Sharing Your Diagnosis With Family: A Cautionary Tale, Part 2

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The dysfunction in husband’s family had become appallingly apparent when my husband’s brother G was here for a visit. Dave initially enjoyed visiting with his brother and his family, with just our son as my daughter and I were at the Girl Scout camp. That is, he enjoyed it until his sister M arrived.

As she did with me, she was also pretending everything was fine with Dave. It was so very uncomfortable for him. When I arrived back from the Girl Scout camp he left his parents house to help me unpack my troop and so that we both could decompress. He shared how hurt and confusing his sister’s behavior was. Because M had one of the cousins with her when she picked up her daughter my daughter so desperately wanted to go to her grandparents house and see all her out of state cousins. We agreed to let both kids go to their grandparents house for dinner and cousin pool time. I was too drained to participate, while Dave needed a break and wanted to stay with me. I was hesitant to let the kids go because of how tired I knew they were, but I had hoped that with my MIL T’s newer understanding of Autism she would be able to manage the kids. 

When Dave went to pick up the kids a couple hours later he walked in to see our son having a meltdown. He said no one appeared to have noticed our son in this state. Dave went to comfort him and investigate the situation. Dave’s parents only seemed to notice our son’s state when Dave walked in the door. Dave explained that it was an autistic meltdown, and not a tantrum. His mother gave a very brief overview of events then turned to our son and began interrogating him in a very loud and direct voice. Dave immediately interjected and advised her that this was not an appropriate way to manage a meltdown. During all of this it’s apparent that the alcohol had been free flowing all evening. Dave was already upset and he admits he did not handle himself well. He yelled at his mother because she was not handling the meltdown well. He has since apologized to his mother. Dave learned that our son hadn’t even eaten yet. If you know anything about Autism you know that lack of food and fatigue can lead to a meltdown.

As Dave was fixing food for our son he watched his sister M happily float around. Dave assertively and loudly addressed M saying “I need you to take some ownership over the conflict with Rachel and work towards finding some sort of resolution” He said that everything was chaos after that. 

His parents ushered all 11 kids into another room and just let the siblings and spouses go at it. Dave immediately felt attacked by everyone, as if they had been talking about the situation without us and were aligned. He told M that she needed to say to me the things she was saying there. M indicated that from her point of view there wasn’t anything else that needed to be done, “I don’t need anything from her.” Really not the point but, ok. He tried to share how he had been feeling left out, but he was repeatedly interrupted and he would just stop talking as they all went around and round accusing Dave of acting inappropriately and wrongly putting blame onto M. What started as Dave trying to resolve a conflict with his wife and his sister and share how he felt, had devolved into an attack on him and a vent fest for the rest of them.  He likened it to a Kairos retreat.

The longer that Dave was gone I had the suspicion that things were not going well. My kids had school the next day and I intended to go pick them up. By text Dave let me know that he needed help. “We have heard M’s side of the story, what is Rachel’s side?  Why isn’t she here?”. His siblings and spouses were pushing for me to be there and he was at a loss. I know he has a tendency to shut down in heated situations and he likely felt overwhelmed. I also knew how close to a meltdown I was, why I didn’t go in the first place, but seeing Dave ask me for help, I knew I needed to go. Dave later told me that he was thinking, “They don’t know what they are asking for.” You could say I delivered on that thought.

When I arrived at my in-laws home they and the kids were no where to be found. Just the siblings and spouses a the table and it was obvious that most of them were drunk; glasses in hand, purple lips, bleary eyes. I stated that I couldn’t have a conversation if most of them were drunk. A and G’s wife K said that they were sober. In retrospect I can’t be sure of that. K, and to a later degree A, attempted to facilitate a conversation with little result. It was an immediate attack. For some reason one of the first things asked of me was why didn’t feel welcome there. That wasn’t why I didn’t go earlier, but I’m sure you can see why I wouldn’t be comfortable there. It didn’t matter what I said either, in response to that question or anything else I tried to say, I was interrupted repeatedly. They certainly weren’t interested in hearing my side.

G was loud, antagonistic, and at times aggressive. More than once he got out of his chair and loomed in Dave’s direction. Dave genuinely thought his brother was going to hit him. For what, I can only speculate. Surprisingly A was on the offense in the things she said, something that surprised us both. M was dead silent the entire time and just glared at me. M’s husband C was up to his usual drunken belligerent behavior, except he seemed to have free rein to focus it all on me. It was insult after insult, sarcasm, and overall dick behavior, with no one batting an eye. At one point I said “fuck you C” and I was immediately jumped on for my language. Never mind all the things that C was saying to me. Apparently it’s ok to insult someone over and over, as long as you don’t curse. One of the few things I actually was able to get out was an apology for raising my voice and to say that I was not angry with anyone there, with the exception of M. The reaction was bizarre, stunned silence, then right back to all the shitty behavior. It was as if they had never heard someone apologize for their behavior. 

Dave and I sat there silent for a while as the rest went round and round. I was overwhelmed and just left the table to look for my MIL T, hoping that maybe she would put a stop to her children’s shitty behavior. I felt so close to a meltdown and this was clearly not a safe space for that. We were in the hallway and I was crying, trying to explain that I couldn’t do this while they were all like that. As T tried to console me Dave came over and vented about his siblings, calling M a spoiled brat, which then turned into me trying to calm him down. I decided I had had enough and needed to leave my in-laws house. But I felt the need to thank K and A for attempting to facilitate a conversation. It did not go as planned. 

As I approached I don’t think I had said more than a few words before C said another sarcastic insult, with G practically on top of it with another antagonist remark. 

I. Lost. It. 

With meltdowns there is no stopping them until they have run their course. Aside from trying to avoid pushing someone into a meltdown, which is very much what it felt like Dave’s siblings were doing. When a meltdown occurs the only thing that someone can do, from the outside, is to provide a safe space and not try to rationalize with the person.

I leaned over that table with my finger in C’s face and yelled at him that I was fucking over his shitty behavior, turned to G and said the same thing. Then turned around, hands flapping and everything, ran to the furthest bedroom, shut the door and screamed into the darkness. I was so incredibly hurt and angry. I didn’t understand why they had attacked us. I felt othered.

Why were they doing this?