Picture yourself as a child, let’s say you’re 10 years old. Now add in your parents. Do you have siblings? Put them in your picture. Grandparents? Aunts and Uncles? Add them too. This is your birth family. These people represent your origins. They are your roots.
Maybe you didn’t have a traditional family set up like I’ve described, but whoever you did have, bring them front of mind for a moment.
Now imagine there are some of these individuals you love deeply and sincerely even though they hurt you. There are also some you tell yourself you love, because that’s your duty…even though they hurt you. After all, no family is perfect and you are loyal. You love hard and generously, as many children do.
Conflict is the norm in your family. Name calling, ridicule, insults, physical violence. Gradually, you learn to defend yourself with a sharp tongue; with fists. Every confrontation fills you with a confusing cocktail of fear, anger and shame but this is how you survive. You imagine running away but instead you keep treading water, try not to sink, because family is forever right?
Except sometimes it’s not.
Sometimes, (like I did) you find out that the time you DID have with your family was just smoke and mirrors. A fragile web of lies and misinformation. And because you were trusting, naive…you believed it all.
I genuinely loved my maternal birth family and imagined they must feel the same way about me. But the truth is, I was only tolerated, an outsider looking in. I was odd, different. I asked questions, shared unsolicited opinions.
I had my uses; I was fantastic at being leaned on. I could lend money, provide lifts, baby sit, dog sit, clean houses, write CV’s, listen generously to their woes. But my main purpose in that toxic dynamic was to take the blame. Ask my advice then blame me for telling you what I thought. Blame me for being too honest, too direct, too rigid, too emotional. Blame me to make yourselves feel better. Blame me because you knew I never had anyone in my corner, fighting for me. Until I met my husband. Then you tried to blame him for ‘putting up with me’.
This was my reality. A reality I’ve come to accept over the last 3 years since estranging from my maternal birth family.
I’ll never know the whole truth, not unless I develop the powers to time travel!
God how I’d love to be a fly on the wall of my childhood; to see all the players in action.
Or maybe it’s better not to know the extent of the fabrication that was the first 45 years of my life.
Did my undiagnosed Autism make it easier for them to manipulate and mislead me? Absolutely.
◦ I was extremely naive and trusting.
◦ I felt duty bound to follow rules – grown ups were to be respected and obeyed.
◦ Difficulty regulating my emotions lead to self hurting behaviours as I struggled to contain my internal conflict – I loved and pitied my family yet feared and resented them.
◦ My poor mental health was used to discredit me, ‘she’s mental. She’s mad. Don’t listen to her!’
◦ My hyper empathy made me responsible for their struggles. While many would have run for the hills, I stayed, believing I could change them for the better.
◦ Unable to interpret non verbal communication such as body language and tone of voice, I clung onto my mothers every word. Never doubted that I was hearing the truth.
But my Autism helped me too.
◦ My ability to find joy in the darkness; hope, when life was truly bleak.
◦ My hyperfocus driving me to become the best version of myself despite countless setbacks.
◦ My written communication skills providing an outlet for my deep hurts when the words would not be spoken.
◦ My intense sensory recall of memories enabling me to retain and catalogue conversations and events; to be revisited as an adult and processed with clarity and maturity.
◦ My courage to challenge my own behaviours and mistakes; to make better choices; to be kinder; to apologise; to own my behaviour and change for the better.
◦ My belief in truth and justice, right and wrong, giving me the courage to make the hardest decision I ever made; to estrange from my birth family.
But how did I get to this place of understanding? How did I come to recognise the narcissist’s greatest weapon, smoke and mirrors?
It started with my Autism diagnosis. Being handled the instruction manual for my brain taught me I was different, not bad or broken. All the behaviours I’d been judged and criticised for were because of how I experienced the world. The more I grew to know and like myself, the more secure I felt.
It continued with trauma therapy, revisiting the worst times and confronting what happened to me. The validation of another, impartial human being was lifesaving.
Writing my blog has helped too – it is cathartic to commit my thoughts and feelings to the page. In fact, I find it much easier to write than speak and always have done.
The love of my husband gives my safety and security to explore my past and believe in our shared future.
Part of healing is being able to look back and recognise when and how you were mislead. To identify the stages of deception.
As a small child I idolised my mother and believed my role was to protect her, to save her. To me, she was the perfect human being and I never doubted her wisdom in staying with my violent alcoholic father. Her decision meant I grew up feeling afraid every single day. But I knew her love too and I trusted my mother completely.
As an adolescent I began to question my mothers’ decisions. I realised that other families weren’t like mine. That violence and slavish devotion to men was not normal or healthy. Neither was the invisible gag placed on myself and my siblings preventing us from asking for help. I still loved my mother. But resentment began to simmer inside of me. I started to plan a life outside the prison I lived in.
Sensing I was pulling away from her drove my mother to punish me. Physically and mentally. She did not want me to grow up, to have independent thoughts. I was her possession. I owed everything to her. She resented my growing confidence, my maturity, my friendships. She made me feel ashamed for wanting more for myself than the life of fear and servitude she had built for me. Her violence towards me accelerated while the rest of my family conveniently looked away.
As I became increasingly isolated I began to suspect my mother was telling lies about me, working to alienate me from my siblings and extended birth family. I had seen her ostracise my oldest brother and paint him as the villain – I never questioned her judgment of him nor the fact she sanctioned him being cut off from his family. Only when I became a parent myself did I realise that a mother should love unconditionally and support siblings to repair any breakdown in relations.
But I had no proof of her treachery, only a feeling in my gut which made me confused and afraid. I did not understand the sophistication of smoke and mirrors then; how situations could be twisted, the truth embellished. I only knew that the people who I loved and should love me, ignored me or treated me with disdain.
As a young adult I kept my birth family at arms length. My relationship with my mother was volatile. My siblings were my occasional drinking buddies. Alcohol loosened our tongues and we’d talk about our upbringing, sharing horror stories and laughing as if it was somehow funny. None of us was capable of serious discussion, that would have meant confronting our true feelings. I also harboured a belief that as the only girl and main target of her physical violence, they could not understand what I had endured.
When my husband and I started our own family I was taken off guard by the desire to reconnect with my mother. Carrying our sons in my belly triggered something in me. I loved my babies with every molecule in my body and I imagined she must have loved me like that. Musn’t she?
For a while things improved and she was undoubtedly a better grandma than she ever was a parent. Naively, I began to trust her again. She in turn appeared to take me into her confidence. I was flattered and utterly naive to the danger I was in.
And so began the era of coercive control. My mother would regularly confide all the wrongdoings of my siblings, and extended family. The general theme was how they’d mistreated her and this guaranteed I would feel upset for her and resentful of them. I still very much believed my Mother was the vulnerable and exploited victim of my early childhood and my Autistic radar for fairness and justice meant I wanted to tackle these family members to enforce that they treated her correctly.
The problem was she’d swear me to secrecy, so I’d feel frustrated and disappointed in these family members but was unable to act.
Some of the things she told me were thoughtless and selfish behaviour. Some things caused me huge anxiety for the other people involved. I did not dare share these things with anyone because of the damage such information could cause if it got out.
What I understand now (oh beautiful hindsight) is that her confidences were a guaranteed way to segregate me from the other family members. If I DID confront them (which on occasion I did), my heightened Autistic emotions were like a bomb going off. Making angry accusations that only made others resent me. And of course it was always my fault. I was interfering. I’d stepped out of line. No one blamed my mother.
She knew it would happen that way.
If I DIDN’T confront them I would carry her confidences like heavy rocks on my back. I was utterly conflicted. I loved my family but I had lost respect for them. I couldn’t trust them. They were stopping me from saving my mother.
It was only in the year before my estrangement from my birth family that I started to wonder:
⁃ how much of what she had told me was actually true?
⁃ If she was feeding me lies and misinformation to separate me from the rest of the family, what on earth was she telling THEM about ME?!
There were clues to her treachery.
Strange comments made by my siblings alluding to things I’d done which I knew never happened.
Relatives who suddenly treated me coldly or acted distant when I knew I’d done nothing to warrant that behaviour.
My own husband confessed that when we were experiencing marital problems prior to my Autism diagnosis, my mother had set herself up as his confidante and sworn not to share what he told her. Yet in truth she went around telling everyone in the family exactly what he told her and embellishing it; calling me unhinged, violent ….. with no concern for my poor mental health and suffering or the fact that I was at risk of self harm and worse.
My husband’s shame at being exploited by her paled in comparison to the way I felt then; stripped bare, flesh flailed. The fragile bones of me exposed for my ‘family’ to pick over.
But the biggest clue of the smoke and mirrors was the reaction of my maternal birth family, when I ended contact with my mother. They all ghosted me, my husband and our children. There was no explanation or justification. My efforts to reach out to each of them individually were met with total silence. An impenetrable wall was put up by them.
I had loved all of those people and believed we were a close family. The injustice of their actions still sting 3 years on.
Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. And it has made me question the whole 45 years of my life before the estrangement. It has made me doubt everything I was told by my mother. It has made me rethink any ‘happy memories’ with my maternal birth family (and for me there definitely were some) because they clearly had no respect, love or loyalty for me. I was useful for what I could provide to them emotionally, practically or financially. My worth expired when I refused to be responsible for my mother anymore.
In truth, this realisation eases my sadness. I have been mourning people I never really knew, who never knew or accepted the real me. They viewed me through poisonous glasses provided by my mother. This realisation sets me free.
I received a voicemail recently from my mother. Having not heard her voice in almost 3 years it was a brutal shock and I burst into tears. Suddenly I was that helpless little girl again who idolised her Mummy and wanted to stay with her forever. She was crying and she said that she missed me and our boys. In that moment I desperately wanted to hug her.
But then I dried my tears and I reflected. Did she apologise?…No.
Did she acknowledge the terrible things she’d done to me and allowed to happen to me as a child and adolescent…No.
Did she express regret or accept responsibility for alienating me from my maternal birth family?….No.
Her voice message wasn’t for me. It was for herself. It was just more smoke and mirrors. A friend told me it’s called a ‘guilt grenade’. But by some miracle of therapy and love from my husband and children, I didn’t let it injure me.
It hurt to hear her crying. I know she’s had a very hard life and she deserves better. But I also know it’s not my responsibility to save her anymore. She has to save herself like I did.
I shouldn’t have replied to her. I know that now – doing so implies she still has some hold over me. But it also shows I have a good heart, I have empathy. I sent a kind reply wishing her well. I explained I am not part of her family anymore and I can never go back. I told her I am happy now and I need to be left in peace.
Of course, she didn’t reply.
If any of this resonates, if it sounds familiar, please be careful. Smoke and mirrors is not some mysterious party trick. It’s dangerous, it’s life changing. Whether the person using this technique against you is your mother, a friend or a lover, it will make you question everything you know. Make you think you’re going mad, that it’s your fault. That there is no one you can trust.
But there is.
Mirrors can be broken.
Find safety, seek the truth and don’t-go-back.
It’s never too late to start the rest of your life, like I did.