The Soul Crushing Pain of Family Estrangement

by Ryan Berg, MA

Editors note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own.

My mother was sexually abused by her father.  Growing up, I was completely blind of this horrible fact.  Yet I experienced its profoundly devastating ripple affects: from countless men entering and exiting our lives and home, exposure to my mother’s rampant sexual life, a gaping void of maternal and paternal nurturance, constant instability, role reversal — where I often behaved like a father to my mother — to pervasive feelings of depression, worthlessness, anxiety, stress, worry, rage, sadness, confusion, guilt, shame, and self-blame, which all flourished under a thick dome of denial.  I remember one evening when I was thirteen, our doorbell rang and I quickly responded, stomping my feet over the beige carpet as the wood creaked beneath me, as if an alert palace guard, slowly and suspiciously pulling the heavy white barrier towards me.  “I’m here to see your mom,” a man said. He let himself in and walked excitedly to her bedroom.  Earlier in the day my mom had been with someone different.  An hour later the man walked out of her room and a warm, musty, sex-tinged backdraft filled our home, moved instantly up my nasal passage, and the stench of loveless intercourse quantumly linked the whole experience neuronically within my vulnerable adolescent brain.  I was revolted.  My mother’s existence depended on gratifying men, on being with a man — any man at all. I realize now what I witnessed was my mother most likely performing prostitution.  Sex was the currency of her world and our home hid deep a chest of treasure.

Denial cloaked itself in plain sight through the nickname my brother and I gave to our mother; “lil’ mama.” This term unconsciously acknowledged how small and disempowered she was internally, justified her ruthlessly promiscuous behavior externally — and each time it was uttered, we complicity reinforced her own helplessness.  I recognize now that seeds of denial were sewn when my mother was a small child under the twisted care of her father.  Like most children do when they’re abused, she disconnected from herself to survive, leading her to repress and dissociate from those memories as an adult — confining her to only speak glowingly fond of him.  Consistently, we heard, “my father was the most amazing man in the world, and he treated me so kindly.”  Always followed by a story about how the two would be riding in the car together, and she would clear her throat and give him a glance as they passed a gas station — a signal sent to him that she wanted a Slurpee — which he obliged.  My mother’s face lit up as she recounted these moments, yet, like a sugar rush, the feeling dissolved rapidly in front of me as her eyes glazed over to the right, into the abyss, and a blurry, narrow, jagged ray of reality approached her horizon, barbed and stinging, the venom of truth slowly assaulted her.  Not only was her father dead — something profoundly more painful and poisonous; he was not the father she thought he was.

I know intimately the punishing pain of realizing the parent you thought you had isn’t real.  As I began my own journey in psychotherapy, everything I felt about my mother came charging forth.  The unfathomable behaviors she exhibited, heart-crushing memories, deep anger and pain eventually laid bare for my therapist and I to witness and navigate.  I could finally talk about the elephant that had always been in her room, with the door locked, and invisible sign posted, “Don’t come in, Ryan, mom is busy.”  Naturally, in an attempt to heal our relationship, I approached her with my feelings, and she replied, “I love who I’ve become in my life, I’ve healed, God has forgiven me, go heal from all your issues, get over it.”  While the sense of abandonment has been extremely difficult to accept and process emotionally, I’ve come to see that her denial is a self-protective mechanism — the same one that allowed her to cope with the sexual abuse by her father.  She believes that since she was expected to ignore and “get over” her own abuse as a child — that I should handle it similarly.  She disconnects from the past, herself, me, my older brother who’s in and out of jail, and continues to live a sad reality — abusing substances to numb herself — unconscious of the ways that trauma has sculpted her and bleeds the soul.

I’ve been estranged from my mother going on three years.  The pain of which has been skull-aching.  Heart ripping.  Mind crushing.  Yet somehow: soul freeing.  Choosing to take a stand against her lifelong reckless and pain inflicting behavior, express my feelings, and break-free of the constricting confines imprisoning our family for four decades is a healthy and necessary rupture I’ve realized.  I can see clearly the superficial familial system I participated in, how we co-depended on one another, and how staying silent prevented me from personal growth.  I believe my mother and I deserve more.  She doesn’t have to be “lil mama” for the rest of her life, she can be a “big mama”, a strong mother, one who stands up to the past alongside both of her children, instead of continuing to neglect responsibility. I still hold deep anger, hate, and sadness because of her behavior — but this doesn’t mean I don’t love her. Cultivating space for a broad range of conflicting emotions to coexist gives way to a fuller picture of the reality of my mother and fosters healing.