“She Has Unstable Relationships:” The Gut-Wrenching Moment That Confirmed My Mother’s Mental Illness
My therapist, Dr. D., knew after our first dozen hours or so discussing my unstable childhood. He looked me square in the eyes.
“Amy, it sounds like your mother has Borderline Personality Disorder.”
“I don’t know what that is. A mental illness of course?”
“The way she rages at you, her terror of being abandoned, how she tries to force her shame on you.
“Ew, don’t say it like that! Gross.”
He laughed. He understood there are certain words and phrases I can’t stand to hear. Anything that smacks of boundary invasion, for one, that reminds me of a mother who stands too close, or who won’t leave the room when you need to change into your pajamas.
And words like penetrate. Yuck. Fantasy. Blech, too inexplicable and personal. And the worst two: desire, and its sister word, longing. It’s painful just to write those words. I’m fighting the urge to jump up and down to shake them out of me.
“You might want to consider researching it,” he said. “It may help you understand her behavior in a more helpful context.”
“I really don’t want to understand her, you know. I want to understand me, that’s fucking hard enough.”
D. gave me that look, his eyes bright with a smile that’s bemused but somehow not condescending. Maybe because he knows I’m just about to get it.
“Don’t tell me one leads to the other! I don’t want that!”
Of course I went home and looked up Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD. Within a half hour I called my sister.
“Mom has Borderline Personality Disorder!”
“She has what now?”
“Listen!” I read the symptoms from the web site for NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Health: Regular fits of rage. Frantic efforts to avoid abandonment. Unstable relationships. Distorted self-image. Impulsive, sometimes dangerous behavior. Intense depression and anxiety. Thoughts and threats of suicide. Feeling empty. Uncontrollable anger. Dissociative feelings. Splitting — veering from “I love you” to “I hate you” quickly and frequently.
“Sounds on the nose to me,” I said. “What do you think?”
“Holy crap. She has something, clearly, but… holy crap. She’s definitely a narcissist, that we already knew.”
“Apparently the two sometimes coexist. Put all that shit together and it’s Mom.”
Jess and I had often talked about Mom’s proclivity to love you and hate you in the same day. I was either an angel or a demon, and I never knew what I’d be in any given hour. And what triggered the change in Mom’s view was usually a mystery to me.
Sometimes Mom would retreat to her room and stay in bed for days, eating toast with margarine and jam that Dad brought her. At some point, Dad would round up his three kids — me, Jess, and our older brother, Jack — make us file into the bedroom, and apologize to Mom for making her so depressed. We would each say “I’m sorry” and file back out, wondering what we were sorry for.
My stomach hurt all the time. I tried to be helpful around the house and otherwise invisible by staying in my room to read. Nothing, however, could prevent her frequent rages, a repetition of shouted accusations about my worthlessness: I was spoiled. Ungrateful. Lazy. I didn’t know what it meant to suffer. I had no idea how good I had it or what she and Dad had sacrificed for me.
The moments when she approved of me — asking me to play piano while she cleaned the kitchen, praising an essay I’d written for English class — were as unpredictable as her rages. If something happened at school that upset me, she might understand. The exact thing would happen again and she’d yell at me. I had to learn to take it, she’d say. Stop being bothered by everything. Stop being so damn sensitive.
I was sensitive, very. I still am and always will be. But I learned to fake it, to wear a hard shell, never cry or complain, laugh when I was hurting. By the time I was in college, I rarely cried, and I learned to keep my face still even as she raged.
The more my sister and I discussed the possible BPD diagnosis, the more we believed it. Still, there were things we couldn’t find in the host of symptoms listed for BPD: Mom’s obsession with germs and cleaning, but how she told us we should eat the cereal even when fleas got inside the box. How things went missing from our rooms never to be seen again— certain clothes, toys, art projects. Her accusing me of “sleeping around” in high school, claiming I would get pregnant and embarrass her, even though I hadn’t yet had sex. I didn’t bother defending myself. By then, I’d learned that contradicting her would spark an argument I couldn’t win. She’d never believe me.
Then came the day, some years later, when I began to write my memoir about surviving her abuse and my father’s enabling behavior. By then, Jess and I had estranged ourselves from our parents, who afterward made no effort to contact us or find out why. I heard through others that Mom was telling everyone “Amy destroyed the family.”
I decided to research BPD by reading several books about it, something I’d refused to do until that point, concerned that it would trigger too much emotional pain. Now I felt it was a necessary part of understanding and portraying my mother on the page, to better understand her and flesh her out as a whole human being.
The bombshell came as I was reading Kimberlee Roth’s Surviving the Borderline Parent. It felt as if I were reading a description not of a mental illness, but specifically about my mother:
…they may seem to repeatedly be at the center of conflict when it arises. They may have a hard time respecting others’ boundaries and may ruin a child’s cherished possessions, give away or euthanize a child’s pets, or withhold affection or care…
Euthanize a child’s pets. Blood drained from my face as I grew suddenly numb with shock.
I thought that was just my Mom.
When I was eleven, I came home from school and wondered why my miniature red dachshund, Hansel, wasn’t waiting at the door, tail wagging, to greet me. I walked into the kitchen looking for him and found my mother washing dishes at the sink, her back to me.
“I had to take Hansel to the vet today and have him put down,” she said. “He was getting too mean. I was afraid he might hurt somebody.” She never turned to look at me.
I went to my room and collapsed on my bed in sobs. Pain shredded my stomach. My eyes grew swollen but I couldn’t stop crying.
An hour later, my father came home and sat on the edge of my bed. He adjusted his glasses as he spoke.
“Amy, I know this is hard for you. But imagine how much harder it is for Mom. She’s the one who had to take him to the vet. You’re making her feel worse by being so upset.”
By this age, I was already primed to value my mother’s feelings more than my own, more than anyone’s. Guilt crept inside me and I stopped crying. I stayed in my room until the next morning, missing dinner. To this day I have never cried again about Hansel. It’s as if that part of my psyche is locked up tight and there’s no key.
I called Jess.
“So I learned this thing and it’s freaking me out.” I read the passage to her.
Jess was quiet for a few moments before replying. “I have to tell you something.”
“It’s going to make you mad.”
“Jess, I want to know,” I said. “I don’t care if something makes me mad or whatever, I’d rather not be in the dark.”
She let out a breath. “Right. Well… do you know how Sugar died?” Sugar was a kitten Dad had brought home for me in high school.
“They told me she ran away,” I said. “But it’s something else? Oh god — did that Doberman next door get her?”
“She got lost in the swamp mess across the street?” We’d lived in a rural area with a a lot of undeveloped land.
“No. Dad… Dad shot her with that handgun.”
“What? Are you… you’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Mom told him to do it.”
Now it was my turn to be silent.
“I found out because I was visiting them a couple years ago, and Dad said something,” she said, “some joke about shooting the cat for Mom. He was drunk. Mom kicked him under the table to shut him up.”
Jess was right — it made me mad. Anger spread through me. My cheeks burned with rage and other memories flooded my mind — the two cats we had when I was very small, who didn’t come with us when we moved. My cat Spunky who “ran away.” My cat Butterscotch who “ran away.” Another cat, Puffinstuff, who “ran away.” They said Sugar “ran away.” And Hansel, the sweetest, most amiable dog, who “might hurt someone.”
My mother wasn’t just a BPD/Narcissist with weird, unique behaviors. She was textbook. She fit the diagnosis like a perfectly-sized dress.
And now I had to confront the fact that she’d most likely had all my pets put down.
I assured Jess that it was good she told me, that I was glad, and it was true. This horrible new knowledge struck me as so cruel that even I couldn’t find a way to rationalize it. So what if Mom had a mental disease? No half-decent parent would do that to her kid.
Anger is a good emotion. It’s clarifying. It’s cleansing. And feeling the heat of it, the way it traveled up through my stomach and throat and face, was a relief.
I can and do sometimes feel sympathy for my mother— her childhood was no picnic, and I’m sure she was often in a lot of pain. But taking away my pets required thought and planning; it offered opportunity for reflection. It was purposeful. She wanted to hurt me. Her actions devastated me and there’s no excuse.
And now I know. I also realize how much I don’t know. How many lost things were really stolen things? When she “accidentally” ironed over the decal on my favorite t-shirt, was that really an accident?
As always, whatever triggered my mother’s rages and hurtful behavior is mostly a mystery. But each day, I’m more convinced that it may not have been my fault.
Quote Source: Kimberlee Roth. Surviving a Borderline Parent: How to Heal Your Childhood Wounds and Build Trust, Boundaries, and Self-Esteem (Kindle Locations 334–336). Kindle Edition.