They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
With apologies for the salty language, I wanted to share this poem, This Be The Verse, by the English poet Philip Larkin, which is very close to my heart because it summarises – in just 12 lines and 83 words – the essence of dysfunction.
There’s an old saying that if we don’t learn from the mistakes of our past, we’re destined to always repeat them.
When it comes to people who are the product of dysfunctional families or upbringings, we could extend that a little bit to suggest that unless we break the cycle of our immediate and generational pasts, we’re forever destined to not only repeat them, but to also pass them on.
Larkins’ poem is now well over half a century old, but unlike so much of the past that diminishes the further we get from it, his words seem to have increasing resonance in a world that seems to get more and more dysfunctional by the day.
Dysfunction can come in many guises. It’s incredibly nuanced and not easily recognised, both by those who propagate it as well as those who become the product of it.
It’s perhaps easiest to understand by looking at what has become a classic example of dysfunction: the family that is defined by parental alcoholism.
Often – perhaps even typically, if the impact of a parent’s addiction is allowed to go unchecked by the other supposedly responsible adult in the family – alcoholism will extend its grip to both parents.
One is addicted to the drink itself and displays classically narcissistic, controlling or ‘acting-out’ behaviour, the other is addicted to the addict, and unconsciously assumes the role of the co-dependent.
The addict is a source of chaos – emotionally, financially, medically, physically, and behaviourally.
The co-dependent, perhaps being entirely reliant in some way on their partner and being (or, at least, believing themselves to be) trapped in that existence becomes depressed, withdrawn, and displays little or no self-esteem.
And even if they are lucky enough to recognise the despair that has infected their lives and the lives of those they care for, neither the addict nor the co-dependent are easily able to break free of whatever shackles tether them into their unwanted existences.
Into this petri dish of forlorn hope, desperation, neglect, and controlling and abusive behaviour we add children, and it should come as little surprise that these emotional and behavioural human sponges absorb the negative lessons of those to whom they look for guidance.
Care, love, and simple parental guidance wither. Neither parent is able to offer the nurturing, positive environment or influence that their child needs and, by turns, the child becomes a hostage to their upbringing, inexorably shaped by their experiences.
And this is not just about alcohol addiction, or even addiction per se. It relates to any form of dysfunction which strips a parent (or parents) of their capacity to provide good enough parenting (in which the child’s emotional as well as physical needs are met) and fulfilling environment in which to bring up a child.
Children have little concept of the negativity and chronic emotional abandonment they may be exposed to in a dysfunctional household.
The dysfunctional emotional and physical stimuli that shape their small worlds fosters low self-esteem.
This lack of self-regard is either turned inward (self-hate, bad choices, abusive relationships in which they continue to be the victim, their own addictions) or outward (controlling others, narcissism, acting out) with the result that the cycle of dysfunction is perpetuated.
It’s almost impossible to list the ways in which a life formed in dysfunction can later manifest but includes low or no self-esteem, poleaxing depression, insidious addictions and the inability to form truly authentic relationships that are mutually positive, supportive, and encouraging.
It ends only when they find the strength, resolve and fortitude to decide: This ends with me that the cycle can be broken – and we should give a massive shout out to all those who manage to take that huge step toward recovery and a life that is more fulfilling, wholesome and positive.
A cycle breaker is the brave soul who decides from somewhere deep within that they want to heal rather than repeat.
That’s not an easy journey, which is why it’s one on which every step should be celebrated. Healing requires severance from the patterns and beliefs handed to them by their parents and the line of caregivers and parents who preceded them.
A cycle breaker generates necessary conflict because it unconsciously forces those who are the cause of the dysfunction to lift the drain cover on their own darkness.
It means revisiting old pain points and tending to old wounds – which is both daunting and scary – and having the awareness of knowing both that what happened wasn’t your fault and having the courage to take responsibility for healing it.
The breaking of cycles can take many forms:
- Entering 12 step recovery to draw the line under sand after coming from long lines of steeped-down alcoholism or other addictions
- Entering deep and potent therapy to grieve, release and metabolise your suffering so you do not continue to inflict it upon yourself or others
- Marrying or partnering with someone who is a safe person rather than someone who replicates your narcissistic mother or father
- Becoming someone who adds to positive change in the world rather than increased pain
- Making sure you do with your children what was not done to you
This is the emotional equivalent of alchemy – turning base emotional metal into gold.
None of these simple examples adequately reflect the hard yards that go into breaking the pattern cycle.
It can require self-re-education, abstaining from your drug or process addiction of choice, not going into repetition compulsion in relationships (which, by the way, is one of the hardest things to change), and working on yourself daily to transform the dysfunctional cognitive distortions that shape your world view and yourself.
We need cycle breakers because without them the world would be on an unstoppable hell-ride into emotional oblivion.
Cycle breakers are often unsung heroes who are unrecognised – especially not by their damaged family who tend to resent them for the conflict and discomfort they bring – but who personify transformative change and become able to extend a hand to those still struggling.
They are the lightning rod that can spark hope for all those affected by dysfunction – and they are always awe-inspiring, and the proof that healing may be hard, but is always worth the journey.