This is a photograph of my mother with me when I was about 3 months old. I remember this photograph. However, this picture came to me recently in a roundabout way via my second cousin in Canada. The quality is not so good as I scanned it from a PDF. It is one of very few photographs I have of my mother as many had gotten lost over the years, so I was very surprised and happy to have this one again. My mother is 19 in this picture. She was married when she was 18 and I was born just a couple of weeks before she turned 19. People got married young in those days. I think she looks really beautiful here and I know that she was very happy to have had a baby. Me!
Underneath my mother’s happiness, there is something darker that lurks beneath. You see, my mother was eventually diagnosed as manic-depressive, though they call it bi-polar these days. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the wonder drugs that they now have for this condition. The medicine cocktail my mother was prescribed was pretty dodgy by today’s standards. (The Electric Shock Therapy (ECT) that my mother would request in order to ‘clear’ her mind didn’t help matters either.) Although the medication hasn’t killed her, it has taken its toll on her mind and her body.
When you have a parent with mental health issues, your whole childhood changes. Being the eldest of three, I had to grow up very quickly. Although naturally responsible, I ended up doing more than my fair share and ultimately ended up doing the parenting. My mother was in and out of mental institutions not dissimilar to The Priory. Each time this happened, we had to stay with relatives or very close friends. In time, I was able to tell when all hell would break loose and would brace myself for what was about to come. Although I lived with the ups and downs and learned when to expect the worse, I never got used to it. I just got sensitized to it. Even now I have a sixth sense about those who I would call mentally challenged or not quite right and try to stay clear of them. I’ve had enough.
As well as making life difficult for me and my siblings, my mother’s condition also took its toll on her relationship with my father. Eventually my parents divorced and what I call the dark years began. It may have only been about three or four years, but they were bad enough if you were entering your teenage years, which are challenging enough in their own way. This is when I became the parent. It sucked, to put it mildly, but eventually things got better – but not for my mother. My mother progressively got worse over the years. She didn’t like to take her medication when she was feeling better and she didn’t always look after herself the way she used to do. Her beauty slowly faded away with her mind.
I got married when I was 22 and had my first child when I was 28 years old. I loved being a mom and stayed at home to care for my three children. A part of me wanted to finish the job that my mother couldn’t and I wasn’t too bad at it as I have had plenty of practice. I am not a perfect mom, and I don’t know who is, but I loved my job, which was looking after my children. Although I made some mistakes, and my kids may need some therapy because of them, I have always been there for them in ways that my mother couldn’t be there for me. The fact that I was there for the duration is short of a miracle.
By moving to London I sort of opted out of having a relationship with my mother. My brothers were left behind to do that if they wanted to. I focused on my own life and family instead. The times I went back to NJ and visited my mother were such a strain. Coherent communication with my mother was nigh but impossible. Guilt trips were thrown my way right, left and centre. In the end I gave up and stopped communicating with her altogether. I couldn’t deal with her and I had too much of my own stuff to get my head around. In fact, my life was a bit of a mess and I was struggling to get a grip.
With the demise of my last marriage, I was forced to take a good look at my life and finally got the help I needed. The next seven years, although challenging, were insightful and I was finally able to make some progress and move forward in my life. I feel happier and more ‘me’ than I ever have before.
Not long ago (in the last year or two sometime), my daughter challenged me about my relationship with my mother. Basically, the fact I didn’t have one and made no effort to. I think she might have been worried that we would end up in a similar vein. I had to explain that although I loved my mother very much, there was nothing I could do for her and I found being around her such a strain as there was no real communication. My mother is sick, and she sometimes does or says things that can be embarrassing or inappropriate. I have learned that she can sometimes get quite aggressive and agitated. I do not want to have to ‘deal’ with someone in this state.
In the last year or two, I have reconnected with many family members that I have lost touch with or never knew before. By delving into my family’s history, I have learned some disturbing things. My parents and their parents are immigrants to the USA. They left Budapest before the Russians arrived during the last World War and went to Germany. From there they managed to get on a boat to America. While researching my family’s past, I learned about the suffering that each had to endure. Some things do not bear mentioning and I won’t at this time, but it is no longer a surprise to me about my mother’s mental health issues.
By looking at the past, I have learned a lot about my own issues and where they might have developed. It has given me more compassion for my parents and what they went through, especially my mother. As a woman and a mother with a daughter, I can see that my mother ‘opting out’ of life and parenting was the only way she could cope with her experience. She wasn’t as strong as her siblings, although they each have had their own way of dealing with things.
Sunday, the 8th of May, is Mother’s Day in the USA. I have missed having a mother for so long, but I am also grateful that there was a time in her life when she was happy, she fell in love, and she gave me life. So, here’s to you mom. Thanks for having me. I love you in spite of everything.