#1247 “I went no-contact with my mother and it’s turned her into a bogeyman”: Anxiety, Anticlimax, and the Aftermath of Estrangement.

I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about family weirdness and estrangement and boundaries (weird, almost like there was a series of events in the last month that forced a lot of family togetherness, can’t think would have caused all these old wounds to re-open at the same time? 😉 ) and I’m going to put up a series of them this week. This one is about the aftermath of cutting ties with a parent and the still-present worry that running into them will be awful.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I (she/her) have a pretty damn good setup in life. I have an incredible and supportive long-term partner (he/him), we live together in a nice house, have stable incomes, and many wonderful friends and hobbies.

Unfortunately, I suffer from anxiety. It’s not crippling, but it’s got its claws in me pretty good. I visited a psychologist for a brief while many years ago, got diagnosed, learned some coping strategies and went on my way. During those sessions, he identified the source of my anxiety: my mother. Broadly, if I had to explain her, she has anxiety which manifests as explosive anger, she is obsessed with appearing “right”, loves to start fights and enjoys guilting and manipulating people through attention-seeking behaviour. She never physically abused me, but she affected me to the point where certain noises make my heart race because they’re strongly associated with her.

She and my father divorced, messily, when I was a young adult. I have a great relationship with my father, but we don’t talk about my mother most of the time because he can’t help but rant about her – I get it, but I don’t want that to be one of the hobbies we engage in regularly. After they divorced, I stayed with mum alone in that house for a while, but since I started sticking up for myself (which she hated), I realized I could move out and when I did, it was like a giant weight off my shoulders. I would still see her from time to time, but I limited it because she was “one of those people you can only handle for a little while at a time.”

We started to have more disagreements as I laid down additional boundaries in our relationship, and she would respond to my polite and calm requests with a mix of verbal snark and the silent treatment. The last time she ever rang me, it was to abuse me for one of these requests. I responded only with facts and she got extremely angry and hung up. I resolved to email her one last time, outlining how I felt with concrete examples of what she did that made me feel bad and what I needed from her in future if we were to keep having a relationship. Her response was a resounding “NO U. I’m here when you’re ready to apologize.”

So…we haven’t spoken for about a year. I haven’t seen her for even longer than that. I have her blocked on all channels – she can’t contact me unless she goes through someone else. My stress levels have greatly reduced since removing her from my life and I’m happy to say I’ve done so permanently. My partner fully supports this choice, but didn’t influence me one bit in my actual decision.

So finally, the issue with which I’d like to request some help:

If she were to call me, I’d hang up or not answer.
If she were to email or text me, I wouldn’t even look at it.
…but I don’t know how to deal with her if I see her in person.

We live in different cities, and while I used to be nervous about visiting her city at all, I no longer have this generalised fear. However, visiting shopping districts where she’s known to go, especially enclosed areas like supermarkets or other shops, fill me with cold dread and I’m on high alert and ready to flee the entire time I’m trapped in said stores. I keep expecting her to show up at any moment.

Thing is, I don’t ever think she’d attack me or even say hello (if she did it would be to look like the good, reasonable one). I think she’d ignore me, which is what I’d want. In spite of that, I’m terrified of having a breakdown if I see her, especially if I was alone. In those moments I can only see her angry face, bearing down on me like it did when I was a child.

I want to visit my friends in this city, so I can’t just never go there. I don’t want to fear major shopping districts just in case she shows up. However, I really don’t know what to do with the fear of bumping into her, or the possible situation of her showing up in person. I’ll definitely be bringing this up in my mental health check-up later this year, but I would greatly appreciate any advice you or the community may have.

Hello! We are going to call you Letter Writer #1247. Thank you for writing.

You’ve done so many good things to protect yourself from your mom and make a good life that doesn’t revolve around her, and I’m so sorry that the potential of visiting friends has this cloud of fear over it.

The truth about parental estrangement is that it rarely feels good, it just feels better than the horribleness that went before when the person had continued access to harm you and you were trapped in the cycle of trying to please someone who can’t be pleased. Having & enforcing boundaries doesn’t remove the tension or end the conflict or even resolve the feelings. What it hopefully does is gives you permission to stop trying to make a harmful situation different by grinding yourself up on a person that can’t be trusted to act in good faith.

Your question is a common one I see here, not just about family estrangement but about anxiety (both the clinical kind and the small a- everybody’s got some kind) and wanting to know: “How do I avoid a scary/upsetting feeling about something that might happen in the future?” The answer this type of question is, being excellent at planning doesn’t mean that you can avoid uncomfortable feelings and situations by sufficiently anticipating them, and there are no scripts or boundaries that ensure that the things you fear will never happen, sorry! You can practice scripts and you can run scenarios, like “If my mom calls I will hang up,”  you can remind yourself that both you and other people have choices (“If the thing I fear happens, what will I do?). And hopefully, with time and practice, you can stop leaning on yourself so hard to control the outcome of something that isn’t your fault and learn to be gentle with yourself about whatever happens. To that end, the best strategy or advice I can offer you is this:

If you were to run into your mom, whatever gets/got you through it in one piece is/was the right thing to do.

If saying “oh hello” and making 30 seconds of polite chitchat is easier than trying to blank someone to their face, then that’s what gets you through it. It doesn’t change anything about the decisions you’ve made or the reasons you made them, it doesn’t invalidate other boundaries that you’ve drawn. If she uses the encounter to bother you afterward, you don’t have to answer or you can say, “Nothing has changed” and continue as you are.

If avoiding her gets you through it, then that’s what gets you through it.

If you have a big emotional reaction to seeing her in the mall, then that’s what happens, it’s okay to be emotional about returning to places where – I am reading between the lines as a person who used to fear-pee my pants as a small child when my mom was mean to store clerks – a parent emotionally abused you.

If you need to leave a in a hurry to feel safe, or if you know that certain haunts are where you are likely to run into her, then planning around that possibility is what you need. You can let your friends know, “I am estranged from my mom and I have this strange fear that we’ll run into her, if that happens, can you follow my lead if I need to be out of there quickly? Or can we meet at the [venue] on the other side of town instead?” I don’t think you have to leave or avoid those places, mind you, you haven’t done anything wrong, but sometimes the thing we can control in a situation like this is “be elsewhere” so keep those options open if they help you.

Your mom won’t be doing anything wrong by like shopping or seeing a movie where she lives, and honestly, I wouldn’t even blame her for seeing her daughter unexpectedly and saying ‘hello’ (even for ‘the alternative is publicly weirder, so, let’s just get through this’ reasons) or having some feelings about it and not knowing quite what to do. I agree that she’s unlikely to assault you or scream at you or do anything actually dangerous, so as long as you don’t assault her, anything you do is the right choice if it gets you through that moment in one piece. Duck under outstretched arms to avoid a hug. Return “Hello” with “Nope!” and keep walking. Your mom will find axes to grind no matter what you do. Sometimes that knowledge is freeing, since, you’re already not speaking to each other, somehow “failing” to handle this moment with perfect grace (whatever that even looks like) isn’t going to make it worse or make your mom right about everything.

However things go down, one thing you can do is be very nice to yourself after an awkward encounter. Reward and congratulate yourself for doing well with a difficult situation:“Good job me for just saying ‘hello’ and getting on with my day” or “Good job, me, for knowing that I needed to get out of that store in a hurry and doing what’s necessary to take care of myself.” Treat yourself, do things that you know are comforting and pleasant, make sure you get alone time if you need it or surround yourself with supportive people like your partner.

One thing that it’s hard to talk about with people who don’t understand toxic families or estrangement is the weird letdown of anticlimax, as in, what if you run into your mom and it’s actually fine?

(This is where I wave to the people who wrote me about dreading family holiday visits and then feeling incredibly weird and off-balance during the visits because everyone behaved themselves for once.)

Imagine you’re out shopping, you see your mom, she nods ‘hello,’ but does’t come closer,  you nod back, you both go about your business. This is what you wanted, right? Resetting the relationship to the vantage point of “polite stranger” rather than nemesis? But why is your heart rate elevated, why are you breathing so fast and hard, why is your body shot through with anxiety anyway, why do you still feel like you want to flee? It would be so easy to start second-guessing yourself: Were you overreacting, are you being fair, is this all overblown, why did you spend so much time strategizing and worrying about it, was it all “for nothing?” or “making a big deal out of nothing”? etc. I want to raise the possibility that anticlimax – a good outcome on paper, since it means nothing escalated – can hit some of us as hard emotionally as anything we feared would happen.

This is definitely something to talk over with your therapist when you have your check-in (and if you do happen run into your mom, I’d schedule one of those sooner rather than later), but it’s worth noting that hypervigilance can be a result of trauma and sometimes “anxiety” is better described as plain old “fear.” Maybe your body remembers how your mom has treated you, maybe it remembers how bad it can get when she’s around, and it would rather be safe than sorry, so it amps up your adrenaline and your cortisol in case you need to fight or flee.

That mismatch between the body’s fight-or-flight reaction to remembered actual danger vs. a formerly very abusive parent’s mellowing with age [temporarily opting for polite behavior in public][convenient forgetting of the inconvenient past] can be incredibly jarring for adult children. It fucks with memory, perception, instincts – all things that abusers train their victims not to trust when it conflicts with the abuser’s reality and vision of themselves as a benevolent person who just loves their kid so much they had to do whatever they did. The coping methods to disarm anxiety often involve a lot of trying to match your fears with what is actually likely to happen (“don’t borrow trouble,” etc.) in an attempt to cut emotional reactions down to size in proportion to the actual threat so the outlier possibilities of your worst fears aren’t completely paralyzing. But the “you’re probably just imagining it, take some deep breaths” approach can fall incredibly short when (for example) there are  Incredibly Good Reasons To Be Worried, Actually, and it doesn’t necessarily account for trauma. I would argue that anticlimax, where the thing you worried about so much didn’t happen, doesn’t mean that the worry came out of nowhere.

People who weren’t there and who don’t know what it was like are very quick to throw around the term “overreacting” or probe a traumatic situation to make sure that everyone was reacting the exact correct amount – usually the amount that they assume they would react, as if it’s possible to perfectly anticipate and modulate one’s own reactions (it’s not) – or as if “overreacting” is the worst thing someone can possibly do (it isn’t).

Through this lens, behaviors like “rudely” walking away from a toxic family member in a public space even if the person doesn’t do anything overtly abusive in that moment are easy to classify as “overreactions.” When a perceived overreaction takes place, people observing the situation start walking around the place like emotional management consultants and trial lawyers with advanced degrees in second-guessing shit that is none of their business and that affects them the least of anyone in the situation and asking what they see as “tough,” “realistic” questions. “But wait, are you sure that your mom intended to abuse you? Right then? How could you know? But you said yourself she probably wouldn’t assault you, so, why did you run away? Isn’t that a little dramatic?*

This line of questioning fails to account for all the incredibly fucking real times we were trapped and couldn’t leave the room or shut a door or hang up the phone or say what was on our minds or call for help or yell back at someone who was yelling at us, all the times we just had to take whatever came, all the years we had to live with whatever they said and did to us and pretend it was love. When someone abuses you, you are the actual expert on what they are capable of, and someone who has never seen that side of the person doesn’t know what you’ve survived to be here or what there could possibly be to fear. They don’t know. They don’t know better than you about what to feel or what to do.

I mean, your anxious jerkbrain might be overstating the case to your limbic system and vice-versa, sure, and the goal over time with your therapist might be to fade how much your mom’s potential behavior occupies your fears, but having anxiety doesn’t mean you aren’t still the expert on your life. If you run into your mom and things get really weird and your inner critic starts beating you up for “overreacting,” see what happens if you rename it as a delayed reaction and make some soothing, gentle, comforting noises in the direction of yourself. “Hey body, I know you’re just trying to help me out, buddy. I appreciate you, let’s get the hell out of here to somewhere we can breathe.” Your body got you this far, I think it will keep getting you where you need to go, and I trust that if you run into your mom, whatever you do in that moment to be safe and kind to yourself will be the right thing to do. ❤

I can’t make the international press stop asking Meghan Markle’s shitbag abusive loser dad to comment on her life choices that are none of his business, but maybe I can tell you that your inner critic is not the boss of you, there’s a reason you feel so anxious about seeing your mom specifically in those places, and you don’t have to beat yourself up about either the fear or whatever reaction keeps you safe. Please also know you are not alone, there are a lot of us out there who are trying to reconcile our memories of the people who loomed so large over our childhood with how much smaller they look when we’re not the child in their house anymore and have grown – in spite of them – to be the adults in our own.

I hope that you can reclaim your hometown and see your friends, and I hope that each month and year you disengage from fighting with her or trying to get her to be the mom you need, her shadow shrinks and shrinks and shrinks to where it barely looms at all. 

*Note: I especially love when the accusation of being dramatic for having a boundary is followed immediately by an attempt to sell you on deathbed reconciliation, like, “Don’t be so DRAMATIC! But wait, what if the person DIES and you NEVER talk to them AGAIN?” Like, quietly avoiding someone you don’t want to argue with in a food court is the dramatic thing to do and chasing down someone to interrogate their reactions and demand they conduct their relationship with an abusive parent in a way that conforms to their fantasies of what that’s supposed to be like is the chill, reasonable path. Howabout no.

Comments are open. Be kind, do not try to diagnose anything or anyone, and don’t be one of those “It can’t be that bad, right?” assholes. The Letter Writer is the expert on her situation, empty reassurances or attempts to defend the mom’s POV from people who don’t know are pointless at best and cruel at worst.

197 thoughts on “#1247 “I went no-contact with my mother and it’s turned her into a bogeyman”: Anxiety, Anticlimax, and the Aftermath of Estrangement.

  1. “Don’t be so DRAMATIC! But wait, what if the person DIES and you NEVER talk to them AGAIN?”

    Sounds like a win-win to me.

    1. Yes, exactly! I cut the spawners off more than 30 years ago; he subsequently died; I occasionally chant “Just die already!” when thinking of her.

      No further contact was/will remain my goal forever.

      1. The phrase I used when my mother died was “the millstone of guilt practically drowning me has finally been lifted.”

        My family also celebrated her birthday as “Freedom Day” (a la Futurama) that year. Bakery cake and everything.

        1. “the millstone of guilt practically drowning me has finally been lifted.”

          That’s kind of how I felt when my mother died. I’d always felt like the fact that she treated me like a stranger must be because I wasn’t doing … something or other … right, and if I could only say or do the right thing, she would stop just pretending to be a mother and start being one.

          Once she died, I felt relief — that I could stop wondering what I did wrong. (Though part of me wishes she were alive so I could scream at her — but actually, I wouldn’t. I’d go back, foolishly hoping that this time she might miraculously actually start being a mother to me.)

      2. A friend who had an absentee father has talked about that father’s death in terms of “at least now I know where to find him”.
        The death of an estranged relative can be a very real time of mourning for the final loss of what could have been, but it’s also an end to their ability to hurt you.

    2. My dearest friend was guilted into a deathbed reunion with her mom. “She’s calling for you” they said. It was a horror show, abusive people mostly stay abusive, even when on deaths door.

      1. Yup, Sandra. My toxic, abusive, estranged mother is now a toxic, abusive, estranged mother with cancer. I’ve no desire to put myself in the firing line, just so she can get one more emotional/psychological punch in.

      2. I can’t quite see it in needlepoint, but “abusive people mostly stay abusive” is certainly words of wisdom.

        For now on I’m reframing “wants a deathbed reunion” as “still wants the last word.”

        Here’s the thing about boundaryless people. They think they’re right. They think they’ve been wronged. They see themselves as victims. If you (the general “you,” not anyone in particular) were sure you were right and a victim, wouldn’t you want a chance to convince and make the other person see your side of the story? In a sick twisted way therefore, their actions make sense.

        1. Deathbed Reunion is frankly something that most people who really want a reconciliation can avoid. Obviously nobody knows exactly when it’s time, and big things like a scary diagnosis can jolt some people into rethinking things, but my read on toxic situations like these are: if Family Member had truly wanted a real hatchet burial, they had plenty of chances. They could have done therapy. They could have genuinely thought about how things were in their family and if the estranged person may have had a point. They could have genuinely apologized and then backed off.

          Even with a situation like Jane Eyre and Aunt Reed where she actually finds out something important, she had to let her get in her last rage-stabs and refusal to even acknowledge that she caused her own misery. In literature it may be set up as worth it; in real life, not so much.

        2. Yep.

          I think that in these kinds of situations, Deathbed Reconciliation basically means exactly what you say. It’s not that people can’t die suddenly or a scary situation will never make a person rethink things, but honestly, most of the time? This type of person had plenty of chances. To go to therapy, to sincerely apologize, to actually work on changing their outlook or admitting they were wrong.

          Even Jane Eyre had to endure the last hate-stabs of Aunt Reed, who refused to her last breath to see her as anything but the cause of all her self-imposed misery. Sure, she got a rich uncle out of the deal, but that’s literature. In real life, not so much.

          1. Or if they do apologize, they do so in a way that makes it clear they think the necessity is bizarre but whatever. Think of it like dealing with a big bureaucracy, one that makes you drive to different offices and fill out forms and talk to different people before you can have the most normal interactions with them. From the point of view of the boundaryless, trompling all over your privacy is a normal interaction, and if they have to do a little apology dance in order to get what they want, they’ll do it, but they’ll never understand why.

    3. This.

      Also, I find myself wondering, why this scenario would go thus:

      “Don’t be so DRAMATIC! But wait, what if the person DIES and you NEVER talk to them AGAIN?”

      “When that person DIES? Huh, NOW who is being dramatic?” Followed by a hard, cold stare at the person trying the guilt trip out on one.

    4. In my case, she DID die. And whilst I have a lot of complicated feelings a year on, one of them is a feeling of relief. And I think my grief is mostly for the mother she COULD have been.

      1. Me too. Also for the mother she actually WAS, some of the time. Unfortunatley she was addicted to being the other kind far too much. You have my sympathy and understanding.

      2. Ugh, I so identify with this. My mom has been gone almost four years. I do not miss her, I am not sad that she is gone, but I’m sad for the relationship that I always wanted and she refused to give me, for reasons I will now never understand.

      3. Same added bonus my mom was physically ill for a while and when she Died I felt guilty for feeling relieved and I mourned the relationship we might have had. My mom never really dealt with her abusive childhood and could never cut ties with her abusive mother and toxic family.

      4. SAME. My dad died after 7 years of estrangement and overwhelmingly I felt relief. I didn’t have to worry about what horrible thing he was going to do next, or if he would show up at my work, or if he’d somehow find my new phone number. The grief I felt was 100% about not having the father I deserved.

      5. In my case (my paternal grandmother), cutting her out of my life actually let me forgive her. Once I was out of range, I could mourn the good grandmother who showed up at intervals but was mostly crowded out by the constantly critical, can’t do anything right grandmother. When she died, I did not regret that I had never reconciled, because it wouldn’t have been a reconciliation. Grandmother would never have changed; I could only have stepped back into her line of fire. No, thank you, and I had daughters to protect, as well.

        I eventually pieced together enough family lore to realize that my grandmother must have been emotionally abused by her mother. I’m a mental health counselor studying trauma, and my grandmother was a classic example of generational trauma. It doesn’t excuse her, but it does help me understand her. What is sad is not that we never reconciled; what is sad is that she never had a chance to overcome what her mother did to her.

    5. I mean, the one place where I could be guaranteed to catch up with all the people I can’t see because of her … would be her funeral.

      Insert “SmartHulk absolute win” gif.

      1. That actually recently happened at my grandmother’s funeral.

        There wasn’t exactly reconciliation amongst the old guard and their feuding but the millennials all met each other and had a great time despite our elders.

  2. I’ve experienced the panic of possbily running into that awful relative in public before. One thing I’d remind the OP of is that the parent/child dynamic no longer exists. Which means if she does approach you to talk, you can be the one to end the conversation. It sounds like this should be obvious but many people who have experienced trauma at the hands of one of their elders sometimes take a while to realize, “Hey I’m an adult now and I can call the shots here, too.” (This was hard for me to learn, since I was raised in a very much “defer to your elders” kind of family). So a simple, clipped, “Oh, hello Mother. I’m in a hurry. Goodbye” and than turn to immediately leave is a perfectly legit thing to do.

    1. Such a good point. I have noticed in myself a tendency to regress to childhood patterns when I’m with my family even though I’ve been living out of the house as an independent adult for more than half my life. It’s so important and often so difficult to remember that we don’t have to go back to that dynamic.

      I hope the LW will grant herself a lot of grace no matter how it goes if she does run into her mother.

      1. I also tend to regress with my parents, but I will say that thanks to this website I was able to de-escalate for myself when I realized we were heading back to those old patterns and walked away before I got any more upset than I already was.

        I hear your fear, LW, but you’ve done so much to live the life you want. Respect.

    2. Yes! I’ll add that it can be very helpful to practice having interactions with your Mom with someone you love, like your Boyfriend, playing the part of your Mom. Try practicing these three scenarios:

      1. You see your Mom, but she pointedly ignores you
      2. You see your Mom, and she briefly nods in your direction and says hello
      3. You see your Mom, and she attempts to engage you in smalltalk

      These will be stressful! Practice something like looking your Mother in the eye, saying “Excuse me, I have an appointment” and walking away. You can do it! If you practice with your boyfriend a couple of times it can GREATLY help with emotions in the moment. You got this!

      1. May I also suggest practicing an additional scenario:

        4. You see your Mom, and she attempts to hug and/or otherwise touch you.

        To me, this is the one most likely to cause a panicked freeze or lash-out response, neither of which you want. Or if there’s some other “worst-case” scenario of what could happen if you run into your Mom, practicing that can be hugely helpful.

  3. Just commenting to say ((((hugs)))) LW. I got back from my own difficult family over three weeks ago and I’m still having anxiety and dreading a family member visiting this weekend. I’m holding out for hope for the day I can sort out my living situation. You’re not being dramatic or overreacting – your feelings are fully valid, even if it sucks.

  4. Oh, god, this could not have been better timed. I went no-contact with my dad just before Christmas. My issues with him are very different from LW’s (my dad is neglectful and distant and disappointing), but in the last phone call we had before I cut him off, he mentioned he would be visiting the city I live in for a work thing. Which means that, no joke, tomorrow and the day after he’ll be in my town. He knows where I live, and it would take very little effort to find out where I work.

    Now, if he did try to come find me in person, that would be more effort than he’s put into the relationship in years. And my brother (who still talks to him) says he hasn’t gotten any indications that it’ll happen. But I’m still a little anxious. I’ve come up with plans for dealing with it as much as I can, and for the rest… reading this helped immeasurably. It’ll suck if he shows up in person. But I’ll get through it, and he’ll go back to his home, far away from mine, and I’ll move on without having to talk to him or see him. (And I’ll be moving this year so soon he won’t know where I live at all.)

    No real supportive advice, LW, just solidarity. It’s a lousy place to be in, this whole estrangement thing, and it helps to remember that we’re doing the best we can for ourselves.

    1. Don’t be home! Even if you are home – just because you’re there doesn’t mean you have to answer the door.

      1. in the days of calling cards “at home” meant willing to receive guests; not if the resident was actually there.

      2. My brother had this conversation with our dad about not just showing up without an invitation. And our dad did it anyway. Because that’s who he is. And my brother JUST TURNED UP THE TV and sat there for 30 minutes while our dad wandered around the house, ringing the doorbell, knocking on the windows, etc. He is my hero.

      3. Fortunately, I live in a fairly secure apartment building, so if he shows up I just won’t let him in. He can’t get into my home unless I let him, and I won’t. My office is also pretty secure. The parts I’m worried about are getting from work to home, but he doesn’t know my working hours, so he’d have to hang around for a while and hope. And he is here for work, so he probably won’t have the time.

        1. There’s nothing wrong with eating dinner out and getting home very late. And possibly, if you are in an acceptable situation, taking the next day off to recover.

  5. Oof, I feel this a lot, LW. I stopped talking to my father just before my wedding, and then a year later my cousin-on-his-side got married… and he’d be there. My aunt told us she’d make sure he left me alone, he completely ignored me, and yet I still absolutely was in that freeze flight mode, anxious and so forth. Even when I had someone managing the other person, even when everything went exactly to plan, even when there WAS a plan and a time and a place—it wasn’t smooth or easy.

    Going back and facing the possibility of seeing your mom is terrifying, but the fact that you want to do this says so much about your strength. I think Cap’s advice is excellent—start with your most supportive friends, make sure they’ve got your back (i.e. that they know how best to support you in the moment, and “fussing” probably will not be it), and most of all be KIND to yourself should your paths cross.

  6. LW, I live in the town where I grew up, where a certain person, let’s call her Mrs. Bates, who was a professional association of my mom’s, still lives. (She was also a teacher, not to me, but to many other people I grew up with.) Mrs Bates is polite and charitable and respected, etc – and yet she not only knew her son, Norman, was stalking me for years, but when Norman and I were children, actively aided and abetted anything that would throw he and I together not only at the point where he and I were allegedly friends and in her mind destined to be married because I was an angel whose love would cure her son of his various cruel and manipulative behaviors, but also long after my mother had an entire school informed that if he and I were placed in the same class ever again, Lawyers Would Be Called about the ongoing death threat situation the administration considered ‘unprovable’ despite having written evidence of it.

    For all I know, Norman expired in a ditch somewhere. But Mrs. Bates continues to turn up around town once every few years, making me instantly nauseous with rage. Many people I know remember her only as an asset to the community and will prod me to go greet her.

    I am recovered exactly enough to not start a vicious and tearful argument with these third parties and excuse myself to the restroom when I see Mrs. Bates coming to ask how her old students are doing these days.

    You’re not being dramatic. Your limbic system grew into associating your mom with fear, and it sounds like that fear is still sort of doing it’s job in keeping you out of your mother’s line of fire.

    In terms of constructive advice for dealing with sudden reappearances of the mom-ster, absolutely do enlist your friends to head off any form of continued conversation. But also remember that you can just power walk away in an “oh crud I’m late” or “restroom needed urgently” way… and that if you feel nauseous, dizzy, shaking, etc after such an encounter, it’s worth asking friends to drive you home instead of trying to do it yourself while in a panicked state.

    1. Holy shit, Quill. That sounds terrifying and I’m glad your mom had your back in this even if no one else was believing you at the time. I am 100% in favor of you avoiding Mrs. Bates, but I would also be in favor of “I’m glad you remember her fondly, but I don’t, so please drop it” to the people trying to gaslight you into being friendly with her if you can’t get away.

      1. Off topic of LW’s current situation but considering how much my mom actually knew (which was pretty much just the one death threat and “ongoing bullying” which didn’t exactly cover it sufficiently) she did a pretty good job.

        Therapy topic for the month, as it has been every month, “how to emotion about parents who, due to the batshitness of a situation, were unable to protect you from it and the weird disconnect between otherwise having a wonderful childhood while also convinced that you won’t live to 20 due to the person who keeps talking about killing you.” And, you know, the cognitive dissonance because pretty much nobody knew what was going on.

        1. Quill, I’m sorry this happened to you. I was the parent of a kid who was physically bullied by the son of a school employee (and my DO literally human shielded his friends and paid the price in attacks which sent him to the doctor). I AM a lawyer and it was incredibly difficult to get anything done about this and an administrator literally told me what was happening was not illegal. My DO knows very little about the lengths I went to and the people I yelled at or the parental jiu jitsu which ultimately forced the district to assign a full time teachers aide to the offender. (And yes, he got to DO once after that).
          I’m hoping your Mom did her best to protect you from the batshitness because I sure did, but everything still sucked hard for a long time.

          1. I was bullied by a teacher as well as the students in grade school to the point where I had what they called at the time a ‘nervous breakdown’ (i.e. suicidal 9 year old girl). My mom tried to get the school to switch me out of that class and the school wouldn’t do it, and she was discouraged at suing the school as it would be ‘even more traumatic’ for me. She still regrets not fighting harder.

          2. Specialist, please do consider looking for a therapist who specializes in CPTSD for your dear offspring, mine has helped me a lot. 🙂

        2. I ALSO get to have those fun feels about “why didn’t they protect me?” mixed with “but did they know they needed to?” It’s a nasty feeling of anger that I doubt I’m “allowed” to feel. And I, too, have spent a lot of time talking about this with a therapist.

        3. My mom still feels bad for not protecting me from the high school English teacher who would do things like throw my assignments in the trash and claim I never turned them in (not every time, just frequently enough to drop me one letter grade). He told plausible lies when she emailed him to ask what was going on. I didn’t understand at the time why he disliked me, but in hindsight it was clearly homophobia. My physical safety was never threatened, but I had previously been an avid writer and after him I didn’t write for pleasure for more than 15 years.

      2. A line I’ve used a few times is ‘it sounds like we knew different sides of him’. Perhaps that would apply.

    2. I am so sorry you had to deal with this shit, Quill. Fucking hell.

      The mom of the guy that raped me when I was in middle school did the same thing. Trying to get us together so I could fix everything that was wrong with her son (there was a lot!!!). Like, no Mrs. Bates. Norman can fuck right off. I wish I was surprised that the school was unhelpful to you, but that seems to be all too common.

      I hope you are somewhere happy and safe now. Jedi hugs and a gentle fistbump of solidarity (not too hard cause my arthritis is bad today ;))

      1. I’m really sorry to you and the OP for what you went through, but yeah also 100% not surprised. This is lower stakes, but a mom of one of my friends was super nosy and obsessed with finding out all the details of my ~mysterious medical problems~ to the point that she stalked me on a school trip. I’m thankful that the school nurse called her out. My mom ran into her recently, and she’s not usually a brag-about-my-kids mom but she said the lady was fishing for info (more than a decade later my friends), so she went on and on about how great my career was and etc. Apparently the lady got exhausted with her and gave up. So that’s another idea. Lol.

      2. Thank you, my friendly amphibian. I’m doing all right and I keep my arthritis in my feet. 🙂

        1. Hey Quill 🙂

          Here’s hoping that your arthritis and mine can go somewhere else for awhile. Like, the bottom of a pit. And never come back.

  7. LW I completely understand your anxiety and fear. My husband’s father is abusive and it’s been nearly one year since we last spoke to him. It’s been a wonderful relief not to worry about him invading our lives. But when we have to go into the areas I know he frequents or eat at places I know he likes to eat at the waves of anxiety start rolling in. My best coping mechanism has been to Not Go It Alone. I try to have my spouse there or a friend there who can help be a buffer. Be kind to yourself, but also remind yourself that part of cutting her control out of your life is that letting your fear of her keep you out of places *you want to go* is another kind of letting her call the shots. You have as much right to be in those spaces as she does. If you want to be in a space, don’t let your fear of running into her keep you from doing the things YOU want to do.

  8. I have a person like your mom, and one of the strategies I’ve adopted is trying to befriend anyone who seems kind in whatever place you’re at. Doesn’t have to be much– even a short “hi!” or a friendly smile. That way, if things do go wrong, you’ve already established yourself as basically a reasonable person to bystanders.

  9. Thank you for this–recently left my abusive husband a month ago. Am terrified to see him in a public place and at the upcoming divorce proceedings that I know will happen (unfortunately can’t run out of required court mediation, but there you have it). But these tips are helpful for that situation as well.

    1. And I should say…I went no contact with him so I am constantly beset by worries of what he is doing and where he is going since we live in the same town.

  10. Oh, LW, I feel for you. I vividly remember (with a clarity that still kinda summons up anxious knots in my belly 25 years later) pulling into a parking lot and completely losing my shit thinking I recognized my mom’s car in front of the store I needed to enter. But I can tell you that the worry does ease, and the more time that goes by the more able you will be to perceive the world and interactions with others through your post-mom lens. It gets better! Not perfect, but definitely better. Try to remember that your job here is to take care of you…By Any Means Necessary.

  11. First, -jedi hug- if you want one, LW. I’m proud of you for setting this boundary, proud of you for recognizing you need additional help with the mental health aspects, and I’m also proud of your partner for supporting you.

    For your visits to the city where your mother lives, do you especially trust one or more of your friends there? I ask because one of my closest friends (let’s call her Liz) came to me when we were both adults and disclosed the emotional abuse she suffered from her mother and asked if, when she visited our mutual hometown to see friends, if I could take the lead in planning events somewhere else that everyone could attend. So I did. I found a restaurant in the next town over I knew her mother would never eat at but that had plenty of options for our people, including public transportation access and cheap food, and that became our “Liz is in town, let’s get dinner and reminisce!” time. A few years later, as people moved around, my apartment, with its giant living room, became “Liz is in town, let’s hang out in PJs and eat junk food and drink tea and play games.”

    Years later, Liz told me that I was the first person from the “growing up years” to believe what she experienced from her mother. She also told me that planning events for her when she came back to visit left her free to focus on coping strategies in the off chance she ran into her mother, which was what her brain needed at the time. If you trust one of your friends this way, it might help you, too.

    Best wishes for you and your life going forward!

  12. Having had similar family experiences, I’ve found Schema Therapy helpful, to start to retrain the pathways in my brain so that I don’t necessarily automatically jump immediately to the same fear/anger reaction that I did in the past, and can step back and assess the situation first.

  13. No matter what happens, please know that you are an incredible human who is capable of great strength. You have been doing the work to untangle your trauma and made necessary boundaries in order to heal, because you know you’re worth it. That’s something to be proud of every day, because it is work, *every day*. Choosing to walk through these haunted familiar places?? Is a *huge* feat that shouldn’t be overlooked. You have a right to exist in these places too. You deserve to hope for a future when she fades in the background and becomes a mere stranger- but you are also a being of tremendous love, and you are *not* weak for grieving something you’ve been worthy of this entire time. You are not “less than” because your body still gives everything it has to *get away* from the person who hurt you so deeply.

    1. I know exactly how you feel. You’re not alone (and neither am I). Hugs if you want them.

  14. “The truth about parental estrangement is that it rarely feels good, it just feels better than the horribleness that went before…”

    Well that was something I needed to read today.

  15. I’m really excited to see this letter because I actually just dealt with this situation myself! I went no-contact with my emotionally abusive mom a year and a half ago, but when my extended family started inviting me and my partner (they/them) to family gatherings that would include my mom, I finally reached the point where it was hurting me more to keep saying no.

    Here’s the conditions in my life that made it safe for me to accept an invite:
    1. I was going with my partner, who keeps me feel more grounded and assertive
    2. The visiting space was a large house with plenty of spaces I could keep my distance from her and multiple exits to every room
    3. My mom is someone whose reputation really matters to her, so she was less likely to cause problems when surrounded by other people she has relationships with
    4. I’ve been in therapy for years and on medication for six months, and I finally hit a point with both of these where I felt very strong and comfortable and no longer was as plagued by anxiety, overthinking, and other symptoms of my CPTSD that would have made this situation very challenging for me.

    And here’s what I knew I needed to be willing to deal with if I went into this situation:
    1. My mom might start a fight, or she might keep her distance
    2. My family members might encourage me to talk to her, or they might not
    3. This might be very emotionally trying for me, or it might not

    For me, my strategy with seeing her was that I was going to greet her myself, respond briefly to any small talk, and then spend the rest of the evening avoiding her. Both so that I could have some control over the situation and so that I could minimize any drama the rest of my family would be able to observe. (Not that I or anyone should blame themselves for being involved in a heated situation with an abuser, but because it was really important to me to try to make good impressions as much as possible, knowing that most of the people there didn’t know my side of the story.)

    Honestly, this situation turned out to be a best-case scenario for me. The only nonsense that evening was as follows:

    The first thing my mom says to me: “Can I get a hug?”
    Me: “No, I’m not ready for that” (i.e. will most likely never “be ready for that”)

    My grandma: “I hope you’ll talk to your mom. You need to reach out, you know – OH haha look at that your mom’s right there!”
    Me: “Thank you, Grandma.” -warm smile, exit scene-

    My mom: -calls my deadname multiple times in front of my relatives-
    Me: -pretends like i don’t hear her-
    My mom: -calls my deadname some more-
    Me: -turns to her-
    My mom: Here’s your Christmas presents from me and your sisters.
    Me: Oh, thank you! Let me find somewhere to put these. -takes the gifts out of the room, finds a six-page handwritten letter from her inside, discards it without reading as soon as i get home-
    (Plus side: She was the only person there who didn’t make an effort to use my chosen name.)

    That was it! The rest of the evening was full of me and my partner charming my family (even my awkward dad started warming up to my partner), fun times with my beloved sisters (who know my situation and support me but are, y’know, pre-teens who still live with my mom, so every time I get to see them is a gift), and great memories made with my partner. My mom, meanwhile, kept to herself and seemed kind of uncomfortable for most of the evening. This whole situation really made me feel like she didn’t have power over me anymore, which was a big confidence boost, even if future encounters might not be so fortunate. 🙂

    I know this was a lot more about my situation than yours, but my hope is that something in this can be informing or reassuring for you, OP, or anyone else who’s dealing with the same. I don’t know how similar my encounter will be to your theoretical encounters, but I hope this gives you some strategy ideas and a positive outcome to hope for. My best recommendation is have some basic exit strategies as well as self-care prepared whenever you might see her, but also trust that future you will get you through the situation in the safest way they can. Also remember, in case this is ever an anxiety of yours, that whatever happens doesn’t change your boundaries or your relationship unless YOU decide it does. If it goes better than expected, if you don’t maintain your boundaries as firmly as you want – that doesn’t change the core of what you need and the safest way for you to maintain it, and it doesn’t mean you messed anything up. These situations are always so difficult, but you’ve done very well by yourself so far and can always trust yourself to do the best you can. ❤ Wishing you peace, now and should this ever come to pass.

    1. Congratulations on successfully navigating a potentially fraught family gathering with aplomb and dignity! And kudos to your family (except your mom, what the hell) for trying to remember to use your name. High fives all around!

  16. LW, I have a similar estranged relationship with my own mother. I recently found out that she visited my city for a day trip. Even though she was already gone by the time I heard about the trip, just knowing she’d recently been within blocks of my house made me physically ill. I know she wouldn’t have assaulted me or put me in “real” danger, but I felt terrified anyway. With the help of lots of therapy I’m learning to trust that my terror is valid and based on real and horrible events, even if those events (physical and emotional assault) aren’t likely to recur every time I see her. Right now I’m practicing telling myself that I’m not making things up or blowing things out of proportion when I feel afraid, because that fear response has kept and continues to keep me safe over the years. In my own head, framing my responses to her as merely “reacting” rather than “overreacting” has helped my anxiety a lot, including my secondary anxiety-about-being-anxious. I’ve also noticed that the more I work on trusting my fear response, the more support I’ve gotten from well-meaning but clueless people in my life. There’s been a significant reduction in the “well what if she DIED and you NEVER reconcile, wouldn’t that be HORRIBLE” comments; my theory is that I’m no longer visibly second-guessing myself and my relationship with my mom as much, so other people are less intent on second-guessing, also. (I wish they’d had more curiosity and compassion towards why I was in a loop of second-guessing earlier and how that might relate to the abuse I was trying to tell them about, but hey. At least they’re more supportive now.)

    All this to say that the Captain’s response is bang-on, your fear makes sense, and the estrangement gets easier for me every month and year that goes by as I make a habit of validating myself and caring for myself. I hope you experience the same. Jedi hugs!

  17. LW, anxiety is damned uncomfortable. But you’ve got good scripts for dealing with this person, and the Captain offered some for dealing in person. You can play that scenario in your head, remembering that your adversary wants to be seen as being right, and therefore won’t throw a public fit. You can problem-solve multiple scenarios that will probably never happen, but so what? It’s okay to have a ready solution to a problem that doesn’t crop up. What are solutions for dealing with someone you know in a store, coffee place, eatery, etc., who wants to engage with you but you don’t want to engage with them? You can walk away from them in a store. You can politely ask them to leave you alone if they walk up to a table where you’re eating/drinking. If they pursue you, or won’t go away, you can always grab the nearest employee and ask for a manager, then report the unwanted behavior. If the person still persists, management ought to get rid of them. This might cause the person to be embarrassed, or angry, or whatever. Bad public behavior can have unpleasant consequences, and you are not in charge of managing the feelings of someone who is treating you badly.

    Note that I chose my language carefully in the previous paragraph. This person could be anyone in your life or previously in your life. Thinking of them in more neutral terms like that might help ratchet the anxiety down a few notches. Any internal narrative of “Oh, I can’t [be rude to/ call out bad behavior of/ get others to help shield me from] my MOTHER” gets derailed, hopefully. And yeah, it would hurt you to do those things, because the connection is still there, but it might hurt a heckuva lot less than engaging and having all your mental pain buttons pushed again.

  18. This is super timely for me as well. I’m about to be in a social situation where I might run into a toxic former acquaintance whom I cut off several months ago. I haven’t actually seen them in person since the cutoff, there was no dialogue around me ending the acquaintanceship, I just went ahead and did it after a nuclear event, and I know they have a lot of rage about that. I’ve been running scenarios in my head for days about what to say in order to head them off at the pass if they try to engage me in discussion, but will probably default to staring right through them and walking away when the time comes (this ends up being most comfortable for me.) I’ve gotten a little bit of grief for appearing “rude” over the years for taking this approach in similar situations, but oh well. It’s what works for me.

    The Captain’s advice to forgive yourself for reacting however you react in order to get through a stressful situation was exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you.

  19. I think for me what would be best is to have the plan be giving The Cut Direct (One freezing glare so they know you saw them and then deliberately looking away/past them and ignoring them thereafter) and then enacting my safety plan. The Cut Direct avoids having to pretend convincingly *and* it avoids having to speak (which would suck for me because I’d be expecting my voice to choke up with rage tears which is just more vulnerable than I want to be with someone who hurt me).

    My safety plan for OH NO I SAW MOM would be this: get somewhere private where I can sit down immediately, call someone on list of three truly sympathetic team me people, and say “I saw Mom.” I would have them be ready with the questions I want them to ask me (are you safe? Do you need someone to come to where you are? How are you handling it?) and any calming exercises I want them to run me through. I’d have an excuse or two prepped for cancelling things that required me to have it together.

    Basically I’d prepare to completely freak out, and to give myself permission to do that. Most of the time when I make those kinds of preparations the impact is less hard and less long than if I try to tell myself that I need to keep it together.

    1. I love this. I’m also a ‘have a practical plan in place for the incredibly-unlikely worst-case scenario because then you get to stop thinking about it’ kind of person, and in the event the LW is too, having a plan for the worst that her mom could throw at her BUT ALSO for the worst that her own anxiety could throw at her sounds like a great idea.

  20. I keep a pack of these mantra cards https://www.carolynspring.com/shop/mantra-cards/ in my wallet. I practice my breathing and grounding exercises at home using these cards and if I get panicky while I am outside, I excuse myself to go to the bathroom and look through them. If I ever run into my abuser – who lives local – I feel like I have a little anchor point with these cards, they are a little symbol of my resilience even when trauma stuff pops up.

  21. Heyyyyyyy LW! so I’m estranged from my parents and this exact situation you’re worried about happened to me! And I totally lived thru it with no regrets.

    My sister was volunteering at a fun event during the brief time I was back from my new place 2000 miles away, with Partner aka Kind Support. Sis asked me to come to the event, and it just so happened that that was the weekend both my estranged parents decided to show up to this event with no warning. (I had suspected that this might happen but both my siblings had no prior warning it would and my parents did not know that I was in Home State.)

    I attribute my success to the small preparation I did and my determination to hold my boundaries and enjoy life whatever happened. I’m very grateful I prepared by role playing the way I preferred Estranged Encounters to go with my therapist. I’m *especially* glad that my kind support partner practiced what I wanted them to say. When we first role played, Kind Support initially tried to justify and explain to the hypothetical Estranged that I didn’t want to be around them, giving way too much info and time. We cut it down to one sentence. For myself, I decided I could trust I’d say ‘no’ and keep walking.

    I ran into them on my way to the bathroom without Support next to me, they yelled my name repeatedly like I was a deaf/recalcitrant dog, and I gave them the finger and kept walking. Support followed, ran into Parents-of-Unusual-Fuckedness trying to follow me, told them we were leaving (and that’s it! No justifications!) and then waited outside the bathroom for me (knocked on door to tell me Support was outside alone) and we went somewhere private for my panic attack.

    Then my sister showed up, ran interference and redirected me to the best shows at Event. Support and I ended up staying at the event while the bad-genetic-donors left! I felt so proud of myself for going and living my life with only the people I want in it.
    In the long run, even though my life has had a lot of pain, I don’t want to change anything, and this is a good example. I choose to live happily, and neither my trauma nor my abusers can keep me from living an enjoyable good life.

    1. Erika, that’s the most overwhelmingly triumphant thing I’ve read in a long time, and your last sentence is something I need to mull over for myself. thank you!

  22. My partner has a difficult mother who he has gone through cycles of no-contact with. One of his coping mechanisms that he’s retained since childhood is that his memory is normally extremely good, but he’s trained himself to forget the shitty specifics of the things that his mom does. He remembers that she’s difficult and he recognizes the feelings of anxiety and dread that she summons. If he’s put on the spot and asked “Why did you cut off contact with your mom this time?” he sometimes can’t say anything beyond just that: “She’s really difficult and the thought of her fills me with anxiety and dread.”

    Now, I have been his partner for lo these many years and my memory is a steel trap for every piece of crap his mother ever pulled. If the interlocutors asked ME, I could give them the whole shit list and make the level of emotional abuse he has endured extremely clear. So the list of reasons exists and I promise you they are extremely good ones. My point is that even when our other senses fail us, our best option is to trust that there are reasons for the feelings and not subject ourselves to audits about whether or not the feeling is the correct or justified one to be having. Coping mechanisms are funny things.

    1. My partner’s like you — give him a minute and he’ll give you a list of things my father’s done that make it clear why I don’t have contact with him. Me, I’m overwhelmed at the idea of answering, “Why did you cut off your parents?” It’s such a big question that I wouldn’t know where to start.

      1. You want to know something REALLY interesting? My partner’s difficult mother is ALSO the child of an extremely difficult mother. If you ask her why she cut off her mother (which she did), she will say, “Because my mother stalked me.” A true and scary thing that happened! The interesting part, though, is that the stalking was an extinction burst behavior that happened AFTER the decision to cut her mother off. When asked about that history, she doesn’t recall, just like her son has a hard time remembering the stuff she herself has done. I never knew her, but of course I am sure that her mother did a lot of bad scary things, because a person who would escalate to stalking sounds like a person who would. But neither my partner nor his mother could tell you what those bad scary things were. This is a much more common response to trauma than you might think.

        1. I also have a ludicrously shitty memory for specifics of my traumatic events… and a weirdly good memory and emotional control for shorter term difficult events. When totaled my car two years ago, the sheriff asked if I had any medical or military training because I seemed so calm and gave such a clear description of the sequence of events.

          Truth is, it’s easier to remember a small, adrenaline filled event than a mire of stress and gaslighting.

    2. Man, memory and trauma work together in such weird ways. Definitely having someone with you whose perspective you can trust is super helpful.

      Last time I went to my parents’ house, I remember that two days into the visit I broke down in tears and begged my partner to promise me we would never have to come back again. I have zero memory of why. You don’t retain the details, just the feelings; and it can be really hard to trust your feelings when you’ve been gaslit your whole life.

    3. Memory loss is a fairly well known symptom of PTSD and CPTSD. Of course, we don’t diagnose here, but it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me when I realized that it was actually fairly normal to have a hazy, gap-ridden memory of my various traumas. I have found that, as I have gotten further away from sources of trauma, my memory has improved and some old memories resurface. Brains are weird.

  23. It took me roughly 25 years from the time I realized what my mom had been doing to me until finally breaking up with her in 2018. Because she wasn’t *physically* abusive, because faaamily, because all the bullshit stories other folks had told me about her. The single easiest part is that she lives somewhere far away; somewhere I will never visit and I thank the baby yoda everysingleday for that blessing. ((hugs)) for the hard, LW, and solidarity for getting away.

  24. Same. I went low contact with my dad a year and a half ago and he called me out of the blue in November asking why. He found out that I knew about something he was involved in and thought that might be the reason. It wasn’t, but I was so unprepared for the call that I couldn’t give him an answer either way. And really, “you cheated on my mom” is a much easier answer than “you emotionally abused me for most of my childhood and yet I’m still so gaslit that if you told me you didn’t I would believe you”.
    Estrangement doesn’t feel good but hot damn does it feel better than the anxiety and terror I was living through before. Every time I start to feel like maybe I’m overreacting I remember what it’s like to walk back into my childhood home (as an adult) and immediately be living in fear again. I moved out of that house a decade ago and I’m only just now starting to feel safe in my own home halfway across the country.

  25. What CA says in this post about those moments of anticlimax, and then the aftermath when “nothing happened” but now you’re awash with useless adrenaline, is so important. For those of us who grew up around people who reacted unpredictably/unreasonably to reasonable requests/needs/situations, in a way it’s much easier to imagine someone flying off the handle than it is to imagine them behaving reasonably. Expecting and being prepared for dangerous nonsense even when it’s “unlikely” was a Vital Survival Skill for most of our lives, and it’s okay if we can’t de-install ButWhatIfTheyAttack.exe just like that. From bitter trial and error, I can tell you that focusing on sensations and saying “hey body, I know you’re looking out for me” attitude is SO much better for calming down than internally shouting “stop being so upset, nothing’s wrong, stop ittt!!” to myself.

    1. Yeah, that is how I think of my cptsd. My body is looking out for me, and it knows that sometimes the worst case scenario *will* happen, and that occasionally the worst case scenario is *really fucking bad*

      Reframing how I think of my cptsd helped me to stop feeling anxious and embarrassed about it. Which helped my stress level to go down. If I see one of my abusers in the produce aisle, I might start shaking and sweating, or I could run out of the store crying or yelling for help. I might behave in a way that seems odd to other people who don’t know the situation. But the abusers did some heinous shit to me, so maybe my reactions are not totally illogical? And if they are, so what? Maybe my cptsd is just looking out for me. Like a barking dog, you know? Sometimes the dog barks at the mail carrier or a squirrel or another dog walking by outside, and sometimes it barks at the creepy dude trying to jimmy the lock on the front door. The dog doesn’t necessarily know if the person at the door is the mail carrier or the creeper, but either way it just wants to protect the house.

        1. 🙂 glad you liked. It helps to think of my cptsd as a barking dog or a reeeally sensitive early warning system. Better than thinking badly of myself because if it.
          Jedi hugs!

    2. Regarding reacting to anti climax: I used to work in an ear piercing place long ago, and part of my training was what to do if a client fainted. I asked if that happens a lot. Not a lot he said, but sometimes with the fear of pain and then no pain, the anti climax could have that effect. Completely normal!

  26. I have a similar issue when I go back to my hometown – I’ve spent a lot time considering what I would do if I ran into a particular former friend who once hurt me Very Badly. After awhile, I found the best coping mechanism for my particular brand of anxiety is to play a game called “Who Cares about a Scene?”

    Basically, I play it out in my head where I see him, and he starts saying or doing something that makes me terribly uncomfortable or triggered. If he does this and I remove myself from the situation, someone might see that as causing a scene, or being dramatic. But Who Cares about that?

    I don’t care about it, because that scene gets me away from him. My loved ones don’t care about that, because they worry more about my comfort than The Scene. My very WASP-y family might care, but they’ll get over it. Bystanders might care, but I don’t know them and they don’t know me. And really – if I was a bystander and saw someone noping out of an awkward or scary conversation, I wouldn’t judge that nopetopus one bit.

    So yeah, if it helps, try playing a game of “Who Cares about a Scene” in your head and see where that gets you.

    1. Going through this right now. Former Friend is capable of making scenes and I’m petrified of running into them in case they’re in one of their moods to make one. Playing this game might be very helpful for me and allow me not to be so scared of going to the town where they live, thank you.

    2. My BF’s abusive ex-husband is a bus driver in my city, and part-blames me for the break-up (read: when she finally ran she stayed at mine so *I let her leave him*…). I use public transport all the time, every day, so literally any time I board a bus it could be him.

      At the beginning I talked myself through the Worst Case Scenario and had to hash out all the possibilities. As to “Who Cares…” (good game, @Robin):- he’s not allowed to leave the cab so can’t come at me, and if he refused to drive on then everyone else on the bus would be p*ssed off at him, and everything’s on camera, so really I’m good.

      1. Having had an enemy as a bus driver, once upon a time, I can tell you how bus drivers get even. When I would be waiting alone at the bus stop near my house, she would simply not stop. I reported her a few times but nothing was ever done, and while it was inconvenient as hell it was not the end of the world.

  27. Just wanted to add my support & empathy for LW & others who have commented abt their experiences. The “fight or flight” reaction is there for a reason & it took me a long time to learn to be kind to myself afterwards & not berate myself for overreacting, but it was worth it.

  28. Captain,

    as one of the people who wrote to you in a panic between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I deeply, deeply appreciate your response to this letter.

    You’re so right about the anticlimax, and all that comes with it. I hope my inner monologue can absorb some of the things you’re saying here, and some of your soothing tone, for all the times that my body reacts as if we were still 12 and powerless.

  29. Dearest LW, this could have come straight from my journal (all ten of em’). I grew up in a family that wouldn’t back off UNTIL I was having a panic attack (or upset “enough” as they put it). The resultant anxiety lead to some pretty dark perfectionism-traits that got me through university, but thwarted authentic connection in social situations. I hear you. I am with you. I am healing from the same wounds while also celebrating the life I created away from her. Yay you!

    I share your dread of the “what ifs,” and coming up to the holidays after a few years of no contact – I somehow KNEW that this past year was THE year for their hoover attempts. I got myself worked right up before the holidays, and all I got was a pair of too-small slippers and a card that screamed “LOVE MOM” addressed to another suite. These acts told me a few things:
    1 – My mother is a coward, and the delivery of too-small slippers is just another middle finger (she knows my shoe size)
    2 – The card addressed to the wrong suite means that she never actually put my address into her phone when she was in my life (ie. she couldn’t care enough to “add to contacts”)
    3 – She cannot buzz my suite, because she doesn’t actually know it

    In the end, my anxiety is mine to deal with, I survived her crappy slipper-slime-bomb, and maintaining no-contact is still working – because I had the best solo-Christmas EVER. It did show me what wounds I still needed to work on – so 2020 is all about doing less, and letting go of the outcome. I can’t stop my mother from sending me crappy gifts that look suspiciously look like middle-fingers, but I CAN work on thought-stopping and catastrophizing thinking. She doesn’t get to have any more power over my emotions anymore. Best of luck, I’m bookmarking this one for future reads and journal writing! I recently read “Healing the Adult Children of Narcissists: Essays on The Invisible War Zone and Exercises for Recovery” by Shahida Arabi and it was absolutely validating. Even if your parent is “just” toxic, overbearing, or not emotionally available, this book was really healing as it give the target the power to say “no” and let go. Keep us posted, you are not alone!

  30. LW, I’m glad you’re able and willing to admit this and be aware of it. I cut off contact with my abusive father almost 15 years ago. I knew my brother kept in contact (because he’s the only grandfather his children have!) and I’d had to deal with my nephews mentioning Grandpa a couple times after his visit.
    Cut to summer of 2016 when I’m driving my brother from our childhood home to the state we both live in. It’s my birthday. He casually mentions that our dad will be at nephew’s birthday. I say “Ok.” I just won’t talk to him.
    Exactly one week later, I have an panic attack in the middle of a grocery store and end up admitted to the hospital where helpful mental health guy tells me that it’s the thought of seeing my dad that set this off. The rest of the story involves therapy, my brother not inviting my dad and then changing his mind (because it’s a big event!)… seemingly forgetting that our dad LOVES public events so he can show everyone what a great dad he is. I’m in therapy and ended up having a panic attack at my other nephew’s family event because I was sure my dad would show up. He didn’t… but he has found a way to ruin my last birthday when my brother casually mentioned that our dad has cancer (apparently, he’s okay now). Which brought up a whole ‘nother bunch of feelings.
    Anyway, I tell this story to say “You can turn around and leave the dang food court.” Listen to your needs and if that need is to flee, then flee. Don’t try to be stronger or the better person… be what you need to be in the moment. ❤

  31. All my sympathy to you, LW. I had a situation a couple of years back, when I had moved out of my parents’ house but didn’t have the ability to fully cut ties yet, and I was still running into them occasionally, generally in public. And they behaved and acted like totally nice people and lovely parents, and I wondered if I had made everything up, and then I’d agree to meet them in their house and WHAM! A semi’s worth of abuse to the face (metaphorically)!

    The anticlimax thing is so real though. Everything is fine! My mother said hello and didn’t insult anything about me or pry into my life! And yet I feel like I just narrowly avoided death! What is this I don’t even!

    One thing I did (YMMV, of course, for some people this makes things worse) was sit down, at a point when I hadn’t talked to my parents in a while, and write down a “shit my parents did to me” list. It’s a veeeery long list, and I had to write it over the course of several sittings because it’s such a miserable list to make (I had less trouble writing my will, honestly). But if I ever start to question whether I imagined things because my parents are being sooooo nice now, I can remind myself “I have a six page, 10 pt Times New Roman, single space document listing all the horrible things they did to me, and that isn’t even a complete list” to assure myself that no, I am not imagining things. I mean – when I tell people that I got bitten by a dog as a kid and had to get a bunch of painful shots, and that makes me nervous around dogs now, most reasonable people understand (my mother, BTW, is not a reasonable person, you do the math around her and dogs). So, by that logic, any reasonable person would understand why I might be quite anxious around two people who did a heck of a lot worse than just bite me once. And if someone has a problem with me being freaked out about it, then they’re not reasonable people and I don’t want them around (easier said than done, I know).

    1. This is SUCH A THING! I lost the diary* with the last three months of entries about my abusive ex boyfriend, and it really hurts to have just that much less “proof” that I can look back on and see and say “yes, I did feel that bad, it was that bad”. Luckily I still have chatlogs, and I’ve pulled quotes out of those (before I went NC) so I can have a little file of “You were not making it up” and it is just so comforting to my brain to have something “physical” and other than just me to look at.

      *catastrophic hard drive failure, please do not offer solutions.

    2. Writing down all The Evil Shit in one hellish document sounds like a good way to counteract all the gaslighting and also that freaky way that trauma can make memories hazy sometimes (especially when influenced by others trying to rewrite history). I think I should write down my own trauma history one of these days. Eventually. When I can gather enough inner fortitude.

      I like that bit about distinguishing between reasonable vs. unreasonable people. When people try to rewrite my history and erase my trauma, I try to remember to ask myself, “Who benefits?” Who will benefit from me telling folks that I wasn’t abused? What do these history rewriters get out of it? Even those concern trolling bystanders who try to armchair lawyer my trauma after the fact will be getting something out if it. Even if they had nothing to do with the trauma in the first place. They often will want to feel virtuous or superior or like their concept of faaaaamily is intact, and to hell with the impact on me. Being a bit more sceptical about these kinds of questions and comments from supposedly concerned people has saved me a lot of heartache.

  32. Hello dear LW! I also estranged myself, by force, twice, from my mother, first from 1991-2003, and then again around 2008-present. The five year gap was due to her getting a cancer diagnosis and me making a sincere effort to give her the benefit of the doubt and not kick her when she was down. Ultimately, she did not change, she was not remorseful, she cannot give me what I need from her. Having her excised from my life was absolutely the best thing for my psychological well-being, and I would happily be your Brienne of Tarth standing in front of you when someone goes “BUT SHE’S YOUR MOOOOOTHER” and you flap your lips helplessly, unable to articulate why it’s better not to have her in your life. It is better. I won’t lie, the mother in my head is still there, telling me I’m worthless, but at least all her material is old and dusty rather than bloody fresh. I just want you to hear from further down the road that if it feels right to cut her out, it is. It’s the most (on paper) “unnatural” severing to make, a daughter from her mother, but just because she birthed us doesn’t mean she owns us, and she did enough damage that she forfeits that whole “but I was in labor for X hours” martyrdom when her parenting was abuse rather than parenting. I Jedi hug you and support your decision.
    I am fortunate that I don’t have anxiety about running into mine anywhere in public, but I have had those anxieties about ex-boyfriends and the like, palpitations and “what will I say” and all I do to calm myself is fantasize about the enormous, embarrassing scene I wish I could make where I scream and bite their head off and then flounce out of the Target head held high. I could never do it, but I get some pleasure imaging it. Maybe that would ease the anxiety for you, too? Either way – good on you. I am proud of you. It was hard to do, since she was the ur-emotionally unavailable relationship I have chased for 50 years that I chase still. But not her. Not any more.

    1. “But she’s your mooooooooother!” Yeah, and Cersei was a mother too, and LOOK HOW WELL THAT TURNED OUT FOR HER KIDS! That creepy wire thing from Harlow’s experiments is a better parent than some moms!

        1. Ha, I can relate! “She looks like a mom, and she provides food and shelter like a mom, so why do I feel like I don’t have a mom?”

    2. Gods, I have had so many daydreams in which I get to Make A Big Damn Scene and call out my rapist for exactly what he was, and they’re honestly great. It’s very soothing to be able to run it through in my head, and helps me prepare for how I’d handle it if I did ever run into him again.

      1. I may or may not have practiced confronting my abusers in front of my bathroom mirror. (It did actually help a lot with the stress induced stammering.)

  33. I think I’m one of the people who bombed the queue with a question very similar to this. I know the sick dread, the panic of the encounter, and the flashbacks afterwards. I’m trying to let go of experiencing the worst in advance–where I imagine a meeting in enough detail that it might as well have happened for all I feel. This idea of “whatever gets you through” is a new take for me and I really like it. LW, I my wish for you is that what you feel now in imagining your accidental meeting is the worst it will get, and you are already getting through that like a champ. You’re strong. You’re brave. You can do this even if it sucks.

  34. Hugs if you want them, LW. I get it. I’m not at no-contact w my mom, but I’m ‘very carefully controlled limited contact’ and I get it …. A lot.

    A thing I’ve been finding helpful is the Feminist Survival Project podcast. It’s ongoing and deals with your body’s response to stress and how to complete the stress response cycle. It’s by the women who wrote Burnout.

      1. I was going to comment to recommend Burnout! So helpful for validating and processing the bad feelings that are still there even if “nothing” “happens” in the moment. I didn’t know there was a podcast! *also races off to find it*

  35. I have had multiple reactions to running into a former abuser, including one time literally saying ‘nope’ out loud and turning back around to walk away without breaking stride. Time really does help

    Much love to you LW

  36. I had a similar-but-milder version of this a yearish ago, when I just happened to be in a neighbourhood where an ex used to (and possibly still does) live, and needed to get some groceries – I was fairly recently out of a different, emotionally abusive relationship and putting a lot of effort into what could best be described as “I have rights too” thoughts. But I was worried about bumping into my previous ex at the store that day. That ex wasn’t abusive, but we ended ugly and he did some real dirtbag things during and after our breakup. He’s not someone I’ll ever be happy to see.

    So anyway, I’m going through this grocery store, trying to fade into the background and dreading the prospect of bumping into this ex. At one point I’m thinking to myself, “Geez, if I see this guy I’ll have to jump behind a garbage can or something.” And it hit me: why was *I* worrying so much about this? I wasn’t doing anything wrong being in this store. Frankly, he was the one who’d acted like a glassbowl and torched all the bridges between us. If we see each other in public? Let *him* feel weird and awkward. I’ll nod curtly and get on with things. I don’t need to manage that situation, I don’t need to manage his feelings, I don’t need to smoothe the way or make it easier or nicer or more palatable for this guy (a recurring habit I had with him, subsequent Vader ex, and probably a bunch of other people in my life up to that point). (I consider this thinking a variation on CA’s “Return awkward to sender” credo).

    For all that, of course he wasn’t at the store. But it felt like a big moment in my own personal development to be able to say, “I have as much right to exist in this space as anyone else. I don’t need to run, or hide, or somehow ‘manage’ any kind of situation. If me being here, or me being here and Not Sufficiently Friendly, is a problem for somebody else, they can feel their feelings while I get on with my day.”

    LW, your issue is different from mine, but I wrote my story here because you or someone else might still find it helpful. It might help you to remind yourself you’re allowed to shop, or get coffee, or whatever, on what you perceive to be your mother’s “turf” – it’s not her turf, it’s just where you are that day. You’re allowed to be there and go about your day. If you see your mother, you don’t have to react any kind of way – you don’t have to manage that situation. If you can swing it, nod curtly or says a polite hello or whatever. If you can’t, don’t. If freezing her out completely is what you have in you, if leaving your cart and walking out of the store is what you have in you, do that. If your mom Has Feelings about that? She’s entitled to her feelings. She can feel her feelings all day. She can raise all the hell she wants in that store (she won’t want to raise any, because Image). She’s not entitled to a single thing from you. You don’t have to make anything easier on her. You don’t have to do things in some Objectively Correct Way.

    Just remember that you’re an adult too, and you get to be in that space too. The only person you need to look after is yourself.

    1. I remember telling a mentor about how I “had to” manage interactions between my parents to prevent fighting/screaming whatever and she just really calmly asked, “what if you didn’t?” I felt like I was hit with a ton of bricks – at 27 or 28 I had never actually thought about the fact that it wasn’t my responsibility to manage other people’s feelings. It’s still an ongoing process – managing my parents’ feelings kept me emotionally safe as a child – but remembering her very calm question helps me.

      Also, like other posters said already, if “nothing happens” you might feel silly for getting so upset, or for still needing to process and decompress, but that’s a really normal, practical response. Visits with my parents have been pretty non-eventful for the past 2ish years and sometimes my partner will be like, “well it went really well the last few times!” I’ve had to explain that I still stress out and can’t relax for the whole visit until it’s over because I have a lot more years of experience than he does with things NOT going well, and what that looks and feels like. I tend to need at least a day to decompress from visits, even if they go “well.”

  37. I know that hypervigilance feeling well, LW. When I still lived in the same city as my Bad Ex, I used to see cars that looked like their car and feel my blood pressure rise– even if I was on the bus going the opposite way. Just because I knew they might be nearby, at any time, and it was this horrible reminder of a person who scared me for reasons I wouldn’t be able to articulate for months after the breakup.

    Years later, I heard they’d wrecked that car and spent two days crying because now I wouldn’t know what car to look out for if I ever went to visit friends in the area. Trauma is no joke!

    You’re doing amazing, LW. You removed yourself from the situation and you’re managing your exposure as best you can. There will be aftereffects of that trauma, maybe forever. That’s not a reflection of your strength or reasonableness or ability to manage your mother. You’ve done so well to even cut off the toxic feedback loop of “let’s moan about mom” time with your father, even though there is a certain appeal to having someone you love and feel safe with to validate you. I’m really proud of you. You can handle this.

    1. …it occurs to me that probably the license plate I have had burned into my memory for twelve years now is probably no longer his plate, and that is…ugh. I’m far enough removed (both temporally and physically) that I don’t think I’m going to cry about this, but I one hundred percent understand and you have my deepest sympathies.

  38. LW, I ache for what you are experiencing, and you have all my respect for the hard work you have already done to recover from the abuse you experienced. I completely endorse the Captain’s good counsel, and that of others in the thread.

    May I ask (and you need not answer, of course!) whether you are currently seeing a counselor or therapist? The sentence “I visited a psychologist for a brief while many years ago, got diagnosed, learned some coping strategies and went on my way” makes me think that you are not now in any kind of therapy relationship. Would you possibly consider resuming therapy? I think it could potentially be very worthwhile in helping you navigate this challenge.

    As a data point, and not in any way trying to do long-distance diagnosis, there is a correlation between abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. I have seen this in my own family, as my elder kid escaped an abusive relationship, and five years later is still learning to manage/control the resulting PTSD. In my kid’s case, working with a counselor who specializes in treating PTSD has been a literal life-saver, and while there are still tough times, things are so, so, so much better than they were a few years ago. Just a thought that may or may not be useful.

    In any case, please, please, please keep right on doing excellent self-care, whatever that means to you in the moment. You do not owe your abuser anything, now or ever. Mad respect and much love to you!

  39. Thank you for leaving comments open on this one, and thank you ever so much more for the series of answers on estrangement lately. I’ve been estranged from my own parents for coming up on a year (in March! Happy anniversary to me!) and I just feel so consistently validated by everything you post on the topic. It has really helped me therapize myself in a time when going to an actual therapist wasn’t an option (I have money now so that’s on the table for the next couple months.)

    It absolutely hurts that when I stopped pretending my father’s abuse was love, I lost my mother too. It hurts that one of my siblings won’t speak to me because my mom won’t speak to me. It hurts when my birthday goes by and no one acknowledges it. I want to scream: he is your husband, but aren’t I your daughter? I’m sad. I’m angry. I doubt myself constantly. For people who are all about faaaaaamily, all I want to do is ask: why don’t I count? Why aren’t I family?

    But I didn’t break this thing. It was broken, and my pretending was glue. And your posts remind me that I’m not alone, that my life now is better – a different kind of hard, a lesser hard, than pretending was. So thank you.

    1. “For people who are all about faaaaaamily, all I want to do is ask: why don’t I count? Why aren’t I family?”

      Ohmygosh, this is a heartbreaking and very very accurate way of looking at it. Why is some faaaaaaaaamily more important than other? (Of course, the answer is “they’re not, but you’re the reasonable one so we can count on you to kowtow to the unreasonable one” but ugh ugh, this is such a good and terrible way of framing it!)

    2. This suggests a metaphor that I really like. The bowl or teapot or what-have-you was already broken, and you’ve been standing there holding the cut pieces together while the rest of the family tries to drink out of it. And when you try to suggest, maybe some glue, or a new teapot, or if you shift your hands and a little crack becomes visible, they get mad at you and ask why you “broke” the teapot.

      And of course you don’t get to enjoy any of the tea, your hands are full.

      1. That is a brilliant way to put it – thank you for this image.
        It is a great reminder to anyone who is blamed for “breaking the family” when they are simply telling/responding to the truth.

  40. I would suggest that you imagine your “worst case” scenario for running into your mom. Maybe you break down in tears, or yell at her, or run away like Spoked gazelle, or hyperventilate and pass out and the paramedics are called. Whatever you can imagine. Then ask yourself, what if that was okay? I mean, it may not be ideal, but what if you could accept whatever your reaction was, no matter what it is? If you can just make room for the possibility that the worst case scenario might be okay, it might give you some space. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be upsetting or embarrassing, but it’s okay to be upset and embarrassed. It doesn’t mean you did something wrong or should have done it better.

    1. I used to work a lot with vulnerable children who would catastrophise, as kids do, about Bad Things happening. We used the ‘So Then What?’ technique to talk things through, so:

      “If (x) happened I would scream!”
      “Okay, so what if you did scream?”
      “People would stare, and then I would FAINT!”
      “Okay, so you’ve fainted, so you lie there for a bit, and then you come round, maybe people are helping, so then what?”
      “er….I’d get up again?”

      9/10 they’d only thought as far as ‘this terrible thing has happened!’, and if you took them through the after-effects in real-time increments they’d realise that at some point they’d…get up and go home for dinner, or something. Forcing them to think *past* the one Terrible Event was the most useful thing to do. Maybe you break down and shout at your mum in public….so then what? Some people would stare for about 30 seconds, and then they’d get on with their day because Stuff Happens in public all the time, and people have lives to get on with.

  41. LW regarding undontrollable physical reactions: your body will not lie to you. Don’t try to gaslight your body. I went through a time, during my late teens and early twenties, when I vomited every time I saw the color fuschia. Why? Because throughout my childhood, whenever my mother saw the color fuschia, she would S C R EA M “OUUaghh, I HATE the color fuschia!!” When I say she screamed it, I mean she made the welkin ring. it was as if she were blaming me for allowing the universe to offend her eyes by presenting them with the color fuschia. I had failed in my duty to protect her from the color fuschia. So even after I no longer had to live with her, whenever I saw the color fuschia, I threw up, because I knew I was about to be SCREAMED AT. I have no useful advice, alas; all I know is that not only do I no longer barf at sight of something fuschia, I can actually enjoy it and think it’s pretty. but for five or ten years there, my body was trying to tell me to get rid of something that was bad for me.

    1. P.S. Yeah, I’ve also been through the thing of leaving a grocery store because I spotted my mother in the next aisle over. So I get it, LW. You are not alone.

  42. Hi Captain,

    I’m just commenting to note that you referred to LW’s partner as her spouse, where she conspicuously referred to them as partner and not spouse multiple times. Not all long term monogamous life partners are married. 🙂

  43. I discovered I’d been emotionally abused my whole life by my mother in a university lecture. Before that I would have told people that she was difficult, and that really was the extent of my understanding of why I was in an utter panic every time I was around her. At the time I was living at the opposite end of the country to my place of birth, and doing a very time intensive course, so it was months before I went ‘home’. I walked on eggshells that whole visit home, constantly waiting for the axe to fall. One night my partner called to check in and I just sobbed at him for ages. He immediately thought something awful had happened, but I think it was just that all that adrenaline had to go somewhere. So Captain Awkward is absolutely 100% correct on how difficult the anticlimax can be. Subsequent visits went very similarly and now my relationship with my mum is ok. We’re not remotely close, but we can talk to each other civilly and I’m no longer constantly waiting for the abuse to start back up. Some of that is down to her changing the way she acts around me, but most of it was me learning to trust my instincts but not to make assumptions about what was to come.

    LW, I hope that if you ever do run into your mother it is as uneventful at running into an old neighbour you barely knew. A run in that makes no ripples during your visit with your friends. But do be prepared for your body to react like a huge boulder just broke the water’s surface, and try not to beat yourself up for ‘overreacting’. Your body has very good reasons for having that reaction, so be kind to it. Have a plan for some self-care in case of that situation, and make sure at least one of your friends knows what that plan is. You may not be able to execute it straight away, so let your friends take care of you. I don’t think the fear ever goes away entirely, that person has proven themselves to be a threat too many times, but it does get easier to manage the fear with time. I wish you awesome visits with your friends.

  44. I spent a year after going no-contact with my sister very worried that she would show up on my doorstep despite living almost a thousand miles away from her and having not given her my current address, so this thread… Well, it strikes home.

    One thing I think was pretty helpful for me– I wrote a story which was pretty much a thinly fictionalized version of my fears, in which she did show up on my doorstep to yell at me, and I wrote about how immediately my roommates leapt to my defense, and I wrote about how I handled it with justified, controlled fury and general aplomb. I wrote the story from my best guess at her perspective, which was fascinating but made the experience kind of emotionally rough. Still, I think getting the scene out of my subconscious and into a concrete creative work helped me stop worrying about it!

  45. I didn’t know I needed this until I did. I cut contact with my Darth ex 2 yrs ago, never saw him again. The thing is, we still live in the same city, work in the same industry, go to the same events (think Renfaire) and have several mutual acquaintances. Sometimes I find myself in a spiral trying to imagine all the possible scenarios that could happen if I ran into him, like : does the place have exits ? Would he talk to me ? How would I react, would I have a panic attack on the spot ? Which people would be there, what would they say ? I’m 90% sure I can trust Mutual Friend to be my social buffer in this situation… but there’s still 10% of uncertainty, I can’t risk it! LW, my situation is different from yours, but please know you are not alone, and it’s okay to wonder and obsess, and it doesn’t matter what other people say. They’ll say what they’ll say, what matters is that you’re safe. Jedi hugs

  46. Hello, everyone. I was tempted to reply to each and every one of you, but I thought I would just summarise my thoughts here.

    Firstly, thank you, Captain, for responding so quickly and with such depth and understanding of my situation to the point that I thought you may have secretly been one of my close friends who knows the full situation. I thought about it for a while and then shared this post, your reply, and the comments section with my partner and he had a great deal of respect for how compassionate and full of understanding your advice and support had been. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so keenly understood about my entire situation, even though I didn’t even give the full scope of all of my past grievances with my mother.

    To you, commentariat, I can’t thank you enough for all weighing in and providing your stories, support, and advice. I’ve actually taken away a bunch of useful techniques from both the Captain’s reply and all of your kind words. It was heartening (if somewhat grim) to know that so many of you shared such similar experiences.

    I really do feel a lot more confident in my ability to handle this situation, when and if it arises, in the future. I’ve made a personal plan to return to a psychologist in February and I’ll be sure to broach this issue with a professional as well as with all of you.

    Thank you again. I’m so glad I wrote in and I think I’ll be coming back to this post again and again over many years whenever I need to refresh all those good feelings.

    1. Thank you for your response! You are not alone.You are so not alone. I recently ran into my abusive ex in one of those anticlimactic ways where he was very polite and I was really upset for so long afterwards. I might have a similar experience if my mom didn’t live states away. Best of luck! Sometimes we prepare as best we can and then the worst still happens and then we choose to endure.

    2. You’re doing a brave thing, LW. ❤ There are a lot more people that get it and get what you're going through than you may realize. We are legion.

      Also, here's a link that helped me a lot: http://www.issendai.com/psychology/estrangement/why-estranged-parents-forums.html

      Although it's about forum culture, you might find it useful even if your mother has never heard of these forums. It discusses a lot of the most common things estranged and abusive parents tell themselves and each other about why they're estranged and what their children owe them. I'm guessing that you'll find some themes there that you recognize from your mother's last email to you. It helped me to place my own mother's behavior in the contextual pattern. It was enlightening and very, very validating.

  47. This was a difficult read today, especially this:

    “all the times we just had to take whatever came, all the years we had to live with whatever they said and did to us and pretend it was love”

    which hits the nail right on the head.

    I would like to congratulate LW on being able even to go to that city. I am many, many steps behind you on the path to peace. I am kept awake at night by the idea that my father will predecease my mother, and I won’t be able to attend his funeral without seeing her.

  48. Thank you Captain for this post! I’ve been having similar anxieties lately about someone I’d rather never have to deal with again resurfacing, and this was very helpful to reframe things from “what if he shows up” to “if he shows up somewhere, anything that gets you through it is fine”. It helps just being aware that the feeling of anticipation-anticlimax is likely to happen the next time I’m going to something with mutual friends (who know the situation and wouldn’t invite both of us anyway)

  49. +1 million to the ‘stop enabling abusive Markle dad.’

    Abuse ruins a lot. Whatever gets you through. I mighta threatened a restraining order (over email) and given the cut direct (in person) to that guy who abused me in college, and had almost shock-like reactions after. The anxiety went way down after that, once I became confident he was not sitting outside my house.

  50. May I put your anxiety into categories? (For me, breaking a problem down into smaller pieces helps.)

    1. I will run into my mother in a situation where there is no one else around. I will be defenseless with no one to protect me or witness her abuse.

    2. I will run into my mother in a situation where there are other people around. I will look irrational as I react in an odd way in response to what onlookers think is just a lady in a shopping mall. They’ll think I’m being rude.

    Here’s my odd bit of advice: Tie your shoe. That’s it. That’s the distracting move I make when I’m filled with fight-or-flight dread. It gives me an extra second to think, and if my panic is such that I’m afraid I might pass out, it’s always a good thing to have your head closer to the ground so there’s no injury (or less injury) from the fall. The act of standing back up takes a tiny tad off of the adrenaline feeling of heart beating too hard and too fast (since standing quickens the heartbeat that little bit anyway). Or adjust your shoe. Pretend to find a pebble in it or do something to the strap if you’re not wearing laces. Anything that removes your head from line of sight so you’re not staring down your opponent or even having to look at your opponent. Keep it quick. Just touch your foot for a second. Kneeling down removes you from the situation without obviously sprinting down a store aisle.

    Then, if no one else is around, you stand back up and walk away. Tying your shoe IS your script. Same for if people are watching. There’s no awkward body language. There’s just someone tying a shoe, getting up, and walking away. If you do need to say something, “gotta go” is a good one.

    1. Clarry, I love this comment. TIE YOUR SHOE. Perfect. And you are reminding me that I had a boyfriend when I was 19-20ish who wanted to hold hands all the time and I used to tie my shoes to get out of it. (I’ve written about him before, he’s the one who refused to be broken up with, moved cities without telling me so we could “get back together” and showed up at my door to “surprise” me with this information, and a mutual friend rescued a large portrait of me that was on display at his mom’s house 10+ years later). He’d always want my little hand in his paw when we were out and about, he’d always want to touch me, and it made me uncomfortable, and I tried “I don’t want to hold hands so much” and “I don’t like holding hands” and it didn’t work so I became a person who tied my shoes all the time.

      1. Thanks. Feel free to incorporate TIE YOUR SHOE in future advice wherever it fits.
        (Now I’m imagining whole crowded food courts or cocktail parties full of people all kneeling to tie their shoes when one person walks in the room.)

    2. I fake sneeze. I can do quite a convincing fake sneeze. If I feel like I need to break up someone else’s flow, or I feel like I’m losing control of my own voice when I want to appear calm, if I need to breathe. If you suddenly hold up one hand and turn aside to sneeze 99% of the world is so conditioned to this the will stop and let you.

  51. “…sometimes “anxiety” is better described as plain old “fear.””

    Thank you for this line, Captain. Reading it was like a literal light bulb moment. Every time I feel fear of the unknown or of a future thing, I label that emotion anxiety, because (mostly sarcasm) we all know anxiety is something that we are allowed to ignore/ medicate away/logic yourself out of. I’m not good at emotions, so anytime I can squash one down, relabel it as anxiety, and then feel valid for weaponizing therapy to get rid of it, I’m gonna do that.

    But I can see a whole new mindset now. I can label that emotion fear. I can say that even if the bad thing didn’t happen, it doesn’t automatically mean that my fear was really anxiety and thus stupid. Like people can be scared of roller coasters and just because they didn’t die on the roller coaster, doesn’t mean that they didn’t really feel fear and they were stupid for feeling that way. But that’s the lie I tell myself about my “anxiety” all the time. Anyway, thank you and I’m going to try and call that feeling fear and see how that makes me be gentler with myself.

  52. I don’t know if this quite fits in, so delete if it doesn’t… I had a (thankfully milder) version of this with an abusive ex continuing to live in the same town as me. I took a lot of comfort knowing that, while he didn’t show it, he had a lot of scared feelings about running into me, too. “Show him that I don’t give a shit anymore by [externally] remaining 1000% calm when I run into him” was a motivator that helped me mentally prepare for our unavoidable encounters.

  53. It’s the same with my mother. If I were to see her out and about, I don’t know if I would scream, burst into tears, throw up, punch her in the face, or some combination (and since assault is bad I’m very clear on doing what I can to never run into her). I’ve had to cut ties with other family who were informed of that boundary and chose not to honour it, which is very sad but also the right thing.

    Unrelated, but kind of not, CW for SA: a former boyfriend who sexually assaulted me (among other things) lives in the same small town as I do. I was terrified of running into him, and it’s since happened–twice. The first time was a few months after we broke up, when he was still stalking me and having friends help him stalk me. I saw him down the street and froze and felt like I’d been hit by a massive electric current. We didn’t exchange words but it was awful.

    The second time was years later, just a week or two ago, when I saw him driving his car. And I thought, “Oh, it’s THAT asshole,” and my face screwed up, but no electric jolt. I don’t think I’m ever going to be comfortable with knowing that I might run into him just about anywhere, but it did get a lot better and more bearable. Hang in there and give yourself lots and lots of time. (And even living in the same town of less than 20K people it’s only happened twice in several years.)

  54. When I first moved to our house in the boondocks, one of the chores I took over gladly was mowing our huge lawn on our riding lawnmower. (In the country, if you don’t mow, you lose ground to the woods every year.) I couldn’t figure out why it stressed me out so much until I realized that I was constantly waiting for my dad to start screaming at me about hitting a rock or Doing It Rong. I went to my husband and animatedly laid out some very specific ground rules about how to get my attention when I was mowing. He was totally fine with that, if a little startled.

    So yes, adrenaline.

    I went no contact eight years ago, and we both changed all of our names shortly after. I was TERRIFIED when we went to the courthouse. I started outlining exactly what I was terrified of – that my dad would come around the corner and punch me for thinking I could do this. I’m a 38 year old adult, doing what I want with my life. Yet the judgement from that hellhouse was still hanging over me. I was terrified that he would physically assault me. So I made a plan around that. My husband would see it coming, and I would call the police, y’know, from OUTSIDE the COURTHOUSE. Easy get.

    Over the years, it’s helped to sit down with husband or therapist and talk through the worst possible scenario. When I’m afraid and anxious, it’s very formless, it’s very amorphous, like when I was growing up and there was a constant fear that something bad was going to happen. What am I in trouble for now? If I figure out what the worst possible thing could be, now, in my adult life, I can plan for it. And it starts seeming fairly ridiculous that this would happen. This has helped me talk my anxiety down. Having a plan, and realizing that, while my feelings are completely valid, it’s fairly unlikely that my father would somehow find out my plans, and decide to physically assault me because of them. (Luckily, he’s cautious about breaking laws of any kind.)

    Good luck, everyone.

  55. There is also that thing they do or say that sounds innocuous to other people but this toxic person knows is hurtful for you and then when you react as expected other people think you are the over reactor its a thing my brother does and its why I avoid him at all costs

    1. Yeah, my mom was a master at that technique. Like instead of an inside joke our family had the inside insults. My husband would happily sit on mom’s sofa while she shredded my self esteem like a block of cheddar. He had no clue, but she was making her remarks one after the other. Like some kind of evil abusive code, and I was the code breaker. Or the enigma machine? I don’t know it was just messed up. So glad I went no contact. It may not be all happy fun time, but at least I don’t have to spend my days being torn apart by rabid wolves. Er, I mean my family.

  56. The anti-climax is such a useful concept to me. As is “it’s not an overreaction; it’s a delayed reaction.” I cut my mother off a few years ago when I finally had something I could point to as concrete “evidence” that she was, objectively, a bad person.


    When I was raped at age 16 by a predator in his 30s, I told my mother the encounter had been physically violent. It hadn’t been; I had just sort of lay there frozen, but I knew if I told her the “truth” that it wasn’t like, RAPE-rape, it would be my fault. At the time I did consider it my fault, but by that point in my life I was so used to being the fuck-up, to everything being my fault, that I thought nothing of ‘lying’ to get sympathy despite knowing I didn’t deserve it.

    Of course, I realize now that it wasn’t my fault. And that it was rape. But at the time I didn’t think so. So I told my mom he’d used violence. She was very troubled, but had to “think about it.” I brought it up again a few days later, and she told me that she thought I was making the whole thing up. Even my ‘lie’ hadn’t worked. We never talked about it again.

    A few years ago, it finally occurred to me, after all that time, to wonder why she hadn’t believed me. I mean, this dude had spent a year grooming me. I knew damn well my parents did not approve of me spending so much time alone with him. So Mom KNEW that there was a man in his thirties trying to get her teenaged daughter alone. Even if I WAS an awful child and a troubled person – as we both agreed throughout my life that I was – wouldn’t it occur to her that maybe this wasn’t so far-fetched? Even if I wasn’t worthy of protection or acknowledgment, couldn’t she have just like, gone behind my back and told an authority figure? She wouldn’t have had far to go. The man was from my karate class. The head of that class was the county sheriff. But when I was 18 and long gone from that class, I’d gone back and told him what had happened and he knew nothing about it. So clearly my mother never brought it up to him.

    I know now, of course, that my mom didn’t want to deal with it. And I also know that that incident was maybe the least of a lifetime spent convincing me not to trust myself. There’s a reason that by the time it happened, I was sure it was my fault, and I knew to fudge the details to have any chance at sympathy from her. Mom had molded me into the perfect victim for someone like him. She’d victimized me more intimately than he had, and for longer, and with higher stakes.

    Several years ago I confronted her on this. Her reaction was one of wounded innocence: She denied any of it had happened. She didn’t remember me telling her about it, her response, etc. Her email in response to my calm question was… unbelievable, though it took years for me to grasp how disturbing it really was. She reminded me that she’s a MISSIONARY! That she’s committed to ending sexual trafficking – that it’s her life’s calling! She described in vivid detail the kinds of punishment she wished on sexual abusers, using terms and imagery she rarely employs, as if to convince me by the very violence of her feelings how incapable she’d be of standing by and allowing her OWN DAUGHTER to go through that all alone! So obviously, I must be confused. You’ve always been easily confused, sweetie. I love you so much and I worry for you!

    *deep breath* Long story short, I had the “proof” I needed to begin to disentangle my reality from hers. I’ve spent several years doing that. And now…. I have imaginary arguments with her like, a dozen times a day. While I’m doing the dishes, I imagine how she’d criticize my kitchen. While I sit with the cat, I wonder what she’d think of my choice of book, of my home decor. I respond to her criticisms with cold hard logic. I SKEWER her with REASON, I make my contempt known! I HUMBLE my imaginary mom in my own head, and she’s left FLABBERGASTED!

    And then I catch myself and say “Honey you’re doing it again. No.” And I try to go back to whatever I was doing.

    Anti-climax. Yeah, it’s damaging. She hasn’t turned up on my doorstep (though she almost did once, and only my foresight at the time I cut her off – when I made my eye-rolling father and brother promise never to give her my address even though they were sure I was just being dramatic) kept her from getting to me. This knowledge does not help me convince myself that I can relax now), and though I haven’t spoken with her in over three years, I’ve internalized her. I still spin around her like she’s the sun in my solar system, and I don’t know how to stop doing that.

    Recognizing the anti-climax as damaging on its own, and thinking of these things I’m doing as a delayed reaction rather than an overreaction, are both new concepts to me and I think they’ll help. So thank you, Captain.

    1. Hi Grace, that is so awful. I empathize. I am very familiar with the “phantom argument” thing where you just keep reliving/replaying a situation over and over saying and doing different things to, idk, try to resolve it/make it better/make it go away? And getting lost in it and coming back to yourself and being so frustrated and annoyed and weary of it and not knowing what to do. I have found it a very hard automatic pattern to break for whatever reason, but i did notice that when i started doing Internal Family Systems (IFS) techniques a few years ago (learned through my own reading/research, although there are IFS therapists out there), there was a significant reduction in frequency and duration of being trapped into these type of imaginary loops in my head, plus you can use the techniques to interact with them. Just wanted to mention that in case you felt it could be of any help. All the best ❤

      1. Thank you! I haven’t heard of this before, but I’ll be checking it out. 🙂 I really appreciate you reaching out.

  57. Jesus. I meant to write to OP and I got caught up with my own crap. OP, you did the right thing. Your worry now about running into her, even if “nothing” happens, is not proof that you exaggerated everything. It’s proof of the opposite – that this is a person who hurt you so deeply that just the thought of running into her somewhere scares the hell out of you. Please take it that way. You’re in the middle of what could turn into a very long process of reframing your childhood and your relationship to the woman who raised you. It’s a time to trust yourself, not second-guess yourself.

    I also think that if you do run into her, HOWEVER you respond, your next move should be to go do something very kind for yourself. TREAT YOSELF because you’ll have gone through something really hard, and at the end of the day, you’ll have come through it.

  58. Re: the anticlimactic letdown, I remember that well with my dad. I was shocked when everything seemed fine, and I kept waiting for the other shoe to the drop. For years I waited. But he kept being on his best behavior. Every time I saw him was a little less stressful than the time before. Finally I managed to relax completely on his most recent visit, and it was like he knew and had just been waiting until he could unleash maximum emotional damage. It sucked getting dragged back into the emotional quagmire right when I thought I’d escaped it for good, but part of me was also relieved. Yes, I was right to be on edge all those years. He never actually changed at all.

    Thanks so much for this response (and series!), Captain. It’s incredibly timely, and it’s helping me maintain my resolve as I navigate the early stages of going no contact with my dad.

    1. My mom did that too. Started behaving reasonably if still ice cold. She was getting older (and then later was diagnosed with cancer), and I had just gotten pregnant, you see. There was definitely that sense of emotional let down, and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then, after getting a lot of caretaking from me, she died. And I found out that she had arranged a lot of posthumous fuck yous for me by way of her will. And she has left my sister to carry on the abusiveness as a kind of legacy. All that deathbed reconciliation can really come back to bite you. I have the huuuuuge luxury of not needing her money, but the message she was trying to send was pretty gutting. I’m back to no contact with family now, but at least that is partly helped by my sister avoiding me like plague because of her own financial shenanigans. In a way, the situation helped by confirming (to me as well as husband) that my family of origin is really evil.

      Reading the Captain’s wise words and those of the commentariat have helped immeasurably. Having a therapist or even a support group tell you that you aren’t alone is helpful. Hearing the stories of countless intelligent and thoughtful people is affirming. We are not just being dramatic, or having trouble remembering. No, it is not just our overactive imaginations getting the better of us again. See, this is why abusers try to isolate the abused. If we talk about it and compare notes and support each other, we might break free of the abuser’s influence. We might find our way out of the fog and realize that we are not alone.

      We are not alone.

  59. Hope you’re finding some comfort in CA’s excellent advice. I have had some similar anxieties with an ex boyfriend/abuser and knowing he might pop up somewhere unexpected.

    I haven’t had contact with him in probably 8 years. He has tried to reach out with messages on facebook or most recently, email. Instead of reading them myself, I had a close friend and my husband do so (respectively) and then summarize for me. He was supposed to continue living on another continent entirely, but ended up moving to my corner of the United States. We were introduced through some hometown people, and he mentioned maybe going back there to see those people.

    Having my husband on board with my anxiety was key. Once I could talk out loud to him that I was worried about our road trip passing through that state (so much that I didn’t want to stay the night there) and that it sucked that he might be in my hometown, already a hard place for me to visit, it already felt a little less scary. He listened and wanted to know exactly what I’d want him to do if we did see him – and affirmed that it could change based on how I felt that day, and that I always held the power in deciding what to do next. It was extremely reassuring – he didn’t minimize my fear, he agreed to whatever I needed to address that interaction (mostly that I wouldn’t want him to engage or ‘fight for my honor’), and together, we did what we could to make me feel as safe as possible.

    I’ve also replayed plenty, plenty of times what I’d say to him if I did come across him in an airport by myself and couldn’t walk away quickly enough. That compulsion to plan out how that could go might not always be healthy, but it can be cathartic as I move through different stages of healing.

    Jedi hugs if you want them.

  60. Thank you. I’m estranged from my parents but they know where I am. One had open heart surgery last year and I got yet another tearfilled letter about how I should forgive or I might reject. My partner reads them for the opportunity to psycho analyze. I said, if she dies, I’ll read it, and put it above the spice rack for a while, above the trashcan. She didn’t, I threw it out.
    Dying won’t change them. Same parent went to visit her estranged parent years ago, hopeful for a reunion before that parent died. You won’t be shocked when I tell you the abuse continued as though it had never stopped.
    Separation is good for everyone’s mental health. After 11 years I only very rarely fear their attacks and they don’t have the stress of fighting me tooth and nail on every point. I will never yield. My guard is not all the way down, but I’m learning what healthy relationships look like in time to teach my kid.

  61. This is mainly about the “what if they DIE and you never reconcile” argument.

    So — I stopped talking to my absentee dad (he stopped talking to me) when I was 11, and for the next four years I just expected to see him EVERYWHERE. I live in a big city and being hypervigilant on public transportation, which I took every day to get to school, was exhausting. I still don’t know what I expected to happen if I DID see him — would I ignore him? Would he ignore me? Would we yell at each other? Could something good possibly happen? Who even knows? — but just the thought made me anxious. And at the same time, I wanted very very badly to make sure he would know me when he saw me, at a time in my life where I was getting taller and gaining weight and changing shape. Like, I couldn’t cut my hair, in case I ran into him, because I needed him to recognize me.

    Anyway, when I was 15 he was abruptly hospitalized, and I thought about it really hard and decided not to visit him. It was a combo of, if he died, I didn’t want my memories of him to be overwritten by someone I barely knew, unconscious in the hospital; and if he recovered, I didn’t want to give him a get-out-of-jail-free forgiveness card. He did die; we never reconciled; his death was extremely traumatic. Like, I didn’t think it was at the time, because I hadn’t spoken to him in four years anyway and nothing physically violent actually happened to ME, but in retrospect I spent the majority of the next four years disassociating from most of my life. BUT here is the thing: if I had a time machine, and could go back to 15-year-old me and give her advice, I wouldn’t. 15-year-old me made the right choice. I wouldn’t change anything if I could. My dad’s death would have been traumatizing no matter what, and given what I know of him, there wasn’t any meaningful closure to be had there. For all I know it would have been worse if I had seen him.

    Sometimes you never reconcile, and they do die, and you didn’t do anything wrong, and there is nothing you need to regret or wish you could change. You don’t need to set yourself up for a confrontation you don’t want because of the speculation/pressure from someone else who isn’t you and doesn’t know your heart or your mind or your experiences.

    I also want to say, to the Captain — thank you for so compassionately articulating the bizarre re-trauma of the anticlimax. I’ve talked myself into full-on panic attacks before, worrying about both avoidable and unavoidable confrontations with people, and it’s so easy to beat myself up afterward if things are, for a given metric, “fine”. But the worry beforehand… that happens for a reason. I didn’t make it up for funsies; it’s in reaction to things that people have said and done to me. In a way it’s kind of helpful, like a fire drill even if there’s no fire later. I don’t know. Thank you.

  62. All sympathies, LW! It’s so hard navigating these things, and it really sucks that it feels like the onus for doing so is on the person who experienced the emotional abuse. In my case (ex, still had contact with some of our friend group), there was the added challenge of always, always wanting him to be the nicer version of himself, the kinder one, the one that I felt in love with — not coincidentally, the version that kept me in the relationship much longer than was even remotely healthy.

    So when post break-up bumping into (or semi-stalking) happened, it was so hard if he was nice or even innocuous to turn off the hope. But over and over again it was clear that he could only manage to keep it up for short periods before the nasty surfaced again. I would then berate myself because I should have known better, right? All part of the inner monologue of self-blame for his behaviour.

    That cycle was hard to break, and it’s particularly hard when it’s people who by all reasonable expectations should be loving and supportive. The Captain’s advice — particularly about translating what’s going on with feelings/body– is gold. If I’d known to say to myself: “Yes, you’re hoping he’s nice and loving, maybe because you are a nice person who wants to think the best of people, but let’s remind ourselves of how he’s acted in the past,” that would have helped.

  63. The Anticlimax! This!!! I could never understand why I’d get worked up when I might have to talk/interact with my dad and things would go fine. Thank you so much for writing this. It’s made a lot click into place.

  64. Have an exit strategy…. and a include a “now I’m safe” soothing strategy.

    I used to do this whenever I had a stressful situation and somehow survived it: YAY I”M NOT DEAD now go devour half a pan of cake! You’re alive, eat the carbs & sugar! After a while I figured that this is not a probably not the best “now I’m safe” strategy.

    When I know I’m going into a stressful situation, which may or may not be as bad as I’m anticipating, I make sure that for afters, there will be hot herbal tea or hot cocoa. Hot drinks tell the body to relax, it’s safe now. There will be some kind of carbs that won’t leave me feeling guilty after I eat it ALL up, because darn it, I met the lion and survived! Time to eat all the eats!

    Bonus: making the tea, waiting for it to steep & cool, and then eating and drinking, all takes time. That puts another kind of distance between you and whatever, who ever, you just survived. Fourth dimension for the win!

    1. I love this! Especially the notion of intentionally taking your time to do A Thing like fixing tea. It really does serve to remove you temporally from the situation. Great idea!

  65. I love the reminder that any reactions you might have are FINE.

    For what it’s worth, not only is it okay and fine to have a breakdown, the breakdown in this case is legitimately good for you! It’s your body purging all of the stress in the form of crying/screaming/hyperventilating, and if you’ve ever had a good crying jag you know how much better you feel after. So although you’ll have to battle with your demons around it feeling embarrassing, hopefully you can recontextualize it in your own body/mind experience as a Reasonable Response That Your Body Does To Try To Help.

    Best wishes ❤

  66. Eight years after leaving an abusive boyfriend, eight years of therapy and not ever seeing him/speaking to him again, eight years of avoiding the side of town where he lives, EIGHT YEARS later I was driving and glanced into the lane on my right and there he was!

    I immediately slowed down so he passed me, I’m confident he didn’t see me, and it was over in a second. But I had to pull over because I was instantly flooded with absolute terror and full body uncontrollable scream-sobs for several minutes.

    Trauma is trauma is trauma. We don’t get to control our reactions and my body remembered him as if it was yesterday instead of eight years ago.

    So I sat on the side of the road crying until I was done. And while I avoided that road for the next few weeks, ultimately I was ok. I am ok. I survived, I’m now thriving, and even though he terrifies me, I’ve taken every precaution and I’m ok. Hugs if you want them OP! You’re not alone!

  67. It took me until very recently to realize that not everyone’s parents hit them when they were angry with them, and not everyone was afraid to have friends over because of the sanctimonious lectures about righteousness and piety that would inevitably follow the visit. This concept of anti-climax being as powerfully uncomfortable as an instance of abuse is… wow, it just explains so much about why my anxiety spikes when I visit my family and why I always feel weirdly unsettled when everything ends up fine. But the thing that really stuck out to me here and will become a mantra is the notion that “just because nothing went wrong now, doesn’t mean nothing went wrong ever”. People mellow over time but that doesn’t mean they were always fine or healthy to be around.
    I don’t know, friend. I’m going to seek out some therapy to help me work through this, but all I can say right now is that you’re not alone. We’re all right here with you, growing up and getting to better places. Take care of yourself, distant internet friend. ❤

  68. Been there, done that…thank you.
    I needed to read this.

    The 2nd guessing…in my case, anyway…can be as much of a killer as the anxiety itself.

    I have a rehearsed speech going through my head for that future date when someone calls me to tell me my mother’s dead, and likely they’ll do in a tone that suggests that I blew it, by not being in touch with her all these years, “Oh finally! Now she’s out of everyone’s misery…including her own. Thanks for letting me know!”

    The letter writer I think is doing everything to protect herself…and I hope with all my heart that the rest of her life will be happy.

  69. Different situation, but here’s what worked for me. I was sexually assaulted, and I used to have this intense fear that I would run into my rapist while grocery shopping. Specifically about grocery stores, because I know that grocery stores are a place most people go, there’s just a few major ones in the general area where I lived and shopped, etc. And just talking into the grocery store that was on my way home from school would freak me out, because I knew that store (and every other store in the area) was *also* on my rapists way home from the campus.

    I finally talked to my therapist about it, and she said, “Okay, so, imagine you see him the grocery store, What do you do?”

    And I said, “Uh, I’d leave all my groceries and walk out of the store immediately.”

    She told me, “That’s a perfectly reasonable, good thing to do. You are allowed to do that. Now you’ve got a plan.”

    And … yep. That made me realized that, oh yeah, I’m allowed to leave! My instinct to GTFO isn’t bad and doesn’t mean I’m weak, or responding poorly. I stopped being scared of grocery shopping after that. I never did run into him, thankfully.

  70. This is the first time I’ve ever seen articulated how weird and difficult the anticlimax can be, when you’re tied in knots over an upcoming interaction and then the toxic person acts normal and you’re left second guessing yourself. I completely thought it was just me!

    1. I have a former friend who still runs in the same social circles as me, and about twice a year, we end up at the same event, and I spend weeks DREADING IT. And more often than not, it’s such an anticlimax! But all that anxiety ruins the event for me in a very real way, even though the actual interaction is usually not much more than a strained, polite, hello.

  71. When I imagine scenarios in which I run into my father, in my mind I call him by his first name instead of “dad.” This makes us equal. My father likes being dad. Dad has authority, dad is in control, dad is a title that deserves respect, dad automatically is entitled to certain things by virtue of being dad. If he is dad, then that means I am child, and child is helpless and anxious and must shrink to fill the role dad has assigned and follow the script dad has written for our relationship.

    However, if I think of my father as Robert (not his real name), he’s a regular adult, just like me. Robert doesn’t have authority over me any more than my co-worker Steve, my friend Andrew or my dentist Larry. Robert must earn my liking and respect, just as any adult must if we’re to have a functional relationship. I don’t have to be close to Robert. I don’t owe Robert anything. When Robert says jump, I don’t have to say “How high?” I can squint at him and say, “The fuck you on about, Robert?” I call the shots in my life, and no one else does, including Robert.

    So when I imagine running into my father at Target or the next family wedding, or if he shows up at my door even though I never gave him my address, mental me doesn’t say, “Hi, dad” and stress about what I do if he tries to hug me (children and fathers are supposed to hug, and he is dad and I am child, therefore…). Mental me says, “Hi, Robert” and leans back from his open arms, because what the fuck, Robert, I don’t hug adults I’m not close to. Larry the dentist doesn’t expect a hug, and I like him more and see him more often.

    It helps because I know my father would hate it if I called him by his first name in real life — he is my FATHER and I will address him ACCORDINGLY. He would on some level realize it’s a game-changer that equalizes us, even if he couldn’t articulate that. I can just imagine that look on his face as he realizes he can’t stop me. Beyond that, I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Like I said, whatcha gonna do, Robert?

  72. Captain- thank you so much for addressing this issue. I have a very similar reaction to a very different type of abuser, and even so, your advice is super helpful. Hopefully next time I see him, I’ll be able to use a little bit of what you wrote here.

  73. this is incredibly timely advice for me to ponder as well, given that i’m faced with the strong possibility of moving back to the city where i lived with my emotionally abusive ex for nearly a decade, and the places i miss most there are places he might still be going to as well. i’ve had this worry at the back of my mind so this was really helpful to read, thank you.

  74. I feel your situation, LW.

    My guess as to what is happening is that you’ve moved out of your mum’s control (in so many ways, go you!) everywhere except your head. You are still in the old childhood habit of revolving around her, anticipating her, and letting your mental state be dominated by her. As long as you keep worrying about what you’ll say/do if/when you see her, she has control over your mind. Let go, give yourself permission to say “whatever happens, I did well”. That’s what I had to do with my dad.

  75. I just feel all of this so hard when it comes to my dad (also estranged, although the face-saving reason is that he lives on the other side of the world). He was/is also a deeply angry, self-centered person who took his deep insecurities and anxieties out on his family in bursts of explosive, sudden anger or vitriolic verbal abuse. To most people he seems charming and gracious, any anger appearing to them as righteous activist rage.

    You are not alone, Letter Writer. I’ve been an adult living thousands of miles away from my father for over a decade, I don’t have clinical anxiety, but I still spiral into dread any time one of my relatives asks me what he’s up to or there’s a mention of one of his biennial visits. You are not alone. Thanks for writing in and thanks, Captain, for writing about this.

  76. Hello LW, previous writer here.
    I went no contact with my parents for several years a while ago, and six months ago I started doing it again. I didn’t have the issue of accidentally running into them to worry about, but I do still deal with their constant attempts to get around that boundary. Ultimately I decided that they might be able to do things I don’t want them to, but that I get to control as much of my reaction to that as I can. Sure, it might flare my PTSD up, but I don’t have to respond, and I don’t have to set the boundary again. Instead I acknowledge that I have abusive parents, take the self care I need, and mentally push the possible timeline for re-connection back a few weeks/months.

    How is this useful for you? Well, firstly because there’s an abuser logic that goes “well if you didn’t TELL me that we weren’t speaking then how should I know?” and that used to guilt trip me in circles. But a radical change in communication – especially a lack of contact – is its own message, and while it might feel bad to her, your mother HAS received it by now. She knows where your boundary is, and you don’t have to worry about how clearly you need to set it or worry that maybe she just doesn’t understand.

    Secondly, regardless of that, your mom is going to mom, which may not mean respecting your boundaries. But what you can control are the boundaries you set between the world and yourself: if she talk to me, I will give her two minutes and then disengage? If I see her I will leave the area and go home? Maybe you can test drive some of these in your head and make yourself some promises that only you have to keep.

    Good luck, and jedi hugs if you want them.

  77. I left an abusive relationship over 25 years ago and still worry about running into The Bastard of the Universe in the airport. I also have my mother and brother on an Information Diet because of emotional abuse. My therapist recommended something that really helped me with hypervigilance and cptsd. She acknowledged that yes, it is good to have a plan (I LOVE the Tie Your Shoes script) for certain scenarios. But she also suggested that when I find myself dwelling on questions / things I can’t control that I take a self-compassion break (example: 5 minute self-compassion break, https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations) so I can help myself feel calm, safe and secure. I have noticed that doing this helps me feel better about myself (not as self-critical) but it also helps break the cycle of “what if, what if, what if” in my head.

  78. LW, I don’t know if you are still reading the comments, but I’m going to tell you my secret for dealing with my emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend who attended the same tiny college as me and also WAS IN ONE OF MY CLASSES WHEN HE BROKE UP WITH ME. Now, this is absolutely a nuclear option, but it made me feel safe and able to navigate the less than one square block campus despite him being everywhere.

    Just don’t look at her or acknowledge her. I mean this very seriously. After our breakup, I just stopped looking at him. If I was looking anywhere near him, I intentionally looked past him, or to the side. If I was alone, and he showed up, or ended up somewhere I was going, I just walked away and found somewhere else to be. My instincts were all “Flight” and I embraced that. It was so freeing to just say “I don’t have to be here anymore, and also I don’t have to look at his face.”

    Another bonus is that my friends knew that he was bad news, and helped work around his presence. I sat in front of him during our cursed shared class? My best friend who was also in that class switched seats with me for the rest of the semester. He was sitting in the student common area in the main building? Oh look, we’re suddenly eating lunch outside! I had to literally work on a group project with him? Look, every other member of the group handled all of the communication with him! Let your friends you are visiting know that you are worried about running into your mother, and that your plan is to not engage and/or leave if she shows up.

    Does it feel weird when you literally run away from someone who has hurt you? Maybe? But knowing that I just didn’t have to deal with it was more freeing for me than the weird anxiety of being someone who walked into a building, saw the ex, and just turned around and left.

  79. “Having anxiety doesn’t mean you aren’t still the expert on your life”. Yep. Yepity yepity yep.

  80. “People who weren’t there and who don’t know what it was like are very quick to throw around the term “overreacting” or probe a traumatic situation to make sure that everyone was reacting the exact correct amount – usually the amount that they assume they would react”

    Thiiis. It makes it so hard to talk about an abusive situation, since often one episode or behavior in isolation may not seem “that bad” and I end up tripping over myself to try to get people to agree that it IS “that bad”. Spoiler alert — some people never will.

    It’s also hard to put into words how a “simple” reaction like a glare can affect you profoundly. Trying to explain the difference between “annoyed/rude” and “you are scum and I hate you with every fiber of my being and want you to KNOW”…I always give up.

    Something that helped was “The Gift of Fear” concept. Even if I can’t “prove” to someone that a situation was dangerous, my feelings are still real. My danger senses were reacting to something and it’s ok to be wary even if the drama police don’t like it.

    The other thing that helps when explaining is sticking to the effects it has on me, like “I feel sick to my stomach and can’t understand words people are saying to me”, without saying WHY I feel that way. They may still say it’s “over the top”, but they can’t probe at details of the other person’s behavior if i don’t give them any.

    As Captain said, what gets *you* through is the right choice. I believe in you

  81. I can’t say everything has magically gotten perfect, but I went no contact (or extreeeeeeeeemely low contact) with my mom for almost 2 years, and when I fell and broke my legs-ankles-feet-toes, I called almost everyone else on my contacts list before allowing the hospital to contact her, and I raised HELL about being released into her tender care (NO THANK YOU, I demanded to be taken to MY home) and think this all sunk in, a little bit. She invited herself over for Xmas Eve & Xmas Day, and complains often that I refuse to go to her house, but I keep on doing what I hafta do to keep my healing on track, and my mental and emotional stuff sorted and healthy, and that no-to-low contact vacation REALLY HELPED A LOT.

    I’m just saying.

    And Captain Awkward & the folks in the comments section all helped me get out of my head and give no-to-low contact a try. It was glorious. It also helps me set boundaries better, because my mother seems to understand there are consequences to being horrible to me. Even if she doesn’t think she was being horrible. We don’t have to argue about it. I didn’t like it. It had to stop.

  82. Thank you for putting words to the feelings around “Why did…they mysteriously behave themselves today?” My dad is The Problem Person for me, I’ve mostly found ways to cope that are functional and even sometimes hilarious, but it feels like there’s never gonna be that moment where he starts a sentence and my shoulders DON’T go up around my ears while I speed-prepare a comeback. And I want to believe in parental love from him so badly that everytime he is polite for two hours I start to reimagine our relationship inside my head where I’m actually the weird one with a cold frozen heart and a chip on my shoulder.

  83. There is so much wisdom here. Like, sometimes we mistake fear for anxiety. Like, our body has reasons for reacting how it does, and whatever we do to get through the situation is the right thing (ie, there is no “right thing”). I need this on repeat desperately. I wanted to say that I think the anticlimax phenomenon may be tied up with something I have to return to again and again with my own parents/relatives/outside world, and that is unpredictability. My mom the alcoholic, my dad the rageaholic. It was like living with several versions of a person, I didn’t know who I was going to get. The body learns to fear it’s the worst one as a survival technique. Just because things are ok one time, they might not be next time, and your body is still left with the fear/confusion/trauma to work through, not to mention the gaslighting. Thanks for this masterful unpacking, Captain ❤

  84. I have never, ever contemplated the idea that the “anti-climax,” the “it all went fine” could actually be worse than the worst case scenario – coupled with the resulting self doubt (“was I overreacting?”) and/or the feedback of others (“I think you’re overreacting” “you didn’t need to be rude”) and/or the fear of the feedback of others. I am literally floored and close to tears. It’s like there are words for this idea that I’ve been …. gaslighting myself? Constantly drawing and redrawing boundaries and then thinking I was the problem for creating said boundaries because there isn’t actually a problem? Because YES X 1,000,000 the anti-climax wrecks me more than the smoking gun and I have never, ever thought of it.

  85. “Through this lens, behaviors like ‘rudely’ walking away from a toxic family member in a public space even if the person doesn’t do anything overtly abusive in that moment are easy to classify as ‘overreactions.'”

    My read is that this is what CA was implying, but I want to make it explicitly clear: EVEN IN CASES WITHOUT A HISTORY OF ABUSE, it’s perfectly fine to simply walk away from (or otherwise avoid) someone with whom you don’t wish to interact. The idea that this is rude is culturally reinforced, and perhaps even biologically evolved – it developed in contexts where people personally knew literally every other person they routinely envountered and where the cooperation of every single member of the group was literally necessary to survival. That’s no longer our social context, for many of us – we developed ideas like the social contract and human rights to cope with a context where those of us living in high density with thousands or millions of people we don’t know can still treat each other decently, and we’ve somewhat (we still have a lot of work to do) developed systems where people can get the support they need to survive from people who are not you, specifically. It’s difficult to change that social and/or biological conditioning, but in most present social contexts, you really don’t owe other people interaction at all, even if either/both of you feel like you do.

    I can even maintain some sympathy for the third parties who try to smooth things over, because they’re ALSO operating from a place of evolved (socially and/or biologically) need for group cooperation for survival – they feel they NEED to get involved because it feels like their own survival, not just that of the parties directly involved, hinges on cooperation amd group harmony. But believing/feeling something doesn’t make it (universally) true, and those feelings are theirs to learn to deal with, not yours to manage. Best wishes to you, LW, and everyone in a similar circumstance.

  86. Does anyone have any wisdom for the ones who don’t feel like they can trust their parents anymore, because the surface is all love and the base is love (I have no reason not to believe) but the whole space between is riddled with sarcasm and anxiety and worry-rants and control and forcing their emotional reactions onto other people? I had a roommate like this once, too – sweet, Until something happened that they didn’t like, but 50% of the time they’d be forgiving of that too. And with them, too, I had trouble reminding myself in the times between situations that I hadn’t imagined it and/or caused it myself.
    What are some good ways to remind oneself of things really having happened, and having hurt, when the surface has already closed and the ripples faded? When so much of the time is that anticlimax talked about in this post, it’s hard to be sure of the real events and their weight.

  87. My mother was a narcissist. She had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s for the last four years of her life and I was the close kid who took care of her; and she resented almost Everything I Did For Her. I was always labeled the Too Sensitive, Overly Emotional one in the family, despite being repeatedly put in the position of doing all the emotional heavy lifting in my family. She passed away in December 2019. In answer to the question: what if she dies and I never talk to her again? The answer is: I’m suddenly a lot less emotional. It turns out that she really was driving me crazy. FYI, I do have an excellent shrink and a great support group. But to be totally honest to a bunch of strangers who may be able to relate: it’s better. My life is better. I don’t feel constantly like I’m pounding sand.

  88. Thank you so much. This was perfect. I’m leaving a bad relationship. So when I told co-worker, I’m not here if he calls. Co-worker said..he doesn’t seem violent to me.
    Cool, bro. I didn’t think so when I first met him either. Now that it’s escalated to stalking, same co-worker thinks my ex is crazy. As ex’s emailing me and his lawyer to complain I lied to my lawyer about him sending rude emails. No defense yet for emailing people to find out where I am. But I’m sure he can explain its my fault.

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