Growing up, I was always at my mother’s side. Whether it was at the grocery store, my hand carefully intertwined with the cart as we navigated the aisles, or at the library, where we sifted through the shelves picking out the next Judy Blume book that we would alternate reading from before bed – anything my mother set out to do, I willingly followed.
As years passed, however, our dynamic changed. I outgrew our grocery store trips and bedtime reading. These activities were traded in for gab sessions in the garage where my mother sat, chain-smoking, for one, two, or sometimes three hours at a time, while my clothes soaked up the stench of her cigarettes. Her conversation topics ranged from her disappointing childhood, to the current state of her inadequate and financially unstable life, to her marital troubles with my stepdad. Through tears, she would share with me that my stepdad refused to touch her and that he’d been rejecting her sexual advances without explanation.
I offered all the sage advice a 16-year-old could give on reigniting intimacy with a spouse and prided myself on my ability to alleviate the tension that regularly spread throughout our house as a result of my mother’s constant upset. I felt like I was the balance keeping the rest of my family together. And this idea was further supported every time my mother leaned over and told me in a hushed tone, appropriateness aside, that I was her favorite. Living in a small town like I did meant you were either supposed to excel at sports or in school. In regards to both, I was mediocre at best. But I was good at being a daughter. According to my mom, I was the best.
Our garage conversations ended only when I had to leave, either for work or to meet up with friends. My mother’s tears wet my shirt when we hugged, and my cheeks when we kissed goodbye. Guilt set in the minute I shut the garage door behind me, despite finally being able to breathe. But as soon as I arrived wherever I needed to be, I found myself more engaged with the clock than with whatever was in front of me. I was counting down the minutes until I could run back to the garage to ask my mother how she was.
I was worried about her, about her marriage, and about our family’s growing stack of unpaid bills. During those years, grades and young romances felt trivial. Little mattered to me outside our household.
During high school, I likened our relationship to that of Rory and Lorelai on Gilmore Girls. My mother and I were best friends. It seemed pretty normal to me. It wasn’t until years later, that I would discover that not only wasn’t our relationship “normal,” but it was potentially harmful. Psychologists call it “parentification,” and it’s clinically defined as “a form of role reversal, in which a child is inappropriately given the role of meeting the emotional or physical needs of the parent or of the family’s other children.” According to Out of the FOG, an organization that helps family members of individuals with personality disorders, “Children are often anxious to please their parents, and a parentified child will often take their responsibilities very seriously. However, the child will generally suffer from having his or her own emotional needs neglected and from being compelled to live up to the burden of expectation.”
By the time high school ended, I had a 2.6 GPA and a rejection letter from the only university I had applied to. I hadn’t realized just how much time I had spent in the garage with my mother until graduation was upon me. Not once had I stopped to ponder the implications of my academic neglect. My mother and stepdad were laissez-faire when it came to grades. If I failed, at the end of the day, there was no one to blame but myself. When my report cards rolled in with below average marks, I was given a stern look. But I was never encouraged to trade in garage sessions with my mother for study sessions alone in my room. Family always came first, no matter the cost.
In the months following graduation, I watched my friends attend college freshman meet-ups and let loose during summer nights. It was their last big hoorah before they moved onwards and upwards. As I listened to them reminisce about early high school days and wonder about their first year at university, it occurred to me that I was the only one who sat with her mother in the garage every day after school. I felt robbed.
I knew at this point that it was time to step into the next chapter of my life, one full of traditional, young-adult fun. So I packed up and moved 90 minutes north to attend a small community college buried in the green landscape of the Pacific Northwest. My departure wasn’t easy, but during countless garage sessions, I reassured my mother that this move wasn’t an attack on her.
My newfound independence, however, turned out to be anything but. Our garage sessions became phone calls that occurred multiple times a day. On Fridays, I would drive home and remain there until classes started up again on Monday. My mother’s emotional needs became more urgent and each phone call became a situation in need of handling.
Shortly after I moved away, my mother and stepdad filed for bankruptcy and their house was foreclosed upon. This stress on my mother made divorce a constant topic of conversation. My mind went into overdrive as I tried to reconcile my new independence while the cascading emergencies happening back home. I had little advice to give because I didn’t have any life experience to draw from. I floundered when I felt too overwhelmed, and on one occasion, I went so far as to offer my student loan money to fund a weekend getaway in Vegas for my mother and stepdad so they could reconnect.
For a while, my mother and I sustained this relationship. Though I had no desire to move back home, I felt lost without her around. My first year away from her knocked me off my feet and I was having trouble standing back up. Her problems, in some ways, were a welcome distraction from my own discomfort. But as her issues snowballed, I began to self-soothe whenever we talked on the phone by eating – mindlessly indulging in whatever I could find in the pantry or fridge. It would be a few short years before I realized just how much anxiety my relationship with my mother was causing me. But by the time I did, my reactive habit had developed into a full-blown binge-eating disorder that was almost impossible to quit.
Evidently, I wasn’t alone. In a 2011 study titled, “Parentification and Mental Health Symptoms: Mediator Effects Of Perceived Unfairness and Differentiation of Self,” published in the Journal of Family Therapy, doctors tested the mental health outcomes of 783 college students who experienced role reversal while growing up. The study clearly linked parentification with anxiety and depression as well as eating disorders, depending on the level of unfairness or injustice that the child believed had been done to them.
When my first year of college wrapped, I wanted to stay near campus instead of going home. I enrolled for summer quarter, got a job, and even made a few friends. But this optimistic shift didn’t halt my anxious eating. The frequency of my mother’s phone calls remained constant, but the tone of our conversations shifted. Each time I informed her that I wouldn’t be heading down to see her for the weekend, I felt as though I had betrayed her. As I held the phone with one hand to deliver the news, I’d grab for the family-size jar of Nutella with the other. The last thing I wanted to do was make my mother feel as though I had let her down or abandoned her. When she replied, meekly and sometimes choked up, I believed I had.
We spent a couple of days coasting on this dynamic, my shame growing as rapidly as my food addiction, while my mother became increasingly frustrated by my absence. She ignored my birthday and raged about my neglect to anyone that would listen. Our phone calls would end with her in a fit of tears. Stories about my cruelty spread across my family. Meanwhile, a tornado of confusion and anger fueled my eating disorder until I was buying whole sheet cakes from the local grocer and shoveling them into my mouth as fast as I could.
Despite all this turmoil, my time living apart from my mother resulted in much better grades and I was able to transfer to a larger university after my sophomore year. Having gained a significant amount of weight and finding myself in a very new, very big city, I started school with crippling insecurity. I had little time for my mother’s issues because at this point, I barely had time to process my own. The more I tried to pull away from her, to give myself the space I needed to make sense of my new surroundings, the more I felt my mother’s grip tighten.
It was an uncontrollable situation so I looked to the only thing I could control at the time – my body. I spent the better part of six months eating very little. My daily diet consisted of a banana, a couple of eggs, and nighttime drinks with the few new friends I had made. The more pounds I dropped, the more powerful I felt. I thought power was at the tips of my fingers whenever I refused food.
During those months, I didn’t just accept my anger, I fully embraced it. But I had difficulty contextualizing my emotions because I was still oblivious to the source of them. My volume would rise as soon as my mother would start in on my stepdad’s faults, and the minute I heard a crack in her voice, I’d cut her off. I was on the defense and quick to inform her that I didn’t have time to listen to her carry on about the same issues over and over. But whenever we’d hang up, I only felt shame for having once again let her down.
I finally walked into The Moore Center, an eating disorder recovery clinic, during spring break of my senior year. After six months of strict control over my food, I gave in to my hunger and my bingeing had returned. At this point, I didn’t know what to eat, when to eat, or how to eat, since satisfying my hunger cues was like playing a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. I’d spent days locked up in my apartment, missing classes and work, cycling through bingeing and purging episodes. I bought every gallon of ice cream, jar of frosting, and Hershey’s Cookies and Cream bar the nearby mini mart offered. At one point, I went so far as to microwave a loaf of bread, slathered in sticks of butter, so that I could shovel it into my mouth quicker than the toaster would allow. These episodes exacerbated every emotion battling within me, and at the end of each day, I sat alone in my apartment terrified of what the next day held.
I completed my bachelor’s degree that year online, then spent spring quarter at The Moore Center, shuffling between group therapy, individual therapy, art therapy, and so on. The Moore Center was my first step towards confronting the feelings I’d been avoiding. But my issues felt fraudulent because my problems had always been overshadowed by my mother’s many crises. The more I processed how my relationship with my mother had wreaked havoc on my life, the more I wanted to cut ties with her.
There was no climatic end to my relationship with my mother. Rather, it happened in stages. It became so difficult for me to navigate our relationship after my time at The Moore Center that I’d cycle in and out of touch. This is actually quite common when it comes to estrangement and according to a study conducted by the Centre of Family Research at the University of Cambridge, and Stand Alone – a U.K.-based organization offering support to estranged family members – titled, “Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood.” According to the study, “Estrangements are not always set in stone and cycling in and out of estrangement is common.”
My mother and I came close to reconciliation when I moved to Los Angeles at age 26 for a job. We scheduled a weekend visit for her. But the closer that weekend came, the more we talked, and the more I noticed our old patterns reappearing. I started to buy more wine and indulge in more sweets. My migraines became more frequent. And despite my best efforts, my shoulders refused to relax. My patience with coworkers, friends, and other family fell short. I couldn’t go through with the visit, and that was the ultimate breaking point.
It wasn’t the best end to our relationship, but then again, what break between a mother and daughter is? It happened over a couple of emails where my mother asked if my attitude had anything to do with a drug or alcohol addiction and I word vomited an anger-fueled nonsensical response, then blocked her. I realized I was reverting back into the ill person I had been in college and I had to protect my recovery at all costs.
I cut off all communication with her that day, and we haven’t had any contact in almost a year. Sometimes the guilt and shame is crippling, but overall, I feel confident about my decision. The predictability of my day-to-day life without my mother’s chaos has allowed me to mend my relationship with food. And I’ve found that I’m a better friend because I’m able to be more present with other people’s ups and downs. I believe this chapter of my life should be about my relationships, career goals, and overall adult development, and I don’t think any of that would be possible if I was still trying to navigate around my mother. I can’t say whether we’ll connect again in the future, but I do know that I’ll never be able to meet her expectations, and the weight of her disappointment is too heavy for me to carry. For now at least, I’ve decided to put that burden down, and finally live for me.
By Samantha Ladwig
Illustration by Monica Garwood
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2017 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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Samantha Ladwig is a writer, book reviewer, and the owner of Imprint Bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington. Her work has been published by New York Magazine, Bustle, Real Simple, Vice, Bust Magazine, and others. Find her at www.samanthaladwig.com.