Below is a letter I’ve drafted to send to my mother. I’m not sure yet if I’ll really send it, to begin with I’ll show my therapist and GP and probably psychiatrist so they get better understanding of why I feel the way I do.
This note expresses my desire to begin a new relationship with you. It is the first in a series, and it conveys a range of emotions that I’m experiencing as a result of our relationship and the interactions we’ve had over the past 36 years. These emotions include a combination of anger, disappointment, sadness and hopelessness.
Feeling and expressing these emotions isn’t easy. Instead, until recently, I have internalised my feelings of anger which have manifested as self-harm and suicide attempts. Likewise, I have internalised my feelings of disappointment, sadness and hopelessness and they have manifested as depression. Sadly, no amount of psychotropic medication, TMS or ECT will abate these feelings. Instead, it will be a process of thinking and reflecting, talking to my team, exercising to process their physical presence and writing to put words to the way I feel that will see me put these emotions to rest.
Having described the way these emotions function, I will now describe the experiences that have led to them.
Let’s start with sadness. The dynamic between us makes me feel sad. Interactions between us are cold and mechanical, and our relationship is very practical. It lacks an emotional component. There is a lot that a person can expect from their mother that I believe I cannot. For a secure relationship to develop between a child and their mother, interactions need to be predictable, empathetic and responsive to what the child needs emotionally and physically. The mother needs to reflect and reinforce the positive values that the child holds. For me these values include being empathetic and a good friend, being interested in and good at learning, being creative and expressive. Mothers need to share lessons, teaching strategies and skills, from their own journey through life to help make the child’s life easier. This makes the child feel valued, respected, loved and safe. My memory is that you didn’t reinforce my values, rather you worked to instil your own. Missing out on these experiences as a child and not having access to them as an adult makes me feel sad.
It also makes me feel angry. The most damaging, humiliating, upsetting experience that I’ve ever had – worse than the sexual abuse I experienced as a child and an adult – is being weighed every morning in the kitchen as a teenager, taken to a dietician, and prescribed appetite suppressants by a GP despite me still growing and my weight being within the healthy range. Spend a moment and imagine the way this communicated to me that I wasn’t good enough. Your constant messaging that the most valuable part of me was my body’s appearance (not my intelligence, diligence, resilience, sense of humour, creativity, or capacity for empathy), followed by my appearance not being good enough, made me hate my body, and therefore myself and develop an eating disorder that I’ve had in one form or another for 25 years. This is unfair.
My eating disorder has caused me to hate food, feel ashamed when I eat, and see hunger as problematic and a sign of weakness. My body has been in starvation for over 2 decades. Every time I do eat and don’t vomit my body thinks it is the last time it will be fed, it doesn’t trust that food will come again, so it puts what I’ve eaten into storage. This has made me progressively gain weight and makes it extremely difficult to lose. It is normal for parents to want to feed their children, but my experience is the opposite – I remember being praised, encouraged and helped to restrict and even fast. When I told you I had an eating disorder you questioned why this was a problem, despite it being the most fatal of all mental illnesses – three times more deadly than bipolar disorder. This is gutting.
I feel lucky now to have a team of professionals who work tirelessly, within a framework of evidence, to challenge my shame around eating and feelings of hunger, to challenge my negative thoughts about food, to challenge my deeply held belief that I’m different to other humans and don’t need food, to teach me what healthy eating looks like. Progress is slow, we have a lot of core beliefs to shift. However, at a psychological level, we hope that this will attack my eating disorder; and at a physical level we hope that it will allow my body and metabolism to trust that appropriate amounts of healthy, nutritious food will arrive regularly, and give my body the confidence to work in a way that allows it to lose weight.
My anger doesn’t stop there. The other thing that makes me angry is the role reversal that I experience in my relationship with you. You’re not there for me emotionally when I’m having a difficult time but you expect me to be there for you. This is unfair. It is difficult enough that I don’t feel comforted or accepted by you but I feel as though you come to me looking for psychological support in the form of comfort, perspective, stability and reassurance; or for practical support such as asking for Valium when you’re experiencing hardship.
The most recent experience I’ve had of this is when you had suspected uterine cancer. You communicated with me a number of times looking for support, comfort, sympathy and medication. I find it very difficult to play this role for you when I have no experience of you playing this role for me. For instance, when I told you I first got my period, you didn’t consider how I might be feeling or what I might need emotionally, instead you provided me with some protection, with no explanation of how to use it, and told me not to tell Dad. Rather than normalising this healthy and natural developmental experience, you made me feel ashamed, humiliated and like I was broken. This was my first memorable experience of feeling disappointed and hopeless about our relationship. Before then I was anxious about getting my period but hopeful that it would provide a space for our relationship to grow. Even at this young age I knew our relationship was distant. Instead, after the event, I felt let down, disappointed and not heard or understood. This is unfair and makes me feel angry.
I also feel disappointed. For a long time I felt a combination of hope and dread before I saw you. Dread because it was usually a bad experience for me, but hope that it would be better this time. What I have realised however, is that things won’t improve unless I make a change. I believe you do the best you can but now I know that in order for things to improve, I need to be explicit about what I need from you in specific circumstances. Unfortunately, I don’t know what I need or want from you yet. I need to spend more time thinking, talking, writing. When I know what I need, and I feel safe, I will tell you.
It is important for you to know that I know you don’t mean for me to feel this way. I know being a good parent is important to you. You’re very good at providing practical support. You help me financially before I even need to ask. You clean and sort my house when you come over. You enquire about Claude. Unfortunately however, you don’t know what I need emotionally. This may be because of your own experiences of attachment with your mother, or due to your own mental illness. I don’t blame you, I simply want to describe my experience and explain the impact that the dynamic between us has had on me as a prelude to a change that I will initiate.
I’m sure you’ll want to talk about this with me. However I don’t want to talk about it with you so please don’t raise it with me. This is my experience. It’s based on clear memories of the last 36 years. Nothing you say can allay these feelings. My recommendation is to read this note, think about it, talk to Dad, consider speaking to your GP or a psychologist about it. I need to process these emotions, and after things settle down I will consider the terms of a new relationship with you. This will involve identifying what I need and when I need it, and communicating this to you. I don’t know how long this process will take. I wouldn’t expect it to be before the middle of next year. In the meantime, please continue to interact and communicate with me the way you always have. You don’t need to be concerned about the impact this will have on me as I have developed strategies to manage it. I am the one experiencing difficulties with this relationship so it’s my responsibility to find the solution.