22 August 2007

Getting Well, Part 1: Getting Out

"Someone's got to be unafraid to lead the freak parade."

That's pretty much what it boils down to, once someone realizes they're living in a reality created by abusers, for abusers.

That reality is inverted; it's toxic. It devalues, uses and exploits, destroys emotional and physical health, and will ultimately kill.

It is also extremely secretive, extremely invested in maintaining appearances at the expense of group and individual health. There is a powerful sense of shame associated with looking 'too closely' at the values and assumptions of any dysfunctional group - as though it isn't nice to see clearly.

The very thought that Mother might resent Daughter and regard her as competition, that Father might regard Son as an appliance to be used to compete with the neighbors or his own siblings or parents, that parents might use their children as puppets to act out their own hostility... that Boss might favor Secretary while scapegoating Paralegal... these thoughts are rejected as 'morbid' or worse; the myth of the Happy Family [at home, work, or elsewhere] must be protected and preserved at all costs. "Lookin' good" is paramount; nothing else, not even one's own sanity, matters by comparison.

But as AA, Al-Anon, and other recovery groups put it, we are 'as sick as our secrets'. Groups - whether they are families, church committees, or workplace cliques, can be every bit as sick as individuals.

In the words of C.S. Lewis ["The Problem of Pain", 1962]:

“We must guard against the feeling that there is "safety in numbers". ... many of us have had the experience of living in some local pocket of human society - some particular school, college, regiment, or profession - where the tone was bad. And inside that pocket certain actions were regarded as merely normal ("Everyone does it") and certain others as impracticably virtuous and quixotic. But when we emerged from that bad society we made the horrible discovery that in the outer world our "normal" was the kind of thing that no decent person ever dreamed of doing, and our "quixotic" was taken for granted as the minimum standard of decency. What had seemed to us morbid and fantastic scruples so long as we were in the "pocket" turned out to be the only moments of sanity we there enjoyed."

To 'emerge from that bad society', requires the breaking of denial, and takes a great deal of courage and determination. It is not easy, and it is not quick. There may be very intense 'change-back' reactions from family, friends, co-workers, church members. There may be immediate ostracism, breathtaking in its cruelty. There will almost certainly be invalidation, whether directly [targeted at the escaping member] or indirectly [use of the escaping member as a Horrible Example, to keep other members in line]. The would-be escapee will be made to feel wrong; bad; crazy. And very, very much alone.

Yes, this does sound like escaping a cult, doesn't it? That, in many ways, is exactly what it is. Cult members are rejected and vilified when they challenge the assumptions of the cult, and place their own emotional welfare ahead of preserving the cult's image; so, too, the child of an alcoholic parent who refuses to play his or her assigned 'role' in the alcoholic family drama and suppport the family myth will be vilified and rejected. As will the 'problem employee' who refuses to engage in the shaming and blaming cycles at an abusive workplace. Or the 'difficult patient' in a stalled therapy group, who persists in seeing and challenging unhealthy processes that are preventing growth.

It is sad but true - in this, as in every other stage of growth, we almost always must make the transition alone. But also true, and much less sad, is that when one person finds the door, others, watching, may eventually make their own escapes.

After all, "Someone's got to be unafraid to lead the freak parade." It may very well be the most important public service you ever perform.

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