I’ve been promising to write about my mother for as long as I’ve been writing this blog—which is almost two years now. I never do it, though, mostly because it’s such a monumental undertaking. How do I describe the damage caused by the person who was, for most of formative years, the most influential person in my life? How can I keep this blog-length, while capturing the depth of my frustration at the fact that I can’t fully escape her? How can I show how hurt and angry I am that she emotionally abandoned me for her mental illness? And what does it say about me that I’m estranged from my father, and wish I could reach the same distance from my mother?
But I’ve been thinking about this all day, so I’m going to at least give it a start:
My mom is nuts. Maybe not to the casual observer, definitely not on first acquaintance. But she’s crazy. Definitely bipolar. With an edge of paranoid schizophrenia. She’s functional—sort of. A few years ago she found another man sucker enough to marry her and take care of her so she could retire. And you can bet that she hides most of her crazy from him (she can be very practical that way). A few years ago she told me that she never told him that she channels, or anything about that side of her. And all I could think was why the hell she couldn’t do the same thing for me?
I’m doing a shit job of describing this. Here’s the thing. My dad left when I was four. And my stepdad, who came along when I was seven and stuck for 11 years, was such a non-entity in my life that I never even think about him. As parents went, it was all my mom.
And she was the BEST. Or at least that’s what I thought most of the time. We were so close, like two peas in a pod. She cultivated me to think I was just like her, and I thrived on her love and attention. (What this all did to my big sister, “F,” who was classified by my mom as more like my dad, is another horrifying story. I try not to feel guilty—I was younger and didn’t know—but it still bothers me sometimes.)
I always knew that mom was kind of nutty, but I always figured her as eccentric, kooky, a bit of a free spirit. Because that’s the way she described herself, and I was just a kid, so what was I going to believe? And then she went over the edge. Maybe it was the move to Pakistan that did it. That’s right—my mom and stepdad’s bright idea was to move to Pakistan my senior year of high school to teach at an American school there. (The reason? To escape a judgment of back child support against my stepdad. Lovely, no?) Me and my much younger little brother (child of my stepdad) went with them. I was young, eager for adventure, and such a flaming liberal that I had some great vision of going and learning from this unique culture, blah, blah, blah. And I thought for sure I could get into any college if I was applying from there.
I lasted all of three weeks in Pakistan before I bailed out and my mom agreed to let me go back home to Utah to finish out high school. Three days later I was halfway around the world with $500 in my pocket to buy a car, no definite place to live (they just figured I could live with a friend), no one knowing I was coming.
Does this sound normal to you? Because at the time I didn’t know how fucked up that was.
I think going to Pakistan pushed mom over the edge. Actually, I think she was well on her way there before then—she’d been like a zombie the whole summer before. But she went truly nuts there, determined that the cook was trying to poison her, performing “water rituals” (don’t even ask—it’s just stupid and embarrassing), and channeling her spirit guide, who just happened to be Jesus Christ. Not that she was any kind of born-again Christian or anything. She was just putting herself in a trance and hearing voices. (Later—and for a long time—John Denver joined the mix.)
All of this came to a head the next year—my freshman year of college. First the Gulf War broke out and they sent everyone home from Pakistan. And no sooner did they return a couple of months later but my mom went on a full-fledged manic episode. I think she got hospitalized there, but I don’t really know, because all I ever heard was her side of the story, which (again in retrospect) is hard to believe.
But when they brought her home in March of my freshman year, I did believe. I believed everything she told me. I believed that she had found this new, new-agey religion. I believed that her trances were a way to heal her from the abuse she had suffered as a child (now I don’t even know if that abuse happened). I believed that she was fine, not crazy at all. And when my stepdad and aunt tried to put mom in the hospital I stood up to them and prevented it from happening. And when, a few months later, she was found up roaming the streets of DC without her purse or coat and ended up hospitalized (I later learned she had gone to DC in search of John Denver, who was talking to her telepathically to try to meet her, but was thwarted by these other, devil voices that were mixing up his messages), I talked her doctor into releasing her if I took her home to Utah for outpatient treatment, and I flew down to DC from NY, and flew her back to Utah. I was nineteen.
Fast forward several years—years with her ups and downs, years in which she attempted suicide a couple of times (which she would promptly tell me about), years when she quit jobs she had just started because her boss was “out to get her,” years when she tossed her oldest and closest friends aside. For most of this I stood by her. My sister F bailed out early—back when mom first came home from Pakistan—but I defended her.
I don’t think my mom ever forgave me for growing up. I think she liked it when I was young and looked up to her and was “just like” her. I think, as much as she “wept” when I told her I was being treated for depression in my mid-20s, that it made her love me that much more, because it made me more hers. It was the things about me that were adult, competent, controlled that she didn’t like. She wanted to teach me to channel, so I could talk to my own spirit guide, and she wanted to hypnotize me; she was disappointed when I was unwilling. And she hated the fact that I wanted some emotional boundaries between us; I remember her telling me that I was being “cold,” just like F. (My sister, by the way, is perhaps the best thing in my life besides my husband; she’s not cold, she’s just grown up.) Mom wanted me to be a “free spirit,” and she never could accept the side of me that I’ve grown to like the best—the organized, practical, driven, self-sufficient side. She was ridiculously proud of me for being a lawyer, but I don’t think she ever got why I’m good at it.
I know this post is long on generalities, but lacking in anything concrete. But there’s no time, no space, to get into all of that. I can tell you that about 10 years ago I had an epiphany. By that time mom was a problem, and I knew she was a bit of a mess, but I was still in her camp, ready to talk to her when she was depressed, and willing to see her when she wanted. So I agreed to go with her and her best friend on a trip to the Outer Banks. The trip was a fucking disaster. Mom wanted to listen to Air Supply in the car so we could sing to it just like when I was a teenager, but she’d picked up some Air Supply CD I’d never heard (who knew Air Supply kept writing after the 80s?), and then she was mad at me when I wouldn’t sing. We were driving through North Carolina when she realized that she had the directions, lost the name of the hotel, even lost the name of the town we were going to. And at some point, when we were leaving a hotel, she drove over her own suitcase. She was in bad, bad shape. And when we got to the hotel, I learned that she had downgraded the 3-bedroom bungalow she told me about and had rented one hotel room for the three of us. (This when I was going to bed at midnight and they were going to bed at 9 or 10.) The room only had a microwave, but mom and her friend planned to “cook” all their meals in their hotel room (all three of us were really broke at the time—I’d been counting on a kitchen). And mom was pissed off that I ended up eating most of my meals at the restaurant—she said I was acting like I was too good for them. Really I was just hungry. I was 28 years old, and mom clearly wanted me to be 8 years old again.
It was during that trip that I realized that my mom wasn’t just mentally ill—she was toxic. I realized that it had never been about me. Even when she was doting-all-over-me full of love, it was still all about her. And I realized that she had no idea who I had become as an adult. And when she was lucid enough to see the adult in me, she didn’t like it. (When I told all this to F on my return, she said with a wry smile, “I don’t mean to be flip, but welcome to my life.” It was an epiphany for me.)
Fast-forward again, several more years. Years of me trying to distance myself from mom, years involving some horrifying letters from her vilifying me, telling me that she had never leaned on me, telling me that she had only pretended to need me to satisfy my co-dependent need for self-congratulation. And then one evening after she had decided to move here to DC to be close to us, when we tried to tell her she wouldn’t do so well here, an unbelievable knock-down, drag-out fight in my sister’s house that I can barely remember. The “conversation” lasted 2 hours, and I can’t remember the things she said. All I can remember is that they’re the kinds of things a parent should never, ever say to her child, under any circumstances. (My MIL says maybe it’s a good thing that I can’t remember, but I wish I could. Because sometimes I feel like I’m making this all up, like I’m just a bad daughter. Knowing exactly what mom has said and done would help.)
And after that, after mom had found her new husband and moved with him and his money back to Utah, I had some peace. My sister—who had produced her first and only grandchild—was suddenly the favorite. Which was just fine with me. I would still hear mom’s voice in my head sometimes, and I would still have her stay with me for a night or two when she came to visit. (Visits that were preceded by panic attacks and survived through liberal doses of xanax.)
And then, when my nephew was three and I had been trying to conceive for almost a year, my sister had a miscarriage. F had been four months pregnant, so her loss was pretty public. And devastating. I know mom was upset, but she still managed to make it all about her, not about my grieving sister. Mom told her own sisters (who she’s been competing with her whole life), and her sisters sent F flowers, and then mom spent two days calling to make sure the flowers got there. And then, two weeks after F lost her baby, mom sent her a vicious e-mail chiding her for not sending a thank you note for the flowers. Seriously. I’m not making this up.
A week after my sister’s miscarriage I learned I was pregnant for the first time. Two weeks later I miscarried. Not telling mom was a no-brainer.
That fall, mom came out for her annual visit. She spent the week babysitting my nephew at F’s house, and working on her new book on F’s computer. (Mom fancies herself a novelist. She actually has some talent, but she tries to write these deep, philosophical books—this one was sci-fi I think—that are full of numerology and bits and pieces of trendy philosophy and religion and are basically unreadable.) That Friday, J and I were going to F’s house for dinner, and we were taking mom home with us for the weekend before she flew back home.
I had been in the house less than a minute—J had gone back into the kitchen to help my sister cook, leaving me alone with mom—when she dropped the bomb:
“I was working on my book on F’s computer,” she said, “and I was trying to save and I accidentally clicked on something and this document just popped right open.”
I knew this couldn’t be going anywhere good. My heart started to race.
She went on: “I started to read it and I realized that it was some sort of diary. F had written all about her feelings about her miscarriage.”
I started to feel sick, tried not to hyperventilate.
“And that’s how I learned about YOUR miscarriage,” she said. “Oh honey, you must have been devastated.”
I don’t remember what I said next. Something inane, something about how it was okay, really, I was glad she knew. Which was a total fucking lie, but she’d caught me flatfooted.
As mom kept on talking about F’s diary, and I realized two things. One: mom hadn’t just glanced at this document and closed it when she realized what it was. She had pored over it closely, probably several times. And two: mom’s issue with the diary wasn’t about F’s heartbreak over her loss, or about my loss. It was about what F had written about mom.
You see, F had written some unkind things about mom. (Astonishing, no?) And mom was upset about that. I remember at some point she said “I know, people who eavesdrop should never expect to hear nice things,” and I was shouting in my head that this wasn’t like eavesdropping because F had never SAID that stuff to ANYONE. It was in her PRIVATE diary.
The rest of the weekend was a blur. I know that I told mom in no uncertain terms that she should never, ever, in her entire life, let F know that she had read her diary, and that I would carry the secret to the grave. (This meant that I was going to have to tell F that I had decided to tell mom about my own miscarriage, because I knew it would come up at some point—I think this was the worst violation, having to tell my sister that I had chosen to reveal a secret that had been ripped out of me.) I know that mom at one point—when she realized I was mad—asked me in a plaintive voice “well, after it just popped open, what was I supposed to do?” and I manage to say through gritted teeth: “CLOSE IT”.
Oh, and I remember a conversation in the car on the way back from F’s house, when mom glibly told me that my infertility must come from my father’s side of the family. Even that part of me was something she couldn’t own.
Later that week, mom wrote F a 12-page, single-spaced letter telling her she had read her diary. I don’t know what the letter said, exactly, but F told me that the only reason she read the whole thing was to see if there was an apology anywhere in it. There wasn’t. It was all about the nasty things F had said—in her own diary—about mom. It was bitter and brutal.
F and I came to an agreement that day. No more secrets, for any reason. Not even to protect each other. We are a united front. Forever.
About a month later, mom sent us both a letter. It said that she wasn’t going to visit us anymore, because she was “no good” for us anymore. There was a lot more crap in there, like how she grieved over us as if we had died, and how our father had never loved us (something she’s been telling me since I was a little kid), and god only knows what else. I read it quickly and set it aside. As far as I was concerned, the only thing that mattered was that she wasn’t going to visit anymore. And thank god for that.
But then, a few months later, she started wheedling her way back into my life. I guess I’m the favorite again, right? Every few months I would call her, or would pick up when she called me (mostly I just screen), and we’d chat about mundane stuff. I talked to her just enough to keep her from realizing I was avoiding her. I didn’t want things to fester and get ugly again. Sometimes she would write to me, letters filled with code and innuendo about how F was like my father (code for cold, unfeeling, pretentious), or how she wanted to come visit me, but she couldn’t see F because she had to “protect her from being two people”—one who is nice to mom’s face and one who writes bad things behind her back. And in these same letters she would fawn all over me, like a lovesick teenager. I think her love for me is creepier and more offensive that her hatred of my sister. Neither is deserved or based on anything real. Mom has no idea who I am. And the parts of me that are really ME she doesn’t like.
For the past five or six years, all I have wanted to do was tell her to go fuck herself, now and forever. My MIL would say “it’s not her, it’s that she’s mentally ill.” But I say fuck that. Mental illness doesn’t excuse a person from hurting your children the way she’s hurt us. And if she really wanted to be better she’d see a decent doctor and stay on her medication.
And frankly I don’t care what’s causing her to be the way she is. She’s a snake. She’ll spend years wiggling into your most sensitive parts, then strike out at you when she doesn’t get her way, or when she’s bored, or when it’s winter and she’s depressed. Who cares why? All I care about is protecting myself and the people I love.
But you can’t just write off a bi-polar family member. I haven’t had a real fight with her since that two-hour debacle in my sister’s house 7 years ago. I learned then that it isn’t worth it. She doesn’t hear what I’m saying; all getting angry does is escalate the problem. If I tried to tell her that we’re through, she might go away for a while, but sooner or later she’d be back. Maybe on the phone, maybe in letters, maybe on my doorstep. Maybe on my doorstep with her wrists slit open just enough to make me think she meant it.
So until I’m ready to get a restraining order and make her a ward of the state if necessary, she remains my mom. (And I do consider that a possibility in the long run. But I’m not there yet.) I try to keep up as many barriers between us as possible. Enough to protect me and my family, but not quite enough for her to notice. My goal with her is not to achieve love, or reconciliation. My goal is to achieve total ambivalence, to the point where nothing she says or does can hurt me. (A lot of this is about privacy. For example, she knows nothing about my later IF treatment, nothing about my surgery, nothing about my other miscarriages.)
I did tell her, about two years ago when she was threatening to visit again, that J and I were undergoing “advanced fertility treatment” and that we were not having any visitors until it was over, which could take more than a year. It was a calculated risk—I decided to give up some of my privacy to keep her away. And it worked.
And then I got pregnant. Can I tell you how badly I wanted not to tell her about this? Most people are scared to tell their boss, their co-workers, maybe an IF friend. I was terrified about telling my mother. And not because I was afraid she’d be cold or cruel. But because I knew she’d be thrilled, ecstatic. Especially about the twins. I knew she’d be over the moon. Finally something to lord over her sisters, who have only managed to eke out one grandchild so far. And I knew that, just like snapping my fingers, she’d be back in my life as if nothing had ever happened.
I wasn’t wrong. When I called her and told her she was practically speechless with shock. (Which led me to wonder—was the reason I had managed to escape her so almost completely because she had given up on me giving her a grandchild? Had she lost interest in me?) And then two days later I got a letter full of excited gibbering, talking about how she kept bursting out in song and how every time she thought about twins she started giggling. She talked about “twinspeak” and shit like that. I had made it clear on the phone that she could visit during the summer, not when the babies came in the spring, and that she could not stay in our house. “No room,” I said, which is true (but we will squeeze in our friends who are coming to help soon after the babies come). In her letter, she talked about how she was going to try to find a hotel close by so she could walk there early in the mornings so she could be with me for nighttime help. (This is SO not going to happen. By the time she comes I’ll be handling the nighttime on my own. And I don’t think having her there to help will make me sleep any better. And I assure you, that woman will never be alone with my kids.)
It’s been like that ever since. She’s tried to call every two weeks. (Which also is not happening. I’ll talk to her once a month, maybe. No more than that.) And when we do talk, she tells me that every time she sees a baby or a toddler now she pictures another one next to it. That she’s “always wanted [me] to have twins.” (Why? Why me? What does that mean?) That she loves to picture the twins in their high chairs next to each other banging away, talking twinspeak to each other.
I knew that if I got pregnant she would be back in my life. And I knew that the twin thing was going to make her feel extra-special. But this is distressing and revolting at the same time. I feel like, before my babies are even born, they already are not people. They already are in that special category—twins. Special by virtue of their birth, not because of who they are or will be. For me, they’re just two babies that I happen to be having at the same time. And they’ll grow up to be siblings that happen to be the same age. And yeah, I do hope that they like each other and are close, but I’m not counting on it. But for mom the twin thing makes me, or maybe just my children, celebrities in our family, worthy of adulation. It’s creepy.
I realized several years ago that, until she dies (and believe me, that woman is healthy as a horse), mom is going to be in our lives. Sometimes she’ll adore me, sometimes she’ll hate me, and I honestly don’t know which is worse. (F says being hated is worse. And she’s been on that side a lot more than I have.) But my mother will never actually know me. And she’ll never actually know my children (she’s completely thrown my now-7-year-old nephew away).
And as the years go by she’ll keep getting crazier, and she’ll keep coming back to take it out on me and my sister. (For some reason my little brother gets a free pass. I think it’s because he’s a boy.) All I can do is try to maintain my barriers, my distance. And pray for ambivalence.