My relationship with my mother has been a lens through which I viewed my life for many years. Despite whatever bad parenting decisions she made, she always loved me. She still loves me. She’ll love me until the day she dies.
My mother was shaped by her own childhood trauma, her own abuse, incest, and domestic battery. She self-medicated. She denied. She pretended and sometimes failed. Don’t we all?
I cut my mother out of my life for a few years when I was in college. It was my first real boundary.
My friend JJ was out of town with her kids and I was feeding Arabella, the cat they rescued after Katrina. Arabella did not like anyone but JJ. I was in the bathroom, sitting on the edge of the tub, talking on the phone with my mother. Arabella was hiding in the corner behind the toilet, hissing occasionally. At the time, my mother was working at Jamba Juice. She was talking to me on her break. I was talking about therapy.
My mother was manic. Years of living with her as a teen and studying bipolar since then left me assured. She was talking in fast, run-on sentences about a variety of topics. She was possibly high, but definitely lying about whatever she was or wasn’t taking. I heard her through a filter of kibble bits falling into a bowl. I drifted back in and she was talking about how it was my fault, and that I should’ve told someone sooner. If I needed more attention that was fine, but I should get over things about Jim. Suddenly, someone called to her from work. “I’ve gotta go, honey. I love you so much! Bye!”
Arabella came out of her hiding place and sat down across from the tub. I held my head in one hand, my phone in the other. We sat together, the cat and I, for a long time.
For about three years I was told by my Ma-Ma to call my mother. I told people that for all intents and purposes, I didn’t have parents. I wrote my mother letter after letter that I deleted, things I wanted to say and hated to say at the same time.
Setting the boundary gave me a ripple effect into other boundaries. As my Ma-Ma pestered me about how I’d regret fighting with my mother I learned to tell her that it was my business, not hers. I was able to practice being assertive, explaining that not talking to Mom made me happier, and feel better about myself. I stood up for my rights to eliminate badness from my life. Ma-Ma loved me dearly, and in the end, we would agree to disagree. Because of her age, or maybe because of her passion for the topic, we had this debate dozens of times. I got better at saying my thoughts and feels and accepting other people disagreeing.
If I wasn’t willing to let my mother say and do anything she wanted to me, despite the valid conditions that affect that effort, then I sure as hell was not going to let anyone else treat me poorly. I weeded through my friends like reality was Facebook. I decided that I could be picky, and so I was. It wasn’t always simple or fun to trim my social life. Still, with consistent pruning, I started to build a new family. A place where I could set my own values with my own definitions.
I redefined old family values we’d made in the WWASP program my brother attended. My values fell under the acronym my sister made, F.F. CLIR. Family, Friends, Communication, Love, Integrity, Respect.
My family, I defined, were the people who loved and supported me through whatever I was experiencing. Many of them were blood, but I am ok with water being thinner. Maybe it’s just that thin things tend to stretch more, and I need a flexible family. Within my family, I had allies and others. Allies supported me through healing. My mother, still family, was not an ally.
Friends are the people who make your life full. Friends come and go, but lasting friendships exist. Some friends become family, either through time, circumstance, or even marriage.
Communication wasn’t enough for me. As a child, communication could easily mean yelling, passive-aggressive responses, and heavy-handed sarcasm. I started to adopt my therapist’s phrase, “open, honest communication”. I would even discuss topics in an open body position. I started to make open, honest communication a standard with dating relationships, which radically changed how I dated.
Love was inward for me. I needed to learn to love myself. I felt unlovable, but I knew otherwise. I had tons of love from all manner of sources. And if I forgot that, I had tools and people on hand to remind me. I’d taken a risk to expose my struggle and was rewarded with endless love from all directions. Now was the time to open myself to love, and let it sit alongside me.
Integrity started to mean honesty and the effort to be constantly checking my own honesty. If I want to make a statement I should believe it’s true. Telling my mother that I don’t want to talk to her ever again might feel good to say, but it’s bullshit. Telling her that I can’t talk with her, for the time being, is honest. It’s harsh and it’s kinder than a lie. If people don’t want my honesty, they can leave. I don’t have time for lies anymore.
Respect was a word that authority used to gain compliance. My mother wanted respect from my brother, my grandma wanted respect from my mother, and no one talked about earning respect except my siblings and I. I took in respect to mean respecting myself. I express self-respect through self-care. I went to therapy. I did yoga. I saw a nutritionist and learned how to feed myself. I took care of my feelings and gave myself room to be an emotional wreck. I talked when it sucked, even though talking was not always what I wanted to do. Respect should also be turned outwards, to others. Everyone is fighting their own battle. They might be healing, they might be trying to avoid healing, from whatever trauma they may or may not have endured. The issue matters less than the symptoms harming their lives. If someone canceled last minute with me, I tried to react with support.
I started to evaluate my life and my relationships around my values. I set boundaries to help keep those values alive. I ended the relationships that didn’t fit into this structure.
Guilt was heavy on me. Inside my head were cries of how conceited I was for thinking I got to tell people they had no right to disrespect me. Who was I, thinking I deserved all this respect? After the things I’d done to people through the years, I had no right to dictate how people treated me. I had no right to claim different families for myself. Those people had families, and they didn’t include me. Also, wasn’t I cutting out my real family? I felt like the most ungrateful creature alive.
I was cruel to myself in the quiet spaces of my mind. I had tools to help me, but sometimes I would just drink about it.