FAMILY LIFE, DISCONNECTIONS, AND THE BURDEN OF SHARING: "IT'S JUST A BUNCH OF NOTES . . . FLOATING AROUND."
Richard’s manner of speaking reminds me of Kristeva’s concept of language as a “nullifying negation,” where words are supposed to compensate us for the loss of what cannot be said (1989, p. 50). However, since language is arbitrary, we are restricted to available conceptualizations, and what cannot be articulated is lost to us. Rogers (2006) describes this difficulty by stating that some traumas are so deep that they are “unsayable” and in many respects, language itself is a trauma into which we are born because it fails to convey experiences that are beyond words. When words lose their meaning, language serves the purpose not of communicating, but of commemorating the loss of what cannot be spoken. And in this loss are pieces of ourselves. Throughout the telling of his story, Richard used phrases like “I guess maybe,” “probably,” “like,” “or something,” “or whatever,” and “you know what I mean?” Although I think he was trying to be clear in his communication, his words often had a generalizing or disowning effect rather than a clarifying one. I got the sense that the elusive quality of his speech was evidence of an experience that was exquisitely painful but not fully formulated. For him, words were falling short of their intended purpose, and I suspect that at some level, Richard did not expect to be heard or fully understood. Furthermore, Richard seemed to think he might be a burden to people if he shared his depressed feelings, and he often tried not to think about them. He said,
Well I can easily phase out feeling . . . like if I have problems, you know obviously sometimes that’ll stress me out, but I can also just not think about it. You know if I’m really really good I can put it away. And just like have like a straight face and, go on with, you know what I mean?
This approach to emotional turmoil is similar to that seen in Balinese culture, in which children are
socialized from infancy not to disclose negative emotions such as sadness and anger. Children are taught that such emotions can be conquered by the strategies of “not caring” and “forgetting” as well as by laughing and joking, even in the most somber of circumstances. (Georges, 1995, pp. 18-19)
It is my speculation that Richard experienced a similar sentiment within the cultural atmosphere of his family and home, which may have extended to his friends and school life. It seems that in his household, growing up and emoting were not valued, nor was communicating one’s sorrows. After all, when describing his parents, Richard said that they were “very low-key” and “had almost like no emotion.” However, feelings did get expressed in other ways. Richard initially stated that there really weren’t any conflicts in his household growing up, but this is in sharp contrast to his description of the way his family members communicated, particularly within the context of arguments with his mother.
We never had like conflict like that ‘cause . . . we were good kids. But the thing was, sometimes there would be like yelling and stuff but like . . . like my mom, would be really annoying to everybody sometimes. And like all of us would yell at her. When I look back, like everybody- my sisters, and my dad, there would be like a lot of yelling like at my mom and stuff . . . So it’s like . . . that was like the closest to like conflict in the whole house. Like it would just be everyone like kind of teaming up like- when my mom got on our nerves, we all like you know, get our little time aggression out on our mom or something, and yelling at her or something. That was like about it. We didn’t really have any other conflicts so much.
During the interview, I tried to get a better sense of the dynamics within Richard’s family. What was it about his mother that was so “annoying” and warranted all that aggression and yelling? When I asked about it, my impression was that Richard felt that his mother was overbearing, intrusive, and a nuisance. I want to emphasize that this was my interpretation, not Richard’s expressed opinions. I got the sense—although he never said this directly— that perhaps she was trying to engage with her husband and children in more intimate conversations, to connect with them and to relate in a more open manner. In addition, although Richard adamantly denied feeling any conflict about his own multiethnic background, he seemed to hold a lot of contempt for his mother’s lack of acculturation to the United States. When speaking of a therapist whom he saw when he was a teenager who recognized this as a potential area of conflict, he said, “I thought she was reaching, like she didn’t really understand me.” He explained,
I guess I wrote something (in a journal) and she thought I had issues with being like, biracial. But I didn’t at all. And . . . she was really s- tough on that like “Oh I think your your like reasons for this is ‘cause you think you’re biracial and you don’t like it.” And I was just like it’s not true. You’re- you know it’s just-I mean I’m not judging you ‘cause you think that you’re s- just seeing something that I wrote. But I’m just saying it’s not true and she would always like had to get on that.
I interjected, “She would impose her-” and Richard continued, “Yeah she would be like ‘No, I think that’s what it is.’ And I would be like I know it’s not that reason.” Even while maintaining that he did not have any issues regarding his own ethnic background, Richard did draw a clear delineation between his American identity and that of his mother.
But she never quite got like, fully Americanized as far as like she went to school, or like . . . got a job or anything. You know, or ever had like a big social life, with like American people or whatever . . . so she kind of was like. . . . I mean she could speak English fine, but she had a little accent, you know, maybe, wasn’t really maybe- educated, as far as like . . . current events.
She’d just . . . bother you . . . like you’d be trying to mind your business watching TV or doing something. And then she’d just like start . . . asking you stupid questions. Or what we thought was stupid. But like, all of us agree ‘cause all of us were were annoyed, like . . . my sisters younger than me, they’d be like cursing at her and yelling at her. And then it would be crazy it just would be every everyone would be, just, annoyed. I don’t even know how to describe it. . . . That’s just how she was, she was very . . . you know, like a simple person but she had these like ways, to like, just like bother these American kids, and you know . . . ‘cause we were more American. So she could really get under our skin, bother us, and we’d just get mad. . . .
It would seem that Richard saw his mother’s ethnic and cultural identity as inferior to his more Americanized upbringing and that this was somehow associated with his feeling annoyed by her. It is also possible that his experience of being bullied about his ethnicity became internalized and directed at his mother; after all, he draws such a clear distinction between himself as an “American kid” and his non-American mother. Although he described both of his parents as unemotional, it is also possible that Richard’s mother was more expressive than the other members of the family and that this was not received well. If his mother was yelled at and perceived as annoying for trying to communicate her feelings, it would make sense for Richard to expect that he would be treated the same way if he did so. Therefore, it was safer to “put it away” and have it manifest as irritability (as he described often happened) later. Being irritable and expressing anger are often (I believe mistakenly) associated with being less vulnerable than is the expression of other emotional states, such as sadness, affection, or desire, for example. Richard stated that he believed his mother’s feelings weren’t hurt and that she was completely unaffected by everyone yelling at her because she continued to engage in the same behaviors that elicited that negative response. In contrast, he described his father as a very “laid-back” “unemotional” person who could sometimes become explosive when angry.
He was probably the- the get the most exacerbated, he would get the most, angry, of all of us. So we maybe we kinda probably, learned to deal off of him too because he was like the most, you know . . . get excited, like like he was about to have a heart attack half the time when he was doing that you know he’d get so angry sometimes. You know. So it was like, so he definitely didn’t judge us when if we were yelling he never would be like “you guys better stop, yelling at your mom.” It was totally it was cool ‘cause he was just like “yeah, you guys should be yelling at your mom too.”
Given the relationship between Richard’s parents and the fact that his mother received the brunt of aggression from other family members in the household, it is possible that Richard identified with his father as a means of avoiding any hostility that might otherwise be directed at him. It would be imperative that he not be seen as annoying so that he would not be yelled at. As a result, Richard learned to suppress his emotions so that they would not make him a nuisance to others or lead to ridicule. He was able to acknowledge, however, that this was not an effective way of resolving whatever issue was actually bothering him. It was more of a temporary fix that inevitably resulted in him becoming agitated by displacing his feelings onto another context.
I kind of just don’t think about it. But then, like at the same time it probably leads to me being irritable. That would be probably the reason why I’m irritated ‘cause like . . . I’m not getting . . . I guess not releasing the stress. So then I get mad maybe for something stupid. You know what I mean? That’s probably what I do. When I th- when I come down to think about it. I just don’t think about it that much and then if something something else like random happens, I’ll like, get mad and it’s like . . . I’m totally not mad ‘cause of that . . . I never fix the problem, you know what I mean, I never really. . . . That’ll release a little bit of the anger but it really didn’t eff- you know . . . make me, face the problem,
I guess. I don’t know.
Richard was faced with a serious dilemma. He could express his feelings and risk being rejected, ridiculed, or even worse, ignored. Or he could hold everything inside until it became unbearable and then found release in the form of anger. Ultimately, he acknowledged the necessity of expressing himself out loud to another person. It helped him reflect on what was going on in his head, and being recognized was therapeutic in and of itself. It was essential that Richard be able to share his experience so as to make better sense of it, despite his strong hesitancy to do so with people in his inner circle. In some respects, confiding in friends or family members was much riskier than opening up to a stranger. He said,
I think talking to someone is a good thing. I think it’s a good thing . . . ‘Cause if you just talk to your friend, they’re gonna be like zoning out, ‘cause I mean I- I don’t I mean I don’t want to hear that stuff either. You know not to be mean or anything but if someone’s calling me and telling me “Oh this happened, this happened, this happened,” I’m going to listen and I’m going to be like “Oh geez, like, you know downer, downer.” But at least if you’re talking to someone that’s a professional then you’re . . . you know . . . they’re listening to you or y- or at least they’re supposed to be.
Richard needed to communicate his feelings to an attentive listener, but he appeared afraid that his words would fall on deaf ears. Rather than acknowledge the pain this would cause in light of his legitimate desire to be recognized, Richard normalized the dismissive reaction he imagined his friends would give him. His characterization of his feelings as a “downer” can be seen as self-protective in the sense that he was taking the power away from others to reject his story by doing so himself. If Richard approached his friends with his genuine feelings expecting an empathic response and did not receive it, that would be more devastating than accepting the possibility that he might be invalidated by normalizing the recipient’s response. Richard’s comment that he wouldn’t want to hear someone complaining about their problems either can be seen as a way of making it okay when others rejected him. It seems that he was only able to acknowledge the benefits of sharing his feelings within the safety of a professional relationship because the other person would be there specifically with the purpose of listening to him. The rules of the relationship were clear, so sharing seemed less dangerous.
‘Cause you keep everything inside, and uhm, it never gets a chance to ah, you just like it kind of just smolders and whatever. Smolders in your head and it just never gets . . . uhm can’t- you know you maybe you want a little feedback or maybe you just want to say it out loud or something. And I don’t want to talk to myself. I don’t want to sit there in a room and be like, you know, thinking about talking to myself so. But like I said, I don’t want to like, grab a random like friend and just like beat them in the head about my problems. So it’s so it’s like I guess talking to like a professional or something is good ‘cause like uhm.
. . . You feel free, you feel like you can tell this person, ‘cause they’re they’re listening. And and it’s like it’s ju- it’s what they’re supposed to be doing, it’s not like you’re bothering them.
“I don’t want to talk to myself.” Narrative healing requires the presence of another person to receive the story, to recognize the individual, and in so doing, to validate his or her existence. Without this recognition, we risk annihilation. The demons become more menacing, and their power is increased by the nebulousness that comes from being confined to the shadows of the mind. In his head, Richard could not digest what he was experiencing. He could not formulate it in such a way as to be able to examine and grow from it, so it became a self-reinforcing spiral of negativity. But when he spoke about the benefits of attending therapy, it seemed that Richard was able to break free from the depressive bonds that held him by constructing a cohesive story from his previously unarticulated pain. When I suggested that in his head his experience may feel very different than when he articulates it, Richard replied,
Yeah. ‘Cause you hear yourself saying it, like out loud, and then you see the reaction on the person’s face when they’re hearing you. And then they start to say something back. And then it’s like- you can’t quite do that alone in your head because like, you don’t have the feedback like that. And then if you’re hearing yourself saying it out loud instead of this like- when you’re just thinking in your head, you might just have rapid thoughts, and you’re not really . . . it’s not that, you know? You get- it’s better when you say it out loud I think . . . you can understand it better . . . because like when you’re just thinking in your head you’re probably, going from thought to thought, you might even . . . you know what I mean? It’s just like, it’s not a very, ah good place to analyze it. You know what I mean? ‘Cause it’s just like a, it’s just a bunch of notes, probably floating around. Instead of seeing the big- you know the big- more clarified, you know?
Ochs and Capps (1996) describe the recipients of narrative as occupying a privileged position in which they are able to provide feedback, to elaborate, to validate the teller’s experience, or conversely, to argue against, reject, or ignore it. When a narrative is ignored, it often causes the “narrator to amplify volume, pitch range, and/or the scope of the claim. If even this fails to secure feedback, the narrator may suffer loss of validation as narrator or protagonist” (1996, p. 35). Thus the child who is initially merely lonely and expresses these feelings, if ignored, may begin to see him or herself as a loner, as a person who is incapable of or unworthy of human connection. If the narrative continues to not be received, he or she may seek a louder or more visible means of communication. The original commentary on loneliness turns into a song, or what Richard described as “dark poetry” in a book, or as it was in my case, a poster on a wall. When even this narrative is rejected, words may fall silent and evolve into action; the person may think: If my words are ignored, perhaps my intended audience will be forced to acknowledge the significance of pain that prompts a suicidal gesture. It is often the act of ignoring, of merely doing nothing, that pushes someone toward suicide.