Parental Estrangement

by Bill Brenner on June 15, 2010

The story of a relationship ruptured by mental illness.

I told myself never to write this one. Too many people would feel burned. Then I remembered those who won’t like this are already angry with me. This is a critical piece of my journey through mental illness, addiction and recovery. So in I go.

Those who know me well know I haven’t gotten along with my mother and step-father for a long time. It’s been more than six years since our relationship imploded. There really is no blame to be assigned. No one person is completely innocent or at fault. Depression, addictive behavior and anger run deep in the family line, and ruptured relationships are often the tragic result.

I take full responsibility for my wrongs along the way. I also hold out hope for a reconciliation, despite several failed attempts in the past three years.

My mom yelled a lot when we were kids. She was capable of serious rage. She could speak in a threatening and cutting way. As a kid, I was completely incapable of understanding the pain she was going through. A failed marriage that was as much my father’s fault as hers. The death of a child and life-threatening illness of another child.

I remember her worrying about me endlessly and sitting beside my hospital bed for weeks on end as the Crohn’s Disease raged inside me, and dragging herself to her wit’s end taking care of my grandparents and great-grandmother, all of whom could be difficult.

We often look at abusive relationships in black and white. There’s the abuser and the victim. But it’s never that simple.

I forgave my mother a long time ago for the darker events of my childhood. I doubt I would have done much better in her shoes. Her marriage to my father was probably doomed from the start, and the break-up was full of rancor. Me and my brother were sick a lot, and one of us didn’t make it.

I didn’t fully appreciate what a body blow that was until I became a parent. After Michael died, she became a suffocating force in my life. I did the same to my own kids until I started dealing with the OCD.

I think she did the best she could under the circumstances.

So why aren’t we talking today?

There are many reasons. Some her fault, some mine, and a lot of other relationships have been bruised and broken in the process.

There’s a lot I can get into about this, but the simplest answer is that this relationship is a casualty of mental illness and addiction. This one can’t be repaired so easily, because much of my OCD and addictive behavior comes directly from her. She is my biggest trigger.

This is an old story. Mental illness and addiction are almost always a family affair. I was destined to have a binge-eating addiction because both my parents have one. They were never drinkers, though my stepfather was. Food was their narcotic. And so it became for me.

The fatal rupture in this relationship came in the summer of 2006. I was two years into my treatment for OCD and the binge eating was still in full swing. I was an emotional mess that summer. Late that July I had surgery for a deviated septum and was lying around drugged up all week. The kids were home and Erin was trying to do her job and take on all the stuff I couldn’t do around the house. So I asked my mother to come over for a few hours and play with the kids.

That morning, the phone rang.

“So tell me again what you need me to do when I get there,” my mother asked, after going on a tirade about what an inconvenience this was for her.

“I just want you to play with the kids for a few hours while Erin works,” I said. It seemed a reasonable request, since she was always on me about seeing more of her grandchildren.

“I’m coming up there so YOUR WIFE can work?” she asked.

That was the breaking point. I got angry and hung up. I figured it would blow over. What followed was a brutal e-mail exchange where she ripped my wife to shreds and blamed her for everything. There were also a lot of swipes in my direction about how I was the laughing stock of the family and that my wife had me whipped.

Since then, we’ve tried a few times but failed to repair the relationship. Our differences are simply too deep.

As far as she’s concerned, I’m a heartless, selfish bastard who does everything my wife tells me to do and that I’ve denied her the right to see her grandchildren. As far as I’m concerned, I need to keep my distance from my OCD triggers, and she is the biggest trigger I have.

I’ve wrestled with this mightily. My Faith tells me I need to honor my mother and father. Every time I go into the confession booth at church it’s the first thing I bring up. One priest put it this way: “Honor thy mother and father doesn’t mean you roll over and allow abuse to continue.” Still, I wrestle with it.

More than one person has asked me why I can’t just accept the disagreements and love my mother despite it.

That’s complicated.

I do love her. That’s never changed. But we both see things in each other that we can’t tolerate. That’s the best explanation I’m capable of giving right now.


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

wendy June 15, 2010 at 1:32 am

Bill, I think it is great that you are so open and honest in these articles…

Your aunt June 15, 2010 at 1:45 am

It’s unfortunate that you have to deal with this on your own. It is also unfortunate that you happen to be married while “suffering” through this OCD problem. I say unfortunate, because, she will always be the scapegoat for the problems that remain between you and your family. I will have to agree with you that there is definitely a family trait of anger and a need to control, but you have to buckle yourself down and just say, you know ma, no more. You want to me in YOUR life, I’m right here and Billy, leave it right there. You are okay. You have no demons. You have done no wrongs, you’re a good father, you provide for your family and take pride in yourself and really….just move on. If you have faith, when you go to bed at night, in the silence of the night, say “Dear God, you say ask, I am asking, give me peace in my life. He will listen. And believe me, you will be free from all of this. God Bless.

billbrenner1970 June 15, 2010 at 1:49 am

You are absolutely right, and thanks for your note. You have always been a huge inspiration to me. I did hesitate about writing about this, but eventually decided that if the blog is to be my honest story of overcoming personal demons, I have to put it all out there. Thanks again for being such an inspiring force in my life.

Jessica June 15, 2010 at 7:51 am

I once read a new year’s resolution that has helped me deal with my family dramas and issues. I pledge not to let the dysfunctional people in my like make my life dysfunctional”

Whenever a family member’s drama starts dragging me down, or I get in an argument with my mother about the past I remember this resolution, someone else’s resolution, and I know I have the ability to rise above.

Expwoman June 21, 2010 at 10:29 am

I resonated with a lot of this post. Honoring my parents means that I accept they did the best they could, but for my own mental health, I have limited contact with them. In the midst of my most painful depression, grief and anger with the repercussions of my parents’ behavior, I had no peace, no acceptance that I couldn’t change the past, so for me to be at peace on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day is an amazing transformation, but again, in order to take care of myself, I don’t put myself in the room with them.

Regina Boratgis July 27, 2011 at 8:55 am

Amends truly suck an never work out the way we want them to. I suspect mom is a tad jealous of your and Erin’s strong bond, as she did not have the same. Hang in.

Mary Wentz July 27, 2011 at 9:41 am

God Bless you, Erin, your chidren and parents!!! I hope all works out :0) I truly enjoy your articles…..I’m sure so many can honestly relate!!!

Run DMZ August 8, 2011 at 2:34 am

I’m not sure why this post is just now coming up in one of my feeds, but I’m glad I read it.It sounds like your mother was dealt a bad hand early in life and it shaped how she sees all relationships. It also sounds like she may not have worked outside the home when you and your brother were small, so she may not have grasped why she needed to entertain your children that day/week — and why Erin didn’t ask or explain it to her instead of going through you since she was the prime beneficiary of the request. (Just playing devil’s advocate here.) It’s unfortunate that it was the catalyst for so many years of rancor, but I am sure her attitude toward your relationship with your wife is not that unique. That’s why this is a very good post for everyone to read.

The Real Supermum August 16, 2011 at 11:28 am

I only hope my children will feel at least I tried my best. I have Bipolar and sometimes feel I am not good enough for them and they deserve better than me. I spent 2 years having intense treatment & was discharged from the Mental Health Team around 4 months ago now. I feel immense guilt and failure for who and what I am at times x

Kate Brew February 2, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Feel for you. As I get older, I’m thinking more and more along the lines of limiting my exposure to toxic people and places. People can always change, so I keep lines of communication open, but I’ve taken to protecting myself more. It comes with a little guilt, but I’m pretty sure it’s the right thing to do. Your Aunt sounds like a really nice lady, you are lucky to have her.

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