So – fair warning, this is going to be an intense and personal blog post.
“Cut off” is a term used by counselors, mostly in terms of a genogram, or a sort of family tree of relations. It means there has been a falling out so intense that family members cut off other family members, and no long see them or speak to them.
I have my fair share of cut offs. Not all of them were intentional, and certainly on my part, I wished they could be different. Anyone who knows me well, knows that once I love you, it’s nearly impossible to shake me. That doesn’t appear to work both ways – I have been shaken off by family and friends, and for the most part, it’s been either okay, or actually beneficial. In other cases, it’s been senseless and hurtful. The cut off about which I am writing is of the latter variety. First, some background.
My mother’s first children are 20 years older than myself, a different father, a different era. We are the bookends of the “Baby Boom”. Throughout my childhood, we got together for holidays. The rest of the time I was uninteresting, or possibly some sort of threat to them and their inheritance, or what in our family really amounted to a payoff for dealing with our mother.
Our mother on a good day was just an extreme narcissist. On a bad day, she was drunk. By drunk, I mean she had downed a large jug of vodka by herself, usually mixed with milk over ice. I can only speak to my own experience. Those times she was drunk, if she was with a friend, she was mostly harmless aside from telling humiliating stories about her children. If she was alone, which was most of the time, she was abusive. I was sat upon, I had suit cases thrown on me, I was yanked from my bed, and more than once woke up to her tearing my room apart, literally like in the movie Mommy Dearest, so she could “clean” it at 2am. My eldest sister once told me (in a neener neener kind of way) that Mother had been much worse when raising her because she was younger and more energetic. (Should you find my blog, Val, I want to thank you for your complete lack of empathy. It makes it much easier to forget you ever existed, most of the time.)
The bottom line, and the history part of this entry, is that I am cut off from those siblings. When I was 5 and they were 25, they were not there to protect me, much less educate me or teach me how to protect myself. When I was ten, and terrorized at the sight of a liquor store delivery to the back door, they had moved across the country. There were no phone calls, no attempts at a relationship with me.
When I was 20, I went to live with my sister for a summer, thinking (because my mother had told me so) that I could help my sister by babysitting her kids so she could go out on dates. Instead, as I was watching an afternoon thunderstorm roll through, she came up behind me to ask, “Why did you come out here anyway?” The answer was “To have a relationship with my siblings,” but aloud I said, “I don’t know.” I kept my back turned so she couldn’t see me crying.
I worked for my brother that summer, and saw him only 2-3 times, and only at work. The summer I turned 21, I decided that if I didn’t hear from him on my birthday (3 weeks before his) I would stop reaching out to him. I got roses 3 days later, because our mother had reminded him.
I get they were wounded people too, I do. But I was a child.
So those are cutoffs that are real. They are cut offs that happened because I couldn’t create relationship as a child, when I didn’t understand why my family didn’t seem to care about me. I couldn’t create relationship as an adult either, because they simply didn’t want to make the effort.
Oddly, my mother kept relationships others wanted her to cut off. My sister’s first husband was in my life until he died. (Though my Mother didn’t tell me when he died, so I couldn’t make arrangements to be at his funeral. Some cutoffs she orchestrated.) His fiancé stayed in my mother’s life for a decade until my mother died. My siblings thought this was awful.
I’ve had friends cut me off for perceived slights – my friend who thought I was neglectful when she never told me she was hurting in any way until the 6 page letter of cutoff was hung on the handle of my front door. My alcoholic best friend who assaulted me when we were both drunk has been cutoff and returned multiple times.
Those who really know me, those who have relationship with me, they know that decades can pass, and they are stuck with me. I don’t initiate cutoff unless you deeply profoundly hurt me.
I’m writing this now, because my former brother-in-law’s wife is dying of cancer. I wouldn’t be writing if there wasn’t a cut off there. When I got divorced from my abusive first husband, I tried to maintain relationships with the people who had been my nieces and nephews, my brother-in-law and his wife. There is no name for that relationship – she wasn’t my sister-in-law. So at one point we decided to just call it sisters, and let that be good. After the divorce, the ex threw a fit when I attended a graduation party and had me leave. That was that. The abusive addict had his way, and I was cut off from the family that had been mine for 15 years.
That family kept relationships with my sons. When I looked back, it was clear that they had never been in relationship with me. When I sought help, when I pointed out bruising and broken furniture, they ignored me. They never tried to reach out to me or to him, no one tried to offer real help. When I stood up for myself and my small children, I was the bad guy. I was the “monster who destroyed the universe”.
Now the woman who was no relation, but was family for 15 years, is dying.
I cannot say good bye to her, I cannot offer comfort to her kids or her husband. I cannot offer to drive her Mother to her. I cannot go vacuum her house or make food to fill the freezer or do any of the things I would do for a family in this situation. I’m cutoff.
Cutoff not because I hurt anyone directly. Cutoff not because they hurt me directly. Cutoff because an abusive man controls the people around him, and destroys relationships. Cutoff because he learned that from his parents, who cutoff his aunts and uncles over silliness. Cutoff because people don’t know how to live in genuine, meaningful relationship with one another.
I want to teach this to my children – meaning and genuineness. Their father has caused them to shut down that loving meaningful part of themselves in favor of defensiveness and perceived protection. But no one is protected who is alone and who cannot be genuine.
Strength comes from vulnerability and connection.
When I chose to say “I don’t know,” while my back remained turned, that was protective. Would anything have been different had I faced my sister and said, “Because I want relationship with my family”? I don’t know. I doubt it now as I doubted it then. I have years of betrayal and mocking from her and her family as evidence that vulnerability would have been another way to tease me. I’m probably right, but it could have been a turning point as well. I’ll never know, I didn’t make that step because there was nowhere to go it she had shut me down then and there. I wasn’t ready to be cutoff yet.
This dying woman, she didn’t value vulnerability either. She valued controlled simplicity. If anyone didn’t like the way she did things, they were welcome to leave, and she made that abundantly clear at every opportunity. She didn’t want help when she was diagnosed. She didn’t want to be seen as anything but the hard shiny surface that she was. She didn’t want meaning, she wanted tasks done on time, and without argument. She didn’t want relationship, she wanted obedience.
And so, I will obey to the best of my ability. I do want relationship. I do want meaning. I want to experience life in all its glorious sloppiness. I did send iced tea, sandwiches and muffins down with my sons last night when they went to say good-bye to their beloved Aunt who made quilts and tacos for them. I sent food for the living. I sent instructions for the boys to make sure their Uncle ate something at some point. I sent love for the living. Love exists whether there is cutoff or not. My former sister and her family can make of that whatever meaning suits them.