Witch, Queen, Mom: Fairy Tale Lessons For Surviving Borderline Parents
By Diana-Ashley Krach
I have never been a fan of glossy, commercialized fairy tales, nor one to choose the princess role in a game of make-believe. What I thought stemmed from a natural tomboy resistance to all things sparkly and ethereal, I realize now was really a rejection of the darker sides of these fanciful stories. Those parts were all too familiar: the servant being verbally abused by her family, the girl locked up in a tower, the daughter sacrificing herself to save her helpless parent.
The wolf blowing down my house of brick wasn’t fictional — she was my mother.
My mother has borderline personality disorder (BPD), although I didn’t always know this. Even into adulthood, all I knew were our falling-outs, her suffocating narcissism, her undermining me, criticizing my marriage, pitting my siblings against one another.
It wasn’t until a friend gave me Surviving a Borderline Parent that everything started coming into focus. Written by Kimberlee Roth with the help of Freda Freidman, Ph.D., LCSW — a therapist with an extensive background in counseling BPDs and members of their families — the book explores and elucidates the sides of fairy tales that I was acquainted with. Each page peeled back a layer of my upbringing, pulling on the messy ball of string that I once thought was my life; I wanted to dance out the overwhelming feeling of validation.
I learned that borderline personality disorder is a mental illness associated with unstable personal relationships, volatile mood changes, eating disorders, and rage outbursts. An individual with BPD lacks a clear sense of self, and often projects their behavior onto others. BPDs “split,” which means they see things as all good or bad, black and white, no in-between. People with BPD have a core wound of abandonment, often stemming from a traumatic childhood event, which leaves them with an arrested emotional development. This keeps BPDs from interacting in age-appropriate ways, and creates a “parentified” child, meaning that the BPD parent counts on the non-BPD child to assume the adult role. Children of BPD parents tend to feel severe anxiety, and as adults, report missing chunks of memory from their childhood.
On the relationship between a BPD parent and a non-BPD child, psychiatrist David M. Reiss tells me:
“When you’re dealing with the borderline situation, any imperfection feels like a complete threat not only to the relationship, but to the sense of identity and the sense of safety in the world. It can go in one direction or both directions. In other words, it could be the parent transmitting to the child: If you don’t complete me, I’m going to fall apart. Or the child could take it on and feel the same way: If you don’t complete me, I’m going to fall apart. Of course, the worst of all possible worlds is when it goes back and forth.”
Janet Zinn, a psychotherapist, adds that BPD parents exist in their own constructed realities, which can be challenging for a child to navigate: “It’s so confusing for a child, because we get our reality in some ways from our parents, and if their reality is skewed, the child is always trying to figure out what is real, what is not real.”
As it turns out, for the children of borderline parents, fairy tales can play a role in this sorting out of reality from fiction. Understanding the disorder, how it manifests, and how it shaped one’s upbringing is, in fact, central to healing. To this end, Surviving a Borderline Parent explores how BPDs can have personalities that fall under four primary fairy tale archetypes: The Witch, The Queen, The Hermit, and The Waif, a concept originated by Christine Ann Lawson, Ph.D. Each type personifies the various traits a BPD can possess at any given time. Some people may only ever see one personality type, or some may see different ones emerge depending on the situation.
My mother was always a combination of The Queen or The Witch, but the other types also made frequent appearances. These were the characters in the tale of my upbringing.
Witches feel white-hot rage and harbor a deep fear of abandonment; it’s because of this fear that the Witch acts out in deeply vengeful ways, without a shred of regret. They are often domineering and intrusive, their mindset black and white — “If you’re not with me, you’re against me!” — which results in their blacklisting even close family members. This type is the most resistant to therapy; they possess a deep self-loathing and despise being viewed as “weak.” Children of the Witch live in fear of triggering the mother, developing anxiety and, in some cases, PTSD.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a personal essay about the death of my biological father. My mother was the only troll in the comment section. She flooded the comments with claims of my dishonesty, my weakness, my inability to write. We’d been estranged for over two years, so I chose to contact my editor about the harassment rather than give her a personal response, which is what she wanted. Prior to our estrangement, she would explode in rage, for whatever reason, and I would respond like a scared puppy — always begging forgiveness for something beyond my control.
Once she noticed her comment being deleted, she pushed back even harder, creating alternate profiles and posting intensely private information about my husband and my sister. Threats of exposing information that would make my life easily hackable almost provoked me to respond, but I fought the urge and was able to have her comments deleted.
Days went by without incident, but a week later, I saw her name pop up in my email inbox. “BLOODLINE” was the subject and the message read: “I WILL ALWAYS BE A PART OF YOU NO MATTER WHAT.”
Waifs tend to complain, but refuse help; they fish for compliments and then reject flattery. A Waif may present the image of a helpless victim, but can be very manipulative. Common complaints of life being unsatisfactory are typical with this type; they feel as though they will never get what they want out of life.
When I was about 6 years old, I walked into my mother’s bedroom to see her sitting on the bed, weeping openly. This shocked my system to its core; she was a woman who preached the virtues of getting over things quickly, no whining. She told me that she hated her life — everything about it — so I jumped to her side and promised I would make everything better one day. Because of that promise, I took on her responsibilities until well into my young adult life: paying bills, babysitting, cleaning, budgeting — whatever she couldn’t delegate to another family member. It wasn’t an issue of her competence; she just expected it all to be done for her.
To those who only knew her on a superficial level, she was the picture of independence and strength — no one could comprehend how she managed it all on her own. My siblings and I never received an award for doing the daily adult tasks; there was never so much as a thank you for making her life manageable.
The Hermit sees the world as a dangerous place, and views people as inherently untrustworthy. A Hermit’s unyielding distrust often stems from childhood trauma, and with 75% of people diagnosed with BPD being women, many of those traumatic instances include sexual abuse.
My mother made me painfully aware of the trauma she experienced at a very young age: Before I was in kindergarten, I had read children’s books on sexual abuse, and I was hyper-aware of strangers, always on guard for potential danger. My mother’s one consistent message was: Don’t ever trust anyone, especially men — including your husband. This created an anxiety that was only amplified by the extreme measures she took to drill this lesson into me. She followed me home from school pretending to be a stranger, and I would be in big trouble if I answered the door for her. No matter what she said or did, I was not to answer the door, so I hid behind my couch as she screamed at me through the window.
Queens are disingenuous and ruthless; they have no issue bending rules to favor a personal agenda. Impatience and irritability are frequent: The Queen requires nothing less than fierce loyalty in everyone, and sees any difference in opinion as insolence. Partners and children of the Queen know it’s easier to acquiesce than fight her; she will never admit when she is wrong, always refusing to take responsibility for anything. Children are but a reflection of the Queen — she expects her offspring to behave only as she sees fit, even into adulthood.
My mother never once apologized for making me cry or hurting my feelings; she is a wizard at deflecting blame. She also demanded that my siblings and I put her first, even before our spouses. Because I chose to put my husband first, she disowned me on a semi-monthly basis. Because I chose to meet my biological father in person, I betrayed her, and she disowned me for several months. Because I felt protective of my sister’s feelings, my mother viewed me as being disloyal to her, and disowned both of us.
She disowned me more times than I could ever count.
A Different Ever After
Both Reiss and Zinn agree that in order for an adult child of BPD to heal, they must mourn the loss of the childhood they felt they should have had. In most cases, the only way for the non-BPD to move on is by extricating themselves from the toxic parental relationship. Reiss says that an important step in healing is differentiating between abuse and disappointment. Up until a few years ago, I was unable to recognize my mother’s toxic and abusive behavior. With the help of online support and BPD resources, however, I’ve learned how to spot similar traits in other people. I still have a long way to go — the most random song or smell can trigger a panic attack at any given moment — but I finally feel like I’m moving in the right direction.
Before I found Surviving a Borderline Parent, I would use humor to deflect details about my past, skating around the truth just enough to keep from alarming anyone. There was always a tiny voice — her voice — somewhere in my mind echoing a common refrain from my youth, chastising me for complaining “when others have it so much worse.” No matter what I do, that voice will always be there to some degree, but now I know how to confront it.
This isn’t about complaining, it’s about healing.
I realized long ago that I am not looking for someone to rescue me, pity me, or give me a happy ending. My fairy tale as a child was unconditional love from a mother, maternal support without expectation. But now I understand that is exactly what it was — a fairy tale. My shot at happily ever after requires that I understand and accept this.
Lead image of John Anster Fitzgerald’s “The Fairy Barque”: flickr/Sofi