I almost do

 I bet, this time of night you’re still up
I bet, you’re tired from a long hard week
I bet, you’re sittin’ in your chair by the window
Looking out at the city and I bet
Sometimes you wonder ’bout me

And I just wanna tell you
It takes everything in me not to call you
And I wish I could run to you
And I hope you know that every time I don’t
I almost do

Last month my mum was found to have a pulmonary embolism and multiple clots on the lungs. They had quite a scare, my mum and sister and brother, but I only found out afterwards, when she was stable and on treatment, as my sister had been unsure whether to tell me. She said I needed to let her know what she should do next time, and what Nina would want to do, in case Mum were to die at such a time. I never wrote about it at the time because it was too huge and awful and brought up too much to process, and then a week later K made me sit further away and in a different room for therapy and all hell broke lose for several weeks.

I replied to my sister’s text to say that K and I had discussed this in therapy last summer and that I would want to say goodbye, but what didn’t really occur to me at the time was that it is unlikely to be a one-time thing, and there might be multiple times over the next year, five years, even 10-15 years (she’s 71 at the moment) when Mum is very unwell and we are told it would be a good idea to say our goodbyes. And it could also be that later on Mum is very unwell for an extended period of time and it will be very hard to manage what to do around contact and seeing her then. (I am not thinking about this at the moment, but it will be something to talk through with K in the abstract at some point I know, and then make a decision over if it were to arise).

The other thing I hadn’t really realised until this news was that estrangement is not a one-time decision, it is a choice that must be remade and recommitted to over and over again. Perhaps this isn’t the case for everyone, but I know my mum would want to see me and Nina if I were to ever want that, and so it is a choice I can still make, to see her or not see her. It is painful to keep making that choice and all I can do is keep in mind that being estranged from my mum will never be okay, it is just more okay than it would be to see her. I still worry I have made all this up and that she is really not abusive and mentally ill and damaging, but K said again yesterday that I’m not making this up, and we laughed that it would be hard to do therapy all this time if you were making things up. As I wrote in my previous post, my behaviour and emotional dysregulation are pretty good indicators of how bad it was.

In the days after hearing from my sister that Mum had been ill I went to a really dark place over my brother’s longer term well-being in particular. He is disabled and hugely traumatised (it’s hard to tell which of his ‘problems’ are caused by his disability and which result from the abuse he has endured for nearly 50 years) and still lives with Mum and even though he is quite a bit older than me (he will turn 50 next year) he is still likely to live a long time after her and it is very frightening to think of what will happen to him – physically and psychologically – without her here. It is something I have worried about since I was very young, when it first became apparent that I was expected to have him to live with me and basically take over everything our mum does for him when she is no longer able to do it. This is not something I feel able to do, in large part because of the difficulties my mum’s abuse and mental illness has left me with, but at the same time I feel horribly guilty and ashamed that I’m not willing to take care of him as much as he will need. And there is also a lot of anxiety over how we will provide what he needs in terms of living support when Mum isn’t here, financially and logistically. It’s all a horrible mess and hearing about Mum’s illness brought back how complex and painful it all is, and how I will never truly be free of it all. K was very supportive and one of the best things about her is that she is probably the first professional I’ve spoken to about my complex family situation who hasn’t just told me ‘your brother is not your responsibility’ as if that is 1) true, and 2) makes everything okay. She has sat with me in the huge feelings and never tried to tell me it is not as complex and difficult as it really is.

Not reaching out to Mum when she was ill was really hard. And then Covid-19 has, of course, brought up even more for me in terms of family estrangement and fears that my mum will die, not least because it will leave my brother in a terrible situation physically and emotionally at a really shit time when there is limited support. I felt such a strong pull towards my mum three weeks ago, when I was first off work and Nina was first off school, so I asked my sister if she thought it would upset Mum too much if I contacted her to say I was thinking of her and my brother and sending love. My sister said she thought Mum would really like to hear from me as she had been asking how Nina and I were, and she said if I didn’t want to open up contact again to say I ‘wasn’t ready’ to be in contact again, even if I think I never will be, because Mum doesn’t need to hear that I never will be ‘ready’ at the moment. So I wrote her a text that said I am not ready to be in contact yet, but wanted her to know Nina and I are thinking of her and my brother during these difficult times. I said I was pleased to hear from Katie [my sister] that my brother is off work and that we were self-isolating due to Nina’s asthma so she was off school (before they closed) and we were safe. I wrote that we were both sending much love to them both. I pressed send and held my breath.

Fifteen minutes later Mum replied with a message that was heartbreaking yet exactly what was needed, telling me they had been thinking of us too and that they were safe and being careful, and that they both love Nina and I very much. I wanted to message back SO MUCH but I knew I couldn’t because there could be no end to it, and she might then start messaging at other times with updates and so on, and it could lead to a place I am not able to be in. It would also hurt Mum too much for me to pull back and so I cried – a lot – but didn’t reply, leaving it as a one-time reaching out which definitely felt like the right thing to do during this time. The next day hearing from my sister that my brother is really struggling with isolation and not being at work and not having his routine also broke my heart. I wanted to reach out, to help him, to support him, to do something to try and ease this time. I considered making cards with Nina to send him, but again – where does it end and could it do more harm than good?

K and I spoke about Mum and my brother on the phone the day after I heard how much my brother was struggling and I cried and cried. It was really fucking difficult to be feeling such horrible and huge emotions around both of them and not to be physically with K either. I told her I’d text Mum too and she agreed it was a good thing to do in the circumstances and that I had done it in a way that maintained boundaries. We spoke about how this pain and struggle is a long-standing thing that is amplified by the current pandemic – generally, my brother’s life has been pretty shit and the coronavirus outbreak has just made it shitter. Even if I was in contact with him he would still be really struggling at this time and I would still be powerless to change that. Not reaching out to him is so difficult though. Not being able to help him, save him, has been something I’ve struggled with so much since I was really a little girl, witnessing the way our mum abuses him and how traumatically bonded he is to her. It’s come up in therapy over and over again. Letting it be there whilst humanity is going through this crisis is incredibly difficult. Slowly, over the years, I am coming to accept that it is just awful and confusing and a total mind fuck and that I can’t change that. I can’t make it okay. I can’t make my brother okay. I can’t make any of it okay. This has been one of the toughest parts of my healing journey for sure, having to accept my brother’s life is what it is.

As I mentioned in my last post, on Sunday I got hit by another huge wave of Mum pain. I missed her so much and was desperate to reach out to her. It is so hard and distressing not to be in her life, not to be supporting her or to hear how she is. I tried to let it be there – the longing to connect, the hurt, the emptiness and sadness that it has come to this. A part started writing in our parts’ journal how we made it all up and she wasn’t that bad and cutting her out was a total over-reaction. This is the way the crazy always starts. I reminded everyone that it is natural to seek connection with our birth parents, that we are hardwired to do this, and that the yearning will likely never go away (though it will evolve and how we relate to it will change, I know this now), but that this doesn’t change how impossible it is to have her in our life. Last night I talked to K about it, mostly from an adult place, though I could feel and hear young and teen parts struggling too, with memories of ‘happy’ times with Mum and doubts over what we have done, and fears that she will die soon, too soon. Something that came up at the start of March, when I heard Mum was ill, was that this is really going to be how it is – she will die, one day, and we will have been estranged. It will never be put right. It cannot be.

On the phone to K yesterday I said how hard it is – still – to believe it was so bad with her that it had to come to this. And I said how hard it is because there were good times, and she tried really hard, and if she was dead, if that was the reason I don’t see her, it would be easier to hold the fact that there were bad times (lots of them) but also good times, but because it is a ‘choice’ not to see her it is hard to open to the good times and accept they were good because it makes me doubt everything. And whilst I know these times were rare, that they stand out because they were not the norm, and that they were also still unhealthy and all about her and what was going on for her, they still make it so hard because they make me want to go back. K reminded me how difficult it had been and we talked about how I had needed to protect Nina. It also came up when we spoke about my excessive drinking and crazy relationships, that those things are there are as proof of how difficult things with Mum were and continued to be.

I sobbed how much I miss her and that I just can’t bear that she could die and that it would have ended like this. It will never be okay and nothing takes it away, it is just there and it doesn’t matter what I do, I can’t change that hole in me. I don’t want her to die not knowing certain things. I want her to know I feel only compassion for her now, that I don’t feel angry, that I understand, and I don’t even feel I need her to know how damaged I am because of her. I just want her to know that estrangement was never about her, it was only ever about me. K said I should write this down because it was very mature and wise and shows that I’ve reached a very different place from where I was when we were first working – a place of forgiveness and compassion. I feel very sad for Mum and I expressed worry that this present place I’m in is just me making her feelings bigger than my own again, like I always have done, but K said she thinks it’s different because her and I are both holding other perspectives on this and we know that other stuff hasn’t gone away, but at the same time I have truly reached a place where I am beginning to forgive my mum for her madness and what it did to me. It is incredibly hard to hold such compassion for someone and not to be able to reach out to them during a time of crisis, but I know if I did nothing would have changed and being in each other’s lives would be untenable again very quickly. So I sit with all these confusing, conflicting thoughts and feelings whilst at the same time knowing that there are huge and painful experiences to go through in my relationship with her in the future, despite the distance between us that I must maintain for my own sanity. There is more difficult and conflicting stuff to come and it is this that I don’t think I had realised until I heard she was ill last month. I thought I had made the decision to become estranged and that’s how it would be, but she is still my Mum and her life, and death, will always impact me in different ways.

 

Haunted

Last night I got hit by a huge wave of grief and pain and sadness over my mum – being estranged from her, who she is and the life she has had and is living now, memories of happy times together when I was growing up that punctuate the years of chaos and abuse. It’s almost like my brain thought ‘hey, you’re not in crisis anymore, have this instead!’. It didn’t rip me open like it has before, but it is a deep sadness that she is not in my life, as well as an uneasiness that maybe I made a mistake in terms of cutting her out because it can’t have been that bad (that old friend again…). And of course at the moment the spectre of so much death is looming and it is natural to feel drawn towards our primary caregivers and to feel a need to be in a place of peace with those in our lives who may be taken away. It is sad and unnatural not to have those people in our lives and I am trying to just let that pain be there without thinking it needs to be acted upon or that it means I made a mistake by cutting contact with mum. I managed to distract last night and have felt okay today, though aware of young and teen parts crying, and then managed to have a painful, but holding and adult, conversation with K about it and let out some of the sadness that has been building throughout the day.

The past few days things have been quite a bit easier generally. I feel much more settled internally and this makes it easier to stay present and focus on my own life, and to deal with the uncertainty that is manifesting in the external world without getting destabilised and drawn into issues that are sad and scary but that are not directly affecting my well-being at this time. It may not last, but for now I feel okay and am managing self-care and spiritual practices and enjoying the slower pace of life that living under lockdown brings. It is nice to be in a place of stability and to feel at peace with what is happening even though so much is not okay, whilst also accepting that there will be more times on this journey when I feel lost and isolated and like K has abandoned me, and perhaps when people in my life who I care about are directly affected (physically, emotionally, financially) by what is unfolding. I feel quite withdrawn and introspective at the moment too and I am aware how little social interaction I actually need to feel okay, provided it is good quality and nurturing as the phone and video calls, and time with Nina at home, I’ve had over the weekend has been. (I also know I could easily get used to this self-regulating state and need to watch myself that I don’t settle and withdraw from the world too much).

I’m in the middle of another period of extended trauma dreams, where the nights are an endless tangle of past relationships and a parade of people who were once important in my life trek through my mind, their memory haunting me for days afterwards and leaving me struggling to metabolise their emotional presence in my life again. In our session this afternoon K said it is no surprise these past attachments are coming in just as I am also struggling with missing my mum and with the familiar questions over whether things with her were really so bad as to justify this. She says it makes sense for me to be piecing together in my dreams past attachments that, whilst not so important in terms of what we’ve covered in therapy, were really important in my life at different times. I said I find it hard knowing those people will never know why I behaved how I did because at the time I didn’t know why I was how I was. I will always be the crazy, intense, psycho ex-girlfriend who got drunk and angry and cried and self-harmed and tried to throw myself onto train tracks or stormed out in the night telling them never to contact me again (and then, of course, calling them 10 minutes later to make sure they knew just how hurt and angry I was, desperate for them to beg me to return but also desperate to get away and not be hurt again). Speaking to K I realised it’s almost as if my mind is looking for proof of what mum did to me in those past relationships, proof that it was that bad growing up with her as a mum, because it led me to behave in such out of control ways, particularly in intimate relationships.

I linked this also to a book I read over the weekend about a former alcoholic which was, quite by accident, or perhaps synchronicity, really such a good book for me to read at the moment. Life has felt kind of dull and flat, inside and out, this past week and I have felt myself drawn to alcohol and substances to provide some excitement and stimulation. I’ve been sober for 3 and a half years now (see here where I wrote about some of my journey with – and without – alcohol and other drugs) and in many ways it is really only beginning to become apparent just how needed and necessary that sobriety was. With hindsight it has become far, far clearer what a destructive force drinking was in my life and just how out of control it left me. The intense shame that has crippled me all my life was quadrupled by alcohol and it led me to behave in ways that made everything I was going through a hundred million times worse. I can see that turning to alcohol at this time would be dangerous and self-destructive and yet it is calling to me and it is interesting to see how strongly it is there despite how many years have gone by.

Something in me knew it was time to stop drinking back in 2015 and 2016 and I managed a couple of sober periods in those years, usually three months at a time, but they always ended with me getting absolutely horrifyingly drunk and crying on people I barely knew then blacking out, waking up in my own vomit with no idea how I’d got home or where my belongings were. Not ideal. Over the past few years I’ve often thought of my decision to stop drinking completely as something that could have gone either way – I could have chosen to drink more moderately or to not drink alone, to not drink with my partner when I am next in a relationship to avoid angry attachment-fuelled outbursts and crazy, dramatic crying scenes, or to not drink when I am feeling sad or destructive or reckless or already out of control, or not to drink when with people I might get triggered by or might be driven to share too much with, or might end up saying something I regret to. Waking up covered in shame happens all too easily for me when I’ve had a drink, even just one, and so as the years have gone by I’ve become more and more committed to this being a life choice that will stay with me forever. I used to phrase it to inquiring people (colleagues mostly, who are always gobsmacked that I don’t drink, perhaps because they’ve not seen the trail of destruction that follows me whenever I have a drink in my hand) that I had ‘drunk a lot over the past 20 years and was taking some time away to re-evaluate my relationship with it’. That usually quietened them, and it is actually what I’ve ended up doing – re-evaluated my relationship with it and realised I cannot have it in my life in a way that is not toxic and harmful.

The truth is I am not really able to drink. Having it in my life as an option, something I try to be in relationship with and work out how to be around a bit, means there is always the potential for things to go very wrong. The author of the book I read definitely drank more than me, definitely was an alcoholic whereas I would say I was ‘just’ dependent on alcohol (and, later in my life, other drugs), definitely made more of a mess of her life due to alcohol than I ever did. And yet, so much of her story resonated with me. My mum used to worry about the amount I drank. She would warn me to be careful, remind me that alcoholism runs in my family (her dad and her half brother were both alcoholics and both died quite young (my mum lost both her parents by the age of 17) either directly or indirectly as a result of alcohol abuse) and I would laugh and shrug it off because I was in my 20s and early 30s and that’s what people do at that age to have fun. Being able to look back on my drinking from a place of sobriety enables me to see that I was never drinking just because it was fun, there was so much more going on than that, always, and it is this that means that drinking is not a choice I can make if I am serious about healing myself from the past.

Perhaps I was in need of this reframing right now, when I’m sure in many ways a few drinks would bring me comfort and relief, just as it is for hundreds of thousands of others across the globe. I was saying to K how I could see how nice it must be at the moment to be at home with a few drinks and connecting virtually with groups of friends who were also drinking. I miss that. I wish I was part of it, even though I’m sure it is super lonely at the same time. I was also saying how my sister had said we’d have to do some kind of ‘virtual party’ for my birthday in a few weeks and I was thinking how much nicer that would be for me with some drinks (her and her partner were drinking red wine on Saturday evening when we FaceTimed them and it left me desperately longing for the same). I sometimes think the choice I made not to drink is too harsh on myself, ‘too extreme’ (my mum’s favourite phrase to describe most things about me), and that there could be a comfortable middle ground between total abstinence and binge drinking and/or self-medicating with alcohol, if only I let myself embrace it. This book served as a very helpful reminder that for me that middle ground does not exist. Part of AA is the ‘one day at a time’ mantra but also the emphasis on choice – alcoholics cannot ‘choose’ to just have one or two drinks and therefore they cannot drink at all. Whilst I am not, strictly speaking, an alcoholic, I am slowly coming to see that this choice does not exist for me either. The possibility of getting blackout drunk and doing something utterly degrading and humiliating, or self-destructive and shame-provoking, is always there because I find it so, so hard to stop drinking once I’ve started.

I tend to think of ‘stopping drinking’ as something that has not really been a big part of my healing journey, my recovery. It’s something I talk about as incidental and shrug off, perhaps because I am not ready to face just how awful I was at times when drinking was such a huge part of who I was. I often forget what a huge part of my life it was for 20 years and just how much of a storm of destruction it tore through my life. I don’t see how huge it is that we are in the middle of a global pandemic that left me reeling and in a huge attachment crisis and yet I haven’t reached for a bottle of something to help me through. It is huge though. I play it down because it still feels dull and anti-social not to drink, and embarrassing to admit that alcohol had such a grip one me that I now cannot touch it at all, but it is huge that I have gone so long without getting drunk and that I rarely even think of it now. I also know the longing to drink will never leave me completely and so it is important to revisit the reasons I don’t drink and remember just how many fucking horrendous rows and crying, screaming meltdowns I’ve had because of it, how many times I’ve called and texted people I shouldn’t have and said things that never should have been spoken out loud. Occasionally I probably could manage to just have one or two drinks, but the problem is that when that is there as an option for me there is no telling which of those occasions will lead to a time when I drink too much or do something I really regret. I’m really lucky to be alive and not in jail after some of the reckless nights out I’ve had on drink and illegal drugs – K told me earlier about someone she heard of who accidentally killed their boyfriend whilst they were both taking substances, and reminded me that there, but for the grace of God, go I…

So, just for today, I am re-committing to my journey of sobriety and estrangement. The two go hand-in-hand in many ways because both have involved freeing myself from the mental distortions that enabled me to keep going back to people and places that were so destructive and damaging for me. K said the dreams about past relationships and friendships make sense in terms of what I am figuring out and still trying to make sense of about mum and her life and what it did to me. Revisiting those relationships, of which my relationship with alcohol formed such a huge part and was such a huge indicator of how totally fucked up and incapable of true intimacy I was, is part of my subconscious trying to work out what mum did to me and how it caused me to feel and behave in relationships. It’s like I can only see how bad it was to have her as a mum when I see how out of control and borderline psychotic at times I was throughout my life. My behaviour and emotional dysregulation and sensitivity to perceived abandonment, and my attempts to regulate and cope with my feelings and dissociation using substances, are all evidence of how damaging my mum was, something that is still too painful to really hold in awareness for most of the time.

It was nice to do what felt like ‘proper therapy work’ with K, instead of fighting the coronavirus-fuelled attachment panic that descended for so long. It’s strange working by phone, there seems to be less of a narrative, less of a sense of pulling things together and finding our way through and out the other side of things in partnership. It’s like I need a constant reminder that she knows all these things, that she knows my life and what has happened, that she still understands why I don’t see mum, what my childhood was like, what it has left me with. It was horrible sitting on my bed crying over all this, over mum and the past and all that not having her did to me, and being alone in my room instead of safe with K opposite me in her cosy therapy space. It is not good enough. At one point I dissociated and disappeared which is such a strange thing to experience happening when she is so far away. I said how much we hate not being there and she said she hates us not being there too, that she finds it really sad, but that she is still here for us. I think for now knowing she misses us being there and is committed to keeping us close and connected during this time has to be enough, but I hope a day will soon come when we can be with her and that she is right – we will have memories of this time to add to all the other memories we have of being together.

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