The 26th and 28th of January are a big days for me – but for very different reasons. Whilst one is cause for celebration the other is not, and both have been playing on my mind for weeks.
I need to get my thoughts about these out of my head and onto the page, despite their anniversary still being a few days away.
Firstly – the 28th. The bad one. The day my mom died a year ago. It doesn’t seem like five minutes ago since it happened.
My thoughts on this subject are complex. I wasn’t alone in thinking that she was a damaging and often abusive lady who struggled to connect with anyone on a level other than passive aggressive hostility. Until the day she died she created nothing but conflict with those that found themselves in her orbit.
But she was still my mother…
Because of this I am left with a sense of loss for what should have been rather than fond memories of what was. Over the last year (with varying degrees of success) I’ve had to learn to forgive the person that I knew and try to love her regardless.
I’ll be very honest. Sometimes this means that I have to consciously ‘re-touch’ reminiscences of her so that I can retrospectively experience them in a warmer light – because in reality there are so few good ones that I’m left with.
I don’t do this with anything or anyone else in my life. I have consciously chosen this approach to her memory because there’s no milage in bitterness – especially when it’s directed at someone who’s gone.
All it does is harm those that remain and that’s no way to live.
So I instead remember the (often partially fictional) moments when she smiled and hid special presents at Christmas when I was a little boy, or walks that we went on in the park, and a pirate costume she made for me when I was at infant school.
I jealously guard these memories when I find them. They’re insanely precious. Over the last year I’ve tried to grow and propagate them like flowers in a garden that’s otherwise barren.
For the most part I’ve succeeded. I’m not angry when I think about her and I don’t have animosity in my heart. After a lot of effort I can now see images of her in my mind where she’s happy and smiling.
However I can’t find it within myself to miss or mourn her in the way I think people might expect me to. As much as it would salve my conscience to know that I feel the appropriate and socially acceptable grief one normally associates with the death of a parent, I don’t.
I have a lot of guilt because of this and I often wonder if it makes me abnormal or a bad son.
This is compounded by the fact that (if I’m brutally honest with myself) the 26th of January is a far more significant date to me than the 28th because it represents a massive and positive change in my life.
It’s the day I gave up drinking.
For newer readers who haven’t been following my blog for the last year I don’t consider myself to be an alcoholic – and never did when I was drinking either – although toward the end I had begun to accept that I was probably ‘alcohol dependant’.
This (probably wafer thin) distinction between the two terms meant (to me at least) that while I wasn’t physically in need of alcohol I had learned to emotionally rely upon it to manage almost every aspect of my life. The truth was that instead of helping me it was damaging me almost every conceivable way.
It helped me excuse my eating behaviour over and over again and made it much easier to ignore the reality of my situation – which was that I was committing suicide with food and drink as surely as I would have if I’d taken a bubble bath with my electric toaster.
In a darkly comic moment I realised afterwards that even if I had wanted to take it – this domestic appliance related demise was no longer an option. Although I had the toaster (and the electric) I could no longer fit in the bath.
I had told many close friends I didn’t expect to live to see 50 and that I had accepted that I would probably have a very early death.
Things hadn’t always been this way though. Although my eating and drinking issues started early in life the more pernicious consequences of my habits (such as diabetes, mobility problems, breathing difficulties etc etc) only became problems over time.
Initially alcohol and food were just convenient (and enjoyable) ways to deal with unresolvable and painful emotions. In the early years these were mostly related to my mother but by the time I left home for the second time the patterns that would begin to control me were firmly embedded and I used both substances to deal with the bad times and celebrate the good ones.
I blocked my mom out for years – but in the last stages of her life (through a convergence of circumstances rather than a conscious choice) I finally allowed her back in again. In many ways I was convinced at the time that this was a mistake. In the months following our reacquaintance (up until just before she died) I upped my alcohol intake dramatically to counteract the stress that dealing with her brought.
Then during a particularly disagreeable visit to see her (just after she had left hospital for the final time) my brother stormed out of her bungalow. He exited in a fit of frustration and anger with her (mostly) because she had lasted less than two days without a cigarette after not smoking for almost six weeks in a high dependency COPD ward.
As my mother and I sat alone in her house, and the silence following their argument slowly descended, she turned to me and after a moment said ‘I’m so misunderstood.’
Not because it was funny. It was an exasperated laugh, born primarily out of incredulity. Everyone was trying to help her and she was continually pushing all of them away, making each one in turn regret that they had tried to care.
I didn’t know why she so often did or said so many things to hurt people but in that moment I definitely understood her capacity for self delusion. I knew what it was like to give in to seductive but self destructive impulses. I also knew what it was like to eventually feel consumed by them – and to decide that there was no way out.
I realised the reason why I was still sitting with her was that unlike my brother I felt no anger or disappointment that she had started smoking again.
I didn’t feel that way because I expected it. I knew deep down that I was looking in a mirror when I looked at my mom. She knew she was dying – and she had known for years that what she was doing would eventually kill her but she did it anyway.
And there it was.
I drank and ate the same way that she smoked. There was no reason to worry about the consequences because (like her) I’d convinced myself that nothing mattered any more. The end was inevitable and I couldn’t change it.
Until that moment I was so sure that I was nothing like her.
I often couldn’t bear her company. It was impossibly hard to avoid arguments and I found it completely exhausting playing the games of mental hopscotch that were required to do so. She was full of anger and bitterness and could never move past anything that she considered was a personal slight or injustice.
And yet I was doing exactly the same thing that she was to herself but with a different substance.
So two days before she died on the 26th Jan I had my last drink. It was one of the most difficult mental transitions of my life – but now as I sit here a year later I know that it was also the most important.
So – it’s complex. I feel happiness that I finally found my current impetus for change – but I also feel guilt because of the reasons behind it. My shift didn’t start because of a nurturing, loving mother. It came as the cumulative result of years of pain, frustration, anger and sadness and because I wanted to be nothing like her.
I feel very conflicted because of this.
In an ideal world over the years she would have led me by the hand toward being the man I am now with support and love. She’d have been here with me as I type to celebrate my successes and commiserate my failures in life. We’d share a cup of tea while we talked about the good old days, and the happy memories that we had made together as mother and son.
That’s not what happened however – and every day that I get better and recover from years of self abuse I have to construct my own, better reality. In this new world I continue to choose a healthy life, and not live in the past or give in to anger or bitterness.
As I sit here nearly a year later I think the best that I can do is say that in her memory I’ve done something good with the last year, and that wherever she is now I hope she’s content and that she too has finally found happiness.