At the beginning my fiancée would cut herself, saying, "It's the only way I can feel anything", or "I want to look as ugly on the outside as I feel on the inside". Both statements were lies.
She'd developed a theater of targeted mimicry. In blackouts she'd feign possession by demons, speak in tongues, roll on the floor miming multiple personalities. Sober she'd posture as battered spouse when she was in truth the batterer. These performances were not arbitrary. They insightfully parried the guilt her Evangelical family tried to crush her under for her "rebellion against God". They were a language, shouting to the heavens: This is not my fault. Where the cuts on her arms were punctuation marks emphasizing her innocence.
They told her she was an ungrateful child, a renegade, an apostate. Why? Because the symptoms of her illness inconvenienced and embarrassed them — and cost them money. Like Little League Pontius Pilates they confronted her with the ultimatum: Obey! Or we wash our hands of you.
"They" means Mom. She controlled the family the way she'd have controlled the world if she'd had power. War orphan, shaped in insecurity, a weak sad soul warped by fear: she stumbled through life terrified the world was beyond her authority. Her psychotically relentless craving for control was manic to the most microscopic detail. She demanded of her captive family long into their adulthoods: what color socks to wear, which chair to sit in at dinner, when to laugh at the TV show, what passages to underline, how to pray, who to marry, what to name their children. How to know Jesus: ruling ruthlessly by browbeating and sanctimony. They revered her the way they'd have revered God if only they'd ever been told she wasn't Him. It was inevitable she'd view her daughter's addiction not as neurobiological affliction but contest of wills between her daughter and herself — addiction as childhood defiance of parental and therefore divine authority. She ordered her daughter to be well, and when that therapeutic strategy failed to produce the result she'd demanded she did it again and again and again, more and more stridently, a stunningly pristine illustration of Einstein's definition of insanity, with greater and more insistent accusations of betrayal, not of herself of course but of God, because there was no-one in the world more comfortable than she in ignoring that distinction.
Her daughter replied by cutting. It was her half of the dialog, a language that said: You're blaming me unjustly for being ill. I'm in the grip of a disease which is beyond willpower. I'm neither a rebellious child nor a bad person, and my drinking is not harming YOU.
Granted it was a lunatic's language. But their relationship was forged by her mother's insanity, thus it was a language they both spoke as natives. Playacting at possession was particularly brilliant. That was dialog Evangelical Mom could endorse. Logically, exorcism was a step toward acknowledging that someone other than Mom was the victim. But her daughter was not possessed, she was playacting, and logic is not Mom's world. Failure of the ritual left them where they'd begun: an alcoholic daughter with a mother who insisted it was all about her.
After more than a decade this nonsensical drama ended when I entered the scene. There was a superficial reason, and a deeper one.
Superficially: she couldn't get away with it. I scoffed at her silly Hollywood demon voices, challenging her to prove her supernatural symbiosis by making the lights flicker or flying around the room. Instead she went to bed. Later when sober she confided, "I've been able to manipulate everyone but I can't manipulate you." In other contexts that was very untrue but it was correct in this. I saw through the playacting and it stopped.
More fundamentally, she didn't need it anymore. I responded to her not as a willful child but an adult with a debilitating disease. When she was sober we researched together the neurobiological nature of the illness, searching for treatments. She told me, "No-one's ever stood by me before," and having met her family I believe it. Her violence continued, but the cutting stopped. In my desperation for signs of progress I interpreted that as positive.