After a year or so in therapy, I started to think that I could handle my mother a little differently. I continued to put myself in the line of fire, but now I fought back. For a while it just made things harder. I would end up in tears, ground down by my mother's viciousness. “You are a worthless piece of shit!” she'd yell through the phone. “I'm doing you a favor. You need to be broken! You need to hit rock bottom.”

I said some horrible things, too. I told her she'd never done anything for me except to sleep with my father (and I phrased it a little more forcefully). I sleepwalked through my days, consumed by hatred. I lay in bed at night entertaining myself with visions of my mother being squashed by a falling baby grand or mown down by a crosstown bus.

One night I did hit rock bottom, if not in the way my mother had meant. She was telling me what a failure I was, that I'd never amount to anything. Suddenly, I found myself screaming into the phone, “Mother! I'm not you! I'm a separate person! I have my own life, and it doesn't matter what you think of it!” I remember a silence at the other end of the line. From that moment, I saw that I had never really thought of myself as me—I had only been a blank screen, the moon feebly throwing off a pale (and entirely unsatisfactory) imitation of her personality.

I hardly spoke to her on the phone after that. I stopped asking her advice, and at holidays I made the decision—why had I not done it sooner?—to stay at my father's house. I'd always known that my mother qualified as a serious drinker, but now I realized she was suffering from a clinical condition. And that it was her problem, not mine.

The changes seemed to bewilder my mother. I knew something had shifted between us when I took a boyfriend home and he laughed at my mother's four-letter words and sozzled escapades as you would at any harmless eccentric. And she didn't lay a finger on him.

I married that boyfriend, and we had children of our own. We literally distanced ourselves from my mother by moving thousands of miles away. It seemed, finally, as if I had figured things out.

Except motherhood didn't come easy to me. Listening to my daughter cry for hours as an infant or trying to handle her defiance as a toddler was too much for me at times. I'd suddenly snap and start screaming like a madwoman at my little girl, clutching her by the arms as I shrieked. My husband would say, “Everyone loses their temper with their children from time to time.” But I remembered similar scenes from my own childhood. I couldn't believe that after all that effort to become myself, as a mother I was back to reflecting her.


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