family strife

Strife & Unconditional Love

We all want to be loved unconditionally. We want to be assured that no matter what terrible thing we may do or may be done to us, or what job we lose, or what lover we leave, our family will be there to hold us up when we can't seem to do it on our own.

It's important to know that people in our immediate family--namely our parents--are supportive and generally look so forward to hearing from us that no matter the news, they answer their phones and open their doors with open hearts. Why wouldn't they? They're invested in us, right? They have an interest in knowing how we're doing and then helping us to do better. They want to celebrate our triumphs when we have them and brush off our knees when we fall for the millionth time. 

In general, parents put their children before themselves and their own interests, and do everything they can to show their love so they children will want to return again after the initial trip away from home into the world.

Me as a wee one. Yes, that is a lace collar on the left. Yes, that is a jean vest over a skort romber and a turtle neck on the right.

The movies torture me with shit like this. It's not even just the movies, though. I remember growing up and being invited to the occasional get together with friends at their homes and feeling so out of place in a house where the mother and father smiled at each other, showed patience with their children, and exhibited generally good feelings about their situation. In fact, I would get such anxiety from recognizing the contrast between whatever family I was visiting and the reality of my own that I couldn't fall asleep. I would lay awake all night at sleepovers staring at the ceiling, walking around the house, flipping through the channels on the tv. I would think about how my mom would probably pick me up the next morning even before everybody had had breakfast, and how all I wanted to do was have just one more meal with this family.

It killed me. I was so desperate for love, or at least, consistency, and to this day I still find myself tortured by a dynamic that I have no control over.

I've been out of the house for nearly a decade now. I think the reason it's taken me this long since leaving to actually try to cut ties with my mother is because leaving the house allowed me, for the first time really, to be out of crisis. My entire childhood felt like one big crisis and to have relief from that, well, made all of my mom's shit look less shitty. It was easier to take when I knew I could just hang up or leave, and so I kept taking it in reduced doses.

I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've called her in need in the last decade. I don't mean financial need, though. Asking for money has never been an option, even when I did live with her. I'm talking about emotional need. When I moved to Asheville to go to school, I felt so desperately lonely it was unreal. I'm pretty sure now that I'm gone from there, that I was operating under the weight of some of the worst depression of my life. I couldn't hit a stride socially, I felt burdened by financial stresses, and I felt so sure the creative writing department had made a mistake in admitting me, that I struggled to write. I just felt completely dejected and so on occasion, I would get so low that I'd forget what a crazy person my mom is, and I'd call her for an ear. 

Being a therapist, she loves to pathologize me, so in telling her about my emotional state, she would remind me how I probably had a personality disorder and so I should just go to therapy and take medication because what else could help me anyway? These conversations would always throw me back to that time in middle school when, being the victim of some insane bullying, I was immensely unhappy and her response to my angst was to say, "Well, honey, you know that because of your childhood, parts of your brain just didn't develop correctly and so you aren't able to connect with people the same way as others." Other times, she would start talking about herself in a way that didn't relate to me at all, but often, I could tell that she just wouldn't be any good because at 6 pm her words were already slurring.

I could write a book filled with all the crazy shit she's done that is not only unsupportive, but would have been a social worker's field day had one been around to see any of it. 

In the last couple years, as my sister began nearing a legal age, her parents (my mom and step dad) finally divorced after a miserable 20+ years, and my mother began directing her special brand of abuse toward her, things went crazy and I finally snapped. Being the victim is one thing. It's easy to blame yourself, to question the validity of your own memories, and to want to sympathize with your abuser, especially if it's a parents. But seeing it happen to my sister empowered me in a way. Of course, I've been doing everything I can to offer my sister the unconditional support I didn't feel like I was getting from anybody, but seeing this struggle made me realize that I can't be a part of my mother's life unless she one day decides to get some actual help. 

Just hearing about the situation between the two of them constipated me. 

I'm generally a happy person these days. I've got the best friends, a fairly happy home, work I enjoy, creative projects, and an amazing bf. But when I get through talking with my mother, it feels like my life has had mud flung all over it. She doesn't care about what I'm working on and never asks, she makes fun of any sweethearts she has ended up meeting over the years, and she just generally makes me feel like a worthless piece of shit. At times it seems like she's actually disappointed that I survived her. WTF????

Anyway, all that said, I decided this March, near my birthday, that I couldn't do it anymore. I restricted contact saying that I would not accept contact from her and would only initiate it if and when I was ready. This has been extremely hard. I know she comes to town occasionally to help my grandmother out, and knowing she's around makes me feel a little haunted, and she hasn't respected my wishes despite repeated pleads. 

Yesterday my sister called to ask if I was going to France with she and my mother this summer. Now let me be clear: my family has no money. My mother's father, whom I've only met one time, escaped to France to leave his family some 30 odd years ago and I think this trip would be the first my mother's taken over there. He's elderly and it's time. I've never been out of the country and as a family growing up, the furthest we ever traveled was to the outer banks of North Carolina. The idea that I wasn't invited drove me wild, although I probably wouldn't go anyway. My sister said that mom would probably be so happy if I wanted to go that she'd probably pay for my plane ticket. Since my mom and I aren't talking, I said, well, will you tell her that if there IS an invitation I would be interested in going and to ask about the plane ticket situation? She assured me my mom would be thrilled.

My birthday was the middle of March and I hadn't been over to my grandmother's to pick up the card my mother sent there until last night. I went over for dinner and catching up and to grab the accumulated mail. There was indeed a birthday card from my mom which she texted about last week to say, "I see you haven't visited Mumms the last couple weeks, otherwise you would have gotten your card."

Of course, this text came after the several to which I responded, "What is wrong with you? I've told you I will block your number if you don't respect the boundaries I've set."


Anyway, I went there last night and opened the card, and I really wish I hadn't. It read:

"Dear Ryan-Ashley (she always refuses to call me by my full first name but writes it here),

Wishing you nothing but the best for your year to come. Hard to believe you are 27...Wish we could spend it together. "Contact" ME when you are ready. But remember, time does not stand still. And remember, with every insult, there's sure to be a compliment; with every disease, there's a remedy SOMEWHERE; with every heartache, there's love; but when it's too late, time doesn't wait."

What if she had gotten in a car wreck the next day and her last words to me were,"...when it's too late, time doesn't wait."??????

My grandmother and I had been talking about the family dynamic and general strife when I read this aloud. She said, "That's not unconditional love," and I just started crying, because so often I get something like this from her and I feel crazy for it making me crazy and it was so validating having her say that. And then she stood up on her wobbly new hip and walked over to me and she lifted my chin up and literally wiped the tears from my cheeks and told me how much she loved me and how lucky she was to have me in her life and how proud she was and I realized in that moment, that I could not remember a single time in my life when my mother had ever done that for me or spoken to me in that way. And it also reminded me that while my natural inclination is to hole up and disappear from family as a whole when I'm feeling depressed, that my grandmother at least is somebody who, no matter how crazy even she can be sometimes, truly loves me unconditionally and that having her in my life has made me a better person. 

Even though my mother worked hard to pit me against her through the years, I've always known that no matter what I had done, even if my grandmother couldn't help, she would listen and offer support and remind me what a gem I was and how all I had to get through was to hold on to that light.

All I can think about is how lucky I am. If I hadn't had her occasional pep talks growing up, I really just don't know what would have come of me. Knowing that unconditional love has taught me rather than to expect abuse from those close to me, to expect support and kindness, and that lesson has made me the discerning--if a bit suspicious at times--person I am today.