Some things in life you don’t forget. The scenes etch out permanently in your mind, and years later the remembrance of events still fills you with anger. Like the time my mother took a handgun from the house, and my father and I drove everywhere hoping to find her before she commit suicide.
But that’s not the part that angers me. The part that makes me angry is that I was sixteen and should have never been in that car looking for my mother’s dead body. Or even worse than that is my dad lied about the entire event. The gun never left the house, my mom wasn’t suicidal, and she was only gone because she had to take my brothers to soccer practice. My parents were in the middle of a divorce and my father had been doing everything feasible for the last few months to make my mother look unstable. It was working.
I am the adult child of parental alienation. For most people, that statement doesn’t hold much meaning, so let me explain. Although Wikipedia isn’t the most academic of sources to quote from, they do a pretty good job of defining parental alienation in the most simplistic of forms, so I’m going to go ahead and quote from them. “Parental alienation is the process, and the result, of the psychological manipulation of a child into showing unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent or other family members. It is a distinctive and widespread form of psychological abuse” (Parental Alienation).
On paper, parental alienation as a form of abuse doesn’t look that bad especially compared to everything else I had endured. I grew up in a home that was physically abusive. My father had a temper that would get out of hand, and while I found myself on the receiving end often enough, it was nothing compared to what my mother endured. Yet I was a pretty resilient kid. I think I downplayed it in my mind to make it seem more acceptable. I’d tell myself that because he came from an abusive home, he sometimes crossed the line from discipline to abuse but he meant well. I made it okay even though I think, deep down, I knew that it wasn’t. In middle school, I fell into the statistically represented one in four girls who is sexually abused. I was being molested by an adult in his late twenties. Even though I was being abused, I didn’t really see it as abuse. I’m not sure I was traumatized by it. At least, not yet. But between the physical and sexual abuse that occurred growing up, it didn’t hold a flame to the pain caused by parental alienation. That abuse was purely psychological. I didn’t know how to fight back or who to fight against.
The alienation started out a couple months before our parents announced their intent to divorce. Dad started to point out how little mom did around the house. How come the house was always upside down if she stayed home all day? What was she doing? Lying around watching TV all afternoon? How come he had to come home after work and cook dinner? He’d ask these questions to us night after night. His tone wouldn’t be angry, it would just be conversational. At fifteen it made me feel like an adult to be confided to in this way. As a kid, my answer was “I don’t know.” It made me angry. Dad was angry and upset, and therefore, so was I. Mom refused to work because she wanted to be a stay at home mom. Dad begged her to get a job so he could work fewer hours. I’d be okay with the setup, except mom refused to carry her weight at home. It must be nice to sit on your ass all day.
Now that I’m an adult with three kids of my own, I think my response to Dad’s questions would be a little different. It would probably look more like, “Honestly, dad. She’s chased after a toddler all day, shuffled us to all of our after-school sports, the house looks pretty well kept with four kids living in it, and it won’t kill you to make dinner once in awhile.” But…at 15 you don’t know much, critical thinking skills aren’t your strong suit, and you’ve spent a lifetime being told not to question your parents.
Truthfully, I never thought to question my dad’s motives. I never thought to consider that my dad might lie to me and tell all of these horrible things about my mother because he wanted my love for himself. I couldn’t imagine he would hurt my siblings and I like that for his own selfish gain. I couldn’t imagine he would hurt my mom. What child, teenager even, would ever imagine such a thing from a parent? To expect a kid to figure out what he was masterminding is asking a lot.
The tactics used by parents who alienate look nearly identical to those used by cult leaders. It involves the same forms of brainwashing. And here is what most people like to think…only gullible young people fall into cults, or people who aren’t very bright, or people who aren’t educated. Unfortunately, this thinking simply isn’t true. And if the most intelligent of people can get pulled into a cult, then what’s to save a child from a cult started by her own father? My dad was talented at what he did. Actually, most of the adults around us fell for my dad’s ploys too. Family, friends, church members, everyone fell for what Dad said about mom. It wasn’t just me and my brothers.
My father had a slipped disk in his back during this time, it led to a permanent spinal cord injury that causes him to limp on his left leg. At the time, he told everyone that the doctors didn’t know why he was limping and that they were worried that he might have Lou Gehrig’s disease. To this day, I don’t know whether that is true or not. But he would angrily tell us that mom left us because he had gotten sick and because he wouldn’t be able to support the family after this. My mom had quickly moved on to another guy after my father, so it was easy enough to believe. We were all hurt. Mom was the reason we were a broken family. Mom abandoned dad when he needed her. Mom was self-centered and just wanted someone with money to take care of her. What’s worse, she was going to move us to across the country soon and we wouldn’t be near our dad anymore. She was taking us from him. She didn’t care about anyone’s feelings except her own.
My dad could always twist enough truth into lies, feed on enough emotions to draw you in and keep you there, that you fell into it. He would sit us down for hours and we would have discussions about mom and what she was doing to our family. He would listen to my siblings and I cry at the table, we would listen to his anger towards her, and his pain and frustration of not being able to protect us. He was good at what he did. My mother could do anything, and he could twist it into something different. It was a situation she couldn’t win. My mom walked away from a man who severely abused her for years, and everyone hated her for it. In fact, we were pretty convinced she didn’t love us.
The more my dad talked and turned people against her, the more my mom became paranoid. Her paranoia only served as fuel for my father. It further proved her instability. Then came the moment where the gun went missing from the house, and later he began to question if it was possible that she might be using drugs. It seemed impossible that she would ever do such a thing, but then maybe it wasn’t so impossible after all. I felt like I didn’t know her anymore.
I stopped eating. Entirely. When I was younger I used to play a game, I’d see how little I could eat in a day. I’d keep this competition going day after day, but it was never serious. If mom came home with pizza, it was game over. I’d start things up again the following day with no issues. When things began to fall apart with Mom and Dad, the game became more intense, more deliberate. The focus turned to losing weight, and the rules became much more set in stone. I lost 20lbs in that first month. I didn’t know what to do with all of the pain I was holding inside. I wasn’t allowed to express it in front of my parents, so I learned that I could distract myself from the emotional pain if I just remained hungry. I think it was also my cry for help too, a cry everyone ignored.
When we finally moved across the country, things hit bottom. Mom had never worked a job before and didn’t have a college education. We had no money and went without a lot of basics. Dad began to insist that he gave her money for these things but we weren’t receiving them. He had also promised to leave her the house and pay for her college education if she just stayed instead of leaving, but she had refused. We started to vent our anger towards her, and she started to lash out back towards us.
My father filed for custody several months after we got there. As the oldest, I was put in the middle of it all. I was eventually expected to take the stand, and I felt responsible for how things would turn out. Emotions ran high on all ends. My dad continued to tell me all of the things my mother was doing that was unjust and wrong, I was talking to my brothers to see what they wanted, my mother hated me in the moment, and some of my extended family treated me even more terribly than my own mother. It was a position no teenager should ever be put into.
The fights between my siblings, mother, and I continued to grow. My parents no longer talked, and I became their go-between. Sometimes it felt like my parents would intentionally hurt us to get back at one another. My youngest brother hid in his room all day, playing his video game system. It took me awhile to realize that the game system had been broken for months and when I asked him about it, he told me it was easier to play pretend in his head than it was to be out there with the rest of us. I couldn’t agree with him more. Mom would come home from work each night and go on these yelling rants that would last hours at a time. I think she was just venting some serious frustration, anger, and fear, but it wasn’t okay.
One evening, in particular, she had literally been screaming at us non-stop for over an hour, and my nerves were literally shot. We were trying to get out of the house to go to my grandparents for dinner. I’m not sure what was said, but I do remember my feelings were very hurt. I climbed into the car, went to shut the door not realizing she was in the doorway. I closed the door on her, but luckily she was okay. She started screaming at me. I ran inside told her I hated her and refused to leave. My youngest brother chose to remain behind too. My mom removed all of the phones from the house so that I couldn’t call my dad and tell him what had happened, she was tired of me reporting to him. I was sobbing and couldn’t catch my breath.
I pulled out a knife, and for the first time, I started cutting my arms. I watched the welts raise up on my arm and droplets of blood appear. I cut and cut and cut. Then I stopped. I realized that I could cut every inch of skin on my body and it still wouldn’t be enough to represent the pain that I was in at that moment. Nothing was enough. I wanted to die. I put down the knife, curled up in bed and cried. My mother had a bunch of pills in her room. I imagined myself taking them, what it would look like when someone walked in and found me. Mom was gone. There was no phone, no way of calling 911. It would serve everyone right. I spent some time trying to talk myself out of it, but nothing was a strong enough deterrent. Eventually, I realized I would go to Hell if I killed myself, and every moment in eternity would hurt just as much as it did right then. I bawled. I wanted out of this misery, and it wasn’t fair I had to stay. I didn’t want to stay.
Looking back, I wish I had gone through with it. That’s a terrible thing to say. I don’t wish to have succeeded. What I really wish, is that I would have unsuccessfully attempted suicide, that someone would have found me, and taken me to a hospital. Everyone, especially my mother and her family, was spending so much of their energy being hateful and angry towards me and my brothers they never stopped to realize that we shouldn’t be the targets. I just wanted them to see that we were kids, we were being hurt horribly by everyone, and we weren’t capable of handling it all.
Shortly after that night, my mother told me that, “If I lose my children because of you, I want nothing to do with you again.” The truth was, I didn’t want to be put in that position, I didn’t want to make those calls, and I shouldn’t have been asked to do so. No matter what I said or did, I would lose a parent as a result. No matter how things turned out, I would have to live with the guilt of destroying someone’s life. Regardless of what people say about parental alienation, children don’t stop loving their parents. Just as parents are biologically hardwired to love their kids, kids are biologically hardwired to love their parents. It’s just alienated children aren’t allowed to show that love. I used to hate myself for loving my mom because all of this would have been so much easier if I didn’t love her anymore.
It took two custody battles before my father won custody of my siblings. At that time, I was getting ready to go off to college. I stood up on the stand and told what I very much believed at the time was the truth, although looking back, I’m not so sure about some of it. My grandfather told me never to come ask him for anything, although I never had any intentions of doing so. And to put things into perspective, the family has little to do with my brothers either. My brothers were in middle school and elementary school when all of this went down, and they haven’t been forgiven. I stepped out into the world at nineteen-years-old with my self-esteem completely destroyed. If everyone nearest me, those who I loved, hated me so much, then what did that say about me as a person? It’s hard to convince yourself that you are worth loving if the only thing you feel is hate. I didn’t expect anything different. I knew it was coming, regardless of how the trial turned out, but it destroyed me just the same.
I didn’t realize the truth of things, how Dad manipulated it all until I was much older, and when I learned that truth it hit hard. It hurt in ways I cannot describe, and it’s something I struggle to live with each and every day. I played a big part in my mother losing custody of her children, and it honestly shouldn’t have happened.
Despite opening my eyes to the truth and cutting off my relationship with my father, my relationship with my mother is very strained. I’m not sure it can ever be repaired from the damage inflicted on it. Mostly, I don’t think my mom can forgive me, I don’t think I can forgive me. Most of my anger is geared towards my father, and I think it will be made clear why later. My mom did not deserve what she went through, and I could not fathom nor do I wish to experience the pain of losing my children. I honestly think my mom is a strong woman for enduring what she did and still remain standing at the end. With that said, I can’t help be angry with her sometimes.
She has told me that I was old enough and adult enough to know better, which hurts immensely. It makes me feel misunderstood and as if she really cannot understand what it was like to go through that experience. And it adds to further guilt to what I already feel. I’ll never be able to apologize enough, I’ll never be able to undo the damage I have done.
At the same time, when I bring up things she did that were hurtful, she tells me I have been brainwashed and don’t know truth from untruth. It hurts because she can use that line with me as a kid too. It allows her to invalidate any experience or any emotion I am going through or have gone through. But I’m also not a child anymore either. I’m able to sit back and sort through truth and what wasn’t. What was told to me, and what I actually lived through, experienced, and saw with my own eyes. I might not have everything accurate but there are certain things I know with certainty. As much research as my mom puts into parental alienation syndrome, and her vast understanding of it, I think her whole, “You were brainwashed and don’t know truth” line is a way for her to hide behind some of her own error. I think it’s a topic I’m ready to sit down and work through, probably professionally, with her. But it’s something we both have to be ready to do and accept.
Parental alienation put my siblings and me through an emotional hell that we never deserved to experience. And it didn’t just end when dad got custody. It meant that my dad walked out on my wedding, it meant that both my parents couldn’t come to see their grandchild be born, or come to birthday parties, holidays, etc. My siblings got to live with the constant badmouthing and the constant convincing that their mother didn’t love them for several more years. It has destroyed my siblings and I’s relationships with both of our parents. The scars have run deep for everyone involved.