Supernormal – The Secret World of the Family hero | by Meg Jay, PhD

Here I am, on the plane that was taking me to meet my dad across the Pacific Ocean, with a book recommended by him. The 10-hour flight gave me a good amount of time in solitude to start on Supernormal – The Secret World of the Family Hero.

Dad had listened to an audio version of the Chinese translation. He had recommended me books in the past but this one stood out more because of its title – something about family – and the way he said it. Usually he would list out a 1,2,3 when recommending me books. But for this one, he had a hard-to-describe smile and looked down. I’m intrigued as to what this book has to offer.

He grew up in one of the poorest countryside town in China. Among the four brothers, he was the youngest, yet the most “successful”. Although he isn’t particularly rich, while comparing to others in his family, he has a bit more capital and power when things get tricky. Often time, the intimate lives of these kind of “successful” men and women aren’t as sunny as their outward career side may seem. I wonder if dad saw his own shadow in this book.

In 18 chapters, Meg Jay exposed the life of Family Heroes. Drawing from real stories from her clients, she presented us how childhood adversities leave tiny scars in people’s mind and eventually affecting one’s adult life, often in the form of trouble connecting with someone in an intimate level.

In chapter 1, Jay brings the reality of Family Heroes to the forefront.

These individuals are usually “high functioning”, meaning they do well in school, work, community, and other form of involvements outward. They are the “Super Heroes” who seem to “have their life figured out”. These are the “good examples” we all look up to. Yet, rarely do we ask “how does it feel?”. In each chapter below, we go through the life story of one patient and understand their unseen struggle that has been kept from public eyes.

Chapter 2 is about divorce

and one of the parent leaving in a child’s early years.

The separation was never opened discussed with the child leaves the child wonder and stuck in his or her “flashbulb memories”. Instead of understanding parents’ decision to separate, the child grow up to believe “If your own parent can leave you, then anyone can leave you”. It’s no surprise we see so commitment issue arise from this.

Chapter 3 – alcoholic parent.

When issue within the family is not openly talked about, child makes their own assumption and pretend everything is fine. As if everything will be back to normal if we “keep acting normal”. Instead, these incidents turn into secrets/reminiscences that no other person knows. This leads to feeling of living a lie because of the huge amount of unspoken secrets. 

Chapter 4 -Bullying.

We heard many stories about kid’s self-esteem being destroyed by bullies at school. This chapter are introduced to someone who utilized the anger from being bullied into motivation for growing into an outstanding man. Anger is a powerful emotion because it shows one’s awareness of his or her worth. Combined with a goal and action plan, this power emotion can become a strong forward momentum.

Chapter 5 – Parent with mental illness.

When something negative is unavoidable, the child learn to find ways to escape either mentally or physically. Tuning out of life and tuning into something else, like listening to music, reading, or working.

Chapter 6 – Sibling violence.

Being in constant danger trains the child’s vigilance, making him or her more capable of reading others. This reminds me of the Ria Torres (played by Monica Raymund) in the TV series Lie To Me. She was recruited by the team due to her intuition towards people’s micro-expressions. Her attention to such level of detail was originated from living with her abusive father. Being on high alert makes her all to sense what’s coming, often potentially dangerous situations, and act accordingly. However, always being in a high level of alertness raises stress level and may causes unease even when things are supposed to be peaceful.

Chapter 7 – Growing up with special-needs sibling.

When someone else’s life is always put in priority before yours, not only does it make you feel less important, over time, you may lose the ability to live only for yourself. There’s a need to always consider other’s fragile mind. You are forced to be independent while the family put all the attention on the other kid. However, when you finally “made it”, you may even feel guilty of your own achievement because it makes your less fortunate sibling look bad.

I wonder if my dad sometimes feel like this. Although none of his siblings are physically or mentally disabled, his achievement is a strong contrast to theirs. He rarely show off or over spend on things that shows visible status. In fact, one of his reasons against my car hobby was that “don’t let you uncles and siblings see you have such expensive hobby.” There’s always a consideration of other family members. In a way, it’s influencing how he and his own family get to enjoy his achievement, or the lack thereof. 

Chapter 8 – Loss of parents.

In order to be adopted after losing his other biological parents, the child need to be “adoptable” in order to get help and support from outside sources. Being a houseguest at other’s home makes the child less entitled and more appreciate (explains why I’m more orderly in my longterm Airbnb rental in Australia than my own Vancouver home). Adoptable orphans often develop outstanding trait that make them more likeable, including, when needed, hiding their true feeling to please others. Here you can already sense what’s to come – as grownups, she felt like she could be the centre and having people turn up for her.

Chapter 9 – Criticism.

We all wear masks when facing different people. Receiving constant criticism from caretakers in early years can make one loss one’s own personality and put on a false self to please others. The child can grow up to feel like a chameleons, changing as the audience’s preference shift. This kind of people tend to be very likeable because they present themselves in a way that fits other’s preference. However, while the real self left untold, they can secretly dismiss or even hate those who fall for the false self. 

This is the chapter I resented with the most. It reminds me the time when I started to slow down my participation in the local car community.  I had a slight resentment towards those who were attracted purely to my car girl side – the image that was perfectly crafted by my social media. “I am more than that”, I thought. Not that the car side was fake, but more so because I believed whoever fell for the simple car side instead of my depth, the person or the relationship between us is shallow. 

I’ve also had a series of relationships and “situationships” with a diverse set of people, just like the client in this chapter. Being with each person made me morph into their liking. Succeed at being a girlfriend was more about doing and acting. My goal during each period was largely affected by the person closest to me. 

Over time, I’ve lost the ability to think for myself – what do I really want? 

Chapter 10 – Childhood sexual abuse.

When the child experiences something so significant and rare that no other people had gone through, the sense of isolation comes from within. One become unable to relate to “normal” people without the same adversity. The lowered level of self-esteem goes on to make them feel abandoned in the society. To the extreme, the person can deny themselves for friendship and love. 

Chapter 11 – Drug addict parent

Parents with substance addition often lead to maltreatment towards the children. When they are more occupied with drugs than their kids, children learn from a young age to take care of themselves. However there’s a downside. These children generally act perfect but from time to time seek out attention by rule-breaking or even hurt themselves. They may self-medicate for relieving suffer. 

Chapter 12 – Incarcerated parent

With such a dark past, many learn to create a present as separate to the past as possible. From moving away to literally changing their appearance and names. Although some negative emotional memories cannot be erased, we can work on “forgetting” them by crowing the brain with new ones. Hence the most common break-up advice is to keep yourself busy with mentally and physically engaging work. 

Now thinking back, ain’t I doing the same? Not that my parents were ever incarcerated. There is a part of the past I prefer to detach. Since coming to Canada, I’ve changed and appearance and legal name. And while I landed in Australia with packed suitcases, I started using yet a different name down under. “Moving somewhere new and forgetting the past – or forgetting to remember the past”. Yes, the year in Australia was refreshing. But eventually I need to return home and face the things I escaped from. Is it time to sell my cars from the past that’s been preventing me to have a clean slate of new beginning?

Chapter 13 – Odd / uncategorized childhood adversity

For those with an obscured childhood adversity hard to explain, the child grow up allowing himself to be recognized as someone who had a different past than the one he actually lived. This may seem like a good lie to change for the better but there’s always the tension of being dragged back to where he was. Him may feel lonely even when surrounded by many because no one really knows the true version of him.

I “pass” for a Canadian Born Chinese (CBC) thanks to my flexible vocal cord and makeup styles. It can be summarized as I separated myself from the “Fresh Off the Boat” (FOB) background but ultimately, I’m now having hard time fitting in with other Chinese. It felt like living a lie trying to be a ABG (Asian Baby Girl) and I was quite sensitive to people relating me to the common Chinese culture. I’m over it and totally embrace my past now but the memory of those days and the tiny stress that I couldn’t quite pin point were still vivid in my memory.

Chapter 14 – Sibling sexual abuse

Having a childhood trauma of being abused by someone close, the child can grow up to conclude “it is dangerous to let others get close”. And by keeping the secret away from others, we lose the capability to ease the emotion with words. Sharing secrets is a good way to make us feel connected.

Chapter 15 – Depression

First born of parents with depression grow up too fast and become the parent themselves. They are more likely to feel empathy for others and help/save those in pain. This urge can be so strong that he can’t put down the care even after work. Not all grow up to do help related work. Some choose the exact opposite to s how that they can survive and live as they are.

Chapter 16 – Domestic violence

History repeats itself. This is something we all learnt from a young age. Growing up in domestic violence can make the child grow up to believe they are not capable of having a normal family. They are afraid to get in the same loop as their parents and live in domestic violence. Parents are role models, no matter good or bad. In this case, they act as a model that we don’t want to be in the future. 

In my and a close girl friend of mine’s case, it’s not domestic violence that worry us. Instead, it’s the marriage dynamic often found in traditional Asian family. I’m afraid that marriage and kids will make me turn out just like my mom. being locked in with a husband who isn’t affectionate or understanding. She’s lost her ambition to learn, grow, or even as simple as being pretty. She often say that her job is done after raising me and that her life is settled as is. It gave me the impression that, as a female, having a child means the end to your own life. In a way it made me seem like an evil who took her life, though she loved most of it. The question is, am I willing to give up my life over an evil as well?