Please Help Me Decide If I Need Help
June 26, 2013 1:51 PM   Subscribe

I am struggling with my relationship with my family. My parents are older (in their 70's) and things are not as bad as they were when I was young, but I still struggle with issues of blame and anger over what I consider to have been their borderline abusive treatment of myself and one of my siblings. I don't want to cut my family off, and I would dearly love to be free of these negative thoughts and feelings for once and for all, but every visit with them (and the weeks leading up to and following them) are a minefield for me. Details inside.

My memories of childhood differ significantly from what my parents remember. For years I would confront my parents with things I remembered about growing up, only to be told by them that I was lying or "making up stories." I seriously wondered if I was crazy. A turning point for me came in my late twenties when my middle sibling got sick. Doctors were unable to figure out what was wrong and ran a lot of tests including test for Lou Gehrig's. Finally they suggested talk therapy and during the course of the therapy my sibling uncovered some repressed memories and came to me and said, "You are right, the things you have been saying, they DID happen." It was a huge relief and turning point for me. But there remain experiences my sibling didn't witness or go through so they cant help me verify my memory.

The types of things I am talking about are more neglect than physical abuse (physical abuse didn't happen very often but it did a little bit. Just for the record, I never had broken bones or any serious injuries. I am talking about things like kicking or punching or being hit with objects like pots and pans). The things I'm most upset about are things like not having adequate clothing or heat or cooling in the house. My Dad traveled all the time and he put a pass code on the thermostat so we could not adjust the heat in winter. We had a severe roach infestation in our house and my dad would not let us call an exterminator. We lived with a house full of roaches for my entire childhood. We had no health insurance at all and so could rarely go to a doctor. I got chest and ear infections all the time and would be left alone at night unable to breathe or in excruciating pain. I have a clear memory of one time when my mother finally took me to the doctor after my ear infection became so severe my ear drum blistered and puss was running down my neck, the doctor told her if she ever waited that long to seek treatment again, he would call child protective services on her. Incidentally this event is one of many things my mother denies ever happened. In addition to neglect, I felt like there was emotional abuse. My father regularly called me stupid and ugly and a waste of skin. He would get this excited tone in his voice when he was about to really tear me down, I could feel that he enjoyed hurting me in this emotional way. My mother was equally derogatory. She seemed to delight in bad things happening to me (like being bullied at school or having my bike stolen) so she could tell me I deserved them because of what a horrible person I was. I was never hugged or touched in a kind way and neither was my middle sibling. I was in my twenties before I ever heard one of my parents say "I love you." There is lots more than this, but those are a few of the issues that keep coming up for me.

The thing is, my parents have changed quite a bit in the last 15 years and the emotional abuse has stopped pretty much entirely. My mom and dad divorced and things got a lot better after that. My parents have both made an effort to connect with my siblings and I. I feel like I want to and should, just put the past behind me and move on. The problem happens when I'm visiting with my parents and some seemingly innocent thing will come up in conversation and my parents will do the "I don't know where you guys get these stories. Those things never happened," thing and I get angry and can't keep myself from turning it into an argument. For example, my father was visiting with his then girlfriend and we started talking about the new health care laws. My dad was against any of the new changes. I said something about knowing how difficult it was to grow up without health insurance and he immediately denied that we didn't have health insurance. "You had insurance through the school," he said. I said, "Oh you mean in college?" He said no, we had health insurance through the public school. Then he turned to his girlfriend and said, " She has always made up these crazy stories." I was floored, I said something like, "What, you mean the school nurse?" and he just sort of laughed. Even my mother agrees that we never had health insurance and that it was very difficult for our family (I had another sibling who was born with severe birth defects who only lived a year. The expenses for the hospital care were covered by charity groups including the Shriners).

I really want to move on. I really want to love my parents and care about them, but I can't seem to get to a space where I can just let the past be the past. I'm ashamed to say it, but I still resent the things I remember them to have done or not done. And I blame them ( I know this is not healthy) for some of the things that happened in my later life, like my abusive marriage. The abuse in the marriage was very bad, my husband threatened to kill me and got physically violent several times, but it only lasted for 7 months (he went to jail and I got a restraining order). After that I realized I really love myself, and I want to live, but it took something like that, for me to find a sense of self worth. I struggled for such a long time to feel good about myself and when I see my parents all the bad stuff keeps resurfacing. I feel like I take huge steps backwards after every visit. Plus its embarrassing to be called a liar in front of strangers and it stresses me out trying to guard the conversation so it doesn't go down a bad road.

So my question is this, is this something a therapist can help me with? If so, what kind of therapist, and how should I approach the topic? A friend has suggested that maybe something like EMDR might be helpful. I've tried once or twice going to a therapist but haven't had any luck getting any help. Mostly its just really hard to get anyone who's schedule allows them to see me more than once every couple months, but once I began my first visit by saying I was there because I felt like my mother didn't love me and the therapist responded, "That's ridiculous, all mothers love their children!" I feel like maybe I need a different approach or it will sound like I'm over dramatizing or making things up. Even here on Meta Filter I sort of feel like all I am doing is whining. I worry that my memory is not accurate. I know memory is a tricky thing. I am coming to believe that my parents genuinely don't remember(for whatever reason) the things I'm talking about happening in the way I'm saying they happened. How can I approach this with a therapist to let them know that I just want to make the anger and the clinging to negative feelings go away, whatever the truth of the past actually is.

PS Things are very good for me now aside from this one area. I've been in a great, loving, stable relationship for 12 years and I have a good career and a great life.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
the therapist responded, "That's ridiculous, all mothers love their children!"

I can't help much here, but you should know that that's a blatantly stupid response and you will definitely be able to find therapists who are not that stupid. A therapist who says crap like that doesn't need a 'different approach' from the patient, they need to be smarter and less ignorant themselves.
posted by jacalata at 2:04 PM on June 26, 2013 [49 favorites]

Seconding jacalata!

Yes, therapy can help you with this. You were severely abused and neglected, and talk therapy can help you come to terms with what happened, as well as help you figure out what you want your relationship with your parents to be.

Also, it's very common for abusers to "forget" what they did, deny it, or gaslight their victims about the past.
posted by Specklet at 2:11 PM on June 26, 2013 [8 favorites]

is this something a therapist can help me with?

Unequivocally, emphatically YES. It sucks that you've had trouble getting started with therapists in the past but this is precisely what therapy is great at.

As for what kind, I think traditional talk therapy is a great place to start. It may take some time to find a therapist you like but it is worth it and it will very likely greatly improve your life.

How can I approach this with a therapist to let them know that I just want to make the anger and the clinging to negative feelings go away, whatever the truth of the past actually is.

Just go and talk about it. A good therapist will help you sort through all your feelings in a non-judgmental way and won't require you to start with a particular approach.
posted by wemayfreeze at 2:12 PM on June 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

You were terribly abused and neglected as a child. Your parents continue to choose to live in a deluded state instead of taking responsibility for their actions. You do not have to play along with this fantasy. It's fine to limit your time and exposure to them and to tell them that any discussion of your childhood is off limits. They are not entitled to have you and your siblings play along with their delusions of not being abusive and neglectful to you.

This is what long-term therapy is for. It may take several tries to find a good therapist with whom you can work through the trauma and damage. Don't be discouraged if the first therapists you contact are a bad fit. It's not unusual to have to try several therapists to find one that's a good fit for you. Find someone who has experience dealing with the aftermath of childhood abuse. Therapists who say things like, "That's ridiculous, all mothers love their children!" are quacks and should not be practicing any kind of therapy.
posted by quince at 2:14 PM on June 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

Hey anonymous, I wish I could send you a few hugs. I'm in the same boat as you when it comes to being unable to let go of what my parents put me through growing up. I completely understand you when you talk about how difficult it is being in their presence. If you're in a position where this is a real option for you, I'd urge to continue looking for a therapist who, as jacalata said, is not that stupid.

In the meantime, I've simply told myself that forgiveness takes time and that I need to minimize my interaction or involvement with the people that could "set me off". I often long for a loving relationship with my parents, but I'll settle for not having one at all above trying to maintain something that keeps triggering bad memories. This isn't always easy, and I absolutely dread the time when they're going to be relying on me more and more as they age. Sometimes it's just getting through one family dinner or birthday party at a time, one hour at a time.

I'm very happy that your current situation is so much better!
posted by Tequila Mockingbird at 2:15 PM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're not whining, lying or dramatizing. I've had talk therapy to work on problems in my relationship with my parents, and I can relate because I've sometimes felt the same fear: what if I'm exaggerating or making things up? But I'm not, and therapy has helped to come to terms with my childhood experiences.

You deserve to get treatment and to be happy in this area of your life.
posted by clearlydemon at 2:15 PM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Well yes, therapy can help alot, just don't pick a jerk therapist. A lot of us have to shop around before we can find someone who we click with, you've just not found that person yet.

I will say that your desire to engage your parents and for them to acknowledge you in the way you want to be acknowledges will probably never happen. It won't.

The best thing you can do, is shine them on and not get angry with them.

You: It was hard not having health insurance.

Your Dad: What? Of course we did.

You: Okay, whatever you say.

The reason is, you can't win, and you're only going to upset yourself if you go down the rabbit hole.

You don't have to have any kind of relationship at all with your parents, or you can have the relationship you want, but on your terms. (Phone contact only, visits at Christmas and Easter, etc.)

My Mother is a narcisist and I'm the daughter of an amazing therapist, and even so, there were things that happened in my childhood that beggar credulity. ESPECIALLY since so many people know my Dad and they can't put the two things together.

I was able to make peace and to have the relationship with my folks that I want to have. It helps that they live 4 states away.

You may never get over the anger, and be prepared to feel it all over again if you decide to become a parent, because when you love your own precious baby, you'll wonder how your folks could have done such an abysmal job.

The one thing you should work on the most in therapy is accepting that your parents will probably not remember your version of events, they will not acknowledge them and they won't apologize or feel bad about it.

It sucks, but that's how it's going to be.

But find a good therapist, one you like and feel safe with, and work with him/her to arrive at this point organically.

In the meantime practice saying, "Okay, whatever you say."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:22 PM on June 26, 2013 [11 favorites]

You can grind away for years trying to fix this, but the only way I know to even START establishing sanity and processing the anger is to stop interacting with the people who damaged you. Maybe you can come back later when you have some space/time/distance/perspective/Self-Knowledge.....

But right now seek space for healing and do serious self-work.

You can do this. Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 2:32 PM on June 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ruthless Bunny has it. Make your statement, but let them have their version of reality. They're never going to see it your way. Memory being as pliable as it is, they likely really do believe their stories wholeheartedly. The phrase I used with my parents, whose version of my childhood frequently was dramatically different than mine, was "I remember it differently."
posted by Wordwoman at 2:41 PM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think you're whining at all. That's a story of severe abuse. Although I don't share your background, our family has lots of problems. What I've learned is that the talking to my parents is a completely separate problem from my own current life problems. Of course they are related, but with parents it usually ends up as repetition of the past. With the help of therapy (and by banging my head against the same brick wall time and again) I now completely avoid "Emotionally Complex" topics with most of the members of my family. Whatever I would try to accomplish, whatever message I would love to get across, it NEVER succeeded. So my advise would be to keep conversations with your parents really simple, in terms of emotions. Share with them what they can handle, and forget about the rest. They are old. It's extremely unlikely they will change. Lying about their past is probably their way of coping with feelings of guilt, anger and fear. If you need to work on your own issues, therapy could be a good way to go. Just keep searching for the right therapist. Group therapy was the best for me. I know someone who was very successful with EMDR. Good luck!
posted by hz37 at 2:42 PM on June 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think it must've been hard for you to write all of that out. So, first, please be kind to yourself.

It's really hard to explain how but a good therapist can make a huge difference. They can point things out for you that you would never see in a million years and allow you to have a safe place to say anything you want.
posted by dawkins_7 at 2:47 PM on June 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

A thousand times yes to finding a good therapist. That therapist who told you "mothers always love their children" was invalidating and, frankly, full of shit. It might take a few tries to find a good therapist, but once you do, therapy can change your life.

You might also want to consider a support group like Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, or even Co-Dependents Anonymous or Adult Children of Alcoholics (even if your parents didn't drink, the same issues might be there). It is tremendously empowering and freeing for many people to connect with others who have been through the same ordeal, and to know they are not alone.

Sadly, I think most abusive parents deny what they have done, and there is nothing the adult child can do to make them admit the abuse. In fact, in my experience, having an abusive parent admit it and apologize is like finding a unicorn. Expecting acknowledgement, let alone an apology, is futile. A therapist can help you come to terms with the fact that you had a crummy childhood and your parents will never be the good parents you needed - and go from there.

You might also think about why you want your parents in your life. It is okay to distance yourself from people who treat you badly. "Family" is not sacred. You don't get to treat people like crap OR put up with crap just because "they're family." You are allowed to surround yourself with people who treat you well and cut those who don't out of your life - it doesn't have to be permanently; many people find that a period of distance heals enough that they can be in contact again after months/years.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 3:14 PM on June 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh my goodness, I am so sorry that this happened to you. Your post reminds me of two others: this one, which has haunted me for weeks, and this one, which I think is highly relevant to your situation in word if not in deed. I think some of the advice in those threads could be useful to you as you begin the process of working through your history. I'll also link to this comment by L'Estrange Fruit, which I keep printed and folded in my wallet, because it completely exploded my erroneous belief that I owed my abusive parents love and deference just because they were raised in a culture that made them think their god would be really mad at them if they aborted me.

For some reason, people who were abused as children often don't want to believe that what happened to us was that bad (or even that it happened at all), and we will often to go ridiculous leaps and bounds to specifically qualify and quantify our abuse, because admitting the fact of the matter might mean that there could be something inside of us that might be truly in need of repair. Although you seem keen to minimize the extent of the abuse that occurred, there is no world in which preventing your children from accessing much-needed medical care, making them live in an unheated and roach-infested house, or hitting them with pots and pans is only "a little abusive," and you are likely drawing the line for abuse at serious injuries or broken bones specifically because you can hold onto them as things you did not personally experience.

Echoing jbenben, I only found my own fractured sense of peace by going no-contact, and my life is better for it in every conceivable way. Looking back at the meticulous records I kept as a little girl is wrenching: Whenever she was around and felt like raising my hackles, my mother would go through my diaries with a felt-tipped red pen, like a teacher or an editor, specifically to highlight, annotate, and/or cross out whatever she didn't like, because she couldn't even handle my diary going unchallenged.
Abusive parents don't call their children liars because we are actually liars, they do it because their internal pictures of themselves do not have room for the horror and shock of realizing that they spent years physically and/or psychologically abusing their own kids, sullying a bond that (as your shitty non-therapist noted) is (however wrongly) held by much of society to be quite sacred and nearly unimpeachable.

As stated above, any therapist worth seeing would not say anything as as ignorant as, "That's ridiculous, all mothers love their children!" My mother didn't love me, and I don't really give a damn, because the only thing she really went out of her way to do as a parent was make me miserable, then ridicule and ostracize me for being miserable. You wouldn't spend time with anyone else who reveled in your misery, right? So I don't speak to her at all, and when I made the decision to do so, it was like a leaden weight had been lifted from my shoulders. That's really letting go.

So my question is this, is this something a therapist can help me with? If so, what kind of therapist, and how should I approach the topic?

First, yes, this is definitely something a therapist can help you with. Ultimately, you will have to grow more comfortable living with and inside your own truth, which is a tough process with or without professional guidance; to do it successfully, you will have to learn how to let go of your fear that the person you are sharing your experience with thinks you are a liar. Please, proceed with confidence. You know your own truth. You just told it to us and we believe you! Your parents couldn't be trusted to keep their own kids in a position where they wouldn't be threatened with CPS visits, why should they be allowed to define or attempt to explain What Really Happened?

Overall, I would recommend tentatively approaching this like you would with a dear friend. If someone you love came to you and explained that they had grown up in an abusive home, beseeching you to help, would you write them off as liars, exaggerators, or whiners? Of course not; you would take their words at face value and treat them with compassion and kindness.

I've had really good luck with a social worker (as opposed to a psychologist or psychiatrist) and developing a mindfulness meditation practice (my #1 recommendation for learning how to 'let go'). I've heard great things about EMDR although I haven't been able to successfully complete a session. I knew my therapist was the right one when they told me that it doesn't even matter if I think my memories are right or wrong, trustworthy or suspicious, because what matters is what I can do to change my station in life and get rid of my overwhelming learned sense of mistrust and self-loathing. I found my therapist on the Psychology Today website.

For the purposes of this discussion, you need to be your own best friend and your own tireless advocate. I wish you luck, strength, and peace.
posted by divined by radio at 3:18 PM on June 26, 2013 [15 favorites]

My mother and her sister grew up in a household that is very similar to the experiences you describe. They have forgiven their mother, and have a close relationship with her today. They never repaired their relationship with their father, who died about 15 years ago.

I don't know if they had sought out help through Al-Anon. But they pretty much epitomize my understanding of "Detach with Love". Here are a few things I've noticed that are different about their relationship than lets them work around this giant gaping wound:

1. They recognize that their mom did the best she could. She was a fragile woman with mental health problems in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic. She perpetuated the cycle of violence onto her children, but it didn't start with her. I would probably substitute extreme poverty onto alcoholism in your instance.

2. They recognize that denial is a very strong coping mechanism, and it's one that helps her deal with the hard truth that it took her so long to leave. There is no open court on what truly happened the night of Prom. They change the subject quickly, and will usually give each other a pep talk in private. "Isn't it amazing she doesn't remember [x], she's unbelievable." "Must be nice. I know how hard that was for you."

3. They detatch. They are not children. They are not looking for approval or advice or other typical attachments of parent-child relationships. They are fiercely independent. They don't go to their childhood home for Christmas, they pay for their portion of vacations or dinner, they always have a place to go and a way to get there. In a very real part this is a new relationship.

The main reason this has worked is because the circumstances that caused the abuse disappeared. They have decided that decent people can crack when submitted to traumatic circumstances. They believe their mother did love them, even when acting in way that hurt them. I'm not sure how much that is true with you, so don't feel that I'm advocating that you repair your relationship over a clean break.
posted by politikitty at 3:36 PM on June 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

You can always say: "That's not how I remember it."

Yes to therapy.

A therapist can help you get to a state of forgiveness. With work and time you will come to a place where the past doesn't have so much power over your current life. Your parents will no longer be able to turn you into an emotional wreck, and you won't care what they can or cannot remember.

I have been where you are, perhaps worse. I was riddled with anger, blame, guilt, shame, and self-loathing. I felt like I wasn't normal, and didn't come from a normal family. I was extremely pissed at the past and the state of my childhood. I felt like a victim until I was about 38 years old. It definitely affected my relationships and parenting.

I wasn't well-differentiated when it came to my parents. As an adult I gave them a lot of power that they didn't have. It doesn't have to be like this. I'm not constantly upset at them like I used to be. The past, and my parents, no longer occupy my thoughts like they used to. I could get riled up and ruminate for days on end. I was depressed, defensive, and angry. Therapy, and time, changed that. I can now visit my parents and have a nice time. I am at peace. I'm no longer angry and I'm not nearly as judgmental. I feel like I'm worthy, "normal", and deserve love. I accept how they show their love.

Good luck and love to you. You can heal your pain and get on with life. It's a beautiful thing.
posted by Fairchild at 6:42 PM on June 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry. I did not read your question all of the way through at first because the answer was obvious to me, having grown up like you, but now that I read your question entirely.... HOLY SH*T.

I once wrote a very raw and galvinizing account of my childhood on AskMe, but it seems to have been erased - if anyone knows what I am talking about - please post a link. I'll follow-up in MetaTalk, in case anyone with superior google fu (or the mods!) can find it for you.


I'm 43 years old. I'm writing to you now because just 7 days ago, I watched one of my neighbors who is 39, and was/is a friend, get taken away for a 72 hr Psych Hold. The cause? Her inability to acknowledge how fucked up her family, that she clings to, is damaged, and damages her. Still.

Long story I am willing to go into over Memail, but the short version... I also had a sort of breakdown in my early 30's, although not as severe as my neighbor, and anyone else including you will, too, unless you get VERY clear about Reality vs. Fiction. This is NOT something to play with.

You can't have one foot in, and one foot out - not at your stage of things. If you continue down this path, it will not end well. You can have empathy, but you have to honor your Truth, even if everyone else wants to re-write history.

You've opened the box, you want a Better Life. You can not go back now.

My 2 years younger brother tried to have a foot in both camps... like my neighbor... he's gotten rehab, and worse. His life is also a mess and will continue to be so.

This is Real Thing.

You have a DEEP responsibility to take action here on your own behalf. You can not change anyone else, but you can take control of your future and cease to perpetuate the horrible patterns that have likely been going on for generations in your family. After all, your parents learned to be neglectful and abusive somewhere in their youth, yes?

Screw THAT. Make the cycle of abuse and neglect end with YOU.

Get real help. Start on a journey of self-work, today. Make yourself better. STOP LOOKING FOR VALIDATION FROM THOSE WHO CAN NOT GIVE IT TO YOU.


I am giving you validation to seek out healing. I've been you. Let me save you the troubles of extreme depression by advising you to stop looking for healing from the people that hurt you - they can't help. If the could, they would not have hurt you in the first place!

Rather, you work on yourself, in order to help them. This is your only way forward. You have opened the box, you can't close it now. This is GOOD.

Plenty of people are on the other side of this type of childhood trauma working at living Good Lives.

I've written this on the green before - Join Us.
posted by jbenben at 1:05 AM on June 27, 2013

That AskMe description of my childhood is here, thanks to MetaTalk.

I don't understand how not being taken to the doctor, being verbally abused as you describe, and growing up in a home without heat, and infested with roaches, is somehow better than what I experienced growing up, even if neither of your parents went the extra steps my mom went at the end. She always took me and my brother to the doctor for the slightest reason - and she was dangerous the rest of the time.

Abuse and neglect are not measured by degrees. Sure, I can always say I was not sexually abused (except for that one time by my mom's cousin) - does that really change the effect?

Don't equivocate. By the time you are a child with puss pouring out of your ear, being called stupid and worse... It's pretty bad.

Go find a therapist that is not invested in protecting systemic family dysfunction.

It's not necessary to neglect or abuse anyone, especially a child/ren.

Reject that pattern and embrace one that is healthier. Make sure our children don't have stories like yours and mine to tell about us when they are adults.

That is the solution here.
posted by jbenben at 2:14 AM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

divined by radio, you just made me cry... I'm so honored to know that sharing my experiences helped someone.
I hope the OP can find some comfort from them too; just remember that the truth in you is what matters, not the "truth" they tell you. You'll be okay.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 7:13 AM on June 27, 2013

I'm so very sorry you lived through this. There are three books that I think could be helpful to you (since therapy, as your experience demonstrates, is a fucking crapshoot): The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman, The Drama of the Gifted Child and other works by Alice Miller, and the works of David Celani, notably Leaving Home. Alice Miller even writes about adult children becoming very ill as a result of the abuse they suffered, like your middle sibling, and while there's a conspicuous lack of citations in her books, this at least is backed up empirically by the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study. Also, I'm not saying that you shouldn't go to therapy, but that these books might help you figure out what you want to work on.

I really want to move on. I really want to love my parents and care about them, but I can't seem to get to a space where I can just let the past be the past.

A fourth, more emotionally difficult book is Nina Brown's Children of the Self-Absorbed: A Grown-Up's Guide to Getting Over Narcissistic Parents. I say it's difficult because she emphasizes that the parents will likely never really change or apologize, and wanting parents you can reasonably love and care for is a fantasy in many cases. It's really terrible because wanting to love your parents and be loved in return is so normal and healthy and good, but if there is abuse you may have to give up on that desire.

I know it seems they have stopped abusing you, but they are continuing to abuse you with their denials and gaslighting. The only reason the worst of it has stopped is that you are no longer a helpless child living under their roof.
posted by ziggly at 8:45 AM on June 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

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