Loving after the Borderline Mother: A Letter Never Finished

“Yeshiva Jesus”

I am sad and stressed. I really do not like causing other people emotional harm, especially people I care about. Almost any non-sociopathic person could probably say the same thing. But the idea of causing emotional harm in a situation of emotional ambivalence, or perhaps perceived emotional ambivalence, is not really a matter of “liking” or “not liking” for me. It is more complicated. I would like to try and tease some of that out for you. Perhaps it will make no sense. I am going to give it a shot.

I think I have already mentioned that my mother, in all likelihood, suffers from some version of Borderline Personality Disorder. I have only been aware of this for about four years, give or take. For most of my life, I just considered my mom to be what she appears to be: a bit stubborn and at times difficult and contrary, somewhat closed-minded about things like my sexuality, but open-minded about other things. I have often described my parents as having completely missed the 1960s. The home I grew up in resembled some kind of cross between Leave it to Beaver and Mad Men. I assumed that my mother loved me because that is what parents are supposed to do.

But among the many tragic things about BPD is that at a certain level, those who suffer from it cannot genuinely love other people. People with BPD are capable of moments of love, but a particularly intransigent narcissism means that their emotional needs ultimately take precedence, always. A second tragedy is the capacity of someone with BPD to “split”—that is, to experience the world in very black and white terms and to treat people accordingly. Those who come into the sphere of my mother, for example, are always at risk for getting on her shitlist. One’s placement on her shitlist has very little to do with one’s own behavior. Whether one remains on the shitlist forever (as is/was the case with two of my sisters-in-law, two of my cousins and a series of other family members and friends) or temporarily (as I did nearly every other day of my childhood) is never quite clear. The repercussions of being on the shitlist can be extreme. In essence, the figure of my mother’s misdirected wrath are disappeared into an emotional gulag. This is not an exaggeration.

I want to be really clear because of course everyone has their shitlists and everybody has the capacity to make themselves the center of emotional attention regardless of whatever else is happening to others around them. The difference between relatively normal levels of emotional instability and narcissism and those of people with BPD is that the latter have no control over their behavior. Moreover, there is a genuine pathology around the issue of accountability. In the case of my mother, when I have tried to reason with her about how her behavior may have been hurtful, she remains incapable of being self-reflective. I used to engage with my mom at this level—to try to encourage her to see things from the point of view of someone she has demonized. And every now and then it would seem to work. Then we would talk again and it was quite literally as if our previous conversation never happened. The BPD brain is rigidly compartmentalized and nearly anything—emotions, memories, cognitions—can be stored, hidden, separated and utterly forgotten. As I said, part of understanding BPD is understanding that the person whose brain works this way has literally no control over its machinations. My mother has no control over her manipulative and emotionally narcissistic behavior. For over forty years, I thought I could get through to her. I now realize that this is not possible, literally and physiologically.

In the scheme of things, I have become aware of my mother’s condition fairly recently and I began to consider the consequences of growing up with a borderline mother almost immediately. But what I have only very recently learned is that having grown up with my mom traumatized me in ways that I am only now beginning to unpack. That is to say, it took a few years to be able to wrap my head around the world-altering revelation that my mom was mentally ill. Perhaps it took so long to accept because I am alone in my convictions when it comes to my family. Indeed, if you ever met my mom, you would never know any of this. She maintains a façade of wonderful hostess, loving wife and devoted mother. Her disease is rather invisible—to herself and almost everyone else. My brothers don’t really want to discuss it. They know something is not quite right, and I have even named it for them, but my older brother has no interest in processing this with me and my younger brother . . . well, he is well-meaning and kind man, but I think he too at some level would just rather let sleeping dogs lie. My eldest brother is not around anymore to talk with, but I am not sure I could even talk to him about it since I am also beginning to consider that he himself was a bit of a sociopath.

I have lived most of my life doing a decent job dealing with relationships of all sorts and my life more generally as if I resided within the realm of normal. And as mental health goes, I am rather healthy, all things considered. But the reality I am trying to describe to you is not within the realm of normal. I am trying to extricate myself from a tremendous lie and the damage it has inflicted on me. I used to think of myself as a fuck-up. I am beginning to get comfortable with the term “survivor.”

So why the fuck am I telling you this and what ever does it have to do with you, me, you and me?

First of all—one of the main effects that my mother’s pathology had on me was making me deeply sensitive regarding emotional ambivalence. I used to just hop, skip, jump or force my way around or through confusion. I used to be able to make sense out of anything—anytime and anywhere. And although I am emerging from what may have been the most difficult year or two of my life, I have landed in a place where I have very little idea of the lay of the land. I understand that everyone, to greater and lesser degrees, experiences periods of confusion and that most folks find their way out. I have never learned how to work with confusion or ambivalence because I have more-or-less refused to feel it. Exacerbating this is the possibility that I may have ADD. Whether the particular wiring of my brain is a result of my upbringing or just an additive to an already icky stew, I don’t know.

I am trying to give you a more detailed picture of the sort of deep issues I am working with, the sort of healing I am undertaking, and the way in which these processes have left me a bit stymied. The upside of all this is that I am clearer about my own confusion. And that means that I am fairly sure that I am not making up a bunch of shit to string you along nor making excuses for hurtful behavior. I feel more committed to honesty than I ever have been. I do not consider myself a liar, but I think I have had a great capacity to fool myself or convince myself of things. Now that I am working on being more honest with myself, I also feel more committed to trying to trust myself.

It is work in progress, which is to say that confusion remains. That is what you hear in my voice, I suspect. The confusion of someone who is finally poking her head up and out of a lot of lies, a lot of pain and a lot of self-loathing.

Finally, I think I am telling you all of this because in addition to finding you compelling in so many ways, I am beginning to trust you.

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