I was forty-three when I had my nervous breakdown.
It’s a funny, old-fashioned term, “nervous breakdown,” but as it turns out, it’s pretty apropos. At the time, I wasn’t even aware of what triggered the breakdown. I was already in the midst of a serious mid-life crisis when I finally broke. It was later I realized what pushed me over the edge: My mother moved to town.
The assumption has always been that once my mother reached a certain age, I would be responsible for taking care of her. This was assumed by me, by her and by my mother’s mother, who, before she died said, “You have to figure out a way to work things out with your mother. You just have to. She doesn’t have anyone else.”
Which is true. My mother has no one else to care for her. That’s because, my mother is, in a word, impossible. Now you may be thinking that’s a typical thing for a daughter to say about her mother, and that maybe I’m exaggerating, but I am not the only one who thinks this about her. It’s universal. There is no-one who wants to step up to help her in her “golden” years.
My mother has always been difficult, but as she’s gotten older, it’s gotten worse. I sincerely believe she has a personality disorder that was either brought on by, or exacerbated by, the abuse she endured as a child. There is a succession of physical, mental and emotional abuse passed down on my mother’s side of the family that goes back at least to my great-grandmother, who repeatedly told her child (my grandmother) she was unwanted.
The newest research is revealing that kids aren’t nearly as resilient as people always assumed. Long-term abuse literally wires brains wrong. Abused kids have trouble attaching to and connecting with people later. They have inappropriate reactions of anger and violence to things most people would let slide off their backs. They don’t trust people easily, if ever. Kids of abusers have had to learn to survive a hostile living environment, and as a result, their brains developed to react to the whole world as a threat.
My brother and I have a fair amount of PTSD from our childhood, but thankfully, we’ve managed to be aware what’s happened to us. My mother is too far gone for that. She thinks everyone is out to get her. Most of her interactions with people are hostile. She is lonely and desperately wants to be loved, but is also incredibly selfish and mean.
And it’s heartbreaking. For all of us.
So when she moved to town with the expectation that I’d be checking in on her regularly while also enduring her verbal and mental abuse, I cracked. I tried to get along with her for about a year until I realized nothing was going to change.
So I cut off contact. Not because I wanted to, but because my mental health could no longer sustain contact.
Breaking up with my mother has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. At first, the guilt was crushing. It was a horrible place to be: I was a bad daughter if I cut her off or I’d end up in the looney bin if I didn’t. I might even lose my family, because when I’m having to deal with my mother, I’m impossible to be around. I also could no longer deny that exposing our daughter to her manipulative grandmother was only going to further the chain of abuse.
So I broke it.
The longer I’m out of contact with my mother, the clearer things have become, and this is what I’ve learned:
● Breaking up with an abusive parent is no different than breaking up with an abusive spouse. At some point, you must protect yourself.
● Okay, breaking up with an abusive parent is different in this way: People will judge you. They will. They likely won’t understand why you’ve made that decision. Some never will.
● If you choose to break up with an abusive parent, you have to learn to live with that judgement. It’s a double-edged sword, but in the end, detaching from an abuser is always best. No one deserves to be abused.
● Breaking up with an abusive parent means you may lose family and friends. In fact, it’s likely.
● Holidays and birthdays without your abusive parent will be hard on you and you’ll likely feel more guilty than on an average day. Having said that, holidays and birthdays were always hard with my mother. Often, they were downright miserable.
● No matter how sorry you feel for your abuser, you must remember your abuser isn’t capable of feeling that level of empathy for you. That’s just a fact.
I haven’t spoken with my mother in about eight months. Now that the guilt has lessened (yes, it does lessen), and I’ve learned to shrug off others’ judgment, I realize it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
Having said that, I am fully aware that though she’s still able to take care of herself, that won’t last forever. In fact, she could use help now. And I would love to help her out, but I won’t be abused while doing so. So what’s going to happen when she really needs help? When she really can’t take care of herself?
Honestly, I have no idea. I’ve decided I can’t sustain that level of worry anymore, so I just don’t think about it. And the truth of it is that she may not want my help ever again. It’s a bridge I’ll cross when we get there.