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Cuckoo syndrome - are you a fellow sufferer? (child abuse)

(34 Posts)
cuckoosyndrome Tue 16-Jun-15 09:04:17

NC for this, but regular.

There's a dynamic in my family that I'm going to call 'cuckoo syndrome'. I'm defining cuckoo syndrome as the scapegoating of one sibling by another, in order for the last sibling to monopolise all of the emotional, practical and financial resources of the family unit.

This has happened to me. My sister lives with my parents and gets all of their support and help - they do literally everything for her. She has no children, a very good job, a long term partner, and hundreds of thousands of pounds in savings for a house.

I get a grudging phone call once a week.

What hurts is that this relationship is perpetuated by the fact that they all, as a unit, maintain a series of toxic fictions about me: that I was a difficult child, a bully, overly dominant, a nightmare to grow up with - and my sister has been so damaged by this that she needs constant support. I admit that I was difficult, but that is because I was being abused emotionally, physically and even once sexually by my mother. She was utterly controlling because she was mentally ill and could not deal with my becoming an independent person. That said, my behaviour was very, very far from being off the scale for a stroppy teenager. I was a 'better' child than the vast majority of my friends, for instance.

I feel like the focus has been deliberately placed on my behaviour as the 'problem' in order to conceal this much greater wrong that was being done. My sister knows my side of the story, but makes it clear that she doesn't believe it - and, what is more, she is more than willing to exploit an untrue version of events for personal gain.

What worries me is that my sister will often make comments in public fora (particularly social media) about me being a sibling-destroyer. Fortunately, most of my friends are sane and know me well enough to laugh at this behaviour. But it irks me and is a constant reminder of the pain of the past.

What to do?

Lottapianos Tue 16-Jun-15 09:11:32

Hi there, lots of sympathy for your situation. I grew up in a toxic family and have always felt like the 'black sheep', the problem one, the one that makes too much of a fuss. My brother is the golden child and like your sister, he lived at home until very recently (he's 31) and was pretty much waited on hand and foot.

It's horribly painful for you, and having to come to terms with the abuse you suffered at your mother's hands makes it even worse I would imagine. Two things I would recommend, which have been life-changing for me - 1) psychotherapy, weekly appointments with a qualified therapist who has experience in supporting adult survivors of abuse, and 2) leading from this, thinking about reducing contact with your parents and sister. You need some distance from all this madness, and that's very hard to achieve without professional support, because whatever awful stuff happend to us in our families gets experienced by us as 'normal', because we don't know any different, even if we know deep down that it was very wrong.

You are an adult now, an independent person. You do not need to carry on playing the role that was assigned to you by your parents. You do not have to accept unpleasant behaviour from any of them. You don't have to do what they expect of you. It takes time to change all of this but you can do it

darkness Tue 16-Jun-15 09:39:51

Two truisms that you need to keep at the front of your mind...

"You have to pretend I'm a bad person so you dont feel guilty about what you did"

"If it can be destroyed by the truth - it deserves to be destroyed by the truth"

The actions you can take include stepping away - in the certain knowlege you friends know what they are like and are unaffected by ongoing poison.

or you could drag the whole stinking pile out into the daylight...
You could do this by writing a letter to your Parents - Sister explaining how you feel they have demonised you, how you are not guilty of their feelings towards you as a child and you feel you deserve not to have your history changed to justify their current behaviour...or whatever you feel are the most important points towards you being happy,
and then send it to them...actually email it to them - and everybody else on your mailing list - your friends family - everybody...

and when they that to everybody too

Actually you might want to hold off on the general emails until you get a response - but dragging their "secrets" their unreasonable view of you - out into the public forum shames this kind of disfunctional family dymamic like nothing else can,
and what - when it comes down to it - do you have to loose...?

darkness Tue 16-Jun-15 09:45:22

What worries me is that my sister will often make comments in public fora (particularly social media) about me being a sibling-destroyer.

you could also take the pain out of this by having a wall - blogspot whatever called
"S**t my sister says about me" - or similar
and every one of these should get posted there

no one is going to be judging you...
but it would be interesting to see if she can deal with having been the source of a litany of poison
I think of it as "Regifting Behaviour" and is unbelieveably effective

Hidingmyidentity Tue 16-Jun-15 10:04:09

she is more than willing to exploit an untrue version of events for personal gain

You have a very good insight into what is going on in your family dynamic & I do like the previous suggestion of regifting behaviour, but in my experience with a toxic sibling ignoring their behaviour is what works best.

Ignoring isn't as easy as it sounds & sometimes requires enormous self control but it does work.

If you ignore the crap she posts on social media she will make herself look ridiculous to a wider circle.

cuckoosyndrome Tue 16-Jun-15 10:25:50

grin at the regifting idea, darkness. You kick ass! However, I think hiding is probably right in that this would be playing right into their narrative. They would simply use it as evidence of my unbalanced attitude towards them. It would also allow them to continue the fiction that they are somehow the victims of my bad behaviour. They are really, really obsessed with this victim status - it is the glue that holds the family dynamic together.

lottapianos - thank you, that's a really thoughtful response. I have reduced the emotional contact with them to a minimum, and I am having weekly counselling (CBT). The latter is not helping, though. The counsellor is focused solely on my behaviour. I have had 6 of my NHS 12 sessions and we have not even discussed thoughts or feelings.

He keeps insisting that I have confidence issues, getting me to timetable activities, set goals etc etc etc. The trouble is, I know what I need to do to feel better. I am generally quite good at being organised. What I am struggling to do is to invest in my own future. I won't bore you with the back story, but trust me when I say that I believe that this is a rational reaction to my life to date. I try a lot harder than the majority of people to put some kind of a life together, yet everything I work and struggle for gets taken away from me, in a whole variety of different ways. So it feels really, really stupid to be pouring more emotional or practical energy into any kind of future. I have faith in my ability and my competence. I just don't have any trust that life will reward me if I make an effort. It feels completely pointless even trying.

Skiptonlass Tue 16-Jun-15 10:35:52

I'm not sure cbt would be helpful here. Cbt is good for addressing disordered thought patterns, such as obsessive thoughts, but that doesn't seem to be your issue. The NHS likes cbt because it's cheap and effective for some things but it's not the panacea it's touted as. If you want something that helps I think you're going to need a talking therapy of some type.

You seem to have a pretty good grasp of the dynamic, which is half the battle. So the question is really what do you do now?

I'd be very tempted to cut contact or reduce it to a bare minimum, live your life for you, in as positive way as you can and see what happens. If they do need you as their glue, you may see some interesting things. From afar, of course.

They are a weight around your neck - cut them loose and live your life free of their blame. Don't look back.

popalot Tue 16-Jun-15 10:41:53

You have been the family scapegoat. Part of abuse is to minimise it or blame it on the child. It's worse than denial if you ask me, because it makes you believe it was your fault. Glad to hear you recognise they are doing this - it is an incredibly important step in recovery.

After the CBT I would invest in a long course of counselling where you can discuss what happened to you, review the abuse if you can from an adult objective and then restructure the image you have of yourself. Because, despite recognising what they did and what they continue to do to keep it all covered up, you still need to work on the image it created inside of yourself and that is what causes you to feel you can't have a positive future.

NC is needed because your family are continuing to abuse you. I would just shut down from them completely. If you do get harassed, be assertive and tell them what they are; bullies. Abusers don't like being called up on it and you'll get all sorts of flouncy behaviour from them, but does it matter? Let them. Any sane person on the internet can see when a person consistently slags off a sibling they are not right themselves. In a way, she has been abused to but she has been put into the position of being an abuser if you see what I mean. But that's not your problem to sort and I would say she should know better.

What you are doing at the moment is trying to match the world and what happens to you in it with the negative image of yourself your parents/sibling worked hard to create so they could abuse you. After CBT, a long course of therapy will help you change that image. Find the 'they took us to stately homes' thread too because there are some very knowledgable people on their who have gone through similar issues.

queenoftheknight Tue 16-Jun-15 12:04:56

Oh this is so hard isn't it, but as has been said, you know what's going on and that is the biggest step of all.

I dealt with similar by going no contact, and am now in my second year of therapy.

I look back at the letters my mother sent to people about me, and can barely believe that I lived with that horror. It is terrorism. It terrorises, and the only way to make it stop is to remove yourself.

People are not fooled. Healthy families do not do that to one of their own. People know that.

Opt out. Define yourself. Best of luck.

VenomousVorpent Tue 16-Jun-15 12:17:05

It is hard because this is now their truth. You can't make them change. They are never going to be the family you deserve. It is not fair or just but you are going to have to give up on them for your own mental health. Shrug your shoulders, wash your hands and walk away.

GirlInTheDirtyShirt Tue 16-Jun-15 12:22:20

I have been through the exact same thing as you - I have nothing really to add to the excellent advice you've received so far, but just know that you're not the only one dealing with the fallout of this particularly bonkers family dynamic. One thing that has become my mantra is that Polish saying, "Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys".

Lottapianos Tue 16-Jun-15 12:26:24

Psychotherapy and CBT are very different. Psychotherapy is long term work and will look into patterns and lessons that you learned in your childhood in an unconscious way. You would set the agenda and the sessions would move at a pace that you are comfortable with. I would suggest that CBT is not the right approach for something as fundamental as toxic family dynamics. It sounds like you feel very 'stuck' at the moment and that's a really good time to start therapy.

'It is terrorism'

Very much agree. Emotional terrorism. It does such violence to who you are and your sense of yourself and your own self worth.

cuckoosyndrome Tue 16-Jun-15 12:31:37

"It is terrorism. It terrorises..."

Oh God, yes. This, this and this again.

It is like gaslighting, but at a social scale. It has taken all of my resilience to reach a point where I can say definitely and without question that I know that what they believe is not true and that I know that what happened was wrong.

I do very much live my own life far away from them. I live a few hundred miles from their house and I don't see them regularly. I am comfortable with this as a level of contact. It means that I am basically able to shrug off pretty much everything that they continue to do. I think that they realise I have my own life and my own truth now, and that is profoundly destabilising for them. It is interesting that my sister made the last remark to my BIL and his partner on Facebook. They (BIL's family) are extremely supportive, so it fell on stony ground. I think the existence of another 'family' in my life is something that they are struggling with.

However, I do far less well with the ways I have internalised the abuse. It is not that I lack confidence or self-worth - I am actually OK in both of those departments. I just lack the faith/trust in the idea that anything I do will really have any effect or make a difference. I feel like life should be a kind of sculpture, a contribution, something you can point to and mine - through no fault of my own - is like sand running through my fingers and falling back into a formless mass.

pocketsaviour Tue 16-Jun-15 12:52:11

Have you had a read of Toxic Parents, by Susan Forward? Sadly this type of family dynamic is not so uncommon.

pocketsaviour Tue 16-Jun-15 12:59:41

Thread moved on quite a bit since I opened it! I agree with PP that finding a good therapist, privately, will do far more good than CBT. CBT does not address root cause - it's kind of like emergency first aid, but you need more specialised long term treatment.

Good therapists are like shoes - you need to find one that fits. This is a good place to start - you can search by area and specialism. I would say you want to look for a psychotherapist rather than a counsellor. If money is an issue some may offer sliding scale fees, or think about having one session per month perhaps with "homework" in between.

This is an investment in yourself as a person, a partner (and a mother?) so please don't look at the cost as a waste. You deserve to move on from this and feel like you have worth and a future.

darkness Tue 16-Jun-15 13:08:03

I can see wher all the "ignore them" advice comes from - I can see the appeal of backing away to safety...been there - got the badge - and it wasnt worth it..
My advice - whilst a ...tad....confrontational ? is from a position of experience and your problem would seem to be really about who has the power in your relationships and why..

You are allowing your family to completly dictate the terms of your relationship, they are re-writing the narrative of your life - both in the past and in the present - and they even expect others to comform to their view of you..
You are being substantially bullied, and would seem to be spending time waiting to be emotionally kicked - over and over again...thats not healthy but it is what "low contact" usually ends up like.

It seems like your therapist is trying to "rebuild" you, unfortunatly the demolition crew are still on site !

Do you want to seperate from them totally ? Is that conceivable for you ?

queenoftheknight Tue 16-Jun-15 13:24:36

Internalised abuse....yes. This is why I have been in therapy for what feels like forever.

I still struggle with certain aspects of the trauma their abuse has left me with. It comes up in all manner of ways. I am learning who I am, what I like/dislike, without being told who I am, what I am. And that I deserve.

I have had to, kind of, start again!

That would be almost impossible if those people were still in my life in any way.

I went through a phase of being absolutely terrified of what they would do to punish me. Then going through the grief of never having been loved by the people who should have loved me unconditionally. That is bloody tough.

They have tried some pretty bizarre things to "army build" against me. Army building is what this type does. They "wendy" my friends to try and get to me. Ditto, extended family, with more success.

It is so profoundly awful. And yet, disturbingly common.

Lottapianos Tue 16-Jun-15 13:46:33

queenoftheknight, I relate to every word of your post. Also a long term therapy veteran (6 years this month)! I feel like I have had to re-build myself - I really mean I had to construct an actual whole functional person out of the remains of what was left. I had no idea who I was or if I was even a real person at all, having been treated like a character in their family drama all my life and never being allowed to have my own feelings.

And the grief - god yes, the grief. I went through a long period of rage and profound sadness at how bloody unfair it all is that the two people who were supposed to love me unconditionally couldn't even manage it. And the terror in the pit of your gut that maybe they were right and you are fundamentally unloveable. It's pure hell. And unlike a bereavement or similar, its a grief that you feel you can't share, because so few people can get their heads around it. Such a very lonely place.

Therapy has been the most painful thing ever and also by far the best thing ever. I feel like I'm coming out of the tunnel and developing a very deep sense of peace about who I am. I hope you're in a better place too and I wish you so much luck on your journey x

GoodToesNotSoGoodToes Tue 16-Jun-15 13:57:29

I think you are sadly right, it is an unshared grief that you are unlovable.


SunnyBaudelaire Tue 16-Jun-15 13:59:54

" You have to pretend I'm a bad person so you dont feel guilty about what you did "

this is so so true

cuckoosyndrome Tue 16-Jun-15 14:05:43

queen and lottapianos Thank you so, so much for sharing with me. You have helped me more deeply, I think, than anyone else has for a very long time.

I do believe, at a profound level, that there is something wrong with me. I believe that I am unloveable. It is not something I occasionally think - a bad and negative thought that sometimes creeps in and sniggers at me from a corner of my mind - it is my working, operational assumption about myself that I am, in some way, socially unacceptable and therefore outcast. I spent most of my days sitting by myself at home because I am too frightened of going out, too scared of other people's actions confirming this. (I have been physically very unwell, which has only heightened this). I am highly qualified and I know I am capable - but I don't feel like I belong to the human race. I don't feel like I have a place in this world.

Reading your posts, I realise that I do need to go to another kind of therapy and to accept that it will take a long time to get past this. I do need to rebuild from the ground up - as lotta says, when you are treated as a puppet by people, you start to feel that you can't escape, like nothing you do or say will make a difference. This is exacerbated by the fact that I have had a period of chronic ill health lately, in which I haven't been able to work or to do anything else, and where I have been wrestling with other issues in my life that aren't the fault of my family. It feels like a terrible risk even to open myself up a tiny bit to the idea that there could be hope for the future. What if it just gets taken away again?

I guess my question is: how did you get started? I feel so utterly bereft, so exhausted, so absolutely reduced to nothing that I do not know how to pull together the energy to begin.

SunnyBaudelaire Tue 16-Jun-15 14:08:03

hang in there cuckoo we are here for you.

GoodToesNotSoGoodToes Tue 16-Jun-15 14:14:39

The vulnerability that gave you the chronic health condition may be the source of their problem. You're not perfect which means their seed is not perfect. You remind them of who they are.

Maybe I am off the mark here.

Lottapianos Tue 16-Jun-15 14:17:29

You have had a really dreadful time cuckoo and its not at all surprising that you're feeling exhausted. 'Bereft' is a good choice of word - you are coming to terms with a huge loss, the loss of the fantasy of having a normal loving family. You may not want to start therapy right now - you may feel better in a month or so, its entirely up to you.

Here's some random things that have helped me along the way:

1) Treat yourself like someone who is grieving, because you are. If it helps, externalise it a bit - how would you advise a good friend to take care of themselves in your situation? You need rest, good food, as much exercise as you feel you can cope with, water, easy on the sugar and alcohol and all of that.

2) Start noticing good or clever or positive things that you do and praise yourself for them. Even simple things like remembering to take an umbrella out with you on a rainy day. Find a voice that sounds comfortable for you - actually say something positive to yourself. Mine would be something like 'you remembered your umbrella and it's pissing rain - good work, babe!' smile Over time, this builds up your positive, nurturing voice - the voice of a loving, consistent, supportive parent - and it helps to drown out the critical devastating voices ('Im no good, I'm unloveable, I'm worthless' - you know the drill)

3) Notice the critical voices and remind yourself where they have come from (your parents). They are not you - they are something you have learned. I now hear that voice as the voice of my mother, so it doesn't feel like 'me' anymore, its just something I've learned to live with. Since I've become kinder to myself, the voice is still there but the volume has turned waaaaaaay down. You can 'unlearn' all this stuff, but it takes time

4) Try to acknowledge your feelings and let them come out. Have a good sob if you feel like it, really howl. Scream into a pillow or give it a good punching if you feel angry. Say out loud all the things you would love to say to the faces of the people who hurt you. Use as much swearing and violent imagery as you want to! Let them out, in safe ways and in safe places

5) Try to hold onto the idea that the most important thing in your life is you. Above all else. This is so incredibly difficult to get your head around if you've been treated like a hologram or an emotional dustbin by someone else for years and years. Try to let go of 'what I should do' and reframe it as 'what do I want to do'. It takes practice but it gets so much easier with time

You will not be stuck in this place forever cuckoo. You really will not. This all gets easier with time. Its a long road and it will be a very painful one but you can do it, in your own way, in your own time.

cuckoosyndrome Tue 16-Jun-15 14:22:31

I don't think so, Good. Would be an interesting theory were it not for the fact that the health problems are something I've had for the last 5 years (I'm in my mid 30s), whereas the abuse happened years ago.

Bizarrely, I have crashed and burned at a psychological level recently, after getting an all-clear on my physical health from the hospital. I am now no longer a sick person. I am a well person physically, who suddenly has a whole lot of life left, and no career (had to give that up due to illness), no prospects, no friends (they evaporated while I was ill), no hope.

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