Transitional time of year, this, days and nights when the ancestors hover and come knocking at unexpected times. Voice murmuring in the wind, shadows at twilight, old regrets and longings stirred like autumn bonfires.
For some of us, making our peace with the past is easier than for others. In part that’s because for some of us, the past is gone, the parents dead and buried, the siblings reformed characters or sober, the adults who bullied or neglected us can’t hurt us any longer. For others of us, the past is very much still with us and the question of making peace with violent or abusive family members still hangs in the air. Time after time I’ve seem well-meaning adult children forgive parents or siblings and let them back into their lives only to find the dynamics haven’t changed and the abusiveness recommences again. This is why it is so crucial to reflect and discern and become aware of what we can’t change, what we can’t alter, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, I’ve been sitting with Emily Yoffe’s The Debt and probing these questions.
Loved ones and friends—sometimes even therapists—who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged. What these people fail to take into account is the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns.
Eleanor Payson, a marital and family therapist in Michigan and the author of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, sees some clients who feel it would be immoral to abandon a now-feeble parent, no matter how destructive that person was. Payson says she advises them to find ways to be caring while protecting themselves from further abuse. “One of my missions is helping people not be tyrannized by false guilt or ignore their own pain and needs,” she says. Setting limits is crucial: “You may need to keep yourself in a shark cage with no opportunity to let that person take a bite out of you.” It’s also OK for the conversation to be anodyne. “You can say something respectful, something good-faith-oriented. ‘I wish you well’; ‘I continue to work on my own forgiveness.’ ”
Because sometimes people choose not to change. And we think that because we ourselves have changed, we can help them to grow or become kinder or more insightful. We want to be generous, we want to forgive and be able to forget. We want to be with them and start all over again as if we were new shiny bright strangers with a new shiny bright future. Somewhere in the back of our minds is the injunction that we should forgive 70 times seven.
We won’t believe they choose not to change and that is often because deep down somewhere we still want the approval that was always withheld. We still hope for the kind of unconditional love that was always withheld. We want them to say sorry and mean it. We think that because we can now identify and label their mean outbursts and craziness as bipolar or narcissistic or hypochondriac, that it won’t hurt us as it used to do. We want so badly to believe there is room for us in their tunnel-vision universe or that frozen wasteland that is their emotional landscape.
Often it isn’t as extreme as this and here we are talking about dysfunctional but loving people trapped in bad circumstances or mental illness. There is some rapprochement, a place to meet. Some realism, some hopefulness.
But sometimes when the tapping at the window may not be just a stray branch, it may be time to close the shutters, draw the curtains and send the ghost away. There is nowhere safe enough to risk encounter, no meeting over the table for a festive meal, no reciprocal exchange of gifts. That long-ago childhood is beyond repair and so is the family relationship.
Research on early attachment, both in humans and in nonhuman primates, shows that we are hard-wired for bonding — even to those who aren’t very nice to us.
We also know that although prolonged childhood trauma can be toxic to the brain, adults retain the ability later in life to rewire their brains by new experience, including therapy and psychotropic medication.
My mantra for each dreaded festive season: It is never too late to make great friends and invite smart people into our lives.