Tucked into bed, the wasted lifeless body with its skeletal features was gut-wrenching and surreal. My mother was dead. My mother? Dead? No, not possible. Not yet. I'm not ready. Her life force had been like a terrifying thrill ride. She could eviscerate me with a few savage words, melt my heart with her vulnerability, and envelope me in a love so fierce it could surely decimate any threat against me. My mother was dead and I knew with every certainty I'd never be loved like that again.
I stood in her silent darkened room, barely breathing, utterly lost. It took only a few steps before I fell to my knees at her bed side. Her hands were still warm and soft, her nails neatly polished a sweet soft pink. I held her fingers to my cheek, rested my face in her hand, and wept. I pulled myself up into bed next to her hoping for the comfort only a mother can give and keened until I was weak and dizzy from grief. I brushed the hair from her forehead. Placing my hand on her emaciated chest I imagined a heartbeat so she could hear me say, “I love you, Mommy,” just once more. I waited. But her heart was now eternally still. I felt like a feral creature, instinctively compelled to remain with her to mourn, a lonely sentinel.
When they could delay no longer, the assisted living staff gently persuaded me to leave them to their job. During the moonless pre-dawn drive home, I realized too late that I should have insisted on staying to help wash and dress my mother's body for the funeral home. What the hell? Why didn’t I have the presence of mind to stay? I had chosen what she would wear, but I had let slip the opportunity to participate in a ritual that could have been my final demonstration of love and devotion. I was consumed with remorse. The last chance to care for her lost, with no more to come. Ever.
Over the course of a decade Alzheimer’s annihilated my once-spirited mother. I foolishly believed her death would have been a relief. Instead, it held only the agony of losing her twice. I was tormented by grief and guilt. I had often imagined I’d hold her as she exhaled her last breath, solace in her last earthbound moments. Yet, she had died alone. This was intolerable. For as far back as I could remember she would say, “I know you’ll take care of me when I’m old.” But, the best I could do at the end was to find a place that specialized in the care of patients with memory loss. A place not very special at all. I had failed as her daughter and her care-giver. I was guilt-ridden, depressed, and crushed by the weight of my inadequacies. I was not who she had trusted me to be. I was an impostor.
Let me share a secret with you. A dirty one. I am an impostor. For most of my life I've suffered with depression. Despite the recent activism, mental illness is still badly stigmatized. I harbored the genuine fear I'd be labeled "crazy", so I’d passed for bright and breezy. For decades. I refused to acknowledge it, I refused to be crazy. Suffering a punishing double standard I’d never impose upon anyone else, I was convinced it was my own weakness that prevented me from escaping its grip. Then, my mother’s death precipitated a profound episode that was completely unmanageable and quite nearly killed me. Increasingly introverted, I withdrew even further desperately wishing to disappear. I neglected my appearance. I put on weight. So much weight. I tried to quit my job. I cared about nothing. Nothing, except for my son.
My son believes that I’m strong. My son believes I have integrity. My son regards me as his role model. I don’t recognize the person my son believes me to be. But, it’s his faith in that person that saved me. Though he’s now an adult, I still hope he might learn from my foibles and mistakes. Despite my trepidation, I shared honestly the severity of my illness. He knows far more about me than I figure he cares to. Nonetheless, he’s been gracious, loving, and supportive. He makes me laugh. But I worry that I’ve unfairly burdened him.
Because I’d finally confessed, I sought professional help. After months of medication and therapy I was disappointed that I had no appreciable improvement. Something had to change I supposed, though I was too hopeless to care, until I heard a discussion on retraining neural pathways as a treatment for depression. And there it was, my “ah-ha!” moment. Everything had to change. No small incremental adjustments to methodically gauge the effects of each modification. Nooo. I went big. Sweeping. I radically changed my diet. I cut my hair. I bought new clothes. I did quit my job.
Intellectually, I understand that this extreme behavior requires energy I don’t have, and commitment I can’t sustain. I risk colossal failure leading straight back to self-loathing and dangerously deeper depression. Yet emotionally I feel I have absolutely nothing to lose. Do different, get different. Hell yeah. My family and friends who really have no idea, and especially my son who does know better, think this middle-aged, dumpy, divorced woman with no plan, and no foreseeable means of income is a courageous and daring bad-ass. I think that bad-ass is the someone I want to be.
Emotional support is available 24/7 from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)