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The Vine: October 6, 2010

Submitted by on October 6, 2010 – 9:55 AM12 Comments

I'm nearly 30. My parents have hated each other since at least their divorce (about 25 years ago) if not long before that. They both have solid reasons to feel that way about each other.

My dad and I have always gotten along very well. My mom and I have a really rough relationship. Most people who know both of us thinks she can't deal with the fact that my dad and I are very similar. More than once over the years I've considered if it's worth it to continue having a relationship with her.

My brother (10 years older) is a total waste of earth's resources. His (first) ex-wife is evil, addicted to drugs and crazy. They have a son who's severely impacted by autism. (As in 11 and non-verbal.) They are terrible parents.

About three years ago my brother and father discontinued their relationship. About two years ago my brother told me to never bother to speak to him again. (Along with a bunch of really horrible other things.) Since that time, my life has been a lot calmer. I don't have to worry about him showing up at my door, eating all my food, saying really fucked-up things (sexually) to my friends, stealing my things, and punching me when I call him on any of that. Yay.

When that all went down, I asked my mom to never talk to me about him and never talk to him about me. Generally she respects that, but one time when I was drugged out of my face in the hospital recovering from surgery she shoved the phone at me and he was on the other end. I was not amused.

Anyway, today she called me and this conversation took place.

Her: "I'm only asking you because you're honest so I know you'll be honest with me."

Me: [in my head: oh FUCK] "Okay, what?"

Her: "Do you know if your dad is planning on taking your nephew to Mexico? Not like to Baja for the weekend, but like, down where you went this summer. For a while?"

Me: "Mom, Dad hasn't seen him in three years. What the hell are you talking about?"

Her: "Well, [Brother's Ex] has been trying to get Nephew a passport, and Nephew just showed up with a new haircut that looks like the ones your father used to give him and once he said that he wanted to take him to Mexico for a while."

Me: "So you're calling to ask me if I know about Dad taking Brother's son to Mexico without his knowledge or permission?"

Her: "Yeah."

Me: "Mom, I've never heard of anything like that. Okay?"

Then I got off the phone. Then I got PISSED. I mean, seriously. Please don't call and ask if I'm in on hiding a plot where my dad works with my brother's evil ex-wife to get my special-needs nephew out of the county. Based on a haircut. Right?

So I called her back. It didn't go well.

Me: "Mom, do me a favor. Don't ever. EVER call me with something like that again."

Her: "I was calling you because I care about Nephew."

Me: "Mom! You're fucking accusing me of knowing about a plot to KIDNAP MY NEPHEW AND TO NOT DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT."

Her: "This isn't about you! I called because I care."

Me: "I said I don't want to know a thing about Brother's life!"

Her: "This is about Nephew!"

Me: "What kind of person do you think I am, Mom? You sound insane! Seriously. Why would you even bother talking to me if you think I'd just wait for someone to ask me if my father was trying to kidnap my nephew! With Brother's evil ex! I mean, if that's what you think about me what am I doing having a relationship with you?"


Me: "You're a sick person."

Her: [click]

Okay, I know I wasn't like a picture of calmness and maturity. I don't really care. It's hours later and I'm still seeing red.

Here are my main questions. 1. Am I insane for thinking that my mom was accusing me of knowing about a plot to take my nephew out of the country with out my brother's permission based on a haircut? 2. Am I way overreacting in thinking that I don't need her in my life if that's what she thinks about me?

I know from experience that she will never apologize for this.

There's a reason I went to college 3,000 miles away from home

Dear Away,

Yes, you kind of are, on both counts.

Your mom has some boundary issues as far as your relationship — or lack of one — with your brother, but if you think about it more calmly, of course you can understand where that comes from. She loves you both, and she wants you to love each other, in spite of ample evidence that, at least right now, that can't be. That denial is irritating, but try reacting with compassion, instead of adolescent rage that your orders aren't being followed.

But Mom isn't the only one with entanglement problems here. Your furious, dramatic reaction suggests that, as much lip service as you give to not wanting to deal with Brother, you're still involved with him emotionally. Refusing to speak to or about a person takes a certain amount of effort and maintenance; sometimes it's necessary, but patrolling that emotional border means that you do have a relationship with Brother, of twisted sorts, and that he does take up significant mental acreage.

I don't see any indication that your mother "accused" you of anything. There's maybe one phrasing that implies that she thought you might know something, but it's your phrasing and she's just replying to it. I think she's probably reading too much into a haircut, so we agree there — but how much simpler and less stress-inducing would it have been for you to say that, gently, and end the conversation? "Mom, I think you're probably reading too much into a haircut. I know you're concerned, but I don't know anything, and as we've discussed, this subject isn't one I want to go near. Talk to you later." How hard is that?

I think it's extremely hard, for you, and it's time for you to get counseling and deal with how tightly tied you still seem to feel to these people from whom you get no joy, whose behavior you can't seem to put into perspective. This isn't a judgment; it happens with our families of origin, that an incident like this will stick sideways in your throat for weeks when any third party would be like, "Let it go, life's too short," because you want sins of the past redressed and injustices righted. It's normal, it's common, it's exhausting, and it's unrealistic, and a therapist can help you recognize how you contribute to these interactions, and how to change your own behavior to cut down the toxicity.

No, Mom probably won't apologize for this, nor should she. She's right: it wasn't about you, and furthermore, making it about you is wearing you down. But if you apologize to her for taking her head off, and explain that you can be oversensitive on the topic of brother, without getting defensive, at least you've put it out there and then you can move on from the incident.

But you've got to move on from something here, and cutting her out of her life won't do that. It'll just change the relationship dynamic to one where you spend the entire time cultivating your sense of injury, and you must have something better to do.

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  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    With the caveat that I know absolutely nothing about your family:

    You and your brother were presented, apparently right out of the womb, with terrible role models for dealing with stress and conflict. That your brother went out the back door while you went out the front (to quote Tennessee Williams) is a matter of luck, timing, and personal character, but nobody in this has escaped damage.

    While I certainly agree that leaping from "I know that haircut style" to "My Evil Ex-Husband is planning to take my autistic grandchild to Mexico illegally" is an Olympic Trials feat, your mom didn't cook this scenario up in her mind to torture you, specifically. She did it because that's what she does: your dad is, in her mind, the source of all trouble and pain, so any drama she comes up with stars him as the villian. She clearly feels she can't talk to your brother about this, so she calls you, since you're her conduit to your dad, emotionally (since your realationship with him is better.) This of course triggers your 30 years worth of "ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?" that's been stored up in your brain, and it's off on round 6,572 of Dysfunctional Family Feud, and you have your place at the buzzer, along with the rest of your kin. Not because you did anything wrong or are a bad person, it's just the hand you were dealt.

    You wrote this only a few hours after your blowup, so of course you're not thinking clearly. It may take a while to do that. In the meantime, don't engage further. Don't call to "clarify." Don't write an empassioned email about all the times she's accused you falsely (not one that you send, anyway.) Your family engages all the time and it leads to ulcers, headaches, and sore throats from shouting, but no progress. Just sit. Recover from your medical procedure. Watch nothing but romcoms and MST. Read Three Men In A Boat. Just unhook that part of your brain for a while, until the words she spoke are just words, not personal Tomahawk missles. Than you can plan a strategy for dealing, but not before.

  • Isis Uptown says:

    Haircut? Mexico?

    Sars, kudos to you for understanding what was going on. I would not have known how to answer this letter.

  • Jane says:

    I agree with what Sars has said and with Jen S.'s wonderful comment. I just wanted to note that from my POV, the notion that a haircut indicates a vacation plan may be crazy, but the notion that you might have heard something about a vacation plan involving your father? Not crazy, and not accusing you of hiding a kidnapping. It doesn't sound, in your rendition, like she's even thinking that you'd be doing something horrible–just that you might be a source of information ("Wow, that's totally something Wilberforce would do. Fifinella's still in touch with Wilberforce–I should ask for her take on this"). It doesn't sound like she felt it needed any more thought than that, and that the "and therefore I'm accessory to a crime" stuff was what you, not she, brought.

    And yes, I don't know your mother and the meanings that have evolved over the years, but sometimes that makes things easier. You have the option of taking it at face value yourself–I do know how much easier that is said than done, but sometimes we forget that the option is actually there–and making your life a lot less stormy as a consequence.

  • Linda says:

    Yes, to everything that Sarah said.

    Look, if the ex is truly evil, and if the ex is trying to get a passport for a nonverbal child and nobody in the family knows what the passport would be for, and Dad previously indicated he might take the kid to Mexico "for a while," Mom is not exactly off her nut for *wondering* whether the passport and the comment about Mexico are related. (She DIDN'T base it all on the haircut, you know.) (And she didn't even say "kidnap." She seems to be implying "take the kid to Mexico, with Mom's permission." That wouldn't be kidnapping anyway, unless there's more to this than you're telling us. That could be called "vacation.")

    So she called to see whether you knew anything about your dad taking your nephew on a trip, presumably with his mother's approval but not your brother's. That's what I see. I know you don't see that — you see an accusation that you are in on a plot. Your mom might just think you could have heard something, maybe something you didn't even CONNECT to that idea at the time, that would help her figure it out.

    I don't think you're crazy to think Mom was accusing you, but I think Mom was not accusing you. And no matter what Mom was doing, calling Mom back to restart the argument was not likely to help.

    And honestly, your issues with your brother are not your autistic nephew's fault. If a hypothetically non-crazy person got the idea that your nephew was in trouble and thought you might know something about it, I would think an "I've already said I don't wish to hear about my brother's family" argument from you in favor of why you shouldn't be so much as asked a question would not be the most well-supported argument of all time.

    I realize this probably sounds harsh, but what I'm trying to tell you is mostly this: You're making this harder for yourself, I think, than it needs to be. Don't get involved in drama by actually not getting involved in drama, not by dramatically objecting to … drama. You know what I mean? You deserve not to be involved in these people's nutsiness. So excuse yourself from it.

  • RC says:

    Your Mom's thinking sounds like my Mom's thinking and talking; she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. There isn't logic, there are HUGE leaps, and there is no way to explain that this is just one crazy thing among thousands. There was a reason I moved cross-country, too. It helped, but nothing could cure interacting with a bizarre person.

  • meltina says:

    Methinks thou doth protest too much. I mean, you didn't know anything about it. You said so to your mother. She took it at face value. That should have been the extent of that conversation.

    I don't know your mother from Adam, but I do agree that the second phone call was all about YOU, and from her standpoint, this wasn't about you. Yes, a haircut and a passport do not a kidnapping plan make. But that galloping leap towards a "kidnapping" plot had nothing to do with you. It sounds like she asked a question, you answered it honestly, and she took it at face value. So in the second phone call you made a just as huge leap that led you from a simple weird question to an implication that she was suspicious that you "were in on it". If you look at it that way, you're actually a lot more similar to mom than you thought you were.

    I don't think she has anything to apologize for at least in this case (I don't doubt that she's done a million other things for which an overdue apology is in order, but that's neither here nor there). You treated her the same way she treats your dad: with mistrust and suspicion as to her motives. You don't have to apologize for that if you don't want to, but to hold a grudge on her in this particular scenario? You don't have a leg to stand on.

    So to answer the questions you posed to Sars: (1) Insane? no. Overreacting? yes. (2) Probably. I mean, it sounds like maybe cutting contact with mom is not necessarily the worst of ideas, but please make the decision to do so based on real shortcomings in the relationship, not on your wild imaginations of what she must think of you. The latter makes you no better than how you accuse her of being.

  • meltina says:

    Also, in my experience it's harder to get along with the one parent who most reminds you of yourself, not the other way around. So if you and mom always clash with one another? It's probably because you both have a tendency to overreact in the same exact way, and your personalities are too close for comfort. It makes sense, too.

    I'm not saying your rage against mom (and brother) is in any way unwarranted. I'm saying that it's there, and it sounds like it's eating you up where you can't deal with them calmly, and you create drama about them even as you try to minimize contact. You're sure expending lots of energy on people who you claim not to deserve it, and that's where you need some help. So if you haven't sorted all of this stuff out with a therapist, I'd say do it, for your own sake.

    Said therapy can really help you (a) separate that proximity in personality out of the relationship and (b) realize that you don't have to be your parent's photocopy if you loathe the idea so much but that takes work, part of which is to accept and forgive said parent for who they are, so that you can start moving away from the huge shadow they cast in your emotional life.

  • Anonymous for this one says:

    Have you ever read Pamie's Why Moms Are Weird? If not, I highly recommend it.

    I come from a pretty seriously dysfunctional family, myself, and I have very valid reasons to be angry at both of my parents for not doing better by me and my siblings growing up. I've had to work through a lot of rage toward my mom for not taking a more protective role and allowing things to be done to us while she lived in her own little world of denial. Her sense of denial holds strong to this day, and talking to her can be infuriating. It's even worse for my sister, who hardly ever talks to mom because she always wants to tell her how great our cousin — who molested my sister when they were kids — is doing. Understandably, Sis doesn't want to hear about it.

    But I, at least, managed to get to a place where I was able to decide that this is my mommy, and she's the only mommy I have, and I'd rather have her than no mommy at all. So when she manifests into Crazy Denial Lady and steers the conversation into places I can't deal with, I can either respond with rage and drama and make us both feel like crap, or I can nod disinterestedly and say, "How 'bout that. Hey, are you watching Survivor? Can you believe how much Naonka sucks? Let's talk about that instead." She usually follows my lead, and that's that.

    I have to say that it's been so long since I read Pamie's book that I can't remember the plot all that well (I guess it's time for a re-read), but I do remember that it helped me put my relationship with my mom into perspective, and decide what I wanted that relationship to be, and what I needed to do on my end — the only part I'm capable of controlling — to get there.

    At any rate, I understand what it's like to have a family that sucks, and how quickly and easily they can push your buttons and cause you to lose all sense of reason and perspective. I hope you can get to a place where your buttons aren't so sensitive that you can no longer have a relationship with your mom.

  • Anno for this says:

    "This isn't a judgment; it happens with our families of origin, that an incident like this will stick sideways in your throat for weeks when any third party would be like, 'Let it go, life's too short,' because you want sins of the past redressed and injustices righted. It's normal, it's common, it's exhausting, and it's unrealistic, and a therapist can help you recognize how you contribute to these interactions, and how to change your own behavior to cut down the toxicity."

    Wow. This really spoke to me. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to find the kind of therapist that can help with this kind of issue? Or maybe a book that could help accomplish something similar (time and money are short). (Perhaps this is a vine question in itself…)

  • meltina says:

    Most family and relationship therapists will be able to deal with this sort of thing, and all you really need is to use a therapist locator website. I can't remember the one I used, but I know that's how I found my therapist. There's many out there, just google "therapist locator" and go from there. I basically cross referenced names in my area against my insurance, and once I created a shortlist, I went and read their profiles, as well as any feedback that I could find on them. Then… I just picked one. That's really the hard part.

    I think different people have different needs that they need met in therapy, but for me, the deciding factor was that my therapist was described by former patients as a good combination of gentle counselor, yet no-nonsense. In other words, she sounded like someone who'd be gentle at first, but would call you on your bullshit if you brought any with you. It did turn out to be the case: she got on my case about my reluctance to go on meds after giving me a little time to get used to therapy first. I'm glad she did. If she hadn't, I'd probably still be listening to my own depressive thoughts instead of just about anyone else.

  • Bria says:

    I believe (the new version of the unfortunately-named has a pretty wide reach in terms of areas it covers. I agree with meltina – this is the well-traveled territory of a family therapist. If you find someone you click with, s/he would be an excellent resource for book recommendations.

  • Anno for this says:

    Thanks, y'all. (Bria, that link looks especially useful.)

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