What's the deal with you and mom? Part 1
I get to the Target check-out line, and I panic. I have two, $5 coupons, which will pay for my dinner, night snack and maybe breakfast tomorrow. The totals are under $10, so I won’t have to use the .68 I have left until… well… I don’t know. But then something happens where the Target coupons don’t work like the last two times.
They can’t be used together. The total has to be over $5 or I have to pay the tax. The tax is about .50 but it’s not in my wallet, so I have to run to the car and hope the two quarters I used for street parking downtown didn’t bust my car coin stash.
I tell Ann to put the groceries aside while I go to the car, and now I’m back to check-out again. I’ve known Ann a year now, but she knows me no more than our first interaction. She has no patience. She is short, rude and always looks at me like I have a third head. Ann is upset today because this is the third time I’ve tried checking out, and I still don’t have enough change to ring up more than $5 worth of groceries, but less than the change in my palm. I can't for the life of me understand why Ann works exclusively in the Customer Service Center.
“Excuse me ma’am? Is that all you need? I’m happy to help. I’ve been there before."
“No, it’s okay.” I say without even realizing it.
That’s the person behind me. I’m increasingly more aware of the awkward atmosphere in customer service, and I’m the elephant in the room. Boy, did my disordered eating brain just eat up that metaphor.
I see the words in front of me as clearly as my bifocal glasses allow: "You are not worth good things."
Mom and I fight about everything these days. In my five years of therapy, each inpatient, outpatient, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, residential, ER doctor, specialist or clinician team member issued me the same warning: Separate. She’s toxic. My kindred spirit Belle is ever more kin: That tale’s as old as time.
But I’m too afraid. I can’t embarrass her. Really, I can’t say anything to anyone because then I’ll lose what connection exists, regardless of its toxicity. I’ve said those words for five years now. Seen peer clients and therapists cry hearing my lips form them again and again. I’m stuck.
Long ago, I promised myself the traumas I faced, resulting the maladaptive patterns I crafted to cope, and now painful, disordered manifestations I suffer would never hurt others - only myself.
I understand now my silence only perpetuates disordered relational patterns, both mine and those belonging to others, because there is zero accountability. And the people who suffer most from silence are those wordless souls themselves. They bear both weighty burdens and a shame never meant to be carried.
Mom voices want for relationship, but reinforces unhealthy, avoidant-dependent patterns.
Here’s what my orphan brain’s come to adopt: "I am unworthy."
Here’s what my orphan body unconsciously shares: "ALERT. Beware conditional support that unexpectedly shift to neglectful or abusive behavior."
Here’s what others may see: "She runs to mom one day and flees from mom the next. How disrespectful."
Don’t drink that bullshit Kool-aid. It’s disgusting.
There is a reason I still sometimes use childish behavior, childish meaning, I get stuck and can’t find my voice.
Interacting with mom in any capacity exposes me to those aggressive and passive-aggressive patterns; behaviors far too filled with bitter, caustic language.
A developing child is appropriately unskilled to verbally articulate that conduct, but she describes it quite explicitly in her behavior. Look for the story pattern cycling day in and day out: “I am unworthy.”
Child's need for others shows up unconsciously. She is beautiful, bright but hurting somehow. You know because she shies from closeness in most new relationships. She’s judgmental. Shallow. Focuses on others' small imperfections. Unjustly picks fights. Underneath, she’s building a case to justify her resistance to connection. She fears being unsafe, and unsafe is being hurt. Being hurt is unsafe because being hurt is a reflection of her inherent unworthiness. A perfect relationship is unattainable because she soils beauty with her tarred feathers.
Child's few, inner-circle companions notice her fear too. She withdraws if she anticipates separation, loss, or conflict. She is scared of perceived or real slights, attacks and threats. She is sometimes self-ingratiating: Compromising to prevent any authentically or illogically sensed abandonment. So she is hot and cold. She is suspicious and untrusting but then clingy and perhaps desperate.
Regardless of whether child is operating within a primarily avoidant or overly dependent relationship, she is so stuck in shame that she seeks support indirectly. She is too afraid to say no, so she hints, complains, sulks or even whines. That way, when hearing, “No,” she can tell herself: “I never actually asked, so it wasn’t rejection.” She will say this until she has unsuccessfully convinced herself.
Child will avoid attachment-related conversations. Her fear drives her obsession with ensuring her own needs & wants are met beyond capacity because she is too familiar with living beneath necessity. She cannot regard others’ wellbeing in the process of never successfully regarding her own.
Child finds immense difficulty disclosing her genuine Self, because she does not know her genuine Self, because she has never shaken hands with geniality.
So child appears confident, secure, and positive but sometimes very prideful. Because she is compensating for her inwardly cynical, negative, fragile, and self-loathing majority. She rids herself of the self-hatred stories when others validate her identity. She knows better, but cannot do better, because a works-based identity laces her DNA. She becomes resentful, jealous and angry when others do not validate her self-worth. Or at least, when they seem not to be doing so. But determining whether her relational disappointments are fair is not her primary concern. Remember: She, fears relationship loss. She will suppress her emotions, no matter the cost.
This cycle is faithful to produce one outcome: bursts of anger and sadness. Those bursts of anger and sadness are large, loud and deep, but somehow only expressed within confines of an other space housing an other safe person. But in that other space with the safe person, child now creates an unintentional scapegoat. Her severe reaction fits inappropriately into the safe context. She is genuine when seeking forgiveness & identifying a real, desperately needed help. But now, that maladaptive outburst causes the very abandonment she feared.
It all goes back to that inconsistent, love-hate relational space. Hearing “you deserve good things when I say so” in key formative years birthed those self-ingratiating communication patterns. Tantrums functioned as pleas to meet needs. Taking advantage of any and every love offering meant surviving since there were few. Unassertive communication protected her from the bitter, caustic language in verbally abusive conversations. Self-preservation required hypervigilant, obsession with securing met needs. She drew close to mom when mom was dismissive, because she was less likely to get hurt while getting needed attention. She could never expect but did notice the unexpected shifts, alerting her to pull back in sudden, parent-child conditionally affectionate times, trying to prevent as much attachment as possible so it'd hurt less when abandonment arrived.
Mom is just as calculated as child because mom’s behaviors, or absent behavior, shuffles that cycle. It is clear to me now: It is called "the shame cycle." Mom knows that how a parent figure nurtures a child sets distinct patterns for the child’s future relationships. Mom is not ignorant of that definition of attachment, so she emphasizes representing the family in very particular ways with equally definite strategies. They are based in fear.
Mom is overprotective, trying to live vicariously through her child, hyper focused on child’s appearance and performance. In doing so, mom oversteps her child’s personal boundaries and invades personal privacy. In fact, boundaries and privacy do not exist. Mom’s identity is her child’s.
In public, her child is her show piece. As she often says, “You are a representation of me.” Her child learns to be responsible for herself and for others rather than being responsible for herself and to others. Her child both plants seeds and orders the sun’s photosynthesis. The child’s actions must be so calculated that they produce the desired outcome.
Mom’s child therefore feeds mom’s narcissism. Narcissism is an ugly word, but mom's behaviors fit its definition. In public, mom brags about her child, but in private, mom criticizes her child, which is confusing. “Am I important, or not yet important?” I’d ask my child self.
“Some days mom interacts with me but other times, mom is dismissive, intrusive, insensitive and unavailable. Sometimes she picks me up and sometimes I am sitting on the doorstep past 6. In church, I am beautiful, and in the car, I need to maintain my size 6 figure. At graduation, I was the youngest to earn her Master’s, on the phone, I need to attend law school or get my PhD so I can pursue becoming the United States Secretary of Education. I can be anything I want and mom will be proud of me, but I need to get out of those urban schools with the unsupportive parents of children who do not want to learn and are not held accountable by administrators.” And the storyline continues. Mom is confusing love with her own desperation to be validated. My success satiates her unhealthy emotional identity hungers.
I do not blame mom for my suffering but I cannot continue ignoring how our continued enmeshment terrorizes my medical and mental health wellbeing. Contrary to my upbringing, I am only responsible for myself. I honor others, but honoring others is nontangential to self-crucifixion. So because mom’s present day communication still reflects that conditional self-worth theme, “childhood” exists in our every present day interaction. Invalidating the "today me" is far more dangerous because it deconstructs corrected, recovering self-perceptions.
Mom and I will never operate within a safe, healthy space until that works-based self-image construct is legitimately deconstructed and replaced with an authentic, genuinely healthy connection. And so it is with my healing. I will never identify as an inherently valuable being, operating with self-respect and able to use my new yet well-learned coping skills, without first disconnecting from disorder at its root. So tell all my therapists they were right: We need to break up.
I told you so. I’m the closest non-LPC LPC. And in many ways, I’ve paid my clinical licensure dues. I know the DSM model because I call myself "the Walking DSM model" in my most self-hating moments. I memorized my ICD-10 codes because I’ve battled an insurance system to which I’m more intimately connected than its CEO.
After five years’ therapy, which are really only the first five, I feel confident I’ve hit enough walls built with attachment disorder bricks to say I both love mom and cannot privilege myself our relationship. You asked me how to pray. You said to be transparent in sharing my experience. I notice your confusion-filled eyes watching mom and me fight. And mom knows this letter is coming. Mom says she will own disagreeing with my sick leave, continued testing, doctor visits, medication, trust in my clinical team and expensive therapeutic decisions. Mom asserts her own valid reasoning in missing family sessions or otherwise uncooperative therapeutic measures. Mom is committed to standing by opinion, and she dared me to stand by mine and absorb the consequences. Mom knows the door is always open, and she knows how to walk through it in a way we both prosper. But I cannot continue initiating what I'm not asked for.
I leave you with three things:
(1) There is a deeper identity crisis happening within mom and within me. (2) Our extensive family therapy disqualifies mom from any benefit-of-the-doubt with authentically understanding my suffering and support needs. And (3) I am a dog returning to its own vomit to keep stapling together already severed cords that are strangling my recovery process.
I am telling you I will never be well until I’m bound to wellbeing, and there is little wellbeing here. It is exactly because I am so bound to toxicity that I cried while walking out of Target today armored in shame. These moments shock me out of a blindness that scares me because I realize, for a short time, that I am stupid vulnerable to the lie that our brokenness is my brokenness, and my brokenness is my fault, which reissues an order to just simply try harder to be near her again.