Tips for Cutting Out Toxic Parent
August 4, 2022 3:30 PM   Subscribe

I have a toxic, dry alcoholic mother. Since I have recognized my childhood for what it truly was and been working on my codependent nature in therapy, my relationship with my mother has been very tough for me. Therefore, the past few years I have maintained limited contact, and with a few exceptions it was going pretty well. Now she has leukemia.

With the leukemia came the end of my blissful limited contact. Every interaction causes me stress and anxiety. It sometimes makes me physically ill. There are issues I am working on forgiving her for, but forgiveness is a long way away. I am starting to accept that it does not matter if she is drinking or not, she will never be a mother to me, she will never be able to give me what I need from our relationship to feel fulfilled. I set boundaries and she stretches them as far as they can before breaking. She is not intentional, malicious, or hateful which really only makes it worse. It makes it harder to do the thing that I know I need to do for my own well-being. The leukemia makes it even harder.

Does anyone have experience with cutting out a parent? How did you go about doing it? How did you cope? How did you handle the backlash? I have a therapist that I am working through everything with, but I yearn for validation from peers.
posted by Quincy to Human Relations (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
How did the leukemia affect your limited contact? Are you in a caregiver role now?

I come from a dysfunctional family and my mom has been in decline the past few years. I've been in the caregiver role, managing agency caregivers mostly, but I'm the only person involved. My brother lives a state or two away, is in low-contact mode, and he calls maybe once every month or two and visits twice or so per year. His daughter is still here and he has friends to see, so he's mostly out of the house when he's here and is an amiably anodyne presence when in the house or interacting with mom. Matter of fact stuff and updates on people my mom is familiar with.

There's a saying I learned early on in this adventure, "you can be a family member or you can be a caregiver, but you can't be both." This means you'll have to put your foot down at times, as far as boundaries go.
posted by rhizome at 3:46 PM on August 4

Response by poster: @rhizome no, fortunately I am not in a caregiver role (though she has asked and I refused... after a few panic attacks and therapist appt, ha). She has just been ill content with limited contact as it was and contacts me often, always when she wants something from me.
posted by Quincy at 4:02 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]

I cut my mother off about 5 years ago. There was no major event that made it easier, just a slow slog of putting my childhood into context, strengthening my sense of self, and the dawning realization that I deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. My sister went through a similar process and told me once, "I'm a worse daughter now, but a better person." Being a "good daughter" used to be more important to me than my own well-being, and that's an incredibly limiting way to live.
I have never regretted my choice, but that doesn't mean I don't carry sadness around it. I had to come to terms with the fact that my mother will die without me there to take care of her. My mother's life, in many ways, is tragic, and it's okay to be sad about that. I can be sad, and feel empathy for her pain, and also choose to protect myself.
You deserve to be protected too. Whatever that looks like for you.
posted by Otis the Lion at 4:04 PM on August 4 [29 favorites]

Oh also: not everyone will understand your choice. That's okay, and it doesn't mean you made the wrong decision. I spent a long time after cutting my mother off still protecting her reputation by not telling people I had done so. Not close friends, but old family friends I ran into once in a while, etc. I finally realized that I am allowed to tell *my* story. It's mine. Not just hers. "Protecting" her was an old habit that was silencing me and making me a liar. I am now much more comfortable giving a brief and honest answer to "so how's your mom?"
posted by Otis the Lion at 4:12 PM on August 4 [20 favorites]

My father is 93 and a lifelong narcissist and parasite. He has managed to guilt my sister into being his caretaker, and the son of a gun has managed to live to 93 despite prostate cancer, kidney failure, and being on hospice for the last two or so years. My sister has finally gotten to the point of realizing she made the wrong decision, after years of denial and trying to be nice and caring.

I have amiable, brief conversations with him every few months, and send him vacuous emails, but I mostly disregard him entirely. I highly recommend that as a mode, because it means my sister and brother still talk to me.
posted by Peach at 6:22 PM on August 4 [6 favorites]

This is a very tough situation to be in, and you have my sympathies. Despite its clumsy title, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Dr. Lindsay Gibson would probably be very useful to you. It has helped me a lot in processing the relationship with my now-dead mother, and the fallout it had for me and my sibling.
posted by rpfields at 7:52 PM on August 4 [6 favorites]

This is such a tough situation. I truly feel for you.

I’ve been no-contact with my abusive parents for almost 20 years. About five years in, my brother called to say my mother had breast cancer. My first response was to go see her and help out. I thought it was a requirement somehow, or that I wanted to be the kind of person who would show up, I’m not sure. Maybe good daughter syndrome.

I told my therapist about it, and he said, “If you get the urge to see her, call me first so I can remind you why you really shouldn’t.”

After a lot of thought, I trusted him and kept my no-contact boundary in place. It was one of the best choices I ever made.

This doesn’t mean your choice wasn’t a good one. There’s really no right or wrong, only what is more or less healthy for your own psyche. You get to decide what that is, no one else.

I really want to affirm that if you need to get out of that situation, you have every right to. I mean that. Your sanity matters. You deserve to keep your own nervous system calm and protect your own health.

Please PM me if you’d like. I have a lot of experience with this kind of sticky situation and I maybe able to help.

Good luck!
posted by J. Tiberius at 8:57 PM on August 4 [8 favorites]

My estrangement from my mother finally came when she'd made the same unfunny joke about my fear of being an orphan (my father died when I was 8, and my mother was often unwell), and she thought it was so hilarious to say, "you're after my money, aren't you?" I was in my 30s, missing mother's day with my children to celebrate it with her and two brothers, and she had me sit away from the three of them, and made the joke again. I stood up and said goodbye and walked home. She rang me the next day to find out what was wrong, seeming to be genuinely caring, and when I told her, her immediate response was to say "oh, that's ridiculous, you're too sensitive." I hung up.

10 years later, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer and told my brothers that she definitely did not want a "deathbed reconciliation" with me. I was fine with that, it was so totally like her. There were so many stories I told my therapist about her, that she (therapist) diagnosed my mother sight unseen as a narcissist.

The only regret I have is that I didn't get the mother I deserved.
posted by b33j at 9:36 PM on August 4 [14 favorites]

I think the easiest way to cut someone off is to just... Erase their number. Block them. Don't answer their calls. Don't initiate.

You do not have a requirement to forgive your parent. It is your choice, if that's what you want to do.

Would cutting her off fill the hole in you? I think that's the question that really needs to be answered here.
My own mom is dying now and I recently ate a shit ton of mushrooms and thought a lot about her. And all of the walls came down and I simply sobbed. It was the purest form of pain, unbridled by defenses. And I forgave her. She just didn't have the tools I wanted her to have in order to be the parent I wanted when I was small. But I'm an adult now. And the wound is the place where the light enters. This is just my story. I traveled halfway across the world yesterday and today to see my mom for an hour tonight. And I don't regret it. I hope you and your mom both find peace. Peace will always find us, in the end, whether we know it or not.
posted by erattacorrige at 10:18 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]

Go back to a level of contact that is comfortable for you. If your mother continues reaching out, block her number. Unblock to call when YOU want. Which might be never. That’s ok. Having her leach any sliver of goodwill you have left out over the course of her illness isn’t going to leave you with fond memories or fewer regrets. At least, that seems to be true for very very many people.
posted by Bottlecap at 11:50 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]

You do not owe your mother contact

if she was unkind when you were a child/teenager; and/or

if she was neglectful when you were a child/teenager; and/or

if being in contact with her now harms your emotional wellbeing; and/or

if being in contact with her now harms your mental health.
posted by Carriage pulled by cassowaries at 11:54 PM on August 4 [6 favorites]

I've written here a few times about my toxic, tragic mother. I've gone through multiple periods of no contact with her, the longest lasting 7 years. Most recently, it had been almost a year since we spoke, and then I got a call from a hospital. Next week I am moving her into assisted living against her will. I do this not because I love her or forgive her or want contact with her or want to be her caregiver. I do this because it's the only way I personally can be at peace with how I treat her--regardless of how she treats me. I can't control her behavior, but I can control my own.

If there is screaming, I will walk away and drive the 3 hours back to my life and my home. I have literally no responsibility or obligation to her, not in a filial piety sense nor in a legal sense. (She dislikes me so much she even made her no-contact cousin her POA.)

Forgiveness is so personal, so individual. I used to struggle with the concept, thinking forgiveness was a milestone on the way to understanding, or redemption, or peace of mind. I still don't understand what it would mean to "forgive" her, but I stopped trying. What I did gain from 7 years of no contact is a distance that allowed me to feel empathy for the awful circumstances of her birth and childhood that no doubt made her into the person she is. She experienced physical and emotional trauma. Sometimes abused people abuse people, and traumatized people traumatize people. I don't feel sorry for her. I just was able to understand her better by stepping out of our behavior dynamic.

You have this internet stranger's blessing to cut her off, yes even while she is sick. If you like, you could send her a letter listing in dry language what she must do in order to regain a relationship with you. Or not. You're not obligated to explain. Either way, I suggest putting her number on silent ring/straight to voicemail, deleting her contact info, and/or blocking her. Think of all the relief you will likely feel when you don't lie awake in anticipation of how a conversation will go. When I did this (multiple times), my mother wrote letters. Mostly I threw them straight into the trash.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 9:06 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]

My mother most likely had bipolar disorder, was an alcoholic, manipulative, very difficult person. But I learned to create and maintain boundaries. i moved 1,000 miles away, didn't have a phone for a year (in the olden timez), and had to be really disciplined. Siblings would get pulled in to tell me I was being bad to Mom, until I'd tell me version. It made me learn and grow and I'm glad I never cut her off. I was the daughter I thought I should be to the mother who had little to give, and resented me, etc.

It's okay to cut her off, but it's okay to take a different path.
posted by theora55 at 12:52 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]

In my similar situation, I tell myself that either of the paths I could choose (resentful, abusive contact with ailing narcissist parent/ or guilt riddled anxiety with no contact) is hard.

People sometimes say to me ‘oh he has X maladies! And no family caring for him!’ And ‘Oh how will you feel when your father dies and you haven’t been in contact?’ and I just repeat my mantra to myself about the choices available to me are both riddled with difficulty.

People get sick. People die. That does not mean they get to have my attention, especially when I know they’d step over my dying body to get to any convenient narcissistic supply station without a backward glance or care.

Your mother probably had terrible developmental hurdles and her life as a consequence is, sadly, what it is. If you’ve worked on codependency, your empathy for that journey is real. It induces guilt and distress as it’s not in our nature to abandon.

I think if you are in therapy, you are addressing your developmental hurdles in the inter generational trauma cycle, the distress codependency creates at such moments as these. You are rightly putting on your own oxygen mask first if you continue very limited or no contact.
posted by honey-barbara at 12:54 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]

You don't owe her anything.

She brought you into the world - not the other way around.

You are a grown-up and you can cut her out. Check out some Lisa Romano on youtube - I particularly like the Narcissist Recovery Meditation

You can do it! You are strong! Remember that she knows where all your buttons are....because she installed them
posted by tiburon at 5:44 PM on August 7 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for your comments and encouragement.

I actually had the opportunity to speak with my dad and my brother (my father and mother are divorced, dad is happily remarried) about my relationship with mom, and told them I had been thinking a lot about trying to cut contact and distance myself from her. They were both very supportive, telling me to do what was right for me, and they obviously understood. My father reaffirmed my own feelings that my relationship with her will never change, she will not change. I cannot accept her behavior as it is at this point in my life, so the healthy thing for me to do is to step away until I can accept her as she is. Though this will be hard for me as well, I feel it is the right thing for me at this point. I may DM some of you that offered! Again, so very appreciate your thoughtful advice.
posted by Quincy at 11:23 AM on August 8 [3 favorites]

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