As promised, here is the other side of the coin regarding “Make-Believe Children”–the no-good child. Yesterday, I wrote a rather lengthy post describing the all-good child, and I found it to be a rather educational and somewhat emotional post to write. I think, however, that it’s healthy to be informed about these dynamics within families where a borderline mother, stepmother, grandmother, or father is present because we as children often leave the home with habits and tendencies ingrained, and we don’t understand ourselves. We often don’t like ourselves either. I have heard myself and other people with borderline mothers confess, “I feel like I’m on the outside looking in. I feel like no one understands me. I want to be included. I feel like everyone is a part of some joke, and everyone is laughing. Everyone gets it, but I don’t. I want to enter in, too! Why can’t I just let go? Why can’t I enjoy life like my friends do? What the fuck is wrong with me?” Truthfully, I don’t think we are innately flawed. Nothing is really wrong with us. That is the first truth to embrace. We just need to learn new habits in the way of thinking about others and about ourselves. For the all-good child, there is no such thing as letting go or having a good time because your sole role in life is to meet every single need and expectation, known and unknown, of your borderline parent. You exist for no other reason. You only exist for her. Once you figure this out, it’s easier to live with them, but once you figure this out–and realize that this is utterly wrong–you will fight to get away from her…or die trying.
What is life like for the no-good child? I can speak about this, too. I don’t know how something so tragic happened, but after my parents divorced my father married a 19 year-old girl who was also a borderline. My father was 30 at the time. My father had pedophilic tendencies so this isn’t a huge surprise. My mother was 19 when he married her, and he once told me a story about the first girl he intended to marry before he met my mother. She was a mere 15 years-old! He was 19 at the time. Her parents had signed the permission form so it wasn’t technically statutory rape since her parents permitted it. My new stepmother had already been married and divorced when they met. She married her high school sweetheart directly out of high school, and, according to the stories, this young man had a dark side. He was a sexual dom, and he treated her very badly. She was a deeply conservative Christian girl who grew up in a Southern Pentecostal denomination where girls don’t cut their hair and only wear skirts. I’m sure she was ill-prepared for BDSM on her wedding night. She promptly divorced him. I also suspected that her brother sexually abused her during her childhood. All this is to say that she came into her marriage with my father victimized. Borderlines are almost always victimized, and this helps me feel some kind of compassion albeit it’s a challenge on some days. It’s not right to globalize my experience with my mother and stepmother to an entire diagnosis.
When I met my stepmother, I was six years-old, and I had great hope. I remember this. I was in Kindergarten, and I really wanted to like her. I had an immense need to please all the adults in my life particularly my father. She was nice to me for a little while, but my father poisoned the well a bit as did my mother. My mother called their house frequently and harassed my stepmother. My father lied about paying the child support, and she was caught in the middle. I became the representation of my mother to them both. I looked like her a bit. There was no one in their town that looked remotely like me. My mother was Swedish, and I had inherited her phenotype with big, blue eyes and a towhead. My father was Black Irish. When I try to put the pieces together as to what caused my stepmother to hate me as much as she did, I can only guess that it’s because I was a reminder of my father’s previous life. She wanted all reminders of that life to vanish. If I could be banished from her life, then she might have peace. Lawson explains in her book Understanding The Borderline Mother that many things can cause a mother (or stepmother in this case) to project hatred onto her child. Sometimes it’s a reminder of the hated parts of herself or even that which she hates. Some borderline mothers who have been raped will choose their sons as the no-good children because of their utter fear and hatred of all males since they associate men with violence. They cannot separate the gender from the horrible event that happened to them. I think my stepmother could not separate my mother and her treatment of herself and my father from me, her daughter. I became the target–the no-good child. Lawson states, “Chronic psychological degradation of a child, or an adult, can have deadly consequences.” (Lawson 167)
Characteristics of the No-Good Child
Develops borderline personality disorder: “The negative projections of the borderline mother grounded the no-good child’s self-concept in self-hatred. Children who are perceived as evil by their mother have two choices: 1) to believe that they are evil, or 2) to die trying to be good. The mother’s perception is immutable: no-good children can never win no matter how hard they try. Without intervention, no-good children inevitably develop BPD….The borderline mother will vehemently deny her role in the child’s behavior. She honestly does not see it.” (Lawson 169) To me, this is heartbreaking. It’s very hard to read. I can only speak about my own experiences. I did not develop BPD, and I do look back and wonder about it. I think it’s because I believed that I was loved. I was utterly convinced that my mother loved me, and I believed that my grandparents loved me, too. That is what will tip the scales for victims of abuse and maintain resiliency–the belief that one is loved. It just takes one person to believe in you. Just one. isn’t that a miracle? I think that’s why I stayed in the purgatory of codependency and never descended into Borderland. Although my mother could rage, she never did the things that my father and stepmother did.
My stepmother believed that I was possessed by a demon. That was her worldview. She would convince my father that I had a lying demon inside my body, and she would convince him that I needed to be rid of it. This began when I was 7 years-old. First, they tried beating it out, but I would not break. Then, they would put me in very hot baths to “boil” it out. They would then attempt to beat it out afterwards. Then, I would be subjected to cross-examinations and forms of mental torture. My father was ex-Special Forces. He was skilled at torture and the like so he seemed to enjoy the long cross-examinations that went on late into the night. I would fall asleep and fall off the chair, and someone would slap me until I would wake up. This sort of behavior is termed “folie à deux” or perhaps “folie à imposée”. Essentially, it’s a situation wherein psychosis or delusion is shared by two people, or, in the case of folie à imposée, one person’s delusion is imposed upon another who may not have participated in it without the other person. While my father was a sadist, he was generally passive. I don’t think that he would have been as abusive as he was without the instigation of my stepmother. She was the one who made the demands and instructed him to act. There are many families with borderline mothers and very passive fathers. The fathers either do nothing and bury their heads in the sand or, worse, follow the instruction of their borderline wives; hence, a folie à deux situation arises. It’s very important that adult children who are trying to recover from these situations know that they did not endure this abusive dynamic because they are intrinsically evil. Folie à deux is a tragic dynamic, and it is never the fault of the children. It might feel like it, but it’s not. Know this. Is it any wonder though that a child brought up in something like this might go on to develop BPD later on?
Suffers from pain agnosia: “No-good children may develop pain agnosia, the lack of pain response. Seventy-five percent of abused children in one study showed self-destructive tendencies such as trichotillomania, falling, nail biting, head banging, eating indigestible substances, swallowing hard objects, and ingesting pills and medicines. Children who were transferred to nonabusive environments, however, terminated these behaviors and a normal pain response returned. The no-good child, therefore, appears to be indifferent to punishment, increasing the mother’s rage. Pain agnosia occurs as the result of the release of a brain opioid, metencephalin, that induces euphoria and provides an anesthetizing effect.” (Lawson 169) I was a nail-biter, and I picked my lips until they bled. I have no memories of not doing this. When I am deeply stressed I will begin to do this. It’s odd. When I was recently in the hospital, I spent my entire time in the hospital picking away at my bottom lip. I would bite it until it bled. I have no idea why I did it. I think it might be a response to pain and stress. It’s a weird way to calm myself. I don’t do it often, but I’ve always done this. Whenever I had to visit my father as a child, I bit my nails, picked my lips, and chewed the inside of my mouth until there were holes and large ulcers formed. I have scars inside my cheeks now from doing this.
Feels doomed: “No-good children feel marked, doomed for life, like a blight on the face of the earth. Their pervasive sense of hopelessness is conveyed in their artwork, their writing, and their behavior…They see no good in themselves, in the world, or in their future. They feel certain that they will ruin good things, good people, and good times. They see no hope.” (Lawson 170) My stepmother actually told me things like this, but I didn’t really believe her. I focused intently on growing up and leaving everyone behind. That is what I did at all times. As soon as they began whipping me or screaming at me, I left my body. I simply went somewhere else. I dissociated. I eventually said to myself, “I will leave you all one day.”
Messages to The No-Good Child
- “You ruin everything.”
- “I’d be better off without you.”
- “You are responsible for my unhappiness.”
- “You make me sick.”
- “You are sick.”
- “I could kill you.”
- “You are a disgrace to this family.” (Lawson 170)
“Of all the tragic aspects of no-good children, perhaps the most heartbreaking is their continued desire to please their mother….No-good children may stay attached to their mothers and give up on themselves. Unfortunately, by doing so they give up hope of feeling loved. An x-ray of the no-good child’s self might reveal a slow-growing tumor consuming the soul. No-good children are afraid of looking at themselves, especially of looking within. They sense an internal darkness, something withered and black, foul and rotten. Whatever it is, it feels beyond their control and is too terrifying to face. Those who come to therapy, therefore, must have a great deal of courage. They must be willing to look at their withered soul and let it be nourished in the warm light of acceptance and understanding.” (Lawson 171)
I stopped trying to please my stepmother and father when I turned 18. I cut off my relationship with them. I contacted them again when I was married. I had a baby girl. I thought perhaps they would treat me differently. They didn’t. I ended it for good a decade ago. It’s hard to sit in the presence of people who used to beat you senseless because they thought you were the house of a demon and refused to apologize for it. It was also very hard for me to realize that I hated my stepmother. I felt complete ambivalence towards my father, but I truly hated my stepmother. My blood would boil sitting in her presence. I had never felt hatred before. I didn’t even hate the man who abducted me. I think that might be weird. It takes so much energy to conjure up hatred. I figure that he didn’t deserve my energy. He didn’t deserve any part of me. Not even my hatred. But her? The sound of her voice elicited a visceral response in me. I felt terror and total helplessness in her presence. I’m not the kind of person who can live with hatred in my spirit, and I sincerely hated her. I had to get away from her and my father for the well-being of my soul and mind. Perhaps for their own well-being, too. What if I snapped? How many times can a person be treated so badly? How many times could a person be denigrated and treated like….something subhuman? That’s what they did after all. What if they said something to my daughter? I didn’t trust myself to hold back. They never held back. She carried a gun in her purse for protection. Why? Well, according to her, “you never know when some black piece of trash will come try to rob you. I have a right to defend myself.” Everyone was subhuman. What if I reached for her gun? What if I needed to defend myself? What if the world needed defending from her? This is how twisted the thinking can get when you’re sitting in the presence of people who have abused you. Without the proper healing and reconciliation, it’s just not a good idea particularly if those people are completely unrepentant and perhaps not the nicest of people to begin with.
“Children of borderlines cannot become healthy, autonomous adults unless they find a way of understanding their experience. Describing early experiences with words is difficult because memories ‘are stored in the amygdala as rough, wordless blueprints for emotional life.’ Like children who are born deaf and blind, children of borderlines have no way of organizing their emotional life. They do not realize that they are different, that other children are born into a world of sound and light. The lack of consistency in their emotional world creates a sense of meaninglessness, as if life itself is nonsense. Therapy helps children of borderlines organize and express their feelings, and helps them find meaning in their own existence…Masterson’s words regarding the treatment of borderline adolescents and their mothers echo [other therapists]: ‘Therapy is arduous, time-consuming, filled with…obstacles, but it is far from impossible. When it is pursued faithfully, it more than justifies the effort, providing, as it does, a life preserver to rescue and sustain the deprived and abandoned in their struggle and eventually a beacon of light to guide them’. Feeling buried alive is normal to the borderline mother and her children. Without help, the cannot be save.” (Lawson 173)
That is very sobering, but it’s true. Children of borderlines must seek therapy if they ever truly want to make sense of their experience and integrate their inner lives into something fully functional and whole. I’ve been at this work for the better part of a decade, and I’m still at it although the pace is slower now. There’s so much I understand now. While I look back on certain memories and feel an ache, it no longer overtakes me. I’m no longer paralyzed and stuck. I can see that I was the no-good child at my father’s house, and when I returned to mother’s house I was the idealized and favored all-good child–most of the time.
It is important for me to explain that I fell from grace when I attempted to leave home. My mother had a raging merger fantasy around me, and every time I tried to grow up I was severely punished. It began when I hit puberty. I was maligned when I got my period. I was denigrated when I had to begin wearing a bra. Every sign of maturation she interpreted as a harbinger of abandonment. She, therefore, made certain that I was shamed thoroughly for things I could not control. I was to never forget my place; I was chattel. When I got married, she almost refused to come to the wedding. When I got pregnant with my first daughter, she slit her wrists. I was the no-good child, but I was not enthralled anymore. She was beginning to lose her glamour. The spell had lost its potency, and I was beginning to feel my own power. Perhaps I could try to assert myself. Perhaps I didn’t need her. Perhaps she couldn’t devour me. What if she isn’t all-powerful? What if the Great Beast has no teeth?
And it’s those questions that begin to free us and allow us to step into the light after so many years of living in their shadow.
What if I’m not evil? What if I’m not stupid? What if I’m not a blight upon all humanity? What if I’m not possessed by demons? What if…
….I am good?
…you are good?
- Understanding The Borderline Mother, Part II: The All-Good Child
- Understanding The Borderline Mother, Part I
- Gaslighting and Distortion Campaigns
- Safe People