Hearing my parents’ ringtone two days after I had just spoken with them was jarring. We speak once a week and email or text other important – and unimportant – news as we feel led. Additional calls during the week signal BAD NEWS. Family members dying, in the hospital, losing jobs, getting divorced. Crises.
This was the sense of panic I felt as I answered this unexpected call. It was a crisis and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
My grandmother Zelda is in the hospital. She has COPD due to years of heavy smoking and late last week her health care worker found her struggling to breathe. The episode was so intense that an ambulance was called and my grandmother was rushed to the hospital. Tests were run, as the staff at hospitals love to run tests, and it turns out my grandmother has a couple of life threatening issues beyond the COPD.
Apparently Zelda has cancer that started in her colon and is now in her lungs. She also has an extremely large aortic aneurysm located in her abdomen. Doctors are concerned. A vascular surgeon is being consulted regarding the aneurysm. Zelda would not be able to withstand treatment for the cancer so that will not be tested or treated. For now.
I feel as though I should be sad. My grandmother is basically dying. I’m not sad. When I first heard the news my first thought was one of immense relief. Behind it came shame. How could a granddaughter feel relief that her grandmother is dying? Joining shame for a little shindig was anger. When it comes to my grandmother, there’s always a little anger swimming around within my psyche. Why? To explain you need to know that Zelda has an axis-II personality disorder: borderline personality disorder, or BPD. Like many people with BPD, she can be manipulative and she is not a safe person.
For years she has pulled out the Queen/Witch persona and reigned hellfire down on people in her path. She emotionally, verbally, and quite likely physically abused my mother and my two aunts for years. Zelda’s favorite form of abuse is to withhold her favor from one or two of her daughters while singling out the other daughter as the “Favored One”. Her favor is never without strings. You must kowtow, placate, do anything to please her or she will yank her favor out from under you so quickly you won’t see the floor rising up to hit you on the ass.
While I have no doubt this is a frightening time for my grandmother, I can see her using this as a final opportunity to force her children to care for her while she criticizes, manipulates, and spews toxicity upon them. She will want them to suffer as much as she suffers. She will blame her discomfort on them.
I’m not saying this to be mean or to malign my grandmother. She is God’s child. She is also mentally ill and that illness has been untreated all her life. I struggle as I write this. How vulnerable can I be here in this space where I chronicle my journey? What does it help to talk about a woman who has BPD and is so very mean within her mental illness? What point is there to sharing about her repeated abuse of her daughters, her grandchildren? Why write about a woman to whom I haven’t spoken in years?
In some ways, Zelda holds keys to my identity and some of the spiritual issues I have been dealing with as of late. I have very real and twisty feelings toward my grandmother and layers of things to forgive. I have guilt that is displaced and needs to be shed. I have anger, pity, compassion, and shame all having a party within me.
Despite or because of her mental illness, Zelda is a very angry, very bitter woman. When she is not locked up in her apartment avoiding the world, she reigns supreme and demands…everything. Grown men have walked in fear of triggering one of her cold rages. Lesser mortals shrivel and die a bit inside when faced with her displeasure.
And as I write this, flipping through my mental picture album for those few and far between good memories of time with her, I realize that I am also angry and if left unchecked I could become very bitter. There is legitimate anger within me, but very little mercy. At least not toward her. Not toward the woman who spoke curses over me when I was a very young child. Not toward the woman who emotionally eviscerated my mother in front of me every chance she got. Not the woman who, at my high school graduation, told me a looked like a tarted up slut. Who seemed to find pleasure in criticizing a person for dreaming or reaching for something more.
As I type, that anger starts to seethe. And that scares me. Is this the legacy Zelda is leaving me? Anger and bitterness and judgement? Is this who I want to be?
I think there’s a place for anger when there is injustice. I think that mercy must also exist alongside anger. And that anger, it can’t be where a person stops. There will be justice, but that’s in God’s hands. And what does justice look like? Is it suffering due to illness? No, what Zelda is experiencing are the natural consequences of her choices and of a fallen world. That’s not justice. Sure, I could call it that and feel self-righteous that she’s finally getting what’s coming to her. That doesn’t make me any better than she is. It makes me smug and arrogant and hard-hearted.
Maybe justice would be Zelda understanding she can make different choices. Maybe it’s contrition. Maybe justice is her three daughters undergoing therapy to undo the years of abuse and manipulation so they can lead stronger, healthier lives. Maybe it’s coming to Papa and falling into His arms, a broken woman in need of healing. Maybe mercy and justice aren’t too far apart.
My grandmother is dying and I still don’t completely know how I feel. I do know this – it’s more than time to stop living under Zelda’s legacy and instead live the life God wants so dearly for me to live.
Oh boy… I can totally relate to this post!!! My mother is BPD, and I just came into this understanding 2 years ago, after entering counseling to discover what “my” problem was. Turns out, I wasn’t crazy! My mother is… That has changed a lot of things for me.
The Lord gave me direction to put the breaks on the relationship- I think because I wasn’t healing. I was bound up in so much anxiety I couldn’t think straight- but only when it came to her. I lived in fear of what she would say and do to me every minute of every day. God has largely delivered me from that fear, but the timing was odd. I was just starting to move in some degree of confidence that maybe God wanted to give me some freedom from my mother- and then wham- my mother called to tell me she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
My first thought was “we’ll shit.” I felt very strongly cautioned not to get close to her- even though I knew what was expected of me. I knew what others would say if I didn’t play dutiful daughter and be there for my mother. I knew what my mother was saying already about me for setting the necessary boundaries so I could grow and heal. So I played that role for a while, even knowing God gave me permission to leave. I had to be ready. This was very difficult because I was having to face my fears of man, and my fear of my mother also tied into a fear of God himself, so that needed some attention.
I knew I would suffocate and die in that relationship. Thinking about going back makes me feel ill. I don’t honestly know if that will changed
The thing with BPD is- no, this is not judgement being rained down on them in the form of cancer or disease, but the product of living in a fallen world and the consequences of not seeking treatment for their mental illness- like you said. Sad, but true.
That is what makes it so hard to deal with-BPD- they use these illnesses to garner sympathy- but my question became- yes, my mother has cancer, she may not make it- but is she a safe person? I’m working at my very hardest to be a healthy and safe person for me, but also for my daughter and husband. Is she working on this? No. Can there be true reconciliation for an I recovered borderline? I don’t know… And God made that clear to me, so I have to run with that.
I understand your questions: what does mercy look like for someone like this? I cant say I have the answer to what that looks like. I can’t say that I feel warm and lovely feelings towards my mother- but I do wish and pray the best for her. I don’t want her to suffer. I bless her. The rest- my inability to conjure up REAL heartfelt affection towards her- I have to entrust to Jesus. That may be my weakness. She needs him more than she needs me although I don’t think she knows that.
And forgiveness is hard. It comes in layers. I usually think I’m done and then something else comes up…
You are not alone in this process. God bless you with wisdom and comfort in your decision.
Thank you for your words and sharing a part of your story. I long ago stopped contact with my grandmother. I think it had been almost 15 years between the time I last spent time with her and last summer when we visited other family in the area and she was invited to a family event. What struck me most was how bitter she was. And how everyone – her daughters, her sons-in-law, her grandchildren – would step into these roles to appease her while silently cursing her. It was…illuminating.
I don’t wish her ill. I really don’t. I also don’t want to spend time with her. I want my mother to not feel like she has to spend time with her. I want my aunts to understand the difference between doing what is in the best interest of a parent and doing what a parent wants because it pleases the parent.
I want my mom to get therapy. And I need to accept that some of my issues are because my mother is the daughter of a borderline. It’s so easy to focus on my grandmother, but some of my issues stem from being the daughter of an treated daughter of an untreated borderline. There’s a legacy there, one I am working to end.
Thank you for your prayers. May God continue to give you the space you need to heal and become that safe person you need to be for yourself and your family.
I totally understand what you are saying. I don’t wish my mom any harm, but neither do I want to spend time with her. like you said. I have observed the same thing- how everyone steps in to play there part. Most people, it seems, don’t stop to examine what they are doing or why they are doing it. I don’t know if we are able to see the dynamics because of the prophetic gifting, or what.
I want all those things for my mom too. I want her to get therapy. She is who she is in large part because of what happened to her at a young age. But she still has a sound enough mind to get help. Why she doesnt? I have no idea. But I won’t be a part of those dynamics. I have one life to live and I’m not going to live it playing that game anymore.
Thankful you are sharing your story and your feelings. It is helpful to know I’m not alone!
I do wonder if some of what we have been able to see and observe comes from our prophetic gifting, from a relationship with the Holy Spirit, or does it come from being present in our own healing process.
It was difficult for my mom to hear that I would not go back to visit my grandmother, but I would come back to help her (my mom) work through the process of figuring out what to do for grandma and grieving. On the one hand it disturbed her that I would set such a hard line in the sand, but I hope she sees that boundaries can be made. Mom truly needs therapy, as do her sisters. BPD is a very real, very damanging menal illness. Too many people don’t know how damaging it can be to a family, let along a family line.
No, you are not alone. None of us who have been touched by BPD are. And what a good thing.
I bet it was hard for your mom to hear that too, but it seems that most people don’t realize that boundaries protect love! My siblings have responded much the same way to my boundaries with my mom, although they have also openly harassed me about it.
It’s hard to watch them continue in suffering when there is so much help out there!
I’m guessing it’s probably both the holy spirit and being dedicated to our wholeness and healing. I don’t want to be under any lies or false assumptions, so I go in search of truth- as I’m sure you do too.
I’m sure that was hard to tell your mom that, and probably hard for her to hear. When I first started understanding BPD, I felt like I was learning a new language. Boundaries? Safety? What are those?! So once I started learning how important and VITAL they were to my survival, I expected my family, my siblings in particular, to follow suit. They did not. And I know that to them, it probably feels like I’m talking nonsense. I keep hoping and praying that my siblings will get help, too, and that my mom will as well.
And it is so good that we are not alone! Can’t imagine where I would be without those God given supporters!
Thank you for sharing!!!