It’s been quite a while since I last wrote about mother. Partly because we speak infrequently enough, once a month or so, for as short a time (sometimes only 5 minutes) as I can possibly keep it. I basically start saying goodbye when I answer her calls. Sometimes she texts (or texts something indecipherable t0 my email) or leaves a phone note (as my friend Terry calls them). These are only slightly less burdensome than are our conversations. She’s been deathly ill (sic) since 1972 or thereabouts, the vast majority of my life. In the last week she texted me that she has pleurisy and pneumonia in addition to her ongoing osteoarthritis and neuropathy. Thank God she keeps her ailments and afflictions in alphabetical order or I’d never be able to keep track. Her calls open with labored breathing and shift into that deliberate fake-hoarse-whisper one uses when calling in sick to work, when trying to sound sicker than one actually is. At best it is eye-rollingly irksome. At worst, I realize that her insanity has had and continues to have a cumulative effect on me.
I just finished reading the book “Educated” by Dr. Tara Westover. It was a fascinating, and also chillingly accurate description of toxic parenting. It is a book about whose history is history, and how the author struggled and fought to create and live her own truth despite the challenges, losses and difficulties of having mentally ill family members who tried to define truth for her, parenthetically, through their own crazy lenses. For me it was part painfully excruciating, part hauntingly familiar and part depressingly lonely. Sure, Westover’s story and mine are worlds apart and on the surface one would say had little to nothing in common. But the deeper story: the desperate search for love and belonging; the yearning for (normal, or at least sane) family and parental guidance, love and support; the crazy-making toxicity of being raised by someone with unchecked mental illness; the constant gaslighting and contradicting of reality and what can only be labeled emotional abuse… Those? Those were the same. No, my family was not torturesome and physically violent. Though to be sure there were times mother lost her shit and went on rampages that included hitting, throwing, breaking. And no, my parents did not deny us medical care. Sort of the opposite actually. As a raging hypochondriac my mother was always on the lookout for a symptom or abnormality. I remember one emergent trip to the pediatrician because the veins in my arm were too dark. The pediatrician smiled as if he thought she was joking. But she wasn’t. She was quite sure my unusually dark veins were a portent of a terminal blood illness. My mother may not have had the self-awareness to have experienced the pediatrician’s mockery bordering on scorn, but I did. My parents also allowed me formal education (if only to get me out of their hair every day) and didn’t think the illuminati were taking over the government like Westover’s family. Though mom had her own conspiracy theories of a faux government being controlled by behind-the-scenes nefariously powerful people, which is why she has never voted in her life in what she claims are “scam elections”. Not completely outside the Westover realm now I think of it. Still, I’m not saying I had it as bad as Westover. I’m simply saying that the underlying toxicity of being gaslighted at every turn, of having a family system where everyone was supposed to buy into the lies and or delusions – that mother was not a drug addict, that she really was incessantly and continuously sick, that the perverse pleasure she took in offending and intimidating people was more a quirky quality than sadistic malevolence and that her way in the world was perfectly sane; that everything in our house was normal – that part was the same. I related especially at the end when Dr. Westover tries to break free, tries to find the kernel of truth, tries to figure out what went wrong. The part where no matter how bizarre and crazy and abnormal and abusive her family is, she stupidly clings to the dream that there can be a different, better, outcome. That there still might be a happily ever after. Hope is inexorable.
I try, I really do try, to maintain some semblance of connection, of relationship, with my mother. If only for her sake since I know it pains her deeply when we are not connected (and because I am terrified that she will actually succeed at killing herself and I will feel guilty forever). I try to be compassionate with her, knowing she is mentally ill. But sometimes I just can’t. Last month when she had Lupus I suggested she find a hobby other than diagnosing herself, interrupting her litany of symptoms and complaints. She got angry with me. She had her husband text me. “She’s not making any of this up Hal. Honest-to-God, she’s sick. Doctors and tests don’t lie.” “No, they don’t”, I said, “when one looks hard enough, one will find something for sure.” He persisted in trying to convince me that she is actually medically really truly honest-to-God, no word of a lie, cross my heart and hope to die, sick. Peppering me with texts to that effect. My final text read, “sounds tough. sorry to hear. sending healing vibes.” and included the blowing-a-kiss emoji.
One may ask why I even care. What do I care if she has shingles or leprosy or hepatitis or the common-fucking-cold? I know this routine all too well. I know that this is but one stop on the crazy train and that the route is cyclical. And I know the next stop. The route rarely diverges. All aboard.
She begins with being sick unto death, racing crazed, practically careening from doctor to doctor to doctor, acquiring an abundance of prescriptions, ointments, salves, tinctures and advice (in addition to diagnoses). These she doles out inexpertly to herself; sometimes a handful, sometimes skipping doses, sometimes mixing and matching. As a result of this cocktail, she takes to bed where she sleeps like the dead for days, arising feeling clear-headed(sic) enough to be angry. It isn’t clear exactly who or what she is angry with. Angry that no one will or can help her. Angry at the futility of medicine to make her feel well. She demands to feel “better”, whatever better is, and is angry and defiant that everyone lacks either the ability or the willingness to make her happy. She is angry that both she and her life are empty. And, she surmises, it must be someone else’s fault. It is everyone else’s stupidity that makes her unhappy. So she lashes out at everyone and everything she encounters: her doctors, her husband, her dogs, her children, the clerk at Target or CVS, the mailman, for not making her happy and for keeping her unhappy. She creates drama, spewing vitriol indiscriminately. Why should anyone else be happy if she is not?! If she makes everyone around her feel bad enough, perhaps then she will feel better herself. Or so I assume her reasoning goes.
Before the internet and texting and email, mother would engage in this behavior of maliciousness, stirring pots all around her and then settle in to watch her handiwork. Having made everyone else miserable, she would then feel more perky it seemed. Or at least distracted from her own misery. And when and if anyone traced their unhappiness back to her, she would simply hit the gaslight button, deny, deny, deny, lie, lie, lie, until she could convince them that they, and not she, were in the wrong. And that they, and not she, were crazy. And that they, and not she, were the actual problem. They completely misunderstood, misinterpreted, miscalculated her words and her motives. She was just an innocent bystander, the real victim of it all. And it worked well enough back then. But now the hastily sent text, email or facebook post is easy enough to obtain. Her own words come back to confront her. When she cannot deny the words on screen, she pleads insanity, falls on her sword, cries hysterically, claiming to have been muddled by incorrect medication, claiming not remember or at least not to have meant whatever hurtful words she mistakenly uttered against her will and without her knowledge. She pleads the fifth. She spends the next days frantically issuing meaningless apologies for everything and anything she has ever done wrong. She is wretched. She is “not a well woman”, she claims. In fact, she is so unwell that she is “probably even dying right at this very moment”, she whispers. The only thing that can dispel her despair… is a diagnosis. And so the cycle begins again.
She is exhausting and draining, the human equivalent of an emotional-meat-grinder. I daresay just reading the above was exhausting. A nod. I know. I shudder to contemplate the cumulative effect her unchecked mental illness has had on me. Parts of my emotional landscape are so eviscerated, so blighted, that nothing will ever grow there. Parts of me are too fragile even for the soft touch of attention. I spend an inordinate amount of time checking and rechecking myself, my actions, my motives, my reality. Like Westover, after years of telling my own truth, oftentimes in the face of baldfaced lies and denial in addition to cruel insults and threats, there is now a gossamer thread of reality, holding out the elusive hope of wholeness, that has the potential to weave together a coherence, an integrity. A wholeness whose scarred and broken tapestry holds out the prospect that perhaps maybe I did not do anything wrong to have deserved this. And that maybe yet I deserved and deserve better. Hope is inexorable.
A short story: I remember listening (on cassette tape) to a Ram Dass lecture. In it he was detailing his homecoming from India the first time after he had met Maharaj Ji (Neem Karoli Baba). Ram Dass recalled the conversation with his railroad tycoon father, who was wearing a crisp three-piece suit and fedora, standing over Ram Dass who was sitting rapturously on the floor wearing only a sheet, and his father saying, “Richard! Come down to reality!” And Ram Dass looking up at his father and saying, “Yeah dad, but whose reality?”