My cousin is 16, and apparently going through a crisis. She hates college, skips classes and has spoken to my grandmother often of hating her life and not enjoying anything any more. My grandmother is in bits about this and has tried to talk to my cousin’s mother, her daughter, about getting her some help. However, my aunt’s response has been, “She’s not going to turn out mental like the rest of you people.” (Other members of the family, including me and my grandmother, have had mental health problems.)
My cousin enjoys watching videos and playing video games, but her parents have banned them and see them as an example of her laziness. She is not sleeping either, so her constant exhaustion is taken as yet more evidence of laziness.
What terrifies me is that this is what my mother did to me, and I can only see it getting worse. When I began self-harming in my teens, my mum also banned me from my one hobby, screamed at me when I had a panic attack and slapped me when she found out I had self-harmed.
I had problems with substance abuse and dropped out of school. I moved away from home as soon as I could.
I am now in my mid-20s, and not close to anyone in my family apart from my grandmother. I have now moved somewhere else and, although I don’t see my parents, I am in contact with them. I haven’t seen my cousin for a few years and have no contact details for her. Anyway, I am not sure how, “Hi, I know we haven’t spoken in years but you remind me of me” would go down. I am trying to help my grandmother find a way to talk to my aunt in a manner that won’t enrage her, but my grandmother is a very non-confrontational person and, as much as she is trying to help my cousin, having to confront my aunt has only resulted in my grandmother being screamed at and threatened with losing contact with her grandchild.
I don’t know how to help my grandmother or my cousin, but I feel as if I have to do something, or history may repeat itself.
That you have come so far from a very toxic and unsupportive environment is incredible and a real credit to your strength of character.
It is great that you are so caring about your cousin and grandmother, but I think there is a lot of over-identifying going on. Your cousin doesn’t sound as if she is in a great place, but the facts pertaining to her were thin. The rest of your letter was about your experiences within the family and your fears of what might happen. I am not trying to minimise how you feel, or what is happening in the slightest – but the key is to separate the different strands so you can work on the right bits at the right time.
I consulted Stuart Hannah, a child and adolescent psychotherapist (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), who said: “The news about your cousin is filtered through your grandmother, via her daughter [your aunt].”
News filtered through people who have their own agenda or narratives can get distorted and then there is less likelihood of anyone getting the help and support that is right for them.
I disagree that it is not worth contacting your cousin: I think you should get in touch. Sure, if you go in there with “you remind me of me” that may not be conducive to further communication. But if you make a different sort of contact, more of a general “hi”, and see what happens, that may be really helpful to her in time (don’t expect miracles straight away). After all, you are not that much older than her, a mere decade, and you share a grandmother. There should be lots of other things to talk about so she feels she has someone to talk to if she feels like it – so it’s about her agenda, not anyone else’s.
It sounds as if you have a lot of issues you haven’t dealt with yourself and I wonder if you have some support (apart from your grandmother). If you do, you could come at this situation with less of your own baggage and would be better able to support your grandmother.
I don’t know what the conversations with your grandmother are like, but Hannah counsels: “How can you offer [your grandmother] something different? Something that isn’t judgmental or blaming [that she seems to get from her daughter]. You can listen from a neutral place. Don’t go down the slagging-off route [if you do], and suspend judgment of family members. If you can hear your grandmother’s experience, that may in turn help her listen to her daughter.”
Being empathic is great – however, if we over-identify with a situation (and both you and your grandmother might be), then the danger is, when we hear about something similar we can start to overlay our own experiences on to this new situation. This stops us seeing what is really going, and it imbues everything with extra emotion.
I think, given everything you have said, there is an element of trying to save your younger self, and that’s laudable, but there is a limit to how much you can do. You may also find this website helpful:
This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 7 April 2017.