On March 28th, 2016, at around 5:08am, my mother left this earth. It was unexpected. Sudden. She was only 67. I was her only child. We spoke at least once a day for my entire life. Well, besides the times she was missing or having one of her episodes.
Since she’s been gone, people who knew my mother have said things like, “What a sad life.” Or, “How awful that she had to live with voices in her head.” Or, “Shew, mental illness is so tough.” But my mother never referred to her entire life as sad or horrible. And she never, not once, referred to herself as mentally ill. And I can understand why.
If someone told me I had mental illness, or implied that I did, I would personally feel very threatened. I would feel like they were questioning the solidity of my relationship to my very self. People generally hold the reality they share with themselves sacred and my mother absolutely did. If I imagined someone telling me that I needed help with me, I would feel like I would need to question everything I know. And I would never be myself with them. I would always try to behave in a way that made me honorable and admirable in their eyes, or I would have to banish them from my life altogether so that I wouldn’t have their constant reminder that I wasn’t whole or perfect. Or worse, I would feel like I needed them for clarity and help 24 hours a day, and most people are too busy for that, which would leave me not only vulnerable, but alone with nothing but a damaged sense of self.
That’s why I don’t like the word mental illness nor do I like when I hear people say they feel sorry for those who they believe have it. Instead I like to think of insanity on a spectrum. (I don’t believe in sanity. I’ve personally never met anyone who I feel is a role model for such a state 100% of the time. I’ve known a lot of comfortable people, and though comfort can look quite sane, I doubt it really is.) And if I suspected someone was tortured in their brain, I would ask questions and let the person answer with dignity which part of their brain was threatening the rest and try to offer healthier alternative perspectives, especially ones that involved the largest aperture of the soul’s journey.
Brain dramas are not representatives of a person’s true self. And the true self never deserves to be diminished by only being seen as mentally ill. I believe when the soul is born we come here to learn something, something to force us to abandon loyalties to old worn-out traditions and customs and instead embrace the understanding of the spirit through something learned in the experiential realm.
My mother was not a poor thing. In fact, she was quite certain the world was far more mentally deficient than she was, and I think she had a good point. My mother was a bullshit whisperer and could look at someone, see both their potential and what was in its way, and say so in a manner that made people love her.
But yes, she had a brain that kept trying to convince her of horrible things. She always knew it wasn’t her. And she had all the right words to remind other people that the negative voices they’d internalized weren’t them. But my mother’s brain was wired differently. It made her special in the most uniquely wonderful ways and the most uniquely tragic ways. I know she tried to make friends with her voices. But the more effective way became to turn to substances to drown them out.
My mother hated people who were drunk. She never wanted me to know she drank. I of course knew she did. She was in and out of the hospital for years and years for binging and almost dying. But she refused to admit it and she’d blame it on anything else she could think of, because to her, drinking was the most horrible contemptible thing to do. Elegant perfect women did not drink. She was more willing to discuss what the voices in her brain were saying than to discuss that she’d drank alcohol.
We all have voices that aren’t ours that we’ve internalized and want freedom from, but some people’s internalized voices are horribly loud. I pray, Dear Mother, that you know I never looked down on you for drinking. I just wish I could have thought of the perfect way to figure out how to help you. You were countless times my angel on earth. My hero on earth. Far more than many of the so-called sane people who felt badly for you. I pray you are here with me. I pray that you are at peace.
The other week, I heard my mother’s voice, with assistance from a dear friend who has a gift for speaking with people on the other side. He told me my mother desperately wanted me to know what she’d learned since passing – that all the rules she’d lived by, all the rules that justified her being disconnected, were wrong. That what she was really doing by adhering to all those rules was trying to have control, and that control is what we want when we’re afraid, and that these kinds of rules are nothing but superstitions.
This gave me such a paradigm shift. I had thought superstitions were stuff like knocking on wood and saying poo poo poo (something I have been addicted to and which drove my mother crazy). And that’s a tiny bit of it, but this other superstition is bigger. It’s needing to behave a certain way to keep others from finding out that we aren’t entirely who we seem to be, or keeping others away who don’t comply with the way we imagine ourselves to be. And these rules aren’t simply to protect ourselves from being criticized or judged for the company we keep. It’s bigger. It’s the fear of being ostracized, abandoned, and maybe even left for the wolves. Human beings have been doing this to each other for eons. Burning each other’s houses down for not believing in what we believe. Perhaps most of us don’t go to this extreme anymore, but don’t we still abandon and disown each other when we feel that our reality and the things we hold safe and familiar are being threatened?
I think of my mother, who did have voices that were horrible, and how her own family diminished her with their oppressive diagnoses instead of cherishing the part of her that was beautiful, and letting her know they’d get to the bottom of that other side together.
Every time my mother would take the bus to wherever I was, I would get a call from my grandmother who would say, “Get rid of her. She’s sick, and there’s nothing you or anyone else without a prescription pad can do.” This is the person who raised my unique mother. No wonder my mother ‘emancipated’ herself and refused to have anything to do with her mother. My grandmother never spoke of her own shortcomings that were so visible to everyone else but her – and yet she had no qualms about taking it upon herself to dismiss another’s journey as invalid, unfortunate, and even pathological, which in turn did nothing but fill the person with fear and doubt, keeping them from being who they might otherwise have become.
I’m so proud of my warrior mother for gaining so much clarity in the face of generations of dysfunction. And the scariest kind of dysfunction—where the inflicted walk around believing without doubt that they are the most right and reasonable in their perspective, and even have a community that agrees with them that this is so.
I’m not saying it was easy growing up with my mother. It was very difficult. My mother knew how to interrupt a person’s life like no other. She didn’t just come into town when her life hit bottom and watch TV or sulk and mope. She exploded on the scene until professionals from the justice system and medical system had to intervene. There were scores of times she needed me, when she’d been kicked out of town for one reason or another and became homeless. And scores of times she would pop out of near-death experiences kind of like Freddie Krueger, and become once again someone full of life and love, humor and wisdom, and I’d have that confusing shift where I’d think, “Ok, she’s here. I have a mother now.”
I remember this one time, when I lived in Brooklyn and my roommates didn’t want her to move in with us, and I came up with the grand idea to send her to the yoga ashram I sometimes visited in Upstate New York. I thought it would be perfect. I thought she could become a Buddhist nun, teach yoga, have long flowing hair and wear it in a braid. When I told my mother the plan I could hear her over the payphone, dragging deep on her True Blue, “What yoga ashram?”
“The one I go to!”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“It’s Upstate, just a couple hours from here!”
“Well, it doesn’t sound like the Shangri-La.”
“You’ll love it! You’ll learn how to do yoga! You’ll meditate! You’ll feel soooo much better!”
There was another puff. A long one.
The swami knew me pretty well from all the classes of his I took and he agreed, after I told him a much less weird version of my mother’s situation, to let her move in temporarily as a volunteer. For the following two days, I heard nothing from my mother. And I was really, really hoping this was good news. But on the third day, I received this message: “Hello.. Jessica??? Ah… Swami Padma here… Ah… Please call me at once. At the ashram. Thank you.” It didn’t sound good. Didn’t sound at all like he was calling to rave about how my mother had miraculously cured Swami Baba’s gout with her homemade fermented burdock tincture.
I hung up the phone and dialed the ashram as fast as I could, pulling long strings of my own flesh away from my fingers with my own teeth, preparing for the inevitable.
“Hi Swami! I got your call!”
“Yes, yes. Uh… this is not working. At all. Your mother refuses to do yoga. I don’t know what to say. If you are going to be at a yoga ashram, you must do yoga.”
“But isn’t she helping with the housework?”
“Yes. I suppose…”
“She’s an excellent cleaner, isn’t she?”
“She cleans fine. But she won’t do yoga.”
“Well, how about keeping her on as the janitor!”
“We have plenty people who clean. And the smoking… She smells like a chimney.”
“People are complaining of second hand smoke coming from her clothes.”
“Are you sure?”
“And she wont take off her shoes…”
“And the liquor – we can’t have liquor in the ashram. Her roommate is upset, very upset.”
“Oh god… Well, can we…”
“And she called for a food delivery… Hamburger.”
“She had a hamburger delivered to the ashram??”
“Oh my god. Well, I’ll talk to her. I don’t think she knew. Oh, oh please, Swami… Please can you give her another chance?”
When I hung up with the Swami, my supervisor tapped my shoulder, “Line two is for you, honey.” I picked up the phone holding my breath praying it wasn’t who I knew it was.
“Darling?! It’s me! I’m at the bus station!”
“Yes, I only have a minute. Your people wouldn’t accept my collect call, but I wanted you to know that I’m taking the next bus to Port Authority. I should be arriving at 2:30. Please meet me there as soon as you can! I just need a place to stay for a couple days! I’m sure your roommates will understand. And if they don’t, fuck ’em! Love you honey! See you soon!”
After I picked her up from Port Authority, we went to a chinese restaurant where she downloaded the tales of her ashram adventure. “Oh, Jessica… They were just rude as can be!”
“Well, for starters, no one showed me to my room. No one helped me with my bags…”
“Well, they don’t have a concierge, Mother. It’s a yoga ashram.”
“Well, they were extremely unwelcoming.”
“Maybe because you wouldn’t take off your shoes.”
“Why should I take off my shoes?”
“Because shoes are dirty. And you’re not supposed to bring alcohol into a place like that, either .
“Because it’s a yoga ashram, Mother. You’re supposed to be intoxicated by god.”
“Well, honey, I needed something a little stronger than god. I was on a goddamn Greyhound bus for 24 hours, I needed to unwind.”
“Well, the Swami said it upset your roommate.”
“She could have used a drink.”
“And there’s no smoking in an ashram, Mother…”
“I had my head out the window.”
“Well, your roommate didn’t like it.”
“It was the only thing I could do to drown out her B.O.!”
It became increasingly evident that my mother was not the yogini I had hoped she might be.
“They wanted me to break my back cleaning the shit off their toilets, and then touch my toes. No thanks. A never met a bigger bunch of sadists.”
I guess she had a point.
After the dramas were over, my mother always felt badly for being what she called a burden. I can remember once visiting her in the emergency room after I’d called 911, and she looked up at me from her stupor and laughed, “You have the mother from hell, don’t you, little girl.” I laughed too. We had this shared understanding, almost like we were backstage behind the curtain of life, where we could speak truths together that had no place in most everyday ordinary conversations.
I was not the best mother to my mother when she needed me, but I never turned her away, well, not until I had my son Brautigan. After I gave birth to my son I realized that for the first time I needed to make some boundaries. I wanted to protect Brautigan from the dysfunction I grew up with and also create the space for me to be the mother I wanted to be for my son. As a result, my mother found herself even more alone than she had been. Slowly, she stopped asking for my help, even though she needed help. Not from me anymore, but from someone who could have really helped. And it’s hard in our society to get the right kind of help. Help has become a business more than a family affair. And too many people need help, including the people who are in the business of helping. I know this all too well from my experience dealing with hospitals all around the country for years and years. In my experience, they were all the same – overworked professionals doing the best they could with limited resources and patients who didn’t even think they needed help to begin with.
When I flew to Florida to visit my mother’s apartment after she passed, I was horrified. It was a still life of her life. Everything just as she left it. All the items arranged in frantic attempts to survive. It was brutal to see. So real. No hiding the struggle that took place. A brilliant soul tortured by a nuisance of a brain. Hiding in stubborn isolation.
There will forever be a lump in my throat and in my heart at what I saw that day. At what I learned that day. There’s never ever a good reason to stay in isolation, to avoid asking for help because the fear of being judged or diminished by others seems too terrible, too tedious, too embarrassing. Pain shouldn’t have to be neglected or protected or self-medicated. Even if the whole world is too busy to be bothered, there will be someone with the time to care, with real words to say, with a real way to help. I pray to be open to notice if someone is looking for someone to care. I wish there was something more I could have done for my mother. But the truth is, I got burned out. I was too busy keeping my own pain a secret. And I had someone else to take care of. Ten little toes.
My mother loved so much of her life. She’d make gourmet food with her meager budget and call to tell me her latest concoction, that it was the best thing she ever tasted. She used to make fun of my speaking in superlatives, but once she got to that part of her life where she had nothing left but soul, she relished in superlatives herself. “Oh Jessica,” she’d say. “I had a cracker party with tuna salad with my special mayo and grapes and it was too DIE for.” I’d love hearing about all her eating extravaganzas. She never seemed sad that she couldn’t afford something she didn’t have. “I wouldn’t trade who I am for the world,” she’d say. She really was always grateful for everything. Much more so than I have ever been. She was always talking about how she found just exactly what she was looking for at St. Vincent De Paul’s, as if it were divine intervention. Or telling me all the times she looked down on one of her walks and found a five-dollar bill or a diamond earing. “I hope you always look down whenever you’re out,” she’d say. “You can’t imagine the treasures people step right over.” She knew someone was always looking out for her. She never once doubted her guardian angels, even when the pain of her life was unimaginable.
That my mother suffered did not diminish who she really was. She was a fractured person, but each part was fascinating to me. And I know now that she was trying to put it all together, but just couldn’t in this lifetime. One of her journals had a title on the top. It said: A Collage of Confusion. It seemed like she had wanted to fill the page with ways to understand her different parts, but the rest of the page is blank.
I realize that it’s kind of perfect that she passed the day after Easter. My mother has been released from her burdens. She is free. And yes, I have heard her voice several times a day. She tells me to be strong. That she will be here, right with me, always.
I found this conversation with my mother from Mother’s Day, 2015:
My mother: I thought of an idea that you need to write about.
My mother: What if… on your birth certificate… it not only stated the day you were born but also the day you will die.
Me: Mother, that’s a terrible idea!
My mother: Why? Don’t you think people would live their lives differently knowing how many days they had left?
Me: I don’t think so. Personally, I’m feeling completely anxious just hearing about your idea.
My mother: Oh Jessica. Is there any thing that doesn’t give you anxiety?
Me: No. Not really.
My mother: Well, you know what should also be written on your birth certificate?
My mother: That you will be anxious every single day of your life. That you will never know what it’s like to wake up in the morning with a sense of well-being and peace. And because you have longevity in your genes, you will be living a longer than usual life with this horrible anxiety encompassing your every single day.
Me: Now, that I could handle.
My mother: Figures. Well, my darling, I need to start heading over to St. Vincent’s DePaul’s before it gets too beastly hot. So go and enjoy your Mother’s Day. Because you are the world’s most wonderful mother, as well as the world’s most wonderful daughter.
Me: Aw, thank you, Mother.
My mother: Don’t thank me, Jessica. You know how very unfond I am of your thank yous.
Me: Well, Happy Mother’s Day to you too, Mother. I wish we could be together.
My mother: There’s nothing I would want more.