By Annalisa Barbieri
I am in my 50s and married with two teenage daughters. On the surface, I am seen as looking good for my age, being gregarious, “nice”. But I am fighting an increasingly horrible battle on three fronts.
First: my husband, whom I should have left years ago. He is (was?) good-looking and charming, but hides a binge-drinking problem, coupled with occasional drug use. He had an affair until I found out; he tries to improve but I don’t believe he feels happily married and I have enabled his behaviour by forgiving him. I can’t face being intimate with him and we rarely go out. His increasingly rightwing views are another major sticking point.
Second: my mother. We lived at opposite ends of the country. After my dad died two years ago, my mother fell apart and was reliant on me for the emotional and practical – I was dealing with up to 20 phone calls a day and went to see her every couple of weeks. I thought I would have a breakdown and had to give up my job. She finally agreed to a care home near me, but now maligns me to anyone who will listen and threatens to kill herself. I have a brother, but he isn’t interested. My mother has always been manipulative. We constantly moved between continents as children, which was disruptive and involved many schools and house moves. I was bullied, depressed and anorexic. My parents argued constantly and always had money worries – they left Africa (and us) owing money, and my brother and I had to sort ourselves out in our late teens/early 20s.
Third: my daughter. She is more interested in partying and going out and her final year of school isn’t going that well. Despite my insistence on boundaries regarding coming home and keeping in touch, she doesn’t bother and often comes in late and I worry myself sick. She seems to lack empathy and I worry that she has her father’s traits of a lack of responsibility and respect. She lives like a pig – her room is disgusting, but I now refuse to help and let her get on with it.
Any advice on how to start chipping away at this monster?I pondered on your longer letter for several weeks: I can see how tough things are, and you were very brave to write in. The common denominator in this – in your adult life – is you. I am not blaming you, but I think it is important to recognise that you play a part, as that gives you the power and control to change some things.
I talked to Carol Leader, who is a psychoanalytical psychotherapist (bpc.org.uk). She wonders if this feeling of “being overwhelmed, is new or whether you have felt like this for most of your life”. She also says your parents “sound like children. They weren’t thinking of you and your brother [growing up], they don’t sound like mature parents.” And she feels this is the key to a lot of your issues.
You had a tough upbringing, your parents left you in your late teens to deal with a mess of their making, and perhaps this anger has never been allowed to come out and the child in you is still angry and now raging against everything else in front of you. This doesn’t mean your husband, daughter and mother are not responsible for their behaviour – they are, and some of it is pretty shitty. But given that you have written to me, we can only look at you and what you can change.
Leader feels that your PS to me (omitted here) is “really telling. It was much more empathetic in the way you spoke about your daughter when you’d had time to reflect”, and she wonders “would what you said in the second email be something you’d tell your daughter? Do you express that love enough to her?” Leader also feels that if you, your husband and daughter all sat down, “it would be interesting to hear everyone’s stories”. We bet they would have very different takes on things.
When people are wounded in childhood, if it is not resolved, they can become stuck in old patterns and spend the rest of their lives trying to be listened to and sympathised with. Leader feels you are still “that young person doing too much and struggling. It is clear you’re overwhelmed.”
How to move forward? You need someone to talk to, so try your GP or the bpc (link above) to get counselling. Family therapy for all four of you would be fantastic, but if that is not possible, then get support for yourself.
I think this is one of those situations where you need to be listened to, heard, and your position understood. Until then, it is very hard to approach the idea that others in your family may be experiencing the situation from their own, very different points of view that also need to be understood.
Only then can you decide if your philandering, drunken, drug-abusing, bigoted husband is someone you want to stick with. Your mother failed you substantially and I think the least you can have to do with her at this point the better. My biggest concern is your children – especially your elder child, who seems to have become a repository for many of your negative feelings. Having an angry mother, whatever the reasons behind it, is difficult for children. You owe it to them to get help so you can be the sort of mother you were in that second email to me – reflective and loving.