Friday, January 16, 2009


"Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that others feel secure around you."

-Nelson Mandela

I want nothing more than to totally erase most of December from my memory, except for a few days early on and the last four hours and thirty minutes of it. December featured a front row seat to the continued emotional self-destruction of someone I've known since I was 3 years old, but have only been close to on a superficial level because, well, she's mentally ill, and you can't ever actually be close to someone whose fear and self-loathing get in the way. And in some cases, there's nothing you can do to help. The more I read and understand, the more fascinated and horrified I am.

Her disease is the same as Oscar's, an external locus of control. She believes she is always the victim, that others are to blame for her problems (including children, and not only her own children), she refuses to take responsibility for her actions, she has no concept of consequences, and she absolutely, completely lacks empathy, which is terrifying. It allows her to be utterly selfish without conscience. It also means that her love is conditional, and she's demonstrated this on several occasions when her children -- and husband, mother, brother, anyone, really -- demonstrate minds of their own. (Her girls have occasionally reported her not speaking to them for hours without having been told how they upset her.)

I've watched this woman raise her three daughters to believe that their self-worth is derived from external things, and now that they're teens, they're suffering the consequences (low self-esteem, desperation for peer approval) without any emotional support from her, because, of course, she doesn't believe she's responsible and wouldn't know how to repair it even if she did. They get financial support, plenty of that. Her pretensions are notorious and her materialism the stuff of local legend (if she realized this she'd freak out). And as long as the girls depend on her financially, she can control them, which is what she wants. I can't imagine waking up in this woman's head and body, the paranoia, the denial, the huge, gaping hole in her subconscious that simply can't be filled.

To be fair, she's got issues of her own. Her father, who I knew fairly well and, as a child, was both in awe and terrified of, shared most of her traits of emotional imbalance. She despised him until he died. She was adopted as an infant, but it was the first thing she told us about herself when we met her; she was 9, and for whatever reason it was a major preoccupation of her life. She's a grandmother at 36; her oldest daughter said, "At least I waited five years longer than you did." You do the math.

I thought she was simply narcissistic when I first became reacquainted with her several years ago (she was one of my sister's childhood playmates; she liked to insist I pretend to nap in the doghouse), but upon further observation it almost seems like her emotional development completely froze when she had her first child at 15. Some of the emotional dysfunctions she exhibits, like those listed above, are characteristics of the teenage brain, and we all know what teens are like. (I know how I was. I remember waking up from my adolescence sometime in my early 20's and wondered how it was possible to just not think for almost a decade. I trust I've made amends.)

How could a person with such limited life skills be a competent parent? Since the oldest daughter turned 18, her mother has treated her like a built-in BFF (except when she was showing signs of wanting independence) instead of the daughter she should still be nurturing and guiding. (At the baby shower I overheard her say, "You'd better not be pregnant again this time next year so we can go to Vegas when you turn 21." This from her mother. This from a woman who not long ago was a staunch Mormon, another group that must have met her disapproval one too many times. Or disapproved of her, possibly.)

Sometimes you meet someone who is a little juvenile, maybe a bit bitchy, probably simply having an off day. But when a whole pile of personality disorders is obviously gnawing away at their functionality, it's clear that there's more than a little problem. Our specimen has been alienating person after person and group after group for over two decades, and her circle's shrinking. She's no longer on speaking terms with her in-laws -- her husband seems unable or unwilling to stand up to her, even where his relationship with his parents or his daughters' welfare are concerned, and seems to occasionally buy into her irrationality, although it seems more like apathy most of the time, apathy and terror -- and is now enthusiastically hacking away at her fragile relationship to her mother and brother, who have been giving and forgiving for years.

Suggestions that she seek help are met with disdain and defensiveness. It's impossible to communicate with a person who is manipulative, and our girl here is a scary, scary pro, and quite the bully. She makes snide, passive-aggressive remarks that are calculated to punish but instead simply magnify her insecurities. She's also completely, oddly incurious about the outside world, for the most part uneducated (by which I mean higher learning, and she rarely reads anything but Mary Higgins Clark and fashion magazines that make her feel inferior), and lives in an insular, unrealistic, borderline imaginary world my sister and I call The Bubble. Anything that interferes with her idea of the perfect life has got to go, including church and anyone who doesn't subscribe to her unhealthy point of view.

Her oldest daughter, 20, gave birth earlier this week (the father's 19, and they're living in her home again, right where she wants them). Her middle daughter, 15, has been in a camp for troubled teens somewhere in Utah since mid-November, after several mild offenses, one big nasty one, and a runaway attempt that sucked family members into the drama who really didn't deserve to have to pay for her shortcomings as a parent. Her youngest daughter, 10, sports a spoiled-princess personality and social skills and manners so appalling that you can only take about three minutes of her, and we've watched her create that monster by hand. No attempts at discipline have ever been followed through on with any of her children. She's so insecure that she's afraid they won't love her.

I don't know when you cut your losses with a family member and just back quickly away, especially when there are other hearts at stake. I'll miss the girls dearly and I hope for the best for them, and hope that if they ever need me and don't know where else to go, they'll know that I'm here and that I'll do whatever I can to help, within reason (remembering, of course, who raised them, and having seen how much of her mental illness they've unfortunately inherited). But at some point you must think about your own well-being, and for me, and my sister, I hope, and her mother and brother, that point is here. And I'm sure there's no way she'll ever let them near anyone who got close enough to see through her. Her children will eventually grow up, and they will eventually judge her.

She'd be mortified by this public exposé, having spent her entire life trying to engineer what everyone in the world thinks of her (and failing miserably), but by now I've lost all sympathy (and I didn't name names; she's still just a sad phantom to you, unless you're family or you've guessed her identity from past posts about my "nieces," and it doesn't matter anyway because I'm pretty sure I'm done with her at this point and besides, I have nothing to lose, because in a parking lot in December I made some not-universally-offensive but certainly emphatic gestures that offended her [while she was being utterly unreasonable and bitchy to me and my sister and cruel to her brother and her youngest daughter, all in front of the sobbing pregnant one, to boot] and once you're on her shit list, there's no gettin' off) and I almost hope she reads this, even though she would deny it all and insist that I'm the one with problems. (You can't sweep your mistakes under the rug forever, X. Good luck.) I have always refused to play small around her, and she has always resented me for it. I'm tired of pretending and watching everyone else pretend.

And I've got my own set of faults, it's true, but I've set about identifying them and doing what I can to improve or offset them. And mine don't seem to be estranging anyone (in fact, dagnabbit, some are apparently endearing). As long as she's unwilling to get help, she doesn't deserve people like my sister in her life, and she will most likely never learn to treat others with respect and trust. When you have that much to hide, everyone around you is a threat. I should feel sorry for her, knowing what I know about what it must be like to be her, and I do occasionally, but even as objective as I am, she has continually abused the people I love; I'm tired of it and I want her as far away from me and my family as possible. Permanently.

Like the December (and the major commercial holiday Miss Dysfunctionality managed to brutally mangle for everyone, although there is reason to believe that she had a fine time -- or pretended to -- despite being "devastated" about the plight of her middle child, who is reportedly sleeping under a tarp on the ground), which is fading in the rear view mirror. I couldn't even find any pictures in the "December, 2008" folder that were worth posting. And that's telling, ain't it?

I have Tom Petty stuck in my head.

Well I know what's right
I just got one life
In a world that keeps on pushin' me around
Gonna stand my ground


Anonymous Anonymous said...

my youngest sister is going this same way and it scares me!! we are pretty darn sure she is bipolar. but the sad reality is that you can't save them from themselves - not unless they will let you, and people with mental instabillity are usually paranoid and suspicious of everything! you can't even suggest there is anything the matter with her or she flys into a rage about how noone loves her and she shouldn't have been born, blah, blah, blah. it usually takes her a week before she will talk to me again. some days i wish i really could disown her, it hurts so bad to watch what she is doing to herself and everyone around her. maybe i will try to slip her a high dose of prozac!
- bekah

January 20, 2009 at 9:52 PM  
Blogger A said...

OMG. I'm hoping against hope that your sis is still in the throes of a delayed adolescence and will come out of it. (I have a hard time not thinking of her as a 6-year-old. She's just die if she knew, wouldn't she?) I (generally) know what she's putting your poor parents through right now though and I hope she comes out of it SOON. Slip the Prozac. SLIP IT!

January 21, 2009 at 6:22 PM  

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