My journey with cultivating compassion while maintaining my boundaries
One of my worst relationships throughout my life has been the one with my Mother.
For context, my mother was 17 when she became pregnant with me. She was several years into addiction at that point and had her own history of horrific abuse. I can’t even imagine how scared she was.
But then I came along.
I know my Mother wanted to love me. I’ve listened to her talk about the preciousness of her pregnancy with me. I’ve seen a couple of my baby things and watched as she gently caressed them, remembering the infant who used to fill them out. We used to play “dress-up” on occasion - her applying make-up and draping my thin form in gauzy scarves and dangling beads. I’d look at my beautiful Mother and then at myself, in awe. She also read to me on occasion, especially when she became immobilised with her third pregnancy. And she had a special song she sang to me at night - a song I sang to soothe my own child.
My Mother tried to love me, but simply couldn’t.
At 4 years old, I learned to cook eggs so I could feed myself and my little brother.At 5 I was hospitalised with pneumonia, dehydration, and a serious venereal illness with genital boils so bad that I refused to urinate. At 6 she had to start using my and my brother’s social security numbers to get utilities reinstated because she’d lapsed so many times. Up until the age of 9, I missed half the days of school, staying home to care for my younger siblings. Her open-door policy in every home we ever had led to years of sexual abuse from an epically long string of strangers and ‘friends’.
And, honestly, I could forgive all that. But my Mother lied.
My Mother never met a lie that was beneath her. She lied about everything, all the time.
She lied about important things, like ‘breaking down’ every time she was scheduled to visit me at my father’s house. She lied about very messed up things like, stealing my money ‘to buy milk’ - $13 for milk. And she lied about things that absolutely didn’t need it - she gave me one of two matching, macrame pillowcases , telling me that my grandmother had made them so we could both have one and be connected. I found a ‘Made in China’ tag inside it a couple weeks later.
I realised pretty early on that my Mother couldn’t love me because she simply wasn’t really there. She was a beautiful, fiery, messed-up shell, with no real substance. She never had goals or longterm plans. She didn’t have solid values or opinions. She was just a concocted projection of addiction, reaction, and inconsolable pain.
Through my journey of better understanding my neurodivergent brain, I’ve been reflecting on my life. The events, and the people. Especially the people who were formative in my childhood and upbringing.
And as I’ve learned more about how it can present, my Mother’s presence in my mind has grown stronger.
Oh, I’ve uncovered the idea that my lifetime of hypersexuality is not just a response to abuse but also used as a mask to help me blend in?
Couldn’t that also apply to my Mother’s lifetime of sexual self-abuse?
Oh, autistic people suffer from much higher levels of sustained addiction because that’s the only way for them to cope?
Couldn’t that also apply to my Mother’s lifetime of addiction?
Oh, as an AuDHD person, I learned to lie because I was never believed about my experience?
Couldn’t that also apply to my Mother, if she were also neurodivergent?
All of this exploration has helped me better understand a lifetime full of confused feelings about my Mother.
She was/is likely Autistic, in my opinion. She had an…. interesting relationship with her father, a convicted child-rapist. She has a lifetime of domestic violence, abuse, and drug use under her belt, at this point.
I think I was right - she’s not really there.
And, while I’ve spent a lot of my life repulsed by her and what she’s done to me and my siblings, the hardness of my heart is starting to crack.
I’ve noticed, in my time as a doula, that reaching this place of compassion can be very triggering for people.
And that’s because we aren’t clear about what that compassion means.
I’m not actively cultivating compassion for my Mother in order to provide a path to reconnection with her. I’m working to better understand and hold compassion for her, for me.
In one of his many great works, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that all of our emotional and mental states are like seeds - the ones we bring up and into the light, will grow. So, if I allow hateful hurt to be the way I view my Mother, I am allowing those contorted states of being to thrive inside me. At some point, if I don’t tend to these feelings, they will get stronger and start to affect the rest of me.
While I need to water my inner garden with the tears of my grief and fear, I also need to thin and weed it to prevent damage.
There’s a narrative in our culture that we MUST forgive, and that that forgiveness MUST include the allowance of the ‘offender’ back into our personal spaces. In essence, we must give up our own personal dignity and safety in order to maintain the appearance of social ‘goodness’.
This is a shitty, violent, and coercive mindset.
Compassion for those who have hurt us IS important. But it there is no need to pair that compassion with weak boundaries.
We don’t do it for the salvation of someone else’s soul - that is their responsibility, and their’s alone. We cultivate compassion for those who have hurt us so that no part of us has to sit at the back of our dark closet, alone and agonizing.