Friday, October 9, 2009

Blood and Water, Part One

Is Blood Thicker Than Water?

My sister-in-law said something else in her e-mail. She wrote to me that she did not comprehend the extent of our family's trauma, but hoped that, if she had, she could have been there for us. I decided she opened a door to investigate a matter that I've mulled over for a long time, which is role of the extended family in times of illness or stress and which group supports you best, family or friends. It's a touchy subject, admittedly. Those of you who have followed the blog from the beginning know that I miss having the embrace of family. Having to go through this final phase with my mother by myself is at times simply gut wrenching. But, I've witnessed enough different families to know that "relative" does not necessarily equate to "love and support". Every family is different of course, as well as every situation being unique. I think what my sister-in-law wrote to me was true to a large extent, no one did know. Even though she and I worked together every day for years, and she was very close to Kelsey, saw her often and shared a unique rapport with her, I do believe that statement. For one thing, it comes back to the fact that eating disorders aren't readily understood. If we had announced to the family that Kelsey had cancer, I think that's something everyone could have sunk their teeth into, known what to do to some degree and fulfilled a supportive familial role. But, bulimia is harder to wrap your brain around. Is it just part of her rebellious phase gone too far out of control? Well, just get her to eat more or send her to treatment for a while and everything will be fine. When we professed that it was not nearly that simple, and when Kelsey was living proof of that, then it became awkward to know what to do, and I'm not sure anybody believed that this was a life and death struggle she was engaged in. And it's a slow disintegration. It's not as though one day she was a robust, beautiful teenage girl and the next she was skeletal. For the family who saw her often, I think it was harder to actually see what was happening and be aware of how truly serious it was. You can chronicle it now in laying out the family photos, mainly taken at holidays, and clearly point to the years and times she was doing better or worse, but in real time, it was sometimes harder to notice.

And, just because they are your family doesn't mean they don't have their own issues apart from yours. Actually, the past decade has been a markedly rough one for the Veldmans. Each sibling has had his or her own weights pressing on their shoulders. So, how much do you expect them to do for your family when they have their hands full with their own? I would imagine there were plenty of occasions when Greg's siblings wondered where the heck we were when they needed us.

I will admit I would have liked to have siblings to reach out to during these last nine years, but I would not have tapped into them to support us with our two girls like I would now with Mother. My children in crisis is wholly different than a group of siblings coming together to care for their parents. I knew that my children were my responsibility as long as I remained of sound mind and body to care for them. But, if I had a brother or sister, I would not hesitate to remind them that Mother was their parent too if I felt they weren't carrying their weight.

How I felt about the family involvement two years ago is dramatically different than I feel about it now. How I feel about it tomorrow may be different yet again. Family dynamics, I have learned, are amazingly complex. And my family and your family are different, even if we both come from similar socio-economic backgrounds. How a family interacts depends upon a million different variables. In the end, however, I can tell you a few things I have concluded and would share with both sides of any family in crisis.

To the person in need, I would say:

1) If you want your family's help, ask for it. Do not assume they will know that you need it or what to do even if they do.

2) If you don't ask for it and they don't just magically come forward to do what you think is right, then you need to let it go. It's not fair to them to assume they should just know what to do because they share some DNA with you. And if you don't ask, then how do you know but what they had something major going on in their own lives at the time that distracted them.

3) If you find you can't just let it go, at least don't let it fester. Talk to them about it (and I mean talk respectfully, no yelling, no crying, no accusatory whining). Hear what their side of the story is. Both of you may learn something about the other one that you'll be glad you know.

4) Be understanding if you do ask and they can't give it to you in the end, whatever "it" is. You are not your brother's keeper maybe, but he ain't yours either.

5) If they do reach out to help, be grateful, be appreciative, or at least be sweet. Because, they may do things that aren't always exactly what you wanted or thought you needed, but the intent was there, so reward it.

6) Help them understand what is going on. We were particularly bad at this. I think we thought we would be perceived as being needy or whiny, but we did not communicate clearly what was taking place with our children and what that meant. So, if we couldn't even manage to keep the family apprised of the girls' status, you can certainly guess that we weren't educating them as to what to do or not to do when they were around our girls. Maybe we subconsciously thought that would be presumptuous.

In my case, as it pertains to Mother, I told her very little at first. There was an element of wanting to protect her from the ugly reality of it all, but that was only a sliver of the pie. I assumed she would not understand and would pass judgment on the girls. And I wanted to protect them from the things I knew she would do and say that they would find hurtful or triggering. Ironically, she passed judgments anyway. She did not think much of Kelsey as a result of my keeping them as separate as I reasonably could. She saw her as aloof and uncaring, when in fact she was just cautious about being around Mother. Maybe that wasn't fair, and it certainly caused issues later on when things got really bad and she did have to know at least enough to explain where one or the other daughter was being whisked off to, but I have to give myself this much; I'm not sure how much she truly understood or was capable of understanding, even several years back.

I have this for the family of the person in need:

1) Ask what you can do. Don't wait to be asked. Trust me, sometimes the person in need is just too deep in crisis to even be able to ask for help. And they may say they don't need anything, but I bet you my bottom dollar they will appreciate that you thought enough to at least ask.

2) Be empathetic. How many people look at what our girls went through and immediately label us as bad parents? If they want to do that, well, there's not much I can say or do to change their minds. I'm too busy trying to get better at it to really worry, so I accept that we will never be friends with those people. I am, however, stuck with my family. I would like to think they would try to see things from my point of view and understand me.

3) If you do have a criticism or a concern, say it to the person's face. Griping about your siblings is a time honored rite of familyhood, I think. Or rather, I guess it is. I don't really know first hand, but I've heard all my friends over all my life complain about their brothers and sisters. That's not going to change, but I would ask that next time you really think they are doing something that is detrimental to themselves, to you, or to others, then tell them directly. I would suggest that you should especially not say it to an in-law (because I'm just here to tell you, it'll get back to the person anyway and generally with an ugly spin on it that will not shine you in a positive light). Do it respectfully and calmly. Expect the reaction to be potentially negative, but have the courage to say what you need to say. Who knows, the other person might even listen.

4) Understand the issue. I know I just told the other side of the family to educate you, but let's just assume they probably aren't going to do that well. Then, educate yourself. If you have a family member with an eating disorder, don't berate her for not eating your fattening mashed potatoes, don't talk about it at the dinner table, don't worry and fuss over her weight. Understanding that trying to stuff food down the throat of someone with eating issues will not get you the desired results. You want to help? Do a little research about the disease yourself so you know and understand what your relatives are going through. I intend this more for relatives that will have direct contact with the individual.

5) Do what's right. If you can't, at least don't do what is wrong. If your relative comes to you and says, "I'm an alcoholic, and I want to stop drinking," then I would say you should probably not drink in front of that person. At the very least, don't coax them to have "just one" (and, no, this is not based on actual incident, it just is an example).

To all family members, there is this:

1) Love one another. Be grateful you have family, warts and all.

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