My mother is dangerous, and I'm still angry

I can't get close to her and I can't get what I need from her and I can't talk to her so what do I do?

Published September 26, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've been to therapy -- five years of it. My mother and I are currently on good terms. But I am still so angry.

When I was in my early 20s, she had a hard time adjusting to my increasing independence as I graduated college, moved in with my fiancé, and I realized that her frightening outbursts of rage, "tests" of love (she'd call me while I was at work and demand that I do something for her, then get angry when I'd tell her I couldn't because I was at work), and hurtful words constituted abuse. Between personal research and therapy, I learned that she had a personality disorder.

During this time, she said things to me that no one should have to hear, least of all from a parent. She used my father and brother as tools to make me feel guilty. She verbally threatened my life. She once physically assaulted me, causing an instant panic attack, four days of whiplash, and nightmares from which I'd wake sobbing. At the time, she told me I deserved what I'd gotten and was lucky I hadn't gotten worse.

Anyway, this all happened about six years ago, and now we are on good terms. At the time, I wanted to sever all contact completely (I hadn't spoken to my mother in about six months), but my therapist, after some time with me, pointed out that I would always feel guilty about not talking to my mother, and that it would be better for me to find some way to have a relationship with her, especially since cutting off contact would mean severely limiting my contact with my father and brother. So I set some boundaries, got some emotional distance, stopped depending on her good approval. I can go to her house without getting a stomachache, and have a conversation without feeling like I'm about to say something wrong any second. But inside, I am seething. She has never apologized for the way she treated me back then and I know she never will. It tortures me to know that she thinks the reason we get along so well now is that I got my shit together; that I was the one who behaved badly, but am now more tolerable, and that she has become more evolved and forbearing since then.

I'm reminded of this every once in a while, when, not being a saint and having reached my limit, I tell her that something she's doing is hurtful to me. She always responds with some variation of the same thing: She's sorry I feel that way. She's sorry I'm so sensitive about that subject. She's sorry that she's so honest. She's sorry that she's old enough now to be past all the "bullshit" and just call things as they are. But she's never sorry for having done something, because in her head, she never does anything wrong. And I kick myself for having said anything, because I knew this would happen, and I can't press it any further without risking putting her in a rage, and I get angrier. And the anger stays with me, and because it has no outlet, it mutates into deep sadness. I feel like I could forgive so much if only she would ask me to, but she never will.

I don't know what to do anymore. I know this is the best it's ever going to get with her. I think outright asking her for an apology would just be dredging up some ancient shit that would set us back in our "truce." I guess I'm asking for another way of thinking about this, some way to deal that would help me step back, take a deep breath, and just let the anger go, because right now, I alternate between thinking of moving cross-country and wishing her dead.

Secretly Seething

Dear Secretly Seething,

What you gotta do here is radically change whom you think you're dealing with. Forget you're dealing with that person you used to call your mother, who raised you and took care of you, that person you relied upon for your survival and your happiness because that person indeed might at one time have apologized to you but this is not that person anymore. This is a totally different person with a personality disorder. That's disorder, as in not ordered, as in: in disarray. As in: chaos and uncertainty and random and unreachable and unchangeable. You gotta treat this as a situation where you are dealing with someone you don't know. This is a person to be handled like a toxic gas: You go in but not before you're prepared, and you don't spend longer than you have to in there, because the longer the exposure, the higher the contamination. You gotta treat it like that.

And that might take some grieving, because to look at it like that you gotta admit that that other mother, the one you remember, is gone. She's not coming back. Everything she meant to you is in the past. At least for now you have to treat this as just a dangerous gig you have to get through safely and efficiently.

But you're a big girl now and you don't need that other mother. What you need you can provide for yourself or you can find it from people in the world who are not damaged. Your mother is damaged. You ask me for a different way of seeing it. That's what I'm giving you. I'm saying that's how you have to view it. You have to treat it like you're going into a toxic place and protective clothing is handed out routinely and government regulations require it to be worn.

You don't have much anger at a toxic gas, do you? You don't have much anger at a spider? Toxic gases and spiders are just being toxic gases and spiders. They don't bear you any ill will and they can't insult you because they're not in your world; they're in their world of toxic gases and spiders. They can kill you so you take precautions, but you don't get into spats.

Basically, weird and inhuman and mean as it sounds, and I don't mean for you to be cruel, but stop treating your mother like a human being. Treat her like the hazard she has become.

Well, sometimes it helps to get really, really fundamental, almost stupid-fundamental but not quite, just very, very literal and narrow and just say, OK, I am going to visit a person who has a personality disorder, and I am going to stay for X number of minutes, and during those minutes I am going to watch my breathing and respond to this person with neutral, bland, perhaps borderline-meaningless statements of mild agreement, and I am going to state matters of fact that need to be stated but not question the things that come out of this person's mouth because this person has a personality disorder, and after this designated amount of time is over I am going to leave the company of this person and resume my normal life, which is a life I actually do like and want to maintain, and if I can't maintain my discipline in the presence of this person then I will not visit with this person because I know she is dangerous to me, and people may think this is weird or sick she being my mother and all but other people can think what they like because they are not me and she is not their mother so they can't possibly know.

Something like that might be the way to go, where the whole time you're actually talking to yourself, like, you know, have you ever had to walk through a very stinky room, like you have to take care of some utility and it's in a very stinky room and there's no way to avoid it so you just have to go in there but you know you won't be in there long so you just concentrate on doing what you've got to do and then you get out. Because it's a very stinky room. That's what it's like with a person who has a personality disorder. You don't even pretend that this person and you have a normal relationship because you don't. You don't have a relationship. You just have some interactions.

So it's like talking to her is like talking to the weather, or talking to a branch that fell on you. You say, Hey, Branch, you fell on me, and that's hurtful, and the branch does not apologize because the branch just obeyed the law of gravity. It just did what it does. So the last thing you want to do is ask for an apology because the weather does not apologize and neither do branches that fall on you.

So interact as necessary but rid yourself of any expectation that you are going to get what a normal person would give you because this person you are dealing with is not a normal person. It's like when you ask her to apologize, you're asking a blind person to look at the color blue.

In other words, stop treating your mother like a human being with whom you have a relationship. Right now she's more like a branch that fell on you.

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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