Surviving My Borderline Mother

Surviving the Witch requires getting away.
–Christine Ann Lawson

By Julia St. Vincent

I escaped my childhood like most traumatized children do, by disassociating from reality and fleeing into fantasy. There were window ledges and shade trees that called to me, closets and woods—places I could get away to dream.

In my imagination, I was a girl chased by a horrible witch, a looming figure who looked like my mother but wasn’t. Sometimes she was the witch of Hansel and Gretel. This witch had eaten my brother (read: given him up for adoption) and had sent her ravens to gobble up all the breadcrumbs I’d placed along my path in order to guide me back to my true home. No matter, I believed I could find my way without them. Other times, she was the witch of Sleeping Beauty. She’d come to bind me to a stark and lonely castle tower; I was simply waiting for the handsome prince (my father) to come to my rescue.

The Witch and the Waif

My mother was also like Jekyll and Hyde. There was the witch personality and there was another persona—someone fragile and frightened, whom Christine Lawson describes as the “waif.” When my mother played the part of the witch, she was terrifying; nothing intimidated her. She got what she wanted by raging and threatening, sometimes by using bullets and fists. The words the witch spoke were cruel and calculated; she intended to punish whether or not you had been bad. But when my mother played the part of the waif, she was delicate and uncertain. The waif was always in pain—physical and psychological—and she needed you to pity her. She was liable to consume you no matter which role she played; her mothering was enmeshing or eviscerating. I ran from the witch and the waif equally. One terrified me while the other exhausted me entirely.

Changing the Story

As I grew older, the stories I told myself in order to make sense of my mother became more realistic and less hopeful. I learned about mental illness in adolescence and decided then I wanted to become a psychologist when I grew up; I wanted to help people like my mother, to make them better. My mother had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and bipolar I with psychotic features. There had been multiple suicide attempts, frequent hospitalizations, dozens of medications and doctors to prescribe them. But nothing had worked.

I was saved from the witch at age 13 by the state of Mississippi, but I continued to allow my mother to rule over me until I was close to 30 years old. Then, a day simply arrived when I recognized that I no longer had to tiptoe on eggshells for her any longer. The fear I still felt when speaking to my mother was irrational; she could no longer hurt me in any real way, unless I allowed her to. In the years since, I’ve sometimes taken breaks in communication from my mother, never to punish her and only when she has crossed a very serious boundary. I don’t believe in creating in her a sense of abandonment simply because I can (abandonment is her greatest fear, like it is for most people with borderline personality disorder). I try to be kind and careful with the woman who gave birth to me, while maintaining loyalty to myself; something my mother has never been able to do.

Clearing the FOG

In their book, Emotional Blackmail, Donna Frazier and Susan Forward created an acronym to describe the experience of living closely with someone with a personality disorder. The acronym is FOG and it pinpoints the fear, obligation and guilt children, spouses and other close family members and friends often feel when dealing with their borderline loved ones. I’d been so entrenched in that fog throughout my childhood and early adult life that I was unable to see clearly the reality around me—that I, not my mother, was ultimately responsible for my circumstances. I could either choose to permit the seemingly wicked witch of my childhood to continue to shape my life, or I could leave her behind.

But here is the truth: my mother is not wicked. She is a woman who suffers a mental illness. This can make her appear manipulative when she is more accurately only struggling to combat feelings of extreme chaos, abandonment and rage which she is sure arise because she is being attacked. This exaggerated emotional arousal is not something she would choose for herself; it is how she is wired. She attacks before she can be brought down; it’s the way she is wired, but also the way she was raised. Having some consciousness of these facts, I can elect not to repeat her cycle. My mother has made some real improvements in emotional regulation since she recently reached menopause, but only a few weeks ago, she went on the hunt again—changing magically from the woman I’ve come recently to enjoy back into the dark and dangerous figure of my youth. This time, I did not hide or run or pretend something outside of me was coming to my rescue. I simply told my mother that I love her, but that I have boundaries for the way I will allow her to speak to me, and she should have those boundaries too. When she can speak to me more kindly, I’m here.

I’m still waiting for this story to be continued.