The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A Play in Three Acts by Sarah O’Brien.
Act Three: The Ugly
I hate my mother. When she dies, I am going to throw her ashes in the town dump…where she belongs.
One night, after yet another hateful thing she had done, I lay in bed and imagined what I would do after she died. I knew she wanted to get cremated and I fantasized about driving her ashes to the town dump and walking over to the enormous garbage pit and quite ceremoniously, throwing her ashes into the pit with the rest of the worthless things that people didn’t want. I imagined that she would get integrated with all the trash and be hauled away to a landfill and get buried under heaps of other garbage.
It gave me fleeting pleasure for a little while to imagine that I could dispose of her ashes in the town dump. I felt that the dump would be fitting. I felt that it would be a way for me to get revenge. A way for me to punish her. A way for me to treat her like she treated me. The coup de grâce. The final death blow.
And there would be nothing she could do about it. For the first time, I would have the last word. She would be silent. I would be in complete control. She would be the helpless one. I would be doing this without her consent. A complete role reversal. It felt good to settle myself into what it might have felt like. But alas, she is currently residing on a shelf in our garage and I try really hard not to glance towards that area when I pass through.
You are wondering what my mother could have possibly done to create this level of hatred. I mean, it really can’t get uglier than having your daughter want to literally throw your ashes into the town dump.
As I wrote in the first Act, The Good: I could write an entire blog post on being the daughter of someone with NPD, Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Today, I will summarize: My mother had narcissistic personality disorder and her children were the recipient of her venomous attacks in every moment of anger, failure, loss, and insecurity that she felt. She kept us guessing about when she was going to strike, which kept us in terrified obedience. The only times when we knew she was going to release her wrath were on the most important milestones in our lives. Those were the days when we braced ourselves. Those were the days when the spotlight was turned on us – and not on her – and she absolutely could not tolerate our happiness. Every graduation, every celebration, every milestone, every success, every birth, every birthday, every holiday, every happy occasion…she brought down in a firestorm of her children’s tears.
My sister, brother and l fled the moment we could. We all went to college and with the exception of a few brief summers, we didn’t come back. The miles apart, created years apart which seemed to temper her. After a while, the phone calls began to feel normal and I was lulled into a false sense of security. Then, out of the blue, my mother fell into a deep depression for many years. It was a very dark time for her and the phone calls were awful. Her children all lived in different states and she would call us sobbing uncontrollably and be inconsolable. She would tell us how lonely she was and she would remind us about all the sacrifices she had made for us. We’d hear her say “If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t (fill in the blank).” She took credit for everything we did. The guilt she piled on us kept us all tethered to her and she knew it.
I would talk to my siblings about her depression. We’d all try to rationalize her behavior and came up with reasons why this was happening. We reached a unanimous decision. After we left our carefree life in Jamaica, things changed dramatically and our mother bore the brunt of it all. With nothing but raw talent, determination, and a fistful of dollars, she made us a beautiful home, created an interesting life, and worked tirelessly to make ends meet. We decided that she was alone and lonely because there was never any time for a man in her life.
The facts are that she was a single mother raising three children on a small income. She changed her career so she could work from home as a caterer and be available for us in the mornings before school and in the afternoons when we came home. Every morning we woke up to a set dining table and a hot breakfast and came home to an after school snack. We took turns setting the table for dinner and we ate together as a family every single night, no exceptions. After dinner, all three of us would return to the dining table and do our homework and study for exams. She made her children her single priority and was laser focused on raising us with impeccable manners, a strong work ethic and a solid education. It worked, we all got jobs when we turned 16 and got into great colleges. There is no doubt that my mother played a major role in making that happen.
After what I have just written, you can see that it is easy to push aside all the bad stuff that came raining down. We’d have so many happy times in between the storms. I think that we got used to being treated badly, we accepted it as part of life.
Despite her treatment of me, I remained an utterly loyal, devoted and dutiful daughter who instinctively put my mother on a pedestal. She was, after all, the matriarch of the family. When she was being awful, all I had to do was to remind myself of all the struggles she had overcome and the sacrifices that she had made for her children. When I was going through an uncertain period in my life, I had an opportunity to move back to Connecticut. I was nervous about living near her. Time and distance tends to heal, she was desperately lonely and I convinced myself that her depression had softened her and that I could alleviate her loneliness and make her happy. The romantic and hopeful part of me longed to be loved by my mother, so I returned home.
And so did the flames.
When I returned to Connecticut, I realized that the early years were just the warm up. No longer was I an innocent, gleeful, wide eyed college student with just a few life achievements under my belt that she could minimize. Now, I was a woman. And a successful business woman at that. She watched as I bought my own home, then met the man of my dreams. She watched as Kerry and I blended our lives, she watched as we went on luxury vacations, she watched as we welcomed our first child.
She watched in surprise and no doubt, jealousy, as I rose from the ashes that she had buried me in. She witnessed my successes and realized with bitterness that I had eclipsed her in every way possible. She was spiteful and made snide remarks. I chose to be non-reactive and that only fueled her anger. So she shed her skin time and time again and each renewal brought venom more potent than before. And she knew how to hit me where it hurt because over the course of our relationship, I innocently shared my vulnerabilities with her. I exposed my buttons to her and she leveraged my trust in her to push them.
Sometimes, after she insulted me I would gather the courage to tell her I felt hurt. She’d laugh and tell me that I was being hypersensitive and needed to lighten up. I believed her, because she was mom. I believed her because I assumed that she had my best interest at heart. I believed her because I assumed that she would always tell the truth.
When I think back on my life, the over arching feeling I have is that it has been wonderful. The years of hard work that I have put in to my life has gotten me to the point where I can coast along and I feel very fortunate for the life I have built. To maintain happiness, I compartmentalized my mother from my everyday life. I wish things could have been different, but all along the path of my life, my mother she spewed pieces of shrapnel in the forms of verbal abuse and sometimes physical abuse. Sometimes the shrapnel were big pieces that cut deep into my bone, but mostly it was hundreds of little sharp pieces that dug into my skin. She was relentless. With one hand she would praise me and with the other, knock me down.
Ironically, it was my loyalty that ended our relationship. The thing about me, and almost all Capricorns, is that our strongest character traits are love, loyalty and dedication. Loyalty is built into our DNA. But it is a double edged sword, because if you try to persuade us to be disloyal to someone we love, we immediately become disloyal to you.
One fateful day, she pushed my loyalty too far. From her arsenal of contempt, she hurled a disparaging comment to me about my husband and assumed that I would be agreeable. I absorbed the insult into my being and the most miraculous thing happened. All those years of spewing barbs had actually made me stronger. The moment I felt that last piece of shrapnel “click into place” my armor was complete. It was the same feeling you get when you place the final puzzle piece, a deeply satisfying feeling of self-assurance. In an instant, I became emboldened because I simply didn’t give a f*ck about her anymore. I stared directly into her eyes and in the calmest voice imaginable, I explained to her in very clear terms what she could not do ever again. I told her that I didn’t care what she said about Kerry to other people, but that she could never say anything unkind about him to me again. My calmness was her undoing, she knew I meant every word.
We didn’t speak for months after that. I had effectively snuffed her and I was free. She could never hurt me again, because I did not care about her anymore. Actually, I should say that I didn’t care about her opinion of me anymore. There will always a part of me that cared about her.
After that, our gatherings were pleasant, but not relaxed. There was a new note of formality. Any mother-daughter tenderness that I dreamt we used to share, was gone. My children were spared from her NPD and to her credit, she was a sweet and indulgent grandmother who delighted in spending time with them.
How it happened
In the last month of her life, there was a dramatic decline in her health and she started presenting with symptoms that convinced me that she was actively dying. She was sleeping all the time and even fell once, I took her straight to the ER and luckily nothing was broken. Then one day, she didn’t get out of bed. If was the first time in her entire life that she remained in bed. And then it happened the very next day, and the next, and the next. And then she stopped eating. It was time to go to hospital.
Thursday: We started off in the ER on a Thursday, and the doctor and I talked about her health. As I was describing all things that were happening, he wordlessly nodded his head. He told me that he was happy that I had brought her in and gently suggested that she be moved to a Progressive Care Unit. It’s a place where she will be well taken care of by skilled doctors and nurses, but also a place where hospice could begin. She has been ill for three years on an agonizingly slow decline and all of a sudden, everything was happening so quickly.
When hospice was ordered, it really hit me that the end was near and my anger came out of no where. I was so angry that she was dying…well actually…especially because she was dying because I knew that the chance for us to “fix” things between us was lost forever. We actually lost that chance about two years ago when dementia claimed her past, present and future. She didn’t remember what she did, but I still remembered.
Friday: She was moved to the Progressive Care Unit on Friday, and I decided that I wasn’t going to see her ever again. I must have gotten six phone calls in three hours from various people from hospital. They were giving me frequent updates on how she was doing and the medications that they were administering. They told me that they were not sure about how she would react to the medications (hinting that she could die) and kept asking me “Do you want to come in?” NO! A thousand times no. I wished that they would just leave me alone. I was absolutely convinced that she was going to die in the next 24-48 hours and I did not want to be part of that. I called my brother and told him that I thought the end was near, he booked the next available flight that would arrive on Sunday night.
One of the most bizarre and emotionally challenging things that comes with impending death is…planning for it. I met with a hospice representative and he described what the process was and suggested that I start planning. He gently suggested that I should not wait until death and preplanning will make everything smoother. I needed to find a cremation facility, pre-order death certificates, notify next of kin and write an obituary. I was so angry at her for all the things that she had said and done to me that I decided that she didn’t deserve an obituary. I was just going to let her depart this world quietly, without any recognition. The fantasy about throwing her ashes in the trash resurfaced. The hurt was so deep you have no idea.
Saturday: On Saturday I went to work and by a sad coincidence, an acquaintance was going through the same thing. Her mom was in hospice too, but that is where the similarities ended. I asked her “Was your mom good to you?” She said, “Yes, she was wonderful to me.” In the middle of the store in front of everyone, I burst into tears. It wasn’t fair. I told my friend, “I don’t even want to see her, she was such a bitch to me!” And my friend wrapped me up in her arms and said “You are going to go for your children. You are going to show your children how to do the right thing.” I climbed into my car and I bawled. I knew I was losing my resolve.
The pull was stronger than my pushback. So I went to see her in the hopes of finding out why I needed to see her. I am a grown woman, I can make up my own mind and as much as I was resisting going in to see her – and I was really comfortable with that – there was something drawing me to her. And it wasn’t about showing my children that you should visit your mom when she is in hospital. I needed an answer to a question and I didn’t even know what the question was.
As I sat with her in the hospital room, I could see that her body was frail, and weak and failing. Except for the notable exception of her hands. They were as strong and supple as ever, and I have so much respect for how she used them. Her adept hands have been the epicenter of her world and mine. Every memory of my mother involves her handiwork. Her hands were the tools she used to break and build her life, and I mean that quite literally. She could hold a cigarette with movie star grace in one moment, and in the next, expertly swing a 10-pound hammer. Those were just the bookends, the extreme examples. Imagine what she could do with her hands in between the cigarettes and the hammers.
And then it happened, everything became clear and I knew why I was there. I came to find the good in her. I needed to find something good about my mother because I couldn’t bear the idea of living the rest of my life without anything to hold on to about her. Every lesson she taught me, the good, the bad and the ugly shaped me into the woman I am today. And I am a badass.
FADE TO BLACK
Epilogue: For most of my life, I chased after the love of my mother. I longed for a normal relationship and never lost hope that we would have one. Every time she pushed me away with her words and actions, I came back again and again trying something new that I hoped would please her.
It was only after I became a mother that I knew that her feelings for me were not maternal love. Even now, I’m not even interested in peeling back the onion to reveal the motivation or reason behind why she developed this disorder. I am more interested in embracing the fact that she had it, gaining comfort in the realization that she had mental issues, accepting the fact that some of her behavior she couldn’t control and – this is the hardest part – that some of her behavior was intentional.
Her death brought up feelings of anger. She was my only mother and I will forever be the daughter of a mother who couldn’t love me. Part of my anger is at her and the other part is at life. You don’t get to pick your parents, it is a total crap shoot. Bad parenting, especially by the mother, is the worst betrayal imaginable. It is worse than being betrayed by someone you are dating or married to because our MOTHER is the person who SHOULD love us INSTINCTIVELY. Our mother’s love is PRIMAL and with that unique bond, comes all sorts of inherent expectations. They start when we are a helpless baby being nurtured from her breast all the way through our formative toddler years, through our identity shaping adolescent years, through our newly independent young adult years, all the way through our dream chasing adult years. Our parents are the ones who SHOULD love us the MOST and want us to live our BEST life possible. As children, we KNOW this, we FEEL this, we EXPECT this. But when this doesn’t happen, we are BETRAYED by her and I can’t think of anything more unfair than that. It’s unfair because we didn’t ask to be born and unfair because we absolutely deserve to be loved. Being loved is a fundamental right that every child has.
Children don’t need their parents to be rock stars, the head of the PTA, Girl Scout Troop, and Soccer Coach. If we had a choice, I believe that most of us would be happy with a simple and uncomplicated Mom who loved us unconditionally, supported our interests, was warm and affectionate and took care of our day to day needs. What we do not deserve is some crazy ass parent who beats, belittles, mocks, and diminishes their innocent child. That is f*cked up.
In the days and weeks since I published the first post, I have been inundated with cards and countless emails that I never expected. Cards from new friends, old friends and emails from followers of this blog. Many of which have identified with my experiences because their parents are narcissistic too. Because of you, my writing plans have shifted and a goal, that didn’t exist before, has emerged. My goal is to assure you that you are not alone, describe my journey and to share resources that helped me.
I am going to write another blog post about the importance of healing. In the meantime, I highly recommend this book: Mothers Who Can’t Love: A Healing Guide for Daughters by Susan Forward, Donna Frazier Glynn