Dear Margo: When DNA Doesn’t Figure In

How do I help my mother without letting it hurt me? Margo Howard’s advice

When DNA Doesn’t Figure In

Dear Margo: Almost 19 years ago, when I got sober and was in intensive therapy, I told my mother about the sexual abuse I endured as a kid. She claimed I was lying and that my alcoholism was just a “phase.” I tried counseling with her through the years, but it never helped; the blame for everything still landed on me. It took a lot of time and effort to forgive her — I am her only child — and eventually I did, but I keep her at arm’s length for my own sanity.

This past Mother’s Day, however, I received a hateful email from her dredging up all the incidents from 19 years ago, blaming me for all her misery since then, and calling me a liar, a manipulator and a total ingrate. I have not spoken to her since.

In order to not be pulled into her vortex of nonstop drama (hazardous for my sobriety), I moved 2,000 miles away. I can’t call her without her behaving spitefully. I can’t send her gifts without her destroying them. I know that her drinking and tranquilizer-popping have escalated over the years. I also know her problems are hers, but I am still her daughter and feel duty-bound to help her. I just cannot allow myself to be her perpetual target. I have no idea what I am supposed to do. — Lost Daughter

Dear Lost: What I hope you will do is write “finis” to this relationship with a clear conscience and the understanding that damaged, toxic people — whatever the relationship — are not entitled to make you miserable ’til the end of time. You have come a long way, my dear. Your mother is clearly ill (substance abuse aside), and oddly, she has made things very clear-cut and unambiguous about why you should terminate this punishing relationship. You easily could’ve ended things before now, but you hung in. Alas, there was no payoff. I hope you will put an end to being your mother’s pinata. — Margo, categorically

Am I Entitled To Be PO’d?

Dear Margo: A friend from another country and I have been planning a month-long trip together for about a year. It’s about five months from happening, and some hotel bookings for certain events already have been made. I got a message from my friend today telling me one of his good friends just notified him that he will be getting married during the last week of our trip, and now my friend is asking me if we can cut our trip short by a week. It may seem trivial since this is such a long trip, but we have been planning it for so long, and I almost had to beg and barter to get the time off of work. Am I justified in feeling slighted, or am I expecting too much? — Grouchy

Dear Grouch: I’m with you. A trip, with reservations yet, that’s been a year in the planning should not be truncated because a friend just announced he’s getting married. Missing a wedding is not the biggest deal in the world. I think you are entirely justified in feeling jerked around, and in fact, I would ask your friend to reconsider, taking into account the planning you’ve both done, plus the maneuvering you had to do to miss work. I don’t find it “trivial,” by the way, to shorten a trip by 25 percent. I hope you will lay it on the line about how you are feeling about his “suggestion.” Let me know what happens. — Margo, affirmingly

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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42 Responses so far.

  1. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: Let’s cut to the chase—you know exactly what you’re supposed to do, and you basically just laid out every reason TO do it in your letter. You’re an adult now. Quit being a victim.

    LW2: Seriously—a guy wants to cut short a trip because of… a wedding? IMHO, Doubtful. The only thing I can think is that maybe your friend is trying to tell you the trip is too long or too expensive—and he’s looking for an excuse to come home earlier than originally planned.

    • avatar Lucy Baty says:

      david, the 2nd letter response from you is likely correct. hard to actually come out and say it for the person.

  2. avatar Constance Plank says:

    #1- You can’t choose your blood family, but you can make your own family. And, if I were you, I’d never contact your mother by birth again. She doesn’t value you, and she blames you for you being sexually molested, and for her addictions & difficulties. Seek counseling because this upsets you, as there is nothing you can do, including tap-dancing nekkid at midnight while sacrificing live chickens, that will change anything that she says to you.

    You can be done with her. Just decide to do so. And, because you are a loving and kind person, it will be really hard to be done. Hence the counseling.


    Constance in the Sierra Foothills of CA

  3. avatar Lym BO says:

    LW1: The move 2000 miles away needed to include no phone number or forwarding address.

    LW2: He is bailing. For whatever reason. Time for a frank talk.

  4. avatar Kate Olsen says:

    LW1 – if you have been sober for 19 years – you know the answer and have no need to write to Margo. There are steps to follow, sponsors to call and things to do that would have solved all of this years ago. My mother was an alcoholic/drug addict and I followed in her footsteps due to what I was taught by watching her actions. I struggled for a long time asking myself how could my children ever forgive me for the abuse that they saw me endure and the things that they should not have been put through. Then a wonderfully wise woman from AA asked me a simple question, How could I expect my children to forgive me if I was now willing to forgive my Mom. We both did the best job we could with what we had at the time. My youngest tells me all the time that he refers to remember the good things in his childhood, – little league, family barbecues, etc. rather than that abuse that he saw and could do nothing about.

    He has shown me that although we would like to change time, we can not, but our actions speak louder than words. I was able to finally break from a physically abusive marriage and move on. My children, of course, know nothing of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse I suffered as a child and teenager.

    As of this date, my oldest son chooses to wish death upon me – in his last email to me 6 weeks ago – if he could get away with killing me with a slow painful death he would do it. My youngest son and I have a wonderful relationship – and they were both brought up with the same values. Apparently my alcoholism and drug addiction affected my oldest son more than the younger one.

    We can only acknowledge, apologize and move on with our lives. The only way to prove we have changed to people is to live our lives and show them through our actions. Hugs to you and your family. Kate

    • avatar Kate Olsen says:

      I forgot to mention that I learned that i could not expect forgiveness from my children until I was ready to forgive my Mom. and vice versa – and I am happy to say that for 3 out of 4 of us – it worked and we lived happily ever after – LOL

    • avatar BlueeyedSara says:

      You wrote, “My children, of course, know nothing of the physical, emotional and sexual abuse I suffered as a child and teenager.” You may not want to discuss such traumatic experiences with your children but they shaped who you are for both good and bad and led to your experience in an abusive marriage. You should seriously consider sharing this information with your children so that they can know the real “you”. It may or may not result in forgiveness by your eldest son but at least he would have the whole story. And don’t be too surprised that he has the most anger. The eldest child usually feels more responsible for both what is happening and being a caretaker at a too-young age, which will lead him to feel powerless and consequently angry.

      • avatar wendykh says:

        I agree. I have cut off my adoptive mother (my father’s second wife, my mother died and she adopted me) and she was a wretched horrible abusive alcoholic. However…. I know her violently abusive and seriously messed up childhood and because of that, I do not hate her. At all. What happened to her can be classified as war crimes. She did to me the best she knew. The reason I don’t talk to her now is because she’s a drama tornado crazy lady. If she was friends with Bill W I’d be at her house for Christmas dinner with bells on. But I forgive her for my childhood. I just can’t be friends with who she is now.

  5. avatar central coast cabin home says:

    Please try to forgive her which may be the hardest to do but you cannot move forward without this gift you have and can give to yourself. After that, stay the 2000+ miles away, bless your victory and give life back to you! It is ok.

  6. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    LW#1:  Forgiving your mother does not include subjecting yourself to further abuse from her.  Let her go.  If she gets sober herself and seeks a true reconciliation, you may be able to give her another chance but absent that occurring, let her go.  How dreadful for you to receive a hateful letter from her on Mother’s Day.  I think you are wise to cut off contact with her unless or until she changes.  

    LW#2:  Basically your friend has indicated that the friendship of the person getting married is more important to him than his friendship with you.  And that is hurtful.  Of course, should he choose to go on the trip instead of to the wedding he will be indicating to the other friend that his friendship with you is the more important…so he is in a position of hurting/disappointing/angering one of you.  I was always taught that etiquette demands the first invitation accepted be honored if there is a social conflict of this type…following those etiquette rules does help out in sticky situations like this  But your friend hasn’t read my etiquette book.

    I don’t know if you can enjoy any part of the trip unless you have a frank discussion with him about feeling slighted but I’m pretty sure it won’t change his mind and if it did he would probably be truculent for the last week of your trip anyway.  I guess the best solution, assuming you really want to take this trip, is to go ahead with it and stick to the original plan for yourself and let him go home early to the wedding.  You might be ready to get rid of him anyway after three solid weeks together and can enjoy the last week on your own.  

  7. avatar Dana Griffiths says:

    I must be the only person who thinks LR2 should chill out. Lots of things can come up when you are planning a trip one year in advance, and you should build in some flexibility into your plans. Hotel arrangements are easily changed.
    I would definitely want to attend a wedding of a close friend. It is a big deal! I would make the most of the shortened trip, and also attend the wedding. No regrets. LR2 is being selfish.
    And last word – stop taking it so personally! It is not a personal snub. It is wanting to take part in a joyous occasion.

    • avatar Lisa Cornell says:

      No, you aren’t the only one Dana who thought that the writer shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it. I went on a seven week vacation a couple of years ago. I had a couple of friends meet up at differing times on the trip and I spent some of the time alone. I guess I am not the sort of person who sees a vacation, trip or journey as carved in stone. I think the writer needs to get over this, not let this change ruin the trip and be understanding. How the writer handles this will determine if this trip comes off at all, never mind enjoying it. I realize there are hotel reservations, but at this stage, hotel reservations can be changed. If the hotels selected on this final week are too expensive for the writer to handle alone, change to more reasonable accommodations. Personally, I saw my trip two years ago as a personal journey and although I enjoyed meeting up with friends, I actually preferred the alone time.

    • avatar mayma says:

      You’re not the only one. Why can’t LW2 spend the last week of the trip on his own? They are not joined at the hip. The finances of it can be re-arranged, if that’s a factor. Traveling for four weeks with someone who is that unimaginative and that un-independent would not be fun for me.

    • avatar cl1028 says:

      Agreed. I went to Asia a couple of years ago, and when my travel buddy suddenly had to fly back home for a vet school interview, I just kept exploring south-east Asia/Australia on my own, and with a different group of friends. I had a wonderful time, and will never forget those experiences!

    • avatar Lourdes says:

      I’m also with you, Dana!

    • avatar jpnlawyer says:

      I also agree. It’s 5 whole months out, not 5 days out. Seems like they should be able to plan around that. Not to mention, it’s not like the person is canceling the trip. They’ll still go for most of it.

      On a separate note, I am curious as to how a person can take an entire month away from work. I have 5 weeks of vacation time, but it’s a real burden to take even 2 weeks at a time and I always end up working on vacation.

    • avatar wendykh says:

      I agree here too and I can’t believe people think a wedding is no big deal! A trip is no big deal, frankly. That can be done anytime.

    • avatar D L says:

      Thank you!! I’m thinking the same thing. I’m actually surprised Margo sided with LW#2. Yes, I can understand the LW being disappointed but I would certainly hope that she/he handles it with grace. Also, by reading the post, the LW indicates that the friend “asked” if they could cut the vacation short by a week. Doesn’t seem like he’s demanding it or has totally made up his mind. Maybe he’s trying to open up a dialogue so they could compromise. The point is, her friend asked 5 months in advance if a change could be made. LW#2 needs to talk to her friend and see what can be done. Perhaps she/he can continue on alone or maybe come back early and have a week off at home. Whatever the case, LW#2 does need to lighten up and learn to roll with life’s curve balls.

      If someone in her friend’s family was sick and he had to bail, would she/he pout then too?

  8. avatar DebS says:

    Dear Lost Daughter,
    One sentence of your letter got to me the most. The ‘duty bound to help her’ part. You have paid what you might have owed her by being her verbal dart board. I too once received a hateful email from my vicious, controlling mother, and I, like you, choose that point to cut off contact.   I felt no remorse, and still don’t.  There was no addiction factor in my mother’s misery; she was just bad person and horrible mother who choose to blame me for everything.  My choice was to cut off contact to literally save my own life. 
    I don’t think you can help her.  It’s at the point where she has to make her own decision to want to get better, and I get the impression that she revels in the drama, and likely will not want to change.  You can not help her as long as she does. 
    From your own letter, it sounds as if you have made positive decisions; it’s time to make another.  Your debt is clear, move on and life a better life. Good luck in your new journey.

  9. avatar Codename Lily B. says:

    LW#1: One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was, “Just because it’s family doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell them to fudge off.”

    I realize it’s harder because this is your mother, but I don’t think we should have a second standard of behavior that’s acceptable from blood relations.

    Cut her loose and realize that you’re not a bad person for doing so.

    LW#2: If you have placed nonrefundable deposits for that last week, then I think it’s reasonable to expect your friend to pay his share for those. If not, I think it’s fun to travel on my own every now and again!

  10. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: Consider telling her this: “Hey mom, you’re not going to be young(ish) and independent forever. Maybe if you don’t want to get knocked around by hired thugs in a nursing home in 20 years, you will consider growing up and treating me decently. Do you want to continue being a bitch and wind up in a nursing home at the mercy of strangers, or do you want to FINALLY grow up and treat me right and I’ll watch over you in your old age? The choice is yours.”

    L #2: I’d tell him he should nix the wedding. Plans are plans, and the ones you guys made first should COME first.

    • avatar Rita@ Goldivas says:

      I find “hired thugs in a nursing home” offensive. There are many caring workers who do a great job for low pay and they deserve our gratitude, not our derision.

      • avatar Mjit RaindancerStahl says:

        I think she’s implying that one might find a poorly-run nursing home in which to stash the offending parent. She didn’t say that all nursing home attendants are low-rent thugs, only that such horrible people/places exist.

    • avatar mayma says:

      You can’t order another adult to do what you want them to do. The decision is not his. Either his friend will go to the wedding or not. Personally, I don’t find it such an egregious offense. I’d adjust and make plans to enjoy my own company. The number one trait a travel companion needs is flexibility.

    • avatar Carmen Clemons says:

      Cindy, my husband is an LVN at a nursing home. Those people you call “thugs”? They are better people than you.

      • avatar A R says:

        Geez, relax, folks. Cindy was making a point using hyperbole–exaggeration! She wasn’t talking about anyone YOU know. She was speaking hypothetically.

  11. avatar cubadog says:

    LW2 I had a friend a month before a trip to Paris completely bail. I still went and that week was the best experience of my life. It is your friends loss take that last week to yourself and have a great time. It will be his loss.

  12. avatar Sadie BB says:

    Lw1- you say you don’t know what to do, yet moving 2000 miles away was an excellent first step. You want to help your mom, but she doesn’t seem to have asked for help. Because she doesn’t want it. You must accept that.
    If you absolutely cannot bear to cut her off (and I can understand that, no matter how old we are we need our moms) then I would advise you NOT to respond to provocation or put up with abuse. Which means a brisk “thanks for telling me” and hanging up the phone if things get dicey or not responding to emails & only calling (briefly) on holidays until she acts normal. Which may be never. This has actually worked for me ( although not with everybody). It does require magnificent self control, but you can always cuss her out in the privacy of your own mind!

  13. avatar Sadie BB says:

    Lw2 – who knows – after 3 weeks you may be VERY glad to see him off. And some of my best vacations happened when I was on my own. Go with it and see what develops!

  14. avatar Barbara says:

    LW#2- Weddings are a big deal. You don’t say how close the friend getting married is to your friend. This may be a very important person in your friend’s life. Why is this all or nothing. Friend goes home so you have to cut the trip short? Why can’t you plan something else for that last week of the vacation? You might find you have more fun on your own or with another traveling companion.

    If you guilt your friend into not attending the wedding, I suspect those hurt feelings will come out in this extended vacation. You might not want to be around your friend for that last week!

  15. avatar Caramia says:

    #2 – You could let him go back a week early and continue on with your trip alone.

  16. avatar P S says:

    LW1 – I’ve been in your shoes. My parents and brother are all toxic and I decided to cut them off almost ten years ago. Attempts to confront them resulted in hostile, vindictive retaliation and smearing.

    When someone’s narcissistic, a sociopath, sick past the point of no return, abuses substances to the point of burning their brains out, etc., there isn’t anything you can do to help or change that. It is not your “duty” to change your mother… think of your own sobriety. Nobody could help you reach the point where you wanted it until you made that decision.

    The same goes for your mother and everyone else in the world who has an addiction… and even if she became sober, the problem isn’t the substance. It’s her! My mother’s been dry as a bone for over 30 years but she’s also a malignant narcissist who looked the other way while my brother beat and molested me, all of which happened AFTER she quit drinking. Whatever the H is wrong with her has nothing to do with alcohol whatsoever.

    As for forgiving your mother… I operate on the flip side. I think for some, forgiveness isn’t possible until healing has taken place first (and even then I believe actions that come with no remorse or are ongoing are unforgivable), and in the case of someone who has abused you much of your life, it’s not something you can just dismiss like water under the bridge. It can take many years, and that’s more than okay. I say do what is right for you and whoever you seek for support for your sobriety, make sure they do not pressure you to do something for your healing any sooner than you’re ready.

    LW2 – Count me in with those who think the LW needs to take a chill pill. As some have related through their experiences, there’s nothing that says you can’t go solo, and it could end up being a great adventure. I also think the wedding of a good friend is a big deal and I don’t think I could miss out either in the friend’s shoes.

  17. avatar Mjit RaindancerStahl says:

    LW#1, what you should do is cut all ties with your mother. You will decrease the amount of stress in your life.

    I haven’t spoken to my father since 1992, and I am much happier for it.

  18. avatar RobFromBoston says:

    I cant believe that I am the only one who want to give the friend in letter #2 the benefit of the doubt.  For all we know the friend is going to be the best man. 

    • avatar P S says:

      You aren’t 🙂 There’s a small crowd of us who think the friend should go to the wedding and the LW should try to reframe this as being a partly solo trip/adventure. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

      You make a good point, the friend could very well be in the wedding party. Thank you for bringing that up… yet another possible reason for the LW to stop rushing to judgment.

  19. avatar Amy says:

    lw#1: Two words: restraining order. Six more: Change your email and phone number.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      That would be the obvious answer. The problem is that LW1 is every bit as addicted to her mother and the treatment she receives from her as she was to the alcohol, etc.

      • avatar P S says:

        Very good point. There was a movie that came out several years ago called Changing Lanes, with Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson. The basic premise of the story was the main characters acted by the aforementioned get into a fender bender with each other and it becomes a game of revenge. Jackson’s character is also a recovering addict and when his sponsor (played by William Hurt) tells him that his participation in the escalating drama between him and Affleck has nothing to do with being an addict, Hurt exclaims that it is, because he is addicted to chaos!

        I’ve only seen the movie once, but that scene has stuck in my head ever since because there is so much truth to it. Addiction is about the behavior, not the substance, and that you can indeed become “addicted” to intangible things – Codependents Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, and other such groups that base themselves on AA wouldn’t have come into existence if this were not the case.

        The adrenaline rush stemming from getting looped into such dysfunctional situations, as crappy as it feels, can also be an addiction. That said I would gently encourage LW1 to discuss this with her sponsor or whatever support system she uses to stay sober so it doesn’t become a stumbling block.

  20. avatar Cathie says:

    My Dear LW1,

    There is a place for you and it is Al-Anon.  Find a meeting ASAP and make it as important as your AA meetings.  Getting sober does not fix your family of origin; it is the first step in the lifelong journey of recovery.  There are plenty of double-winners at Al-Anon and we welcome you.

  21. avatar A R says:

    I agree that the traveler should continue his/her schedule solo for the last week. I can see why it bothers the LW because he/she just got told that his friend is choosing a wedding over a trip. (Personally, it would have to be a sibling for me to cut short a trip that big!) I agree with David: the companion has other reasons for shortening the journey.
    I also think that for some people traveling alone is harder than the rest of us realize. I would do it, but some folks are afraid to take a solo trip in a foreign country.

  22. avatar Grace Malat says:

    Lw 1 ~ It is time to walk away as hard as that may be. But let your mother know that if she ever gets the help she needs then you might be willing to talk to her on your terms and your terms only. If and when that time comes you set the ground rules what you will and won’t tolerate, accept and what you expect. If she breaks the rules then you hang up.

    But it would do you a world of good if you could forgive her, this is not for her benefit but for yours. If you can do it it will feel like a weight has been lifted.

    My parents were horribly abusive to me until I was 17 and ran away from home, then came back and reported them, mainly my father. I do not have one happy memory from my childhood it is filled with horror and it’s a place I rarely visit.
    So at 17 I was allowed to go live with a friend whose parents were allowed to take me in as a foster child, it helped that they lived 200 miles from my parents. I got married at 18 and had a good marriage for almost 15yrs and had one daughter. Over those years my mother came to visit a few times but it was awkward and uncomfortable. And the verbal and emotional abuse had continued only now it was over the phone.
    I finally went to counseling, and well one day I snapped and called my parents and called them every vile name in the book and let out all my hurt, anger, frustration, etc. I didn’t allow them to talk I just yelled and screamed and told them I never wanted to see or hear from them again, I was around 25 at the time.
    Now I knew that both my parents were also very damaged from their childhoods and I knew that abuse has a cycle quality to it and I never abused either of my daughters.
    So time went by, I divorced met a man and moved across the country, closer to my parents. Now I would call them maybe once a year sometime every 2yrs. But after I moved my mother got my phone number from a relative and called angry that I hadn’t called to let them know we had arrived safely and I just hung up on her.
    At this point they still wanted a relationship and I agreed to try but it was by my rules. They came to visit but I insisted on eating out, didn’t want them in my home. My mom afterward called complaining and telling me my father was very upset that I didn’t invite them to my home. And that’s when I laid down the ground rules, and if they broke them I would hang up and not answer the phone when they’d call back. Eventually they came to accept the rules and things were still somewhat tense for a few years.
    Until 2 things happened, I was 34 and my daughter died at birth and my father became ill. Well actually 3 things because a yr after my daughter died I had another daughter, and I found a way to forgive my parents, it’s now been 18yrs.
    At first my parents especially my mom would apologize constantly for the abuse I suffered and I finally had to tell her to knock it off. But they changed, my father’s illness was heavy metal poisoning that they were able to reverse in a sense but it left him with huge holes in his memories, he knows what he did but he doesn’t remember the majority of it. And he’s apologized in many ways as has my mother. And for these 18yrs they’ve been there for me, do they slip? It’s rare and I just gently remind them.

    One of the things my father has told me is that he is so very blessed that I forgave them, they at least got to know one of their grandchildren and they are wonderful grandparents. I now have a close relationship with my dad my mom is still difficult but she’s that way with everyone. It’s also a bit helpful that they did move far away and our contact for the last 8yrs or so has been strictly by phone and I talk to my dad several times a week. He’s an intelligent man and he has changed so very much.

    So by forgiving them I released myself from any guilt in how I was going to handle things even if I had decided to never see them again. But instead I found a friend in my dad, he still gets on my nerves and does things that make me crazy but that’s mostly I believe age related and there have been a very few times that I’ve in a sense had to put him in his place. But they would do anything for my daughters and me.

    This won’t work with everyone, I don’t know how or why I was able to do this. My father says I have a great capacity for forgiveness and I don’t hold grudges at least not big ones. I do know that by forgiving I gained a lot and so did my daughters. But in the end you must do what is right for you and only you. I just wanted people to know that people do change, and some of you might be thinking my abuse was probably minimal and that’s why I was able to do this all I can say is that it was not. Yes there are and were worse cases of abuse others endured but mine was in no way minimal. I endured 17yrs of absolute hell and abuse of every kind you can imagine. Just for one example because I don’t like to go into that dark hell hole, but once when I was 14 I was held down and beaten with a belt for 10 hours my father actually took breaks. It happened on the first day of Christmas vacation so I didn’t have school, I wouldn’t have been able to attend anyway. I had welts from my shoulders to the soles of my feet and could not walk for 2 days. No happy childhood memories for me. But my life is good I have wonderful children and a cat to keep me company. My youngest daughter was in this yrs Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as a member of the Macy’s Great American Band, in Jan she’ll perform in the US Army All American Band, she’s a member of the National Honor Society and so so much more. I may not have happy memories of my childhood but I do have them of my children’s and that’s ok.