It was March of 2011 when Mom decided to leave my father and asked if it would be okay with us if she came to live in Tennessee, and as soon as she asked me that question there were several things that I knew right off the bat.
I knew that she’d need me to go get her and bring her here – they lived in Pennsylvania, about 500 miles away, Mom had given up driving years ago and was in no mental or emotional state to plan something like this on her own. The actual trip to get her was more than a little adventurous. I drove most of the way there, then stayed in a Motel 6 so that I could arrive at their condo at a time in the morning when we knew that my dad wouldn’t be there. I’d told her ahead of time to look around and decide which of her belongings she wanted to have with her in the event that she never went back there. (We were able to go back later and fill a U-Haul with the rest of her things, but I didn’t want her counting on being able to do that at the time.) We filled up my car with as much of her stuff as we could fit and were back home in Tennessee by that night.
Matthew had spent the day turning our spare room into a habitable guest room, because another thing I’d known was that she’d need to stay with us for a little while until she could get established and find a place of her own. She ended up living with us for about two months, which honestly is way less than I was afraid it would end up being. I’d made it very clear to her that living with us permanently wasn’t an option (something she claimed she would never ask of us anyway, but in all honesty I think part of her wanted us to offer) but that she was welcome in our home while we helped her figure things out. When we did finally get her an apartment and get all of her things moved into it, I ended up having to tell her fairly firmly that the time had come for her to go spend the night in her apartment now, that my husband and I needed our privacy back. She’d spent several days telling me that she just wasn’t quite comfortable staying in the apartment yet because it still wasn’t ready – when she got down to “Once I get the curtains right I’ll be ready to stay there” I let her know that time time had come.
I also knew, with absolutely zero doubt, that if I told her I would prefer her to not suddenly move to my town after well over a decade (my whole adulthood, really, at that point) of living 500 miles apart with a sometimes strained relationship, that she would say that she understood, of course. And that she would kill herself.
Because she had no plan B other than suicide. She was miserable and had no hope with my father. She had no idea how to get out on her own. She had friends but many of them were also old friends of my father, church friends that she couldn’t count on to support her if she decided to leave. Even the ones that she knew would support her likely would be a little hesitant to let her move in with them and take over their lives for an extended period of time while she tried to figure things out. I also don’t think she would have had the strength to resist my father’s attempts to get her back if she were staying somewhere close to him, and I think she knew that too. She needed someone who would be willing to turn their lives upside-down for her and take her out of his easy reach.
And it was hardly the first time I’d been concerned that she might kill herself. Once when I was fifteen years old she asked me if her life was valuable to me, if she was doing me any good by living, because if she wasn’t then she might as well just end it. I’ve known since that day that her life was likely to end by her own hand.
So when she asked me how I’d feel about her moving to Tennessee, there wasn’t much of a choice involved. And she absolutely did take over our lives for a while. She only lived in our house for two months but for a long time after that I still had to drive her to the store, to the bank, to the post office – anywhere she needed to go. And she came over for dinner regularly and wanted to spend time with me every weekend. I went from seeing her about once a year to seeing her at least 3 times a week. And every step of getting her to be more independent was painful.
Because you see, the thing that I hadn’t known is that independence would be so terrifying for her. I knew that it would be a difficult adjustment, but I thought “once she’s spent some time away from my father, once she’s made some friends of her own whose opinions aren’t colored by his behavior, once she realizes that she can be who she wants to be, once she learns to drive again and has the freedom to go out if she wants to, she’s going to love it.” And it’s not that none of that happened – she did, eventually, begin to make friends, to loosen up, to start having fun again – but she was always terrified of driving. She got to a point where she believed that the peacefulness of living alone was far preferable to the misery of living with my father, but she still didn’t like being alone. I kept hoping she’d consider dating, but she said she wasn’t interested in that either – which I never believed for a second; I think the thought of that was another source of terror. She would sometimes admit to me that she was afraid constantly – afraid of everything. The fact that she overcame it enough to do as much as she did is amazing, but my vision of her boldly and independently embracing her new life with gusto just didn’t turn out to be realistic.
I also hadn’t realized the extent of her mental illness. I knew that she’d had breaks with reality through the years and that she was depressed and broken – but I’d let myself believe that it was situational; that being away from my father would heal her. In time I started to realize how much I’d underestimated the severity of what she was dealing with.
After a couple years I decided to start seeing a therapist myself, and with my therapist I learned how very, very difficult it was for me to trust myself over my mother if my mother was telling me something that I knew was wrong. I learned how common this is for children of parents with mental illness – your whole life the person/people who are supposed to be your sources of truth and knowledge are telling you things that don’t match what you see/know/believe, and as a child you assume that you must be the one in the wrong. You learn to put your own intuition aside and believe what they tell you even if it doesn’t make sense.
Since it had been so long since I’d lived near my parents, and I’d never seen them more than once, occasionally twice a year since I was twenty years old, I didn’t even realize my own difficulty with trusting my own gut. I was constantly turning to my husband and my best friends for validation when it came to issues surrounding my mother, because a part of me was always convinced that I was the one exaggerating or being unreasonable.
My mom lived for over seven years in Tennessee before she killed herself. In that time our relationship became more and more strained and difficult, eventually getting to the point where, for the last two years of her life, we were only seeing each other once a year, around Mother’s Day. And there is a part of me that thinks that maybe she wouldn’t have gotten to the point of pulling that trigger if she and I had been closer. “If you’d just been willing to be more compassionate, less judgmental, to give her more grace and leeway,” that part of me says, “you at least would have been able to spend more time with her in her last years, and maybe she’d still be here.”
And then I remind that part of myself that when I was fifteen years old, the first time I realized that she was suicidal, it was at a time when she and I had an extremely close relationship. She was a problematic mother but she was my mother, and she loved me fiercely, and I was a teenage girl – of course I needed and loved her, and yet she still had to ask, because the voices in her head were undoubtedly telling her that it wasn’t true. That I’d be better off without her.
And then I go on to remind myself that having a friendship that didn’t either take over my life or tear me open emotionally wasn’t an option she gave me. When I started going to therapy and realized that my inability to draw boundaries with her was making me miserable, my therapist warned me that when I did start to draw boundaries that my mom wouldn’t like it – that she’d be angry and resentful about it, and woo doggies she was right. It was never my intent to push my mom away entirely, but she just did not understand/could not accept that I needed to place some boundaries; that I needed more space. If I didn’t want to give her as much access to me as she wanted (which was constant – as I said I really do believe she would have preferred to live with us forever) she was convinced that I hated her.
So what I know now is that even if I had given her what she wanted, it’s very unlikely that it would have saved her. Aside from the mental illness/depression/emotional trauma, she did also have severe physical illnesses contributing to her state of mind, and I certainly couldn’t have done anything about that. And if I had tried, if I hadn’t drawn boundaries, if I’d let her continue to take over my life, I would have been absolutely miserable myself for the last five years.
And she did have joy and friendship in her life – she loved her church friends, her internet friends, her cat; she appreciated the peacefulness of her apartment even if she didn’t like being alone. She had seven years of life that I don’t believe she would have had at all if Matthew and I hadn’t helped her to establish a new life here. At her funeral when I looked around and saw all the people there who loved her – almost all people from here – I thought “we gave her this. We gave her the chance to know these people.”
I couldn’t give her what she wanted from me, because she was like an addict when it came to our relationship; she couldn’t be happy with a smaller dose. I couldn’t give her all that she wanted without giving up myself. But I gave her the chance to find as much freedom and happiness as she was capable of finding at that point in her life. I really do believe that her years here were the happiest and most peaceful years of her life. I gave her those. That’s something that I know.