times the need to be in opposition to people is far stronger than our need to feel successful in our own lives.

There’s a lot of overlaps between the kinds of dynamics I’m describing and those I see in families where someone is struggling with dangerously disordered eating. There’s both the issue at hand, and the challenge of the massive stress it causes in key relationships. Caring about someone who is a trauma survivor can be challenging. Sharing a space with someone who keeps trashing it can be a source of intense distress! The conflict of needs is not just within the person, but within groups of families, friends, housemates, and neighbours. In severe forms, this can be a health hazard. People can get sick from improperly stored food, or where fridge or freezer doors are left open, moulds can trigger allergies and respiratory issues, and the psychological impact of living in a permanent tip can be huge. It may not be possible to have friends to visit. It can be a huge struggle to maintain your own life and routines when there are not only no clean dishes, but even the dirty ones haven’t been put back in the kitchen and you have to go looking for them every morning if you want breakfast. Mail gets lost. Important things are left in the rain. Broken glasses are trodden on at night in bare feet because no one cleaned them up. The back yard is a mass of dog shit, broken toys, and flies. Undesexed pets spawn litters that are sickly and difficult to home. For some people, the shame is catching, and living with a parent, sibling, or housemate who generates this kind of chaos can make people feel very ashamed. A sense of misery and hopelessness descends. It’s a difficult environment to take good care of yourself in, to feel a sense of dignity and self respect in, even to think clearly in. With all of this comes a sense of being held hostage to someone else’s demons. Efforts to fix everything don’t last or are rejected. Cycles of feeling sorry for them, of ignoring it all, of being really angry with them, cleaning it all up, and numb depression never seem to resolve, except with explosive ruptures where households disband. The underlying shame is re-enforced and there’s no way out.

If you are someone who struggles with chaos, take heart! You don’t have to be caught forever in a spiral of shame and rejection. You may be able to find ways to resolve the needs and learn the skills needed to keep a home ticking over, or you may remain messy and chaotic, but either way you can manage this. The very first thing people often need is a way to be able to think about this without hating themselves. You’re not just a horrible person. It’s not that you don’t try hard enough. I know that you have huge blocks in your head that make this incredibly difficult to even think about, much less act on. It’s not your fault.

If you are living with someone like this, also take heart. You can break out of the cycle and find ways not to be drowned by it all. You don’t have to be caught between feeling sympathy for them (and putting up with it), or hating or leaving them. You are allowed to love someone who is flawed and has been wounded, and struggles with chaos as an adult. You’re also allowed to insist on your right to feel safe and not at risk of harm in your home.

Being able to accept that this is an issue can be a radically different approach when everything you’ve always tried has been either fix it/live with it. This approach is about reducing shame and trying to untangle all the different valid needs that people have. Shame often intensifies the stress that drives this behaviour, creating a loop that drives everyone insane.

Containment is a key need. The spiral I described that Nicole would get into started with messy bedroom > chaotic home > work stress > lower personal hygiene > self harm > feeling or acting on suicidal feelings. If she was flat sharing, the messy bedroom wasn’t the end of the world, but the chaotic home stressed her flatmates, and self harm or suicidal impulses made them scared, angry, and tended to blow up simmering stress into major rejection and restructures. If the spiral can be interrupted, and the chaos can be contained to some level, the catastrophic results don’t come into play. There’s many different ways this can happen. Perhaps 1/2 day a week, everyone cleans up the house together. The rest of the time it might be trashed, but this is a regular enough team effort that it is never too unmanageable to live with. Perhaps rules around safety are agreed upon and the home is allowed to be incredibly messy provided there’s no fire or health hazard. Perhaps the person with the chaos lives alone, or in a separate space, which can be trashed without distressing their partner or family. Perhaps some more money is needed to help set up systems – shelves for boxes, wardrobes for clothes, a fridge with a door handle. Poverty and chaos are often tangled together and they can re-enforce each other. Considering that each often generates disgust and contempt from other people, those struggling with both these issues are in for a very challenging time.

Perhaps different home set ups are explored – often when these dynamics are in play it’s like there’s only two options – trashed, or magazine perfect. Homes come in so many different flavours! Sometimes the magazine look is a huge trigger, but a hippy home full of lamps and rugs, or a thousand knick knacks on shelves, or a collection of indoor plants becomes a space that feels safe and able to be tended and looked after. Sometimes rooms need to be set up differently! If bed feels unsafe, maybe you need to sell the bed, sleep on the couch with the dog for a year, set up that sewing room you’ve always wanted. Maybe you need to move away from our modern trend towards open plan living, and set your bedroom up as a labyrinth, with shelves in front of the door, a box to step over, a lego bucket as the world’s most lethal moat, a lock on the windows. When you’re not feeling overwhelmed by shame, and that not having this problem any more is the only way you’ll be acceptable to friends and family, suddenly you can tap into your creativity and find other ways to manage it.

It’s important to protect other people from our demons, and in some cases where chaos is a trigger for your friend or partner, it can be very difficult! Sometimes our particular demons do not play well together. It’s not the end of everything, you can create enough safe space for your relationships to be happy despite these challenges. They don’t have to dominate your life, threaten your relationships and self respect, and bring social workers into your home. There’s some great resources online such as Unfuck Your Habitat. Part of this is about skills, but a lot of it is about the blocks that can make those skills so hard to learn as an adult. There’s room in life for blocks, we all have them! You can find ways to manage the stress and limit the damage. Good luck!