One True Thing

Life's questions, big and small

Ann Hite: My Family Secret

A daughter deals with abandoning her bipolar mother.

By guest-blogger Ann Hite

The best way to describe my mother is to paint an image of a hummingbird hanging in front of a bright red flower, beating its wings against the air to stay in one place. And I was a chameleon, melting into my surroundings, invisible in her presence.

This transparency ensured me a place in her world that I both hated and loved all in the same long inhalation. When I was born, I came as a package deal. Around my neck was a sack full of metaphorical stones. Smooth and round like the one Virginia Woolf used on her fateful last day as she waded into the river, or like the perfect throwing stones used to kill Stephen in biblical times, or in some cases giant boulders that seemed to grow from the rich dirt in the Appalachian Mountains, where my great grandparents struggled to make a life.

Most of these gems were passed on to me, unknowingly, from some family member’s choice or demise before my mother was old enough to fall in love and marry. Some were as new as a few hours before my birth. And of course my coming into the world only prompted more stones to be added by my parents and grandparents. The stones in my sack were so heavy that I was a late walker and a timid, sensitive child. But the largest stone, the one that came to dinner with me every night as a child, was my mother’s secret. A secret so well kept that for many years I thought she was normal, that every mother used a leather belt for the slightest infraction. That every mother chose to walk through the living room without any clothes when her daughter’s friends had come to visit.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Mother’s secret had a name. We call it bipolar now, but in the sixties, this illness was labeled manic depressive. Mother went to doctors. This I remember. She went what seemed to be once a week. But I can only guess she never revealed the extent of her erratic behavior—weeks at a time feeling fine, better than fine, exuberant, only to fall down a dark black rabbit hole. The first time I read Alice in Wonderland as a teenager, I couldn’t help but wonder if the author was really writing about Mother’s disease. In those days, especially in the South, there was only a fine line between nerves and a trip to the state hospital. Mental illness insured a woman would lose her rights, especially if she were a mother. These visits to the doctor eventually gave way to her abuse of prescription drugs. By then I had learned to go deep inside myself and live an internal life. Reading and writing became my escape. But I always worked at pleasing her, gaining her complete approval. And there were the good times, even though these began to vanish as I became a young adult.

In 2003 Mother was diagnosed with renal kidney failure and told she would have to go on dialysis three days a week. She asked if I could drive her to and from the treatments. I was an adult and had long before come to understand I would never be close to my mother, but I wanted to be there for her. So I agreed. For a while I believed this arrangement might work; that I would escape the ridicule, harshness, and manipulation she always doled out. Then, she began to skip her dialysis a day at time. I tried to reason with her by telling her she could die from the toxins building in her blood system. But nothing I said budged her from the house. One morning I couldn’t get her on the phone—she had missed four appointments in a row—so my husband, who was closest, went to her house. Mother had collapsed in the bathroom floor. She was rushed to the hospital where she narrowly escaped death.

The doctor at the hospital mandated Mother get some “help”. This decision was placed at my feet, the chameleon. The days of not talking about her problem, of not acknowledging her inability to make rational decisions were over. Mother went into a care facility. Something she had begged me not to do when the dialysis began. We had come down to life or death. But hadn’t this always been the case, just in different contexts? The last time I saw my mother, she begged me not to desert her. She accused me of not loving her, of being a selfish daughter. I had become her jailer.

I abandoned my mother. There, I revealed my darkest secret, and the urge to erase the sentence is strong. See, because I left her and finally walked away, she died alone in a hospital with only a nurse and her living will, allowing the doctor to cease lifesaving measures. She died of internal bleeding caused from prescription drug abuse and the pure neglect of health issues; such as hypertension, diabetes, and kidney failure. She was seventy-three and I was forty-five. A lifetime. Understand I loved my mother so much it hurt. Maybe it was this very pain that gave me the courage to finally save myself. I’ve had people tell me that it takes a certain amount of bravery not to fulfill the request a pleading mother. But it wasn’t courage. I just chose to survive.

Mother was way ahead of her time. Had she been born forty years later, she would have been a clothes designer of the highest caliber. She could design a piece in her head and sit down and take the idea straight to creation. My earliest memories were of me sitting under her sewing space—a shaky card table set up in our living room—playing as quietly as possible. The whirling of the sewing machine vibrating into the hardwood floors was like being rocked in a pair of arms. Mother always celebrated every holiday with zeal. When I was young, she spent hours making Halloween costumes for me to wear. At Christmas I woke to the room full of toys, even if she had to spend her meager monthly income. One Easter she made my entire outfit out of purple silk because it was my favorite color. To this day, when I smell banana bread, I think of the huge Thanksgiving dinners she cooked before she went back to bed for the day.

This afternoon I took a walk in the cool fall weather. I underestimated the chill in the air, and the breeze sliced through my thin sweater. I thought of giving up and turning back for home. Then, I walked into a swath of sun stretched across the road. The warmth made me smile. It was perfection. When Mother was on, I basked in her attention. She was the best place to be. How does one balance each side of this relationship? I don’t. I accept. My mother was a woman who loved me the only way she knew how, and I forgive myself for not saving her. And most of all I’m thankful for the good memories, the warm and happy scenes that come to me here and there. So I am in a place where I have found grace and complete peace.

Ann Hite has written short stories, personal essays, and book reviews for numerous publications and anthologies. Ghost On Black Mountain, her first novel, is inspired by generations of stories handed down through her family. She lives in Atlanta.

 

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

more...

Subscribe to One True Thing

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.