Reprinted from the Intergenerational Trauma issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (2), pp. 18-20
When I was 14, my mother told me she hoped I would one day write about our relationship. She said it would be helpful to others for me to share what it was like living with a single mother with borderline personality disorder. I will be 29 this year and I can say with confidence that, to do this story justice, I would need to write an entire series of books—minimum, one per generation of my family.
Book I: My grandparents
The story would start with my Nan and Grampie. After Nan’s mother (my great grandmother) remarried a physically abusive man, Nan was sent to live at an aunt’s house, where she wasn’t provided so much as a toothbrush. I know my grandmother later felt unworthy of love and struggled with low self-esteem. My Grampie also came from a broken home and ventured out on his own at a young age.
Nan and Grampie married young and had a child, then lost their second baby—a daughter named Shelly—to sudden infant death syndrome. That shared, traumatic event lit the fuse for Nan and Grampie’s toxic relationship: Grampie processed his grief with alcohol, physical aggression and infidelity, and Nan would compartmentalize or displace her feelings.
They had three more daughters, including my mother, who grew up witnessing their emotionally stunted parents engaging in violent domestic disputes. This left an imprint on my mom. Eventually, Nan took my mother and her younger sister and left.
Later, Grampie turned himself around and became the person I know and love today. However, I can still detect in him a shadow of shame and guilt about the environment his children were raised in.
Book II: My mother
According to my Nan, my mother was a hypersensitive child who struggled with big emotions. She would self-injure when she couldn't articulate how she felt—choking herself or pulling her hair while clenching her jaw. She was 12 when Nan and Grampie finally divorced, and by 14 she had her first boyfriend. I’ve since found out this boyfriend verbally abused her and would threaten to break up if she didn’t “put out.” This abuse was normal to my mother, as it had been modelled by her parents. She submitted to this boy because she felt wanted.
At 19, my mother met my father, six years her senior. From the start, he was sweet and committed to her. She got pregnant with me just a few months into their relationship. I’ve been told my father was over the moon—ready to build a life with her. This type of commitment was foreign to my mother. All she’d ever wanted was to feel worthy, but she was still a teenager and broke things off out of impulsiveness and fear. She later told me that Grampie didn’t speak to her for months, saying she had thrown away a “good life”—for herself and me. He couldn’t see that, paradoxically, self-sabotage was my mother’s attempt to protect herself.
I was born one month shy of her twentieth birthday. The next few years provided my mother with some joyful distraction, though she tells me I hated everything that typical babies enjoy. I was difficult and cried bloodcurdling shrills, screaming when I was held for too long or undressed in my “birthday suit.” I wonder now if these instances were signs of trauma transference.
When I was two, my mother went to nursing school a few hours away from our hometown in Nova Scotia, and I stayed back with an aunt and her family. I have good memories of that time, though it was also my first experience of parental abandonment. A couple years later, Nan and I relocated to Alberta, and my mother followed months later. Nan was always like a second parent to me, and I was lucky to have a secure attachment with her.
Book III: Calgary
The majority of my childhood traumas can be traced to our relocation to Calgary. There, my mother became dependent on crack cocaine and exhibited explosive rages, usually directed towards me. Afterwards, she would self-harm out of guilt and cling to me like a teddy bear. I still have flashbacks of these confusing and perilous episodes.
At some point my mother saw the movie Girl, Interrupted, based on the memoirs of a woman with borderline personality disorder (BPD). This film spoke to her and not long afterwards she sought to confirm her own BPD diagnosis. Our family doctor threw prescription opioids into the mix to manage her endometriosis pain, and these became her drug of choice.
The year I turned six, my mother’s then-boyfriend played Easter Bunny for me because my mother was hospitalized for her first suicide attempt. Everyone said she had pneumonia, but I was an intellectual child, already reading at a Grade 9 level; I could definitely read the “Mental Ward” hospital signs. She attempted suicide again when I was 10, and my emotional flashbacks to that moment remain crystal clear. Much like my Nan, Grampie and aunts, I learned to compartmentalize and suppress my emotions—only, I did it to make space for my mother’s.
By the time I was a teenager, we had moved close to 30 times. I became extremely adaptable and embraced the moving process. I remained self-disciplined through academics and competitive gymnastics, which kept me out of the house and taught me independence and determination.
At home, I was hypervigilant, watching my mother’s every move. I walked on eggshells knowing that, with one wrong word, she might erupt into verbal, emotional and sometimes physical acts of abuse. In my Grade 11 student photo ID I donned a black eye, which I told others was from a Frisbee accident. This lie was me exhibiting the trauma bond I had with my mom.
My mom’s functional substance use became less functional, and when I brought up her “glassy eyes” she would gaslight me. I still have a habit of distrusting my intuition and reality. When I was starting Grade 12, her mental health and opioid use led to us losing our home, and we were forced to stay with family for a time.
I graduated from high school at 17 and, after a gap year, took the first university acceptance letter I got. Living in residence at the University of Calgary was my first taste of freedom. As a psychology undergrad, I started processing my mother’s behaviour. She treated me as her closest confidant because she knew that I, her daughter, could never truly abandon her.
She eventually got sober and was clean the year I graduated. Tragically, in treatment, she had started a toxic friendship with another woman. They used harder drugs, drank and triggered each other’s darkest behaviours. My mother became homeless in 2016 and has been on the streets of Calgary ever since.
Book IV: Who am I?
After a toxic relationship of my own, I met my husband in 2017. He showed me what loyalty and trust looked like in a relationship. I was terrified of his devotion and of being vulnerable. Initially, I tried to push him away by exposing my hardships, but he never wavered. He was by my side as I grieved and navigated Nan’s death due to brain cancer.
During the pandemic, however, my partner and I faced difficulties with communication. My years of repressed anger and hurt spilled over during disagreements. Two instances of pulling my own hair in the heat of an argument led me to seek professional help. I always feared that I would become just like my mother.
I met with a psychiatrist who helped me to accept a diagnosis for complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). I endured symptoms such as a high startle response, night terrors, dissociation and depression, to name a few. I found a counsellor I jived with, used my zest for knowledge to complete workbooks for adult children of individuals with BPD, attended online inner child healing workshops, practised mindful breathing and started microdosing psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”).
Through couples counselling, my partner and I learned that in adult relationships people often mimic the emotional and behavioural patterns they observed during childhood. We also learned how to connect through understanding.
I still can’t say how many volumes my Fancey’s Feud series would comprise, but I hope to keep its pages as safe spaces for my experiences. Then I can put those experiences up on a literal bookshelf.
About the author
Dakota holds a master's degree in behaviour analysis practice and works as a behaviour consultant for children with diverse needs. Dakota spreads their light through part-time work at a local emergency homeless shelter. This July 1 will mark Dakota’s first wedding anniversary and fifth year living in Nelson, BC. Dakota enjoys taking mindful walks with their Havapoo-Eskapoo dog, Una