How do you move on in a healthy light from an abusive childhood?
July 16, 2012 5:29 PM   Subscribe

No former teenage angst here; what do you do when your parents genuinely SUCK?

I'm sure I come off as somewhat of an over-talkative, sensitive, emotional person... who may have some sort of problem and I think this stems from who my parents were to me as a child. The thing is, I don't feel like I ever really knew how to cope with who my parents are. I don't know how to diffuse from the chaos I experienced and try to subtract those unnatural reactions from my life... and maybe this will be a good background for you guys to know why I may act like I am emotionally off-kilter... I have never told this to people outside of my family.

I never considered myself a troubled person growing up, until I grew up and realized that I had dark places in my youth, and still do now. My parents were a giant ball of dysfunction. Dad was always yelling. In fact, that's all I remember him doing from 7 years old on up. I didn't know what to do, but I knew my siblings would do nothing. I was a middle child, the third of four. My mom was so caught up in defending herself from his attacks that I became the one who consoled my younger sister and cared for her, who was really too young to know anything. I remember being picked on for having crooked teeth (my father emphasized this less-than-perfect quality) and constantly fixated on this to the point where I refused to smile with my teeth unless by accident. It sounds like a joke to many but it stemmed from being constantly criticized and stayed with me for years... it was a feeling of constant rejection.

Eventually I grew tired of my dad targeting my mom and yelling at her for hours and hours, and became desensitized to nasty language (and REALLY nasty)... while my siblings holed up in their rooms, I tried to combat my father as if I was his equal and try to attack him so as to salvage my mother who seemed to curl up and cry. I constantly had to "save" my mother from my father. Who refused to hit me back, but didn't have any qualms about hitting my mom or my sister, whom he despised. When she was just 13, I have a very strong memory of her being punched in the face by my father. She was physically assaulted by him when she was 17.

My father has been distant my entire life. His emotions are ridiculously shallow and he's seen me bawling and in such despair at his hands but only to his indifference. He was always so calm. I knew there was something wrong with him. We had to have him removed with force from our home several times including a restraining order. One day he took off on Christmas eve taking everything in our bank account. He couldn't keep a job and we kept having to downsize more and more. I had the most miserable Christmas of my life when we were given donations... I was embarrassed and had no clothes.

It wasn't until I was 16 I saw my dad for what he really was when I took a psychology class. I realized my father was a schizophrenic (he has now actually been diagnosed as having more than one personality disorder; asperger's, schizoid, and paranoid schizophrenia). Realizing my friends had estranged alcoholic parents, drug addicts for mothers, etc. I felt unable to explain who my dad was or why he did what he did. It actually was very unnerving to have people in class make jokes about "the crazies" and how "schizos have split personalities." Yet it really is different when your dad is that "crazy."

My father is now divorced from my mother and lives with his parents. The aftermath of everything has left neither parent on good terms with their children. My father is lazy, jobless, and angry as ever... although he communicates with me daily. My mother has detached from her role as a mother and seems to believe her job as a mother was done when she left my father when I was 15. She was more worried about having a date for Friday night and frivolously moved in and married my now stepfather uprooting any stability we both had by moving us away into a home with his kids who he had detached from and were repeatedly in trouble with the law. I can't ask either for help and both of them are jobless. I have no security net as I navigate my twenties. I didn't have it even as a child, but I have become my sole provider.

I have a lot of anger towards them, and oddly, sympathy for my father. I used to remember my mother as somebody great but now nobody can recognize her. She is the definition of a codependent and if I confide in her, she just can't be my mother... she wants me to stop talking so she can spend "quality time" with my step father and caters to him and his children while forgetting about her own. She revolves around him and relishes his controlling ways. She has unhealthy relationship patterns I think I may have learned.

So now I am looking back on it all and wondering, how do I escape from these patterns? Is chaos all that I want to know? Am I better off leaving and severing ties with them or keeping their contact limited?
posted by Chelsaroo650 to Human Relations (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
(he has now actually been diagnosed as having more than one personality disorder; asperger's, schizoid, and paranoid schizophrenia).

How do you know this? Is this a diagnosis from a medical provider or is this your diagnosis of him based on your psychology class?
posted by two lights above the sea at 5:39 PM on July 16, 2012

Response by poster: He has medically been diagnosed. He is awaiting his disability approval for these illnesses.
posted by Chelsaroo650 at 5:41 PM on July 16, 2012

Sorry for your anguish but when you say your parents suck and then tell us what so messed up your father then "sucks" no longer works for me. Your dad was crippled by his vaious problems, and never got the help he needed. Now you must accept his problems, get help for yourself, and try to understand how your past came about and how it has now played a central role in your life.
posted by Postroad at 5:49 PM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

nobody can tell you exactly what to do, or what to expect. but one thing is for sure: you must keep trying, you must be in the driver's seat of your own life. the only thing you can do wrong at this point is to check out, to turn to alcohol or sex to turn down the volume of your pain. you sound like you have a pretty good grasp of what happened to you - that's a great start. get therapy, write a book, express yourself in painting or photography, find others who have been in your shoes, find more younger people who need support and understanding. it's going to be a long road, and you're going to be pissed for a long time, maybe forever. that's ok. just never give up, and never use your father's sickness as an excuse to shortchange yourself. as for being in contact with your family or not - honestly i don't think it matters that much. if it interferes with your taking care of yourself in any way, then cut them loose. but i don't think you have to decide this overnight.
posted by facetious at 5:49 PM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

It helped me to look at my mother as "sick" and not just mean or "sucky", as you put it. What didn't help was that even after her diagnoses, she still refused to get help. Don't do that to yourself. Seek counseling, set boundaries, and get on with your OWN life.
posted by Brittanie at 5:57 PM on July 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

Your father has a medical diagnosis. I understand how terrifying and traumatic your childhood was. However, you are an adult now, one with the knowledge that what happened to you at the hands of your father was out of your control AND likely his. No one can say what his character is or how much of the abuse was because of his mental illness. You have to chose to forgive him or not.

So now I am looking back on it all and wondering, how do I escape from these patterns? Is chaos all that I want to know? Am I better off leaving and severing ties with them or keeping their contact limited?

The answer to all of these questions can likely only be found in therapy. I don't think this is something that anyone here can definitively answer.

My anecdote: I had no security net since I was 17 and graduated high school. My father was abusive and drank too much. My mother suffered from depression. I am now married happily and working on my degree at an ivy league university. I see my family for holidays and call my mother every week or so. This works well for me, but of course I'm not you. I got help, and guess what? It helped. It also helped to learn to be a truly independent person and realize that I can only rely on myself (of course, I have my husband now, but that came much later). As with all things worth doing, it will be hard work to break through to changing the way you feel/think/relate to your parents and your past. I hope you find peace!
posted by two lights above the sea at 5:59 PM on July 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm sorry if I'm offending people using the word suck. I don't generally feel that way about my father's illness and I direct that more towards my mom choosing to be distant. I do see my father as sick and I constantly correct my mother for seeing his illness as malicious behavior. My father would never take his pills but does not understand he can't function without them. Sometimes I admit, I get frustrated with him.
posted by Chelsaroo650 at 6:01 PM on July 16, 2012

It's okay to be angry with your dad. What he did to you might not have been his "fault," but it's still okay to be angry that you grew up in such a threatening atmosphere, and okay to be angry that you felt you had to take on more responsibility way younger than you should have. You don't have to be angry forever, but you don't have to deny or pretend it away, either.

The thing that the right therapist can really help with is shortcutting the process of figuring out what destructive patterns you learned from childhood that are fucking up your life now. You don't have to reinvent the wheel and figure it all out by yourself. The quicker you learn what crappy patterns you're subconsciously replicating, the quicker you can learn how to stop before you start. You have your own life to live!

Regarding cutting contact: if I were you, I would, at least for a couple of years, to give yourself room to figure out what's what. You were brought up to be a caretaker, but that's not actually mandatory 24/7/365. You deserve kindness and time and patience. It doesn't sound like you got a lot as a kid, so go ahead and try to give it to yourself now.
posted by rtha at 6:08 PM on July 16, 2012 [21 favorites]

A lot of people in this world had incredibly screwed-up childhoods. You're in a better position than most because you can identify the toxic dynamics at work, and you seem to understand on some level that you didn't deserve any of this. Having a mentally ill parent is horrible; I know firsthand how hard it is to both pity a parent's illness and be deeply angry at them. And you do have a reason to be angry-- he caused you a lot of fear and pain as a child, and it sounds like you're continuing to suffer because no one taught you how to be an emotionally healthy adult. That's a good reason to be angry, even if other people can look at your father and just feel sorry for him. You're not a monster for being angry. You're really not. But if you don't channel that anger into actively learning healthy behavioral and thought patterns, it'll eat away at you until it destroys you.

Have you been to therapy? It's the classic Metafilter answer, but it really will help you to have someone you trust to talk you through the project of becoming a person you want to be. You can identify your unhealthy patterns, you understand why you learned them as a child, and you want to be happier-- you won't be able to fix all of this overnight, but you have the building blocks in place so that when you start doing the real emotional work, you will see a payoff.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:08 PM on July 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

chelsearoo, I think you have the right to be angry, and I personally don't see anything wrong with saying your parents SUCK, if they do suck! And it sounds like they really do!

First I want to really address the idea that you can't be mad about someone's behavior if they have a mental illness, or you must be okay with/get over your feelings about someone's behavior if they have a mental illness.

It is okay to say that someone with a mental illness sucks if their behavior towards your or other people is horrible. I have a mental illness. There are things you can't control, but there are a whole lot of things that you still can control.

I have a very close relative with schizophrenia. Nobody (including medical professionals in the mental hospitals where he has stayed) is okay with him just walking around doing bad things and acting out. There are strong limits on how it is okay for him to act and he's very well aware of it, and he sticks within those limits, for the most part. And he's completely aware that people are not going to just be okay with it if he lashes out

For example, my mom would take him shopping, and he would see immigrants around, and yell abuse at them (he had a thing about immigrants). My mom told him without a shadow of a doubt that the behavior made her angry and if he was going to do that while she was out shopping with him, then she was never going to take him shopping anymore. She didn't just say, oh, we have to just understand him and his behavior, it's okay.

Decades ago he once pushed someone off the subway platform in NYC into the path of an oncoming train, while he was off his meds and having an episode. Did the NYPD say, oh this is just his illness, we just have to be understanding and not really hold him accountable for that? Fuck no! He was arrested, jailed, locked up in a mental hospital for years for doing that.

He is an aware person. Just because he has schizophrenia, he's not a vegetable. He has the ability to understand when he's being abusive. He gets held accountable for it. People don't make excuses for it. So, he has been doing really well for a really long time in that regard, even though he still doesn't take his medications most of the time.

Let's talk about my mom. She had an abusive childhood. She took that out very heavily on me, when I was a child. She has never been diagnosed with anything, but I think at the minimum she has anxiety disorder like me, because she has every one of the same symptoms that led to me being diagnosed with that mental illness. I think that she has a bunch of things wrong with her mentally, not just that. But no matter how many mental disorders or illnesses she may have, nobody will ever shame me into denying the truth, which is that she honestly sucks. She was extremely abusive to me growing up. She tries to be abusive to me now. I don't let her into a position where she really can be, but one of my biggest fears is that I will be incapacitated somehow and then at her mercy again. Again, just because she has mental problems, it doesn't make her a vegetable. She's aware of what she does. She's aware when she causes other people pain. She causes other people pain deliberately. She could seek help for how she is. She chooses not to. I think that she enjoys how she is, to be honest. So, she doesn't get some special snowflake pass from me for her behaviors.

Okay, so let me answer your question now:

No former teenage angst here; what do you do when your parents genuinely SUCK?

For me, I always felt like my biggest roadblock was learning how to fit in with regular, normal, functional, happy families. I needed to learn these things both on an interpersonal level (for example, what is a healthy way to react when you are angry about something that someone has done?) and on a practical level (How do you set a formal dinner table? Obviously, my family never did things like that.)

I'm not sure if you need to know the practical ones so I'll skip those (and they're easier to learn anyway, you can learn those from books.) The interpersonal ones, yes, what you're saying about feeling emotionally off-kilter and She has unhealthy relationship patterns I think I may have learned. - that is very very much the way I was feeling at the time.

For the impersonal ones, yes, I needed to completely cut contact with my family for a while. I did that for several years, and another several, I had EXTREMELY limited contact with them - maybe a short phone call every few months. For the past few years it's been at the level of a short phone call every few weeks and an occasional visit. This was important because I felt like every time they would contact me, I would get sucked back into these patterns that I really needed to unlearn. And I felt like it was ruining my progress. Now I feel like my changes have solidified enough that contact with them doesn't really mess me up as much.

I feel like I improved interpersonally in two main ways: doing a TON of reading about abuse (especially verbal/emotional abuse), codependency, control issues, and relationship issues. The other part was just slow trial and error. Getting in relationships with people (both romantic relationships/friendships), knowing that I couldn't really stop myself from fucking up, knowing that I probably wouldn't handle it very healthily if the other person fucked up, but at the same time knowing that I COULD be aware, and observe what was going on, and analyze it, and remember it. That was a very slooooowwww process. It totally worked, but it took a really long time, and I went through a lot of pain and shitty situations, and caused pain to other people as well.

To be honest, I believe that therapy would be a really good shortcut for all of that. I don't think therapy would do everything though. I still think you have to do your own reading, and go through your own fuckups, and analyze them and learn from them. But I think therapy might cut years off that process.

Good luck, dudette. You are in a rough spot, but I think you can absolutely come through it to a good place in the end.
posted by cairdeas at 7:03 PM on July 16, 2012 [30 favorites]

I cut my dad off completely when I realized I couldn't point to a single positive thing he'd contributed to my life. He'd never been supportive of anything I'd ever done and he was positively gleeful when I failed. Did he have his own mental issues? Yeah, in retrospect, he did. At some point his paranoia about the government taking all his guns away became genuine paranoia that no, really, they were going to come take HIS guns away, but nobody close to him really realized it. But I'm not interested in fixing people that don't want to be fixed (I tried to get him to use email and got a 10 page letter back full of bile and vitriol about how I was a terrible person for thinking I was too good to write a letter and I was uppity and needed to be taken down a peg and...) and he spent years systematically alienating everyone who might've cared about him with an amazing vigor. When he died, he died alone, and I considered it the justified harvest for the bitter seeds he sowed. Others would see it differently and think I'm a horrible person (they've told me so!) for not caring how he died. I see it as I cut a cancer out of my life. People spread poison just as much as cancer cells.

My mom is...hmm, how to put it. She tried to give away a huge chunk of our grandparents' inheritance (thousands of dollars!) to us grandkids because my aunt was throwing a hissyfit and she "just wants everyone to stop fighting and be a family!" Fortunately, most of us blocked that. She married a man half her age because she got baby fever and he was abusive and nearly killed us several times. She basically left me to parent myself once she got her baby, then tried to reimpose her will when I was 17 and she noticed I'd be leaving home soon and got pissed when she couldn't just slide back into my life. She blocked every attempt I made to get some distance by going to college out of state, by going to college early, by moving into the dorms. Finally, I had to drop out of school and fly across the country and live with a friend from the internet, which I knew was insanely risky, but it was either that or murder her or be stuck in the house forever. It took me years to...I wouldn't say I forgive her, because I'm pretty broken, but tolerate her. I keep in touch with her, but on my terms. I live far enough away she can't drop by without notice, I only communicate via email so I have time to consider, and I only visit or let her visit a few times per year. And then I take a week off because it's emotionally exhausting. She still begs me to move back home. Not for all the money in the world. I'd die under a bridge first. But when she's out of her comfort zone and her dysfunctional patterns and her broken routines, she's almost bearable. She came out to help me move at one point and I was like "Who is this person who acts totally normal?" But I'm not stupid enough to get sucked in.

It's all down to you. Your parents are as full of shit as anyone else and only you can decide what makes your life better, and fuck the people with normal families who tell you you're a bad person because they think "My mom sucks" means "My stupid mom wouldn't let me smoke weed", not "My mom married a guy half her age who came close to killing us several times."
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:40 PM on July 16, 2012 [14 favorites]

To answer your questions at the end of your post: It all depends - do you want to be 60 years old and still trying to make life right for your 80-year-old parents?

I spent a good 40 years of my life trying to make myself and my parents run peacefully alongside each other, but it never, ever worked. Instead, I carried the weight of all their misery and my own on my own back, to the point where I neglected my own children, career, etc. because I was busy "helping out" my parents. It was a mistake.

My mother was the only one left and in her early 80s when I finally realized that she would treat me, in the role of her caregiver, in a demeaning, bullying manner, but she didn't behave that way with other caregivers; this was my last "round" with her. I had dropped to 88 lbs and my mind was at about the same level when her doctor told me it was time to let someone else take over before my own health was irretrievable. I found good caregivers for her and left her in their hands, then turned myself into a Psych Unit, where I was made to understand that you do NOT owe your parents your entire life and soul and spirit, certainly not when they "suck," as you say.

So - if you want to become a lifelong emotional cripple, buy into the responsibility angle and settle in. Know, however, that it will not solve your parents' problems; in the long run, qualified professionals can do a much better job and you don't have to feel guilty if you do all you can to get good care for them. When you have a family of your own, put forth positivity and joy to them and know that you've done enough for your parents. I wish you the best.
posted by aryma at 8:03 PM on July 16, 2012 [10 favorites]

My father is lazy, jobless, and angry as ever... although he communicates with me daily

This stuck out to me. Think about why you are letting these people live rent-free in your brain. When I was no longer living with my parents, we did not have daily contact, and they are totally normal folks with whom I just happen not to have very much in common besides 18 years of cohabitation and support.

So, you want to avoid reliving the maladaptive patterns you learned in childhood? Therapy. I cannot say this enough. It is awesome, and it will help you as much as you let it. The very fact that you are asking whether it is reasonable to limit contact means that it's probably a good idea to do so. Going away to college isn't an option for everyone, but being a thousand miles from home 9 months of the year was the best way for me to stop simultaneously hating my folks and being trapped in their (admittedly mild) emotional dramas. Given the parental shenanigans you describe, my advice is: RUN don't walk. And therapy.
posted by katya.lysander at 9:09 PM on July 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry you had to deal with what you've gone through. Your parents seem like they failed in pretty much the key part of the parenting job, providing a nurturing and safe environment.

What do you do? Move on with your life. Don't let them or your lousy childhood define who you are now, or who you will become. My own parents are, to me, models for me only in the kind of person I want to avoid becoming. Try to limit their input into your life if you can, and certainly, if you have children, make sure that your parents impact on your children is as minimal as possible. Lousy parents exist. I view them as a challenge for their children. It's an unfair challenge, but my own personal goal, the challenge I'm struggling with is to be a better person than my own parents were, and to try to avoid doing the things that they did to me and others around me. Some people get examples of role models to live up to. You've got examples of what not to do. Try to think of it that way.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:19 PM on July 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I can identify with some of what you've written. I'd suggest better boundaries with your father, and have a look at whether you are looking for some sort of apology or acknowledgment of wrongdoing from your parents. If you are, they're going to leave you hanging in a big way, because they long ago traded in their ability to recognize their shortcomings for the security that comes from having a partner, or the peace of mind that comes from simply avoiding the type of personal growth you're now attempting. A lot of roads lead back to The Dunning-Kruger Effect, and one way of understanding what's going on with them (and possibly gaining some sympathy for them) is to realize that they're so far gone that they can't even realize how far gone they are. (Which is not to say that any sort of abuse is excusable.)

You're much better off adopting a mindset of, "Whatever you do, don't apologize; I know exactly what I'm getting into by choosing to have you in my life" in your dealings with them, like how a plumber doesn't expect you to apologize for clogging your drain if you call him over.

Also, for me, the big maladaptive habit of mind I acquired in childhood was telling myself, "I guess x isn't a big deal, I'll just bite the bullet and keep quiet about it" when it came to boundary issues and issues with the potential for confrontation. Now, I tell myself, "If it really isn't that big of a deal, then it's not a big deal if I press the issue, and for the other person to suck it up," and this little thought structure has given me a ton of confidence in confrontational situations, as has the simple tactic of "flipping" conversations to place the other party on the defensive when they attack by reframing "why don't you...?" conversations as "why would I...?" conversations.
posted by alphanerd at 9:50 PM on July 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

It's okay to be angry with your dad.

This. And it's okay to be angry with your mom, too. When I was growing up I ended up madder at mom than dad. Dad was CLEARLY crazy. Mom was a doormat, and didn't leave him even though it was hurting her kids to stay. It took me a long time to realize she was just as crazy but in a different way that wasn't as HULK-SMASH-obvious.

For whatever reason, they failed in their job as parents, and it wasn't fair to you. However... it's a lot of work to stay angry, and finding a way to turn it into purely background noise has been a huge burden lifted off me.

I am finding that way via Al-anon. In addition to helping family members of alcoholics, it seems to work wonders for people who's parents were MIA for whatever reason. I know there are other routes to serenity, but Al-anon is the one I've tried that's worked.

The other thing that has helped alot was EMDR, which is a therapy for PTSD, which I had just from being around ragey people as a kid. I felt like a schmuck for calling what I went through trauma, compared to the truly hair-raising childhoods, wars, and god knows what that other people have gone through, but schmuck or not, it helped TONS, and right away- not after months of talking.

YMMV, obviously.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:12 PM on July 16, 2012

My parents were nowhere near as hard on me as yours, or half the stories in this thread, and I still put a continent of distance and a whole lot of no contact between us. I think it might do you some good to get distance and time.
posted by ead at 12:04 AM on July 17, 2012

Im just going to say: my mother, while having a flaw here and there as I do, is quite a wonderful person, and we don't have any issues or conflicts or struggles. Yet we only talk once every few months on average, because that is what works for both of us (we both live our lives and reach out when we feel like it.) i share this because I want you to know that you do not have to talk to your dad every day if it is stressing you out...even people with generally positive parental relationships don't necessarily integrate their parents into their daily lives. Take a break from him and see if that helps reduce your stress level.
posted by davejay at 1:38 AM on July 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

My long answer for this question has probably appeared elsewhere for other questions, but my short answer is this: You find something to tell yourself in the moments when these feelings arise, and then move on. A mantra. A refrain. And then a shift in your brain that's almost something you can feel physically, be it a click or a push or a shake. My parents and my childhood were difficult in many ways too, and adulthood with them is a minefield as well. I've read countless books, tried therapy, dragged them to therapy and talked myself silly with friends and family.

But now I'm older, and I don't want to spend any more of my life on picking scabs and probing wounds. I just want a good life, as do you. So I tell myself "Some people just don't get easy/nice/smart/responsible/happy (insert your own adjectives) parents." And that's really it, for me. I make a choice to not let them keep me from being the person that I want to be. I'll take a minute or two to be sad. I'll vent to my husband in the car on the way home about whatever nutso bullshit went down on the visit, but I leave off after a certain point and get back to my life, and the family life I've made for myself. It will always seem like a shame to have to toughen up about people you love. A friend will tell you something awesome about their mom, and you'll feel a pang, like "Wow - being able to confide in a mom is a gift."

How do you escape? Well, literally I moved about two hours away, and across a border. Mentally, I guess after years, you just develop a certain mindfulness and steeliness. You're faced with choices stemming from interactions, and you slow down and choose not as a reaction to your past or because you feel something's inevitable - but you choose as rationally as you know how, and just go with your choice. You stop reacting to them, and you eventually behave as you want to behave because you're true to yourself and you don't know any other way to be any more. And you learn to blame only yourself - they are what they are, and you recognize that now. You maybe are who you are now because of them, but you become who you will be because of you.

You create a home, and boundaries and a life that's peaceful for yourself, and you compartmentalize your thoughts about the past and you curtail interactions with your parents. Don't try to get water from a stone. Don't try to move mountains. Don't make them into anything they're not. You're better off finding a balance that works for you, and trying to find a place of strength to come from. Then you might wobble, but you won't topple. Maybe you need to write it out, or have long talks with a friend, or get it all out somehow - but eventually, you're winded. So you find the part where you're done expending energy on them, and begin to put it into yourself and the world.

And balance isn't always in the middle - if you hold a spoon, the balance point is not the center of the handle, right? So you constantly adjust yourself. You can look at it that they're the heavy end, but not the longer end. You might have a lot inside you from them, but you have a lot of time and life ahead of you. Or, the other way of looking at is that you have a long, thin past behind, you - but a full, rich and deep future.

Your plan, going forward, might be that you might visit around the holidays, but not spend the holidays. The visit might be stopping in for a mid-morning coffee and token gift exchange, not a full meal and Sears portrait studio pictures. You might rarely answer their calls; but once or twice a week or so, make yourself a cup of tea or a stiff drink and steel yourself and call, and if the topic veers too far into territory you don't want to explore, then someone's at the door and you have to go. You listen to promises made, and you know that it's all just hot air. You stop getting your hopes up. You just think "Mom's doing what mom does." and "Dad's illness is talking now."

You're younger, so you've got time and energy for creating this and maybe you'll want to put a good face on it if they push back for a while, but they'll get used to it. I'm in my forties, and so when my mom pushes back and tells me "You're prickly and always too busy for me" I'm removed enough to say "I don't care to go back and forth. I am a busy person, yes, especially because now that you're retired you have long days to get through. I get prickly sometimes, everyone does. I'm leaving to go to Costco - can I grab anything for you?" I don't bother to analyze it any more either. No more "Oh, she likes to talk on the phone and she's lonely and her best friend is in the hospital and she's worried about my dad's surgery and her knee hurts and we haven't visited in a month....I should be nicer and let her talk for an hour and pick at things and give her lots of details to tell her friends about..." It's all about what's the balance now. Today the balance is: The kid had heat exhaustion after camp yesterday and barfed in the car; I'm recovering from an upper respiratory infection; the husband's shoulder and his work are both giving him pain, it's 37 degrees and about to thunderstorm so I have a headache -- I'm not picking up the phone to listen to an hour of hooey. And when I do call back after dinner, I'm not going to tell her anything more than "Camp is good - two field trips this week and lots of swimming. I did a lot of catching up on housework today. His arm is better and work is always stressful. I'm visiting on this date - is there anything you need me to bring, and I'll have half a day for a project - do you want to get a clothing donation together or clean your fridge?" And I remember that I'm not that special when it comes to her dumping her anxieties - if I don't give her the attention, she'll go down her daily phone list and find my cousin, or another friend or she'll make a trip to the restaurant across the street and gab with the server. It's not me she wants - it's a person on the end of the line who'll let her go on about what she wants. It doesn't have to be me, and there are people who enjoy her drama and think she's wonderful. Let them have it.

You won't always feel so vulnerable. You won't always feel tough, but hopefully eventually you'll grow a thicker skin over the little hole you'll always have inside you - the one that's there because like many, many others in the world, you just didn't get a happy family. But you'll make your own some day, with friends and the family you choose -- not the one you were stuck with. You'll find motherly figures who do the things that you crave, and realize it's the things, not the person you need sometimes.

In the meantime, head up, shoulders back and try to centre yourself. And warm wishes for the best with this, from someone who ignored a phone call while I typed this, and feels just fine about it. (And sorry - it seems I don't know such a thing as a short answer.)
posted by peagood at 7:48 AM on July 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


Been there, done that. Anyway, the first thing that comes to mind is that we don't get to choose our parents. They are who they are, sick, well, or otherwise. No matter what my level of frustration, sadness, or angst, my parents will never be any different than they are. If I am an adult, and being around my parents is destructive to me, then I have to stay away from them. Period.

You have to make a decision about how much drama and chaos you will tolerate in your life. Wanting people to act or think differently does not work. And the details about your parent's pathology is irrelevant too.

You create a home, and boundaries and a life that's peaceful for yourself, and you compartmentalize your thoughts about the past and you curtail interactions with your parents. Don't try to get water from a stone. Don't try to move mountains. Don't make them into anything they're not. You're better off finding a balance that works for you, and trying to find a place of strength to come from. Then you might wobble, but you won't topple. Maybe you need to write it out, or have long talks with a friend, or get it all out somehow - but eventually, you're winded. So you find the part where you're done expending energy on them, and begin to put it into yourself and the world.

I couldn't agree more. This is going to sound harsh, but you have to learn to grow up and take care of yourself. I say this because I've had to do it myself. Therapy can be very helpful too, because it can help you to see how your own actions can sabotage your well-being. This is really hard stuff and it takes a long time to heal. But there is no better time than the present to start giving yourself what you need and deserve.
posted by strelitzia at 8:28 AM on July 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

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