Terrible, Thanks for Asking

Motherland - Transcript

This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Motherland.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.

Listen to the episode here.


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Elissa: I was given a prescription by my physician that I was going to be dead if I didn't move out by the time I was 25.


I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”

That was today’s guest, Elissa.

When Elissa’s physician gave her this unusual prescription, Elissa’s beautiful blonde curls were falling out in clumps. She rose in the morning to a spike of cortisol and fell asleep only after ameliorating the anxiety with enough red wine. Her eyes were bloodshot. Her blood pressure was through the roof.

What about her living situation could be making her this sick? 

Any guesses? 

Was it lead paint chipping off the windowsills? 

Was it tainted water? Some asbestos?

No, no no no no.

It was Elissa’s mother.


There are Ten Commandments in the Old Testament, ten rules to live by. I could not for the life of me recite them to you, even after over a decade of Catholic school.

You shouldn’t be jealous. You shouldn’t kill. I’m pulling these out of my deep subconscious right now, really reaching.

But there was one commandment that today’s guest, Elissa, grew up knowing by heart.

It’s number five — does that ring any bells for you? Number five is that you should honor your father and your mother. I actually had to look it up to get the full verbiage. I wanted to be accurate. And there are a lot of different translations in the Bible, but this is the one I picked:

“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.”

For Elissa, honoring her father came easily. The two of them shared a sense of humor and worldview. They looked alike. They were two peas in a pod, walking through New York City on his custody weekends, visiting museums and going to nice restaurants. 

But Elissa’s mother … that relationship was different. 

It’s sometimes a strange thing for a child to realize who their parents were before they were parents, that they lived on this earth and acquired experiences outside of the care and development of their child. But Elissa always knew about her mother’s previous life and always knew that her mother hadn’t planned on having this life interrupted by a child. Elissa’s mother — Rita — had been famous.

She was a singer on a TV show, a beauty and a talent who was written up in the papers, who hung on the arms of bold-named men and was known for her looks and her voice. Rita was a prize that Elissa’s father had won, a little girl who had been told by her own father that she was plain, she was ugly, she was nothing special. Who had learned to paint on a face and put on a show, to arm herself with artifice, who vowed to herself that men would worship her.


Elissa: My mother did not know that she was pregnant for six month, because she was also an anorexic and probably lost her period, I'm guessing. So she couldn't tell the difference.


When Elissa was born, she was barely four pounds — small enough to fit in one hand. Her mother named her Elissa and expected that this daughter would be formed in her own image. That she would be lithe, feminine, beautiful. 


Elissa: I was not what she bargained for. I was not what she wanted. I was not what she planned on. She tried very hard to make me into the thing that she wanted. And, of course, that didn't work. She got something she couldn’t have even fathomed. You know, this person with body dysmorphia who, you know, hates food and is a model, was a model and is, you know, 105 pounds, wound up with a lesbian food writer, chubby lesbian food writer as a daughter. And while that's sort of funny, on the one hand, it's not. And to know that, you know, I have sort of lived my life knowing at the deepest level that she wanted to make me into something and someone else, even when I was very little, that's pain that I will always carry with me. That's never going to go away. Long after she's gone, I'll still carry it with me. 


Elissa’s mother longed for her days as a star and a model. The life she had -- with a husband and a child in Queens -- was far from the life she had as a starlet, an object of desire and attention. And so she was the sun around which Elissa’s world revolved. 

If her mother wasn’t asked to sing at a family wedding -- or if the singing didn’t get the response she wanted -- the night was ruined, her LIFE was ruined.

If Elissa wore the wrong clothes -- which she often did -- everything was ruined. Elissa wasn’t just wearing what she wanted to wear -- a brown polyester boys’ suit -- she was wearing something specifically to attack her mother.


Elissa: You know, was there a piece of me, a piece of my heart that always hoped that, well, today it's going to be different, today she's going to be a normal person, today she's going to be a normal mom? Yeah!


And surely, there were moments with love and tenderness. But the overarching feeling of Elissa’s childhood is a strangling sense of unease. It’s a sense that she is not enough, that she is not right. Friends and strangers would look at Elissa’s mother and see a beautiful, talented woman with a charming personality. And Elissa and her father … would see the rest.


Elissa: She gets very verbally abusive. You know, she’s like a stick of dynamite, and it's almost this sort of chemical thing that happens. And you can see her physicality change. You can see her body change and her face change and her coloring change. And she can't really do it as well anymore because she doesn't walk well. But she would, you know, follow me all over the house, you know, yelling over my shoulder in my ear about, you know, how terrible I was and how terrible my father — who she divorced when I was 16 — how terrible he was. And I was just like him. And the laundry list of things that she gave up for me. And, you know, the litany that I could almost recite because it hasn't changed since I was very young. 


There’s a concept in psychotherapy called enmeshment, where boundaries are porous or non-existent and the lines between you and another person blur or disappear entirely. And that is what it feels like to be Elissa. 


Elissa: I was sad. I was anxiety-ridden. I was probably pretty whiny because I wanted to feel her love and her affection. I didn’t want to feel like an appendage. And then I would get very angry that I was an appendage.


But even though she doesn’t measure up to her mother’s expectations of what a daughter should be — a carbon copy of her mother, soft and thin and beautiful — she is of her mother. If her mother was happy, she could be happy. If her mother was doing well, the family would be doing well. 

But her mother’s happiness and wellness … it was all so precarious. 

And as a kid — Elissa’s stuck. 

When her mother isn’t focused on herself — on the dreams that didn’t come true, on the ways life has short-shrifted her — she’s focused on Elissa, who is an extension of herself. A reflection of herself. 


Elissa: You know, we're New Yorkers. I mean, my mother, you know, was born and raised in Brooklyn. Her mother was born and raised in Brooklyn. I was born in Manhattan and raised just outside of Manhattan. And so, you know, my mother's idea of normalcy is, you know, being out all the time and being in the city and walking and living a really quite vibrant life, you know, restaurants and and music and live music and museums and all of those wonderful things that make living in New York really terrific, really wonderful. And I think that, you know, she expected me certainly to want the same things. She always expected me to want the same things and to do the same things. And she assumed that, you know, I would graduate from college. I would get a job. I would marry a nice Jewish doctor or preferably a plastic surgeon. 


But Elissa doesn’t want those things.

As a kid, Elissa was stuck like any kid is stuck in their family of origin. 

But in her 20s — after college graduation — she’s still not free. She moves back in with her mother, who by this time is remarried to a man named Ben who is slowly drinking himself to death. It’s here, living in her mother’s den, where Elissa’s health starts to fail. It’s here where her doctor tells her that the only cure is to move out, to create some kind of separation between her mother’s life and her own. 


Elissa: And, you know, this is a person who's 27 years older than I am. And when she eventually was not with us anymore, I remember thinking, you know, what is my life going to look like? And can I crack my heart open to other things and other people and other experiences? And it was really a matter of life or death for me. 


When she moves out, she lives with a roommate who her mother sees as competition and therefore despises. Her mother calls her multiple times a day, every day. Elissa’s social schedule revolves around brunches with her mother, meeting her to shop for makeup and clothes that Elissa doesn’t want to wear. 


Elissa: I would be out with friends and I'd come home and there she would be, or she would show up at my office and when I was an editor and wait for me in the lobby. So very, very connected, hyper-connected. 


And if you’re thinking, oh my GOD! Stop answering the phone! Tell your mom to back off! You’re not alone. Elissa’s friends and lovers and roommates all said this, all told her that what was happening was not normal, was not okay.

Even when it’s a true matter of life or death, it’s still not easy for Elissa to prioritize her own health and safety over the happiness of her mother. 

But she does. Slowly, she begins the long, difficult process of creating a self separate from her mother. She builds a career as a cook and a food writer. She falls in love with a beautiful woman named Susan, which makes her mother very jealous because now Elissa’s time and heart and life are spoken for in a way that her mother is not accustomed to and doesn’t like. 


Elissa: Susan would say a lot — matter of fact, it sort of became kind of like a mantra that she would not lose me to my mother. But that was the thing that Susan would say over and over again. And, you know, Susan is a New Englander. She's very reserved. We're polar opposites when it comes to our response to stress. But she said and she continues to say, you know, “I don't want to lose you to her.”


After a year of romantic weekends, Elissa leaves the city to join Susan in Connecticut, in a ranch house with a yard and a garden on a quiet cul-de-sac where the previous owners had never seen a reason to even lock their front door. 


Elissa: When I moved to Connecticut, I did so to save myself, to save my life, to save my heart, to save my future and my health and my safety, and to have a future. 


They build a life together that is intentional and loving, where Elissa can write and Susan can garden and they both can have peace. 


Elissa: My mother really didn't know, she didn't know what to do with herself. And I might as well have been living, you know, in Seattle. It would have been the same thing for her. She didn't understand why I would want to not only leave the city, but leave her. And it was a great shock to her that that was something that I would not only do, but actually want to do.


Elissa’s mother is miles away, still in the city. She spends her days walking miles and miles around Manhattan with a tote bag filled with her press clippings, singing Friday nights in a performer’s club, stopping by the Clinique make-up counter for her favorite powders and lipsticks, which she hoards in her bathroom…

and calling her daughter.


Elissa: That is the closest I would say that I got to estrangement from her, you know, when I moved to Connecticut, and she would call five, six, seven times a day, once called 14 times. But our relationship, mothers and daughters especially, that's a primal, primal relationship.


We’ll be right back.





Elissa and Susan are living in Connecticut. They see Elissa’s mother on their regular trips back into the city. And she calls … a LOT. But Elissa is doing the life-saving work of creating her own life. 

And just as importantly as building a new life apart from her mother, Elissa begins to better understand the life she had with her mother.

Her mother is sick. And her diagnosis is Narcissistic Personality Disorder -- NPD. And even though conversationally people love to just throw out that someone they don’t like is a narcissist … it’s a very serious diagnosis, and it’s a rare one. 


Nora: There's this ability when people have like, you know, you know, addiction or certain mental health afflictions to say like, oh, this is the person and this is the disease that is separate from them. Is that possible to do with your mother knowing that she has NPD, or are the two just woven together? 

Elissa: That's a really good question. You know, I once said that one of the things I learned in writing is: mental illness is not a moral failing. It's just mental illness. And I say just in, you know, air quotes, because it can certainly run the gamut. When my mother was diagnosed with NPD, she immediately left the psychiatrist who diagnosed her. She wanted him to leave his wife for her. She couldn't understand why that was not going to happen. The diagnosis is in her medical files, but I don't think that she herself walks around with the knowledge, you know, lodged in her mind that she's got this kind of NPD and borderline personality disorder. I don't think that's something that she, you know, that she grogs- that she doesn't get that. But it's hard, certainly, for me to separate that personality disorder from who she is, because it has so defined her personality for me and for the other people in her life. 

I spent a lot of time watching the way she lives in the world and the way she deals with other people and engages with other people and talks to them and has them in her life. And whether she understands the concept of, you know, human frailty and humanity and that in my classes, I quote that, you know, that Vivian Gornick quote that, you know, “for the drama to deepen, we have to see the cunning of the innocent and the loneliness of the monster.” So nobody is all bad, and nobody is all good. We're all human. And that's the you know, that's the fact of humanity. And I think that's really impossible for her to see. 

I think that for me, I wouldn't say that her illness defines her, but it has certainly defined my relationship with her. Once I found out about the NPD diagnosis, it was like someone took my glasses off and cleaned them and gave them back to me. I could suddenly understand who she was and why she was, and her responses to the world around her are almost predictable. 


Nobody is all good or all bad. It’s the absolute fact of our humanity, that we are both. And while her mother was the villain in her childhood, she’s also had her own suffering, much of it unknown and unknowable to Elissa. 

Not every mother is loving, but nearly every mother is loved. We are wired for this at a young age, to love the people who raise us and who often created us, to long for approval and connection and love from them.

Children are so guileless. Their motives are so pure. They’re so simple. They love, and they long for love, even if the person they love is incapable of providing the kind of love they need. 


Elissa: To be able to walk away from a relationship like that takes extraordinary courage and extraordinary … you have to really be pushed to a certain place in order to do that. For me, I couldn't do that in part because I have no siblings. It's just me, and it's just my mom. And she's such a young child, emotionally. You know, someone once asked me, “Why didn't you just, you know, leave?” And the answer was because I couldn't leave her to her own devices any more than I could let a 2-year-old run into oncoming traffic. You know, it's just something that I couldn't do morally, ethically. And yes, you know, was there a piece of me, a piece of my heart that always hoped that, well, today it's going to be different? Today she's going to be a normal person? Today she's going to be a normal mom? Yeah! You know, I would be lying if I didn't say that that was true. And that's a core in abusive relationships. 


For a long time, Elissa’s primary relationship was with her mother. She was her mother’s daughter, her mother’s rib, her mother’s partner for life. As a teenager, her father sat across from her at a restaurant in Brooklyn and said of his ex-wife, Elissa’s mother, “Someday, she’ll be yours to take care of.” 

But she’d always been Elissa’s to take care of. And as her only child, she always would be. But Elissa’s relationship with Susan is a respite from her relationship with her mother. This is the grounding place where Elissa can thrive.


Elissa: You know, Susan and I have fashioned a very peaceful existence for ourselves. Our days involve the dog and walking and hiking and having quiet breakfast together. And then I would go to my office and Susan would go to her, quote, unquote, office, which is at the far end of the house. And we would work and take a lunchtime break. And it was, you know, all very kind of peaceful. And, you know, in the warmer weather, we spend a lot of time outside in the garden. I spent probably three or four days a week trying to, you know, go to the gym and be physically active. And we would have friends over for dinner. And, you know, I'm still very involved in the food community and still love to cook, and so very pleasant. Our lives were very pleasant. You know, we love to travel. We spend a lot of time in Maine and a lot of time in California. And that's by plan. I mean that that's the way the lives we've constructed for ourselves. And we're very happy that way. And we have considered moving back to New York and being back in, you know, in an urban environment. And we just we're not really interested in doing that, just because living in New England and living where we are, you know, affords us a certain amount of peace and quiet. And we relish it. 


In 2019, Elissa’s book Motherland was published. She spent two years writing the story of her relationship with her mother with beautiful and painful detail. It’s truly an aching read, to hear little Elissa struggle with wanting to be loved, with a mother who was so capricious and so unwell.


Elissa: I gave her a copy early on when it had come out in hardcover to read, because I couldn't not give it to her. I didn't ask her permission to write it, because it was something that I had to write, that was vitally important for me to write. But I had to give it to her to read. And she didn't respond for weeks. I mean, she would call and just talk about everything else but the book. You know, and every time the phone rang, and I saw her number come up, I would take a deep breath and gasp and think, oh, God, today is the day. 

And when she did read it, she called me one morning and said, “It's 98 percent accurate.” And for someone who suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, which she suffers from — she has a clinical diagnosis of NPD — to admit that 98 percent of it was accurate, because NPDs have to control the way the world sees them ... that was an astonishing thing. Because she suffers from NPD, she also refers to it as her book, the book about her. And, you know, will walk around Manhattan, certainly before COVID, and go into all of her local independent bookstores with the copy in her, you know, in her purse and sort of wave it around and say, you know, “This book is about me.” So very much lost on her.

I actually expected her to have kind of a flat line response to it, because my mother believes that all publicity is good publicity. My mother is a former performer, you know, a former television singer. And she really does believe that. My mother is not a person given to any kind of, you know, introspection or self-examination. So if something has her name on it, it's good. Even if it's not good, it's good. And it's positive, because it's about her, and it's thrusting her into the limelight. I was really surprised that she actually read the whole book. 

I also believe that she could tell that there was a lot of love in the book. And it's something that I realized, that writers don't spend 18 months writing a book about someone they don't love or like or yearn for in some way. It's too hard to spend that much time with someone you hate or you loathe. 


To her mother, the book — like all publicity — is good publicity. It’s a book about her, so it’s a good book. Their relationship is unaffected. But not for long. Because it’s just after the paperback for Motherland comes out that Elissa’s own home, her sanctuary with Susan, becomes Motherland all over again. Because it’s 2020, and COVID has arrived in the U.S., and people are getting nervous.


Elissa: You know, she started to get a little bit nervous and a little bit cranky in terms of how is this going to affect her and her ability to do her singing and her performing, which I might add is rather limited. But how is it going to affect her ability to walk around the city, which she used to do these huge four-mile walks every day. But it was all about how it was going to affect her personally. And we, meaning my wife and I, spent a lot of time wondering when to make our move, when to say, “OK, get in the car, you're coming back to Connecticut with us. You have to live here for the duration.” And we would drop hints here and there, because we never know, you know, what's going to set her off. And the answer was always, “Nope, nope, nope, not going to do it. Staying here, I'm safe in New York.” And she would tell this to me as the ambulance sirens were sort of whirring past her. And finally one morning she called and said, “How soon can you come get me?


They picked her up the next day. Susan, whose mantra is that she will not lose Elissa to her mother. Elissa, who after nearly two decades has some semblance of peace and distance from her mother. They did what was hard and what was right, and they drove into the city for Elissa’s mother.

We’ll be right back.


____


Elissa and Susan are bringing Elissa’s mother to their home in Connecticut to ride out COVID-19. It’s March 2020, and nobody knows how long this is going to last. Weeks? Hopefully just weeks, right? Oh my god. I at least thought that! What a dummy.

The last time Elissa and her mother had lived together, it had very nearly killed her. But now Elissa is in her 50s. Certainly things will be different … right?


Elissa: You know, I instantly become a 12-year-old in my mother's presence. And so now in my mid-50s, in her presence, I sort of have to stop myself and say, “Oh, my God, it's like 1976 all over again.” You know? Who is, who am I? I'm an author. I'm a teacher. I’ve crafted this life for myself. I'm not that person. But, you know, she's a trigger. She's a massive trigger. And that's something that's probably universal, you know, when we're in our parents’ presence. We revert. We naturally revert, and I think that's part of the package. 

I found myself with every passing day staying in bed longer and longer, which is not a good thing for someone like me, who suffers from clinical depression. I didn't want to leave the bedroom. I didn't want to face her. I didn't want to face the fact that she was here for an extended period of time and we had no control and we had no idea how long that period of time was going to be. 

So every day, you know, Susan kind of took the controls and made my mother the latte that would start her day and put her in front of the first round of horror movies that would start her day. I would have coffee. I would go for a walk or hike, come into my office, sit down at my desk, close the door and try and work. 

And very often my mother would stand outside my office door and have a loud cell phone conversation with a friend, which is a version of what she used to do when I lived with her, and she would vacuum and ram the vacuum cleaner into into the bottom of my bedroom door to try to try and rouse me. So it was a version of that. It was very difficult when I had meetings or if Susan had meetings or if I was, you know, doing a book event, because my mother has to be center stage for everyone all the time. And if someone else is center stage — whether it's me or Susan or a neighbor's child who's running around on our front lawn — she gets very, very angry, aggressively angry. 


This time in human history is incredibly stressful. Entire industries are tanking. The economic insecurity is real and everywhere. And personally for Elissa, her mother is like throwing fuel on the burning flames of 2020. 

Her mother is the same mother that Elissa had at 5 and at age 25. She’s unpreductive and she’s self-obsessed and she’s verbally abusive. They haven’t been under the same roof in decades. And that knowledge that Elissa has gained, that perspective that comes with building her own life and learning about her mother’s diagnosis … it’s a perspective that’s easy to lose when your peace is being disrupted by your tormentor, who is also the person on this earth who needs you the most and is supposed to love you the most. 


Elissa: She's a former television singer. And she lives in this loop of performing and modeling and memory and singing. And if I was on a call, or Susan was working and on a call, she would stand outside my door and scream — like blood-curdling screaming, as a 3-year-old throwing a temper tantrum for not getting attention would do the same thing. You know, I think that beyond that, always fighting with friends, you know, at the top of her voice, by cell phone. And, you know, that's par for the course. That's who she's been all these years.


Her mother thrives on attention. She needs it. And Elissa and Susan find outlets for her. Like recording her singing for an anonymous, imaginary audience on Instagram.


Elissa’s mom, singing: “Stay home. Wash your hands. And enjoy the music. I’ve got the world on a string…”

Elissa: She also had demanded at one point relentlessly that I buy her a ukulele for Mother's Day of last year. And my mother is someone who has no discernible skill with stringed instruments or instruments of any kind. So, you know, I went out to the guitar shop, and I bought her an inexpensive ukulele. And now she would stand outside my closed office door and play the ukulele, which on the one hand sounds very funny and amusing and light. And on the other hand made me want to put my head in the oven because I was actually trying to work. And not everybody finds her antics so amusing and funny. 

One of the things that we really recognized was the fact of her relationship with food while she was here. Because Susan and I are cooks. I've had a career in food writing. Food is very important in our home. We spend a lot of time in the kitchen. We spend a lot of time around our table. And my mother does not. And we recognized after about a week that my mother was taking in 500 to 600 calories a day. And one of the reasons why was because we didn't have an exercise bicycle for her in the house, or any means for her to, as she would put it, keep her weight off. My mother is about a hundred and five pounds at this point. 

We bought one of these little sort of seeded peddle-y things that you can sit in a chair. And once she did that, she started to eat. So the level of her body dysmorphia and her eating issues became really clarified for us in a way that that I had always lived with to some degree. But when you live with something and you don't know anything different, you don't know that it's atypical. You don't know that it's incredibly unhealthy and. And having her here almost, I don't want to say allowed us to see her from a sort of a more clinical standpoint, but it kind of sort of did a little bit. 

Nora: Yeah. You know, even the monster is a product of the environment. 

Elissa: Absolutely. 

Nora: And there are entire generations of women who have been conditioned to believe that the best thing that they can be is small and thin. And it's hard I think for me not to feel compassion for a person who has no self-compassion or to see that sort of lack of compassion in a person and not want to extend them more. It’s just so brutal. 

Elissa: Yeah, it’s a really good point. And I think that one of the things that we experienced here was confirmation of the fact that she's wildly disconnected from her body in a way that sends fear and chills down my spine, because I'm certain we've never discussed it. But I'm certain that anyone who is that disassociated from their body and the workings of their body has, at root, some really traumatic experience that’s at core.


Elissa’s mother spent three months living with Elissa and Susan at their home in Connecticut. That’s three months of Elissa trying her best to not revert to her 12-year-old or 15-year-old self. Three months of Susan trying not to lose Elissa to her mother. Three months of putting every Buddhist practice to the test. 


Elissa: Shenpa is the Buddhist word, I think it's a Pali word, for stickiness and getting stuck in the loop and and crave, it all has its roots in craving and keeping that in mind, knowing who my mother is, you know, I discovered that there were times where she would try and engage me and try and rope me in to the battles that really give her energy. She lives from battle to battle and fight to fight. They enliven her and they energize her. That's her food. That's her sustenance. And what I learned while she was here was if I didn't engage with her, eventually it would dissipate. The healthiest response for me is to put down my sword. And that's something that I'm trying to do in all areas of my life, whether it's in work or with friendships. It's one of the the blessings or curses of growing up with a mother with narcissistic personality disorder is the tendency to attract other people in my life to my life who also are either afflicted with it or some version of it. And that, I think, is also very common and happens when we try to rewrite the ending to a story. We just do it over and over and over again, thinking that this time will be different. And so I put down my sword, and I just won't fight anymore. It's just not something that I'm interested in doing. It's very difficult to get to that place, especially if you're dealing with someone who is a primary relationship to you, and they know all of your Achilles heels. They know all of your weak points, your weak spots. They know the personal stuff that'll just turn you inside out. 

And, you know, that's straight from the art of war, you know? And that's the most difficult thing to want to walk away from. But, you know, in the words of the physician who told me when I was 25 that, you know, it was time to walk away, and it took me, you know, another 25 years to get to that place. It's a matter of health and my ability to continue to care for her. I think, you know, abuse is abuse is abuse, no matter whether someone is an older person or not. I think it's just how we respond to it. 

Nora: So knowing your mother is in her mid-80s. 

Elissa: Mm hmm. 

Nora: And she's not going to change? 

Elissa: No way.

Nora: The hope is, is no longer that she's going to change, but are you still on a path towards healing? What are the wounds that remain? What are they like? And what are you still hopeful that you'll be able to heal in yourself? 

Elissa: Oh, my goodness. How much time do you have? 

Nora: Just, you know, 48 hours. 

Elissa: What I needed to hear, you know, when I was 12 and 30 and now, is I love you and I'm glad you're here. And, you know, we want to know we're a good person. We want to know that the person who brought us into the world is proud of who we are and proud of who we've become and was proud of us growing up. And I think that if you ask any woman that question, a version of that will be the answer. And I think that's true of men, too. Certainly, you know, I think that my mother has, without question, a profound love for me, but it is conditional. And she has loved me in the way that she was able to. And, you know, one of the things that I have always said is that people can only do what they can do when they can do it. They can't do or be something other. I mean, look at me. I can't be someone other than who I am. And she couldn't be someone other than who she is. She has loved me to the best of her ability. 


She can choose to not get stuck, even when she’s stuck in this house with her mother. She can choose what she does and does not let suck her back in.

As children, we rely on our parents for life. These are often the people who GAVE us life, who created us. We need them to care for us not just physically but emotionally, to nurture us and help us grow. And as an adult, Elissa knows that her mother needs her

She is an only child, the only person her mother has left. 

And she also knows that being around her mother is literally detrimental to her health. At 25, she was told to move out BY A DOCTOR, that living with her mother was putting her at risk of a stroke. And in her 50s, just after her mother has moved back to the city … the cost of living with her mother again is apparent.


Elissa: I want to say that when my mother left, we slept for the better part of a month. We were exhausted. We were emotionally exhausted. We were physically exhausted. Caring for my heart now is actually quite literal, because one of the ways I metabolize the relationship that I've had with her is physically, and I'm in the process now of trying to undo a lot of health-related issues that have hit over the last year or so that were very, very surprising. I actually did have that stroke that I was warned about having about eight months ago. Luckily, it was very small, but it was a very loud warning shot. 

Nora: I love that you just bring up a stroke like at an hour and a half of talking. Love that you just dropped that in, Elissa.

Elissa: Sorry!

Nora: Okay. You did have that stroke. 

Elissa: You know, I actually couldn't remember if I had mentioned it. I don't think that I had.

Nora: I was like, racking my brain, like, “Did I see that she had a stroke on Instagram?”

Elissa: Sorry.

Nora: Yeah. Just a casual stroke. 

Elissa: A casual stroke. Right. Right. That’s, yeah, yeah. 

Nora: Holy shit. 

Elissa: Yeah. It was bad. I mean it could have, you know, it could have been much worse. 

Nora: Did that happen after your mom left? 

Elissa: Yes. Yes. 

Nora: Oh my God. Yeah. Your body responding. 


Elissa’s mother is in her 80s. She is who she is, who she will always be. And Elissa is no longer a little girl hoping that her mother will be normal. She’s a woman doing her best to give herself the love and care she needed and deserved all along.


Elissa: I have been lucky to have a parent who does suffer from borderline personality disorder and NPD, who was still able, when the light is hitting right, you know, to show that love. And I feel it, and I try and capture it and grab it and hang on to it, so that I remember what it feels like for the times when it's not apparent and I'm the villain, you know, as many people in my situation are. You know, what I would say to anyone in my in my position is — and I hate to use this phrase because it's been so overused — but the greatest healing is to be done in self-care and understanding that you can grieve someone who was very much alive and grieve the relationship that you should have had but didn't have. And to find a way to care for your heart, because, you know, and at the end of the day, that's what you've got. 


That’s what we’ve got.

Thank you, Elissa, for joining us here on “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” Elissa’s memoir Motherland is truly a work of art. I’ve read it several times, and I suggest you pick it up wherever you get books. We’ll link it in the description. It is called Motherland. I think I already said that. 

You can always call us with your questions, comments, concerns, complaints. Whatever you want. Our number is 612-568-4441. That’s 612-568-4441.

This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” Our theme music is by the lovely Geoffrey Lamar Wilson. Our production team is Marcel Malekebu, Hannah Meacock Ross, Jordan Turgeon, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, and Beth Pearlman. And myself, Nora McInerny, and we are a production of American Public Media and McInerny Studios, which is what I call my closet. What I call my closet. Here we are in my closet. 

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That is it. You better hope I never leave you a voicemail because this is what it’s like, it just keeps going. It just keeps going. That’s how it works. Ask anyone. Ask anyone who’s gotten a voicemail from me how long they are...