I heard recently that our life can be seen as a book, with many different chapters. That is true in my life.
For some people, their book contains romance and a happy ending. For others, it is a lengthy novel filled with twists and turns, with the protagonist finally getting her due toward the end. And yet other stories start out simply, infused with some drama, until – there comes a plot twist that no one expected — like finding out all along that it was the butler who did it.
My life falls into all three.
I lived happy times in my childhood. Later, I navigated many twists and turns. Characters at the beginning of my story eventually disappear, having no more dialogue. Family secrets are discovered. A good guy who becomes a villain is avenged. Then finally, romance. And a hero.
My story is still being written. There have been struggles, but also victories and resolutions. Yet there have been a few unhappy endings this past year.
Most of the time, the challenges in our stories don’t have as much to do with us as they do with the other characters. It is the relationships that can be the most difficult. When trying to finish one chapter, you may realize that the antagonist you have been fighting is someone in your own family.
It becomes a crazy storyline. Making your way chapter after chapter, you hope for someone to believe you. That you are not alone. You don’t want people to see you as irrational and unreasonable. In my case, it was ten years that no one really understood my frustration. Some said that I just needed to be more patient and understanding.
When it comes to family relationships that are hard to navigate, there are three books that I can highly recommend that will help you write better endings. One book I have referred to before is Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
This is a book that you want to keep on hand as a reference when you need help and encouragement when struggling with someone that is overstepping your boundaries time after time.
After reading Boundaries, I gained a new understanding of my situation. Now, even if other family members disagree, I am assured that I am not crazy, irrational, or unreasonable. I still have many of my own faults to work on, but the important part is that “it’s not all my fault.”
After the Boundaries book, I read When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom from Toxic People by Gary Thomas. Thomas has authored many other books on marriage and relationships, which are excellent. When I saw this title, I knew it would be worth the read, even if it didn’t perfectly fit my situation. How wrong I was.
The revelations began early in the book. Thomas says, “The challenge is that there’s no one exhaustive definition of a toxic person. Certain traits are common: They are often ruled by selfishness and spite. They are usually draining instead of encouraging, and they use people instead of loving them. They are often seemingly addicted to self-righteous, rash judgments and thus frequently fight with people instead of enjoying and appreciating people. They may be jealous of healthy people’s peace, family, and friendships and spend much of their time and effort trying to bring people down to their level of misery rather than blessing others with joy and encouragement. They often want to control you, and it may feel as if they just want you to stop being you.”
This was a dead-on definition of my own mother. I realized then that I had been dealing with a toxic person for many years.
I also incorrectly assumed that Thomas, a pastor, would use the “Bible card.” His definition of “walking away” would be explained with pat answers and verses about relationships, and how as Christians, we need to love others and learn to resolve the relationship.
Thomas does use Scripture, but instead, it is to give its true meaning and solidify the case that even as Christians, we are not required to stay with or put up with toxic people.
This book is hopeful as well as helpful; a must-read if you have difficult family situations.
Another book is by Dr. Sherrie Campbell: But It’s Your Family: Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members and Loving Yourself in the Aftermath. Thomas’s book explains toxicity and identifying it; Campbell’s book is an excellent companion. She tells of her own trouble with her toxic mother and how she resolved it, sharing the hope that there is the possibility of bringing closure to toxic family relationships.
As Campbell explains about the “covert toxicity” of her mother, it is another lightbulb moment for me:
“When people are covertly toxic, they are masters at feigning innocence, of playing the victim, pretending to be less fortunate than others, and claiming that life has treated everyone better than it has treated them. Their emotional abuse is done in a secretive, undetectable manner where it’s impossible to notice what’s happening until it’s too late. Anytime we try and confront covertly toxic family members, they are utterly appalled we would ever think they could do any of the things we’re questioning them about. They immediately insinuate that we’re the crazy ones.”
Campbell’s situation was the same as many people – you recognize the toxicity – but this is your family.
In the chapter “What About God?” Campbell defers to Sister Renee Pittelli, author of The Christian’s Guide to No Contact. Pittelli gives insight into forgiving toxic family members while understanding that no matter how much love and respect is given to that family member, it’s doubtful that it will ever be reciprocated. She also explains that although the Bible says we are to honor our parents (Exodus 20:12), that does not mean staying in contact. Separating yourself means that you are honoring your parents’ right not to change and to live as they wish.
My story includes challenging chapters, but learning what I have from these books has been the wisdom I needed to move forward. There were hard decisions that helped to remove daily negativity, stress, and tension.
In my story, the protagonist will survive. She becomes wiser and more resolute, although a little battered and bruised for a time. She is ready to tackle the future with new resolve.
And yes, there is a hero.
Disclosures: This review was originally posted on my previous blog, Muses of a Mom in May 2021. It is being reposted here with updates and as a resource for Mental Health Awareness Month.
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