Family Corner

Family Dynamics

Now that I’ve put off writing this particular topic for 10 years, I’m not sure it will be easier or harder to write. Let’s see how it goes…..

In observing individuals and families just after an injury occurs, someone told me – the person’s personality doesn’t change but certain qualities can become more dominant. An aggressive person exhibits even more aggressive behavior than before; a stubborn person is even more stubborn; and so on. The same could be said for the family unit as well. A close family becomes closer; parents having marital difficulties have even more now; separated families already struggling with maintaining balance find that harder to cope with.

At Shepherd Center, many of the other patients with Darren were young people like him. This was a big part of why we chose to go there in the first place. Many of the parents I met were already separated or divorced, the numbers probably reflecting the national statistics. It seemed quite high, actually, but so are the statistics. A child with a spinal cord injury puts additional burdens on an already difficult situation. I saw religious families draw on the strength of their faith to help themselves and others. I saw extended families pull together to support single moms. I saw otherwise “normal” families trying to do the best they could. I guess I would describe our family as pretty “normal” in the sense that my husband and I were married at the time of Darren’s injury for 23 years. We had two teenage children, lived in a nice house in the suburbs and worked hard for everything we earned. We envisioned great futures for our children and ourselves.

When an SCI happens, the world turns upside down, implodes and falls apart – all with a Doctor’s words of “your son will never walk again.” The enormity of those six words never lessens, never goes away entirely and is never forgotten. How do individuals and families cope with this? Of course, in many, many different ways.

In my experience and observations (the majority of the time, although there are exceptions), it is the mothers who stay strongest. I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist or even a counselor (although I do have a degree in Social Work!) so I make these comments strictly based on my own perceptions, but I think we women stay strongest. I think it is the maternal/nurturing/loving genes we have in our DNA. We love our children unconditionally and while we have hopes and dreams for them, they are exactly that – hopes and dreams for THEM. Fathers, while often the stoic, strong provider for the family, are not used to showing their unconditional love. They are used to praising and enjoying their child’s successes, and often hide their emotions except when tied to some event, accomplishment or sport. I’m not saying that fathers don’t love their children or don’t show their affection – they just do it differently than mothers.

When a catastrophic event like an SCI happens, especially in our case for father and son, my husband felt (and still feels, according to his own admission) that HIS hopes and dreams were ruined too. Of course, this issue is so very complex that I am merely scratching the surface here, even for our own family. This is a difficult and emotional topic, as painful memories of those first hours, days and months come flooding back. Tears that never ended and body wracking sobs that wouldn’t cease, one of us would muster the strength to support the other, whether it was my husband, daughter, mother, sister or friend. Someone had to step up, be strong and hold the others together. Over a long period of time, this became an emotional roller coaster. Who was having a good day? Who was having a bad day? Who could manage a smile or a laugh? Who was too emotionally drained to function? Each day (or sometimes each hour) someone would have to be the leader – understand what the doctors, nurses and therapists were talking about, make arrangements for things going on at home and at work, researching and learning, figuring out next steps. Time dragged on in some sense, but days somehow flew by, too. I recall feeling like either the whole world had stopped or it was spinning wildly out of control. There was no in-between. Sleep did not provide a refuge. It was restless at best with nightmares and uncontrollable sobs. A few hours of true rest would have been a gift.

During the difficult first weeks and months home, a routine had to be established, and in our case, family life had to be figured out. My husband had a business to run, and my daughter had to go to school (she was a high school junior the Fall that Darren arrived home). With a strong network of family and friends, the outward appearance of “getting back to normal” appeared to be happening.

But the strain on a marriage, relationships with and between teenagers, and the weight of it all was sometimes too much. How did we survive? I really don’t know. Some days I thought we were like 4 people who were strangers but living in the same house. Sometimes alliances formed and shifted: 1 against 3, 2 against 2 – ever shifting, ever changing. A delicate balance at best, but a toothpick falling could upset it all. As I write this, I don’t know if this is making any sense. I hope it is.

What I know is that we loved each other, and we figured out a way. Family dynamics is a balancing act in the best of situations. Coupled with a catastrophic event – wow, so much harder. Some marriages and families disintegrate. Some pull together. It takes communication, compromise, compassion and most of all love. Even with lots of love, some families don’t survive. It is a strange mix, always changing and evolving that enables some families to adjust, adapt and stay together. I am blessed and thankful that ours has. It hasn’t been easy, but a continuous journey of self-discovery, acceptance, and understanding has kept us together, finding our way together and remaining a family unit.