reading notes: you're not crazy, it's your mother

A while back, I made a new friend, and shortly afterward, I shared a post about estrangement on Facebook. She sent me a message letting me know that she also has a narcissistic mother and recommending Danu Morrigan's book You're Not Crazy - It's Your Mother. Danu is the driving force behind the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers site and forum, which, coincidentally, was one of the first resources I found 5+ years ago when I started really trying to figure out what the hell to do about my relationship with my mother. I had known for about a decade before that point that my mother was a pathological narcissist, but had just gotten to the point of deciding that I was not going to engage with her crap any more. I think my friend, being younger than myself, had only recently realized what the deal was with her own crazy mother, and having found resources, she was eager to share them. Sweet person that she is, she sent me a copy of the book in the mail. At the time, I was really not wanting to read yet another book about dealing with an abusive parent, especially since I was in a phase of feeling at peace with my decisions and not in turmoil about my place in the world, so the book resided on my shelf for almost a year.

Recently, I've been feeling bummed about the collateral damage in my extended family relationships, and I've been supporting my Wonder Twin (WT) with her family stuff, and I'm back to writing here, and I'm trying to figure out what my dad's illness means for me, and I've read a ton of fiction lately, so I'm feeling open to some self-improvement reading. Last night some stuff about WT's mom triggered some of my own mom issues, so before bed I grabbed You're Not Crazy and started perusing. I figure I'll keep notes here on ACONography for the sake of remembering good quotes and providing a bit of a review for interested folks.

Without further ado...
You're Not Crazy - It's Your Mother
Danu Morrigan

Who would appreciate this book:

  • women just starting out in exploring issues with crazy moms
  • people who like a casual, conversational writing style and lay-person approach to discussing psychological / emotional illness
  • people who are experienced, well-read ACONS but want a quickie refresher / pick-me-up or a new perspective

Most thought-provoking quote thus far: 
"The kind of attention she prefers is admiration, but fear works well, too, if that's all she can get. And pity, failing even that." (p. 18)
Aha! While I'm very, very familiar with the love the narcissist has of being admired and/or feared, it had never occurred to me that pity is also a form of attention. This leads me to reflect on those times during my relationship with my mother when I clearly was not behaving in an admiring or fearful fashion, and she whipped out the "you have it so much better than I had it" or "when I was your age..." stuff. Kid isn't adoring you? Attempt to strike fear into her heart has failed? Go for "poor me, I had a sucky childhood with an abusive father and dead mother."

I do, actually, pity my mother, and with good cause. But I have learned that it's not a constructive discussion topic with her, because she will use it to excuse negative behavior. Sixteen-year-old me had some killer wisdom when my mother was haranguing me about how much more responsibility she took at that age, and I came back with "my mother isn't DEAD." Your shitty childhood is no excuse for being a horrible person to me.

Issues I have with the book:

Like so many other books and websites about narcissistic mothers, You're Not Crazy appears to fall into the trap of "all narcs are EVIL and all of them are EXACTLY THE SAME." This is a big problem I have with the ACON / Nparent community in general and some resources in particular. Narcissism, like just about everything else in life, falls on a continuum, from extreme narcissism through healthy narcissism through extreme lack of narcissism. Not every Nmom will be at the far, far deep end of the pool. As such, some mothers will be more neglectful than others. Some will be more consistently abusive than others. Some may have occasional flashes of empathy while others never do. And it may be more possible to establish effective boundaries with some than with others. My own mother is closer to the deep end in terms of her inability to change, but is not quite as malevolent as some others. My childhood did have good mixed in with the bad, and as such, it's not healthy for me to perceive it as entirely based in evil.  If we don't allow some room for nuance, we've fallen into the same trap as the Nparents themselves. 

It's also important to note that not all narcissists think they are perfect. Far from it. Most narcissists suffer from extreme lack of self esteem. Their narcissism is excess bravado that they layer on top to hide their self-hatred. They know how imperfect they are, on some level. They just can't handle it, and they especially can't handle you pointing it out to them.

So far, Morrigan is not making points with me because of this lack of nuance. For a balanced perspective that helps adult children to understand their relationships and recover from the harm done to them while also acknowledging the humanity of their broken parents, I still vastly prefer Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child

I'm interested to read more, and will share what I think along the way!

on the up side

It's a funny kind of up side, and might not sound like one, unless you're an ACON. 

My oldest son is hitting the very beginning edges of puberty. We're not dealing with body odor and hair in strange places and long showers and such yet, but oh, the mood swings. It's bringing me back to when I was his age, and emotion was JUST SO INTENSE, out of the blue. Gotta love those hormones.

I spend a lot of time lately feeling like I am totally failing at this mom stuff. The pre-teen challenges make me feel so, so, SO out of my depth. Babies are easy. You change their diapers and snuggle them and feed them and carry them around and their needs are met. Preschoolers are a little more challenging but you can still keep one step ahead and figure out strategies for handling the tougher days. And there are oodles of books and websites and people in general out there in the world handing out information about little kids and ideas for how to live with them. But this. THIS. I have no idea what to do with preteens and teenagers. I have had no role models for how to be a great parent to a teen. There are very few books about interacting with adolescents and guiding them in a way that jives with how I want to raise my kids. I am SO lost.

Suddenly, kiddo numero uno is very, very, very aware of people all around him. People who can see what he's doing. People who can hear everything he says. People who might be JUDGING him. I can see little adolescent insecurities getting their nasty goblin fingers around his guts. And I know so well, having been that age once myself, that there is no amount of logic that will convince him that other people are not paying close attention to him. That it really doesn't matter what you wear, that you can just get over being insecure and not care.

He and I were in a children's clothing store the other day. This store carries a comfortable brand of underwear that kiddo #1 has been wearing for years. Recently, I have retired some of his underwear because they are worn out or too babyish (airplanes and cartoon moose are a definite no-go now). So I suggested that we pick up a package or two of new ones. He immediately started looking angry and upset.

Me: "what?"

Him: "I don't need any underwear."
Me: "Yes, you do. You don't have enough pairs and some are wearing out."
Him, between his teeth, getting pissed: "I Don't Need Any Underwear."
Me: "We're buying some. You prefer solids, right? No stripes? I know you don't want the other patterns."
Him: "MOM. I Don't. Need. Any. Underwear."

By this time, he looked really mad and he was starting to tear up. Apparently buying underwear is a big deal. I didn't know it was a big deal. Besides, he needs some. I ignored him and went to look through the rack. They were missing his size, so I asked a saleswoman if they had any in the back. She went to look. I turned back to kiddo #1 and his eyes were wide with RAGE and brimming with tears. I was irritated with him. He does need new underwear. He was being unreasonable. What's the big deal? It's just underwear!

What I wanted to say: "OH. MY. GOD. Will you GET OVER IT?!?! NOBODY is looking at you. NOBODY is paying attention to you. NOBODY CARES that your mom is buying underwear for you. It's JUST UNDERWEAR. THIS IS NOT A BIG DEAL."

What I actually said: "Honey, almost everybody buys underwear. There's nothing embarrassing about it. Even that saleswoman probably buys underwear, and sometimes she probably asks people for help. It's not a big deal."

Less than perfectly empathetic, eh?

The saleswoman came back and told me that they were out of his size, so we left. He was fuming. I suppressed the desire to roll my eyes.

But then, as we walked to the car, I suddenly got it. It IS a big deal to talk about or be seen buying underwear in public. Not to me, but to him. This is his reality. And I am not going to be able to logic him out of this. There is not going to be a convincing argument. Because he has hit that age - the age at which everything is embarrassing, especially if your parent is doing it. Oh, god. Are we there already?
I thought back to being his age and embarrassed, and said what I think pre-teen me would have wanted to hear: "I'm sorry that that was so embarrassing for you. It didn't occur to me that it would be embarrassing."

After getting to the car, I checked in with him to see if he was still mad. He was, so I waited a while, and after he had cooled off, this is what I said: "So, I'd like to know how I could do things differently so you're not so embarrassed. Right now you don't feel like you need underwear. Sometime in the future you might need new underwear. What kind of plan should we make so that you can let me know what you want, but you don't have to feel embarrassed?"

I realized that my kid is in the perpetually-embarrassed stage, I apologized to him for not getting it, I thought about whether or not it's absolutely necessary to ask him in public about underwear (it's not) or to shop with him for it (also not). There are other ways to do this, ways that respect his right to be an awkward, self-conscious pre-teen. He will grow up later. He will, one day, be a twentysomething guy who can walk into a store and buy a pack of underwear without a care. Ok, maybe it will take him until 30. But it'll happen. Right now, this stuff feels hugely important to him, those feelings are very real, and I can recognize his feelings for what they are without getting my own panties in a bunch about it.

I'm sure I will embarrass him again in the near future, and again, and again. I'm also sure that there will be times when I'm not willing to change what I'm doing, and he will be forced to deal with his own embarrassment. But there will also be lots of times when I decide that I can give the poor hormonally-addled, frontal-lobe-growing, mortified kid a break. Because I have the ability to empathize and show compassion. 
And THAT is the up side, my friends. 

wonder twins: how to get us into therapy

Wonder Twin powers, activate!! In the form emotionally healthy individual!
As previously mentioned, I have a dear friend who deals with similar dysfunctional-mom and clueless-dad problems with her own family flavor. She and I didn't know about our shared mom issues until well after we had become friends, and it continues to amaze us just how similar some of our family crap is. She is the first person who ever really *got it* when I talked about my mom, and we have kindof doula-ed each other through growing up and becoming our own women. (I'm sure her sense of humor has helped a lot along the way - the phrase "open up a can of wacky" will forever be a part of my vocabulary, thanks to her. And she has joked for years about us being the Wonder Twins.) Her dad has been ill for a long time (much, much worse than my dad) and has significantly worsened in the past few years, resulting in heightened family stresses. Crisis does a lot to bring out the best and the worst in us, and in this case, it resulted in her already-nutty mom totally destabilizing and leaving her kids in the lurch, faced with making some serious decisions about their father's health care AND managing their crazy mom. Her mom has always been hard for my friend to deal with, but the shitstorm that rained down was just THE LAST STRAW for her, and she cried no mas, and launched her own truth campaign. She attempted ultra-low-contact in a way that reminded me of what I first tried: avoiding her, still letting grandkids see her, trying to communicate only through email. It doesn't work well. For me it was a stepping stone to no contact. For her? Who knows. She's happier and healthier than she was before, she's working through a lot of her own psychological junk, and she's hopeful that eventually there will be some form of relationship or non-relationship that will work for her. For now, though, it's tricky, what with a dying father with whom she still wants contact. She and I were messaging each other recently and there were a lot of moments in there that felt worthy of sharing. So here are snippets, shared with her permission and sometimes rephrased.
"Asking somebody to subvert themselves to an unhealthy dynamic in the name of family love and harmony is not ok. It is not a loving thing to ask."
This was with regard to siblings who give us the "she's your mother, this is causing drama within the family, could you just get over your issues and be normal?" treatment. What's really going on is that they lack empathy and fortitude, probably because they were parented by the same hot mess that you were. They cannot understand that your experience is not the same as theirs. They do not relate to the discomfort you feel in the presence (physical or via mail/phone) of your parent. They can only focus on how queasy they feel about the parent being upset and the "drama" resulting from your standing up for yourself. It's a selfish approach. It is not really rooted in love and compassion.

Here's an example of a relatively healthy sibling stance: my sister expresses clearly that she sees how my mother treats me and that she remembers other things my mother has done to all of her children in the past. This provides validation and compassionate witness to me. She does not feel that my choices require her to make the same choices, because she recognizes that she and I are separate people with separate needs and separate relationships with our parents. She has laid down FIRM boundaries with my parents and defends them when necessary. She refuses to get into drawn-out fights and she has let my parents know that she will NOT be put in the middle of their issues with me. That is a sibling who gets it. How she ended up this well-functioning is beyond me. My friend also has one sibling who mostly gets it, although he is currently hitting up against the limits of his compassion. Hopefully that will change, because I know he has been a saving grace for her. We also discussed a couple of standard maneuvers the dysfunctional parent employs. First, act clueless. "I don't know what you think I did...I still have no idea what your problem with me is." This, despite the fact that you have basically been trying to tell them for your whole life. Second, the therapy stick. They hit you with this in one or both of two ways. 
1) "You need therapy to work out your anger issues." Here's the thing: therapy shouldn't be the thing we do to fix the ACON. It should be the thing YOU do, mom, because you honestly want to know your kid and do the work required to get along with her. It doesn't count as therapy if all you do is complain about your kid to the therapist. It only counts if you're seriously working to figure out what your own garbage is. Honestly, if my kid decided he didn't want to speak to me, my first reaction would be to wonder what I did, not to tell him that he needs therapy. 2) "I want you to go to therapy with me." This is sometimes worded as a supposedly-selfless invitation, sometimes as more of an order. Problem is, therapy isn't magic. No therapist in the world can go *poof* and make a family all happy-happy-joy-joy just because you all showed up and sat on his or her couch.
My position is that if my mother really wants to go to therapy with me, really and truly, I need to see a few things from her first. I passed this along to my friend, who liked it so much that she ended up crafting a letter to her mother around this idea. No more "I don't know what I did" and "let's throw therapy at this problem." Here are what she and I think should be the pre-requisites shown before an ACON will go to therapy with a parent.
a) Elocution. The dysfunctional parent should demonstrate that she is aware that she has taken actions that were inappropriate. She should give specific examples of inappropriate behaviors and describe the ways in which these behaviors were harmful. This should be devoid of victim-blaming or excuses. This shows personal insight, responsibility for one's own actions, and empathy for the experiences of another.
b) Remorse. Expressed verbally. Preferably put into writing. Tell the wronged party how you feel about your own actions, and give a sincere apology, without excuses. 
c) Evidence of a willingness to change. This could be in the form of written expression of things she plans to do in order to create positive change, actions they have taken that show that they have taken you seriously and are changing the way they do things, or other positive behaviors.
Integral to this is the idea of SPECIFICS. Saying "I know I did some inappropriate things, and I'm sorry, and I plan to change" doesn't mean anything. It's not that easy, lady. (Not that we've ever been given even that much.) This is definitely a time when more is better. Actions speak louder than words. Love is a verb. And more cliché yet totally true things. She and I agreed that what we had seen thus far from both of our mothers was a) identifying us, the daughters, as the sole causes of all dysfunction, or b) completely ignoring reality by acting as if nothing is wrong at all. It is also important that the dysfunctional parent express these things directly to the estranged child. If you want it badly enough, you will figure out a way to get it to the kid, no matter how non-contact they want to be. It's not good enough for a sibling to tell you "she's really upset, she cries, she really loves you, she really wonders what she did wrong." Um, no. If you've told somebody else that you miss me and want things to be right, but you haven't told me, it doesn't count. The parent also needs to do her own work. You can't look on somebody else's paper for this stuff. From me to my friend:
The whole "give me an example" thing that, yes, I'm sure your mom would do to try to pin you to the wall is just lame on her part. If she wants to go to therapy, she needs to have enough self-awareness to think of at least one thing, ON HER OWN, that she thinks she could have done differently. History has shown me that no matter what the child in a dysfunctional family comes up with, the parent will explain it away. And, frankly, the mere act of batting away your objections is a sign of poor insight and lack of empathy in itself. They could at least get half-credit by listening when you tell them about the things that bother you.
Non-empathetic response: "I never did that" or "You were being unreasonable" or "you're taking that out of context" or any such defensive / offensive response.
Empathetic response: "I didn't realize that affected you in that way. Can you tell me more? My intent was ____ but it sounds like it didn't come across that way. How could I do things differently in the future?" 
Children of broken parents often hear that we are avoidant, and this comes up in the therapy discussions. They fail to realize that there's a difference between avoidance and exercising healthy boundaries. I can't see how it would be at all useful to go to therapy with a person who has shown zero signs of being a person who would be able to participate meaningfully in said therapy. Therapists aren't magicians. I should toss out there that neither she nor I think that either of our mothers will actually ever be able to make amends. I would LOVE to be proven wrong in either case. But neither of us is holding our breath. ;)
So, do you all have anything to add to our list of pre-requisites for starting to mend fences? What would it take for you to begin to trust your parent again?

oh, father

Yesterday I received some unsettling news about my dad, which led to a lot of confusion and difficult emotion on my part, and inspired yesterday's post. My sister visited me, and said that she thought I should know that my dad is having exploratory surgery and might have cancer. She knows that even though my parents continue to send evites to holiday gatherings and postcards from vacation locations and random anniversary cards to me, they would not give me this information. (I checked my spam filter - she is correct, they have not attempted to contact me about it.)

This sent me into a loop. My dad is not a bad guy. He's a broken guy. He's a guy with a mean person for a wife. (Although for that matter, my mom is not a "bad" person, just a very broken one more deserving of pity than hatred.) What he has experienced, without going into his personal medical details, is scary. At a bare minimum, his body is betraying him and he has experienced discomfort and embarrassment and possibly other blows to his self-esteem. He is facing surgery, which is never a pleasant prospect. Even with the most benign outcomes, his physical health will never be the same again. On the more extreme end, he may be facing his own mortality. He might have to have more surgeries, radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and possibly other treatments. Even with all this, even if it's a very treatable cancer, there will be no going back to 100% normal pre-problem health.

This sucks for him. I want to hug him. I want to tell him that I hope everything turns out ok. I don't want him to hurt or be scared.

Do I contact him? I want to, but I don't want to. I want to say kind things to him. I'm not sure how he would receive it. Would it be perceived as me trying to draw attention toward myself? Would it be an "oh, sure, when you're sick she comes out of the woodwork, she just doesn't want to feel guilty if something happens"? (Is there any truth to that?) Would he respond positively, angrily, neutrally, not at all? Would it be helpful to him to say kind things or would it just remind him of the interpersonal crap and bring him down even more in a time when he doesn't need more stress?

My husband wisely asked, "how does this change anything? They have still not owned responsibility for how they treat you or shown any desire to change. If it's not ok for them to treat you badly when they're healthy, it's not ok for them to treat you badly when they're sick."

He has a point. But can you be kind to somebody despite all of that crap? If you know to be prepared for a variety of possible reactions and ready to defend boundaries? IS it kind to pop back in (by email, or sending flowers?) when he's sick?

This is also making me confront a stupid fantasy that I had been harboring. My mom had some health problems a decade ago, and I had hoped that with time, the problems would come back and (quickly, painlessly) kill her. With her gone, I could approach my dad, and if he weren't too angry with me to ever speak to me again, we could go to therapy together and possibly rebuild a relationship. I feel like the only way to have a relationship with him ever again is if a) she has a miraculous epiphany and becomes a nice person or b) she's totally out of the picture.

But the thing is, women usually outlive men. The women in my family usually outlive their men. My father's mother outlived her husband. Most of the women on my mother's side of the family hang on freaking forever as tight-fisted matriarchs. There is not going to be any mending of fences with a widowered father.

I have no way of drawing this post to a conclusion because my thoughts about it are just too sad and scattered. I feel like the world's worst daughter, yet at the same time totally stand behind my decisions.

DOES this change anything? I don't know.

blurred lines

It's never simple.

I miss my family.

No, I miss the idea of family. Or the family that I thought I had. Or the family that we wanted to pretend we were.

I want my mommy. Well, not the one I have. The one I wish she could be.

My brothers are jerks. Well, sortof jerks. And I wish I were closer to them. Why would anybody want to be closer to people who are jerks? I long for the good old days. I'm not sure there ever were any good old days.

My sister is a miracle. She has empathy. She gets it. She sees it all. And yet she fears commitment. She doesn't want children. She worries she would mess them up because she tends toward anxiety and depression and we had no good models for how to handle that shit or how to be a good mother. She doesn't realize that the fact that she even thinks about that at all is exactly what would save her children.

I wonder who my brothers and sisters would be if not for my mother. And my father.

I miss my dad. I love him but I don't tell him that. I don't love my mom. At least, I don't think I do. I don't speak to either of them, but really, I let my dad off the hook because I consider him a victim, too. Or did until he spat ugliness at me that sounded like a script written by her. I let him off because he's weak. She preyed upon him. He depends upon her love. She privately scorns him. I feel sorry for him. He has self-esteem issues. He has mommy issues.

But I don't have any problem with my grandmother, his mother. Who must have been a monster like my mother in order to produce a son so needy. Right? I never saw her that way, though.

Not like I see my mother. I don't love my mother. I don't like my mother. I wish I didn't look like my mother. I feel revulsion toward her for the way she treats people. But isn't she a victim, too? Isn't she the product of genetics and a narcissistic father and a weak mother and bad luck? Is she any more able to control who she is and what she does than my father is? Both are broken people. Each is dependent upon the other to keep afloat. He needs her. She needs him. Why am I willing to absolve the passive parent but not the actively aggressive one? It took both of them to create a dysfunctional family.

Is the enabling parent less harmful? More harmful? Equally harmful? Is there any way to tell?

I wonder if there is an alternate timeline out there, one in which my dad never meets my mom. One in which he falls in love with a less poisonous woman. Would his wounds still have prevented him from finding a healthy mate? Would some lovely young woman from a functional family have found him? Is there another universe in which he marries a woman who helps him to grow and heal and become emotionally whole?

I will never know. I will never know. This is all I was given. This is all I get.

I miss something I do not want. I want something that will never exist. There is no happy ending, only a stalemate. Pick the life that sucks the least.

It is never simple.