Thursday, 21 June 2012

Surviving the Nuclear Family Bunker

Do you miss your family? That's a question I hate being asked, and not just because my unhesitating answer is always no. I hate the question because it is almost always asked rhetorically. People expect you to say you miss your family and when you don't, their jaws simply hit the floor. The asker is left speechlessly blank, like they've just stepped on an emotional land mine.

The shock of not missing my family wore off after my second year in London. After that I just sort of rolled with it and had fun. But then, it's an open secret that I started traveling to get away from my awful family. Many of my friends began traveling for the exact same reason. So why are people shocked to hear that some of us don't miss our families very much?

Many people have to remove themselves, not just from their family home, but from the entire culture that they belong to, in order to get a clearer perspective on the world. Until my late teens I'd lived with an incoherent-but-overwhelming sense that something was off. My life was like watching a film where the soundtrack is a microsecond too slow. Relating to anyone that I was related to was usually a struggle. Only by immersing myself in a world free from any hint of my family could I see how much they'd distorted my view. Their behaviour was modeled to protect their prejudices, their psychoses and neuroses and insecurities from the world's scrutiny. As a result, nobody else lived like they did (like WE did) in the whole world.

Take, for instance, my mother's way of interrupting any serious discussion with loud statements like, "Would you look at that rain," followed by a forceful silence; my Dad's way of screaming a tirade profanities at any salesperson who didn't serve him fast enough; my brother's way of punching girls in the stomach; our grandparents way of hiding a recently-deceased relative from us; our aunt's way of mysteriously cutting off all contact, without so much as a postcard to explain why.

Getting reasons for any of these bewildering behaviors invariably meant asking my mom and that was like the blind leading the blind. Her normal reply was a distant: "I couldn't tell you, honey" (followed by a distant: "Wow, would you look at all that traffic" and yet more silence). I became convinced that the problem was me and just me. It was me who noticed too many things, me who was too direct, me who felt unnatural with my family's ways. This combination of circumstances would probably driven me right into the loony bin if I hadn't taken the high road and chosen to travel.

Through travel I discovered that I had been living in a nuclear family bunker all my life. It was stiff and uncomfortable place full of forced, artificial behaviour; it had been built to protect the adults in my life from the righteous criticisms of the world.

I am grateful to my travels for having immersed me in the world instead of hiding me from it like my family, hiding out in their nuclear bunker. I am one of the few people in my family who can walk around outside without sinking into a state of anxiety, suspicion, hysteria or rage. They need to carry that bunker with them everywhere they go; they need its air conditioning, its padded seats, its open spaces, its soundproofed walls, its media filters and more. Their nuclear family bunker is an exotic greenhouse for an endangered species of four; they wouldn't last long without it.

Since I've been outside that bunker going on 15 years now, the idea of going back there fills me with the same hysteria that some of my family members feel when leaving it. And yet a part of me still lives there... at least in my memories, she does. And what vivid memories! There's a lot of tension between the me that lived a trapped life, and the me that lives a free life now. In a way, they never met and therefore can't relate. That happens with travel, though; sometimes it changes your character so fast that your past can't keep up.

So I came up with a mental exercise to help me deal with those scary trips down Memory Lane and reconcile the past with the present. Firstly, I call up an image of the person in my family whose relationship most torments me at that moment (as you probably gathered, there are many). I think about his qualities and deficiencies and then picture him standing next to someone who I have met and started to care about on my own terms. That helps to clarify what my standards are these days because my friends are pretty awesome and they do a great job of caring for me and one another.

Next, I ask myself how I'd react to that family member if he was a stranger that I met in a bar or saw in the street. (I find it helps to think of a non relative with similar characteristics to the relative; usually it's someone I can't stand, which only reinforces the fact that this family member is bad for me, whatever their status. I reckon one reason why bad families create so much tension is that people know that the love they give to them far outweighs their actual value. When a person defends his abusive dad because "he's a nice guy underneath it all" they are usually defending the younger, helpless version of themselves that depended on that abusive father, having had no other choice. But I digress...)

There is a very good reason why people from bad families should repeat this mental exercise every day. As long as they keep on seeing their bad families as people who deserve to be loved, they are practically guaranteeing they'll keep on meeting and having relationships with people like them. And they'll end up hating themselves for it, which is even worse.

Realizing that I have spent years and years of my life devoted to people who wouldn't give me the time of day has been really hard. It even leaves me feeling a bit empty, like I wasted all that time. But it's not my fault; having a bad family was not my decision and loving them was not my decision either (if anything it was a boring old chemical reaction).

For the past few years I've been saying, "It's not my Dad's fault he beat me up/It's not my Mom's fault she was so callous. They just had a hard life." So it makes sense that now I am saying, "It's not my fault that I loved my parents, even when they didn't deserve it." My failure to say that for so many years was a failure of logic, on my part. I was still acting as a part of that nuclear family bunker - still shielding my parents from an onslaught of blame by taking it on myself. But who was shielding me? My friends, not my family. Lesson learned!

That's enough heavy talk from me for now. What have you learned about yourself from your travels? Please feel free to post replies below.

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