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Smoke and mirrors - my mum has an undiagnosed personality disorder



This page created 14th July 2014



By Hazel


 
Writing this article has been on the backburner for a while now. It’s not that I’ve actively avoided it, but I guess I was wary of authoring a sob story, and I have been unsettled by the unknown path this piece had the potential of travelling. Most of us have recollections of our personal experience of mental illness – whether it be our own or a friend or a family member. I have no doubt that my story is one that is shared by others, but for most of my life, my story was one kept shut behind closed doors, a family secret if you will. The following explores some parts of those darker days, and really what the struggles were like for my brother, sister and myself living with someone unwell, and undiagnosed – my mother.
 
1996 was a fairly traumatic year for seven-year-old me. In February I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes – a shock and a ‘burden’ my mother will never forgive me for – and in August my parents separated. At the time, I made no link between the two, and if it wasn’t for Mum I probably never would have, but she’s made it clear to me since.  At this point I would like to highlight that my intention is not to paint my Mum as an ogre, I’m simply detailing my version of events.
 
When I was younger, the differences in my Mum were noticeable. We never knew what would set her off for example, and we thought she was scary. Other mothers had delight on their faces when they collected their children from school; ours was always rushed and angry. The severity of the situation became more apparent as we got older – I’d like to think in part because deep down Mum possessed the ability to protect her three young children, but I feel it’s more likely that the escalation in emotional and verbal abuse coincided with my new found desire to defend the three of us, which in turn provoked countless situations.
 
Deep down I guess I always knew my Mum and my home life were different. To me, her character was defined by irrationality, irritability, anger, consistently holding grudges, hostility and manipulation.
 
For years Mum taunted the three of us with threats of abandonment – it was always her big plan to move to New Zealand and leave the three of us defenceless and alone, although we thought this was unlikely, this was a punishment we assumed we deserved. I can also recall several instances where she exclaimed she couldn’t cope as a single mother any longer and needed us out of the house, but every time we made alternative arrangements, she came crawling back. It was rare, if ever, that an eruption like this was followed by an apology, but each and every time she was able to guilt us into returning. A large part of this was due to the fact that we were constantly reminded that money was an issue and we felt awful that what little she had was spent on us. We knew that being in her care meant that she still received my father’s generous child support contributions, as well as board from my sister and I (after we turned 18) and my disability support payments.  Although at the time I was oblivious to the fact that money was her primary motivation to winning us back, I see clearly now that it fuelled most of her behaviour.

The most salient of these occurrences just happens to be the final one of its kind. It was my brother’s 17th birthday and Mum had to work late. I knew that in itself was enough to trigger one of her ‘episodes’, so my sister and I offered to do the dinner shopping and cook his favourite meal. Mum arrived home, clearly agitated, so my sister poured her a glass of wine and tried to de-stress the situation. We were only a few bites into dinner when she turned to my brother and said “How does it feel that your father doesn’t want you on your birthday?” I was furious, snide remarks and antagonising language like this were commonplace, but it was his birthday for god’s sake. My brother stayed quiet as my sister and I leapt to dad’s defence and, in the hope of supporting my brother, fired back at Mum. In this short space of time, she’d managed to drink a whole bottle of wine, which was not an unusual occurrence, and the effects were clearly taking hold. What followed was a vicious and nasty war of words and Mum storming out to her car to go for a drive. We were now in distress that she was behind the wheel in the state she was in, but what could we do? We cleaned up and comforted each other. What seemed like a very long half hour later, Mum reappeared, still fuming, and still spitting venom. She announced to the three of us “This is my house, not yours, and you are not welcome here anymore. You have half an hour to gather your things and give me your house keys and I never want to see you again.”  We had no time to process what she had said, and the adrenaline kicked in. We bagged what we could and 32 minutes later we were ushered outside. It was dark and it was raining and we as yet had no plan in place. We assembled at the end of the driveway and called my father. He was still at work, almost an hour away, but I could hear him gather his things and run for his car. While we stood there and waited for him to arrive I think I knew that this would be it – we would be saved. I turned to my brother and sister and without any of us speaking a word, we knew, we would never go back.  
 
Although that night is one of the most heart wrenching to relive, I think we all knew soon after that it was a blessing in disguise. My father lived with his partner and her two daughters and without any warning for anyone involved, we were the new Brady Brunch. When I think about my home life with this new blended family, I only have fond memories. We were welcomed with open arms and loved and cared for unconditionally – something which was almost foreign to us all until that point. I will be eternally grateful to my dad, my step Mum and my two beautiful step-sisters for everything they did for us and the happiness they showed us we deserved. Given that, so to speak, the grass was so much greener on the other side, most people wonder why we didn’t leave sooner. My first answer is simple; we just didn’t know how bad it was until we escaped it. More specifically, however, she was our mother, and in a weird way we depended on her and hated the thought of her being alone. It wasn’t until much later that I realised her behaviour would never change, and the professional help that she so desperately needed, she would never seek.

The three of us were plagued with guilt for a long time about what happened.  Mum had convinced herself and those around her that we had abandoned her. We endeavoured for a long time to maintain contact and support her where we could and in ways which she would permit. Despite highlighting to her numerous times that events like that night were not normal and that we genuinely felt we were victims of abuse; it wasn’t enough for her to change her behaviour. After a string of volatile text messages to me (almost 12 months after my brother’s birthday) which blamed me for my parent’s separation, ruining her life after my diagnosis of Type 1 Diabetes, disappointing the family, consistently embarrassing her and suggestions that I would never amount to anything, my siblings and I collectively decided we would cut contact with her. Here I would like to note that to me, the saddest part of this interaction was that I knew Mum genuinely believed all of these points to be true. Whether fact or fiction, she had created this picture in her mind where I had destroyed all aspects of her life, and she once again, was the casualty. She appeared to accept our wishes to cease contact, however, four days  later messaged us to inform us that our beautiful puppy had been put down. We decided not to play into the   emotion of the situation and simply asked her what had happened. Her response was “I am too upset about my children abandoning me to talk about this.” She never managed to explain to us what happened, but several friends of hers informed us that the dog had been put down for unknown reasons. It was later confirmed that Mum had convinced the vet that the dog had turned nasty and was a danger to people. Considering this was now the second instance in a pattern of similar behaviours, we knew, without doubt, that she had orchestrated this entire situation simply to spite the three of us. This is something I will never forgive her for.
 
Eventually I became aware of her ability to completely alter her perceptions of reality. This frequent tendency was so convincing that not only she unwaveringly believed them, but so did most of the people around her. She had this extraordinary knack to manipulate anyone’s emotions and convert your memories to coincide with her fictitious beliefs. Because of this, we were consistently made to believe that the hardships and traumatic events were our fault and my mother was always the ill-fated victim. I now believe she possessed an almost complete external locus of control, whereby the world was against her and she was always faultless and hard done by.
 
The past few years, combined with my qualifications in psychology, have allowed me deep reflection and a new perspective on things. For many people in my life, my Mum is that woman who constantly berated, put down, tormented and emotionally and verbally abused her children, but to me she is a woman whose behaviour is largely explained by unfortunate psychopathology. Even though we tried tirelessly to get her professional help – even at times calling an ambulance or CAT team when she bordered on psychosis – these attempts were never fruitful. She either persuaded us that there was nothing wrong with her and she was a victim of circumstance, genuinely believed that one session with a psychologist here or there was sufficient, or convinced the health professional that there was nothing wrong. An example of this was when I begged her to see a psychologist who I was currently working with just before the event of my brother’s birthday. Mum had a session with her following that night which led my colleague to ask me whether I needed assistance finding housing because she knew “my father didn’t want custody of us, couldn’t provide a suitable home for us, and that we had told Mum that we were leaving her house of our own free will.” I remember breaking down at my desk after realising that even trained professionals couldn’t escape her traps.

From bits of information I have strung together from former friends, partners, family members and health professionals in Mum’s life, the speculation has always been that she had long suffered with an array of undiagnosed conditions. The most recent report to me was that she had a culmination of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Borderline Personality Disorder, Alcoholism and Major Depression. Some would say I was naïve to have not noticed the constant red flags and I guess I don’t really have an answer for that apart from the fact that for most of my life, I just thought that’s how things were. Everyone tells you that life is full of ups and downs and I believed that the ‘ups’ were just around the corner. I often wonder if there was more that I could have done to help her, or to protect my brother and sister, but the truth is, we played the hand we were dealt to the best of our ability for most of our lives. I think if Mum had been formally diagnosed when we were still in her care, it would have helped my siblings more broadly understand the situation and feel less blame towards my mother, but the inherent nature of NPD means that it is typically impenetrable by psychotherapy and I’ve long been resigned to the fact that there probably wasn’t all that much we could do.
 
I’m often asked, and have often wondered myself, if my past experiences helped mould my study and work endeavours in psychology and mental health. In all honesty, I don’t believe so. I’ve always possessed an applied interest in human behaviour, interaction and psychopathology. I do believe, however, that it is has helped shape the personal and professional parts of me. I feel I’m far more understanding and empathetic these days, and for that I guess I should be grateful.
 
My brother, sister and I remain estranged from Mum, and I don’t know if we will ever have the capacity to let her in our lives again. For now, all I can hope is that she finally sought help and is as happy as she permits herself to be.


 
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