Death Is Not A Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card

They are cremating my mother today. It has been over three weeks since she died (everything in Swindon moves slowly), and I’m glad I waited to write about her death because the landscape of my emotions has twisted, warped and lurched with a ferocity I did not, but probably should have expected in that time.

Initially I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. A strange vortex of nothingness. The tornadoes of my usual emotional state were reduced to brief gusts of wind pushing dead leaves down the street. For someone for feels every little thing so deeply, it was both exceptionally peculiar and awesomely relieving to feel absolutely nothing. Unfortunately it did not last. As details of the funeral plans made their way toward me, the perpetual simmering spitting hate a victim harbours toward their abuser began to build and boil. The idea of her being mourned, of the truth of her life being rewritten in some absurd nod to ritual and decorum, her nastiness and cruelty glossed over because ‘you can’t speak ill of the dead’ began to make me rage, to make me despair, to make me wonder what the point of anything is when you can be such a consummately appalling person and still be seen as deserving of the same processes as actual good people. What the fuck?

Her face and her utterly unspeakable sing-song voice come to me at odd moments, as sharp and shrill as they ever were. Her absurd pomposity, grandiose language and blind reductiveness still make me want to scream. I can still feel the weight of her bullying, her selfishness, her complete and utter lack of understanding that the world did not revolve around her. The insane stress of walking on eggshells in her presence, waiting for something to set her off screaming, bracing yourself for the torrent of abuse you would undoubtedly receive, usually over something incomprehensibly minor. The debilitating pressure of trying to bridge immense chasm between the climate of nonsensical cliches she lived in and the real world was relentless, especially for a child.

My mother had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. She also may have had either Bipolar or Borderline personality disorder. These are explanations, not excuses, and thankfully well-documented enough to have brought me out of the negative-feedback-loop of abusive situations I spent most of my life in, as a direct result of her behaviour. She took all her rage, her irrational violence, her furious frustration and pure, ugly hatred of anyone and anything that challenged her entirely self-centred narrative of the world out on her children. How to live around a person who is completely utterly toxic? All you can do is get out of their way. Unless you are a child, their child, bound to live in the shadow of their narcissistic delusions until you are old enough to escape. As the (significantly) youngest I was the most vulnerable. Like every abuser, she cleared a path for others to follow – beat me into a scrambled egg of a human being ripe to be taken advantage of. I grew up hating myself, internalising my role as an emotional and physical punchbag. I had nothing, no one to show me otherwise and flailed desperately in the world, falling repeatedly back into abusive situations until I finally sought out the help I needed.

One of the most challenging things about recovering from childhood abuse is being responsible for your own healing. It feels like unfairness compounding unfairness. Why should you have to fix problems you didn’t create? Why do you have to do huge amounts of work on your behaviours, your assumed norms, your emotional responses, when it was someone else who fucked them up? Why aren’t they doing the work, taking the responsibility? It feels like a tax on being a victim, an extra punishment. It feels like bullshit. Yet you have no other choice. Do the work or stay fucked up forever. And all the while the perpetrator walks free, moves through the world full of that same bullish, selfish aggression, never pays for what they did, never even admits they did anything wrong. Dying feels like an escape for them. A reprieve they don’t deserve. A free ride to presumed, assumed innocence. Because you can’t speak ill of the dead. More bullshit.

How to grieve for someone who taught you to hate yourself as they taught you to read and write? Who hit, kicked, slapped and spat at you when you were a fraction of their size? Who told you you were cursed and had bad blood before you even understood what those things meant? My grief is for the person I might have become with real love, real care, real parenting. I mourned my lack of a mother a long time ago, and I mourn it still. I ache at the loving bond I see between daughters and mothers, and I always will. That loss, that absence, is another cruel facet of her legacy. These last few days, knowing that she will be memorialised, I’ve felt the burn of an anger I want so desperately to put to bed. It is unutterably unfair that she still has any power over my emotions, that she is still able to disturb or unsettle me, to attack the work I’ve been forced to do to repair the damage she created. No, unfair does not even begin to cover it. The enablers, the wilfully ignorant bystanders, the blinkered do-gooders, those who feel they can profit from her death, either emotionally, financially or both, all the hideous hypocrites who are prepared to stand up and mourn her, to act like she was a decent person, a decent mother, I feel sick thinking about them. I feel sick knowing that, like everything other misery she has bestowed on me, there is absolutely nothing I can do about them. That once again, the onus is on me to help myself, to force myself to let go, to take on yet more responsibility for fixing damage that she has created.

It’s unlikely she ever fully knew or understood that she was a bad mother, a bad wife, a bad person. I doubt anyone with that level of Narcissistic Personality Disorder can. But while it’s easy to explain those behaviours away it’s a completely different thing to live through them, to have them shape your life, twist your perceptions and break you in ways that are truly nightmarish to fix when you’re not old enough to even understand what is happening to you. Her being dead can never, will never change what she was or what she did. It’s not a get-out-of-jail free card. Neither is mental illness. There are responsibilities you take on as a parent that are irrefutable. Another person’s life is, quite literally, at stake. It would be nice, positive, cathartic, to say that the damage my mother did died with her, but sadly abuse doesn’t work like that. Her death neither adds nor takes away from the damage she did in her life. It’s just a thing that happened to her, as it will happen to all of us.

My task now is to find a way to deal with this final indignity she’s exacted on me from beyond the grave. To recapture that halcyon nothing of those first few days after her death. There are so many things – people, places, experiences, emotions – to grieve in life. So much loss, so many memories, and a catalogue of missed opportunities. So much to really be sad about that expending energy, pain, anger, on yet another turn of the shitshow screw of being my mother’s daughter is something I have to be able to rise above, for my own sake. Let them have her. Let them say what they want, twist the truth around their little fingers to make themselves feel better, take what little money she had or do whatever it is their wretched little souls require to feel like they’ve done ‘the right thing’. Putting myself beyond their reach is the biggest fuck-you that I can give to them and to her.

My mother always had a list of things I’d ‘be sorry’ for when she was dead. Things I’d done wrong, things I hadn’t done, always centred around her. But I was right. I’m not sorry. I have nothing to be sorry for.

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