I had arranged to speak with Marlene at Barnes and Noble on a Friday afternoon in December. Her daughter Tracy, forty-two at the time, had been treated at the Nutrition Clinic for an eating disorder, hospitalized for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and been in and out of several alcoholism rehabilitation centers. As I waited, I noticed an erect slender woman in her sixties, silver hair piled in a French twist, browsing among the display tables at the front of the store. I had assumed we were meeting in the café and had expected someone younger, so I felt chagrined when the dignified woman I’d seen approached me fifteen minutes after the agreed-upon time. We settled at a table as far away from the clatter and holiday chatter as possible to begin our conversation.
“Tracy would be the first to tell you that without me she wouldn’t be alive, and I agree with her. Without me she wouldn’t be here today. I think you have to believe in the child you brought into this world,” Marlene said in response to my first question about how she saw her role throughout the twenty-five years of her daughter Tracy’s anorexia and bulimia, battles with alcohol, and bouts of depression.
Marlene was clear that it is part of a parent’s inherent role to set aside her own goals and dreams to do whatever she can to save her child, regardless of age. “We’re here for them. That’s why we have them,” she said. Marlene told me about traveling around the country to find experts who might help Tracy. A doctor in Cleveland had told her that Tracy, “just has to get on the train of life,” though, as Marlene wryly observed, “There wasn’t a clue that she wanted to get on that train.”
And so Marlene abandoned her career ambitions and cut her retirement in half, not only to be more available to Tracy, but also to devote her nursing skills to caring for her husband as he died of cancer. She cared for her him until his death, a loss that Tracy, 14 at the time, never recovered from. Tracy’s anorexia got worse, and Marlene felt increasingly helpless when she realized that Tracy was stealing and abusing laxatives. I was reminded of the constant anxiety I felt when Erin was stealing and hiding food and money. Marlene said she tried to hide the food Tracy would binge on, but to no avail. “She would always find it,” she said, and “the day-to-day was living hell.”
One time when Tracy was about 15 years old and had told Marlene she was going to a school dance, Marlene decided to check on her. Tracy wasn’t there. Following a bread crumb trail, Marlene walked into a house where a keg party was going on. The crowd of 30 teenagers fell silent as Marlene spotted Tracy standing in the living room holding a glass of beer in each hand. “But I was the only parent who did that,” Marlene said, wondering why none of the other parents thought to check on where their children really were.
“Through all the deceit, lying and stealing, you have to know there is a child in there worth salvaging, and you can’t get tired of it, because if you’re not there for them, nobody else is going to be. In all the hospitalizations Tracy has had we’ve had so many heartbreaking cases in which the parents just leave the children there. I became the Mom to all of them. I’ll never forget the mother who couldn’t come to celebrate her daughter’s birthday because she had an exercise class. I know fathers who kicked their daughters out of the house and paid for an apartment because they couldn’t handle it anymore. But it’s our responsibility. I’m a very strong person, so I’ve been told.”
Marlene claimed that she never questioned, doubted, or regretted her choices. Saving Tracy was the purpose thrust upon her and that she willingly assumed as her rightful parental destiny. No self-pity and no doubt.
After 25 years, Tracy continued to battle alcoholism, anorexia, and unresolved grief from her father’s death when she was 14. She’d had multiple relationships with men who supported her, abandoned her, and simply tired of her erratic moods and addictive behaviors. And always Marlene was there, picking up the pieces between the painful chapters of Tracy’s life.
The sun had set when we finished talking, and Marlene was preparing to do so again. Tracy had called her saying she needed to come home, and Marlene was bracing for another indeterminate period of setting herself aside for her daughter. She said she had barely slept the night before, worrying about the desperation she heard in Tracy’s voice. For Marlene, there was no question about what she would do. Of course Tracy would come home to her, and her life would be consumed with keeping Tracy alive, no matter how hard it got or how long it took.
As I drove home and reflected on our conversation, I remembered what a friend had told me about training to be a lifeguard, in which candidates are taught to value their own lives. First, instruct. Second, throw a life preserver. Next, row to the drowning person’s location. Finally, if all else fails, jump in and try to pull them to shore, but only if you believe you are strong enough not to get pulled under by their fright. The only thing worse than one victim is two.
So often with Erin I hadn’t known whether I was turning my back on my commitment as her mother. At what point was it permissible to let her sink or swim on her own, especially when she seemed to burn the lifelines I had already thrown? How could I separate the part of her that was controlled by the disease, and therefore pushed me away, from the part of her that desperately wanted to stay connected and feel my love?ÂÂÂ ÂÂÂ They seemed more and more inseparable, and when I reached out to hold my daughter, the disease bit my hand. Up until then, Marlene had never stopped extending her hand.
Three years later I spoke with Marlene again. She told me that several months before, while Tracy was being admitted to another inpatient alcoholism program, Marlene had felt a shift, as if some awareness had clicked into place. “Suddenly I realized what an enabler I had been! I know that she is in control of her own life.” After 32 years, Marlene began staking claim to a purpose beyond that of being Tracy’s savior. Whether Tracy will lay claim to her own life remains to be seen.