As my father used to say, Who the hell died and made you boss? To which now, I would retort, You! But at the time, I was a little girl in a dysfunctional family who was just trying to survive. Heaped with family secrets burdening me, my father used that to tell me that I was the responsible one. I was the one who had to make things right for everyone. He burdened me with the belief that because I was a caring, responsible kid, one who yearned to be noticed as a good girl, who was always striving to please, to placate, to smooth over any relationships that even had nothing to do with me, I was responsible for everything and everyone. All encompassing responsibility that knew no boundaries and charged with this role, I wasn’t allowed to fail. Heavy stuff for an impressionable kid.
But being that he gave me that job, that role, that belief and I never felt I was able to say no…the seed was planted, firmly and I grew up thinking that it was innate in me that I was put on this earth to take care of everyone and everything. Until I was much older, the thought, What about me? never even came into my head. Me was secondary or last. Good Catholic girl – do for others as you would have them do for you – meant do for others…period. Do for you? Selfish. No such thing. And so my co-dependency was born.
I remember seeing a therapist, having an eating disorder (anorexia) which I clearly remember my dad saying wasn’t anything except I needed to eat more. Even when the therapist wanted a family meeting, he refused. And so I went alone and only divulged what I thought she wanted to hear. I remember she was the one who gave me the book Co-Dependent No More. I tried to read it, but I couldn’t understand why she would recommend such a book when I didn’t come from an alcoholic family. All that mumbo jumbo about the 12 step program and al-anon etc missed the mark and I stopped reading it. And promptly stopped seeing her. It wasn’t relevant to me. I was just there to find peace in leaving my younger brother alone with my parents and maybe talk about my missing meals because my mom was insisting.
Hindsight reminds me that I stopped going because while she didn’t know too much about my life, she knew I had dysfunction in my life because I wasn’t eating, purposely not eating even though I didn’t know why I was doing it. I was overly worried about leaving my brother alone at home while I went away to college. Overly worried because he’d have to navigate the family dynamics alone without me and I was responsible for keeping him safe. How could I move away to college and leave him all alone with our dysfunctional family?
I remember that the not eating was the one thing I could control that I did for me. Crazy as that sounds – starving myself, living on one saltine cracker and one leaf of iceberg lettuce was a triumph for me. I loved it. My bones stuck out and I was so thin in my bikini. I had power. I had discipline. I was a good girl. I had control. And as my weight dropped to 85 lbs (height 5′) my family turned a blind eye to it. Except my mom, but she was powerless to stop me. Because I viewed her as powerless because I had been told I was responsible for her.
How the childhood traumas and beliefs get twisted, right? Dysfunction in a family is dangerous. But when we don’t know any better, or even when we do, but we’re young, it’s insidiously sneaky toxicity damages all of us in its wake. So we do what we can to survive and help those who we love…and feel responsible for it all.