Saturday, July 14, 2007

Killing Me Softly

There's been a lot of rainbows and butterflies on this blog lately, and rightly so, my life is enviable and I am very grateful for what I have.

Having said that, nothing else in my world is as big a killjoy as my mother. Like the anti-Mary Tyler Moore, she can take a wonderful day and suddenly make it all seem worthless. She is truly the definiton of toxic. With all due respect to Brit, I doubt she has any idea of the impact such a person can have in a life.

After alternating between trying to have some sort of actual adult relationship with her, to completely being out of contact (both of which have their pitfalls), she and I have settled into a superficial truce of 3 phone calls and 3 cards a year, all of which are interchangeable. She called me last week, violating this fragile agreement and putting into motion the depression that is soaking into my psyche, like a sponge in a mud puddle.

She would never call just to chat, and we had just talked a couple of weeks ago, (Donna's Birthday Call, #2 of the year), so I was surprised to hear her voice on the other end and was immediately on the defensive. "What's up?", I asked immediately after we exchanged greetings.
[Everytime I talk to her I have a parallel conversation with myself; its often the only way I can make it through without laughing, crying or hanging up. I've included these thoughts in blue.]

Suddenly it sounded like she was on the verge of tears. My mother does not do crying.

[Acting! It's called acting! She's such a thespian.]

"Well, I'm sorry to call you with bad news."

[Who died?]

"Remember when I got so sick two years ago? I thought I had the flu and couldn't get out of bed for two months, and nothing Dr. H did helped?"

[I'll have to look it up in my catalogue of Mom's Illnesses, I think that's in Book XXVII.]

"Well, after waiting for months to get some diagnostic tests done, I just got the results. It turns out I had a heart attack and didn't know it. Dr. H said the damage looks to be about two years old, so that's why I had chest pains. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, I didn't tell you when I talked to you last month because I didn't want to ruin your birthday or your anniversary."

[Like this news would have devastated me to the point where I would have cancelled my plans?]

At this point she stops for effect and sniffles a bit, clearing her throat. "I'm sorry to hear that," I say, at a total loss for words.

"I wanted to let you know so if you heard anything from anyone about my "condition" in the future you would know what they were talking about."

[The only person who talks to you that talks to me is my sister, and yes, I heard those air quotation marks. So now that you know you've had a heart attack -- not that I really believe anything you're telling me--it's safe to say that at any moment you're going to keel over dead and that will be the reason?]

"I also wanted to tell you because you and your sister are in your 40s now [no shit, Sherlock] and you both should be watching your blood sugar [lest we forget your beloved borderline diabetes diagnosis from last year] and your cholesterol."

"I'm fine, Mom, I have a physical every year and those things are checked."

[But thanks for the heads up, its always nice to have a list of things when choosing how one is going to die.]

"So now I have to be on blood thinners. I guess those baby aspirin weren't doing enough."

[Damn those Germans who make aspirin!]

"The prescription I got isn't on the list for my insurance, and I can't afford $120 a month for this medicine on my pension."

[If you think I'm going to send you money, you got another thing comin'. You sucked out 80% of Dad's pension in the divorce.]

"He gave me some samples but I am fighting with the pharmacy to get it added. People think in Canada you get anything you ask for and everything is free, well it isn't really like that."

[Yeah, I know, I lived there for 24 years, remember?]

Again at a loss for words, I say, "Well, I hope you get that sorted out."

Switching gears a little, she says, "How's D's Mom doing?" This is her not-so-subtle way of bringing someone else into the conversation that she can use as a mirror.

"She's doing fine, she has her episodes but always seems to pull through."

Big sigh. "Well, I guess she's just like me...things start to wear out."

At this point I can't suppress my real voice and say, "Mom, she's 86 years old, you're 74."

"I know, I know," she says, with a hint of aggravation in her voice, "I just hope you girls don't have to go through what I have."

I honestly don't recall what she said for the next few minutes, I stopped paying attention, I think I actually started typing a response to an email. When she stopped talking I let the air be dead for a second, then she started in on the coda of every conversation:

"Well, like I said...[insert verbatim of earlier conversation here]...and I'm sorry to give you bad news."

I've yet to figure out what the bad news is here. I suppose it is a bit scary (to normal people) to find out that you had a heart attack and didn't know it, but she is fine now, albeit with some damage to her heart.

This turned out to be one of our better phone calls. I don't think she mentioned my late brother (The Golden Boy) once, unless it was when I wasn't paying attention, and she even refrained from bashing any family members. While my calls to my Dad always end in an exchange of I love yous, my calls with Mom end in a duet of Take cares, it's the best we can do.

I told D about the call that evening when he got home. He was also puzzled as to what the bad news was. I told him, she depresses and exhausts me. I don't think my feelings now have anything to do with the news of the call at all -- it was just her unexpected intrusion into my day that set off this wave.

The most disconcerting thing about all of this is, like Diana in A Chorus Line, I felt nothing. No compassion, no empathy. I have (successfully?) removed her from my heart to the point where I just don't care about her.

I know she is toxic. I know she doesn't really care about me or my health, she is the center of her universe and, like a deranged planet, her mission is to use her gravity to pull in as many smaller bodies as possible, to increase her power. She can't quite grasp (or doesn't notice) that I've left her sphere of influence and have changed my composition to deflect her efforts.

I recently finished reading Halfway House by Katherine Noel, a novel about a family with a daughter who is bi-polar. I've mentioned before that my sister is bi-polar, and has been on lithium for many years. I suffer from both depression and anxiety, but not in the extreme highs and lows that are the hallmark of the disease. A passage from Halfway House described exactly how I feel sometimes:

She could be knocked off balance at any moment. It could be something obvious, like Angie crying, or it could be something more oblique, like a girl begging change downtown. Worst of all, feeling glad at even the smallest thing -- an unexpectedly beautiful day, the taste of sharp cheddar -- would immediately remind her that she was sad. It was as though, between happiness and unhappiness, she'd discovered a trapdoor she'd never known was there, one she couldn't close.

I think of it more of a wormhole than a trapdoor, same premise though...happiness can slap me in the face and remind me of how unhappy I am. It's hard to explain to normal people.

I grieve for the loss of the mother I never had, which seems like an exercise in futility. I like to think that she has no power over me, but the way I feel today says otherwise. Maybe every time I go through this grieving process it will get a little bit better. I can only hope.


  1. I really am sorry that things are like that with your mom, but I do have to say that your 'blue' comments were making me laugh.
    Congrats on getting out of her sphere!

  2. wow, were we separated at birth? b/c it seems we have the same mom.

    we also have the whole horse thing and infertility thing in common.

    what is it called--maybe we are dopplegangers!

  3. i have the same issues with my father. try as i might, we just can't develop a relationship. he's fundamental evangelical minister and he's more concerned about what happens to me after i die, that he can't be concerned with me in this life. i go for months without hearing from him, then when i was back home for the 4th of july, he must have called me 20 times... making me INSANE! hang in there. seems like you're handling it the only way possible right are so right that these relationships are TOXIC!

  4. Oh Donna, I am so sorry your relationship with your mother is so negative for you. She may always hold some sort of sway over you, due to the fact that a) she gave birth to you and b) society in general has an idealized, and maybe unrealisitic, opinion, of what a mother should be.
    But as you said you have an enviable life, surrounded by some wonderful, loving people. Let that temper any toxicity.

  5. oh honey, am I feeling you here... nice post.

    the so-happy-I'm-sad feeling...? you are not alone on that one, sweetie. sometimes I can let go and let the good feeling in deep, down to my bones... and other times, that it just too damn scary. it all blows...

    I do the parallel conversation thing with all crazy people I know... that would include my mother if I would pick up the phone when she calls. She knows better now, doesn't even try to call me any more... and I'm as okay with that as I'll ever be, I guess.

    I wonder often if I'm going to hit some huge emotional wall when she finally dies... will I crumble to the ground, screaming out my grief and remorse at not having patched things up with her before she goes...? I kinda' don't think it's going to go down like that. And all I can think about that is, man, if I had a daughter and I knew she felt that way... how very sorry I would be that she did.

    you keep spinning in the opposite direction, m'dear. it seems that is taking you to a rather lovely corner of the universe...

  6. Sounds to me like she makes you feel out of control or powerless. No one likes feeling that way and it can be depressing if you get caught up in it.

    Hope it settles down for you soon.

  7. My Mother was killed by a drunk driver.... When she was alive, there were moments when she could be quite harsh, especially when my older brother and sister showed up and I always wondered if she really thought as highly of me as she did of the others. But in the end I knew that she must have as she left me in charge, executor of her estate and long before she was killed, made me promise not to sell her things in an auction and try to take care of my severely alchoholic big sister. So often it's emotionally rough between Mothers and Daughters. Sounds like years of wrong things done and said that maybe her pride gets in the way. I do agree with Sally. Hang in there.

  8. I hate that you have this relationship (or lack thereof) with your mother. I certainly can see why, given the history. It seems like she really does have a major set of blinders on where you are concerned, and the only reason she'd tell you this now wasn't to spare you your birthday and anniversary, but so that she could be in the spotlight and not compete with those days. My take on it anyhow. And I hate it for you.

    But your blue comments were pretty funny.

  9. What is it with mothers, anyway? They can just frustrate the you know what out of us, can't they?

    I do recall my mother one day saying to me, "When I get like that (her mom), take me out back and shoot me!" To which I answered, "Does Tuesday work?" I think she was shocked :)

  10. I just discovered your blog and I am really impressed with it. I know exactly how you feel. I hope you can find peace within. It is a struggle but one you cannot let up on.


  11. I'm sorry - moms should be fun and supportive and loving. I guess as long as you have her you'll always know someone who has it worse than you... Hugs. -Kym

  12. I've come back to this post a few times as I've had to re-read it. It made me feel stressed out because I have some understanding of how you feel. I think you handled the conversation very well. Think postive...maybe that was phone call #3.

  13. I've come back to this and read it over a number of times. Mostly, I guess, because I know the scenario all too well.

    Most people tend to think that all mother-daughter relationships are the same and that it's just one of life's little dances that will play itself out.

    But some of us know from first hand experience there are mothers out there who should never have been mothers. For whatever reason they lacked nuture and made up for it in meaness, some brutality.

    My mother died on Valentine's Day of this year and from now on I will celebrate it in a whole new way.

    Having been estranged from her for over twenty years, it all didn't end like I thought it would.I was worried that her death might bring a whole new set of issues to beleager me.

    I went to the funeral because I wanted to see her. I wanted to be sure that she was really dead. I wanted to know she could no longer hurt me.

    We got lost and I didn't make it before the casket was closed but I think I'm pretty sure she's gone.

    Even though I didn't get to see her, I was still glad I went. Looking around at the plastic family go through the motions of grief. I heard the eulogy about some loving mother who devoted her life to her children that was noone any of us ever knew. I was so glad I was no longer caught in that lie. As much as I was sad for them that they still need to protect the family secrets lest others know their shame, it was a relief to know that I'm free of all of that. The shame, the guilt for being a child unworthy of a mother's love. I finally truly know it was not my fault.

    And, as much as I would love to have a family, it was clear that family is not the kind of family that I want. I will no longer wonder if it is somehow worth saving. It was clear that it is not.

    I used to grieve for the mother and the family I never had at Christmas, birthdays, you name it. They were all a reminder of the hole in my soul. But I don't feel the need to do that now. Seeing them all I realized how far I've come and that I really am free.

    She's gone and I'm glad. I know the children of my estranged family are safer now. She can't hurt them anymore and she can't hurt me or mine anymore either.

    I hope someday you will know the same kind of peace.

  14. And once again, I also came and read this post several times, each time with my own dialog going on inside. Nobody knows how others deal with their issues. Everyone thinks everybody else's life is better while theirs is the worst. And it is. For them.
    I always sheltered my Mom. I was the adult. She was never there for me, but I compensated and hung in there for her. I was her last child and she leaned on me, and my husband, for the last 12 years of her life. And now that she has been gone for all these years I still miss the mother I wanted her to be.
    Maybe, just maybe, it helped me be a better Mother.