Dealing with a Toxic Family Relationships can be a Lifelong Challenge


Erin Holve

Graphic made by Erin Holve

It’s utter chaos in the moment. My shoulders make contact with my ears in a child-like attempt to stop the tumultuous world around me. In a way I am a child in these moments. Desperate to make the world organized like a dollhouse I would play with. 

A perfect family of four in a house where everything has its place and nothing is wrong. My mother and brother aren’t codependent. No one is gaslighting the other person in a futile attempt for control. 

The result of a tempestuous and destructive first marriage. A mother who feels unnecessary guilt and a son who feels stunted and unable to grow in the world. They clutch onto each other in an attempt to make the other whole. 

In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Raychelle Cassada Lohmann explains what codependency and the complex and interwoven relationship that exists between parent and child. 

“Codependency is a learned behavior that can be passed from one generation to another,” Lohmann said. “It is also known as ‘relationship addiction’ because it is an emotional and behavioral state that affects a person’s ability to sustain a healthy, meaningful and fulfilling relationship.” 

Codependent relationships often have issues pertaining to low self-esteem, a need for control, an excessive need to please others, anxiety and/or stress, extreme worry, not feeling good enough, difficulty making decisions and a fear of being alone. 

Those descriptions fill in the gaps of understanding for my father and I. We standby hoping to help but not knowing what to do. We are avoiders of conflict, scattering like cockroaches when light disturbs their juncture of darkness. 

We desire conversation without shouting. To have emotion but not let it loose upon the world like an untamable wind. This wish for calm is seen as emotionless like the stoic face of an old victorian doll. 

Our emotionless doll masks, an attempt to hide the heightened anxiety that buzzes through our bodies. A desperate way to keep order when there is none to be found. An unwilling passenger of a boat adrift in a sea preparing for an oncoming cloudburst.  

The family is drowning in a growing storm of toxicity. My father and I often feel powerless to stop the raging tempest before us. The wind howling like a lost wolf to the moon as waves that share the same ocean batter each other for control. 

Eventually they will destroy themselves and all that will be left is the seafoam from their turbulent standoff. In cruel indifference, my father and I will rejoice in our tiny boat, buoyed by hope and desperation for peace. 

My hand dips into the now calm waters to pick up the seafoam. I clutch what’s left of the fight hoping to keep that calm float, but eventually all the bubbles will burst, leaving my hand empty. 

All that remains is a soapy kind of residue that will serve to remind me that families are far more complex and dysfunctional than any of us admit. The whimsical veil of my childhood lifted so I can more clearly see the truth.

My beloved brother seems to be the linchpin to our families explosive destruction. A fun, smart, and loving underwater mine. Unaware of his explosive capabilities until touched. 

His charm, authority and intelligence are used to conceal his need for control. These characteristics used to make us feel small, confused and unsure of our own thoughts and actions. 

I don’t think my brother is ever maliciously trying to gaslight or manipulate us. It’s almost like an uncontrollable compulsion he has. Like a child so scared of the world changing around them that they throw a tantrum in an attempt to be heard. A desperate ploy for the status quo to remain. 

Hands clutching around our necks in a wretched endeavor to make sure we don’t leave him in a world he doesn’t know how to exist in on his own. Not understanding that he is slowly suffocating the ones trying to help him. 

He uses bravado to camouflage his fears and blames us for his sense of failure. To confront that he is his own enemy is too much to bear. Instead he must accuse another for his ruin. 

Licensed psychoanalyst and an associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Robin Stern explains the concept of gaslighting in an article for Vox. Stern comments that gaslighting is“the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings.” When gaslighting is left unchecked it can have devastating and long-term impacts on your emotional, psychological and even physical well-being. 

The gaslighter tears down someone else in order to deflect responsibility while keeping that other person hooked in their desperation to please another person. They may not even know they are being strategic or manipulative in their actions due to a lack of self-awareness. Gaslighters can change, but it takes a lot of work and a willingness to change. 

While I’ve had moments of disdain for my brother from time to time, I have never hated him. It took time to realize, as I became an adult, that there was no hiding from the complexity and fragility of my brother. 

He influenced a lot of who I have become. A beautifully, intricately weaved tapestry of music, politics, art, literature, comedy and empathy. Threads that both connect and pass each other by as I struggle to figure out who I am in this world. 

I love this tapestry but I also drag my hand along it’s length feeling all the moth eaten rips and tears. Gaping holes left behind from rifts in our relationship. The torn apart strings briefly touching but never reconnecting. 

The damage already done, no repairs to be made—no clean breaks but ragged edges. These threads soaked up the tears and muffled the shouts within our household. 

It’s strange to love someone so much but also hate them. To see so much potential and continually be disappointed. Mental illness has the ability to turn the whole family dynamic on its head. 

One of the hardest parts of dealing with a toxic family member is that they are suffering from their own mental health problems that often have been left undiagnosed. My brother spent many years of his life dealing with ADHD, Bipolar disorder and some forms of OCD without any of us knowing, himself included. 

He’s finally getting help to deal with these mental health problems, but they won’t be magically fixed. They will be life-long and require constant work. Our family will continue to have moments of toxicity.

Small, random chaotic storms that will pummel our little boat of safety, but will hopefully never break. We send out a buoy to help tug him to shore but can’t give him a seat upon our ship until he has been baptized of his toxicity.   

Erin Holve can be reached at [email protected] and @Erin_Holve on Twitter.