I’ve mentioned my mom previously in this blog in both positive and negative ways. Probably more negative than positive. From what I’ve read and heard from friends, a lot of mother/daughter relationships are complicated. On top of the “usual” complications, my mom has spent years being in denial about being mentally ill, as well as still being in denial about being a hoarder.
When I was under five years old, I remember the hoard being contained to a single messy room. As I grew, it slowly encompassed the spare bedroom, then my parent’s bedroom, then the den, the living room, the dining room…The entire house is hoarded today. It has been for over fifteen years. I no longer believe that my mom will “straighten things out” as she’s claimed she’d do so many times. Over the summer when she was off (she was a teacher). The next time she had a sabbatical. When she retired. She’s been retired for about ten years now and the hoard has remained level the entire time she’s been retired. There is no reason to hope that will change.
Along with my growth and the hoard growth, my mom’s mental illness seemed to grow. In my lifetime, two of my therapists have met my mom and had a private session or two with her, ostensibly to talk about me. In reality, both were trying to suss out her mental problems, in order to help me with my relationship with her. Both independently came up with the diagnosis that she has Borderline Personality Disorder. The way that impacted our relationship was described to me as her not having an understanding of me as a separate entity from her. When I did the things that she would have done, or wanted me to do, she showered me with praise, gifts, money, special treats and privileges. When I did things that she wouldn’t have done, or didn’t like, she showered me with verbal abuse (as well as physical abuse until I was around 15*), took back the gifts, curtailed my privileges and would confine me to my bedroom.
To be clear, doing something that she wouldn’t have done could be as minor as the aforementioned wanting to take pottery class as a high school elective instead of chorus. My original course of study in college was picked by my mom because my therapist (The first therapist to meet my mom) advised me that it would be easier for me to go with what my mom wanted and then switch my major after my first semester. And she was right; had I tried to start with the major I wanted, we’d have fought even more than we did up until I left for school.
During my college years, my mom disowned me for about six months. Despite repeatedly explaining to her that my schedule was such that I would leave my dorm room around 8am and not return most days until 8 or 9pm, my mom would call daily and leaving increasingly irate messages on my answering machine, because I wasn’t calling her back in a reasonable amount of time (for her, that was about half an hour). She had my schedule, so knew that I had about twenty minutes at most between most classes, meals, and theater rehearsals. She thought it was unacceptable that I didn’t use that twenty minutes to rush back to the dorm, check my messages, and call her back at least twice a day. This knowing full well that getting back to my dorm was nearly a ten minute walk each way.
After months of her leaving messages and then fighting with me nearly every time we talked, I finally had enough. We were having a contention phone conversation once again. She was, as usual, talking about what a horrible daughter I was, and how she didn’t know why she didn’t just wash her hands of me and disown me – I was nothing by trouble and entirely ungrateful. I said that if she wanted to disown me, then FINE, she should disown me. There was a heartbeat of silence before she screamed “You’re dead to me!” and hung up the phone.
I still remember that bewildered and empty feeling. I didn’t feel…I didn’t feel. I didn’t really feel bad, but I didn’t feel good either. I felt vaguely relieved that this should stop her from screaming at me regularly and leaving nasty messages for me, but I felt worried by all the uncertainly that it caused. I had no idea what this would do for me getting my education, as she and my dad were paying for much of it. I figured that I’d deal with it when it became a problem because I had no idea what to do and it was easier to ignore it until it became a problem.
It never became a problem because my dad, in an amazing show of defiance from his normally placid, easy-going (and completely disengaged) self, told my mom that he’d divorce her if she didn’t patch things up between us. This came about five months into the disownment. I’d spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with friends. When I called my aunt’s place (our family gatherings were usually at my aunt’s place) to talk to everybody, my mom pointedly left the room. I heard that when she came back, she more or less refused to speak to anybody for a few hours, and would sit glowering around the room.
It seems that after watching my mom behave that way for two holidays, my dad decided he’d had enough. As my mom believes herself to a strict and observant Catholic, getting a divorce would have been unacceptable. I heard about this turn of events from my aunt, who let me know that my mom was going to be calling me soon, and please for the love of God, answer the damn phone so we could make up and move on.
My mom called. Her first words to me were “Are you coming home for Easter? I need to know because if you don’t, I’ll send your Easter basket to school for you”.
That was it. There was no apology, no explanation, no acknowledgement of the prior six months. It didn’t exist, as far as she was concerned.
Having grown up with my mother, this behavior didn’t actually surprise me. One of my mom’s repeated behaviors while I was growing up was to scream at me (or my dad) that she hated me/him/us and was leaving, and that we wouldn’t know what happened to her unless she came back. Then she’d leave. She’d come back, sometimes in a few hours, sometimes in a day or two. Always with presents for whomever she was fighting with. There was absolutely no mention of the fight or her absence. Doing anything other than being grateful for the gifts and acting normal would rain down an even larger shit storm.
So I pretended to be grateful for my damn presents and moved on.
I didn’t feel particularly invested in them, blood-presents that they were. They would probably be taken away from me the next time I did something wrong, anyways. One of the things I had to work through in therapy was my ambivalence and sometimes hatred of getting presents. Which is also part of why Lora’s little gift of a cupcake and a note to apologize for waking me up by screaming at Jon about what a fucked up human being he is could have potentially been extremely triggering to me. While it didn’t trigger a negative emotional downward spiral for me (yay for progress with triggers through therapy!), it did trigger an even greater amount of antipathy and disgust towards Lora because of her behavior. I feel pretty ok with me feelings because thinking that a fucking cupcake and a little apology note are going to work as any kind of band-aid to cover the abuse that she rained down on Jon…that’s just…I can’t really think of a better word that “crazy”. It’s a thought that could only form in the mind of someone truly mentally ill who refused to examine their behavior. Which does sum Lora up to a tee.
But, I digress…
With my mom, as a minor, I pretended to be grateful for my presents and moved on.
One thing that was different after my mom disowned me is that I lost all personal respect for her as my parent and as a person in my life. I still have the basic respect for her that I have of every human being. It is that respect, the respect for life, that inspires me to treat people (at the very least) with civility, even when they’re being hateful, manipulative trolls. Because at that point, I feel pretty strongly that nothing I do or say will get through to them, so I may as well act in a way that is in line with my beliefs and who I want to be as a person. That means treating people with respect, unless it has become harmful for me to do so.
But in terms of having respect for her as a person with integrity who acts maturely and respects personal boundaries…that respect was lost and will probably never be regained. What my mom’s capitulation taught me was that a threat to take something away from her that she felt was enormously important (her marriage, through a “sinful” divorce) would force her to move on, but left to her own devices, she may well have continued to be as emotionally abusive and controlling as she always was.
Knowing my dad would divorce her if she misbehaved caused a power shift in our relationship. She knew there was a limit to how badly she could act without incurring unacceptable consequences. So did I. As I aged and found another good therapist, I learned to lay down boundaries with her and enforce them.
As I aged, I also learned that one of her biggest fears was that we would have no relationship if she didn’t have something that I needed. I honestly believe that she can’t conceive of the concept of relationships that don’t have some kind of coercive power exchange. If you don’t want something from someone, why would you have any kind of relationship with them? One of the most honest conversations we ever had was when she articulated that if I didn’t need her to pay for things for me, or get me stuff, or do stuff for me, then why would I still have anything to do with her? I told her that I would because she’s my mom. We have fun together. When we do things together, they are special, because only the two of us can make things happen in quite that way. And I love her.
No, I didn’t mention love until the end. I don’t think she really understands love. Especially not as a reason to continue to have a relationship with someone.
But she did understand the concept of “I can only have fun in this manner with you”. That was something she could weigh, and tell herself that only she could give me, which gave it meaning to her.
As she aged, she finally sought help. She never told me, but I know this because of two things. One was the prescription for anti-psychotics that I found in her purse. I wasn’t snooping; she’d asked me to retrieve something else from her purse and I came across them while rooting around in her cave of a purse for what she wanted. I looked up what they were later. They explained a lot, in terms of her behavior being noticeably less explosive.
The second was that she began using therapy language at times of strife when speaking to me. The first time she did, I was glad to be sitting. It was startling and also…not quite there.
She wanted to buy me something for my home. I didn’t want it. We argued about it (This is still a common theme. Mom wants to buy me something because she thinks I should have it. I don’t want it. A fight ensues, and she continues to insist she has the right to buy me something (like a giant couch) because she believes I should have it). Eventually she told me that she needed me to respect her feelings (good), respect her boundaries (good, and interesting, as I’d never heard her use the word “boundary” before) and respect her need to buy things for me that she knew I needed (um, wat?).
I almost started giggling. Two-thirds of the way there, but still so far away.
I said something like “Mom, I want you to know that I absolutely respect your feeling that I need that couch. You can absolutely have that feeling – there is nothing wrong with it. And I totally respect your boundary to buy yourself a couch, should you want it. You can buy yourself as many couches for your house as you want. However, we’re talking about MY house and as it is MY house, I make the decisions on what goes in it. So you need to respect MY boundary when I say that I do not need a new couch.”.
Flummoxed silence on the other end. I could almost hear the wheels turning. This was not turning out the way she meant to be.
I really hope that her next therapy session included a lot of praise and encouragement for talking about her boundaries and also some pointing out that we do all get the same boundaries in terms of making decisions about our homes and what goes in them.
Today, our relationship is good-ish. I’m not sure if she’s still in therapy or not. She’s quick to go to therapy talk when she feels like I’m not hearing her on a subject. Typically, it is a situation where I do hear what she’s saying, but I don’t agree with it. So we will have a point-by-point discussion where she reiterates what she wants me to understand. I will confirm that I hear her words. I will often repeated them back: “So you are saying XXX?” and she’ll agree that yes, that is what she’s saying. I will thank her for telling me how she feels. Then I will tell her that while I respect her feelings, I do feel differently, so I am going to do YYY. I understand that she may not like YYY. She is under no obligation to do YYY. However, as it is my life and my decision, and I have decided to do YYY, if she is unable to be civil because of my choice, then we should not talk for a time, because I am not responsible for her feelings about YYY.
It’s pretty damn exhausting. But it keeps us in a place where we can have some kind of relationship, which makes it easier on my whole family.
It’s not perfect though. There are times when she reverts and tries to be plain-out coercive and controlling. Given the physical distance between us, and my complete independence from her, she’ll usually resort to giving me the silent treatment for a few days or weeks during these times. I’m fine with that. When she’s ready to talk reasonably again, we start talking.
When she’s happy and not in the grip of paranoia or a desire to control, she can be a kind, generous, sweet, caring person. The entire time I’ve known her, there are stretches -sometimes a few days, sometimes months – when she’s a really caring, supportive, interesting person. When she’s like that, I see the side of her that attracts people to her, that makes me want to be around her. But she has (so far) always reverted back to the nasty, controlling, paranoid, raging Hyde-side eventually. For years, I thought that only close family say that side of her. Over the past few years, I’ve learned that that isn’t true.
My mom has tearfully confessed to me over these last few years that life-long friends have stabbed her in the back. Given what I know of her and her behavior (and how nearly every single close friend she’s ever had has later “stabbed her in the back”), I’d be willing to bet that she wasn’t stabbed in the back, but that a friend who cared about her finally got to their limit with her controlling and coercive behaviors. Seeing her when she talks about those things…she is clearly in a lot of pain. And I’m not in a position to ask her exactly what happened and tease through reality and her projections of reality – she’d need a highly trained therapist for that. I don’t think it would do any good anyways.
But it’s hard, because I react to her both as my mom in pain, and as a person in pain. I feel empathy for her pain, her incomprehension of what happened, that it happened again. Her pain at yet another person not finding enough to want in her to stay her friend is enormous and saturating in that way that pain becomes when it’s repeated over and over and over.
As myself, as a person who has watched her behave in paranoid, destructive, controlling ways, I cannot help but wonder what she did. What the final straw was. What all the other straws were.
I feel badly that I wonder that. But having being treated abusively and coercively by my mom for my whole life, there is no way to not wonder those things.
That part makes me think of the last part of what Shea Emma Fett wrote about believing people when they come forward with a story of abuse. As she said, it’s hard, because abusers often also feel that they are abused – and frequently by the very people that they are abusing. How do we deal with that? How do I deal with that? I am never going to be able to whole-heartedly believe her when she talks about someone taking advantage of her and abusing her.
When she talks to me about someone being awful to her before it’s gotten to the point of that person deciding they want my mom out of my life, I will question her carefully:
Oh, so Clara wanted you to do X, and you didn’t want to, but you said you would anyway, and did a bad job and now Clara is upset at you and you don’t know why because you didn’t want to do it? Did you tell Clara you didn’t want to do it? Yes, I know she asked you to, but I bet she’d have been happier if you told her ‘no’ and she have asked someone else who actually wanted to do it? Why do you think that Clara would be mad at you if you said no? You’ve never said ‘no’ to Clara before? Well, why don’t you try that and see how it goes? If Clara doesn’t want to be your friend if you say ‘no’ sometimes, then maybe she’s not such a good friend. I understand that you want Clara to help you with that other project and you said ‘yes’ because of that. But if Clara doesn’t want to do the project, then she may say ‘no’, even if you said ‘yes’ to her project – especially if you did a bad job with it. I understand you think it’s not fair, but it actually is – you can both choose to do the things you want to do. You don’t have to try to force her into doing what you want – if you try to force her into helping you, you might end up not being friends anymore anyways, and that’s not what you want, right?
This is me loving my mom as best as I can. Trying to be a good example. Pushing her to say or do things that may be uncomfortable for her, but are more honest, and will stop her from consciously (or unconsciously) sabotaging a relationship by acting passive aggressively or in a controlling manner.
So I do this when I can, I maintain my boundaries as best as I can, and I stay away from her when I’m too tired or weak to maintain those boundaries or offer her help.
And I hope that someday someone will figure out how to help people like her.
*When I was fifteen, I hit my mom back for the first time. Before that, she would hit me, sometimes until I fell down, and then kick me. Never particularly hard (I think she was concerned about bruises), but nonetheless, it was traumatic and awful.
Around the time I turned fifteen, I realized that my mom and I were now the same height. It was a weird feeling, as I think anybody who grew taller than their parents can attest to – after all those years of looking up at her (physically, anyway), we were now eye to eye.
Shortly after that happened, when she hit me, I just had a sudden realization that I was the same size as her, and probably stronger. So I hit her back. And I told her that from now on, any time she hit me, I would hit her back even harder.
She stopped hitting me.