How We’re Molded by Our Dysfunctional Families

Simplifying codependency, substance use, conduct disorder, love avoidance or addiction, borderline personality disorder, narcissism, and attachment disorders

Flannery Meehan
Mar 4, 2018 · 6 min read

When we were little, we were not the designated beneficiary of assistance.

The parent or parents who were supposed to be helping us grow needed help, and sometimes, or always, it was we who were asked to give it to them. Maybe they were bereaved after losing a partner, single and overworked, mentally or physically ill, abusive, dependent on substances, absent most of the time, obsessed with unhealthy romantic partners, or just very unhappy.

The person who became responsible for making everything okay was the child. Or at least, to the child it felt that way. Mommy would be happy when we cleaned, listened to her cry about her horrible boyfriend, or drank with her. And if we didn’t do these caretaking tasks, she was always in a bad mood. We thought that mood was because of our behavior, and wanted to change it. In fact it had nothing to do with us, just like most of our parents’ problems.

Daddy told us we owed him, because he paid the rent, bills, and drove us to school and back. So rather than learning to make ourselves happy by doing things to learn and grow and socialize in our peer group, we were redirected towards creating happiness for our parent — we owed him. (If we did ever lapse into childlike activities of play or gratification, we were supposed to feel guilty because we were not allowed or deserving of such privileges, and we knew we would be punished, passive aggressively or directly, if caught.)

Since their moods would improve sometimes if we succeeded in taking care of these parents, our brains became trained to look for opportunities to help, please, or save other people in order to generate endorphins and happy hormones.

Furthermore, living our own lives with peers and as individual people (rather than objects to our parents) was often treated as a threat. Our abusive stepfathers went in our bedrooms and found all of our notes sent to boys in the eighth grade, read them, put them out on the counter, and demanded an explanation. He was jealous we loved other boys. How dare we?

Or our parents said nothing. Did nothing. Didn’t care or notice us at all, unless we acted like their orderlies in a nursing home, lackeys on the campaign trail.

art by Jinberdeem

Enter puberty. We begin to see our parents’ behavior for what it is — flawed. Those low tidepools of dopamine reception caused by the situation at home, and our (probably) mutated genes, are getting pretty unbearable. We’re bored, bored, bored, and sad too. But suddenly, or in a creeping fashion through middle and high school, anti-depressant resources become available — thrills, drugs, and alcohol.

We begin to turn most of our attention to feeling better by “acting out.”

Except it’s not like the adults claim — we aren’t acting for attention, but for satisfaction. Speeding, vandalism, drugs, self-harm, and drinking make us feel good. They boost our hormones. Other people, more and more, make us feel scared. Of what? Who knows…a vague feeling of being with our parents, or of being at a huge disadvantage, because other people grew, and we didn’t, not quite right.

Who are we, and what do we want for ourselves and our futures? That’s often a question for the other type of kid. We just want satisfaction, now, and don’t care about the consequences. If someone criticizes us, they’re a killjoy, and their words are a waste of breath.

We don’t know how to be part of anything — either we squeeze something out for ourselves, or dismiss any system. We’re sick of our parents and their unhappiness, and other adults might try and ensnare us, too.

And then we discover romantic love, that potent source of happy hormones, similar to the feeling we got as kids when we pleased our hard-to-please parents.

Connection and sex may overpower every other good feeling available.

But Juliet, they just seem infinite. And that’s where the real trouble comes in.

We, the underloved, have very finite love for ourselves, if any. We need a lot of love! This makes us fragile to challenges, hopeless in disagreements, easily angered or defeated. And because we may not have learned right and wrong, we may be unable to see who is which — correct, or mistaken. We may blame ourselves unjustly for everything, or blame other people for our misdeeds, or invest trust in pernicious characters.

Someone who grew up in a home where they had to be a caretaker or deal with a demanding or helpless parent can easily tire of her lover’s emotions, feeling literally allergic to demands that she pay attention to them, tired of unhappy people and sad situations, even if they are a natural part of life. Enough of that!

But the hormones that come from loving and pleasing, and getting love and pleasure, will propel her to seek new sources of this feeling. The result is a pattern of serial romancing, in which the pursuer flees as soon as a bond begins — running from expectations for reciprocity. But she doesn’t see them that way; they appear only as greedy demands by a grotesque parent.

Another person, from a very similar childhood, will have the same intense reaction to connection. But this person will do the opposite, and become obsessed with pleasing her lover, never putting herself first, backing down from every position, and being walked over. She will be chasing the high of making her lover happy, just like she made her parent happy sometimes, and in exchange, hoping to be loved and protected.

With controlling ways she will try to keep her partner, but her motive is transparent and unpalatably greedy. When she perceives herself as failing, or is left, she holds too tight, not knowing how to let go and please herself, hurting herself, and maybe others, too.

These two people often enter into relationships with each other. One explanation why is that they both may have the DRD2 polymorphism — a gene mutation involved in depleted reward sensation, and pleasure seeking behaviors. It makes us chronically bored and unsatisfied, even depressed and listless or restless, and pushes us to seek out pleasure.

They love intensely and then break up, get back together — drama etc. Add the drug and alcohol abuse that often is involved, and the sad, hurtful, helpless, desperation, and you have enough symptoms for myriad labels, treatments, pills, and Netflix series.

But labeling people is not helping.

We weren’t objects when we were kids, and we aren’t labels as adults. We’re humans. Not mascots, scapegoats, property, or some therapist’s “disorder.”

There has to be a paradigm shift in the minds of those who grew up without enough. Hope was lost at some point, but hope can be found if a plausible upgrade can be made to one’s life — we can find enough. Though we may not see this gift when it comes to us if we’ve forgotten what we were missing in the first place.

I’m publishing a novella in excerpts in The Junction, every Thursday. It’s a dark comedy about what would have occurred if Anna Karenina didn’t kill herself in Russia, but instead time traveled to 2010 New York. At the bottom of each new excerpt are the links to the previous chapters.

I also wrote the essay, Oh, the Places Where You’ll Have a Nervous Breakdown.

I’m on Twitter.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

Flannery Meehan

Written by

Recovering from defeat, experiment by experiment, and sharing the results. Also, writing, for art’s sake, you know.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

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