Elephant Enlightenment – Dysfunctional Family Style
There are certain events from my childhood that have echoed through my life with disproportionate significance. The Dumbo the Flying Elephant Debacle is one of them. On a family visit to Disneyland when I was five years old, I had no greater wish than to ride Dumbo the Flying Elephant. But for reasons beyond my ability to comprehend, we had to wait all day before I could finally soar above Fantasyland aboard a fibreglass elephant with freakishly large ears. To this day, I remember the sense of frustration and unfairness that overshadowed a day that should have been a highlight of my young life. I was the precocious younger sister in a family of two children. My older brother was the perfect, quiet, sometimes sickly well-behaved child. In stark contrast I was the inquisitive, persistent, and rambunctious little girl with energy to burn.
That day at Disneyland, all the signs were there that I was not, as I have always been told, the Golden Child in my family. There was ample evidence of this that day, and over the years. But childhood in a dysfunctional family is often fraught with contradictions. The public face of the family is there to disguise the dysfunction within, whether it be alcoholism, workaholism, or physical abuse.
One of the hallmarks of the dysfunctional family is denial. As part of the smokescreen created to hide the dysfunction within, children are often assigned specific roles in the family. For example, a child may become a scapegoat to divert attention from the behavior of an addicted parent. Another typical role is for a talented child to be set up as an overachiever or “golden child” frequently paraded to the world as a shining example of what must obviously be a healthy, nurturing, family. As a result, children in this type of environment often grow up to doubt their perceptions, having been told throughout their developmental years that what they were seeing was actually something quite different.
In my case, I believed I was the Golden Child because I was brilliant, accomplished, charming, and athletic. I was told that my brother and I were treated the same. I believed that the world revolved around me, because I was the golden child and therefore the world was my oyster. Except that it wasn’t. The world revolved around my alcoholic parent first, and my brother, the first-born male, second. I actually came last. This was evident that day at Disneyland, although I didn’t realize it for years, because I was always told that the world revolved around me, and that I should be eternally grateful for my vaunted position.
Which brings us back to Dumbo the flying elephant.So there we were at Disneyland. Early in the day I became transfixed by the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride. There it sat, in all its glory, in the middle of Fantasyland, among other, far less trance-inducing attractions such as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. I used all of my charm and persuasive skills to convince my parents to let me ride Dumbo, or one of his eight to twelve variously coloured incarnations. I’m sure it went something like:MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY: Can we go on Dumbo? Can we go on Dumbo? Can we go on Dumbo? Can we go on Dumbo? Can we go on Dumbo?Disneyland’s current promotional description of that very ride lends gravitas to the tragedy of my lengthy wait:“Soar high in the sky on a fanciful flight above Fantasyland aboard Dumbo the Flying Elephant. . . It’s an exhilarating thrill that is sure to lift your spirit and remind you that, if you believe in yourself, anything is possible!”(taken from: ) https://disneyland.disney.go.com/attractions/disneyland/dumbo-the-flying-elephant/But for some reason I had to wait. So, as the non-Golden Child, I toddled along that day to every single other attraction that anyone else in my family had the remotest interest in seeing. And finally, after five or six bouts of tears, my mom and I finally rode Dumbo the flying elephant. It was the purple one. It was the highlight of my young life. My dad and brother didn’t bother to ride it. They thought it was too lame. This was another lesson that I learned early in life: other people have the right to make you feel like what you want either doesn’t matter, or at the very least is stupid, girly, and not worthy of their time. I would like to be able to say that I saw all of this for what it was, and valiantly rose above the limitations of my dysfunctional family. But alas, I did not. I spent many years over-achieving and considering anything less than perfection to be a failure, and believing that all of my accolades made me the Golden Child worthy of praise and unconditional love. But after decades of watching my brother get preferential treatment on everything from deciding what restaurant to go to, to financial support, my brainwashed mind finally saw that (gasp) the world is not a meritocracy. And my family certainly wasn’t either.I would also like to be able to say that I took this realization with great grace and aplomb, and carried on with head held high and self-esteem intact. But that isn’t how these things tend to work. Instead, I spent a number of years in crisis, taking responsibility for everyone else’s shortcomings, trying to fix everything around me, and wondering why I felt so empty even though I was clearly so very capable and successful. But self-esteem is often one of the first casualties of the dysfunctional family. To the girl who is taught
that she only has value if she is beautiful and brilliant and accomplished (even though she is still after all, just
a girl), every failure is a near-fatal blow to the self-esteem.
But I did eventually ride the purple Dumbo with my mom, who has always done her utmost to be there for me, even though she knew that she could only do so much within the confines of her own invisible shackles. And I finally figured things out for myself, because that is what I do. Because, despite my dysfunctional upbringing, or maybe because of it, I am extremely independent, and capable, and resilient as all get out.
Maybe I will even get a tattoo someday: a purple flying elephant to remind me that, when the wait is over and I finally board that whimsical purple pachyderm, in the immortal words of the Disney promotional team:
“It’s an exhilarating thrill that is sure to lift your spirit and remind you that, if you believe in yourself, anything is possible!”