Toxic Mom Toolkit: A House Full of Love

13 Aug

7fd54531baa5ee8ab3ab0eda39cb8df1Driving through San Francisco on my way to the 2015 Catamaran writers conference in Pebble Beach, I had a sudden impulse to drive by the two-story house I grew up in. It was only a few blocks over and I had plenty of time. As I parked, I looked up to see new paint samples on the facade and there were other signs of home care.

In 2010, I visited the flat and was flabbergasted to learn that a wonderful lady had bought the building. She lived upstairs and in the lower flat, the apartment I grew up in, she ran a Tibetan Healing Center. Literally, my parent’s old bedroom, was set up with comfortable chairs for group therapy sessions! There was another private therapeutic office set up in my little bedroom, which once had yellow gingham and daisy wallpaper and light wooden shutters on the only window — the window I used to crawl out of. I was amazed that a venue of such intense sadness for me, had morphed into a healing resource for others.

Anyway, I cut the engine and looked up and thought, I’m going to leave my book at the house. So I wrote an inscription to 864-XXth Avenue and tucked my card in the book and drove off.

The universe is a wonderful place – full of unexpected blessings – including the note I just received from the current tenant of lower flat of 864. She even included an amazing photo of her gorgeous little boy. I’ve altered her note a bit to protect her privacy. What a generous and loving soul.

She wrote:

Dear Rayne,

Thank you for the thoughtful gift of your book.  I came home late last night from a trip to Bali and found it on the doorstep.  I was so tired from the long journey that I brought it inside and didn’t look at it until today.  I honestly thought it was something that a religious group had dropped-off at my door as they sometimes do.  

First off – congratulations on your book!  What an accomplishment.  

I haven’t had time to read a lot of it as I have a 10-month old little boy and spare time is not always easily found.  I read enough today to understand that your childhood in this house wasn’t always a happy one and that made me quite sad.  I’m sorry that you had to go through what you did here.  And I’m sad that energy was once here in this space.  

I hope that it provides some comfort and healing to know that my beautiful son is being raised here with a lot of love.  The house has been completely remodeled so I suspect you wouldn’t recognize it.  For instance, the hall closet that still gives you bad memories is now the laundry room.  When I bought this house as a single woman when I was 34, it was my favorite room because I had never had my own place with a washer and dryer.  I went out and bought the nicest washer and dryer that I could find and I painted the room a light, ballet slipper pink.  It’s also a favorite room of (the baby) as he likes to crawl in there and watch the clothes spin in the washer and dryer.  If he’s a bit fussy from teething or something else, I sometimes sit on the floor in front of the machines and he sits in my lap and watches them.  The baby’s nursery is in the sun room and it’s quite cheerful.  I was sad to add blackout shades as I loved all of the sunlight but I quickly learned that if day napping was going to be successful, I needed to forgo the light in that room.  (The baby) is so happy here.

Before I bought the house it was owned by Gary and Jane Bell.  Jane ran a healing center out of this unit for many years and they lived in the upstairs unit.  The house and my unit had been blessed and cleansed many times and I have had a shaman do a cleansing here myself.

If you ever want to come by and visit the house, please let me know.  I can even take a walk with the baby to give you some personal time here.  

Thank you again for your thoughtful gift.  I promise to continue to fill the house with light and love!

Thanks,
S

Don’t forget to Pack Your Paddle: 2015 Catamaran Writers Conference at Pebble Beach

11 Aug

stevensonschool9I have long adored Frances Lefkowitz, author of To Have Not, her memoir of growing up poor in 1970’s San Francisco. It’s a wonderful memoir and it rang particularly true for me, as I had walked the same foggy streets. In her book, Frances treats her mother sympathetically. It’s a book full of life lessons for everyone.

Recently, I noted that Frances would be one of the instructors at a writer’s gathering in Petaluma, where we both live. I went and was finally able to blather to her personally about how much I admire her as a writer. We spent some time in a circle of chairs with our knees bumping as the tiny group soaked up her wonderful (and generous) ideas on writing. In the days that followed I was emboldened to “like” her on Facebook.

So it’s all my fault that I’m now packing my paddle for the Catamaran Writer’s Conference at Pebble Beach, which kicks off this Wednesday.

Because when Frances posted on her Facebook page that there were still a few spots left at the gathering and that she’s be teaching, I decided to plunge in.

Hosted by the Catamaran literary journal, it is a gathering of amazing teachers, publishers, poets and writers all focused on a 4-day sleep-away camp focused on THE WORK. Held at the (very fancy private) Stevenson School, attendees will live in dorm rooms, (no fridges for beer; I asked) take classes, listen to lectures, and share their works in progress. I’m signed up to follow Frances around like a loyal little terrier, as a member of the non-fiction cohort. Each participant submitted up to 10 pages of work in progress.

The group leader then posts all the submissions within each group, you know, so you can read everyone else’s stuff and they can read YOUR STUFF. That’s where it got scary for me, because it looks like a couple of my fellow writer’s are college professors and others have fabulous books I could never write and as I wonder how to sneak beer on campus, I also imagine them busy organizing Power Point presentations about their next opus to share during breaks.

So what am I working on?

I’m finally going to tackle a companion book to Toxic Mom Toolkit that lays out how to go No Contact. My submission to the Catamaran Conference was a Frankenstein-ing-ly-rough cut of a minor chapter entitled, Dead Toxic Mothers: Why Breaking Up Is So Hard To Do.

I feel like a buck-toothed 5th grader, deciding what dress to wear on the first day of 6th grade. I keep wondering what the other writers made of that chapter.  I also wonder if I’ve been terribly spoiled by the toxic mom community, who laugh at all my jokes and totally get the entire Toxic Mom vocabulary and viewpoint. Wish me luck!

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Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Especially With a Dead Toxic Mother

4 Aug

797734b77a8d26ebe0685a1afbf3414aMy toxic mother died in April 2009. By August, I had left a good newspaper job to write Toxic Mom Toolkit, which I published in December of 2013. I have since watched a global support community spring up around my memoir. It has been a continuous learning curve for me. Along the way I shared my experiences including how to go No Contact with a toxic mom. I’ve always warned that it is not a step to be taken lightly and I’ve mostly recommended taking it a day, a week, a month, and a year at a time. There is no formula for going No Contact; no right or wrong way. Because each relationship is so complicated, the process of breaking away is an individual and unique event.

Walking away from a toxic mother can be incredibly painful. But here’s what I’ve learned lately: breaking it off with a deceased toxic mother can be just as difficult.

My multi-decade disconnect from my living Toxic Mother was totally organic. I just felt that I would die (or my soul would die) if I kept in contact with her. I made it up as I went along.  I don’t recommend totally winging it like I did.

Today, when asked, I suggest that people sit down and make some notes, some lists, to pre-plan how to handle typical life events. Ask yourself: If a grandparent dies will you go to the funeral? When a baby is born, will you notify your mother? Family relations are complex and sometimes your fear of your toxic mother is tempered with love for your father, siblings or love for a related community. Some decisions are not absolute. You can grant yourself flexibility. You can allow yourself to keep an open mind. Variables are part of the calculus of No Contact.

While I was writing my memoir, I realized there was still work to do. I needed to stop listening to my deceased toxic mother.

If your deceased mother is still a source of sadness, fear, instability, emotional limitations, phobias, shame, self-loathing, self-medicating, over or under eating, isolation, or grief, consider this: Dead People are only as powerful as you allow them to be.

When it comes to your deceased mother’s voice, I’ve decided the main survival skill is to replace a negative with a positive.

When you hear your mother’s negative voice you can:

  • Take a moment to understand that her voice is nothing more than lingering trauma, which you are working on to overcome.
  • Tell her (out loud) she is wrong and to be quiet. (Don’t worry. Other drivers will think you are on speakerphone.)
  • Write down the words you hear and decide if those words are true or not. Many times, labels from childhood are completely false and meaningless, yet they haunt us.
  • Reach for the Happy List you created, which includes all those things of which you are most proud. For example: If you have a good job, have put your kids through college, volunteer, help your neighbors, or bake great brownies, put it on your list. Keep your list in your purse or on your phone, where it is easy to see. Feel free to include things that simply please you and make you happy in the doing, like: I keep the hummingbird feeders clean and always say a blessing for young mothers pushing strollers. (I also bless men with trucks, checking their tie-downs on the side of the road.) Simply wishing others well probably puts you WAY ahead of your Toxic Mother. Relish what makes you a nice person and refer to it whenever your thoughts turn to your experiences as the adult child of a toxic parent.
  • Call a friend and express positive thoughts, even if it’s just checking in. Develop a habit of being a good listener and be a supportive friend.
  • Turn to a favorite activity, hobby or method of self-care. Instead of listening to negative thoughts, (and granting them power), decide to walk your dog instead, do an art project, clean or organize something, or even take a short nap or bath. Keep something you enjoy, like a special tube of hand lotion nearby to moisturize your hands for a few minutes. Grant yourself a few minutes in a bookstore. Listen to a positive or funny Podcast.

You have worked too hard to build a happy and peaceful life despite all the negativity associated with growing up with a toxic mom. Each time you hear your deceased mother’s voice and substitute a positive experience for old negative thoughts, tell yourself, I deserve to be treated lovingly and with respect.

Toxic Mom Toolkit Book Review: Amy Eden’s “The Kind Self-Healing Book: Raise Yourself Up with Curiosity and Compassion”

21 Jun

photoHave you ever thought, “I need therapy.”

But, then your next thought, “I don’t have insurance right now…” stops you in your tracks?  Or, you wonder, “Can I really deal with this now?” And, my favorite, “It’s too overwhelming, the thought of finding a therapist and taking months and months to get that person up to speed on all that has happened in my life.”

Well, my friend, author, Amy Eden has an answer for everything that is keeping you stuck when it comes to addressing your deep, dark and highly personal issues. Her new book, The Kind Self-Healing Book, is an amazing work-book for anybody ready to tackle lifelong emotional issues that are hurtful or limiting.

Page by page; chapter by chapter, she gently leads you through very do-able exercises that are highly meaningful. (By meaningful, I mean that by page 18, I was crying. Not that I didn’t need to cry along with my inner child!)

Here’s how Amy describes her book: If you grew up within a chaotic family environment caused by chronic inconsistency, stress, and emotional or physical abandonment or abuse-whether due to addictions, political unrest, war, or a parent’s mental health issues — The Kind Self-Healing Book is for you. If you are prone to anxiety, depression, self-doubt, people-pleasing, or decision-making influenced by fear, or if you want to free yourself of the coping behaviors that worked in a disordered childhood but don’t serve you in adulthood, The Kind Self-Healing Book is for you. 

I am really loving this book, and taking my time with it. While I’ve been reading and doing the exercises, and getting in touch with my Inner Child, I’ve been remembering so many things. Like how much I loved making things with paper. My grandfather, dad and uncle owned a print shop, so I was always elbow deep in wonderful card stock and velum and ink. My father and I used to make doll houses and furniture with doors that opened and drawers that pulled in and out. (Not that I loved dolls, just building with paper!)

So it wasn’t a complete surprise that while reading The Kind Self-Healing Book I wondered if I could make a little paper boat like the little drawing Amy uses at the bottom of each page. So, I Xeroxed two copies of the cover and placed them back to back and folded them, like I make a paper boat every day. And then it needed a flag, so I used a vintage dictionary page and pasted it on a toothpick mast. And rope is always good, so I rolled some twine. And a paper boat really needs a big anchor, in this case, a rusty old hammer-head.

The strange part was, for the hour it took me to make this little construction, so I would have a fun image to go along with this blog post, I was completely at peace and content. Sort of like a child without worries.

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Mother’s Day Torture: Intensity & Duration

3 May

d4b8b64207ddace48a30acdf29ba53e8In the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day, the assault begins on tip-toes. You might notice the wall of cards go up at CVS. Suddenly, 1-800-Flowers is emailing you twice a day, hawking Mother’s Day deals. It can be like a mosquito in the room, the hum of nerves that build up around the big day. And whether you have limited contact, no contact, or some contact with lots of boundaries, the approach of Mother’s Day itself can be like an illness creeping into your bones to set up achy shop for a while.

Mother’s Day is a typical American-style holiday, trumped up by card and flower sellers, which relies heavily on manipulating consumers emotions to “remember Mom on her special day.”  But what if your mom wasn’t so special? What if your mother was a terrible mother — abusive, neglectful — and now that you’re an adult, she’s a person who has the power to hurt you with a few carefully chosen words? You may need a strategy to get through this Mother’s Day commercial-filled full-court press; the same way an alcoholic plans trips avoiding hotels with lobby bars.

Mother’s Day can be emotional. So you need to decide ahead of time if it’s going to be a long, sad slog or a few minutes of sadness with a quick recovery. It’s your choice.

Here are a few things you might want to avoid:

Television Commercials: Make the decision now to avoid Hallmark-style commercials about great mothers. There is a flower company video making the rounds that starts with a delivery person handing “mom” an iPad with a message from her soldier son stationed far away. It’s a total tear-jerker for people who have great moms and miss their moms on Mothers Day. But for the adult children of Toxic Moms, it’s doubly emotional and terribly sad to find yourself wiping your nose as the son turns into the driveway holding his mother’s flowers. This year, why not decide ahead of time to avoid these sorts of commercials? Mute or fast-forward and don’t feel guilty about it.

63f4cdda1c34d95d116714817478e606Movies: For me, it’s, I Remember Mamma, a saga about the sacrifices made by an immigrant Scandinavian mother for her children. For you, it might be Terms of Endearment or Steel Magnolias, or even August: Osage County. There will be a press of mother-themed movies from now until Mother’s Day and avoiding them is probably a good idea.

Facebook: I am really, honestly, happy for my friends who have great mothers and express their affection towards them on social media. But try not to focus on these too much, other than a quick “thumbs up.” It’s a fine line between appreciation and envy.  The moment you start comparing your friend’s great mom to your toxic mom, you are hurting yourself. You can choose not to.

Sunday Brunch: There is a huge social pressure to take your mom to brunch on Mother’s Day and restaurants ramp up with flower giveaways and free mimosas. And, you know, your work friends will be making elaborate plans and asking you about your plans to treat your mother. You are allowed to spend your Sunday any way you like. Decide ahead of time what you want to do like: exploring a hiking trail, volunteering, attending church, or getting started on Spring Cleaning. You can still have a mimosa. In fact, a pitcher of mimosas are a great way to start Spring Cleaning!

Five years into this Toxic Mom Toolkit experience, a great trend has emerged in our community around Mother’s Day and I wanted to be sure to share it with you. Don’t be afraid to express your appreciation and affection for the women (and men) in your life who have nurtured you, as a mother should. You can send mushy, loving, butterfly-covered cards and write notes to the people in your life who love you the way you truly are; who have encouraged you and helped you along the way. You can thank other adults for their ability to make you feel safe and appreciated. And, who knows, maybe one day there will be a Hallmark commercial about those kinds of relationships included in the pantheon of Mother’s Day tear-jerkers.

Toxic Mom Toolkit: Coming to Terms

18 Mar

ILLWITNESS – noun

  1. A person who has personally been made ill by a toxic person and so can give a first-hand description of it.

I think about words more than most people. I used to work in a newsroom with a columnist who coined the term “bad hair day.” She told me that she couldn’t possibly have been the first person to use the term, but she was the first to put it in print. Whoever has the first byline using a new word gets bragging rights for the rest of their life. The first byline is cited in the dictionary and I think that’s pretty cool.

So, in the back of my mind, I’m always trying to think of a new term, description, or bit of slang that would earn me a place in the Oxford English dictionary. You’d think after all these years writing about toxic mothers that I’d have a ton of new words, terms, slang, but nope — my new word well has been dry.

Until today, when suddenly I understood what an illwitness was. (Spellcheck just underlined it in red, because it’s not a word – YET.

45f759c1df9fe20d19052f4aa59e062eWhen you are the adult child of a toxic mother you are the eyewitness to all the destruction, pain, and chaos that your mother created. As the adult child of a toxic mother you may have experienced migraine headaches, aches, pains, nausea, and several forms of chronic pain. The stress of abuse and neglect by a toxic mom could cause long-term post-traumatic stress or other problems that mean you will spend years in doctor and therapist offices. You may have been an eyewitness to your toxic mother’s behavior over the years. If you only see your toxic mother a few times a year and experience post-visit depression or a sort of body ache similar in length to the flu or a really bad hangover, not only are you an eyewitness, you may also be an illwitness.

Toxic Mom Toolkit: Mend Yourself

26 Feb

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