Sunday 4 December 2016

Dear Patricia: I'm glad to be back in Ireland but feel so alone after rifts

Published 09/01/2011 | 05:00

I'M confused about what to do next -- with my life I mean. I'm 45, single and childless. I moved back to Ireland three years ago, after a long period living abroad. I like being back, but I'm having difficulties making a good life for myself here.

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I work part-time, which makes it hard to manage financially. I'm looking for a better job, but all efforts have been to no avail so far. Like everyone else, I'm scared of the effects of the Budget.

I had a relationship, but let it go as I found the guy to be irritable and sarcastic. I let go of a close friend recently as I couldn't cope with her being in a bad relationship. I got so frustrated at her inability to see how damaging her situation was for her.

I also ended all contact with my mother recently. This was after years of being bullied by her and used as a scapegoat. I spent years in therapy in England dealing with the effects of her abuse. My siblings took my mother's side, so I now have no contact with them either. I know I'm scared because I feel so alone without my family. I do have a few good friends, but sometimes I wonder what will happen to me.

I'm thinking of returning to the UK, but I'm scared I'll miss Ireland again. But maybe I'd have a better chance of creating the life I want there. I don't want to give up on having the life I want -- money, a good lifestyle, a loving partner, kind and interesting friends. Yet, for the first time ever, I feel I'll never have those things. I'm tired of trying so hard -- I've tried speed-dating and all sorts of things to find someone.

I'm attractive, but live in a small town where every attractive man seems to be married. And I'd love to have a child, but think it's too late. I wouldn't want to do it on my own anyway.

I guess I'm asking for some hope or direction.

Patricia replies:

WOW. You've certainly been doing a lot of emotional spring-cleaning. Small wonder you're feeling so daunted.

I do hope you know what a brave lady you are. I also hope that you don't push yourself too hard. I understand that you spent years in therapy and gained a lot of insights. It's still a seriously big deal to end all contact with your mother.

No, I'm not saying it's the wrong thing to do. Toxic mothers should be put to one side. I'm just saying that you need to appreciate what a toll such a step takes. That's particularly true when it means losing contact with all your family. So let me say something to you.

I think it's terribly important in life to avoid a scorched earth policy. Yes, we sometimes have to make a categorical stand. A boyfriend who beats you up is a no-no, and has to be ditched. Family relationships are more complex. Put another way, you often have more room to manoeuvre than you think.

To take your concrete example, sometimes we can make our stand without severing all contact. You can reject your mother's mistreatment of you and still send her birthday cards, or phone once a week to see if she's OK. No, not always, but maybe more often than we think.

Part of that process is feeling strong enough to reject something like scapegoating, or constant put-downs, to fight your corner, in other words, without retreating forever.

I mean you could learn not to be hurt, and just tell your mother to put a sock in it. Please understand. Sometimes a tactical withdrawal is the only option. More often, however, standing our ground and fighting back works. It might not alter your mother's behaviour, but it would alter your sense of helplessness. And your family wouldn't abandon you just because you put your mother firmly in her place. They have abandoned you because you forced them to take sides, because you were so categorical in your break with your mother, because you see it as forever.

Do you understand? You should certainly not stand there and take punishment. But maybe you don't need to put yourself so outside the pale in terms of your family. Think about it.

Part of the reason I'm saying all this is because of your description of breaking with your friend. You could still love her, you know, even though you have to hold back a little because she's not heeding you. When our friends persist with their mistakes, we stick around, because love is stronger than some emotional cock-up a friend might make. Your irritability stems from the notion that our friends should listen to us. But a lot of the time they don't. That's human nature. Friendship accommodates that.

Please understand. I'm not trying to rob you of your courage. I am trying to help you find some room to manoeuvre. You've done the categorical thing. Now try the diplomatic approach.

Dignity lies in being firm, which is different to taking up absolutist positions. Meanwhile, make no plans to leave, at least not right away. You've unfinished emotional business here. Above all, be gentle with yourself, and kind.

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