“I never understood why my mother, who died in 1993, was so unhappy;” author Kathy Ewing writes in a description of her memoir Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother, “why she wanted to be the unluckiest, poorest person in the room; why she was so closed off, so harsh, so absent. I wanted to understand her and hoped ultimately to forgive her.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1.6% of the adult population suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). More than half of those with the disorder are not receiving treatment. Many of these individuals, like Kathy Ewing’s mother, are our loved ones. And like Kathy, many of us are hurt and confused by a parent, friend, child or co-worker, especially when we don’t know or understand the symptoms of the disorder.
I recently had the opportunity to ask author Kathy Ewing some questions about her life and her memoir. I’m happy to share with you, today, her perspective on growing up with a mother who, she believes, suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder.
Christy: Tell me about early memories with your mom. When did you know that your mom was different from other moms?
Kathy: Kids, as is often said, think their lives are normal, and my mom (who died in 1995) did a lot of normal things. She cooked meals, solved the Double-Crostic puzzle in the Saturday Review with my dad, and played Scrabble and bridge. I was always aware, though, that my mom was unhappy. My sister refers to the “cloud of gloom” hanging over our house. I used to hear her crying herself to sleep at night.
I could see that my friends’ houses were cleaner than ours. I noticed that their moms showed more interest in them than mine did. They made Halloween costumes, for instance, and liked their pets. My mom hated our cat and dog. Then one year my mom became my class’s room-mother, and I recall feeling a kind of relief. Such signs of normality gave me hope that maybe she was like other mothers.
When I reached my twenties, I dated a divorced guy of whom she didn’t approve. Then she also disapproved of my marriage, as she had with my sisters before me. By that time, it was clear that my mom didn’t behave like other mothers. She became hysterical over these issues and was otherwise spending her time sitting in a chair in the kitchen watching TV and reading magazines.
Christy: How did her mental illness impact you (and your family), growing up?
Kathy: I called my book Missing because my mom just wasn’t there. When big things in our lives happened—the dog died, a kitten was killed by a dog in our front yard, we got new rabbits as a 4-H project—she was absent. Wrapped up in her own misery, she couldn’t engage emotionally. The few times I went to her with my problems, she reacted insensitively, so I learned not to do that.
My dad became a paraplegic in the early ‘50’s. I believe my mom felt abandoned and traumatized from that point on. When she felt overwhelmed, she’d lose it: yelling at us and screaming “Kids!” in a shrill voice. I felt that I had to tiptoe around her, hoping not to set her off. Her anger scared me, and I wanted her to be happy.
Christy: When did you learn the name for her illness and how did that change things for you? Why did you decide to write a memoir about your experiences now?
Kathy: One of my friends has had a BPD diagnosis, along with problems like depression, and I had read about the disorder in order to understand my friend. Here’s how I describe the insight in the book:
- One ordinary day, driving home, I was pondering yet again those long-ago bitter arguments with my mother. She repeated obsessively that I had always been perfect, but that I had completely changed. I was going to hell, I had injured her irreparably, and she would never trust me again. I drove along, musing once more–what did she mean by saying I’d been “perfect,” and why was I suddenly so awful? BPD’s most familiar symptom popped into my head: extremes of idealization and devaluation. You’re a saint one day and a demon the next. It seemed like a textbook case–first I was perfect, and then I was horrible. It was an epiphany.
I started writing immediately, not because I was thinking of a book, but because it helps me figure things out, and it was as though I wanted to test the argument. I wanted to figure out whether these incidents with my mom were really symptomatic of BPD, as I was beginning to suspect.
Then I started sharing some of these efforts with a brand-new writing group I had joined. Those women’s compassionate and insights encouraged me to continue.
I couldn’t find much literature about parents with BPD, but Kimberlee Roth’s Surviving a Borderline Parent was invaluable. I think people also need a book like mine, because sometimes it’s the individual stories that really hit home.
Christy: We’ve talked about DBT as a treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder in the past. What do you think is important about DBT?
Kathy: At the end of my book, I describe how learning about DBT helped me. The dialectic, the willingness to engage opposing ideas, showed me a new way to think about my mom. Here’s part of what I wrote:
- If, as Zen would have it, opposites are real but not mutually exclusive, then you can be right and wrong at the same time. A loving daughter can also screw up. A good Catholic girl might date a divorced guy, an intelligent and responsible young woman might flunk out of college, and a disabled man can be a worthy and capable husband and father. If all those things are true, and I believe they are, then maybe my mother also embodied some contradictory truths. Maybe I can quit choosing up sides. Maybe I can quit trying to fix her in retrospect. Maybe I can stop insisting she was wrong and I was right. Maybe I can embrace opposites.
DBT, like the 12 Steps, can help anyone, simply by exploring these approaches, even without trying to practice them. Believing my mom had an untreated mental illness gave me a handle for dealing with her coldness and bitterness. I don’t have to see her as mean or insensitive; she truly couldn’t help the way she was.
It’s hard to imagine her willingly going to therapy, but if she had, she may have found a little contentment. I’m sorry she was so unhappy, but have learned through writing the book that I can feel bad without feeling guilty.
About Kathy Ewing:
Kathy Ewing has lived in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, for twenty-five years, in a house her son refers to as “your starter home.” She teaches Latin at Cleveland State University and a yearly SAGES seminar on alternative education at Case Western Reserve University. She loves the diversity, beautiful neighborhoods, libraries, good restaurants, and liberal politics of Cleveland Heights. She attended St. Cecilia, a welcoming parish in the city of Cleveland, recently closed by the diocese.
Kathy grew up in Canton, Ohio, the youngest of three girls. Her father Martin Miller was a columnist for the Canton Repository and her mother Eleanore was a stay-at-home mom. Kathy graduated from Kent State University, where she earned an M.A. in English in 1976. She has taught in preschools, middle schools, high schools, and colleges. She homeschooled her own children, Doug and Margaret, for ten years, not because she is a fundamentalist Christian, but because she has authority issues.
She met her husband John in high school, and they married in 1978. John is Director of the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque and Associate Director for Film at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Kathy’s writing has been published widely—in, for example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Northern Ohio Live, The Cleveland Edition, Cleveland Magazine, Case Magazine, John Carroll Magazine, Growing Without Schooling, The Bark, and The Book Group Book, among others. She frequently reviews books for the Plain Dealer and wrote a weekly book column for The Cleveland Edition. She has interviewed and profiled such writers as Alix Kates Shulman, Jonathan Kozol, and Tony Hiss. Her fiction has appeared at fullofcrow.com and her poetry in The Delinquent #15.
Kathy is seeking representation or a publisher for her memoir, Missing: Coming to Terms with a Borderline Mother.
Photo by Anthony Kelly, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.