Category Archives: beating the odds

Trying to balance compassion and self preservation…..

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Trying to balance compassion and self preservation…..

I’m trying to balance compassion and self-preservation and it’s a bitch. My mother has certifiable mental illness. She has a long history of mental illness issues including hospital stays for suicide attempts and alcoholism. She is generally miserable and unable to maintain long-term relationships. She has seen doctors and specialists by the dozens, she’s had inpatient stays in psych wards, has more than 3 decades into 12 step recovery and has tried every pill known to big pharma to treat depression. She has been on disability for at least 25 years for her depression so it’s well documented. Sometimes though, the lines blur between her mental illness and her just being a shitty human. Other times she is amazingly thoughtful and generous, mostly to strangers or acquaintances. She saves the gnarly stuff for my brother and me, we are the only relatives that have stuck it out.

I’m not sure when her mental health issues began. She has told me a lot about her life (too much if I’m honest) and I know she always had a terrible relationship with her brother. In fact she had a rough go of it with both of her parents as well. Was that due to their treatment of her, her mental illness or some other sad combination….I don’t know. I do know this, misery is her most frequent companion. If there isn’t something to lament about, her razor-sharp mind will find something obscure and mold it into a formidable monster.

She’s smart, so very smart that it makes pitying her as a sick person near impossible at times. Master manipulator and rationalizer extraordinaire, check and check. She can twist the most innocuous situation and turn it into filth and wretchedness. She has left a wake of destruction behind her. When she goes, she goes big, in a huff…..a cloud of confusion, hurt and anger swirling around her like her own personal tornado. It’s sad, infuriating and exhausting.

I have to mentally remind myself that she is sick. Like cancer, diabetes, MS, lupus, fill in the blank…..except it isn’t like that at all. If your mom has cancer she doesn’t typically say “I wish you were never born” repeatedly to you as a young child. Diabetes doesn’t abandon you in the state of Florida to go to New Jersey when you are 9. MS doesn’t call you a “whore” because you over did the eye shadow and lip stick at 14. Cancer won’t leave you and your brother homeless at 15  because mom doesn’t have it together. Lupus doesn’t tell you that you’re a bad person because your husband bought his dream house, the one he worked his ass off for, but it’s too big so you’re all horrible people. Mental illness and alcoholism does that, not the other diseases. So I’m a bit tired of the mental illness is just like any other disease line, no it fucking isn’t.

So now I have a 72-year-old broken down mentally ill mother who has basically treated me like shit most of my life. And as much as I want to let go of past bad experiences, they keep reinserting themselves into present day. Every time she makes an unreasonable demand or is inconsiderate I am haunted by the ghost of reason that says – “seriously, why are you doing this for her?”

Why indeed. I’m a good person and I don’t want her to haunt me when she dies and she would. I have had my share of obstacles that I have overcome and I basically cheer for the underdog. At this point I’m not sure which one of us is the underdog. I think it’s me today. Yesterday I told my mother to “fucking move then”.  What got me to this point beyond the cumulative effect of 49 years of insanity?

I bought a house at the beach in New Jersey in 1999. It was a struggle to purchase it and I did it on my own before I got married. That house was a testament to my financial and emotional independence. It was one of the most empowering things I ever did as a young woman. Fast forward 14 years and I no longer needed the house. We hadn’t lived there in years. My brother and his family lived there for 5 years and they moved away. My husband and I have a beautiful home in a neighboring state. After Hurricane Sandy, we began to worry that at some point it would get destroyed in a storm and we would lose the financial appreciation. I sold the house a few years ago and tripled my investment. As someone who had been a reluctant, accidental SAHM for a decade it felt great to make a financial contribution to my family. I also used a portion of that money to buy a small house in a nearby adult community. I bought a place for my mother because she was so unhappy where she lived. For nearly 10 years she complained about her living situation.I also thought it would be more practical to have her closer to me as she aged. My brother moved to Maine so he can’t help with medical or other issues that require hands on assistance.

Fast forward another 3 years and there isn’t a week that goes by that she doesn’t complain to me about something. Some of it is normal life stuff, a few ants, a nosy neighbor, the air filters. The air filters get to me. My mom smokes about a pack a day but INSISTS that the air filters in her house get changed on a monthly basis. She complains a lot about her financial situation which has always been awful. I bought the house so there is no mortgage but there is an association fee that she pays. She also has utilities and other bills. It is a stretch for her and I help with some of it.

The other day she called to tell me that I “had to pay” her Comcast bill so she could pay out-of-pocket to see an eye doctor that isn’t in her plan. If she said “can you help me” or “I want to go to….” that isn’t how it was presented at all. It was a command given with a bitchy tone and she went on and on about how horrible Pennsylvania Medicaid is compared to New Jersey and……..I just snapped and said “fucking move then”. Granted I could have delivered the message in a calm tone minus the expletive but she wouldn’t have heard me then. I’ve tried that approach for two years, no luck. She heard me this time.

Later I got an email from her telling me how she doesn’t expect me to pay ALL her bills. She then went on to describe how she is the victim of a corrupt government of evil ne’er-do-wells. Blah blah blah I’ve been reading and hearing this crap for years. I’m worn out I tell you, worn out. She has never taken financial responsibility for herself and she is seemingly incapable of any consistent emotional stability. This life long inability or disregard (not sure which some days) has left her facing her “golden years” pretty much broke and alone.

The biggest barrier for me though is her complete lack of interest in me or my family. She has two kind, funny, smart, beautiful grandchildren 10 minutes from her home and she could not care less. Soccer games, shows, Sunday dinners she is frequently invited and rarely shows. When she does attend a dinner she is consistently late. She shows absolutely no regard for how her actions or lack there of could have an impact on others. Again, I don’t know if this is part of the mental illness or just someone so self-absorbed that they are incapable of basic consideration. Either way the end result is the same.

So here I am again trying to balance compassion for her with my own self preservation. This isn’t new territory I know what I need to do. Take a break, don’t call her for a few days or minimize interaction until I can fortify myself enough for the next round. Once again I remind myself that this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. I just hope I can make it to the finish line.

 

 

 

Mother’s Day is Hard……

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Mother’s Day is Hard……

Mother’s Day is hard for me.  My mother lives close by in a small house that I bought for her. It’s in a retirement community and is a 10 minute drive from me. And it is kind of a remarkable thing given our history. Let’s be clear though, I mostly bought the house for me, not her. I need to be OK with myself after she passes.

My mother has been mentally unstable my entire life. As a young child I watched her drink alcoholically, drive drunk, and create drama. There were the standard saturday morning thrashings if my brother or I woke her up too early. If I’m honest, my brother took the brunt of that. I would scurry away and he would try to reason with her, smack. When I was in first grade she was brushing my hair and got so frustrated with me that she hit me hard on the forehead, which caused a bump and a surprising amount of blood. I was told to say I walked into the door so mommy wouldn’t get in trouble. Most of the abuse was mental. She would routinely say “I wish you were never born”. That’s hard to reconcile as a child, hell it’s hard to type that now.

It was just the three of us – my mother, twin brother and I. My parents divorced when we were two years old. We saw our father on a regular basis until we were moved out of state at 8 years old.This move followed a custody battle between our parents and as soon as the ink was dry from the case our mother moved us to Florida with her charismatic and somewhat insane boyfriend. So we went from 3 to 4 for one drama filled year.

I remember crossing the state line in a red convertible Cadillac “Welcome to Florida – The Sunshine State”. It was pouring and the irony or perhaps it was foreshadowing was not lost on me. That year was filled with insanity and contradictions. We moved four times in 10 months and went to two different school districts. There were snakes and palmetto bugs, lizards and a trip to Disney. We had a 40-foot boat and I learned to fish and went snorkeling, it wasn’t all bad.

The bad was really bad though.The relationship between my mother and her boyfriend was volatile. I saw him beat her. I listened to countless loud, uncontrollable arguments. At one point my mother left with my brother to go back to New Jersey. I was left in Florida with a family that we barely knew.  They had rented one of the houses we had lived in and they had 5 kids, I was 9 years old.Who does that? Who leaves their 9 year old girl in another state with strangers for a month. A desperate crazy person, that’s who.

My mother came back in about a month and was promptly hospitalized after a suicide attempt. I was sent to a foster home for a week. Soon after my mother had another breakdown and destroyed the place we were living in. I watched her get arrested and placed in the back of a police car. A few days later I was taking my first ever plane ride back to New Jersey, alone.  My brother and I stayed with our grandparents for the next year until mom could get a place for the three of us.

The roller coaster continued throughout my formative years.Mother continued to drink and spoke of suicide often. Each day when I got home from school I would walk into every room in our apartment. Honestly, I did not connect the dots on this behavior until I was an adult, but I was looking for my mother’s body. There were also plenty of nights when I found her passed out on the floor with the telephone cord wrapped around her or in the bathroom. In between there was lots of yelling, uncertainty, acid laced gossip and talk of bankruptcy. I would be filled with panic when I heard my mother’s footsteps coming home at night, we never knew what to expect.

The high level of dysfunction continued until 1983. That year I was sent to rehab after a brief but intense bout of teenage rebellion. My mother had just gotten sober and once again introduced an insane man into our lives. Eventually that union caused the original three to be scattered in different living situations. My year consisted of institutions – including a cult working farm which portrayed itself as a recovery half way house. My brother lived with a friend’s family and mom couch surfed. The three of us never shared the same roof again – my brother and I were 15.

I grew up fast out of necessity, with little familial guidance. I learned how to “adult” in AA. Truly the 12 steps are a nice road map for life and I sure as shit wasn’t getting solid pointers at home. I learned about taking responsibility for my actions and my emotions. I became financially independent while I was a teenager and harnessed a strong work ethic. I put myself through college and really have done OK for myself despite the enormous odds stacked against me.

So how is it that after the shit storm that was my childhood am I able to care for my mother in a way that she never did for me? I don’t know maybe I get the illness part of mental illness. I mean if she had cancer or lupus I wouldn’t abandon her. I know it isn’t the same because the cancer patient doesn’t typically destroy others with their narcissistic ways, but I do know this, the woman is not well. So for the past 20 years or so I have managed to find a balance between compassion and self preservation.

So once again I will opt for the funny Mother’s Day card and some flowers, maybe a meal out for mom. I will not blubber on about how wonderful she is or post pictures on Facebook of smiling faces. I don’t do fake but I can do compassion.

 

 

 

 

1 out of 37………Part 10

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1 out of 37………Part 10

My time at Crawford House was well spent. A new “normal” was set for me as I attended regular AA meetings, group and private therapy and made some sober friends. The ladies at the halfway house were interesting. Every single one of them had a story. Having just turned 16, I had a lot to learn about life. Some residents were gay, some straight, some claimed to have had relationships with famous musicians, some had tattoos, some had kids, those were tricky relationships for me.  There was one rich girl and a handful of teenagers throughout my stay. At least half of the population never graduated from the program. Most were kicked out for using drugs or alcohol, others just bailed. Getting sober is a bitch and you need to be ready and willing to do the footwork.

I was lucky to have such limited residential options. My family circumstances kept me in institutions for a majority of the first 10 months of my sobriety. That gave me time to get settled into the whole sobriety thing and come to terms with a “God of my understanding”. I was kept away from people, places and things that would have likely led me to use drugs or alcohol. My sobriety from the age of 15 is indeed miraculous and it is something I could not have done alone.

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I was discharged from Crawford House in early August of 1984. As you probably guessed my family life did not magically fix itself. The first night I got out my mom and I stayed at a hotel in Hightsown, New Jersey. She left me alone in the hotel room to go on a date. My brother was not with us. He was living somewhere in Sayreville, New Jersey. That was where I lived before I went to rehab the first time in the fall of 1983. My mother’s brief second marriage imploded our trio.  So my brother was couch surfing through high school and my mom and I were still figuring it out.

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I spent a few weeks sleeping on the couch of an old family friend. Her name was Eleanore and at the time she was sober about 5 years which is forever when you are new. I remembered Eleanore as a spectacular drunk from many years prior. We first met Eleanore in the early 1970’s. My mother, brother and I lived in a room in a boarding house in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Eleanore and her husband Frank had an efficiency in the same building….it was a palace compared to our living space.

Frank and Eleanore were really nice to the three of us. I do remember being freaked out my Frank’s war injury. According to Frank, he was a POW in World War II and the Japanese captured him and chopped off the tips of three of his fingers. He had the stubs to prove it and you don’t forget that sight when you are 5 years old. A few years later my mother had a birthday party for my brother and I when we turned 8. Eleanore and I slept in my mother’s bed and I woke up in a pool of urine. I thought I had wet the bed and had a moment of absolute panic……then I realized my underwear was dry. Turns out Eleanore got so drunk she wet the bed. At some point she decided it was time to get sober.  It was very kind of her to let me spend some time couch surfing while my mom tried to get a place together for us.

Eleanore had an apartment in Bricktown, New Jersey. I got a chance to catch up with some friends I had made in the early part of winter.  For a brief time I stayed with Lola, my original rehab room-mate and her family, also from Bricktown. I finally had some fun again and I also got into a bit of trouble. I had no interest in drinking or using but I still had a wild streak. Lola and I hitch hiked a few times to Seaside Park to go to the boardwalk. One time we got picked up by the cops. They didn’t give us too much of a hard time but it was humiliating. The last straw for me though was when I hitch hiked alone one day and the guy that picked me up offered me money for a blow job. I declined, he kicked me out and I never hitch hiked again.

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After about a month I had to pack my bags yet again. This time I went to stay with my mother who was renting a room at her friend Lorraine’s house. Once again it was all ladies – Lorraine, her mother, Lorraine’s daughter, my mom and I living in Matawan, New Jersey. Couch surfing again until my mom and I could get an apartment.

I started 10th grade for the second time in Matawan, New Jersey. I had missed about 8 months of school the prior year so I had to stay back. This was particularly humiliating for me because I have a twin brother and he was going into 11th grade at our old school in Sayreville. To make matters worse, the apartment fell through so we were delayed again in effort to hit the reset button.

Finally in October my mom got a one bedroom apartment for us in East Windsor, New Jersey. I started at another new high school in Hightstown. The first day I was there I was mistaken for a new teacher by a male staff member. I never felt like I fit in there. Somehow though regardless of the high frequency of moving, life changes, multiple schools, the institutions, the good, the bad and the unacceptable……somehow I had made through my first year of sobriety.

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I celebrated my first anniversary at a speaker meeting in Freehold, New Jersey. I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment…..that somehow I had achieved something that not many could. I suppose that is true to a certain extent. I  prefer to see myself now as someone living their life in the manner that was intended, nothing extraordinary. I do believe that getting sober set my life on a completely different trajectory. I don’t think life would look the same if I didn’t make a decision to get sober all those years ago. I will be forever grateful to everyone that had a part in my recovery, especially that first year.