RESILIENCE, A PREFACE
I have made my home the opposite of the house in which I grew up. The house where I was subjected to constant abuse, which took on many forms over the years spent in it, adapting to my threshold.
It was a place where I made caregiving my sole purpose in order to block out the other possibilities: that this was wrong, that my life was being stolen, that fear and pain and threats were unusual. That none of this was normal.
If I thought any of these things even for one moment, then the world I had accepted would suddenly become a hellscape and I would cease to function within its confines.
So I normalized it.
I told myself that once my mother died, I could too. My reward for a job well done.
It is painful to be alive now, to have reached an age that I once could not even have imagined. I was supposed to be gone at 11, then 15, and 18. Somehow I went to grad school and now I just did my taxes. Like, a year late, but I did them. None of this makes any sense, it does not mesh with my childhood vision of no future. I didn’t want to be a doctor, an astronaut, or an artist; I aspired to oblivion.
That is what abuse does. It makes you long for nothingness because bound to a body in space and time, there is remembering.
(I don’t even want to be a ghost. There is no way anyone would agree to play Bob’s Burgers all day every day to entertain my phantom whims. This is how Poltergeist situations are created.)
I am amazed as to how I managed to survive this long, to have come this far--literally far, to put 278 miles between myself and the theatre of my past. Still, when I dream of a home, the house is where I am.
After they fade in the first few hours of waking, I try not to think about it, I am rarely triggered anymore. I am still easily startled, loud banging makes me uneasy, but it’s not as bad as it used to be. It has taken time to settle down when working right next to the gallery, where students are installing their works every month, reminding me of the way my mother would call for me: hammering her cane into the wall above her bed until it was pockmarked. Requiring filler and paint before the house sold.
My home now is a comfort to me in its contrast. A controlled environment is a triumph to anyone who has lived without safety or power. I have worked to make it so. I worry over it, making it softer when needed, brighter, more colourful, less colourful, it shifts to reflect some newly recognized need. Still, within it, remotely, I was unexpectedly forced to walk down the mental copy of the hall of the house where I compartmentalized the past, and then made to open every door.
"Hello? Is this Julie, or Julia? Are you the youngest daughter of Lucia? I'm Joy, an author. Lucia was telling me that you are her power of attorney and that I should talk to you..."
Speaking in such a sweet, yet condescending tone, she asked to be put in touch with my sisters so that she could relay that my mother loves and misses them, that my mother will be dedicating her book of poetry to them.
“Your mother’s poems are so much about how she is alone, but you see, she isn’t alone, her story is the same as so many sick and elderly people abandoned by their families in nursing homes… I would like to call your sisters and tell them that she is very ill and misses them" Before she could continue, I interrupted:
I’m going to have to stop you there, Joy.
I barely recognized my own voice then.
I was in the bath, and so it reverberated, both hollow and full of anger.
I scared myself by how cold I sounded and worried I was losing my mind, as all these words came out of me, stories, and anecdotes all out of order.
I told her that my mother has Borderline Personality Disorder and clinical Narcissistic tendencies.
Complicated by early onset dementia, stemming from MS.
(In a short form that my psychiatrist has agreed is fitting: My mother is Donald Trump.)
I told Joy about my life with her, the years from 8-19 I spent as her live-in nurse, about the choices my sisters had made to leave and sever contact, about the past 8 months when she was to die by physician assistance, during which I was not to tell my sisters.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, putting behaviours together until it began to resemble events of the past. She asked one too many times if I had told my sisters, and I began to wonder if “don't tell your sisters" was really "tell your sisters I told you not to tell them, and then I will see if they will come back to me” because that is the Borderline/Narcissist thing to do.
The secrecy physically hurt me. After intense stomach pain over a month, I began violently vomiting the night she was to have died. It was as if I had rigged my body to detonate: telling myself that was the day I could openly grieve, but then… there was nothing to grieve.
After this, I told Gabrielle, who said that this had not changed her mind about seeing our mother, but that she was glad she knew so she could be there for me should my mother go through with it.
In this, I recognized again that my mother had isolated me in caregiving.
I see now I was foolish to trust that the doctors knew what they were doing in their assessment that my mother was capable of making this decision. An idiot to believe that this was anything apart from the many "suicide" attempts made in the past in which the attempt seems to coincide with some argument or threat to the status quo.
These moves seemed to hold me in place as her caregiver. I would give impassioned speeches designed to keep her alive, to make her take her medications, to open a locked door. I was so proud of having these honed skills of manipulation that I would only use for good. I see it so clearly now that I was the one being manipulated.
With every Iloveyoupleasedon'tleave,pleasedon'tdie set in an almost Sorkin-like monologue, I gave her what she wanted. Just as I had this year when I began to visit every weekend, back at her beck and call. Transcribing her novel for her, like she had been asking me for months to do.
She rang the bell and I danced.
I told Joy that she shouldn't feel bad, that my mother can pretend to be normal for short times and she is not the first person who has been used and burned through.
My mother now denies these previous events, as I imagine she will one day when confronted with the plans for assisted suicide. I console myself with this: when someone calls 911 about an overdose, there is a record, when they are found outside a police station having been reported missing, a file. When someone is kept for psychiatric observation, there is a document of this too. I hold onto truth and it's associated paperwork when I can.
After one suicide attempt, my mother was institutionalized for two weeks. She made a doorstop in the shape of a cat.
After my nervous breakdown, I was held for 48 hours.
Maybe I am better at pretending to be normal.
I am definitely better at crafts, and I’m kind of mad there were none.
The breakdown happened after I learned that I had been denied my conditional acceptance into University based on my poor attendance. Too afraid to leave the house in fear of what would happen to my grandmother while I was away, I was chronically truant in high school. University was my way out—my childish plans for oblivion would have to wait as long as my Grammy was still alive. I was going to take her with me. Without University, I saw no other choice.
I took all the pills. Waiting for them to knock me out, I watched Conan O’Brien making cocktail wieners with a little old woman, I realized my grandmother would find me and that it would kill her.
I left a note saying I had a stomach ache and would be back.
At the hospital, the doctors asked me why I was so depressed. They listened to me and I saw something in them no doctor or social worker had shown before: shock. They said this should never have happened, and because my mother was in the same hospital at the time with a blood clot, they refused to release her. They stated it was too dangerous for someone in her advanced condition to be in the care of her daughter and elderly mother alone.
My mother had, as a threat to us, put herself on waiting lists for nursing homes. Telling me that if she left I would be alone and unable to care for my Grammy. My Grammy was under the same warning. Then, being on a waiting list made it much easier to slot my mother into one of those homes. She had made a bet, and her bluff was called. My grandmother had gone, with great relief, to the nursing home of her choice.
When I was released from the hospital, I wasn't free. The doctors had, in the process of protecting me, accidentally shattered my world.
Their shock meant this wasn't normal.
None of it was normal.
It was hell and I had been living in it with a routine for its maintenance.
Self-harm, a coping mechanism I adopted very early in childhood kept me from doing anything worse, escalated.
Bruises became open wounds.
I found a small box of straight razors and began marking my legs like the walls of a prison.
It passed the time as I wandered the house alone, emptying it of everything before selling the place.
One time my realtor brought in a couple, only giving me two minutes notice, I forgot the still bloody razors by the bathtub.
I think that might have taken the prize for worst home-staging ever.
Hysterical in the sense that I barely remember this time, I drifted from room to room. I think the nights were the worst. I closed that door tightly.
I look at my home now and I have given away most of the things I took from the house. I chose a painting by my friend Emma that vaguely resembles something we had then, one of the only things I liked, but I have no idea what I did with it.
I must have done something.
Things went somewhere. They had to.
My mother is obsessed with her things, and maybe that is also why I have forgotten where they went: she loves objects more than me. This is why, during this time, she initiated a lawsuit against me.
She called me to tell me this. Threatening me over the phone.
My realtor and lawyer told me to just keep going, that this was a bluff, but years later I found the legal draft in one of her drawers at the nursing home.
Those months alone in the home are mostly gone and I am glad. I do remember Gabby visiting me once, I had put my back out while chasing a rabbit down the driveway. Again, I was a bit hysterical and I had a thing for rabbits.
I was stuck in bed, and this is where she saw my arms and legs. She cried and begged me to stop, she asked for the things I was using and I gave them to her.
I used to be angry with her for leaving me with our mother, we are so close in age but so far apart in experience. I envied her for getting away before our mother needed the care she did, but now I understand it's flight protocol: put your mask on first and only then help the person beside you.
She was not in the position to help me until the hellscape was crumbling and I needed a place to live. She moved out of my father's apartment, and went to Trent, in Peterborough. Opening up a spot for me.
The other, occupied by Kate.
Kate, during my rare visits with my dad, seemed only to want to force me to see the home I would return to at the end of the weekend was something terrible because it brought her joy to make me cry.
Thinking back on the times I lived with my oldest sister, I see in her a streak of sadism I hadn't then, and something else my brain doesn't want to touch. So I leave it. I don't want her in my life. When I see her start to creep around my social media world, I shut it down. Friends only.
I still respect her decision to have no contact with my mother, and I tell Joy this.
She can't have their numbers.
Once I explained most of this, (there is too much for this story to be coherent or chronological, which is why I always write in fragments and how those fragments then overlap), she said
"oh... oh no, I didn't know any of this"
This is what the well-meaning friends of my mother would say after they assumed the worst about me and then discovered the situation was more nuanced than they imagined.
One of her last loyal friends came to see me at the house, picking up something for my mother, having previously given me a talking to about my responsibility to her, he suddenly seemed worn down and shaken--apparently the recipient of one too many 3am phone calls in which my mother explained some paranoid conspiracy about my father wanting the house and to steal me away.
"Your mother... is there something wrong with her mind?" and I looked at him with pity and told him he could go. The same pity when I told Joy that I understood she didn't know any of this and that her idea of making one book for my mother would be a nice gesture, she would very much like that. I do not wish to torpedo my mother's dream, but I don't want to see someone used by someone misrepresenting their situation.
No pity now, just a day after that first conversation when Joy called me to ask whether, instead of the single copy to appease my mother, I would like to write the preface of the published book? It would mean so much to my mother. Or, if I would be more comfortable, she could ghostwrite it for me?
I'm going to have to stop you there, Joy.
There are always those who want to believe the easiest story: Sick and neglected parent must mean bad children.
People are complex, they are more than one thing.
Just because someone is in a wheelchair, doesn't mean they are not also an asshole.
Being sick or disabled doesn't make you good by default. This is deeply reductive and condescending.
Because she speaks intelligently of inclusivity one moment doesn't mean my mother hasn't used the N-Word against a PSW. Relevant to this moment in time and how similar she is to Donald Trump, she called me two years ago very concerned about “The Immigrants”, like the idividuals who are responsible for her daily care at the home. I had to remind her that they care for her despite it being an incredibly difficult and underpaying job, and that she is herself a first generation Canadian.
Likewise, just because she's not a very good person doesn't mean she isn't capable of kind gestures that have benefited me greatly and that during the period in which I had a death day for her I didn’t mourn her with all my heart, in a complicated way that left me exhausted and confused.
It is her kindness at times that makes it all the more impossible for me to cut ties. I want my mother to love me, I want to be there for the person I wish she was, and the person she has shown glimmers of being. So I keep caregiving. From a healthier distance of 278 miles.
I would like to note that I am here, in part, because the path to University was reopened by my high school art teachers, Chilton and Flanagan, who conspired with the administration to create a course that didn't exist and I had never taken. They gave me a high mark for that course that then corrected my average, reasoning that the English teacher who had docked me for attendance was aware of my situation, and yet used me as an example.
In University my life had yet to fully stabilize, and my attendance hadn't entirely improved, one professor speculated that I missed my Friday classes because I was too busy partying on Thursdays (if partying is watching Stargate Atlantis in bed, he was correct). He went on to psychoanalyze me, suggesting first that I was a spoiled only child, and when corrected, a third child with something to prove. I cried so hard in his office that I think he must have spoken to other professors who knew more about me. After that day he always seemed timid, wanting to say something to me. I avoided him.
Fridays, for the record, were my therapy days. I found it too difficult to return to class after these sessions early in my treatment.
I once wrote an email to my professor, Robert Burley to say I wouldn't be in class that day, but that I would make it up somehow. His response was something along the lines of: Don't worry. I trust you. You take care of yourself.
Living by these examples, I resolve to be the person who believes the difficult truth over the easy lie, especially when that truth comes at a deep cost to the one telling it, and there is nothing to be gained. I have nothing to gain here. The cost has been my emotional state, already challenged by this past year, I’ve been triggered like someone hammering on my wall.
My mother stands to gain. She will get a book, propped up by an author of note. It is unclear to me whether her poetry has recently become an indictment of her children. My previous readings of “T2” did not suggest this. And so I wonder if it is instead you who is providing the context, already decided and without timely fact-checking because it makes for an interesting angle: you, a saviour who discovered this talent, tucked away and forgotten by her family. I question if my place in a preface is to mitigate your responsibility in emboldening a false narrative.
I told you I would consult with my psychiatrist, who for over a decade has treated me for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder before I would give you my answer.
But I think I got this:
We aren’t loved or missed.
We know where she is.
We know who she is.
My mother did not get sick and then find herself immediately put away out of sight.
I fed her. I bathed her. I changed her diapers. I put her to sleep at night. I comforted her when she cried.
I did this for ten years.
She is not my mother. I am hers.
She took my childhood from me, and continues to grasp at my life.
And you serve only to extend her reach.
I am not an angel or adoring child (though I was once--abused children love their abusers above all, it is a protective measure). I did what I considered to be my duty and I didn’t question it until it was much too late. I was an unknowing martyr for the benefit of my mother and the rest of my family. Something that will mark my relationships with them forever.
I don't want or need you to ghostwrite something feel-good for your own purposes.
This not your preface, it is mine.
This is my story. It seems with your reputation on the line you decided to forget it and now you can’t have it.
In my apartment, I have a large portrait of my mother above my mantle. I have allowed this reminder of the responsibility I had and choose to have now. It is a testament to the reality of my experience caring for her, hung in a monument to my survival. While I may have made a life for myself that bears so little resemblance to the one before that it seems difficult to believe, it now serves a purpose in the face of you and those like you; I know the truth.
You and your publication may attempt to re-write history, but the truth will always stand.
I will always win.