When Family Can’t Forget

For the sake of this post, I’m brave enough to admit my age. I’m 45-years-old. I remember thinking that 45 seemed really old when I saw my parents celebrate that birthday. Now that I’m 45 myself, it doesn’t seem very old at all. As a matter of fact, I spend a lot of my time wondering when I will grow up.

Are you who you were at 10-years-old? (Can you remember back that far?)

Are you who you were at 16-years-old?

How about 20-years-old? Are you the same person you were then?

I think about who I was at these *mile stone* birthdays and realize how much I’ve changed over the years. Oh sure, our personalities, quirks, and even some habits remained ingrained in our make-up even decades later. But something happens to an individual growing older.


And you know what? Life can be hard. Oh yes – I know! Life can be very good. However, in my own life the more positive changes in who I am, occurred as the result of crisis and difficulties. One of the more frustrating things about “growing up”, however, is that our families won’t let go of who we were.

Think about it for a second. I left home at the age of 18-years-old. Many of you did the same, or perhaps even younger. Our parents, siblings, and close relatives who sat in the same pew as we did at church and attended the same high school football games, very likely have had very little participation in your growing up since that time. That’s what leaving home is all about. We make our own lives, invest ourselves in our own families, make mistakes, and grow. All this happens with very little influence of the people that were ONCE a major influence!

It’s very frustrating to me, however, to not be seen as who I AM around my family as they think I’m still who I WAS. I wasn’t the best big sister in the world. Having dealt with a number of emotional issues in my late teens, I can admit I wasn’t the best daughter in the world either. Now that I’m 45-years-old I don’t get to see my family nearly as often as I prefer. I have seen my sister 5 times since 1986. I have seen my brothers one time in the last 9 years. We all live in different states – spread out all across the U.S. I am able to see my parents at least once a year. However, I haven’t seen my grandparents since 1999 – which grieves me to no end bein’ they had such a major influence on my life in my developmental years. (Colorado is a long way off from Maryland). I was getting a bit aggravated when family members would make comments about me – even in a teasing fashion -as if I’m still the same person that I was. But then it hit me! How could they know who I AM, since they have not been involved in my life on a daily basis for the last 2 decades? The answer to that is that – they cannot!

As a result of this “middle of the night” epiphany, I began to ease out of feeling frustrated at not being able to leave my past – in the past – around my family. Worse? Try evolving into a person with an acquired disability when your family can only remember you “disability free”. I feel for them! It can be very hard to understand exactly what it may mean for you to live life on a daily basis – different now- solely because of an invisible disability or acquired chronic illness. For my immediate family members the process was gradual and progressive. They would be unable to pinpoint a point in time when I began to be who I AM. But for other friends and family members it can be very difficult to understand who you are now that acquired disability or invisible illness has changed you.

A young woman with fibromyalgia said: “I guess, where i’m very frustrated today, is, i’m having a fibro flareup, no doubt due to stress, i work at a bank, and we’re getting audited tomorrow, so checking, double checking, to make sure everything is just right, and i am so tight, and sore today, and NO ONE gets it, to look at me,i might look tired, but they just assume i’m ok, well, i’m NOT. It’s one of those diseases that no one can see that you have it, they have no idea how much pain we’re in, and they just assume everything is ok, and they don’t understand why I’m being so quiet, and they think i’m mad, and it is not that, i just feel like dirt” (Dannape, 2011).

Invisible illness with invisible symptoms are difficult to explain or even complain about. You LOOK fine.

On a hearing loss forum, 16-year-old Xatego explained:  “How do I deal with my family who claim they completely understand my hearing loss? I appreciate the fact that they were supportive and gave some of their time to look after me. But it annoys me when they like to think that they understand my hearing loss and the implications it has on my day to day life. I basically have a 90% loss of hearing. For example, my parents question my need to have subtitles when I’m watching TV. They say if only I watch TV without subtitles, it would reduce my need for it. I explained to them why, they didn’t listen. My cousin and I are basically the odd ones out of our whole family. He has severe autism and behind his back he is labeled by other relatives as the “crazy” one. I wonder what they call me since they treat me like an idiot. One of them even asked me if I was ‘still’ deaf. My sister and my mother gets irritated when I ask them to repeat their words. I get so frustrated; it’s not like I like having to ask them to repeat what they’re saying continually. When they say they understand.. They don’t. If you don’t have a hearing loss you don’t understand the way it cuts you off from people” (Xatego, 2011).

It can be really hard to explain what life is like for you when you are only beginning to understand it yourself.

Trying to Leave your Past – in the Past

Have you ever lived with someone who was losing weight? Someone with a great deal of weight to lose has learned that in order to keep it off, weight loss should be gradual with numerous lifestyle changes. The people who live with you may not SEE a lot of weight dropping off of you. But if a friend or family member came to visit who has not seen you in a long time, they are astonished at how different you look! I think it is the same for family members who spend time with me that have not seen me in a really long time. They are taken aback by the cochlear implant, hearing aid, and assistance dog. They remember who I WAS.

Earlier I asked if you were the same person you were when you were 10, 16, and 20-years-old. As for me? I didn’t really like who I was at any of those ages. Did you make stupid mistakes when you were younger? Did you ever make a decision that left long-term consequences? Ever feel as if you are wearing “scars” as the result of some past experience? I think some of the most crucial, vulnerable moments are in the weeks, months and years immediately following a firm decision to be DIFFERENT. An alcoholic may remember the day and time of their last drink – even if it was decades ago. But they will be the first to tell you that family and friends hurt by their alcoholism had a hard time believing “this time” was for real.

The ex-con will tell you that when they made 180 degree turn and CHANGED, their skeptical family and friends had a hard time believing it was for real!

The drug addict who is now free from the poisons they once put into their body will tell you that family and friends who had “seen it all” – wait around waiting for the other shoe to drop! For a significant amount of time everyone’s expectation is that the person will go back to being who they WERE.

Why do we long for people we love to break bad habits, yet make it hard for them to really do so? Why do we believe they will only fail again? In spite of testimonies of people who have gone on to serve in their communities and churches, raise families of their own, and be contributing, POSITIVE influences in their homes and workplaces, we who knew them “when” expect more of the same. Shame on us! I have seen God use people who were once drug addicts, alcoholics, and criminals in ways He could never use people who look perfect.

At some point in time these changed people made a choice.

and they never turned back.

Victor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves”. God uses hardship to change us. But our biggest skeptics may be those who love us best. We may be misunderstood and even spurned. You may feel as if your family cannot let go of who you were. But I’ll never be that needy, selfish, emotional basket-case of young womanhood again. My trials have made me strong. Angela Barron McBride once said, “Full maturity is achieved by realizing that you have choices to make”. I made choices. You’ve made choices. Hopefully we are ALL continuing to reach towards what being mature is all about! For the Christian, it is becoming more like Christ. We’ll never “get there” – but our goal should be to become more like Him day by day.

Because I’m not who I was 2 decades ago, I long to be the kind of person who believes that people who hurt me years ago are not who they were either. That sister-in-law you couldn’t stand? Twenty years may have changed her into someone you can now not only like – but love. That brother who was in and out of rehab and managed to drag the family through the disaster of three failed marriages may not be who he was. At what point do we believe the BEST of people? If God can change ME, He can change anyone. I’m not perfect… and I have not “arrived”. But I do like who I am. I wouldn’t change a thing. The process was (and IS) painful, but worth who I see in the mirror each day.

Try not to be aggravated when family members have trouble letting go of who you were. Time will tell – and if you are lucky? You may live to hear one of them say, “You aren’t who you were… you’ve changed!”

Dannape (2011, April 27). Fibromyalgia General Discussion. Message posted to “The Pain No One Sees”. Retrieved May 25, 2011, from http://www.fibromyalgia-symptoms.org/forums/Fibromyalgia_General_Discussion/The_pain_no_one_sees/
Xatego (2011, April). Yahoo Answers: People with disabilities. Message posted to “How do I deal with my family who claim they completely understand my hearing loss?” Retrieved May 25, 2011, from http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110424135942AA52fMB

Denise Portis

© 2011 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

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