Adult children of dysfunctional families

My parents split up when I was 7 and I was moved 200 miles away from everything I knew to live with a succession of relatives.  In the first 2 years we moved 9 times, usually after my Mum had fallen out with whoever we were living with at the time and often for good reason (eg. my Nanna used to belt me and if I wanted to read a book I was made to sit outside in the car, in the middle of winter).

I’ve never talked to her about it, but my Mum obviously had mental health issues.  Anti-depressants as we know them today didn’t exist though, so I’m fairly sure she was put on some kind of benzodiazepine probably valium.

I’ve always loved animals but had had to leave my cat behind, so when I was 8 my Mum got me a rabbit.  She couldn’t afford to go to a pet shop to buy one so I’m fairly sure my Uncle (with whom we were living at the time) caught a wild one.  It was vicious its whole life and I never even got to stroke it, let alone cuddle it.  I called the rabbit Whiskey, which tells you a lot about my Mum’s drinking habits at the time.  She wasn’t an alcoholic though – that came much much later.

When I was 9 my Mum met my step-Dad.  It was a volatile relationship from the start and they argued like their life depended on it.  I would come home from school with a sick feeling in my stomach, not knowing if they would be speaking, not speaking, if my Dad would be in a strop because his favourite football team had lost a match the night before or if my Mum would chuck something at him across the dinner table in temper.  Our home with filled with a constant under-current of tension and you could often cut the atmosphere with a knife.

On the other hand, when things were good they were great.  My Dad has the most wicked sense of humour and there were days when everything was hunky dory.  But I always knew it wouldn’t last and even when I was laughing I’d be waiting for someone to say the wrong thing and for it all to kick off again.  They were both wonderful with me though and never shouted or raised to a hand to me, but the consequences of living within their toxic relationship and with their almost split-personalities changed me forever.

Of course our home life was a big secret and I instinctively knew I wasn’t allowed to talk about what went on within our four walls.  To the outside world my Mum was lovely and all my friends envied our close relationship.  My Dad was a bloke’s bloke who played darts, loved the footie and would help anyone at any time.  If I meet people in the street even now who know him the first thing they say to me is “he’s a grand fella your Dad” and, when he wasn’t losing his temper like a 5 year old child, I’d agree with them.

Add to the mix the issues I had with my absentee biological Father, my giftedness and the emotional depth and sensitivity which comes along with that, the pressure I was under at school to achieve academically because I was gifted, the lack of any adult in whom to confide and it comes as no surprise that I spent most of my teenager years clinically depressed and by the time I was 18 was on anti-depressants and regularly sat in a Psychologist’s office trying to make some sense of the world.  I couldn’t wait to become an adult and get the fuck away from home.  I loved my parents but when I finally had a house of my own I had peace and stability and could live without the daily anxiety of wondering what was coming next.

Fast forward 30 years, I’m now 50 and both my parents are ill and in need of huge amounts of help.  Consequently I’ve been drawn back into their lives and back into their relationship dramas which, despite being married for 40 years, have never changed.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, my Mum was forced to stop smoking when she had half her lung removed 6 years ago so in order to get through the days her drinking took off in earnest.  She became an alcoholic who was drunk every day by noon.  This brought back hugely negative emotions from my childhood and I really struggled to cope with it, so much so that a year ago I paid to see a counsellor.  She was helpful and I did manage to come to some sort of terms with the situation.

In the summer of this year my Mum contracted Guillain-Barre Syndrome and was in hospital for 3 weeks.  During that time she dried out and I lied to her and said the Doctors had told me that if she drank when she got home she would die, so she didn’t.  The last 3 months have been fantastic.  She has been back to the Mum I’ve always known, without the nasty bullying of my Dad (who is in the early stages of dementia), the finding everything hilarious because she’s plastered and who rings me lucidly every day for a chat and a gossip.  Over the past few years I’ve really missed the friendship my Mum and I have always had and it was wonderful to have that back.

But of course she wasn’t receiving help for her alcoholism, so I knew it was just a matter of time before she fell off the wagon.  She was housebound for the first 2 months after coming home from hospital, but the second she told me “I’m going to go with your Dad in the wheelchair to Sainsburys on Friday just to get out of the house” I knew it was only a matter of time.  And sure enough, 3 weeks later I turn up at the house to find her drinking a glass of wine.

She’d only bought one of those little 18cl bottles, and her excuse was “I’d like a glass of wine with my Christmas dinner but don’t know which one to choose, so I thought I’d try this little bottle to see what it’s like”.  I felt sick.  That she would be wondering what she could drink on Christmas day when it was only 14th November tells you everything you need to know about her mind set.  So I sat down and, as gently as I could bearing in mind I was in bits, said that I loved them both but I was going home and I was not coming back.  And I got Bertie and my handbag and left.

That was on Tuesday and I have felt horrendously ill ever since.  I wake up with a huge sick knot in my stomach, can’t eat and feel so exhausted I’m like a rag doll.  Years of living with the anxiety and unpredictability of my parents’ behaviour seems to have come to a head and I feel floored.  I have spent 3 days spontaneously sobbing and feel on the edge of some kind of breakdown.

It would be so easy to simply walk away, but they are old and sick and my poor Dad really doesn’t need this drama.  So I have rung my Mum and told her that I love them both, and I will take care of them, but I simply cannot visit them – not for a while.  Things are going to have to change I’m not sure what the new future looks like yet.

They depend on my hugely, I have been the glue that’s kept our family together, and I know they will be terrified I am going to abandon them, which I would never do because I couldn’t live with the guilt, but there are going to have to be new ground rules.  I have felt responsible for keeping them on an even keel my entire life and I am too fucking tired to do it anymore.  That I am ill myself seems to totally pass them by.

In not visiting them, however, I have no-one to look after Bertie, my dog who is a rescue with severe separation anxiety and who can’t be left on his own.  That means I can’t go to my Camera Club which is my passion and often the only thing which keeps me going.  It’s the only time I get out of the house all week, the only time I ever see anyone other than my cleaner and the post man and is the only social life I have.  I feel such rage that my Mother’s selfish behaviour has robbed me of the only joy I have in life.  A life which is devoid of any pleasure and any of the normal things healthy people take for granted.

Sometimes I wish she were dead.  The second she retired from work she sat in a chair, watched telly, smoked and drank and basically waited to die.  There are times when I wish this would happen and put us all out of our misery.  She has been unhappy her entire life and has made me unhappy along the way.  Then I think about all the times she’s helped me, comforted me, been there for me, loved me and am wracked with guilt.

So, that’s where we are today and I’m in complete turmoil.  I feel so poorly I can barely get dressed and am constantly on the verge of tears.  It’s like every emotion I’ve ever felt towards my parents has come to the surface and I can’t push them down any more.

Please don’t tell me to get help, contact al-anon or anything else.  Trust me when I say there is no avenue I haven’t been down.  My Mum doesn’t want help.  There is no al-anon where I live and in any event I don’t do the bullshit “higher power” thing.  My parents have what they need to live: a cleaner, carers to help my Mum shower, a gardener, their meals provided.  But as I’ve mentioned before it’s all the stuff that paid help can’t do which is the stumbling block, like finances, paperwork, mending the seam on my Mum’s nightie, submitting electric meter readings, grocery shopping, talking to medical staff as neither of my parents are capable and 1001 other things.  I feel so trapped, and resentful and guilty.

There aren’t any easy answers.  Walking away and leaving a parent with dementia is not an option.  Carrying on as we always have is not an option either.  I have no clue what to do.

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15 thoughts on “Adult children of dysfunctional families

  1. Sarah

    Oh, Jac, my heart goes out to you, it really does. Look, I was going to suggest it before but didn’t want to seem like a stalker, but if there is a way to contact me without everyone being able to see our details, and if you want to, just let me know. You can come and spend some time talking in my bed….no that sounds wrong…on the phone, as that is where things are for me at the mo.
    Just one thought regarding your parents, have you contacted age UK. They may be able to help with the things you have to do, or at least point you into the direction of people who can

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    1. Jak Post author

      Thanks so much for the kind offer Sarah, that’s so sweet of you. I think I need some time and space to just be on my own and rest up from all the emotional turmoil, but I still appreciate you reaching out. Jak x

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  2. Glo

    You’re in a tough spot and I hope you find a resolution to this. You have carried this burden a long time with no help. No reason to feel guilty about being overwhelmed.

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  3. Ellie

    Hi Jak, Im really sorry to hear about this messing up your camera club. That’s incredibly sad as its something you really enjoy & are amazingly talented at. I googled volunteer dog sitter Pennines & found a site called “Borrow my Doggy” it teams up people who are unable to have a dog but miss having one, with people who have a dog & need some assistance. I don’t know if it would be any help, if not maybe you could check & see if there is anyone in your area – an advert in a shop window (genuine folk would always be ready to supply references) some people just like to borrow a dog without the permanent responsibility. Its just a thought.
    Ditto on the dysfunctional parents Im on sabbatical since 3 months ago (unplugged phone) when my mother said she was going to burn all my childhood photos just because shes fallen out with my sister (& everyone) I cant afford to visit them as they live in Aus & have not seen then for 13 years, yet they are still f*cking with my head.

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    1. Jak Post author

      God Ellie, for your parents to literally be on the other side of the world yet still able to affect you is horrific. Hugs to you. Jak x

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  4. That Other Jean

    What a terrible spot to be in! I’m so sorry that it has come to this, but I can see that it had to. Does your camera club meet in a place that doesn’t allow dogs, or is it possible that you could call the club’s powers-that-be and explain the situation, so that you could bring Bertie? Are there dog sitters in your area who would be able to come babysit him while you’re gone? I hope something works out for you soon.

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    1. Jak Post author

      Thanks Jean. I sent an email round to all my club members asking for suggestions re what to do with Bertie but no-one could come up with any solutions. Living in a rural area there aren’t the services that would be there in a city unfortunately. Not sure what the solution will be as yet. Jak x

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  5. Jill

    Oh! It really is time for you to have a L-O-N-G break from your parents. You definitely do not need to feel guilty. You have always gone above and beyond to help them in so many ways not giving much of a thought to how ill it could all make you. You always put them first. Now it’s at break point as you (and nor could anybody else) carry on putting in that much of yourself into this perpetually on-going situation. Never mind the physical energy it costs you but your personal emotional strength has been stretched way beyond its limit. A long break is essential. It ‘might’ even get them to think how they treat you. I wish I could solve the Camera Club thing for you because as part of your own ‘recovery’ you need to do things you enjoy and as you said, meet people. I know it wouldn’t be easy because of his separation anxiety but could you hire someone to look after your dog while you are at Camera Club? I feel in the end there will be a repair of your relationship with your parents to something better for you all but right now you need that separation. It may be hard but remember you need it, you deserve it and you owe it to yourself. 🙂

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    1. Jak Post author

      Thanks so much Jill. The guilt is killing me but the need to keep my sanity is stronger!

      I’ve tried a few people regarding looking after Bertie for me but as I don’t get back until after 10pm at night it’s not a committment they want to take on, which I totally understand. So I still don’t have a solution atm. If I have to give up my photography I don’t think I’ll ever forgive my Mother.

      xoxo

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  6. Linda N

    Oh Jak! Believe me I when I say that I have a pretty good idea of what you are going through. Both of my parents had alcohol problems big time. And my older sister is a raging alcoholic. I do go to Alanon occasionally (NOT telling you to at all) and have read lots of literature on adult children of alcoholics, sisters of alcoholics, wives of alcoholics, etc.

    Don’t you dare feel guilty! Your first and only priority is YOU! The motto of “You did not cause it, you cannot control it, and you cannot cure it.” definitely applies here. Because your step father has Alzheimers I can understand your need to still help out. Having said that, the more you do for them, the more they are free to drink and use you for whatever they need. If there is anyway they can get groceries without you doing it, then don’t do it for them. If you have to shop for them, shop, drop the groceries off, and leave. Drop the dog off to do what YOU have a right to do for you, pick up the dog when you are done, and leave.

    The more you do for an alcoholic, the more dependent become and the more they will demand/require/manipulate you into doing for them. Alcoholics want caretakers so that they can keep drinking and not have to feel the consequences of their drinking on themselves or others. They have to feel the consequences of their alcoholism. You have to concentrate on taking care of YOU!

    My parents are now dead, but my older sister is still a raging alcoholic and will try and get anyone in the family to take care of her as her body falls apart piece by piece from her destroying it with alcohol. And all of us siblings have had to let go. When she winds up in the ER from drinking and doing drugs, we don’t go pick her up if the ER calls. We don’t cart her around to her various surgeries etc. We all tried that and it nearly destroyed us. We finally had to let go.

    No way am I saying that the way we have had to handle our situation is the way you should handle you mother and step father. but please, never never never feel guilty, and always make you your only priority.

    Hugs hugs hugs and more hugs from across the pond!
    Linda

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  7. Darcy Jett

    Jak I agree with Linda N about dropping Bertie off at your folks to go to your club.
    I think one of the things that we adult children of alcoholics do that creates so much anger and guilt, is that we let them off from their responsibilities! We end up suffering in the process, and most of the time they don’t even get why we’re hurt and then pull away, and the resentment grows deeper.
    I have so many things that I tried to say to my mom, but an alcoholic is an accompliced liar. They lie to their family, friends, but most of all to themselves. They are so charismatic, and fun to be with (before they are too drunk), that we find ourselves believing the lies, we carry the guilt, and mourn the loss of one of the greatest relationships that we will ache for,… until we die.
    My mom has been gone now for five years, on December 7th. She had an Ombudsman help to have us -(her daughter and family), legally unable to help her. She said that she would rather live under the freeway bridge, than to be with us and stop drinking.

    After three years, I was notified that she was in the hospital, terribly ill, and would probably not live long. I called my family so that they could see her and say goodbye, yet I couldn’t face seeing her like that.
    As I was preparing myself to say goodbye to her in person, my family decided that she was taking too long to die, (after all it had been 2 days), they unplugged the machine that helped her breathe so that she died within the hour. My siblings and the hospital wanted this non-paying poor woman to hurry up and vacate the bed. They had plans. I was told over the phone that evening, that she had passed, and that they wouldn’t be staying or helping to pay for the funeral.
    I was filled with hate, regret, shame that she died without me there holding her hand. Too many regrets.
    So Jak, you have to live with how this ends, do whatever it takes to make that possible for you.
    Only you know what that is, and it’s no ones business as to how you do that.
    Walk away, or see it through to the end…or a compromise of both?
    By the way, does Bertie miss seeing your parents? There would be nothing wrong with letting him have a relationship with them.
    (If you’ve already dealt with this, I hope that you have found peace with your decision)
    🤗 I also hope that it helps to hear that it’s not you, but a global problem: dysfunctional family/ Alcoholism!
    Darcy

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    1. Jak Post author

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment Darcy. I’m sorry you had to endure this with your Mom and that things ended in the way they did 😦

      I have sorted the situation out for now and will do an update post this week if I have the energy. It’s not ideal, but then the situation is difficult and there are no easy answers as you know.

      Hugs
      Jak x

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