By Mark E. Smith
A friend and I were eating at a fast-food joint when a couple sat at the table beside us.
The woman nicely said, “I forgot napkins.”
The guy burst out in anger, calling her filthy names, noting over and over how “stupid” she was.
Yet, she was unfazed by the verbal abuse.
My friend and I were mortified, noting if he does that in public, can you fathom the abuse at home?
“That’s learned behavior,” my friend said. “I guarantee you they both were raised in abusive homes.”
My friend was undoubtedly right. When you come from a realm of dysfunction – albeit, addiction, abuse, divorce, and so on – as a child, you’re four times as likely to live these as an adult, according to the National Institute on Health.
It’s the nature of the beast that psychologists call classical conditioning – learned ways become innate behaviors that go unquestioned by us. Put simply, if you’re raised by a verbally abusive parent, you’re likely to verbally abuse others or accept being verbally abused.
Interestingly, circus elephants are a perfect (but sad) example of this. Elephants are gigantic creatures led around by tiny tethers. They could break free in an instant, but they don’t? Why?
As babies, circus elephants are restrained, where, as hard as they try, they can’t escape. Although they grow to enormous strength, that early conditioning makes them innately believe that they’re forever restrained, even by a shoe-lace-thick line.
The fact is, we’re not much different than elephants, where extremely unhealthy treatment becomes innate behaviors. Family legacies can be wonderful; yet they can also destroy us when unhealthy. However, we truly don’t have to live unhealthy legacies – we can break free of their torturous tethers. No, we don’t see a lot of people do it because it takes so much, literally being so self-aware and courageously strong that you’re willing to question that which is all you know.
I grew up under extremely unhealthy circumstances, and while I was fortunate enough to question them – and that’s the only way to break free of a toxic legacy – I wasn’t totally successful at breaking free of them. I married an addict in my 20s. By my 30s, I knew my daughter was in deep trouble having a parent along the lines of my own, and I had to do two steps to hopefully pull her as far away as I could from that destructive legacy. Firstly, I had to get my ex-wife out of the home. But, secondly – and more importantly – I had to somehow help my daughter dispose of what she innately knew of addiction and cut that as her legacy. She had to do what many people never want to do – namely because it’s so painful – and question why her mom did what she did.
My daughter is now in college, and beyond all of her amazing accomplishments, the one I’m most inspired by is the courage she’s investing in breaking free of a dysfunctional legacy and creating another of self-awareness and emotional health. As a psychology major, she’s investing not just in her coursework and community, but in herself. The candor and awareness – sometimes the struggle – that I see in her papers is breathtaking:
I hid behind the white bedroom door at around 9 p.m. on that weeknight. I had school the next morning. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling as I stared into Dad’s dark brown eyes, both waiting for the police and my aunt to arrive. Yet, I’d never seen my father’s heart more heavy than in that moment. It was clearly a breaking point of fear and guilt and decision.
On the other side of this – the emotions, the door – was my mother. She was on the other side of that door, kitchen knife in hand, trying to get in, to get us. At that point, I realized that I had lost my mother for good to addiction.
The realities of addiction were imprinted on me – forever. They started when I was three, escalated in my adolescence, and remain chilling today when I have the strength to think about them.
…As for my mother, she’s no longer battling addiction, but in hospice dying from it – a mind and body destroyed. As for me, I’m still battling her addiction as part of my past, but with a better understanding not to make it part of my own future, but to help those where there’s still hope to break the cycle. That’s the best I can do with my legacy of addiction.
See, that’s the key to untethering ourselves from potentially life-destroying legacies: If we question them, it’s impossible to relive them. What happens if a 6,000lb grown elephant questions its tether? It breaks free. There’s a moment where we, too, can break free in realizing we don’t have to live that way – we can be larger than our pasts.