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I can’t take my toxic family

My mom and grandma were abusive — but they say I should be thankful! Should I distance myself from them?

Absolutely, says our elder. You don’t owe them anything.

Dear EWC

I was raised by my grandparents on my mother’s side; she had me when she was 18. She wasn’t ready to be a mother but she raised me for about five years in my grandparents’ house. She moved out at that point to live with a boyfriend claiming she couldn’t be around my grandparents anymore and they were basically ruining her life. Mostly I suppose because she was out partying and doing drugs with friends and I would be waking them up in the middle of the night screaming where’s mommy.

Moving on, my whole life my grandmother and mother fought, nasty, yelling, ruthless fights. They would constantly talk bad about each other to me. My grandmother would even say how much I was like my parents, especially my mother any time I would misbehave or didn’t like how she was treating me and would speak up about it. My mother and I always had visitation I would see her a few times a week at her boyfriend’s where he would physically and mentally abuse her. I feel like the abuse and the drugs only made her a more angry, judgmental, negative person. She never hit me but I sometimes felt she resented me because my grandmother would always give me lots of attention, take me places, buy me clothes, etc. and I don’t think she ever had that with her.

I am now married with a daughter and my mom is living in our basement of the house that my grandparents gave us a deposit for because we didn’t have the money for it. My mother has lived with us in other places too. Now I have rarely ever asked my grandmother for help or for money but she offered and I said OK. And I knew in the pit of my stomach I shouldn’t have because my entire life any time she was mad at me she’d remind me how she’s spent so much on me and raised me and didn’t have to and I would’ve been an orphan if it wasn’t for her. Now my grandmother brought up in conversation to my mom about how she helped us with the house and how she has never done this for other grandkids. And my mother yelled at me saying how I’m unappreciative and they both (meaning her and my grandmother) have done so much for me and she can’t believe how I treat them. This was in response to me saying I’m not going to take money my grandmother offers anymore because I’m tired of always hearing my entire life how I get treated to so much but am never thankful, literally even being raised by someone else was thrown in my face and still is as an adult.

I just want to see if I’m wrong in feeling that I need to distance myself from both of them because I literally can’t take it anymore. I try my very best to show how much I appreciate how I wasn’t orphaned, how I have a home, etc. I invite them for dinners, I let my mom live with us, I’ve told them numerous times and try to help them when I can but nothing ever seems to be good enough. I try to be perfect for them and it just doesn’t ever seem to matter. And I’ve tried to work so hard to distance myself from that young kid that was hurt and damaged and self-harming and it’s like it’s right back in my face again. And I don’t want that for me, for my spouse, or my child. What should I do?

PJC replies

You sound like a very impressive young woman with a whole lot of insight, not only into yourself, but into your family history and those family dynamics as well.
Yes, I want to encourage you to distance yourself from both these toxic women in your life.
Here’s the theory I (sometimes) subscribe to. You didn’t ask to be born, but being born, your mother even though she was very young, had an obligation to be a good, loving, supportive parent to you until you were of legal age — not just until you were five. While it’s understandable that she wasn’t able to meet those obligations, she was obligated never the less. You owe her nothing.

By all means distance yourself from them both. Create an effective plan to move your mother out of your house. Stop supporting her in any way, shape or form. You may need to wean her off your help, putting firm boundaries of what you will do until what date(s). It’s unhealthy for you to live in the sphere of her abuse. You did nothing wrong by being born. You are not obligated to her now. Perhaps when she’s 80, you can look at your resources and decide whether you can spare any for her.

But as for now, I want to encourage you to focus on yourself, your husband and your daughter — on being a loving, generous wife and mother and making a wonderful home for your small family, on figuring out how to discover/create joy and happiness in each of your days.
As for grandma, perhaps you can take her out to lunch once a month, or once every other month — maybe include your daughter once in awhile. But be careful here. Don’t expose her to abuse, even if it’s not leveled at her. Your grandmother is used to being verbally abusive towards you, and it’s my hope that she will behave better if she is out in public. But even if she doesn’t, then you only have to endure her for an hour, maybe less, and if you both arrive in your own cars, then you can pick up the check and leave when you want, claiming an appointment or somewhere else you want to be.

I want to tell you to stop feeling guilty. It was your grandmother’s choice to help you out with the deposit for the house. If there were ‘strings’ attached to that gift, you didn’t agree to them at the time the gift was given. I agree that you would do well to take nothing else from her, except perhaps for Christmas or your birthday. You can continue to tell her at your once a month lunches how much you appreciate her giving you the downpayment for your house. And leave it at that.
While you never asked to be born into this horrendous family of abuse, it does provide you with some opportunities. And those opportunities, as I see it, are around forgiveness, letting go, and healing your fears.
Forgiveness does not mean you condone anyone’s bad behavior (your grandmother’s reminding you of how much she’s done for you and how you would have been an orphan without her intervention is very bad behaviour — you were just an innocent child), nor does it mean you continue to put yourself in harm’s way — you are not a bowling pin to be mowed down by her verbal abuse. If you find that once-a-month brief lunches are too much for you, then you can stop those for awhile. Forgiveness means that you loosen any of the grip, the guilt, or the ties that unforgiveness has on you. My suggestion is that after any time you have spent in their abusive presence, you say a silent prayer, “I forgive you and I bless you and I release you in love to your highest good.” Then notice whether it’s possible for you to drop it. Maybe take a purifying bath in essential oil or stand under a shower and just see if it’s possible to rinse all that negativity off you.

In truth, you don’t sound angry or unforgiving, just — understandably — beaten down by all the long history of abuse. And once you distance yourself from them and the abuse, you may discover that you have internalized the abuse and that you beat yourself up without any of their help.
There is more you can do here to clear the way to create your peace of mind once you have gotten your mother out of your house and gotten contact with your grandmother down to once a month for a brief lunch. And you are welcome to write to me again, if you think I can be of further help, once you have found the courage to establish those firm boundaries.
What you can do now is make a list of your fears. What do you fear about distancing yourself from both of them? The book I recommend is The Only Little Prayer You Need by Debra Landwehr Engle. It’s a very short, brief book, but it can make a marked difference in your life.
I was estranged from my mother for eight years. When I was able to convince her to write to me at a Post Office Box (it felt safer for me to decide when I could muster up the strength to go to her letter, rather than having it come to me), we were able to rebuild our relationship on new terms. She was pretty nasty about my request, but we persisted, and — eventually — we were able to carefully connect again, but this time in ways that were kinder and more meaningful for us both. In my case, the estrangement was beneficial. I was finally able to get her voice out of my head and began to live my life in peace, joy and freedom.

Parents and grandparents are supposed to take care of the blessings that are their children and grandchildren, in the best ways they can. Because so many people are so wounded (and you have a lot of insight into that wounding), they just can’t help but be harming and abusive instead of loving and caring. And for those of us who grew up in that circle of abuse, part of our life’s journey is to learn how to re-parent ourselves (and our children) so that we are the loving, nurturing parents to ourselves that we wish we had while we were growing. I hope you will find the voice of ‘Your Own Best Mother’ and ‘Your Own Best Grandmother’ and substitute their voices for the abusive voices of your blood relatives.
You don’t owe them anything; you’re not their punching bag. They don’t have to understand why you’re distancing from them, although a simple “because I’m tired of all your verbal abuse and am unwilling to put up with it any longer” is enough. The more distance you can make between you, the better.

I’m sorry you had/have such a wounding family. I built an impenetrable cage around my heart to deal with my situation, which I don’t recommend. But you seem to be such a tender soul, and so you are vulnerable to heartbreak, which I also don’t recommend. The first time I saw my therapist and was describing my mother’s truly horrendous plight, which I knew by heart, he said, “Well she hasn’t learned anything from it, has she?” That one statement proved to be pivotal for me. Oh… she had choices and she chose to be abusive rather than appropriately loving and nourishing!
It’s a choice your family has made as well. I had to learn to drop the armor around my heart; perhaps you have to learn to be more self protective. In any event, I sense there’s a long healing road ahead of you. Right now, I don’t think you can take your mother and grandmother on this healing journey with you. They have no interest in joining you there.
Please write again if you think I can be of further help, and tell your friends about our service. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers.

Letter #: 445902
Category: Family

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