“Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier.”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt
The last day of my former life.
It was about 11:00 pm when I was awakened by knocking on the front door. I leaned over from my bedside, peeked out my window, and saw two police officers standing on the front porch, with flashlights scanning my windows. I sat up in bed, trying to decide what to do. While my better judgement was to stay and feign sleep, my mother’s instinct to protect my daughter got the best of me. So, I got out of bed, and barefoot, I walked to the door.
As I opened the door, one of the cops held a flashlight to my face, blinding me. Standard police protocol when interrogating a suspect. I knew then that this was not a friendly call.
The night was going from bad to worse. My daughter Phoebe assaulted me earlier that evening. She had come to my house to ask for money from her college fund, even though she was not attending classes and intended to use the money to pay living expenses for herself, her young son and her unemployed boyfriend.
I tried to reason with her about misusing her college fund, but this only infuriatedPhoebe more. I knew that she was caught in a trap of loving a man who caused her all kinds of trouble. He had a dishonorable discharge from the Army. He had a temper that was frightening, especially when he slapped his newborn child. He had threatened to kill Phoebe more than once (one time threatening to shove her down the stairs when she was pregnant).
Now her mother was trying to help her be strong, stand up for herself, and do the right thing — even if it meant doing so with an angry man. Phoebe is not that strong though. Instead, she turned on me. She shoved me backwards into a plate glass door. I stumbled and fell to the floor, knocking over an end table. Blood was dripping from my hand where I gashed it on the metal edge of the table. I grappled for balance as Phoebe continued to scream and lunge at me.
All the while her 8-month-old son was crying. He was sitting in his baby carrier at the top of the stairs. I was terrified that Phoebe in her rage would knock him down the stairs. But she wouldn’t or couldn’t stop. I had been victimized more than once by Phoebe’s anger. Her rage was of that lightening type, that flares out of control in an instant and doesn’t stop until the whole forest has burned down.
When Phoebe finally stopped the attack, my home office in shambles, blood dripping from my hand, she grabbed her baby and gave me a hateful look. She said, “You’ll never see Jameson again!” A threat she has kept for nine years.
Even with the officer blinding me with his flashlight, I tried to explain what had happened that night, but it was clear that Phoebe had reported the incident to the police, with the lie that I had attacked her. When they tired of listening to me, one of them spun me around, grabbed my wrists to handcuff me — barefoot and wearing nothing but pajamas.
I pleaded with them. “Please don’t do this. I’m all my daughter has.”
The officer was menacing. “Are you resisting arrest?”
Of course, there was no point in increasing the charges they would file against me, so I said no more and let them lead me across the front lawn to the waiting cop car.
“I’m all my daughter has.”
That was a profound statement. I didn’t fully grasp the import of what I said until many years later, actually. It was unbelievable to me that Phoebe would make this choice — the choice to align herself with the alienating parent (my former spouse Howard) and with the many others who thoughtlessly maligned me in order to keep Phoebe from her mother.
Phoebe and I had been through so much together. She had no idea really how valiantly I had fought for us. I protected her from much of the court battles with her father, the neighbors, the city attorney. She never really knew why we were being harassed by the neighbors (over millions to be made in real estate development). She never understood that her father’s autism/narcissism explained his lack of kindness and common sense when it came to our divorce. She saw how hard I worked to help her autistic sister Bianca, but never fully appreciated why I didn’t have as much time for her.
When Phoebe started to seriously decompensate in high school, my mother’s heart just got stronger. I rescued her from drunken binges and rushed her to the ER. I sent her to therapy. I put her in an alternative high school for students who were struggling in their studies. I sent her off to a summer camp designed to help troubled teens.
Then there were her multiple health problems — mild traumatic brain injuries from soccer, torn-up ankles, tonsillectomy, kidney stones. I am certain her health problems were due to the stress of our lives with an abusive father (who had in turn encouraged others to harass me).
While Phoebe got physically ill and drank too much, I stayed as strong as I could since both of my daughters needed me (even though Bianca had already turned against me). I didn’t get sick, like Phoebe, per se, but I was constantly off balance, literally. I fell down stairs more than once, breaking my wrist, my ankle, my foot and causing numerous sprains.
As the months went by without hearing from Phoebe, I kept hoping she would change her mind. At first, I was not allowed to talk with her, which was part of the legal requirement until the charges were cleared. I had Christmas presents for her and her son but I was not allowed to deliver them in case it was interpreted as a bribe.
I cried when I read her deposition, in which she lied about the attack. They were foolish lies that made no sense, but it showed me that she was frightened. She knew that she was harming her mother but I guess she thought it easier to reject me rather than to take on an abusive boyfriend and an abusive father.
There was literally no one in her life to help her do the right thing. With me out of the picture, she comforted herself for the loss of her mother, with the lie that I was the cause of her problems. Still, I held out hope that she would know I loved her enough to forgive her bad choices.
“This was bound to happen.”
One day toward the end of the legal part of this family tragedy, my attorney’s paralegal, Bill said to me, “This was bound to happen, Kathy.”
I felt a wave of shock wash over me. I looked at him, wide eyed, as if to say, “What do you mean,” although I said nothing.
Bill caught my look and softened a bit. “Kathy, you have done everything you can for Phoebe — in fact both of your daughters — but this estrangement was bound to happen. Phoebe has been heading in this direction for a long time.
How did he know? Bill expressed my worst fear — that I would never see my daughters or my grandson again.
How did he know? I never asked him, but I presume he had handled many such cases as a paralegal. He had probably seen many a tearful parent wondering how to bring their family back from the abyss.
Shortly after this conversation with Bill, the charges against me were dismissed when the city prosecutor realized I was defending myself from Phoebe’s attack. She wasn’t arrested thank goodness but I am sure that was her fear — and why she turned on me. Instead, the charges were unceremoniously dismissed and I was sent home to grieve the loss of my daughter.
It has been nine years since I last saw Phoebe and Jameson. Phoebe has blocked me from all social media, phone calls, texts, emails, even snail mail. I really don’t even know how to reach her since I have so little information about her life over the last near decade.
It is important that you understand why a mother like myself has taken such a long time to accept what Bill told me all of those years ago. It is not just that I was the last honest, loving, and courageous person left in her life — and that without me she would tumble into that horrible abyss. Phoebe was also all I had left of a life I thought was true.
We come to know ourselves in relation to others.
According to Dialectical Psychology, a theory developed by Klaus Riegel, we human beings come to know who we are in relation to those we live with, go to school with, work with and so forth. In other words, your identity is shaped by how others in your community see you and interact with you.
Think about it. When you learned to ride a bike, were you all by yourself or was there an adoring parent holding the bicycle seat to keep you steady? Or if you did figure out how to ride all by yourself, did you want to show your parents what you had accomplished? I doubt you kept secret your new found bicycle skill.
Not all of our life lessons are positive though. We are shaped by fear and suffering too. As we saw with Phoebe’s decision to turn on her mother, fear got the best of her. She chose an identity that rejected her mother rather than face something else in herself — that is that she has an anger management problem.
As for me it took many years of anguish and recrimination before I could accept that I am nothing like Phoebe’s perceptions of me — and that I had no power to change her. I gave Phoebe many chances to choose better, but I was up against great odds in parenting with a partner who is a narcissist. Still, this was Phoebe’s choice to make — and she may still do the right thing — I can always hope.
In the meantime, I began to look at the woman I really am, separate and distinct from the disrespectful way I have been treated by some family members. There are lots of people who see me as strong, smart, kind, supportive, engaging, talented, etc. In fact, there are more of those people, than those malevolent family members who wanted to harm me. So why would I let these hostile folks define me?
The answer is simply that I let them define me (wrongly) because I wanted my daughters to have a happy loving home. I wanted to enjoy family life as a loving presence for them. I wanted to share this love with my spouse too. Instead, I was constantly doing battle to correct the mistakes I felt my family made about me.
It is not easy to let go of people who define you in ways that are against your self-interest. As you can imagine it is traumatic to let go of your children and a spouse who don’t get you — may never get you — and who are out to harm you if you dare try to be who you really are.
The woman with no past.
I titled this blog, “The Woman With No Past” because it occurred to me that I can’t keep defining myself according to the way my loved ones have determined is true about me. And since I have lived my entire life with family with Empathy Dysfunction (EmD), it is likely that I have rarely had a true reflection of myself from any one of these “loved ones.”
Empathy is an important asset to have. It is the ability to hold dear the feelings and thoughts of the other person — while at the same time holding constant your own feelings and thoughts — and communicating respectfully with the other person in such a way that they feel loved and appreciated.
The goal of empathy is to generate a feeling that we are connected, cared for, affirmed. It’s not about winning or losing but about creating an outcome between you that works for each of you. Empathic interactions make it possible for us to know who we are in relation to others who are kind and who like us.
Without receiving Empathy consistently from others in your family, a child or an adult will fall into a state of despair, not only wondering who they are in relation to these family members with EmD, but also making terrible mistakes as they try to adapt to the false reflection coming from their EmD loved ones.
That’s my story of a life with an autistic mother, autistic and narcissistic husband and autistic daughter. I will probably forever grieve the loss of my daughter Phoebe (and her sister Bianca) but what their painful rejection has taught me, is that I was wrong to define myself according to many people over the years who have Empathy Dysfunction.
Those memories of my life with my daughters may not be even close to the truth. I do remember giggling with my daughters or taking them to the beach to build sand castles. I remember helping them with their homework or putting their folded laundry in their drawers. I remember getting pizza at Nature’s (now New Seasons) on a Friday night. I remember being proud to attend their piano recitals and soccer games. I remember creating college funds for both girls because I thought it was the right thing to do, even though their father complained. I remember scheduling medical and dental appointments and worrying about their food sensitivities.
I remember many things about my life with my daughters (my former spouse and my parents too), but are these memories all of my own making? If these family members didn’t really appreciate all of these things about me, and could easily dispense with me, then I suppose it is true that I have no past. To have a past means you shared it with someone — that you shared the love.
So, then the question becomes who am I if it does not come from a past shared with loved ones? I still love my daughters. I can feel that. It’s deep and abiding. But it is love separate from who I am, the mother they may never know — but who I am coming to know more and more each day in relation to other loving, empathic people.