On World Mental Health Day, Remember to Put the “Fun” Back in “Dysfunction”

October 10 is “World Mental Health Day.” It’s designed to raise awareness of mental health issues, which are still stigmatized and vastly under-treated in many countries.

Treatment and recognition of mental illness is an issue here as well. Pete Earley’s book, Crazy, chronicles his son’s struggle with mental illness, and how after the deinstitutionalization of the severely and chronically mentally ill, prisons and, secondarily, the ERs, have too often become the front lines for (inadequate) treatment.

Insurance companies often don’t cover the best treatment modalities, so that adds another layer of anguish for patients and their families.

People who have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and other mental illnesses continue to struggle for recognition and treatment.

At the same time, in colloquial usage, the scope of what constitutes “dysfunction” or family “craziness” gets wider, more culturally mainstream, and includes ever more life stories. It can seem like the only normal people are acquaintances, and others whom you don’t know well.

“Oh, my family was so dysfunctional,” you hear a lot these days.  

When you probe the comment, the dysfunctional family in question doesn’t sound all that bad, really. Often it sounds like a ragged, run of the mill American family that traveled the characteristically rocky, upwardly mobile path to acquire bourgeois virtues and lifestyles.

Sometimes people call a family dysfunctional if, say, it has an inter-generational legacy of alcoholism, although there is hardly a family in the U.S. that doesn’t have an alcoholic or two lurking about somewhere.

Or, the family’s dysfunctional if the parents were inadequately zealous about “paying attention” to the kids. Revisited and historically revised through the hyper-parenting standards of the 21st century, some adults end up feeling retrospectively neglected by their “self-absorbed” parents who had other lives and didn’t obsess over arts and crafts projects.

Still others pronounce as dysfunctional families where their parents had conflicts with relatives, or where family members, in the quest for mobility, shed their ties to others in the family. Seen in another light, this is often the social price of mobility in the U.S.

As a parent, this casual indictment and denunciation of families as dysfunctional scares the hell out of me.

The bar for what constitutes a functional family has gotten higher. If you like to read memoir—a genre that used to be reserved for men and women of historical significance and consequence, but is now written by younger people who have suffered, hurt, or done nominally peculiar things in life—you might wonder if there are any “functional” families left to be had. Those are unblemished households where no one has an addiction or a vice, or infidelity, or unsightly illness, and they never raise their voice in anger against their children, much less a hand, or have a Bad Parenting Moment that indelibly sears into dysfunction their young child’s soul, and they never park their child in front of a television with Cheet-os. They also have children who don’t have to suffer the indignity of attending their “safety school” for college.

This mainstreaming of dysfunction (even as other mental illnesses go under-treated) has troubling consequences.

I’m always amused as a parent by the almost awed view of childless friends toward what they perceive as the insuperable task of parenthood. “If I were a parent, I wouldn’t bother trying to do anything else,” one commented to me. “I don’t know how it’s possible to do anything and have a child,” another remarks.

Endearingly, these childfree friends stand in humble awe of the undertaking of giving birth, constituting a family, and bringing up baby that is pretty much the basic activity of the human race since its inception.

It begs the question: just how hard do we think it is (or do we make it), to raise children adequately enough to escape the Dysfunctional Family sentence?

In my parents’ generation, you were doing okay if you provided that social trinity of “food, clothing and shelter,” and didn’t beat on or otherwise abuse your kids. The “hierarchy of needs” didn’t include SAT Prep Courses. It didn’t extend to creating a torrent of learning moments, or an emotional vacuum within the home where no negative feelings or anger are revealed in front of the child.

We’ve made a fearful enterprise out of parenthood. The distorted view that, someday, if you’re anything but a cardboard cutout of a parent you’ll end up ominously depicted in a distressed memoir that the insufferable and nepotistic New York Times Book Review will call “fierce” or “piercing” or “fiercely haunting” might be a subtle cultural deterrent to procreation among those ambitious classes that aren’t inclined toward nonchalant attitudes about anything. Childfree couples are on the rise (the birthrate in the U.S. has also declined for four years in a row, owing presumably to the 2008 recession).

So on world mental health day, restore a little fun to your dysfunction.  Are things really that bad? For some, yes. For many, they’re not. It’s all in your head—that is, your perspective on things.

Cut that dysfunctional “family of origin” of yours a break. Look at it as well-intentioned but endearingly flawed; as eccentric, not neurotic; as human, not pathological.

One day, you’ll want your children to do the same for you (or else they might write a memoir on your…dysfunction).

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