This is What It’s Like (The Mom Chronicles, Part 3)

This is what it’s like.

The dog is barking.  The doorbell is ringing.  I’m asleep – or trying to be – on a Sunday morning at nine.  Roughly roused from slumber by the sounds of Izzy and doorbell, I finally emerge to find my mother mounting the hardwood stairs.

“I was ringing the doorbell.  I finally used my key – and here I am!”

“Oh.”  I’m tired and grumpy in my flimsy nightgown – my hair needs washing and I feel taken over by the ground invasion that is my mother.

She has stuff.  Stuff to give me.  All from the dollar store.  Excited, she sits down and begins to hand me things from her bag – a book for my husband to read, another book full of recipes from the Special K folks (so it’s about dieting, gee, thanks), another straw hat, family memorabilia from my Aunt B, a magazine called “South Bay”, a long indecipherable letter about all the stuff, and a check.

“I wrote to the magazine and told them that their magazine was too expensive.  It needs to be less.”

I don’t doubt she wrote them.  In her handwriting that only a doctor would love, I imagine they will tack her letter up on a board somewhere and chortle as they puzzle out the scratchings from a gray-haired Roseanne Rosannadanna.

In case it wasn’t obvious, my mother is manic right now.  It happens every few months.  She is bipolar, type I.

She has probably been bipolar most of her life and now, at just under 80, it’s no better.

She lives about three quarters of a mile away from us, and this morning has probably been up since four or five am so by nine, she’s had three cups of coffee (“the coffee at Rod’s is terrible!”) and wants more, wants a cigarette, and is just gearing up to say more and faster.  Her emotions are raw and  mostly annoyed – at everything and everybody.

“So I was pissed when you pooh-poohed getting the couch reupholstered.  I might live to be 90.  I can do what I want.  I’ve got the money.”

She does.  She has a great pension, courtesy of the people of the County of Los Angeles.  Our tax dollars at work – but I’m grateful, of course.  I don’t want her to be living in near poverty, but her buying ramps up significantly when she’s manic.  A lot of stuff she buys she ends up giving away or throwing away.  When she’s not manic she is full of financial fear and self opprobrium, paying off credit cards and hunkering down in depression.

But now, with the inflation and grandiosity in full swing, she’s exhausting.

This is what it’s like.

She doesn’t drive anymore.  But she wants to maintain as much independence as possible, so she’s learned to take Dial-a-Ride and even the LA County transportation for elders and disabled folks called Access.

Usually this works pretty well, but minor disaster seems to follow her when she’s manic.

It starts as many of the minor disasters do  – with her having had no sleep for a day or more.

She was at Albertson’s when they opened and got money out of her bank ATM at the store.  She got $400, the maximum allowed, and bought a carton of cigarettes.

She also left her wallet at the store.

Not realizing this, of course, she walked home and was picked up by Access a few hours later.  Taken to the mall in Torrance, she realized the wallet was gone when she went to pay the driver.  She asked (or demanded) to be taken back to the grocery store so she could retrieve it.

Now, it helps to pause and realize a few things.  Some of which I only learned after this whole thing had blown up.  One, Access is a service that you have to qualify for – they have a procedure and member number and a whole host of things for the population they serve.  Dial-a-Ride only serves people within the city, but Access takes them further.  Where we live, there are about five communities that are nearby each other, but each are separate cities.  So even though Torrance isn’t that far, Dial-A-Ride won’t take her there.  Both services are inexpensive to seniors and usually have regular drivers, some of whom even know my mom by name.

What I didn’t know but learn after the calls and waiting and being hung up on, is that when Access is low on drivers, they contract with local cab companies to do the pick-ups and deliveries of people.  Which means that the alternate drivers may not be at the same quality as their regular drivers – that is, in dealing with a cranky elderly woman with a mental disorder and a grandiose sense of entitlement.

But whether it’s a regular driver, or a contracted cabbie – Access is supposed to just pick up the person at the appointed time and deliver them where they have agreed to go, not just drive them hither and zither.

So the perfect storm – she couldn’t pay and wanted to go back and the driver didn’t have good English language skills to boot.  He didn’t understand what she was asking for and wasn’t supposed to do this anyway.

So, being manic, she got pissy and loud and slow, trying to enunciate her words as if he was deaf, not just unable to understand English very well.  He finally understood what she was asking and after pleading that he wasn’t supposed to do this, he relented.

Amazing what a sense of entitlement will do to buffalo those around you.

So he drove her back to the Albertson’s in Redondo Beach and parked.  She managed to toddle in to get her wallet (of course missing the money! but debit and credit cards left untouched), and when she left the store and crab walked out – the driver was gone.

With her walker in his trunk.

A few hours later, after I’d picked her up and delivered her home, after I’d made numerous calls and been on hold a few times, after I’d made a formal complaint about abandoning an elderly person and without her walker – after I’d talked to the cab company directly, all without having eaten and just gotten out of my shower, with dripping hair, I realized that –

This is what it’s like.

This was also my life growing up.

And nothing much has changed.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  She’s older and more vulnerable now, and some of the symptoms of manic behavior have moderated.  No longer the indiscriminate sexuality, for example.

Yes, she’s medicated.  Yes, she has a psychiatrist.  I have a hard time remembering what it was like before she was medicated (I think I’ve blocked a lot of that out), but images come:

  • a naked man and woman asleep downstairs in our townhouse – yes, that’s my naked mother, but who’s the guy?  my eight-year-old self wonders;
  • the vacuum cleaner running at 2 and 3 in the morning;
  • my room never my own as she comes in and cleans and reorganizes it for me, instead of making me do it myself because I do a bad job (hey, I’m not too proud to admit I learned to use this for my own ends);
  • her anger flaring at my minor indiscretions so I learn to be careful around her at some times versus other times when I can easily get my way;
  • her crumpled body on the landing from falling asleep at the top of the stairs and taking a tumble.  This results in stitches from cracking her skull; and
  • spending a week at my aunt and uncle’s after she makes a suicide attempt (again, I was about eight years old.)

This is what it’s like.

Her depression is not exhausting, except to her, but it is, in some ways, more frightening.  Last year she contacted the State of Oregon to find out if she could just take the train up there and utilize their assisted suicide law (the answer is probably no, as she is not a resident of the state.)  But apparently nobody she talked to had any clue what she was asking, she told me with disgust.

Maybe she was disgusted, but I was horrified.

Not that she wanted to commit suicide.  When she’s not manic, when she’s depressed, she’s severely depressed.  Of course she thinks about suicide.

No, my horror was that she took the action of trying to figure out a more socially acceptable way to end her life, and her matter-of-factness about it.  As if she was just ordering a pizza.

This is what it’s like.

When manic, she always asks for a computer.  This is something we try to deter by foot dragging and just not talking about it.  My husband makes a good point that her, with a computer, would be possibly lethal.  Not that the computer would reach out and strangle her, but that she would be vulnerable to phishers and online scammers, to spending money even more profligately than she already does, and frankly that her various demands on me would amp up if she had email.  It’s frightening what damage she could do with a computer.

Once she downshifts in her mood, talk of a computer is over and we breathe a sigh of relief.

Of course her learning how to use a computer, or anything that is electronic, is an ongoing issue.  We recently got her a DVD player and my husband patiently got it all set up, going over the instructions on how to use it.  A week later she announced that it was broken and that my husband needed to fix it.

This is, by the bye, how a lot of her stuff ends up being great pickings for folks going through her trash.  We ended up with a compact stereo system this way, slated for goodwill, but rescued by my husband.

Of course she’d forgotten the instructions.  So this time, I annoy my tech-savvy husband by having him go through each painstaking step and I write down instructions and then re-write them to make them as simple and mom-proof as possible.  We’ll see how this works – I expect she’ll throw away the written instructions in a cleaning frenzy at some point, and we’ll have to go through this exercise once again.

This is what it’s like.

Being manic is, at first, a welcome relief from the despair of depression.  She revels in it.  She gets things done – many things that she’s put off for the past few months.

She gets out more and can be quite charming.  Everybody along Artesia Blvd. knows my mom.  She’s on a first-name basis at the local eateries, and the dollar store and the used book store, and definitely at Albertson’s.  She even has favorite checkers there.  All of this makes my duty a bit easier, as there are others looking out for her.

But her charm and friendliness also has the hard edge to it, too.  She gets in people’s faces more – she’s aggressive and pushy in her pronouncements.  She tells Manny, a recent widower where she lives that he should shave every day to be presentable.  She’s mad at the management company at her apartment complex (one for seniors) about all sorts of things that they are, or are not, doing.

She tells my Aunt B that she should be more assertive with her son (my cousin), and she’s mad at my son for not being grateful enough at a birthday check he received.  And she’s perpetually mad at me for not answering my phone more often, but hey, do you blame me?

Last week I had something every single day focused around my mother and her needs.

Everything from a mid-day medical appointment, to a lunch with her, me and Aunt B which took up half a day, to the fiasco with the missing walker and the abandoned senior citizen.  Which meant not only figuring out where it was, but the next day, my driving to an industrial area to retrieve the walker.  And yes, ordering a second walker from (just in case something like this were to happen again.)

Yes, this is what it’s like.

And it will be like this until my mother is no more.

I love her.  And I get annoyed by her.  And I am grateful that, even with her smoking and her unsteadiness and her mental condition, that she’s out every day, walking and living her life and is still peppy and interested in the world.  She’s interesting.

I am supremely grateful that I have a husband who, because it’s not his parent, can laugh at her shenanigans, help with driving and fixing and instructing, listen patiently, and even mix her favorite drink, Smirnoff vodka over ice, two olives.

She’s not your average grandmotherly type, that’s for sure.  At this stage of her life, her pluck and verve are mostly welcome traits, as long as she’s not your mother.

She just hired a personal trainer who will be arriving to do a session with her in the pool tomorrow.  And she found her passport and is planning a trip to Cuba – why Cuba I have no idea.  Perhaps it’s those cars from the 1950’s that attract her.  Or maybe she plans on smoking a good cigar, or just being in a society where smoking cigarettes is more socially acceptable.

When I think of the childhood I had with her as a mother, it wasn’t pretty a lot of the time.  But that’s ancient personal history and now is my time to be there for her to the best of my ability.  Not that it’s easy, but I know it’s time limited.

And I suspect, even with all the aggravation, I will miss her terribly.  I suspect for years after her death we will tell “Susan” stories.

And sigh and remember –

This is what it was like.




Writing & Reflection – 3/13/93 – A Question of Suicide – Part 2

Again, these entries were written over 20 years ago in a very dark period of my life.  I am not there anymore, thankfully!   But . . .if you feel that you are vulnerable to suicidal thoughts, please do not read this post.  I would hate to contribute to darkening your journey even a little bit.

Yesterday, I posted Part 1.  Before I present the entry today, I promised to talk a bit about how I got out of the pit.

My period of time in this pit had been triggered by a very brief relationship, one that I thought would be easy to handle.  I was wrong.  I wrote a lot in my journal during this time and had to remind myself that the abruptness of the end of this relationship had set off a tumbling downward into a trough of despair.  Were I not in analysis at this time, I might have been able to brush it off, or utilize compulsive activities like eating or buying stuff to numb out the pain.  But I was just at the point where these old coping behaviors no longer worked.  That’s a tough time because until you have something more positive to replace the old behaviors and thinking/feeling patterns, you’re stuck.  For me, the downward spiral was sudden and overtook me completely for awhile.

The while was about six to seven weeks.  But those were probably the hardest six to seven weeks of my life.  I realized my friends were unable to help me, and my therapist certainly couldn’t be on the phone with me 24/7 even though she was available when I needed her.  I wasn’t close to either of my parents (and they were definitely contributing factors in my despair) and I wasn’t about to burden my son.  I did write in my journal, but looking backwards, I only found a few entries written when I was at my lowest point.

Believe it or not, I managed to get to work most days and nobody went hungry.  If I had to describe my mood, once the despair hit hard, it was like I was a walking shell of a person.  I must have “passed” well enough, because nobody moved to get me committed to a mental hospital.

In essence, I had to tough it out.  I wasn’t ready to consider medication at all (later, a sponsor who was a psychiatric nurse said I should have taken meds – that “pain” was the not the same as “suffering” and I was suffering.)

I also agreed that I would call my therapist before I did anything rash.  I certainly had fantasies of non-existence that primarily ran to just not waking up the next day, or driving off the bridge, things that would be quick or painless.

But I suspect the final healer of this deep depression was time.  As time passed, and I continued to talk about it and tread water emotionally, I began to see some sort of light that started small but got a bit larger and brighter day by day.  The day I woke up and realized I wasn’t considering death was a good day.

This is the journal entry I wrote the day after the one I posted yesterday; it, too, is pretty dark, but there are a few moments of some perspective:

 Last night it was ugly fat cow don’t deserve anything.

Tonight I still feel dark thoughts, murderous suicidal thoughts.

Wait Without Hope

The only semi-answer to suicide is I wouldn’t get to see how the story turns out.  If I kill myself, the problem with that answer is that I do know [how it turns out].  I die anyway and maybe I’m raped, beaten, tortured by someone else, or ravaged by a disease . . . AIDS or cancer, etc.  Maybe I’m hit by a car and go into a coma state.  Maybe . . .

So with suicide, I exercise a measure of control over the end.  I pick the time, I pick the method.  I can do it rationally.

But I’d be living without a sense of mystery . . . trading that for control.

All of life’s the tug of:

The Mystery – the “Only don’t know” and “Wait without hope” and along with this, the tremendous anxiety and knowledge of inevitable human suffering and human joy.  The pay-off is creativity, love, beauty but only maybe

And Control – and along with this, quelled anxiety and “the end of the book”, but also no spontaneity, a lack of joy, a lack of emotion, a “living dead.”

And the problem is – I can only control myself and my reactions.  Not other persons, places or things, no matter how much I try.  The greater the pain of living – the more I want to control it, to clamp down on it.  Suicide seems to make too much sense if I’ve chosen the control side.

Something happens after death.   I go back to the source, maybe I return and maybe not.  I don’t care – all I know is that I’m out of my gross body, and out of emotional pain and human suffering.  And that trade-off seems worth it.

The downside is not seeing how [my son] turns out, not seeing grandkids, etc.  But maybe I’ll have a spiritual way of doing [this], so that won’t matter.  I’d like to think [my son] would hate me if I died, but he’s sure to hate me more as a mother if I stayed.

Being a paralegal is deadening to my mind and spirit.  And my body brings me nothing but shame.  No one else can stand to look at it, including me.  It will be horrid thin or fat – especially old (thin or fat.)  Whether filled or empty, it’s just sacs of skin.  Disgusting.  Disease festers there.  So what’s the point?

The only pleasure I feel is [sensual] – my heart is like a stone.  I do love [my son] but that’s it.  I know I am completely alone.  I pay someone to listen to me and mirror me – big deal.  My friends don’t get it and never will.  There are no men – they reject me because I am who I am.

I lost me completely somewhere and I am coming to terms with that.  I’m not coming back and it’s only [a matter of] time before I need to end this nonsense.  Planning needs to be done to protect [my son] but other than that there’s no real point to living just to feel depressed and lonely over and over again.  To be financially strapped, to be bored, to be continually rejected, to not want to be here much longer.

These are too familiar feelings and, as a thinking, rational human – I don’t know if I can stand just existing.

I don’t know if I can Wait Without Hope – for the murderer.


Well, that’s dramatic!

I didn’t harm myself, I never stole pills, and didn’t “accidentally on purpose” get into an accident of any sort.  Actually we did talk about those accidents in therapy and I knew if I somehow just showed up with a cast on my arm one week, that this would entail much conversation about whether this was an accident or not.

I mentioned that one other thing that contributed to healing was poetry, and it was during this time that I had discovered T.S. Eliot.  Here’s the end of the portion of East Coker, from Four Quartets.  This will probably be a more familiar portion of the poem, but it continues with the theme of waiting without hope, but attempts an answer that is, dare I say, more hopeful?

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.






Writing & Reflection – 3/12/93 – A Question of Suicide – Part 1

Note:  The following is a journal entry written over 20 years ago in a dark time when I was depressed and suicidal.  I do not feel this way anymore, thankfully.

Part of the backstory is that I was in therapy, fairly intensive therapy, that morphed into analysis as my therapist became an analyst.  Analysis is tough – you are intensely focused on yourself, your motivations, your demons, your dreams.  You look at every little snippet of thought and wonder “why?” that thought, or thoughtless remark.  Everything, and I mean, everything, is up for review.  I highly recommend it for anybody who is willing to do it, but it is difficult.

Not surprisingly, as the onion skin is peeled closer to the core, oftentimes you feel exposed and naked, pure sensation or pure nerve without a covering.  For me, I probably needed to allow myself to feel my terror and sadness and anger at the level that I began to feel despair.

I don’t know if I was actually in true danger of suicide, but I will say I lived in a town that had a high bridge connecting it to another town and the thought of veering sharply off the bridge into the water below was a constant fantasy.  I never tried it, obviously, primarily because I wasn’t sure it was foolproof and I feared being seriously injured more than dead.

All of these words are to say – I don’t want what I wrote over 20 years ago to be triggering to anybody else so if you feel at all vulnerable to suicidal thoughts, please don’t read this post.  This will probably be the only trigger warning I would ever make, but I certainly don’t want you to feel somehow worse than you might feel right now.

So with that, my journal from March 12, 1993:

I have always considered killing myself to be ‘ridiculous’ but tonight it – the idea of it – begins to make sense.

In a way, what difference does it matter dying at 36 or 86?  Do I really miss anything, really?  I begin to think I cannot stand being in my rotting body much longer – and what is the point thinking these pointless thoughts?

Loving myself is a joke.  One I cannot laugh at anymore.  My neediness – my grandiosity and inflation – my hopelessness and despair – all of my life lacks meaning.  I know my mood will change – be more upbeat – but then it will go down again.

Progress?  I’ve seen none – I’m more in debt than I’ve ever been – I’m less challenged in the work I do, it’s not satisfying.  Now I’m old and fat [where] before I was young and fat.  I have no sense that anything gets better.  It just is.

What pleasure I have is like [sex], hard-edged and furtive, and fleeting like the thief.

I can’t even be a proper mother or householder.  My son, who I know is gifted, is not accepted into the program.  No matter my feeling – the universe he lives in screams, “Not Enough!”  And if I’d only read that book to him instead of zoning out or talking on the phone or compulsively eating – if I’d been there for him instead of narcissistically frantically saying I never got proper mothering, so why should he get what I didn’t?  Why does he get it, not me?

My maternal urge does come over me – and I lovingly whisper “be there for him and you heal that part of yourself.”  Half truth, half lie.

“I cannot and will not,” my suicidal part screams, “tolerate not knowing.


I cannot tell you how hard it is to read what I wrote about myself and my life, especially my harsh words towards myself for my (lack of) mothering, and how I was treating my son during this time.  It is clear that I wasn’t able to be there very much at all.  I hope my son has forgiven this, but that’s a bit unclear, even up to today.  But to suggest that I would leave a little boy, not yet 9 years old at this writing, is grotesque.

Yet this is depression.

Depression is narcissistic, and selfish.  Suicide is the ultimate expression of this and I almost went there.  Or at least I thought a lot about it.

Although I do not have writings that reflect this exactly (these are the closest I have that I could find), I remember thinking, “he’ll be better off without me as his mother.”  I thought this a lot during this time.

It was what scared the bejeesus out of me, frankly.  If my son couldn’t even be the thing that stopped me from considering non-existence, I was in trouble.

But later, when I was much better, the thought that I would abandon my son as I had been, made me feel the hot curls of shame.  After all, I had been abandoned by both of my parents.  My parents divorced when I was 6 and my father moved out of state within a year or so, then remarried to someone who could not even bother to like me.  He also left me with a woman who had an undiagnosed mental illness.  She couldn’t be a mother to me, anymore than I could be to my own son.  So abandonment is pretty much what happened to me twice over, although only once in the physical sense.

In Part 2, to follow, I’ll give you another journal entry but also tell you how I somehow managed to get out of this pit.

Until then, though, during this time in the early 1990’s, I became acquainted with the poetry of T.S. Eliot.  Not easy to understand, the words themselves evoked my mood and mind state clearly.

Here, a portion of a poem from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, East Coker:


O dark dark dark.  They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha,
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.  As, in a theater,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away –
Or as, when an underground train, in a tube, stops too long
between stations,
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing –