Thursday, August 12, 2010

Another Woman's Life

Jane grew up the as the fifth child of six. Two of them were boys and the other four were girls. The youngest child, a sister, was her mother's favorite. Jane's father was quite a bit older than her mother, and his second wife. There was a half-brother from her father's previous marriage, but he was so much older than her that he was more of an "uncle" figure. She got along better with him than her other siblings, but he had his own home and family and they saw little of one another.

With such a large family, she grew up feeling lost and unloved and felt rejected by her mother in particular. Her mother was status-conscious, demanding, and very hard to please. She insisted that Jane scrub floors until they shined, and she grew up to loath housework as a result. She looked outside of her family to fill the emptiness and set her sights on a boyfriend from a young age. Her mother disapproved of Jane's boyfriend, a young man who Jane first encountered at a roller skating rink around the age of 12. Even at such a tender age, he was smoking and drinking beer.

Wanting nothing more than to escape her family situation, Jane asked to marry her boyfriend, Ed, a few years before the legal age (which was 21 at that time). She had just finished high school with a "C" average and a year book picture she didn't consent to that had a nickname she hated under it, "Skunk." She hadn't been popular in school nor academically gifted. The way she could move on with her life was to get married to a person who loved her and get away from a mother who she never pleased and who made her do things she hated around the house.

Ed had quit school in the 9th grade and grew up without a father or a mother for the most part. His mother left him with his grandmother while she ran around living her life as she pleased, including frequenting bars. His parents had separated and his father was uninvolved in his life. His grandmother beat him and favored his sole sibling, a sister. His "pedigree" didn't come up to snuff for Jane's mother and she would not agree to allow them to marry. The consent she required for an early marriage was granted by her father. Her mother never approved of her marriage to this man, and constantly judged Jane's lifestyle from the start of their union. She never visited Jane and Ed's home, but did expect her daughter to come to her for regular visits.

Jane entered marriage with the expectation of a white picket fence existence. Ed would work and earn money and she would be a housewife and have children. She had two children, and some time in their early primary school education, her husband suffered a series of accidents on the job which left him intermittently paralyzed on his left side. Ed was told that he had a blood clot in his brain which would eventually float to the wrong place, block the wrong blood vessel and he would die. He was given 6 months to live and turned to alcohol to hide from the terror he felt at his impending young death.

This situation crushed Jane's dream of a traditional family life. Her husband's disability payments were just enough to live on. They had a house with a mortgage and two children and she had a yearning to live up to the lifestyle of her now adult younger sister. The youngest sister, Judy, still lived with her mother and had an impressive rotation of new lifestyle upgrades like new furniture, electronics, and cars on a regular basis. For a family on a disability payment income, this was an impossible standard to reach.

Jane tried hard to keep up with her sister by buying things "on time". She'd have a new furniture set just as her sister did, but would have to spend a year making payments. Eventually, she had to turn to a sequence of dead-end, low-paying jobs to help support the family. She worked one job after another, often getting fired or laid off at the first opportunity in order to collect unemployment because she hated being told what to do and often complained behind the boss's back to people who later told the boss. This inability to do what she was told was courtesy of the way her mother pushed her so hard to do more housework than she was comfortable doing in her younger days. She simply did not like to be bossed around by anyone.

While Jane worked, Ed did nothing around the house to help look after their children, and spent most of his days watching T.V., smoking, and going to bars. Some nights, she'd bundle her kids up and load them into the car and visit every bar in the adjacent neighborhoods to track him down and drag him home. There were many arguments and threats about divorce, but neither of them were capable of living on their own so they remained unhappily together.

Debt started to pile up as Jane tried to have a lifestyle that was beyond her means. She felt she deserved nice things, and would often buy things on payment plans or take out loans to consolidate all existing debt so that she could minimize overall payments and start a bunch of new ones. She bought things for people to impress them and gave them gifts to show them that she liked them or cared about them. Her children, despite being poor, were never without a lavish Christmas with huge piles of gifts under the tree.

Often, it would take months to pay the debt for all of those presents, but she used material possessions to not only show love, but to justify her need to buy things. She wanted to shop anyway, and saying it was "for the kids" made her feel like she was being altruistic when she overspent massively. The gaps in her increasingly difficult and dissatisfying life were something she tried to fill with stuff.

One of the things which Jane didn't understand about herself, but was certainly the case, was that she was a very sensitive person. Loud noises startled her. She complained loudly about bad smells that came her way. Her feelings were easily hurt. She turned to food in addition to shopping to drown the pain, and gained a lot of weight. She often weighed between 200-250 lbs., sometimes a bit more or less depending on whether she was making an effort to diet.

She also felt starved for attention and friendship. As a result of being physically abused as a child, Ed was closed off and rarely expressed affection or feelings. He didn't tend to empathize with her when she was in pain, either physical or mental. Part of that was his closed off nature, and part was the constant fear he lived with of his own death. The doctors were wrong when they predicted his young and early death, but he still suffered crippling headaches that could only be muted by extremely potent prescription pain killers and occasionally went suddenly blind in his left eye or became paralyzed on the left side of his body. There were recurrent and terrifying reminders of the results of his accident and the possibility that he could die at any moment. He tended only to say anything loving when drunk, and even then rarely.

What was more, Ed completely abdicated all responsibility as an adult. He wouldn't go into banks, pay bills, grocery shop, file tax forms, or look after his children. This was because he felt insecure and lacked confidence in most "public" interactions. He didn't want to look foolish, so he was unwilling to go into any situation in which he wasn't fully comfortable. The burden to do everything fell to Jane, with her sensitive disposition and easy sense of feeling overwhelmed. There were times when she would say she couldn't take it anymore and would cry or put her head in her hands. Ed would ignore her or sometimes berate her for this. Her children would feel scared and insecure. Sometimes she'd talk about losing the house or not being able to pay the electric bill. She juggled the financial balls so that she could keep shopping because it was all she had to mute her misery and fill the emptiness left by her shattered dreams of white picket fences and housewife bliss. Sometimes, the balls would all fall at once.

Many people didn't like Jane very much once they got to know her because she talked too much, often lied to represent herself as more knowledgeable or to keep conversations going, and she often gossiped. Eventually, the friends who she told things to compared stories and they knew she was talking badly about them behind their backs. Most of her female friends were the wives of Ed's drinking buddies and even poorer than her. She enjoyed putting them down, because it helped her elevate herself. Much as her mother used her as the black sheep to elevate herself, Jane used her friend's lives to make her feel like she was "better" than others. This was behavior her mother role modeled all too well, and her daughter naturally picked up on this way of boosting her esteem at the expense of others.

Eventually, she had only one friend left, and alienated her when she snapped and reached out and slapped a noisy child who was at her friend's house. She apologized and admitted for the first time in her life that she was pulled to the brink and reacted badly, but the friend wouldn't accept her apology and hung up on her. The truth was that she was constantly lashing out at people because she was in pain or distress due to being overstimulated and overwhelmed by all of the responsibility that she bore alone, but she usually did so verbally and only toward immediate family, and she never, ever apologized to them. She couldn't bring herself to admit she was responsible for her behavior, because her low self-regard required that she be "right" all of the time. This caused her children to withdraw from her, so she had a distant husband, and kids who put a wall between themselves and her to protect themselves. This made her even more profoundly lonely.

As the years went by, Jane developed a wide variety of problems and had some accidents. She had her first major health scare when she was around 22 or 23 years old. She developed a gangrenous infection in her uterus after her second child and nearly died. She was also told that she couldn't have more children after the damage done to her by that infection. In later years, while performing a particularly degrading job for horrible wages, delivering pizzas, she crashed into a stone wall with the only brand new car she and her husband had ever built. She came back concussed, bruised, and with cracked bones. She also lost all of her beautiful teeth around age 26 to periodontal disease. It wasn't that she didn't take care of them, but rather a bad role of the genetic dice. In her early 30's, she was told she had the genetic disorder, retinitis pigmentosa. This was another bad roll as it affects women far less often than men. She was going to slowly go blind.

At one point, she was having intense headaches that wouldn't go away for a prolonged period of time and was taking pain killers. She became so confused that she accidentally overdosed and "died", but was revived. When asked why she kept taking pills, she said that she "just wanted the pain to go away." She was nearly committed to a mental health ward for being suicidal, but she begged her daughter not to allow her to be put in there and she intervened with a doctor who warned that she would try to kill herself again. She didn't. She never meant to in the first place. It was just another bad roll of the dice.

As the years went by, she tried to find ways to fulfill herself. She opened a video arcade that failed. She went back to college in her mid-50's to get a degree, but couldn't find work related to her field with her failing sight. She opened a candy store which was reasonably successful, but had to be closed when her blindness allowed too much shoplifting to go unnoticed. As the years went by, she developed crippling arthritis and a disorder where she couldn't get enough oxygen to nourish her blood for a brief trip across a room. Now, she has to carry around an oxygen tank and undergo repeated tests to find the cause of her malady. Her only pleasures are going to a senior center and attending its outings, food, listening to books on tape, and shopping with assistance. Since she suffers so much pain on a daily basis, she is demanding, temperamental, and unsympathetic to those around her when they experience difficulties. She feels no one suffers or has suffered as she has.

Jane's life didn't turn out in any way as she expected. Her mother was judgmental and showed overt disapproval of all of her choices. Her mother's love was entirely conditional and she never felt truly loved when she was growing up. She married a man who she adored and expected to fulfill her need to be loved and accepted, and he was an alcoholic who couldn't express love due to his abusive upbringing and absent parents. She wanted to live the life of a housewife and mother, but was forced to take a series of dead-end, low-paying, low-status jobs to augment her husband's disability payments and support her family. She wanted to live a comfortable lifestyle and have nice things, but she was too poor and fiscally irresponsible to ever have the type of life she wanted. She wanted to have friends, but her self-esteem was too low to be herself and she alienated them with lies and gossip. Instead of living a relatively healthy life, she suffered one health set-back after another, and inherited a terrifying genetic disease. Most painful of all, she wanted to be loved and to have meaningful companionship, but everyone put distance between themselves and her.

Of course, I am one of the people who put distance between her and myself, and you may have guessed that Jane is my mother. I tell this story because I often speak of the behaviors my mother has carried out that have damaged me and created a lot of my weight and food issues, as well as my neuroses and psychological problems. However, I want it to be clear, that I love my mother and I understand that she never, ever meant any harm to me or anyone else. I know she loved me, and never acted out of anything other than her own pain and strife. She was dealt an incredibly bad hand in life, and is a very fragile person. Like many emotionally frail people, the best of her, including her warmth, her loving nature, her strength, and her giving of herself both materially and emotionally, has been crushed under the oppressive weight of life's responsibilities and problems.

I recognize that, like me, my mother was cursed with high sensitivity. And, like me, she had no choice in the matter. It is just the way her nervous system is built. Unlike me though, she wasn't given certain gifts in life. She didn't have my intellect growing up. She didn't have a mother who told her she should work hard to be independent, educated, and try to make her own way in life because you don't want to be dependent on a man. She didn't have my self-awareness, and most importantly, she didn't have a life partner who is as close to psychological perfection in terms of character strength and self-esteem as a human can possibly be. My parents are both damaged people who did more damage to each other with their respective weaknesses. They are not, however, bad people. Both of them do not willfully hurt people, and I think even my emotionally distant father loves his daughters and wife, but cannot act on those feelings due to his inhibitions.

My mother did a lot of things which ended up hurting me, but she was acting on chains of behavior that were carried from her mother to herself, and responding as best she could to the incredible hardship of her life. I offer her the same compassion and understanding that I offer others when I speak about eating disorders. Like them and me, she was controlled in the present by all of the things she couldn't control in the past. Unlike me, she was never given the support or reprieve from life's problems in order to get out from under those negative influences and stressors. I can't be angry with her for what she did to me because it was never what she wanted to do to me. She wanted to be a good person and to be a loving wife and mother, and a lot of the time, she was.

Though I still suffer because of her influence to this day, I want to at least take one post to give her credit for the things she did which make me stronger. She did love me then and still does. She sacrificed her time and energy to care for her family financially and was the only adult in a family where there should have been two of them. She emphasized my sister's and my capabilities and encouraged us to better ourselves. She was proud of my sister's and my achievements and praised our grades and academic excellence. She did anything she could to give us the things we wanted despite our poverty. She would march into record stores and ask if she could have their promotional posters or materials for my favorite rock band because I was too shy to do so and so delighted to have those types of special items that no one else, regardless of the money they had, could have. She made sure I had a car at an early age, and taught me how to drive. She played card games with me and taught me to play well. My mother, before she reached her current broken state due to her health problems, blindness and relative social isolation, could be a charismatic force and often showed incredible kindness. She loves people and wants to be around them. She needs it, and has suffered for the lack of this sort of contact.

I forgave my mother for all of the damage she did to me a very long time ago. I still talk about it here because it is part of my therapeutic process. Sometimes, I even remark on it with irony or sarcasm, but there's no anger there. Mostly, I feel sorry that her life has been so incredibly hard and I have infinite compassion and empathy for what she has gone through. I just wanted her to be human and represent her in the proper context to people who follow my blog. She deserves that much, and more.

Note: I don't put a picture of my parents on this post because I have no regard for their privacy. The truth is that no one who would recognize them at that age is still alive, or at the very least, not trolling the Internet. There are only a few people who would recognize the picture of them in their late teens at all. One is my sister and the other are my mother's surviving siblings who are all computer illiterate. The truth is that using the picture puts my identity at risk as much as hers since I would be known as her daughter by anyone who recognized the picture.

I put the picture there because I want to show that my mother was once this young, fresh, happy person who had just married the man of her dreams and clearly had high hopes for her future. Her smile shows who she was and who she had the potential to be had life not completely dealt her one of the worst possible hands. There was no way the woman in that picture knew what was to come, and it makes me (literally) cry to think of all the dreams and quite reasonable needs she deserved to have fulfilled that were dashed by fate.


Anonymous said...

This post is a beautiful tribute to two human beings who did not have the help they needed to reach their potentials. We all need support. It is lovely that you can see beyond your parents parents weaknesses and flaws to their soft centers, and to understand their lost opportunities for change.

I often wonder what made me different from my parents, only one of whom is psychopathic, while the other is narcissistic. Both of them had difficult childhoods. My childhood was at least as damaging, but for some unknown reason I developed self insight (and intuition), which both of them lack. I haven't seen or spoken with my father in 25 years, and it has been over 10 years since I stopped having any contact with my mother (and hence my siblings). Frankly, it has been a relief. When I changed my phone number a few months ago, it dawned on me that I would never again be vulnerable to a phone ambush from any of them. I feel safer than ever before.

I treasure your blog for its insight and for your beautiful way of expressing things that I, too, feel--and that I suspect are common experiences for many of us who struggle to overcome self-medicating behaviors--but that I do not have the inclination, or talent, to put into words.

Thank you again.


NewMe said...

What a powerful post. And what love you express for a woman in extraordinarily difficult straits!

Makes me think of my mom and how much I love her. She's been gone almost ten years.

screaming fatgirl said...

Thank you for taking the time to read all of that, Rebecca, and for understanding their situation. It honestly breaks my heart that both of them were never really given much of a chance. Frankly, I think they were ill-suited for one another. My mother needed to marry someone stronger, as did my father. However, I can't say that I would have had them marry anyone else since I wouldn't be who I am otherwise.

I'm sorry that one of your parents is psychopathic, though I wonder if you use that colorfully or psychiatrically. Neither of my parents is "psychopathic", though both are neurotic and very damaged. I think it is important to cut yourself off from people who act destructively in your life. It really is what makes healing, and perhaps forgiveness, possible.

Thank you also for your kind words about my writing. It really does make the effort worth it when people respond so favorably. Though I am sorry that you don't have the inclination to share your own stories through you own blog, I really appreciate that you take the time to write some of them here in my comments.

emmabovary said...

This post speaks leagues about the kind of person you are. I am in awe.

My mother, who died last year, was a cruel, machavelian sociopath. "Mommy Dearest" was an amateur compared to her. So cruel and morally bankrupt, she even constructed her will to leave a "dirty bomb" which would explode posthumously; further ensuring that her bile would continue hurting her three children long after she departed this world.

There are people you can try and understand, and forgive (and it sounds like your mother was one of these) and then there are those you shouldn't even attempt burn brain cycles over.

Your post is intriguing in what it teaches us about you, and how you have framed your mother's challenges so that you yourself can gain understanding. The substantial part here is that *you* were not the trigger for *her* issues. It is terrific that you recognize this and have released any cupability...for indeed, you had nothing to do with her behaviors.

screaming fatgirl said...

NewMe: Thank you for your kind words, and taking the time to read that. Sometimes, I'm really worried about how I'll feel when my mother dies since we've been out of touch for so long (due to her blindness and my living abroad making any sort of relationship almost impossible).

emmabovary: I'm so sorry to hear that the situation was so horrible with your mother. I read "Mommy Dearest", and if she was worse than that, your upbringing must have been hellish.

Thank you for saying such kind things about me. I really do appreciate it quite sincerely. This was a hard post for me to write and affirmation that it was meaningful makes it worthwhile. It wasn't hard because I had to muster the effort to empathize (as I have felt this way for a long time), but because reviewing my parents' difficult lives filled me with sadness, particularly since there was never anything I could do to "rescue" them in any way from their respective fates.