this too
Monday, October 31, 2005
  When last we met



To say I’m ambivalent about blogging this is an understatement. Maybe it’ll force me to close this blog. Or maybe I’ll be able to move on. I don’t know. There’s so much else I’d like to write about - exercise my imagination and vocabulary, play more. But I can’t seem to write anything else until I’ve written this.


Imagine I’m a man and this is my wife. We’ve been married a long time and unhappy almost from the start. I first left her more than ten years ago. Her father died a few weeks later, she phoned me and I went back, went through the motions, through the dry, resentful funeral, and stayed. We lived together under a cloud. She was bored and shrill and bitter. I was depressive, uncommunicative, indecisive, knowing I should go, not going.

It is 1984. I left again, went back, left, went back. Finally, two years ago, I left for London and a new job. It is not a great success. Neither my wife nor I has formed a new relationship. Every now and then we meet and talk about trying again. A day together is usually enough to remind us why we shouldn’t.

It is Christmas. She persuades me we should spend it together, at her recently widowed sister’s home by the sea in Somerset. I am fond of her sister, after all, and of the sea. A quiet, relaxing place to be together and try not to rub each other up the wrong way. I have no plans for Christmas. I am prey to sentimental expectations of the holiday and keenly feeling my single state. I agree.

Bad mistake. BAD mistake. Her sister is caretaker of a seaside holiday park. Fifty empty wooden chalets. Deserted. Cold. Bleak. We have a chalet. Unheated. Furnished sparsely, for holidaymakers who spend most of their time outside. She’s told her sister we will sleep together, we are giving it another go. So only one bed has bedclothes. We do not sleep together. We divide the bedclothes and freeze. She will not tell her sister. I may not ask for more blankets. I bury myself in coats, escape into uneasy sleep. She lies awake, chilled, brooding on her own intransigence.

I am angry with myself for agreeing to this. I shut myself in the bathroom with a bottle of whisky. Keep warm by staying under water. Get very drunk, then very sick. Alarmed by this – I don’t usually drink a lot - my wife tries to be pleasant, but cannot. She opens her mouth and the frogs and serpents of a lifetime’s bitterness rush out. Her sister, who looks depressed and clearly wishes we hadn’t come, cooks an inedible Christmas dinner. When not snowing, it rains. I walk on the long grey beach. It is a nightmare.

My wife’s nephew comes to visit his mother. A frail youth of twenty, lost without his father, for whom he used to work. Looking at my frozen, furious face, and trying, really trying, not to turn her tongue on me, my wife turns on him. She has a nose for vulnerability, nags him relentlessly over breakfast, lunch and dinner about what a failure he is, how he must shape up and be a better support to his mother. On the third day of this he stands up, palely silent, leaves in the middle of a snowstorm and drives across Dartmoor to his sister’s place. Really dangerous. Better than staying. Good for him.

I have watched her do to him what she usually does to me, felt so sorry, so indignant, and said not a word in his defence. I leave the next day, soberly appalled at my own weakness, and I think: no more, I can’t bear this woman and I can’t bear who I am in her presence. We do not meet again.

Twenty years have passed. My ex-wife remarried, was widowed some years ago, began to phone me again. Whenever she is ill or lonely there will be an answerphone message. Sometimes I phone back. Sometimes she tells me I’m evil. Sometimes she carps inanely as though we saw each other yesterday. Always she makes me shudder, and I have little to say in return. I hold the phone as though it's a heavy saucepan of boiling water, longing to let it fall, exerting all my effort not to let it fall.


Maybe you think she should leave me alone after all these years. I should change my phone number. No, you don’t, I don’t. Because this is not my ex-wife. It’s my mother. Not my ex-mother. There is no divorce.
 
Comments:
Oh, Jean.
 
{{{Jean}}}

I'm so sorry. I see that this is really hard. I hear it in your words.

You know, the details are different. And your story and pain are unique. But, boy, I can relate to it as a result of my own experiences! (as zhoenw said, Guess how I know) I suspect a lot of people can relate to the pain of this. So in terms of blogging or not blogging, I think you can count on a lot of folks feeling very empathetic and supportive. I know that's how I feel about it. I'm listening. If I can do anything else, say the word.
 
This is brilliantly written, even if there is underlying despair...

I, too, have a deeply troubled and problematic relationship with my mother.

If I am with my mother for too long I become suicidal. Literally. So it's dangerous for me, and I need to keep distance.

I moved out of home at 18 on the recommendation of a social worker who told my father that if I stayed near my mother I would have a massive breakdown.

That threat remains to this day. She hadn't wanted me, tried to abort, was abusive, etc., and I think there's a part of me that would undo my own life to satisfy her, to please her, to make her, finally, happy.

Of course that's all nonsense. But the inner child isn't sensible, but loving, wanting to make the parent happy...

Anyway, yes, I married a man very similar to my mother. Old story. That's one reason why the way you have written this is so brilliantly conceived.

So, I left the marriage, and still have my mother. Nowadays when she starts on another emotional rampage, I tell her that I won't allow her to criticize me or my children or my brothers. If she persists, and by this I mean a second phone call or email, I add her number to my call block service so that she gets a message saying that her calls will not be accepted, or since I use a Mac, I bounce her emails back to her - they are returned as 'undeliverable.'

After a few weeks she stops phoning or writing.

After 6 months or a year, things usually start up again, and contact for me is tenuous but I cope until she starts attacking me, and then I tell her that she is criticizing me and will cut contact. I no longer try to argue about what she is saying, or try to change her mind, or any of the other strategies that have never worked.

I'd like to cut contact permanently. But she has a right to see her grandchildren, and then my brothers are alone in dealing with her, so I play this roulette game, with the safety catch on, the ability to shut her up when she starts her scathing loathing bitternesses & hatreds...

Jean, sanity is important; self-respect important; self-love is crucial. Wellness. Please, please don't ever stop posting. What you are writing about resonates with so many of us...

*hugs xo
 
Unfortunately, I'm afraid this interaction and reaction is much more common than our society, dedicated to maintaining its own myths, will ever admit.

As an ex-caseworker and ex-teacher, I saw much more of this than I had ever imagined existed because it was such a different world from my own. That doesn't make it any less real, but it does make it harder on the individuals who have to deal with it.

I'm sure that your sharing will help others deal better with their own conflicts.
 
Oh Jean {{{Jean}}}

There are so many of us out there who can relate to your last two posts. I've put an ocean and a continent between my mother and myself, but that didn't make it any easier in finding the solution or the resolution to the bickering and the bitterness. Even without a common language (my forgotten Hungarian and her poor English) doesn't prevent us from making it clear to each other that we have both failed....

So, I hear you! I really do.

As a mother, I can't even begin to tell you about the struggles I go through not to inflict the dark shadows of the parenting I had unto my children.
 
{{Jean}}}
Get it out, Jean. Out into the light. Knowing you're helping others may make it easier.

Like Loren, this is very different from my own family situation, but I have seen similar things up close. And what they often have in common is the way the children feel guilty, as if it their fault, and as if choosing to try to protect themselves is some sort of huge sin. There is a sense of shame which is completely misplaced, and also a sense of being caught, trapped in patterns. Of course, that is part of the manipulation. Teasing the truth from the fiction and doing it out in the light has to be a giant step toward healing and movement.
 
Jean I know this story, perhaps not with the same script; I have been, and sometimes I still am in the place that you are right now. I understand so wellthe nephew, who would rather face a snowstorm than remain in the face of the hurricane.

I connect with so much of what others have said here, especially Beth; to get it out.

Thinking of you
 
You can divorce her. You can.

I left my father behind. He threatened me with disownment, and I agreed. I made it stick. I grieved, or something, then I healed. Like a long neglected abscess finally drained, it finally healed. My integrity grew back. I no longer had to try and buy father's day cards that didn't lie. I have, provisionally forgiven him, as long as he does not hurt me again. I ensure this will not happen by not allowing any contact at all. He gets full forgiveness when he dies, I will not wish him in hell, he puts himself there every day.

I had to cut off contact with my mother as his abettor. I have some conflicted feelings about her, but all and all feel much better since.

I feel so much healthier and happier since I did. I no longer live a lie of omission and compromise. I can let go of my sins of anger and bitterness. I can forgive because I do not let them hurt me more.

Let go. Wait. See what happens.
 
Jean, I think it is brave of you to post this and I hope that it is cathartic and helpful to you as well. My mom and I had a very toxic relationship and I felt guilty for a long time. Getting it out into the open will no doubt help, at least a little. Let us share your pain and do what we can to help and commiserate.
 
The photo looks, to me, like a woman's dress without a woman inside; the exterior recognisable and nameable, the interior absent. Like your mother, who is your mother on the outside because of the physical reality that she gave you birth, but is absent, not present as a mother, as we understand 'mother', on the inside where you feel things. I think zhoenw is right again: you CAN divorce her. You have choices and power. You don't have to have any contact with her. You don't even have to feel guilty about it. You don't, in fact, owe her anything. Her illness and loneliness are her problems, not yours. You don't have to take them on. It's yourself you need to look after - because nobody else can do that for you.
 
Oh, Jean, I'm so sorry.I agree with Loren, sharing your pain will help others deal better with their own conflicts. I am listening you with all my heart.
 
Dear Jean,
Thank you so much for sharing your story. I know how the wounds hurt and hurt even after many years of knowing, unlearning, seeking, trying. Your writing about this makes me want to write more about my troubled and anguished relationship with my mother... if only I could get over the fear of our Patriarch.

I wish, like Natalie said before, I could invite you for lunch, a walk, a chat, a "just being there" day. But in any event - here I am, dangling with you in cyberspace at least.
 
Jean, you've created beauty out of pain in your post, which is the purpose of art. And there's so much wisdom and compassion in the comments here that it makes me hopeful about the future of our species, our culture. Most of the things said here are things that would not have been so widely understood or readily shared when we were children. And people (including me) are trying not to pass along the old evils to the next generation. Despite all the terrible things happening in this world, I think childraising has improved tremendously, and that's hopeful.
 
I'm so warmed and moved by the comments I've received on this post and the previous one. It's made me think a lot about how kind and lovely, as well as interesting and talented, are the bunch of people I've met through blogging. I also agree with Richard that they bear witness to how, whatever the terrible ills and decay of today's world, the development in our lifetimes of Western discourse on child-rearing has been in many ways a positive one.

I've found it quite hard to read these comments, so little do I expect any sympathy on this subject. I mean to take them all away and read them slowly and meditatively and perhaps respond at greater length.
 
A beautiful, amazingly written piece - very moving. I understand the agony having had a "difficult" mother.
 
Jean this is agonisingly beautiful and I HEAR you loud and clear.
Much love.
 
Sitting here 3 days after a brutal, ill-advised "holiday" phone call to my toxic mother.

For whatever reason (and in 30 years, my therapists and I have been unable to determine why) my mother has hated my guts since I was a zygote.

Take my advice. Should you make the decision to cut all contact, don't be tempted -- please don't do what I did, and after years and years, let holiday sentimentality and regret get in the way. It will undo all the progress you've made.

I have an appointment tomorrow with my therapist, who will help me (I hope) to sweep up and glue back together all the pieces shattered by one horrible, 5-minute phone call this weekend.

My heart goes out to you.
 
Dear Jean,

I am sorry that I am posting this to you as “Anonymous”. This has been my name for many years, for reasons that will become obvious.

I was sexually abused by my father from the age of 6 (as far back as I can remember) until 16, when I “ran away” from my home in the suburbs of London. I thought the streets of London were paved with gold. At 16 years old I worked myself to the bone, doing a host of cleaning, waiting at tables in restaurants and menial jobs just to pay the exorbitant private rents. I made only enough money at the end of each day to afford to eat one sandwich per day. I was so hungry that I stole the occasional packet of dehydrated curry dinner off a supermarket shelf. The owner caught me and I think she felt sorry for me because she gave me a warning instead of calling the police. I think she realized I was stealing because I was hungry and not because I was feeding a drugs habit.

I worked hard and eventually became savvy enough to know that if I wanted to impress employers then I had to smarten up. I stole a beautiful dress from a shop and went to an interview with a temporary agency. I looked a million dollars. I had immediate temporary employment and I had never seen so much money before. I earned more than my Dad ever had. Things were starting to look brighter.

I still had no contact with my family and I was pining for my siblings. Workmates used to look at me like I was mad when I said I had broken all contact with my family. I returned to a lonely bedsitting room each evening. I felt that my bad situation was my fault, for being born into a bad situation. I had a very low self-esteem. I still have a low opinion of myself but I keep reminding myself that I clawed my way out with only God’s (or some higher being’s) help.

Charlotte (anonymous)
 
Jean I'm drifting in cyber space and came here via Mike. When I started reading and saw your photograph I couldn't believe it was the Jean I had occasionally read from Zinnia's. This is such powerful writing that I am dazzled by it. I don't know what your circumstances are but you are truly blessed to be able to write like this.
I hope this doesn't seem inappropriate but I had to tell you.
 
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