“The Protector” by Jade Bryant. Click on the art to go to her web site to find out more about her work with Art Saves Lives International.
She handed me the Tupperware container from her fridge. We had navigated the path from her entryway to the kitchen, various art projects, mail, magazines, and Christmas decorations strewn everywhere. I stood in her kitchen, my heart pounding, wanting to be anywhere but here. I had come inside to retrieve this container full of my favorite Greek pastry for my birthday. But, it didn’t feel like my birthday. Instead, it felt as if I were a soldier, behind enemy lines, waiting for the ambush of her mental illness to strike. She handed the round, plastic, Tupperware to me, seemingly shoving it at me, as if she regretted making it and wanted me out of her house as quickly as possible. I turned and walked toward the front door, her footsteps following me through the cleared path. When I reached the door, I did the only thing I could do; I hugged her. She leaned in and reciprocated, but it felt wooden and contrived, as if she knew how to hug but didn’t know what it was for.
“I love you,” I said, not knowing if I really meant it.
“Love you, too,” she mumbled back.
And I walked out, the tiropita weighing down my arm, my mother’s borderline personality disorder weighing on my heart.
Getting pregnant with the twins was nearly impossible. Six months after giving birth to them, I decided to never again take birth control, because it gave me migraines. Instead, I would just not worry about it. It took hundreds of thousands of dollars, injections, scheduling, and medical intervention just to get pregnant. I figured my body was so defective there wasn’t any point in taking a nightly pill that served no purpose save to split my head in two every 28 days. Four days after the twins’ first birthday, a week after my period should have started, I was pregnant. All on my own. On the fifth day, I trekked to that same doctor, who made the twins’ lives possible, for a blood test. When Tyler told his mother that we had an appointment, she deduced what was going on, thanks to her nursing background. She assumed we had told everyone and when she mentioned the good news to my mom, instead of being excited, my mother was incensed. Angry and hurt at being left out of a nonexistent loop, she acted terse and short with Tyler and his mother. When she finally came to my house several hours later, I knew I was in for it when I saw her drawn expression and heard her brief answer to a simple, “How are you?”
“Fine.” Her lips were drawn and her eyes were angry.
“Well, I have news,” I said.
“Oh?” she replied, sour expression on her face.
“I heard.” she responded, ice crystalizing her words.
“We weren’t going to tell anyone until the blood work came back from Dr. Nezhat.” I explained, trying to right the situation of happy news that had suddenly become a battle. “Betty figured it out and in her excitement, assumed you already knew. We wanted to tell everyone together.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.” she huffed.
“Well, I’m telling you now.” I clarified. “We wanted to tell you, Betty, Charley, the family all at the same time. I can tell that you’re angry and honestly, I’m just terrified. I’m going to have three kids under the age of two and I really need your support.”
“Well, then. You shouldn’t have gotten pregnant,” she nastily stated.
I asked her to leave my house. I wouldn’t speak to her for another month. It was when she called to tell me that she had gone to a counselor and wanted me to come to her second appointment that I finally heard from her. I was extremely sick, sad, and anxiety-ridden over her treatment of me. I was popping prescription anti-nausea medication and sitting in front of a stranger, telling this degreed woman the exact same timeline of events I had already told my mother one month before. It was when the counselor told Mom, “It seems that this was all just a big misunderstanding.” that Mom finally believed me.
She never again went to that counselor.
As I ate my birthday cupcake, she blew up at us. Tyler and I had tried to reason, cajole, and assist, but everything was stonewalled and met with accusatory glares and angry responses. I begged her to see a counselor, to try and deal with her anxiety and depression, not even mentioning the borderline personality disorder diagnosis our joint counselor had handed out five years prior. She turned to me, a wild look in her eyes, voice filled with disdain and anger, “And just how am I supposed to pay for that, Heather? With what money? I’m tired of being poor.” Her face was void of everything save hate.
She hated me, my father, her parents, Tyler, Tyler’s ability to pay for her bills, her life, her age, her situation, herself, and the world. And all of that hate was focused on me in one look.
I’ve heard of disassociation. I had never experienced it until that moment. All I remember is staring at Amelia’s self-portrait on the fireplace, trying hard to imagine the quiet, calm underwater world of the reefs of Bonaire.
I disassociated from my mother.
The day after my birthday, I drove her to her doctor appointment. It was a wet, damp day, the clouds heavy and the rain constant. Normally, I loved these days, but it was the day after my mother had, yet again, treated me as an enemy.
“I’m sorry to be such a burden.” she said, turning to me as her hand reached for the door latch, rain hitting the roof of the minivan. “After tomorrow, I’ll never be a burden to you ever again. I know you never wanted me here in Georgia.”
Finding that one dagger that could do the most damage and shoving it straight into my heart had become a particular talent of hers. She wielded that sharp weapon so often against others that whenever she used it against me, I was always surprised. Even after 20 years of personal experience with that particular blade, it still caught me unawares as it would enter my psyche and twist.
I stared at the license plate of the car parked next to us. It was a Wisconsin plate, out of place in the south. As my mind turned over her words, I tried to remember everything I knew about Wisconsin.
Cheese, Green Bay, dairy farms, Madison, badgers who were really miners and not badgers at all.
“I’ll never bother you again. You don’t want me here.”
Milwaukee is in Wisconsin. But, we moved you here. Bought you a house. Given you affirmations of love. Cared for you when you’re sick. Done everything you needed, wanted, and asked for. Even when you were ugly to us, we still gave you everything, including love. Toni went to Wisconsin and brought me a cheese hat. I wish I was in Wisconsin right now.
She got out and walked inside. I knew, right then, as my anxiety hit me square in the chest, pushing the knife in even further, that we were done. Our relationship was dead.
The tiropita sat in my refrigerator for a day before I decided to eat one for a snack. I pulled one out, peeling it off the wax paper. Putting it in my mouth, I felt the gummy texture. Too late, I realized it hadn’t been baked. All of the tiropita were raw. I laughed without humor and shook my head, realizing that this food was suddenly a metaphor for my current situation. I didn’t even have a Greek cookbook to tell me how to cook it because Mom had borrowed it in order to make the cheesy pies for me. I didn’t have the energy to even want to bake any others. I threw away the half-eaten raw tiropita and put the rest back in the fridge.
They say that you can taste love in food. All I tasted was sadness.
“I need you to come over, Mom.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because, the doctor thinks I may have lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome. My inflammation levels are off the charts.” I replied.
“So?” she said, dismissively.
“Well,” I said in a rush, “If I do have either of those, the only treatment is steroids to suppress my immune system and I live with three little kids who are constantly bringing home viruses. How am I going to be their Mom if I’m constantly sick all the time? How will I protect myself?”
My joints ached so badly that I could barely walk or hold a fork. I was a mess. I had been crying all day, having multiple anxiety attacks over the sudden negative change in my life. My neighbor had already been over to calm me down, but I couldn’t continue to bother her. She had work. I needed my mother.
“Could you come over and keep me company?”
When she got here, I was in my bedroom, watching shitty late-morning talk shows, resorting to Jerry Springer to take my mind off the impending doom of my health. Mom quietly sat on the bed and after a few minutes, asked, “Do you have anything to eat?”
“Um,” I looked at her, disbelieving. I was barely able to make my way to the bathroom. Now I was supposed to feed her? “Feel free to raid the fridge.”
She went downstairs, rummaged around, and returned a short while later. “You don’t have anything here. I’m going out to get lunch.”
No offer to bring me anything. No calming words. No hugs. No nothing. She just left.
Turns out I had a common childhood virus that eventually went away, leaving my hands weak and my joints more susceptible to arthritis.
“Why didn’t you stay that day I asked you to come by?”
“Well,” she said, “you were just sitting there watching TV.”
The childhood virus eventually went away, but the memory of my mother incapable of being there for me didn’t.
“Mom,” I wrote, “For my mental health and well-being, I can no longer spend time with you. You need help. Please, feel free to call or text the kids whenever you feel like it or drop by to visit them. I’ll email you when they have performances or special events. I hope you get the help you need. Love, Heather.”
I slipped the note in her mailbox, always better at the written word than the spoken. It was the day after I was told that I had clearly never wanted her in Georgia. After decades of wishing her here, giving her love, time, and whatever energy I had left after being a mother myself, her only response was derision, anger, and hurt. Yet again, her borderline personality disorder was talking out of turn. Even though I knew it was her BPD talking, I could no longer take it. I felt like a puppy, always loyal, always trying to earn my master’s trust and love, instead being struck and cursed at. I was tired. I could no longer walk on this path of eggshells. Too often, the road had forked off into the distance, away from the gravelly, unstable path of her mental illness. And yet, I always chose this rocky drive, twisting my ankles, expecting love and receiving emptiness in return, giving her more than I should when my children needed me more. I took that path because it was my mother’s path. To choose the other meant walking away from her. I had stood at this fork once before and nearly chose to walk away then, but I continued onward. This time, though, I was done. I was done tiptoeing, carefully avoiding the pitfalls and potholes, only to have one open up in front of me without warning, causing hurt and distress. With that note in her mailbox, I took the road of my family, my life, and my mental health.
I turned the oven on to 350-degrees Fahrenheit, a good starting temperature when blindly baking anything. I set the timer to 10 minutes, placing the unbaked tiropita on a baking stone. After 10 minutes, the cheese pies were still flat, so I added five minutes, then another five after that. Finally, they were slightly browned and puffed up, like tiropita should be.
I popped one in my mouth, the heat burning my tongue. It still didn’t taste right. I ate another, and then a third. I sat for a moment, trying hard to enjoy what was probably the last birthday gift my mother would ever give me. Instead, they sat like rocks on my stomach, unyielding, full of sadness and grief.
I threw the rest away, washed the Tupperware container, and wondered how I would return the receptacle to her. It’s been three weeks since her harsh, yet expected, words. Except for a brief text to her youngest grandson, congratulating him on his newest black belt, she has had no contact with the kids. Except for a terse letter to her son-in-law telling him to pay her latest electric and gas bills because she could not, she has had no contact with us. I have been at turns relieved, sad, happy, mournful, angry, and content. I have self-reflected, second-guessed, wishfully imagined, and silently screamed.
I have vowed to never scatter eggshells on my children’s paths. I will love them unconditionally. I will stay true to myself and my choice to walk a path separate from my mother’s mental illness. I will love myself, take care of myself, and not feel guilty for protecting myself. For 46 years, I have carefully measured every word, assessing the possible emotional damage that could come from saying the wrong thing. As the decades have passed, I have closed myself off from the world, taking refuge in leaving my home as little as possible, because having minimal human contact meant I could save myself for those moments when I had to navigate my mother’s rough terrain.
It will probably take another 46 years to unlearn my hermit-like behavior, but I’ll give it my best.
I miss the mother who came to my band performances. I miss the mother who laughed with me over inappropriate humor. I miss the mother who cared for me when I was sick. I miss the mother who cooked my favorite meal when I was pregnant and on bed rest. I miss the mother who hugged me and told me that she loved me. I miss the mother who only ever saw the good in me. I miss the mother who supported me no matter what. I miss the mother who didn’t weigh my words against her world view.
I miss my mother.
I don’t miss her BPD.