What Makes a Family a Family?

Is it enough to have friends in your life? Or do you need to have a family? Can your friends be your family?

My dreams of late have been bothering me because I keep dreaming about my family, and it’s always either hurtful or incomplete, or both. I dream of being excluded and insulted and having to go through some very difficult moments on my own. My family is always just out of reach or completely unresponsive. I wake up feeling more alone than ever.

Before I continue I should probably clarify that when I say my family, I actually mean my relatives. Because I don’t quite consider these people family, not anymore. However, since I do share history and I guess on some level we share DNA, so then technically I am related to them, and they to me. I haven’t spoken to any of them in years so calling them family just feels wrong.

I guess I should start with what I consider family. This has been very hard for me to handle because I was raised that your family are the people you are related to. At a later time, members are added to the family by marriage and birth, and it just keeps growing as people age, until people start dying. So your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters, your aunts and uncles, and your cousins, are the family members until people start getting married and having kids of their own.

Friends can be family, sort of. They may join in on certain celebrations or holidays, depending on their relationship with the family. The more people that know (and like) these friends-slash-family members, the more they are considered part of the family. However, they are few, and most friends of other family members rarely graduate to family status.

As I grew up I assumed that all families behaved the same. The ways they would, or wouldn’t interact with each other, the topics they would, or wouldn’t discuss with the family, and the traditions they followed, were all pretty standard from family to family. Most of my friends had pretty much the same experiences with their relatives as I did, so this only further confirmed for me that the way my family was, the way my relatives were, was pretty normal. And in some ways, they were.

And then I started to question things. Against what I knew would become a pretty bumpy road, and a majorly sensitive topic, I started to doubt that maybe things weren’t that normal after all. Maybe the way our family was, was not how families should be. It never felt off to me exactly, I just know it never felt right either.

It always felt so fake and forced. And as I got older I started to dislike family functions less and less, until finally I managed to convince my mom, with great resistance on her part, that I didn’t have to go if I didn’t want to. Her and I fought for years on this, and she never ceased to let me know how disappointed in me she was that I would be so rude and defiant to her and our family. Ahem, excuse me, my relatives.

At first I was able to use working as a reason not to go, and having to go in to work afforded me the cushion of avoiding spending time with my relatives and not having to get into it with my mom and how I was single-handedly destroying the universe. This worked most of the time, until I didn’t have to work one time, and I still said I wasn’t going.

Blasphemous, I know.

I stood my ground though, and once I was old enough, and whether I had to work or not, and I knew that she couldn’t force me to go, I stopped going. Full stop. And I didn’t care what they thought. Who even knew what they thought anyway because no one certainly ever talked about things like that. The topics of discussion were always neutral–how was work, what do you think of the weather, is it baseball season–what anyone actually thought, or felt, was never discussed. Unless you felt it was too cold, and you felt it should be baseball season by now.

The departure from spending holidays and birthdays with my relatives was pretty easy for me. I missed talking to one or two of them but mostly I just enjoyed my new freedom. This was when I first started to really question, what did it mean to have a family? Did you have to have a family? Was it mandatory to have a family? What made a family a family?

Is a family a family because you are related to them? And if you’re not related by blood, does that still count as family? What if you’re adopted? What if you don’t have aunts and uncles and cousins? What if you don’t have any siblings? Is there a minimum number of members to the family required to be called a family? And what if you don’t like your family? Related or not. Blood or not. What if you think they are awful people? Should you still call them family? Do you have to?

And what about friends? What about the people that are not related to you that you do like? What about the people who you do care what they think? And the people you can talk to, about more than the weather and sports? Can you call them family?

For so long I felt confused because I had people I was related to that I wasn’t that fond of, I would even go so far as to say I didn’t like them, and they were “family”. And then I had people that I was not related to, that I really liked, some of them I loved, and yet they weren’t technically “family”. So what makes a family a family?

So often I hear how ‘family is everything’ and that your family is basically your whole world, and people saying they would do everything for their family, and how much they love, and like, their families, and I feel so excluded and sad because I don’t feel that about my family, or rather, my relatives. I don’t feel like my relatives are everything, not by a long shot. And I know I wouldn’t do anything for them, and nor would they for me. I know that for a fact.

I started feeling like something must really be wrong with me, and I never should have started asking questions, or pulling the threads of the family ties that felt loose and out of place, because now everything has unravelled and I am left without family. Should I have maintained the status quo, no matter how fake and forced it was, in order to have a “family”?

For years I brushed off the idea of family that so many people talk about as being a utopian world of happiness as something that I will just never have. I decided I would make my family the way I wanted my family to be. I had my mom and my brother, who I never stopped considering as family, and over the years I added my husband and some of his family, and a few of my friends, and they were my family. They still are.

The only problem is…I keep dreaming of my relatives. And it nags me. It bothers me that they have invaded my dreams. And it bothers me that it bothers me. I can’t shake that they are in my thoughts and like it or not, there are some shared things between myself and them, and not just DNA, for however deep or generational that goes. There’s a shared history and some great memories that I wouldn’t otherwise have had I not been spending time with my relatives.

I don’t know if I will ever see or talk to them again. I’m not totally sure if I even want to. If they weren’t related to me I wouldn’t have anything else with these people. To me, that just isn’t family. To me, family is warm. Even thinking of your family should make you feel warm. Family means compassion and kindness. Family means support and encouragement. Family means life is that much better. And with my relatives, that isn’t there. It never has been.

Family is there when you need them. If anyone should be there when all is said done, it’s family. They are there in dark moments and bright ones, and not because they have to be there, because they want to be there. They leave home early to help you move. They get home late because you needed to talk just a little bit longer. They lose sleep for you and cancel other plans if you are in crisis. You can rely on them, and they can rely on you. They know who you are as a person and what you like, and you know them, not just by name and family rank, but by their likes and dislikes, their interests and their hobbies, their values and their beliefs.

It’s not perfect and always harmonious, nothing is, but you feel more positive feelings than negative ones when you think of your family.

There is a mutual respect between you and them, and they like what kind of person you are, and you like them too. There is an honesty and an openness that no matter what mistakes you make, they will still be there for you, and they will always love you. They care about what happens to you, and you care about what happens to them. They are a part of your life.

That, to me, is a family. And I firmly believe, now, more than ever, that family is whomever you want it to be. If you’re lucky you’re born into a family that feels like family. If not, that’s okay too, it just means you haven’t met who will be your family yet. Family can be people you’re related to or not, or they can be the family you create with the people you love and care about, it really doesn’t matter. If they feel like family, then they are.

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Creating a Distress Tolerance Kit

As anyone who struggles with anxiety, overwhelming thoughts, and overwhelming emotions, and panic attacks knows, there are many times when it feels like the mind has gone bye-bye and has taken logical, helpful thinking with it. In moments of distress, regardless of what triggered them, it can feel like torture. It can feel like the whole world is falling apart, that nothing is safe, and it’s very possible that you might die.

These feelings and thoughts can be paralyzing. I have a very hard time thinking clearly and being able to cope, self-soothe, or distract, can be challenging.

There are some days where I can use “Cope Ahead” from DBT to try and reduce the anxiety by preparing ahead of certain situations where my anxiety or a panic attack can be triggered. Some days though, coping ahead isn’t as effective as I would like it to be, or I didn’t think the anxiety would be so bad so I didn’t cope ahead at all. And some days the anxiety or panic attack hits with no reason or warning at all.

In order to try and reduce my anxiety, no matter where I am, I created a portable distress tolerance kit. It’s small enough I can carry it in my bag so I have it with me pretty much all of the time. At any given time I know where it is. In fact, I have even created a second kit with most of the same items to put in the other bag I use, just in case I forget to take the first one when I switch using bags.

I highly recommend creating a distress tolerance kit for yourself for when anxiety hits, and keeping it somewhere that you can easily get to it when needed, even carrying it with you for when anxiety hits while on the go. Create several kits if you need them and keep them any- and everywhere you may need to use it. Create one for at home, in your car, at work, in your bag, and even at a family or friends place. If you trust them to tell them what it is and what it’s for, of course.

Creating yourself a kit is super easy and can be low-cost too. I created mine by going to the dollar store and altogether I spent less than $20. There are tons of options that can be used for a distress tolerance kit.

Starting with the pouch, which can be any size and basically anything that can hold your little toys or puzzles or whatever. I found my little red pouch in the craft section of the dollar store. Really anything purse or pouch-like can be used. It all depends on how portable you need it to be and how many items you want to carry. You could use a little purse, a coin/change purse, a pencil case, even a sealable sandwich bag could work. If you keep a kit at home, find a pretty box or container you can use to hold your items. Be creative and check toy stores, dollar stores, clearance sections, housewares, crafts and stationary sections too.

As for the items to go into the kit, it is entirely up to you and your needs. Be creative and whenever you find something that helps you, no matter what it is, add it to the kit. Toy sections are an incredibly rich source for little toys and gadgets you can fidget or play with. Even the baby section can have a great selection of items that you can use to soothe or distract you when feeling anxious. Google ideas, too.

This is my distress tolerance kit, and what is included:
– small drawstring pouch
– mini slinky toy
– two small pointy toys
– squishy ball
– silly putty
– small soft mitten

This is the small drawstring pouch

This is the squishy ball (it’s rubber with water inside, and please ignore the fuzzy stuff that got stuck to it, it’s from the inside of the bag)

This is my mini slinky

These are my two pointy toys that I like to fidget with

This is my silly putty (store inside its egg to keep soft)

This is my mitten (it was, of course, a pair of baby mittens, I like to fidget with them because they are so soft)

This is a mini wooden puzzle. (I got this from a Toy Store called Masterminds. I like to fidget with this when I need something more challenging for my mind than just a pointy toy. But apparently, my skill level does not allow me to figure this stupid thing out so I don’t use it a lot.)

This is a mini Rubik’s cube

This is a mini Word Search book

I got all of these items, except for the wooden puzzle, at a dollar store. The wooden puzzle I got from a toy store called Masterminds. And like I said above, the whole kit, including the toy from the toy store, cost me about $20.

These are just some examples that you can use but whatever you find helps distract you and cope could be totally different. I recommend keeping the items small so you can carry them with you, if needed. Sometimes when I’m going out and I’m not carrying a bag I’ll just take the silly putty with me so if I need to fidget I have it on me.

Just remember whatever items you use are what will help you when you need it. It doesn’t matter if they don’t make sense or are not things that right off the bat seem like they will help. If fidgeting with a pencil helps you, then carry a pencil. If you like the way a fluffy little toy feels and helps to soothe you, then get the toy. If fidgeting with a bottle cap helps, then keep a bottle cap on you. It’s you and your needs you’re looking after.

I also have a rock that I like to fidget with and helps me do observe and describe, so yes, I have a rock in my pocket too.

Remember that whatever you decide to use, whether on their own, or collectively as a kit, should be accessible for when you need them. This means keeping them where you can find them and being able to use them because if you’re experiencing high anxiety or panic attack, you most likely won’t be thinking very clearly, so seeing and accessing the items should be easy and fast.

I add and take away items as needed too, so feel free to explore what helps you and rotate or replace items as you need it. You may be in a panic attack when you discover something that didn’t work, try and think to that moment and how you can have something else on hand to help you the next time. I thought a word search book would work for me but one day it didn’t I preferred something I could just fidget with, and so I discovered the silly putty helped.

Having a distress tolerance kit has helped me on many occasions. I do still have anxiety and panic attacks, and a few times I forgot I had the stuff, so it’s not foolproof nor will it totally take the anxiety away. I wish. It does help though. A lot. My anxiety has been reduced by having toys to fidget with, and I have avoided several panic attacks because of them too. Having several items can also help for days when your never know what can help. Sometimes I’m positive the slinky will help but it doesn’t, the toy helps, and other times the toy doesn’t help but the silly putty does.

Sometimes just knowing I have stuff with me can help.

I highly recommend taking the time, as much as needed, and creating your own distress tolerance (anxiety/panic attack) kit. And when you can, don’t leave home without it!

Good luck!

I Just Know That I Am Not Okay

Every now and then I feel so alone I can honestly feel my heart breaking.

My throat starts to ache and tears well in my eyes and I feel empty inside.

I know that I am not alone. I have family and friends, and I am thankful for that. I don’t always feel it.

There are moments, like this one, where I don’t feel like I have family or friends. They might be there but they aren’t really there. Not really. They have their own lives and their own issues that they have to deal with. That’s just the way it goes. I get that. Life can be crazy and people can’t always be there when you need them.

I hope that I matter but I’m not sure that I do. In a more lucid moment I would say that’s the trauma from my childhood but this isn’t a lucid moment. This is a moment of darkness where I feel alone.

I feel totally alone. There is no one I can turn to and have them there. Right there. In that moment. When I need them.

I don’t know why someone can’t be there. I don’t know if they want to or not. I don’t know if they even try. I’m not them, so I don’t know.

I just know that I am not okay and it sucks to be alone.

Change: Those Who Do and Those Who Don’t

Why do I keep trying? Time after time, year after year, I keep trying. Why? What for? What am I really getting out of it? Anything? Change is hard. Really, really, really, super hard. It’s almost near impossible at times. And despite how hard it is to change, I still try. Why? This got me thinking about why I keep trying for something that is so hard and has no guarantee of success. It also got me thinking about why some people don’t change, or even try.

I can only speculate why others don’t change, or try. So speaking for myself, the simplest answer I can give as to why I keep trying to change myself is, I am not okay with the alternative.

The alternative, if I don’t make changes and everything stays the same, means I stay miserable and in pain and in some very dark places. It means having dark, disordered thoughts. It means having my emotions overwhelm me. It means having no energy and no motivation. It means feeling alone and terrified. It means feeling trapped and paralyzed. It means keeping toxic people in my life. It means hating myself. It means being completely closed off from everything. And it means sometimes wanting to take my own life.

And for me, that is not okay. Frankly, it’s unacceptable. I don’t want any part of that. It’s an awful place to be and an awful feeling to have. It’s barely an existence let alone a life, and I want more. I want better. I want to be okay. And unfortunately, the only way to get there is to change.

It’s not always a noble cause. Sometimes I try to change because I think it’s what I should do. Sometimes I try to change because I think it’s what others want. Sometimes I even try to change because I just don’t know what else to do. Mostly though, I do it for me, because like I said, the alternative, to me, is much, much worse than what goes into changing.

Change isn’t for everybody. Some people are so afraid of it that they don’t even consider it. It’s just too much. I can appreciate that fear. Change can mean losing your home, your family, your friends, and everything you’ve known. How can that not scare a person? We’re often blindsided by big changes that we have no control over, and they can be overwhelming and painful. Real change is super hard. Especially when it involves thoughts and behaviours that are so ingrained in us they feel as though they are permanent. It takes loads of time and a lot of effort to change.

Which leads me to why I think some people don’t change. Or try. They just live in their darkness and struggle trying to make it through the day. They live with their disordered thinking and false beliefs without trying to learn their truth. And I have to admit, this baffles me. Why would people want to live like this? Why would anyone want to stay like this? Why wouldn’t people want to change? Why would anyone want to stay in such a miserable, awful, painful place of mental illness? It doesn’t make sense to me.

And therein lies the first problem to this judgmental thinking. Trying to make sense of it. Trying to apply any logic to ourselves, our thoughts, our emotions, or our behaviours, especially when they are disordered and dysfunctional, can be a frustrating and fruitless endeavour, and it may or may not help. The second problem is, just because someone lives day-to-day just trying to make it through, doesn’t mean they want to live like this. And the last problem is, a lot of people do want to change, but it’s scary and hard to change, and that can definitely be enough to stay our hand.

The days when I find change is just as hard as you think it is, and efforts that I have made to change are playing hide and seek with me, I am reminded of why someone might not want to change. When I think of the resistance, and in some cases the avoidance, of wanting to change, I think of my mom. The queen of no change. As far as I’m concerned anyway.

She not only didn’t try to change, she never gave an inkling of indication that she ever wanted to. Here’s where a lot of my judgment comes in. Because I believe she had to know things weren’t right. She was smarter than she gave herself credit for, she had to feel that something wasn’t right. Why on earth would she want to stay in her mind as it is? Swarming with low self-esteem, horrific lies about her worth, and trauma that she never was able to process, and she chooses to stay there? Why?

These are all assumptions on my part. Only my mom knows what she knows. Maybe she did know she could change, maybe she didn’t. Maybe she was too afraid of it, or maybe she felt she didn’t deserve it. I can certainly relate to either of those beliefs.

In my moments of compassion, empathy and understanding I am able to realize that change is terrifying and change is hard and no matter what some might say, wanting to change is not enough. Efforts to change can go on for years and even then there is no guarantee that things will get better. Change can mean digging very deep into memories and emotions that can be extremely painful.

Digging deep can mean seeing things in a harsh perspective that we might not be ready for or want to see. There may be some truths that we don’t want to know. There may be some lies we that don’t want to challenge. Digging deep can change how we see people and question our relationship with them. Digging deep can even change how we see ourselves. And this can mean making changes to our life that scare us and we might not be ready for it because it may mean leaving someone or removing them from our life, and this can be very hard. It can even feel like we can’t. We may not even be sure if we want to. It’s a tough situation. And to everyone it’s personal.

Despite how awful and painful mental illness can be it’s familiar. And we take comfort in the familiar. We like routine even if the routine is hurting us. It’s just something we do. You can try to pick apart why but I don’t recommend it.

For some people change is just not in the cards. For some, they will choose willingly not to change. They just don’t, or won’t, want to go there. It’s just too scary. For some, they may want to change, badly, but the fear is just too great. For some, change is the only way, no matter how much it may hurt.

I try to remember that change isn’t for everybody and what someone else is willing to face is really up to them. For me I keep trying and hope like hell it happens. To be honest, I have come a long way from where I was, and some things have changed so it makes me want to keep trying and keep changing. It tells me that more change, and for the better, is possible.

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why some people don’t even try to make things better. I guess that’s not really my call. I can only take care of me and hope for the best even if it means making changes that hurt. And I will try to keep having patience and understanding for those who don’t, or won’t, and hope for the best for them as well. It’s really all I can do.