Mother’s day has me feeling conflicting emotions. My husband and I split up the two holidays, so I am excited about my homemade surprises. And…. sigh… I don’t talk to my mother. Ever. In fact, we haven’t spoken in almost a year and a half.
It is still hard for me to say that out loud sometimes. You see my whole life my mother and I appeared incredibly close. From the outside we looked like we were doing ok, but the reality is that we were incredibly enmeshed. Our relationship was toxic, smothering, and debilitating. My mom was a single teenager when I was born. My father split when the egg did and she and I bounced around from state to state, city to city, following her over bearing and emotionally abusive father. My grandfather was mean, and he enjoyed being mean. My mother not only let him intimidate, bully, and humiliate her, she never stopped him when he turned on me. Growing up we either lived with him, or we were alone with no other family near. My mother cast me as her main emotional support at a very young age. Which made me feel very important. I was her plus one at Office Christmas parties, I was her “best friend”, I was “her rock”, and when her world fell apart when I was 13, she only leaned on me. I was her primary confidant and protector. But my main job was to make sure she felt like she was keeping it all together. So I created these “super mom” fantasies that I would share with people. I told these stories for decades and somewhere along the line started to believe them, it wasn’t until last year that I realized they were not true
By the time I was a teenager I was desperate to escape the noise in my head and my mother’s expectations. Like a lot of traumatized teens I actively sought drugs as an escape. And it worked. For a while. At first all of the voices in my head that beat me up with my Grandfather’s words were silent. I had found a way to find a little bit of freedom. Or so I thought. In the beginning when I could stop I didn’t want to, and by the time I was ready to stop I couldn’t. My life had started to snowball out of control faster than I could lower my standards. What’s really fucked up is that the bigger mess I became, the more dependent I became on my toxic family. To the outside it looked like my mother was a paragon. This woman was supporting her worthless son, standing by him as he bounced around. And in many ways it was true. I was a complete mess. And I was truly convinced that was all I was meant to be.
My life hit bottom several times. But something inside me changed and on July 10, 2005 I put down the meth pipe and said enough. I went to rehab through the state and got clean. At the time it was the hardest thing I had ever done. Everyday was a fight to stay away from the needle or pipe. I enrolled in Community College and discovered something I never even imagined could be true. I was smart. I spent the first year and a half of my college experience convinced that I was running some sort of a scam. That it was a mistake that every quarter I was on the Dean’s list. I could not comprehend that I was making this happen, so I gave all the credit for my recovery and my educational accomplishments to my mother. Because I truly believed it was her love that was allowing me to do this.
I left Community College and went on to a four year University. I continued to do well and I continued to give my mother the credit. When I graduated I was in my 30s and my mother was still not ready to let me go. When I moved out she cried. She called me 10 times a day. Every day. The relief I felt was IMMEASURABLE, but still I was tethered to her by her emotional guilt. It is not normal to go into a legit panic every time your phone rings or alerts because it might be your mother. During this time I met and fell in love with Tony. As we started to get closer, my mother expressed her disappointment that she was no longer number one.
When Tony and I started having kids, she tried to insinuate and weave her way into this as well. Something inside me started to awaken. When the twins were born Z was 13 months old. To say we were overwhelmed is a massive understatement. Tony would get so frustrated with me. “WE ARE EXHAUSTED!!! WHY DO YOU NOT LET YOUR MOM HELP US?!?” The last thing I wanted was my mother. I didn’t think about it, I was unwilling to talk about why, I just didn’t address it all. BUT I also wouldn’t budge. What I know now is that having kids, becoming mama bear, awakened my protective instincts. Her attachment to my kids was intense. Her expectation of her relationship with them was too much. She wanted to be the primary female role model in their lives and sabotaged their relationship with other women. She manipulated me into doing things I didn’t want to do. I was under so much pressure that I was a constant anxious mess. The thought of having to communicate with her, or her husband would cause me to have daily heartburn. My blood pressure was off the charts. My husband and I would have huge arguments about her, and even though I knew he was right, I would defend her.
My mother married a man when I was a teenager that I never really liked. She unintentionally pitted us against each other from the beginning, and we remained in passive aggressively adversarial roles for the remainder.
My stepfather is a rightwing conservative and even though he expressed his support for our family, early on in the last election cycle he started parroting some of the anti-gay rhetoric that was spouted by some conservatives. My mother would claim to be “Switzerland”, she would tell anyone who would listen that she is staying out of it. But when he would say awful things she would beg me to let it go. She would defend him, “That’s not what he meant… You’re taking it out of context…” all of the things she did when I was a child. And sadly I let her. For a long time I was too brainwashed by her messages, by the messages of society that you love your family no matter what. I sat across from him in my home pretending he wasn’t a bigot. I let her manipulate and pull my strings so that she got to live her super grandma fantasy.
Society tells us in a million ways that we must always be loyal to our family. We are always supposed to respect and cherish our parents. The idea that adult children might need to escape the gravitational pull of their toxic family members is UNFATHOMABLE to most people, a belief they are not afraid to tell you about. To beat you over the head with. And this can help to keep you feeling trapped.
Until one day I snapped. I just had this epiphany… I did not care if it made me an asshole. I did not care if I was the worst person on earth. I was done. I had spent 10 years in therapy refusing to even discuss my mother, bouncing to the next clinician whenever my current one would start pushing the subject, and yet I was resentful that I couldn’t find peace. All of the sudden though I was done. I could not do it anymore. I cut all ties. I started intensive therapy and severed the umbilical chord.
I almost lost my mind. I almost gave up and went back hundreds of times. Letting go of that toxic relationship was harder that getting clean. Luckily my husband held me up as I found my footing. Almost immediately there was relief, like true and legitimate relief, and luckily it was more powerful than the crushing guilt 42 years of brainwashing and conditioning brings. I was free.
My mother did not let go easily, but every second I was away from her I got stronger. My anxiety vanished. I looked back and was able to see that I got myself clean, not my mother. I graduated from college with honors, not my mother. I had a beautiful family, and amazing husband, and wonderful kids because I DID THE WORK, not because of who my mother was.
I want to be clear that my mother is not a bad person. She was young when she had me, her childhood was awful, she did not have things easy. She did not have great role models. However, her choices impacted more than herself. She made some horribly selfish decisions, and I carry the consequences with me, and in order to free myself of that I need to love her from a far.
I know there are people out there who are taking more than they should from toxic family members because of the lie that we are force fed from birth that family always sticks together. I am here to tell you that is bullshit. You are allowed to severe those ties. Not all families deserve your loyalty, you do not owe anyone your discomfort or pain. You are allowed to be free. You can reach down and undo the tether. You can soar.