Here's the Thing: On Reconnecting With Estranged Parents
Do you owe it to your parent to try to talk to them again after abuse?
OUR MOST DELIGHTFUL GEM OF A FRIEND:
I'm in a little bit of a dilemma. I haven't spoken to my mother in over a year. We've had a really unhealthy relationship in the past. She has a lot of narcissistic tendencies and is generally very controlling, manipulative, and abusive, to the point where my sister and I have had to cease all communication with her. She's also an alcoholic and has had some issues with substance abuse in the past, as well as suffering from bipolar disorder and multiple other physical conditions (diabetes, a heart conditions etc.)
My girlfriend had an eerily similar relationship with her father before he passed away from a drug overdose. They weren't speaking at the time and their last conversation was obviously not a positive exchange. This has been incredibly hard for her to grapple with, understandably, as it is my nightmare.
My mother overdosed last year, made my little sister drive her to the hospital, and made her promise not to tell anyone. The only reason I found out anything had happened at all is because the woman who adopted me as an adult works at the police station in our town and asked me if my mother was okay after a well check had been done because my mother didn't show up to work.
Fast forward to now and my mother texts me on a monthly basis to say that she loves me and misses me. I, sadly, feel the same way. But I don't believe that she's put in the work to be a better person. This whole situation is very hard and very painful for me and I know that I am in a healthier spot in my life without my mother but I don't think I could forgive myself if she died and I hadn't spoken to her.
Please make this decision for me. What do I do?
This photo has nothing to do with your mom, it’s just a nice beach that’s probably very hard to get to and only for rich people but you and I can just enjoy looking at it.
I think no matter what you do it will be painful, and no matter what choice you make, you will be right. If you never talk to your mother again, that’s ok. If you try to have a relationship with her again, even though she’s abusive and toxic, that’s ok. If you wait a while longer to decide what to do, that’s ok. No matter what you do, it is not your fault that you’re in this shitty ass situation. It’s an unfair, horrific mix of bad circumstances and an abusive person who needs help.
An abusive person needing help and an abusive person being a family member are impossible things to grapple with. Not just difficult. Impossible.
There is no good way out, otherwise you would have picked it!
You’re brilliant and lovely; if there were an obviously wise way to handle your relationship with your mother, you would have thought of it. Give yourself permission to flail. Not because you suck, because the situation is so hard. It’s like knowing how to swim and then being mad that you’re not good at swimming across the Atlantic ocean sans help. OF COURSE YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO THAT! NO ONE DOES! IT’S NOT A THING HUMANS SHOULD HAVE TO DO! That doesn’t make you a bad swimmer, ok?
Now—keeping in mind that there is NO WRONG CHOICE—here is something I’d like to present to you. This is just as likely to fail or hurt as any other choice you have, so take this with all the grains of salt in the world, but I would humbly suggest there is some middle ground to be walked here. Your choices are not cut your mother off entirely and never talk to her again OR let her fully back into your life on her terms.
Pretty much no matter what, dealing with your mother—talking to her or not talking to her—is going to use up undue amounts of your emotional energy. This is unfair as hell, and I think you can and should whine and moan about it whenever you get the chance. (Feel free to email me just complaints if you’d like. I don’t mind). I think one of your best tactics is to try to protect your energy here and set as many boundaries as you can upfront. Maybe that looks like responding only via text, but not meeting up in real life. Maybe that looks like sending a letter to her with all of the good things you want to say and with honest boundaries (e.g., “I love you mom and I know that in your own way you love me, and I don’t want us to not talk again ever, but I also need space from you. It’s not out of hate, but self-preservation.”) Those are likely the wrong words— you know WAY better than I what you need to say and what you’d like her to hear. Maybe you set up an email address just for communicating with her, so you can check it when you’d like and ignore it when you don’t want to.
I think sticking to the written word for now is probably your safest bet for managing her narcissism and abusive tendencies, but there may come a point where you feel like you can see her in person. If that point comes, bring people with you who are not related to her that will get you out of there if things turn sour. Even if it’s just them saying, “I have a headache. We need to go home.”
I’m sure there’s a lot you’d like to say to your mother that isn’t positive or good. I’m sure there’s A LOT she ought to hear and own. I can’t tell you what to do with that stuff, the toxic sludge that she dumped in your lap. All I can say is that in general, a lot of what needs to be said in life goes unsaid. While we imagine it will feel like freedom if we could just tell the person how much they hurt us, it doesn’t always work out. Sometimes you simply miss the opportunity (like your girlfriend), some people don’t care when you tell them they hurt you, some people deny, some people feel so much remorse that you then have to comfort them for having hurt you. Sometimes—not always—the route of life is accepting that this person will never carry the weight of the pain they caused, but that YOU don’t have to carry it either. You don’t have to hold onto this heavy box of toxic sludge just in case you ever get the chance to hand it back to your mom. You’re allowed to put it down for a bit. You’re allowed to admit that it’s her fault, solely her fault, that she fucked this up, that you don’t want to fix it, and that despite that, you’d like to talk to her a bit.
Or scream. Or lose it at her. Or mess things up irreparably. It’s all ok. This isn’t your fault and it never was. You’re also allowed to walk away, even if you never speak to her again, you talked to her plenty of times before she died.
You’ll make the right choice. Or you’ll make a choice you don’t like and you’ll course correct. You’ve got this. You’re brilliant.
Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter, she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tries to write about Fleetwood Mac for GQ, avoids writing by tweeting at @1followernodad, works full-time as a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. She’s also working on a book and at least five TV pilots at any given moment. You can reach her or yell at her at email@example.com.