The Language of Flowers

Self-therapy has been… interesting. Since ditching my therapist several years ago and going it on my own, I’ve tried different things. Reading, posting, and commenting on subreddits that have to do with borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and emotional incest. I keep a rather extensive journal that grows weekly, sometimes daily. I try to read books, articles, and papers on the above topics. It’s a lot. But it’s helping me work though my cognitive dissonance, anger, sadness, confusion, and frustration without vomiting it all over my loved ones. Oh, and? As you guys have read, I blog.

A little over two years ago, I got my one and only tattoo. It’s a Queen Anne’s lace blossom with words from my father’s last letter to me. Queen Anne’s lace grows rampant on my grandparents’ farm in Lewisburg and, I later found out, it represents sanctuary.

Yes, flowers have a language.

Back before texting, emails, phone calls, and letters, if you wanted to communicate with someone without letting the entire town know what you were thinking, you would communicate with flowers. Clearly, yes, I’ve read WAY too many Regency-era romance novels. But I LOVE the fact that one could reply to a proposal of marriage with either a bouquet of apple blossoms — I prefer you before all — or yellow carnations — disdain! With this interest of mine, I decided to combine the language of flowers with a bit of self-therapy.

My mother isn’t getting any younger. Someday, sooner rather than later, she will be gone from this Earth. But, since we no longer have contact with one another, I have no clue what her end-of-life plans are. I don’t know who she will leave her belongings to, which person in her life will take care of her final wishes, or if I will even be alerted that she’s gone. No clue. And, honestly? I’m at peace with that. When my Aunt Allegra passed away three years ago, I was a basket case. The separation from my mother was fresh and Aunt Allegra and Mom had been close at one time. As I mourned my aunt, I also mourned my mother.

Even though I have no idea of my mother’s final plans, I’ve tried to imagine what I would do if, or when, I receive a phone call, “Your mother is gone. What’s next?” I haven’t answered all of those questions, but I think I’ve figured out the flowers, thanks to those pesky Victorians and their need for subtle communication.

It was not easy finding all of these flowers. Honestly, I scoured the local craft stores and then ended up ordering most of these online because, sadly, Michael’s doesn’t really carry lots of bittersweet. Not only that, but I’m not the best “floral arranger.” I’m kind of bad at it. But, hey, this isn’t art, it’s therapy.

I’m sure you’re wondering, “Heather! What are these flowers — and garlic — and what do they mean?” Well, from the top, and left to right, here you go:

Striped carnation – No
Bittersweet – Truth
Christmas rose – Tranquilize my anxiety
Azalea – Take care of yourself
Red Rose – Love
Sweet pea – Goodbye
Lavender Heather – Solitude
Forget-me-not – Memories
Queen Anne’s lace – Sanctuary
White rosebuds – Girlhood
White Heather – Protection
Cattails – Peace
Garlic – Courage and strength

That’s a lot, I know. But, essentially, these flowers form a letter, a message, that I wish I could tell my mother, that she would hear and understand, and get.

Mom,
I love you. I never stopped loving you. But, I needed to begin taking care of myself and I had to protect myself from your mental illness. It took a lot of courage and strength for me to step away from you and live my life on a separate path. As a young girl, I needed love, sanctuary, and truth. I know you loved me, in your own way. But it wasn’t a healthy love. And that love came at a price — my safe space came with lies. My memories are a dichotomy of happiness and anger, love and hate, truth and lies. Oh, so many lies. And now that I’m grown, I’ve had to reconcile the actual truth with your truth. I get now why my life has always been full of anxiety. But now, I am taking care of myself, I am at peace with my decision, and my mind is calm. I have found my sanctuary. I have both good and bad memories of you. The good memories give me happiness and the bad memories help me understand how not to be to those around me. I hope in your life without me that you are taking care of yourself, that you have peace, that you have good memories, and that you have love.

Goodbye,

Heather

And so, here is the finished bouquet. That floral letter to my mother that I will someday leave on her final resting place. But, for now, I will look at it each day and remember why she is no longer in my life.

Home*

This is going to be a really heavy post. It may have to be a two-parter. Or a several-parter. I don’t know. We’ll just see how it goes.

I’ve done quite a lot of navel-gazing these last three-and-a-half years. It’s not hard when there’s a pandemic, the kids are at school 40 hours a week, and all the house chores are finished. When I cut off contact with my mother, it felt like a death and the first thing I did was make an appointment with a therapist and begin counseling. My old therapist had taken a leave from work due to health reasons and she suggested someone new. Michelle was nice, effusive, and helpful, but then after six months, she uttered the words I did not want to hear.

“Someday, when you re-establish a relationship with your mother…”

You know, how when you watch Scooby-Doo, and Scoobs and Shaggy are running away from the scary ghost or monster, and they start backpedaling, and their legs just turn into blurry circles? My brain was doing that. That simple phrase absolutely terrified me. I felt so healthy, so happy, so relieved to be away from her and now? Now I was supposed to someday talk to her again? Have my boundaries violated again? Feeling less than worthy again? Being used again?

I’m not proud to say it, but I ghosted my therapist and haven’t returned to her since. Or sought any other therapist in the intervening years. Instead, I read. Write. Watch. Absorb.

I found communities online where others went through similar experiences with their parents. I began reading books about parents with borderline personality disorder. And I kept a journal where I would write down what I had learned while also trying to put memories on paper to remind myself, “This is why I no longer talk to Mom. This is why I need to be a separate entity from her.” I wanted to understand myself and her. Why this happened. And try to be self-aware enough that I don’t repeat the “sins of the mother.”

Through all of my reading, something interesting happened about six months ago. While reading yet another post in a borderline personality disorder subreddit where the OP lamented the horrible relationship they had with their mother, they used the term “emotional incest.”

Lord Jesus. Here I am, a native West Virginian who staves off jokes of being married to a cousin by jokingly telling people, “I’m from West Virginia and I did NOT meet my husband at a family reunion,” and I find out I may have been a victim of emotional, or covert, incest.

IN.CEST. Y’all.

*Sigh*

In the simplest of terms, emotional incest is when a parent uses one of their children as an emotional spouse. There is no physical relationship. No actual sex or rape or molestation. It’s all emotional. Mental. The parent “parentifies” their child. They expect their child to provide them with the emotional support a spouse would normally give. The more I began to read up on emotional and covert incest, the more I realized that I wasn’t just my mother’s daughter. I was my mother’s completely and utterly enmeshed spouse. For well over 40 years.

It’s really hard to wrap my head around. This little-talked about type of emotional abuse is damaging to a child and when I started learning more about it, I realized that ohmygodthey’retalkingaboutme. The invasive parent in this type of relationship is enmeshed with their child in order to meet their own needs that are not being met in their adult relationship. Meanwhile, the child is often treated as “all good” and is favored to the exclusion of other children or, in my case, the other spouse. The needs of the child to develop as an individual, to make mistakes, to receive structure and discipline, are neglected because, surprise surprise, it’s all about the parent here. I’m supposed to make her happy not the other way around. As the invasive parent turns to the child for their emotional needs, the left-out spouse is shut out of this exclusive bond and may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms (in my dad’s case… FOOD) in order to deal with his or her unhappy home life.

Yeah. It’s a lot to take in.

And then? I started reading up on the behavioral signs that could point to someone having been a victim of this type of abuse.

People-pleaser (Oh. All day. Every day.)
A need to be invisible (I HATE. DESPISE. Talking about myself. I don’t like “tooting” my own horn. I hate writing this fucking post, tbh.)
Self-advocacy is nonexistent (Yep yep. Don’t like asking for stuff.)
Difficulty understanding and finding yourself (This. ALL of this.)
Inability to share authentic feelings with others (If I share my true feelings with you, you’ll turn on me like Mom did.)
Can’t say no (See number one.)
A reduced sense of significance (I don’t matter because I never mattered. Only she mattered.)
Very judgmental of others (I won’t say it to your face, but I’m judging you. Because I had to judge her and her moods and make sure she was always happy. And I hate that about myself.)
Attracted on some level to narcissistic people (I have a trail of narcissistic people who used to be friends but I gradually became self-aware of them and quietly said good-bye.)
An unrealistic view of what a family should look like (It’s taken me 26 years to figure out what a family is supposed to be. Thank goodness they all stuck around long enough.)
Anger and rage toward the enmeshed parent (I can’t even describe in simple words my incandescent rage toward her that I have kept bottled up inside otherwise for many years. If quiet rage was punishable, I’d be in prison.)

Yep. I just ticked right on down that list. Every. Single. One.

When your mother tells you, as a teenager, that she hasn’t had sex with your father since 1982…
When your mother tells you, as a kid, that her father abused her, sexually propositioned her, that she married your father to get away from her family…
When you later discover that those are all lies and that she’s told you all of that so that she guarantees she’s the only person left in your life and you have no choice BUT to turn to her for emotional support…When your mother expects you to call her, every day, without fail, and is cold to you when you don’t…
When your mother bitches to you about anything and everything your father does, no matter how big or small, and makes fun of what he does and who he is…
When she wants to be included in everything you do and say with your friends…
When she gets offended that you don’t like the same things she likes…
When she makes you feel guilty for taking time to yourself, even if it’s a one hour nap, and yet berates you for not spending enough time away from your husband and children to be with her…

I could go on and on and on. But I think I’m probably boring you with the details.

On the flip side of all of this is my father. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’m now pretty pissed with him. Why didn’t he stand up for me? Why didn’t he tell his wife, “Hey, this is wrong!” I realize that he, too, was pretty damaged, but dammit it’s been 24 year since he died and I’m angry. And I can’t yell at him. And I’m feeling guilty because I’m feeling angry.

I don’t know why my mother was like this. Was it her own mother? Was it environment? DNA? Was it a random aberration? Like, she was raised just fine and turned out this way just because? Was she enmeshed with her mom because her mom was enmeshed with her mom… because some great-great-greatx10 grandmother started the whole generational shit show? Did Mom marry my dad on a whim, figured out she didn’t love him, and took the chickenshit way out by enmeshing me instead of divorcing him? I don’t know. And I refuse to get the solid answers I need because it would mean talking to her. And I will not sacrifice my well-being in order to do that.

One of the many videos I’ve watched from licensed therapists who talk about this condition mentioned that in order to repair the damage done by emotional incest, one must establish boundaries, advocate for yourself, parent your children the opposite way you were parented, yada, yada. But one item on the list is, “Talk about it and share your story.”

So. Here I am. Sharing it.

Hi. My name is Heather and I was a victim of emotional incest.

*The title of this post is taken from the title of the titular X-Files episode “Home” where Mulder and Scully discover the Peacock family who practice extreme inbreeding. I don’t know. I love the X-Files and I thought, “Why not name this post after an episode that involves incest?” My brain isn’t right, y’all.

The Other Half

April 6, 1966.

For many people, it was just a day. Nothing special. A spring day much like today. Outside, the trees were probably showing off their newest green. Tulips were extending their heavy heads and the cool mornings were giving way to warm afternoons. The promise of summer was teasing many across the country. Lyndon B. Johnson was the president, the Civil Rights Movement was going strong, and we were still embroiled in Vietnam.

It’s also the day my mother gave birth to a baby boy and gave him up for adoption.

Family secrets are weird little creatures. They are furtively whispered about, behind backs, used as ammunition, and held tightly against our chests. For the lucky few, the family secret is never found out. It’s kept in a box and dies with the secret-keeper. But for others, it’s like trying to keep water in a cracked glass. At first, there are drips. And then, before you know it, the drips are a puddle, and suddenly the contents of the glass are no longer contained outside. The secret is fully exposed, staining everyone and everything around it. And there’s no way to get it back into the glass.

When I was in ninth grade, my cousin told me our secret. We were discussing our relatives and how this adult aunt wasn’t talking to that adult uncle and, as teenagers, we were OH SO MUCH MORE ADULT than those who had the years and mileage, but clearly not the maturity. We were trying to piece together the puzzle of our strained family relationships, and it slipped out.

“Heather, I heard your mom had a child out of wedlock. A boy.”

That one sentence had me reeling. For YEARS. I was the glass and that water was poured into me. But I was cracked by years of family strife, a mother who was damaged, and a father who was the focus of that damage. I would at times forget that tidbit of information and then remember it all over again. When it would knock on the door of my consciousness to remind me it was there, I had SO many questions.

Did Dad know?
My parent, who has told me never to have sex until I’m married, had sex before she was married.
Who is the father?
Do we know him?
Is my brother alive? Dead?
What did he look like?

And so many more questions swirled through my head. I had always wanted an older brother. I would watch reruns of The Big Valley as a child and the adventures of the Barkley family of Stockton, California, always captivated me. My grandparents didn’t have cable, but their antenna picked up a local TV station in Bluefield, West Virginia, and in the evenings, they showed old episodes of that 1960s western starring Barbara Stanwyck as matriarch Victoria Barkley, mother of three sons, Jarrod, Nick, and Heath, and one daughter, Audra. I loved that show. And I loved how protective Jarrod, Nick, and Heath, were of their sister. And I, as an only child, wanted that. I wanted that house full of loud, boisterous, male laughter, ready to lend me a hand, get me out of scrapes, fuss at me and how I was dressed, grill every boy I even glanced at. Instead, I had a quiet home, just me and my parents. While I sequestered myself in my room with my books, ignoring the invisible tension between my mom and dad, my parents mostly ignored one another until mom would lash out at dad for a perceived slight. I always thought it was a lonely only-childhood and watching The Big Valley that made me long for an older brother and what I thought the perfect family should be.

Now, though, I wonder if it was something genetic, a memory from the womb, a bone-deep knowledge that I wasn’t the first, and was supposed to have someone there waiting for me when I emerged. Someone who would have been five years old.

The secret I kept for many years finally spilled out of the cracks during my college years. I confessed the secret to my father, who took it to my mother, who finally admitted to both of us that she had had a child before either of us ever entered her life. She told us his birthday and that she had named him Sean–or Shawn–when he was born. But, she didn’t volunteer any other information.

It’s only been in the last few years, since reconnecting with my mother’s family, that I’ve gleaned even more details of that time in my mother’s life.

I always knew my mother had worked at the West Virginia Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York City in 1964 and 1965. I remember seeing black and white pictures of that time in her life. I could tell that she had fun, enjoyed her freedom as a young 20-something, out in the big city, away from her parents. What I didn’t know is that while she was there, she became pregnant. Was it consensual? Was it rape? Was the father American? Was he from another country and also working at the Fair? I have no idea. All I do know is that my biological grandmother–who I never knew–drove northward to retrieve my mother and told New Jersey cousins during a stop, “No daughter of mine is giving birth to a black baby.”

My mother was promptly sent off to a “home for unwed mothers” where she gave birth to her unwanted child. She returned home a short time later and eventually was the nurse for the woman who made her give away her baby. My biological grandmother died 19 months later from complications related to bladder cancer. Another 15 months after that, my mother married my father.

Every year, on April 6th, I wonder where my brother is. Is he alive? Dead? If he’s alive, is he happy? Does he know he was adopted? Has he looked for us? If he’s dead, what happened? Did he have a happy life? Sad? Does he have children? Grandchildren?

If he’s alive, today is his 54th birthday. Does he have a spouse with whom he can celebrate? A child? And does my mother even remember today’s significance? Or has she blocked this day from her memory?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. What I can answer is that each time my 23andme app tells me I have new relatives, I get a catch in my throat. And when I open the app to see that said new relatives are 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousins, I get disappointed. I have several accounts with different adoption web sites… that have lead to nowhere.

I’m not sure I’ll ever find him. And maybe, when I do find him, he won’t want to be found. Or he’s not living in a town but rather a cemetery. I may never make that “big brother connection” I’ve always craved. That life-long need for a sibling will probably never happen. But, I will still look. And still try. And still wonder every April 6th if he maybe always wanted a little sister.

Like me.

Postscript: Since this post is receiving a lot of traffic, here’s what I know:

My brother was born on or about April 6, 1966. I’m assuming he was born in West Virginia. I know the most popular “home for unwed mothers” at the time was in Wheeling, West Virginia. But, honestly, he could have been born in any of the surrounding states (Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania). He is most certainly of biracial ancestry (white mother, African or African-American father). The birth mother’s surname is Berkley and the birth father’s surname is, for me, unknown.

If you or someone you know matches this description, please feel free to reach out to me at the following email address heather@afutureghost.com. Thank you!

The Center of the Universe

I take a lot of shit from my brain.

No, seriously. There are many days when I just wish my mind had an off switch. I guess this is why so many people take drugs, drink copious amounts of alcohol, or end their lives. Those are all temporary and permanent off switches that tell the over-active, nasty parts of our brains to shut the hell up.

My coping mechanism is earbuds, loud music, chocolate, and shitty TV.

And writing.

I’m supposed to be writing a chapter for my second book right now. Instead, I’m whining on the internet about my asshole brain.

One of the “lovely” things about being the child of a borderline personality parent is that you yourself show many borderline traits. It’s how I learned to function in society. Mom blows up at the least little thing? OK, that must be how it goes. So, I blow up at the least little thing. Mom took offense to that person ribbing her good-naturedly? Cool. I’ll do the same. Mom assumes everything is about her? On it. I’ll be the center of the universe, too!

The majority of my life, I’m fairly well balanced. I take my daily Zoloft, I’m a productive member of society, and I read and take to heart the affirmations I have displayed across my bathroom sink:

By being yourself, you put something wonderful in the world that was not there before.

or

What is really hard, and really amazing is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.

then there’s

To be happy, drop the words “if only” and substitute instead the words “next time.”

All really awesome, inspirational stuff. I’ll look at those while putting on mascara and think, Hell, yeah. I’m a neat person. I don’t need to be perfect. I’m an individual who people like and appreciate! LIFE IS AWESOME! I’M A PURPLE-HAIRED GODDESS!

But, then? There are days when several things all happen at once and my borderline tendencies all rear their ugly heads at the same time. I brush my teeth, looking at those quotes and I think the opposite. Oh, yeah, by being myself, I put something in the world for sure. Something annoying that nobody likes. And like I’m ever going to be truly happy. Whatever.

I absolutely despise these days. The slightest cock-eyed look from someone is clearly because of their displeasure over my existence and not because maybe they’re having a bad day due to their own lives. Good constructive criticism is actually the person trying to lord their superior brain and knowledge over me because, clearly, I’m shit and they know it. And my personal favorite is that I can’t take a danged joke for anything. God forbid I laugh at myself.

These are the days when I don’t respond to texts, I don’t look at emails, I stay indoors, and I try to talk to as few people as possible. Because I know it’s a day when I’ve got “Center of the Universe”-itis and the only cure is distance, self-reflection, and corny 80s cop shows.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that if I’m quiet, it’s not you. It’s me. Whoa, Nelly, is it ever me. Slowly, but surely, this upset in our regular programming will go away and we’ll get back to business as usual.

The Five Stages of Mother’s Day

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you may have no idea that we recently celebrated the United States’ version of Mother’s Day. It’s a day of frantic flower deliveries, crowded brunches, gifts of handmade cards, and forced good wishes muttered under surly teen breaths. For some, it’s a day of sadness. If a mother has passed, if a child is lost, or a woman who desperately wants children doesn’t have any, Mother’s Day can be very painful. I remember being part of that latter group, keeping a smiling, brave face on for my own mother and mother-in-law, and then returning home after the obligatory brunch to cry my eyes out.

Grief is a weird, ever-changing emotion. Here in America, where the lifestyle is one of instant gratification mixed with unfailing optimism, grief isn’t really allowed after a certain amount of time. After about a year, people start worrying if you’re still crying over your dead loved one. I remember still being a wreck a year on from Dad’s death and wondering what was wrong with me. Eventually, I learned about the five stages of grief–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It took me a while, but I eventually accepted Dad’s death, his absence, and the hole he left behind.

I’m currently working on acceptance regarding my relationship with my mother.

Since becoming estranged from her last February–my choice–I have worked through many, many… many emotions. Probably the biggest emotion of all has been guilt.

Guilt that I should be a better daughter, buck up, and deal with the roller coaster of her borderline personality disorder.

Guilt that I didn’t notice her mental issue earlier and try to get her help when she was younger.

Guilt that I believed all of her lies and just swallowed them whole.

Guilt that I existed with her bad choices, made excuses for them, and put my friends and family through the stress of our fractured relationship.

While chewing on the guilt, I’m also working through the five stages of grief. But, rather than grief, I’ve decided for the purpose of this post to call it The Five Stages of Mother’s Day. Because this hasn’t been a 15-month-long process. This has been my life.

~Denial~

When I watched how she treated Dad, her friends, her family, I just assumed that was how everyone was to everyone else. I was a child and didn’t know any different. My parents never hit me or berated me, but my mother berated everyone else. I was a nervous kid, but could never put my finger on why I was this way. Eventually, I grew up just like her. I had a short fuse that would ignite at the slightest provocation. Tyler, the kids, my closest mates, no one was immune. Throughout my childhood, I made all the awful Crayon cards for my mother, school art projects, knick-knacks and such for Mother’s Day. And… she didn’t keep them.

~Anger~

The April after Dad’s death, I returned to West Virginia to bury his ashes and celebrate Mom’s birthday and Easter. After paying for two funerals, four plane tickets, and helping out Mom financially, Tyler and I were cash-strapped. But, I still took her to the mall and bought her a passel of clothes. For Mother’s Day, I sent her a card. I found out from my cousin that my mother was angry that I didn’t get her a gift for the holiday. I explained, exasperated, what I had purchased for her just the month before, and that I couldn’t even really afford that. This was the first time I was really, truly hurt. And pissed.

~Bargaining~

Between 1999 and 2006, I spent every Mother’s Day on pins and needles, making sure she received something that was worthy of her appreciation. Flowers, cards, gifts, didn’t matter. I learned pretty quickly that Mom didn’t want something that she needed. It needed to be some ornament that outwardly showed status. A pricey scarf, teacups, jewelry, purses–I was essentially buying her love. And she ate it up. Because that’s what she wanted. Not thoughtfulness, but fripperies. Once, when I did give her items of usefulness, I found out from a friend that her response to that holiday when asked, “What did you get?”

“Nothing good,” came the reply.

~Depression~

As I became the recipient of the handmade scribbles, elementary school artwork, hugs, and such, I cherished each one. I struggled to find a special place to put each item. Bookshelves became full of hand-drawn pictures and a basket turned into the reservoir of all those precious memories. Meanwhile, I struggled to find the right card to express that I loved my own mother, but when it came to saying, “Thank you.” I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t thank her for the depression, anxiety, and constant upset. Finding that “perfect” gift was making sure the gift would pass her inspection and would be appreciated. There was no joy in the selection. No happiness in the forced Mother’s Day lunch conversation. No comfort in the hug. Only stress and sadness.

~Acceptance~

After two Mother’s Days without my own mother, I realize that this is now my life. My mother’s day was a day of hiding out in my basement, cross-stitching and watching true crime shows. The kids came down every now and then to check on me, give me hugs, wish me a happy day, and give me their gifts. They make me whole, give me joy and happiness in their every action. I am so incredibly lucky to have them as my children and I wouldn’t trade them for anyone or anything. But I felt that I had to hide, that I’m a horrible daughter for not calling my mother, texting my friends, calling my grandmother, emailing my relatives. I just couldn’t do it. I put my phone on do not disturb and immersed myself in the counted stitches of my latest project, allowing the tiny embroidery to calm my anxiety. Acceptance will take a really long time–probably years. It’s the stage I’m still working towards. Someday, I’ll be able to face the day knowing that I’m a daughter who told her mother to go away and that that was the right choice.

I wish for my mother comfort. I wish her love and joy with her friends. I wish her peace. But, I need to wish her those things from afar. Our lives are better for it.

The 13th Floor

“What floor are we on, Papa?”

Jarrod stood there, in the elevator, one hand on the door making sure it stayed open, other hand poised over the buttons, index finger extended and ready to press the floor we needed to access for our stay.

“Fourteenth,” Tyler responded.

“Technically,” I replied, “we’re on the 13th floor.”

All three kids looked at me quizzically.

“Well, it’s supposedly bad luck for hotels to have a 13th floor, so if you look on the elevator button panel, there’s a 12th floor and a 14th, but no 13th. Technically, though, the 14th floor is the 13th. So, we’re on the 13th floor.”

“Huh.” Amelia said, “That means that we’re in room 1313 because our room number says 1413 but if the 14th floor is actually the 13th floor, then we’re in the most unlucky room in the building.”

“But, only if you’re a Templar, Amelia.” Heath stated.

“I need a drink.” Tyler muttered.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You always told me that you worked the hardest during our summers in Lewisburg. That it was you who did all the canning and the summer garden work around my grandparents’ house. You always made sure to point out that my aunt, your sister, did nothing, that she was lazy and acted like a princess, making sure to do just enough to stay in your father’s good graces and make you look like the bad guy.

Except, that wasn’t it at all. Turns out, you were the daughter who needed reminding that in order to reap your share of the bounty, you needed to sow. You were the one who acted disgruntled every time you were reminded to get up and do your share. Your sister was the one who was always there, ready to throw in a lending hand and willingly do her part. Meanwhile, you did just the absolute minimum while telling everyone the opposite.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“You know what drives me nuts?” Tyler asked one morning, feet propped on the ottoman, enjoying his last few minutes of freedom before work.

“What?” I responded.

“The fact that the Chick-fil-A hash browns box can hold 16 hash browns but they only throw in like 12. Sometimes 10!” He held up the open box to show that he had lined up the offending rounds of browned potatoes with a large space to the left where five hash browns should have been.

“Well,” I looked at him over my reading glasses, “they’re not actually counting them. They just throw handfuls in there. They’re in a hurry because every high schooler in Towne Lake is running there for breakfast in the morning and the crowds are horrendous.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he harrumphed, “if it can hold 16, there should be 16 in here. Bunch of liars.”

“Bless your heart.” I muttered for the 1,000th time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Your father always made fun of anything I ever did.”

“What?!” I exclaimed, not believing I had just heard what she said.

“He did! Any time I made anything, he made fun of it.”

It was the 20th anniversary of my father’s death, always a hard day for me. And now she was remembering him with a lie.

“He did no such thing. He was always proud of everything you did.”

She grumbled under her breath and nothing more was said.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Lying is the worst,” I’ve always said to our children. “Don’t lie to me or to your Papa. We will always tell you the truth. Even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable. We expect the same courtesy from you. If you lie to us, that is worse than anything else you could possibly do. A lie is a betrayal of self and of our ties as a family.”

I try, really hard, to make sure they don’t lie. But, I know they do. It’s in our nature as humans to lie in order to cover our butts.

Did you practice piano? SURE!

Mom face activated. Teenager skulks into the living room and actually practices.

Did you do your homework? UH-HUH!

Mom face re-activated. Pre-teen heavily sighs, picks up his backpack and pulls out his homework folder.

Honestly, though, those lies don’t bother me. It’s the big ones that would kill me. If they ever lied about loving me, I would die, and I know I feel that way because of the lies of my childhood.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I looked into the stands. I stood in the center of the football field, my last band festival as a senior and as drum major. I could see my mother and my father, but not my grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins. We were in Lewisburg, at the local high school, where they all lived. But, none of them were there.

As usual.

You chalked it up to none of them liking us, especially me. I got it. I was the weird grandkid. The odd niece. The strange cousin. I was used to it. But it still hurt.

Later, though, I found out that no one was there because you never told them about it. For six years, they asked and you never responded, never let them know. They never saw me out in the middle of the football field. They never witnessed me win a trophy, salute the crowd, or conduct until my arms ached. You purposefully lied to them and removed them from my life. I still can’t discern the reason for it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gaslighting is a term I didn’t hear until I was an adult. According to Psychology Today,

Gaslighting is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. It works much better than you may think. Anyone is susceptible to gaslighting, and it is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.

Gaslighting is lying. It is projecting. It wears you down. It confuses you. It makes you dependent. It makes you feel crazy. It’s manipulation. It’s abuse.

In the above quote, it talks about cult leaders using gaslighting and I remember last year telling Tyler, “I’ve been a member of the Cult of Mom my entire life.” The cognitive dissonance was strong and I had a horrible time reconciling my experiences to what was actually true. I don’t like to throw around PTSD because there are so many people out there who suffer from awful forms of PTSD. Soldiers, physical abuse victims, victims of violent crime, those are the people who have PTSD. But I’ve discovered that my depression and anxiety are milder symptoms of PTSD. Those are my reactions to having been gaslit my whole life. I always wondered why a ringing phone sent me into a state of panic, why an authority figure in my life wanting to talk to me freaked me out, why I was constantly negative about myself and didn’t feel worthy of love or good things.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Slowly, but surely, I’m healing. I don’t expect it to happen overnight. It’s been over a year and I realize that I may never be “over” any of it. I’ll just be able to deal with it in a more healthy manner. There are still moments that will make me pause. Like last night, watching a woman out to eat with her mother, having easy conversation and enjoying each other’s company. I know I’ll never have that, and that’s OK. But it still makes me stop, think, remember, mourn, and move on. Each and every time.

My whole life, I lived on the 13th floor. Instinctually, I knew it was the 13th. I could count. But the most important person in my life kept telling me it was the 14th floor. And I gave her the benefit of the doubt. But not any more. I know it was the 13th. I’m proclaiming it was the 13th. She can stay on the 14th floor without me. I’m done.

Cognitive Dissonance, Eggshells, and Guilt

I don’t talk about Mom a lot online. Last year, I posted that we were no longer in contact and I’ve reached out to a few mutual friends to help me keep an eye on her simply because she’s no spring chicken. But, other than that, unless you’re a close friend who I talk to on a regular basis, I’ve been radio-silent.

I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.

I’ve spent the last 13 months reading books about borderline personality disorder, subscribing to Facebook and Reddit groups that allow for safe spaces to post about borderline parents, and going to therapy. Well, scratch that. Therapy only lasted six months because my therapist started talking about reconciliation and Christian resource books and talking to my mother again and I tried to put the kibosh on that but she kept saying those words and so I canceled my next appointment and never went back. Yes, I ghosted my therapist. I figured it was for the best. And I’ve been too lazy, and frankly a little scared, to look for another one.

Reconciliation is a no-go for me as there is nothing to reconcile. Living with someone who has borderline personality disorder is about setting boundaries and keeping those boundaries in place. Except, like a toddler, the person with BPD will constantly push those boundaries and you, the loved one, will spend your life walking on eggshells. As reddit user u/NothingIsEverEnough succinctly stated, One book says “stop walking on eggshells”, I immediately called bullshit on it. The book teaches you how to walk on eggshells with lesser damage, but you will walk on eggshells as long as you’re in the relationship.

I’ve walked on eggshells for over four decades and I’m done, ya’ll.

So, instead of therapy, I call Toni, talk to Jodi over our property line, text Stefanie, and drink more coffee.

Yes, Heather, you made the right decision. Toni tells me.
Your mom pinned something on Pinterest, so she’s still alive. Jodi informs me.
I got your back. Just let me know who I need to cut. Stefanie says.
You are amazing and you are so smart and beautiful and talented. Everything you do and say is brilliant and I love you. Coffee will whisper to me.

I know that coffee is lying but three outta four ain’t bad.

I have a notebook that I bought last year that I use as a silent therapist. In it are neatly written pages of memories of my mother’s lies and mental illness. It’s probably not healthy to have it, but whenever I think, Maybe I’m being too harsh. I just need to call her and apologize and not leave her by herself, I just pick up that notebook and re-read it and remember why I have established this No Contact  boundary and why that needs to remain the status quo. I also read it to remind myself that I have borderline personality tendencies and that I need to fight that and not react as a person with BPD would react. Any time I find myself overthinking a situation, misreading a social cue, or worse, splitting, I pick up that notebook to stop it.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky nailed it when he said, “I swear to you gentlemen, that to be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.”

My goal is to, someday, burn that book and the memories written in it. But not today. Today, I need it.

I guess, through all this rambling, what I’m trying to say is that I’m going to have blog posts that seem to start in the middle of a discussion, that tell a story halfway through. And those are the posts where I’m working through my relationship with my mother, myself, and our shared mental illness. If you don’t want to read those, I totally get it. If you read and have nothing to add, that’s fine. If you read and decide that you have words of wisdom to share with me, by all means do so. I just need a safe space, outside of my notebook to share my life with my mother. I hope you all understand.