Scotty Holman: All the King’s Horses: Shattered Memories of a Borderline Mother
WARNNG: Wrong Planet is a family friendly site. However, the following article by columnist Scotty Holman touches on a very sensitive subject that may not be suitable for children or other people who are uncomfortable reading about abuse. Reader discretion is advised.
*”All is caprice. They love without measure those whom they will soon hate without reason.” – Thomas Sydenham, seventeenth-century physician, describing patients he referred to as “hystericks.”*
My mother was truly beautiful. I don’t say that as a proud son eager to lavish her with published praise. She was beautiful – that is a fact. Breathtaking as she may have been, she was also irreparably damaged, the product of an age-old pattern; the lovely and pure are victimized by bitter parasites who suck away every obtainable drop of innocence, thirsty, perhaps, for their own long lost purity.
Such a predator forever devastated my mother, and consequently, myself. In quiet rooms he skillfully unthreaded her psyche as if it were a rag doll in his callous, elderly hands. She fell into pieces each time the final thread was mercilessly pulled loose. Yet her grandfather’s thirst was unquenchable. Her grief and shame were not enough to satiate his compulsion to dominate and desecrate.
The abuse continued in secret for nearly ten years. Her childhood innocence was stolen from her at a mere two years of age, the instant she first shuddered at his unwelcome touch. Her mind, however, split apart a little at a time, until her identity was finally and forever shattered. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
My mother’s sexual abuse left her, somehow, less than human… not a real woman, whole and centered, but a complex puzzle with too many pieces to ever be assembled. Though internally deranged, she cultivated a flawless public image of self-empowered, yet domestically inclined womanhood. So flashy… so charming… so empty…
She was only a caricature drawn in lipstick on the bathroom mirror, smudging and fading a bit more every day. I needed someone to protect and reassure me… unfortunately, so did she.
My dearly deranged mother has Borderline Personality Disorder, a mysterious condition characterized by instability in interpersonal relationships, fragmented self-image, intense fear of rejection, ceaseless manipulation, seemingly arbitrary and often violent outbursts, etc…
According to the nationally best selling book, “I Hate You – Don’t Leave Me.” by Jerold J. Kreisman, MD, and Hal Straus, “The borderline shifts her personality like a rotating kaleidoscope, rearranging the fragmented glass of her being into different formations – each collage different, yet each, her. Like a chameleon, the borderline transforms herself into any shape that she imagines will please the viewer.”
The fragments of my mother’s identity took center stage one at a time, each utterly unique characters in a baffling one-woman show. Her fractured performances typically dazzled and charmed the members of her gullible audience. They were also deeply painful and disorienting for those in closer proximity to the stage. I had the only backstage pass. My childhood was marked by unwilling, captive voyeurism. I was the sole witness of my mother’s private madness and all-consuming sexual shame.
Publicly, she was a champagne-sweet butterfly of grace and social finesse. She fooled them all so well, night after night, show after show… Each time the curtain fell and the audience applauded their approval, I forced myself to swallow the tell-tale vomit threatening to spew from my mouth. My mother has never been onstage a day in her life… but Laurence Olivier himself could not have outperformed her when she interacted with the public world, donning one carefully crafted persona after another.
Like any child, oblivious to the vast diversity of life outside their immediate domestic environment, I believed all mothers were like mine. I was an adolescent before I began to comprehend the severity of my childhood abuse. By that time my mother had lost all memory of her frequent, unpredictable episodes of violent, degrading, and perversely inventive abuse.
She now tells me that I, “greatly exaggerate the mere handful of times she even punished me.” When she says this, I know that she is not lying… not intentionally. She has repressed and forgotten those shameful memories. This shouldn’t be surprising. She also lost all memory of her sexual abuse for a ten year period, beginning when the years of molestation finally ended (puberty and the development of a womanly figure saved her from the old man’s perverse interest). Shortly after my birth, her long dormant memories erupted to the surface. My childhood was marked by her freshly unearthed sexual shame and the blinding delirium of her hysterical identity crisis.
One study, “Biparental failure in the childhood experiences of borderline patients” (Zanarini MC, Frankenburg FR, Reich DB, et al) proposes that, “Patients with BPD have been found to be significantly more likely to report having been verbally, emotionally, physically or sexually abused by caregivers of either gender. There has also been a high incidence of incest and loss of caregivers in early childhood for people with borderline personality disorder.”
It would be decades before I was finally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Autistic children are not especially adept at walking on eggshells, and my mother had a way of laying them thoroughly over every available walking space. One wrong word, or gesture, a compliment paid to the wrong person, a sudden bout of food poisoning and my ensuing neediness… would send her into a blind rage.
Prestigious psychologist, Marsha Linehan, a foremost expert on the subject has stated, “Borderline individuals are the psychological equivalent of third-degree-burn patients. They simply have, so to speak, no emotional skin. Even the slightest touch or movement can create immense suffering.”
Before anyone uses my story as supportive evidence for the long debunked “refrigerator mother” theory of autism causation, I must explicitly state that my childhood mistreatment is in no way related to my diagnosis. My mother’s abuse may have exacerbated my developmental delays, but could not possibly be responsible for my infantile verbosity, perseveration, mild savantism, hyperlexia, dyscalculia, synesthesia, or any other of my longstanding symptoms commonly associated with autism spectrum disorders. Ironically enough, I believe I acquired otherwise unattainable social skills as a direct result of my mother’s personality disorder.
People often ask me how I learned to intuitively understand and respond to the shifting emotions of others despite my autism. I’ve always avoided this question because the answer is both uncomfortable and alarming – I had to learn to read my mother’s labile moods or I would be beaten senseless. Understanding the emotions of others was not merely an elusive social advantage, but an essential survival skill.
One of my family’s favorite home videos is footage of me at four years-old, struggling to break free of my mother’s embrace as I watch my father drive away for another nine month absence from my life. My face is red and streaked with tears as I scream, “Daddy, don’t go!” My father has always believed this to be a home video testament of my love for him. I’ve never had the heart to tell him that it is merely evidence of the overwhelming terror I felt each time he left me alone with my mother.
Worse than the physical abuse, was the constant blaming, shaming and emotional invalidation I experienced. After hurling me down the stairs or forcing me to lick up my own vomit, my mother would draw me close to her and coo in my ear, “Oh, Scotty boy, quit whining. You don’t have it so bad. When I was your age my grandpa would take my favorite stuffed koala bear. I’d go looking for it, but would find him instead. Then do you know what he’d do to me?”
I do know. I knew at five years-old and I know now. Those detailed stories clawed their way deeply inside my memory, forever altering my development. “I never told you about that stuff,” my mother will insist. She may believe she is speaking the truth, but I know better. I have merely to mention her koala bear and she will be instantly frozen in sudden, dissociated shock, returning moments later in a slight daze, a rapid change of subject ready on her tongue.
I have no doubts that my mother’s illness is directly related to her traumatic upbringing. Perry et. al’s “Neurobiological Analysis of Early Trauma,” reinforces this speculation yet again, “…despite being distanced from threat and the original trauma, the stress-response apparatus of the child’s brain is activated again and again.”
This would suggest that BPD is more closely related to chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder than the classic personality disorders. But why the continued pattern of abuse from generation to generation?
Matthew Huston’s book, “Borderline: Walking the Line,” offers an eloquent explanation, “BPD doesn’t just affect the one who receives the diagnosis; it often leaves a wake of turmoil through entire families as the emotional and relational disturbances ripple outward.
When a role model treats you as an extension of herself—there to meet her needs—the trauma can be long lasting. It takes a very strong person to overcome the effects, let alone maintain a constructive relationship with the parent.”
Why, you may wonder, do I feel the need to share such intimate and distressing details with the world? Because nothing in my life, long riddled with extraordinary tragedy, has induced more profound psychic disturbance than my mother’s mental instability. I’m purging myself… my words here are vomit, the expulsion of a poison long sickening my stomach.
If I’ve let the cat out of the bag, I feel no shame for doing so. There is a sickness in secrecy. My mother experienced ten years of sexual abuse for the sake of keeping up appearances and maintaining the family’s integrity. I don’t claim to be polite – fuck polite. I will be shamelessly transparent. Enough has been swept under the rug while my family disintegrated.
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, “Family members often feel mystified and exhausted by their relative’s illness. The intense mood swings and anger outbursts can be frightening and disruptive… It is not unusual for relatives and spouses of BPD individuals to feel depressed themselves, and to struggle with feelings of guilt, shame and helplessness.”
When my mother was at her best, she was the most delightful, doting, spontaneous, and fun-loving woman, with the inflated optimism of a child and the attentive nature of the maternal ideal. What’s more, she was cool! She taught me how to dress, interact with my peers, and climb the adolescent social ladder. Grateful as I am for this specialized instruction, I know now that her motives had little to do with my own happiness. Her bottomless insecurity demanded a picture perfect family. She forcefully assembled her husband and children as one would each article of clothing in the perfect outfit. If a blouse, skirt or child failed to please her, they were quickly discarded.
Will my family ever heal? Can BPD be cured? Interventions and therapy are difficult to come by as this condition is highly stigmatized and avoided by many medical professionals. Treatment is made nearly impossible by the profound self-deception at the core of the patient’s disorder.
Bitter as I often am, I still understand my mother’s utter inability to control or recognize her behavior. I cast no blame on her – she couldn’t help the way she treated me. She was a product of her conditioning. Aren’t we all?
It has taken me 25 years to realize that I am nobody’s king, possess neither horses nor men, and will never be able to put my mother back together again. I’d love to see her restored to the complete and stable woman I’ve never known and likely never will. But her mental and emotional renewal is outside my control. I can only hope that by courageously relating these darkest experiences of my troubled life, I may raise awareness of a stigmatized illness. Perhaps by scattering the seeds of my words, I will miraculously plant a germinating bit of inspiration in the mind of someone, somewhere, destined to outperform royalty, equestrian and human effort… someone who may one day manage to put a truly beautiful – and perhaps not so irreparably damaged – woman back together again.