Like most people, I value my family above anything else on this earth. Yet, as my mother-in-law, Iris, told me decades ago when I asked why her disagreeable older sister always seemed to be feuding with her siblings, she replied, “Well, I love her - always will, but she’s been at odds with somebody in the family forever. Some people, if they weren’t family, you’d never have anything to do with them. You can’t pick your family like you can pick your friends.” Aunt Alice, the prickly sister, was the eldest of the four children, and by far, the crankiest. She took offense at the tiniest perceived slight both her sisters perpetrated against her and stopped speaking to them. The estrangement was always instigated by Alice. But, when Aunt Opal had a massive stroke, I was in the room when Aunt Alice sat beside her bedside, choking on her tears, stroking her unconscious sister’s hair, whispering, “I’m sorry, Sis. Can you hear me? It’s Alice. I love you Sis.” I felt so much pity for Aunt Alice, but at the same time believed she had brought this grief and guilt upon herself with her petty tantrum months before.
A few years later, Iris and Aunt Alice exchanged words about frozen black-eyed peas (I don’t remember the particulars), and Aunt Alice threw down that sack of peas, slammed the front door behind her in a fit of temper, went next door and called her brother to take her to the bus station, and rode the three-hour bus trip back to Dallas in a huff. A year or so later, when Iris had emergency heart surgery and lay in ICU, brain damaged and in an irreversible coma, Aunt Alice came to the hospital and waited with all of us for five interminable days, praying Iris would recover so they could end their estrangement. But Iris never emerged from the coma, leaving Aunt Alice alone with no sisters, just bitter memories of petty arguments she had taken far too seriously. When she asked for Iris’s clothes, I pitied her in her grief, because those clothes were a very poor substitute for shared laughter and tears. The three sisters weren’t even remotely the same size, so I guess those clothes sat in boxes, unused, until someone removed them from her home when Aunt Alice died several years later. I remember thinking how foolish she had been and wondering how much she must have suffered when she knew her sisters were gone forever. It struck me that she had to live with the fact that there was no way she would ever be able to apologize for her pettiness, and I vowed that I would never cut ties with anyone in my family.
However, I came very close to doing exactly that with my father, years after my personal vow. My dad was a narcissistic personality with Bipolar Disorder. During my childhood, he made my mother’s life miserable with his constant criticism and putdowns. He drank heavily during his manic phases, until he eventually became too depressed to eat or drink anything. Life with him was like walking on hot coals. I never knew what kind of mood would greet me when he came home – jovial and chatty or bitterly nitpicking and complaining nonstop. At his best he was incredibly funny and charming, but he usually reserved that particular personality gift for entertaining others. At home, we were beset by constant complaints, during both depression and mania, about his lot in life and how far short we fell from his lofty expectations. My mother, my shield, finally got up the nerve to divorce him when I was in college, and he immediately married my stepmom, Helen, with whom he had been having one of his many affairs, but whom I nevertheless adored. He went into a ten-year period of remission during which he attended AA regularly, worked steadily, and usually was a pleasure to be around. He told hilarious stories and couldn’t wait to get his hands on his first grandchild, our daughter. We traveled often to Tulsa to see them, but on our last visit to their home, I learned my dad had taken up drinking again. The moment I learned of his relapse, my gut tied itself up in the same wrenching knots of my childhood as he would walk in the door on the tail end of a bender, full of anger and sarcasm. But this time he was remorseful, vowing to return to AA and get back on track, so I returned to Texas confident he would get back on the wagon.
Several months later, after the birth of our second daughter, I called Helen to ask when she and my dad were coming to see our new baby, and she burst into tears. “Your dad is gone, Patty. He’s seeing someone else and drinking again. I’m filing for a divorce. I’m so sorry. Please don’t lose touch. I love you like a daughter.” I was shattered. I knew what was ahead, and I dreaded seeing him again. His affair with that married girlfriend eventually fizzled out, but he was exhibiting every sign of mania I had seen in him as a child. Having sex with multiple girlfriends, wheeling and dealing in “businesses” that ultimately lost his savings, drinking and playing the fiddle in seedy local bars, writing bestsellers; in short, having the time of his life. Four years later, he called me crying. I knew he was depressed because I had visited him in the hospital's psychiatric unit only a couple of weeks before. But he had run out of insurance, and the hospital had released him even though he was more depressed than when he had entered. Fearing suicide, I immediately came to his rescue, catching the first flight out, and brought him home with me - where I found him a good psychiatrist who properly diagnosed him and put him on the best medication to lift him out of the black hole into which he had fallen. He stayed with us for six weeks and went home stable and happy, thanking me profusely for helping him.
Not many months later, though, he told me he was getting married again to a woman who had appeared on the Oprah show as one of many “sexy grandmas.” Ruth was a beautiful, flamboyant woman, but I soon learned she was nuttier than my dad, and that he must obviously have cut out the lithium component of his med regimen, because when I went to their wedding, he was high as a kite. They fought constantly, and the marriage only lasted two months. It was during those tumultuous months that he called me on the night before my birthday and railed on me for being a horrible, neglectful daughter. This came as such a shock, I just stood there with the phone in my hand, tears streaming, while he raged on and on. I finally told him, while he took a breath in mid-rant, I didn’t want to see him again unless he was sitting next to me on the psychiatrist’s couch. Then I hung up on him while he raged. He apologized later, but that incident was a turning point in our relationship. I was done trying to fix him, trying to please him.
He went on to marry two more times, and seemed to settle down in his last marriage to Barbara, an easygoing country girl only five years my senior. I neither cut him out of my life, nor did I go out of my way to visit him frequently, and he stopped coming to Texas completely, claiming old age – though he took several other trips to destinations much farther from his home than Dallas. But, that was OK with me. I didn’t need the drama in my life. The last visit I made, he was high again – telling me that Barbara was out to get him, that he was cutting her out of his will and leaving everything to me. I knew he was lying but told him I didn’t want his money. Later, Barbara asked me, when she and I were alone, if I had noticed he’d stopped taking his meds. I just laughed, though I definitely felt sorry for her. Of course, a depression and hospitalization followed; he called me several times to let me know. He was still mildly depressed when, burning trash in their yard, his clothes caught fire, severely burning his body, and he only lived a couple more weeks. I spent those weeks there in Oklahoma, with Barbara, but he never regained consciousness, so I don’t know if he actually knew I was there or not. Even though at one point in time, encouraged by my therapist, I wrote my dad a long letter, telling him how toxic he had been in my life, I never mailed it, and we did stay in contact until his death. After all, I had made a vow to myself.
Yet, recently, I have come as close to breaking that vow as I probably ever will, with my own child; and sadly, she feels even more resolute than I. My eldest child and I have been like oil and water for decades. She was a fussy, complicated child, who never seemed truly happy. Yet her fragile self-esteem seemed to come from within, because her family adored her. She was a precocious, beautiful child, gifted in so many ways; we all heaped lavish praise on her and bragged about her to all who would hear. But she was also fragile, strong-willed, and jealous of her siblings, whom she bullied ceaselessly. Because she was shy, she had difficulty making friends, and was prone to depression requiring medical intervention, especially at the onset of puberty. When she went off the rails in junior high school - lying, sneaking out, drinking, and no doubt having sex with older boys, her father and I sought help from a child psychiatrist who recommended placement in a hospital. We reluctantly complied, having no idea what else to do to keep her from doing something she couldn’t come back from. Although her doctor at that time diagnosed her as bipolar, I didn’t see the classic signs my dad had always exhibited; yet I knew there was definitely a genetic link to her mental disorder, running back through my family myself for generations. I, myself, was prone to depression and self-loathing without medication to balance my brain chemicals.
We had always believed our daughter had a spectacular future ahead of her. She was brighter than anyone else in the family, had an incredible gift for art, and was gorgeous – auburn hair, deep, dark eyes, a clear, porcelain complexion, with a turned-up nose and a well-defined rosebud mouth. She was perfect. She, herself, though, seemed never to be convinced of her own exceptional potential and good looks. During her first six years of school, she was perfectionistic – never satisfied with the quality of her work, though it was always outstanding. She was particularly gifted in drawing and writing, winning competitions and praise from her teachers. Then, in 7th grade, because she felt rejected by the popular kids in school, she began to socialize with older kids who liked to party, and her rebellion against school and home took hold and has yet to wear off, even though she’s 43 years old. She was in 8th grade when she was hospitalized, and then she learned to “play the parent game,” as she told her sister. I insisted that she take honors classes, and she didn’t argue, but she no longer cared about her performance in any of her classes. Before her senior year, she got pregnant, with no intention of having a serious relationship with the father, and her daughter was born in February. From that point on, school was irrelevant to her. She did the bare minimum to graduate, took a couple of junior college courses, then quit. Her focus was about as far from academics as I am from winning the Miss America pageant.
When she was 20, still living in our home with her child, working part time, she got involved with a sociopath who taught her to mainline heroin. I’m convinced that’s when her life – as well as her family’s lives – changed forever. The boyfriend died, but her habit didn’t. She moved in and out of drug houses, friend’s houses, rehabs, her grandparents’ house, and our house. Every time she got clean in rehab, she came home and immediately contacted her junkie friends. It was a living hell. Overdoses, stealing anything she could sell for drugs, abandoning her child to our care, working in the sex industry - we were sure she would die. When her child was six, she decided to switch to methadone – legal, but also dreadfully addictive. After her years on heroin, her personality changed dramatically, partly because of her pre-existing mental disorders (which she still denies), and partly, research confirms, because the drugs changed her brain chemistry permanently.
I have no other explanation for the series of poor choices she’s made in the last two decades, the poorest bearing two more children with fathers she didn’t love. She has stayed on methadone, a drug that clouds her brain and eats away at her body, for almost twenty years, . She has repeatedly gotten hooked on pills, refusing to get a job or any job training skills until very recently. She has gone through a series of emotionally unbalanced, abusive boyfriends, all with substance abuse problems. Worst of all, she has abandoned her parenting responsibilities, leaving my parents and her father and I to take up the slack. Ever the victim, she blames all her problems on somebody else – primarily me.
Our history (hers and mine) has been punctuated by heated arguments, evictions, and rejected advice. We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars raising her children, supporting her financially and physically, and trying to help her out. Not to mention the thousands in outright theft when her addictions took hold. She has repeatedly shredded my emotions with her words and actions, yet she’s been included in all our family gatherings, and I’ve always given her gifts for her birthday, Christmas, Valentine’s Day…even Mother’s Day. She has seldom reciprocated – with anybody in the family. I cried last Christmas, after she arrogantly announced she had opted out of Christmas, not even buying gifts for her children, when her older son gave her the nice candle he had shopped for, bought, and wrapped proudly. Worse than the outlay in dollars and cents for me, though, is that she has robbed my husband and I of the unencumbered years one expects upon retirement. Yet, even though several mental health professionals told me she was toxic to our family’s health, I had made a vow I intended never to break.
A few weeks ago, because my actions had offended her once more, prompting her to let loose with non-stop invective about what a horrible ogre I am…I broke. I shouted at her to move out of my house and never come back. She retorted, “You can’t keep her me from my boys.” I replied, “You cannot see them in this house; you’ll have to make other arrangements to see them – unaccompanied by your boyfriend!” (He is abusive to her, and secretly hid a stolen, loaded gun in our house, where the boys could have easily found it; we found out later he had also stolen our property and pawned it.) She left that night, and it was the last time I saw or spoke to her. Did I do the right thing, breaking my vow? I think it had to happen, for both of us. She has no choice now but to get her act together or be destitute, because she no longer has a soft place to fall. As for me, I feel a great sense of relief, knowing I won’t have to deal with her daily drama – the constant complaints and the total self-involvement and sense of entitlement.
I’ve thought a lot about my vow so many years ago. The reason I so strongly disagreed with Aunt Alice’s cutting her sisters off was because her sisters had not done anything serious to provoke her temperamental snits. The reason I didn’t cut my father out of my life was that he lived 250 miles away, and I didn’t have to be constantly bombarded with his negativity and narcissism. I essentially got away from him when I went to college. My negative interactions with my daughter have been unavoidable and extremely unhealthy, not just for both of us, but for the entire family as well. Will I relent? Probably. Will she? Perhaps. But from my standpoint, not for a very long time. For now, I am at peace with our estrangement. A position I thought I would never take. Never say never.