It’s Complicated: Trying To Be Human Without Getting All Tangled Up In Toxic Family Relations

I think my family invented the “it’s complicated” relationship status. My mother’s side of the family is crazy. Like seriously insane, in some cases criminally insane, and at least half of the time violently insane. There are a few cousins who are sane, and my grandmother is not crazy, though she is greatly diminished between her old age, dozens of mini-strokes and dealing with the crazy, but they are all the exception to the rule. I think my mother is the craziest, the most homicidal, the most chronically unhappy with the greatest walls of denial protecting her from her truth, but I had to live with her for ten years so perhaps I am biased.

In 2012, I did something every therapist, friend and person who wanted what was best for me had been telling me for years to do: I cut my mother out of my life. No contact – at all. Ever. I did this after an incident at our wedding (a series of scenes and actual punching occurred) which to be honest wasn’t even that bad for what she is capable of. But I wanted to be happy and healthy, and finally I was ready. I was making the choice for my family – my husband, our future kids, but also and mostly for myself. Her sisters are just as bad, though each of their “crazies” is a little different – they can be just as damaging, so I made the cut there too. It made sense. And my mother’s only brother is a violent junkie who constantly tried to prey on my grandmother (his mother) and back when I was living in Nebraska, I was the one kicking him out of her house, refusing to let him take her money, food, car, etc. So he’s already on the outs.

My life has been wonderful since then, and I know that their absence is not the reason for that, but it is certainly a factor. I am a better person without them in my life; their influence and energies and the dozens of problems that come with just acknowledging their existence hasn’t plagued me for years. One of the reasons this break from everyone (my grandmother being the exception, I call her and visit her as often as I can) is necessary is because even if my aunts weren’t certifiable, whenever I have tried to cut my mother out of my life in the past they won’t stop harassing me. “You only have one mother,” or “we’re your family and family is the only thing that will always be there,” and all of these other clichés that just don’t apply here. Because I have a family, those I have chosen and who have chosen me… To me family and blood are two different things. I have family, but it has nothing to do with blood.

But every now and then something happens that makes me feel compelled to cross a technical line of the “no contact” rule. It has happened twice to date. The first time was when my family’s dog (Maggie) died. It affected my mother, my brother and my sister. I am still close with my siblings, as much as I am allowed to be, so they told me and asked me to contact my mother – that she was taking it hard. I didn’t. But I did send a card to the entire family with a note inside conveying my sympathies and telling them they were all in my thoughts. Finding out Maggie died made me feel that I couldn’t “not do anything” so I had to figure out what was okay and what wasn’t – where my lines were. I wouldn’t call my mother on the phone or text her, but I could send a card addressed to the entire family. That was my work-around.

Last week, my uncle (he is married to one of my mother’s sisters) was in the hospital and had several mini-strokes – they were trying to figure out what was causing them and take care of that root cause. The strokes left one side struggling – I don’t know if it is completely useless or somewhere between that and functional. I know he is working at it. I don’t have a problem with my uncle. In fact, he is the one aunt/uncle that I would be most okay seeing again. He isn’t crazy. My mother’s husband and her other sister’s husband aren’t crazy either, but they’re married to crazy and well… it can rub off sometimes. Each of them has crossed a line into that “crazy” territory, but not this uncle. Which is funny because we’re talking about my mother’s oldest sister who married right out of high school – basically this uncle has been surrounded by crazy the longest, and yet he’s still all right.

As soon as I found out, I wanted to send him something. It was my kneejerk reaction. I wanted to let him know I was thinking about him. I wanted to lend support. I know what it’s like to try to recover after a few strokes lead to an extended stay in a hospital. I was 25 when a high fever killed me (yeah, I actually died for a couple of minutes) and had several seizures and strokes because of the fever. My left side was useless for a long time, but the cognitive work… just trying to form thoughts or certain words – it was hell. I understand what he’s going through or will be going through. From what I can discern his strokes did not impact him as much as mine did, and I am happy for that. But I can’t exactly ask for more than what his family is putting on Facebook. I’m sure family members know a little more, but that “no contact” thing is for real.

Still I wanted to send him a card, but it worried me. I have no desire to open a door to his wife, and I feel like she’ll think that’s what this is and start trying to contact me again. These boundaries are ones that I created, and I’m just worried this will look like I’ve let the walls down when I haven’t. The boundaries are all still up and I am still not interested. I debated on it all day before I asked my husband that evening. As I saw it, I had three options: 1) Do nothing. 2) Send a card anonymously. (Of course with the postage marking they would know it was from us, I just meant we wouldn’t sign it, hoping that it would send a message he is in my thoughts but the boundaries are still there.) 3) Send the card, sign our names, and just hope it doesn’t come back to bite me later. I wasn’t okay with option 1, and I knew option 2 was silly, and so did my husband. In fact he said it was either options 1 or 3 – option 2 was out from the get-go. And doing nothing bothered me, so we got a card the next day.

While deliberating, my husband, Roy, said, “You want to send a card, so send a card. You are the most compassionate person I know, and you know this is the right thing.”

ME: Ugh, I know. It just sucks sometimes.

Roy: Sending the card?

ME: Yes that, but I meant being compassionate.

Roy: It’s one of the main reasons I married you.

I wrote a message, even added “love” which was a twenty-minute discussion about whether I should or not. Roy didn’t see it as a big deal, but again I want to send a clear message: You’re in our thoughts and we hope you get back to 100% soon. P.S. This changes nothing. The P.S. wasn’t for him, but for my aunt who will surely see the card and try to contact me. I’m pretty sure she is going to try to text or email me, but I can ignore that, and I will. I think to most people this will sound nuts. The amount of time and thought I put into sending a “Get Well” card, and what I wrote inside. But I think anyone who comes from a toxic and violent family – they’ll totally get this.

But I just remember that one of the reasons I cut them all out of my life was because I was a better person without them constantly dragging me down to their levels of crazy and trying to deal with them without losing my shit. I am a better person without… and the better person would send the card. The better person would let them know that they’re in my thoughts and I hope things get better. The thoughts and feelings are already there, so sharing them in a card won’t kill anyone… fingers crossed!



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