“Look at this Austin,” I showed Austin excitedly, “It’s a Cat Boy costume! Would you like it if Santa gave you that?” His toddler eyes lit up gleefully. We looked at Cat Boy costumes and Gecko costumes, but in the end he most wanted what I knew he would want, “I want Owlette costume!” Of course. Owlette is his favorite character, but she is a girl and Austin is a boy. I keep thinking that his infatuation with Owlette will fade, but it is still going strong. It just goes to show that every child is who they are! You can try to force the individual to change, or you can allow the Savior’s grace to change the family, dissolve the fear, and make it big enough to fit all the members comfortably. So, I’ll be getting Austin an Owlette costume for Christmas. I will have to tell his older brothers they are not to tease him for dressing like a girl superhero. That’s a battle I wish I didn’t have to fight, but I refuse to deny my child his right to choose his heroes and walk his path.
Why do families have such a hard time with members who step out of the family expectations? It is usually fear of the unknown, but it is also the “othering” that takes place. My dad was always adamant about covering food in the refrigerator. It wasn’t until I was older that I discovered why. Food takes on a weird flavor when it is not contained in the fridge. I’m sure there is a scientific reason for this. Anyway, Dad told me that when he was a boy, that his family had a cow. They would milk the cow and put the milk in a pan with no lid in the refrigerator. He hated the flavor of the milk. He said he tried covering the milk to make it taste better, but his step mother took great offense. Why? Because he was being “uppity.” He was too good for them in trying to improve the condition of the milk because he was implying that they were doing it wrong. The family members always behaved that way and to behave differently, even if it made you feel better, was not okay. It would make you “other.” Families can have thousands of such restrictive rules that stifle individuality and create reservoirs of resentment that fester like a fetid swamp.
Dumbledore, that illustrious wizard of wisdom, said that it is easier to forgive someone for being wrong than it is to forgive someone for being right. I think that is especially true in families. If you are wrong, there is always a chance that you will come back begging for forgiveness and be welcomed back humbled and ready to submit to the family will. If you are right, the only way for family relationships to heal is for the family to humble themselves and realize they were wrong. That is really hard to do because family members support one another in the rightness of their behavior even when it is clearly wrong.
Science is only beginning to understand the power of family. It is estimated that close to ninety percent of human behavior is controlled by our subconscious mind. Our digestive processes, our immune systems, our balance, and even much of our motor skills are mostly autonomic. The structures of the brain that perform most of the work of life are a gift to us from our parents. Only a tiny fraction, 10% or so, is thought to be conscious thought, willful action, controlled by individual decisions. Add to that, our conscious decisions are greatly impacted by the value systems passed down through our families. Both consciously and subconsciously, we are greatly influenced by our family of origin. When false traditions and sinful patterns form in a family, they can be nearly impossible to break. I have had countless times in my life that I have behaved in ways I swore I would never behave. It is like I was destined to become my parents whether I like it or not! It is almost inevitable that we will become much like the people who gave us life. We will repeat their mistakes, fall victim to their weaknesses, and pass them on to our own children.
But what if there was another way? What if life has better things for us and for our children? What if we can, with our small power to choose, tap into a power source that enables change? Like the choice to turn the key in a car can enable us to travel further and faster than our legs alone could carry us, could we make a choice that would free us from our fallen nature and empower us to rise above sin and death inherited from our mortal parents?
Yeah, you know where I’m going with this! Our mortal family is not our destiny. Our mortal parents are not our only parents. The best mortal parents understand that when they bring one of his children into their fallen homes, they don’t own them, they don’t shape them, they don’t control them, they only lead them to the source of salvation. The Savior is the only one who can change our families. He’s the only one who can save our children. Sometimes we have to leave our family of origin to find the Savior.
Consider Abraham. Abraham rebelled against his father who had started worshiping idols, and it nearly cost him his life. Because he sought after the true God of his fathers, his own father delivered him to be a human sacrifice, but an angel delivered him. He left the land of his father and all his kindred in search of the great I Am, Jehovah, the One who is Mighty to Save. To be worthy to be Abraham’s children, we might be called to leave our families of origin to find Him. The Savior said, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” When He calls, we must go. It has always been this way.
Going on this mental health journey has been hard. Coming to terms with the fact that my mind is not right, was very hard. Coming to terms with the roots of where those problems originated from was even harder. My family of origin is a part of me. To admit that my family of origin had problems was harder because I don’t have the power to solve those problems. Facing the denial of my parents and brother has been one of the hardest things I have had to deal with. I can’t control them any more than they can control me. My path to the Savior is mine and their path is theirs. The path of denial leads away from the Savior, not toward him, but I don’t make their path.
It would be so much easier, but for a sister. My dear sister that I love and hate. She has become a viper delivering the poison of her pain to all who dare get close. But she has not become who she is solely by choice. If I had been born first, I might be the same. She has hurt me badly, but that is not what tortures me. It is that I have hurt her. I tried to help her, but in my own denial, instead I hurt her, the way I have been hurt. I denied her the right to her feelings. I judged her unrighteously. I am guilty of inflicting the same pain that I suffer with today. I could say that the estrangement with her is not my fault, that she hurt me first. Still, I cannot deny my part and my soul cannot find rest. I want to tell her I’m sorry, but my own pain is raw and my emotional strength is limited. A viper’s poison would kill me and so I stay far away. Perhaps the day will come when we can weep together for our pain and find solace in the shared burden of being broken. She too struggles with emotional scars. We are sisters in blood and in pain.
Mental health stigma isn’t just about what society thinks about mental health, it is that families get an easy scapegoat when the people the family hurts get the diagnosis and treatment. Often we are not the people whose poor choices created the situation and yet we are blamed for it. When we try to change to be more healthy, our changes are seen as “othering” and often assumed to be part of our pathology. The stigma cuts both ways. You get blamed for being hurt and then criticized for getting help. It’s a mess.
One of the benefits of following the Savior is being relieved of the burden of judgement. I don’t have to judge my parents or other family members. All I have to do is worry about my own behavior and living true to the light that is within me. Unfortunately, their denial hurts and it reminds me that I have given my sister the same hurts. I want to heal our family. I want to be the Savior for us, but I am not. Establishing healthy patterns and new behaviors can only be done in a nurturing environment, and right now I need to put myself first. That means that many of the people I love can’t be as involved in my life as I wish they could be. I am not the Savior, I am just me. It’s hard for me to do what needs to be done to move forward.
My motivation is my children. They need me to be as healthy as I can be. They need their mother, not 50% of her, but 100%. I’ll do whatever I have to do to be the Mom that they need me to be and nothing is going to stop me. I can put me first because I am putting them first. Like Abraham, I can’t cling to the past, but walk bravely into a future the Lord has in store for me. I have been reborn and Christ alone is my father and my Lord. I can love broken. I can love my broken sister, even if she can’t be in my life. I can love my broken parents and my broken brother. Job told his wife, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” He gave me my family and I am grateful for the happy and the sad. Blessed be the name of the Lord.