Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Keep Going!

My father died near the end of 2020 and my mother's grief was incalculable.  When she lost him, her will to live died and was buried with him.  They spent 66 contentious years together in a marriage marked by anger, recrimination, and abuse.  She married my dad when she was 15 and was so conditioned to the dysfunction and violence of their relationship that she did not know what to do without it.  She died ten months to the day after his death,

Patrick Carnes coined the phrase "betrayal bond," to describe the relationship between someone who experiences trauma at the hands of a trusted other and the perpetrator.  The term is used to describe the negative bond and strong attachment that develops between an abused person and their abuser or between an individual and a toxic system or process that is harmful to them.  A betrayal bond can be very difficult to break free from because the experience with the toxic person or system is not continually negative--there are kindnesses or positive aspects to the relationship.  My mom certainly had a betrayal bond to my dad and the toxic system they created.

My siblings and I were not immune to the toxicity of my parents' marriage and all four of us became trauma-bonded to the process and to them. The system demanded that we choose sides between our parents.  Allegiances were drawn based on who we supported at any given point in time.  After dad's death there was hope that the system could be destroyed but the patterns of behavior were too entrenched.  By the time my mother died, all hope of vanquishing the toxic process was gone and I found myself standing alone after my siblings made hurtful and destructive decisions.  Thankfully, years of therapy had helped me to break my own trauma bonds but her funeral was still shocking and shameful.  Unfortunately the estrangements between my siblings and I continues unabated.

Mom was the youngest in her large family as well as the youngest of dad's siblings; she was the last woman standing in both families.  She was the end of an era--the last of her generation.  She often spoke of her intense loneliness, lamenting "they all left me."  I understood what she was saying but simply could not reframe it to her satisfaction. She had children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren along with nieces, nephews and friends.  But she was so lonely.  In spite of the best support we could provide, she felt abandoned by those of her generation who preceded her in death.

While I am grateful to no longer be the prisoner of a toxic system, I confess to a level of loneliness and like my mother, lament the loss of sibling relationships.  It is a bittersweet experience--gratitude for freedom, and grief that I am left alone.  I do not think these competing emotions are exclusive or unique to me.  Freedom often creates loss, and we grieve.  Freedom and loss are really two sides of the same coin.  I'm reminded of Harriet Tubman's urging escaping slaves to keep going, no matter how frightening or dangerous their journey. Her message is appropriate to those of us running away from toxic or hurtful relationships:  "If you hear the dogs, keep going.  If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. Don't ever stop.  Keep going.  If you want a taste of freedom, keep going."

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