Addressing the elephant in the room
January 26, 2012 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone written an honest letter to an abusive parent and actually sent it?

I have a difficult relationship with my mother who I believe has NPD or something in that area. I've realized that the thing that I resent the most is that she refuses to acknowledge some pretty bad things she did through my childhood and adulthood. I've never brought them up or confronted her about them because my relationship with her revolves around her using guilt and denial in most of our interactions. A lot of family members have already cut off contact with her because of her behavior.

I've been reading some books about parents with NPD or BPD and see a lot of this in her and realized I should write her an email finally saying the things I've wanted to say in a completely non-confrontational and fact-driven tone with the hope of still continuing our relationship. One of the books I read said that sometimes in order for an adult child to get over an emotional hump in her healing process, they should write a letter or talk to them about everything they needed to say. Ideally I would like to have a cordial relationship with her, but I feel I can no longer carry on our contact unless I talk about some things that are hurtful.

I wrote the email, had my spouse read it and offer suggestions to make sure it doesn't sound histrionic or like an attack. I've written it over the course of a few weeks and shelved it many times, cause I really don't want to send something I'll regret later. The problem is I can't bring myself to actually send it. I can't really articulate why. I just feel anxious about it. I've read a lot of advice before about writing an angry letter to someone who hurt you and then just destroying it/not sending it. That works in some situations, but I feel I really need to send this because otherwise I have nothing else to say to her and our relationship can't move on. I'm not looking for an apology from her or even an acknowledgement. I just want her to know this is how I view everything and how I feel about it.

Has anyone written a letter like this to a parent and actually sent it? Did you feel better afterward regardless of how the parent reacted?
posted by side effect to Human Relations (41 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I sent a letter to my alcoholic father to cut off contact, which is a slightly different situation. I thought it would be better than trying to have a conversation, because I would be able to say my piece in a coherent way without facing an emotional derail from him. From that perspective, it was successful; I was able to tell him both good and bad things and make sure the emphasis was where I wanted it to be. However, he didn't see in it what I wanted him to see; I got back a one-line card saying, "I hope someday you can forgive me," which was not at all the point. I was not angry; I only felt sad and like I was contributing to dysfunction by continuing to have a relationship with him.

So, all that is to say: If you want to send a letter for yourself, do it. I did feel better having done it. If what you're hoping is to change the relationship moving forward by changing your own behavior - and only your own behavior - that is something that can very well be accomplished by this sort of thing. However, if you're sending a letter because you're hoping for a specific reaction from your mother, you are probably going to be disappointed. A lifetime of dysfunction from her is not going to be remedied by some words on a piece of paper. I really feel that the main benefit to be gained from something like this is internal peace.
posted by something something at 9:02 AM on January 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am writing all of the following based on personal experience. I am not a medical professional of any kind, nor am I a therapist.

Ideally I would like to have a cordial relationship with her, but I feel I can no longer carry on our contact unless I talk about some things that are hurtful.

In your case, I don't really advise writing the letter. When I wrote my letter, it was the last contact I ever had with my parent. I had no intentions of continuing a relationship post-letter. Every month I do not talk to that parent makes me realize just how much healthier I am. I grieve the loss of this parent in the same way I would if it had been a good parent that passed away, and intend to never have any contact again.

I feel I really need to send this because otherwise I have nothing else to say to her and our relationship can't move on

If your parent truly has BPD/NPD, there is no way for the relationship to 'move on'. The relationship will be stuck forever according to their terms. There is absolutely no room for growth. This letter will most likely not validate you. She may make you feel even worse for writing it.

If you wish to discuss this with someone who has been in a strikingly similar situation, please feel free to contact me via my profile (even if you are reading this in 2015).
posted by 200burritos at 9:07 AM on January 26, 2012 [11 favorites]

Best answer: First off, you need to do what is best for you. So if it's sending the letter... you should send it. Below are my experiences with the few people I've eventually realized had something seriously wrong with their wiring, one was a very good friend:

If she has a serious and untreated personality disorder like NPD, it's doubtful that what you say to her can in any way change her state of mind. It will probably rebound like a bullet shot at Superman, hitting you or an innocent bystander (by which I mean her taking out anger at others).

Of course that is not the rational response, especially if your letter is worded as you've indicated, but serious personality disorders are by definition a breakdown of rational thought.

I've known and dealt with people who I think have similar issues, and I've never found a calm explanation of how they hurt others to penetrate the thick armor of their impairment. But I initially felt great! Then when they reacted as they did, I felt the full stages of grief all over again - denial at how they could be so delusional, anger over their inability to understand their actions had consequences, etc. I now practice avoidance in the rare times it comes up.

BUT, I think you should do what is best for YOU. If it is sending that letter, then you deserve to send that letter. I just want you to be aware that your mother might try to hurt you over it. This is not to make you feel guilty so I hope it doesn't come off like that.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:09 AM on January 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, actually. Two days ago to my mother who has some rather strong NPD characteristics, though I don't think she can be diagnosed as such.

I listed out specific behavioral issues with examples in as organized a format as I could. I wrote out how it's been affecting me, and how I felt this impacted some of my future decisions (for example, complete disinterest / almost disgust at the idea of having children of my own). I wrote how I observed her behavior towards other family members. I used some "big words" and their definitions to further drive home how this is legitimately -wrong- behavior.

As soon as I wrote it and sent it, it was like a thousand pounds had been lifted from my shoulders.

So my advice is, definitely send it. It will nag at you until you do anyway.

Besides, if you send it, she might actually take that as a wake-up call and change.
If not, you know in your heart that you made an effort to sanely say, "I was hurt by what you said" which is what everyone advises everyone to do when your trying resolve a face-to-face argument.
posted by DisreputableDog at 9:09 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Besides, if you send it, she might actually take that as a wake-up call and change.

Well, okay, if she doesn't have an actual disorder, that's true. But you can't bootstrap your way out of something like NPD.

That's not a call to putting up with their shit though.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:13 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some of the best advice I read for situations like this: Okay, you say that you hope for a cordial response. But -- imagine for a minute that you don't get it; in fact, imagine that she calls you and says you're overrreacting and that it never happened and it's just the same kind of denial you've been getting for years, and if that's the way you think of her, well, then she's never going to talk to you again, how's THAT?....

Okay: imagine that THAT is how she reacts. Would you still think it was a good idea to send the letter? Whatever you decide, that's your answer.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:13 AM on January 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've written a letter and sent it, not directly to a parent, but to an uncle, to explain why I stay away from the parent, and to communicate 'my side of the story' to the people around the parent. The writing was motivated by a strong urge to vent the feelings about the wrongness of the way I was treated. I regret sending the letter. It did nothing to make me feel better, just made me feel vulnerable, opening worries about the content of the letter being ridiculed or being interpreted as evidence that there's something wrong with me. It does not make sense, by definition, to rely on disturbed people for any kind of emotional validation or understanding. The only reliable method of assuaging any hurt seems to be trying to develop inside yourself. The only satisfying outlet for anger seems to be to build a good life for yourself.
posted by Paquda at 9:14 AM on January 26, 2012 [13 favorites]

Best answer: You only send that sort of letter for yourself. It's the not the sort of thing were the recipient tends to read and suddenly change.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:15 AM on January 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

posted by mandymanwasregistered at 9:16 AM on January 26, 2012

Two (of of my four) sisters did after my mom lashed out at them for one's not convincing her dentist husband to write fake vicodin prescriptions for a third basketcase sister; the other letter writer was the sister who took the brunt of the abuse for refusing not to convince sister #1 (dentist's wife) to write the illegal prescriptions.

That was 2006 and none of the parties have spoken since. My mom, two "good" sisters and brother will have nothing to do with the "bad" sisters who wrote the letters. The "bad" sisters are the ones I'm closest to and this situation has been the bane of my existence since then. I'm the only one who communicates with all parties and am constantly treated as a middleman.

I would only write the letter if you can live with the consequences. If you have siblings or other family members who will support you instead of vilify you like my siblings have done with my "bad" sisters, then proceed.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:30 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've written a letter to an abusive parent, about the abuse, and sent it. The response I got was that if I ever said anything like that again it would be the last time we spoke to each other.

So, yeah. What others above have said. I don't think you should expect a change, and if you do send the letter, I think you should be prepared for the possibility that it'll be the end of the relationship.

You might or might not still find it worth doing.
posted by johnofjack at 9:35 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I never sent it. I did discuss it in person. They "couldn't remember." Which is exactly what they complained about their own abusive parent saying many years ago.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:36 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding EmpressCallipygos; you can't do it with any expectation that she's going to change.

My story: I wrote a letter like to that to my father many years ago; he returned it to me, completely torn up with a note saying I had a lot of nerve talking to him like that. Not what I expected.

I cannot imagine someone ever getting the response, "Oh, thanks for telling me. Now I can change."
posted by kinetic at 9:40 AM on January 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't think writing a letter is going to get you the closure that you want in order to move forward and have a cordial relationship with your mother.

People like this either don't remember what happened, become infuriated and escalate the situation, or spin everything around so that you seem like you were in the wrong and to blame. Your mother might also choose to ignore this email. None of these reactions is going to get you the closure that you want.

You should still write the letter but you shouldn't send that letter to your mother. Address it to your mother and disclose all of your feelings but keep it to your self. If you need to share it with someone then share it with your SO.
posted by livinglearning at 9:46 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I definitely understand the impulse here, but I would echo what some of the other posters have said about bearing in mind that you might get a response that is more hurtful than the situation as it stands. My mom would always tell me that I should stop being so sensitive and that whatever I was upset about just wasn't a big deal. Years of being told your feelings aren't important can really get under your skin and I totally get wanting to push back. I've written out plenty of messages over the years but never even thought about actually sending them because I knew it wouldn't help and was afraid of what else it would stir up. (kinetic's story gave me a bit of the shivers because I know I would be wrecked by that sort of response.)

In a similar vein as what was said above: you said you don't really even want an acknowledgment, but what if this basically disappears into the ether and you never hear anything from her about it either way? Will you still get the sort of closure you're hoping for? Personally I would be even more upset thinking "I poured out my heart into that letter and you don't say anything??"

Basically all I'm saying is do what you need to to move that weight off your shoulders, but try and go into it as realistically as possible. Good luck, this is a crappy situation to deal with.
posted by brilliantine at 9:58 AM on January 26, 2012

If you feel you want to send it, then send it. Obviously just writing it was not cathartic enough and you have given it time and thought. I agree though, you will NOT get validation, at best, she will most likely have a very different memory of her actions and will rationalise it all away as "doing the best she could".

Are you comfortable with going no-contact? Would you be okay if SHE was the one that said she didn't ever want to hear from you? If you have held no-contact as your "trump card" in regaining your power and voice in this dynamic you may feel cheated that SHE got to be the one to end the relationship.
posted by saucysault at 10:00 AM on January 26, 2012

My wholly non-professional opinion: what others have said for AND against are both valid. The reactions others posted are very interesting to read and may give you good examples of what to expect in response. My expansion on that is if you think you can handle these responses, go for it. It might benefit you to know what your mother's response is. If it turns into a vehement DON'T YOU EVER SAY THAT AGAIN HOW DARE YOU BLAHBLAHBLAH well, now you know and can tailor future interaction accordingly. And if it bugs you so much, maybe her cutting you off in 'revenge' wouldn't be so bad for your mental health in the long run. It sucks, sure, but if the lady's been so stellar that you're thinking this hard about it...
posted by Heretical at 10:21 AM on January 26, 2012

If your parent truly has BPD/NPD, there is no way for the relationship to 'move on'. The relationship will be stuck forever according to their terms. There is absolutely no room for growth.

This is a very unfair generalization. There is room for growth. Just because a person is mentally ill, or even a particular kind of mentally ill, does not mean they can't change or grow.

I am not saying that an NPD or BPD sufferer would read your letter and respond rationally right off the bat -- that is probably not realistic, because an angry letter is going to come across as an attack no matter how well you phrase it. But your abusive parent may be able to grasp that past behaviors were Not Good, and may even use that knowledge to try to change and perhaps seek counseling. It is a totally possible thing, particularly if you use the letter not only to clear the air but ALSO to set good boundaries you will stick to.

Before you send such a letter, though, think through the best and worst case responses. Best? "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry. I'll try to respect your boundaries from now on." Worst? "I'm not speaking to you ever again! You are no longer my child. You're an ungrateful blah blah blah."

If your abuser has never sought treatment for whatever mental illness is hiding behind her behavior, you're much more likely to end up with something closer to a worst-case scenario. That doesn't mean you shouldn't send the letter, though. It just means you should prepare for confrontation and discomfort and maybe an explosion that results in losing contact for a time.

One of my family members, who almost certainly suffers from BPD (though she will not see a therapist to address it), will go off on a rant if you tell her she's behaved badly. Or at least, she used to, before I started walking out of the room as soon as she crossed a line. It's taken several years for her to get accustomed to the new boundaries I set. But she has gotten used to them, and our relationship now is much better than it was when those boundaries weren't enforced.

So, if you are indeed going to send a letter, my completely non-professional advice is to ensure that you not only lay out the ways in which your mom has wronged you but that you ALSO write out the boundaries you're setting, which can help provide a way forward.

Good luck.
posted by brina at 10:38 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a compromise in mind. I have not been in your situation, but here's something I did during a long distance breakup (he was out of the country at the time, so it was over email). Could you send her a very brief note or email letting her know that you are struggling with your current relationship and feel it cannot go on this way, but tell her the reason you are writing is to see if she would like to hear your full thoughts on the matter (warning her that some of them won't be pretty)? Tell her you've got a long letter written that you'd like to send to her but only if she's open to hearing how you feel, and then leave the decision up to her. Then maybe you'd get a feel for how badly--or not--this might backfire. Good luck!
posted by lovingkindness at 10:42 AM on January 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

My dad and I have had a long messy relationship, which I finally got fed up with about eight months ago. I sent him an email the other night; I couldn't sleep (caffeine, not emotions) and ended up just getting back out of bed and writing a long email of everything that I didn't normally feel safe saying. He wrote back a huge thing last night, which I was afraid to read but scrolled down to the bottom to see how long it was and ended up seeing the last paragraph, which was basically "in synopsis, I disagree with all of this and I don't think I am the cause of any of your current issues, you need to grow up." He missed the point. So now I am at the point where I think I am basically done with him. It didn't make him understand, but it helped me move forward. That might be the best you can realistically hope for, as other commenters have said. I think the older people get, the harder it is for them to change, and the less they are likely to even want to.
posted by agress at 10:55 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I know someone well who has tried this several times and it broke her heart every time when the parent refused to acknowledge her feelings and make even a token effort to change. Write the letter to work through your feelings, but don't send it.
posted by dgran at 11:03 AM on January 26, 2012

I think you first need to decide whether or not you want to continue the relationship with her and then figure out what you think the response to your letter will be and how you feel about it. That will help to decide whether or not sending the letter is a good idea for you.

If your mother truly has a disorder such as NPD or BPD, I do not think you can really expect any change in behavior from her if she is not getting help with her issues and/or refuses to acknowledge that she has issues in the first place. I'm in a similar situation(but I live in a different state than my parent which has helped me a lot) and I know that a letter will not change anything. It might help me get things off my chest, but nothing would change and my parent will never seek therapy - not in a million years. I don't even think my parent would understand the letter and would probably rationalize it away.
posted by fromageball at 11:09 AM on January 26, 2012

No, this never works. You have to understand that people like this are masters of manipulation, twisting and denying the truth, and self-serving delusion. This is actually the heart of the matter -- whatever they have going on inside them makes them insist, at all costs and all evidence to the contrary, that they are right/good, and everyon else is bad. So expressing your feelings only gives them ammunition, and they will always have bigger guns than you on this battle field. What HAS worked for me is expressing my feelings and experiences to other, sane family members.

Ultimately, should you chose to go forward in this relationship, setting boundaries is not about making your parent understand or apologize for what they did. It's not about talking things out and coming to a resolution. It's about deciding for yourself what you will/won't tolerate, and removing yourself from the situation when the time comes.
posted by yarly at 11:11 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

If she has a history of denial, which, if she does have a mental illness, then it is part of the illness. That part will probably remain with or without receiving the letter. Really look at doing it for yourself. Sometimes the need to self express to someone outweighs even the result of them never speaking to you again. Sometimes not.

Since you spent so much time and thought in writing the letter, maybe it could become a good tool with therapy (or another source of input), where you can break it down part by part and come up with ways to deal with each aspect of the behavior, so, at least, you have the specific tools for reacting to the specific actions of/issues with your mother in a way that you can be at least semi o.k. with.
posted by Vaike at 11:24 AM on January 26, 2012

I wrote one of these letters to my father more than twenty years ago. Haven't had anything to do with him since then; it's easy for me, he lives in another country, on another continent. Some tiny part of me hoped he might be human enough to beg for my forgiveness, but I was not surprised when he didn't. I think he's a sociopath. Everyone else, including my younger sisters, thinks he's wonderful. I know better.
posted by mareli at 11:36 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If this truly is how you feel:
I'm not looking for an apology from her or even an acknowledgement. I just want her to know this is how I view everything and how I feel about it.

Then I think, yes, go for it. As others have said, however, if you expect anything from her (anything at all, whether positive or negative), I'd vote against it. It would instead be a sign that you may have more work to do on your own before reaching the stage where you either want to confront simply because you want to say what you experienced, leaving their response open in your mind, or you honestly don't care to confront them.

I confronted both my parents and my maternal grandmother. My mother, since I was a child, actually; I was a pretty aware kid and was raised by friends' parents and teachers to believe in mutual respect. My mother blatantly disrespected me, and I can remember telling her, in my 7-year-old "wisdom", "Mom, you're not supposed to talk to people you love that way. What you said hurts my feelings." I expected she would apologize, as we were taught to do in school. Instead she escalated. Well, it's nearing 30 years later and she never changed. I gave it one last shot a few years ago, and she replied with how I deserved to die, so that was that.

Father – didn't work out any better.

Grandmother – yeah. Ouch. Okay, so, this woman repeatedly lied to cover for her son, who beat my cousins, locked them in closets for hours without bathroom breaks, and so forth. I was calling the police on my uncle when I was freaking 12 years old. My uncle phoned my grandmother, she got there before the police, and told them how all of us children were liars and so deserved any punishment that was doled out to us. A few years ago (not long after I'd confronted my mother), I finally had enough of her simpering "I'm so sweet and helpless and want to be loved by my grandchildren" stuff... in response to one of my cousins asking her about his child abuse... that I gave her a choice: she could either apologize to my cousins for lying to the police about their father, or she should stop speaking to me, because I was there when it happened, it killed my faith in her, and I did not want someone so dishonest in my life.

She hasn't written me since then.

I feel better, though. I was finally able to tell her straight out that what she'd done, and continued to do in her "oh poor me stop complaining about being beaten and locked in closets" was absofuckinglutely unacceptable, and for me, she needed to apologize or STFU. Her choice to STFU spoke to me loud and clear.
posted by fraula at 11:37 AM on January 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

My own estrangement from my parents resulted when I was stone cold 'I cannot accept this behavior.' My mother meets many of the characteristics of NPD/BPD

This was the thing that lifted the weight from my shoulders. I drew boundaries. It resulted in a lot of hysteria on the other end, but I am much better off.

But it sounds like you, OP, are willing to accept X Y and Z from her. If you can do that and maintain your mental health, awesome. But if your parents are like my parents (and they not be, I am not a mental health professional) be prepared to be stone cold shut out, if you send them a letter along the lines of 'I would like X to change so that we continue the relationship.'

Good luck to you.
posted by angrycat at 11:39 AM on January 26, 2012

Best answer: I actually did not write a letter - though I had thought about it - but I ended up having a very uncomfortable phone conversation like this with a parent a few years ago where I told them stuff like this. This parent dislikes being confronted/made to feel guilty, and employed a lot of denial about how they treated me. I was happy to leave home as fast as I could, and not be dependent on them any longer.

I would not characterize my parent as NPD/BPD or anything like that, however. It was that I had never felt this parent was loving to me, or emotionally warm/close/open with me; they were way too critical of me, it felt; were almost never friendly with me, or interested in me. They perceived me quite negatively and treated me accordingly. This was painful, since I was (I thought) essentially a good child, smart, and wanted to please.

Anyway, after this uncomfortable conversation (where they denied my feelings and did not want to discuss it with me, but I did have a chance to say most of what I wanted to say) I did not hear from them for a while; then they wrote me a stiff email basically with that non-apology of "I'm sorry you feel that way" (but not so much "I'm sorry I did what I did"). Things were awkward for a while. We have never really discussed it again.

The outcome: just doing it made me feel SO much better. My parent could have cut off contact with me and it would have been sad but I still would have felt like a weight lifted off me. It allowed me to get past being so easily triggered by how this parent talked to me/treated me. I felt strong. It was a profound change in my life. This parent seemed to perceive it that way as well - that I was an adult now and I wasn't going to allow this to hurt me anymore. They seemed to gain respect for me, and began to treat me better (and be more interested in me). It also allowed me to distance myself from my feelings being all tangled up in how I perceived my parent, and see them dispassionately, why they were not loving to me (very likely, they were depressed when I was a child and did not want to admit it/acknowledge it/unpack it). It was overall a very positive experience and I am so glad I got up the courage to do it.

On the other hand, my SO's parent is probably NPD/BPD and when someone in the family (not my SO) wrote a (less personal than you're describing) letter like this to them, they basically cut off contact with us and most of the family. NPD/BPD seems to very much feed on denial and manipulating others into the guilt to avoid their own guiltiness. Be very prepared for that kind of reaction if you proceed with this. If you do it, you're doing it for you, to put your foot down, to shine a light on their behavior - acknowledge the truth - and say "I will not put up with this any longer". Don't expect they'll change.
posted by flex at 12:10 PM on January 26, 2012

I did send the letter, it was as kind and understanding as I could make it and I received a reply. It was as poisonous as anything she'd done before, and truly, I was naive to expect any other. She hasn't spoken to me in 13 years, she's on her deathbed and she has decided she will never forgive me.

I don't regret the lack of contact - she has been a very difficult person other family members, to the point of cruelty. What I would have liked to have done instead, with the benefit of hindsight and reading metafilter and all that, is develop boundaries and not allow her to cross them. This may have meant that we could have had a relationship in a way that would not have damaged me.
posted by b33j at 12:15 PM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

My dad wasn't physically abusive. He was more a...slow-acting poison that gradually killed everyone around him (not literally), more like a cancer eating away at relationships than a classic abuser. The final straw for me was when I suggested he visit a public library and set up an email account so we could communicate more, because writing physical letters and keeping track of them was difficult for me and we'd talk more that way. I got back 10 pages of pure vitriol that was basically "You think you're so much better than everyone and need to be knocked down a peg because you're too good to write letters to people," at least before I stopped reading. And when I sat and thought about it, I couldn't think of one nice thing he'd said to me in my entire life.

So I wrote him a very short letter (ironically, considering) detailing that and that I was sick of his shit and done talking to him. I was cutting the cancer out of my life. And I sent it. What his response was, I don't know, I tossed it in the trash. I found it very therapeutic and made me much happier to finally say what I wanted to say and be done with him.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 1:11 PM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I sent a long and explicit letter to my abusive father a couple of years ago, which he completely ignored. It took A LOT for me to actually mail it, but to be honest with you, it didn't make me feel any better at all. He was still who he was, and I was still allowing his behavior to upset me. The letter was nothing; I only felt better when I finally was able to see him as the pathetic figure he is and realize that he has no power over me and that I have nothing to feel guilty about in regards to our relationship or his personal situation. This empowerment came from learning to say no and from confronting him directly every time he crossed a line, and realizing that he was never, ever going to stop being an abusive alcoholic.

Of course, this was just my experience. A letter is probably very helpful for a lot of people. Just know it might not be the most helpful step you take.
posted by Kyrieleis at 1:58 PM on January 26, 2012

I think you should post this letter anonymously / pseudonymously (with personal details that could immediately identify you removed) to an online support group for adult children of abusive parents. Or read it out loud to an in-person support group or a therapist.

What you're looking for is validation of your feelings and an acknowledgement of the damage done to you, the pain you've suffered and the hard work you've had to do to overcome those things to function as an adult. You're looking for understanding, compassion and comfort. You're looking for justice. You're looking for someone to say, yes, you were right, and she was wrong, and your story is a true one that deserves to be told.

You're very probably not going to get any of that from your mother.

Honestly, if she really has NPD, and she is still hurting you, I would cut off contact with her. If she asks why, say, "I love you and respect you as my parent, but our relationship is toxic, and unless you are willing to seek help for your mental illness, acknowledge that you made major mistakes as a parent, and prove to me through both words and deeds that you are willing to change the way you treat me, I cannot continue to be around you."

I cut off contact with my father who (probably) has NPD and it was the best thing I ever did for my sanity. Like 200burritos, I grieve the loss, but it's really grief for a dream father -- the father I wish my father could have been; the father I never had.

As for the justice you seek, let the punishment for your mother's abuse be the natural consequence she has already created for herself -- the loss of a good relationship with you. I have a child of my own now and I finally understand how valuable a healthy parent-child relationship is. Due to her self-centeredness, your mother may never understand that. But whether she understands what she has given up or not, she lives with the loss all the same.
posted by BlueJae at 4:02 PM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, oh god yes, I've done this. Twice. It did not produce anywhere near the results I was looking for. My mother has NPD or BPD or bipolar II or a combo/Venn diagram of all. (She also has delusional hypochondriac behaviors and beliefs, notably delusional parasitosis.) In other words, my mother is mentally ill, and I wish in hindsight I'd seen that confronting her as if she's a rational person would not produce desirable results.

When I did this the first time, we had a week's worth of arguments via long-distance phone conversations. It exhausts me just remembering that time. We ended up not speaking for a year. Which was pretty relaxing and wonderful and so NORMAL, I must tell you. We only reconnected because someone died.

I could have written this:

Ideally I would like to have a cordial relationship with her, but I feel I can no longer carry on our contact unless I talk about some things that are hurtful.

I'm not looking for an apology from her or even an acknowledgement. I just want her to know this is how I view everything and how I feel about it.

You're understandably very angry and sad. Of COURSE you are. The thing is, you can't write an angry letter to a person with a personality disorder (or worse) and come out the other side with a "cordial" relationship. She's not a rational person. She will not have a rational reaction to your letter. You will almost certainly not get the results you want.

I really think you have a binary selection here:

1) Send the letter and expect MAJOR DRAMA including the possible severance of your relationship, even if temporary.
2) Don't send the letter and figure out how to either continue or end the relationship.

Similar to 200burritos, I'd welcome your contact anytime. I'm still dealing with it myself.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 4:26 PM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Writing a letter documenting the harm done to you is a way of expressing your anger. It's not likely to get the response you want. Your Mom is probably not going to admit to being abusive, apologize, see your point of view, etc. She may get angrier, whether or not her anger is justified.

What worked for me was distance. I moved 1,000 miles away, and didn't have a phone for a year, because it's so much harder to manipulate and/or berate a person by mail (this was before mobiles, email and texting). I worked retail, and one great benefit was that I couldn't visit for Christmas or Thanksgiving for years. Soooo sad, missing the traditional drunken fight during or just after the big holiday meal. When we talked on the phone, or when we were together, I stopped accepting abuse. Say mean things? "Mom, that made me feel bad. I'm getting off the phone now." blah, mean, blah, Click. When I did visit, I made sure I had an escape route, generally a rental car and a backup place to stay. The escape route was implemented more than once.

This means you don't get Mom's old car when she gets a new one, or expect Mom to provide emotional support when you feel bad, or have a Mom who visits and helps you with the new baby. If Mom is able to be nice to you, you reward her by being a nice loving daughter to her. Over time, you are able to see and appreciate her good side, recognize that it's not really fun for her to be bi-polar/narcissistic /just plan nuts, and that she probably had a shitty upbringing, herself, and you can develop compassion, and forgive her, whether she asks you to or not. By the end of my Mom's life, we had a relationship. It wasn't the relationship I really craved, but it was genuine.

Sending the letter promotes drama. Therapy and making yourself who you want to be promotes health.
posted by theora55 at 6:29 PM on January 26, 2012 [11 favorites]

You can reverse it. When I cut ties with a relative, I said that I would start a relationship if they wrote a letter acknowledging the problems present and in the past. Not a phonecall or visit which would end up stressing me out and require instant two-way communication, but a letter I could read and think about, that reflected their view of what had happened.

Since then, I've had forced surprise visits, gifts of money and sentimental items, short friendly emails, random phonecalls and absolutely no letter. It makes it much much easier for me to decline the visits/calls/gifts where I need to because I know the other person has no real intention of repairing this relationship if they can't bring themselves to write a short letter addressing the elephant.

Only send the letter if you have a condition on it like no contact until she responds to the letter, or until she agrees to joint therapy or she takes action XYZ. Otherwise, you're spending a lot of emotional energy to no purpose. I like theora55's approach - drama or health.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:10 PM on January 26, 2012

The problem is I can't bring myself to actually send it. I can't really articulate why. I just feel anxious about it.

Listen to this.

I've read a lot of advice before about writing an angry letter to someone who hurt you and then just destroying it/not sending it. That works in some situations,

Yes, it's very good advice.

but I feel I really need to send this because otherwise I have nothing else to say to her and our relationship can't move on. I'm not looking for an apology from her or even an acknowledgement. I just want her to know this is how I view everything and how I feel about it.

Well, here's the thing - you said that unless you send this letter you will have nothing else to say to her and your relationship won't be able to move on. Please understand that your relationship, even if you do send this letter, may never move on. On many levels it may be healthier for you to simply move on from the relationship.
posted by mleigh at 9:23 PM on January 26, 2012

There is a reason why the expression "pearls before swine" remains appropriate ca.2000 years after its origin.
posted by lalochezia at 5:30 AM on January 27, 2012

Response by poster: Hi everyone, thanks for all the helpful responses. It really helped me look at both sides in a different light and weigh my options. Some people are right that I am angry, but not nearly as much I was years ago when I was deconstructing everything in therapy. For a while I've been in a place where I've accepted this is who she is, but there's still something stalling my ability to move forward. After reading all the great responses, I think I'll send the letter because I'm honestly not looking for anything in return from her (change, validation, etc). I don't think she's capable of anything positive at this point. I read the book The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists which put into words exactly what I think I'm trying to do by writing to her:

"Until we can acknowledge our feelings with honesty, we cannot assert with confidence our perception of what is false in another person[.] To end the continuous spiraling of each partner's false self in the relationship, there must be an interruption in the pattern. One or both partners must have the courage to expose the charade by claiming the right to a life of authenticity."

I think if she cuts off contact after this then it may actually be for the better. I've wanted to cut off contact myself at times, but I'd be the last person in her immediate family to do so, which makes me very sad for her despite her role in everything. Aside from that I've already got the distance thing down by putting an ocean between us.

Thanks again.
posted by side effect at 9:12 AM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I believe we've been reading some of the same books. Susan Forward's "Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life" has a chapter called "Confrontation: The Road to Independence," that strongly, and inexplicably in my opinion, recommends confrontation. However, you may want to consider the advice in Nina Brown's "Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown-Up's Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents," in particular the chapter "Difficult Situations and How to Cope." You can probably view the relevant pages on Google Books.

In a nutshell, she views confrontation as a way of giving ammunition to an abusive parent. The parent may throw your disclosures back in your face or share them with unauthorized people, and view your suffering as evidence that you are indeed the crazy one. She recommends that you not ever share any information with this parent that you wouldn't freely share with the world. (Abusive parents are like the internet; who knew?)

Lundy Bancroft's "Why Does He DO That? Inside the Minds of Abusive, Controlling Men" is focused on helping the female partners of abusers, but may also be of interest. Basically, even in seemingly calm periods, the abuser is continuously scanning you for evidence of your faults and weaknesses to be later mined unfairly in arguments. I believe abusive parents operate similarly, and they may use such a letter in this way.

I'm sorry you're going through this, and whatever you choose to do, I hope the outcome goes well for you.
posted by ziggly at 3:00 PM on January 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I had serious issues with my mother when I was younger. We have a decent or even good (long-distance) relationship now, both because she became less hurtful as she got older and because I resigned myself to leaving some issues behind that were never going to get resolved.

I have written and sent angry emails before, and I've also talked to her on the phone about certain issues (years ago was the last time). The basic response was usually just denial. And when someone denies that something even happened, then there's really nothing to talk about after that. I never got what I wanted, which was an apology along the lines of "I am sorry for abandoning you in public places like that, not picking you up from school and making you walk home in the snow, that must have been very traumatic" or "I am sorry I didn't accept who you were and where your interests and talents lay, and instead punished you emotionally for not being who I wanted you to be or conforming to the path I would have chosen for you". Instead I got "that didn't happen" or at best "you are making too big a deal of that". Talking to her usually inflamed my feelings rather than helping them.

My mom, though, was and is a complex person. And she was a good mother in a lot of ways. She did things to hurt me, and I did actually decide not to speak to her ever again a few times, but ultimately it's not as bad of a situation as many people have had.

I think respondents thus far have adequately covered the idea that if you send this letter you should send it for yourself and with no expectation of a desired response.

What I haven't seen yet on this thread is the suggestion to ask your mother how she feels, to explore her hurts. I know it is extremely difficult to put your own hurts aside and open up a dialogue with someone who has hurt you about their hurts, but I believe that doing so would both make her less likely to be defensive when you share your own hurts, and also to show you that (perhaps) her abuse didn't come from sheer maliciousness but from being hurt herself and having coped with it the best she could by instituting various defenses and ways of being in the world that ultimately hurt you. Knowing that might make it easier to write to your mother in a compassionate, rather than angry, way.

My mother, for example, learned to turn off her emotions, and consequently was very insensitive to mine growing up. I felt like she treated me as a thing with no internal life. If I didn't feel well, for example, all she saw is that I wasn't functioning correctly (going to school). There was no asking WHY, no attempt made to connect my behavior with internal feelings that were motivating me. I was just punished, overtly and subtly emotionally, for not *doing* whatever it was she thought I should do. At the time all I saw was insufficiency, but it does now help to understand where she was coming from and that that is how she treated herself as well, she cut off her internal life in order to function.

I'd also like to say that BPD and NPD are different disorders (not sure why they are being lumped together here) and that a categorical statement that people with BPD don't change is unfair or ignorant. People with BPD can and do change. Even without therapy, people often grow out of some of the acute behaviors and feelings over time. Many young women diagnosed with BPD can no longer be diagnosed with it anymore in middle age, even if they never had a day of therapy.
posted by parrot_person at 4:07 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

parrot_person, I have also noticed that people on Mefi often declare BPD and NPD "incurable", however most people in that case are speaking of their parents who have spent a lifetime with BPD/NPD characteristics. Yes, younger people can and do "grow out" of some personality disorders as the natural consequences of their actions (losing jobs/relationships) lead to them re-evaluating their choices in how to behave/react. Parents, in their fifties, sixties and beyond, are most likely to NOT learn new coping skills as they have rationalised their past behaviour and justify current behaviour through that filter. If they have lived more than half their life with a limited amount of empathy and a lack of introspection/self-knowledge, baring some improbable catharsis, they will continue to use the behaviours that have always worked for them no matter how destructive they are in their own and other's lives.
posted by saucysault at 2:21 AM on January 28, 2012

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