The hardest lesson I’ve learned I’ve had to unlearn. Not yet, but I’m getting there. It’s a process. Perhaps it will take the rest of my life. I hope not, but this lesson was deeply engrained in my psyche. Over the years it has hardened into cement.
It’s a dark, debilitating lie I was fed as a child. Sadly, I never saw it coming. I just opened my mouth like a baby bird and swallowed. Because it came from my mother.
The lie says you cannot trust anyone who is close to you: not your mother, father or sister. They all want to hurt you. They are the enemy.
The lie sought to divide us. It began when we were children, but we didn’t realize it then. My sisters and I thought we were on the same team. After all, we were a family. My father, my mother and the three girls. I am the youngest.
This was decades ago before terms like “gaslighting” and “triangulating” became popular. There was no internet—no websites or blogs about alcoholism, addiction, narcissistic personality disorder. No social media posts, podcasts or YouTube videos.
It was a void of information, so I tried to fill in the blanks. My mother was mad at me. She didn’t like me. My oldest sister, Ava* was her favorite. On a rare occasion, it switched to my middle sister, Gia.*. Whatever the case, I was outside and wanted to be inside. I wanted—ached—to be in the warm, soft center with my mother and her favorite daughter.
I can’t pinpoint the beginning. I just remember it always being there, a tension that went beyond typical sibling rivalry. It was more like a constant jockeying for position. Who would be in my mother’s graces today? Because it could only be one of us at a time, never all three.
I didn’t realize then that I’d do anything to get there.
Sometimes this meant turning on Gia. No sense aligning with her. It would only anger my mother and further isolate me. No, the only option was to agree with her when she spoke negatively about Gia.
I expect Gia used the same approach when I was the one on the outside, which was most of the time.
This is how it started when I was a child and how it has continued throughout my life. Its destruction probably took root when I was five or six years old. It has festered for nearly five decades.
Fifty years of turmoil with my two sisters. Decades of hurt feelings and false assumptions encouraged and perpetuated by my mother. And we never really spoke about it, because we didn’t realize we were being manipulated. Instead, we’d focus on whatever petty issue had set one of us off, usually one planted by my mother.
Perhaps it wasn’t our fault, because we were no match for my mother’s skills. She was masterful, not coming at you head-on but swiping from the side. Subtle but powerful. Others wouldn’t notice, but her daughters had been conditioned to pick up every nuance.
Such as the time she called to thank me for Mother’s Day while managing to drop in a comment about the “wonderful” package she got from Gia. “Gosh, she really went all out!” my mother exclaimed. This happened many other times—birthdays, Christmases, anniversaries. Sometimes Gia was the victor, other times it was Ava or my cousin, who is wealthy and “so generous!” She often sent my mother designer clothes and handbags, sometimes accompanied by large checks.
On the other side was the straw man (sister) attack: finding ways to turn us against whatever sister was out in the cold. For example, if I was the bad one, my mother would mention how Gia “couldn’t believe my behavior” or that Ava was “so disappointed in me.” A perfect recipe for instant distrust, yet none of us realized my mother had made it up.
But defense was her secondary tactic. Mostly my mother played offense. She’d excessively praise the favorite, usually Ava, who was tagged as the beauty. When I was 10 and wondering if I’d ever develop, I remember my mother talking about 16-year-old Ava’s wonderful figure and beautiful eyes. Meanwhile, Gia’s weight was a problem. My mother, herself very slender, frequently commented on it. Whenever my two sisters fought, Ava would eventually play the “fatso” card. Gia was reduced to tears and the match went to Ava.
As we grew up and left home, things changed. Usually, Ava remained the favorite, but sometimes her crown passed to Gia. We all lived in different states, so a big factor was who was best at staying in touch with my mother. Also who was serving her the most. If Gia was calling my mother more often, maybe buying her nice things, then it might move her to number one.
I remember a period of a year or two when Ava grew distant. We rarely heard from her. I’d be talking to my mother, a one-way conversation of her quizzing me about Ava and complaining she wasn’t calling her. There I was—the dutiful daughter checking in regularly—but it didn’t matter. My mother wanted Ava.
When Ava became back burner, I learned something important. Gia was first runner-up and I was second. I would never advance to the golden child position. Instead, I became the audience for my mother’s endless performance about Gia: Her job, promotion, wonderful children, charming friends, and attentive husband. Her lovely house, the sweet card she had sent, her thoughtful and giving nature.
Any mention I made of my own life was met with short responses—“oh that’s nice”—or directed back to herself or Gia. Meanwhile, she was “disappointed” in Ava.
I later learned Ava had been having marital problems—significant ones. A lost job, addiction to drugs. Ava later told me things got very bad. She left her husband and three children in North Dakota and traveled to my parents’ home in Georgia. Although when she arrived my mother said Ava was “in bad shape” it soon became clear what was happening. Ava was in my mother’s orbit and could respond to her every whim. Therefore, she was back to number one.
One daughter was always in the limelight while the other two fought for second place. This created the perfect scenario for strife. It was like high school mean girls. Someone is targeted, then ostracized. The others don’t want to be that person. They want to be one of the leader’s favored, cool girls.
But here’s the difference: it’s understandable in high school. What is harder to grasp is why two middle-aged sisters are still being played by their mother. (Ava died 10 years ago. If she had lived, I expect she’d also still be in the thick of it.)
I’ve thought about this many times over the years as my mother’s abusive behavior continued. About five years ago I realized things weren’t going to change. I stopped contact. It was a long, painful process getting there. It involved a lot of prayers and seeking the Lord’s guidance.
Even though I’m at peace with my decision, the guilt my mother has instilled since childhood is entrenched. At times it will surface without warning, so random and insidious I don’t see it happening.
It usually starts small. Something will remind me of her, such as the other day when I decided to make salmon patties. I’d never made them and was searching the internet for a recipe. Suddenly an image of my mother popped into my head. She was standing by the stove frying salmon “croquettes” (as she called them) in a cast-iron pan.
Just a single, harmless memory of my mother that ran through my head, immediately followed by this: You’re going to be sorry for how you’ve treated your mother! And less than a second later, shame. So much shame my body felt flooded with it.
Suddenly and without thinking, I was reaching for my phone to text my mother. Because I genuinely wanted to connect with her? No, it was more like a reflex. A doctor tapped my knee and my leg jutted out. I felt guilty and needed to assuage my guilt.
Thought, feeling, action. It happened so fast I couldn’t see the links: thought (my mother), feeling (guilt/shame), action (texting).
Last summer I attended a Christian women’s retreat. Many of the women there had experienced painful childhoods. Some were in abusive marriages or recovering from them. One thing I learned is the spiral that begins with my first dark thought. The mental death spiral that if left unchecked, will cause destructive feelings and destructive behaviors.
If it isn’t stopped, the cycle will become a whirlwind. It works like this:
Thought: You’ll be sorry for how you’ve treated your mother!
Behavior: Text mother. She replies with abusive message.
Thought: My mother doesn’t love me.
Behavior: Text again trying to reason with mother. She replies with abusive message.
Cycle 3 (Spiral)
Thought: My mother doesn’t love me.
Behavior: Crying, isolation
This is why I went no contact. It was the only way to stop the cycle. Even so, occasionally I slip.
Gia hasn’t fared much better. She moved my mother to a senior facility and has tried to provide for her needs. However, my mother is just as abusive with her, so most of the time my sister has no contact with her. She’ll drop off supplies but not speak to her.
It’s impossible to think about this and not remember my three aunts, my mother’s sisters. They are all deceased, as are my mother’s brothers. What I recall is how tumultuous my mother’s relationship was with her siblings, especially her sisters. She was constantly feuding with one or all of them, especially her youngest sister, Jeanette (Aunt “Nette”).
Most of the arguments were fueled by alcohol. Aunt Nette was a “binge drunk” according to my mother, even though she and my father were also heavy drinkers. However, they were 5:00 drinkers, so in her mind they weren’t alcoholics.
I remember a few fights that turned physical, one when I was only four or five. Watching in horror with my sisters and cousins as my mother and aunt were kicking and grabbing each other’s hair. Most of the other incidents were just ugly shouting matches, nasty words were thrown out like bullets. Usually, past stuff so trivial—like money loaned 20 years ago—even the kids couldn’t make sense of it.
I didn’t understand why my mother couldn’t get along with her sisters, but I do now. She was raised under a cloud of suspicion. Her father was perverted. Her mother was physically, verbally and emotionally abusive. My mother lived on a battlefield. While she was fighting to survive she saw her youngest sister, Jeanette, elevated out of the muck. Jeanette was spared while my mother was victimized.
My mother learned to trust no one. Her siblings—especially her sisters—weren’t her friends. They were opponents striving for position, trying to unseat Jeanette for a moment in the sunlight.
She also learned she wasn’t sufficient—not good enough to be chosen or loved by her mother. This lie from the devil lodged deeply into my mother’s soul and settled there. She’s spent her life trying to dislodge it, beginning with her three daughters. If she could just make them love her in the way she demanded to be loved, then it would make her ok.
Sadly, my sisters and I didn’t know this. We couldn’t see the root of my mother’s intricate game. We just got tangled up in it. We played our parts perfectly. Fighting for my mother, fighting against each other.
There is no winner.
*Not her real name