I have hinted that there are things, big things, I don’t write about which can leave me feeling uncertain, and unmotivated, to write. Now I’m ready.
This week I cut my mother out of my life completely and permanently.
See, I said it was big. Obviously this wasn’t a decision I made lightly, and I’m still processing it all. I’m sad, excited, anxious, and exhilarated all at once. Now time to back up a bit. I’ll try not to ramble too much but it is a very long story.
My mother is abusive. She is also both physically and mentally ill which makes the whole thing rather complicated. She has Borderline Personality Disorder and Multiple Sclerosis.
Multiple Sclerosis is a degenerative autoimmune disorder in which the autoimmune system attacks and destroys the myelin sheath of nerves, causing them to misfire. It can interfere with pretty much every nerve in your body as well as leave lesions on your brain. She was diagnosed when I was 16 after experiencing double vision for several months.
Borderline Personality Disorder is much more difficult to describe. It is a mental illness that no one fully understands but is one of the most insidious to treat because most sufferers refuse to accept any kind of accountability for their behavior. It is typified by impulsive behavior, addiction, explosive anger, low self-esteem, no sense of real self, and the belief that everyone is out to get you through no fault of your own.
My parents divorced when I was 3, shortly after my sister was born. The mental illness drove my father to leave, but my mother blamed my dad wholly. My entire life I was told how awful he was and the worst insult she could issue was “you’re just like your father.”
Due to her inability to play well with others, my younger years contain multiple memories of my mother explaining how she and her boss had decided she should find a new job. I think I was about 10 when she landed a job as the head secretary for a heating and air conditioning company. She worked there for many years until her MS made it impossible for her to perform her job to the minimum standard.
She was lousy with money, spending frequently on things she “needed” such as Avon collectibles and then being shocked that utilities were cut off when she didn’t pay the bills. She would scream at unsuspecting customer service representatives that she had two daughters and how dare they cut the water, gas, electricity, take your pick. Pink slips, slammed phone receivers, and dramatic tears were par for the course growing up.
My mother strongly believed in corporal punishment. But due to mood swings, it was difficult to predict when I would be spanked and when she would be forgiving. I learned quickly that if I cried, I was less likely to be spanked although it was a fine balance between appearing genuinely remorseful and crying alligator tears. My sister never bothered with tears and as a result, only managed to infuriate my mother even more. My sister took the worst of the beatings because she refused to express emotion.
While she did spank often and sometimes excessively, I never felt I suffered physical abuse per say. It was the emotional abuse that was much harder. If things went wrong, it was my fault. End of story. No matter what the situation, I should know better, try harder, anticipate completely. My mother’s greatest compliment was that I could read her mind. If we failed her, she would loudly proclaim that her suicide would make us finally happy. I can recall as early as 5 years old her telling me someday I would grow up to hate her.
At 17 I decided I had had enough. By now she had been diagnosed with the MS so that became her most recent excuse for all her failings. One evening I came home from a youth meeting and she pounced. She had been waiting to tell me yet again how it was my fault that she had this huge problem. I went to my room steaming. I told my sister I was leaving the next day and she could come with me if she wanted. I didn’t know for certain where I was going but I knew I could not spend another day with my mother. My sister chose to stay. She had her reasons and it wasn’t until decades later that I understood.
I spent the next day in the counselor’s office at school, crying and confused. She convinced me that my dad’s house was my only option. With trepidation, I called and he said of course I could come to his house. The adults around me told me I should take a few days at my dad’s house to decide what I wanted to do for the long term. I went along with it already knowing in my heart that this would not be a temporary move. Within 24 hours I told my dad of my long-term plans, and less than a week later, I collected my stuff from my mom’s house.
Her response? To demand my house keys because she no longer trusted me. She took down every single picture of me in the house. It was years, possibly even a decade before she put any pictures of me up again. All because I left her “just like your father.” She never asked me why I left or what she could do. She only demanded apologies and repentance.
Throughout this, I struggled with validation. I knew something was wrong. I suspected it was my mother. Unfortunately, as a teenager, people told me I was struggling because the teen years were rough and low self-esteem was to be expected. I was told that I someday I would appreciate her struggles as a single mother and thank her for all she had done. In other words, my problems with my mother were my fault. This continued through much of my adult life from well-meaning strangers and friends.
Over the next 23 years I tried to maintain some sort of rational relationship with her. I got married, went to years and years of therapy where I finally put a name to her condition, had children, put up boundaries and tried to be a good daughter. There were times where I had to stop talking to her completely because of something outrageous she had done. She would reel it in a bit and I would move forward.
In the meantime I watched her physical health decline. Her MS progressed and about three years ago her diagnosis changed from relapsing/remitting (where your body heals between attacks) to progressive (no more healing). Her reduced mobility made it harder for her to keep her house clean. She continued driving longer than she should have until she ran her car into a Plaid Pantry. Thankfully no one was hurt and she didn’t have enough money to buy a new car so she gave up driving. She even set her kitchen on fire. I kept thinking she would be forced to move to a facility but she managed to work the system to her advantage and stay in her crumbling home.
Her mental health also declined. She became a hoarder. She had always had packed closets when I was a child. I remember our dinner table being half covered with stuff for a full year once. But once my sister and I were gone, there were no checks to keep her in balance. Stuff began to spill from closets and flat surfaces to the floor. She would overbuy food and let it rot in the house. There was seldom anywhere to sit and dirty dishes and garbage littered the house. It was disgusting but she got highly defensive whenever I said anything.
By Spring of 2012 I was regularly getting calls from neighbors wondering if she was dead or alive. She had been hospitalized for a UTI that she had let turn into a kidney infection gone septic. Another 24 hours and she may have died. Much to my surprise, I was frantic over the thought of her dying. I didn’t realize I still retained hope that we could repair the relationship, and I could have a loving mother.
Eventually she came to me for help when someone suggested a reverse mortgage to finance much needed home repair. For whatever reason, she opened up her finances to me in a way she never had before. I concluded she was in danger of losing the house to foreclosure due to unpaid back taxes and there wasn’t enough equity in the house for a reverse mortgage. With creditors hassling her daily, I gingerly suggested it was time to move out of the house. To my surprise, she was convinced.
For better or worse, in October, 2012 I moved her to my town. I helped her sell the house, found her an apartment, cleaned up her finances, set her up with proper medical care and did the best I could to get her safe and healthy. It was exhausting. I questioned the decision daily but was determined to help her improve her life. It was the best and worst decision I have made to date.
I had long suspected that my mother lied to me on a regular basis. Every catastrophe, financial blunder, miscommunication was never her fault. But after 20 years of being an adult, I was realizing that I had never had the trouble she had. I realized things aren’t that complicated and she must be lying. I started paying closer attention to her stories. It didn’t take long to realize if I didn’t understand her story, it was a lie. When I confronted her, the verbal abuse began again. I wanted her dead. I didn’t care, understand, etc. Even though I knew she was lying, I felt guilty when I tried to push back.
By last November, I was angry. Angry all the time. I dreaded the upcoming holidays and the obligatory family gatherings that I could no longer avoid because she lived only blocks away. I wanted to extract myself from this situation but I didn’t know how. I only knew I felt guilty for moving her from the city she loved to a small town because things weren’t going like I had hoped and even though logically I knew it wasn’t my fault, emotionally I felt all the blame.
Then one day she handed me a collection letter like it wasn’t a big deal at all. It was 2 months old. For a book she purchased two weeks after moving here. From the very beginning she was undermining my efforts to get her out of financial ruin. She never ordered the book she said. Of course. Even so, she had waited 14 months to give me a bill for it. It angered me. I paid it. I didn’t try to resolve it or figure it out. I just paid it. With her money.
Things began to decline rapidly. Mysterious automatic withdrawals started coming out of her account for things of which she had no knowledge. She couldn’t figure out how to look at her bank account online but she could shop online from places like ebay and navigate paypal without a hitch. I got a call from Meals on Wheels wondering if she was alive or dead. I sent her apartment manager to take care of it. The manager told my mother to call me. You know, to let me know she was okay. No call came.
By now I knew I needed to change. I wasn’t going to change her. I needed to resolve this growing anger because make no mistake, I was angry. All the time. At everyone. For stupid reasons. I didn’t like the person I was becoming. I was fighting with my husband about stupid shit. Insanely stupid shit. Then falling apart when I realized what I had done. He didn’t like this either but he remained steady. Supporting me as I crashed. Quietly letting me know he was always on my side. Always.
I finally sought help. A new counselor. A new method. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Developed in 1990, it was not a widely known therapy the first time I went through counseling. I’m not sure I would have been ready for it then anyway. Back then I learned what Borderline Personality Disorder was, how it worked, and why it happened. Now I needed to understand why I couldn’t break away.
The way EMDR works is kind of like memory regression. You pick traumatic memories and relive them while tracking a moving object with your eyes. The eye movement settles your brain in a way that allows you to recall the memory with shocking clarity. I could recall the emotions I felt as a child but process them as an adult. I could apply logic and reason to a child’s reaction and overlay a new message to that event. I turned “it’s my fault” into “she’s just mean.” ”You are worthless” to “I have power.”
Once a week I worked through these memories, being reduced to gut-wrenching tears as I tore down old perceptions and built new foundations. I left with a single sentence in mind and gave it time to percolate, settle, cure. It was stunning the way it filtered into every aspect of my life. Asking for help became “I need you to do this” instead of “hey, if you don’t mind, would you please”. Calling my children on their behavior or telling my husband why I had chosen to do something no longer carried the weight of self-doubt and guilt. Even now, in little ways that only I notice, I find peace and it stuns me every single time.
This wasn’t magic. This was a conscious reworking of the messages hard-wired into my brain. It was incredibly painful and hard. But that didn’t make it feel any less like a miracle.
After the first session, I came home knowing it was time to change the relationship with my mother. I started writing a letter, my entire body shaking as I typed. At first, I offered to assist minimally. I would still drive her to the doctor if she asked nicely. She could call if she wished.
By the second session I had changed my mind and knew after my last commitment to her which was a ride to the doctor, I would be done. I started planning my break. It would be fast, concise and final. I found myself musing over stories I had heard of people breaking off physically abusive relationships and found myself taking similar steps. I realized I was allowing myself to call this what it was: an abusive relationship. I deserved better.
As the day approached, the anxiety grew. I found myself planning to the last detail. How would I give her my letter? Would I mail it? No, she doesn’t always check her mail. Would I just leave it somewhere in her apartment? Where would she best find it? Could I hand it to her in person? Was I that brave? What would happen?
My third and final session was the day before I would see my mother. Going back to an early memory, I realized my anxiety was sadness in disguise. Hope that she might be nice and fear that she would be mean instead. As I connected to that feeling, I grew braver and the next day I said my peace, handed her the letter, and walked out, closing the door behind me. I will never forget the look on her face. A mixture of shock and sadness as my words sunk in.
I drove home, blocked her number on my phone, made a brief post on Facebook, then started crying. For the next hour I alternated between tears and euphoria. Sadness and hope. Support flowed through Facebook, my computer making the familiar beep with each new notification. Some funny. Some sweet. All compassionate and kind. Most knew who I was referring to.
I spent the afternoon at a movie with my husband and kids and the evening on the phone with my dad and then my sister. Both assured me in their own ways that this really was the best decision and I would be fine. We all also knew mom would be fine. She would continue on her own way as she always has. There was one phone call from her that afternoon with a voice mail I deleted before even listening to it. It’s not like she was going to apologize.
I did leave her with the option to move back to the big city. I said if she finds a place, I will facilitate the move which means my husband and I will pay someone to move her. She will not see us. I don’t really expect her to take me up on the offer though. I think she would prefer the fantasy of turning people against me in my small town. It’s okay. No one who matters will believe her anyway.
I wish there was an easy way to wrap this up in a tidy ending but it really isn’t an ending at all. It’s a beginning of a new life for me. One without abuse and guilt and pain. It took a lot to get here, and I wish it had been easier, but I can’t say I have regret. Just peace. Finally, blessed peace.