Is My Family Normal? They Say It’s My Issue, Not Theirs

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Reader’s Question

I am 21 years old and have been depressed for the past two years, reaching a point where I had to drop out of college in order to deal with it properly.

I moved back home and have been living with my parents and two younger brothers (18 and 15) for the past six months. I feel much better and my therapy has progressed to where I feel confident in my ability to live a normal life. I am working a steady job and have become very social, but my family continues to believe that I am still depressed and require more intense therapy, mainly because of how I react to them. Objectively, my brothers are both very selfish and rude. Neither feels the need to get a summer job or help around the house, and they are generally rude and cynical, especially when it comes to me. My parents try to convince them to work or be constructive with their time, but are met with continued argument. There is rarely a moment when someone in the house is not mad at someone else for some trivial thing.

The cumulative effect of this is that I spend the majority of my time at home in my room, avoiding family meals and confrontations, because I simply do not want to deal with it all. When I try to talk to my family about this pattern, I am usually told I don’t know what I’m talking about, that it is all in my head, and that I am making issues where there are none; they say I need to grow up and focus on myself. This progresses into arguing, name-calling, and on rare occasions where my brothers are concerned, physical confrontation. I have no way to change my living situation since I work only part-time and cannot go back to school until I meet certain prerequisites that I am in the process of gaining.

I have been to several therapists in the past year and have even taken evaluation tests for intensive outpatient programs for depression, and they have all generally agreed that I am not severely depressed, or seeing or projecting problems that are not there. Yet my family continues to say that the issue is with me and not them. I keep asking myself: am I still depressed? Was I diagnosed incorrectly? Am I making a mountain out of a mole-hill with my family? Or does my family need therapy or evaluation?

Basically, I’m wondering if the above description is how a normal family acts, and if I’m doing anything wrong in trying to confront them on issues only I seem to recognize.

Psychologist’s Reply

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First, please allow me to congratulate you on dealing appropriately with your depression. That is a difficult process and it sounds like you have done well with it. Second, the situation you describe is exactly the reason why the specialty of family psychology was born.

Back in the 1960s, mental health professionals started noticing that patients who improved would fall back into old habits once they returned to their families, or someone else in the family would get sick. What they discovered is that families are systems that operate within a process called homeostasis. This means that they want things to stay the way they always have been. If one member of the family deviates from the usual dynamic (for example, by no longer being depressed, or becoming unwilling to accept unpleasant behavior), then other family members try to do whatever they can to get the errant member to return to the way things used to be. Thus, it makes sense to me that your family is invested in you continuing to be depressed. Your good mental health may cause them to have to change, and that’s something many people do not want to do.

If several therapists independent of one another have determined that you’re no longer severely depressed, it seems to me that you should believe them. They have no reason to lie. However, it may be helpful for you to return to therapy to try and work on dealing with your family. If you do, please make certain that your counselor is someone who has been trained to work with family dynamics.

As for your family, their behavior is not uncommon, but that doesn’t necessarily make it normal. I am always reluctant to talk about ‘normal’ because there is such a wide variation in the human experience. However, your description of the constant tension and conflict does sound dysfunctional. I don’t think you are wrong to try to confront them but it doesn’t seem to be working. They clearly aren’t interested in changing, so it may be best to let them be, and focus instead on doing what you need to do to move forward. It’s possible that your confrontations planted some seeds that, one day, when change is in the air, may lead to growth. If nothing else, take note of the family dynamics you do not wish to repeat when you have your own.

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