How To Deal With Toxic Family

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My toxic family lives in a trailer park.

Poca, West Virginia. Harry Schaefer, August 1973.

Two contradictory statements can inhabit the same place, even peaceably. Boundaries can be porous. For instance, I love the gift that is my life. My mother should not have had children.

Like many transplants, I ran to San Francisco as fast as I could to get far and away from home. Recently I returned from a visit to my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. A line of thunderstorms rolled through the night I landed, followed by days of high heat and humidity. My partner’s first time in the Midwest delivered everything I promised, including affordable good food and the existential tickle you get viewing the endless plains from a twentieth-floor hotel room. I hadn’t been back for ten years, all because one person cast a shadow larger than life over the entire metropolitan area. The obvious solution was to avoid her, but that’s easier said than done. A certain gravity exists between parents and their children. The pull is relentless whether you cop to it or not. I feared the loss of my hard-earned resolve.

My mother is an irreconcilable person. Therefore it is completely reasonable to have irreconcilable feelings about her.

She and I were close once, but if I focus on that solely, I sacrifice context. We became close when I was a teenager, after her second messy divorce, when my older brother went to boot camp. Without me, the trailer was hers and hers alone. I’m not suggesting she loved me out of necessity, or that she only began to acknowledge me then. I’m saying that with my brother in the Army and our sister in lock-up, I was our mom’s last shot, and she knew it too.

My mother has a personality disorder that makes it impossible for her to appreciate others’ perspectives. She was the best of moms, she was the worst of moms. My siblings and I inferred her emotions, often incorrectly and with consequence, from indirect hints as opposed to outright explanations. It’s why I can’t stand the silent treatment, why the same outbursts I’m prone to shake me when they come from someone else, why I still ask my partner of nine years and counting if he’s genuinely happy with me or if secretly, he settled.

My therapist and I spent the last few months prepping for the psychological onslaught of place-based flashbacks. Unlike a space-based flashback, where something about the space you’re in triggers your PTSD, the “place” might be a wedding venue 0.99 miles from your parents’ house or another haunted house just like it. Perhaps it’s on the body. Regardless of locale the result is a skin-crawling episode of speechless dissociation, an innard-yanking nausea that transforms stomach acid into adrenaline, maybe a rage reminiscent of Carrie on prom night. Nothing conducive to an afternoon at work, an evening with a lover, or generally being in the world. “Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”

I learned to establish realistic expectations, and that takes time. My mother is an irreconcilable person. Therefore it is completely reasonable to have irreconcilable feelings about her. This realization furnishes a space where impossible things can coexist, and that’s where she lives. I understand her pride and shame prevent her from owning up to the abuse and neglect. It’s my choice to forgive her. That she adored me best in situations where I most resembled her—acting in school plays and musicals, joining choir and band, smoking menthols and talking shit about my dad on demand—shouldn’t cheapen the love she undoubtedly felt and, knowing her, still carries on her shoulder like a cross. It’s all she knows.

Whoever takes issue with the boundaries you maintain will be those who benefited from your having none to begin with.

I learned to set watertight boundaries. I stayed in downtown Kansas City, an island of one-ways circled by cars like sharks where I rented my first apartment. She hated it there. Fresh off his first year in grad school, my partner flew in with me. My mom has refused to meet him and in the same breath begged me to come see her. A Groomsman for my friend’s wedding, I did not rent a car, which would’ve enabled my morbid curiosity. The Best Man was in charge, and from the backseat of his rented BMW I watched the traffic light for her exit down the road disappear behind trees. My therapist taught me that whoever takes issue with the boundaries you maintain will be those who benefited from your having none to begin with. Like my oldest friend advised, “You don’t have to go that extra mile.”

The victory is significant if also bittersweet. It hurts because I will always want a healthy relationship with my mom, and I’m capable of supporting one, but she isn’t. I miss her as much as I wish things didn’t have to be this way, but I will maintain this boundary if it kills me (it won’t).

Contradicting statements can indeed share the same space. For example, I love my mother with all my heart. And I never want to see her again.

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Jake Warren

Jake Warren

A Potawatomi nonfiction writer and Tenderloin resident possessing an Indigenous perspective on sexuality and a fascination with etymological nuance. Queer decolonial leftist, cannabis industry affiliate, seasoned raver, and unofficial earthquake authority.