It was six weeks into the Stay At Home Order. Each of my four siblings had been almost non-responsive. We all had our own families to focus on, our own work-from-home and homeschooling schedules to manage. So connecting with each other, and with my parents, was last on our priority list.
To be honest, I was relieved. My family is not the best for my mental health.
In a time of high stress and anxiety, I knew that the best thing for me and my own family (my husband and two kids) was to leave my family of origin out of the picture. Especially my mom.
So, it was with slight apprehension that I approached the Saturday morning Zoom call my sister scheduled with all of us: me and my family, my parents, my two sisters, my two brothers, and each of their families.
I knew two things going into it:
- Zoom meetings don’t allow more than one person to talk at a time.
- My family doesn’t do well with waiting for one person to talk at a time.
Thankfully, it was only a Zoom meeting and not an in-person family event. My anxiety that preceded all family events was absent. I didn’t bite my nails, or scratch at my skin, or take my anxiety pills the week before the event.
But I did strategically choose a spot in my house where my judgmental sisters and mother wouldn’t see the mess. And I did shower and fix my hair before getting on, rather than be my natural self. And I was nervous about how my children would act. Would 2-year-old throw a fit? Would 5-year-old refuse to speak and hide from the screen? Other fears crowded my mind. Would we communicate nothing because everyone was too busy trying to talk about themselves? Would I do or say something that came back to haunt me later in a critical comment by one of my family members?
Would I somehow, even over a virtual gathering, not be “good enough?”
The meeting started, and exactly what I thought would happen, happened. Everyone tried to talk at once. And then no one talked. At any given time, four different conversations happened simultaneously.
But some unexpected things happened as well. My son did not throw a fit. In fact, he was over-the-moon excited to show everyone his cars and trucks. My daughter didn’t hide, she gladly said hello to her cousins, at least the ones she knew and remembered. And I was able to avoid direct communication with my mom, whom I had not spoken to in three months.
The constant chatter followed by, “What was that?”, lost phrases, unanswered questions, multiple topics, and overall confusion made the perfect situation for me to keep my “healing separation” from my parents.
I spent the majority of the call silent. It was better than trying to participate in the fray. Many times, I even muted my computer because I was addressing some need of my husband or children. I sat back and listened to old roles astoundingly come to life, despite the years and miles of separation. Unhealthy and abusive patterns returned, even through a virtual connection.
After an hour, my sister announced that she had another engagement and that it was time to end. She had decided we would have the meet, and she had been the one to decide the end of it. I was happy to let her have that role, even though I’m the oldest. I didn’t want the responsibility of gathering people I’m barely speaking to.
At the end of the call, I felt emotionally and physically drained. I spent three hours by myself reading my book and drinking tea. I couldn’t understand it. I didn’t really “see” my family, didn’t have to literally “spend time with them.” So, why was I feeling as though I had seen them in real life?
It was as if I had, in reality, not virtually, let them into my life and home. The destructive interactions, the mentally unhealthy family patterns, the criticisms, biting jokes, selfishness, everything I had been avoiding, were all right there on the screen.
Narcissistic family patterns are incessant. They are strong, almost unbreakable. They can show up even if you’ve spent all your energy on recovering, sunk all your money into therapy, and stayed away for as long as you can.
One of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life is recognize that my mother, my sisters, my brothers — all of us — are part of a damaging narcissistic family.
My mother is only concerned about herself but acts the martyr by doing things that are seemingly for the benefit of others. My sister insists that people act the way she wants them to. My brothers have moved away and, on the rare occasion they join the family, resort to veiled insults disguised as jokes.
I leave every interaction with my family — virtual, real, or otherwise — feeling I’ve participated in emotional Olympics.
Perhaps I need to limit the Zoom calls with my family. Or perhaps during this lockdown, I just need to keep my healing separation, even over screens. My mental health is already precarious and my children are worth my separation, temporary or not, from my abusive family patterns.