Also known as psychological abuse or mental abuse, emotional abuse involves repeated and sustained forms of manipulation, bullying, and controlling of the victim over a long period of time, resulting in clinically significant amounts of psychological trauma, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD. This abuse is distinct from physical or sexual abuse, though these two always include emotional abuse, since the whole aim of the abuser is to have power and control over the victim. Though physical and sexual abuse thus involve dual forms of abuse, as opposed to emotional abuse existing alone, it is emotional abuse that causes the longest-lasting scars, since the physical scars heal, whereas emotional ones tend to stay with the victim for years, even decades.
Emotional abuse takes on many forms, including terrorizing (physical threats to the victim, his or her children, or pets), degradation (insults, put-downs, yelling, public humiliation), isolation (physical confinement, not allowing the victim to be with friends or family), corrupting (exposure–especially of a child–to alcohol, drugs, pornography, bigoted attitudes, religious fundamentalism), rejection (including forms of manipulation, like gaslighting, denial, or rationalizing abuse, or minimizing/invalidating its existence, to make the victim feel devalued, inferior, or unworthy), and emotional unresponsiveness or neglect (failing to show affection, making the victim feel like a burden, ‘a job to be done’).
The perpetrators abuse their victims for a variety of possible reasons. They could have been abuse victims themselves, and so they take out their pain on their victims; also, a relationship dynamic of abuser vs. abused may be the only one the abuser knows. The abuser may suffer from a personality disorder: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD, also known as psychopathy or sociopathy), etc.
The abuser doesn’t have to be cruel to everybody: usually one or two victims will suffice; also, the abuser doesn’t have to torment the victim 24/7, for in a cycle of abuse, there are pleasant periods (the ‘honeymoon’), then a build-up of increasingly intolerable abuse leading to a confrontation, then insincere apologies and a promise to change (this includes ‘hoovering’, a method of sucking the victim back by being temporarily ‘kind’ to him or her)…then another ‘honeymoon’ arrives, and the cycle repeats itself…endlessly.
It is inconceivable that the abuser would always be mean, let alone be so to everybody, because he or she knows that people would quickly get sick of his or her attitude and end the relationship. The abuser tends to pick one victim, or only a few, then build a network of friends and/or family who will be loyal to the abuser, at the victim’s expense. The abuser is sometimes nice in order to confuse the victim, making him or her think that the abuse is also ‘out of love’, and just meant to correct the victim’s supposedly errant ways.
Thus emotional abuse emerges in situations where there’s a power imbalance: in families (parents dominating their kids, adult sons or daughters abusing their elderly parents, or elder siblings bullying their younger ones); at school (bullies, domineering teachers); in the workplace (bosses over their employees, senior employees over newer ones, etc.); online (cyberbullying, trolling…which includes professional trolls, doxxing), etc.
The long-term effects of bullying are not something to be trivialized, though they all too often are, particularly…and most obviously…by the abuser. Childhood trauma shows itself in adulthood problems. The victim’s trauma leads to depression, low self-esteem, severe anxiety, poorly-controlled anger, dissociation, and having no sense of one’s own true identity. The victim loses much of his or her ability to trust others, learned helplessness ensues, and thus he or she either avoids social contact or develops poor social skills; this can cause a vicious circle including re-victimization, even poorer trust in people, and more social avoidance/ineptitude.
If you find yourself in an emotionally abusive relationship, be it with a domineering boyfriend/husband or girlfriend/wife, or an abusive family, job environment, or school situation, these steps must be taken: first, get help; if that doesn’t work, get out! If the abuser(s) won’t leave you alone, break off contact. Then, get psychiatric help. Involve the police, if necessary.
Baring My Soul
To illustrate the emotionally abusive relationship, please indulge me, Dear Reader, in some autobiography. Since I’ve been a victim of emotional abuse myself (the abusers being my family), I find it therapeutic to vent my feelings by telling you my story.
I’ve tried to make the following as coherent as possible, keeping reasonably to a chronological order. But the emotional nature of this confession makes it impossible to keep the below narrative from jumping back and forth sometimes. Psychological trauma tends to addle you in this way.
1 – Childhood
My brothers, whom I’ll name R. and F., were born in 1961 and 1963 respectively. My sister, whom I’ll call J., was born in 1964. I was born much later, in 1969. The family photo album was loaded with baby photos of R., F., and J.–I had one. Neither of my parents took the picture, for they were in it. Perhaps these facts mean nothing; perhaps they mean a lot. I will speculate on the possible significance of them towards the end of this article.
Around when I was three or four, I vaguely recall my bedroom door being locked at night, confining me in my room. On one occasion, the door was roped shut. I remember sitting on my knees by the door (I never slept well), rocking back and forth, chanting “Open up the door” rhythmically, over and over again. Needless to say, it was never opened till the next morning.
My mother explained that I had a habit of going outside at night or early in the morning and playing in the middle of the road. This seems like a bizarre story; I suspect that what I was really doing at night was getting out of bed and bothering my parents when they were trying to sleep.
As a child, I was bullied by F. and J., often left crying without anyone to hold me. I made friends, my best friend being an Irish boy named Neil. He was extremely important to me during those years, and when my family moved away in 1977, I was devastated. I don’t fault my family for moving–that was just my bad luck–but how they dealt with my subsequent social withdrawal was another matter entirely.
Before I go into that, another matter must first be dealt with. R., about 16 at the time, left the family. He’d been having a difficult time because he wasn’t doing well at school, and my ultra-conservative father used the most Neanderthal of methods–verbal abuse, shaming–to deal with R.’s bad grades. It all came to a head, R. couldn’t take it anymore, and he didn’t move with us from Toronto to Hamilton.
My despondency over leaving Neil affected me at school, and I was removed from regular classes, actually removed from one school and put in a different school altogether; a regular grade school, as always, but I was put in a class with kids who also had problems of one sort or another. It was around this time, the late 1970s, that I remembered hearing my mother describe me as ‘autistic’ for the first time.
The bullying continued, and though R. had sometimes protected me from F., he was gone now, leaving me at F.’s mercy. F. rationalized the bullying as ‘frustration’ that I showed no interest in making friends. Of course, if my parents had explained to him that bullying me, and forcing me to play baseball (a game I wasn’t at all interested in), wouldn’t encourage me to make friends, he might have stopped.
Now it is unfortunately true that I had an odd childhood habit of playing all by myself; I indulged in solitary fantasy, dreaming up stories like those in movies or on TV. I also developed an odd habit of talking to myself, and intensely imagining myself in conversations with others. My mother would have considered these ‘autistic symptoms,’ though I’ve never read of such habits as being autistic. In hindsight, I now suspect that these habits could have been forms of dissociation, or maladaptive daydreaming, due to the psychological trauma my family was subjecting me to.
As I said above, I’d played with friends like Neil in Toronto, but the devastation of having lost him was something I hadn’t gotten over. F.’s and J.’s bullying of me, and their pejorative way of describing my solitary play just shamed me into doing more of it. When people are making a child feel worthless, he or she figures no one will want to be his or her friend. Make a child feel like a freak, and he’ll act like a freak.
It was around 1980 or so that I began to get As at school. My parents were pleased: one A, then two, then three, then five As in grade five. I asked my mother what ‘autistic’ meant. The official family definition was that it referred to excessive self-absorption, which sounds more appropriate for NPD.
Actually, anybody who knows anything about autism knows that it’s made up of a triad of symptoms: 1. problems with social situations (which I admittedly had, though emotional abuse can be the cause of that problem, too); 2. problems with communication (which I did not have); and 3. limited interests or repetitive habits (my eating habits fit this category, as did my childhood habit of rocking back and forth; though I’ve read that this latter habit could result from emotional abuse, too).
Furthermore, my mother’s idea of congratulating me for my improved school performance (I was back in regular classes now, though behind a year) was to say that it was a “miracle from God” (she was never religious) that I turned out all right. Mother said the psychiatrists (whom, assuming they even existed, I barely remember at all–were they social workers? Teachers?) diagnosed me with autism, and claimed that an IQ test I scored poorly on showed that I was ‘retarded’. (!)
I was about ten years old when I was hearing her say these things to me.
Mother claimed that she didn’t know, before my new academic success, if I’d “make a good garbageman…as long as [I was] happy.” (How sweet of her to say!) She claimed, on more than one occasion, that the doctors recommended locking me up in an asylum and throwing away the key. Now, I admit that I was an odd kid, but surely my problems were nowhere near that extreme! (In fact, putting autistics away in institutions and forgetting about them was a common practice back in the 1940s and 50s, when little was known about effective therapy for them. By the early 1960s, considerable progress had been made, including the use of Applied Behaviour Analysis [ABA], so I find it hard to believe that, in the 1970s, psychiatrists would have been so pessimistic about me.)
She said things like this to me many times over the years, including her fear of my having to live with my parents as an adult, them worrying about having to take care of a forty-something “moron”. This was all while the “miracle” of my good school grades was going on. On a much later occasion, I think when I was a young adult, she said I was “good at things that don’t make money.”
Can you imagine what the effect of words like this have on the psyche of an impressionable, growing child?
R., being at the end of his rope, came back home. He was back in school, working hard and learning about computers, but he had a big chip on his shoulder. Imagining he was thought to be “the idiot of the family” (R., you have no idea!) for having been a high-school dropout, he went out of his way to insult J. and me for having done better at school, gaining our father’s favour and R.’s envy. R. insisted we were stupid know-nothings in spite of our academic achievement.
So now all three siblings were bullying me: calling me four-letter names, giving me constant put-downs, making me the butt of their jokes, shouting at me viciously, and usually because I’d caused them only minor annoyances. This abuse happened almost every day, throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. My mother knew it was happening the whole time, but never did anything about it, except for a few occasions when she saw F. get physical with me. Almost every time, she took the side of my bullies, rationalizing their actions and blaming the victim.
My mother described R. as being “more mature” when he was nasty to me; J.’s meanness was called “more loving”. I’m curious: what kind of bullying is “more mature” or “more loving”? All my mother was doing was appealing to stereotypes about the mature first-born son and the loving woman.
Another form of emotional abuse the family subjected me to during those years was to make me serve them all tea every evening, the rationalization being that I was getting a weekly allowance for it…a paltry amount (first $1, then up to $5 a week, really for washing the dishes almost every night, and taking out the garbage). Mom made me the family servant.
By the time I’d reached my twenties, R. and F. had moved out, to my great relief. But I still had to put up with my know-it-all sister, J. Both of us were studying English literature in university, and though I’d always done more creative writing than she, J. liked speaking as though she were an expert on literature, and that I hadn’t a clue. She would laugh at my writing and belittle me for my opinions, and when I had the audacity to defend them, I was branded the opinionated one, which she, of course, never was.
The combination of all these factors–bullying, invalidating, and the inferiority complex I’d got from the autism label–seriously damaged not only my sense of self-worth, but also my confidence in my very ability to perceive the world around me correctly. This all affected my mental health, too, and these factors, combined with other frustrations I’d been enduring, put me into a serious clinical depression by the time I’d reached my mid-twenties. I was even contemplating suicide.
Over a period of about half a year, I was receiving psychotherapy, first from a psychologist, then from a psychiatrist. Each of them analyzed me over a period of several months; after telling them of the autism label, both men told me point blank that they saw no signs of autistic symptoms in me. What liberating words!
When I told my mother about this, she would have none of it. She insisted that something had been wrong with me as a child. She insisted that those therapists were wrong because they’d never seen me as a child; apparently, those thoroughly trained in psychiatry–unlike my mother–can’t tell the difference between an autistic child and an autistic adult, whose symptoms have often abated somewhat. Mother knows best, apparently; and my psychological liberation was taken away from me.
Now let’s jump ahead about seven years. As of 2002, I’d moved to Taiwan, I was teaching English as a second language, and I married my Taiwanese girlfriend. I also got an Alien Permanent Resident Certificate, allowing me to stay in Taiwan for the rest of my life.
My mother began sending me e-mails about a mild form of autism called Asperger Syndrome (AS), insisting that I had it, and pointing out that it’s a condition that stays with one for life. (This is in direct contrast with her claim, after the “miracle from God” one, that autistics with above average intelligence can grow out of it. Notice how her story about me was always changing!)
It is also interesting how my mother brought this up at a time when I’d been clearly setting roots in Taiwan, with no intention of going back to Canada. This could have just been a coincidence, but I doubt it. Was she using AS to shake my newly-developing self-confidence and make me want to return to Canada, where I’d be ‘safe’ with her?
She concluded I had AS from watching a TV documentary, of all things; but I had never been formally diagnosed with it; I wasn’t even in Canada for my mother (who, remember, had no background in psychiatry–she was only a nurse, and one out of professional practice for decades) to observe me and double-check if this amateur diagnosis was correct.
At first, I politely tried to disagree with her, but she wouldn’t stop prating about AS. She’d sent me an online newspaper article about a young man with AS, whose life of being isolated and bullied seemed calculatedly meant by my mother to compare with mine. His tendency to “see the world differently” seemed meant to imply that I had the same tendency (and as my family constantly observed, this meant that I saw the world incorrectly).
I went to visit my family the following year, and my mother’s prolixity about AS continued. She spoke about it as she always had about autism, grinning like a Cheshire cat (an odd thing to do, considering the pain and stress autism causes, not only for the sufferer, but also for the family who has to take care of the autistic).
On one occasion, my mother and I were in her car, with my wife sitting in the back. With her usual bright, cheery countenance, she informed me that, due to my AS, I’d apparently had a toddler’s maturity when I was a teen, a teen’s maturity when I was a young adult, and at 33 (the year was 2003), I had a 23-year-old’s maturity. I was furious.
It was around this time that I was beginning to have truly anti-Mom feelings. I struggled with these feelings for years, trying to reconcile myself with the family, but she was just making it harder and harder for me.
2 – The Last Straw (Or One of Them, Anyway)
A year or so later, when I was back in Taiwan, I’d heard bad news from home: J.’s husband, Kevin, had terminal cancer. Up until that time, I’d been angry with J. over slights comparable with what my mother had been hitting me with (i.e., treating me like an overgrown child); but I felt compassion for J., who was clearly devastated by the imminent loss of the man she loved. Furthermore, having been going through a politically conservative phase in my life (which I now deeply regret), I’d adopted Christian beliefs (which I’ve since renounced); and so I wanted to do the right thing and show kindness to my sister, forgiving her for those past injuries and comforting her in whatever way I could.
I e-mailed the family, telling them that my wife and I wanted to visit and see Kevin one last time. My mother e-mailed me back, claiming that I’d sent J. e-mails that were “tactless and insensitive” (I recall sending messages that, if anything, were the opposite of that), and since J. and Kevin were in an emotionally vulnerable state, it would be best if I didn’t go over to see them.
Enraged, I immediately e-mailed my mother, saying that, as surprising as it must have been for her, I’d actually acquired some social skills over the years. She responded in a typically condescending way, saying that my response was in my usual, self-absorbed manner, only reacting to what she’d said about me, and ignoring all the other things she’d said in her e-mail. Apparently, rejecting her son’s wish to be loving was just an insignificant detail, because her ‘abnormal’ son was an unimportant person.
This kind of twisting of my intentions, from good ones to bad, has always been typical of that family. Any reasonable family would have been happy to receive a visit from a son or daughter, even if he or she was rather “tactless and insensitive” at times: upon arriving in Canada, I could have been taken aside and simply told to watch my words. Instead, I was spat on.
Mom suggested that I come over and attend Kevin’s funeral, which came about a year later. I had no wish to attend his funeral, or any family funeral, for that matter: painful memories, of J. verbally abusing me with four-letter words at my maternal grandmother’s funeral (when I was about 20), ensured that I wouldn’t want to go.
To compensate for my absence, I e-mailed a poem dedicated to Kevin’s memory. Mom, rationalizing that the funeral was mainly for his side of the family, rejected the poem as inappropriate. I composed this piece of music, dedicated to him, for J. to hear, hoping it would touch her heart. I mailed a CD to Mom to give to J. Along with claiming that my music was “plodding,” Mom claimed it would arouse painful feelings in J. rather than touch her. (Dear Reader, are you beginning to see a pattern in my mother’s attitude and behaviour?) She claimed she gave J. the CD, but I think she was lying, for J. never acknowledged it, let alone thanked me…and J. is quite particular about politeness.
Mom’s unrelentingly unapologetic attitude drove me to make an ultimatum: either she and the family had to change their attitude, or I would stop visiting. This ultimatum was in a long e-mail in which I went over essentially every grievance I had with her and the family, the highlights being the Asperger Syndrome label, her characterizing me as uniquely “tactless and insensitive,” and my reminding her of examples of the family’s past cruelties to me, to show that they were no more tactful or sensitive than I.
In her response, she portrayed my complaints as me being too preoccupied with the past (my vivid memory, apparently, is a curse, rather than a blessing, since it reminds me of who they really are as a family). No consideration was given to the fact that they had to change their attitude to me if any reconciliation was to happen. She also insisted that I, as a child, really was as ill as she’d claimed, that my answers to that legendary IQ test were totally “bizarre”. However painful it may have been for me, I had to accept the autism label; they apparently didn’t have to accept the painful responsibility for emotionally abusing me. I was supposed to forgive them, as unrepentant as they were. I restated my chief demand: no respect, no more visits.
Then my sister sent me an angry e-mail demanding that I “let this go.” Obviously, my continued complaints were troubling my poor mother to no end. Now I was being commanded to forgive them. Also, J. told me not to reply to her (she always dished it out better than she could take it). Here we see typically emotionally abusive behaviour: the victim is vilified, the victimizer is portrayed as the victim, and the victim is not listened to, his or her perspective is never given a chance even to be heard, let alone sympathized with.
Remember that none of this bickering would have happened if my mother had simply respected my wishes not to discuss AS any further, and if she’d accepted my wish to see Kevin before he died. Instead, this whole family row was blamed on me, as all my rows with them have been. Apparently, my anger over this issue proved Mom’s point about me being “tactless and insensitive.” Whatever.
Mother made an empty promise, in a later e-mail, that the family would have a discussion together about changing their attitude. I made my last visit in the fall of 2008, and while she promised that the family had truly changed their attitude toward me, and in ways that would have surprised and impressed me, I saw clearly that no such changes had occurred. R., as well as F.’s son Eric, were blatantly disrespectful to me on three occasions; and while I could have tolerated those slights, my mother did the one thing I’d demanded she never do again–she brought up AS. In fact, she bought me a book about it, to drill this phoney identity even further down my throat!
Did she not realize how much she was endangering her relationship with me? Had I not threatened never visiting again if she ever brought up AS? Surely her relationship with me was more important to her than a mere psychiatric label, particularly a label she had no authority to impose on anybody. She had to be ill herself in some way. I would investigate that possibility soon enough.
3 – The Dawn of Realization
Back in Taiwan, I’d been reading about AS on Wikipedia, and interestingly, I discovered that people with AS, due to their social ineptitude, are often subjected by their families to emotional abuse. Then I started learning about emotional abuse, fascinated to see that I myself had been subjected to it.
I learned about gaslighting, and found it ironic that, as a teen, I’d seen the movie Gaslight (1944), not knowing that I myself was being victimized in a similar way. I read about how abusers deny their abusiveness and blame the victim, and remembered that my family had been doing exactly that to me. I learned of the effects of emotional abuse on the victim–excessive anger, anxiety, depression, dissociation, insomnia, inability to trust others, social ineptitude–and easily saw how I manifested most of those symptoms.
A few years later, I discovered a quiz called the Autism-Spectrum Quotient. Bravely, I decided to take it, to determine the truth about myself. There were fifty statements with which I could slightly or definitely agree or disagree. Sometimes agreeing, and sometimes disagreeing, would result in an ‘autistic’ answer, if you will, giving me a point each time. A score of 32 or 33 would indicate “clinically significant levels of autistic traits.” A score anywhere between 26 and 32 apparently was an area of uncertainty, since according to one research paper, a score of 25 or lower could effectively rule out Asperger Syndrome. Even with a high score, one shouldn’t jump to conclusions, since one should double-check by getting examined by a psychiatrist first. The test is not intended to be diagnostic.
I did the test, answering the questions with perfect honesty. Seriously, what good would it do me to lie? I needed to know the truth about myself. Second, I didn’t even need to lie. Third, I had no idea at the time if many of my answers were going to be ‘autistic’ or not.
My score was 13.
I reconsidered my answers carefully, looking at the fifty statements and wondering if more (or fewer) of the ‘autistic’ answers might have applied to me. An adjusted, possible score ranged from 2 or 3 to 20, 21, or maybe 22 (and that was stretching things). In any case, I was safely below the minimum for even the highest-functioning of AS, even if I went with the highest score.
So, what the hell was my mother talking about?
I had an epiphany.
If I am nowhere near even the mildest of autistic traits, confirming what the two psychotherapists had said fifteen years before, it became shockingly clear just how improbable, how outright preposterous, my mother’s claims had been of my seeming childhood mental incompetence (i.e., the ‘retarded’ IQ score, “lock me up in an asylum and throw away the key,” “Would I even make a good garbageman?”). That her claims were totally implausible should have been obvious to me long before taking that test, but her gaslighting was clouding my vision.
My mother had been lying to me the whole time.
The first words that came to mind, upon this realization, were, “Those perfidious snakes!” I don’t blame only my mother, but the other four, too, including my father (who had died in 2009) for not doing anything to stop her (he had once expressed doubts about this ‘autism,’ but did nothing beyond that to help me).
R., F., and J. had always made demands that I “grow up” and make friends (in a bullying manner that was the opposite of helpful), insensitive and ignorant of how difficult making friends and acting normally is for autistics (or for victims of emotional abuse, the real cause of my social difficulties). Seriously, demanding autistics or sufferers of psychological trauma to adjust like everyone else is like demanding mentally handicapped people to excel in university. If my siblings really thought there was something innately, clinically wrong with me, their bullying treatment of me (which continued when they were adults) makes the three of them a special species of asshole.
If R., F., and J. didn’t think there was anything significantly wrong with me (It is safe to assume that my ‘loving’ mother never told my bullying siblings to go easy on me: “He has a mental condition. He can’t help it. He doesn’t know any better. Be patient with him.”), couldn’t they put the pieces together and realize, or at least suspect, that Mom’s autism narrative was dubious? Of course not: those three apaths were being manipulated every bit as much as I was. They also didn’t consider me worthy of being thought about so much.
Knowing my mother lied about autism (and since she was a nurse and had a pronounced interest in medical/psychiatric matters, her lying seems to have been a case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy), as she had told smaller lies on other occasions, I found myself forced to ponder a difficult question: what kind of a mother deceives her own son in such a monstrously cruel way?
There had to be something wrong with her. To try to state specifically what that problem was, I’d have to venture into very speculative territory: she, being totally unqualified to pin psychiatric labels on me or anybody, fabricated them for me all my life; for me to do the same to her, feigning certainty about something I have no more authority on than she, would make me a hypocrite.
All I can do is conjecture the possibility that she has a mild case of ASPD or NPD; but in all fairness to her, I cannot say this with any degree of certainty. Indeed, many of the diagnostic criteria for ASPD and NPD are traits she doesn’t seem to have, unless she’s skillfully hiding them. All I can say, with any reasonable degree of certainty, is that she has indulgently lied to me and to others on many occasions over the years, has used those lies to manipulate and control people, and feels no remorse at all.
Indeed, upon realizing that my mother had been lying to me, and subsequently resolving never to visit the family again as punishment, I noticed things she was saying and doing, during the early 2010s, that seemed to confirm my suspicions. (Given the viciousness with which the family insists on having their way, I decided to continue communicating with them by phone or by e-mail–minimizing the communication, of course–since ending all communication with them ‘cold turkey’ would have provoked an aggressive reaction from them. I decided to end our relationship gradually, by attrition.) Now I will explore my mother’s lying about other people.
4 – Abusing My Cousins
Mom always complained about my cousins, in particular the oldest and the youngest of the three guys. Only the middle cousin, whom I’ll call S., was spared her bad-mouthing, since he seemed mentally stable (though as soon as S. began to show signs of mental illness a few years before this article, Mom immediately turned on him). His younger brother, whose erratic behaviour was most apparent to everyone, got nothing but harsh words from my mother. She once lied to the family, over 25 years ago, that I’d vigorously told him off for swearing in my parents’ restaurant; she said this presumably to make the family think, “See? Even Mawr doesn’t like him!” I never said anything about his naughty words at the time; my mother and his parents were the ones who’d scolded him.
I remember, about 14 years ago during that visit to Canada, her saying about him and his eldest brother, “They’re getting really weird!” She said this in a sneering, contemptuous way that was totally unbecoming of an aunt. You had to be there to see it. I was wondering, at the time, when she was going to label them with Asperger’s. I would find out soon enough.
On one occasion in the early 2010s, Mom complained to me on the phone about the youngest again, mentioning how he’d been annoying everyone in the family during my father’s funeral. She said that a new expression had been in common use in the family at the time: “Scoring another point for the team.” (Of course–she and her narcissistic fan club were just that: a team, a clique, an exclusive social club.) Apparently, R. had used the expression when stopping my youngest cousin from annoying my niece, Emily, when she needed to use the washroom. Knowing R. (and assuming Mom’s story was even true), he probably spoke to my youngest cousin in the snootiest language he could muster.
During the same phone call, she claimed that F. wanted “to punch [my youngest and oldest cousins] out,” which sounded like a typical thing F. would say. Mom droned on and on like this, about how irritating and unlikeable my youngest cousin is; and almost within the same breath, she griped: “I think he has Asperger’s Syndrome!”
Hearing that was nothing short of chilling.
Just let that sink in, Dear Reader. Take as long as you like.
He–whom my mother never loved, never had a kind word for, but had an endless list of complaints about–apparently has an autism spectrum disorder! He, who had never shown evidence of autistic traits before, now suddenly had them. He has the ‘unlikeable, annoying person’ mental condition! I was beginning to understand the real reason I’d been bullied by R., F., and J. Had Mom been bad-mouthing me behind my back, all my life, too?
She made other speculations about his inner mental life, claiming that a psychiatrist had said he was schizophrenic, an absurdly improbable idea that even my Mom later said couldn’t be true. Why was she so interested in the mental state of a nephew she’d never cared about, never even liked? Had he replaced me as the victim of her lies? It seemed so.
As I stated above, my middle cousin, S., began to show signs of mental instability at around this time. He was making baseless accusations of me gossiping about him with former friends of ours in Taiwan. Some of his paranoid charges against me–like saying awful things I’d never said, or doing things like throwing money at him–I’m sure he ‘saw’ and ‘heard’ me do, but were clearly based on hallucinations (S. has a history of substance abuse).
I know it’s not my place to put psychiatric labels on S., but I do want him to get psychiatric help, which isn’t really available here in Taiwan. Far too few of the locals understand English fluently enough to be able to interpret the psychological meaning of his barely coherent speech.
Mom has never lifted a finger to help him; in fact, she wants nothing said to my aunt about her son. Here is a man with a genuine psychiatric condition, and while Mom acknowledges it, she won’t help. It’s not that I expect the family to wave a magic wand to cure him; I don’t mean to place the whole burden on them to help S. I do expect them, though, to care enough to try. I have tried: I told S. to his face, and in e-mails, that he needs to see a psychiatrist. As I said above, I don’t have the resources that are available in Canada (which he visits regularly, giving the family lots of opportunities) to help him. Mom could help. She just doesn’t want to.
My estrangement from the family increased because of her antipathy to him. (She justified her attitude by claiming she was so upset by the hurtful things S. had said to me in his e-mail rants–a few of which I’d forwarded to her–that she ‘couldn’t’ repeat his words to my aunt. Wasn’t that rich?! R., F., and J. had said much crueller things to me, while in reasonable mental health, but Mom wasn’t upset; while S. was clearly not guilty by reason of insanity, yet he was the antichrist in her opinion!) Now, I wouldn’t e-mail or phone her at all, and a year before this post’s publication, she e-mailed me, expressing her frustrations with my avoidance of the family. Of course, she never considered what she might have done to provoke my emotional distance. As usual, everything was my fault.
5 – More Elaborate Lies
Last summer, my mother tried to get a rise from me again, claiming that S., while visiting Canada, shouted at her about me on the phone. Actually, as of that time, he hadn’t voiced any anger to me in at least a year or so, nor has he since then. It is safe to assume that S. has gotten over his rage at me; he may even be regretting his hostilities. All of this made me suspicious of what my mother was saying.
Still, I went along with her story, curious to see where it would go. I repeated my urging, in another lengthy, emotional e-mail to her, that S. be taken to a psychiatrist. She resisted as usual, with more rationalizations (It would be impractical, him living in Taiwan and having his working life here disrupted by time in Canada in therapy; also, the diagnosis of schizophrenia, as is suspected, might make him suicidal–as if he wouldn’t be suicidal without any therapy!).
She suggested that I send an e-mail to my aunt about the problem (why couldn’t my mom just do it herself?). Mom first had me send my e-mail to her, so she could check and make sure what I’d said was with well-chosen words. When she’d decided it was ready to be sent to my aunt, Mom included my aunt’s e-mail address in her reply (I suspect this replacement of her old e-mail address was really a fake one, so my message would be received by my mother instead of my aunt; in any case, what should be noticed here is how my mother was controlling the whole correspondence).
I sent the e-mail to my aunt, supposedly. Then a day or so later, Mom replied, saying my aunt refused to read it; Mom included text from my aunt’s reply to her, saying that I had apparently sent my aunt a series of “over-the-top” e-mails that were so upsetting that she and my uncle agreed they were “disgusting;” so she should just stop reading any correspondence from me.
I’d never sent “over-the-top” or “disgusting” e-mails to my aunt. The closest I ever came to doing that were a few forwards of online newspaper articles (centre-right political commentary), and those were sent around ten years before this current incident. I never sent anything to her since then, and though, at one time back then, she expressed strong objections with one political article in a long e-mail reply to me, the content of that article was far removed from, far less than anything that could ever be called “over the top” or “disgusting.” It was just an opinionated op-ed, the other forwards even less than that.
A far more plausible explanation for this incident is that my mother simply made the whole thing up, my aunt’s ‘text’ having really been typed by my mother in a different font, to give the illusion of having been from a different e-mail message. I have sent “over-the-top” e-mails to her over the years; and only a few years ago, I told her about speculations I had about how my uncle may have been the root cause of S.’s psychological problems (In one of S.’s e-mail rants to me, he said he couldn’t trust people because one of his father’s high school teachers–during WWII–called his father “the enemy”…my uncle and father were German-Canadians; but S., as I am, is an English teacher, and he could easily have been displacing his hostility towards his father onto that old teacher). Now, I’m sure that if I’d accused my uncle, directly in an e-mail to him and my aunt, of what I suspected he was guilty of having done to S. (and I’m not stupid enough to make accusations I can’t prove!), he would have found my words “disgusting”.
My mother has never wanted to discuss S.’s problems with his mother, and a perfect way to stop such discussions would be for Mom to manipulate me into being too embarrassed to pursue the matter any further. Finally, my mother could use “my aunt’s reply” to stick it to me for having sent my “over-the-top” e-mails to her.
Added to this, my mother told me that my aunt thought I had to have been a great “burden” to my mother (i.e., ‘autism’ was presumably implied here), and added that “my aunt’s attitude” was “insulting.” My aunt hardly even knows me, let alone has reason to think I’d be a burden to my mother. It’s far more likely that my mother has always considered me a burden, and she was just displacing this truly “insulting” attitude onto my aunt. This displacement would serve another purpose for my mother: to fuel more bad feeling in me against all my cousins, thus isolating their family from ours.
If I’m right about this estrangement being part of my mother’s agenda, that would explain why, after I naturally denied ever sending my aunt offensive e-mails, my mother then replied that S. may have made my aunt believe, or pushed her into saying, that I’d sent those crazy e-mails (an even more ridiculous lie). Mom also warned me to beware of any reprisals from S., who was returning to Taiwan at around that time. Of course, S. never did anything to me, reinforcing the probability that all of this had been more fabrication from my mother.
My wife was as shocked as I was to hear this bizarre accusation that I’d sent my aunt a whole bunch of offensive e-mails. My wife advised me to cut off all communication with my mother, which I did.
I bring up all these recent lies of my mother’s (an elaborate combination of about six or seven in total) to reinforce for you, Dear Reader, an understanding of how emotional abuse is an ongoing problem. The lies never seem to stop; the manipulation just goes on and on.
While she was doing all this, she had the gall to press me to make another visit. She seemed to want to use these lies to bring me closer to her (she was always trying to make me emotionally dependent on her, hence the autism fabrication). She also probably used these lies about S. to make me so scared of him that I’d want to leave Taiwan and live with her in Ontario again.
When the pressure to make a visit had gotten too great, I simply replied that I didn’t want to because of her “lies, lies, and more lies.” I told her not to pretend she didn’t know what I meant by that, and to take comfort in having the love of the rest of the family. I also said I wouldn’t answer any e-mails or phone calls from her, so sick was I of being manipulated. I sent this blunt e-mail in the fall of 2015.
6 – Is My Mother Dead?
In about April or May of this year (2016), I was informed that my mother was in hospital and dying of breast cancer, which she’d caught about ten to fifteen years ago; and while it had been under control, now it had metastasized. Surely someone with her medical expertise (she’s an RN) knew enough to make regular check-ups and prevent an early-stage cancer from getting worse; so to say that this news was a sudden development would be quite an understatement. Furthermore, I knew she was desperate to get me to talk to her, and make another visit: was this cancer story yet another elaborate lie, using the whole family as accomplices? Was this lie meant to make me feel guilty, jump on a plane, and visit them…only to find her fully alive, then be subjected to a condescending speech about how my ‘selfishness’ forced the family to trick me into visiting?
I was instructed to phone R.’s cellphone, since he’d been visiting her regularly at the hospital, or so the story went. I did call, her answering. I suspect she was pretending to be high on morphine, for she didn’t really sound all that out of it; besides, since in vino veritas (or in this case, morphine), I’d expected at least some of the truth to slip out while she was talking to me. Of course, none of that truth ever came out.
Instead, she droned on and on about how my e-mail “hurt” her: remember that psychopaths and narcissists always play the victim and blame the real victim. She also spoke of how I was “self-centred” by nature (never mind her own self-serving lies). Another empty promise was made to put the past behind us, while, almost in the same breath, she referred to how I’d annoyed her when I was twelve or thirteen–so much for forgetting the past! Then she congratulated herself for having been even more loving to me as a child than she had been to my siblings, not backing this up with any proof, of course. Gaslighting can be so surreal at times.
After that call, I continued avoiding contact with the family. R. tried to contact me online, saying she’d died already. J. had told me, during a phone call before I phoned R.’s cellphone to talk to Mom, that her terminal cancer would take almost a year before killing her; metastatic breast cancer patients can, with proper care, last many years before dying. Again, this was all happening remarkably quickly: frankly, this sudden death seems fake. My wife finds this quick death hard to believe, too. Was Mom again trying to manipulate me into getting onto a plane to see her?
All of this ‘dying’ had been happening, from my vantage point, within the space of about a month…or less. At around the same time, R. discovered a video I’d shared on YouTube, under my original name, about seven years before, one which expressed my bitterness over my feelings of betrayal by my mother. Obviously, he felt hurt and upset by what he heard me say, since he’s known our mother to be an angelic matriarch.
I hid R.’s comment because I find it triggering of my past psychological trauma, and because it misrepresents my meaning to anyone who may watch the video in the future. What follows, however, is an almost exact quote.
“Disturbing words from a disturbed individual with an imperfect mother who loved you more than anyone else on the planet. You misunderstand her, as you misunderstand everyone except yourself. Shame on you.”
This is a typical response from someone in my family: unthinking, spontaneous rage, with no consideration for the consequences. I wonder if he realizes he’s knocked the last nail in the coffin of my relationship with the family.
Contrary to what he thinks, those words I spoke weren’t mine, “disturbing” as they may be to many people. I was reciting the famous words of British poet Philip Larkin, from his well-known poem, ‘This Be the Verse’.
I’m sure it’s easier for R. to regard me as mentally ill than to look at himself in the mirror and acknowledge the failures of the family in dealing with their problems with me. There’s only one of me, as opposed to many of them, including my nephews, niece, and cousins. If this whole problem was only my fault, why couldn’t they all put their heads together and work something out? If their past methods weren’t working, why not try a new approach?
Here’s a hint: a solution involves actually listening to my side of the story, instead of contemptuously dismissing me all the time and listening only to our mother. (When I’d spoken to him and J., around the time I spoke to Mom on R.’s cellphone, I mentioned her lying to me, in a very emotional voice. Neither of my siblings acknowledged my experience; they didn’t even take it seriously, as I knew they wouldn’t.)
R. had a wonderful opportunity here to ask me, in the comments, why I recited such a harsh poem. Instead of immediately commenting in anger (as I assume he did), he could have waited, calmed down, and thought carefully about what to say. Now, if he actually did wait and calm down before commenting, then all the more shame goes on him for judging me rather than trying to understand.
What must be emphasized about my video is that it wasn’t intended for his eyes, or for those of anyone in the family. R. found it because he was stalking me online, after I wouldn’t communicate with him or any of those emotional abusers (I learned long ago that trying to assert my rights to people who don’t listen was a pointless waste of time). It’s not as though I deliberately sent him the video to watch while our mother was on her death bed…if she even was dying.
R. has no idea who I understand or misunderstand. I simply understand Mom differently than he, based on our different experiences of her. It’s only natural that R. and the rest of the family see her as loving and kind: she was good to them, though her emotional abuse of me divided me from the family, which in turn has hurt them through the lack of family harmony; so her ‘loving-kindness’ must be greatly qualified, even for them.
Actually, I understand her and the rest of the family very well. R., F., and J. were nasty to me because our authoritarian father was nasty to them (and my uncle, my dad’s younger brother, was probably emotionally abusive to my cousins, because he and my father had the same ultra-conservative upbringing, hence my suspicions about the cause of S.’s troubles), so my siblings learned that nastiness is how you resolve family conflicts. People are to be controlled, not connected with, in the family philosophy that they so vehemently deny exists. Remember what I said about my father’s abusiveness to R. when he got bad grades as a teen? The roots of R.’s aggression came from our father, not from my ‘annoying’ personality.
Note how, according to R.’s comment on my video, our mother is merely “imperfect”. When I’d spoken to J. on the phone about Mom’s cancer, she also dismissed my accusation of Mom’s lying by saying Mom didn’t have “an instruction booklet” for dealing with the challenges of motherhood. These straw-man arguments are typical of the family, avoiding the real issue.
I’ve never been upset about slight flaws in our mother: everyone is imperfect. My mother’s lies amount to a betrayal of trust. I’ve discovered a string of elaborate lies she’s told: autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and a fake incident with my aunt and S. Her death from cancer could very well be a fake. (In case R. is stalking my blog and reading this, if he plans on trolling me with photos of our mother looking bald, pale, and gaunt, he should know that I’m aware of how cleverly people can photoshop pictures and write fake obituaries, especially computer whizzes like R.)
7 – In Conclusion
Do I even know the half of my mother’s lying? How many other lies has she told me and the rest of the family over the years, lies I’ve forgotten about, but which played games with my head no less? Most people lie to avoid getting into trouble. Her lies, on the other hand, are manipulative.
When I spoke with R. on his cellphone about her cancer, immediately after hearing her tell me she loved “self-centred” me so very much, he said that the current situation was “all about her.” Now if she was really dying, these would be the words of a self-sacrificing, dutiful son, sitting by her hospital bed and doing anything he could to do her ease, out of love. Most admirable. But if she was, and still is, sitting on a sofa watching TV at home, “all about her” is more indicative of her narcissism, and his collusion in it, than his love.
R.’s attitude to my “disturbed” psyche is typical of the family’s total lack of compassion for people with mental disorders. I understand nobody but myself, as he said in his comment to my YouTube video, because I’m totally absorbed in myself, to the exclusion of all others. I’m a typical autistic jerk, apparently.
This egocentric mental state, however, is more typical of NPD than of AS. Mom was always fond of displaying her medical expertise (from a nursing practice that had stopped at least as long ago as when I was born, when my parents went into the food service industry–owning a Baskin Robbins Ice Cream store, then a Smitty’s Pancake House restaurant in the 1980s), even to the point of pretending to have a knowledge of psychiatric matters she obviously lacked.
Her making me out to be a ‘self-absorbed’ autistic sounds suspiciously like projection, or projective identification, which involves not just deluding oneself that another has one’s own vices, but actually manipulating the other to manifest those vices in objective reality (projective identification has been linked with gaslighting many times). If she could successfully push all her narcissism into me, and make me introject it, then she could be free to be selfless to everyone else. Shaming me, through projective identification, would make her look good. This would explain her need to continue labelling me with AS, even to the point of risking destroying her relationship with me.
With me no longer in Canada, she needed someone else to project onto on a daily basis. Hence, her bashing of my youngest cousin, saying he also has AS. If other people in her day-to-day life are self-absorbed and annoying, she needn’t fear that she will be so herself.
Now, as I’ve said above, I’m only speculating about her mental state. To be fair to her, I cannot know for sure. I have to have theories, though, to make sense of my own suffering. Whatever her problem was/is, no normal mother treats her own son the way she did.
How does a mother who “loved [me] more than anyone else on the planet” lie that I’m less capable that I really am? How does such a loving mother side with my bullying siblings if she loves me more than them? How is her unsympathetic attitude to my ‘mental condition’ loving? I challenge the family to rationalize such illogic.
While I don’t wish to promote an unsympathetic attitude towards NPD, ASPD, and the like, it is the very lack of empathy of those people, along with their tendency towards cruelty to others, done for their own entertainment, that makes sympathy for them so difficult. I believe my mother always knew she was different, and she learned from an early age to hide it, to fit in. Her parents’ lack of sympathy for her different ways may have inspired her to be similarly unsympathetic to me. People with mental conditions are “just bad people”.
Also, my birth, five years after J., who was born in a cluster with R. and F. in the early-to-mid 1960s, suggests that my parents had intended J., their one daughter, to be their last child. Was my conception an accident? Did my mother go through nine months of hell to have a baby she’d never intended to have? When she gave birth to me, did I ruin her figure? By emotionally abusing me, was she punishing me for even existing? Was I just an unwanted burden to her? Is that the explanation for the lack of baby photos of me? I’ll never know, of course.
You must be thinking, Dear Reader, that I have absolutely nothing good to say about my mother. I’ll try to compensate for that a bit. I’m sure she felt some love for me: after all, the maternal instinct is only natural in a mother. I have had some pleasant memories with her: our trip to England in February of 1987 was probably our best moment together; she took me to some fascinating and beautiful places there, including Shakespeare’s tomb. It is also true that she was generous in gift-giving to me over the years. But none of this comes even close to undoing the injuries she and the family did to me.
She. Broke. My. Heart.
Remember that emotional abusers aren’t always bad to their victims: they have to maintain a façade of goodness to maintain control, and to convince the world that they aren’t such awful people. Furthermore, everyone is a complex combination of good and bad traits, even those in my family. The important thing to note is that tipping point where the bad clearly outweighs the good; I’ve seen this in my family, and I want out.
I believe I’ve acquired a mild case of Complex PTSD. I’ve looked over the childhood and adult symptoms, and I have most of them. I fear never escaping my abusive relationship with my family (what will their next scheme be, to suck me back in? Internet trolling? A letter from them?), even after years of living far away from them.
As unfilial as this must sound, I hope my mother really has died; because with her gone, I know her manipulation will have died with her. The death of that signifies my final escape from the abuse…and escaping emotional abuse is the only way to be healed.