And stepfather, and step-siblings…
I am going through another round of processing my feelings around being estranged from my Mother & co and felt I wanted to write about this part of my life here. Blogging helps me process things – and I’d like to hope that someone somewhere might benefit from reading my thoughts. People are beginning to talk about estrangement more these days, but it is still a very difficult subject for many, and still taboo for others.
Yet it’s way more common than people think. For example, my husband-that-isn’t’s Mother was estranged from her sister, and his two sisters haven’t spoken in years.
So what’s my story? Well, this is my second estrangement from my mother and her family. When I was about 28 I made a decision to cease contact with my mother and stepfather. I did try to remain in contact with my stepsister but it was tricky. I had no argument with either of my step-siblings, but as you can imagine it was very difficult to sustain anything with them: my stepsister rented a house from our two parents and my stepbrother lived in the same building and worked for them, so I became estranged from them by default, really. We were no longer close anyway, and neither of them had made much effort to stay in contact with me once I left the family home some years previously, so it was not so surprising that things worked out they way they did.
To be perfectly honest I don’t remember how I decided the first time – it was 21 years ago. Suffice it to say that my mother fits all the criteria for having a variant of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and my stepfather and I had never had an easy relationship. He did have qualities I liked (he’s dead now) but they were rather overpowered by the ones I found very difficult – especially the way he was constantly subtly undermining both me and my mother and putting other people down behind their backs. All I do remember is that I came to the decision that it would be better for me to be away from them.
What followed was difficult – an estrangement is very like a bereavement, but without the markers of a funeral, or the social support. In fact those who choose estrangement will often find themselves being treated as if they are monsters if they are not careful, because despite it being more common than we think, estrangement can trigger a lot of reactions in other people – including a fear of being on the receiving end themselves. And of course for most people, Narcissism or other abuse, and the impact it has on a child, is completely out of their experience, so it can be hard for them to relate to those who have experienced it.
So I grieved. And it was hard. Apart from my therapist, no-one supported my decision. But it was right for me.
Then my father died. I felt duty bound to inform my mother as she had, after all been married to the man once. And he lived in the same area. I had been estranged from him for years, but had never gone through the grieving process as I did with my mother (my relationship with him is a whole ‘nother story), but nevertheless as the sole child, and given that he died intestate, I was the sole heir.
So what followed was around a year of sorting though his papers – a horrible experience as he was a hoarder who had died in his bed and lain there for ten days – whilst I waited for probate to be granted. If you have ever smelt a decomposing human body you will understand the horror that was my once childhood home. Of course his body was long gone, but the smell stays. It gets into you somehow, into your hair, under your fingernails: it haunts you, you feel like you can smell it all the time, even when you are far far away. Then there were the echoes of my childhood to deal with too. No wonder I supressed my feelings so thoroughly.
My mother, stepfather and I reconciled – after a fashion – as in, we talked about nothing that had happened, all tension was buried underground, nothing was resolved and everyone pretended that it was all one big happy family again. For my part, I seemed to go into some kind of organisational overdrive. I disconnected from my emotions, organised the funeral and hired a solicitor.
Meanwhile my mother and stepfather said they would help with the house and persuaded me that I should hold onto it, do it up and sell it for more money than I would get if I sold it as it was. My intention had been to get rid of it as soon as possible, but they started talking about how shameful it was and how I couldn’t let people see it in such a terrible state – because it was in a state, believe you me.
The truth was, that they were ashamed, they were so obsessed with other people’s opinions that they couldn’t bear anyone to know about it – even though, given what a small town it was – many people already did. There was no reason for their shame, after all they were not responsible, but they influenced me, and I went along with it because I was already distanced from my emotions and I had spent 23 years of my life living with these family dynamics. Shame is powerful – painful and powerful.
I’ll spare you further details, suffice it to say that my mother and stepfather wanted money for what they were doing ‘for me’, and despite the renovations the house took over three years to sell, by which time I was really regretting my decision to do as they suggested and our relationship was inevitably breaking down.
I felt bitter too, about their desire for money – yes of course they had helped me, but bear in mind that these same people didn’t want to come to my graduation ceremony because it would be ‘too expensive’ for them to hire a relief milker, and they couldn’t be away for so long…they did end up coming in the end, arrived late, left early and my stepfather behaved appallingly, like a sulky child. Two years later they spent at least £15,000 on a lavish wedding for my stepsister, complete with marquee for 200 and horse-drawn carriage.
So, there was that. There was the fact that I was back in a ‘relationship’ where I had to do all the work – no-one phoned me to see how I was, I had to make all the calls. No-one visited me – instead the 400 mile round trip was mine to make, and when I did make it no-one was remotely interested in my life. Instead I would be treated to a monologue from my mother which would begin the moment I entered the house and seemingly not stop until I left, about all kinds of people I had never met (any mention of this fact to my mother would be met with denial: ‘Of course you know them’) and most of it negative comments about them. Stepfather mostly hid behind the paper and the TV, he was really only interested in talking to other men.
From the moment I entered the house I would have a scream lodged in my chest. I would get through the days by promising myself I could raid the drinks cabinet after they went to bed and stuff myself with chocolate. I would take long walks and play with the dog and wonder why the hell I had put myself through this yet again. At the same time I would try to be the daughter they wanted, alternating between smothering my own feelings and then getting angry with them.
My mothers sixtieth came round and I phoned to wish her a happy birthday only to find my stepfather had arranged a surprise birthday party for her and not invited me. Ouch. I suppose it was a passive aggressive form of revenge, then again he’d never really wanted me and my mother had long since made it clear that I should have been grateful he gave my 17-year-old self a home.
But still I continued the relationship for a few more years. Then something happened which left me incredibly traumatised – I was triggered into reliving a rape. I knew I had been raped, but had no real memory of it, then suddenly there it was. Reliving a memory is nothing like every day memory. You experience all the physical reactions you had at the time – it was terrifying, physically painful, my body was convulsing and it seemed to go on forever.
And it left me as traumatised as if it had just happened. I still didn’t know who my rapist was, he was standing against the lights in my memory and all I could see was a halo of sandy hair, but I had a better idea of when it had happened – I would have been around 16 or so, possibly older.
Other events followed this, difficult ones which I handled badly because I had PTSD. I was unable to talk to my mother, and the one time I tried she changed the subject (this was typical behaviour for her). I did have a therapist, which helped but I was actually spending a lot of time talking about my relationship with my mother and it was becoming increasingly apparent just how thoroughly fucked up it was.
Talk to any of my childhood friends and they would probably tell you my mother was lovely – she charmed them. A child herself, she desperately needed everyone to approve of her, so she courted them, courted their favour and they never got to see her other side. The side only I got to see. The controlling, shaming, emotionally cold side. The side which required me to meet her needs, instead of the other way round. No doubt other adults who know her now probably think she is charming too. Narcissists are by nature hard to spot, because they charm and they win people over.
It was around this time that I began to feel tired. A lot. It’s only recently that I’ve realised that this was the first hint of my developing ME – back in 2004. In fact I didn’t just feel tired, I felt exhausted and the effort needed to phone my mother and listen to twenty minutes of her talking about the minute details of her life and latest purchases, and bitching about people I didn’t know and had no interest in, seemed beyond me.
I didn’t decide not to contact them, in fact I didn’t intend to cease contact at that point. I had already been through considerable trauma and didn’t need more stress, but I just couldn’t ring. A few weeks went by. Nobody rang me. You understand that they did know I’d had a very difficult time. They may not have been willing to discuss it or support me, but they knew, all the same. My mood went severely downhill. I didn’t contact them and I heard nothing.
A couple of months later I got an angry vitriolic letter from my mother. I wasn’t able to read much of the letter, I just couldn’t take it at the time, so I burnt it. When angry she had a tongue which could flay at twenty paces. She really really knew how to hurt.
Back then all I could feel was hurt: I just couldn’t believe that given what she knew about events in my life it hadn’t occurred to her that I might be depressed or sick. These days I think she was venting the repressed anger that she had not voiced before, when we re-established contact. Even so though, the letter so far as I could see, just like everything else in her world, was all about her.
And that really sums up why I am estranged from my mother still: everything was always all about her.
I have no idea if she is still alive – I do occasionally check to see if her death has been registered and so far I haven’t found it, so I assume she is. I spent about 18 months a while back really diving deep into my feelings about being estranged, asking myself if I would regret not trying to re-establish contact if I should find out she had died. And then there was a possible inheritance, too. Given my ill health and the low income that is a result, was I willing to walk away?
The answer eventually came back a resounding yes. I was willing to walk away. I do not want their money, and I do not want their dysfunctional idea of parenthood.
In 2011 I found out my stepfather had died in 2007. That was a shock, of course. My first response to knowing he was dead though? Immense anger – I wanted to go and dance on his grave. I hadn’t known I hated him so much, I mean really hated. It stunned me. Then as I talked about it to D, something else started to come back up, something I did my best to deny and repress and rationalise away. But it kept coming back: the knowledge that he was my rapist.
There are times when I still think this cannot possibly be true. I just can’t see how it can be true. Yet. My heart says it is.
In many ways it doesn’t matter if it was him or not. I know I was raped, if it was him, he’s dead, and if it wasn’t then whoever else it was, is likely also dead. The trauma was the same regardless who the culprit was, because I was always aware it was someone I already knew and had trusted.
I found out he was dead because there was an obituary published in a trade magazine. It doesn’t sound at all like the man I knew, but then it was written by a man, who talked to other men. I of course, am written out. Only my step siblings and mother are mentioned.
I have no doubt though, that my mother and sf believed me to be evil incarnate. No doubt they thought I ‘used’ them in relation to my father’s house, even though it was their idea, not mine. This is not paranoia on my part – I know/knew these people well, and how black and white they are/were.
In fact I can hear them now, ‘After all we did for her, she just stopped phoning us – we helped her out with her father’s house and it was such a state…she always was an ungrateful girl, nothing you did was good enough. Just like her father.’
Rape notwithstanding, it would never have occurred to either of them that they too might be responsible for the situation that ensued. That this estrangement was as much down to them as it is me.
I imagine few people actually want estrangement. I suspect for many, like me, it just becomes the only possible way forward. There is so much hurt and so much unsaid that a relationship just stops being tenable. The truth is my mother simply exhausted my feelings for her. Whilst I will hold my hand up and say I was definitely not an easy teenager, I was troubled and traumatised by childhood events, never mind the rape I repressed in my teens, but more than anything I was deeply hurt by having a mother who was simply incapable of ever offering any emotional support or meeting my emotional needs, but instead made me responsible for hers.
I only really began to learn how to meet my own emotional needs once I distanced myself from hers. And I’m still working on this – I doubt I’ll ever stop.
Thank you for reading this. I hope you haven’t experienced anything similar, but if you have and are in the UK there is now a charity for estranged people Stand Alone.