This is my biggest fear: ending up like my mother. Depressed, alone, isolated. Living without joy or hope. Isolated and alienated from everyone, imprisoned in a world of one. A world I’ve created and cannot escape.
I fear it because in some ways, I’m like my mother. Not just physically, which is obvious. But in other, powerful and sometimes destructive ways. Emotionally, I can be like her. I don’t have her anger problem, but I’m prone to depression and loneliness. This can cause my thinking to be distorted. I’ll sometimes feel like no one cares about me. The whole world is against me.
If I’m not careful, my thoughts will take me down a dark path. And this is when I merge with my mother. If I continue this way, I’ll start to feel sorry for myself. Nothing good comes from self-pity. It leads to blame, resentment and anger.
My mother is the angriest person I’ve ever known.
I don’t say this lightly. As long as I can remember, she has approached things from a deficit. It isn’t about what is right or good; it’s about what is wrong. What is lacking and who has disappointed her.
The housekeeper didn’t finish all the items on my mother’s list. The waiter’s tone was insolent. Our house wasn’t as large as her sister’s. We weren’t in the right neighborhood. My father didn’t make enough money. Where was the mink coat my mother deserved?
In her mind, my mother had been treated terribly. She was “at death’s door” during childbirth. She “dedicated her life” for her children, who were ungrateful and disrespectful. Someday, we would all be sorry for how we treated her. The Lord will punish us.
This is the brittle exterior that keeps people away. My mother is like a skunk. If you get too close, she will spray you—venomous words designed to crush you. Expletives, negative labels, incidents from your past you’ve tried to forget. Whatever it takes to break you and leave her the victor.
My mother has no boundaries. Her goal is to bring you to your knees, and there is no line she won’t cross.
I’m not an angry person, so we differ in this regard. (My mother’s sadness is turned outward to others; mine is turned inward to myself.) However, I can relate to what is underneath her anger: fear, pain and despair. A soft underbelly of vulnerability—a silent pulse that’s always beating.
My mother is deeply unhappy and has been as long as I can remember. There is a thread of sadness that runs through her. She never escapes it, and it takes very little to unspool the thread and send her into a spiral of gloom.
I’ve also battled depression since childhood. At times it feels like I’m struggling up a steep hill. I’m grasping branches and handfuls of dirt, barely able to pull myself upward. My legs are wobbly and I’m so tired I want it give up. I long for a flat area to sit down and rest, where I can feel the sun on my face.
I wonder if this is how my mother feels. When she gets up in the morning, does she dread the climb that is ahead of her?
I think she does, and that’s why she doesn’t do much. She smokes cigarettes one after the other, watches TV shows one after the other and ignores the disarray around her. Her apartment is filled with clutter and trash, like something on the Hoarders TV show. The end table next to her is littered with bottles of pills—prescriptions, antacids and laxatives for her “stomach problems,” Nyquil for the cold she doesn’t have—over-filled ash trays and endless glasses of Diet Coke.
She is fueled by pills, nicotine and caffeine. Not much food. Not much of anything else.
Every day my mother sits alone in her room. She lives in a senior living community, but there is no “community” for her. She shuns all activities or any interaction with others. She won’t eat in the dining room. She barely eats, anyway, because she must stay thin.
She won’t play cards, bingo, listen to music, exercise or go to church. Most of the other residents probably don’t even know what she looks like, because they never see her. Previously, my mother’s “friends” were her hairdresser, housekeeper, the woman who did her manicures. Anyone who is serving her.
My mother won’t see people because they’ve all mistreated her. They all have one thing in common: they’ve failed her. They don’t deserve her company. She is a queen holding a court of none.
Over, the years, one by one, her “subjects” have escaped.
I was second to last to leave. (My sister is the only one left.) It stands alone as the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There is nothing close to it. Letting go of my mother was—is—agonizing. And it never ends. I am never “done.” I have to do it every day.
Every morning when I get up, I make a decision not to contact her. I make this decision even though it is painful, like a small animal embedded within me, chewing away my insides. Over the years, it has created a cavernous hole: a mother hole.
Here are some of the ways I’ve tried to fill it:
— Changing locations
— Changing jobs
— Changing relationships
— An eating disorder
— Alcohol abuse
— Exercise addiction
— Becoming “successful”
The last one hinges upon the rest, because I once thought success meant marrying the perfect man, being thin and pretty, and having the right job. A splashy job that paid well and put me in a position of power and authority. And, of course, I’d need the perks: fashionable clothes, designer purses, a luxury car. Everyone would see I had it all together.
I convinced myself these things would fill the void inside. I wouldn’t need my mother, because I’d have approval from the world. So I starved my body to a standard of thinness impossible to maintain. I eventually reached a fairly high level at work, and I waited for the expected sense of contentment.
It never came. Instead, I felt compelled to keep striving, to keep trying to get to a place where I felt accepted. And while I was trying to earn the approval of other people, I turned my back on the Lord Jesus Christ. His approval is all I’ve ever needed, but I couldn’t see this. Instead I was focused on pursuing my mother’s love, frantically spinning to earn the favor of a woman incapable of loving me.
The last time I saw my mother was a year ago. I thought the Lord was telling me to contact her, so I booked a flight. We hadn’t been in touch for over three years. The visit began well. There were hugs and tears and heartfelt words on both sides.
One night I treated her to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. I was pleased she agreed to come. My mother is a chain-smoker—three packs per day—so normally she won’t go to a restaurant where she can’t smoke. I ordered a veggie quesadilla and so did she. As a rule, she eats very little, but she finished the whole thing. We chatted and laughed and had a wonderful time.
During that hour, I caught a glimpse of the relationship I’d always wanted with my mother. Years of stress and hurt faded away and I felt an ember of hope alight within me. Maybe this is it. God has healed us. Finally we can be a real mother and daughter. We’ll call each other every day and we’ll be best friends!
On the plane trip home, my heart was still swollen. I was wearing the raincoat my mother literally took off her back and gave me because it was raining when I left. “You can’t go home in the rain without a coat!” she insisted. It was dark pink with white polka-dots. It smelled like her. As the plane took off, I rested my head against the window and closed my eyes. My mind drifted.
I’m five years old and have just learned my ABCs. I can’t wait to tell Mommy! I find her in the bedroom. She is on her side on the big bed. Bouncing on the bed, I say, “Mommy listen!” I sing my ABCs song.
“That’s good,” she says. “Now be quiet.”
“Are you sleeping Mommy?”
“I’m resting my eyes.”
I scoot over next to her, close to her back. I want to take a nap with her, but I’m not sleepy. I turn over a few times, stretching out my legs, trying to get settled.
“Be still,” she says.
I forgot it was her nap time. I get up and go downstairs.
Once I made it home, my head was full of ideas about my mother. Now that we’d broken the ice, I saw us on a new path to a loving mother-daughter relationship. She was having health issues and lived alone. Maybe I should move up there for a few months and take care of her, I thought.
I began mentally planning: what I’d say to my husband, how I’d get there, where’d I’d live, how long I’d be there. A few days later, I had everything organized including a deposit on an apartment. I’d discussed it with my mother and she was excited, calling and texting me about different things she needed. I was happy about being able to help her and was packing my clothes when my phone dinged.
Suddenly, shockingly came a horrible text from my mother. I don’t remember what it said, only that she accused me of something. It felt like an assault. Frantic and upset, I tried to reason with her. But she only got angrier.
Over the next few days, I prayed repeatedly, asking the Lord what I should do and why why my mother was behaving this way. I was convinced God had called me to help my mother, so I didn’t understand what was happening. Did I hear him incorrectly? Was this my will and not his? Was the enemy trying to derail God’s plan? I was filled with turmoil, confusion and fear.
A week later, God had given me an answer. I unpacked my suitcase and canceled the apartment. I knew the Lord hadn’t called me for this. In fact, he was trying to protect me from my mother. But my desire to earn her love was so strong, I wasn’t listening to God at first. I’d convinced myself I could save my mother from herself. If I moved there and waited on her—essentially suspended my everyday life for her—then she would be appreciative. She would be nice. I’d give her everything she needed, and she’d love me. How could she not?
But the Lord had other plans for me. He stopped me before my suitcase was fully packed. Before I had even finished loading my car. As difficult as it was to read my mother’s text, it was important information. It warned me of what was ahead.
God also showed me his love and grace are sufficient. I’ll never be able to earn my mother’s love. No matter how much I love her, give her or try to serve her, I can’t make her well. All I can do is pray for her to surrender to the Lord.
That is what I do now, especially in the darkest times like Mother’s Day, her birthday, Christmas. The enemy will tell me I’m a bad daughter and God is going to punish me, just as my mother said all those years ago. But I ignore him and seek the Lord. I ask for strength and pray for my mother.
I take comfort in this: No one—not even my mother—is beyond God’s help. However, whether she seeks him is not my decision. Is it hers.