IMG_2411 (Large)I had some pizza that I made the previous night and thought to share that and the remains of a bottle of claret with her.  But she is not right.  Julie has told me that she gets very emotional at the prospect of me coming round.  I have recently begun to wonder whether my frequent visits were helping her.

I hear her as soon as I open the door, the regular rhythm of querulous grunts, interrupted by ‘Oh Dear, Oh Dear, Oh Dear!’  My heart sinks! 

‘Hello mum!’  I say with as much dramatic enthusiasm as I can summon. 

‘Oh, Hello Nick.  Thank goodness you’ve come.’  She grabs hold of my hands and looks  up at me.  Then her face breaks down and she starts sobbing, a thin high pitched whining note.     

I lift her up and hug her, stroke her hair.  ‘There, there, whatever’s the matter?’

‘I don’t know’, she replies, as she lifts a tear-stained face and gazes imploringly at me, ‘I don’t know’. 

I feel her desperation like a heavy band squeezing my heart; a pain like pressure that I can’t relieve.  How dreadful it must feel to lose touch with your life, like being trapped in a pit with people staring in but unable to reach you.        

She staggers unsteadily behind me as I put the pizza in the microwave and pour two glasses of claret.  She follows me to the table and stands there, unsure of what to do.  I sit down, cut up her meal and invite her to sit and join me. 

The grunts recommence as she slowly cuts the pizza into still smaller pieces and raises them unsteadily to her mouth. 

‘Cheers, mum.’  I lift my glass. 

‘Oh, I can’t finish all this.’

‘Well, don’t worry.  Just do your best.’

‘You’re eating too quickly.  And then you’ll leave me.’

‘Don’t worry.  I’m in no rush. Just take your time.’ 

More grunts, then she stops, her fork poised.  She gives me a long look.    

‘You do like coming to see me, don’t you?’

‘Yes, of course I do mum.’

‘You’re not going to stop coming, are you?’

‘No, mum.’

‘You don’t just do it out of a sense of duty, do you?’

‘No, mum.’ 

‘Come on then, let’s have a smile.’ 

 

I feel confused.  Why do I feel so bad? 

It is projection, of course.  Mum is making me feel her fears; the same fears that have undermined her all her life.  She was a lonely child.  She never knew her father; he had died during the Great War.  She had no brothers and sisters, no friends. Her mother worked all hours, looking after her family and running the business.  Although she had all the care and later, all the opportunities and material possessions that her mother could buy, she felt lonely, deprived, in the way.  She grew up without the confidence of belonging.  And now at the end of her life, she is still that same lonely little girl, unable to trust anybody or anything and desperately needy of attention and reassurance.  So as she  regresses towards the vanishing point of pure narcissism, the essence of her being, the feelings that drive her have become ‘her’.  She is deeply unhappy; the orphan girl, the abandoned lover, the lonely old lady.  She has to pass on the distress to those who are closest to her.

I feel responsible for her unhappiness, though I know in reality I’m not.  I feel compelled to do as much as I can to satisfy her needs, reassure her, comfort her, but it can never be enough.  How many birthdays have I made that special effort only to have her find fault? I never seem to learn. She passes on a lifetime’s grievance. I experience the same  pernicious blend of entrapment, compromise, irritation and guilt. So much so that I fear that it has become part of who I am. Relationships have always tended to recreate feelings of entrapment and obligation and I have found it hard to tolerate my own loneliness and find freedom.   

So it is my fault that she is feeling bad. I am here under sufferance. I don’t want to see her.  

The awful thing is she is right.  When she is heavy, like this, I don’t want to be with her.  I can feel an almost infinite compassion, but her pain and my guilt are almost impossible to bear.  And the more I deny the antipathy and reassure her, the worse we both feel; me, because I cannot be honest; she, because she cannot gain a real justification for her grievance.  So I try to steer a winding path through ensnaring undergrowth between understanding and care on the one hand and brutal honesty on the other.      

You might say it would be better to sort things out for her in a practical sense, do my duty and leave. But that doesn’t work.  No suggestion, no alteration of her circumstances is ever right.  She doesn’t want practical solutions.  She will always find fault with them.  They are incorporated into the grudge.  In fact, to help her is probably the worst thing I can do, because by gratifying her demands, I take away her remaining power, the manipulative power of the grievance.  What she wants is constant attention, understanding and reassurance, but even that has to be questioned, denied.  It seems so shocking to say it, but what she envies and wants is life, my life!  And in refusing to devote the totality of my life to her, I feel guilty.  She’s my mum, after all.  Surely I owe her my life.   

I am a psychotherapist.  I do recognise the manipulation and the need to maintain a boundary in order to protect myself from it.  But at the same time, I can feel the loneliness and desperation that hides behind it.  As a little girl, mum would have learnt that the only way she could soothe her distress was to get her mothers attention, even if the ways of doing it made her angry.  Any attention, even angry attention, was better than no attention at all.  And there was always the hope that her mother would soften, recognise her distress, calm things down, rescue her.  After all, how could anybody turn away from such distress.  And if they did, well she just raised the stakes, became more desperate. Guilt is such a good way of manipulating people.    

I feel disloyal in writing and posting this article, but it is cathartic and helps me defend myself against the other guilt. Perhaps there is some deep seated resentment, simmering away, but I do not wish to be unkind. And after all, so much of what is her is in me.  Only by understanding that, can I find ways of helping us both.  I feel desperately sorry for her, but also terribly trapped.  Nevertheless, I have a choice. I can either bear the guilt and suffer with her or I can seek understanding and some distance.  I feel the latter will help her more.   

In January, I am planning to go away travelling for three months.  She is 93 and frail.  What if she dies?   

When she is particularly aggrieved with me, she fixes me with her gimlet eye and says,  ‘You’ll be sorry if I’m not here tomorrow. I shall come back and haunt you, you know!’      

‘Yes mum; I think you will.’

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