I've been asked to write something on the topic of cutting off one's toxic parents. I'm not sure what kind of help I'll be. I didn't do any super-formal Not Talking To You Anymore ceremonial severing. I moved across the country and never bothered calling again. (Not that I was calling them much in the first place. I'd been in the same apartment for a few years at that point, and I'm not sure they knew where it was, because they had never been invited to visit.) I'm in the US, so "across the country" means "like five hours by airplane, seven if you have a layover", and none of them appreciate traveling much, so there's no real danger that any of them are going to try hunting me down in person. Plus I changed my mobile carrier and my phone number, and didn't bother to share that with them, either.

I don't know how my parents reacted. I got one extremely vitriolic email from my sister, full of charming stuff like complaints that I never said anything nice about my family, and also that I didn't talk about them enough in my blog, in consecutive paragraphs, banged out like she was a fourteen-year-old girl on AOL rather than a 27-year-old woman with a respectable office job that involves typing a lot of official legal papers. It might or might not have been reflective of the things that other people were doing or saying, because my sister is not exactly known for ever paying attention to anyone other than herself. I freaked out, and spent a few days sitting in the corner sobbing, both from that, and from the fact that I made the mistake of taking the Weather Service warnings seriously while I sat out my very first hurricane ever.

(I have since learned to dial everything NOAA says down about five notches. Right now they have big red notices up about high humidity, large amounts of rain, and collections of water in urban areas -- in other words, they are warning me that I live in Massachusetts.)

Then I got hold of someone who has known me since high school, and he said that the email sounded exactly like something my mother would say. I realized he was right, and spent ten minutes in Gmail filtering everything from every email address I was ever aware of my relatives having to a label hidden way under the fold on the left sidebar, and I haven't looked at it since. For all I know, my mother's been sending me hundreds of dollars in Amazon gift certificates since I've been gone. She used to do that -- the longer I "forgot" to call them before Christmas or my birthday, the more money or money-equivalents she sent, in an effort to get my attention. I don't care; it got increasingly squicky to accept and spend them over the years, so I'm just not. She can send them if it makes her feel better, and I'll never know.

I do still think about them from time to time, and I wonder if I should contact them to tell them I'm okay. Then I realize that I'm not feeling bad for me when I think that, I'm trying to put myself in my mother's shoes, and imagining how bad she would feel for having 50% of her children not talking to her ever again. And also that if she wanted that to not happen, she would have started behaving like a reasonable person any one of the 12397236576320952 times I was patient and explained why I was upset, and exactly what my boundaries were, and what she'd done to violate them, and what would happen if she did it again.

I'm going to level with you all here: Not having any useful family never actually gets to being okay. It gets sort of better over time, in the same way that you can get sort of better after you've been held hostage during a bank robbery, and eventually not seize up with the thought that someone's going to jam a gun into your back if you have to go up to the counter and talk to a teller. I'm adamant that I don't want my parents in any part of my life, but that doesn't mean I'm not still very, very sad over not having a useful parental figure around. Christmas still sucks filthy donkey balls, although it's better now that I'm in Boston, where the holidays are less, "FAMILY FAMILY FAMILY" and more, "let's see how many lights we can put up in Camberville before the power company starts asking questions".

(Answer: A lot. Cambridge and Somerville have this adorable rivalry thing going, where they pretend as hard as they can that they are totally different places and not at all basically all part of the same unified metropolitan area. They have street signs marking the town border that are way more prominent than any of the street signs marking the actual streets. During the holidays, they spend a lot of time trying to out-do each other by decorating the random trees in the sidewalk on Massachusetts Avenue, stringing banners over the street, and hanging fancy things from the lampposts.)

Part of why it never gets completely better is that people will accidentally ask you about it all the time. Statistically, not talking to your biological family is pretty rare in this culture -- although it ought to be more common, frankly -- and most people will assume that asking you about your parents and telling you about theirs is a totally harmless kind of fluffy small-talk. They don't know what to do if it doesn't work. I cope by playing along and just not mentioning that we're not on speaking terms anymore, unless it's someone I happen to want to talk to again; other people are blunt about it, or evade by changing the topic. People whom I consider friends mostly know, although I do warn them when they ask that the explanation is a giant collection of horrible, terrible, no-good, very long stories before I launch into one of them.

People will also assume that your family is around as a backup plan. Particularly if you're young and you look like you grew up middle-class, their first assumption is that if you run into a financial or emotional disaster -- laid off, unexpected medical bills, horrible breakup from someone you'd been living with -- your parents, or whoever served as your parental figures, will have your back. They assume that you have someone in your life who is older, more established, and probably more financially stable, who can take you in for a few weeks or lend you a few hundred dollars so you can get your car fixed before payday. It never occurs to them that this might not be the case until you say so, and then they're stymied.

Sometimes it stumps them so hard that they start to argue with you about it. Usually it's, "no stupid family fight is so important that you can't suck it up and ask for help so you're not homeless." This is generally because they are fortunate people whose stupid family fights have all been about religion and their political affiliations and whether it's a good idea to marry the unemployed music major with all the tattoos. I'm not saying that these fights can't he emotionally horrible and divisive things that introduce plenty of trauma into your life -- I'm just saying that it's beyond the experience of most people to have to sit down and evaluate whether having no place to safely sleep is better or worse than going back to a situation so abusive it might end with you waiting for a bed in either the ICU or the mental ward. And being that this kind of thing is not part of their world, sometimes they pick fights over it, because they have no idea what they're talking about to the point where they have no idea that there is even an idea here that they are missing.

The request for this comes from someone whose friend has had to put up with a load of shit, including sending a minor sibling to ask, "Do you really hate our mother so much?" with big puppy dog eyes. At this point, I'd just answer, "Fuck yes," and stop engaging, because there is literally no answer -- not even OH GOD NO WHAT MUST I DO TO ATONE -- that would make any of my relatives quit trying to punish me for having a thought of any kind that upset my mother. That doesn't work for everyone, at every stage in the process, though. I happen to be famously ornery, and once I've snapped I stay snapped, but not everyone copes this way. It's excruciatingly difficult to do that when you've just recently realized that maaaaayybe your parents are insane, and maaaayybe they're not actually making a good-faith effort to have a healthy relationship with you.

I don't really have any good advice, to be honest. I have a shitload of bad advice, and questionable anecdotes detailing how I dealt with it, but a lot of them are the kind of story that gets prefaced with a boilerplate disclaimer about 'do as I say, not as I do, no guarantee is stated or implied, your mileage may vary, void in Indiana'. I'm a very academic sort of person with a weirdly-presenting anxiety disorder, so mainly what I did was massive amounts of dissociatives, so that I could think this shit through without spending the week in bed, crying myself into a paranoid stupor. I don't recommend this as a plan of action -- it worked more or less by accident.


  1. It must be hell for people like you to have to figure out from scratch what others take for granted: how to navigate the adult world.

    I am truly sorry you have a toxic family - I don't think anything can make up for that.

    I hope you have at least a few trusted 'grownups' in your life you can ask questions of when you need answers.ABE

    1. There have been a few older ladies who have decided to adopt me, mostly remotely over the internet. I have a lot of good friends about my age-ish; they're surprised by my quirks sometimes, but tolerant.

      A particularly annoying part of having useless parents is the absence of regular everyday-life information. Pretty much the only useful thing my mother ever taught me on purpose was knitting. Money was especially bad. You would think it would be self-evident how you fill out a check, but no -- they don't have blanks that say "to" and "from" and "why", they have lines that say "pay to the order of" and nothing and "memo". You can't ask the crazy people, they just tell you that you're hopeless and make fun of you for weeks. By the time you get to college, everyone else assumes you know this stuff, and is flummoxed if you don't.

      Fortunately, I've had internet access since I was about fourteen. Google is my savior.

  2. Add me to your contingent of 'older internet ladies' - God what a thought! - if you need to ask questions. My kids are full up of advice, and are to the 'I answer if they ask' point with us. My email address is on my blog.

    I agree with you on the Google-savior bit - the list of things I've researched is getting very long, and various bits of me work far better because of the information (which I then have to apply), including possibly being able to walk right again. Beats medical 'advice' in many cases. Have to make sure I still get the advice for the necessary things (ie, don't get too cocky about the ability to do it all myself).

    Glad you found a place - hope it lasts.


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