Toxic Parents… 5 Years Later

This week I did something that I’ve been avoiding for 5 years: I went and listened to a letter my mother wrote to my therapist about me in 2012.

My mother wrote letter in response to fallout after she took my children out-of-town overnight under false pretense, and refused to tell me where they were. This incident coincided with the scariest time in my divorce– a period when my ex husband was often uncooperative about returning our kids to me after his parenting time, verbally and physically threatening, and saying stuff like, “there are great boarding schools back where my mom lives that might be good for the kids.” Our sons were 5 and 7 years old at the time. 

My parents disapproved of my choice to leave my marriage. It wasn’t that they thought we had a great marriage– they just thought I should stay because he made a good living and divorce meant sentencing myself to a life of poverty. (The thought that they might be able to help me get out of an abusive marriage WITHOUT sacrificing financial stability, never seemed to cross their minds.) They saw my decision to divorce as evidence of my “inability to make good choices and my general mental instability.” They refused to help or listen to me and began siding with my ex husband. At one point, my father came to my house with a divorce settlement offer from my ex and tried to bully me into signing it. When I refused and asked my father to leave, he cocked his fist back as if he was going to punch me. His girlfriend dragged him from my home as he yelled obscenities at me.

So when my mother took my children out-of-town and refused to tell me where they were, I panicked. She said they were on the coast, but I thought she might be meeting my ex at the airport so he could leave the state with our kids. Because our divorce was not yet final, such a move would have meant months in court and tens of thousands of dollars spent before I’d get to see my children again. I can’t even begin to describe how scared I was thinking about this possibility.

It took a call to the police and a terrifying drive to the coast, but my boys were returned to me 24 hours after they were taken. The trauma we all suffered as a result lasted much longer. In the days following, I received a barrage of phone calls and emails from my mother, sister, and father blaming me for the all the trouble. “Why couldn’t I just trust my mother to keep the kids for a few days??” they asked. “Because she lied to me and refused to tell me where they were. How is that okay?? I am their mother and I have a right to know where my children are” I responded. But you can’t have a rational conversation with irrational people.

Of course my parents thought I was the irrational one, and so they asked to speak with my counselor and explain their side of things. My father came to two counseling appointments. (At the time, my boys and I had seen a wonderful counselor for about 6 months– sometimes together and sometimes individually.) My father and I met with her together and she and I listened to him make a case for me having a long history of mental illness, most likely (according to what my mother had told him) Borderline Personality Disorder. My counselor listened and let him say his piece. When it was her turn to speak she calmly said, “I have treated other clients with this disorder and I have worked with both Jennifer and her children for several months now. In my professional opinion, she does not have Borderline Personality Disorder.” “How do you know?” asked my father. She listed a few reasons, but he was unconvinced. Then she said, “let me ask you a question: do you think Jennifer is a good mom?” “Yes” he said, “she’s the best mom I’ve ever seen.”  “Okay” she said, “I’ve also seen Jennifer’s parenting style and what I can tell you is that people who have Borderline Personality Disorder are simply not capable of parenting the way Jennifer parents.” After 45 minutes of trying to convince my counselor that she was being fooled by me, my counselor asked my father to leave. He tried to restart the BPD conversation at the second appointment but she shut him down saying, “I’ve already given you my professional opinion on this issue and it seems there is nothing I can say to change your mind, so we’re not going to discuss that anymore.” My father then said that he just wasn’t explaining it right and asked if he and my mother could meet with my counselor privately (without me) to explain things better. My counselor said that this wasn’t a decision she could make and she would need to discuss the idea with me as well as the clinic board.

I agreed to let my parents meet with my counselor because I felt I had nothing to lose by doing so. My relationship with them was already terrible and I had nothing to hide regarding my own mental health. But the clinic board said no. Their feeling was that allowing my parents to insert themselves in my therapy this way was akin to aiding them in continuing their emotional abuse towards me. Furthermore, based on my father’s behavior in the two appointments he’d attended, the board felt my parents were highly unlikely to get the result they wanted and would therefore spin their frustration into challenging the professional credibility of my counselor and the clinic. So the answer was no. Within a few days of receiving this answer my sister and parents began sending me emails about how my counselor was clearly unqualified to treat someone like me and, therefore, I needed to find a new one.

At some point during all of this my mother sent a long letter to my counselor detailing my “severe mental instability” and all the ways in which I’d caused my entire family years of pain and grief– since I was about 9 years old. My counselor gave me the option to read the letter, but I declined. I didn’t see the point and said I thought I could guess what was in it. My counselor supported that choice. She also said that although she couldn’t diagnose my mother based on a letter, she had a list of books about growing up with a narcissistic parent that I might benefit from reading.

Ultimately I decided it was in my best interest to sever all ties with my family and to this day I don’t have a relationship with my parents or sister. I also don’t have a relationship with any of my extended family because I can’t handle the discomfort of either pretending none of this happened or sharing the gory details and thus making them very uncomfortable as they try to figure out what to do with all that ugliness. In the years between 2012 and now my uncle, who I used to be very close to, had a massive heart attack; my grandmother and step-grandmother passed away; and my cousin became very ill with cancer (I don’t know if he’s still alive). I have been emotionally and physically absent for nearly all of it. My parents have not reached out to tell me any of this news and I have not contacted them to inquire or offer condolences. I’ve wanted to reach out to relatives in these circumstances, but I just can’t seem to do it. My extended family is small and has never been particularly close and at this point I think it’s best for me (and maybe them too?) if we don’t have contact. I don’t want to pretend things didn’t happen in my life or feel like I have to defend how I’ve handled them. But I carry a tremendous amount of guilt for my choice to separate myself from my extended family. I’ve never explained why to any of them; I just don’t keep in touch.  

All of this, plus the curiosity about what was in that letter from my mom, has been swirling in my head for the past few months. I don’t miss my parents: they have always brought more pain and destruction than comfort and support into my life. The details shared here are the tip of the abuse iceberg. I don’t miss them as people but I do feel a deep sense sadness around not having parents or other relatives that I am close to in my life. And within that sadness there is always a lingering “what if.” What if my mom’s letter wasn’t full of all the horrible things I imagined? What if there is some evidence of softness and an opportunity for healing in that letter? What if I don’t have to be so completely alone in raising and loving my two sweet boys? What if…

These questions led me back to the counseling office to sit and listen to the clinic director (who I’d not met before) read the letter my mother wrote back in 2012.

I wish I could say it was easy or better than I’d imagined, or shed some light of hope on my what ifs. It wasn’t and it didn’t. It was awful. So awful that the clinic director made me promise I had a safe place and someone to process it with before he’d agree to read it to me, which I did. I listened to him speak her words, which was probably better than reading it myself and hear her voice come off the pages. For 20 minutes I listened to my mother’s version of reality about my childhood and our relationship. She talked about what an “angry child” I was from about 9 years old on, but she left out the part about that being the age when my father began physically abusing me. She talked about leaving me with her friends when I was 11 and things got out of control at our house. But she left out the part about how she woke me up in the middle of the night and pulled me out of bed to take me to them without any explanation to me about why or when she’d be back to get me. She talked about the time when I was 16 and threatened to kick my father in the crotch, but she left out the part about my threat being a response to him throwing me against the wall and slapping me– right before he punched me and broke my nose. She talked about her concern for me but left out the part where, after she and my dad cleaned up the blood from my broken nose, she handed me $20 and told me there was a taxi waiting for me in the driveway because I wasn’t welcome at home anymore. She talked about what a burden I’d been to her all these years, but left out the part about how I’ve been on my own since I was 17– mostly living in other cities, states, and countries. In her version of reality she and my father were the victims and I was the abuser.

When he finished, the director said how sorry he was for what I’d been through. I thanked him, said I was okay, and then rode my bike back to work.

I was grateful I’d ridden my bike that day– fresh air soothes me. I was grateful that instead of a client appointment, I was going back to our weekly staff meeting where we are all check in about personal stuff in a very safe and supportive environment. I was grateful my training in trauma-informed social work, like-minded coworkers, and a supportive work environment. I was grateful for my boss who said, “I just want you to know that, if you were my daughter, I would be so impressed with the human being and mother you are. Your mom is missing out.” And I was and am forever grateful for the friends I called who have known me for decades and who reminded me that they witnessed some of what was left out of my mother’s letter and, no, I’m not crazy.

So here I am, left with a mix of gratitude and grief and struggling, as always, to navigate my present reality which includes my parents continued involvement in my children’s lives as well as mine– via one very effed-up degree of separation. My parents spend time with my children only when they are with their father, aka my abusive ex husband. My parents refuse to see or even speak to my children when they are with me. Holidays and my kid’s birthdays that fall on my parenting time come and go without so much as a phone call from their grandparents. Cards and gifts are not given by the grandparents until my boys are with their dad. My sister refuses to let my nephew visit my house because she feels I’m a bad influence, even though she helped kidnap and traumatized my children, not the other way around. My mother’s letter mentioned my “inability to leave the past behind” several times. But it left out the part about all the other times I forgave her and my father and allowed them back in my life, only to leave myself open for more abuse. In my version of reality I know how to leave the past behind, but I don’t know how to move on from this life that holds me hostage in this town (divorce/parenting plan prevents me from moving) and the ongoing manipulations and emotional abuse from my parents and my ex via their relationships with my children.

I don’t know how to leave something behind that keeps coming back to haunt me. The best I know how to do is just be me in spite of it all. I parent my children the best way I know how under these circumstances– showering them with heavy doses of love and sprinkling in some tough honesty when needed. I remind myself that all of my favorite people struggled with some sort of adversity during their childhood and as much as I’d like to create a life free of struggle and heartache for my boys, it’s not within my power or their best interest for me to do so. The best I know how to do is hope that their life has just the right balance of friction and positive connection to create copious amounts of empathy and resiliency in them. I remind myself that this is just one of many aspects of their growth and development that are out of my control. And I remind myself that my love for them is powerful and something they can always rely upon. I think they’re going to be okay, and I hope I will be to. Only time will tell.


1 Comment

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One response to “Toxic Parents… 5 Years Later

  1. You are the family scapegoat. I am sorry you have experienced this abuse.

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