Note: I’ve been writing this entry since Friday. Actually, I probably have been writing a version of this sometime since 2018, but it’s been bouncing around in my head even more since Mom died. This specific post on this platform that I started last week has almost 30 revisions. But there was a similar post on my substack the I revised dozens of times and never published. And then there were several attempts at similar posts on the old platform. I think a lot of my lack of writing lately is because this post hasn’t been written yet. It’s like I can’t quite focus on writing anything else because this thing has been in draft mode more or less since 2018. So here it is…let’s hope my writing brain can clear out a little more now.
I felt the loss of being Motherless many times before my Mom took her last breath earlier this year. I didn’t know that pain was grief until I started going to therapy after my Dad died.
Yes…I went to therapy working through past grief over losing my Mom…while my Mom was still very much alive. Turns out unaddressed loss in your childhood can influence a lot of pain in your adulthood.
I learned I had to confront the loss I felt when she divorced my Dad when I was 5, switching to the role of Every Other Weekend Mom.
I had to confront the grief each time I realized those weekends were still not really ours. Those weekends actually belonged to her and her friends at the bars where she would take us on those weekends to watch Football or NASCAR.
I had to face the hurt that sprouted when she would bail on commitments to watch me play sports or come to awards banquets. I had to confront the sadness that grew each time I realized she would choose drinking over me, when asked to choose. I had process the grief from the day when I called my Mom for support when I found out I was pregnant at 18 and her response was, “I’m glad my Mother is no longer alive to hear about this.”
You see, after my Dad died, I was struggling to find a path in my grief, even years after he was gone. I finally found a therapist who had to break it to me: “You are not grieving your Father, entirely. With his absence, you have to confront your relationship and your feelings around the parent who was left behind. That is where we need to spend our time…with the pain from losses surrounding your Mom…who is very much alive.”
So for years I confronted that pain that young Kim still felt. I actually had to work through some grief workbooks centered around the parent that was still living. Because it was grief I was feeling from that abandonment. That disappointment. That sadness.
And then…I actually started to heal enough to see the demons from her life that led her to fail in mine. As my wounds finally got treated, I was able to finally see hers.
Then, the time came for me to fill a caregiver role in her life in 2018. She was still working full time but she couldn’t drive so I had to live with her several days a week to get her to/from work. I took my new role in her life seriously tried my best to help improve her life by helping her budget and trying to clean and nurture better habits. I guess you could say it was good I spent the years in therapy healing myself from being let down by her as a Mother, just in time for me to take the Parent role in her life.
In all of that proximity I really started to see what happens to a person who is unable or unwilling to face their own demons: Hoarding…filth…addiction…self-destructive coping mechanisms…etc. I did my best to help right her ship, but there’s only so much you can do for someone who doesn’t want to help themselves.
Eventually she got her license back and I left her to try to take care for herself again, hoping some of the habits she was pushed into would stick. Unfortunately, less than a year later she was forced into early retirement and her life was still a mess. I was not the first person who had tried to help her, she had always been surrounded by networks of supportive family. I should have known my efforts would not make any more difference than those of her siblings or even my Dad.
So, I had get her to Huntsville. The next several weeks had me cleaning out her condo trying to prep it for sale, digging through layers of hoarded appliances and food and clothes and scrubbing up years-old human and pet waste hidden under every case of chicken broth and 50-pack of batteries. I only thought I had glimpsed what self-destruction had done to her living situation…turns out it was way worse below the surface.
And what was going on outside the ruined drywall of her condo? A pandemic was raging. We finally got my Mom into her apartment in Huntsville the weekend the city shut down. The next 10 months was a more intense version of what I had been doing the years prior. I struggled…a lot…because it is incredibly hard being a caregiver for someone who doesn’t actually care for themselves.
She had avoided facing her demons for decades with self-destructive habits and coping methods that had finally caught up with her. Those bursts of serotonin that come with spending money? No longer an option when you’re on a fixed income and your daughter made you cut up your credit cards. She still drank, but not without the constant reminder what it was doing to her body every week in dialysis. She could no longer be comforted by the piles of food and cookware and supplies she had stored in every corner of her condo because I started her on a clean slate in a new empty apartment. She had started vaping – but I didn’t even let her enjoy that because I did not hide my feelings around her starting a brand new expensive and unhealthy habit at age 70.
Facing a big life change in a pandemic without the comfort her reliable coping mechanisms was an impossible hill for her to climb. And as is the case with unaddressed pain…her demons were still chasing her.
During the 6 months since she has passed, the emotional side of my brain has really struggled with guilt. Luckily, the intellectual side of my brain understands how tricky the situation was and without her wanting to do some real emotional work, she was not really ever going to be happy. The intellectual side of me knows she was dealing a childhood of trauma and a lifetime of shame that she never learned how to face. Part of it was simply being born into the generation she was born in…the language for those things was not in common use until she had developed an arsenal of unhealthy coping weaponry. A lot of it was Catholicism. The type of Catholic family she grew up in did not allow for any real introspection around those feelings of shame. She got pregnant at 18 and her family shipped her off to the other side of the country to have the baby and give it up secretly for adoption. I’m convinced she died still holding onto the shame from that.
So…yeah…there were layers upon layers of shit she needed to face in order for her to be able to truly find peace or contentment in a life without the crutches she had leaned on for decades. And she had no desire to dig through any of that shit. And honestly? If you ask my intellectual brain? I don’t blame her. She had built a way to cope for 40+ years, why start something new in her 70s?
But the emotional side of my brain knew that it’s never too late to start healing the younger version of yourself. I was almost 40 before I ever spoke to Young Kim to comfort her.
I truly believe the only reason Mom lasted as long as she did was she was trying to make it through the holidays. She had been hinting for months about being miserable and wanting to quit dialysis and die. She had talked to her doctor about her depression but she’s the perfect example of the limitations of medicine. They would adjust the types and quantities of medications to treat her depression and she Never. Felt. Better. They would keep trying to get her to talk to someone, I definitely did too because no one preaches the power of therapy better than me…but she would tell me, “I’m not like you, Kim. I don’t like talking about my feelings. That’s not how I grew up.”
And now…my friends…we arrive at why I wrote this.
We are blessed to be living in a time when mental healthcare is more normalized at the cultural level. Olympians and Hollywood celebrities and members of Royalty are talking about their struggles with their giant audiences and powerful platforms. If you do not have a family or a community where mental healthcare is normalized? Then you need to be the one who starts that trend. I was the first one in my family to openly seek therapy and to openly talk about mental health. MAKE IT NORMAL EVERYWHERE YOU GO.
I don’t know all of shit my Great-Grandparents dealt with, but I know for a fact my Mom’s parent’s unresolved issues created a nightmare life for their family. Because of this, my Mom never learned to face any of the demons torturing her, and I don’t know what that would have done to me if I didn’t seek out mental healthcare in my 30s.
Here’s what I know for sure: I wouldn’t be able to be the Mother I am today if I hadn’t had my own personal mental health reckoning. I’m not perfect, I’m far from it, but the work I did to heal my own wounds gave me a much better foundation to build my parenting on.
Being a human is hard, everyone is going to have shit they have to deal with even if their parents were perfectly well-adjusted with no systemic hurdles complicating their pursuit of happiness. But if you’re having to face that humanity carrying the baggage of your parents and their parents and their parents…you are going to have a harder time of it.
Get yourself to therapy. And this is not just for parents so they don’t warp another generation in their bloodline. This is for everyone. I can tell you a lot of lives I shit on in my years before therapy and none of them were my kid’s lives. You are not just healing yourself to stop the flow of trauma to your children, you’re healing yourself to stop the flow of trauma into EVERY LIFE YOU COME INTO CONTACT WITH.
I’m sure I would have still struggled with depression and an anxiety disorder even if my Mom had gone to therapy. But if she had worked on healing herself, I would have had less work to do with my own mental health challenges. Going to therapy is like prepping your flower beds or your vegetable garden before planting anything. Everyone has to weed and till and maybe mix in some fertilizer or some fertile soil. But if you are trying to plant in beds ignored by your parents and grandparents for generations, then you may also have to dig out rocks or thick rooted vines or unyielding clay.
I’ll end this by saying, all of this healing led to a lot of scars. And just like when the rain comes and that old sport’s injury suddenly hurts again…I am still capable of feeling some of that childhood pain deeply. Especially when I realize how truly easy it is to be a present and attentive Mom. And while intellectually I can see the things that led my Mom to being unable to be that for me, it still hurts emotionally sometimes when I have engaging conversations with my kids about their lives and I can’t help but think, Was it really that hard, Mom?
So, yeah. Our parents and/or grandparents did not have the luxury of culturally normalized mental health care, don’t shit on that gift by missing the chance to do what they did not feel comfortable doing. You’ll be amazed how much easier things grow when you prep your flowerbeds first.
Mom, I’m sorry you lived in a world where you did not feel like you could – or should – seek out therapy to work through your pain. You deserved to be freed from the trauma and shame of your past, and I will forever wish you could have tasted that freedom at least once before you died. If I had known when your journey was going to end, maybe I wouldn’t have tried so hard to help you find better coping methods…maybe I would have just let you have your vices and die in peace. Alas, I was hoping for more time with you and I hoped helping you change your habits would give me that. In the end, I hope you felt a peace having your kids at your bedside, giving you any absolution you may have needed. You deserved to at least have peace in the end. Love, Kim.