How Did We End Up Here? A Story About Growing Up With a Toxic Mother
My views regarding my mother have changed in recent years.
Presently, she is someone who exists as part of a story in my life, catalyzing a significant examination of myself and those who surround me. I often contemplate whether that was her purpose, but intertwined in those thoughts; there is guilt. Parents make sacrifices for their children, and perhaps hers was the loss of our relationship, forcing me to embark on a new path.
However, I don’t think she’ll ever be cognizant of that.
I have fond memories of her, times when she was a picturesque, doting mother, ferrying my friends and me to practice, taking us to the mall, and covering for me when I exceeded my curfew.
Those untainted recollections haunt me because I’ve realized that for every good deed there was a price tag. The cost was never evident, as though you had found a one of a kind item at the store. You stand alone in the aisle, puzzled while turning the object over and back again in an attempt to locate that small, sticky, square sliver of paper that gives something its value. You approach the register, convincing yourself it isn’t a lavish novelty—until the cashier regrettably informs you that the item exceeds your price range. After an internal battle, you purchase it anyway because you falsely believe that you need it. That’s how it was with her. She’d give, I’d take, and then I would later have buyer’s remorse. I felt liable during those exchanges on many occasions, but they’ve taught me that I shouldn’t give more than I’m willing to lose–whether that be time, money, or respect.
I did and said things throughout our strained relationship that weren’t fair, correct, or appropriate. There were times my behavior was unquestionably harsh. In other moments, I yelled too much, was self-absorbed, and at times wrongly manipulative.
Even as a child, I innately sensed that she was not capable of truly loving anyone. Her affections were an unmarked, dead-end road; I never knew where the pavement faded into the dirt until I found myself in the mud. She tirelessly helped people (and probably still does), but would then complain when her efforts didn’t garner adequate appreciation or her deeds weren’t reciprocated.
Through watching her perform this soliloquy of martyrdom and the innumerable encore performances, I uncovered another meaningful piece of knowledge: If you’re giving to fill a void within yourself, stop giving and fix yourself because no one else will. And to me, that is her downfall—she never fixed herself. Perhaps she didn’t know how—or was unable to recognize that she needed mending. It was always easier for her to blame her short-comings on others. Usually, it was my dad, the man who worked seven days every week to provide for his family and allow her to do as she pleased.
He was flawed, but not any more than the rest of us. My dad had a temper, was overly strict, and could be perceived as controlling at times, but he expressed an abundant amount of love and dedication to his family. Yet somehow, my mother always found a reason to make him not good enough for her, or for us. She would shout from the proverbial rooftops to whatever audience was present: family, church people, or her friends—it didn’t matter. If they had ears and minute of time, she would begin Act I of her tragic play. Her behavior reminded me of the game in elementary school, aptly named telephone.
The story at the end was never the story at the beginning, but no one was able to decipher what that ever was because true to her victim mentality, “She would never say that!” And so it went throughout my teenage years, her speaking half-truths, my dad getting mad, and her tear-soaked, half-hearted apologies.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
I’ve surmised that’s where my lesson on people began—with those years of trusting, then not, and the gray area twisted between the confusion.
It’s strange to look back on it now, coldly removed from it, emotionless. Or perhaps it’s still anger; I’m not sure.
I vividly recall frequent conversations with my dad and his constant reminders to, “Not be like your mom.” At that specific point in time, I always thought he meant weak because that’s how I perceived her: sad, depressed, and angry. She attended a private masquerade, a façade tuned so finely that she is still unaware that she’s wandering through a false reality.
During those times, I didn’t know that life was preparing me for something I would never see approaching—the Trojan horse of life’s fuckery right in front of me. I was oblivious to the depth of her wounds and subsequent actions, until one day I could no longer deny the existence of her illness.
For many people, the term mother is synonymous with love, compassion, and devotion. An upstanding matriarch fiercely defends her children from harm and zealously supports their endeavors. I have spent countless nights awake thinking about the perfect incarnation of a mom, and I’ve concluded that my mother will never embody those characteristics.
The greatest, albeit most difficult thing about life, is that it imparts everything you need to know if you pause momentarily, pay attention, and don’t allow your ego to get the best of you. If you’re repeatedly finding yourself in the same situation, it’s because you haven’t mastered the lesson those particular circumstances are supposed to teach you, or maybe you have, and you’re too stubborn or stupid to recognize them.
I fell into the latter category because that’s just who I was then, optimistic and dumb enough to believe I could right any wrong.
Writing that now is ridiculous, but that’s how it started—the relationship with a price tag so high, it almost destroyed my credit, and me. He was charismatic. Funny. Handsome. He said all of the right things at exactly the right time. Looking back, I guess he had to, or someone would peel back the thin layers that encased his dysfunction and see a hollow vessel, devoid of empathy or compassion unless it was for selfish gain.
My mother, however, adored him. She thought he was fantastic. The words of praise for him gushed from her mouth like a broken faucet. She insisted he was perfect for me. I initially agreed until I saw through the shroud to what was underneath.
It was like my internal GPS had lost signal on life’s journey and now it was too late to turn back. The scenery was beautiful at times. There were days filled with sunshine, laughter, and hope. Those times were my favorite because most days were dark and tumultuous. It seemed as though I was trying to outrun the rain, but I never knew when lightning would strike. The storm always seemed to clear at the exact moment that I was ready to relocate to a better climate.
And of course, there was my mother, clearing wreckage, and negotiating an insurance policy—or so I thought. What I failed to realize is that insurance agents love disasters. Disasters wreak havoc and chaos while convincing policyholders that they require more insurance so that they are better prepared for the next catastrophe. I purchased an abundance of insurance from my mother. I talked and confided in her, while she manipulated the weather to her liking. In return, the weather repaid the debt by providing her with a temperate climate.
From my mother’s perspective, it was a fair exchange. She was never one to forgo a “diamond of a deal.” She received the attention and adoration she was so desperately seeking, and he received another layer of protection.
Together, they were a perfect storm and were moving toward the coast at an alarming rate.
He and I found ourselves at the beach on that road trip from hell.
By that point, I was preparing to change routes and terminate my insurance because I could no longer afford the premium; however, the best-laid plans always go awry when the atmosphere becomes unstable. That day began calmly and seemingly beautiful, but the bright sunlight obscured the horizon as it beamed through the car windows that morning. We were exploring on that trip. Laughter and conversation filled the air like particles of pollen—invisible and damaging. I thought that maybe, just maybe, the sky was going to remain clear.
If I only I hoped enough, had enough insurance, I falsely believed everything would be okay.
I was absolutely wrong. He—the weather, became erratic and violent; I was stranded in the current, drowning while trapped in a car until I suddenly saw the eye of the hurricane approaching. Those few moments of relief granted me the clarity to see daylight. I suddenly became aware that I couldn’t regulate the weather, but I could control my reaction to it. There was an open road, but it had been hidden by the debris from the frequent storms. That day I began driving. I drove away from the downpours, evaded the lightning strikes, and put miles between the constant uncertainty of whether I had purchased enough insurance.
When I called my mother, the insurance agent, to discontinue my policy, she didn’t answer.
She wasn’t available that night or the next day.
She was too busy attempting to manage the self-made disaster that she didn’t care about me—her daughter. S
he turned away the child she had known for 32 years. She abandoned me, the daughter that she was supposed to unfailingly love and support.
I don’t know what he promised her exactly, but whatever it was, it was enough for them both to attempt to pursue me down that new, secret road I had discovered.
They attempted to detour my journey through phone calls, texts, and at times, unnerving threats and yet, I kept driving farther and farther away.
She revived the soliloquy that had served her well and performed it for a multitude of audiences. The new version had added a few additional scenes, and they served to convey how terrible I was. She was heartbroken that her child could just walk away from her.
It was then, that my dad’s words from over a decade ago reverberated in my mind, “Don’t be like your mom.”
The statement had been a clear warning that I was unable to comprehend at the time because I didn’t understand that she was mentally ill. I was too naïve to fully perceive the environment that tarnished my childhood and too self-centered to evaluate my contribution. She and I were and always will remain remarkably different people.
She will forever be the insurance agent feeding and creating disasters for her own personal gain. I hope that someday her catastrophic business will close and she will have placed a vacant sign in the window. Although, I think the absence of orchestrating calamities would force introspection, and the disasters we harbor on the inside are usually far worse than those we create.
My lessons in this life are far from over, and I hope that they’re never complete because if I stop learning, I cease to evolve into a better person.
The chapter about my mother has been painful, dangerous, yet exceedingly valuable. I’m grateful for the destruction and nearly being swept away because I was compelled to change routes. I began a migration to a new destination that I plotted and chose on my own. My mother and I will forever be traveling in opposite directions, but we were at the same starting point for a brief time. She may never fully grasp the reason or the outcome of our sudden departure in life, but I hope that one day her course becomes calm and clear instead of winding and uncertain.
Despite the pain she has caused, she unknowingly and unwillingly sacrificed her happiness for her child’s—and that’s the worst punishment of all.