“The Italians are called “Children of the Sun”. They might better be called “Children of the Shadow”. Their souls are dark and nocturnal.” ― D. H. Lawrence 

My own childhood was lousy in the Cascinai family home. Dotti constantly questioned every element of my reality. I knew I had gifts, however, she was afraid of my intuitive abilities. Dottie would tell me I was crazy, and that none of it was real.

It left me so mixed up and confused. I often didn’t trust my ability and slowly it left me.

The Cascinai family, Al and Dotti, Aunt Angelina and Uncle Ray, Uncle Dante, Grandma Carrie and Grandpa Mario, and others, all hid the truth from us kids for their entire lives.

Everyone had so many secrets!

George, Rick and Ron believed that they were growing up in a “normal” home, where Dad worked as a veterinarians and Mom took care of us kids. Things seemed really traditional, unless you knew where to look for the cracks in the facade.

Frances was not supposed to divorce Al and Dotti never did. Dotti was expected to fulfill an old-fashioned role. She stuck around, despite major reservations. She gave up a lot and was angry because of it. I do understand that part of her life. Frances got out and was punished with revoked child support, shunning, threats, and violence.

Frances suffered and so did George and I. Dotti then had to take us on. This was not in her life plan.

Al was unfair to everyone in the situation. It was a scary environment for us kids.

At Dotti’s most cruel moments she would tell me that “God” wanted me to die!

Al had a situation where he was kidnapped. He would never tell the police or the FBI anything. At least that is what I was told. What was the truth? Where was he really?

We didn’t always get the attention that we needed from Al because he was leading a complicated double life which required a lot of time away from home. We were all cut off from Dad. Even his wife. The boys especially wanted to spend more time with him.

Our childhoods were filled with insecurity. Having lost my father and everything I had once before, I always felt it could happen again. That always seemed a very real possibility to me.

As I got older there were a lot of unpleasant confrontations between my father and I.

The last one happened the weekend before he died.

I was trained as a child to not ask questions and to keep secrets. All of us within the home saw violence and had trouble handling it, however, we were expected to keep quiet about it.

All of us kids bottled up a lot of negative emotions about our family. Some people made attempts to help.

I ran away from home several times. Once a service in Palo Alto for run away kids made an attempt to assist.

Dotti was very good at manipulating these situations. She knew she had to keep the family secrets. That was part of her responsibility.

I think the boys loved their Dad and Mom.

I loved my Dad. I hated the life he made us all live.

All of us kids ended up with stress-related illnesses and psychological problems, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCD, severe stomach pains, panic attacks, PTSD and stress.

For me the toll of keeping secrets took my body and mind to feelings of fear, frustration and helplessness.

When you grow up thinking that you’re in a nice, normal family and then begin to realize that your family is not nice and not normal, you go through a psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort that comes when someone has two beliefs that contradict each other. Memories of being safe in a “normal family” clash with the truth. I never felt safe in this house.

Dotti ruled with fear and punishment. George and I were a target for her anger.

She scarred his face and broke his arm.

We all grew up around violence and knew that bad things could happen in a split second. Dotti was in the hospital because Al broke her leg. She pulled a knife on Al and chased him around the driveway. Living with this kind of fear stressed us all out.

The fear of my Dad dying always haunted me.

What would happen to George and I then? Who would take us – who would want us?

Our family conflicts got really crazy. Things could and did get out of control fast in our family. Dotti had a short fuse and Al refused to assist or to be there for us kids when needed. We were all told so many lies and it took me many years to get it all figured out.

For each truth I learned, I had to mentally erase a childhood of false stories.

There were so many “cover stories” and Dotti told me once it was because Al believed it was best for us kids.

The cover stories told were often very convincing and the boys especially, being so young, generally trusted these parents. When the truth was uncovered by me, it was the weirdest feeling … like nothing that I knew and believed and cared about was ever really real.

One Saturday we all went to a house in Half Moon Bay.

Al and Dotti, Aunt Angelina and Uncle Ray, Uncle Dante, Grandma Carrie and Grandpa Mario were all there along with a host of other people. It was a very large house near the beach. You could walk to the sea-side trails and hear the sound of the waves from the front porch.

The home boast many custom features such as soaring ceilings, custom iron work, a formal dinning room plus a large kitchen and a breakfast bar. The women were in the kitchen cooking, laughing and drinking wine.

Carpet was in all the bedrooms which were all on the main floor. Some of the younger kids visiting were taking naps and the older kids were responsible for babysitting.

The office with a fire-place and double glass door was were all the men spent their time.

The door was kept closed for most of the day, as the men were “in a meeting,” drinking, laughing, smoking cigars and playing cards. All the kids were able to visit one by one throughout the day. After your visit you were given an envelope and a piece of candy and told to give the envelope to your mom.

The yard was beautifully landscaped. The home was luxurious. That night there was a fireworks show for everyone to enjoy. It was an enjoyable and fun day. I only went once. I am not going to write a lot about this day in Half Moon Bay, other than to say, years later, I saw a similar scene in a movie.

I managed to get away from the Cascinai family.

Ron and Rick grew up knowing nothing else. I had a life with my father before them.

When I did leave the family at 17, my father punished me. I think the boys stayed connected because it was easy. They needed the support.

I was serious about finding another way to survive.

Not all the ways I choose were healthy choices. In order to survive I had to put some distance between myself and this toxic family. I did whatever I felt I needed to do at the time. I stopped talking to my toxic parents and built some very sturdy emotional boundaries to protect myself. It was amazingly hard and did not happen all at once.

It was small steps away, then returning, then more small steps away, then returning and then more steps away over many years that were important steps toward building a happier, healthier and spiritually fulfilling life.

I would be lying had I told you it happened all at once.

It didn’t. It’s not easy. I wanted to be accepted, to belong. I wanted a family and I wanted to be loved.

As an escapee from a dysfunctional family situation, I know that the legacy of a toxic family takes time to shake — especially since you’re dealing with some very real emotional and mental health challenges due to the upbringing.

Of course, it’s not a rule that all children raised in dysfunctional environments grow up to have emotional or mental health problems. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as they say, and you’re the best judge of your own experience.

Sometimes, we can be so busy needing to push away the memory of our childhoods that we forget to look out for our own mental health.

Going into therapy to cope with your challenges is often the most important first step for the adult child of a toxic family to move on — and doing it doesn’t make you “damaged goods” or someone who is “whining about your childhood.”

There are things about my father that absolutely terrified my Aunt Dorothy. When I begin interviewing her for this book 9 years ago, she made me promise I would not write it until after her death. Although Al died years before her, she still asked me to promise her this one thing.

I promised. I kept that promise. She too was pressured to keep secrets and lived a lie for so many years. She told them what they were. I forgave her.

There are 3,000 census records available for the last name Cascinai.

There are 642 immigration records available for the last name Cascinai.

There are 1,000 military records available for the last name Cascinai.

Being that I am not a blood relative of the Cascinai family, I am not sure how much more in-depth research I will be conducting, or writing about, as that is not the story of Holding Out For the Hero.

No matter what their particular background, children from toxic families often have trouble letting other people get close to them, even after they’ve put space between themselves and their families. Most adult children of toxic parents grow up feeling tremendous confusion about what love means and how it’s supposed to feel.

My parents did extremely unloving things to me and to all the kids in the family.

I came to understand love as something chaotic, confusing, dramatic, and often painful — something I had to give up my own dreams and desires for. I had to give up my Empathetic Intuitive gifts while in the house with Al and Dotti so as not be beaten.

Obviously, that’s not what love is all about.

Loving behavior doesn’t grind you down, keep you off-balance, or create feelings of self-hatred. … Genuine love creates feelings of pleasure, safety, stability, warmth, and inner peace. Things might never become perfect for any of us. Things can get so much better when we just recognize the ways that we are hurt, and begin to let ourselves heal.

I believe that the greatest gift you can give your family and the world is a healthy you. ~ Joyce Meyer

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What do you absolutely love in life?