Can Love Fail?
What I learned from the toughest relationship.
I will never forget the day my therapist said these words to me in her gentle, soothing voice as I listened between sobs, “Mika, you have to give up the hope that she can ever be the kind of mom you want and need her to be.”
Relief washed over me and grief sunk in. In this moment there was no great, feel-good next move. I could stay and be on my mom’s emotional roller-coaster believing that I could save her and that she could be better for me…
Surely, if she loved me, her only child…if I was enough, she’d work to get better, right?
OR I could get off the roller-coaster (where at least I wasn’t alone) and venture, untethered, into a world of red hot loneliness.
I already knew the outcome of keeping my ticket to ride: drama, being lashed out on, never-ending arguments about perspective, tantrums, guilt trips, walking on eggshells, and feeling that nauseating tug that happens near your sternum when a person communicates two very different things simultaneously.
My mom seemed to communicate frequently (verbally and nonverbally) to the people she loved the most “I HATE YOU!” and “DON’T LEAVE ME,” all at the same time.
For as long as I can remember her hugs felt bad to me…like I was being slimed. Like she needed more from my little body, mind, and soul than I could give, like she wanted me to fill up a place in her that had no bottom. I wanted to pull away. I could never do enough.
By middle school I believed that I wasn’t enough and the anxiety and depression sunk in. We moved in my 7th grade year after my parents’ divorce because, as my mom would put it venomously, “I just CANNOT live in the same state as your father.”
Strangely, the divorce didn’t bother me. Maybe that speaks to the obviousness of the situation or the tumultuousness of their relationship. I really thought it might get better after the divorce, but when her unhappiness and personality disorder followed us to Missouri it seemed that I became the most available target at which she could aim her venom.
I remember the helpless feeling of having a perpetually unhappy, angry, and critical mother and the tension that I had to live in to survive. I remember the charade we’d put on in front of other people so that everyone would think we were fine. I remember people believing the charade, or at least putting on a convincing charade of their own, and wondering if I was the one that was crazy.
I started hiding. I was almost mute at my lunch table the entire 7th grade year.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I wrote a letter to God. At that time, God’s name was Oprah. In my handwritten letter I told Oprah about how hard my mom worked, how great of a mom she was, and how she deserved a vacation…or at least tickets to her show.
I guess I didn’t send it because years later, during a time I took a break from contact with my Mom, she sent me the letter. The envelope was dripping with psychic slime. Despite my feelings of dread and the tightness in my chest I opened the envelope.
There it was…my letter to God. I believe my mom sent me that letter so that I could remember a time when I thought she worked hard and had been a good mother. It seemed like she wanted to teach me a lesson. She wanted me to feel guilt or shame, or maybe both. I got that.
But all I could see were the words that were not on that page: my plea to God to help me save my Mother. All I could feel was the crushing weight of responsibility for an adult’s well-being on a 12-year-old’s shoulders.
This didn’t feel like a piece of evidence to put in the stack building the case for why I should have a relationship with her…in fact it felt like quite the opposite.
Our relationship break continued for many months after this. I had to build myself up and learn to let go of any and all expectations I had of her. Learning to give up the hope that my mom could be my mom has been one of the tangliest, most misunderstood, and loneliest things I’ve ever done.
You have a toxic relationship with crack and everyone’s on board with you kicking it to the curb. High fives all around. You have a toxic relationship with your mother and everyone’s saying things like, “You only have ONE mom,” and “What if something happens to her? You’ll never be able to forgive yourself.”
It has been, for me, the ultimate test in trusting myself.
Fast-forward to a night class in my Ph.D. program in Marriage and Family Therapy. I was trying my hardest to not be noticed. I didn’t want to make too much eye contact with the professor, and I didn’t want to make too little. Don’t sit too tall, and don’t sink too much. I hadn’t read the material assigned for class that night and the professor seemed to be fed up with most of our cohort’s lack of ability to add to the discussion.
The tough individually-directed questions started flying so that we could throw ourselves under the bus with our inability to answer or by fessing up to not doing the work.
I started feverishly skimming the material. Something about a study of monkeys and attachment. Wire mama monkeys, and cloth mama monkeys. Orphaned baby monkeys would attach to either wire or cloth mamas, but when given a choice would attach to the cloth mama monkey even when the wire monkey within close proximity provided milk.
Ok, so one finding was that touch was more important than taste in terms of attachment. Got it.
As I was skimming the next part of the summary of Harlow’s famous study the professor was speaking it out-loud like an echo in my brain: “The baby monkeys even bonded with cloth mama monkeys who would punch them at random. No matter what the torture, the babies would come back to the cloth monkey.”
I had made a great friend in the program who also struggled in her relationship with her mother. Realizing the deep implications for both of us, in that moment we completely failed to fly under the radar and each gasped and swung our faces toward the other.
If I could put words around our non-verbal communication it would have been, “Did you just fucking hear that?!”
We giggled at our identical response and found the other 6 people at the conference table staring in our direction.
What I know for sure is that love and attachment are powerful things. They can absolutely be wonderful things that nourish us. Sometimes love and attachment aren’t free and the cost can cause us to tolerate the most atrocious offenses.
One way or another love and attachment help us find our value. Whether it’s because our value is reflected back to us by the people we love the most, or because it’s not. If it’s not we often have to hit rock bottom and start believing in the possibility of our enoughness enough to say no to all that we have known and say yes to the unknown.
In the unknown there is great risk…we might find healthy love and belonging, but what if we don’t?
Love and belonging is a need, but it’s also a risk. We have to be willing to bet on ourselves. We have to be willing to fail. We have to know we deserve to have the supports in place to get back up. Relationships are holy, sacred things and have taught me everything I know about myself whether they were ’til death do us part or not.
No love ever fails. It just looks like it does.
I truly believe that people are in our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime and that I can’t pass judgments on other people’s boundaries with parents, spouses, or friends because the intent, not the boundary, is what’s important.
So, please, enough with the memes about how we “ONLY HAVE ONE MOM” and that we SHOULD be talking to her. Enough with the judgments about people not staying married forever. And, please, for the love of God (or Oprah?)…stop judging yourself for not having that gaggle of middle school friends that you still hang out with and need an 8-ft selfie stick just to get all of your joyous faces in the picture. You couldn’t see your value clearly enough back then to make friends you wouldn’t outgrow by now.
You deserve happy relationships…even if it means jumping into some red hot loneliness to get them.
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Originally published at www.mikaross.com.