On September 11, 2001, in the late morning, living on Long Island, I tried phoning my family back home in the UK to speak to them and let them know I was fine. For a while all international phone lines were busy, presumably because everyone else who was living in the USA and came from the UK had the same idea. Eventually I got through, and when my mother answered the phone, she was sobbing. I was surprised, and at first a little moved that she was so upset. Then she explained why she was sobbing: she had taken her cat to the vet that day and he was going to be put down to sleep. She said she couldn't speak any more and put down the phone. I shook my head, and took a deep breath.
My mother had loved that cat, in her own way. She would frequently buy it fresh meat or fish to eat and she would look forward to feeding it. But I never saw it sitting on her lap or spending time with her. I remember watching her playing with it: she had some knitting needles, and she would wave them around while it tried to grab them, which made her laugh a lot. I don't think she ever held the cat, although she may have touched it when it was feeding.
Watching her with the cat made me wonder how she nurtured my sister and me when we were young children. It's very hard to imagine her holding or hugging us, and there are no photographs of us in her arms. She says I used to love it when she read me stories, and that's plausible, although I don't remember it. Watching her with her one year old granddaughter was a little appalling; she would suggest putting the baby in another room if she was crying; and when outside in shopping areas, you couldn't leave her with the pram because she would just wander away from it.
When in my twenties I had the opportunity to leave the UK and pursue graduate work in the USA, it wasn't a difficult choice. Although my mother had been a single mother for a few years after her divorce from my father, she remarried as soon as she could. I wasn't close to her, and saw my visits to her more as a duty than a pleasure. I didn't feel there was much else in the UK to keep me there either. When I eventually spent a few years in psychotherapy, I saw more clearly how I had learned to deal with emotional problems by separating myself from other people, and how I had kept that as a coping mechanism.
My sister remained in the UK and sees my mother more frequently than I do, but for shorter periods. A single mother herself, she finds it difficult to cope with her young daughter and our mother at the same time for more than a few hours. She tends to have a stormier relationship with our mother, getting angry and disappointed by her actions, but she is also often warmer and more loving. When I'm with my mother, I try to close myself down emotionally, and focus on solutions to problems and practical issues.
When I was staying at my mother's most recently, I was talking to my sister on the phone. We were talking about why my mother gets so anxious and starts entertaining such ridiculous fears; that afternoon, because my sister hadn't answered the phone, my mother was worrying that she had got into a car accident, and she left message saying "please phone as soon as you get home, it's very important, I need to know you are safe." Often when my mother does this, my sister is just too busy to phone, or she just doesn't want to deal with it. "Why does she do it?" my sister asked me. I answered quickly, "she's mentally ill." "Can she hear you?" my sister asked, concerned. "I don't know," I replied, "maybe." I didn't really care whether my mother could hear me or not.
I've found myself talking about my mother in the third person more and more while in her presence. Because she has hearing problems, gets confused easily, and does not pay much attention, it's easy to slip into this. Sometimes she wants to be part of a conversation, but it is very difficult to include her. That's especially true for me since I intentionally tell her little about my life. For most of my life, she has had only mild interest. For a long time, she didn't really know what subject I was pursuing a PhD in. So I've long felt there wasn't much point telling my mother much about my life. Now I'm at the stage when I sit down for a meal with her and I find I have nothing to say to her; there's nothing I want to share with her.
In the last decade, my mother has become increasingly negative and anxious, and her attitude doesn't respond to reason. She has often said how awful the modern world is, far worse than ever before. I have tried pointing out that she grew up in Belgium when it was occupied by the Nazis, when they were carrying out persecution of the Jews and killing of millions of people in concentration camps, and she is complaining about how much litter there now is on the streets and how badly young women dress these days. It is like arguing with a person who is depressed: no amount of argument will convince them that things are not as bad as they seem. So after a while, I give up, and when she complains about the state of the world, I just say "oh really?" or "I don't think so."
My sister, because she sees our mother more often and maybe because of a different attitude, tends to share more about her life with her. My sister's a single mother, bring up a young child, and life is a struggle sometimes. This gives plenty of fuel for my mother's fire of worry. She drives herself into a frenzy of anxiety sometimes, but of course, she can be of virtually no practical help. Talking to her on the phone this week, I said, as I do most of the time these days, "It's none of your business, she is a grown woman, she can cope on her own, you are not helping her with your worry, focus on helping yourself." It doesn't do much good. Today she said to me, "I am so worried, and no one tells me why I should not worry. Nobody gives me that much courtesy." She's right in a sense; we all know that nothing we say will stop her worrying, so we stop trying to explain much, and just tell her not to worry, or try to change the subject.
In practical terms, I don't think there's much else we can do. It's not very clear why my mother is in the emotional state she is, and there's little to be done to change it, at this stage at least. My concern here is more about a point of principle. It's that it is impossible to respect my mother, at least in the way she wants. There's a lifetime of frustration behind this. Whatever the causes, for much our childhood, she wasn't nurturing, she didn't show much interest, she didn't create a secure attachment. When I read, for example, about Mary Ainsworth's "strange situation" experiments in the 1960s, I think of myself when I was a child as anxious-ambivalent or anxious-avoidant. Of course, I'm an adult now, and she turns to me for help and security. Several years of psychotherapy made me more able to put the past into perspective. Therapists have urged to see my issues with my mother as psychological and emotional, something for me to get past. Doubtless, psychological coping skills, such as taking a deep breath before reacting to her, are very useful.
Nevertheless, I also see an ethical problem. My mother certainly has emotional problems, and doctors have seen fit to put her on a mood stabilizer, indicating a diagnosis of chronic mental illness. But not everything she ever did was a symptom of a mental illness, and her emotional profile is very much part of her permanent personality. As she gets older and more confused, it feels as if the problems become worse, or less mitigated by her positive character traits, but there's a strong continuity between my mother now and how she has been her whole life. There's no simple separation between the healthy part of her and the mentally ill part. I'm not sure there's any separation to be made at all.
When I say "she has these worries because she is mentally ill," this is more a way of dealing with the situation, or putting it to one side, rather than a well-justified explanation. I treat my mother as emotionally disabled because that's what works for me and I don't have any better way of coping. It helps reduce my feelings of frustration and anger. But it also means giving up on the hope of better communication or a more authentic relationship.
I wonder sometimes whether there isn't some other way to conceptualize the past, to understand her life as a mother, and the role that mental illness has played in it. Reflecting on my relationship with my mother makes me acutely aware of the complexities and uncertainties of how we hold people with mental illnesses responsible for their actions, and the difficulties of establishing satisfactory relationships with them. Most people with mentally ill relatives grapple with these issues, yet there's not enough discussion of how they work them through.
Link to previous blog post: Let me tell you about my mother.
Saturday, February 09, 2008