With a mom, but without a mom

Written by on August 28, 2020

I didn’t have a normal childhood.  For the longest time though, I didn’t realize just how problematic things were because I didn’t know any different.  I’ve learned a lot from it, and there’s a lot to share – no shortage of nuance. Here’s the whole story, from the beginning.

The First Episode

When I was three years old, my family and I lived in Tucson, Arizona. By all accounts, we were a totally “normal” upper-middle class white family of six.

Dad worked, and Mom stayed home with us kids (my older sister, 9; my older brother 5; myself, 3; and my baby sister, just 3 months old).

One day, with no warning whatsoever, Mom put us all in the car and drove us out to a small town called Globe, about two hours away from home.

We didn’t know anyone in this town. There was no reason why we should’ve been there.

We arrived at a McDonald’s. We got out of the car and went into the restaurant, but something didn’t feel right.

Mom gave my older sister some money, gave her instructions to stay right where we were, and let the restaurant employees take care of us. She left the restaurant, got in the car, and drove away.

She was headed for a nearby cliff and planned to drive off it to end her life.

Meanwhile, the four of us small kids were still in the restaurant alone, without our Mom. My older sister was just standing there holding our infant sister. My brother and I were standing there with her. We had no idea what to do and no idea what was happening.

To top it all off, my dad had no idea about any of this. He had gone to work that morning as usual. Everything appeared to be fine when he left home.

Back at the McDonald’s, we were lucky that the restaurant employees had enough good sense to recognize that something was seriously wrong with the situation. They immediately called the police. Luckily, they intercepted Mom before she was able to harm herself.

Although I was too small to remember all the details, the police at some point notified my dad, and we were all safely reunited.

The next thing I remember was being in a psychiatric hospital, standing next to my Mom’s bed where she was sedated.

This was in 1993. Mental health treatment at the time was not exactly great (or even humane for that matter). While being treated at this hospital, Mom was misdiagnosed with post-partum psychosis, medicated improperly, and raped by another patient.

Once again, to make matters worse, Mom’s doctor had convinced herself that my dad was to blame for Mom’s newly discovered illness – that surely he abused her to make her this way.

That could not have been further from the truth. (Instead it was my grandmother, Mom’s mom, who had been abusive. And my Mom never fully healed from it).

Eventually, Mom was stable enough to be released from the hospital and came home to us. This, however, did not mean she was healed.

I remember asking her one day, “Mom, are you ever gonna get better?”

She said she didn’t know.

Being such a small child at the time, I remember feeling sad that I didn’t have a mom that could really take care of me. She was able to feed us and put us to bed, but there was no emotional nurturing, no playtime, no hugs, no kisses.

Strangely, I felt like I didn’t have a mom, even though she was still around.

What I didn’t realize though, was that this was just the beginning of the journey. This had only been her first episode of psychosis. And I would continue to grow up with an absent, but not-absent, mother.

The Second Episode

In 1996, we moved to California, and two years later Mom had a second episode of psychosis that landed her in the once more landed her in hospital.

She took a full bottle of sleeping pills in a suicide attempt (which luckily didn’t kill her). This time, I was eight years old and had a much more vivid memory of the experience.

Mom describes her delusions as hyper-religious and apocalyptic.

She would explain that, during a psychotic episode, she believed God was speaking directly to her. He would tell her that the world was ending, and that one person in her family would have to be sacrificed.

In order to save the rest of us, she would attempt to take her own life.

Of course, none of this was real, but that was exactly the problem. When Mom would have one of these episodes, she would lose touch with reality completely. She had no ability to discern between what was real, and what was not.

Life for an eight-year-old little girl isn’t exactly normal when her mother is in and out of a mental hospital. My parents kept up appearances pretty well – from the outside we could’ve easily appeared to be “normal.”

But much like the last time, I remember asking myself, “Is she ever going to get better?”

What I was beginning to realize was that, although my Mom was very much alive, I would never really have a Mom.

When other little girls had their moms take them to soccer practice and girl scouts, mine was going to group therapy. When other kids got to participate in three extra-curricular activities, mine were very limited because Mom couldn’t handle the stress or logistics.

The one positive thing that came out of this was that after this second episode, Mom was able to become mentally and emotionally “stable” for the first time in over six years.

The unfortunate side effect of this kind of childhood trauma though is that it leaves lasting scars. That was particularly true for my brother and me.

Drug addiction

Over the next 10 years, Mom became more mentally stable (or at least that’s how it appeared).

She was regularly attending therapy, being medicated by a psychiatrist, and educating herself about her illness. And from 1998-2012, she was able to stay out of a mental hospital.

But of course, with traumas of this severity, my siblings and I did not come out unscathed. My brother fared the worst. He became addicted to drugs during his teenage years, which caused more unrest at home.

Mom and Dad did not see eye-to-eye on how to handle situations with my brother. As a result of that, Mom would try to turn me against my brother and my Dad. Her plan didn’t work, and it just made me mistrust and resent her.

During my high school years, I emotionally shut off from her to protect myself from emotional abuse. I didn’t want it to be that way – those were years when I really needed a Mom. But I didn’t really have one, even though she was physically alive.

As time progressed, Mom began to abuse her medications, several of which were habit-forming. She was at her worst around the time of my wedding in 2013. She was taking disturbing amounts of uppers and downers all at the same time – amounts that would kill most normal people.

Mom and I on my wedding day. Although you couldn’t tell just by looking at this photo, she was addicted to Xanax and Ativan, and in the middle of a manic psychotic episode during this time.

Over the years, she’d built up such a tolerance to them that she could take a lot. It was obvious to my siblings and I that she had a problem. But she refused to see it because, after all, these medications were all prescribed by a doctor and were not illegal drugs.

From 2012-2018, she experienced a quick decline, culminating in a suicide attempt in May of 2018.

She was so hopelessly addicted (yes, chemically addicted) to her anti-anxiety and pain medications that she was threatening to take whole bottles of pills to end her life.

Over the years, she’d built up such a tolerance to them that she could take a lot. It was obvious to my siblings and I that she had a problem. But she refused to see it because, after all, these medications were all prescribed by a doctor and were not illegal drugs.

From 2012-2018, she experienced a quick decline, culminating in a suicide attempt in May of 2018.

She was so hopelessly addicted (yes, chemically addicted) to her anti-anxiety and pain medications that she was threatening to take whole bottles of pills to end her life.

At Odds with Myself

I’ve always had a hard time figuring out how I feel about Mom.

As a child, I was particularly confused. I always had this feeling in the back of my mind (and my heart), that there was something missing from the relationship. I didn’t seem to feel the same connection with her as other kids did with their moms.

And I felt a noticeable difference in the way I felt about my dad. I admire him with all of my being. There’s no doubt, I was a quintessential “daddy’s girl.”

I was never sure why I couldn’t feel the same about my mom. It’s not that I didn’t want to feel that way about her. I literally couldn’t feel a connection with her.

Through my teen years, I began to figure it out.

Mom was a genuinely unhappy person, and it turns out it’s really hard to make a connection with someone who’ that deeply unhappy. Nothing ever seemed to be good enough, and she was never unable to see the positive in anything.

Again, I wanted to feel close to her, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t trust her (and considering being abandoned in a restaurant at three years old, it’s no wonder why I didn’t trust her.

Any 14-year-old girl is going to look to her Mom for guidance and friendship. That’s what all my friends had. Why didn’t I?

For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with me (and to be fair, that’s what Mom told me – that there was something wrong with me).

But as I got older, I slowly began to see that I was not the problem.

As I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve gained the emotional vocabulary and sophistication to understand my relationship with Mom.

I hope she can find that one day.

But, I can’t say I love her as a mother. Because, frankly, she wasn’t a mother to me. She provided the basics – dinner on the table, chauffeuring to school and activities, that sort of thing. But we never had the kind of relationship where she was my confidante or my comfort.

I struggled with feeling this way for a long time. I felt like a bad person for feeling this way. But when I finally allowed myself to admit that I felt this way, I felt free.

I’ve come to accept that my relationship with Mom can’t really be any different than it is now.

And that’s okay.

Lessons Learned

All of these experiences have taught me a lot – more than I could’ve imagined actually.

  • It’s taught me perspective. All things considered, my siblings and I have turned out remarkably well, even after experiencing the childhood traumas that we did. Trials pass. Things are (often) not as bad as we make them out to be.
  • It’s taught me loyalty. One of the reasons why my siblings remarkably turned out as well-balanced as we are, is because we’ve stuck together. My siblings and I understand each other in a way that no one else ever will. We have a bond that we all take very seriously. We rally around each other. We support each other when we need it. If we hadn’t experienced what we did, I’m not sure we’d be so close.

My siblings and I together (left to right): Marie, Taylor, Haley, and me.

  • It’s taught me the value of self-care and self-esteem. Those are two things that Mom has never prioritized in her life. And sadly, she’s paid dearly for it. I know that, if I want to live a long happy life, I have to work toward it NOW – not put it off into the future until there’s time. The time to be happy is not later – it’s now.
  • I’ve learned the importance of nurturing my marriage. Throughout their marriage, my Mom has needed my dad – she wouldn’t have survived without it. And yet, she has shown consistent mistrust and ungratefulness toward him. He’s been unwavering, still, even with years of mistreatment. There are things they could’ve done differently to nurture their relationship. I have learned, through their mistakes, that I want something different, for my marriage, and my life.

I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that I get to be the creator of my reality. A lot of people have asked me if I’m concerned about suffering the same fate as my mom as far as mental illness is concerned.   It’s true – genetically, I’m sure I a higher probability of suffering from mental illness.

But I’ve also learned that 99% of the problems my mom has encountered came from her behavior patterns.  And one of the beautiful things about being a human is that we are capable of change.  I’ve always believed that. 

I picked up quite a few behavior patterns from my mom that weren’t healthy – because it’s all I knew.  It was pretty much my only example of the way to live as a child.  But as I have grown into adulthood, I’ve been able to identify what those behaviors are, and more importantly, how to change them.

This is what puts me in alignment: that my heart and mind are aligned with my actions.  And when I’m in alignment – when I trust myself, and the Universe – that all will be well.  I’m destined for greatness.  I can become whoever I desired.  Whatever I can conceive of is already out there waiting for me.



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