I wrote about my mom’s relationship with a married man and how that played into her mental illness, in my memoir Girls, Assassins & Other Bad Ideas. One fact I’m continually reminded of is that so often, as children living in our childhoods, we can’t recognize dysfunction for what it is because we lack any context to compare it to. “Normal” is just what’s regular for us. It wasn’t until I was working on my book that I was able to see the bouts of depression my mother went through, so clearly.
If you haven’t read the book yet (and you totally should! ;) ) then the quick context is that my mother was in a relationship with a married man who worked for the railroad. His wife and family lived in El Paso Texas, whereas my mom and I lived in Lordsburg New Mexico. His job literally had him taking the train back and forth, and my mother’s moods were completely wrapped up in whether he was there with us, or not. When he was gone my mother wouldn’t bathe or get dressed. Not only would she not eat, but it fell on me to figure out what I would eat. She did make sure the options usually available to me were things she knew I didn’t like. If she was miserable then she wanted everyone around her miserable too. On these days she’d be naked beneath her house robe, chain-smoking with the shades drawn. The endless supply of Dr. Pepper in her glass would be the only thing motivating her to get up off the couch unless, of course, she could have me refill it for her. She’d watch hours of Perry Mason or Dragnet on repeat when they were available. When they weren’t, she’d switch the channel to classic movies. When word came that he was headed back to us, she’d take a bath, clean the house while dancing to her favorite records, and visit the grocery store. She’d get her hair done at the beauty shop and apply makeup to perfection. The smile on her face was radiant… She was, quite literally, a kept woman whose entire world revolved around the scraps that a married man would give her.
For a huge chunk of the twenty-eight years my husband and I have been married he traveled for work. Sometimes he’d been gone a week, and other times longer. Always an avid believer that I struggled when my routine changed, the first few days that he was gone would always throw me into a slump. I’d lack any motivation or emotional energy. It wasn’t that I was lost without him as much as I became overcome by this dense cloud that seemed bigger than me, and I couldn’t control this reaction. Sometimes he’d go through a few months of no travel and I’d forget about the odd way my soul seemed to shut down when he left town–until he’d leave town again anyway–and then I’d be back there in that dark pit. After a few days the thickness would part, I’d get up and go on with my life. Those following days felt like the ultimate in thriving…
It made no sense.
Chw stopped traveling for work several years ago, much to the happiness and relief of both of us. Recently though, he had the opportunity to take a pretty incredible trip for work. I was so happy for him, and I began making a list of all of the things I’d accomplish while he was gone. There was some reorganizing and spring purging, reading, writing, and a few misc. things I planned to get up to… Until he walked out the door.
And then I just couldn’t. I could not move past it. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything beyond what I had to do. My brain ceased to function, everything so foggy… My body felt like every step probed through the thickest mud. I couldn’t bring myself to focus on much of anything… those best-laid plans were a waste.
At first, I blamed the intense snowstorm we’d had the day before, followed by the snow which has been gently piling on top of it ever since.
I was tempted to blame my chronic illness, because quite often it’s the cause of similar issues, though this time felt bigger than that–more in control of me than those flare-up days.
And then, in a whirlwind during the Oscars on Sunday night, when The Daniels, and then Michelle Yeoh, were talking about mothers I thought about mine. I thought about those times when he was gone and how she melted into this other thing–this darker, helpless thing. I thought about how she was a kept woman, something I’ve always feared I’d be and have tried so hard to never become. (though repeated infidelity and so many of my things often being put on the back burner for my husband’s career haven’t really done my inner demons any favors in that department.) This is the point when I realized, as though I were in my very own Everything, Everywhere, All At Once multi-verse jumping moment, that this inversion that cripples me those first few days when Chw is gone IS my mother. It is what I learned from her, subconsciously. It was written into my psyche in such a developmental way that I could not see before.
I’m turning forty-seven in a couple of weeks and it’s really interesting that even still I’m learning and unlearning… Perpetually feeling fourteen and wondering when I’ll get my act together and be a functioning adult. Maybe we all are, in one way or another.