I was honored when Dawn Clancey called and asked for an interview about breaking through denial on her remarkable podcast.
Too many childhoods are scared by vivid memories of alcohol, drug use or physical abuse that are witnessed or endured.
Dawn herself came from such a family and rather than follow that path, she has decided to enlighten others with her amazing blog and podcast and create a community that she hopes will break the cycle of family dysfunction.
Please meet Dawn Clancey!
Your blog and podcast are amazing. What motivated you to start Growing Up Chaotic?
I started Growing Up Chaotic out of a desire to start a constructive conversation around growing up in a dysfunctional family. The dysfunction can be rooted in anything whether it’s addiction, abuse or mental illness. For me, in my family, it was all three of those things that fueled the chaos.
Both of my parents were alcoholics and when they divorced they both ended up marrying people that were just as damaged. My mom in addition to being an alcoholic was also bi-polar. She married my stepdad who I’m sure had some form of mental illness but he was definitely an alcoholic who also happened to be extremely physically violent.
My dad drank and struggled with depression which made it really difficult for him to be emotionally available. He married my stepmom who wasn’t an alcoholic and she wasn’t physically abusive but emotionally and mentally she was very manipulative and caused a lot of damage. I don’t think she’s ever been diagnosed with a mental illness but there was definitely some degree of a personality disorder going on there.
I also have two older brothers that got into drugs and alcohol really early on and were both in and out of rehab and jail while they were growing up. Addiction, abuse and mental illness runs in my family like water. I’ve had relatives that have died from alcoholism, overdosed and died and in general there has always been a lot of unhealthy behavior on both sides of my family tree.
Luckily, I never developed an addiction to alcohol or drugs but I have struggled with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and impulsive behaviors all of which stem from both genetics and a chaotic family life. I’ve always believed that in my family there just was never enough to go around, not enough love, support and not enough understanding and I had to learn how to find those things outside of my family. I think that there are a lot of people out there that are struggling with the same issues.
If you can’t heal or understand or come to terms with whatever pain transpired in your family life, then you are doomed to repeat the same mistakes and continue the cycle of dysfunction for generations. But I think if we can come together and publicly jump start these painful conversations and speak openly and candidly about what we’ve experienced then we can avoid repeating the same mistakes that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents did.
What is your overall message that you want to get across to your readers and listeners?
I want my readers and listeners to know first and foremost that they are not alone. I also want them to know that it’s possible to turn their negative most painful, life crushing experiences into something positive. I love what author Joy Harjo said in an interview she once did for NPR about family trauma, she said:
…to realize that this stuff called failure, this stuff, this debris of historical trauma, family trauma, you know, stuff that can kill your spirit, is actually raw material to make things with and to build a bridge. You can use those materials to build a bridge over that which would destroy you.
I am in love with the idea of taking those raw wounds from your past and your life and using them for a greater good. I never believed that I could take the pain from my childhood and use it to help other people but through Growing Up Chaotic I’ve created a space where I can do just that.
There’s gold, literally pounds and pounds of precious, coveted gold laying around in my head that I can use for a greater good. I can use it to connect to other people and I can use it to hopefully help other people to heal despite what may have broken their hearts or robbed them of their will to live.
I want people to know that their wounds don’t have to destroy them, they need to be processed and acknowledged for sure but then after that you can use those thing to build a bridge to something better. Don’t let the past destroy you, it can be your greatest asset if you’re willing to see it that way.
What are three childhood or life memories you recall most frequently and why?
When I was a kid and lived with my dad and stepmom, I wasn’t allowed to use the oven without adult supervision. I laugh at that now because we had this little black fryer that was literally covered in old grease. I mean every part of it from the plug and its prongs to the cord, to the bucket that held the oil, it was all saturated with old grease.
And for some reason I was allowed to use that, but I wasn’t allowed to turn on the oven. It makes me laugh now when I think of it because clearly the greasy fryer was more of a hazard than the oven. Anyway, when my brother Todd was living with us and I would come home from school we would make brownies together. Since he was home and he was older than me, I was allowed to do that.
I always looked forward to doing that with him, it was the highlight of my day. Todd was always getting kicked out of the house so he wasn’t always around and when he was gone I never knew if he was coming back. You know, in a dysfunctional family you don’t talk about the bad stuff that’s going on – so I never knew what was happening with him. But I remember I wouldn’t be able to eat brownies or make them when he was gone and I think it’s because I would miss him so much that even the smell of brownies baking in the oven would make me depressed.
I think about that every so often, even now as an adult, because I still really miss him. He’s struggled with addiction all of his life and as a result we’ve lost contact. I haven’t spoken to him in over 10 years and it hurts. But that’s what addiction can do, it literally destroys families.
I spent a lot of time with my Nanny (my dad’s mom) while I was growing up. We had a lot in common and I have a lot of great memories of being at her house. She used to curl my hair with these pink foam rollers and put makeup on my face. I would then stand on this little foot stool she had in her living room and belt out songs by Barbara Streisand. We would also produce our own radio shows with her tape recorder.
I would be the host and she would impersonate celebrities like – Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn and they would be my guests and I would interview them. I’m sure I drove her crazy, as a kid I had a lot of energy but we always had a lot of fun together. She represented the normal part of my childhood. When I was with her I could have fun and I think in a lot of ways spending time with her saved me.
I loved stuffed animals as a kid and by the time I was eight years old I must have had at least a hundred of them. I remember I would lay them out on my bed every night so that I could sleep next to them. Each stuffed animal had its own spot and I made sure that I told each one of them that I loved them before I fell asleep.
They protected me and I protected them. I would keep a a large laundry bag by the side of bed so that if there was an emergency – like a fire or something – I would be able to scoop them all up and stuff them in the bag and escape with them. I was very attached to my stuffed animals and that all comes from trauma.
As I mentioned before my stepdad was very violent and both he and my mom were alcoholics. I lived with them from the time I was four until I was eight and watching them fight and watching my stepfather hit my mom in the face and choke her repeatedly was all very traumatic and a lot for a little kid to deal with.
My stuffed animals became my safety net and since I was too little to protect my mom from my stepdad, I protected my stuffed animals instead. They gave me an anchor in all of that chaos in a weird way. I no longer have those stuffed animals, which I kind of feel guilty about today.
So a couple of years ago, I bought myself a stuffed bunny that I keep by my bed at night. Today I’m married to a great guy and I have a cat that I adore to pieces so I really don’t need the stuffed bunny but for some reason I feel better having it there.
During your darkest hour, what helped you to keep going?
That’s a hard question to answer. Every therapist I’ve ever worked with has asked me that same question and I’ve never been able to answer it. I just know that as a kid, I always had this strong voice in my head that didn’t want to grow up and live my life like my parents did.
I don’t know who or what that voice was but I just always remember hearing it say, “I’m not going to live like this,” or “I’m going to do better.” I guess that voice has always been there and even though I don’t here it as often as an adult, I still feel it. It’s just a strong, stubborn feeling that keeps pushing me and keeps me believing that there has to be a better way.
Are there any words of hope or advice that you could share for anyone who is growing up in a chaotic family situation?
Yes of course!
My first bit of advice would be to get your hands on Alice Miller’s book Banished Knowledge and read it immediately! Alice Miller was a swiss Psychologist that wrote extensively about child abuse. Reading her book changed my life.
My second bit of advice would be to embrace your anger. In our society, we are afraid of anger and we label it as bad and I disagree entirely with that point of view. Anger isn’t bad – it’s powerful and if you grew up in a chaotic home chances are you are probably angry.
And all of that anger needs to processed. It needs space. It needs to breathe. I’ve had members of my family tell me over and over again that I shouldn’t be angry (especially at my parents) and for many years I listened to them and stuffed down what I was feeling.
In the end, it only hurt me and delayed my healing. Anger isn’t bad, it’s misunderstood and within the context of your life, it makes sense and you don’t need anyone else’s permission to feel it. Learn about it. Get curious about it. Figure out why it’s there and then figure out how to deal with it. Get professional help if you need it, read books or start a journal where you just write it all out of you.
About a year ago, I took up boxing and it has been the best thing that I have ever done in terms of channeling my anger. I’m still learning about anger, I still have moments where I get triggered but I keep learning and I keep processing. Anger is part of being human so, in my opinion, it’s never going to just go away so learn how to live with it and manage it. There is nothing wrong with being angry. We all get angry and if someone tells you that they don’t get angry – their lying.
My final bit of advice would be about forgiveness. There are entire book shelves in the self-help section at Barnes and Noble that talk about forgiveness and why you should forgive and how great your life will be once you forgive and I just don’t agree with that. Like anger, I think forgiveness, feeling it, I mean really feeling it is just as powerful.
And I’m not saying that it’s not a good idea, to forgive but we all don’t get to forgiveness at the same time in the same way. Again, I’ve had family through the years push forgiveness on me and it backfired because I wasn’t ready to forgive. So then I found myself in a situation where I thought there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t ready to forgive.
Respect your process. If you grew up around violence and addiction, you have a lot to process and forgiveness may not be your first stop. Sometimes I’ll think I’ve forgiven someone and then I’ll wake up one morning and feel angry all over again. I don’t look at that as a bad thing anymore, I just think, Okay there’s more here that I need to deal with, and then I get on with it.
No one knows you better than you. No one knows what you’ve been through and how your chaotic family impacted your life. Only you do and your process is your own to figure out. I think sometimes people tell us not to be angry and push forgiveness on us because what we are feeling makes them uncomfortable. And that’s okay, we are all human but don’t let what someone else feels get in your way – they are not your responsibility.
We learn early on, in chaotic families, that what we feel isn’t correct and that it isn’t safe to feel but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Forgiveness will come when you are ready for it. It may be in an instant or it may take a lifetime but that’s okay. It’s your path and your process. Give yourself permission to do what you need to do, when you are ready to do it and the rest will fall into place.
Dawn Clancey grew up in family dysfunction including alcohol, drug addiction and domestic violence that nearly destroyed her young life. Once an adult, she refused to go down that same path and instead she started Growing up Chaotic, a website and podcast to reach out to other survivors of chaos, abuse and dysfunction. Dawn is building a community that she hopes will have an impact on breaking the dysfunctional family cycle and that will support other survivors like herself. Please check out Dawn’s site and share this interview with others you know who have grown up chaotic!
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