Unlearning Dysfunction

One of the strange parts of growing up in a dysfunctional family, and I resist using that term, is, in my case, you don’t have any other idea of how things should be. My parents struggled with alcoholism, and they were usually functioning alcoholics. But, because they were busy drinking, they surrounded themselves with other people who drank. Most of my extended family drank, too. I didn’t learn until much later that drinking too much alcohol was a problem.

Even though I was the one who had to find my father’s false teeth when he passed out in the car after a binge and lost them. Even though I had to pick the stones and black top from my mother’s back when my father and uncle decided to race their Harleys and my mother fell off. [As we like to tell with a raucous laugh, my dad was almost home before he noticed she wasn’t there.]

Such stuff isn’t funny. But when it’s your “normal” and you’re talking about it years later, it’s not your life any more but more like a movie you saw. And because I have this detached way of looking at it, it seems funny. Until I see the horrified faces of the poor victims of my storytelling.

If your mind is already reeling, grappling with this idea that it’s hard to realize that your normal is someone else’s version of screwed up, let me present a different example. Reality is what we perceive and what we are exposed to.

When I was in middle school, the corn fields in my rural township morphed into housing developments practically overnight. I grew up in a place where bus stops were a mile or more apart and only had one child (unless they were siblings). We never trick-or-treated. There was no where to go. So to suddenly have bus stops with many children, this fascinated me.

The mom of one of these newcomers volunteered to lead our Girl Scout troop. One night we were there for a meeting and the dad came home from work. It was the first time I ever saw a man in a suit. He came home from work in a suit. My dad came home from work in grease-covered brown uniforms.

The locals, we were mechanics, farmers, waitresses, bartenders, truck drivers, quarry laborers, garment factory workers. Some people worked in mythical factories in towns 20 or 30 miles away. I was impressed if someone I knew had a nurse in the family or a teacher. The doctors were all really old white men. We were a blue collar community.

So I remember the day I saw my first white collar worker.

The community I live in now is far more urban and diverse than where I was raised. But my experiences give me the opportunity to empathize with a lot of the different situations I see. And I wonder, for those who grew up in a more traditional home, do you realize how your neighbors or children’s friends view you?

I often think about this. I was raised an only child and my daughter is an only child. I know she loves to experience the chaos of multiple child households. She also likes to come home and be the center of attention. She’s had friends of different religious backgrounds, and some friends with difficult home lives.

Whenever the children are here to play, I wonder, am I showing them something they might be seeing for the first time?

A more contemporary issue of this might be the day I invited a neighbor child to preserve pickles with us. He lost patience with the canning process and didn’t understand why we would go to all the trouble to grow cucumbers and do all this work, when you could simply go to the store and buy pickles.


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