What It's Like to Be Estranged From Your Mother When She Has Borderline Personality Disorder
The last time I spoke to my mother was this past January. We had a mediated meeting with her psychiatrist, the three of us together in a conference room with a soothing New Age fountain burbling in the corner. It didn't go well. In fact, it went so not well, that I was crying into a grilled cheese sandwich, alone, an hour later, coping with the idea that I'd probably never talk to her again.
We'd gotten to that conference room and that psychiatrist and that fountain the hard way, after years of hurt feelings and bad feelings and weird, indescribable feelings that made every interaction between us escalate within minutes into a vicious screaming match, the kind that left me broken for days. We do not get along. Or, maybe I should amend that: I do not get along with her.
So what's the story here? We should be best friends, boon companions, Gilmore Girls: I grew up an only child in Connecticut, with just my mom in the house for the most part. I always had nice clothes, enough to eat, educational opportunities, and everything else that you're supposed to be grateful for.
When I found out, in 2006, that she'd drained my trust fund, I was horrified. But on some level, I was also relieved: so much of the nightmare of my relationship with my mother had happened in secret that I struggled to know if it was even real. But now I knew it was. Now, I had proof, and I could finally leave her, with a clean conscience.
I do remember my early childhood being great; I was fussed over, and my every only-child whim was indulged. The only pockmarks on my memory of that time are my shyness around other kids, and the hours my parents spent having fights at the top of their lungs in the garage, or in the basement, or in the car.
And even those weren't too bad. My parents fought like I wasn't in the room, and I kind of felt like I wasn't — I tuned it out, as if it were a buzzing light bulb that I had gotten used to. But once my father moved out and I became a preteen, something changed. My mother and I started fighting. We fought the way I remembered my parents fighting: brutal, out-of-control arguments that would last for hours. I couldn't tell if this was normal or not — every other kid I knew was getting in knock-down, drag-out fights with his or her parents on the daily, so my life didn't immediately look different from my peers.But it was. My mother would fly into rages, telling me how awful I was for hours, and then, moments later, would coolly ask me what I wanted for dinner, appearing to not even remember that it had happened. She acted like I was crazy, and so I assumed that I was. She took me to a child psychologist to deal with whatever supposed defects I had that led to us fighting so often. Then she pulled me out of therapy after a few sessions, when she got into a screaming fight with the receptionist.
My mother continued feeding me and buying me nice clothes, showing up for my drama club productions and helping me put highlights in my hair. Sometimes, we had great days together: We'd take impromptu road trips through New England, singing along to the oldies radio and telling each other jokes, or watch police procedurals together, or gossip about our neighbors. But the bad days were poisonous — my mother going off on me for hours about a perceived exasperated face or snotty remark. I fought back, but the fights left me weakened, while they seemed to feed my mother, make her stronger.
As I got older, I took the model my mother had given me for interacting with someone you love — screaming at them and belittling them whenever they did something I didn't like — and realized that they were not tools that got me the kind of boyfriends or friends that I wanted. I fumblingly began to learn how to ask for things I wanted, rather than demand them. In college, I began to push away from her, as she began to push away from the world. She quit her job, cut off her phone service, and disconnected the cable and internet in the house. She dug deeper into a gambling habit that had always been present but became startling as I hit my early twenties. Nearly every voicemail I received from her then had the jingle of slot machines in the background.
After I graduated from college, I, like most people with a double major in women's studies and creative writing, did not have amazing job prospects. I moved back in with my mother in Connecticut; she soon after moved us both in with her own father in Florida. There, things felt even stranger: I saw my mother castigated by her own father, who was in his '80s but still had enough energy to tell my mother nearly every day that she was a fat, lazy slob.
Even as she'd bullied me through the years, I had thought my mother powerful, a force of nature who might crush me without even seeing me. I had sometimes hated my mother, but never pitied her. But in Florida, things were different. She was frail. And in the same way I had wished as a teen that someone would protect me from her, I wanted to protect her from him. I didn't know how to, but I wanted to. She assured me that she didn't need it. Between the two of us, the Florida months were uncharacteristically quiet — I can't remember a single fight. After a few months, my mother, in a profoundly merciful moment, slipped me enough money to take a plane back to New York City. I moved in with some college friends, and then with my long-estranged father. I've been here ever since.
As I worked and established my own life in New York, my relationship with my mother got worse: Now that she couldn't protect me from bullies or take me shopping or do any of the other day-to-day things that had made up our life together in our home, our relationship was increasingly composed of only the hard parts. All of our conversations turned into fights. All of our interactions were fraught with hostilities within moments of entering the same room. She mocked the dress I bought with my first adult paycheck and demanded that I spend every holiday with her, at our increasingly bleak Connecticut home, which was transforming into a micro- Grey Gardens . I started canceling plans with her at the last second and not returning her phone calls. My mother struggled to figure out why, even when I told her.When I found out, in 2006, that she'd drained my trust fund, I was horrified. But on some level, I was also relieved: So much of the nightmare of my relationship with my mother had happened in secret that I struggled to know if it was even real. But now I knew it was. Now, I had proof, and I could finally leave her with a clean conscience. And I did. I didn't speak a word to her — no visits, no calls, no emails, no letters — for nearly four years.In June 2010, on my 28th birthday, I received an email that read:
Another birthday for you. Hope it was good and full of joy. Hope you got the card, would like it to have been able to be more personal.
I love you, but I don't understand what you are doing- wish I did.
I knew the moment I opened the email that I needed to delete it and pretend that I had never received it. My mother had been sending me sappy, sentimental birthday cards for years (until she threatened to drive to my old apartment and "do something" during a fight, and I declined to give her my new address after I moved), and this was more of the same. But email is different from a greeting card — it is built for immediacy, for people to write faster than they can think. And so, before I could think better of it, I wrote back:
I think you probably have never listened to anything I’ve ever said to you, right? That is the only way you could not understand what is going on. I asked you to go to therapy so that we could deal with each other in a healthy way, you refused, the end. What I am "doing" is saying, I will not have a relationship with you until you make an effort to learn to relate to and communicate with me in a healthy way.
Not my proudest moment — I sound like a real asshole, especially with that "right?" But I felt good about sending it. Until a few minutes later, when my mother wrote back. We spent the first few days of my 28th year embroiled in an email exchange that felt like it was half family therapy, half flame war. My mother acknowledged that she had "made mistakes" and said, somewhat mysteriously, that "kindness, understanding, empathy, forgiveness as well as love are all necessary to thrive, but not everyone has gotten them."
Maybe my mother had changed, but even if she had, I wasn't ready to accept her as a new person. I cut off contact again.
It didn't last. I visited her a couple of times over the next two years, but we were both at our worst. After the last visit ended in another screaming match, I decided that I would not talk to my mother for the rest of my life.
"The rest of my life" lasted until January of 2014, it turned out. In June of 2013, I had deleted several of her voicemails without listening to them. In July, I found out that she'd committed tax fraud using my identity. In August, I woke up one day to a very nonchalant voicemail from a social worker informing me that my mother was seeking intensive psychological care at a local mental health center. The call shocked me, but in that moment, I began to hope. I had been unable to reconcile with my mother before, but now that she had given in to her greatest fear — receiving mental health treatment — I began to believe that perhaps things really were different.
Her social worker, rather unprofessionally, asked me to call my mother. I declined but went to a family and friends meeting at the center. All the other patients in my mother's program were teenage girls; I stood awkwardly among their mothers in the waiting room. I learned that my mother was receiving counseling for borderline personality disorder, a mental illness characterized by a pattern of instability in one's relationships and emotions. It's tough but not impossible to treat. I began to wonder if, rather than being the monster I perceived her to be, the real version of my mother was the woman who shone through in our happy moments together; maybe all our troubles were simply this disease taking hold of her. Maybe when she lashed out at me, the real her was locked deep in her mind, as confused as I was about what was happening.
My mother completed her course of treatment at the facility and began seeing a psychiatrist at our local university's teaching hospital. The psychiatrist and I spoke several times over the rest of 2013, a year when I also learned about the shocking depths of the identity fraud my mother had committed with my personal information. I didn't speak with my mother. Her psychiatrist, unlike the social worker, thought it wise to give it some time and let my mother heal on her own for a while before bringing me into it.
But in January, it was time. I took a train to Connecticut, and in a conference room at a hospital, after a year and what I hoped were big changes, I saw my mother, sitting alongside her psychiatrist. My mother, the psychiatrist told me, had decided to seek help to repair her relationship with me. Okay, I thought. So far, so good.
But things disintegrated quickly from there. My mother didn't want to discuss her mental health problems and how they may have affected her parenting, and she scolded me for even bringing up the identity theft. "You should have called me as soon as you heard about that, I would have fixed it," she said, in the same voice she used to use to express displeasure when I tried to fight bullies on my own. But she was the bully here. I wondered, horrified, if all her careful protection of me from my peers as a child had has as much to do with controlling me as it did helping me.
Even though no one raised their voices or called names, this interaction was actually one of the worst I could remember — with tempers dampened and a professional in the room, what became clear was that we simply didn't fit together. The love that we were capable of giving each other just didn't feel like love to either of us. It felt, strangely, like the dozens of bad relationships I had had in my twenties. There was no way to make this work.
For years, I had believed that my mother's untreated mental illness was to blame for our lives together, but I saw now that it wasn't. The illness probably made things worse, of course; but getting help didn't change who she was. I had always hoped that treatment could excavate the good in my mother and push away the bad, leaving me with just the fun-loving woman who gossiped and cracked jokes and sometimes made me feel wonderful. But she finally had gotten that help — and the good and bad still remained, muffled, but in the same proportions they always had. Help hadn't transformed her. This person wasn't the product of a disease; it was just who my mother was. And that revelation gutted me.
I left and, crying into my grilled cheese, I resolved to not talk to my mother again. Not out of anger this time, but because it seemed like the most humane option for both of us. There is no way for us to be in the same room and not hurt each other. For my mother, this pain of us being together is worth it; for me, it is not.
At least, it isn't right now. Whatever primal wiring we have inside us that links us to our parents often aches from my estrangement. I frequently imagine a future where my mother and I can talk again; where I can thank her for the good parts of my childhood without absolving her of the bad parts; where she can understand what I feel and why, and we can just go back to listening to the oldies radio station together.
And some part of me, however faint, is still holding out for this. Even though I am proud of the logic and self-love that's led me to pull away from her every time I've cut off contact, it never quite feels permanent. I can't quite reconcile the idea that I will never see her again for the rest of my life. Maybe it's the influence of a culture that calls us selfish for ever pulling away from family. Maybe it's some evolutionary mechanism designed to keep the pack together. Maybe it's hope.
Over the past year, half a dozen emails have accumulated in my "Drafts" folder. They all begin "Hey Mom." And then they go blank.
Images: Gabrielle Moss