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FAMILY ESTRANGEMENT - HOW TO NAVIGATE

WRITTEN BY JENNIFER ST. JOHN

Jen’s Journal:  I just talked to my Dad for the first time in a year and a half.  It felt good but weird.  Like at certain points I hoped we didn’t run out of things to say.  But that didn’t happen.  It felt like we talked for so long, but I think it was only for five minutes.

There are many families who deal with estrangement, and it’s a heartbreaking, devastating and lonely experience for everyone involved.  When you feel the need to reduce or severe a close family bond, it isn’t usually a decision made lightly.   

In a NEW YORK TIMES article published in July 2021, it is estimated that at least 27% of Americans are estranged from a member of their own family, with research suggesting that about 40% have experienced an estranged family relationship at some point.  The most common example is that of an adult child cutting off relations with their adult parents (Opinion Piece, ‘What’s Ripping American Families Apart?’, written by David Brooks).

Add mental illness into that mix, and the numbers are bound to be larger.  It is the ingredient or the fuel that will have one of the largest impacts on a family unit.  There are so many stages; from recognizing the reality of the situation, to surviving the impact it has on your life, to coping with the family member who has the mental illness, to finally healing from any trauma experienced by everyone in the family unit – all while trying to still be on talking-terms over the next holiday meal.

It was a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly struggle for me growing up with a Mother who had undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.  There were several family relationships fractured or cut off from us while we were growing up.  With the manic highs and lows of what we would eventually learn to be Bi-Polar II, Mom would rotate between loving or hating those who were close to her on a regular basis.  Eventually as we grew up, the ‘in’ list was fairly short. 

When we were young, we had large family get-togethers filled with meals for thirty plus, laughter, love and memories galore.  There are still boxes and boxes of photos from these big get-togethers.  But by the time I was sixteen, they didn’t exist anymore.  And if they still occurred on a smaller level, it wasn’t in the same way.  Many of those relationships had diminished or simply disappeared all-together.  Things had shifted and for me, it all felt like a house of cards.

I had cousins so close they were like sisters, and after we moved back from the US, they were just…gone.  We no longer had a relationship with them; they just disappeared from our lives.  We were left feeling confused, sad and missing them greatly.  Obviously, there were things going on with the adults in the family that we didn’t understand, nor should we have been made to try and understand at those young ages.  That was their shit – it shouldn’t have been made our shit too.  But that didn’t change the way it all felt. 

“Estrangement is a loss, no matter which way you look at it. But for some, that loss brings much-needed separation from relationships that were abusive, either physically, sexually or emotionally. For others, estrangement just brings pain, and may lead to agonized ruminations over what turned a relationship sour, and how that might have been avoided.” Lauren Sproule, Sept 18, 2019; Broadview; ‘Family Estrangement a ‘silent epidemic''.  

And my Dad.  Just heartbreaking what the ripple effects of mental health did on our relationship with him.  He and Mom were only first together for a short period of time – long enough for three of us to be born.  My Mom was in the cycle of mania and couldn’t keep her mind from spinning.  She would pile us into a vehicle late at night and drive for hours – all due to non-existent paranoia.  She made knee jerk, head swiveling decisions that impacted all of us.  And this continued for decades. My Dad was in and out of our lives based on how their relationship was at that time.  Love or hate.  Up or down.  In or out. 

It took years for me to repair my relationship with Dad, and it only occurred once I left for post-secondary.  Through letters at first, and then phone calls and then visits, my Dad, who was provinces away at the time, helped me pick up the pieces of what was left and together we redefined our relationship as father-and-daughter – on our own terms. 

Years later, after we were all grown and living our own lives, my parents would reunite for one final time, and stay together until both of their deaths - less than ten months from one another.  By this time, my Mom had sought help, support and therapy with her mental health, and we all had very different relationships.  Or so I thought. 

My Mom’s death from cancer shook us all.  My three sisters and I all had different reactions to this news and dealt with it both individually and together in the ten weeks we had left with her.  But death changes things.  And months after Mom’s death, one of my sisters just disappeared.  Don’t get me wrong, there was communication about her foreboding decision for a little while before it became final.  But as one of my close Uncle’s mentioned to me during this time, “the glue was gone”.  With Mom no longer alive, a weight had lifted for one of my sisters and she was now speaking her truth.  And she completely cut herself, her children and our nieces out of our lives.  

In less than a year, my immediate family had gone from a unit of six to a unit of three.  

Letter from Dad:  I guess no one is ever completely independent of their families.  I know as long as I live, if not longer, I will be there for you, your sisters and your Mom to the extent that I can.  It is good to be in charge of your life, at least as far as is possible.  A person, I fell, always needs at least one somebody to talk to, bounce ideas off or just to be there as a positive comforting presence. 

My childhood experiences came flooding back to me.  I never thought this cycle would continue in our generation.  After everything we had been through, it had never crossed my mind that one of my sisters would cut herself out of my life.  I honestly didn’t know that Mom was the glue – I thought the four of sisters were the glue.  So much loss in such a short period of time.  Just mind blowing, actually. 

As time went on and this new reality set in, I sat down with my thoughts and tried to peel back the layers a bit; just to try and make sense of it all.  Now as I looked back, things started to make more sense.  The puzzle-pieces came together, and I could see a pattern.  There was a clear difference in values and personalities between us which had always existed, but now became something intolerable for one of us.  Also, when looking back now, it appeared this growing intolerance seemed to line up with when Mom finally sought help herself.  My sister had always been a very loyal, no-questions asked soldier for my Mom. The rest of us didn’t have this blind-loyalty – we thought independently and sought out more information once we were old enough.  All those manic ups and downs, my sister was right there in the wings supporting her.  Her whole life had been filled with this loyalty, and now I wondered if she just couldn’t or didn’t want to re-write her history.  I mean, if everything you knew about your Mom was now different because you realized she was dealing with addictions and mental health the entire time, then where does that leave the one soldier who fought for you, all those years? 

As well, the rest of us had sought out therapy in our early adulthood.  We all had a different experience with Mom since we were different ages at each point in our collection childhood.  Some of us were physically affected, all of us were verbally, mentally and emotionally effected.  But this now estranged sister chose not to seek any professional help in processing things; not seeing a reason or need.  Even when we were trying to pull the pieces together towards the end, she refused to entertain the idea of seeking family counselling to try and reconcile.  I’m sure there is a lot of pain there for her, and in the end, we are all allowed to set boundaries that feel safe to us.  And for her, this is that boundary. 

If you are dealing with a family estrangement right now, my heart goes out to you.  Especially if a loved one’s mental illness is part of the recipe for the current family climate. 

  • Remember to be kind to yourself.
  • Set healthy boundaries that feel safe.
  • Try and talk to a mental health professional. 
  • Give yourself the time, space and resources to really process this experience, and hopefully things will change.

And if they don’t, remember that you are only in control of the things you’re in control of – yourself.     

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