My mother is soon to be fifty-seven years old. For the last twenty-five years, since my parents divorced, she has experienced episodes where physical symptoms cannot be explained despite numerous tests and diagnostic tools. She is at a point now, in light of her binge eating disorder, obesity, and subsequent diabetes, that she truly has physical conditions that make her physically ill. Yesterday she was discharged from the hospital after two days in ICU for pneumonia, only to return to the ER within an hour with difficulty breathing. Her O2 stats were dangerously low, but with a nasal cannula and constant oxygen, she was able to talk excessively, ate an entire tray of food, and offer suggestions on my appearance as she has all my life. Her blood pressure was well within the healthy range, and she was tracking appropriately. Quite frankly if not for the fact that we sat in the ER once again, you could not have convinced me she was ill.
A brief history--my mother recently acknowledged she was sexually abused (denies anything but fondling, not that that is somehow less horrible), was burned severely and in the burn unit on two occasions, and lived with an emotionally abusive, unavailable mother while her father, who she adored, was on a ship in the US Navy for several years. She went through a divorce when I was ten that resulted in significant emotional and financial trauma, relocating us 1200 miles away from my father because she could not watch him go on with life with another woman. Within a year's time, in 2010, her father died and after missing an inordinate amount of work because of her elderly parents as well as her own health she was fired from her job for a minor infraction, indicating her employer was looking for an opportunity to let her go for some time. She is and always has been consumed with fear that the people of our small town would judge her, preferring to save face above all else. This preference has led to her going deeper and deeper into debt, not paying bills so she could give extravagant gifts meant to infer a certain image.
Food has been my mother's drug of choice for many, many years--all of my life at least--but over the years as a result of countless hospital admissions and consultations with physicians she has been prescribed opiates and sedatives that I believe she has also grown dependent upon. She first took antidepressants in high school when she would cry all the time and her mother could not get her to stop. She has been on them as long as she has been divorced at least, expecting them to fix everything and never being willing to endure counseling to process what has left her overwhelmed. She adamantly denies abusing any substances, and has blamed her obesity on having children and that causing her metabolism to change. This is in spite of my brother and me finding her cooking bacon in the middle of the night, finding empty boxes of Twinkies in her nightstand, and discovering empty cans of frosting when no cake has been baked for as long as we can remember.
After her father's death her mother was left to be cared for. She is actually more functional and healthier at eighty-seven years old than my mother is, but her mind is failing slowly, and they do have that tumultuous history. My grandmother is not a very affectionate, loving, affirming person but I will say she has treated my mother the same way all of her life. Sadly, my mother sits waiting for that to change, seeking her approval every chance she gets while raging at her silently for being so "mean" to her. The responsibility of her mother, coupled with the shame and shock of being fired from her job in our small town, combined with all of the other things she has been carrying for so long has really taken its toll on my mother emotionally and physically.
She used to blame her job and hating it despite needing it for not cleaning her house, taking care of herself, sleeping all the time, etc. The job is gone, and she qualified with ease for disability based on her diabetes, obesity, pustular psoriasis, fibromyalgia, lazy heart muscle, hypertension, neuropathy, and who knows what else that was in her medical file. That qualification occurred after my grandfather died, and after she was fired, when she went in for a bowel obstruction and ended up spending four weeks on a ventilator because she grew dependent upon it. She walks with a walker very often, rarely grooms herself aside from bathing (she used to never leave the house without makeup and hair, when she was actively working to save face), and now believes after yesterday's diagnosis of COPD that she will need oxygen 24/7. She was, up until April 2011, picking my sons up from school every day and spending several hours with them as they did homework. It seemed to give her a sense of purpose and belonging; they adored having her here. But when she consistently crossed the line and worked to be their mother instead of their grandmother, and when she "overslept" and did not get them picked up on time, we suggested she take a break and let them ride the bus. This, too, was seen as being fired just as she had before, and the depression increased.
All of my life I remember my mother having crying fits, childlike, dramatic, unable to catch her breath fits where she sometimes would fall to the floor and lie there, crying and screaming with her eyes closed tightly. Once she stood in the shower and pounded the walls in anger and frustration b/c we did not want to do what she wanted to do (a craft show when we were 15 and 10 years old). Histrionic behavior without a doubt, after I began working as a counselor I began to realize this was not simply my mother being emotionally, but very likely mental illness of some kind. We have asked her for at least ten years to seek counseling--for her sake and ours--and she has adamantly refused. She is exceptionally invested in this being physical alone; there has simply been no way she would consider this being related to emotions. Beyond that, the thought that her emotional overeating causing all of the physical ailments she has been diagnosed with and therefore secondary to emotional problems is something she seems to fear being true and denies with a vengeance. All of my life she has been fearful of being labeled "crazy."
The sad truth is that while most or all of this began as emotional problems she likely converted, with countless admissions and no actual diagnoses, she now has legitimate, irreversible physical conditions that are exacerbated by her emotional state and unwillingness to practice self-care of any kind. She is getting worse emotionally and physically, and while I can honestly say I grieve the mother I used to have--the one who could organize a party on a moment's notice, is very aware of my likes and would shop accordingly, worked to make us feel special despite her mother's unwillingness to ever do so, and spoiled me rotten when I was dependent upon her but not after I got independent and grew up--I remain angry. I do have empathy, more so for her emotional ailments. She does not see choices like counseling or treatment as a way to feel better emotionally. She is so shame-based she assumes counselors sit in judgment of their patients and is terrified she would be labeled crazy. She has resigned herself to being weakened by sickness, dependent, and unwilling to practice self-care. She was going to a foot care clinic and stopped because they wanted her to come three times a week and she just was not up to it. This was to help her with regard to her neuropathy, mind you. She is also emotionally manipulative, as she has been all my life, crying and attempting to elicit sympathy as we watch her suffer the consequences of her unwillingness to take care of herself, heed the warnings of countless doctors, etc. She lives in slovenly conditions, refusing to acknowledge that we are not willing to take on her care.
I miss the mom who would help me organize birthday parties, or who took a cake decorating class so that none of my cakes as a child were purchased from a store. I miss the mom who sat up all night making pew markers for my wedding. I miss the woman who organized classy, successful, fun Chamber of Commerce banquets that left people walking away in awe despite it being a town of less than five thousand. And I miss the mom who taught me to be strong, independent, and outspoken. She never counted on me being outspoken to her, though, and sees me as mean and hateful when I am honest about what I see her doing to herself. Now, the physical conditions are there, and complicate everything. It is insulting for the woman who reminded me through high school, college, and two master's degrees of how high my IQ is and how smart I am to sit in various hospital beds, as she chats away as if she is holding court, attempting to convince me that her sickness is real. It is real, as are the physical conditions now, but it is not what she insists. It is not that she is plagued will illness, but rather that her unwillingness to fight to be active and practice self-care and seek counseling as created or perpetuated them. I make my living utilizing evidence-based practices, experience, and instincts to help others fight what she has run from all of her life and mine. I am seen as the enemy. When I got my first master's, in Addiction Counseling, she said, "What, what does this mean exactly?" She feigned confusion and a lack of awareness, asking if it would help me make more money. My GPA was 4.0, and even that was not acknowledged. I do not need her approval, but I also do not enjoy her coy reaction; she would have much preferred that I get a degree in something like education because that would not be a threat to her. Nonetheless, this is the reality. She sees things I do that are opposite of her way as a direct reflection of my opinion of her. I am not free to be me in spite of her greatness, and there has been so much. If I do not comply, do it her way, etc., it is an attack on her.
The counselor in me knows she is sick, and that she is so enveloped in inferiority, shame, and fear of rejection that honesty expressions and different choices are nothing but confirmation that I do not want to be her. In all honesty, there are things about her I never, ever want to be. And there are things about her that I admire, embrace, and strive to incorporate into my daily life, parenting, work ethic, and belief system. She sees our differences as hurtful, but never realizes the things we have in common as a means of honoring what she taught me. I am not stupid, or lacking in insight. Her sickness is not a reflection of me or an indication that she needs anything from me but love, but I am also aware enough to refuse enabling her or pretending that I do not recognize the truth even if she does not. She sees no other choice but to seek her mother's approval, even as she hates her. In her world a good daughter never tells her mother "no"; I will never be a good daughter in her mind. In my mind part of being a good mother is allowing our children freedom to be who they are, and help them recognize consequences of their actions even as I recognize at some point they are going to do and say what they want in spite of our guidance. What do I do? Counseling is a no-brainer and quite a challenge in light of what I do every day. And support groups are an option. I feel as if my mother is attempting to avoid taking care of the mother she hates (her brother is in another state and not there very often to assist) while orchestrating a scenario where I will take care of her (my brother is an hour away and always unable to contribute to her care, support, etc.) I am enraged at the emotional blackmail and manipulation, and at the same time empathetic to the fact that if she was my patient I would be faced with working to help her understand she can empower herself, make different choices, and rid herself of the emotional things that haunt her. I believe she has Borderline Personality Disorder, and I believe her depression is something she continues to be the victim of. And I know without a doubt that displaying physical symptoms, even incontinence, is preferable to expressing emotional struggles like fear, shame, anger, and other things. The distrust she lacks across the board--her childhood best friends, brother, children, and medical professionals are not ever fully aware of what she feels, thinks, worries about, etc.--indicates she lives a very lonely, isolated life where she also resents everyone who does not understand her. She will not help us understand, but remains saddened and angry because we do not comprehend what she battles in her own mind and now her body.
I sometimes cannot stand to watch her struggle...literally I cannot stay in the room and watch the physical deterioration and limitations. I have not reached acceptance about it--I know she created much of her physical condition with her unwillingness and overwhelming fear of disclosing who she really is. That makes me sad for her, and furious. The truth is she is really physically sick now because of being emotionally frozen for so long. Regardless of what caused it, her unwillingness to do anything but be resigned to her physical health is truth--it is reality. I grieve who she was, who I thought she was, who she will never be, and the unavoidable reality that she will not be long for this world at this rate. Whether she forgets she has already taken her sleeping pill, anti-anxiety medication, antidepressant, and pain pills and takes too many and dies, or lapses into a coma because of her binge-eating, or finally does see her heart give out because of the strain her weight, health, and emotional distress put on it, some day it will not be a case of her "...crying wolf..." yet again.
My mom has sought to avoid every acknowledging how she really feels about her mother. She sought to keep her from ever knowing how much she hates her, she claims because she never wanted her to be hurt. The truth is my grandmother may well respect her more if she stands up to her and tells her exactly how things are, because she seems to have no respect for what she sees as her weaknesses and tendency to be over-emotional. That said my grandmother also tends to shut out anyone who she does not like, distrusts, or has been hurt by; my mother may well live with the fear that if she was honest she would be shut out completely and permanently. And she despises that I refuse to pretend all is well. She relies on people who live with the elephant in the living room and never acknowledge it. My refusal to do so is likely one of her worst nightmares. I rely currently on friends and colleagues who can relate, and who will confront my errors in thinking while empowering me. I recognize with ease that I am not at a point of acceptance, and I am the one who suffers from that the most. I am not at a point where I will willingly focus on the physical things that are now real despite their origin. I am angry with her, and that is probably because of fear and sadness. I am disgusted by her as she is now, especially because being obese, unkempt, and manipulative are things she absolutely refused to let me be growing up. She hates herself, and has always wanted me to be better than she sees herself, but rages and grieves because I do not want to be her. I remain angry with her for creating body image issues long before there was a need for them, when I was thin and firm and young and cute, and I hate her for creating this fear of being selfish, disappointing people, or being rejected if I did not comply. I hate her for giving up on life and herself and expecting me at this age as I raise children and work and go to school to make her care my priority. I hate her for never admitting she was/is wrong, not once ever in my life. I hate her for creating a dependence on her and belief that she was the only one I could trust to be honest with her that only in my mid-twenties did I realize was unnecessary and inaccurate. . And I hate her for ignoring my brother’s insensitivity, self-absorbed approach to life, and continuous absence despite having endured the same things from her own brother for the last twenty-five years as my grandmother has essentially worshiped my uncle, refusing to see his faults or short-comings as my mother worked as hard as possible to keep her mother content. I love her for teaching me to be giving, and creative, and willing to work as hard as possible to get the desire results at work, or in my parenting, or in my home. I love her for teaching me to pay attention to people and know them so that gifts and sentiments are personalized and meaningful. And I love her for teaching me that I am smart and can do anything I want to do in life. I live in a vicious cycle to say the least...
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