Neuroscientists Dr. Bradley Voytek and Dr. Tim Verstynen have been posting an excellent series on the zombie brain. They’ve asked questions like “Why are zombies so hungry for your flesh?” and “What’s up with all that moaning?” and used that knowledge to suggest how to survive the zombie apocalypse. I certainly feel safer now knowing that if they come for me, maybe I can just hide in my closet until they forget about me and my tasty brains.
But what relevance does this have to family therapy, you may wonder? Well, family therapy broke away from traditional psychiatry and psychology looking for explanations of symptoms that were based in relationships, rather than inside the individual. Soon, the early family therapists recognized that relationships were reciprocal, meaning that the individual both influences the family and is influenced by them, and recursive, meaning that relationships have a tendency to fall into patterns. So symptoms may come about in response to family patterns, and may also be maintained by family patterns that arise in response to the symptom.
And so as a family therapist, I have to ask the question the neuroscientists have left out: How might we understand zombies from a family systems perspective? And, how do zombies impact the family system?
1) How might we understand zombies from a family systems perspective?
Family therapists have long recognized that one way troubled families may stabilize themselves is by focusing on a family member with a problem. It’s easier to ignore the problems in a marriage that has fallen flat if you can put all your attention on a child who is having problems in school, right?
Early family therapists wondered if this pattern could, in fact, be no coincidence? Perhaps families unconsciously “elected” one member to carry symptoms for the whole family. Bowen called this the Family Projection Process, and suggested that families with high anxiety levels (or what he called poor differentiation of self) were particularly likely to have such a symptom-bearer. These families cope poorly with stress, particularly with stress that is passed vertically from generation to generation as part of the multigenerational transmission process, and stress that comes from cultural expectations via the societal emotional processes.
We certainly live in a time where there are tremendous stresses on families. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement has brought attention to the economic disparities between the very rich and everyone else in the United States, the 99% who have not benefited proportionately from the increase in wealth and productivity over the past several decades. At the same time, college and health care costs have skyrocketed and the social safety net has eroded, leaving many people only one paycheck or disaster away from financial ruin no matter how much they try to get ahead. And changing expectations about gender norms, and an increasingly diverse society, has left many families struggling to adapt.
No wonder families might need someone to carry the anxiety for them!
Perhaps the looming zombie apocalypse can be understood as the outcome of a massive, socially-induced epidemic of anxiety, projected onto vulnerable family members. It’s certainly hard to have time to worry about whether your spouse will leave you if your unemployment runs out when you’re coping with a family member who is shambling through the living room, chewing on the corpse of the family dog!
2) How do zombies impact the family system?
Having a zombie in your family is a tremendously disruptive experience. Drs. Voystek and Verstynen concluded that in many ways, the zombie brain may resemble brains with a whole constellation of physical, emotional, and addictive disorders. Family therapists know that when one member of a family has a physical or mental illness, or is stuck in the grip of an addiction, everyone’s life is impacted. Denial, frustration, anger, anxiety, fear, grief, exhaustion, and burnout are all risks for a family with an ill member, so it seems likely that a zombie in the family could cause similar symptoms. Running from a loved one who is trying to eat your brains would certainly make me angry and exhausted!
Just the news of zombification itself can cause tremendous shock and may even send family memers into the early stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. The fifth stage, acceptance, may seem impossible to imagine when you first learn your beloved partner or child has joined the legions of the walking dead.
Another typical response to having a family member who has become part of the zombie apocalypse would be what Emotionally Focused Therapists call the negative cycle of interaction:
In this cycle, partners or family members get locked into a habitual cycle in which one member, who may already feel isolated or cut off from another person, reaches out for more interaction. The other perceives this as a threat or attack, so they withdraw. This withdrawal is upsetting or painful to the pursuer, who pursues more, while the other withdraws more, and on and on. Notice that this cycle sometimes takes the form of an angry attack/defend pattern as well. A skilled couple and family therapist can identify and help unlock this entrenched cycle, bringing family members closer in a safe way.
It’s not hard to see how this pattern might play out in a family with a zombie member. Relentlessly pursued by someone with an insatiable hunger for flesh, unaffected family members may go well beyond harsh words and slammed doors as defense mechanisms, resorting to such extremes as chainsaws, barricades of broken furniture, and even flamethrowers to hold their loved one at a safe distance.
But of course the more you withdraw, the more they will pursue! That’s what makes the cycle so difficult to escape.
So how can families cope more effectively with a zombie member?
I suggest looking at the work of noted family therapist Virginia Satir.
Remembered for her warm, caring style of therapy, Satir emphasized that love and genuine emotional contact among family members could bring peace and harmony to intimate relationships, as well as the world itself. She believed that all families have within them the ability to respond creatively and flexibly to changing circumstances, if they felt free and safe to do so.
She observed that families often respond in a predictable pattern to times of crisis and change, when some new element is introduced into their life:
So Satir would likely say that it’s normal to have all kinds of strong emotions when your loved one suddenly turns into a zombie. When the rules change, it feels like a threat to your survival (and in this case, maybe it really is!)
But resistance to change never helps. Inevitably, chaos ensues as everyone tries frantically to bring things back to the old status quo. What has to happen is the introduction of a transforming idea, a new way of seeing the problem of this foreign element and the changes it brings with it. (Family therapists might call this a “reframe.”) When you can see change in a new way, new possibilities open up. New ways of relating emerge, and a new balance eventually is established.
I see the job of integrating a zombie into your family structure as two-fold:
First, acknowledge the grief and loss that comes with surrendering to the reality that your loved one is now a zombie. He or she will never be the same again. The old status quo – the way your family interacted, the hopes and dreams you had for that person’s future – is gone. Coming to terms with this new reality may be painful, but is a necessary part of coping with “the new normal.” Recognizing the need to grieve has been tremendously helpful for many parents of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children, whom I believe could teach families of zombies many things about coping with surprising and unexpected revelations about a loved one. (Did you know: 35% of parents surveyed said they would rather have their son or daughter come out as a zombie than as gay or lesbian? Clearly the Family Acceptance Project has a ways to go! Go donate to help their work!)
Second, de-escalate the negative cycle of interactions. A crucial step in Emotionally Focused Therapy (which has roots in the humanistic work of Satir and others) is helping to re-engage the withdrawing partner. The more you run away, the more your zombie family member will chase you! The more warning shots you fire at them, the more enraged they will become. See if you can stay more present with your zombie, while still staying safe.
Instead of throwing Molotov cocktails at them, try validating them as you crouch behind the overturned dining table blocking the door. Tell them how much you appreciate that this is a difficult time for them, that their hunger for flesh may be as upsetting for them as it is for you, and that you understand that the kitchen knife you embedded in their thigh was probably a mistake on your part and only hurt your relationship with them more.
Perhaps a less rigid barrier between you will allow the zombie some sense of contact, and reduce their frantic need to pursue. Try restraining them with a pool cover, or in the dog crate, so they feel less cut off from you than if you piled all the bookcases against the bathroom door after shutting them inside.
Helping withdrawers to re-engage is a critical step in EFT, and I believe it is useful for families of zombies as well. You may be surprised how much contact it can be safe to have with your zombie loved one! But go slowly – there is no need to rush.
Hopefully these tips will be useful for you in the event that you find yourself with a zombie family member. Happy Halloween everyone!