The stories in this series involve me being unusually frank and graphic about some fucked-up stuff, and therefore have the following blanket content warnings:
- Child abuse
- Self-harm and suicide
- Drug abuse
- Mental illness
- Sexual assault and rape
- A shit-ton of swears
It’s hard to hate your mom. That was the title of an article I read this morning. I’d imagine it’s true. But seeing that still makes me a little confused, because the people I know who have that kind of relationship with their mom — the kind that makes you click on articles like that — are categorically unable to use the word “hate”. Because if I hated my mother, everything would be so much simpler.
When you stumble into the part of the internet that exists to support survivors of abuse and narcissism, it’s easy to feel that your trauma isn’t bad enough. You start to hear stories that make your childhood look like Mr. Rogers. “My mother called me worthless every day.” “My mother beat me with a curtain rod and broke my legs.” “My mother didn’t feed me or my siblings and we had to find food ourselves.” I can’t compete with any of that. As my mother said to me so many times when I was a kid… “We feed you, we clothe you, we don’t even make you pay rent. What more do you want?”
This is the divide between PTSD and CPTSD, I guess. One results from a brutal event or events, trauma that reshapes your whole life like a hammer to the skull. The other results from months or years of repeated trauma and brainwashing in a captive situation — being trapped in a place where you are not safe and not allowed to leave. It’s challenging to get properly treated for CPTSD because it’s often misdiagnosed as other disorders, and because it makes a person very resistant to traditional talk therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — what you’re likely to get if you just walk into a therapist’s office and ask for help — tends to make people with CPTSD even more anxious and self-critical, leading them to feel that they are fundamentally broken, incapable of being healthy or happy by nature.
how to make friends and brainwash others
People I know in the CPTSD community, such as it is, don’t say that they hate their families. These people — women, mostly, thus the preponderance of talk about moms in these communities — and I don’t know if women are more likely to experience this or more likely to talk about it, probably a little of both — these people were brainwashed like I was, in a conscious, deliberate way. My mother never made any bones about what she was up to; “brainwashed” is the word she used, and she elucidated her technique to me constantly as she was doing it. As a result, I know exactly how and why she created me. I know the terror that underpins all of it, the desperation to make the world what it should be, the inability to protect something precious from a vicious universe, the fury and fatalism of seeing someone heading for trouble and not understanding why they don’t turn away… I understand all of that. It makes it hard for me to hate her. I know that she loved me and was afraid, and that all her decisions flowed out of that fear. I know that I loved her and was afraid, and so I reinforced her fear.
I also know how to make friends and brainwash others. She taught me very well. Now that I’m grown, I see it in the way she deals with everyone, and I see the same talent in myself. Both of us are introverts, the kind of introvert who hears, “What? But you’re so good with people!” when they admit it. My mother is magnetic, a social chameleon, and I learned from watching her to step into any setting and assume the role required. With a few days to talk I can make anybody fall in love with me; it’s easy. I know how to phrase things to make people agree, the appeasing wiggle words that convince a person your idea was theirs to begin with. I know how to back up what I say with my eyes, my tone, my body, how to spot the tells of others while hiding my own. I know how to flatter the ego without committing to anything, how to defuse a fight while looking like the underdog the whole time, how to cook affection and neglect into a nasty little drug that keeps your customer coming back again and again. I learned to love from a poker player, is what I’m saying, and while I can turn twenty dollars into two hundred in under fifteen minutes, I get in trouble when it comes time to leave the table.
Not to mention I hate myself for it. It’s not in me to hate my mother, she left out that piece when she built this machine, but I can and often do hate all the interchangeable parts we have. So much of what makes me strong, powerful, beautiful, talented, special… so much of that is hers in its origin and its execution. So much of what I should be proud of is painful to me, because to succeed is to become more like her. I fear that, fear it like fire with every word I speak. I fear that there is no midpoint between total self-abnegation and total narcissism. I fear the ability I have to manipulate people, and I fear what I would do with it if I didn’t fear it. To quote a dead person, I have a superiority complex, and I have an inferiority complex about it.
To succeed is to become more like her, and to fail is to prove her right. All roads lead back to her, in my mind. This is the trap of CPTSD — the codependent position we assume when we’re unable to leave, Stockholm syndrome reinforced every day for twenty years. The person who hurts and terrifies you is also the person you must admire and emulate. She demands your love constantly yet pushes you away. She excoriates you for your helplessness but takes over every task and challenge. Her aims must be your sole focus and interest, but you must never dare to expect her interest in return.
It never really occurred to me to question it until I was about 30. That was when the accumulation of dissonances became too much to ignore — all the times when I laughed about some story from my childhood, only to realize my audience was not laughing. All the times I repeated a line my parents said, only to get a sideways glance and hear, “Really? That’s… pretty fucked up actually.” All the times I described my mother in terms I thought were glowing, and saw worried frowns on the faces around me. “She’s the sun in my sky, she’s like a goddess to me,” I used to say. “She’s everything I am turned up to 11.” I still feel that way. But the thing is… that’s not how any person should feel about any other person. It’s not healthy, it’s not stable, and everything that comes out of it is a little poisoned by the power disparity. And if you were taught to be that way before you had a chance to choose… that’s called brainwashing, not love.
I watched the latest(?) Avengers movie, Infinity War, this week. I’m way behind, I know, I just don’t get to movies anymore for some reason. There’s a moment in it when Thanos, the big bad, is speaking with his… oh, shall we say… indentured daughter. She says to him, “Everything I hate about myself, you taught me.” He answers, “Then in doing so… I made you the fiercest woman in the galaxy.” That exchange did what a lot of things are doing these days, caught me off guard with tears. Because that conversation is so familiar, and I’ve heard those words from my mother’s mouth.
She’d say, “I made you strong, I made you creative and brilliant, didn’t I?” And I can’t argue. All I can say is… I never asked to be any of that, and if I am, it’s not mine. It’s her strength, her brilliance, her values, her goals, her definitions of success and failure. There’s no pride in winning the way she taught me, and no fear in losing anymore. I decided I’d rather lose everything than keep anything the way she kept me.
So I did. I let go of everything. Tried to kill myself, even, to finish the “letting go” properly. My mother told me once that she had three abortions before I was born, and at the bottom of a bottle of Southern Comfort I was pretty sure that I was meant to be the fourth, my life just a filing error, a cosmic mix-up that given a few minutes with a razor blade I could correct. I’ve had a few blogs before this one, closed because they’re full of stuff like this, from the winter of 2015: “All of this is a half-assed farce, a criminally drawn-out mistake that’s done nothing but stumble along hurting people and wasting time. I can at least wrap that shit up, thirty years too late. Do something worthwhile for the world at last — slit this lying throat.”
I didn’t manage it. Heard my mother’s voice in my head the whole time, laughing at me for shrinking from pain. My stepfather’s voice calling me a pussy. “Don’t be helpless.” Can’t even kill yourself right. The final fucking failure. The next morning I asked my partner to throw out the sleeping pills in the hall closet. I (did) didn’t want it to be that easy.
hope is killing you
That was the start — well, maybe the middle — of burning everything down, not just everything I was but also everything I’d hoped for. That’s the other thing about those articles that say, “It’s hard to hate your mom.” They tell you that eventually you’re gonna have to accept that the idea you have in your head of “mom,” the person you needed and everyone deserves as a kid, isn’t coming. Whether or not you achieve some form of peace with your family, the day when they suddenly listen and transform, magical-girl style, into the family you spent your whole life trying to be good enough to deserve… that day isn’t coming. You’re sitting in the ruins of your identity like a man camping on the foundations after the hurricane hits his house, and as long as you cling to the wreckage, you can’t build anything new. You have to sweep away everything, even hope. Because of that power disparity, that love is unhealthy, that hope is unclean — everything that flows out of it is poisoned. Hope is killing you as long as it makes you linger there.
There’s something underneath hope, though. Something colder but just as impossible to destroy. Something like defiance, something like determination, something like surrender. Not the hope that you can win… the grim, clear willingness to go on knowing that you’ll lose. The way you feel when you dive back into a burning building. The way I felt in one of my earliest memories, when I was three and playing on the edge of a pond with a friend, and he fell in. Both of us were little better than babies, in that weird muscle-memory place between infants who can swim and kids who forget how, but I threw myself in after him, resulting in him making it out just fine and me needing rescuing by our parents and the dogs. Got in trouble for that. Was supposed to have run for help while he was drowning, I suppose. Hellbent, maybe — I’ve seen that look in the eyes of a lot of recovering suicides over the years. “This is gonna suck and we’re probably gonna die, you say? Welp. Balls to the wall then.”
who I’ll be without these walls
So that’s about where we are now. I don’t have much. Maybe one friend left, maybe one hundred dollars on a good day. I don’t drink anymore. I cry a lot, sometimes without warning. It feels like weeping toxins out. I don’t feel any less sad, but I feel cleaner. My therapist asked me how I think it’s going, and I think it’s going better than I ever could have dreamed, and so horribly slowly. I never imagined that it was possible to change, does that make sense? The ways in which CPTSD affects everything you experience, your understanding of the world warped at such a fundamental level… I literally couldn’t parse how it was possible to change that. And of course we can’t — it’s a paradigm shift. Can’t see the other side until you’re there. But it is changing. Everything I thought was immutable is crumbling, and it’s terrifying, because I don’t know who I’ll be without these walls and bars, but I haven’t been afraid in a long, long time. I haven’t been interested enough in the future to feel fear. I didn’t think it would matter — I didn’t care if I lived that long.
And I still don’t hate my mom. I never have. I’ve worshiped, feared, needed and mistrusted her, made her both the God and the Devil of my universe, obeyed and rejected her as both. This is to say I don’t think I’ve ever seen her clearly, as who she is, or vice versa, and I can’t live the way we always have any longer. I said to someone once, “My mom loves her daughter very much. I’m a third wheel in that relationship.” She’s never really known me, or seemed to want to, and so I’ve never let her be honest with me either. I remember how seeing her get tender and demonstrative when she was drunk always terrified me — what’s going to happen? What’s she going to say? If I lean in when she purrs, will I bleed more when she bites? If I believe her when she tells me I’m a monster, does that mean I can believe her when she tells me she loves me? If I stick around long enough to hear her tell me she’s proud of me, is it rude to not stick around for the screaming?
I still don’t know, and I’m not yet strong enough to figure it out in a live-fire situation. I hope I will be. I think there’s a way to achieve something different, but it can’t be anything built on the wreckage of what we had. I’m still mourning the damage, and in a substantial way I don’t think she even perceives it, so we’re not ready to lay new bricks yet. There’s still a lot of sweeping to do. But it’s better than I feared it would be, starting from nothing. I feel lighter than I have in years.