It wasn’t an easy choice, but it was the only one for me.
Even during this terrible, unending pandemic, I’m pretty blessed: I love my job, I have a delightful partner, an adorable dog, a charming house in a cool town, and lovely friends.
But below this happy list of truths lies a more uncomfortable one: I’ve been estranged from my parents for about 10 years. I don’t tell everyone about this, but it isn’t really a secret. I live in the family-focused American South, where culturally, estrangement makes me kind of a freak. I get a lot of questions: Don’t you still love them? (Yes.) Do you feel guilty? (I used to, but it’s getting easier.) Why are you estranged? (Because it made my life instantly, immeasurably better.) What if they die? (I’m still working on this one but I can live with the ambiguity for now.)
Estrangement was a huge relief when I initiated it a decade ago — and it still is.
It started when my family’s drama was reaching a fever pitch: intense controlling behavior over my finances and relationships, unkind body-shaming, verbal abuse whenever I defied their wishes, treating me like their personal therapist, and worst of all, more than one alcohol- and drug-fueled violent outburst that de-escalated only when the county sheriff arrived. It all felt so overwhelming that I couldn’t cope anymore. I was newly married at 30 years old, and trying to forge my own path as an adult, away from the chaos. Away from the emotional and physical abuse I’d grown up surrounded by.
My parents hadn’t been handling my transition to adult independence well: They were retiring and wanted us to be closer than ever. Enmeshed, really. Just as I was entering married life, settling into my career, and making friends in a new town, they wanted more and more of my time. Whatever I did give was never enough. They no longer physically hit me, like they had when I lived under their roof, but the guilt trips were epic. My mom effortlessly switched between calling me “her best friend” and a “selfish little bitch,” frequently flying into screaming rages whenever I didn’t do exactly what she wanted — then denying it’d ever happened. If I brought up her angry outbursts or quoted her words back to her, she’d say I had “an active imagination.”
Both my parents would call multiple times a day, and if I didn’t pick up, they would inundate my phone with dozens of angry texts or call my husband to investigate my whereabouts and demand my instant attention. Sometimes they’d try to reach me through my office’s switchboard. I was still new at my job, and the calls would occasionally come through while I was in meetings — my colleagues thought there’d been some kind of family emergency. (Nope, my mom just wanted to chat.) Their badgering even spread to social media until I blocked them both. Who doesn’t love a “CALL ME RIGHT NOW” comment on their sunset photo? It was relentless.
At first I really did try to establish a more healthy relationship. For starters, I turned off my phone more frequently. I also explained that I needed space to find my own way, shared articles and books about creating a respectful bond with adult children, whatever I could think of. I felt like a lawyer, constantly preparing a case but instead of culminating in a trial, it was an endless series of arguments. Maybe they hadn’t heard me last time, and I should keep trying? I was perpetually filled with a sense of foreboding. After seeing or speaking to them, it often took a while to bounce back emotionally. I started hanging up or walking out — physically driving away — when they broke what they called, derisively, “my rules,” which included:
#1: I do not want to hear about my parents’ sex life, ever.
#2: Do not call me multiple times a day unless you have something legitimate to tell or ask me. (Related: Do not call me at work to “make sure I’m OK” when I don’t like your Facebook post right away.)
#3: I am not your spouse or therapist. Find more appropriate people to help process your problems.
#4: Do not make jokes about me having been assaulted by a neighbor’s son when I was 4.
That last rule? My last straw. I was hosting them for Christmas weekend in my cozy home — my safest possible haven, where my new husband and I made such a fuss to make sure every meal was special, every surface sparkling, the fridge bursting with my parents’ favorite things. When they started to make jokes about my childhood assault, the worst thing that had ever happened to me, I froze. Did they not remember? Did they assume I forgot? Was this malicious or oblivious? I still can’t answer any of that. Back then, I was numb with shock. It took a day or two to really absorb what had happened.
After they left, I ignored them for a while. Then I told them not to contact me at all.
They wanted to go to therapy together, to get me back in line, to stop pushing them away. But anything that meant we would be spending more time together felt like a noose tightening around my neck. That might sound dramatic, but it felt that dire. I had no choice but to take time away to figure out what to do to make the constant hum of panicky dread go away. I blocked them on my phone, then from my life entirely. If they came to my door, I wouldn’t answer.
At first I felt afraid and guilty: These were the first, most significant authority figures I’d ever known, the ones I’d worked so hard to please since birth. The intensity of my feelings was heavy initially, but every day it got a little lighter. The dread was gradually lifting, floating above me like dust motes.
During this break, I found helpful books, online support groups for adult children of dysfunctional families. Even better, I found message boards with other estranged adult children. And the best: an understanding therapist. I journaled a lot.
One phrase I heard a lot in support groups was “just drop the rope.” I didn’t realize I had been pulling with all my strength for so long. I learned that I was “coming out of the F.O.G.” — the fear, obligation, and guilt I’d previously wallowed in so unhappily. I found people just like me, who really understood.
The time away, and the help I found, all felt so good that the “temporary” interval of estrangement turned into months, then years, and now a decade.
Occasionally some communication from them breaks through. They sent several long letters those first few years, asking me to list all my grievances clearly, so they could argue point by point (as though I hadn’t been trying to negotiate my boundaries for years). My husband and I still get a generic holiday card every December with just a signature, like you’d get from your dentist’s office. I always told myself that I’d reach out if I missed them or felt the urge to hear their voices, but that has yet to happen. My life is simply happier without the specter of my parents looming over me.
If you’d asked me as a young woman to envision a life without them present at every milestone, I wouldn’t have been able to picture it. How could that even be possible when we were so close?
But sometimes closeness can be suffocating and unhealthy. Now in my 40s, I’m content in a way I could never have imagined during my often-chaotic childhood. After what I feel was a lost childhood, I’m truly able to figure out what I want out of life, instead of what’s expected of me. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’m creating the safety and happiness I’ve always craved, the kind of home every kid — every person, really — should have. I’m free.
The writer’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.