Sickened: An Aberration Story

October 30, 2009

If we can tweak our expectations of what life is supposed to be about, we can perhaps be satisfied ...

The bond between mother and child is often hailed as the most critical in our development. So what happens when that bond is broken, falsified, or sickened? In her book, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Adrienne Rich writes, "The loss of the daughter to the mother, the mother to the daughter, is the essential female tragedy." I think about this a lot due to the ongoing struggle I have with my mother.

Our mother is our mirror. If that mirror is distorted in some profound way, we lose a key component, which is extremely difficult to find later. As for me, I trudge on, looking for it here and there. My search led me down a dangerous path more than once, but it's also caused me to view the world in a unique way. It's made me try to see it all without a mirror; it's helped me find my own sight. When there is no mirror, or it's dirty, distorted or broken, everything feels like a haze. Everything is muted or twisted out of shape, somehow unreal. You don't know who to trust or how to love.

Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend time with Julie Gregory, author of Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood (Bantam). Julie grew up with a mother who literally sickened her. I read Sickened a few years ago, and it shot to the top layer of my all-time favorite reads. I identified with her story in many ways, and marveled at her courage, depth and amazing talent. When I began posting interviews on Aberration Nation, Julie stood out as someone I'd love to include. I now count Julie as a friend, and am thrilled to share her story with you.

Note: I usually do my interviews by email, but due to Julie's schedule, I interviewed her by phone. Please keep in mind that the answers below are my interpretation of her thoughts.

You had an unusual childhood that revolved around Munchausen by proxy. Can you explain what that is and how it molded your childhood?

Munchausen by proxy, which has been modernized to Illness Falsification, is one of the world’s most dangerous forms of child abuse. The name was changed to help people better understand what it is, and relate to it more easily. Many people don't know how to recognize it, and no central data exist on it nor is there a specific reporting agency that handles it. It’s not an illness. It’s an action done by a perpetrator to a victim. Injuries or illness can be induced or made up by the perpetrator. As in the case of rape, there can be many underlying illness and reasons why illness falsification is perpetrated.

As for how it molded my life, first let me say that anyone who has an abusive childhood has no other point of reference for comparison. When a child is given medications for fabricated illness, they eventually feel sick and don't have any idea what's going on. It takes a long time to grasp that this person who made them sick is their mother, the one who is supposed to be taking care of and protecting them.

I loved my mother and wanted to please her. I was very confused about how to do that and was ill because of the medications she had me taking. A brief moment of illumination at 13 made me realize that something wasn’t right. The psyche shields abuse survivors from the horrendous reality. Otherwise you'd go crazy. It would be like a daily rape that you can't deal with. The psyche saved my life. As an adult, I don't like health care professionals, and don't trust them. I don't do well with dentistry and medical treatments. Anyone who works on me in medical way has to wear kid gloves. My childhood experience has given me a fine-tune antennae for perpetrators. I don't think the mentally ill should have children in their care. The perpetrators of illness falsification are like pedophiles and should be locked away. I now work on this issue every day.

Your mother's illness put great strain on the family dynamic. How did Munchausen by proxy also touch the lives of your father and brother?

There's a whole spectrum of family dynamics that are considered normal. And then there are these really bad dysfunctional families. That’s what I had. Dad wasn't normal either; he also suffered from mental illness. My parents were two mentally crippled adults who came together. They attracted each other. People are attracted to those who share their realm of thinking. My mother was aggressive and my father was passive, which made their dynamic work. What my mother did didn’t affect my father because he was so blah.

After Sickened came out, he told me a tragic story that truly gutted me. I was sitting in the Target parking lot talking to my dad on the phone. He said, “You know Sissy, there might be something to your book after all. Do you remember when your arm was out of socket?" (I broke my arm in grade school but I didn’t remember this socket thing.) He said, "You must have been about one and a half. Your arm came out of socket. The doctor asked me what really happened. Your mother said that you fell off couch, but the doctor said that falling off the couch wouldn’t cause an arm to be completely pulled out of socket. He thought your mom did it to you. But I told him that she was my wife and I was going to believe her.” He then said he wished now that he’d paid attention. This made me cry for myself. I was just a baby stuck with these ill people who shouldn't even have had a plant to watch over, much less a kid.

As for my younger brother—we came from a family where males were much more celebrated than females. Just like the some other cultures, girls were considered good for sex and cooking, and that was about the extent of it. It was archaic. That was the dynamic. When Mom turned on my brother, Dad stepped up for him in a way that he never would for me. Dad still has this mentality. He actually took a stand and physically abused my mom at one point when she tried to talk to him about my brother being ill. Mom backed off and then turned to getting foster children.

As children, who love and depend on our parents, it's almost impossible for us to grasp the truth when we're forced to exist in a lie. It's a type of brainwashing that is extremely difficult to break away from on many levels. How did you eventually come to realize your mother had a major problem, and that her problem had horribly curtailed your life?

The realization was incremental. I'm a firm believer in the Stockholm syndrome. Consider that an abusive situation is like a prisoner of war situation you don't realize is happening. The lure of family is so strong. Many adults do eventually cut their abusive parents off. No one ever says to the child, “I'm getting ready to do something very bad to you.” Abusers have a highly sophisticated way of rationalizing the abuse. The child begins to feel responsible; remember, they have the heart of a child. The parent trains the child to be their alibi.

How common is Illness Falsifciation, and what are the top three signs we should look for to make sure that the children around us are not caught in this trap?

Larry Brubaker, who is retired from the FBI, used to do Illness Falsification workshops. He felt that these cases were at epidemic levels but is still considered rare because there is no central reporting agency. Common methods used to identify abusers don't work in these cases. You have to take kid away for quite awhile and observe them. You can’t let the parent near the child. It's complicated to do this, and services aren't equipped for it or savvy about it. The common scenario is removing the child from the home for ten days, and this doesn’t work with Illness Falsification.

Illness Falsification is not just focused on physical illness. It can also take the form of psychiatric or developmental obsession. For example, a mother wants her kid in special education, but the kid can read. There have actually been cases where a child is unable to read in front of mother when they can read perfectly fine at school. The teacher invites the mother for a conference and asks the child to read. With the mother present, the child can’t read. So, you see, this can happens on all kinds of levels. Don't think it's rare. There are both subtle and extremely dangerous cases. Mothers have had their children's organs removed and they’ve died.

Here are the top 3 thinks to remember about Illness Falsification:

1) Watch for a mother who is constantly talking about the inadequacies of her child with everyone. This can be physical, mental, or developmental. She talks about it at the child’s school, with her friends, at church, at the grocery store, etc. She seems obsessed with inadequacy of the child and speaks about it in front of the child as if they're not there. She always says that something is wrong with kid.

2) Watch for a child who seems overly enmeshed with the mom ... not developed, pale, malnourished, and quiet. Like a victim of kidnapping with the perpetrator controlling every aspects of their life. The child seems like an appendage to the parent.

3) Remember that when a child is removed from the situation, they need to be given two or three weeks without intervention from the mother. If you're dealing with Illness Falsification, they will begin to improve. The issues they supposedly have become nonexistent. Lethargic kids come to life in the foster home. Wean medications off. Medications can make kids sick so you have to be careful.

Aberration Nation is about celebrating what we learn and how we grow from some of the most awful things that befall us. Now that you have survived and escaped the life you faced as a child, are there any positives you have pulled from the experience? Has it, in any way, help created the best parts of who you are today?

I want to be able to tell you that it has helped me, that my philosophy is that good will triumph over evil, but it's not. Not yet. I was beyond depressed for so long. I’ve become jaded. I’m not able to feel the positive of all this so much now but I do believe that I’m still at the center of my journey. It takes a lot of time.

What do you say to yourself these days when things don't go well? Do you have a special motto or words that you live by?

I need to find some words to live by. I'm still so in the middle of trying to figure out what life's about and what my personal philosophy can be. I see that everyone is in pain. We need to sit with it. If we can tweak our expectations of what life is supposed to be about, we can perhaps be satisfied in a new way. I love Pema Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. It’s become my manifesto. It helps me come to grips with disappointment.

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