To bring you up to speed, one of the reasons I started this blog ages ago was to process having a relationship with my mother. My mother has borderline personality disorder (BPD), but she also has other co-morbid disorders. When I was growing up, my mother had sadistic tendencies. In fact, my mother used to meet all the criteria for Sadistic Personality Disorder, excepting the last one, which was removed from the DSM before publication of the DSM-IV:
Maladaptive patterns of motivated behaviour, usually evident for at lease several years.
Enduring, pervasive, maladaptive patterns of behaviour which are usually recognised before or during adolescence.
It is long-standing and its onset can be traced to adolescence or early adulthood, but is not due to drugs (of abuse or medication) or to a medical condition eg head injury.
The behaviour pattern is inflexible across all personal and social situations and significantly impairs their social or occupational functioning.
Has used physical cruelty or violence for the purpose of establishing dominance in a relationship (not merely to achieve some noninterpersonal goal, such as striking someone in order to rob him or her).
Humiliates or demeans people in the presence of others,
Has treated or disciplined someone under his or her control unusually harshly, e.g., a child, student, prisoner, or patient,
Is amused by, or takes pleasure in, the psychological or physical suffering of others (including animals),
Has lied for the purpose of harming or inflicting pain on others (not merely to achieve some other goal)
Gets other people to do what her or she wants by frightening them (through intimidation or even terror),
Restricts the autonomy of people with whom he or she has a close relationship, e.g., will not let spouse leave the house unaccompanied or permit teen-age daughter to attend social functions.
is fascinated by violence, weapons, martial arts, injury, or torture
This additional disordered component of her personality, I suspect, made her that much more impossible to live with. What I have always asked, however, is: Are the above pervasive patterns of behavior motived by sadism or fear? Some of the behaviors listed above, aside from the last one, are not uncommon in BPD but are also not motivated by sadism but rather a crippling fear and a need to control. With my mother, it was both. It depended upon which persona was calling the shots in the moment. Was her Witch persona dominating her mood, or was her Queen persona at the forefront? If you could determine that, then you would know the motivation and what you were in for.
She refused treatment for most of my life, and, when she was forced into treatment after a suicide attempt, she masterfully played the part of a depressed woman deceiving her treating psychiatrist, thusly, never receiving the correct diagnosis or treatment. I have described knowing her as living under a Reign of Terror. It is strange in retrospect to feel love for someone who is so dangerous and malicious. In her worst rages, she could become homicidal. To everyone else, however, she was charming, lovely, and the life of the party. No one in my family believes me when I try to convey just how bad it really was behind closed doors. They just hound me and ask, “How is your mom? Why don’t you just reconcile? Forgive her.” If only it were that easy…
So, it is no surprise then that my mother writes me a letter annually. I don’t speak to her anymore, and I won’t let her see my children. That was over ten years ago. It’s funny how something starts. She got angry at me because I made a suggestion about her business. She decided not to speak to me. That was her M.O. Typically, when my mother would run off to her room to sulk and freeze me out, I would seek her out and kowtow. The kowtowing was very important. She had to see a certain kind of degradation to accept me again. If I didn’t do this, I would be subjected to days of a slow-burning rage that would eventually explode. Then, I would have to kowtow and take responsibility for her feelings anyway. This time, however, I didn’t call her. I went against a lifetime of programming and refused to act out that toxic script. I thought perhaps that she would eventually call me. I am her daughter after all.
She never did. For years. In all of that I finally saw the reality of our relational dynamics. I was the engine of our relationship, and I also saw how co-dependent it was. I was a classic enabler mostly because I was terrified of my mother. I would do anything to avoid rousing her rage. Anything. I lacked any distress tolerance for it. I still struggle with tolerating displays of anger. My first response is to run away as fast as I can.
My mother waited for something like 4 years to call me, and when I asked her why she waited so long, she said, “I got angry. I’m not now. So, how are you? I want to visit.” Four years. I was so angry at her nonchalant attitude and entitlement. I told her to go to a therapist and figure out why what she was currently doing was wrong. I then ended the conversation. Since that phone call, the letters have been arriving. Usually in December. Some of them are twisted and strange. Some of them blame me for her misery. Some of them plead with me. The 2017 Letter was different.
This letter was either written by another person, or she’s been in therapy. She acknowledged that she has engaged in abusive behavior. She acknowledged that she put me in harm’s way. She acknowledged that I would live with the effects of her abuse for the rest of my life. She apologized. My mother doesn’t say things like this. I was shocked. She asked if we could talk. I thought about it for six weeks.
I decided to send her my email and cell number. She has not reached out except to wish me a pleasant New Year. After years of letters begging to see me, beseeching me, she is silent when an open door is presented to her. I suspect that she is waiting for me to call her–as always. Finding that reality is the same makes me sigh.
I will not call her, and my choosing not to call her isn’t because I’m stubborn. It is because it is not my responsibility to make amends. It is hers. Part of the very difficult process of making amends is making those very difficult phone calls. No one wants to do it, but that is part of the process. Were I still enabling her, I would spare her the suffering and make the call. But, I see now that this very particular kind of anxiety and suffering associated with making amends are exactly what matures people. It is a consequence of their choices, and people have to be very familiar with the consequential experience.
I don’t feel responsible for my mother’s emotional state anymore. I have felt released from that relationship for years, and I don’t expect anything from her. I don’t expect her to come through for me, be better than she is, or even do an ethical or moral thing. I expect her to still engage in needs-driven behaviors meaning that if doing something meets her needs, then she will choose that over doing something to meet the needs of another person. And that need could be the off-loading of her rage or relying on everyone else around her for emotional regulation. It could be almost anything really.
I don’t feel angry towards her anymore. I feel at ease. I do, however, feel disappointed. So much was possible and went unrealized.
My description of my mother is not meant to be representative of BPD. She is herself. My experience with her is unique unto itself. So many people grew up with abusive parents and have either walked away or are still trying to figure out how to navigate those relationships while also attempting to find their own peace and healing. What I can say is that it is possible to heal and experience peace after an abusive childhood. It won’t just happen though, and time doesn’t heal you.
You heal you. Your active engagement in a startlingly truthful process is what heals. Seeking it out ruthlessly and fearlessly no matter what it costs you. Staying willing. Pushing through. Partnering with people who will tell you the truth about you and how you live and do relationships. Finding a community of people who model healthy interpersonal habits and love. This is what heals you. And, getting rid of the relationships that are slowly (or quickly) killing you. You can’t choose life and death at the same time and expect to thrive in your life. Death will win out every time because we continually operate at a deficit and never move forward. That’s the definition of survival. That isn’t how one wants to live if the goals are healing and expanding.
That is something I have learned along the way. As always, keep going, and don’t forget to choose life as you do.