I know that sounds sad, it’s not. The truth is that when my mother died, three years ago, we were basically strangers. Over the previous twenty-two years, we’d had maybe four or five conversations face to face, most of which did not go well. We occasionally exchanged email and snail-mail, which were mostly just arguments.
My mom was mentally ill. She was originally diagnosed as schizophrenic, but that was later changed to bipolar disorder. However, all of the reading I’ve done, and based off of my own experiences with others with these illnesses, and remembering certain behaviors growing up, I’m still inclined to believe that the first diagnosis was the correct one.
Growing up with her was no picnic, but as children, years before she was officially diagnosed, we had no idea that anything was wrong with her. The way she behaved was all we knew, so we thought it was normal, and never gave it a second thought.
It wasn’t until after her second fake suicide attempt that she was finally diagnosed, but only because a judge ordered that she do a stint in the state mental hospital because she was a danger to herself. I say they were fake suicide attempts, because she always arranged things so that someone would find her. People tell me it was a cry for help, but if you knew my mom, you’d know how far she was willing to go to recenter the attention on her, and get people talking to her again that she’d burned bridges with for the umpteenth time.
On the subject of help, I credit my mother’s relentless, fanatical faith for her failure to get proper help until she was well into middle age. She preferred prayer, faith healing, so-called “christian counselors”, and even the occasional attempted home exorcism by friends, over any actual, qualified, legitimate care. Even after her stay at the mental hospital, which lasted several months, she abandoned it all when she came home. The meds, the therapy, all of it, going right back to the old faith-based methods that had failed her over and over again, all of her life.
I have friends, and have had friends, even dated one girl, that was bipolar, and several friends that are schizophrenic. I’ve seen that people with these illnesses can lead relatively normal, happy, productive lives, even though they do struggle and have to work harder at it. With proper care, it can be done.
My mother actively fought proper care, and I recognized this at the age of eighteen. I had a bit of a “coming to” episode while I was in basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky. A drill sergeant knew something wasn’t right based off of some of my behaviors, and the lack of mail coming to me with my last name on it. I was pulled into his office one day, and told to temporarily drop the military formalities that were normally so strict and unforgiving during boot camp, and talk. And boy, did I fucking talk. I had never, in my life, ever discussed the details of my childhood with anyone. I owe a great deal to Drill Sergeant Luscowski. That conversation changed my life.
I left Fort Knox feeling in control of my life for the first time. I knew that I had some difficult changes to make, but I made them, and I stuck to them. I took some time away from my mother. I didn’t speak to her for about a year. Not a peep. This wasn’t a punishment, or a silent treatment, it was just me understanding that my mother clouds things. She was a whirlwind of destruction, and I needed to clear my head to get my life figured out, and decide how to deal with her.
During my first year of college, I finally made contact with my mother. I sent her a letter and laid down some rules. Things like, don’t drag me into your arguments, don’t preach at me, don’t constantly rehash the past (which she loved to do, she couldn’t just move on from anything). Basically, if we were going to talk, let’s talk about our day, let’s talk about how we’re doing, what our plans are. It wasn’t a lot of rules, four or five, and simply laid out.
I told her that if she couldn’t abide by those rules, I could not be a part of her life. I had been walking on egg shells around her my entire life, constantly worried about what might upset her, always trying to calm what ever storm she was at the center of, doing anything and everything to avoid conflict. Again, I grew up with that. So I had no idea that it wasn’t normal. It left me with my own issues, for which I still periodically go see a therapist about, and for which I have had to develop tools and coping mechanisms to deal with.
Her response was what I expected. It was nine pages of bible verses, rebukes, demands that I not dictate to her how things are going to be, and on and on about my disrespect. I wrote her back, and responded with a single line.
“You’re not listening, and I’m not going to play this game with you.”
That was it. I folded it up, stuck it in an envelope and mailed it back to her, and didn’t speak to her again for seven years. This was all in the late 1990’s, right when the internet was beginning to take off, and email had not yet been widely adopted. Letters would come from her, and I wouldn’t even open them. I’d put the unopened letter back into another envelope, and send it back to her. She would try to relay messages through friends, and family, usually my brother. I would usually say nothing in response, and tell them to say nothing.
I had learned from experience that my mother’s illness went in cycles, which completed about every three years. She would be fine, making friends, being social, etc, but then pretty soon she’d get paranoid. She’d over react to something someone said or did, or flat out fabricate a lie about someone having said or did something. The thing was though, that in the instances when nothing actually happened and she flat out made some bullshit up, she actually believed it. It wasn’t quite lying because she was fully convinced that it was real, and no one could change her mind. I watched this in action just through our few exchanges over the years. I would write her a letter or an email, and she would respond and say that I said something that was exactly the opposite of what I had actually said to her, or that I had said something that I had not said at all, and that I could prove by simply referring to our email or to my letter.
She would continue in this manner for months, slowly working friends and family against one another until everyone had their fill and quit talking to her, which she would see as more persecution, and eventually she would have a major break down, beg for forgiveness and for the opportunity to make amends. Then the process would start all over again. About three years was how long this all took.
I could tell where she was in the cycle by the messages that came either through others, or through email.
At around the seven year mark, when the internet was basically what it is today, and she’d tracked me down and blasted me with messages through various electronic means, I finally decided to write her back and just feel things out. It was like no time had passed since that last letter from her. She took the opportunity to send more bible verses, more rebukes, more threats of hell and damnation for my sins against her and against god, tell me how terrible I was to her… on and on.
This time I had a bit of a back and forth with her for a week or so, but ultimately I’d had my fill and told her not to write me anymore. I had to get creative about it this time though. I wrote bits of code into my blog that would tag her browser when she commented on my blog, and then from that point on whenever she’d try to visit my site, my blog would see the cookie and redirect her somewhere else.
I created a black hole in my email account that would immediately delete her email without ever notifying me, so I would never know she sent it. I blocked her on various social media sites, and had to repeatedly ask friends and family NOT to give her my contact information.
For the most part, this succeeded for a few more years, until grandma got cancer. My mother’s adoptive mother came down with breast cancer, but by the time they caught it, it was everywhere, in every organ, every part of her body. There was no avoiding mom throughout this, try as I might. Even grandma and grampa were no longer speaking to her at this point. In true mom form, she was absolutely awful to them and her older brother right up until the day grandma died. It really was terrible to watch.
Then of course, mom told all of her friends and family that she and grandma had had this touching, tearful, mother-daughter re-union before grandma died, which was yet another of mom’s total fabrications. As usual, mom was incapable of distinguishing her lie from the truth, and actually believed that’s how it went down. I know differently, because I was there, through all of it.
It happened again when my Uncle Mike died. Mike was mom’s older brother. I was fortunate enough to rekindle a great friendship with Uncle Mike in the years before he died, and he ended up being a tremendous source of support during my late twenties. Again, same behavior with mom. It was terrible.
Then Grandpa died a few years later, and this whole process repeated. Interaction with mom was unavoidable, so we had a few conversations here and there, only one of which that I can recall actually being amicable. The rest were all accusations of having poisoned him against her, and other such nonsense. She tried to get the sheriff involved but mom had earned herself a reputation with the sheriff’s departments in two counties, and any call from her usually resulted in them calling grampa to see if he was okay.
My cousin Tammy (Uncle Mike’s oldest daughter), myself, and Laure cared for Grampa at home, as he’d opted for in-home hospice care. We fed him until he stopped eating. We bathed him and helped him go to the bathroom. We changed his catheter bag. We sat and talked to him when he would wake up angry to still be alive. We played his favorite records for him, and helped him finish his puzzles. Grampa died in his sleep, as I held is left hand and Tammy held his right. He was 90 years old.
My mother was absolutely awful throughout the whole ordeal. It really was terrible, and we all felt terrible for Grampa, having to see his daughter behave like that in his final days.
I didn’t speak to her again until just before she died.
Mom died on May 18th, 2015, of pancreatic cancer. At her request, I did drive up to visit her one last time, just a few days before she died. Oddly enough, the visit went fine. We just sat on her porch and talked about what I was up to, plans she’d made for after she died, we talked about my kids and about Laure. It was calm, yet a little awkward because we were both actively avoiding certain subjects.
As I got in my car to leave, her christian counselor approached me in the drive way. I forget her name, mostly because I couldn’t take her seriously enough to bother committing it to memory.
“You need to forgive her, and you need to explain to her why you quit talking to her.” She said to me, both hands on the door of my van, and looking at me with this look of sorrow that seemed to be for me.
I put my hands on the wheel, and stared at her through my sunglasses for a moment.
“She has you completely fooled.” I said to her. “You’ve bought into her bullshit, hook, line and sinker… haven’t you.”
She stepped back, her facial expression having completely changed to one of shock.
“I’ve told her, in writing, on the phone, and in person, why I left.” I continued. “She knows why, she just chooses not to accept it. And I forgave her twenty years ago, but forgiving her doesn’t mean giving her license to trample through my life, and the lives of my family, with her bullshit.”
This woman still said nothing. She just stood there with her mouth open, turning her head a few times as though trying to form a response.
“And you’re a fucking fraud, who’s done untold amounts of damage to who knows how many sick people. You should be in prison.” I said, before starting the van and driving away.
I’ve been a bit sullen off and on lately, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my childhood and listening to a lot of the music I loved as a kid, growing up in the 80’s. It occurred to me a few days ago that we’re creeping up on the anniversary of mom’s death, and I surmised that that is why I’ve been feeling this way.
It feels good to articulate it all.