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December 31, 2011

The personal is political and the political is so, so, personal

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 1:24 pm

So, I just sent my mother an e-mail telling her that I plan to have no contact with her whatsoever for the next two years, because I’m actively in the process of working through a lot of trauma from growing up with her. Two years is about the amount of time I think I need to get to a point where even small interactions with her don’t totally derail my life. I don’t want to go into a lot of the details publicly, but there’s one thing I do want to share.

I wrote numerous drafts of this letter before I actually sent it. Some were angry. Some were pleading. Some were defensive or desperate. Some were cold and professional. Eventually, I realized that most of these drafts were letters I was writing to myself, explaining why it was okay for me to take this space, why it was important. Giving myself permission. When I actually wrote the final draft to my mom, I started completely from scratch and it contained almost nothing from the previous versions. Most of that stuff will get stuck in a drawer or transcribed somewhere private (I wrote these drafts by hand) to be re-read and re-processed when I stumble across them again years from now.

But the following piece – which did not make it into the much kinder, gentler final draft – is something I wanted to share publicly. It’s my pre-emptive response to her projected derailments of my autonomy – a declaration of my right to define my own experience and act to get my needs met. I’ve worked through an intense fog of confusion, guilt and internalized self-doubt to get to this place. And I feel like some of the things I say here are important to more than just this one individual relationship with my mom.

It puts me in mind of an essay I read years ago, a man talking to other men about the way men often respond when women open up to them about their experiences of sexual assault. I’ve been searching through my archives for a link but can’t find one (although I’ve found lots of other good links I’d forgotten about.) However, the general gist was, “Women are taught their whole lives not to trust their own experiences or feelings about their bodies. When a woman opens up to you about having been raped, don’t question her interpretation of the situation. Not because it’s “impolite” or “non-PC” or because you’ll “offend” her – but because she’s already asked herself every single question you’re asking A THOUSAND TIMES, and probably put herself through a much more intensive, rigorous, harsh process of criticism inside her head than you can even imagine.”

This is how I feel about my relationship with my mother. And I think it’s something that comes up universally around both abuse and oppression (which is a form of large-scale systemic abuse). I’ve heard people talk about it around disability, around race, etc: This constant questioning of one’s own interpretation of their own experiences against the narrative put forth by the person or population in power.

Even now, I’m extremely leery of using the word ‘abusive’ to describe my relationship with my mother. Not because it wasn’t, but because I’ve spent so much of my life (especially when I was trying to survive under her roof) convincing myself it wasn’t. Believing this was more-or-less normal was a coping strategy for not going crazy or killing myself. So I spent my childhood and adolescence convincing myself that it was my fault that she was hurting me, and having the belief reinforced by her and other adults that it was my fault she was hurting me…so that even now, at almost 30 years old with a raft of evidence to draw on, the word “abuse” feels slippery and hard to hold onto. I’m afraid to use it around anyone who might question or contradict it. Not because I’ll be mad they “disagree” with me, but because I’m afraid it will throw me back into a tailspin of confusion and self-doubt. (There are particular issues related to having been raised by someone with Borderline traits that probably make me especially susceptible to this e.g. I struggle to trust my own sense of reality across the board.)

Saying the word “abuse” out loud here on the public Internet might be one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.

But I’m saying it because I think there are parallels between my abusive relationship to my mom and the abusive relationship between people who are oppressed, oppressors who consider themselves either harmless or benevolent, and the system of dependencies, power dynamics, and genuine complicated emotions that keep them intertwined. I think there’s something worthwhile in here about the need for – and heartbreak of – conscious, self-imposed separatism as one of many tools for healing deep rifts.

So, here’s what I wrote:

“Growing up with you was terrifying. I lived in constant fear that if I said the wrong thing you would fly into a rage and hurt me or sink into depression and try to hurt yourself and that in either case, it would be my fault. I never knew what to expect from one minute to the next and felt constantly on the defensive, having to protect myself from your attempts to crack into my head and then punish me for whatever you found there. I’m not ashamed of you; I’m afraid of you. I’ve been scared my whole life. I’m scared now. I don’t want to be scared anymore.

Maybe you’ll say it wasn’t that bad. That I’m being melodramatic. That I’m too sensitive. That you were also scared of your parents growing up and you got over it. That my expectations – the expectation that, as a child, I would feel safe in my own home – were too high. I’ve considered all these possibilities. And even if they’re true, none of them change the impact that growing up with you had on me or the fact that I need space to heal.

You keep suggesting that I should just “let it go”. That no matter what perceived harms you might’ve done me in the past, I’ve had enough time to grieve and hurt and process and now I should move on, let you “back” into my life. The truth is that you’ve never been a part of my life. I’ve been protecting myself from you since Day 1. Trust me, I wish I could just let go of all that and move on. If I could have, I would. I’ve been trying to for years. But that means I’ve actually never given myself the space to process, hurt and grieve. I’m taking that space now.

And maybe you’ll claim it was someone else’s fault. That the way you treated [my brother] and I was because of the way Dad, your parents, your job, the economy, or the teachers at our schools treated you. Even if that’s true, and I believe that in some ways it is, that doesn’t change the fact that I didn’t live in fear of them; I lived in fear of you. And I need time away from you, a short time in my life, to feel completely safe so that I can take care of that frightened child.

Perhaps you’ll even claim it was my fault. That you were afraid of me. That I was “selfish” or “heartless” or unpredictable growing up. I’ve also considered that possibility, rolled it over and over and over in my head. But even if it’s true that I was an emotionally overwhelming child – and I’m sure it was at times; I’m an emotionally overwhelming adult – the fact remains: We were CHILDREN! You said it yourself a million times ad nauseum, “I’m the Mom!” That doesn’t just mean you get to set curfew and decide who does the dishes. It also means you were responsible for protecting us, taking care of us and making us feel safe – not the other way around. I never felt safe with you.

I don’t even feel safe writing you this letter. I feel almost certain that you’re going to respond with some cutting, defensive sarcasm, tell me I’m being “lawyerly” or that I “think I know you so well”, maybe even accuse me of being “abusive”. I don’t have any defenses against that kind of attack. Even now. After nearly 30 years, it still cuts me to the core, makes me feel worthless and small. All I can do is duck, dodge and avoid it – and since I never know when it’s coming, that means avoiding you.

But maybe, if you’re able to see any of this hurt at all, you’ll just say that you did the best you could. I genuinely believe that. Given what you’ve told me about growing up with your own parents, you didn’t have very good models and couldn’t have known how much you were hurting us. I believe this was hard for you too, and that you deserve compassion for how hard you tried. But that still doesn’t change the impact it had on me, and I am too hurt and angry to feel that compassion right now.

I hope you have others around you who care about you and can offer it. And I’d like to get to the point where I can feel compassion myself – if not for your sake, then for mine. This anger is a poison in my system that colors every moment of my life. I want to get it out. But to do that requires work. And that work requires space. Lots and lots of space.”



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