Irene and her daughter, Brittany, were recently reunited after being kept apart off and on for 10 years. "I thought I was going to get married to the man of my dreams. Instead, it was a horror story," recalls Irene. "I was married to Brittany's father for six years. As time went on, he started getting physical with me."
"We always portrayed it like we had this perfect family picture," says Brittany, "but we were also hiding a dirty little secret. I was like Barbie, you know, you walk around with this fake smile, pretending everything's OK, but deep down inside, you're dying."
"Brittany's father, I believe, was abusing her, and I believe he molested her, yet the court took her away from me. Because I reported him to the authorities, I was accused of parental alienation syndrome," says Irene.
"I was almost 8 years old when my dad gained custody of me," Brittany explains. "I remember moving to a whole new school and living with just my dad alone. And that was the scary part. No mom there to protect me. All I remember doing is crying, thinking about my mom, and I just felt like she actually abandoned me. I actually grew angry toward her because I didn't think she was fighting hard enough."
"I was having visitation with Brittany, but it was very difficult knowing that she was living all alone with the man I believed abused her," says her mom.
Brittany paints a horrific picture. "Kicking, punching, slapping, bloody noses, pulling my hair, throwing me on the floor â€¦ I was just waiting for the moment when he was going to take my life. I just didn't want to feel anymore. Like, I was just dead," she says.
After fighting for a decade to get her daughter back, Irene and Brittany were finally reunited for good.
Now, Irene and Brittany both struggle to rebuild their relationship as mother and daughter. "The authorities took a little, 7-year-old angel away from me and what I got back was a 17-year-old angry, scared, confused stranger," says Irene. "I'm afraid Brittany will leave me and return to her father because she feels he has some good in him. I don't want to feel used. I don't want to feel manipulated, and I don't want to be made to feel guilty because I didn't have all that time to be her mother."
"I still have anger toward my mother," Brittany says. "When I first got reunited with my mother, I was in high school and I was all grown up. I do feel like it's too late to have a relationship with my mother. She wasn't there for my birthdays, she wasn't there for my first high school dance, she wasn't there for my first boyfriend, you know, my first kiss. I don't feel like I know my mom." Plus, Brittany has trust issues now. "I'm afraid that she'll abandon me. I can't even hug her. I just feel like I have this barrier put up between me and everyone around me, and I just become heartless, and it's very hard for me to get close to people because I'm just scared they're going to hurt me all over again." Brittany still thinks about her father. She says, "It's sad, but I crave a father/daughter relationship. I just wish that I could have him here. My biggest fear is that I would see my dad and fall back into his mental mind control. I'm scared of that. Extremely scared. I know him as the scary man who's full of anger and full of evil."
Both Irene and Brittany have questions for Dr. Phil:
"How do I parent a child who pretty much parented herself and grew up with all that ugliness?" Irene asks.
"How do I move on from the pain of my past, and start a new life and relationship with my mother?" Brittany asks.
"There's not been a court finding or conviction or anything of the sort that any of those things took place, even though you said so and wound up getting hit with a parent alienation finding," says Dr. Phil. "Tell me about that."
"The first time I actually called the police was when I was very married to him. I called the DCFS [Department of Children and Family Services] here in Los Angeles, I called the sheriffs and they absolutely didn't do anything," Irene says.
Dr. Phil finds that hard to believe. "I've been doing this for 30 years, and I've worked with DCFS and child protective services in different states and all over the country, and this is a highly child-sensitive system â€¦ Now, I've heard of them making mistakes, but I've never heard of them not responding to a complaint," he argues.
"They would respond. They just closed the case," says Irene.
"So they did investigate it, they just didn't make the determination that you thought they should've," says Dr. Phil.
"Tell me what goes on in your mind and heart in reforming this relationship with your mother at this point," Dr. Phil says to Brittany.
"It's really hard for me to get close to someone, not only mentally, but just physically," she says. "As a child, you know, she was my best friend, and after everything I've been through now, it's really hard for me to let down my barrier and just say, â€˜Come to me and just hold me, you're my mom and I want that support.' But it's really hard for me to let go of all that fear that I have to let someone who really means a lot to me hurt me."
"Ironically, she's just started to kiss me on the cheek and I'm, like, shocked," Irene tells Dr. Phil.
"Do you have resentments toward your mom for not overcoming the system, overcoming the problems, trying harder?" Dr. Phil asks Brittany.
"Well, I can't blame my mother for it because I saw firsthand what the system does. It completely denied me. When I finally had the courage to stand up and speak the truth, I was just shot back down, and it was painful. And so now, looking at the situation, I look at her and say, â€˜You know what? I've been there. I tried my hardest as well. It took me to run away for eight months. I had to run away because my life was in danger.' And I knew that she tried and I didn't find this out until later," Brittany answers.
"What I know for sure, is that you two are together now," says Dr. Phil. He turns to Brittany. "And I can tell you, I'm a pretty good judge of moms, and it really seems to me that your mother very much wants to build a relationship with you now. And it seems to me that you feel like you're kind of behind a wall that you wish wasn't there in some way, but yet it is there, and you feel just kind of safe if you stay tucked in by yourself. That gets pretty lonely sometimes, doesn't it?" he asks.
"It is, but I guess I'm just really scared," she admits, her voice cracking. "You know, I really did love my dad. And it's sad, but I'm scared that if I just love my mom the way I can love someone, that I'll just be hurt again. And it's really hard for me to accept a parent in my life because I was parented by my father alone, and it was just me and him and our dirty little secret, and I'm just scared that if we were ever able to develop a relationship, that we would get that too and I don't want that negativity to come with it."
"And I would never, ever do that," Irene says. "She has a little sister, Savannah, and if everyone sees how I treat her ... I would never do that to my daughter."
Dr. Phil tells Brittany, "Everything that you're feeling " based on your perception of experiences across time " is completely and totally understandable and legitimate. There's not something wrong with you. You're not some cold fish,
"Let me tell you how you got there, because just even as a child, you have had this survival instinct, and even though you've been in this custody fight, being ping-ponged back and forth in the system with parents and all, you've made it. You are still here. And that tells me if you can navigate those 10 years as well as you have, you can navigate the next 10 years, the next 20 years, the next 30 years even better. And I know that."
Dr. Phil cautions her to go slowly and take it a day at a time. Eventually, she'll get to know her mother again, and grow to love her just like she did when she was a young girl.
Dr. Phil turns to Irene. "You are parenting totally out of guilt and fear at this point. It's like, â€˜I don't want to say anything because I kind of feel like I owe her 10 years â€¦ You can't play the game with sweaty palms. Look, relationships are built. They're built across time. They're not legislated â€¦ They're built on learning each other's needs, each other's preferences and thoughts, redefining things, because now you're parenting a young adult and that's very different. She's not 7," he says.
"I'm trying in my head, trying to jump those hurdles," she admits.
"But give yourself time to do that. And I am more than happy " ecstatic, elated " to arrange some help for y'all to learn to form this relationship and to speed the process as much as is healthy, if y'all want to do that and would participate in that. Because there's a lot that needs to be done and I think that it would help immensely. But I'm telling you, be really patient with yourselves and be really patient with each other," he tells them.
"And you, young lady, are doing really fine," he tells Brittany. "You really are. Don't expect too much too soon in this relationship or in your future, but your life has just started."
"Almost normal," Brittany interjects, laughing.
"Almost normal!" repeats Irene, laughing along with her daughter.