“Our mother isn’t going into dementia, Josh. I think she’s a narcissist. I think she has a personality disorder.”
That was the magic sentence my sister spoke to me in late 2015.
It wasn’t me who figured out that it was a Cluster B personality disorder that drove our mother to act like a down-market version of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. It was my sister.
It had to be “dementia,” or “Alzheimer’s” in my head. Even with it staring me in the face, I couldn’t confront the truth about my mother without a spark from the outside.
The spark my sister tossed lit my tinder pile immediately. Within the first week of reading it became clear to me that our mother had both Borderline and Narcissistic personality disorders.
You know what that culminated in, because you read this Substack and you watch Disaffected.
I’m going to take you back to the time when this was new to me with a letter I wrote to my mother in early 2016. All of us who wake up to Cluster B make a lot of mistakes in the beginning.
This letter shows some of my mistakes. The biggest one? Telling my mother honestly what I thought of her. It never pays to tell someone you suspect of having a Cluster B personality disorder that you think they’re narcissistic or deranged.
Oh, it’s natural to tell them that. Because they are. And you are at your wit’s end, especially if this is a lifelong parent-child relationship.
But those with Cluster B disorders cannot, and will not, accept that anything is wrong with them. That’s part of what defines this psychological syndrome. The term for this is “ego-syntonic.” Compare that to “ego-dystonic.”
Here’s what that means:
Ego-syntonic—refers to characteristics about a person that the person herself experiences as normal, natural, part of her makeup, and consonant with how she sees herself.
Ego-dystonic—refers to characteristics or emotions that the person herself experiences as distressing, a sign of sickness, alien, and emotions that cause suffering. The person sees these emotions as foreign and distressing, and she wants to resolve them.
Most Cluster Bs experience their (to us) deranged emotions and behaviors as ego-syntonic. That is, they think nothing is wrong with them; it’s only other people who have something wrong.
Contrast that with a non-personality-disordered man who is experiencing severe depression. He sees the depression as ego-dystonic, and he wants to get rid of it.
There are many nuances; this is just a generalization to frame the concept for you.
When I sent the letter you’ll read below, I was at the lowest point of my adult life. For two years my mother had lived in a house I bought for her and had spent nearly every day screaming, crying, demanding immediate servitude, abusing her husband in front of the rest of the family, and threatening violence or suicide.
I was heavily drunk every night, failing at my job, depressed, and hoping not to wake up in the morning.
In 2016, I was also a newbie to the formal concept of narcissistic personality syndromes. Combine that lack of experience with the fact that I was having what we call a “nervous breakdown,” and you get the letter below. It was intemperate and in some ways unwise.
What the letter got right
It set a firm boundary
It left no room for negotiation (because that ship had sailed and eviction and the death of the relationship was necessary)
What the letter got wrong
I too honestly disclosed to my mother what I really thought of her
It provoked a five-page, drug-addled letter back to me at 4:30 am that sent me into a spiral of panic, despair, and passive suicidal ideation
In the end, nothing truly terrible happened as a result of me sending this letter, even though it was ill-advised. I didn’t know then what I know now. And as painful as my mother’s response was, the reality was that the bridge had already been burned.
In fact, the brutality of her response was a favor to me. It cemented the cold, hard truth. And in the first few years, I took it out and re-read as a reminder to myself that I was not crazy, and I was not wrong to do what I did.
I wanted her out of my house and out of my life, and I got that, eventually, through the court system.
Come back soon for part 2. In that upcoming post, I’m going to share the deranged letter that my mother’s husband sent to me in response to what you will read below.
In part 3, I will post the entire five-page letter of abuse my mother sent to me at 4:30 in the morning.
Why? Because I know from experience that many people will see that and feel enormous relief. Because they think they’re the only ones. They think no one else’s parents could be as deranged as theirs are.
Here is my last letter to my mother and her husband.
Mom and Ed:
As I said to you before, this has been a long time coming. Mom has been miserable, unable to keep her thoughts together, and what appears to me to be clinically paranoid. Since you got here. I turned my life upside down to house you out of love. I emptied my retirement account. I bought you a car, all the while putting up with Mother screaming at me by text or phone about not doing it fast enough. Not knowing how to buy a car. Everyone is out to get her.
She calls the police when she sees two unfamiliar cars in the back yard. Instead of assuming it was a tenant prospectively, she assumes that, in broad daylight, people are coming to break in the house. She had a nervous breakdown one mile from my house and would not even stop "correcting" me when I tried to calm her down and show her a hand drawn map. This is not normal cognitive behavior. And all the while, she screams at you. I hear it on the phone. She abuses you, Ed. And Mom, you know this is true. You've told me you know you're in a mental crisis.
And Ed? You're so bamboozled by this behavior you don't realize it's not safe, sane, or normal. And Mom? I can see you ventriloquizing through Ed. Don't play games; I know your writing when I see it.
The last straw was finding you, mom, trying to sabotage me renting the apartment. The unmitigated gall of going behind my back to convince my sister to work on me and forego renting the place so that YOU can get your way was the final straw. And you've had "concerns" with every single tenant. You don't want to "share your views," you want to get your way. How dare you? I have done everything I can to accommodate your anxieties, to keep you safe. You demand more, and then you have the nerve to tell me "You won't listen to my views." Bullshit mother. This is my house. Not yours.
I love you very much, but I will not have this in my life anymore. I have spoken to three medical professionals this week and described the situation. They all say that these may be signs of incipient dementia, and it's imperative for a person experiencing this to be screened.
I also know Mom has had suicidal ideation. Do not deny it, I know what I heard, and I know what you've been telling my sister. Understand that my sister is not going to soothe you this time. She's terrified to tell you, but she agrees that something is seriously wrong. My blood pressure got dangerously high this week worrying over this, and my sister is in a bad way. She's furious with you. DO NOT text her. Do NOT try to work her emotionally. You don't get to do that anymore. You are manipulative, self-centered, and you extract everything you can emotionally from people you claim to love while crying victimhood.
I've known this for decades, but it took you going this far to wake me up. I have saved you from poverty and homelessness for years, and you bring crisis and mess behind you. Nothing is good enough. And, to top it off, YOU are suffering. Genuinely. It's not other people, Mom. It's not Josh screwing you. It's not the car dealer screwing you. It's not people trying to get the best of you. You're paranoid, and you need a mental health workup.
Here are the options:
1. You agree to meet with my sister and me and have a very difficult, but very necessary conversation. We know you need help. I know you're making me into the villain right now, but I know that deep down you know that isn't true. The sooner you stop denying the problem the better.
2. If you will not do this willingly I am going to call in Adult Protective Services.
3. If this is not something you want to happen, then you need to start looking for another place to live. I am serious, and I will enforce this.
I have moved heaven and earth for you folks, and I'm done. If you don't acknowledge this Mom, you're going to lose all your children. I'm at the edge.
And Ed? You're so bamboozled by this behavior you don't realize it's not safe, sane, or normal.
I have no idea how you survived without being a complete, unrecoverable wreck. It's a testament to how very strong your will is.
I know someone who is in the same situation as Ed, and I wish I could get through to him that he deserves better. I'm glad you wanted out of that death spiral, and that you made it happen. You found the way out and now you're using your experience to help others. You're a very special man, Josh.
Thank you for sharing such a personal letter. You are helping more people than you know. The fact that you pulled yourself out of that situation proves you are a strong and amazing man. No matter how toxic the parents/child relationship, it takes courage and strength to leave it behind.