Listener’s Letter: Episode 103 – Invisible or Enmeshed?


This week our listener is struggling to know how to manage her relationship with her mother. She feels completely invisible, and thinks of herself as an invisible child, but is she? And how does she move forward? Can she have one and hold boundaries? Or is it impossible?

Episode 103 is available now.

Here’s the letter in full. If you’d like to send your own question for Helen and Katie to answer, we’d love to hear your story.

This letter contains self-harm, suicidal ideation, overdose, bullying, verbal abuse.

Dear Helen and Katie,

Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I find your podcast really helpful and hope you can offer some insight into my experience of things with what I think are two narcissistic parents. 

Some background information:

I am currently in my early 30s, I live on my own, I have a couple of good friends and have been in therapy for a short while. I find it hard to let people in, it took me a long time to share details about my family with my therapist I think because of both a lack of trust and the fact it takes me a long time to feel comfortable with people. From what I have listened of the podcast I think I am an invisible child who is just now trying to speak out, share my experiences and hopefully get some more insight. 

School was a difficult time for me. I got bullied right through from primary to secondary school and ended up moving schools for my A-Levels. This is when my mental health started to decline and I went from being an A student to barely scraping through. As well as being bullied by students I got quite badly bullied by a couple of teachers as well, particularly by my A-level English teachers – even though it was my favourite subject. That particularly hit me hard as I so wanted to succeed. I had a brutal parents’ evening which consisted of two English teachers bitching about me to my mother. I repeatedly got told by my head of year that no university would want me and that I shouldn’t bother applying. Despite this, I ended up getting an unconditional offer for a place at university based on an interview I had, which I accepted. 

I started self-harming when I was doing my A-Levels. I eventually told my mum and the first thing she did was buy scar cream because she was so worried about what it would look like.

I struggled through university, and in my first year ended up taking an overdose. I ended up in hospital and my father used this as an opportunity to see me when we weren’t on talking terms. I was an inpatient so couldn’t really do anything about it. My mother talks so fondly about how my dad was so supportive through this period but I think that’s her take on it because she didn’t visit me once. I was a few hours drive away but a visit would have meant a lot. 

My parents divorced 10 years ago when I was in my early twenties.

To give you an idea of my dad; Mum suggested counselling through Relate after she left but his first response was to tell her that she was the one with the problem, not him and secondly, he said he would only go if she agreed to move back in with him first. 

I know for sure that my father has narcissistic traits and behaviours – he has always been emotionally manipulative, controlling, gaslighting etc and this got worse as my siblings and I got older. I have two siblings and the roles of golden child and scapegoat have shifted between my older and younger siblings. I know I have been scapegoat but I definitely have never been the golden child. 

I tried writing to my father, explaining that now he and my mum were divorced I wanted to focus on our relationship with no input from my mother. Dad often tried to blame Mum for our poor relationship, so I thought this would be an opportunity for us to work on the relationship. It fell on deaf ears though and he ultimately ended up ignoring all of my suggestions. The main one is that I would prefer to meet him in a public space, rather than at his house. This was a suggestion because a) he would always behave poorly at home and a coffee shop was much safer but also because b) I don’t drive and he lives in a place with no public transport so I’m effectively stuck and completely reliant on lifts from him. 

I got a tattoo when I was in my mid-twenties, Dad went ballistic. He told me how stupid I was, I can’t actually repeat the language that he used because it’s so offensive but one of the words was the R-slur. 

I went no contact with him about 7 years ago when I was in my mid-twenties. I have heard from my brother that he has told family on his side how terrible I am, that family isn’t important to me and how he can’t understand why I don’t see him or his family. I have a very good relationship with my siblings, family is important and I see my grandmother on my father’s side as regularly as I can despite her living on the other side of the country.

Despite being no contact Dad will use any opportunity to put a card through the door – birthdays, Christmas, death of a family member etc. 

I have learnt a lot about narcissism and emotional abuse and realise, now, that my childhood was far from normal. If you’d asked me a few years back I would have told you my childhood was ‘normal’, uneventful and even privileged because my father owns his own business and money was not a major stressor for my parents whilst I was growing up. 

However, this is meant to be about my mother.

She has behaved very badly at times, both in adulthood and in childhood. I struggle with her passive aggressiveness, which is her default to any criticism. Or if she doesn’t agree with something you just get silence, on a good day that is. When we were young she would occasionally slap us as children. My response would be to tell her it didn’t hurt and would usually get hit again harder. I guess I was trying to stand up for myself. She would ignore me as a form of punishment when I was a child but on the flip side, I have grown up being told I’m her best friend. I have acted as her therapist and listened to intimate details about her relationships etc. I have even been told details about how badly my father treated her in the bedroom. My brother is six years younger than me and was 15 when my parents split up yet I was the one who collected him from school the day my mother left and it was up to me to explain to him what had happened. Luckily, I have a good relationship with my brother and have tried to give him the things my parents don’t seem able to do. For example, I regularly tell him I love him, I’m proud of him and that he’s a great kid – even if he’s now in his twenties and towering over me! 

In childhood, she would allow me no privacy, and would regularly look through my things and this continued into adulthood. I learned not to keep a diary. She would justify this behaviour by saying that everybody did it and it was normal to know what your children were up to. 

An ongoing childhood ‘joke’ centred around my sibling telling me I was adopted and my mothers response was, ‘Don’t be silly, we wouldn’t have chosen her!’. My sibling was young at the time, so I’m not mad at them for that but my mother’s response is painful, even now, some twenty-five years on. 

A few years back we had a disagreement and I ended up leaving hers and going home. That evening, after I had ignored various texts and phone calls to her she turned up to my house and I ignored the knocking on the door – she ended up phoning the police! She phoned them acting as a concerned parent who couldn’t get ahold of me. Not at all honest and what a waste of police time. I still cannot believe she did that just because I wanted/needed some space!

She will have always experienced something better, something worse, something bigger than whatever my experience with something is. If I have a cold, she has the flu. If I have a problem you can guarantee that she’s experienced something similar but to a more serious extent. 

Mum and I were the only females in the house while growing up and often got the brunt of the shit from my dad. I guess it would be fair to say we have a trauma bond and similarities in that we both got out and away from Dad – she left the marriage and I am now no contact. 

As well as all the above she has been very supportive to me and her behaviour over the last year or so has improved. 

Unlike my dad, she has friends that she sees regularly, takes part in community groups and doesn’t have the same constant habit of putting you down, getting angry etc. Instead, she is more passive-aggressive. I think she likes to see herself as the victim rather than act as the bully. I find her unpredictable and her behaviour confusing. I feel like I will never be able to make sense of her behaviour, so think it will be helpful having you look at it from an outside perspective!

I have had discussions a while back with my therapist about the option of going no contact with my mother. However, I felt this was not an option and I am almost protective of her. I don’t understand why, after all she has behaved as badly as my father at times. 

It is clear to me that my father is an overt narcissist but does my mother have the traits of a narcissist too, is she overt or covert? I am struggling with the guilt of even thinking she might be, even though I KNOW it’s not my place to feel guilty about her behaviour. I guess it feels like a betrayal on my part to think that of somebody I love and in parts value. 

Any insight you have on her behaviour would be helpful. Also any advice on trying to have a relationship with somebody with her behaviours would be good. It’s a relationship I am learning to manage; being selective with what I talk to her about, learning to keep my own frustration at bay and not giving her a reaction when she says something hurtful or that I disagree with. Is there any more I can do?

Thank you and best wishes,

A grateful listener.

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