Feelings and Whatnot


As the weather slowly warms in Chicago, people gradually shed their various layers. It is now commonplace to see people without hats, scarves and gloves.

As I walk to my office in the morning, I notice peoples’ bare hands as they walk. Their fingers curve inward as their arms swing. I wonder what those hands did this morning, what they will be doing at work today, and what they will do tonight to celebrate the weekend. I wonder if they are the hands of happy people. Sometimes I have an almost overwhelming urge to slip my hand into a stranger’s hand, squeeze, and tell them it will be all right.

I am in third grade.  We have recently moved to a new city and state, and the transition has been deeply difficult for me.  I am a third-grade pariah, for some reason.  It is a Saturday, and I learn, somehow, that there is a school skating party being held at that very minute.  I march in the front door and sass my mother, telling her it is all her fault that I am missing the skating party.  She tries to reason with me, but I am filled with white-hot 9-year old rage.  She sends me to my room where we continue our battle.  She begins to hit me.  On my side and back, I think, although my memory fails me on that detail.  She runs out of the room, horrified with herself.  Minutes later my father, who cannot cope with a malfunctioning VCR and yet maintains the most serene disposition in the face of a real, legitimate crisis, comes in to discuss what happened with me.  We talk about my hurtful words.  We talk about how sorry my mother is.  It is the first, last and only time either of my parents will ever lay a hand on me in anger.  No one ever mentions it again.

I am in middle school; 12 or 13, I think.  My brother and I have been latchkey kids for several years, coming home after school to entertain ourselves until our parents arrived home from work around 5.  I am aware that my mother is overweight.  Very overweight.  I can never remember her NOT being overweight.  I am aware that she does very little cooking and cleaning (my father does virtually none), and that she almost always comes home from work, puts on her pajamas, and disappears into her bedroom.  I am aware that my parents are fighting, and that we are having financial problems.  I am aware that I have already assumed a motherly role toward my younger brother, and that we fend for ourselves a lot.  I don’t yet know that much of this is related to my mother’s deep, crippling depression.  I complain to my mother that her insistence on smoking while we are all in the car together irritates my asthma.  She snaps at me that her smoking has no impact on my asthma.

My mother comes home one day and tells us that she has been diagnosed as a Type II diabetic.  I can still see the light blue booklet she shared with us, showing the “exchange values” of several foods.  My mother talks of watching her diet and keeping her blood sugar under control and losing weight.  I say something about how she will look better at 40 than she did at 30.

I am 14, preparing to enter high school.  My brother is playing baseball at the local little league baseball diamond.  My parents have been relentless in their conflict.  I blame my father.  I ask my mother if she has ever thought of divorcing my father.  She says she has, but that she fears he would try to get custody of my brother.  There is no mention of me.

I am in high school.  While our financial situation has gone from dire to tolerable thanks in part to a very modest inheritance from my maternal grandmother, I know my parents barely stand each other based in part on still-fresh fiscal resentments.  They have not slept in the same bed in years.  After a dinner usually cooked by me or picked up from a local pizza or Chinese joint, my father retreats to the basement and my mother disappears into her bedroom, smoking her True Green 100 cigarettes and drinking Coke and watching television.  She has gained more weight in these past few years, but is still able to function enough to go to her secretarial job.  I rarely emerge from my own bedroom, because the clutter and the mess and the filth begin to overwhelm me.

I am a senior in high school.  My academic success has merited me a full tuition scholarship at a college 500 miles away in Big City.  It is the only way I can go to college: for free.  I am scared, excited, and deeply guilty.  I am guilty over leaving my mother behind.  I am guilty over leaving my brother behind to navigate his teenage years with my parents, alone.

I am finishing college.  I have become engaged, and my mother and I are discussing some wedding plans.  I am unenthusiastic and uninterested.  Part of me wants to marry this man so that I can insert myself into his Norman Rockwell family and leave my own behind.  Part of me knows this is a mistake, and that it is grossly unfair to the man I am marrying because I do not love him the way a wife should love a husband.  I do not share this with my mother.  She tells me that her doctor has put her on insulin.  She is happy and relieved that she can now worry even less about what she eats.  She is still smoking, still drinking Coke.  She takes countless pills every day for her depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

I am in graduate school.  I learn that I am expecting D1.  Through an entirely coincidental series of events, my parents end up moving to the same area where I plan to move after graduate school.  One of the conditions my mother places on her willingness to move is that my father allow her to retire.  She is heavier than ever; old habits never die for her.  She is 50 when they move and she “retires.”  We all know that it would be impossible for her to continue working.  My small-boned mother, who is just over 5′ 4″, weighs well over 350 pounds.  I am able to spend a lot of one-on-one time with my father over a period of several months during my pregnancy.  I come to understand that 99% of the time, there is plenty of blame to go around for marital discord.  My parents’ marriage is no different.

I am a young mother starting my professional career.  We host my then-in-laws and my parents for a birthday.  My mother is unable to do anything but sit on a chair, elevated as much as possible by extra pillows that I will wash three times after she leaves.  She sits and watches as D1’s other grandmother plays with D1 on the floor, enthusiastic, beautiful, lithe and full of energy.  She tells me later that it was very, very hard for her to watch that, how it made her feel bad that she misses out on so much with my daughters.  My father’s near-fatal heart attack scares her into quitting her smoking habit, but nothing else.  I am so grateful that she has quit.  Now that she no longer smells like cigarette smoke, I notice that she smells of unwashed body parts.  She showers every day, and yet there are places she cannot reach and clean.  She drinks Coke straight out of the 2-liter bottle.  Her bedroom floor is littered with sacks of empty 2-liter bottles, empty microwave popcorn bags, boxes of crackers, bags of chips, and the mangled remains of candy bar wrappers.   She will mention the possibility of weight loss surgery over the next year or two, but it will never be more than a passing comment.  Soon she will slip on some water on the floor in her laundry room and fracture her pelvis.  The fracture will go undiagnosed for many months.  Her endocrinologist will continue to enable her, and will never push her to face the harsh realities of her situation.  Her fractured pelvis will render her almost entirely bedridden for over a year.

I am a more seasoned professional.  D1 has started school, and D2 is in the middle of toddlerhood.  My marriage has finally started its inevitable collapse.  I am starting to buckle under the weight of serving as my mother’s primary source of emotional support.  For this and many, many other reasons, my then-husband and I decide to move to Big City, where his family lives.  My mother is devastated.  She tells me this.  She supports me emotionally and uses her credit card to pay many thousands of dollars of legal bills during my divorce.

I am in the midst of my divorce.  D1 and D2 are both in school now, and I have moved into my own place.  I have begun the long, painful, arduous process of putting myself back together emotionally.  What limited mobility my mother has enjoyed over the past few years is gone when she dislocates her shoulder.  She needs surgery to repair it, but the doctors will not perform it due to her extreme weight.  She is now well over 500 pounds.  She and my father are still married, but live separately due to his job.  He escapes to China for two years for work.  She develops a rash in the folds of her skin.  The rash becomes infected, and she spends nearly a week in the hospital with a severe staph infection.  When she is released, I come to stay for a weekend.  I walk in the front door of her house and am nearly knocked out by the smell of urine and garbage.   The smell has been there for years and years but now has reached a disturbing intensity.  She has not had a bowel movement in nearly a week.  The hospital has provided her with a bedside commode.  One night she finally moves her bowels, and the next morning she insists that I empty the commode.  I have an anxiety attack and nearly vomit, but I do it.  Later she tells me that I am not a nurturer.  The next night she falls in her bedroom, and we must summon an emergency crew to get her off the floor and back into her bed.  It takes four EMTs and me over an hour.  After I leave, she needs regular visits from nurses and home health aides to help tend to her wounds and try to stay on top of the increasingly disgusting house.

I have remarried.  I know that this concerns her.  Three weeks after my backyard elopement, I become pregnant much to my surprise.  She tells me that she cannot be happy about it yet.  At some point during my pregnancy she is able to feel some measure of joy about the imminent arrival of her only grandson.  S is born, and she and my father come for a visit, staying in a hotel near our house.  My mother is able to hold the baby for a few minutes at a time.  She gets up to use the bathroom, and when she returns she has put on her dressing gown (and is so out of breath I expect her to fall over dead of a heart attack right there).  She announces that she did not change because she wants us to leave, but because she “piddled” on herself while using the bathroom.  I am sad and embarrassed for her.  Since S was born eight months ago, she has held him a dozen times, for perhaps a total of 30 minutes.  I am sad for my son, who I know will never really know his grandmother.  I am sad for my daughters, who will not have their grandmother at their graduations or their weddings.  I am sad for my mother, who threw in the towel on life decades ago.  I am sad for myself, because I had to grow up before I even finished elementary school.  I know that she did the best she could with the emotional tools available to her.  I know she has been very sick emotionally for a very long time.  I am grateful to have a mother at all; my best friend lost her mother more than a decade ago, and another close friend was cut out of his parents’ lives after he divorced.  And I still feel cheated and mad as hell.

Today my mother is nearly 62.  I estimate she weighs at least 600 pounds.  She never leaves her house unless someone is driving her somewhere, and even then it is an event she must prepare for days in advance, and from which she must recover for days following.  She spends 90% of her time in bed, and the other 10% of her time sitting in an extra large office chair at the dining room table.  She is unable to wash her own hair.  She has congestive heart failure.  She is in complete denial about the severity of her condition.  She is my mother and I love her so much.  And she will likely be gone in a year or two, almost entirely because of the lifestyle choices she has been making for 35 years.

Lyn at Escape From Obesity has written beautiful things about her late father.  Check her out.

I’m struggling a lot today with compassion.  I am learning how to love myself, and how to acknowledge my struggles and difficulties without beating myself up about them, or descending into an endless spiral of self-pity.  When I’m having a rough stretch (see, e.g., last night’s trip to the emergency room with D1), I find that it becomes virtually impossible for me to feel compassion for certain people in my life.

This rattles me terribly.  I have always been a compassionate, empathetic person.  The fact that I have always been overly willing to put others first is why I am such a goddamned co-dependent.  I’ve been working on it, and I’ve been doing better.  Part of putting myself some of the time involves putting myself ahead of others.  That’s fine and great; I’ve made peace with that.  But there has been this occasional side effect of a complete absence of compassion for certain people in certain situations.  And that’s…well…it’s just not me.

Sometimes I simply cannot listen to one more complaint, because DAMN IT ALL TO HELL, THINGS ARE TOUGH FOR ME RIGHT NOW AND I DON’T HAVE ANY MORE EMOTIONAL ENERGY LEFT OVER FOR YOU.  And then, I read this.  A reminder of the horrible struggles faced by people I care about.  Just as they can’t truly know what I go through on a day-to-day basis, I cannot know their pain.  But I CAN understand that we all live our lives with our own special brand of pain.  Your pain isn’t any more or less legitimate than mine.  People I care about suffer their own pain; very real pain that tortures them in ways I can’t possibly know.  Some days I have the energy to share in others’ pain.  Some days I simply don’t.

Just acknowledging the existence and legitimacy of that pain is enough.  After all, isn’t that what we all want as fully-formed individual human beings: acknowledgment?  I’m working on always keeping that in the back of my mind.  We are all individuals, with the right to make our own decisions (and to handle the consequences of those decisions).  I will accept that these people I care about are following their own paths, and that it is not my job, duty or even my right to try and steer them in the direction that I think is correct.  I will focus on myself, and my own emotional health, because that is all that is within my control.

So I feel like I should write a little about the fact that I am not yet identifying myself, my career or my city, or sharing my family members’ names.  Part of me does feel like it’s a total cop-out, and I am somehow taking less ownership of my thoughts and feelings and writings by staying anonymous.

Part of what has brought me here is my aforementioned newfound commitment to being honest with myself and expressing myself, and working through the issues that I have allowed to dictate the life that I live.

And oh my hell, do I have issues.  Control issues, mostly.  My time with Al Anon has helped me to at least identify my need to control, and I am learning tools that are helping me relinquish my constant need to control every single goddamn thing around me.  It’s a journey and a process: a long one.  One that is filled with two steps forward, one step back.  I’m sure that as I make progress and become more comfortable dumping me thoughts and feelings into the void, I will reveal more about myself.

And now for the part where I share another of my favorite blogs.  Considering she has won “blog of the year,” or something along those lines, it’s a blog that I’m sure 99.9999999% of the blogosphere has read.  Nevertheless, I love what she writes, I love her photos and recipes, and most of all, I love that she is an unabashed optimist.  Ladies and gentlemen, The Pioneer Woman.