I’ve thought about writing about this topic more than once, and I’ve always chickened out. However, I was asked the other day for tips about coping with toxic people, including toxic family, and having had second, third and fourth thoughts, I’ve decided to go for it.
A few years ago I was making a phone call to my father. I intended to arrange a night out. A drink followed by dinner. I felt dreadful: churning stomach, sweaty hands, and headache alive and hammering.
I didn’t have the flu. It was pure nerves.
I was standing there and that’s when it hit me. I looked at myself and thought, “This is ridiculous. I’m not doing it anymore.”
I made a decision on the spot to end it. It wasn’t easy, and despite the apparent circumstances, it wasn’t a sudden one either. Our relationship had deteriorated over a period of years.
I’d tried to fix it several times but it was like talking to a brick wall. No matter how I tried, the barrage of lies, put downs, mind games and a whole load of other absolute poisonous crap that I won’t discuss here went on and on and on.
I’d kept going because I kept thinking that it would change, that it would get better.
But it didn’t and so I said, “Enough.”
Not making that call was huge for me. The moment I made that decision I felt absolutely awful. It’s hard to describe but it was a sense of failure, of utmost misery.
But you know what? I also felt huge relief.
I cried buckets, pure guilt, and then I got sensible. I thought it through and planned for the fall-out.
First, I had to cut ties. I worked out what I wanted to say the next time we spoke, and I practiced and practiced so I’d get it all out in one go, without being drawn into long debates.
I don’t remember the exact words but I was very brief and impersonal. It went something like, “We’ve not connected for a long time. Our meetings upset me. It is best for me to step back.”
The conversation took place over the phone and it took less than a minute. Afterwards I went through more a barrage of those same conflicting emotions but at that point the relief loomed larger than the rest.
Then when the news spread, I tackled the issues one by one.
My close family and friends understood as they’d seen for themselves what led up to it. Apart from, “We’re here if you want to talk” they were kind enough to leave me to it.
And when I got myself together, I did do a bit of talking. Still do, sometimes. I don’t think I could have done it without them and I’m forever grateful.
It was the people I didn’t know well who were a pain in the bum. I learned to cut off the well meaning ones by saying, “This is a private family matter I prefer not to discuss.”
The few who persisted got shorter shrift. “Mind your own business and I’ll mind mine” caused some red faces but I don’t regret it. Busybodies who want to second-guess and armchair moralise are best kept at arm’s length.
The most difficult thing was that some more distant family and friends complained. I had some very difficult conversations with them but I realised very quickly that they were mainly bitching out of fear.
I’m afraid this is very common in these situations: they knew I'd dealt with a lot of shit and if I stepped back, it might fall on them. Once you realise what’s behind the, “Why can’t we just go back to the way we used to be?” it’s easier to stick to your guns.
So, am I happier? Was it the right decision?
I do feel grief over What Might Have Been. And sometimes I play that, “What if I’d said this instead of that?” But on balance it was right to walk away. For me the answer is yes.
Is it right for you? I don’t know. What I would say is this: think it over. Wave a magic wand and ask, “What would life be like if...?” and think it through.
As this is my blog, and I’m a counsellor, I’d say that if you need to, it can help to talk it all through with someone like me.
If you don’t want to hire me, my advice would be to pick someone who has experience of abuse and domestic violence cases. People who’ve been up at the sharp end tend to be better at talking through all the possibilities of dealing with toxic relationships.
Also, avoid therapists who are committed to ‘saving’ relationships. You want someone who wants the best for you, not someone who wants you to live according to a pattern they think is nice.
And having said all that, Happy New Year. May 2018 bring you health, happiness and lots of laughter.
Image by Arek Socha