It was a dark winter evening when my friend Gillian and I sat down to talk about her experiences with one of her twin sons, Derek, 28 at the time and living on his own. With Gillian you know what she thinks and why. Yet despite her quick mind, and deep, creative intelligence, she agonized over the same questions that plagued me and so many other parents. Derek was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in his twenties, after struggling with elusive learning problems as a child and tumultuous teen years during which he acted out at home and school, though he was clearly bright and creative.
Gillian had been told by one of his doctors that Derek’s premature birth had caused some of his physical and emotional problems. “I felt guilty for 15 years and was constantly aware that people just assumed that if you had a kid who was having problems, you were doing something wrong,” she said, echoing a familiar refrain. For years she’d worried that having sex with her ex-husband the night before her water broke might have caused that. She was haunted by self-blame until doctor to whom she confided her guilt told her that they would have been born early, anyway. “It’s that Goddess thing,” she said, “where you think you can compensate for anything.”
Though Gillian identified with feminism as it honors the intrinsic creative and powerful aspects of mothering, she still heard the voices of her Midwestern roots, where the traditional norms of marriage and family were less eroded than on the coasts. She questioned whether her departure from that cultural legacy was at fault. She had divorced the twins’ father and lived with someone she’d expected to marry—a relationship that didn’t work out. As she tried to make sense of what had happened, both of these situations became fodder for self-blame.
Gillian was torn between feeling overly powerful and helpless—between what she called her “goddess complex”—and the belief that it was her devoted care when the boys were premature infants that had kept them alive. If her sons hadn’t had any significant problems, the mythology of being the all-powerful mother might have held up: the Goddess with the mostest.
I was reminded of the time many years before when my girls were all small and we had HBO. I was scanning the channels one evening after they were in bed and caught a scene from Poltergiest in which children were being swept away by an avalanche of mud. It must have been a graveyard, since there were tombstones rushing alongside the bobbing heads of screaming children. I knew without a doubt that if that happened in my life, I would dive into the nightmarish muck to save my child—an unspoken maternal contract I believed to my core and never questioned I could keep. I never imagined the deadly horror would be a disease consuming and sweeping away my daughter from the inside.
Gillian and I discussed how the fierceness of mother-love seems infused with the magical belief that nothing can stop us from saving our child. Perhaps we need to believe that in order to give ourselves over completely to a helpless being that depends on us for life itself. A successful professional, Gillian said, “I had never failed at anything that really mattered.” She was stumped that no matter what she did, she couldn’t stop the ball that seemed to be rolling toward Derek’s self-destruction. “This experience brought me to my knees!” she said, describing it as “the most humbling experience of my life.”
The Welsh poet David Whyte said that “humiliation means being taken to the ground of your being.” All our identities, our pride, and our accomplishments are nothing in the face of such a total loss of control. It’s easier for us, as parents, to talk about our struggles with our child’s illnesses and addictions as problems for us to carry or, at best, help them solve, than to talk about how it affects our own sense of self to have a child who is addicted or mentally ill. If my child’s success reflects on my worth, what do his or her failures and struggles say about me? In ancient cultures, a live goat—the scapegoat-- was sent away from the tribe, carrying on its back the sins of the people. The shame was sent away, as if by pushing it outside the boundaries of the ego, it could be thrown into a stinking landfill instead of composted into the fertile ground of an integrated and humble whole. I believe this is the ground of which Davie Whyte speaks.
Over the years during which Gillian consulted numerous professionals in her quest to find help for Derek, she said, “there were a lot of wrong answers.” From the ophthalmologist who recommended patch therapy, which was the worst thing for his condition, to the school personnel who said he had no learning disabilities, to the therapist who supported me in pathological behavior because she identified too strongly with me as a mother, to the testing psychologist who didn’t think Derek was bi-polar despite his MMPI scores because of his biases against psychiatric diagnoses.” To further undermine her confidence in experts she paid to find answers, the therapist who was seeing Derek called her, accusing her of “brutalizing” Derek, even though he was living a thousand miles away. “All of them thought they were doing what was right,” she said, “but I have a lot of anger.”
Throughout her twenty-year experience with various helping professionals, she had experienced herself as a mother who wasn’t doing enough for her child and by others as being hoodwinked by her son. It seemed that no matter what she did or didn’t do, it wasn’t right. Fortunately her last experience in therapy provided a healing contrast. She found a therapist for herself who helped her realize she wasn’t the only influence on Derek, and that, no matter what she did, there were genetic and biological factors that no amount of mother-love could have overcome. Though Derek was grown and living away from home, therapy helped her navigate the shame and turmoil she still felt whenever Derek demanded more from her than she wanted to give: “I trusted my last therapist in ways that I never trusted anyone before. I trusted her to be able to see my flaws and also understand.”
I reflected, “That’s the greatest gift any therapist can give someone—to allow them to feel that unconditional acceptance, to know that they can reveal every nick and scratch and still be seen as good.” She looked up, her wide blue eyes wet and shiny: “Do you realize that’s the description of God--that aspect of the universe that sees us and loves us no matter how flawed we are?”
"As you do, with Derek,” I said.