The clouds“Summer Storms” by Nikki Giovanni
like my Grandmother
carry a load
they can no longer
I got one of those calls this week. The ones that seem innocuous and then you find out she’s off her meds again.
It’s been a while. A long while.
As far as I know.
She’s doing some real crazy stuff. Some I can’t even bring myself to say right here. I can’t write it all out because it’s already haunting me and it’s too early for the ‘writing it out will exorcise it’ stage. I’m stuck in the ‘try really hard to look at it all sideways so you don’t implode’ phase.
My mother went crazy at 50.
The reality is, of course, that she had undiagnosed mental illness for probably most (or all) of her adult life – for my whole life, at least, I would guess.
But when that first real full blown manic episode happened between her 50th and 51st birthdays, it felt like an epically new thing. Like an alternative reality had supplanted the life we had all known.
That year, sixteen years ago, changed us all forever. Not just her. All of us. My (step)dad, my brother, my sister. Her two tiny grandchildren and the four more yet to be born.
Changed us – me – in ways I am still unearthing and learning to understand more fully.
It was the trauma of those first and second epic manic episodes, happening only six years before I met x, that had me so willing to go to solo counseling at the first real red flags. I was worried it was my trauma making me see things where nothing was . . . my recent past, perhaps, conjuring alarm out of thin air.
Long, long exhale.
There was never nothing there. I was always seeing it but allowing myself to be refocused and distracted and confused. Allowing myself to only look at myself instead of at the first seeds of abuse being expertly planted into my life.
There was always a there there.
But I spun my wheels for years, especially after I shared with x that the therapist I was seeing during our first year together said I was showing hypervigilance. I was trying to correct any error in my own lens. I was trying to open up to him and share my own weaknesses.
And he loved that.
He spun my wheels for me.
It’s you. See? It’s you. Stop looking so hard.
You’re making shit up is the narc’s battlecry. And I, by sharing the words of my therapist, gave him a flag to wave at me while repeating at me, over and over, that old, tired, narc accusation.
Believe me: I want to slap my own forehead in disbelief.
Those of us who are always willing to see our own role in something and try to grow/correct/heal through it are a narcissist’s favorite target.
In some ways, we’re the easiest mark. So easy to spin around and make us focus on our own flaws and errors.
It took seeing the pile of lies and the absolute lack of care when it came to lying – about everything – to stop looking at my own role in our chaos and to get clear enough to finally realize I was being manipulated constantly.
He had to be so so awful before I stopped holding myself accountable for his actions, in even some small way. And it took another three years before I stopped hoping he could get better and took the first steps to give myself and our daughter a healthy home so she can thrive.
Until I left x, I thought of my mom’s mental illness as something that crashed into my family, like a wayward meteor, in 2005.
There was my regular, not always great (but not awful either), often emotionally-starved childhood and then there was this thing that happened much, much later that broke us all and pulled her away from us forever (because she won’t do the work to mend anything – has isolated herself and made bringing her into the fold a thing we all wish for but somehow know will probably never happen . . . I believe, now, that her trauma is so deep and so buried that she’ll never choose to face it down and heal).
One of the moments from my own therapy, post-breakup, that I still remember in that crystalline way of real life, painful epiphanies is when my therapist noted that my mom’s mental illness made me grow up thinking that it was normal for people to be affectionate and close and then to pull away and even be mean – to do it in cycles that always repeated themselves.
I remember where I was, how I was sitting, what the seat felt like under me.
It was a holy shit moment.
I was a child raised by someone with mental illness
I never, ever thought of myself that way.
Not until that moment. Which was less than a year ago.
I have friends who were raised by mentally ill parents. I had counted myself lucky that my mom hadn’t lost it until I was a full-fledged adult.
And I am lucky that her illness didn’t ramp all the way up until I was an adult.
But I was raised by someone who wasn’t always well. And certainly wasn’t treating her illness. And who absolutely took it out on those of us close to her for years and years before we saw it for what it always was . . . before we could start to understand how she saw us or talked about us was her lens and not who we actually are as humans.
I was used to someone waffling between support and harsh, harsh criticism. Between affection and disdain.
I never thought what x was doing was ok. But I stuck around a long, long time thinking it could get better.
I was used to that waiting. Without even knowing I was.
Those last few years, when the jig was up and x knew I knew he was, at least, a compulsive liar and a cheat, he would, of course, in the worst attacks, say: you’re batshit crazy like your mom.
Calling a narc on the truth makes them try to make you think that you’re crazy. Ask anyone – an expert or a survivor. It’s true. It’s pretty much universally true.
But when your mom (& your baby sister, also, it so happens) are diagnosed bipolar, then the abuser has the perfect weapon that will work on others when he describes you that way, but one that will also cut you like a red-hot blade when he stares at you, dead eyed and cold, and tells you you’re just like your mom as you’re already dry heaving into the toilet after hours of crying because of something he said or did to hurt you (intentionally, you now know).
These kinds of family histories are like catnip to them. Crazynip. Fastpasses to causing you pain and convincing others, later, that they are the victim.
The thing is, though, before even meeting him, I had spent years assessing if I might, also, be bipolar. If I might be blindsided later in life, way past the usual age for onset, to suddenly ruin my family and my own security if I didn’t take care of my illness.
I had seen therapists to explore the possibility. I had made a pact with my aunt, my mother’s baby sister, that we would help each other see it before it was too late if we started to present late in life like my mom – so we could address it head-on before we caused even a fraction of the damage my mother’s manic episodes have done to us all.
I talked to my doctor.
If there’s one thing I’m as sure as I can be of anything (which means: I think pretty much that I know but life can always surprise you), it’s that I’m not bipolar and I will not have a manic break at 50.
I’m close to that age now. So it gets a little scarier. Like when your parent dies young and you approach that age. No matter how irrational or fear-based, that apprehension is there.
The level of thought and exploration – and, even, expert opinion – I had given this one possibility, though, made me immune to the effect his words were supposed to have.
Instead, they would curl me into the fetal position, sleeping on the couch alone as I listened to my infant daughter sleep, wondering how I could be so in love with such a cruel and heartless man.
How someone I was giving everything to could take what he thought would wound me most and just shove it right into my gut, expecting – hoping for – me to fall apart.
When I left x, he yielded that hammer like it was a magic wand. He still tries to get anyone to listen to him any chance he has to say it out loud.
It never worked. Never.
At least not with me or court – and court is really the only place he could actually hurt me with that old lie.
I can’t care who else might believe him. It’s a lie and an attack and a pathetic attempt to hurt in order to feel powerful.
I also know, now, that he might have said all those same things anyway even if my mom was June-fucking-Cleaver. It’s straight out of the abuser’s playbook. He’d have set things up to convince his whole fan base I’m crazy anyway.
All that lie from him has ever done is remind me how unconscionable his attacks are and how he will dig for the softest part of someone’s underbelly in order to escape any accountability and to hurt the other person as much as he can with as little effort as possible.
This week, when I got the news about my mom, I felt numb and detached. I hoped that was because I am more healed from all of these ties that wound, or have wounded, me.
But I got home and I started to suddenly feel. I longed to crawl into bed after my daughter went to sleep and talk it all through with someone. I thought of x and when I would come home with this kind of stuff and he would pretend to be caring that night. Backrubs and I’m so sorry, babys and pouring my coffee the next morning with a kiss on the forehead.
And then within days he would be using it against me. Within days.
Telling me I was taking it out on him. Something as simple as being tired from deep sadness was an attack on him. Expecting him to give our daughter a bath – all the way through, something he never, ever did – was nagging and complaining.
And so he would retreat to the downstairs apartment and start texting ex-girlfriends and trying to arrange hookups on words with friends or watch hours of free porn. As I cried upstairs.
As I put our child to bed and cleaned up the kitchen and got up and fed our daughter and got ready for work, where he would pretend to be the best-ever boyfriend and bring me conchas and coffee to my desk where all of our coworkers could see the performance.
I thought of how each of those times was like me handing him the instructions for how to hurt me later that same week. Those times, he didn’t have to be creative – I’d just offer up the chance, simply by being human and having painful events and situations and sharing them with him.
By simply being, legitimately, overwhelmed.
You’re just bringing this all on yourself with all your drama and I don’t need this shit.
Here, I’d say, this is the tenderest spot. Here is where I am most tender right now.
Here: Stab me here and I’ll shut up for a while. Because I’ll be busy putting pressure on the new wound so I don’t crumble completely.
Here: stick your finger in the wound you just made and move it around and watch me cry in a whole new way, one that makes me vomit and makes me wear my reading glasses all day at work to hide the swollen lids and under-eye-bags and makes me, eventually, fall into your arms once you come back upstairs and offer even one kind word.
Here: Hurt her and ‘heal’ her and then she’ll be so grateful you’re back up in the same room, not stabbing anymore, that she won’t even bring up the awful stuff, too hungry for the comfort you’re giving, finally, to risk your reaction if she tries to raise any discussion about what you did or how you abandoned her when she really needed you.
My mom being crazy isn’t why we didn’t work out. Isn’t at all why it had to end.
My mom being crazy is, partly, what kept me paying his bills for him for way too long. It’s what made me keep trying to strong arm that fake blended family into what I wanted it to be. It’s what made me hope against hope against hope that he could ever learn to be a better human because I so badly wanted him to be one.
It’s what helped him be able to abuse me.
Not what drove him away.
It’s not proof of what he says about me now. He said it about me then, even when he was telling people I was amazing. When he, even then, did 2% of the parenting stuff, at best. When I was perfectly well and sane enough to do all the work and all the care-giving.
Crazy to people like x is not falling for my bullshit anymore. Simply.
Not bending to my demands anymore.
I’m still learning a lot about how my misunderstanding of my own childhood contributed to my adulthood so far. With how it tied me to x even more tightly instead of armoring me to break free at the first sign of bad stuff. My memoir project wrestles with all of this in earnest and is the place for me to unwind that all.
But I will say, here, that I know this: it doesn’t mean what x thinks it means.
And it doesn’t mean what he tells people it means.
It means I didn’t have a child until I knew I could do it differently. Better. More evenly and with so much more patience and calm and affection than I knew as a child.
At least in part, it means I managed to grow and thrive and learn how to love so differently than I was taught how to love. I have learned how to parent so differently than I was taught by my own parents.
And nothing x did (or does) can undo that. Or drive me mad. Or break me or the love I have for that child we made together and my deep commitment to ending the trauma-ridden traditions of my birth family (and his).
I have felt a lot of sadness over thinking I had broken the chain with me and realizing, by way of my love for and devotion to x, that I did not escape that inherited trauma like I once believed I had.
But I am fighting tooth and nail to keep my daughter from taking on that burden and pain.
Tonight I pray that my mom finds a way back to level, or however close she will let herself get to it for now, because what she’s doing right now won’t end well.
I pray hard for her wellness and safety.
I know, though, that whatever she’s doing says nothing about my own mental health. Or about me as a mother.
I love her. So much more than I ever did x and so, so differently. In a core part of me, in the bones and muscles her body helped build.
So I still hold a deep, deep place in my heart for her to heal and live – to really live.
My mother was alone, with a three and four year old me, much like I was with my daughter and I have never felt more viscerally aligned with my mom, as a mom, than I have in the last two years.
My mother’s childhood was riddled with trauma and the women who raised her, my grandmother and great-grandmother, have trauma after trauma to list. My maternal lineage is one of rough roads, sickness and pain.
And also of deep, abiding strength and survival.
Of getting through.
My mother did better than her mother. A lot better.
Even though she was a teenager and a drop-out and tied to an alcoholic who blew his Navy checks at the bar almost as fast as he could cash them. Until she left him, only twenty years old with a three year old me and no work history.
She did everything to keep me alive and fed and a roof over our heads when it was tough. Eat every meal at other people’s houses tough, sometimes. Take your sick daughter to work with you since you can’t afford even one day missed rough, always.
Her love for me was (& is) real. Flawed and real.
She also set me up to let someone like x fool me and trap me in a reality I was programmed to see as fixable and normal.
In a love that wasn’t real in any sense of the word.
Mama, I wish I could mother you back to a calm, quiet place in the same ways I do with my own child in her roughest times.
If I could hold you tight – so tight you can’t hit or kick or run – until your body relaxes and your mind calms and then we could sit and have dinner and talk about what’s bothering us, I would. In a heartbeat.
You got me here – in the good and the bad ways.
You did better than your mama and I will do better than you. I work hard to leave our inherited trauma behind and I will not let a man like x undo that work. I will not let this corrected sight of my past derail me.
Mama to mama, I send you all my love. And gratitude for knowing that we are strong women who survive. I carry that strength and hope yours is there to hold you steady for as long as it takes this time.