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:

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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’

The Borderline Blame Storm

I was asked recently to write more about being in relationship with someone who expresses as having a personality disorder.

Firstly, I want to be careful because I don’t want to vilify people who carry this diagnosis.  There is a lot of inflammatory rhetoric particularly on the Internet concerning personality disorders, and the very labels themselves have entered into popular culture.  The word ‘narcissistic’ is used commonly today, but would someone recognize a legitimate diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in, say, their neighbor? I’m not so sure.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is on its way to becoming just as recognizable in terms of popular terminology and stigma.  To counteract the stigma associated with BPD, there is a movement within the therapeutic community to rename BPD Emotional Dysregulation Disorder.  I can understand this.  Diagnostic labels of the psychiatric sort can dehumanize people minimizing an entire person until they are just viewed through the lens of a label.

Having grown up with a mother with BPD, I can tell you why there is therapeutic and social stigma around BPD.  The disorder manifests in such a way in a person to enhance and magnify their best and worst traits even going so far as to bring forth talionic rage and homicidal tendencies.  At times, it can resemble sociopathy.  Without help from trained professionals specializing in treating BPD, there seems to be a lack of any ability to learn from past mistakes causing the same relational mistakes to be made repeatedly–even if those mistakes are extreme displays of violence.  This notable inability to apply learning is what makes BPD so difficult to treat.  It’s also why it’s so hard to stay in relationships with someone with BPD; you can’t hold someone accountable for their behaviors if they don’t learn from their past mistakes.  The neuroscience behind this explains some of the behavioral manifestations, but it doesn’t lessen the abusive nature of it.

I love my mother.  Dearly.  It cost me to pause our relationship and put space between us.  Why did I do that? Because she consistently blamed me for her behaviors and choices.  What does that look like? I’ll give you a very black-and-white example so that the dynamic is easy to spot.

When I was under the age of 10, I was playing in our living room.  I had a drink in my hand.  My mother had our couch newly upholstered in a rather hideous floral pattern.  As I was going to sit on our couch, I lost my balance spilling my drink on the couch.  She saw this, and I observed her facial expression change from one of contentment to rage.  It was an immediate switch.  She ran over to me, clutched my upper arm very tightly, and dragged me across the floor while screaming invective.  I was trying to get to my feet because I could feel my shoulder starting to pull from the joint, but I could not.  I was crying and pleading with her to stop.  She proceeded to drag me by my arm up the stairs, her nails digging into me, the connective tissue in my shoulder stretching.  She got to my room, threw me on the floor, and slammed the door.  My shoulder was almost dislocated by then, and there was already a well-developed bruise around my upper arm marking where she had grasped it.

This is a typical interaction with my mother.  One of many.  Years later, when I tried to discuss this with her, she responded, “Oh, you had that coming.  You were fooling around and stained my couch.”  She tossed her hair, gestured, and rolled her eyes.

Blame.

She blamed me.  It was my fault that she behaved badly.  It was my fault that she was abusive.  When I told her that she almost dislocated my shoulder, she said, “It’s not my fault that your shoulder couldn’t stay in its socket!” She blamed my shoulder! It is almost funny.

In her mind, she should have been able to apply as much force to my shoulder as she wanted because she was angry.  It was my shoulder’s job to take it.  If my shoulder broke or dislocated, then it was my shoulder’s fault.  Not hers.  This idea comes from a blindness, and that blindness is centered around a poorly developed cognitive empathy known in academic circles as theory of mind (ToM).

Theory of mind is the ability to understand that what I think is different from what you think.  Going further, a well-developed theory of mind allows one to predict, infer, and deduce another person’s thoughts based on their cues and nonverbal communications.  It also allows one to understand that what I think, want, and believe is not what other people want, think, and believe.  Furthermore, what I do affects other people and my environment as well as how other people feel around me.  People who carry a personality disorder diagnosis often have a ToM deficit, and this deficit contributes to the blatant displays of entitlement which fuel the blaming behavior.

In my recent dealings with my mother through an exchange of letters, she is still blaming me for her choices.  She wants a relationship, but she continues to blame me for her abusive behaviors: “That only happened because you did _________.”  There is a pathological behavior present here.  She cannot account for her own choices and then go on to see how anything that she did might have caused a subsequent event.  It is like trench warfare.  To reach her, I would have to leave my trench and go out into the field risking assassination, and I’m no fool.  She would take me out, and then, when I’m gasping for air, she would blame my body for being vulnerable to death.

My mother has both borderline and narcissistic tendencies so her “blame storms” are excruciating.

Sam Vaknin, self-acknowledged narcissist and author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited, says:

I am constantly on the lookout for slights. I perceive every disagreement as criticism and every critical remark as complete and humiliating rejection–nothing short of a threat. Gradually, my mind turns into a chaotic battlefield of paranoia.

I react defensively. I become conspicuously indignant, aggressive, and cold. I detach emotionally for fear of yet another (narcissistic) injury. I devalue the person who made the disparaging remark, the critical comment, the unflattering observation, the innocuous joke at my expense.

A narcissistic injury is just as painful to the narcissist as abandonment is to the borderline. Thus, just as the borderline is hypersensitive to abandonment, the narcissistic is hypersensitive to anything that smacks of a narcissistic injury. (Randi Kreger)

In the end, my mother has emphasized that if I loved her, as she so loves me, then I would never “throw these things in her face”.  I’m supposed to love her no matter what, and this is where I must offer a different opinion:

What does unconditional love usually mean as employed by a Narcissist, Borderline or other abusive personality type?

It means that you won’t hold the Narcissist, Borderline, Histrionic or Sociopath accountable for their bad behavior nor enforce appropriate boundaries and natural consequences for their bad behavior. Basically, they’ve confused unconditional love with you happily and obliviously tolerating their abuse of you and others, including children. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

In my experience, this is true.  This is also true:

If for whatever reason you’re committed to staying with your abuser (e.g., there are minor children or you’re confusing abuse with love due to your own childhood issues) then, yes, you do need to accept that your abuser is unlikely to change in any meaningful way, that she or he is severely limited as a human being and, at some point after she or he has completely depleted your resources, you may be further vilified and discarded for fresh supply. You don’t get points for being a compliant martyr at the end of the relationship. You get blamed for being broken — never mind the fact that it’s the abuser who broke you…(What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

This is tough to hear.  The psychologist who penned this article has a lot of followers as well as haters.  She doesn’t pull her punches.  I don’t agree with how she communicates everything, but she isn’t necessarily wrong either in terms of content.  Abuse is abuse.  An inability to change is still an inability to change.  At the end of the day, does the ‘why’ of it all matter when you’re dying a slow death?

Finally, this is where she is most accurate:

Generally speaking, the mental health field has a difficult time admitting that women can be abusers, even when their victims are other women and children. Many wives and girlfriends of men with abusive exes and adult children of narcissistic and borderline mothers understand this all too well. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

I was told for years that my mother was abused as a child and emotionally troubled, and I should just “love her through it”.  If a man, however, did the things to me that my mother was doing, I would have been pulled out of the home as a child and advised to flee the relationship as an adult.  The faith communities with which I became acquainted were notorious for this response.

As you can see, the concepts of unconditional love and radical acceptance are frequently (ab)used in couples therapy to persuade targets of narcissistic, borderline and sociopathic abuse, particularly if the abuser is a female who has “emotional problems,” that you’re an unloving and abusive partner (or adult child) if you don’t unconditionally accept your partner’s (or parent’s) abuse. If that last sentence makes your head spin, good. It should because it’s ridiculous. It also probably echoes what your narcissist or borderline has been drilling into your head, which is equally ridiculous. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

It is not wrong to want to be happy.  It is not wrong to want to feel safe.  It is not wrong to want to be loved appropriately.  It is not wrong to want to be a part of healthy, mutually life-giving relationships.

The only thing that tolerating or accepting abuse will get you is more abuse. You can call that unconditional love, but it sure sounds more like codependence and extremely unhealthy codependence at that. (What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love)

What I have learned is that blame can be rejected.  My mother or my ex-husband can blame me for anything, but I don’t have to accept it.  I can let the “blame ball” drop to the ground and walk away.  I do not have to take responsibility for something that is not and never was mine.  Nor do you.

There may be disorders at play in others that limit their capacities to grow and change, but, if we are not limited, then we can grow and change.  When you stop and think about that, and I mean really think about that, you must see that the playing field isn’t level at all.

The possibilities are limitless for you when you stop allowing another person’s limitations define your terms.

That is what I would offer you today.

Where are you allowing other people’s small capacities and limitations determine your own life’s possibilities?

What can you do right now to change that?

Shalom…

Further Reading:

Borderlines and Narcissists Both Blame Storm by Randi Kreger

What a Narcissist or Borderline Means by Unconditional Love

Opening The Vaults

I am still in therapy.  It’s no longer something I remotely enjoy not that I ever enjoyed sitting in the Hot Seat before.  Now, however, it’s work, and I can feel it.  I can feel myself becoming defensive when my therapist asks a question that I don’t want to answer.

This week, I decided to discuss my mother’s letter with him, and I knew that this would be difficult because my therapist knows little to nothing about my mother.  Trying to catch him up felt too daunting a task which is why I’ve not mentioned her.  So, I took five minutes to try and describe a lifetime of pain and abuse, and I think I came off as a cynical smart ass.  I fully admit to being a smart ass, but I’m not cynical.  I’ve given up on trying to look cognitively sound.  He’s going to think what he’s going to think.

He doesn’t deal in pathologies, thus, he never says, “Your mother’s personality disorder caused…”  You will never hear him mention a DSM diagnosis unless it’s very necessary.  He just lets me talk.  I am not fond of the client-centered approach–talk therapy–because I have an irrational fear of revealing too much.  I don’t know what “too much” might be, but it’s unnerving to sit in a chair and talk while someone stares at you.  Please, ask me a question.  Direct the session.  What’s our goal? I don’t like feeling adrift as if there are no boundaries.

There is, however, a method to his approach, I have learned.  He’s looking for something, and he found it.  “I hear one common theme.  You have said about your mother’s letter and your ex-husband that you are not crazy.  Is that something meaningful to you? Feeling like you’re crazy? Is that what her letter caused you to feel over and above every other emotion? Is that how interacting with your ex makes you feel? Like you’re crazy?”

I just sat there and tried so hard not to feel the emotion rise up.  I wanted to bury my face in a pillow and cry.  I felt ashamed, and I don’t know why.

“Yes, that is exactly how I feel.”

He nodded.  “Can you tell me about that?”

How could I even begin to explain a lifetime of being made to feel this way? So, I chose specific events in an attempt to paint a picture.

“After my mother would try to commit suicide and call on me to talk her off the proverbial ledge, no one would talk about it.  She would come out of her bedroom, and I would usually say something like, ‘So, are we all gonna talk about what just happened?’ I was 13.  Everyone would look at me like I was the one with the problem.  I wanted to tell the truth.  I mean, I wasn’t the one overdosing on narcotics and taking a revolver into a closet and screaming.  I thought that it was crazy to pretend like nothing ever happened, but that became the rule.  Never talk about it.  That is so contrary to my nature.  That same rule became the norm in my marriage, too.  Never discuss anything.  I would try, and he would deny and shut everything down.  It then became a false reality.  I would try to challenge that reality, but, as with my mother, the line, ‘It’s your word against mine’ was used; and, suddenly, every abnormal behavior became normalized, and I felt somewhat insane all the time.”

The truth is that I have spent most of my life trying to prove that I am completely sane, and most of my family members seem to believe that I am the black sheep among them.  I won’t argue with that.  I might be the black sheep, but they’re more like ducks pretending to be sheep.  Nothing is remotely normal about anything that they say or do.  So, I come along and point out a problem (which I’ve stopped doing), and they all quack, “There wasn’t a problem until you pointed it out! You must be the problem! Get her!” And, the cycle of crazymaking continues.

My mother insisting in her letter that it was her word against mine was the trigger for me.  Her word against mine? There are facts.  She could certainly say that her perspective on said facts might be different than mine, but she can’t point at a fact and say, “No, Mr. Fact, it’s your word against mine.”  That’s like pointing at the sun and saying, “No, Sun, you do not set in the west.  It’s your word against mine.  No, Water Molecule, you are not made up of oxygen and hydrogen.  It’s your word against mine.”

It’s the damndest thing to be on the receiving end of this kind of behavior.  “No, I did not do that.  It’s your word against mine.  You just do not remember it properly.”  Or, worse, “I did that, but I had my reasons, and you have no right to be mad at me for it.  Get over it.”

In the end, you feel erased.  Like you don’t matter.  Only I know that I do matter, and I know what happened.  I have an excellent memory.  I used to have a nearly perfect memory.

So, what do you do? What do you do when you know that you are not crazy but you feel like you are? This is serious stuff.

I told my therapist some of the things that my mother had done.  Some of her worst offenses.  The things that she had been claiming never happened.  Frankly, if I had done those things to another person, then I might deny I had ever committed those actions as well.  I told the truth.  We must tell our truth to someone who will listen to us.  We need a witness.  I found myself asking him, “This is a bad thing, right? What she did here was bad, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, this is bad.”

After you’ve told your truth, you need to hear the words: “You are not crazy.”  That is what my therapist did for me.  I know that I’m not crazy.  I know that what I witnessed and endured in my family of origin was painful and abusive.  I don’t need my mother’s validation in order to heal or move on.  I’ve never had her validation.  We do, however, need to receive validation from someone.  We don’t live in a vacuum.  We are social creatures.  A lone primate is a dead primate.  So, find a safe person whom you trust, and tell your truth as hard as that might be.  Fear of judgment can be a strong motivation to keep everything to yourself.  I am immensely private, and it’s almost painful for me at times to open my inner vaults.  It is essential to our healing, however, that we engage in this process.

Let that be the gift you give yourself as 2015 draws to a close.

Shalom…