I don’t call myself estranged. I didn’t turn away from my mother’s love. It is her love itself that is estranged, twisted, wrong.
In the end, it took something as big as a terrorist attack to help me to see clearly that I was at an endgame with my mother.
I was living paycheck to paycheck and performance to performance as an actor in New York City. My utilities were shut off so often, I had an open tab with the bodega guys downstairs. They paid the meter workers for me and let me pay them in cash, when I had it.
Two days after the towers fell on September 11, 2001, other people were getting together, finding each other, reaching out to strangers—but not me. When I hung up on my mother that last time, everything changed. I knew I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, talk to her again, at least not for a very long time.
What kind of person does that make me? Popular opinion says family, especially mothers, are sacred. Even if she is difficult, I’m supposed to love her, because, really, she loves me. But what if she doesn’t—not even in “her own way?” Popular opinion doesn’t want to hear about it, because it threatens our social contract. But think what it does to a child. The experience of being despised by one’s own parents, especially one’s own mother, implicates the child. Popular opinion can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with her; what unforgivable thing she did.
It was September 13 when my mom finally called from her home north of Boston. She immediately launched into a complex complaint about her sisters.
“What are you even talking about, Mah?” I said, matching her accent. “Haven’t you been watching the news?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You know, airplanes. The World Trade Center. Kaboom. Things are a little crazy right now?”
“Oh, that,” she said. “You live in Brooklyn.”
“Yes, I live in Brooklyn. I used to temp in Tower 2? You know? Until very recently?”
“But, you weren’t there.”
“Thank you for asking. No, Mah, Jesus. Other people were there. A lot of people died. My co-worker’s fiancée. People I sat next to on the subway. PEOPLE. Jesus, mah. Where the hell have you been?”
There was silence at the other end of the line.
Then she said, “Well, Rebecca and her fiancée knew a bunch of the cops. She was really upset. I heard from your aunt…” I tuned her out. I had lived through it, but now it was her story.
In that moment, I saw clearly how she took my reality, absorbed my experience and turned it into something else, something not me. I felt nauseated with how quickly it had happened.
“OK,” I said, interrupting. “OK. Look, I’m kinda in a place here, right now. And I don’t really think this is helping me? So, I’m gonna go? OK? I gotta go, Mah.”
“Nicole?!” she whined, stretching my name out like a child. And I didn’t need to see her to know that she had stamped her little foot. In response, I slipped the phone back in the cradle, amazed at how easy it was. The phone rang immediately. I reached out and gently disconnected it. Just a tiny bit of plastic moved less than an inch. My head felt as if it was filled with helium. I was afraid I’d get lost in a current of air, disappear into the stratosphere. I sat there until I ran out of cigarettes.
I’d have started drinking too, but I ran out of booze on 9/11. Wayne, who lived in my building, and I had walked home over the Queensboro Bridge, and then we drank a half a bottle of vodka, a fifth of whiskey, and some schnapps in front of his television when we got home. We couldn’t get drunk; our adrenaline was running too high. So, now it was just me and the sober reality that she truly lived in her own world, and I could not live there with her. It didn’t feel like a choice; it felt like I would die if I let her in my head again.
As an enmeshed child, she didn’t see me as a separate being. I had no individual autonomy. All my life she had told me what I had done, what had happened; even if it didn’t match my own memories, I always believed her, because she was my mother.
When I was 17, I thought I had achieved some autonomy, some much-needed separation from her. I locked her out of our house and confronted her on the sidewalk to provoke her into attacking me on the street, which resulted in her ceasing to physically attack me altogether. I thought this meant that I had everything under control, but instead I’d just become the caretaker of our shared reality. When she claimed that people had been in our house, I ran interference with her delusions. I told her with superior confidence that no one had been inside moving her things around, and that the cops didn’t think she was important enough to watch.
Our realities were still intertwined.
When I was 13, she told me, over an inappropriate three-martini lunch, that she was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia, but that she didn’t think it was true, because “they diagnosed everyone with schizophrenia back then.” My subsequent reading backs her up. I wonder which doctor had told her that and wish I could confirm her diagnosis, but in the United States, a patient’s rights trumps a child’s right to know.
Even after that fateful final call with my mother, it still took years to finally shake her loose. I have no idea who helped her, but somehow, she found me, traveling from Massachusetts to New York via Fung Wah, the cheap Chinatown bus. She stalked me in Williamsburg and slid into my apartment building as my neighbors came home, trying desperately to make contact. My neighborhood at the time was still transitioning from crack dens and heroin hangouts, but I never felt unsafe there until she found me.
She scratched like an animal around and even under my door, whimpering, calling my name, saying, “I’m sorry, Nicole,” as I huddled silently on the other side, paralyzed with despair and anger. I had downloaded the paperwork for a restraining order, but didn’t want to call the police; I thought they would side with her. Who wouldn’t? She looked like such a nice lady, and then there was me: young, in debt. How could I explain to them that seeing her made me physically ill? How could I explain that the sweet little lady apologizing at my door had terrorized me as a child, and seeing her re-traumatized me? I didn’t have those words back then.
And of course, she denied all abuse. She only wanted to “apologize” for the fact that I was raped when I was 3 1/2 years old. She wanted to talk about it again and again and again. She lacked the impulse control to stop herself.
Every time she surprised me on the street or appeared in my hallway, she was a broken record. “I’m sorry for what happened to you,” she said. “What I did to you . . .”
I couldn’t listen. Did she mean the fact that neither she nor my father had protected me? Did she mean that she had done it or that my father had? The only things I remember about the incident is purposely “forgetting” what happened (as I had been instructed) and the hospital visit that followed. It physically hurt me every time she brought it up—and she had always brought it up, never letting me forget it for my entire childhood. She constantly invaded my privacy and re-violated me with probing questions about my sexuality, sexual activity, and enjoyment.
When I was little, she told me often how much I was loved. “You are loved,” she’d say, “Those other girls, they aren’t loved like you are.” She compared herself to the other moms on the block. She meant their daughters had more freedom. Those mothers weren’t taking care of their daughters like she was. Like she was: throwing dinnerware at their daughter’s heads or belting them in a wild savage frenzy or leaving them in precarious situations, allowing terrible things to happen to them, for which they were swiftly punished. But I was loved. She said so.
Because of that phone call in September 2001, I knew that even living far from the north shore of Massachusetts wouldn’t be enough for me to extricate myself from her strange, overwhelming intimacy, and what I could now see was her distorted world view. The moment I hung up the phone, I chose me, and it wasn’t a good feeling. I felt destroyed, ripped in half, lost.
As I walked to the subway down Metropolitan Avenue the morning of the call, I wanted more than ever to walk into traffic—to give up. I realized that I had no idea if anything she had ever told me was real. I was going to have to redefine every bug, blade of grass, and memory according to my own perceptions. I was overwhelmed with the vastness of what I had done, and what I needed to do. I felt truly alone. And some part of me knew there were very bad things waiting to be decoded in the recesses of my mind.
I stood in stillness on the curb as the cars sped by, jostling for position at the exit for the on-ramp, and again, I chose me. Every time I crossed the street or stood on a subway platform I thought about suicide. I lived with the constant impulse to annihilate myself. I didn’t want to live with what I knew. I didn’t want to face the truth of her and my family.
I cried silently on my way to work, taking the G to the E to Midtown. I hated myself for the looks of sympathy I got. I wanted to scream. I hadn’t lost anyone in the towers and didn’t deserve their kindness. I was on the other side of convention.
Popular opinion thinks it’s fine to bitch about your fucked-up family or your crazy mother, so long as you do it lovingly—so long as it’s safe, appropriate. Popular opinion abhors families that reject their children’s sexuality because of religion, and rightly so. But what about girls who reject their crazy moms? It gets tricky, especially if a mother really is mentally ill. Where is our compassion?
I mentioned my mother’s possible diagnosis of schizophrenia when I finally sought help for myself, and the doctor asked, “But who is taking care of her? Is she in treatment?” Her tone sounded accusatory. Suddenly, I was suspect. The office seemed hostile. My words dried up. “Not me,” I said in answer to her first question.
I left that interview and didn’t go back, but I did find the help I needed elsewhere.
I don’t call myself estranged. I didn’t turn away from my mother’s love. It is her love itself that is estranged, twisted, wrong. I know something about a mother’s love now through my husband’s mother. Her love is a different thing entirely: kind, warm, secure, and good. And I feel lucky to have it.
Nicole Higgins DeSmet is a writer living in New England. She was a news assistant at the New York Times, and was lucky enough to freelance for them too. She hopes that by writing about being raised by mentally ill parents, readers who think they struggle alone will find words to describe their own experiences.
This originally appeared on The Establishment. Republished here with permission.