Stopping the Holiday Madness

The Iceman hath indeed cometh to my neighborhood.  I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of snowplows clearing snow and scraping concrete.  I had grand plans to “get shit done” yesterday until my car got stuck in the alley in a mound of snow.  Well, three inches of snow that had somehow become a mound that my totally hip minivan couldn’t overcome.  I see now why all the locals drive SUVs.  Nothing seems to stop them.  Not snow, ice, flash floods.  Pedestrians.

Hanukkah begins tonight, and I have a To Do list that needs attention before that first candle is lit.  This weekend, however, feels a million times less stressful than last weekend.  You know, Thanksgiving weekend–the first Thanksgiving weekend my mother and stepfather have come to my house in years.

About 11 years ago I had an epiphany.  Our family holiday get-togethers had become so emotionally tumultuous and stressful that I wondered why we even bothered to celebrate them.  What was the point? I tried taking Xanax once just to get through Thanksgiving, and that was a mistake! I took one Xanax in the morning and fell asleep standing up while cooking.  Suddenly, I woke up on the kitchen floor an hour and half later with no memory of how I got there.

The thought occurred to me to just tell my mother, “No, you cannot come over on Thanksgiving.  Celebrate with your husband’s family,” but my mother has borderline personality disorder.  The last time I told her ‘no’ I was a small child.  She slapped me so hard across the face that I nearly sustained a whiplash injury.  Over the years, I’d seen people tell my mother ‘no’.  It never went well for them.  Violence always ensued in one way or another, but eleven years ago I was willing to take that risk.  Either give up celebrating altogether or tell my mother ‘no’.

So, I found some courage, and I told her that we wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving by ourselves in a way that was meaningful to us.  She had in-laws.  Celebrate with them (I wasn’t that blunt).  That was probably one of the reasons my mother stopped speaking to me.  For five years.

So, last weekend, my mother and stepfather drove in from out-of-state to join us for Thanksgiving, and I had a feeling that it would be a less than pleasurable evening.  Over the years, we’ve crafted a certain kind of holiday.  We eat in the evening.  We stay at the table.  We enjoy drinks and desserts.  And then the games come out.  Sometimes we’ve played until early into the next morning, but my mother doesn’t know how to have fun.  She doesn’t have great social skills, and part of that is due to how she was raised.  My mother has also spent far too much time alone as she has aged, and her ability to socialize has slipped.  As her daughter, I observed this, and, as a host, I kept this in mind.

By six o’clock in the evening on Thanksgiving, I knew it was just going to be about getting through the night.  It wasn’t fun.  It felt like playing a social game of Tetris.  People around the table were, at times, acting inappropriately, and I, as the host, had to somehow make the remarks and behaviors fit together to keep the evening flowing smoothly.  I was glad when it ended.  As I cleaned up, I distinctly remembered why I disliked holiday celebrations.

Why do we do it? I ask it honestly.  Why do we put ourselves through the meat grinder that is Holiday Celebrations with Friends and Family if we feel so drained afterwards?

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Ah yes, tradition.  How many awful things have been tolerated in the name of Tradition? Sure, sure, we get to eat some great traditional food like Great Aunt Vera’s dessert bars and Auntie Esther’s bread, but then three of your cousins show up two hours late completely shit-faced and high, your sister-in-law starts talking politics during dinner and refuses to change the subject, your brother starts discussing religion and offends a co-worker you invited, your father is passive-aggressive and upsets your mother-in-law, and then a family argument ensues in the middle of dinner about that thing that happened that one time.  Just like last year.  And the year before that! It’s like a holiday template that must be followed every year, or it isn’t the holidays.

I’m not suggesting that my idea to un-invite my mother to Thanksgiving was the “right” thing to do, but it was a different thing to do.  I wondered what life during the holiday season might feel like if I said, “No one can come over until they stop acting badly.  You want to come over? Then deal with your issues. I’m not having bad holidays anymore.  Can we please start a new tradition?”  You know that you have a real problem on your hands when you start dreading December in June, and that was me.  I wanted to know what an honestly pleasant celebration free of drama, enabling codependency, crippling anxiety, and pandering to pathologically self-centered people felt like.

What does it feel like? It feels wonderful.   There are no more obligatory visits with family members who actually don’t approve of us and actively look down on us for not thinking like they do.  I can spend the month of December making positive plans rather than making plans to decompress from excessive stress.  I don’t have to come up with strategies to avoid my cousin’s husband who likes to secretly grope me when he hugs me, and I don’t have to think of ways to sidestep political and religious discussions that always end in fiery judgment and unkindness.

One key thing I learned from this Thanksgiving is that I don’t have the distress tolerance for “misbehaviors” when the circumstances are already stressful, and this I would suggest is likely true for many people.

This is the most important takeaway.  Somatic complaints are very common during the holidays for this very reason.  Our bodies cannot adequately process the overload of stress which comes in the form of a cortisol assault on your body.  Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands.  When you are stressed, your body produces it.  One of the key things that cortisol does is suppress your immune system’s response.  Have you ever had a very stressful week at work or school like completing a big presentation or studying for exams? You’re doing fine and then once the project or exams are over, you suddenly get sick.  Or, if you get migraines, you are migraine-free during the stressful work week, but come Saturday, you’re down with a terrible migraine event.  Why is this?

The symptoms of illness like a runny nose, sore throat, body aches, or nausea are not caused by a virus.  Those are signs of inflammation which are caused by your immune system engaging in a response to fight off a pathogen.  In other words, that’s how you know that you caught a bug.  In the stressful days prior to your symptoms when you were neck-deep in exam prep (or Holiday Apocalypse Family Fun Time), you were already infected with a virus.  Your body’s stress-induced production of cortisol, however, was suppressing your immune system’s response to that pathogen.  So, you had no symptoms of the infection, but you had an infection.  You merely experienced the symptoms of the infection after your stress decreased along with your cortisol production.  The stress causes the spike in cortisol production, but it is likely the lifestyle changes that puts you at risk for viral infection like poor dietary habits and sleep deprivation.  We all eat more poorly and get less sleep during “crunch time”, and that is what invites viral infection.  We simply stop taking care of ourselves particularly when we feel like something is on the line like our jobs, grades, or our sense of self.  And the holidays certainly have a way of doing that to us.

Not managing our stress contributes to cortisol dysregulation which can result in a number of health problems and negatively impact your immune system.  Bottom line: take care of yourself and invest in your own level of happiness and well-being even if it proves to be very difficult.  Why? Because you’re worth it and you deserve a meaningful holiday experience–even if you have a family who disagrees with you.

With that, I bid you a meaningful and healthy December.

 

 

 

 

 

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Lunch with My Mother

Well, I did it.  I saw my mother and stepfather.  I wasn’t nervous at all until about an hour before I had to leave, and then it hit me.  I was suddenly scared that she was going to be unkind to me.  I was also scared that I wouldn’t have what it takes to withstand it.

My mother’s unkindnesses usually began as passive aggressive comments about my appearance, and, for some reason, I always experienced that as more painful than most of her other criticisms.  It’s so high school, I know, but I think that’s why I found it hard to bear.  Growing up, we put up with a lot of social garbage.  We don’t expect to come home to it as well, but my mother was the ultimate Mean Girl.  I feared that I was about to go out to lunch with that persona again.  Frankly, I’m over that, and I’m really over pandering to that to keep the peace.

But, it doesn’t mean that the remarks don’t sting.  They do because mothers have a way of making them feel very personal because they know us.

In my previous post, I described my mother like Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford in “Mommy Dearest”.  That’s accurate.  Socially, however, my mother used to be very much like Lucille Bluth, the mother on “Arrested Development”:

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My mom…on a good day

Two of my daughters wanted to see my mother as well, and my other daughter decided to externalize her anger towards my mom twenty minutes before we had to leave causing conflict between all of us.  I was functioning at capacity at that point.  It made the drive to the restaurant a time of “trying to get one’s shit together” rather than a time to just relax.  In other words, I was trying really hard not to cry.

When we arrived, I saw my mother and stepfather sitting in the restaurant, and I froze for a second.  My stepfather hasn’t changed.  He’s hardly aged.  It’s the weirdest thing! My mother, on the other hand, has aged a lot.  In ten years, she looks to me like she’s aged twenty years.  She looked frail and small.  The girls went ahead of me, and, as soon as they saw us, they stood up.  My stepfather started tearing up right away and hugged them.  My mother told them how much they’d grown and how beautiful they looked.

Pause: I have never heard my mother tell anyone that they look beautiful.  She never gives compliments.  That startled me.  I was starting to wonder if she might say something nice to me.

Play: She came over to me and hugged me.  She then said, “Oh well…don’t you look…older.  And all grown up now.  And…older.”

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Older? Really? That’s what she has to say?

I sat with it for a minute.  Older.  Of all the things to say that’s what she went with.  What makes this funny is that I joked with friends that she was going call me old: “I’ll wager that my mother is going to say I look old or something,” and, sure enough, she did! It could have been so much worse and, in times past, usually was.  So, I moved on in the moment.

The lunch lasted a long time.  Everyone behaved.  I saw my mother as just a woman.  She was no longer this powerful perpetrator who had power over me.  She was a woman with health problems whose health was declining.  She didn’t say anything new or unusual, but she still clung to a certain narrative particularly about me:

“Aren’t you glad I so strongly encouraged you to take Latin now that you’re in medical school?”

She has always taken credit for that and brings it up whenever she can.  I just nod my head now.  It doesn’t cost me anything at this point to let her have it.  She did indeed encourage me to take Latin I.  Not four years of it.  It doesn’t matter anymore.  It’s time to let it go.

There was no drama.  There was very little jockeying for power.  She appeared to really want to try to reconnect without the past bad behavior.  We all saw a movie after lunch, and then we parted ways although she was her typical self when she told the guy filling our popcorn order to layer the butter:

“Young man, I want you to layer the butter.  Laaaaayer it! Do you understand? Really layer it.  I want it layered! Layer the butter!”

Classic mom right there.  You know what? I have never had popcorn so perfectly layered with butter.  That kid spent so much time trying to layer that popcorn with butter because he could feel my mother’s eyes boring into his back! I just stood back and watched.  She has zero assertiveness problems.  NONE.

All in all, it was a positive experience, and I didn’t feel triggered.  My daughters had positive experiences as well.  She didn’t display any past borderline behaviors, and my stepfather was, as always, himself.

I did feel very drained when I got home as did my daughters.  It was emotionally exhausting.  I have final exams this week, and I couldn’t study at all.  I could hardly process a thought.  I think the significance of the event didn’t land until yesterday.  I woke up feeling completely trashed.

I don’t know when I’ll see her again, but I know that they will want to visit.  I feel okay about that at this point.  I’ve worked really hard to achieve this state of mind.  A few years ago, I would not have imagined ever feeling that a day like that was possible not because of my mother per se but because I couldn’t imagine feeling well enough emotionally.  I honestly didn’t feel triggered by her–even by the remnant behaviors that would have triggered me in the past.  Calling me “older” would have bothered me simply because it could be perceived as a criticism of my appearance, and I used to be hypervigilant to things like that.  My mother’s demands upon the guy at the movie theatre would have triggered me in the past because that’s how she was towards me all the time.  I would have identified with him too much.  Her mentioning Latin class for the millionth time would have triggered me because my mother overly identified with my accomplishments always taking credit for everything I did.  It was as if she were me, and I would have felt diminished and engulfed by her.

But now? It all felt irrelevant.  I told my friends that she called me “older”, and we all laughed about it–a lot! My boyfriend didn’t hold back either.  People filled in that gap for me so that what she said wouldn’t find a place in me.  I don’t need my mother’s approval or emotional support, and most of the trauma associated with her has healed.  It is very possible to achieve that given time and effort–as much time as you need.  I’ve needed over a decade.

So, if you find yourself estranged from a parent and harbor even a flicker of hope that perhaps you will one day see them again under better emotional circumstances, don’t give up that hope.  It’s possible.  I don’t say this with a Pollyanna-esque attitude.  I am in no way BFFs with my mother.  It was one lunch, and it went well.  That may be all that we ever achieve.  Quarterly lunches if that.  I may not see her for another year, but I feel very good that I did see her.  It feels like an accomplishment.

I wonder if that’s because I’m older…

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Becoming Strong

Today is a momentous day.  I see my mother at noon today for the first time in almost ten years.  At least I think it’s ten years.

I have some long-time readers who will know that this is a big deal.  I have many readers who aren’t familiar with this situation.  To quickly recap, my mother has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and clinical depression.  I have always had great compassion for her.  I spent most of my life feeling responsible for her well-being to the point of parentification, and, due to her inordinate fear of abandonment and simultaneous fear of engulfment, my mother exploited my natural people pleasing disposition to an abusive degree.

I was a non-entity growing up.  I was only allowed the personality, will, and opinions that she permitted me to have.  I was all at once The Good Child, Bad Child, and Scapegoat*.  My role changed according to her momentary whims.  I have written extensively about BPD on my blog, and I fear repeating myself.  I also don’t want to stigmatize the diagnosis as it’s already a charged one pregnant with assumptions and implications.

What I want to discuss is achieving a reality in which one could see a formerly close family member who was also a perpetrator of profound abuse.  How is something like that possible? There is a reason BPD gets a bad rap.  While the disorder can express itself in various ways, when it expresses itself through manifestations of talionic rage bystanders are in danger.  Emotional dysregulation is a hallmark of BPD, and this emotional turmoil manifests in myriad ways to loved ones.  Children are the most vulnerable to subsequent trauma.  So, how does one move from a post-traumatic state to a confident state of mind? Or, at least, confident enough for a meet-and-greet? That is a valid question.

A few friends are not thrilled that I’m meeting with my mother.  They know the stories of her past behavior.  They have witnessed her fight every boundary I put up.    For those of you with a close family member carrying a BPD diagnosis, you’ll be able to read between the lines here.  For readers who are not familiar with anything I’m attempting to gently imply, I’d recommend watching “Mommy Dearest” if you are at all curious.  Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford is spot on in terms of representing a woman with BPD, *Queen/Witch subtype.  My mother is a *Queen/Witch, and my mother behaved a lot like Joan Crawford in this film.

So, what have I been doing for the past ten years then that helped me heal?

I made a career out of going to therapy.  While my father was abusive in his own right, my mother’s abuse proved to be the most psychologically pervasive and damaging.  She was in my head.  I used to have crippling social anxiety because I could almost hear her voice in my head criticizing me largely because my mother openly ridiculed me publicly by critiquing my appearance throughout my adolescence.  My hair, my face, my teeth, my body, and general appearance were all in her crosshairs, and she looked gleeful as she crushed me.  It was as if she had to humiliate me in order to feel good.  She was a bully.  So, I spent years dealing with everything that she did including her rages which caused her to act out extreme physical violence against other people.  Her public sadism is actually what I’m most anxious about today.

I practiced being assertive.  This is still very difficult for me.  I was not permitted to say no or have a differing opinion with either of my parents.  I recall saying no to my mother only one time.  She slapped me across the face so hard that my head snapped back.  My father was a Green Beret and Army sniper in Vietnam.  You just didn’t say no to him.  Ever.  I grew up very afraid of authority, but, at the same time, my natural personality is assertive and a bit contrary.  I will stand up for myself and other people.  So, part of the recovery process has been looking for opportunities to be assertive even if it’s only returning coffee drinks that have been made improperly–something that makes me sweat.

I stopped being friends with people who were exploitative and took advantage of my nature.  What do I mean by that? People who are naturally kind are easy to exploit because we will absorb relational inequities believing that somehow our personal sacrifices will help the other person.  Believe me, they won’t.  We will build the bridge to get to the other person in the relationship because of an empathetic nature.  It is, however, worth nothing that women  have a tendency to do this more than men due to social gender biases as noted in this study– A study by the Harvard Business Review(link is external) showed that only 7 % of female MBA graduates attempted to negotiate their salary with their new employers while 57% negotiated.

“I was raised to be an educated, polite, and respectful girl. You might have been, too. I was taught to think of others and their well-being. I consciously made an effort to treat others how I wanted to be treated. In short, I was always trying to be a good girl.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

I was definitely raised like this.  It wasn’t a choice.  It was a necessity.  For survival.  There are men who were raised like this as well, and I don’t want to discount that.  I have met men who struggle with something like The Dutiful Son.  They, too, must be educated, polite, and respectful always thinking of others and their well-being, willing to sacrifice themselves and their interests for the benefit of their family.  The “Good Girl” phenomenon isn’t isolated to women.  This spans the gender gap.

I also thought that this was the way of the world:

“I naively thought this was the way everybody was raised. I assumed everyone would go out of their way to treat each other well. I thought we were all living in a world where we respected each other and each other’s choices. I thought being considerate towards others would mean others would be equally considerate towards me. Turns out, I was wrong.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

I re-examined that assumption because I discovered in the past ten years that many people are not interested in personal development, bettering the world, or even being kind.  There is a lot of brokenness in the world, and needs often drive behaviors far more than intention:

“…there have been plenty of people who saw my being polite as an opportunity to test my boundaries. There have been many who saw my being kind as a sign to trample all over me. Apparently, when you’re seen as a good girl, people think they can get away with anything, because they know you’ll continue to behave like a mature, respectful adult regardless of what’s thrown in your face.

Worst of all, I found myself getting sucked into the role more and more. I tried so hard to please everybody around me. I checked in with people to make sure they were OK with the life choices I was making. I said yes to things I would never dream of doing on my own. I became an obsessive perfectionist, especially when it came to how I presented myself and what I did. Best of all, I pretended to enjoy all of this and did it with a smile on my face. Sometimes I was so deep in it that I started to mistakenly believe I did. It was terrifying and exhausting, all at once.” (Are You a Good Girl?)

Does this ring true for anyone? It’s an interesting description, isn’t it? Living a life without personal boundaries.  And, it’s all too easy to do that when you come from a family wherein you were not permitted to have any.  I think that building a life with appropriate boundaries, starting at the identity level and moving outward like rings on a tree, is the most important thing you can do for yourself and your relationships when you come from an abusive family of origin.  After that, learning how to enforce them in the context of interacting with people particularly with people who will challenge them comes next.

What does that look like? Life coach Susanna Halonen lists concrete actions to take that will go to building and reinforcing personal boundaries:

1. Ask for what you want and deserve.

Want to take on a new project at work? Ask for it. Want a raise or a bonus? Justify it to your boss. Want better treatment from your inconsiderate friend? Tell them.

2. Say no.

People will always ask for help. You probably do, too, as do I. There is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with helping. Unless you’re exhausted. Wiped. And burned-out. You can’t say yes to everything, and you can’t help everyone. You have to put yourself, your health, and your well-being first and foremost. If you don’t, there will be nothing left of you, and then you will be able to help no one.

3. Speak up.

If somebody disrespects you, don’t ignore it. If somebody is being rude, point it out to them. If somebody tries to change you, tell them you’re happy with who you are. If you don’t speak up, nobody will hear you. If you don’t put boundaries up, people will keep pushing them. Be brave, be bold, and be loud.

4. Stand your ground.

There is nothing wrong with living your life according to your values. There is nothing wrong with making the life choices that are right for you. There is nothing wrong with you. Believe that — and stand tall with it. People often try to influence your life trajectory or give clear opinions on what they think you should do, especially if you’re a good girl. Don’t let them sway you. Thank them for their input, and tell them that you have made your decision based on what you think and feel is right.

5. Treat others how you’d like to be treated.

Transforming from a good girl to a strong girl doesn’t mean you start being rude. You will continue to be polite, considerate, and respectful — but you will no longer do so at your expense. (Are You a Good Girl?)

My final thoughts on this might be that personal development is a lifelong process as is healing.  Some things stick around in our minds.  We do not forget them, and I’ve concluded that we should not forget certain things.  It is important to remember the profundity of our past experiences so that we always know our own strength.  Recovery and healing are so much harder than many people understand and yet here we stand.  So, we cannot forget.  You are resilient today because you were once hurt then.  And that is ultimately why I can see my mother today.  I withstood the worst that she was capable of, and none of it got the best of me.  I’m still me.  There is no power in that place anymore.  That is why I remember.  Your former battlegrounds and fields of defeat can become the place where you ultimately forge your greatest victories.  The places where you overcome, shake the dust off your feet, and walk away.

May you forge new victories as you keep going.

Further Reading:

Choosing the Healing Path

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.

Rebooting for the New Year

One of the broader topics on this blog is mental health and how mental health is defined and experienced in different contexts.  The DSM-V has divided and sub-divided the human experience into so many diagnoses that I imagine that every human could find an aspect of themselves somewhere within it.  Some of that feels legitimate.  Some of it feels less so.

Within one area of that broader diagnostic context you will find the personality disorder and its many “flavors”.  What is a personality disorder (PD)? What is its origin? Is it genetic? Is it chemical? Can it be treated? Can it be effectively “cured”? Is it a spectrum “disorder”? When is it safe to diagnose a person with a PD? At what point in human development does one’s personality become disordered? Why does one person become narcissistic and another express as borderline? What about the antisocial personality or the schizoid?  These are important questions that I won’t attempt to answer here.

I have written extensively about Borderline Personality Disorder on this blog as my mother’s personality expresses as borderline and growing up with a borderline mother affected my development in profound ways.  I do not directly blame my mother for my abduction twenty years ago, but, at the same time, I doubt I would have been taken had I been raised by a different parent.  I don’t say that with self-pity.  It feels factual at this point.  As they say today, it is what it is.

Why bring this up? My mother wrote me a letter.  Again.  It arrived a few weeks ago.  I haven’t seen my mother in almost ten years.  I think.  That is my best estimate.  She has sent me very weird letters over the years.  Some of them have been vitriolic.  Some of them have been strange and full of darkness.  Some of them have been full of blame and desperation.  My response has remained steadfast.  “Tell me how you are safe.  Tell me how you have changed.  Tell me how you have learned to control yourself.  Tell me how you have learned to respect boundaries.  Tell me how you have learned to self-soothe and self-regulate.  Tell me how you have learned to be accountable for your actions.  Then, we’ll talk.”

Never has she addressed these requests.

Until her most recent letter.

This letter was different.  For the first time, she tried.  She talked of realizing that she had been self-centered.  She had never known that about herself, but she had come to see that she had been.  For her whole life.  She talked of her recklessness.  She admitted that I would have to live with the consequences of her actions for the rest of my life.  She knew that now.  She recognized that her behaviors were abnormal.

I think she must have finally gone to therapy which is what I have been recommending rather strongly.  We none of us can make it without help.

She asked if we could meet for coffee or lunch.  I am considering it.  Not from a place of smoldering hope.  I suspect I am considering it because she finally tried.  She did what i asked.  It took her ten years to do it, and it cost her a great deal.  It may cost me something to see her.  I remember what she was like.  She may reduce me to a bloody mess, but, then again, she may no longer have the power to do that.  I’m not the same person anymore, and I’ll tell you why.

At some point during my marriage, my mother saw how my my ex-husband was treating me.  He was very neglectful and self-centered.  Sixteen years ago, we moved into a new house.  I was six months pregnant.  I had packed up the entirety of our old house singlehandedly.  My mother and her husband drove in from out-of-state to help us.  On the day of the move, my ex-husband received an invitation from a friend to attend an outdoor concert.  One of his favorite bands was playing, and he was stoked about it.  As we were moving boxes into the house he left.  There was a concert to see! “Sorry babe, but Frank Black! I gotta go!”

And that was it.  I was pregnant.  My mother and her husband were helping.  And, there I was.  Alone.  My mother was shocked and hurt on my behalf.  Reasonably so.  She told me, “Leave him.  Just bring the girls and live with us.  I’ve been divorced twice.  There is nothing wrong with being like me.”

“There is nothing wrong with being like me.”

Her words reverberated through my mind,  Nothing wrong with being like her? She was the last person I wanted to be like.  There was everything wrong with being like her.  So, I internally vowed in that moment never to be like my mother, and I stayed in a very bad marriage so much longer than I should have, in part, to prove a point.  I could not be like my mother.  I could not have failed like her.  I imagined her rubbing my face in it should I ever see her again.  I imagined myself feeling defeated, humiliated, and small.  Judged.  My mother standing over me smugly saying, “See? You and me? We are the same.”  The thought of it cut into my viscera.  

There came a moment towards the end of my marriage when I realized that I didn’t care anymore about what my mother might say to me or even think about me.  I wasn’t my mother, and my mother wasn’t me.  I wanted a second shot at life, and I didn’t care one iota about what anyone thought of me least of all my mother.

I think that this realization and moment of actualization are the insights that allow me to venture forth into even imagining sitting in front of my mother after a decade of virtually no contact.

Why speak of this? Well, I see in retrospect that I made certain choices from a deficient identity.  I was trying so hard not to be someone (my mother) rather than building out who I really wanted to be.  I would not have tolerated quite a bit had I seen that sooner.  Thankfully, I did.

In honor of gratitude and changing our lives, I want to introduce you to 10Q.  The Jewish New Year is upon us, and it is a time of reflection, return, and making changes.  There is a very cool app of sorts that helps you do that called 10Q:

Every year between the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there is a 10-day period of reflection – an opportunity to look at your past, present and future. 10Q makes this digital and social.

  • For ten days 10Q sends you a question a day to answer.
  • Answers are entered in your own secret online 10Q space and then saved to the secure online 10Q vault for safekeeping.
  • After the ten day period the vault is locked.
  • One year later, the vault opens and your answers land back in your email inbox.
  • You can also choose to share your answers anonymously with other 10Q users, and can also scroll through other people’s answers. (Becoming The B Boss)

You do not have to be Jewish to do this.  Just willing.  Here is the first question:

Q01: DESCRIBE A SIGNIFICANT EXPERIENCE THAT HAS HAPPENED IN THE PAST YEAR. HOW DID IT AFFECT YOU? ARE YOU GRATEFUL? RELIEVED? RESENTFUL? INSPIRED?

I love this! It is a wonderful reminder that the best time to change your mind, your circumstances, or yourself is always now.

Happy New Year!

Resources:

My Borderline Mother

If you’ve read my blog in any detail, then you know by now that I have a mother who expresses her emotions and general psychology through a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.  If I were to follow Christine Lawson’s archetypes, then I would classify my mother as the Queen/Witch with a sprinkling of Medean Witch thrown in for good measure.

No one in my family knows my mother.  Not the way I do.  Well, my former stepsisters know her in a very distinct way.  We spent our late childhoods and adolescence together under her reign of terror.  I don’t say that to be dramatic.  It was seven years of a ceaseless nightmare.  When I was a child, I used to watch “Mommy Dearest” over and over again because it felt…familiar.  The exacting nature of Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford.  The obsession with the wire hangers.  My mother insisted that my sock and underwear drawer was organized perfectly lest she dump it out onto the floor and make me refold every item again and await her exacting inspection.  My closet was to be organized by color and season.  That made no sense to me.  Every Saturday was cleaning day, and my room was to be military clean to the point of a literal white glove test and a perfect quarter bounce off my bed complete with hospital corners.  If I failed any part of her inspection, I had to clean my entire room again.  Drawers were turned out onto the floor.  Invective was launched at me like live grenades.  I was, at times, violently dragged around my room, my face shoved down into perceived imperfections from streaks on windows to visible footsteps in previously vacuumed carpet.

Everything had to be perfect.  All the time.

My stepsister defied my mother once.  She was beaten so harshly for saying ‘no’ to her that a few of her ribs were broken.  She was so bruised that she could not sustain physical touch for at least a week.

These are just small details in a sea of stories about my mother.  I watched my mother lose herself to her own talionic rage on one Christmas Eve morning.  She tried to kill my stepsister.  She assaulted the other one.

My mother remembers nothing.  To her, this is all just water under the bridge.  I am characterized as an unforgiving person because I remember.  I am bad because I carry the marks of trauma.  She might say, “Well, you know, I have struggled with anger over the years.”  That’s one way to put it, I guess.  Strangling the life out of a person is just a normal thing to do then during the holidays when you feel angry because there are crumbs on the counter. Guests are coming! Chop, chop! Never mind.  I’ll just kill you over it.  Merry Christmas, one and all.

This normalized response is crazymaking.  There is absolutely nothing normal about a childhood like that.  There is nothing normal about witnessing another human being do that to someone.  Being made to feel like a bad person for saying so is…fucking nuts.

Why say this?

My mother wrote me a letter last Christmas as she always does.  It’s the Merry-Christmas-You-Are-A-Bad-Person-For-Not-Letting-Me-In-Your-Life-and-You-Have-Robbed-Me-of-Happiness letter.  I’ve received one every year for the last five years.  Her pathology is on full display in each and every letter.  I would compare it to a fruitcake full of nuts, but perhaps that’s too crass.  Suffice it to say, I’ve noticed the calendar.  I’m due for another demeaning and judgmental letter.  This year, I launched a pre-emptive strike and wrote her instead.  I mailed it this morning.

In reality, I actually only replied to her last letter–almost a year later.  I have been working on a response for almost a year.  There are a few people (i.e. almost everyone I know) who will all but scold me “Airplane” style for contacting her in any way, “Get a hold of yourself, MJ!”:

But, I feel rather like the pilot blazing a trail through the terminal.  I don’t want to sit here and passively take it for another year, dreading every December trip to the mailbox.  I’ve worked too hard to get where I am.  I wanted to speak up rather than ignore her.  No, it won’t change her.  It won’t change anything, but speaking up might continue to change and empower me.  That’s a good reason to respond to her, I think.

I don’t experience my life, memories, and even my own personality as I once did.  Everything has evolved, and that’s a good thing.  I don’t feel as I once did where my mother is concerned either although I know enough to be cautious by now.  What I have learned on this long and winding path called ‘recovery’ is that telling the truth is important.  Speaking up is valuable, and it’s important that we do so.  It’s important because we are changed when we hear our own voices in the midst of the din of naysaying, accusations, and other nonsense.  We may be talked down to, accused, disbelieved, and rejected.  I’ve experienced all of this, but your healing is catalyzed when you feel the resonant power of your own voice as you say, “No, that happened, and that was wrong.  I am truthful, and I am good.  And whether or not anyone believes me or supports me, I can say that I know what is real, and I am stronger for having said so.”

Ultimately, this is why I responded to my mother, and this is why I feel peaceful.  I’m not scared of her, but I do feel slightly vulnerable.  Between her and my father, I have witnessed the absolute worst in humanity.  Hands down.  For those who prefer the light, the darkness holds little appeal.

So, speak your truth.  Be brave even if you’re afraid.  You are in good company, my friends.

Borderline Personality Disorder and Mirroring

I wrote this post, The Male Borderline Waif, a year ago, and it gets a lot of daily traffic.  For as much research that’s been accomplished over the decades around borderline personality disorder (BPD), there are still few answers to be had particularly for men who may be on the borderline spectrum.  Mental health and healing should not be pie in sky for any of us regardless of our diagnosis.

What do we do?

There is also a great deal of stigma for those who carry a personality disorder diagnosis particularly borderline.  The psychopath CEO or even pastor is let off far more easily than the borderline woman (TIME).

Let me be clear.  I’m not a personality disorder apologist.  I don’t, however, feel that anyone should withhold empathy from a population of people simply because there is little true understanding  around the etiology and ultimate course of their condition.  In the case of personality disorders, there are working theories.  That’s it.

Both my parents have personality disorders, and both my parents are dangerous people.  For years, I suspected something was going on with my ex-husband, but I could not pin it down.

Yesterday, I did.

How?

Firstly, my ex-husband was very resistant to any kind of treatment.  He refused to go to the doctor for anything.  He refused to seek mental health treatment as well–even when an ultimatum was on the table.  When I asked him why, he would tell me that he knew more than any doctor.  Was my ex-husband a physician? No.  Did he believe that he knew more? Yes, I think he did.  Is there a name for what he was expressing? Yes, there is.

Grandiosity.

Secondly, over the years I noticed that my husband had different personalities depending upon the situation, and sometimes they were wildly different.  He was a chameleon, and I wouldn’t even recognize him as the same person particularly at work functions.  What was creepier is that he had borrowed my self-image in terms of how he talked about life in general.  He used my language and knowledge base as if they were his own.  This is called mirroring.

What is mirroring?

Definition:

Mirroring – Imitating or copying another person’s characteristics, behaviors or traits.

Borrowing a Self-Image

Mirroring occurs when people with Personality Disorders have a vacant or distorted self-image, which can manifest itself as an imitation of another person’s speech, mannerisms, behaviors, dress style, purchase preferences or daily habits.

In more extreme manifestations of this behavior, the person doing the mirroring might begin to believe they actually are the other person, to the extent they might call themselves by their name, claim to be them or ‘borrow’ elements of the other person’s life such as relationships, past experiences, career or family history and claim these as their own.

Mirroring can be a form of Dissociation, where a person’s strong feelings create “facts” which are less than true.

A dramatic case of mirroring is portrayed in the movieSingle White Female, in which the character Hedra Carlson (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) begins to imitate her new room-mate Allie in the way she looks, dresses and behaves, imitating her haircut, wearing her clothes and ultimately seducing Allie’s boyfriend. (Out of the Fog)

What it Looks Like

  • A man switches accents to mimic a colleague.
  • A woman wears identical clothing to her friend.
  • A mother wears her daughter’s clothing.
  • A teenager makes phone calls in which she pretends to be her sibling or parent.
  • A secretary wears her boss’s wife’s perfume in an attempt to seduce him.
  • A man writes letters in which he forges his boss’s signature. (Out of the Fog)

My mother mirrored me frequently.  It was obvious.  It wasn’t as obvious when my ex-husband was doing it until he started therapy.

He came home after his intake appointment and told me that his new therapist saw no reason for him to be there.  I was shocked, but I played along.

“Why does your therapist think that you don’t need therapy?” I casually asked.

“I told him that I was looking to create more ’emotional mindfulness’ in my life, and he was really impressed with that.  He had never heard that term before, and he really liked it.  Anyone who would even come into his office and use such a term probably didn’t need much therapy,” he said smugly.

STOP!!!!!! That’s MY term!! I used that term! That is what I was trying to create in MY life! 

He mirrored my therapeutic process in his first therapy session to get out of therapy! What kind of person does that?!

That is a very good question.  What kind of person indeed!

I kept this behavior in mind as I proceeded, and this weekend’s antics with my daughter settled it for me.

Between his mirroring, chameleon-like behavior, grandiosity, entitlement, apparent lack of a solid sense of self as well as his belief that others do not have a sense of self that requires fencing in (boundaries), protecting, and respecting, displays of rage and violence, and consistent need to be the victim in our relationship when he was actually participating in victimization, and his reported self-loathing, I am going to go with my initial assessment of borderline personality disorder with narcissistic tendencies.

I know that pathologizing people isn’t necessarily the way to go, but it helps me get a proper handle on how to adjust my expectations and behaviors.  It helps me think in terms of what I can expect from someone in terms of personal safety, too.

Mirroring behaviors are not discussed enough in the context of personality disorders particularly if you are in a relationship with someone who is engaging in them.  You may feel “creeped out” by them, and that’s legitimate.  It is a bit alarming.    Why is this even a thing? I found a very brave blog post written by a woman with borderline personality disorder who explains why she engages in mirroring behaviors:

“One of the biggest and most challenging aspects of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is often ‘The Chameleon Effect’ – or ‘mirroring’. This is the constant, unconscious change in the person’s ‘self’, as they struggle to fit in with their environment, or the people around them. It is, essentially, a fluctuating identity. It is the manifestation of a basic inability or difficulty in establishing a stable sense of self.

The presence of The Chameleon is often one of the main obstacles to effective initial treatment and diagnosis of BPD, as it affects the interaction between patient and doctor, and can mask the disorder itself. It also effects and masks the way in which BPD intersects with other disorders that may have developed in connection with it – creating a complex web of behaviours that can be hard to untangle. The irony is that, without diagnosis and treatment, most are unaware of The Chameleon, and it is only through awareness that The Chameleon can be managed.” (Borderline Personality Disorder and the Chameleon Effect)

She goes on to explain very succinctly what the mirroring is all about:

“Now that I am acknowledging the presence of my Chameleon, I am beginning to wonder if this is actually the key to everything. The whole kit and caboodle. The crux of the issue. From what I can see, everything stems from this lack of a stable self. Borderlines instinctively ‘mirror’ to fit in, because without that behaviour, we have no idea what will happen. We have little or no sense of our own identity, so we can’t know if that will be acceptable to others. Without acceptance by others, we risk abandonment, which is often an intense fear for Borderlines. Why do we have this intense fear of abandonment? Because if we are abandoned, we have nobody to ‘mirror’. The fear of abandonment is a fear of being alone. It is terrifying to be left alone with yourself, when you don’t know who yourself is.” (Borderline Personality Disorder and the Chameleon Effect)

This is such a courageous thing to write, and it explains the inner movements of the emotional life of people who struggle with borderline personality disorder in a way that is very understandable.

My ex-husband and mother refused to confront themselves or their highly abusive behaviors.  There was no happy ending, but perhaps we can all gain better insight into the vast spectrum of human experience through the depth of our own.

Further Reading:

Borderline Personality Disorder and ‘The Chameleon Effect’