My mother tried to smother me -- literally

It isn't just that she's borderline and scary -- in a dream I saw that she really tried to kill me

Cary Tennis
September 14, 2011 4:20AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

You have a gift for this advice business, and I would like to hear your thoughts.

My mother was the child of abusive alcoholics, and I suspect that she has borderline personality disorder. When I was younger, around 4 or 5, I remember her explosive rage and frequent emotional meltdowns most of all. My dad was and is very non-confrontational, so he never stepped in to stop her or demand that she change. Although her tendency to hit me or throw things tapered off as I grew older, her needy possessiveness, micromanagement of my life and attempts to "protect" me from the dangerous outside world continued right up until I left for college. My freshman year, I experienced what I can only describe as culture shock, which left me feeling directionless, insecure and most of all, very, very anxious.


I'd always forgiven my mother for being how she is, because of her rough childhood. I'd also always forgiven my dad for not confronting her about her behavior, while he simultaneously acknowledged for years that he thinks she is wrongheaded.

I lost my forgiveness about two months ago, when I dreamed about something my mother did when I was very young. When I woke up, I knew that what I'd dreamed actually happened. I could remember every detail.

I'd always had a hard time going to sleep at night, even as an infant. One night when I was 4, my mother came to make sure I'd fallen asleep, and I was still awake. She got so angry that she took a pillow and covered my head with it, yelling about how sick she was of my sleeplessness. She pressed the pillow down on my entire face for about 10 seconds. I couldn't breathe and I started crying. After realizing what she was doing, she took the pillow off my face, sobbing, and left the room. Later my dad came to check on me to make sure I was OK. That was it, though, and life went on as if nothing had happened.


Well, remembering the smothering incident helped me understand a lot about my life now, including the staying awake for days to avoid bedtime, how I hate having anything covering my face, how I hate putting my face underwater.

My quandary involves setting boundaries with my unstable and abusive mother. I am her only child, and I'm 28 years old. After years of soul searching and quality therapy, I've stopped all communication with her except when absolutely necessary (like a death in the family). I've been a lot happier in this past year, feeling more stable, confident and able to function at a level I never thought possible.

Finally acknowledging that I'm better without her in my life has no doubt left me with a deep grief and uncertainty, but I am finally confident that I've done the right thing for myself and I feel a marvelous freedom. The fallout of cutting her off has also been stressful considering that she and my dad are highly codependent. You would not be able to tell that they divorced 15 years ago, based on how much she controls my dad, even now. I'm struggling with how to maintain my boundaries with her, because she still contacts me, my father still wants me to talk with her, and I'm at a loss with how to handle her as I move forward in life.


I want to get married to my boyfriend of four years, have a family, but I don't have a road map in my head about how to handle these things without having a mother.

My mother never liked my boyfriends, but she seems to hate my current boyfriend most of all. She keeps trying to tell me that he's controlling me, putting words in my mouth, and so on. Actually, he's been integral in helping me use my own words for the first time to communicate my need for independence and respect (instead of passively disobeying her). Of course she hates my boyfriend. He's taking control away from her and she's terrified. I tried to express to both my parents that I need her to change how she treats me if she and I are going to continue as mother and daughter, but she still treats me like a child and now attempts to control me financially. I've been unemployed or underemployed since graduation, and I've relied on my parents for help. My mother seems to think that paying an emergency medical bill means that I should obey her, so I stopped taking any help from her.


I may have had trouble falling asleep as a child, but these were normal childhood problems for a 4-year-old. I simply cannot forgive my mother for her anger toward me when I was little, and I resent my dad for not doing more. My mother's action crossed the line from impulsivity to malice. I have decided to sever what little contact she and I had. I am grieved that my father is in the middle of this, but keep in mind that she has a controlling attitude toward him too. Until he decides he's had enough of the situation, he will continue to serve as a peacemaker on my mother's behalf.

But I can't imagine getting married without sharing it with my family. Even though we don't want an elaborate event, my boyfriend would share it with his family, and I would miss having my mother there. Or perhaps, I would miss the role my mother would play if she could simply be supportive, but I know she'll make the day about her instead. My boyfriend and I have pondered eloping, but I think I would want my family, especially my father, to be part of it. I suppose I still need a mother, but I don't think she'd be able to change into the person I need her to be. Where do I go from here? I could use some lyrically composed advice from a compassionate stranger!

Kindest regards,


Stronger Than I Thought

Dear Stronger Than I Thought,

Our parents are always trying to kill us. It's amazing how many of us survive.

Short of smothering us, they just give us weird foods and try to control whom we date. But every pedagogical step is a kind of smothering. Every helpful hand is a warning away from discovery. We may not die at their hands, but we come out twisted, confused, fearful,  ill-equipped to feed ourselves or figure out the world and its intentions. We come out like automatons, programmed to carry out the murder of our true self.


Much prettying-up is done about the parent-child bond, for who wants to face the truth of our peril at their hands? It gets too close to the other truth, the truth that even once we escape their hands, sure death awaits us anyway.

In light of that, these "relationships" we attempt to manage and prolong are sort of absurd and pointless, are they not?

Yet we keep going back for more. We cower like beggars in their occasional kindnesses.

Better to be out with it: Your parents are trying to kill you. So you must also become a murderer. In such a battle you cannot remain passive; you cannot turn the other cheek; you must murder your parents before they murder you.


The smothering pillow won't do. You need some other weapon. Moving to San Francisco sometimes works, unless your parents already live there, in which case you must move to Kansas to fully mortify them.

Funny word, "mortify." The more you look at it the truer it gets.

You understand, of course, the metaphor in this. But the metaphor is realistically stark: It is a kind of murder we endure, and to the extent that we are complicit in it, we leave the battlefield still trying to murder in our selves that part that does not live up, does not comply, does not please and mollify, does not excel, is not clean: that part that is who we are in our deepest and most grimy condition.

This is the root of us. And maybe in some cases we know that we are loved in this most grimy and unlovable state. But many times, in yours as in mine, we come to know that the real who we are must be kept hidden, and the mask must be worn.


Wearing that mask, skulking around, we keep hidden our true selves. In this guise, we keep trying to right wrongs that can never be righted, to get the kind of love that can never be gotten, and to build perfect lives and perfect families as a permanent rebuke to those crimes and outrages of our past.

Getting married is one way. So beware. Beware of getting married for symbolic reasons.

I would say two things: One, you don't need your mother there. Two, you don't even need to get married.

At least consider the possibility that you don't need to get married. For this wish to get married may be so freighted with all these other wishes that cannot be granted that you may wake up soon after marrying and find that you have done something wholly symbolic. What's the harm in that? Well, if you get married then behind your actual marriage, taunting you, will always be that ideal marriage you will never have, mocking you from its place of no reality.


I'm not saying flat-out don't get married. I'm trying to remind you of the symbolic power of it, though. And I'm trying to remind you that it isn't necessary these days to get married in order to have a family and raise kids. It's the normal thing to do but it's not unheard of to forgo it. I'm saying keep your feet on the ground: That is the best defense against a borderline personality. Do not give her anything with which she can come at you. Do not give her a wedge. Do not give her the satisfaction. Do not venture onto her fairgrounds. There she reigns supreme. Claim your own turf. Let her have her impossible perfection from which she can claim that everyone but she is wrong.

These days, we can opt out of certain games. Maybe if more people take this new freedom then certain ancient repetitions of ridicule and shame will wither from lack of reenactment, seen as too primitive and ghastly, silly blood sacrifices from prior centuries.

Again, I'm not saying flat-out don't get married. I'm merely suggesting that you acknowledge the danger of giving this fantasy such power.

Here's what may happen. And please note I say "may." (I'm not omniscient; I'm merely the delivery boy of certain contingent visions.) If you get married, that part of you that is never satisfied will be fed. It will wake up and think, ah, now, I'm going to get the family I never had! And everything you do from that point on that does not bring this magical state into being, that is to say, everything real that you do from that moment forward can be seen by this one part of you as a failure to live up to that ideal, that fanciful, nonexistent and impossible ideal.

Whereas if you never get married, maybe you stay grounded in the truth, in the real.

Then the question becomes, How will you forge for yourself, or discover within yourself, the mother you never had? How will you provide for yourself the kind of mothering you never got? Whether you marry in an elaborate ceremony or at city hall or not at all, this seems to be the crucial task you face, the task whose completion stands the best chance of making you whole again.

Creative Getaway

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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