I don't often write about very personal matters, and in the case of my mother, I've put aside a lot of feelings and thoughts about her during the latter part of my adult life. She's on the cusp of death right now due to a fall and subdermal hematoma, and I feel that it's time to share what she and I have been going through for the last probably 30 years. I'm sitting in her hospital room, with little to do to be of practical help, and I need to vent. I've always felt totally alone when dealing with my mother and that there was no silver bullet to fixing her problems. I've uploaded a few photos taken today with my iPhone to show you the kind of earthquake my mother has been experiencing, due to mental illness.
Growing up, Jean was one of the most thoughtful, creative and disorganized people I knew. She threw me the most original birthday parties ranging from a mother/daughter tennis tournament to a find Nancy Drew scavenger hunt to a Preppy Handbook co-ed dance. She was perennially late to pick me up at school, and generally not great at keeping house.
She also had a volatile temper, but I knew that she loved me fiercely. She stuck through a difficult, tumultous marriage to my father, which left her wounded. She was also the only child of two North Shore parents, who probably indulged her and saved her financially many times over the years. Her North Shore upbringing also created a certain snobbishness in her, and she was proud of being a debutante and other things that frankly don't really matter in the real world. She had been a popular student at New Trier High School and Wells College, resulting in being a bridesmaide in 14 weddings and a godmother to three friends' offspring.
Professionally, I think my mother was caught in a hard place as a product of the 1950's. She earned a Master's in English from Michigan, yet the major expectation for her was to come home and be a nice secretary at the Northern Trust and snag a husband at the same time. She didn't go this route and ended up teaching English at Lake Forest High School, where she met my father, and later, Woodlands Academy.
When I was sixteen, we finally had a name for her eccentricity and volatility.... she was diagnosed as bipolar after many years in therapy. She then had two psychiatrists, one for talk therapy and the other for medication. Lithium didn't work for her, and consequently, she was a guinea pig to all sorts of new drugs over the course of thirty years. Jean wouldn't consult with other doctors and her main shrink chalked up her troubles to the fact that they couldn't medically stabilize her in order to address her personality issues. She was hospitalized three times between my senior year of high school and senior year of college, I think, and my biggest fear was that I would end up with the same fate. I still can remember a college boyfriend telling me one night when I was feeling morose about something to snap out of it and stop acting like my mother.
To this day, most of my mother's friends and I believe that these two shrinks enabled my mother, and that their actions inevitably led to my mother's decline. I'll never have the energy to prove their Svengali-like relationship, but I know that they gave her too many pills and counseled her to stay in a house she couldn't afford as her money was running out. My mother desperately wanted people who would agree with her around her, and these two fit the bill. When I tried to talk reality with my mother, she ignored my advice as if her problems would just go away and as I grew older, I realized I couldn't make her do what I thought was best for her.
She was hell bent on staying in a crumbling, small house and hell bent on filling it with books, magazines and assorted junk she collected, but never could weed out or organize. Later, she didn't see this house as filthy, and wouldn't let people in to clean, or even assess the situation. As her money has been running out, she refused to sell, even after falling several times. Her life as she knew it has ended, and this is what she wanted. Peter and I are now left to pick up the pieces and to play detective with all the particulars of her insurance, bank accounts and mounting bills which seem to be in arrears.
I'm thankful for Peter who didn't let me completely withdraw from her and made me see her once in awhile. He encouraged me to play the dutiful daughter, even when I harbored great anger towards her for not being there as a mother or grandmother most of my adult life. I'm also thankful for my mother's wonderful, surprisingly tolerant neighbors in their little cul-de-sac circle of trust. I'm particularly grateful to her next door neighbor, Richard, who even when he was losing his own beautiful and beloved wife to cancer, made a point to watch out for my mom. If he hadn't checked on her this past Monday morning, my mother would most likely not be here. He and his wife over the years have taught Peter and a great deal about what it means to be good neighbors, and have made me realize that not all people in this privileged town are self-centered and into appearances.
So I sit here in my mom's ICU room, contemplating her life, and her impact on me. The one good thing that is coming out of all of this is that we can now control her quality of life. We can make her comfortable in a clean place, and perhaps she'll recover enough to enjoy visits from her grandchildren and other simple things. I think this is the best case scenario, but it's too early to tell what her prognosis will be.
I hope to continue writing about my mom and her complexities... I've saved a lot of her correspondence in hopes of digging into her words to understand her better. Thanks for reading and letting me vent.