Dear Amy: I was raised in a very dysfunctional family. My mother had psychological issues, my brother sexually molested me as a child (and remains a textbook sociopath), and my father had frequent outbursts of extreme rage.
My mother has been dead for 15 years. I ceased all interaction with my brother then. I continued trying to maintain a relationship with my father for 10 years, but his abuse escalated until five years ago when he physically assaulted me.
I finally decided to end that relationship, too. I’ve had counseling for this, my therapist agrees that I’ve dealt with it well. I’m happy with my decisions.
The problem is, I never know how to respond when people ask about my family. People who know me well, don’t bring up the subject. A couple of people keep prying for details or tell me (without knowing the details) that I need to forgive and make up, because “family is everything.”
Then there are people I’ve just met who ask about my family because they are being sociable.
I don’t want to discuss this, but I also don’t want to lie and declare that my is family dead.
Saying that we are estranged nearly always results in some sort of lecture, judgment, or inquisition.
I can’t seem to find a polite way of ending the subject. Any suggestions?
— Happily Orphaned in Austin
Dear Orphaned: Estrangement is one thing, but I would call your family dynamic “escape and survival.” Given your childhood, survival is a triumph. You have gotten professional help, and you are doing very well.
When you first meet people, you could answer queries by saying, “I grew up in a little town outside of Lubbock. I had a very rough childhood and I’m not in touch with my birth family.”
Some people might press further – out of curiosity or commiseration. You can then say, “That’s all I really have to say about it. But what about you? Where did you grow up?”
If people who know you pry for details and insist that you “forgive and make up,” you can offer the extremely polite brush-off by saying, “It sounds like you really care about this. I’m doing really well, so thank you!”
Sidestepping in this way let’s people feel validated (validation is often their motivation, anyway), and also sends the message that your childhood is not up for discussion and dissection.
Nobody gets to define “family” for you. As I hope you have discovered, your family of choice is made up of the people who see your frailty, understand your challenges, and – no matter what – accept you, just as you are.
Dear Amy: My 90-year-old father is making our relationship so difficult.
I want to help him as much as I can within the parameters of this COVID problem.
He enjoys getting people to bring him things, which I don’t mind, but it is like a game with him.
I bring him what he requests, and then, just when I get back home, he’ll ask for three or four more things. I am a good daughter, but this is really starting to make me resentful.
He is alert, and knows what he is doing.
Not knowing how much more time we have together, I always comply, but it’s starting to get old, and I am beginning to distance myself.
Please help me to understand how I can make useful comments, and not be so angry.
— A Loving Daughter
Dear Daughter: It sounds as if you live very close by and are making several trips a day to your father’s house.
He obviously wants to see you and he enjoys (and benefits from) the stimulation of having a visitor.
If you are able where you live, you should sign him up for Meals on Wheels. Otherwise, schedule your visits for predictable times — twice a day – and make the visits longer. Play a game or work a puzzle with him.
I know this is hard, but – speaking for my fellow “liberated” caregivers whose loved-ones are now gone – I’d give anything to be annoyed again.
Dear Amy: “Isolated” described how challenging it has been for so many of us who are trying to protect our health during the pandemic. Thank you for suggesting online group games, like “Words with Friends.” Connecting and playing together has been a true “game changer” for me.
— No Longer Alone
Dear No Longer: So many readers have affirmed “Isolated’s” concerns; fortunately, the online world has opened up solutions.
(You can email Amy Dickinson at [email protected] or send a letter to Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068. You can also follow her on Twitter @askingamy or Facebook.)
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