I’m Estranged From My Family. Lockdown Is Testing That Decision

For the sake of my mental health, I don’t speak with my parents. But if they got ill, or even died, with things as they are, I don’t know if I could forgive myself.
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When lockdown began, I hadn’t spoken to my dad since Christmas Day. It was a brief, perfunctory call. I’d talked to my mum more recently but that too was strained, and I wanted the call to end as it began.

For six months, I’ve been in the process of reducing contact with both on the advice of my therapist, and my own feelings. But this global pandemic will really test that decision.

To an outsider’s eye, I had a very lovely middle class childhood. We had a leafy garden, my parents were both liberally minded and they provided violin lessons, holidays in Europe and a good education. We were the sort of family who always had a bowl of Kettle Chips on the table before dinner, who read the Guardian and voted Green. But liberal-mindedness at parties doesn’t really mean anything behind closed doors. Both my parents are narcissists, albeit in very different ways – my dad the vain, sometimes aggressive type-A high achiever and my mother, quietly manipulative, willing herself into states of physical illness to keep me at home caring for her. I spent my childhood swinging between trying to pacify him and keeping her safe. At its worst, my deepest fear when he was absent with work and she had periods of depression was that I wouldn’t be able to keep her alive.

What other people witnessed – fancy dinners and a posh home – and what I experienced – serious mental health problems and emotional abuse – were so at odds, I became certain I was a fantasist. I would obsess over moments of kindness, telling myself it was my fault our relationships had failed.

“I’ve had to reckon with the idea of a very real risk of their potential illness, maybe even death – and what my regret in the face of those things could look like.”

Blame is really irrelevant at this point. Just as I was just beginning to feel more confident in my decision, the coronavirus pandemic hit. And with this, I’ve had to reckon with the idea of a very real risk of their potential illness, maybe even death – and what my regret in the face of those things could look like.

I’ve spent a lot of lockdown asking myself what the right thing to do is, for everyone, and what my duty should be. In the beginning, I initiated contact again. We’ve never talked about the fact that it died out in the first place – I think they don’t want to risk talking about the past, and I didn’t feel like prompting that conversation. Immediately, my mood crashed; a familiar, still heaviness settled in the pit of my stomach and the clawing beginnings of depression tangled up in my chest when I woke every morning.

But in the middle of a global pandemic, it can be hard to tell what’s your own baggage and what’s just regular old anxiety. So I persevered, and with each phone call, I felt progress being undone; slipping further under the waves. It has now been ten days since we spoke last and I’m at a fork in the road. On the one hand, a global pandemic does not change the past. There’s a corner of my brain that doesn’t believe my parents should get a free pass just because they may be at risk. Believe me, I know how callous that sounds – but then the child in me was at risk, too.

“I can’t pause a global pandemic while I come to terms with our shared past. So for now, I swing between worry, sadness, and hope.”

On the other hand – and the stronger voice currently – I don’t want to live with regrets. If my mother contracted Covid-19 there’s a very real chance she could die, and if I knew her most recent memories of our relationship had caused her pain, I would never forgive myself. I’d feel like I had failed her.

I suppose, in the end, I want them to be safe, happy and fulfilled – just not with me. So I do everything I can to help that doesn’t lead to direct contact. I ask her friends to visit her and talk through the window. I send things in the post. I just don’t want to pick up the phone. Perhaps I should hold my nose one more time, jump in and try to be of comfort – but when speaking to them winds me for days, this feels more like martyrdom than a good deed.

I hide all of this from friends because, without the context of history which few people know, I’m scared of seeming cold, uncaring and selfish. My friends talk only about worry and love for their elderly parents – for me, it’s something different.

I don’t necessarily have the luxury of time to figure this out; I can’t pause a global pandemic while I come to terms with our shared past. So for now, I swing between worry, sadness and also hope, for a time when normality returns as a backdrop to this conundrum.

Until then, once a week, I will try to pick up the phone.

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