Happy Easter! Spring is such a mix-mash of memories for me. Easter in my mind is a lead up to Mother's Day. I think of baby chicks, wild flowers, morels, and the wet scent of earth nurturing an explosion of birth and life, and of family and celebrations in spring. Spring, for me as a child, was the time between Easter and Mother's Day. I grew up on a farm that had lots and lots of hens. Mom and I always put up an Easter egg tree and to me that was the signal that spring had officially begun. Summer began the week after Mothers Day, on my birthday, when to my mind summer arrived. So, for me, spring is forever linked to the farm, Mom, and me. Mom passed away in 2007 at the age of 92; I spent her last spring with her in my childhood home, on that farm, in her home of 67 years, taking care of her. Spring has become a sad time for me, not just because she is gone, although I do miss her terribly, but because of a conflict I feel within myself about her.
The lead up to Mothers Day is difficult for me because I have very mixed emotions about publicly sharing my memories of my life with Mom. Though we can never be sure exactly what is real, and what time may have adjusted in our memory of an event, I can say with complete certainty that my mother exhibited some degree of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. I was the proxy through which Mom gained the attention and recognition she so desperately craved. Memories of family holidays and the almost foreboding approach of Mother's Day just seems to highlight a discontinuity within myself. For the last few months I've been feeling terribly uncertain about writing in detail about our relationship.
I loved and always will love my mother. She was not an evil person. But she was ill. She abused me and allowed me to be tortured by physicians and medical personnel to gain attention or recognition for herself. I believe she also did this with one of my older brothers, David. That brother is now deceased, so I will never know for certain, although from what she told me of the improper way she had him wear his eye-patch for his amblyopia, I am fairly certain this brother also was abused and essentially blinded in one eye by her to obtain sympathy or recognition.
Is it profane to expose what remains of my mother, the memory of her and her legacy, to criticism by speaking and writing about this type of abuse from my perspective as an adult survivor of MSBP? Does the benefit to others justify the defilement of her memory? I've written about this before now, but I used pseudonyms, and I did not do this in a way that would gain much attention. Will my two living brothers ever talk to me again when they find out I am doing this. I'm not sure they, or their children could ever condone my sharing this information, even if they could accept it. My mother orchestrated our family's behavior with an incredible amount of precision and absolute authority. All communication went through her and she freely censored or shaped the family story.
I am not going to go into any detail about my personal abuse experience here, the focus of this blog is to share what I have learned from my personal journey and what I have found out from my research into this topic. (I knew that graduate studies in social science had to be good for something.) It has been not quite 10 years since I really was able to accept that my mother suffered from MSBP and that I too I suffered because of it.
My healing really began years before that when I first expressed hurt and confusion about how she could have looked the other way when I was faking illness as a child or getting myself into trouble as a teenager. Even though I was in my late thirties at the time, I still felt responsible for everything in my childhood.
That beginning to heal event was to confront my mother about keeping me out of school to an absolutely astonishing degree; my report card shows 100 plus days marked absent in third grade. After I had my own daughter and could look back on what I experienced through a mother's eyes with a mother's heart I simply could not make sense of that. Somehow when she was visiting in my home one spring, we got into a dispute in which I ended up yelling and crying. I asked her bluntly and through sobs with what I remember as a raggedy and rough voice, for an explanation from her as to how she could have allowed me to hurt myself by pretending to be sick so much when I was little and how she could have allowed me to go out with people and stay out until totally inappropriate times as a young teenager? Her response was to act hurt and simply say with utter disappointment in her voice, "Nancy, how could you?' and storm into the guest room. I was crying and shaking as I never had before as I had never confronted my mom about anything in my entire life, When she re-emerged into the living room where I was she demanded that I change her flight and have her return home immediately. I don't know how I found the courage, but I told her, "Do it yourself." She always presented herself as meek and totally incapable of doing anything for herself in the outside world. This time was no different. She did not do it. She claimed she didn't know how to do it. The only thing I can figure out, is that by refusing to act on her own in this and other circumstances, she could place blame on others who did not properly, in her view, meet her needs and absolve herself from any responsibility.
This was the beginning of a healing journey for me, but in typical dysfunctional family style, after this interaction we did not speak of it again. I felt that it would benefit no one to revisit the topic with her. Mom acted as though it never happened, and I was able to create boundaries so I would not have to deny what I knew to be real, I would say, whenever a topic that involved medical or hypochondriacal talk, or her accounting some poison pen tale, I would simply tell her that was a topic I did not talk about or with which I was uncomfortable, and move on to another subject. That was a huge step for me and for her.
Finally, in my 40s I had learned to draw boundaries, enforce them, and say, "No." It was several more years until I would put all the disparate memories of missing school, being taken to the doctor all the time as a child, having excessive medical tests, surgeries, and procedures, and being taken to different doctors together with an older brother receiving similar attentions from mom when he was in early grade school, and actually realizing that my mother engaged in medical abuse known as Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome, MSBP. The abuse I suffered was not the stereotypic, homicidal type I'd most often heard of on the news. A counselor had even brought up the topic of my mother having MSBP years earlier, after I confronted Mom but before I could accept all the facts, but I'd dismissed it because I hadn't been killed and I believed that because I was complicit in staging illness in the early years I was totally to blame. Finally everything came together and in 2003 I began to research MSBP and found that in the psychological literature there is a type of the syndrome referred to as a blended form where the caregiver is aided in the deceit by the minor or dependent person on the receiving end of all the medical treatments and surgeries.
This description of blending, malingering, and faking being brought into the consideration of abuse so insulted me at that time I read about it that I was then able to name the abuse. Naming is a very powerful step in understanding almost anything significant. Once I could name the abuse I could ask questions. If a child's body is invaded by sexual assault and through time the child keeps the secret of abuse or even assists the abuser in small ways, is the sexual assault and abuse termed blended as though it is a lesser type of abuse? The invasion of a child's body by another person's body or by an instrument makes no difference in my way of seeing things. The assault is just as violent and invasive no matter whether the assault is medical or sexual, and no matter whether the child continues to seek comfort from the caregiver who is also the abuser by doing what is necessary to get the approval or affection of that person.
After this awakening percolated to a conscious level, I understood that I could not be blamed for what had happened because I was a child and the one who was abused, I was then able to tell my family physician about this, and follow up on her recommendation of working with a specific psychotherapist who specialized in therapy with victims of child abuse. Earlier treatment for depression had been ok, but I realized I needed counseling with someone who really understood what I had experienced and and with which I was coming to terms. I joined a poetry group and allowed words and emotions to join together on the page to express sentiments and allow me to frame and reframe experiences. I brought my writings with me into the talk therapy. All these things together allowed me to heal to a point that amazes me.
I arrived at a place where I decided to build a new relationship with my mother through conscious action. Actually the building had begun with my drawing of boundaries for the relationship but I didn't understand that at that time. It became clear to me that just because my mother had not always been a good mother was no reason for me to not be a good daughter if I wanted to. It was up to me.
Not so long after the realization that I could be any type of daughter I wanted to be, my mother actually admitted to me, "You know, sometimes I wasn't a very good mother." I didn't push the issue or pounce on it. Hearing her say that was enough. I still cry and want to hug her. People who engage in MSBP abuse like those who are sexual predators almost never admit that they engaged in any inappropriate behavior. For her to admit that to me was huge. She must have been so hurt and messed up herself have developed MSBP. It doesn't excuse what she did. But I am so happy that we learned to hug and even say, "I love you." to each other. That was enormous for me. It was for her too. No one ever hugged or said, "I love you," in my family before I started doing it.
In the last years of Mom's life we would send each other flowers for any and all special occasions. Easter and Mother's Day were hard for me the first couple of years after her death when there were no floral deliveries to my home from Mom. Though it came late in our relationship, the concrete gesture of her sitting down and choosing a specific bouquet with which to to say, "I love you" meant the world to me. So now when my own daughter comes over with flowers or a gift and there is laughter and healthy love filling my house at, there is a bouquet on the mantle that I make for myself in one of the vases from an arrangement my mom once sent to me.
This year I've finally come to the conclusion that yes, you would be embarrassed or ashamed of the things I discuss here, but you would also be proud of me for being able to offer up our life together to others so that the healing can continue beyond just us.
Happy Easter Momma. I'm missing the Midwestern spring flowers and you today, but I'm also happy I learned how to be a better me, and that maybe that allowed you to be a happier, better you. I love you and I miss you.