How can I cope with a toxic parent while I work to get free?
February 12, 2013 2:24 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to better cope with the mounting stresses of completely cutting ties with an emotionally abusive Mom? I have severe depression, anxiety and other issues. I'm seeking help, but currently inbetween doctors. When things get stressful, I start to crumble. Suggestions very much appreciated.

Big wall o'text, sorry:

My Mom and I have never gotten along very well, and she has been emotionally abusive towards me for the majority of my life. She has a pattern of harshly criticizing my body, my looks, my weight, my intelligence, my maturity, my earning ability, etc for as long as I can remember. Tells me I'm fat, has said I'm ugly, a loser, a pig, won't amount to anything, worthless, never wanted me etc.

Naturally, when I've confronted her in years past she claims she doesn't remember saying anything like that, and usually makes me out to be attention seeking.

I've come to understand that it doesn't benefit me to vilify her and think of her as a monster, even though the things I went through hurt me profoundly and affected my life in a very negative way. I see her as somebody who has had a rough life herself, who is very likely struggling with undiagnosed/untreated mental health concerns, and I try not to take it personally. But I decided a long time ago that the best thing was to just stay as far away as possible, unless and until she seeks treatment for her own issues. She hasn't, so I try to keep a distance.

But even though I support all of my own living expenses, there have been a few big expenses I unfortunately couldn't quite cover alone. These were always car repairs, only car repairs, and I was always very thankful towards her for this because I honestly couldn't afford a solution myself, so I was stuck relying on her. Many times, her money was a saving grace, and allowed me to have a car so I could get to and from work. She'd always offered up front to help me with the car, and I truly appreciate everything she did to keep it running this long.

But my past with her is so bad that when I have to be around her, my throat closes up, my chest gets tight and I get knock-kneed. I have panic attacks leading up to having to see her, or when I see or hear her name or anything that reminds me of her. I fear her yelling at me again, making me feel suicidal and feeling that level of self-hate well up inside me is just very overwhelming. Her moods tend to flip on a dime and I get very anxious having to call her, be around her or be in contact with her in any way.

I also become really depressed after being around her because there will inevitably be quite a few backhanded insults and my low self-esteem dips even lower as a result. Then I'm in a dark funk for a long, long time. I feel a lot of really deep, horrendous guilt that I am not earning enough to pay for these things and that I have to occasionally rely on her to help me out.

I usually feel like a total loser and like I'm worthless, and these feelings are amplified 1000 times in her presence.

I have a history of severe depression and anxiety, as well as an eating disorder and behavioral issues like cutting. I've attempted suicide twice before, once at 14 years old and once just last year. I'm in the process of getting treatment (see below), but I am scared that this contact with her will reignite these feelings and send me into a tailspin.

Here's what I'm doing to fix it:
- I was seeing a psychologist regularly until very recently, but realized I was only getting "talky talky" therapy, rather than goal-oriented therapy. After a few months of this, I was not learning skills or feeling better. So, I will be trying out a new therapist (CBT this time) likely within a week. I also will be seeing a psychiatrist next month to discuss the possibility of meds.

- Between therapy appointments, I engage in creative outlets, do whatever helps me calm down when I feel the walls closing in, and reach out to my boyfriend for support when the anxiety / depression is spiking.

- I have been building credit steadily and responsibly, so I don't need her financially.

- I am going to be buying a new car very, very soon to help eliminate the need to call her for financial help.

- My boyfriend of 2.5 years will be moving in with me in the next few months, which will ease up my budget a bit and halve my bills.
But these things don't always work, and that's when my emotions can fly out of control and end badly.

What can I do to survive these next few months of occasional contact with her? What methods can I use to control my anxiety/panic attacks and deal with any depression that may spike as a result? How can I push my way through the challenges and come out whole on the other side?

Any and all suggestions truly appreciated - thank you!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah, if you're tied to your mom financially, there's pretty much no way to get her out of your life.

I've always struggled to be financially independent and it's the best way to be.

My biggest suggestion is that you start squirrelling away money for emergency expenses, so that you don't have to go to your mom with your hand out.

Since the car is sort of the symbol of this problem, rather than investing in another car (which will eventualy cost more and require repairs) see what you can do with public transportation or car pooling. If you lived in Manhattan or San Francisco a car wouldn't even be an issue. If you catch my drift.

Work a second job, or find a job that allows you to make more money. Having the cushion will allow you see less of your mom, and you'll hit your financial goals sooner.

When ever your mom says anything mean, be very calm and say, "That's not true. I'm not fat, ugly or stupid." Then leave.

Don't wind around the axel on getting a psychiatrist for your meds. Make an appointment with your GP, discuss your anxiety and depression. You'll get a scrip and it will help SO MUCH!

I was a mess before Celexa.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:31 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anon, I really feel for you. I have had the same experience with my mother. You don't deserve to be treated that way. It sounds like you're doing the right things to take care of yourself. Congratulations.

I now live 1500 miles from my mother and wouldn't want to be any closer to her. These situations can take time to work themselves out. Putting one foot in front of the other is my first suggestion. Be kind and loving to yourself is a good thing too. I have recently used affirmations to help me to think more positively as well.

For me, remembering that my mother is very emotionally ill and I don't have to buy in to her negativity helps immensely.

Good luck to you and memail me if you want to talk to someone who has been there.
posted by strelitzia at 2:40 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I abandoned my horrible family years ago. Best decision I ever made. I'm not cheerleading that kind of decision for everyone, but it did teach me a few things. In terms of the financial dependence, what if you started asking yourself what you'd do if your mother simply was not there to help you? What would you do then? Then, when you have an answer, do that.

Keep reminding yourself that you are worth love, respect, and care. You are worth shutting out or pushing away the people in your life who do not love, respect, and care for you. That doesn't make you a bad daughter. It makes you someone who takes responsibility for her own life, including "being well." The most important thing you can do, in fact, for yourself and others that love you, is to try and be well.

Remember that you have choices. They may not always be awesome, but they are YOURS. Don't be afraid to tell your mother that you're not going to talk about your choices or listen to her belittle you. Enforce boundaries, little by little, and even hang up the phone or walk away - you can do both of those things in a loving way. It's not wrong to ask for and expect better treatment. It's not wrong to show someone that you are willing to take actions that may make them uncomfortable or unhappy in order to ensure that better treatment. They have to accept responsibility for that part of it.

It's not easy. For me it wasn't easy for a couple of years. But it gets easier, and I loved myself more, and you will too.
posted by custardfairy at 3:42 PM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

What can I do to survive these next few months of occasional contact with her?

Try some shame management --both to your mom and by yourself. Have scripts ready to respond assertively with (which you can rehearse with your CBT therapist) to your mom's negativity brain-ninja-statements. Ruthless Bunny's example of responding calmly with, "That's not true. I'm not fat, ugly or stupid," is just what I mean. If you can't fit it in verbally to her face, then still say it to yourself. This may sound like a waste of time, but believe me when I say it's so important that you battle the input of shaming at every turn possible. Whether you consciously believe what she says or not, every time she says it a part of you will still believe her every time. There's a lot of faulty hard-wiring already installed, firing with frequent exposure to her, so start incrementally combatting it. Being able to walk away from a conversation with a toxic person knowing that you did not just stand there and suck in another dose of their sh*t = golden shame control. You may even experience it as extremely self-empowering, though not always easy to stay on top of.

What methods can I use to control my anxiety/panic attacks and deal with any depression that may spike as a result?

As much as possible, be gentle with yourself, and continue to exploring strategies for managing the unmanageable emotions when they arise. There doesn't seem to be any catchall answer except that everyone has to develop their own individually tailored recovery techniques that work for them. So try stuff, like meditation, emotional freedom technique (tapping), journalling exercises, a physical exercise regime, etc. Don't wait for an expert to come along and tell you how to put yourself together (though they can be very helpful at certain times). Have the courage to become your own expert on you.

when I've confronted her in years past she claims she doesn't remember saying anything like that

Not that this takes the sting out, but you may find some comfort in knowing this is a very common response of abusive parents to accusations by their adult children. Also, it has been my experience that an abusive parent's dismissal of my pain can do just as much to wound me after the fact of the original wounding than the original wounding itself. Do not underestimate how much damage the psyche endures when its suffering is ignored by someone who is supposed to love them.

How can I push my way through the challenges and come out whole on the other side?

The beginning of a new chapter of life is at stake, and you're doing extremely well already. When emotions start to spiral again, remind yourself that all your efforts are to eventually give yourself the chance at self-realization you've always deserved. You can't blossom where you are now; that's part of the depression right there (not being able to become your genuine self). Getting through this means your first REAL chance to start growing as you truly are, rather than the tattered shell of an identity your mom wishes you to be. Remind yourself that you've always deserved the opportunity to blossom, and when that's not enough to assuage the emotions, be gentle with yourself and let yourself grieve the loss of this freedom from your childhood. All your sad feelings have a basis in your real-life experiences somewhere; sometimes all you can do is honor them by allowing them consciousness. Sometimes, just doing that can be enough. Take care, anon!
posted by human ecologist at 5:57 PM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

EMDR helped me to emotionally unhook from my family members. Meaning, once I completed the therapy I was no longer seized by intense emotional and physical reactions when I had to deal with them, allowing me to remain calm and think things through. I started responding to them rather than reacting to them. I also had a very toxic relationship with my mother, and it's hard for me to put into words the sense of freedom I got after EMDR.
If you choose to go that route, please be sure you find a certified practitioner.
posted by Brody's chum at 6:18 PM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yep, EMDR.

Also, adopt an attitude of extreme pragmatism until you are done with the relationship entirely - it's just business now, so stop taking it all so damn personally.

You've already decided you are about to put a lot if space between you and your mother. The decision has been made. Anything between now and the cut-off is unnecessary drama, so don't indulge.

How are you going to extricate yourself from your mom? Have you planned that part out?

Once you get free and clear, you might find you grieve the relationship a lot -OR- you might only feel relief without any grief at all. Be prepared that you won't know your feelings or reactions until you actually get to the point where it is all over. Once your business with your mom is concluded, plan for emotional space to feel whatever might come up. Right now you just don't know how you will feel in the future, so quit worrying about that and keep your mind business-like and on your goals.

For now, remain practical and reach your goals.

(Personally, for me, there are no feelings of nostalgia (or fear for the future, for that matter) that could lure me back into a relationship with my mother. Or my father, to be honest. This is where you need to be emotionally if what you are about to do is right for you. Grieving "what could have been" is not the same as needing to reconcile with your parent. Be clear with yourself on this point....)

Grieving is not "needing" that person. Giving up your illusions and your hopes from childhood really fucking hurts. And it's worth it! Living in the real world where you are no longer abused and you are in charge of who gets to be in your life is SO much better than what you had growing up. Taking care of yourself and thriving will take effort, but much much less effort than being abused sucked out of your life. Guaranteed.

My estranged parents are two different people, and my relationship with each fell apart in different ways and at different times in my life, but I couldn't reconcile with either parent now because neither is (thus far) capable of being the parent I deserve, or the grandparent my son deserves. They are both so unpleasant (for separate reasons) that I would NEVER invite either of them back into my life. Ever.

If you are not crystal clear on your intention while you are still using your mom's money to bail you out, then you are not where you need to be emotionally to end things with your mom. You might still be in a headspace I like to call "Dramaville," where everything goes wrong and there is never a happy ending.

At this point, continuing to accept her money is fucking with your head.

Either let go of your negative feelings about using her money to get yourself independent (any belief that taking her money "proves" you are a loser who will never grow up) or take the leap and let go of your dependence on her money right now. Either way is correct.

When you are dead clear that you a cutting the cord, that it's over, and there is no going back to Dramaville for you ever ever ever ever, then you will not feel triggered no matter what the circumstances are.

Since your plan includes using her money to help you achieve your freedom (this is fair in my book under the circumstances) then be pragmatic about it and stop with the Dramaville. if you don't live in Dramaville anymore, then put in your "change of address" with your subconscious and get on with your life already.

Good luck! The best part of your life is yet to come. Even when life gets hard and you have to work out challenges on your own, you will still be better off. I promise.
posted by jbenben at 9:18 AM on February 13, 2013 [3 favorites]

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
Thank you very much for all your responses, I truly appreciate your words of advice. I am currently making the last steps to free myself from needing her money this week.

After this week I will have no need to ask for her help. I don't actually financially require engaging in this process just yet, but I realize that getting free of her is the best thing for my personal life and emotional well-being. So, I'm doing it. Now.

Special thanks to human ecologist, who posted about common responses of denial that abusive parents give to their children. Even though you said, "Not that it takes the sting out" - it did. Thanks for that. In fact, "thanks" doesn't do it justice. There aren't really words to express adequate gratitude for giving me new slant on the situation.

Again, I appreciate your responses and just wanted to reply and say what steps I'm taking to make the separation that was already there much more final and distant.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:14 PM on February 13, 2013

I moved to a different state (am still only about a 5 hour drive, but it feels like a world away) and regularly text with my mom about superficial things but I never talk to her on the phone. In my case it took moving to a different state to be able to get some breathing room.

Texting with my mom is pretty much our only contact. When she starts getting ranty and saying things I don't want to hear I just don't respond.

If I'm talking to her on the phone(rarely - this has happened once or twice) and she starts yelling, I simply hang up.

When I go to visit, if she has one of her episodes, I have actually just quietly packed up and gotten the fuck out and driven 5 hours back home. I've only done that once so I'm not sure how else to handle it. Other times I just quietly go to my room for the rest of the night, thinking about how glad I am I sat in traffic to come visit for this.

It's also important to train yourself to step back when she attacks you and examine the situation. In my case my mother basically has temper tantrums (I think she has various triggers and I'm just not sure what they are) and will latch onto whatever imperfection of mine she notices at the time and milk it for all it's worth. We all have imperfections and you are never going to be without things for her to pick at. This is about her, not you. She is trying to get a reaction out of you - don't engage. Also never expect an apology. It took me until recently(I'm almost 30) to understand that she does not see her behavior the way I do - in her twisted view she thinks she is helping me.
posted by fromageball at 4:55 PM on February 13, 2013

Also wanted to add that I spent most of my childhood in screaming fights with my mother - seriously that's pretty much all I remember. I engaged too much with her and so it took a long time of forcing myself to not say ANYTHING when she said stuff to me before I was able to simply respond calmly and not react/get engaged. Reacting in any way other than neutral is just feeding the fire.

So you might have to just stand there and stare at her for awhile while you're observing and thinking/realizing that these attacks are all about her and not about you.
posted by fromageball at 5:01 PM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older What makes feces sticky?   |   Long-distance relationship or debaucherous... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.