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Why do I feel so much worse after standing up to mildly toxic mother?

(34 Posts)
woodentrainset Mon 08-Oct-12 14:21:15

My mother and I have had a difficult relationship for as long as I can remember. She has struggled for most of her life with mental health problems (largely undiagnosed and something she would refuse to admit to) and sadly, I have borne the brunt whenever she looses the plot. When she is particularly low, something I do or say which is possibly a bit off will trigger an episode where she screams and screams, throws plates, calls me a bitch and tells me I am awful for not giving a shit about her, says she would be better off dead etc. This can go on for hours, sometimes days in various different forms (texts, emails, phonecalls). Then she gets better, never acknowledges what has happened or apologises and we go on as though nothing has happened. This led, a few years ago, to us not being in touch for some time, then we reconciled and things were ok for a few years.

Recently she has had another episode and has descended into full blown alcoholism along with diagnosed depression - both things are down to the fact that I have confronted her about how her episodes made me feel when I was younger and tried to put boundaries in place following her last visit when she was drinking heavily around the DC. This time I have had several emails (she lives abroad) telling me it is all down to me, that I am cold, unforgiving and that I need to stop punishing her. When she is like this I have learnt that she cannot be reached so I ignore her, however, once the emails started to become more constructive and talking about her next visit I sent one saying that I would have liked an apology and acknowledgement of the pain she may have caused me by saying such awful things. I thought I needed to do this in order not to feel angry but it has just made me feel really anxious - I feel as though I have kicked her whilst she is down and that as things were becoming more constructive maybe I should have gone with that and just discounted the things she said probably whilst drunk and irrational? God, getting the balance right is so bloody hard - I don't want to be a doormat and I don't want to let her get away with such shocking behaviour but if she is unwell maybe I should turn a blind eye? All I know is I am sick to death of thinking about it.

I have tried to keep this short but so hard to get enough context in that way. Thanks for reading.

CogitoErgoSometimes Mon 08-Oct-12 14:25:14

Anything new & outside of your comfort zone can cause anxiety. Repeat it often enough and the anxiety subsides. Turning a blind eye was never satisfactory, I'm guessing. Being more assertive changes the power-balance. i.e. you become the adult and she becomes the child. It'll take a little getting used to but keep on in the same vein and it'll get easier with time.

ohanotherone Mon 08-Oct-12 14:31:37

You have been assertive and have asked her to consider your emotional needs. That must feel strange but I think you have done the right thing.

MouMouCow Mon 08-Oct-12 14:32:45

Oh OP, I feel for you, I too am struggling for the moment with a very similar dilemma. To add a few pointers to Cogito's email, you only tried to express how you felt and you were trying to defend DC. You are perfectly entitled to do both these things.
I view my responsibilities towards my own narc mother as primarely avoiding repeating anything that she's done to me and subjugate DC to that treatment. I can see that my DM repeated patterns from her own mum but this stops with me now. The best defence is to recognise the traits, the exact mechanicsm of the dysfunctionality, so the more alert you are and spot them out, the better actually, for all considered!
Good luck.

woodentrainset Mon 08-Oct-12 14:39:30

Thanks both - turning a blind eye wasn't satisfactory...in fact the only other thing I could have done would have been to cut her out again (last time my ignoring her irrational craziness went on for three years - I just didn't respond to anything at all). This time there are grandchildren to consider and I really want to try to maintain some kind of limited relationship but to do that I had to be honest about how her behaviour had affected me. Problem is, I doubt she will see it that way and I'm worried my tone was a bit on the cold side but then I have overperformed/sugar coated my whole life to make things seem ok for her and this time I just wanted to say it how it was - but now I feel dreadful. Maybe it is just a matter of practice...

woodentrainset Mon 08-Oct-12 14:40:51

Thanks MouMou - it should be easy eh but it is so difficult, especially as you can feel like a 6 year old again when trying to deal with it all.

MouMouCow Mon 08-Oct-12 14:44:21

You know, there's a saying in French that goes:" only the truth hurts"...And it might be a shock for her to hear the real you and come face to face with your real feelings, but if you do want a long term relationship with your DM and you want your DC to know her too, then the truth needs to come out at some point, delaying it won't help anyone.

woodentrainset Mon 08-Oct-12 14:52:05

I think I know you are right. I guess I am terrified that she will end up in hospital or even that she'll take her own life and it will be because I told the truth - that is actually why i feel so bad. Maybe lying allowed everyone to exist in a dysfunctional but steady status quo and I should have carried on doing that.

CogitoErgoSometimes Mon 08-Oct-12 15:55:11

The only times I have ever regretted an encounter with a difficult person have been when I've pulled my punches. Leads to a long period of self-recrimination for being cowardly. By contrast, whenever I've had the courage to say it straight, I've never regretted one word because I know I've been true to myself. Whatever the consequences, I can live with that. Whatever happens in your situation, I believe you'll be able to as well.

With parents you can easily feel like a six year-old when you cross the line and take up the mantle. It's what I mean about the power balance. Once you've started the process, however, it makes the next time a little easier.

badtime Mon 08-Oct-12 17:05:04

Your mother sounds something like mine, but a bit worse. The difference may be that I started standing up to my mum a while ago (over a decade). It took some time, but since then she has cut down on her drinking, received treatment for depression and generally done some growing up.
You should not turn a blind eye - by forcing her to acknowledge her behaviour, you are helping her. Pull her up on everything, and if she throws a tantrum, treat her like you would a tantrumming child (ignore rather than sweeties, I would hope). Think of her behaviour as being childish; don't assume she is the adult just because she is older. It might, over time, show her how to behave like an adult.

Don't expect her to thank you for it, or even recognise that you had a part in it, though.

woodentrainset Mon 08-Oct-12 19:25:34

Thank you both - very good points, especially re being true to yourself and that in some way I am helping her but should expect no thanks.

The bit I really struggle with is that intellectually, I know this is not my fault but on an emotional level I really don't think I truly believe it - I guess that will happen after being told it is my fault for years and years but how do you get to a point where you really and truly believe it isn't your fault and can be semi-oblivious to the onslaught when it happens? Are you at that point badtimes?

badtime Tue 09-Oct-12 11:53:50

Yes I am.

It was sort of an epiphany for me - my mother was threatening to kill herself, and I started behaving as if she was making a considered, adult decision: 'Oh, if that's what you want to do. But you should probably think it through...' You could see the shock on her face, just because I wasn't taking responsibility for her behaving like a five year old. Then I kept it up.
Mum: 'Why do I bother?'
Me: 'What alternative do you have?'
Once you stop apologising for their bad behaviour, it becomes second nature.

She is still a selfish cow, though.

I was at the theatre with her fairly recently, and I had a panic attack. She started crying, and I thought that for once she was showing some empathy. Then she said 'Do you know why I'm crying? Because I'm embarrassed'.

Old me would have thought 'Oh no! I am clearly being embarrassing and I am fortunate that my mother puts up with my anxious ways (which are clearly totally my doing and nothing to do with my upbringing).'

What I actually, automatically, thought is 'Total strangers usually come up to me and ask if I need anything and if they can help. My mother's response is to a) get embarrassed; b) tell me she's embarrassed to make me feel bad; and c) nothing else, no words of comfort etc. She is not normal. She is not nice'. (actually, the word 'cunt' may have featured in my thoughts)

But I don't expect her to be nice or selfless. I put up with her because I don't dislike her enough to cut her off (and I don't want to leave my sister to face her alone), and I am sufficiently emotionally detached from her that she can't hurt me.

rozdoylesnaughtydrawer Tue 09-Oct-12 12:23:44

I recommend you read "Toxic Parents" by Susan Forward - I am the most un-self-help-book person ever, but it is really really helpful to read about stuff you thought was specific to your own family as quite typical of toxic parents. It has really helped me to be able to separate their issues and shitty behaviours from myself and how to deal with them and keep yourself sane.

You are not responsible for your mother and not to blame!

CogitoErgoSometimes Tue 09-Oct-12 12:43:42

"how do you get to a point where you really and truly believe it isn't your fault and can be semi-oblivious to the onslaught when it happens?"

There's a scene in Toy Story where a furious Woody has his completely apoplectic You are a toy!!!! rant at Buzz Lightyear who stands there looking stoic before saying 'You are a sad, strange little man and you have my pity'. It sums up my attitude to anyone who subjects me to an onslaught. smile Stay calm and pity them for the sad old bat they are. I think badtime's description means they manage things in a similar way.

woodentrainset Wed 10-Oct-12 15:19:59

Wow badtimes your mum sounds nasty. I do like your response to her suicide threats though and will try that out. Well done for getting to the point you have done - I am learning quite how hard that is.

Rox - I have read the book and it is amazing. You know the whole part about getting in touch with/processing your inner anger and grief - do you feel you have done that? What did it look/feel like? That particular part made me worry I may be sitting on a whole pile of unresolved crap but I'm not sure how to access it.

Cogito - great analogy! Problem is, much as I do think she is a sad old bat, and regularly describe her as such to friends (once I would have felt that this was a betrayal) again my heart has not caught up with my head. I still desperately want to believe in the person she can be when she is strong and semi-normal and I want a mother who is normal, nice, supportive and who I can learn from (and this as I hurtle towards middle age!) that I don't think I truly believe she is batty. Indeed, some of my current sadness/anxiety is probably coming to terms with the fact that she is a mentally unwell alcoholic and may never change and that I have to stop expecting anything of her.

Thanks for all the replies, it really does help to hear other perspectives and to get some of it out. I am still struggling but feel much better than I did on Monday.

Salbertina Wed 10-Oct-12 16:42:23

I really don't think shes mildly toxic at all but really v much so, you have my sympathies! sad You have been heroically patient also.

Ive been advised to grieve the mother i never had- actually going thro stages of grief- denial, anger, bargaining, depression... Would that help?
"Children of the self-absorbed" also good.

Salbertina Wed 10-Oct-12 16:43:22

Whoops, forgot final and best phase, "acceptance"

MouMouCow Wed 10-Oct-12 16:44:38

Salbertina, that's probably a freudian slip...

Salbertina Wed 10-Oct-12 16:55:22

Sadly, probably...it certainly seems a long way off for me!! You have similar realisation then, Mou?

kiwigirl42 Wed 10-Oct-12 18:57:23

I think to survive a toxic parent you have to accept that yes, it IS all about them and they will never love you or accept you in the way you want or need. They just don't know how. I reached the point with my Mum when I was pregnant with a very much unexpected baby (husband supposed to be infertile due to chemo!). I was really ill in early wks and hadn't rung her - she rang ranting about this, was told by DH that i was very unwell in hospital and she didn't bother ringing for 6 wks. I think I was more hurt she didn't care about our baby (now 12DS) and that ended any emotional tie/ expectations. It is the best, most confidence building and liberating feeling in the world not to bother unless on my terms. I am kind and treat her as I expext to be treated when I see her, not v. Often thank god, and nip any antics in the bud. But its a bloody tough road while you still have that emotional tie and feeling of needing to please.

woodentrainset Wed 10-Oct-12 21:39:11

So much great advice.

Salbertina have read about that book, think I might order that one too. Didn't know about the grief cycle, think I'm flitting between bargaining and depression at the moment. Have you worked through the stages with a counsellor or has it just helped you to be aware of them so you recognise your own emotions? Proper acceptance would be an amazing thing. I think she is probably extremely toxic too, but there are such spells of normality and she would so vehemently deny and be appalled by the idea that I thought her toxic that I term her as mildly toxic to make it not sound so bad...god, when I type this stuff I realise how strongly her voice is in my head all the time denying my version of things. It is like I am having a conversation with her all the time, in which she is making me doubt my perception all the time as she is telling me her version of things, even when I haven;t spoken to her for ages.

kiwi yours sounds delightful too but well done also for getting to that place of confidence/liberation. I want to get there too. Problem is, when she visits I am too scared of her to really nip antics in the bud as I prefer any real shitty stuff to not happen in my house so I don't have to throw her out.

Salbertina Thu 11-Oct-12 06:39:55

Hi Wooden, sorry didn't mean to label yr mum too harshly, you're the RL expert...
Re grief cycle, not explicitly working thro but helps to explain -to myself/dh- my often widely varying feelings towards all this. Cold pragmatism through to little child
seeking unconditional love all in one hour day!
Its v hard, isn't it? Are you having counselling?

AgathaFusty Thu 11-Oct-12 08:42:42

Another one here with a similar kind of mother. I can so relate to this "much as I do think she is a sad old bat, and regularly describe her as such to friends (once I would have felt that this was a betrayal)". I'm in my forties and have only for the last 5 or so years been able to talk to other people about what she is/has really been like. I always knew she was different to other people's mums, was always frightened of her, but always felt that it would be a huge betrayal to say that to others.

I wonder if part of that though, is that when you do talk to others, some will instantly understand because they have had similar experiences themselves, while others will say things like "well, are you sure it was that bad................?", just because they don't understand and haven't experienced anything like it. That always makes me doubt my version of stuff again.

For me, what is working at the moment (although not without guilt) is minimal contact. I haven't ever really been able to challenge her, so I don't bother trying now.

woodentrainset Thu 11-Oct-12 13:27:45

Not labelling her to harshly at all Salbertina - I think if anything I make endless excuses and am too fair...it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that because it wasn't physical violence that it can't have been that bad. I know I was/am loved, she made huge sacrifices, had it tough and still did largely ok and actually she isn't nasty to me in the way some of the other posters mums on here have been. But when she goes mad, she goes truly mad and that is terrifying - one thing that keeps me sane is that she has always struggled with all her close relationships which is proof that it can't be me who has it all wrong. I have seen counsellors on and off over the years - some helpful, some less so.

So understand what you are saying Agatha...people often say "Oh yeah, I have a difficult relationship with my mum too" or, "My mum drives me potty" or "All parents are a bit mental aren't they"...so then I think I am blowing out of all proportion needing to go to counselling, thinking of cutting her out - it adds to the sense of me having it all wrong. But then I hear how they speak to their mothers (in a way I could NEVER, EVER get away with without all hell braking loose) and I understand more about functional parental relationships through my amazing in-laws and realise quite how far from normal she is.

woodentrainset Thu 11-Oct-12 13:31:16

And to finish that sentence...I still need validation all the time that my version is right. I am ALWAYS asking DH "it's not me is it?", "am I being too harsh?", "did I blow that out of proportion?". I'd like to believe myself without needing that validation to feel like I've conquered it.

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