This is Grim

--image from Psychology Today

–image from Psychology Today Magazine

Shayna is 8. I’ve received a phone call from her. She is sobbing. “No, I don’t know where she is.”

I speak to my granddaughter across 400 miles of phone lines: “Doesn’t she go away a lot?”

She wails, “A whole lot.”

I say, “And she always comes back home. Right?”

The response is weak: “I guess so.”

“So,” I plow on with as much cheer as I can manage, “I’ll bet she comes back home this time, too.”

It’s 9:00 at night. I ask if her baby brother has eaten dinner. No, nobody has. I send her to the kitchen to investigate possibilities. Tonight, we find that the cupboard is not quite bare. She follows my directions to heat the can of pork-n-beans, and I hang up the phone so she can feed herself and two other hungry little people.

Dad got home after work that night bringing a pizza he hadn’t been able to deliver. Later, I heard that Mom, as usual, got home after the bars closed.

I was still 400 miles away.

Four years before that incident, I had tried to move from the Los Angeles area, where I had been working, to San Francisco, to be with this so-called family. I had been let go from a job just after getting some dental work done, so had the opportunity to move but little money to rent an apartment. I suggested moving into the house my son had rented and helping out until I could find work. David and Janice agreed.

So I packed everything important into the car, drove 11 hours, unpacked and moved in to the only space available–a large hallway toward the back of the house. For the next week, I scrubbed floors, window sills and even some walls; shampooed rugs—hey, it’s not gray; it’s maroon–and cleaned roaches and grit out of cabinets. I organized the kitchen, gathering spices from the third bottom drawer next to the sink, the left-hand upper cabinet and the floor and putting then all where Janice said she wanted them, in spice jars I bought for her. I washed and washed and washed dishes until they were clean. I bought a laundry basket and used it to reduce a four-foot tall, six-foot wide pile of dirty clothes down to a more normal couple of laundry loads. I bought glasses and served iced tea in them. I took Shayna to nursery school each day, picked her up each afternoon, bought her shoes and a new coat, and took her to see the pigeons in the park. I cooked dinner some nights and read Shayna a bedtime story.

David went to work every day and then came home and pitched in. Janice stayed in her room and I rarely saw her. Why didn’t she help, even just a little? I made up every excuse I could think of for her. One excuse seemed relevant: She was pregnant with their second child.

One night, I took everybody out to dinner. Walking a couple of blocks from the parking lot to the restaurant, hand-in-hand with Shayna, I made sympathetic noises while Janice complained bitterly about how Shayna had given her such pain in childbirth and been so difficult to take care of as a baby. Shayna held my hand and looked at the sidewalk. In the restaurant, Janice ordered the most expensive meal on the menu and then took her dinner to another table to eat with some of her friends while the rest of us ate more sensible dinners.

On the weekend, I stayed at a friend’s house to give my family time to be together without Grandma and me time away from being Grandma.

The second week, I started looking for work every morning after taking Shayna to nursery school and was gone most of the day. In the afternoon, I picked my granddaughter up, took her home, did my housekeeping chores and then left to go to my friend’s house for the evening. I still didn’t see Janice much, but I was told one morning by David before he went to work that putting a knife blade up in the dish strainer was not to her liking. Each night after that, I made sure to put the knife blades down.

At the beginning of the third week, I was preparing mentally for a second interview with a software startup firm while I went shopping for groceries. Shayna, in the grocery basket, let the axe fall. “Mama says you have to leave right now or my Daddy’s not going to be my Daddy anymore.”

“Well then,“ I mustered. “I’ll just have to see you from now on when you come visit me, ‘cause your Daddy is always going to be your Daddy. Don’t you worry about that.”

I finished the shopping, paid the bill, drove back to the house and told my son. He already knew. He apologized, but there was nothing he could do: He was Daddy, but he was not married to Janice at the time. So if she wanted him gone, she could make that happen.

That night, he and I loaded the car up and I drove that 11 hours back to Los Angeles, unpacked and–lucky me–moved back into my old apartment. It had not yet been rented to someone else.

After that, the only time I saw a grandchild was when Janice allowed me to, and that was only when each of them got old enough to fly from Port Townsend, Washington, where the family was by that time, to Los Angeles.

When the kids were home, I could not even call them. The few times I did, Janice would ask for money, which at first I was glad to send so my grandchildren would have what they needed. But after close to five thousand dollars had been sent—an amount that today would be about double that—I said no. She told me then that if I didn’t send her what she wanted I would never be able to see my grandchildren again.

It was tricky after that: David would get her permission for a summer visit, which sometimes took months but protected me. As long as she didn’t talk with me, she didn’t threaten me.

By that time, I was starting to understand that Janice wasn’t mean but was instead mentally ill. From then on, nothing she could do could hurt me. What did hurt me, and still does, was that I was prevented from doing good things for my grandchildren. Even the little I was able to do for them during those summer visits would be turned backwards and inside out by Janice’s later repeated and weird assessments of the visits. Here’s what I learned about myself, via Janice, when each child visited again:

• This from Shayna: “When Quinn visited you last year, you didn’t feed him properly and he got very skinny.” (He had arrived skinny, and it got worse that summer because of severe diarrhea. Instead of responding to my repeated pleas to authorize medical care, Janice insisted I should give the child cod liver oil. I reported the problem at his day care, and “ShiLo,” to whom I remain forever indebted, handled his accidents with great sensitivity. I don’t think any of the other children were even aware of the problem.)

• From Quinn: “You make us go to stupid day camp because you can’t be bothered to take care of us.” (This was ShiLo’s day camp, from which my grandson had come home every day saying he had “the best day” he ever had.)

• Rosa: “You only give us cheap food.” (True, in comparison to salmon, crab and steak for two weeks until the food stamps ran out. After that? Well, there was that aforementioned pizza.)

• And the clincher, also by Rosa being as loyal to her mother as she could be: “You’re not a member of our family. You don’t send Mom money when she needs it.”

Where had the five thousand dollars gone that I had sent to the family? Who knows? Even the money I sent specifically for clothes and school stuff for the kids was not spent on them. I found this out one time when Rosa came for the summer. We had been to the library and were walking back home, each of us with two or three books in our hands. “We can’t go to the library in Port Townsend,” she said.

“No?” I said, dismayed. I thought at least they could read books, even if there was no money for any other entertainment. “Why not?”

It took a block or so for her to tell me, but she did eventually say that they couldn’t check books out at home because fines for late returns had never been paid. And if that wasn’t bad enough, she hadn’t been able most of the previous year to bring books home from school, either, so hadn’t been able to do her homework. School fees for the year had never been paid.

When I asked David later over the phone what had happened to the money I’d sent for school expenses, he said he’d not been aware it had ever arrived. That was one of Janice’s by-then usual behaviors. If a bill arrived in the mail, she would often trash it. If money arrived, she would often spend it on herself.

Possibly the worst incident I remember happened when Quinn was just a baby. Janice was having one of her screaming fits, and right in the middle of it she threw Quinn at his father. I guess the baby had become nothing more than what she had in her hands at the moment. Thank goodness David caught his son. He called the police, told them what had happened and said that Janice was so out of control he was afraid his children were going to be hurt. The police came—and put him in jail. All night, he tried frantically to get someone to go see if his kids were OK. He was ignored. I think he was let out the next day. From then on, he knew there was no help for him or for the children.

All in all, my grandchildren had a home life like you don’t want to hear about. In the early years, David supported a family on what he could earn delivering pizza. By the time there were three children, he was getting jobs in construction. Janice was getting this job, quitting that job, and almost never bringing home a paycheck. For years, David would come home after work and do grocery shopping, laundry, vacuuming, taking care of kids,  even cooking dinner some of the time. Janice would cook an elaborate, expensive meal several nights a week and leave the kitchen a mess. She didn’t clean house. She didn’t tuck children into bed at night. As I was told she would frequently announce herself, she didn’t do “service work.”

Sometimes, it was worse. Sometimes David would just give up, go out and get drunk with her.

Several times, he left for brief periods of time. “Dad left you,” Janice would then tell her children. “He doesn’t love you anymore.”  She broke my grandson Quinn’s heart with this sort of talk. It was easy for her to turn him against his father because he was still a little boy, and he believed his Mom. How could he understand that she was ill and expressing nothing other than her own uncontrollable rage?

Each time David left, something awful would happen and he would have to go back and try to repair the damage done to this children. One time when Quinn was just a baby, he came back after six or seven weeks to find that his child, who had been climbing a ladder when he left, was barely able to walk.

Years later, though, my son did leave permanently. He had to. He had tried for most of his adult life to help the woman who had been supposed to be his partner, and could not. By then, both girls were grown. Quinn was still there, and David agonized over that, but finally came to the conclusion that Janice was less violent with him gone, and that had to be better for his son. Janice was also less abusive with Quinn than she had been with Shayna and less neglectful of him than she had been with Rosa, so he would probably be all right.

By the time David left, he was in deplorable physical health, malnourished, terribly then, with gray skin and rotten teeth. He had a scar in his scalp from a thrown ashtray, a badly-mended broken finger, and a knee injury that would cause him to have to wear a leg brace for the rest of his life whenever he was doing anything physical. He could barely eat and had severe headaches. And his mental health—well, you could not even use the word “health” next to the word “mental” to describe the condition he was in for the first years after he was gone from that chaos.

I am proud of my son. He did recover, as much as anyone does from such trauma. Now, almost a decade after what I can only call his imprisonment, he is a good person and has the strength necessary to think carefully and act honorably. It takes strength to heal.

It takes even more strength to heal when you have been the perpetrator.

Let’s back off a moment and label what I think Janice suffers from. It’s called “borderline personality disorder.” Someone with BPD experiences self only in relationship to others, and only in the way a small child might: I want this. I want that. Are you giving me what I want? Oh, that feels good! I love you! I love you! Then: Oh, now you’re not giving me what I want? I hate you! I hate you! I’m going to make you suffer!

My mother, if she had ever spoken with Janice, would have said, “Listen to me now. Your children were not put on this earth to give you what you want. As their mother, it is your job to give them what they need to be happy, healthy and smart.” This is what she told me, when I gave birth to David while still young enough to be unprepared for the selflessness required of a mother. Becoming a mother is always hard, because it requires a dedication to task beyond the understanding of anyone who is childless. But for Janice, who was suffering from BPD, the task would have been unthinkable.

I sympathize with Janice. She must have been in great pain, may still be. I have even found it in my heart to forgive her, this woman who gave birth to my grandchildren. But I cannot care about her. Not after what she’s done to them.

She had several chances to do right by her children when she was reported to the authorities for neglecting them. I think there were three reports for neglect in addition to the time David had to call the police. Counseling sessions were offered, but instead of taking advantage of free opportunity to become a better person and parent, Janice did what the borderline person often does: She made up stories to make sure nobody would blame her. She told a confused counselor about what a good mother she was. She was just a little tired, is all, from doing such a super job of taking care of three kids and doing all that, uh, well, she probably didn’t call it service work when she was in counseling sessions.

Each of my grandchildren—my beautiful, smart, wonderful granddaughters and my handsome, equally smart, and most wonderful grandson—is struggling. Of course they are. The experts tell you that “transgenerational transmission” of Janice’s disorder is common, particularly since BPD appears to be both a learned set of behaviors and a biological inheritance. In fact, in one study I looked up, it was found that the “heritability” for BPD is approximately 40 percent. The biological tendency is what is inherited. The chaos caused by living with it, particularly as a child, is what makes it active. Janice herself probably inherited the illness from her mother, who I was told by a one-time neighbor of hers was an extremely volatile woman even away from her family.

Even if a child does not inherit or acquire BPD from a parent who has it, the repercussions of living with it are dire. Just listening to some of the phrases used in articles to describe the emotional impact that a BPD mother can have on a child gives me the chills:

  • fractured psychological, social, and behavioral development
  • chronic levels of distress described as “extraordinary”
  • depression (mentioned over and over again) and anxiety or rapid mood swings
  • internalization of the mother’s lack of ability to show love sufficiently and appropriately, with resulting low self esteem and guilt
  • the twin to guilt, shame, with its resulting fear of being blamed
  • inability to confront an issue, any issue, with calm intention to arrive at a solution
  • inability to leave the mother either physically or psychologically, when others of a similar age have already become adults
  • perpetration of the behaviors of the BPD mother onto their own children, when they have children

It takes a lot of learning about the dynamics of BPD, a lot of practice at clear thought and a lot of exposure to real love to recover from it. Or, you might say, it takes a grandmother’s help.

At this time, all three of my grandchildren are grown. They get in touch, just as Janice did, when they want money. Otherwise, I think they would just as soon I were not in their lives, and certainly not in the same town.

I am in the same town, but it is as though I am still 400 miles away.

I do have hope for each of my grandchildren. Shayna is now 31, brash and loud, with a compact competent body and an obvious intelligence. After spending much of her childhood being a parent to her brother and sister, she’s taken a few years off to be a party girl. Rosa, 27, is tiny and thin and so reserved that it is almost always impossible to tell what she is thinking—though she is thinking, make no mistake about that, and about serious stuff like becoming a scientist studying water issues. Quinn, who at 22 is what the girls must call adorable, is pure boy-becoming-man, into cars and not much else, and possibly the smartest of the three.

Each of these children apparently inherited intelligence from my side of the family, and I think strength as well. I am thankful for this. I am convinced that because of this, my grandchildren will be able to make the decision to become happier, and healthier, and even smarter. I am convinced that my grandchildren will find out how to make the changes necessary and will make those changes. I am convinced that my grandchildren will become the people they want to be.

With a little help, eventually, I hope, from Grandma. When they’re ready.

I can’t wait!


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