Healing From Family Riftsby Mark Sichel
Ten steps to surviving a family rift, finding peace, and moving on
A family rift is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can face. It can have a profound effect on virtually every aspect of life, causing depression, relationship problems, and even physical illness. Healing From Family Rifts offers hope to those coping with a split in their/i>/b>
Ten steps to surviving a family rift, finding peace, and moving on
A family rift is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can face. It can have a profound effect on virtually every aspect of life, causing depression, relationship problems, and even physical illness. Healing From Family Rifts offers hope to those coping with a split in their families. Family therapist Mark Sichel addresses the pain and shame connected with family rifts and offers a way through the crisis and on toward healing and fulfillment. Uniquely, Sichel does not assume that every rift will or even should be mended. Instead, he offers ways to recover from any outcome, including:
- A 10-step process to come to terms with the family dynamics that led to the split
- Methods to find peace and personal reconciliation
- Skills that help to build a second family of people whose values are in line with one's own
- Techniques to fight feelings of guilt when faced with a family rift
- Includes inspiring and instructive stories drawn from the author's patients that help readers put their own situations in perspective.
- McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)
Read an Excerpt
Healing from Family Rifts
Ten Steps to Finding Peace After Being Cut Off from a Family Member
By Mark Sichel
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2004 Mark Sichel
All rights reserved.
Acknowledge and Deal with the Shock
Whether you've been cut off by your family, or you've cut off a family member because of circumstances you find intolerable, you invariably undergo a traumatic shock. Certainly my father's wholesale rejection of me shook me to my core—a trauma I've since learned had a number of stages I had first to acknowledge, and then to navigate. How I've managed to weather and overcome the worst of this trauma—and how my patients have similarly learned to prevail over what is often an initial indescribable agony of a family rift—offer the substance of this first chapter, which describes the first step in healing.
A good deal of the shock for me came from the unnerving realization that my usual reliable approach to dealing with crisis—thinking my way through it, and reaching a sense of how to cope with it—just wasn't working here. I developed symptoms of dysfunction that were uncharacteristic of me—I felt unanchored, cheated, disgusted, full of shame, self-doubt, sadness, guilt, and fear—toxic emotions that engendered a terrible sense of confusion and powerlessness. Soon I was able to see that most of these symptoms signaled acute stress disorder, a diagnosis that ultimately suggested ways I could begin to heal.
Fortunately, one certainty born of my clinical experience and the lessons of having dealt with other difficult situations in my life hadn't deserted me. I knew that the initial level of toxic intensity and functional impairment I felt would eventually pass. It always does when you do the right things for yourself.
Understanding the Trauma Is of Human Design
The first "right thing" was simply this: I needed to remind myself not to trivialize or attempt to minimize the effects of what I was going through—I had instead to give it its full due. Family estrangement on some level seemed "logically" to be less catastrophic than some of the terrible things going on in the world such as terrorist attacks, violent crime, natural disasters such as fire or earthquakes, or the actual physical death of a loved one. However, it had a magnitude for me that, at least for the moment, far exceeded these catastrophes. I needed to accept this—and to be careful not to add to an already festering sense of shame and guilt (flip sides of my rage and hurt) that I was somehow "over-reacting"—that "it could be worse." Hypothetically, of course, there's always something that "could be worse," but the impact of my father severing contact with me had, especially in the fresh wake of the cutoff, subjected me to the worst emotional trauma I could remember ever undergoing. I couldn't underestimate the impact of this trauma—or chastise myself for overreacting. This wasn't the time to judge my feelings—to attempt artificially to gloss over the pain. This wasn't the time to blame myself for the sudden incapacities the trauma caused in my life. This was the time to let myself feel it, all of it—and acknowledge it.
Part of acknowledging it meant understanding that the trauma was so great because it had been caused by human beings—it hadn't come from chance, or an act of God—it had come through human choice. All traumas are more magnified and psychologically upsetting when human beings rather than nature cause them. Losing your home to a fire will certainly be traumatic, but losing it because arsonists caused the fire will almost always make the effects of the shock more severe. Similarly, the trauma of a family member physically dying usually becomes less painful with time—it falls under the heading of a natural catastrophe from which the human psyche ultimately learns to heal. However, on two decades of evidence of the scores of my patients who've faced both kinds of trauma, the psychological "death" of a family cutoff clearly tends to remain torturous—and very much more emotionally damaging. Obviously family cutoffs are not the only devastating traumas we commonly face. Divorce, for example, can be every bit as disruptive. But unlike most family cutoffs, divorce has at least some social acceptance: it is talked about much more readily than other cutoffs in the family tend to be.
This suggests what compounds the problem: the terrible secrecy that usually attends family cutoffs—and the related fact that there is very little formal help offered to people who've undergone them. Many family members feel self-imposed pressure to go on as if their lives were still normal; thus, avenues for healing and recovery become even more elusive. After all, this trauma isn't only of human design—it's the design of members of your own family: the very people you thought loved you most in the world. That isn't something you're likely to broadcast—or even tell most of your best friends in private.
However, you need to talk right now, and to recognize that the task of healing from your family rift will take a much greater effort than you probably have ever previously brought to emotional distress in your life. With the right attitude of self-compassion, and by employing tactics you will learn in this book, it is fortunately an effort immeasurably worth taking.
You Don't Have to Fix or Resolve Anything Today
It's normal to want closure after something as terrible as a family rift—indeed, our impulse may be to do anything possible to make the pain go away, whether it involves abject and inappropriate apologies (amounting to groveling to keep the peace) or resorting to drugs or alcohol to help you escape the pain. However, a necessary corollary to understanding that you're dealing with trauma of a completely different order than you have probably faced before is understanding that this healing is going to take time. There are no quick fixes here: there couldn't be, given our natural human aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty coupled with what are generally the lifelong roots of dysfunction that led to your family rift in the first place. In short, now's the time to give yourself permission to go slow. You don't have to fix or resolve anything today.
This means having compassion for yourself—and especially for the impetus that makes you crave quick closure: the inability to tolerate mixed feelings of love, hate, longing, rage, sadness, and vengeance. A family cutoff is initially a phenomenally confusing time for all concerned; this degree of uncertainty is not easy for anyone. However, I can tell you from years of practicing psychotherapy that, as uncomfortable as it is, confusion is actually necessary for growth. It's out of the flux of life that we're often able to question old self-limiting assumptions and begin the journey to changing our attitudes and behavior—to begin, in other words, to heal, even from something as devastating as a family rift.
When It Feels like You've Been Buried Alive
"Buried alive" isn't invariably the phrase used by people who undergo the trauma of a family cutoff—sometimes it's more along the lines of "It's like some major part of me has gone dead," or "I feel shattered by this—like I don't know what's real anymore." But "buried alive" is a good way of summing up the feeling of dissociation you often feel after the family rift. Being cut off from the family so often devolves into feeling cut off from something central in yourself.
Lori offers a typical example. She came into therapy initially to get over the effects of a devastating divorce. Married for ten years, Lori finally summoned up the courage to walk away from her husband when his abuse—which had crossed the line from verbal to physical—became dangerous to her and their six-year-old son Ryan. Over some months, she had managed to build her strength and confidence back to the point where she could begin to understand why she had put up with her violent husband's treatment. As with many battered spouses, she had put up with similar treatment as a child from her father, and realized she was caught in a repetition of seeking out a man whose unpredictably fiery temperament mirrored her father's. "It's the old story," she said. "It was the only kind of attention from a man I knew, so I obviously sought it out again." She had also begun to develop patience with herself about how long it would take to change course and heal more completely from the effects of violence in her family life.
She sent her son to a child psychiatrist for treatment as well—a therapist recommended to her by her younger sister Arlene, to whom she felt indebted for this show of concern and support, especially since growing up they had never been close. "Arlene had been the favorite—my father never punished her the way he punished me. And yet somehow she'd always been jealous of me—especially because she wanted to get married and have kids, and it just hadn't worked out for her. I always felt after Ryan was born that this envy just increased—she wanted a 'Ryan' too. So her helping me right now with getting Ryan help after the divorce gave me hope that maybe she'd gotten over her feelings of resentment."
Then came a new, and in many ways far more terrible, shock. Her sister and mother kidnapped Ryan and brought him to live with her ex-husband after learning that Ryan's psychiatrist had reported her to the Bureau of Children's Protective Services, charging that Lori was clinically depressed, abusing drugs, and unable to be a fit mother.
"I thought going through a divorce was hard, but now I've really been brought to my knees by what my sister and mother did to me. It turned out the support I thought I was getting from Arlene was anything but. It was a setup—she was determined to get my son away from me, as some crazy act of vengeance. I just can't understand the charges—what could they have been thinking? They knew I had gone on an antidepressant as part of therapy, but I was hardly a drug addict. All I can think is that whatever distress signals Ryan was sending out to the psychiatrist must somehow have been embellished and twisted by Arlene, who also even convinced my mother that I was 'unfit.'"
Almost as bad as losing Ryan was the feeling that her family literally wanted Lori dead. "They couldn't have hurt me more if they'd just aimed a gun at my heart and pulled the trigger. It's like whatever world of family safety I thought I was in shattered." Lori reported a dream she'd had shortly after this debacle that patently arose from these feelings of being gunned down. "I dreamed that I was being shot, executioner style. I was on my knees, facing away from the executioner. I heard the gun explode—but instead of bullets shooting into me, I was hit by a siege of beads, the kind used for costume jewelry." Lori's mother owned a bead, sequin, and fashion accessory company in the garment district of New York. "The beads stung me," Lori said, "but they didn't kill me. I remember in the dream feeling terribly upset—but knowing somehow I would be okay. I woke up, however, terror-struck. I got no sleep for the rest of the night. I'm still exhausted, scared, confused, angry. Even though I know my mother's 'beads' won't kill me, the fact that she and Arlene have gone through the motions of executing me is just intolerable. In a way, I feel like I was shot out of a gun, and landed somewhere, alone, terribly remote from anything I thought I knew."
Acute Stress Disorder
Lori's story, while different in specifics, resonates strongly with other victims of family rifts I've worked with, and with my own experience. I too felt that my family war would kill me, and it took some work to know I'd survive and be fine. Here's the flag of reassurance—one that Lori's dream had also explicitly offered her (she was shot by beads, not bullets: hurt but not killed): You are not having a life-threatening emergency, as you might feel. You are more than likely suffering from acute stress disorder. I had it, Lori had it, and you probably have or have had it.
Remember that, like the people you will read about in this book, you too will survive and, at the end of working on these steps, find ways to heal from whatever blows the family rift has caused you. The stakes often feel like life or death, but they aren't. If you know you're doing everything in your power to mend the situation, it can't kill you. In fact, grappling with the trauma can breathe new hope and strength into your life in many unsuspected ways.
"At Least I'm Not Going Crazy ..."
Jason's experience is an interesting case-in-point: learning not only that we can survive the terrible toxicity of a family cutoff, but that in the very seeds of what we often feel has nearly destroyed our hearts and senses of self are clues about the real situation we face (as opposed to the killing nightmare it may at first seem to us)—clues even about how to heal from it.
However, as Jason would be the first to tell you, this ability to feel hope in the midst of despair can be a long time coming. The oldest of three sons, Jason had always been the light of his parents' life—an accomplished athlete, magna cum laude graduate of an Ivy League school, and now a successful copywriter at a major advertising agency. His two younger brothers had floundered by comparison: one struggled with intermittent drug problems, the other with chronic depression. "I knew my poor brothers constantly felt compared to me—a sort of 'why can't you be more like Jason?' thing that my parents constantly subjected them to. It made me feel really uncomfortable. Especially since I wasn't quite the person my parents believed I was."
Unbeknownst to his parents, Jason is gay. And now, in his late thirties, he was tired of hiding it. "I'd felt so much family pressure to be the Perfect Child that I didn't dare let my parents know about my sexuality. I guess I didn't realize how much I had invested in keeping up appearances with them. They're both super-conservative and I knew how they would likely feel about finding out one of their sons was gay. But it was finally taking way too much of a toll on me. So when I met my partner Oliver, and the relationship deepened to the point that we knew we wanted to get as close to married as society would allow us, I finally made the decision to 'fess up to my family."
Jason says he realizes his way of doing this probably wasn't the wisest course he could have taken, but as he also says, "It felt like diving into a pool. You either dive or you don't. I guess I wanted to be absolutely clear—and give them the news without mincing words. So, without warning, I sent my parents an invitation to the commitment ceremony Oliver and I planned—in other words, I invited them to their firstborn son's gay wedding."
Jason will always remember the phone call he received in response. "My father's voice was trembling with rage and hurt. 'As far as your mother and I are concerned,' he said in the scariest voice I'd ever heard him use, 'we do not have three sons. We have two. Unless you get help to become a normal man, we will have nothing to do with you.'" Jason visibly pales as he recounts this. "Then my mother got on the line. I couldn't believe the abuse she hurled at me—in a way it was much worse even than my father's abrupt dismissal. Homosexuality was reprehensible, a sin against God—the whole conservative Bible Belt nine yards. She said I was doomed to hell unless I sought help."
Jason was a mess for weeks after this. "Thank God I had Oliver and a family of close friends to help get me through that time. Oliver especially was amazing. It was he who really pushed me to seek therapy—he could feel how damaged I felt inside, and he knew it was an emotional emergency. Sort of like I needed triage that he knew even his great love for me wasn't equipped to provide. He said, 'It's like they cut off one of your arms. All I could think of was, you needed to go to a psychological ER. I couldn't stand to watch you bleed like that.'" Hence, Oliver's suggestion that Jason come to me. But Jason did not come to me primarily for help with rage and hurt. It was his sudden inability to feel anything at all.
"I feel like I'm dead," Jason said. "I wish I could cry or scream or something. But actually right now I don't know what I feel. It's like I'm wrapped up like a mummy against my feelings—like there's some huge open wound that goes so deep and is so far gone with nerve damage that the patient doesn't feel any pain. I've tried to break through this numbness with my old resolve to 'act.' After I couldn't sleep last night, I decided—ridiculously—to get up early this morning and go running, thinking that it would clear my head.
"I could see, distantly, it was a beautiful morning, but I couldn't feel it. As I ran—exhausted, sleepless—all I could do was replay that phone call in my head, going over every word of it, wondering what I might have said differently, scouring their invective for some clue about what had happened and why they had withdrawn their love for me so violently. I thought these things rather than felt them. Like some terrible compulsion, I went over and over and over it, and got nowhere. I swung wildly from thinking they were monsters to thinking I was a monster. Then I tried to make contact with my feelings for Oliver—but even that seemed so remote now. In the middle of the compulsive buzz in my head, I just couldn't feel anything."
Symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder
The rat-in-a-cage emotional rut that Jason describes is a strikingly common reaction to the violence of a family cutoff, as is Jason's inability to feel the rage and hurt and terror he distantly knows is somewhere in him. "This buzz of words in my head, but no real feeling attached to them—it's like hell," he said. Exhausted from his run and sleepless night, Jason then pushed himself through a day at work. "The buzz just wouldn't let up. I tried to make how my parents had treated me square with who I thought—I guess hoped—they really were. That disjunction permeates everything in my life now—it's like I've lost trust in anyone who says they love me. Even sometimes Oliver ... It's like there's suddenly this whole new awful negative identity that has blocked everything in me I used to be so proud and happy about. When I tried to concentrate on work, it was all a blur. It's as if I had been hacked to pieces, which had been scattered all around me, and I couldn't imagine how to bring them all back, how to be whole again."
Excerpted from Healing from Family Rifts by Mark Sichel. Copyright © 2004 by Mark Sichel. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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Meet the Author
Mark Sichel (New York, NY) is a therapist and licensed clinical social worker who has counseled hundreds of clients who have suffered from family rifts. He is the founder and editor of the award-winning mental health website Psybersquare.com.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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A wonderful book that gave me the power to heal. My mother had cut off all contact from me and I had found myself all alone. The book allowed me to pick up the pieces of my shattered psyche and put them back together one by one. It showed me that I can move on from the anguish, letting it fall away like leaves from a tree. More than anything, the burden of losing contact with a family member is a heavy one. But this book showed me how to lighten the load and continue living my life.
If you are experiencing a rupture in the family, I hope you do get Mark Sichel's book, Healing from Family Rifts. I did. I wish I had it years ago. After 11 years of learning to deal with my only child's addiction, and surviving a divorce after 24 years of marriage, Mark's book is opening up new avenues of exploration for my own life. There is great information and concrete ideas throughout Sichel's book. There are ideas to implement that help us deal with the problems involved in family estrangement. We discover ways to make meaning out of our experience - a meaning from which we can grow as individuals. Mark's ten step program gives us a way out of the trauma we have experienced. It will make you think. And thinking about our lives is always a positive good. As Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' Mark helps us examine our lives. I highly recommend Healing from Family Rifts for anyone dealing with family dysfunction and fracture. We've got nothing to lose but that pain we are feeling. We do have everything to gain - most importantly, our lives.
Mark Sichel's book offers practical and helpful advice from the first chapter to the last. I read about the book in the Ask Amy column in my newspaper (she replaced Ann Landers), bought it here, and have devoured it. His insight, compassion, and courage to share his personal experiences helped me to not feel crazy about the situation with my own family, and his practical suggestions for repairing a fractured family are like a Bible for the dysfunctional family. I highly recommend this book. I think other readers who have been suffering as I had will feel relieved, calmer, and saner after reading Sichel's book. If you're having estrangement issues or chronic feuding with your family, this is the book for you.
My sister has always been explosive and has had a habit since we're children of blowing up at me and saying she's never speaking with me again. After forty plus years of taking her abuse, about a year ago I said no more and I took her up on her offer. . I finally feel I've done the right thing by not tolerating her nastiness and yelling at me and threatening me. The author gives good and practical advice about feeling better and getting over an abusive family situation I highly recommend it for anyone dealing with a dysfunctional family.
This book really cuts to the heart of the subject of losing one's family. What I really like about the book is the author's empathic and effective approach to understanding, coping, and finally recovering from the tragedy of involuntary exile from family or relative. Step by step, he makes it possible to understand and deal with an often deeply painful life trauma. Mr. Sichel gives us all the gory details: but the book is ultimately one of hope and healing. As someone who has in some measure experienced family cutoff, I found the book to be of great comfort and usefulness; and would unconditionally recommend it to anyone who faces similar circumstances, or to those who know a friend or loved one going through such an ordeal.
A Facebook quasi-religious/spiritual poster remarked, as many do, how sad it is when families fail to reach out and forgive each other - that love is the ultimate answer which means finding a way to resolve all 'difficulties' and snuggle in for the long haul. Instead, Healing Family Rifts points out that while efforts at reconciliation are indeed useful, trying to change the aggressive behavior of a family member is not the answer. Love is not a blanket to throw over cruelty, selfishness and abuse. Instead, the book details drama-free ways to honor your own life and protect those you love. Eleanor Cowan, author of : A History of a Pedophile's Wife
Generally well done discussion of causes and solutions for dealing with the pain of estrangement within a family. Gives many examples and stories of people's experiences with estrangement and how they handled them. Offers specific positive actions that can be taken.