reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their
personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the
unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to
this series, click here. Today’s guest post is by Carrie.
It’s been said that Albert Einstein says the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
With all due respect to Mr. Einstein, no. No, it’s not. My life has taught me differently.
I say the definition of insanity is believing God has chosen you to select the day and hour that “Lucifer will be restrained.” I say the definition of insanity is believing you can be your own psychologist and pharmacist and ordering what you think is psychotropic medicine online from a pharmacy in India and dosing yourself. I say the definition of insanity is slipping further and further into alcohol addiction while maintaining that it is part of what keeps your mental illness at bay, even though all the experts say it can only make it worse. I say the definition of insanity is hearing everyone closest to you dare to speak the truth about the darkness they see consuming your life and accusing them of being the sick ones and isolating yourself more and more from the people who love you. I say the definition of insanity is landing your private plane in a top secret military reservation with your small children in the back seat while you’re trying to outrun the government spies you are convinced are following you. I say the definition of insanity is believing your phones are tapped, that angels turn the aquarium light on and off, and that a demon rather than a coyote killed the baby calf. I say the definition of insanity is throwing your airline tickets and the contents of your wallet away while your 8-year-old daughter chases you down the concourse in Terminal C at DFW international airport frantically picking up what you’ve tossed out and crying for someone to help her.
But maybe Einstein is right, too.
Because I’m 33 years old. My Dad has been insane and an alcoholic for most of my life, though at times he’s been more well then others. My Mom has her own struggles with alcoholism, and over the last few years has apparently decided it is easier simply to let my father’s reality be her reality rather than to try and fight it or to live life without him. And until last month, I kept trying to reason with the two of them. I kept trying to help them see that they need help; to forge something that resembled a relationship with them in spite of all the anger, addiction and mental illness that’s simmering just below the surface (sometimes well-contained, sometimes not contained at all) while simultaneously protecting myself and my family from the shrapnel that would undoubtedly hurt us if we got too close to the unpredictable-yet-regular explosions. For years, I’ve kept trying. And it finally dawned on me that I was acting a bit insane, in the Albert Einstein sense of the word. And I was finally as-ready-as-one-can-be to say goodbye.
And just like that, I’m estranged from my parents.
Estrangement. I’m still rolling the word around in my heart and in my head, trying to picture what this will look like in the years to come. At future family funerals or my nephew’s birthday party, will I go knowing they will be there too? What if I casually run into my mom at the grocery store in my small home-town, which I still visit because my in-laws live there as well? Do I exchange pleasantries as if she were a casual acquaintance and there’s been no highly toxic water under the bridge? Or do I run and hide beside the boxes of birthday cake fixings, hoping she doesn’t see me while I stand there remembering all the Funfetti cakes she lovingly prepared for my birthdays year in and year out?
Estrangement. Every time the word rolls through my heart, it pricks me in a little different spot. Prick is too delicate of a word. It gashes. Will it ever stop hurting?
To my people-pleasing, peace-making heart, estrangement feels like a dirty, angry word, and for the longest time I didn’t think Good Christian Girls like me got estranged. But I’m not angry. Just broken-hearted. To be honest, I’d been waiting for over a year for something big to blow-up in my relationship with them… For their behavior to be so egregious that I could justify walking away, because in my gut I’ve known for a long time what I needed to do but I felt like I needed some amount of anger in order to take such a big step. When I got really honest with myself, though, I knew that I’d never let myself walk away in a fit of anger. I wouldn’t let myself feel released from the relationship if I left with slamming doors or angry words. So in the end, the big blow-up didn’t happen. Instead, I saw with sudden, heart-shattering clarity that nothing was ever going to change if they didn’t admit that they needed help. And as a mother with two young children, I couldn’t justify allowing my daughters to build relationships with people I fundamentally knew to be unsafe and unpredictable.
Here’s what I know about estrangement so far: It sucks. It makes me ridiculously pissed that this is the hand of cards I have to play. I’m never one to give up hope, but in a way it feels like that’s what I’ve done. I sometimes wonder if a stronger person would find a way to maintain a relationship even in the midst of the crazy. I dream about them almost every single night; vivid dreams… usually involving loud and angry conflict and me trying to convince them to admit their struggles and reach out for help. They are almost without fail the last thing I think about before I fall asleep and the first thing I remember when I wake up and I think about them a million times in between. I am seriously contemplating removing myself from social groups where the women like to bitch about “their crazy mother-in-law/mom” when they are dealing with a more everyday-garden-variety of “crazy.” (You know, like feeding the baby ice cream instead of spinach or letting them have too much screen time on a weekend visit. To try and play nice and fake empathy for these relational challenges makes me stare hard at the ground to avoid eye contact so I won’t say something biting and sarcastic.) When my four-year-old asked me why we didn’t go see grandma and grandpa on a recent trip to my hometown, I felt like my heart would stop beating. Mercifully, she was distracted by a purple car before I had to come up with an answer, and I let the moment pass. Estrangement stress bubbles up in my parenting. I’m a stay-at-home mom to two beautiful daughters. They are 2 and 4 and every bit of the boundary-pushing, sassy-talking, patience-trying, energy-sapping, amazing little humans you would expect them to be. And lately, I feel like I have nothing to give them. That I’m short-tempered and empty and stuck in my own muck before they even wake up in the morning. I can’t put my finger on exactly how estrangement with my own parents (and how the dysfunctional relationship necessitating that estrangement) is wreaking havoc in my own parenting, but I know it is. Clearly I need more therapy. Even though I know I must do what I did, I feel something that tastes like guilt when I think about the fact that I’m taking away their chance to be grandparents to my girls, a role I know they both treasure. I rarely cry anymore about all of this. There’s just not many tears left.
Here’s what I also know about estrangement. My real and solid ground: I’m stronger than I thought. I haven’t given up hope. They could get the help they need to get in order to lead fuller and happier and healthier lives, and I would be the first one there cheering them on. God has not forgotten me. I have a solid rock of a husband, beautiful daughters, incredible in-laws, supportive extended family, and even a local surrogate mama who babysits my girls while I go to the dentist and takes them to the swimming pool and to eat chicken nuggets and on neighborhood adventures to take pictures of interesting things that catch their eyes. I feel a deep relief to have finally drawn the boundary line with firmness and conviction and confidence, and it’s OK that my hands are shaking and my eyes are watering and my heart feels like it is shattering into a million sorrowful pieces. That doesn’t make it a wrong decision. It’s going to get better, even if it never changes. I will always love them, and I will always pray for them to hit their rock bottom so that they can crawl out of the pit. But even if nothing changes in my relationship with them, I will find my footing in this new world of estrangement. I will have fewer nightmares. I will be more emotionally present with my children. I will have a table-full of love at my daughters’ birthday parties. Estrangement is making me tougher, but it’s also making me more tender. I will always hold them with gentleness in my heart, even if I can’t hold them close.
Growing up with an insane alcoholic father, an enmeshed and codependent mother, and all the trauma, abuse, and sorrow that mix created is part of my story, just like making the gut-wrenching decision to shut the door on a relationship with them is part of my story, too. But it isn’t writing the ending. I don’t know what that ending is right now, but it’s going to be something better. Something better. That is what I hold onto. This is my truth, both ancient and fresh like the stars that stretch in mind-numbing clarity across this West Texas sky.