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The Damage Done: Can Distance Between a Mother and Daughter Be the Best Solution?

"The devastation kept me away, but the guilt kept bringing me back, ready for another round."
(Photo: Ekkapan Poddamrong8/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Ekkapan Poddamrong8/Shutterstock)

The last fight I had with my mother began on a warm September evening in 2013. My mother's partner Max picked me up from a wedding in Iowa. He showed up just before midnight in his Jeep—the same one I’d backed my own car into a few years earlier while fleeing another vicious argument. The wedding reception had died down early, but I’d been reluctant to leave. As I sat in the passenger seat in my pink shift dress, I noticed how nervous he was.

"I don't want you to get upset," I remember Max (whose name I’ve changed) saying in his gentle manner, alarming me despite the tone. He then told me that my mother had gone through my belongings that morning and found a note from my therapist.

Max and I arrived at the house. I’d barely sat down on the bed in my mother's guest room when I heard her screaming from the other side of the house. She was yelling something like: "No! No! Don't tell me how to treat my daughter!" Her footsteps thundered down the hall. She shoved open the door to my room and focused her bloodshot eyes on my backpack. I remember her lunging for it, but my guess was that plenty of wine had slowed her reflexes; I was able to snatch my belongings out of her shaky hands. This angered her more. Max dragged her out of the room but she broke free and grabbed my hair at the nape like she did when I was a teenager. Then, she told me I was a little bitch, that she had seen the note from my therapist. “You think you know anything about what I go through?" I remember her yelling.

We don’t seem to know how to have any sort of healthy relationship, as mother and daughter or simply as two adults. For now, in an attempt to minimize damage to both of us, I embrace a unique display of love: distance.

I was wide awake, seething, my ability to stay calm long gone. I shouted to Max about her unbelievable behavior. "I know, Linds," he said quietly. He added that he had tried very hard to get her to be more reasonable when we argued. He said that he didn’t think he could be with a woman who treated her own child this way.

BEFORE I TOOK THE trip from San Francisco to Iowa for the wedding, I’d scheduled an extra session with my therapist. I’d started seeing Grace three years prior when I was at my lowest weight and the height of my battle with anorexia. I was broke, but I didn’t want this to keep me from fixing what I needed to. My sessions with Grace weren’t my first go at therapy, but they were the first time I’d chosen to go myself. The first time I was sent to a therapist, I was 11. I’d recently lost the grandparent to whom I was closest, my status as an only child, and my hometown when my parents moved us from the Bay Area to Iowa. My moodiness failed to improve, and then my academic standing began to slip. I was bounced from therapist to therapist. I remember trying to talk with those therapists about my problems, but it seems my parents had enlisted their help for one purpose: to figure out why their daughter of above-average intellect was consistently receiving below-average grades.

In Iowa I became a full-fledged teenager, and as teenagers are wont to do, found ways to get into and then manipulated my way out of trouble. I think my mother saw my behavior as malicious, and our relationship turned explosive. She seemed to take my spending time with friends very personally. Our arguments grew in intensity as I got older and became more independent.

When I moved out on my 18th birthday, I hoped distance from my mother would be the remedy for our troubled relationship. Yet I listened to my friends complain about their mother-daughter arguments and could see that as their adolescent angst wore off, they openly flaunted new-found appreciation for their families. I remember wondering how this worked, how someone could get along with her mother so well. Meanwhile, the fights between my mother and me only seemed to get worse.

AT 7:00 THE NEXT morning, my mother was sobbing in the kitchen. Max had told her what he’d told me the night before. "You fucking bitch," I remember her screaming as I appeared in the doorway. She accused me of breaking up her first marriage, and of now trying to get Max to leave her. She raised her hand as if to slap me across the face. I had never hit my mother, but that moment was the closest my emotions ever came to boiling over into physical retaliation. I got close to her face, looked in her scared, bloodshot eyes, and put my hand down.

"Mom,” I said softly, “you need to get help."

With what seemed like all the force she had, I remember her screaming, "You need help, psycho."

BEFORE MY BROTHER WAS born, when I was eight, I was shy, anxious, and fiercely attached to my mother. My father was an international cargo pilot. He worked on a schedule of three weeks on, three weeks off. When my father was away, my mother and I spent a lot of time with her parents. I remember my mother arguing often with her mother for spoiling me, but I was my grandmother’s precious doll. I now wonder if it was hard for my mother to see her daughter and mother share a bond that was largely exclusionary of her.

When my father was home, he’d spend his three weeks undoing much of the constructive parenting my mother had enforced during his time away. I was spoiled with pizza, toys, and afternoons watching football instead of cleaning my room. When my father was the one to dole out discipline, he’d let it fall by the wayside when he left for his next trip. With my father’s schedule the way it was, it was impossible for my parents—however well intentioned—to establish effective, cohesive parenting. At some level my mother must have understood the impact inconsistent parenting had on me because after my grandmother died and my brother was born (he was diagnosed with autism when he was two) she stood her ground against my father’s schedule. We moved to Iowa so he could take a commercial domestic position and be home more often—every three days instead of three weeks. But the move that was supposed to bond my parents came to signify the point at which their marriage rapidly headed downhill. After my parents divorced a month before my 18th birthday I remember at times my mother blaming me for creating the fracture in their marriage.

IN THE 1980S, A framework for identifying dysfunctional patterns in relationships emerged in part out of the psychological concept of dependency, and in part out of a new line of thinking in the AA-based recovery movement, which emerged in reaction to what was seen as a too-limited medical model of treating addiction. Rather than treat the alcoholic alone, treatment centers and therapists in the 1970s found it more valuable to treat the alcoholic in the context of his or her social network, and family members were included in the treatment process, such as in family therapy. These family members and partners were called “co-alcoholics.” As the recovery movement continued to evolve and to encompass both alcoholism and addiction, or simply chemical dependency, the co-alcoholic became the co-dependent.

The concept of co-dependency originally referred to a person’s tendency—perhaps compulsive tendency—to form relationships with alcoholics or addicts, yet it quickly expanded and made its way into individual therapy. A co-dependent person often organizes his or her life around another to create a sense of being needed.

She told me I was cruel, a little bitch. I remember her anger lasting for hours, during which she texted and phoned, and called me names. "You left me just like your father did."

The idea of co-dependency seemed implausible to me until my therapist drew a diagram of the ways in which my mother and I played our usual roles, setting each other off, neither one entirely at fault but both somehow responsible. When I became an adult, my grandfather told me my grandmother had raised my mother to be submissive, and to act as a support to others. He told me he raised objections to my grandmother’s comments, but she believed she was doing what was best for her daughter. My mother was told at a young age to marry rich, because her intellect wouldn’t bring her stability. This was the grandmother I was close to, and whose loss preceded the early ruptures in my relationship with my mother. When I think of the idea of co-dependency as “the disease of the lost self,” I think sometimes of my mother and what she must have lost. I think of her watching me bond with her mother. I think, too, of myself in this series of repeating patterns.

Grace drew the diagram in a shape of a clock. First, she suggested, my mother could be sweet, supportive, and caring. So often I couldn’t resist her: it was comfortable to respond to her and I craved her affection. But I think engaging with her may have been like walking on landmines—I was at risk of consequence, but it felt like a mystery to figure out which of my actions would set her off. When I stepped on a mine, it set off a series of explosions, both of us reacting to one another. I remember once she wanted to talk about her sadness, but I was busy with work—which in turn seemed to make her feel rejected. She told me I was cruel, a little bitch. I remember her anger lasting for hours, during which she texted and phoned, and called me names. “You left me just like your father did,” I remember her once screaming into a voicemail. The guilt I felt was indescribable, the entire experience emotionally devastating. It seemed, from what I could hear, that she had been drinking, and my past experiences led me to guess she would drink herself to sleep that night, and we wouldn’t speak for weeks. The devastation kept me away, but the guilt kept bringing me back, ready for another round.

When I moved from Iowa back to California, my mother let me go but not without a fight. “You’re abandoning me, you ungrateful bitch,” I remember her yelling at me as she drove me to the airport. I wanted her to express her sorrow at my move. I did not want her to see herself as the victim of some hidden malice. But we played our roles just the same.

FOR A BRIEF MOMENT in the kitchen, in the enormity of the situation, I suddenly felt this was a battle without hope of a constructive solution. I turned to gather my belongings. There was no hand-drawn chart or deep well of patience that could help me save my mother or our relationship, not yet.

I packed quickly. I’d only brought one backpack with me, knowing it was likely I’d want to leave fast. When I strode out of her guest bedroom, she was sitting quietly on the couch, crying and asking if we could move on. She offered me breakfast and to go shopping.

Hard as it was, I refused my mother’s offers. Instead, I sat quietly on the couch until it was time to leave for the airport. Max gave me his phone number. If I wanted an update, I could text, he said. I thanked him, and, for the first time in our five-year acquaintance, I hugged him. We hadn’t been close, but I had always appreciated the support he offered my mother and my brother. Unfortunately, that day was the last time we ever spoke; he died of a stroke six months later.

My mother drove me to the airport that day. She seemed to try to make small talk, but I could only ask her to see a therapist. I told her I wouldn't wish her sadness on anyone. As soon as I walked inside the terminal, out of reach, I blocked her number on my iPhone. At the time, it was an act of frustration and self-preservation. Now, the barrier is the Band-Aid that I hope will shield me from the cycle, and allow me time to heal. I fear this is not the solution I wish it could be, and I often think about the types of circumstances under which I’d be willing to take it off. But that decision hasn’t yet needed to be made, so for now I can only trust that this lack of contact is only temporary. I wonder what skills I will have to learn in order to one day take it off.

I SOMETIMES THINK MY mother does not live, but manages, one day at a time. When I think about her life, I wonder if she ever had the chance to learn to be there for herself rather than everyone else. Her days seem full of fear and sadness, but I don’t know how to tell her this. I wish I could fill the hole in her soul, but I can’t. I dream of a restored relationship with her, a mother-daughter relationship like my friends have with their mothers. It is hard to not reach for her when I want to wail in someone’s arms. But we don’t seem to know how to have any sort of healthy relationship, as mother and daughter or simply as two adults. For now, in an attempt to minimize damage to both of us, I embrace a unique display of love: distance.

I spoke to my mother a few times the week Max died. I kept our conversations brief, and she mostly spoke of funeral arrangements and how she was getting along with his children from a previous marriage. She spoke with pure joy about incorporating Max’s passions into his memories services. Our conversations were without confrontation, but I knew I had a decision to make about leaving the door open to correspondence beyond the topic at hand. I made sure not to be abrupt, but over the course of a few days I once again backed slowly away and closed the door. This time I was gentle with the lock, instead of slamming it behind me.

Last week, I spoke with my grandfather—her father—and he told me she asked him to tell me hello. Then cautiously, as I began to weep, he told me she was getting some help. I hoped with all my might she would find help like I had, help that made her feel safe, supported, and understood. I hoped, in my heart of hearts, that whatever kind of help it was, it might not be too little, too late.

The Weekend Essay is a Saturday series edited by Leah Reich.