Warning, contains depressing content
My son is 28. Christmas 2016, I pretended to go away for Christmas because I couldn’t face us spending Christmas together. He wouldn’t have wanted to come anyway; we’d only been speaking since the September and things were still slightly frosty. Prior to that we hadn’t spoken since Christmas 2015: I had picked him up to bring him to ours for Christmas and he started fidgeting and then shouting in the car on the dual carriageway. I was frightened, exasperated and completely incapable of dealing with it. You work in mental health, you’re supposed to help people, I remember him saying. I stupidly tried to reason with him, to connect with a part of us that was above all this, to explain that I wasn’t the one to help him, because if I had, I would have been. In the middle of a panic attack isn’t the time, and he was extremely angry and disappointed with my response and my inability to respond.
I think what he doesn’t understand is how upsetting it is for me, but then he probably also doesn’t understand why I can’t just be all mumsy and cuddly, and I don’t either, but I can’t. I don’t believe that would make any difference, but I understand why he’d be dismayed and upset that I couldn’t.
I remember one time dropping him off at the walk in centre with a girlfriend and just leaving him there, another time him at the doctor’s clinging onto me and me just being unable to touch him. (This was when he was sixteen or older, in the middle of our relationship being very poor, him having a panic attack).
I used to think there was something deeply wrong with me, that I didn’t love him, or wasn’t able to love him, but then one night in meditation a year or so ago this came into my head: you love him, that’s why it hurts so much.
Before I got pregnant, I wanted a baby very much. When he was born his father and I were super attentive and loving. When he was a young child we had lots of fun times, baking, playing with the dog, painting- there was always an easel and a washing line to hang up the paintings in the kitchen; riding trikes and bikes indoors, having big unruly birthday parties. It’s nice to remember the good stuff. Because there was bad stuff: it was quite hard for me, I was very young, a single mum from when he was one, and he was sometimes very ill with a serious medical condition, so there’s a lot of bad memories around that, hospitals, blood tests, unpleasant tests and medicines. But even so, overall, it was a pretty happy, child centred life with supportive and loving friends and family.
Then he hit 12, 13, went to middle school, and having been very happy at first school, began school refusing, truanting, later at 15, petty criminal stuff and got arrested. He and his friend would just mess up the house and break everything, so the sitting room ended up empty, it didn’t feel like a home…
Refusing all medical treatment, refusing to have baths or change his clothes… at 16, 17, 18, refusing to go to college or get a job or come out of his room. I knew something was wrong but was powerless to fix it. I sought mental health services advice, they said it was behavioural and he wouldn’t engage in any case. I had no idea what to do. The relationship had completely broken down. Everyone gave different advice, I felt like a complete failure as a mother.
I became seriously suicidal. When he was 16 I called the council about housing options for him. The woman who answered the phone said you have to chuck him out and he has to turn up here with his bag and nowhere to go. I can’t do that, I said. She said, well you haven’t reached the end of your tether yet then, when you have, that’s what you’ll have to do. Two years later, sitting at the top of the stairs, my boyfriend holding me, me screaming about suicide and paracetamol and knives, I reached it. I packed up his stuff and called my mum and asked her to have him. He was 18. He actually went to stay with his girlfriend, got a place in a hostel, got given a council flat, couldn’t manage it, and now rents a room in a shared house where he’s been for several years.
I am sure there were a million other ways to handle those years but whether or not the person I was then would have been able to implement them even if she had known. Like a series of random dropped stitches that ultimately cause everything to unravel. Was there something, were there things I could have done differently? Was there another way it could have turned out? I’ll never know, because I can’t go back in time, and there’s no control group for a life.
Relatively speaking, the years up to twelve had been easy. I suppose I’d always thought love would be enough. So when this child who you’ve given so much love to, who had previously seemed so happy in your company, becomes someone who no longer responds to you, it is very difficult. It is hurtful, confusing, and all confidence in parenting abilities goes out of the window. I just didn’t have the skills to deal with this new person.
After he moved out, I used to see him and drop off bits of money, always feeling bad for not giving enough whilst at the same time thinking I shouldn’t give much so that he’d be motivated to sign on or get a job… He usually wanted a lift, and it was often difficult, him criticising my driving and us arguing. His council flat was given to him bare and empty, the same as when I’d been given one at 22 when he was 3 years old. But whereas I had bought and laid the cheapest office cord and painted it myself, he did not do anything. His washing up and rubbish piled up everywhere. My mum paid for flooring, my (now) husband spent a day mucking out the flat. I went round one day after work when I had a cold and painted the kitchen but he didn’t help and we argued. He got diagnosed with anxiety. I paid for endless CBT. My husband and I spent hours on the phone giving advice about panic attacks when he called us up. Nothing made any difference. Until I just kind of stopped trying to help as much. He got himself a nice room in a shared house, where he still is. He got himself into college and then university, where he is today.
A Round-Heeled Woman, predominantly about sex but includes a devastating passage about her son, who seemingly ‘punishes’ her failings as a mother by running away, not calling, and living on the streets, in freezing conditions, eventually calling her up on Christmas Day, destitute and freezing cold but refusing to come home.
The only other time I have come across people like me (mothers almost destroyed by guilt) is on an ASD training day where parents of kids with Autism spoke to us. These mothers had kids who didn’t sleep, who flew into rages and smashed up the house. They looked like battle worn survivors. I was in awe of them. But what I remember most is what they said about how they felt as mothers: as a mother, you feel like you’ve got ‘guilty’ stamped on one side of you, and ‘failure’ on the other.
What is the name of the emotion I feel when I see or think about his teeth, which are in a terrible state- I took him to the dentist and made sure he brushed his teeth as a child, but his illness, and poor care as a teenager and adult have taken a severe toll (recently he has said he is going to the dentist and going to go through with what is now major work, and I have given him the money to do this)…
Or when he recently asked for ‘anything from my childhood to remind me it wasn’t all bad because all I can remember is hospitals’… To quote Alice Sebold, well that last comment just ripped me a new arsehole: I spent my whole adult life from 18 to now, 47, loving, caring, worrying, and it was all for nothing, because all there was was bad and nothing I did mattered and nothing I do now makes any difference?
What is the name of the emotion again? Suicidal, if that’s an emotion… despair… anger… panic… paralysis… horror… fear… tension. Mostly there’s a bit of tension.
I used to work in an anorexia hospital and I am ashamed to say we used to judge the parents sometimes, we used to think they were cold. Now I realise they were just wretched, forced to look at something no parent would ever want to see, their child yellow, furry and emaciated. I was afraid of what I saw on my first day; they have to face both the horror and the fact that they haven’t been able to stop it or help with it.
Okay, I’ve felt it. I’ve taken it all out and looked at it. Instead of pushing those feelings away, tightening up and thinking that I can’t bear to look and won’t be able to cope, instead of that I’ve let my chest relax and my arms fall open and I’ve sat here with those feelings. There’s a peace in accepting ‘guilt’, in letting it wash over me, just letting it be, sitting with it without fighting it. Ready to start over… To make mistakes every day. We all do. Start again every day. What else can we do?
Is there anything I can do? No.
There’s a comfort in this calm acceptance, in the moments where I can find it, that feels better than the pushing away or the anxious worrying or the futile attempts at problem solving. It definitely feels better than endlessly going over past mistakes and missed opportunities.
Like a jumper that has unravelled beyond repair, the only way is to remake it from scratch.
And like my mother says re coping with the ageing process, well you don’t have any choice but to cope with it, because the only alternative is not to be here.
Right now, drag my mind into the present. Right now, drag my thoughts and my gaze towards the positive.
So this Christmas, when my son said he’d come over Christmas Eve and stay until Boxing Day, especially as my husband was working and I would need to pick him up and drive him an hour to ours, I was a little nervous. Whatever you do, don’t get angry, or don’t sound angry, my husband said.
The car journey was okay, and once home I made dinner, we swapped YouTube and Netflix recommendations, and the evening passed without incident. Christmas Day we saw my mum, my husband came home, and my son’s girlfriend arrived in the evening and we all played Cluedo. So yeah, I guess my Christmas was okay.
*F is for Family is my third favourite of the adult cartoons on Netflix, along with my second favourite Big Mouth which is a very warm portrayal of going through puberty, a largely neglected topic that has certainly never been covered like this before, and my favourite, so much loved that I wrote a post about it here, BoJack Horseman