it's time to let go of your abusive Mother

Dannielle Owens-Reid

I was raised by a single mother for a big chunk of my life. She worked very hard, taught me right from wrong, and made me laugh all the time. She is also an alcoholic, and bipolar, something that took me until college to figure out. I didn't grow up in a world that taught you to be afraid of alcoholics. In fact, I could probably list more successful, wealthy, charming, role models who make jokes about how much they love to drink. Being a "functioning alcoholic" is just funny! It seems like it's just a thing everyone does all the time, so why on earth would I think something was off when my mom was doing it? Finding out my mom was an alcoholic shed a lot of light on my growing up. She never hit me, but she did tell me to pull my pants down and threaten to, or say things like, "I'm so mad I could punch you." She never called me fat and ugly, but she did poke my love handles and point to the acne around my chin and say, "What's going on here?" She never screamed at my friends, but she did come to my improv shows and heckle or yell throughout the show. She was always drunk, but I never even considered that there was something wrong. 

As a 16 year old, I had my own life problems to deal with - One time, I had a huge crush on a boy who started to date my bff and my bff didn't tell me. I had to find out through an AIM conversation with someone else! But I had to put a hold on that AIM conversation because my mom called me downstairs to ask me if there was a reason she shouldn't kill herself. My answer was, "Because I love you." It would be another 13 years until I figured out that's a fucked up thing to ask your kid. All through college my mom would show up to my plays wasted, my friends would think she was so fun and funny. She would buy a bunch of stuff for everyone I knew, then drive home drunk, and people just thought she was supportive. When I came out as queer, she begged me to never cut my hair, told me I was much prettier in dresses, and asked me why I never wanted a normal life with a husband or children. She would harass whoever I was dating - telling them I'd said I didn't really love them or I was too particular, anything to try and break us up.

 Behavior like this continued and worsened throughout my early 20s. It got harder for me, I was more afraid, I had no idea what to do. 

When I moved to Los Angeles in 2013, my mom was at the height of texting to tell me how awful I am. She would pair that with all of our mother-daughter memories and her deep adoration for me. I started to notice that I had a bunch of relationships that almost mirrored my relationship with my mother. People who would say hurtful things during a misunderstanding and then gloss over it later. "Well yeah people say shitty things when they're mad. I don't MEAN it." Relationships with people who I'd go to with an emotion/feeling and they would use that to go off on how my feeling made them feel. Relationships that were generally okay, unless I was getting more attention than them. People who liked me best when I felt small. I started to notice when someone was manipulating the conversation - acting like they didn't understand what I was saying, twisting my words, imploring that their idea was much better - anything to convince me that I was wrong. I would get intimidated, feel uncertain, back down, lose track of my own opinions, I was constantly questioning everything and just allowing people in these relationships to have control. Putting all of this together was not an easy feat. My therapist would point out someone's feeling of competition with me and how it was similar to my mother's feelings toward me. At first, I would try to come up with reasons that one relationship wasn't like the other, until I finally figured my shit out. 

I knew I had to treat myself way better, but I had no idea how. I first felt like a complete victim. Ooooh my mom messed me up and everyone else is terrible, okay! But here I was in these endless cycles with people. Hating certain aspects of my life and my job and doing nothing about it. Sitting back and letting people do the same things over and over and NEVER saying anything. I started to figure things out a little bit when I went to the top of a mountain and wrote out a list of everything I wanted in a partner. I was so cheesy about it. I want to laugh all the time, I want to feel passion, I want to feel inspired, I want to feel like we're teammates, I want to love her family, I want to go on adventures. I wanted to feel respected and loved and supported. As I stumbled through this list-making process, I started to wonder why I was sacrificing so many of these feelings in any of my relationships. I want every relationship I have to feel dope. 

I slowly, but surely started to make better choices.  If my mom was sending me texts about what a piece of shit I am, I wasn't responding. If every time I hung out with someone they were gossiping a ton or I felt like I was doing all of the listening, I started to hang with them less. If I met someone who had the best vibes and they were super inspiring, I was asking them to hang out again. I started to date someone new and put my foot down when she would try to hide her real feelings from me. I wanted a relationship that was completely open and honest. I wanted to surround myself with people who made me feel good. 

In January, 2014 I told my mother I would only respond when she sent me something positive, we didn't speak for 10 months. After 10 months, she showed up unannounced at a book reading of mine, talked through the entire thing, cried, asked me why I didn't love her, and we started speaking again.

One of the best choices I've made is separating myself from my mother. I haven't had a positive interaction with her in years. On my birthday she convinced 10-15 of her friends to text me, "Your mother loves you, she really wishes you would call her." She will lie to members of my family about things I've said, or threaten them for even talking to me. She'll send me a barrage of text messages about how awful I am and then when I don't respond she sends me another text to sarcastically thank me for helping her through her bipolar down spin. In lieu of an apology; she will remind me that she's sick and blame her bipolar episode on me being such a bad daughter. I'm very lucky that I finally understand her sickness is not my fault. That is not how illness works. It’s similar to physical illness. If you broke your leg, there are steps you have to take and things you have to do to heal that leg. It's hard, it takes patience, it doesn't happen overnight, but the more time you spend blaming your broken leg on your brother and NOT doing anything about your leg...the more likely you are to have a fucked up leg forever. 

I now live by one rule, "Make the choice that will make your life better." Will it make my life better to respond to my mother and try to prove her wrong? No. Will it make my life better to come home for Christmas and feel judged and uncomfortable? No. Will it make my life better to coddle her and tell her not to worry, that I feel totally fine when she's verbally and emotionally abusing me? No. And what's more, it doesn't make her life better. To do any of those things would give her a sign that her tactics are working - she should continue to use guilt and manipulation to get what she wants. To respond, to coddle, to tell her it's okay, those are the marks of an enabler and it would do her no good. 

There is no good reason to keep someone abusive in your life. If my mother were my partner, people would tell me to leave. If my mother were a friend, people would tell me to cut them out of my life. If my mother were my boss, people would tell me to quit or turn her in to HR. If my mother were an estranged uncle, people would tell me I didn't have to answer texts, who cares. But for some reason, people (including members of my own family) have a hard time understanding when you need to let go of an abusive parent. I'm here to tell you that it's okay. More than okay, it's necessary. It has greatly improved my quality of life to step back from my relationship with her as well as other relationships similar to it. 

This applies to anyone in your life that makes you feel like you are drowning. It is necessary for your mental, emotional, and, for many people, physical well-being. You cannot be the best version of yourself if you are constantly anxious about the reactive nature of an important relationship in your life. Try to take a step back and examine whatever relationship you are thinking about while reading this post. Does this person make you feel loved, respected, supported? Does this person listen to your perspective? Does this person value your opinions, morals, and beliefs? If this person is making you feel uncomfortable, can you have an honest and open conversation about it, and will anything change? Do you feel safe? Sit down and really think about it, close your eyes and feel the emotions that bubble up when you think about that relationship. When I did this exercise, some emotions I would experience were fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, and plummeting self-worth. Write those things down. Now close your eyes and feel the emotions that bubble up when you imagine that person is no longer a strong force in your life. For me, I could see myself feeling calm, confident, happy, laughing, excited to look at my phone again! Write that down, too. Those feelings should be your end goal. 

Before I set boundaries with my mother and the other relationships in my life that were similar, I didn't even know who I was because I was so caught up in trying to avoid making those people upset. It was a process, but it has truly changed my life. I have managed to surround myself with such positive forces. I've gained so much perspective; I've been able to finally access my own feelings, and I really pay attention to those feelings. My girlfriend is absolutely to-die-for incredible and when I ask her to be honest or we have to take a step back to figure out why we're mad, she's happy to do so because she also wants a dope relationship. My friends are thoughtful and talented and would jump in front of a bus for me, and I would do the same for them. I work with people who challenge my way of thinking and inspire me to work harder. They help me achieve my dreams, and are so unbelievably creative and smart. I also can feel when something is off with a person, and then I don't engage with that person anymore. When my mother texts me in a rage or asks another member of my family to text me on her behalf, I feel confident in not responding. She no longer has such a hold on me, because I know I have made the right decision. I don't feel guilt and shame for not having a relationship with my mother because I recognize that I already didn't have a relationship with her. Talking to someone only because you're afraid of what will happen if you don't talk to them? That's not a relationship. I do hope my mother finds peace, but until she has, those texts act as reminders that I have made a good decision. When I look at my life now, I can't imagine living it any other way. I feel strong, I understand my emotions and my passions. I feel capable of greatness. I feel love all around me. I feel like I have a life I used to only dream about. I feel like I live the best life. 

You deserve to live the best life.

Trust yourself. Be good to yourself. Take care of yourself.

If you need second and third opinions, here are some articles that have helped me come to such a tough decision. 

"Most adult children of toxic parents grow up feeling tremendous confusion about what love means and how it’s supposed to feel. Their parents did extremely unloving things to them in the name of love. They came to understand love as something chaotic, dramatic, confusing, and often painful—something they had to give up their own dreams and desires for. Obviously, that’s not what love is all about.Loving behavior doesn’t grind you down, keep you off balance, or create feelings of self-hatred. Love doesn’t hurt, it feels good. Loving behavior nourishes your emotional well-being. When someone is being loving to you, you feel accepted, cared for, valued, and respected. Genuine love creates feelings of warmth, pleasure, safety, stability, and inner peace."

- Susan Forward, Toxic Parents

Psychology Today - Poisonous Parents: Should You Cut Them Off?
New York Times - When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate
Love The Diosa - What Are Toxic Parents And How To Deal With Them
Really good tweet - Julia Nunes
Psych Central - Were You Born Under the Gaslight
Teen Vogue - How I Survived Gaslighting