My first scary memory of my mother was when I was in 4th grade. I asked her to bring me a Subway sandwich for school lunch. I told her other moms were bringing their kids Subway sandwiches. It was the cool thing to do. She responded by screaming, “So I’m not good enough for you? Why don’t you go get another mother then since you don’t want me!” I sobbed and apologized for hurting her feelings. I felt so guilty. I didn’t ask her for lunch again.
I think it is so hard for us to understand situations we haven’t personally experienced. So many people grew up with mothers who loved their children unconditionally, encouraged their independence, and nurtured them. They cannot comprehend a mother like the one I had. This is a glimpse into thirty years of my life. This cannot come close to explaining everything I experienced, but it will give you an idea. One of my mother’s favorite phrases when attacking people is, “There are two sides to every story.” This is my side. They say the truth shall set you free. This is my truth. My dad and my siblings shared many of these experiences, but this is my perspective alone. They have their own nightmares that are not mine to share. Of course there are good memories with my mother too! When she was nice, she was so much fun. She bought us nice clothes and new toys. She planned family vacations. She took me to dance class. She knew how to throw great birthday parties and Christmas celebrations, but sadly those are tainted because she used them as proof that we were undeserving of her love.
So much emphasis is placed on being nice, but sometimes being nice means getting trampled on by others. In my case, I was trampled by my mother. Enough about being nice. Let’s talk about setting healthy boundaries and refusing to let people cross them. Only then can we take back our lives. I was her victim. I am not anymore.
My mother has always exhibited classic signs of Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The role of her husband and children has always been to serve her, to meet her needs, to worship her, to honor her, to respect her, to obey immediately, to not argue, to not disagree, to not question, and to apologize to her and take responsibility for her mistakes because somehow her mistakes were always our fault. Somehow she has always been the victim and we are the perpetrators. Even when faced with direct evidence of her lies, she still finds ways to justify and defend her behavior. She will do anything to protect her self-image.
When I hit puberty she told me I had fat arms. Years later I told her how much that hurt me. She started crying and said, “Are you trying to hurt my feelings? Why would you bring that up? Do you want to make me feel guilty?” When I was fourteen, she told me she would buy me new clothes for a vacation if I lost 10 pounds. When I was sixteen, she told me more boys would date me if I was skinnier. She watched my portion sizes at dinner and told me to put food back if I took too much. I used to sneak food behind her back after dinner because I was still hungry.
When I was about fourteen, my mother was offended that my Young Woman leader did not ask her to teach a scrapbooking activity. My mother started crying and told me how much my leader had hurt her feelings. She demanded I go to the leader’s house and tell her how mean she had been to my mother. I didn’t want to, but she said if I really loved her I would defend her. So I went and brought my leader back to my house. She apologized to my mother. This is the first of many times I uncomfortably called out people for offending my mother.
Once we were standing on a balcony at a condo in Snowbird. She saw a woman get out of the car in the parking lot. My mother started talking about how disgusting and fat that woman was. I told her she shouldn’t say that. She replied, “You think you’re better than me? Who are you to criticize me? You are so judgmental, Emily!”
It was difficult for my siblings and I to recognize our mother’s dysfunction as we grew up because it was all we knew. My father defended her because that is what he had been taught to do. We grew up with her attempting to control us through tears, lies, manipulation, the silent treatment, and when that didn’t work, physical abuse was her tool. She mostly slapped us girls, but used a belt on the boys too. My brother Zachary had ADHD. She was hardest on him. I’ve always been a writer. I kept a journal growing up. I wrote in my journal the times she whipped him. I don’t want to include those here though. It’s too difficult.
Journal Entry from April 27, 1999. I was 13 years old.
We had an emergency meeting downstairs in the basement with Dad, Chelsea, Zach, and me. Mom is very stressed out. She is tired, Ashlee and Jessica are at a very hard age, we expect too much of her. We’re leaving her alone. We can’t expect her to do anything for us, unless it’s nearly impossible to do without her. We can’t ask her for anything and we have to leave her alone for at least the next 30 days so she can get back to feeling sane again. It sounds pretty simple, huh? But it doesn’t feel simple. I feel like I’m losing my mom. I can’t tell her my problems and expect help, or ask her for anything. It seems like there will be no one to talk to besides my dad. I can always write in here though. I’m a teenage girl and I need my mom, and I can’t expect her for anything. If I have a problem, I go to her as my last resource…I’m crying. I’m not exactly sure why. It’s really not too big of a deal. I’ll cool down. I’ve already started appreciating her more though. I washed a white shirt, and a dirt stain stayed on. I was going to tell Mom I need to bleach my shirt and ask her how, but I realized I can’t. Dad can bleach though, he told me how.
My brother Zachary died in 2002. He was 15 years old. It was my senior year of high school. Obviously, I was devastated. We all were. I tried to trust my mother with my grief, but that was a mistake.
I walked into my mother's room a few months after Zach died. I told her how much I missed Zach. She said, “Losing a brother is nothing compared to losing a son. My pain is worse than yours and you will never understand.” Then years later she cried to me, multiple times, about how I never opened up to her or talked about Zach with her.
My mother lived in her room after Zach died. I left for college and Chelsea took over raising the kids. We’ve all taken turns raising each other and my dad raised us. We brought food to her room, filled up her ice water, folded the laundry, took the kids to school, mopped the floors, weeded the yard…desperately trying to cover her role. We thought it was helping. It was enabling. It is also when she started using multiple prescription drugs. I began to recognize that my mother was not normal after I married Landon in June 2005. But I still justified her behavior and defended her to people who pointed out her flaws because Zach had died just three years earlier. Obviously my mother still needed time to grieve.
When Landon and I were first married, my mother called consistently for two months trying to convince Landon to drop out of school. She said a neighbor was looking to hire someone at his business. She was sure Landon should take that job and his future would be secure. Landon didn’t want to do that. She said she would be happier if we just moved back to St. George.
Journal Entry from November 30, 2005
I was with Landon’s family for Thanksgiving. It was different, but it was good. I’ve never had Thanksgiving away from my family before. My mom was crying about it earlier in the week over the phone. We’re going to my house for Christmas though. We’re driving down December 21st and coming back on the 26th because Landon works on the 27th. When I told my mom we were having a party on the night of the 26th with Landon’s family she was angry. She’s very jealous. She said, “They got you for Thanksgiving and now they get to have you for Christmas. It’s not fair they get both!” She began to cry. I tried to explain we were planning on coming back the 26th already before the party was planned, and that we’d be home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but it did not help. I do wish we could stay longer. I’m not sure who’s having a harder time adjusting to the blending of families from this marriage – me or my mom?
After Landon and I graduated, we moved back into the basement of my parent’s home for almost two years. Mylee was born and I took over taking care of my family. This included five siblings still living at home. My mother has lived in her room for most of the past 14 years. She held a few jobs and was fired from them. She came out of her room for special appearances when other people would question her absence – my wedding, my babies’ blessings and birthdays, Levi’s mission farewell and homecoming, Chelsea’s wedding – but just long enough to dictate exactly how it should all be done, blame us if something went wrong, take credit for what went right, and then retreat to her room again. When we begged and pleaded her to join the family, she cried and said we could never understand. We were heartless. Who are we to judge her? We don’t know what it is like to lose a son. She "demands respect" from us. She "deserves unconditional love." So we apologized and kept working.
Journal Entry February 25, 2008
My mom started a new job. It’s taken over her life. When she is home she sleeps a lot, but I know she’s doing her best. It’s just that it seems her family comes second, and I put pressure on myself to pick up her slack. Make dinner, babysit Chloe, etc… I’m angry that she is working when it takes her away so often…I need to not judge, I know. I need to respect her because she’s my mom. I just have a hard time doing that. It’s an ongoing battle for me not to have hard feelings towards her…I pray for help to not judge. I need help every day.
We moved out of the basement in May 2009. I was worried. Who would take care of my family? But I was relieved. I was eight months pregnant with Allie and emotionally and physically exhausted. So many conflicting emotions.
November 2009. Landon and I went to a concert in Vegas. We asked some family friends to watch our girls for us. My mother was very upset with me. She said she gets jealous whenever anyone else watches her grandkids because no one loves them as much as she does. She accused me of not trusting her with her own grandchildren. After that, I stopped telling her when friends watched our kids because I was tired of being chastised by her.
We lived in fear that climaxed in June 2010. It was the night of Allie’s first birthday. My father was at a scout camp when my mother exploded. She took out her anger on my siblings with threats of suicide, reckless driving, screaming, and physical assault. We took the kids to a neighbor’s house and didn’t tell my mother where they were until my dad returned home. That was the first of many family interventions we held to try and help her. I read a letter to her that I had written. We begged her to change. We told her we loved her and needed her to be a mother. We felt her hate as she took turns criticizing each of us. She blamed all of us. She has never admitted that she did anything wrong that night.
Yet we did not want to accept that our mother was crazy! Denial is powerful. We kept trying and trying to meet her demands no matter how much it hurt us. She was going to counseling. And we were an eternal family! She loves to use gospel principles to guilt us and they worked for a long, long time. “Honor your mother is a commandment so you must do what I say” and “Christ forgives, so you should forgive me too, even though I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. Are you greater than him?”
September 5, 2012. My Zachary was born. What an amazing experience. My mother stayed with me for five days because she said she wanted to help me. For most of that time, she sat on an air mattress on the floor and watched movies while holding Zach. I was relieved when she finally left.
June 2014. We went to my parent’s house for Sunday dinner, which I usually made. My mother came to me and said, “Ashlee accused me of loving my grandkids more than I love my kids. Can you believe that?” I told her I do believe that! I explained that she never gives me hugs or tells me she loves me. She cried and said she is so sorry. She explained, “I don’t know how to show love! I wasn’t raised to show love!” She said she thought I didn’t need her because I have friends. I told her, “I still need my Mom!” She hugged me and said she was so sorry! I cried happy tears as we hugged in the kitchen and I said, “I got my Mom back!” I completely fell for her act because I wanted a mother so badly. I wanted to believe her, but nothing changed. She still called me constantly to complain about her life and criticize me and my dad and my siblings, but rarely to ask me how I was. I was criticized for going to lunch with friends and not inviting her, for buying dresses at Old Navy for my daughters and not telling her about the sale, for selling things on online yard sales that she gave me years ago, for watching a movie with my sister and not asking her watch with us, for asking her to leave her room and join us for dinner, for not trusting her to drive with my kids in the car…the list is endless.
November 2014. I posted this on Facebook: “Tonight I attended an LDS Addiction Recovery meeting to complete an assignment for the substance abuse counseling class I am taking this semester. I thought I would feel out of place because I do not have a drug or alcohol addiction. I was wrong. I felt love, strength, grace, and peace. I was surrounded by incredible people from all walks of life who are doing their absolute best to conquer their addictions by giving their lives to the Lord. We all have addictions. It could be an addiction to negative self-talk, always needing to be right, constantly wishing for more, or trying to be a perfectionist. Our addictions are anything that distract us from serving our God, our families, and each other. I know that no matter how strong our addictions are, the grace of Jesus Christ is stronger. He loves us and is always here for us.” The next morning, I saw a text my mother had sent around 2 a.m. It said, “So I’m a drug addict, huh? Thanks for posting an addiction recovery link to my wall. Now everyone will think I’m like those crazies.” I called her and said I hadn’t posted anything to her wall. I asked her if she had read what I did post. She hadn’t. She insisted that I posted it and was very angry with me. She assured me over and over again that she did not have a prescription drug problem and she didn’t even use most of the medications in her drug bag.
Somehow, I had done something wrong. Again. Still I kept trying to have a healthy relationship with her because she was my mother. I tried helping her with psychology techniques I was learning in graduate school. I thought that if I said just the right thing, somehow I could open her eyes. I underestimated the depth of her crazy. She is such a skilled manipulator. An effective liar. She twists situations so that you think you are crazy. She preys on your pity. If manipulation was an Olympic category, she’d take gold every time. By this point, I had anxiety each time a text message or phone call appeared on my phone from her. I panicked each time I returned her call. If I didn’t, she would keep calling and calling, texting and texting, and Facebook messaging me until I talked to her.
March 2015. She said she had a change of heart. She promised to be a “New Marcie”. I was hesitant to believe her this time. I was finally learning not to trust her again. She sent me a message a few weeks later telling me she could tell I STILL didn’t trust her and that was hurting her. I didn’t really love her unconditionally.
July 2015. Another year at our annual Snowbird condo where I cook and clean for everyone while my mother stays in bed. She insisted we hold a family meeting so we could tell her how she can improve as a mother. I didn’t want to, but I gave in. Then we learned from a family member at Snowbird that my mother had cried to her that her children had demanded a meeting so we could “nail her to the wall.” This was the beginning of the end and when we first urged my dad to consider divorce. We told him that his future with us would be limited as long as it was tied with hers. We couldn’t handle her anymore. We held our final intervention with her. We told her to do 4 Things: 1) Establish a regular sleep schedule, 2) Eat three healthy meals a day, 3) Exercise every day, and 4) Go to Behavioral Med or another drug detox. She was very angry. She sent multiple cruel and hateful texts and Facebook messages to me over the next few weeks. If only we had just listened to her, who are we to judge her, she gave us a great childhood, she doesn’t know what the abuse allegations are all about, we really hurt her, we don’t love unconditionally, and so on. She did get admitted to Behavioral Med a few weeks later. We visited her once and I was anxious and panicked the entire time. She later claimed that no one visited her in the hospital.
Since that intervention last July, we have uncovered so many lies she told us growing up. Lies about her childhood, lies about her parents, lies about her siblings, lies about my brother’s death. She raised me to hate so many members of her family, but the reasons were her twisted versions of reality. The farther I drew from her, the closer I became to other relatives. I think people were waiting for us to take a stand. Once we did, they felt safe enough to tell us their side of the story. Stories came out like crazy from former coworkers, family friends, neighbors, and so on.
I have so many supportive friends and licensed counselors who helped me establish healthy boundaries. They gave me strength. I remember looking around at my friends one night and thinking, “I can’t be as bad as my mother says I am if I have friends like this!” My aunt, who I had been estranged with because of my mother’s jealousy, became a mother figure to me. I also looked to my sister, Chelsea, as an example. She recognized our mother’s dysfunction years before the rest of us and was strong enough to set boundaries. I realized I had to set boundaries because it was affecting my husband and children. As I established more and more boundaries and became brave enough to tell my mother when I felt uncomfortable with something, she lashed out even more.
August 8, 2015. Mylee was baptized on her golden birthday! I was extremely uncomfortable with my mom being there, but I did my best to be nice and talk to her a few times during the evening. Landon’s family and a few other people at the baptism and party talked with her too. The day was wonderful! We went to my parent’s house the next day for Sunday dinner. My mother asked me to put pictures of my kids from my memory card onto her computer. She gave me her computer. I opened it up and saw a message she had typed to her friend. It said that everyone ignored her at Mylee’s baptism and it was bullshit. I confronted her with the message. I asked, "How could you say this?" She said, "You shouldn't have gotten on my computer!" I told her, “You gave it to me!” She said, “You should have just x’d out of it instead of reading it!” I said, “It was on the screen!” She said, “You are taking it the wrong way! There are two sides to every story!” I screamed at her through my tears, “You are not nice! I will never be enough for you!” I sobbed the entire way home. I told my kids, “If I ever hurt you, just tell me ‘Mom, I felt bad when you did that’ and I will hug you and kiss you and say I am sorry because my mom never did that for me.”
December 19, 2015. She wanted to stop by my house to give Allie some dresses. My dad texted this for her because I had blocked her on my phone. I told my dad that I was not ready to see her. She insisted that I let her come. I told my dad to stop pestering me for her and that she needed to respect my boundaries. He told her that, and then texted that she was angry and called me a bad name he wouldn’t repeat over text. Later I asked what it was. He told me that she had called me a bitch.
The divorce papers were served in January 2016. I was sad, but so relieved! The divorce is now final and my dad has full custody of my 12-year-old sister. So many people have asked me if I still have a relationship with my mother. They express hope that she will change and that one day we will be reconciled again. As of now, we do not have a relationship at all. She has attempted to annihilate every boundary I have set. She will tell you she has changed, but her actions since the divorce have proven she has not. She will never change because she refuses to take responsibility for any of the abuse she heaped on her family. In her mind, it is all our fault. It is all my dad’s fault. She used the words despicable, toxic, and poison to describe us. And then she tells everyone that she loves us unconditionally and doesn’t know why we’ve abandoned her!
“Unconditional love” is a favorite phrase of hers. She uses it to guilt her family. “If you really loved me unconditionally, you would let me…” She thinks it means that you give her complete control. It’s why she is obsessed with babies. Once she had grandbabies, she put all her focus on them because, as she has told us numerous time, they “love her unconditionally while her children do not.” The problem is that she has hurt my children before. I still didn’t have enough backbone to stand up to her. I have a backbone now. I protect my children from her because I really do love my children unconditionally.
The true hero of my story is my dad. He made our lunches every morning. He took us on bike rides. He jumped on the trampoline with us. He took us to church every Sunday. He woke us up at 6 a.m. for family scripture study. He went - and continues to go - to the temple faithfully every Wednesday. He did this mostly by himself for almost 32 years of marriage. He did it even when nobody was watching, every single day. My best childhood memories are with him. My siblings and I turned out pretty good, and I owe it to my dad. I owe it to Landon. I owe it to my children. I owe it to my friends. I owe it to family members who stood by me and stood by my dad. Most of all, I owe it to Jesus Christ. Looking back, I know God gave me specific spiritual gifts and put people in my life to help counteract the effects of my mother. In counseling, these are called protective factors. My mother was my risk factor, but my life has been filled with protective factors. I am blessed.
I am closer than ever to my dad and my siblings. We help each other heal. I’m still messed up in some ways, but I know that through the power of the Savior’s atonement I will continue to heal. I am working on forgiveness. I am working on communication. I am working on self-acceptance. I am working to feel worthy. I am working on perfectionism and accepting that it is okay to make mistakes. I am working to feel pity for my mother’s lonely life of lies. I am working to let go of my anger. She may have raised me with negativity and hate, but I know better than to keep them. I choose joy and love. The cycle of abuse ends with me.
Photo credit: Lawson (2004). Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship. Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, MD.