Right now, we (my sister and I) are going through some crazy times with our mother. This shouldn’t be a surprise to me, since mom and crazy go together hand in hand.
Mom hasn’t taken proper care of herself in many years. She currently has several health conditions: asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure for sure, and possibly GERD and sleep apnea, too.
Shortly after I moved to California, it became apparent that mom was having trouble remembering things. Conversations could be circular, where she’d ask the same questions over the course of a conversation. We all noticed this: my sister, me, and my stepfather who lives with her and experiences it perhaps more than any of us. He asked for our help because he was at a loss for what to do, so sister and I stepped in to do what we could.
What started out as some brainstorming and organizing of mom’s medications and health care has turned into what feels like complete abdication of any responsibility for mom’s care. OK, this is an exaggeration, but not by much.
Mom doesn’t seem to be inclined to do the most basic things for herself, such as eat regular meals, take her medications, and get a bit of exercise. Left to herself (as she has been for six days a week while stepfather goes to work) she naps, watches TV, lets the dogs in and out of the house, and occasionally snacks on things like Triscuits. She is supposed to use an insulin pen four times a day — once with each meal, and a final time just before bed — but rarely does so. Stepfather says he reminds her to take a shot before bed and often tried to get her to do it in the morning, but he failed to get her to eat breakfast, too, and insulin without food is not a good thing.
Stepfather is a kind man with a big heart, but he is way out of his depth. He is barely literate (this is fact and not just a mean thing to say; he readily admits that he can’t read very much) and doesn’t understand mom’s doctors most of the time he takes her to appointments. He prefers sister take mom because she understands the doctors better and can ask good questions.
Sister works a full time and demanding professional job that involves business travel, too. In order to take mom to doctors she has to take a day off of work because just getting to mom’s house in a rural area outside Chicago, taking her to the appointment, dropping mom back at her house, and then returning home takes at least five hours.
While I’m not present to take mom to the doctors, etc, I am helping out by researching and organizing details about her care, as well as making phone calls to insurance companies and to follow up with doctors. Sister and I talk several times a week about mom care details.
One of my recent trips was back to Chicago to see my mom on her 75th birthday. She is a different person than she used to be, and I don’t just mean because she has more grey hair. She has no spark anymore. She just doesn’t seem to care about anything and has commented many times that she never thought she’d live to be this old.
Throughout my childhood mom acted “crazy” a lot. She would get angry and start yelling, screaming, and sometimes throwing things. (And apparently she still does; stepfather told sister he sometimes just retires to the bedroom when she is in the midst of a “tantrum” because he told her to take her meds.) She would threaten to kill herself. I’m not sure exactly how she would do this with sister because we avoid talking about the details, but with me she did things like swallow handfuls of pills, or threaten to drive us off the expressway into a deep quarry.
We all realize mom did these “crazy” things to get attention when she wanted or needed it. Instead of asking, she just acted out. I’m left wondering if her current behavior is just another way to get attention, or if it is an attempt to will herself to die.
Mom’s past behavior has left its mark on sister and I. Enough that I frequently wonder these days: why not just let her continue to court a stroke or cardiac arrest? Why keep trying to get through to her that she must eat and take her insulin and high blood pressure medication? Why am I now on the hook for paying to get her out of the house and into activities at the local senior center? Why must sister and I give up time during the work day to wrangle an adult acting like a willful child?
Yes, this is the person who birthed me, potty-trained me, taught me to talk and walk. She’s said she loves me. She’s also the person who scared me to the point that I learned it was safest to stay away from her as much as possible, and so I hid in my bedroom or stayed away from the house when I was old enough to drive. I’ve often described my mom as an emotional vampire with me because she seemed to want to live her life through me. I moved out at 18, and while I did spend a few months under her roof after college. I was very happy to get into my own place as soon as possible, and this has had a lasting effect on my own emotional well-being.
I can’t fix mom’s issues with self-esteem or coach her on good emotional and mental health practices. All I can do is try to balance my own needs with helping as much as I can with her care. I often feel like I’m losing that balancing act.
There was someone I loved who grew old and ill.
One by one I watched the fires go out.
There was nothing I could do.
except to remember
that we receive
then we give back.
— from At the River Clarion, Mary Oliver