What’s your function?
Those of you that grew up in my era probably remember “Conjunction Junction,” which was an animated clip meant to teach kids proper grammar and aired in between my favorite cartoons on Saturday mornings. Well, this is my version, with a twist!
Merriam Webster defines dysfunction as; 1) Impaired or abnormal functioning, and; 2) Abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group.
Although these two definitions are meant to differentiate between physical and behavioral dysfunction, I happen to think both definitions work here; as in my experience, the spreaders of dysfunction were impaired in some manner, interacting abnormally and in an unhealthy manner within the family unit. Or in layman’s terms, for those afflicted by dysfunction, it often feels like the loonies are running the asylum. While that may seem a little harsh to some, it fits in most cases; we just won't acknowledge it.
Dysfunction comes in many different forms, some more harmful than others; and most teetering on the cusp of abuse & neglect- just shy of being exposed. Familial dysfunction tends to hide behind closed doors, going unnoticed by the outside world. It’s usually seen as benign in nature, however; it is anything but. The problem with dysfunction is that, because it goes undetected it is perceived as acceptable by everyone- including the afflicted. It is for this very reason that it persists and becomes perpetual, getting passed down through generations; a cyclical, infectious deficit repeating itself over and over throughout time, unknowingly, simply because it's what we lived. That is the “function” of dysfunction as it relates to the title of this blog, and is something that, in the wake of mental health awareness, needs to be recognized for the tragedy it is.
For me, dysfunction came in the form of dirty little secrets, family lies, infighting, anger, and fear that, at any moment, someone could explode. This was usually my father, or my older brother whose sense of entitlement was unleashed in fits of rage directed at my sisters and I on a regular basis. As kids, the dysfunction hung over us like a black cloud ready to erupt into a superstorm at any given moment. We all knew something was wrong but as youths we could not name it, but I can name it now; mental health issues and/or mental illness, and at this point I fail to see that there is a difference. But be that as it may, this is the crux of dysfunction. It is being raised in an environment where, well; there was impaired or abnormal functioning and behaviors of the very people whose job it is to teach us; and there was abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction in the family setting.
The problem here is that from the outside looking in, there are usually no signs of inherent danger, and “poor conduct” goes unrecognized or dismissed. In fact, what happens all too often is that the children are looked at as the problem. Well of course they’re having problems; but they’re not THE problem! They are simply perpetuating the same impulsive, reactive, dysfunctional behaviors they were taught, yet they are seen as "out of control," and in many cases are unnecessarily introduced to medications that rarely work, and cannot solve the problem. On top of that, they usually present with anxiety disorders from being exposed to the dysfunctional behaviors of their parents, and in many cases will struggle with depression, personality disorders, social anxieties, risk-based behaviors and substance abuse at some point in their lives. And so the cycle continues, and so it gets passed down through the generations. I believe this is the reason mental illness is so prevalent in this country, and now that mental health is in the spotlight, dysfunctionality should be front and center.
It is sad but true that the helpline for these situations is almost non-existent. Unless your children are presenting with cigarette burns on their faces or bruises covering their bodies, families struggling with dysfunction and mental health problems are left in the lurch, and it is these very kids that are ripe with potential to grow up with serious problems. But now that mental health issues are being discussed openly, I hope and pray that someone is looking not only at the extreme cases, but every kid (and family) out there. At a minimum I believe there should be mental health awareness education, and cyclical mental health screenings for every kid as part of the standard health curriculum in schools, if not already happening.
Furthermore, we should be looking at the parents; not just inner-city parents, or single parents, or problem parents; but ALL parents. My dad was a well-respected business owner in town, and we were raised upper middle-class. My parents were connected to prominent business owners & politicians, were embedded in the community and viewed as upstanding citizens. No one would have guessed that serious dysfunction was running amok behind closed doors. Parents need to be taught to take inventory of themselves when it comes to raising their kids in a productive manner. What messages are you sending to your kids? What type of role model are you? Are you focused on raising your kids to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society, or are you too busy drowning in your own dysfunction and drama, ignoring your primary responsibility as a parent? Are you raising productive young people, or are you inadvertently teaching them to be defiant, rebels, drop-outs, criminals or worse? Are you promoting high self-worth, showing them their value, encouraging their dreams; or do they feel worthless, hopeless, and undervalued? We as a society need to know, and when warranted, we need to intervene.
In closing, the function of dysfunction is to quietly persist, stay under the radar of everyone including those affected, and remain in eternal perpetuity. That said, it needs to be exposed as a major contributor of the explosion of mental health issues in this country, and it needs to be taken seriously. As for me, I narrowly escaped a life of self-destruction that was driven by low self-esteem, feelings of worthlessness, and a host of bad decisions that were the result of being raised in dysfunction. Fortunately, I sought help and turned my life around, but if not addressed, it could have led me down a very different, very dark path; or much worse.