Like Words Together Reflections from the deep end of Practice.


Stumbling on Joy

It is 9 days before my birthday and my Mom's avoiding/shunning me. She knows I disapprove of a choice she's made recently and since she can no longer exile me to my bedroom for weeks on end, she just doesn't call. And it sucks. A lot.

My Mom's health has been fragile my whole life. A couple months ago she started talking about finally moving to an apartment much closer into town. We were really relieved to hear this from her. CK and I would be able to check in on her, take her shopping, and drop food off for her regularly. She'd also be able to access public transit and have some sense of independence, something she's felt very depressed about since she remarried.

There we were, finally looking seriously at meeting her needs and doing things to improve her quality of life, quite likely increasing the time she does have left. I did a lot of searching and out of the blue she suggested a retirement community. I hadn't hoped for anything that good and was really excited about her choice. We'd even found a wonderful place in SE Portland. She put a deposit down on it and talked excitedly about her new apartment as I drove her back to Gresham.

Then she didn't talk to me for 2+ weeks. I tried to call and the number had been disconnected. Her mobile phone went directly to voicemail. After a few days of that I finally called her husband's business line and after a moment of saying hello to me he asked if I wanted to speak with my Mom.

She was sick, coughing and had laryngitis so bad I could barely understand her. She'd been out at her husband's for a few days and was really ill again. She managed to tell me that she wasn't going to move to the apartment in town, she was moving back out to her husband's home in Corbett.

My Mom has been told by two different doctors that she cannot live out at her husband's house . There are too many things that could cause her to fall (and have) and there is so much mold and dust there that it compromises her lungs. Every time she is out there for more than a couple of days she gets sick, sometimes to the point of hospitalization.

My Mom has been in the hospital over 13 times in the past few years since marrying her husband and moving out there. She has also told me over and over and over that there are far too many painful memories in Corbett, where she was raised, and she doesn't want to live there. She really loves her husband, but living with him endangers her health and he refuses to move into "town" to be with her. Even the small suburb my Mom has been living in is too much town for him and he hates the idea of leaving Corbett unless his health makes him. His health is failing too, he has ALS, and she isn't capable of caring for him.

After my initial shocked, "What." I managed to calmly ask her to please phone me when she was well enough to talk to me about it.

That was at the beginning of the month and she hasn't called. There is a part of me that is worried that her health has worsened and no one has remembered to contact me. It is possible, but it is equally likely that she doesn't want to talk to me because it will make her feel bad and ashamed, which makes her angry with me.

I'm not calling. It grates on me daily, as does the lack of voicemails on the phone, but I resist the nagging urge to call her and make her feel better. At this point it isn't just anger and stubbornness on my part (which she'd accuse me of), but both of my therapists have advised me not to call while I'm feeling so hurt and angry.

I feel like a terrible daughter. I feel furious. I feel deeply ashamed of myself. I feel terribly hurt. I feel abandoned. I feel betrayed.

I am also profoundly sad that she has given up on the excitement and happiness I witnessed in her so briefly. It has had me recalling a line from A Bitterness by Mary Oliver, a poem I've mentioned in relationship to my Mom once before.

I believe joy was a game you could never play without stumbling.

My Mom choosing to live in an environment that physically endangers her, choosing to reject the possibility of happiness and comfort, and finding ways to sabotage it, is my Mom stumbling on joy again. Regardless of how much I wanted her to make the right choice for herself, no matter how it made me feel so much relief and like my needs around her were being met because she made a healthy choice for herself, she stumbled. She had joy in front of her and she stumbled, just like she always has, my whole life.

Last night my EMDR therapist, PB, leaned in close to me, her hands on my knees, and said emphatically, "Your Mother is mentally ill. She can't change."

I'm still letting these words settle.

PB told me that it was time for me to write a letter to my Mom. I don't have to send it, but she thinks it is important for me to express the depth of betrayal and hurt I feel over all the times in my life my Mom stumbled and made choices that didn't take my needs into account. Giving voice to my anger and hurt in this way will let me return to the place where I can love my Mom without judgement. PB also suggested drumming and spending some time in a batting cage.

I do love my Mom. I do believe she was cheated by this life. I deeply want to see her comforted after all the pain I've watched her suffer my whole life. As a Buddhist I know we suffer when we cling to anything, but it is exceedingly difficult to not cling to the desire to see my Mom content and at ease.

So that I may not stumble upon the considerable joy in my life I am going to learn to give back the shame my family gave me, over and over. I will acknowledge that it is not unnatural for me to be angry about my childhood and angry that my Mom's abdicated the role of a parent, forcing it upon me for nearly all of my life. I will continue to try and make the right choices in my life; learning from my Mother's mistakes and breaking these toxic patterns in my family.

As painful as it is to take in, I hold close the knowledge that my Mom is mentally ill. I will hold this carefully so that I may love her without any hope that she'll ever grow up and make the right choices.

Mom Finds a Sand Dollar

I really treasure this picture I took of my Mom this spring. It is incredibly rare to capture of picture of her smiling and experiencing joy. My Mom has only experienced joy as a fleeting moment in her life, not a real presence.

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  1. I am so sorry you are going through this with your mom. Raising parents is a heartbreaking thing sometimes 🙂
    I’ve watched my mother allow her health to deteriorate over the past 10 years, and it took me a long time to realize that I can’t make her to the “right things” for her health and her life. I vacilate from being angry with her for not loving us enough to take care of herself, to giving up, and though I’m not there yet, working on accepting that it’s her life and her choice. Good luck.

    • Thanks for the sympathy and for sharing your own experience with your Mom. Although we’re all going to die someday, it is terrible to watch someone make choices that clearly will make that day come sooner. I wish you luck in your own hard work at watching your Mom make unhealthy choices.

  2. Sherri,

    This is a beautiful, heartbreakingly honest post. My mother also has mental illness, and it took me a long, long time to learn how to not be as attached (I don’t know if I will ever be able to completely detach!) to the poor choices she has made and continues to make with her life. And it’s true, with mental illness, you can’t expect it to get better — in fact, as it’s been pointed out to me, it’s probably going to get worse. I try not to think about that too much, and just allow my mother to live her life the way she chooses, but the only way I’ve been able to do that is by not talking with her regularly. So, we used to talk daily, and after many years of working on differentiation, I now talk to her maybe once every few months. It’s about all I can do. I have learned to take care of myself in the process of not taking care of her anymore (and she has miraculously found other ways to get her needs met, which I didn’t believe could happen many years ago).

    I feel real compassion for you. I hope you are having good compassion for yourself. It’s so tough when your parent isn’t capable of having a “normal” relationship with you, as a parent or sometimes even a friend, relative, etc. I wish you well on your journey. It’s a windy road to travel.

  3. Oh, S, this is a very difficult lesson for you. I am so glad you are trusting your friends with the burden, and being so direct and open about your feelings and unmet needs, and the simplifying assumptions and judgments that are haunting you.

    I have lived with mental illness twice (my brother as a child and my second wife to within two months of her suicide), and lots of plain old stubbornness/attachment to less than healthy patterns (my first wife).

    As my wife was doing poorly, she needed some minor but significant uterine surgery. As she was recovering, her surgeon took me aside and made some blunt points with me. She said she had long-term professional relationships with clients and had seen the results about how life problems are dealt with. Seeking paths that are healthier and non-isolating are essential to more years of good life. Turning away from them will over time create a mountain of problems that will overwhelm health and establish a sequence of misery that results in eventual physical end. Problems and denials may be shared, and the ill health will be as well. A search for vitality and health appropriate to one’s natural aging can be sought as well, leading to improvements for both partners. She said this is all about choice, and warned me that if my mate wasn’t going to make good choices, I still had the ability to make good choices for myself. That night another altercation led by my wife forced me to make a choice for health, and that was to try to make healthy decisions for myself that were as compassionate as I could manage for my wife.

    It sounds very much like the denial your mother faces is very serious and will accumulate in a very poisonous way to her. It also sounds like you have encouraged and supported every healthy step she has taken. That is a beautiful and loving. That is the essence of being a good daughter and, more importantly, friend. You have not abandoned her, she has abandoned herself to her stories and judgments. As much as your pain is real, hers is so very severe, and it is killing her.

    This is very significant. Our mothers are the soil our baby roots have grown in. It is very sad to see her turn away from life. This experience will change who you are. It can change you for the better, if you embrace the seeds of its wisdom.

    It is very good to expose your suffering to those who truly love, support and encourage you. In the sharing you will find some acceptance and solace for those things that you cannot change, and strength for changing those things that you could/can. Because when it comes down to it, your mother’s choices are her own, and the pain she suffers or attempts to deny is her own.

    If you are able to try to guide her toward health in a way you and her can both benefit from, do that with the love and encouragement from your friends. If you cannot, or your wounds or hers are too deep, just do no harm – that is a kind and compassionate way, and is completely acceptable, and you are a good daughter for holding the love in your heart and withholding the rage and frustration. The Universe’s spirit will find joy in your restraint.

    Thank you for choosing awareness, life, health, love and compassion. There is so much we cannot fix in this world, and the saddest of all are other people’s unhealthy choices… but that is what is, and we can choose to change just ourselves, it is all we really have any choice over.

    Much love,

  4. Sherri – i stumbled on your blogs today – while looking up some Mary Oliver lines… and was swept away in the honest simple candor of your descriptions of these life experiences with your Mum. — how you are willing to just experience them and look at yourself in the process…and then how you deliver them unto this blog with such raw sweetness. i just wanted to say thanks… they touched me.
    the love all around you….in and through…
    cyber hugs, j

    • Jane, thank you so much for taking a moment to share your supportive, sweet thoughts with me. I’m glad your stumbling upon my blog by way of Mary Oliver turned out to be positive, particularly given the painfulness of the topic at hand

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