"I didn't talk to my mother for six years": Dealing with a toxic parent to preserve your sanity
When the people who are supposed to be our unconditional cheerleaders become our tormentors, it’s a special kind of heartbreak
A scene from Game of Thrones often plays in Vartika Patthak’s mind. It’s not the infamous Red Wedding or the decimation of the White Walkers. It’s when Tyrion Lannister asks his father Tywin to be made lord of their ancestral home and Tywin’s response; “You, who killed your mother to come into the world… I’ll let myself be consumed by maggots before you have Casterly Rock.” Dealing with a toxic parent her whole life, Patthak felt deep-rooted anger towards Tywin, in whom she saw flashes of her father.
“My mother died giving birth to me, and my father was never able to cope with her passing. I’ve lost track of how many times he’d get drunk and berate me for ‘killing’ his wife. Whenever he thought I did something wrong or made any misstep, he’d start a tirade, saying ‘is this what your mother died for?’” says Patthak.
When the people who are supposed to be our unconditional cheerleaders become our tormentors, it’s a special kind of heartbreak. “They shape our sense of self and dealing with a toxic parent, especially in our formative years, can leave a very deep scar on our psyche. That can last a very long time,” says psychologist Madhavi Gangopadhyay.
It takes a toll on our mental and physical health as well. A study found that people who had to deal with “persistent prolonged dysfunction” with their parents were more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. The constant psychological stress of being around a toxic person in the house can take a toll on your heart health and immune system.
Brought up primarily by her maternal grandparents, Patthak saw her father on rare occasions for the first 10 years of her life. She eventually moved into his place with his second wife and their kids, but always felt like the black sheep, a reminder of her dead mother.
Ours is a society that demands children deify their parents. We carry on our backs a crippling debt for the things they’ve given us – AKA basic parenting – and that’s often held over our heads like a restaurant bill we need to keep repaying.
All parent-child relationships go through conflicts, ups and downs. They can be our greatest supporters and also critics at different points of our life. “Some parents can be very overbearing. You’ll scream and shout and fight. Following that, most parents will feel regret, guilt or the desire to rectify and change things,” says Gangopadhyay.
“I thought this is just what mother-daughter relationships are like.”
With some people, the toxic behaviour is easy to spot. With others, it can be a lot more subtle, “a process of manipulation, gaslighting and invalidation that makes the child constantly want to appease the parent, but at the same time, also dread being around them.”
Gangopadhyay says there’s no singular list that you can go through to tick off identifying marks of a toxic parent. Our tolerance levels are different. How things impact us vary, and it’s something best left to talk through with a trained mental health professional.
But a starting point is to ask yourself some questions. Does being around this parent make you anxious? Do you feel like you need to constantly walk on eggshells around them and change who you are to ‘manage’ their behaviour?
Sonali Anand realised she had been dealing with a toxic parent when she started therapy at 41. “For some reason, my mother felt a rivalry with me. I never understood it. As an adult, I realised how insecure and self-centred she is. She always needs to be the centre of attention, and will do anything to gain it, even faking illness.”
Her mother also goaded a rivalry between her and her sister. “It’s like she enjoyed it when we fought. It gave her the power to play the mediator. We were constantly compared to each other. Then she would compare us to herself when she was our age. I think she was bitter that we had all these opportunities and resources that she didn’t have growing up. Appreciation and validation were doled out based on what we achieved – whether it was grades, awards, promotions, even weight loss.”
Singh says she realised how deeply this behaviour impacted her when tensions grew in her relationship with her own 15-year-old daughter. “I learnt to ignore my mother after a point. But I don’t want my daughter to feel the same way about me that I have about my mother in the past.”
“I didn’t talk to my mother for six years.”
Even now Anam* finds it difficult to freely express her emotions. She was taught from a young age to bottle it up. “I would cry very easily as a child. I was mocked, called a cry baby. Other times, my parents would get angry and hit me for crying. It’s like I wasn’t allowed to be sad, or scared, or angry.”
To avoid the embarrassment and anger from her parents, she felt she had to harden herself. “It wasn’t just about growing a thick skin. Either I’d go out of my way to please them and avoid conflict of any kind, or I’d just hold onto all of it.”
There’s only so much pressure that can build inside before it starts to bubble over. Anam felt out of control, and picked up detrimental coping habits like picking at her skin, drinking and smoking instead of addressing her emotions.
“I had so much anger at my parents. I moved to a different city and completely cut off from them. It was only after therapy and changing my behaviours, that I started speaking to them again,” adds Anam.
When dealing with a toxic parent, Gangopadhyay says that cutting them out of your life can seem like the most drastic step. Especially since a parent is so intertwined with our sense of self. “You feel guilty for even considering ending that relationship. Especially when you’ve been manipulated to a point where you even feel the need to cut off.”
The first step would be to create some space and boundaries between you and your parent. Though, in the Indian context, it’s not as simple as saying ‘I need space’. We’re so enmeshed in each other’s lives, many dependent on their parents financially and sharing a living space.
“Your goal should then be to seek independence. That can be getting financial security through work, creating savings and moving out of their home,” adds Gangopadhyay, saying that creating physical space is a good place to start when emotional boundaries are hazy.
Cutting off completely is a hard conversation to have, and it’s better to prepare, she advises. You need to be ready to be made to feel guilty. “They can try and dismiss your feelings. But if your mind is made up, you need to accept everything they throw at you, but also stick to your guns.” Refrain from name-calling, make the decision something you’re doing for yourself, and not because of them.
“I knew they weren’t going to change, so I focused on myself.”
Priyanshu Kapur says her mother has always had a flair for the dramatic. Since she was a child, she’s heard about how much her mother had to give up for her. “My parents separated, they have a cordial relationship. I somehow became her therapist and had to listen to her problems, all the time.”
Her mother would guilt her for leaving home for long periods, for travelling and wanting to study in a different city. “Children should never be made responsible for their parents’ happiness and mental health. We don’t keep score in a healthy relationship. There’s no tit for tat, but I have seen a lot of it in my practice,” says Gangopadhyay.
There’s a reason mental health professionals spend years training. A child is not equipped to handle the emotional baggage that’s unloaded in therapy. “It alters the nature of a parent-child relationship. There’s a difference between being open and sharing your life with them, and then oversharing and talking to them about problems you have with the co-parent. It taints and influences their perception of the other parent and is a very unfair position to put a child in,” says Gangopadhyay.
Kapur felt immense pressure to keep her mother happy. Whether it meant her grades in school, the friends she made that her mother approved of, doing a college course she didn’t want to. “If I deviated even a little or voiced my opinion, the waterworks and guilting would start,” says Kapur. When she decided to take a trip with her friends after college, her mother locked herself in her bedroom for three days, refusing to eat or talk to her daughter upon her return.
Talking things out with friends helped Kapur recognise how unreasonable and draining dealing with a toxic parent had been. “I’ve had so many discussions with my mother about this kind of behaviour, and the years of guilt, manipulation and poor boundaries. She’s in complete denial, I know there’s no changing her. But I’ve learnt to say no and handle her much better than just giving in like I used to.”
Choosing to stay in contact with someone who’s been so toxic for you is also a tough decision. Sometimes they can change, or work towards improving, but in many cases, they will remain the people that they are. In which case, we need to protect ourselves by focusing on our mental health.
We do that by setting realistic expectations, based on past experiences. You will need to have thick skin in such situations, and patience to give them the time they need to grow if you’re both working on building a healthy relationship.
Slowly limiting the amount of private information you share with them is also a kind of boundary you can create. When you feel them triggering your emotional response, create a “coping plan of action,” says Kapur, instead of indulging in the conversation. You are only accountable for your actions in such situations. That can be leaving the house for a five-minute walk, sitting down to do Sudoku or even 15 jumping jacks in place.
Dealing with a toxic parent can mean a tough road ahead. If you’re both willing to put in the work, it is fixable. If not, then manageable. For some people, that’s family therapy, for others, it’s cordial phone calls on festivals and birthdays, and nothing more. It’s easy for us to slip into the toxic patterns of our parents that we grew up with. And while we cannot change the past or control our parents in the present, we can focus on breaking the chain of toxicity.
A note of caution: This article includes personal experiences and inputs from experts. If you’re struggling with your mental health, please consult your healthcare provider. iCALL has put together a crowdsourced list of mental health professionals across the country, you can find it here.