Thursday, July 21, 2011

Learning from Failure

If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.
Virginia Wolffe

Current knowledge that my behavior of several decades was classic for the oldest daughter of an alcoholic family offers little comfort that I tried to protect my siblings from life by attempting to run their lives. I knew best and I wanted to teach them, tell them, train them in the ways of the world according to Brenda. 
I need to place a warning label on this plan for dealing with family. To all those who purport to travel this expedition of surviving and thriving, your family will not be sending you a thank you note for trying to manage their lives. There won’t even be a signal of gratitude to you for getting better, for healing and becoming your best self. As I have turned to therapy to make sense of my family’s dysfunction, the knowledge and experience has been seen as threatening by some in my family. Being one of the only members of the family to get a college education has been a source of resentment as well as pride. Telling the story of family dysfunction and secrets has caused even greater distress. Family secrets should be, well---secret.
I am rejecting a way of life that at least some of my family members accepted. I am saying, “It’s not okay for children to be raised in this manner.”
“It’s not okay to treat each other like this.”
“It’s not okay for us to pretend alcoholism doesn’t exist.” 
I feel like my siblings are going to the hardware store for bread and milk and keep ending up disappointed that all they stock are hammers and screws. But they keep going back. In significant ways, the fact that I was the first one in my nuclear family saying “this is not okay” made starting the voyage of healing more important. Shining a light on dysfunction is the beginning of defeating dysfunction.
On top of my volcano of family shame laid a vast dusting of guilt like Mt. St. Helen’s ash. Beneath the volcano I could hear the subtle rumble of anger that could erupt from any one of my siblings at any moment and spew all over me---not so much for what I had done but for who I have become.
However, it is just as important to note that one of the hard realities I have been forced to admit about myself is that I thought I knew best. I wanted to prove to them that I knew best by helping them run their lives. Surely, I would get gratitude in return. Maybe short term, I did get some genuine appreciation. Long term, my meddling produced resentment. No matter how well-intentioned, my siblings did not want me making their life choices for them and that is as it should be. Painful lesson learned. I have given up transforming most of them, most of the time. I wish I could retrieve the time and energy I spent trying to make them over in my image. It would serve us all well for me to have spent those resources on myself.


  1. Brenda, this is so straight-on in showing me something I forfeited when I didn't have to. I have spent so much time resenting my brother for not making certain choices I thought he should have made, I have cheated myself of time I could have spent having a good brother/sister adult relationship. How shallow-sighted of me! G

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Gayle. It is a fine line we walk with wanting the best for our families and alienating the relationship because they don't choose well or at least as well as we would like for them. It's never too late to make a different choice in how to relate to him!