For who she was

It was never a question of whether or not I wanted to be like the woman my mother was, but rather the fear that I would fade away into darkness like she did. The person I came to know was someone I hardly knew at all, and by the time she died I felt like I watched a stranger die. Her last breaths before me were foreign and unforgettable. It was a strange disconnect to feel like I stopped knowing who she was long before I ever lost her. Seeing her in the hospital bed, the shell of the fabled Super Woman all her friends talked about, but the shell that I learned to accept as my mother. I knew that who she became was someone I never wanted to be. But who she was – that was someone worth knowing.

The older I got, the stronger the hold alcohol took on my mother – the more sheltered she became. She projected a lifestyle onto me that was shrouded in projections of physical insecurities and gaslighting that I didn’t understand until my mid-twenties. Growing up in a household so toxic groomed me to believe that I didn’t know what I wanted – or needed for that matter. It was as if nothing was ever good enough if it was of my own design. No matter what I suggested, I was met with resistance and aggression; I told my mother I signed up to take Spanish in school and she was infuriated that I wasn’t learning French. When I was a teenager, I expressed the need to go to the eye doctor and she was insistent that I only “wanted” glasses to look cool, as if she forgot I had to wear an eye patch as a baby for issues with my vision. I didn’t get glasses until I was 17 and now I wear bifocals for my astigmatism and nearsightedness. And even when I was in college and separated my shoulder playing rugby, my mother told me my injury was superficial and as a result I lost the range of motion in my left arm from never receiving physical therapy. No matter what the issue was, if she thought she knew better then her word was bond. I was compliant because I was the child, I didn’t know better. She was queen because she was mother, she knew best.

My mother wasn’t always like that, though. She wasn’t the woman who was afraid to drive more than 30 minutes away from home and refused to drive on a highway. She was loud, funny, sharp-witted, and adventurous. She was a real estate entrepreneur who spent more than ten years making a name for herself in the industry as a broker. Her childhood friends – who I am still very close with – described her as a talented writer, a comedian, a partier, a road-tripper, and a wonderful, honest companion. The woman I got growing up was overbearing, sheltered me, body-shamed me, and eventually just expected me to do well for the fear of being met with something else that might trigger her to drink more. Part of me wishes that I grew up beside her and got to know the person her friends missed so much; When she died, so many old friends approached me saying how “like her” I was. I couldn’t believe that I was anything like the woman in the casket. She was angry and refused to take credit for me being successful in anyway. “You’re just like your grandmothers,” she wrote in the last email I ever received, when I was sitting in my bedroom at Oxford University. She never said, “You’re like your mother.” I hated that. I hated that we were so disconnected, especially towards the end of her life when I was growing into a woman who wanted nothing more than to relate to the one who made me.

After her death and following my graduation from college, I tried to learn a bit more about who my mother was before she became the alcoholic recluse who raised me. I knew she was skilled operating a sailboat. She learned to waterski barefoot when she was a teenager, something I never learned. When she was young, she told her mother that she was going to visit girlfriends in Florida but instead moved to the Southwest for three months to live with a boyfriend. She snuck out of her bedroom window enough times that my grandfather silently nailed her window shut from the outside. She went to concerts, smoked weed, and hung out late. Who was this person?  How do I become closer to someone who isn’t here?

Now, at 28, I learned the best way to honor a relationship I never had is to live my life as the person she was before her disease consumed her. I experience life as if she was young and next to me, and living through me. I have traveled the world, gone on spontaneous, day-long road trips. I’ve encountered strange people in interesting places. I’ve been too drunk, up too late, and I’ve also gone to bed too early. I made a name for myself like I saw her do when I was younger. I forgave her for my childhood. I embraced her adventurousness and created my own adventures.

The End Game

Today, an acquaintance asked me what my “end game” or “end goal” was with my life. As in, what am I doing? What do I want to do? Why am I at a job I have no experience in and why have I stayed for over three years? Six years ago, at the major turn in my life, I would have stopped and pondered and probably had an existential crisis. I had nowhere to go, no money, and no emotional backbone. During that time (and if you follow my blog you already know), I just read my mom’s eulogy, returned to school in a haze, and felt like my world was ripped into shreds in front of me by Death himself; the being I blamed for my misery.
I blamed Death for so much. I blamed him for my predicament, and pain, and for making me witness my mother’s last breath. I felt like he was a purveyor of destruction, and that his goal was to ruin me. I had so much anger and resentment – and confusion – writhing within me that I needed to put the blame on someone else other than my mother or my family. It took me a solid year to admit that my mom was responsible for her death. Her addiction is what brought on Death. Her internal blame; her inability – or refusal – to address her own demons head-on called her final moments to her bedside, and I was merely a witness. After she died I no longer feared Death. I hated Death. I felt he was evil. It turned out, however, after much reflection that Death is neutral. He does not discriminate, nor does he pick people out. People are all products of their circumstances, and he just collects. He does his job, and that’s it.
Maybe it’s a coping mechanism for me, maybe it’s a weird fantastical denial of the uncertainty and horrors that could hide behind each of our final breaths, or maybe I just “get it.” Regardless, I have survived – and in my opinion thrived – with the thought of dying as negligible in my mind and second nature as playing with my hair when I’m bored or breathing. My brain has been opened to other opportunities, to more “now” moments, and to actually living. So, six years later, when my acquaintance came to me asking about my end game and what my plan was, I didn’t hesitate to say the end game is death.

The end is known, so why are we spending our time worrying about it? I worry about travel, making money in order to spend it and save a little. I worry about writing what I want, painting when I can, working out when I am motivated. I think about dinner with friends and falling in love, and how to deal with heartbreak better each time it happens. I fear not living my life the way I want. I fear monotony, complacency, and merely accepting what’s in front of me if I have the means to change it for the better. I do not fear removing myself from negative energy – from people who are constantly finding problems in everything, because they can’t see how much control of themselves they truly have in their own lives.
My end game may be death, but at least I know what I’m currently doing. I am living for myself, and not hurting others, and listening to stories, and creating stories. I am happy.

Hair, There…

I stopped brushing my hair completely in 2013 after years of systematically running through it with a wide brush and then styling it into a fluffy mess and ultimately praying for the best. Since I ended this, my hair has become incredibly healthy; it grows out fast, it’s shiny, and by simply and gently finger-combing my hair in the shower with conditioner, I have almost zero tangles. I find it funny that although I was constantly combing through and separating my curls, I was coming out the other end with dread locks and rat’s nests and dull, crazy hair. This is what I was used to, though, for my entire life. My mother, with her straight, blonde hair, would rake my head every morning until I was old enough to rake my head on my own. She would pull and tease and get a round brush stuck in it one time (where we learned together and after a haircut that round brushes were no longer to be used). I would cry and moan and fidget hoping she would just get sick of my knots and give up, until I became the one to accept that this hair abuse was just how it had to be. No matter how it hurt, no matter how many tangles, I had to brush it out. Every single day.

I began to apply this process to my life: Hair being the situations, the brush being overthinking, conditioner being rationalization, and my fingers representing normal thought. Each coil on my head is something I cannot control. It is something that happens to me, that has always happened to me, and that will continue to happen to me.  For years, I would obsessively pick apart each curl, each occurrence. I would separate, strand by strand, trying to pull everything away to see if I could see it better. What I was left with, each time, was a mess. This mess would fly around, unmanageable and insane-looking and I would hide the mad scientist under a hat or pull it all into a bun behind me so I didn’t have to look at it anymore. And although each day, I would have the same outcome, I would still wake up the next morning and comb through the same dead hair, knowing it would be futile, all for that brief moment in my day when everything looked momentarily managed.

Every time something happened in my life that I couldn’t control, I would dig it apart trying to understand why I couldn’t control it, rather than learning how to control myself. Instead of nurturing the situation, letting it run its course, and allowing it to exist, I would cause myself a lifetime of grief trying to alter what occurred naturally. I don’t know exactly where it clicked in my head that this was a bad idea – being insane and constantly picking apart my life – but part of me thinks I was simply sick and tired of the constant stress and disappointment of things I couldn’t control. After almost 23 years of disappointment with the outside forces and I just gave up. I gave up on trying to understand what was around me before understanding me. 

Unfortunately, it only took me long enough to realize that I wasn’t the only one in the world with wild, curly hair. I wasn’t the only one in the world with problems. I also wasn’t the only one who constantly tried to pull apart things I couldn’t control. It didn’t make me a bad person or wrong for learning to obsess over things, but it was beneficial to learn how to live in harmony with these things – to let it exist with minimal interference and, when necessary, to cut dead ends for growth.

The Affected

The hardest lesson I learned of grief was not how to grieve, rather, how to accept that everyone around me grieves differently. As relative as time, love, and happiness, grief is something only identifiable by name and felt to such varying degrees that it has no direct translation in my eyes. Grief means so much more than being sad, or depressed, or lost. Grief is a mindset, a state of being even, that takes over the affected individual for months and sometimes even years. After a certain period of time, when those affected feel like they have a grip on reality, and like they are able to turn over a new leaf – to rebuild – they are triggered. Sometimes the body catches it before the mind does. Sometimes, there is a cold tingle that starts at the top of the head and pushes down through the body and towards the toes and anchors the person into the floor where they cannot move and don’t know why. Their heart begins to race and their vision becomes erratic trying to identify where this thing is that must have caused such a knee-jerk reaction for them. What comes as a shock, though, is this trigger isn’t physical. It’s a smell, a sound, a feeling, or even a movement or passing memory that reminds the affected they are still vulnerable; there are still cracks that exist where the affected looked over, thinking it was safe, thinking they were fine, thinking that everything was copacetic because they were no longer crying for reasons unknown throughout their work week.

Grief came to me in the form of rage. Which is funny, I think, because rage (anger) is a side affect of grieving, and grief is defined as a “deep sorrow.” When you are grieving, though, your brain, your subconscious digs into that sorrow. It makes you question what sorrow is. It makes you reconsider all the things of your past that made you sad because what you’re feeling in a time of grief is a kaleidoscope of billowing colors and pulses that rip into your body, each wave a new feeling, destroying you and at the same time making you beautiful and human. Grief stripped me down to a vulnerable, raw core of a being where I lost recognition of myself each time I looked in the mirror. I lost sleep, I lost feeling, I regained too much feeling, and I lost more sleep. Ultimately, grief reached through me, and revealed to me the greater aspects of this life. It gave me a new-found perspective on emotions; it gave me a gauge of values deeper than the shallowness in which my glasses once only viewed.

Alternatively, grief can sometimes meet resistance of those unwilling to allow themselves to be recreated through tragedy.  I had to accept that members of my family and even friends needed to utilize their own form of self preservation. I had to accept that I could not save them anymore than my mother. Grief was an unconscious tough love I had no control over that forced me to look at myself, to focus on myself, and to understand that what was happening in my own world was necessary for me to be rebuilt. It was a sculptor to whom I relinquished all control. Through uncertainty, I emerged sure of myself. I became my own canvas, metaphysically reworked and renovated in order to ensure what I experienced would not destroy me completely for the rest of my life. Through grief, I became one of the affected.