briar has lived her entire life as the only child of a mother suffering from alcohol use disorder. She wonders whether there may also be a personality disorder. Communications are painful, guilt-ridden and maddening. Briar wants to know if her mom is help-able at this late stage of her life, but also wants to know how to get out from under this terrible weight.
“Hello, This is my first time posting. I have started the Modules and I finding some good resources for communicating in person, but not sure how to communicate best over text message with my mother, who has been struggling with alcohol abuse for at least 3 decades (since my first/biological father got sick when I was 5 years old). We live an hour apart, and I was suppose to be with her over Christmas, but after some very frustrating therapy sessions with her, I've decided that I need to stay in my own home, with my husband over the holiday, in order to recover and take care of myself. I told her this over the phone, she said "I'll be sad, but ok."
Since then she has been sending many text messages pleaded us to come. I keep responding along the lines of "I love you. I am feeling emotionally depleted and I need to take care of myself… I'll be in touch when I am more emotionally stable/have found an individual therapist." I'm not sure if this is the best way to respond?
I'm trying to acknowledge her pain while also stating my own, along with my boundaries.
Boundaries are something I am trying to get better at, especially with my mother. I am generally very accommodating, good at holding my tongue and it can quickly get to the point where I am not taking care of myself. In a most recent case (this week), I had an anger explosions that reminded me of my mother, except that I was sober and self-harming (biting myself). I was screaming at my husband, the person I thought would never leave me, who then for the first time ever he said he wanted a divorce. We were able to work through it (thank god), but one of the stipulations was figuring out how to distance myself from the toxic relationship with my mother.
More background on my mother:
She is drunk most nights (can easily drink a bottle of wine over the course of dinner) and I am especially worried about her being home alone since my step dad died in Sept. For years I have been trying different non-confrontational strategies to ask her to get a therapist. She has refused until recently, when she agreed to a therapist with me to discuss the grief of my step father's passing (a man I consider my father and who I truly love. He was very kind and very non-confrontational, to the point where he knew she had a serious problem, and it was diminishing their network of close friends, deeply harming the relationships in our family, esp. with my step siblings/his biological kids, but he would not talk to her about it. Well, actually he talked to her about it once, which ended with an anger explosion on her part, so he never mentioned it again). I can't help to think that my mom's drinking issues have had some influence on my step-sister (6 years older than me) who has within the past week has gotten out of a 28 day rehab program for alcohol use.
While the drinking is a huge problem, it's also a symptom of deeper rooted problems. My maternal grandmother (who died before I was born) was apparently a very emotional cruel woman (not sure if she struggled with substance abuse) who my mom still shudders to think about (her younger brother died by suicide, my mom says its because her mother drove him to it with her emotional abuse).
I've been doing a lot of reading on Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and my mom's background and behaviors line up with many of the symptoms including:
1) Mom talks over me/others & makes it difficult to jump into a conversation
2) Mom doesn't take responsibility for her actions/blames others for (in)actions.
3) Mom pushes her preferences on me/others …assumes whatever she wants is what others want, even when they say they don't
4) Mom very opinionated while being hypersensitive to feedback
5) Mom requires a huge amount of attention, holds grudges against those who don't give it to her
6) Mom gets drunk regularly, making everything above worse
She treats me as "the Golden Child" or extension of herself (according to NPD literature) – she is very supportive of me in so many ways, awesome in a crisis, an amazing writer, and not happy when you even hint at anything she does that upsets you. For example, I have asked her repeatedly not to talk to me about her harsh judgements of my two oldest steps siblings ( 8 and 15 years older than me – the "Scapegoats", according to NPD literature)- but she continues to do so, even after I've told her kindly, firmly, assertively and explicitly, in and our of therapy, not to. Interestingly, my step sister (6 years older) closest in age to me is much more "accommodating"/has less firm boundaries with my mom (just like me) and she is the one who has ended up in rehab, while the older two have much more "together" lives.
Two weeks ago I haphazardly brought up my mother's drinking in rehab – I did not mean too, but the conversation, led by her, took a turn which I wasn't prepared for where I ended up telling her in a passive and confused way that I was worried about her drinking. I was not being aggressive, but also not being clear and the therapist who specializes in geriatrics/grief was not prepared for this conversation. In the end we decided we needed to regroup, come up with new treatment goals, and decide whether to continue as "couples therapy" or if my mom should continue as an individual patient and I should find another therapist.
These were the goals that I brought to the next therapy session:
– I want to learn how to better communicate with you
– And how to appreciate our different styles of communication from the introverted to the extroverted perspectives
And learn when & how to meet in the middle
– For me, as someone who can be nervous and passive in my communication
I want to use this as an opportunity to work on being assertive without being aggressive
Especially when it comes to disagreements or other emotionally charged issues
– I’d love to read the book "Quiet" with you – a fun an production activity that could be a good backdrop to our communication goals
She said she did not want to talk about communication with me, and instead moved on to how much I have hurt her with my actions – how she has been on eggshells for two weeks because of me.
From the outside looking in, I handled the session well – I was very prepared, I said and did the "right things," I stayed calm, didn't take "bait" to get into circular arguments, I only mentioned communication in my goals, nothing about alcohol, when prompted I apologized and took responsibility for the bad meeting we had two weeks ago where I haphazardly told my mom I was frustrated and worried about her drinking as well as apologizing for other things I had brought up that she was angry about.
From the inside, it felt awful – I think my mom may truly have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I felt trapped by her manipulative gaslighting techniques that I don't think she even really completely understands what she's doing. From what I can deduce, there is something very rotten/painful at her core and she will do anything to deflect attention from looking inward — she will latch onto any scapegoat, footnote or other external thing she can blame to deflect any criticism (even the most constructive/thoughtful/minor) of her behavior. She is extremely smart and has an excellent (selective) memory for details that she uses to lash back and make you doubt yourself- even weeks later, months and sometimes years later.
I was so hopeful when we started therapy – we came looking like a team, bound by our grief for my step dad and I prayed that energy could carry us through, but by the end our relationship was revealed for what it is – broken (a word the therapist used). The gaslighting is constant – any concerns I bring up with our communication end up coming back to me immediately or later with a story about how it is my fault – and an indication that this will be held against me indefinitely.
I feel trapped – and the only way I know how to survive is to apologize over and over again, knowing I will never truly be forgiven and that my pain when it comes to her actions will never be considered as real as hers. But at least the wrath will be less with apology. I will pay for two weeks of eggshells she's experienced for the rest of my life, while the three decades of eggshells I have been walking on will never be acknowledged except as a tool to make me feel more guilty. It's a maddening game of second guessing that is taking its toll on my mental and physical health.
Whew – well this post is much longer than I thought it would be when I first sat down to write it. Thank you for being a space for me to let this out. In the end, the questions that brought me here were:
1) how should I respond to my mom's continued text messages (laced with guilt trips, tho not explicitly so) pleading my husband and I to come for Christmas
2) Am I doing the right thing by not going? (This is the first time in my life – 35 years – that I won't spend Christmas with her)
3) Do you think there is a possibility that someone with alcohol use disorder in combo with NPD can ever change? I know you are suppose to focus on yourself and know that you can't change anyone else, but how do you do that without it hurting so much?"
Dear Briar: We are so glad you wrote in. You wrote extensively about the continuing difficulty with your mom who has been drinking alcoholically since you were a child. Your description takes us into the confusing and painful world of that child and describes how your mom’s drinking continues to play such a large role in your adult life.
How children of alcoholics experience the world
Adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) have been addressed a lot in the popular literature, with much of it focused on an observable cluster of effects on the individual as a child (see this article). Your story describes how your mom acts now … we can appreciate that experiencing the same behaviors as a five year-old must have been even more hurtful and disconcerting.
In your own words:
“I felt trapped by her manipulative gaslighting techniques”
“she will do anything to deflect attention from looking inward — she will latch onto any scapegoat, footnote or other external thing she can blame to deflect any criticism (even the most constructive/thoughtful/minor) of her behavior.”
“She … has an excellent (selective) memory for details that she uses to lash back and make you doubt yourself – even weeks later, months and sometimes years later.”
“The gaslighting is constant – any concerns I bring up with our communication end up coming back to me immediately or later with a story about how it is my fault – and an indication that this will be held against me indefinitely.”
“I feel trapped – and the only way I know how to survive is to apologize over and over again.”
“…my pain when it comes to her actions will never be considered as real as hers.”
“the three decades of eggshells I have been walking on will never be acknowledged except as a tool to make me feel more guilty.”
Parents with addiction don’t love their children any less, but they cannot consistently parent. Drinking, in your mom’s case, is and has always been first. As needed, the child must fall in line with, or be used as, a scapegoat for the problems drinking causes in the family. Children learn to adapt to the parent’s demands and to feel responsible for the destruction, because they are told — overtly or otherwise — that they are responsible, hence the gaslighting,
It’s extremely hard to imagine the weight of these behaviors on a young child. On top of this, a child wants attention and seeks to be reassured that they are loved. Sometimes, when the mood is right, the parent responds appropriately, but if the mood is not right because of their drinking – perhaps they are hungover or drinking with friends, the child gets passed over or worse, all of which a young child feels deeply. The parent’s focus is simply not about carefully and thoughtfully nurturing their child’s development.
The child learns to respond in ways that doesn’t necessarily benefit their own development. Perhaps the child gets passive and quiet, trying to avoid bad reactions/behaviors from the parent, as you learned early on to do. The development of the child’s positive coping skills isn’t the focus in an alcoholic household, so a disproportionate number of children will themselves either struggle with drugs or alcohol as they mature, or with their own emotional health. Some will swear off all alcohol and drugs, having seen what it did to their parent. A good many, as adults, will be drawn to partners who themselves do or will struggle with addiction.
The parent suffering from alcohol use disorder usually puts their own needs first
The child in a home with addiction is asked to conform to the needs of the parent’s active addiction.
People with addiction come across as deeply self-centered. The reason, I believe, is their deep discomfort with being in the world, which gets temporarily remedied by taking drugs or alcohol. That discomfort comes from a mental vulnerability, a fragility really, born of genetics and adverse childhood experiences, among other things, and a continuing inability to cope with big emotions. A necessary counter-force in both childhood and adulthood is building resiliencey and coping skills. I always mention resiliency because it is something any one of us can do to support a child growing up with addiction in the family.
Your mom seems self-centered and more, to the point that you wonder whether she may struggle with a personality disorder. She may indeed, or it may be that chronic alcoholism is making her behavior worse over time. Personalities rarely improve as people drink into old age.
You and your mom are both grieving the loss of your step dad. And now the pandemic, with the ‘do not congregate’ orders, and the holidays. There is a lot going on.
Getting grief counseling was an excellent idea. It engaged your mom into some therapy. Yes, you mentioned your worry over your mom’s drinking and everyone ran to their corner. The therapist asked for a pause and time to regroup.
If your mom agrees to return to therapy, you should pat yourself on the back for having effectively engaged your mom into treatment (the ultimate and hardest goal of CRAFT, by the way). This is huge. Do you think she would go without you? If she doesn’t want to without you, can you handle going with her for a while? Your mom would definitely benefit from her own therapy.
Can my mom change at this advanced stage of her drinking?
Your third question is Can your mom change? — she absolutely can, with the help of therapy, recovery supports, and an ounce of motivation.
And yes, you, too, have a lot to sift through. The fact that this is still so raw for you makes total sense. Your mom has got you focusing more on her than on yourself. Focusing on yourself, attending to your own deeper needs, will eventually reduce the hurt you are feeling, regardless of whether or not your mom stops drinking. I am going to suggest something that has helped others better understand themselves within a relationship.
“Attachment disorder is a broad term intended to describe disorders of mood, behavior, and social relationships arising from unavailability of normal socializing care and attention from primary care giving figures in early childhood” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attachment_disorder).
Our colleague Dr John Fitzgerald argues that poor attachment is part of the key to the process of becoming addicted. Looking at your own attachment style can help you untangle from your mom, while remaining in her life. This, and working through (or re-watching) our Communications Module (Module 4), is a good place for you to start.
The Attachment Project is a good website that teaches you about your attachment style.
You can get out of these patterns, too
In closing, I want to suggest that you cannot/should not underestimate the effects your mom is having on your life. It feels important to say this.
You have lived with the adversity of addiction your entire life. I am here to tell you another way is possible: a way of finding calm, feeling okay with and accepting your mom and your life. You have no idea how it feels yet, but there is a whole world for you to explore, which opens when you find the key.
I, personally, needed to be put on an antidepressant, which lifted me up out of a low-lying depression I didn't even know I had since childhood. Getting lifted up gave me a new calmness, which in turn, with good therapy, taught me to find that critical pause. A different reaction was now possible, and with it, the start of a new direction in my life.