On Purposeful Estrangement

It’s challenging to accept any relationship as toxic, whether you’re the toxic person or the person being poisoned. I’m not a toxic person, but I can imagine the denial and manipulation (perhaps intentional, perhaps subconscious) that might preoccupy such a person’s mind, clouding their vision of themselves just like it distorts their view of the people around them.  I am, however, equipped to speak to the position of the other party, what one might refer to as the enabler, the one who allows the relationship to continue. I’m equipped to speak to it now, for the last time, because I’m relinquishing that position, and ending the toxic relationship that has defined my life, literally since before I was born--my relationship with my mother.

Don’t we always think we can fix it? That this fight or this heart to heart will be the one that makes the other person realize how much they’re hurting us and be sorry for it? Then, when they don’t realize, or don’t change, enough time has passed that our anger has dimmed, and we remind ourselves that this person loves us the best way they can. We decide that warped love, however painful, is enough to content ourselves with. Maybe all love is like this. And really, some of it was our fault, so it’s not like the other person is entirely wrong…

I’ve made that decision every day for as long as I can remember. I talked myself out of indignation, licked my own wounds clean, and walked on. Meanwhile, my mom hit my sister in the head with her new toys on Christmas, hard enough to draw blood (ONLY A LITTLE, jeez, she was fine, what’s the big deal?) She got jealous when my dad spent time with my brother and tore Dad down, just to make sure he wasn’t becoming a favorite. She tried to start an affair with the father of my first serious boyfriend, and somehow that became my fault, because if only she hadn’t had children she could have had a life. I was a vampire, a leech, a bitch. At the same time, I was also a living doll, a projection of herself she could dress up and parade around and get credit for. She told me I would never amount to anything, and then soaked up the praise for my successes. I, in turn, achieved them alone, in some part in the hope that she would see my many good qualities and stop the violence and verbal abuse. And sometimes she would, for an evening, or a full day, or even a weekend. But never for good.

If mom is reading this (I hope she is) she is angry right now. She is telling herself that nothing I just wrote is true, that I’m a liar and I’m ungrateful to boot. Her favorite word, ungrateful. That’s what we are, my siblings and I, every time we try to have a conversation about her toxicity. Ungrateful for the sacrifices she made. We’re supposed to sit back and take it the same way she did, let the badness eat us from within until the only way to find release is to continue the cycle--to manipulate our loved ones, bind them to us with guilt, and put onto them the names we really call ourselves deep down.

No, thanks. I’m opting out, which means removing the stimulus to stop the reaction. In short, it means not talking to her anymore. I’m giving it all back--the guilt, the anxiety about how I’m perceived, the need to earn approval, and most of all, the self-loathing. I’m keeping the good stuff--my sense of humor, generosity, my taste in music, my fashion sense and my love of a clean room. Thank you for those things, Mom, and really in the end thank you for the bad stuff too. Without having to endure it, I wouldn’t be who I am. But those burdens aren’t mine to carry. They really aren’t yours either, just like they weren’t Grandma’s, or her mother’s. I hope with all my heart you will get the help you need to set them down once and for all, without the crutch of alcohol, which really just makes you more unbearable, even to yourself. You will need to seek out professional help (I have) and you will need to be brave. I know you are strong enough.

If and when we meet again, it will be on my terms. I know you only like your own terms, but really, I promise, mine are better for both of us. Get help. I’ll be here waiting on the other side.

To all you readers who aren’t my mom (which, hey, is all but one of you!) sorry for that brief little tangent, but I hope if you are in the same or a similar situation it spoke to you. Getting out of these relationships that wound us is only the first step--a big one, yes, but only one. From here, we rebuild ourselves by listening to the internal voice who told us all along something was wrong. What other insights do you have, higher self?

I’ll conclude with a poem called “Love After Love” by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.


The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other's welcome,


and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you


all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,


the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.