Thursday, August 25, 2011

Daughters of Madness | Infants, Early Childhood, Middle Childhood

I have just completed the book "Daughters of Madness. Growing Up and Older with Mentally Ill Mother" by Susan Nathiel. Susan is a psychotherapist and discusses the daughters of mentally ill mothers, including Borderline Personalty Disordered (BPD) mothers. Supporting her analysis and topics about daughters of mentally ill mothers from birth to adulthood, she intersperses personal accounts from daughters. Many of these accounts I could completely relate with-- and her introduction has such a touching and powerful statement that rings so true, "That memory of a pretty mommy is still alive despite what came later for these women. What transpired was invariably ugly, shaming, and often terrifying, not at all what the little girl would have wanted from her pretty mommy." My mother was very beautiful but through all of the nasty treatment or disregard I received, her beauty wilted into a sight I didn't want to see. 

Mother's Role in Our "Self" Development: Nathiel's beginning of the book is very captivating. A chapter is devoted to the mentally ill mother's role in the development of her child, which is centered around birth and infancy. She describes why some wounds heal, while others don't and discusses the after-shocks of early maternal failure. She relates that at about six months of age, we develop a  'template' of our earliest experiences of ourselves relative to the world. Research confirms what common sense already tells us: that all those thousands of times someone comforted us when we cried (or didn't), all those times were held (or not) and sung to (or not) and washed and changed and put down to sleep (or not), are all important. We do remember them, but we remember them more by the body / mind sense of what it was like to be there, not because we have memories of specific events. pp3 -4 Nathiel  

I have always had a terrible time saying goodbye. I have had such a hard time that I have always wondered to what that deep sadness is rooted. I do know that I had to say 'goodbye' to my birth father / paternal grandparents around six months old. I do know that I had to say 'goodbye' to my maternal grandparents (who were my primary care-takers when I was a year and under) when my mother decided to remarry her high-school sweetheart and move across the country. Did these goodbyes have a lasting and profound effect on me? Interesting to contemplate given what the research states.

Research also shows that young children of mothers with psychotic disorders are more likely to have insecure attachments by the time they're two, and that in adulthood, more than half of the children of a mentally ill parent have either a mood disorder or substance abuse problem. p 10 Nathiel My brother falls directly into this category. After he was born, my mother became very dysfunctional. She was so ill that my Dad didn't know how to handle her and manage the family. Ultimately, he moved us close to my maternal grandparents so they could assist with my brother and me. Despite the move, my mother was emotionally incapable of handling us kids, and without anyone intervening for a period of time, my infant brother was greatly effected. As an adult, my brother has been diagnosed bipolar, has anti-social personality disorder, and substance abuse problems.

With a mother who can barely function in the world and who is emotionally dysfunctional, my brother and I were left with very splintered relationships with my mother. She had children when she was very young (she got pregnant with me at 19 years old) and mentally unstable (she had attempted suicide just little over a year earlier). Her unstable life led to an unstable entry into the world for my brother and me. I had 2 fathers within the first year of my life-- and I moved across country before a year old, leaving my primary care-takers (grandparents). 

The rich growth of medium of the mother-child interaction is where we can see how children take in the world, make sense of it, and respond to it according to that understanding. This happens from the day of birth, if not before. p 12 Nathiel  So, what were my brother and I learning from our mother-child interactions as babies and infants? Certainly not a very positive or stable point of view. If mother is dysregulated in a major way herself and has trouble modulating her own emotions, this certainly spells trouble for the developing infant-- and all before there is any objective memory of language to capture what the trouble is. Again, keep in mind this is all visceral, whole-body experience, without the ability to filter anything out. p 13 Nathiel 

Regular memories are explicit memories which we don't start building until 2 1/2 to 3 y/o. Implicit memories are templates of 'how the world is.' These templates are formed, laid down neurologically, then become the lived-in foundation of everything else build upon them. The templates are like a pair of glasses, but permanently affixed to the child's vision of the world. p 20 Nathiel My first real memories are around 2 years old with the landing of the men on the moon. I have also other snap-shot memories from around that time. But I certainly have a lot of 'feelings' surrounding that time. I can be taken back to that period with deep concentration, and I can **feel** what it was like-- but not with actual 'memories'. I don't have any warm and fuzzy memories of my mother. In fact, I have always felt there was something 'wrong'. I have always felt that my mother was unbalanced and could snap at any second. And as young as I can remember, I have always felt like I was walking on egg-shells.

Early Childhood: Nathiel then covers early childhood in the next section of "Daughters of Madness." She covers more about the moods that an impaired mother may have, which is definately an aspect of which I was acutely aware. Rather humorous but none-the-less sad, my brother and I could predict the mother that would emerge depending on if she had her curlers in (too tight curlers with Dippity Doo meant a 'mean mommy') or a certain outfit (the red, blue and black hip-hugger outfit  always meant a 'mean mommy' too). Some days she never got dressed and those days, the ones without make-up, were the more waif, sad, and depressed mommy.

My mother always saw me as connected with her-- a part of her-- not separate from her. My brother, on the other hand, was the all-bad child who couldn't do much right. She seemed to pick on him for one thing or another. An impaired mother may be having trouble with her moods-- she may be depressed, or her moods may fluctuate from one extreme to the other. Her connection to reality may be frayed, or, in extreme, non-existent, or she may be unable to see her child as a separate person. A self-centered mother may have trouble recognizing that a child has needs that are unique to him, but a psychotic mother may be unable to see the child as psychically or physically separate. p 19 Nathiel

Interestingly, my mother is absent from any of my 'fun time' memories. I have many memories of having fun times with my Dad and maternal grandparents but in the time period of my early childhood, I don't have a hand full surrounding fun with my mother. I only remember trying to assess the mother we had for the day (the mean mom? the sad mom? the easier to be around mom?). She was either smoking cigarettes while on the phone or doing house-work or locked in a dark room. 

Middle Childhood: Nathiel then proceeds into middle childhood where she discusses when kids from dysfunctional families are old enough to start seeing the inside of other people's families. She describes the experience as something they don't forget. This may be the first time they've ever seen a more 'normal family in action, and it may be the first realization that what goes on in their family is not the way it is for everyone. p 38 Nathiel I remember feeling this during early childhood. I was able to see a stark difference between how we lived versus others. I experienced this at neighbor's homes as well as with my aunt's home (she has two children who are 2 and 4 years older than me). What I observed was happy and warm homes with genuinely loving mothers. The homes smelled like something yummy cooking in the oven, and the children were free to play without the constant criticism and negative comments. These kids were allowed to get dirty and play like kids. 

Our house was very sterile. Even the linens in the closet were folded impeccably. I remember hearing random comments from folks who would stop by for a moment or two about how the house was perfect like a magazine. With personality disordered mothers, they are often charming and pleasant and often create the impression that their families are Disney productions, and children in these families are repeatedly told how lucky they are to have such a wonderful / kind / loving / cool mother. Needless to say, this makes it much harder for a child or adolescent to confide in others about what's going on behind closed doors. Children of personality-diordered mothers have a much harder time believing that their own perceptions are valid, as their mother routinely deny this validity, and the fact that the destructive behavior is visible only to them makes it that much harder. p 64 - 65 Nathiel 

My mother was often on the phone, doodling and smoking. She didn't cook so planning meals, shopping, anc cooking were not part of her repertoire. However, another bulk of her time was focused on her grooming projects: major project of shaving legs, of shaving pits, of washing and setting her hair. These grooming tasks could literally take all day. Even cleaning projects were taken to the 'nth' degree by not just Windexing a mirror but actually taking it down, wiping behind the mirror, then wiping the mirror itself, then replacing. If us kids tried to help clean, the cleaning was never good enough and she had to repeat. 

We were not allowed to have friends over to the house. We never had a birthday party. We were controlled: to bed hours before other kids and up later than other kids, our clothes were laid out, our food selected (no eating outside meal times). And one huge element surrounding my mother was that my brother and I must be grateful. I was given a latch hook kit as a gift from my mother. Completing the rug was not fun and I told my mother of  not enjoying it. The next holiday, I received another one and was expected to be very grateful. The same held true with the Healthtex shirts that had decals that irritated my skin. Even though I expressed my discomfort, she continue to buy these shirts and made me wear them.  

My Dad seemed to do the best he could with managing my mother's illness. Given the fact that he's narcissistic (and progressive gotten worse over the years), he managed by moving us back closer to my maternal grandparents, allowing her to stay locked in her room, and taking us kids away whenever possible. My mother and Dad had knock-down, drag-out fights that would wreck the house. My brother and I caught them in the midst of a hum-dinger, where my Dad was on top of her, restraining her. 

Nathiel covers fathers and siblings in this part. As much as I love this book, the section on fathers is lacking. She discusses how the father is in a a relationship with a sick woman and how the father may stay in the family for loyalty, sense of duty, marriage vows, didn't consider leaving, religious reasons, 'the love of his life', not quitters, and more. She doesn't cover the fact that many of these men who stay are also personality-disordered, alcoholics, or drug-addicts. Many of these men are in the relationship with a personality disordered woman because it's mutually beneficial (abet sick). Many of these fathers have a need fed by either taking care of these women (rescuers), being co-dependent, have a narcissistic need met, or are stuck in the abusive relationship with these women.

So, with my brother experiencing the same childhood as I did, why did he turn out completely opposite of me? I am the well adjusted, healthy, happy, positive, successful, educated while he is not. Nathiel offers an explanation in regard to psychological resilience. Psychological resilience has been associated with having at least one person who's a positive force-- even if the person is peripheral-- being intelligent, being creative, and having a sense of humor. p 35 Nathiel Perhaps the intervention of my grandparents made the difference in my life? My grandfather took the role of my father during the transition from my birth father to adoptive father. He remained an influential and very loving figure in my life until he passed away when I was 11 years old. He would tell everyone that he loved me more than anyone in the world. My grandmother was also very supportive, loving, and receptive to me. I also loved my friends at school, school teachers, and more outside figures. Possibly my brother didn't get as much positive feedback from them to overcome all the negatives in the house. Perhaps, my mother's darkness effected him far greater before my maternal grandparents could intervene?

Resilient kids have inborn qualities or certain factors in the environment that they make strong connections with people and / or find a meaningful focus for their positive energies. School. church, sports, jobs can be places of refuge where kids can thrive and do well. Their good experiences remain uncontaminated by their toxic home environment. It's a powerful coping ability, and part of what we see in the most resilient kids. Having at least one positive adult (enlightened witness) is also extremely important and cited as a primary protective factor in kids surveying abusive and neglectful childhoods. These kids sought and clung to positive responses they got from people and built on good experiences. p 78 -79 Whatever the reason for my resilience from my childhood experienced, I am very VERY grateful for having the perspective, frame of mind, and fortitude to survive. I am very grateful for knowing that the dysfunction was her and not me. 

This blog / review covers the first half of Susan Nathiel's book. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it and highly recommend the book to any daughter of a mentally ill mother OR an undiagnosed mother who abused her daughter. I appreciate Nathiel's explanation of science, mixed with narratives, combined with her experience with patients. The information has been very validating and reinforcing. More reviews to come regarding the sections on adolescence, young adulthood, and adulthood.


  1. wow, I just found your blog. I've only recently realized that I'm the child of a borderline queen and a dysthymic father, and how difficult my childhood really truly was as a result. I always thought I was an awful, selfish person, but reality is, I was manipulated by the queen to believe all of this. I had to go the estrangement route recently; it's hard but necessary. Thank you for writing, I need to hear that I'm not alone.

  2. Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I wish you all the best in your quest for understanding and peace. Have you read some of the books out there about BPD? Such as: Understanding the Borderline Mother (Lawson) and Daughters of Madness (Nathiel)? Both are excellent. There are others worth a read as well: Walking on Eggshells is one. If you are interested in other resources, feel free to give me a shout :) HUGS!

  3. Dear Gretel Ella, i'm so happy to have found your blog with al the information i need to get over my childhood with a borderline mother. I just found out 2 years ago that my mother is ill. I broke of the contact after i almost got an nervous breakdown trying to help organise her life after my brother had left to another city to live with his girlfriend. (i haven't seen or spoke to eather of them for several years when i was dragged into her chaotic crazy life.She now gets help from psychiatrists but it still amazes me how little they know about BPD. I've gone no contact with my mother since she is getting the help she needs and i can recover and analyze everything with help from my psychiatrist) I'm from Holland and it amazes me how little information there is about BPD and the consequenses for the children of parents who have a personality disorder. Keep up the good work and thank you for this blog.

  4. You are so welcome. All my best to you! Hugs!

  5. I have a "snapshot" of myself standing in my crib, holding the top rail and crying my eyes out with a wet, cold cloth diaper hanging on my hips. No one came.
    My father told me later he was very concerned because I cried frequently for awhile, then stopped crying and was loosing weight. He took me to the pediatrician who told him, "Feed her as much as she wants, when ever she wants." I was dxd. with what is now called, "Failure to Thrive." My "mother" was not feeding me.
    Note my CB "mother" was a highly educated health care professional. She had OJT in her professional training and more OJT with my older Nsister. She was not suffering from Post Partum Depression: Dad was very aware of this as his first wife committed suicide secondary to PPD.
    Sometimes I'm shocked we weren't toe-tagged by 3, 13 at the latest.
    This book sounds like an excellent read-thank you.