An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
Throughout my life, my mother and I had a complicated relationship. My mom was fun-loving, whimsical, imaginative, creative; she fiercely loved me and my sister and showed that love in many ways. She also lived through significant physical and emotional trauma from her childhood and in her marriage to my father, who also lived with mental illness and substance abuse disorders and perpetrated physical violence and emotional abuse against her. Not surprisingly, my mom suffered from clinical depression that was, at times, severe, and had bouts of alcohol and substance misuse throughout her adult life.
Under enough duress, my mom could also engage in abusive behavior, which sometimes involved physical violence, but was more typically verbal and emotional abuse. This was particularly the case late in my mom’s life, when she was abusing prescribed medications which caused her to act bizarrely and exacerbated her angry outbursts. Eventually, these outbursts became so severe that I felt increasingly unsafe around her and spent less time with her out of a desire to protect myself. I never explained exactly why I was distancing myself, because I was afraid that would simply invite more vicious invective. I know that this was hurtful to her, and confusing.
Eventually, my mom became psychotic as a result of her misuse of her prescribed medications and she was involuntarily hospitalized. Prior to her hospitalization, her frightening language had escalated and she had become so difficult to live with that my stepfather, who loved her dearly, had temporarily moved out of their home. After my mother was released from the hospital, I did not make contact with her for several days, again out of fear of being a target of her rage and abusive language. I know that my mother was frightened, alone and felt abandoned by those she loved and who loved her the most.
I understand why I made the choice that I did: self-preservation, yes, but I now know that I made that decision in part because my own personal boundaries were not solid enough to maintain my own integrity in the face of my mother’s disorder and pain. I did not know how to support her without getting lost and overwhelmed by my own fear. My mom died a few years after this episode, and while we had had a rapprochement and could engage in a loving way with each other, we never had any real or honest conversation about what had happened, and why. We were both probably too fragile and mistrustful of each other for that.
Even though I understand my own feelings and motivation from those days, I still wish I had been able to act differently when my mother was in the hospital and in those early days after she was discharged, as I know that isolation is not how people heal from serious mental illness. I know, too, that my distancing myself from my mom was probably one of the most painful emotional experiences she had in her life. I regret now the choice that seemed inevitable then, and wish I could talk to my mom about it and come to more understanding. Every now and then, I am acutely aware that I have no ability to directly acknowledge how my actions hurt her, and sometimes, this fills me with grief and makes me feel horrible about myself.
How can I be a good person if I am capable of abandoning someone I love when they are in their weakest and most frightened place? How do I know that I will be able to act with integrity if someone else I love is in this kind of trouble at some point? And, perhaps the most vexing question for me: how does one make amends when the person you have hurt is dead?
I am so, so sorry for all that you have been through. Growing up with parents suffering from domestic violence and addiction is like trying to climb a mountain covered with scree. You just keep scrambling, but every step is hard and treacherous. Any progress requires focus, determination and no small amount of luck.
It sounds like your mom tried, valiantly, to provide you and your sister with deep love despite the chaos of her life, and she deserves praise for that. But it also sounds like the burdens of her pain accumulated over time until they just overwhelmed her, sending her careening over the edge past the reach of all who loved her.
Watching any person you love falling and falling like that is gut wrenching. Watching the person you depended on to catch you, care for you, keep you safe, plunging away from you? The rage and grief steals your feet. How are you supposed to keep climbing?
Clearly you have kept climbing, and I, for one, am so proud of you. Marvel has nothing on your triumph. We are all the center of our own universe, and you have managed to save yours. You have an indomitable warrior spirit. I bow down in admiration.
I also hear a few things in your questions that I want to address. Despite the fact that you were an adult when your mom really began to fall fast and hard, it was not your job to save her. And you couldn’t have, even if you tried. If there is any lingering sense of guilt that you carry for not doing more for her, please, please lay it down.
You say that when your mom was hospitalized you realize that your personal boundaries were not solid enough to maintain your own integrity in the face of your mother’s disorder and pain. How were you supposed to have developed strong boundaries and a solid sense of self? Who was supposed to teach you?
Your parents. But they could not teach what they did not know.
I am not saying that your inability to be present for your mom in her illness in the way you would have wanted is her own fault, but it also is partly exactly that. She did not intentionally or maliciously raise you with trauma wounds that required more healing than you had been able to manage by the time she needed support from you, but she did raise you that way. And there are consequences to those choices that were hers to bear, not yours.
The consequences for you as a result of her choices and her pain are myriad, and you will bear them all your life. But you can’t bear all of them, because they are not all yours to bear.
You couldn’t have saved her from herself, and you couldn’t have healed better or faster. Both “everyone is doing the best that they can” and “sometimes our best isn’t enough” are true.
You asked, “How can I be a good person if I am capable of abandoning someone I love when they are in their weakest and most frightened place?” Do you know who was weak and frightened? The little kid you, abandoned while your parents spun out on their own pain. Were they good people, even in their damage and imperfection?
Can you allow for your own imperfect, damaged goodness? I can. It’s shining right through your words.
You asked, “How do I know that I will be able to act with integrity if someone else I love is in this kind of trouble at some point?” First off, you are not your mother. The fact that you even have the emotional capacity to write this letter, to see the love and goodness that was absolutely a part of who your mother was, to carry enough love in your own heart for her in the face of all of her illness, addiction, anger, and abuse that you wish you could find some reconciliation and healing with her, proves that you are not your mother.
It is not inevitable that you will lack integrity as she did.
Secondly, no one else that you love who might ever be in this kind of trouble is your mother. Their struggle will never elicit the same intensity of rage and grief that your mother’s struggling did. Their struggle will never challenge the boundaries of your sense of self that your mother’s struggling did, because you never had to individuate from them. You never depended on them to raise and protect you. You never suffered at their hand.
Might it be incredibly triggering of the trauma you experienced to have to show up for someone you love struggling with mental illness or addiction? Very likely it will be. But it won’t be the same, because you are not the same person now. You clearly are doing the work to process your own pain so you don’t inflict it on other people. Your mother may not have always been worthy of trust, but you are. Trust yourself.
As for making amends with the dead: if you are someone who believes in an afterlife, then setting an altar for your mom, or going to a spot that was important to her, and spending some time sitting and talking with her about your regret may, over time, assuage some of your longing.
But I think there is another powerful choice. We don’t stop reaching developmental milestones once we leave childhood. In our late forties to early fifties all of us hit a transformation point. We are firmly in the second half of our life, and have experienced decades of what it is to be human. We have failed repeatedly and kept going anyway. We have nurtured people and projects, and then watched while those things and people flew away beyond our reach. We have loved and lost, sometimes spectacularly. People we love have died, often without closure or even a goodbye.
We have learned that not everything can be fixed. It’s not even a question of not having enough time, though we feel palpably that we have less and less of that. The reality is that some wounds never heal. We just have to incorporate them into who we are now.
In a culture that so celebrates youth, we forget the power of the elder. I could wish for the ass I had in my youth, but I wouldn’t wish to be the person I was then for any amount of money. She was in so much pain. She was weighted down by such heavy armor. She had no patience for herself or anyone else. She did not believe in or understand grace.
The opportunity that we have, once we step firmly over the threshold of mid-life and into the beginnings of our elder years, is to let our unhealable wounds soften us. We can look around and really, finally, viscerally understand that everyone carries some deep broken place inside of them. We can see how they flail and fight, often, to resist surrendering to the weight of that pain, which only increases the weight. And we can feel how surrendering to the breaking of our hearts breaks us wide open.
Broken wide open, we find the most aching, tender compassion for people. We live and breath grace into the world.
You may never feel like you can make amends with your mother, that her pain and her death will always hurt deep, deep in the recesses of your soul. But you can transform that pain point into a container of exquisite tenderness to hold the people you love now. That tenderness can walk with you everywhere you go.
Your mother did love you wildly, in all of her brokenness. Take her wild love and give it to the broken world. That is how you make amends. That is how you carry her with you. You do the thing she couldn’t do. You go beyond her, which in her heart of hearts is likely all she ever wanted.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
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