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Monday, May 9, 2016

"Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart." - Anne Frank

My mother has dementia. I'm not sure how many times I've written about this. She seems perfectly normal. If you met her today, you'd not notice the small things I do, the telltale signs that the woman before you is losing her brain function slowly each day.

Her short term memory functions at minimal capacity. This means that my mother will repeat things often. She'll become confused about who said what and when it was said. She gets lost on the way home from the store. 

Time has no meaning for my mom. This has always been a problem. Now it's out of control. She goes to bed when she feels sleepy and arises when she wakes up. That might mean bedtime is at 3:00 a.m. and morning comes at 1:00 p.m. As she sees a large number of doctors for many reasons (not the least of which is that she believes she is ill most of the time), being on time for appointments is problematic.

I see clients in an office located in her home. We enter through the living area. The office is located just around the corner. Sometimes my mother greets my clients in her pajamas.

Testimony meeting in church is stressful. Mom often feels moved by the Spirit to testify. We never know what the subject of the testimony will be, but most of the time it's a life story of a family member, rife with wrongdoing and sin, always ending with conversion and perfection. I play games on my phone while she speaks. It helps me remain in my seat so I don't drag her from the pulpit and out the door. Always I feel huge stress as she walks before the congregation to administer her latest dose of mostly fabricated family gossip. She doesn't know she's lying. In her poor brain, everything is real.

I have spent more than a decade in therapy to learn to forgive and accept my mother. In the beginning I was trying to resolve anger and resentment stemming from abuse I suffered at her hands-- abuse that nearly caused me to lose my life. Abuse that resulted in eating disorders not just for me, but for all of my sisters. Abuse that causes me to reel in confusion because the voice that shouted demeaning, angry, attacking words which were mostly unwarranted, still resonates in my head. Now, a decade later, I can silence it when I have enough emotional stamina. But I don't always have that, so the voice continues unchecked much of the time.

I've had a few breakthroughs. I've also suffered defeat. A few years after I was married, I received an apology from a broken woman who understood what she had done to her daughters and viewed herself as a monster. She told me she expected no forgiveness. She said she had no understanding of why she had acted in such a way. She knew it was wrong to treat her children as she had. But regardless of her unforgivable behavior, she wanted me to know of the sorrow and remorse and regret she lived with.

I didn't forgive her. She said that was to be expected. But I was willing to begin again - to try to build a new relationship. I placed boundaries. My mother respected them. She allowed me to tell her and immediately changed her behavior when I pointed out words the were hurtful, judgmental, and/or demeaning. I insisted that my children would only be touched by her in love and never in anger. She was not allowed to reprove them. Instead, she might tell me what they were doing that she disliked, and I would be the person to deal with the misdeeds. Again, my mother respected that request. She wasn't perfect, but she was definitely trying. 

Eventually, after many years, the time came that I thought I was healed enough to discuss with her some of the abuse, that we might find some resolution. About that same time, my mother had a seizure. A scan of her brain revealed the dead spots caused by a physically abusive father who struck her far too many times while drunk beyond reason. And I became aware of the magnitude of the demons my mother had carried for her entire life. Not only had the dead spots in her brain caused the seizure as they spread, they had inhibited her ability to regulate her emotions and behaviors for her entire life. In addition, they were now causing mini-strokes. My mother was literally losing her mind and had been doing so for most of her life.

Medicine helped slow the progress and even allowed some slight regeneration. It wasn't enough to cure the problem, simply to allow her more time to live with a semblance of sanity. But I understood when the diagnosis was revealed, that my hopes of building or maintaining a relationship, talking through past problems, and becoming whole were not going to happen. And that was unexpectedly painful. 

When I recovered from my disappointment, I continued what I had begun. I needed to find resolution. I needed to stop being a victim of my past. I accepted the agonizing truths that stemmed from abuse throughout my childhood and teen years. I dealt with it ungracefully and resentfully without my mother's help. I found myself wondering why, after all I had suffered at her hand, I was still trying. I found no answer-- but I could not stop what I had begun. My disdain and aggravation toward my mother increased daily.

I doubled my efforts. I learned more about her past. I recovered the good memories that had been forgotten, held in check while I allowed myself to be angry and hurt. When the good memories returned, they increased the agony I already felt. Questions, unanswered and unhelpful, coursed through my brain. Why did I have to remember that she was sometimes wonderful? Why did I remain near her now that I have the autonomy to move? Why was I placed in her care? Why did SHE have to be my mother?

Those questions haunted me. They became especially piercing as I watched her speak to the church congregation we share, bearing her "testimony" that was filled untruths that would have been devastating, should they overhear, to whichever sibling she chose to defame. Thus far, her only stories about me consist of my delightful childhood behavior, my amazing intellect, and my limitless musical talent. In short, I have become the perfect offspring. Anyone who has met me knows that's an absolute impossibility. I am not a well-behaved grownup. I have certainly never been a well-behaved child. My intelligence is above average, yes, but I am not the smartest person alive. I have musical talent, but it might be noted that my fame ceases to exist outside of the small town where I live, and even here, such fame is limited to a small number of people who believe anyone who can successfully play a church hymn is a piano virtuoso.

And so last month I watched with dread as my mother walked to the front of the congregation. Those haunting questions began their endless cycle through my brain as I attempted to drown out her voice while she once again embarked on her version of the life history of one of her unlucky offspring. The final question reverberated through my head: Why did SHE have to be my mother?

And God spoke to me. I know it was Him, because those words would never come from inside me. I don't have that capacity. Naysayers and doubters and unbelievers who encounter my words here are welcome to skip to the end, because nothing I write from this point forward will make sense to you. And I'm okay with that. It doesn't really make sense to me, either. 

God spoke to me and said, "You were given to her because I knew you would forgive."

And it was true. I knew in that moment that I had forgiven her long ago. I simply had to feel the emotions. I had to face the reality of who she was, where she came from, and the person and mother she wanted so badly to become - the person she could not be, because that ability was taken from her by her very own abusive parent. And I forgave her for the emotional, physical, and mental abuse that scarred me. Because to not do so would alter the person I am. It would place me in the same position she had long ago assumed; that of living my life as an abuse victim. 

One might say that an abuse victim is what I am. I am simply living in denial. That I am destined to continue the same path my mother has trod throughout her life. But that would be wrong. I am not a victim. I vowed I would never abuse my children. And I worked to keep that vow as I made choices that would benefit them through discipline rather than succumbing to the desire to punish as I had been, or berate or belittle. And the desires to abuse were real. They were all I had known as I grew up. People naturally raise their children in a similar fashion to the manner in which they were raised. But I did not. I refused to allow my children to live as I had. I would not be ruled by my past.

And I chose to get help. I spent years trying with my whole soul to move beyond the painful experiences and become a joyful, positive person. I have not always been successful. I still have moments - sometimes very long moments that last days, weeks, even months - when I am unable to manage PTSD and other resulting problems enjoyed by one who has abuse experiences in her childhood. But I'm still here. And I'm still trying. And I'm slowly becoming the person I have always wished to become IN SPITE of my past. I will not be hampered or deterred. I am more. 

You see, I have the advantage of a healthy mind, unscathed by injury-induced dementia. I am not my mother. And part of becoming the person I wish to be is allowing myself freedom from past pain, anger, and resentment. I grant myself permission to forgive. 

What I didn't understand was that my Heavenly Father knows me. The Big Guy has always known me better than I know myself, in the same way that I know my own children. I can predict with about 95% accuracy how my children will react to most situations. They surprise me occasionally, but only for a moment. Because I know them. And in the end, everything makes sense within the context of their individual personalities. I'm guessing that's the same for God when it comes to me. I don't really do anything unexpected. And a long time ago, before I was born, I'm guessing I knew what my mom would endure as a child. Knowing myself the way I do, I'm also guessing that I volunteered to be her daughter. Pretty much because I'm an idiot with a savior complex when it comes to people I love - and I loved her. And also because I probably wished to help her - to make her life better. But mostly because I knew, too, that no matter what she became, no matter the things inflicted on me by her, I would forgive her. 

And I think, somewhere, in that poor brain of hers, riddled with dark spots that stop logic and reason and encourage random emotions and panic and neuroses, she understands the depth of the pain she caused her family. I believe it haunts her. And the tragedy is that she does not have the mental capacity to understand that it's over. She's made changes - good changes. And the awful things she did were only part of the story. She did wonderful things, as well. 

Today the good things are on my mind so often that the abuse takes a firm back seat. I point them out to her. I remind her. I try, as gently as possible, to distract her from making up stories because I want her to remember the beautiful realities. It never works. She no longer has the capacity to differentiate reality from fantasy. But it reminds me. It reminds me to look at the whole picture. It reminds me that half of my genes come from the abuse survivor who is my mother. It reminds me that so many things I do well are because she believed I could do anything. It reminds me that my life is beautiful and she is a part of it. 

The day will come when she will no longer be the person who is my mother. There will be more parts of her brain that slowly die. One day she will no longer remember anything at all. Before that happens I will tell her I not only forgive her, but she is deserving of such forgiveness. I'll tell her I'm proud to have her as my mother. And even if she doesn't remember forever, she'll remember for a little while. 

Happy Mother's Day to my imperfect mother. On this day, for the first time in my life, I can say with all honestly, I choose you. And I love you forever.

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