Just thinking aloud here on a blank-faced kindly screen after having coffee and conversation with a neighbour. She was talking about family problems. The patterns of family interaction that stay intact across generations and different places and time zones. Some patterns that are rich and sustaining and nurturing. Others that drive family members crazy and block communication, blur boundaries, hamper growth. Most families have both kinds of patterning at work across any number of lifetimes.
Years ago I decided to study a course module in family systems therapy. I didn’t think it would help me understand my own family better. What interested me was behavioural systems at work in families, systems of homeostasis and loops and closed circles and blocked feedback. Why things don’t change, what stops solutions from being put into action.
The thinker and teacher on whom I focused was the American family systems theorist Virginia Satir. Her life story interested me just as much as her work.
Satir was born into a family of German immigrants in Wisconsin. When she was five years old, she developed acute appendicitis. Her mother was a devout Christian Scientist and refused to allow surgeons to operate on the little girl. Eventually Virginia Satir’s father stepped in and overruled the mother, but by then the appendix had ruptured and surgeons battled to save the child’s life. She remained in hospital for months.
Later that year, little Virginia Satir decided that when she grew up, she would become a ‘child’s detective of parents’, because she had realised that more goes on in families than meets the eye. Her detective work and support of children’s rights changed the way professionals view families and Satir as a psychoanalytic detective was brilliant at exploring the unsaid in family histories and styles of communication.
Her greatest insight was quite simple: that the presenting problem is not the real problem. Each week, thousands of troubled people walk into the offices or consulting rooms of doctors, specialists, therapists. Satir realised that the presenting issue, the given reason for the visit, was rarely the difficulty. How people coped with the presenting problem was the core difficulty.
This came as a lightning bolt to me when I was studying her work. I sat in lectures and seminars each day with my horrible secret eating me up from within. I was alcoholic. But alcoholism was not the major difficulty in my life. The problem was that I resisted getting help in solving my problem. Secrecy and lies and despair, the conviction of being incurable, were much worse problems than the fact that I was drinking too much. I knew others had had my problem before me. I knew many alcoholics had sobered up. Why should I not become one of them?
Because coping with my problem meant changing my life. It meant trusting strangers. If I told anyone about my problem, I would need to stop drinking. And I did not think that was possible. For one thing, I didn’t want to stop drinking. But I hated the fact that I drank so irresponsibly. I wanted to want to stop. I was convinced nobody would understand this convoluted crazy thinking. I didn’t understand it myself. Round and round on the toy railway went the little train, unable to stop chugging along or leave the track. I could not stop drinking on my own. I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t trust others to help me without taking advantage of my vulnerability. Round and round the cage ran the lab rat, round and round the track went the toy train.
Deep inside my mind and heart were all the wrongheaded lessons I had picked up as the daughter of an alcoholic. ‘You made your bed, now you must lie on it.’ My mother said that all the time. ‘Never apologise, never explain.’ That was my father. If I were to look back through a telescope into my own genealogy I would probably hear those phrases echoed by my Scottish grandmother or English legal-beagle great-grandfather. My parents distrusted outsiders. They despised do-gooders. They were suspicious of doctors. They liked the idea of a stiff upper lip and moral backbone.
Some of her greatest work was done by Satir late in life when she began writing down her observations and understanding of ‘forgiving parents’. She believed it bis never too late to reconstruct the family and for parents and children, estranged siblings, step-parents etc to become friends. To assume new roles, to get to know one another as adults, compassionate and accepting and tolerant. The five-year-old child nearly murdered by a bigoted mother had come to see the frightened child within each parent. She was able to look at parents with new eyes.
As Satir herself said on numerous occasions: ‘We can learn something new anytime we choose.‘