The OKness of Being Not OK

I wrote a short post on social media this year saying that Mother’s Day bothers me less than it used to.

In contrast, though, the anniversary of my mom’s death, on May 26, affects me more, and more deeply, every year, the farther I get away from it. This year, I’m 30 years away from it. I’m sure that a lot of the nature of my reaction is that I’m finally safe enough to feel, in my body, the overwhelming sadness and confusion of it, in a way that I couldn’t at 8 or 18 or 28.

So, in one sense, that’s great. That means I have a great life. That means I’m thriving. But it also means that I’ve been having panic attacks all week.

I’ve always been an extremely trusting (some might say gullible) person. I take things at face value; I believe what people tell me. I have believed it, for my whole life, when people tell me that I’m strong, that I’m brave, that I’m a big help to my family.

And yes, it’s true–I am strong, I am brave, and I am a big help to my family. But the new revelation to me is how much I needed to hear from someone, and never did, that things were not OK. A lot of things sucked, and were hard, and were sad. But because I never heard that, because I believed that I was supposed to be strong and brave and helpful, I experienced my own not-OKness as wrong, and therefore profoundly isolating. And, empathetic little sponge that I was, I also then felt responsible for trying to process and make everyone else’s not-OKness OK because…it was all supposed to be OK. All that processing has been exhausting for me. Trying to be nice and polite and not make anyone around me wrong takes an awful lot of effort.

And I get it, I do. Who wants to tell an eight year old whose mother just died, “hey, guess what? The bad things that are bad? They will continue to be bad.” But, all I can see now is how much that wish to save me pain in the moment has only postponed, prolonged, and obscured it.

Writer and tarot reader Angeliska Polacheck wrote a stunning blog post this Mother’s Day about her own experience as a motherless daughter. Our stories are quite divergent in many ways. I’ve never wanted to have children the way that she has; my dad never remarried, so I didn’t have the complexities of a stepmom relationship to negotiate; I know with absolute certainty how much my mother loved me. But so much more is remarkably similar–our mothers’ difficult labors, the young age at which we experienced that irrevocable loss, the bottomless pit of longing to be loved and resulting anxious attachment, the years of persistent effort that have gone into making sense of what’s true and what’s not in the tangle of memories that dictate how that lack has shaped us. I sobbed while reading her words the first time and have kept the post bookmarked for the past two weeks, just because I find it comforting to know that someone else out there knows what it’s been like to survive this, emotionally.

I do my best to comfort my friends who are losing their mothers now. I do my best to sit, and listen, and let them know that their not-OKness is OK. I try not to rush to spiritual or philosophical commentary or bullshit platitudes. I also know that I fail in this often. Because, what do I know about what it’s like to have had a genuine relationship, no matter how potentially fraught, with a mother? I’m hamstrung by the fact that my loss is a child’s loss, not an adult’s. My frame of reference is in growing up without that bond, not in having had it and then needing to remake my world without it.

My devastation is a major part of me. But I hate having to learn to live with it. I hate that I don’t get to be a shimmering rainbow of unicorn sparkles all the time, or a coolly detached scientist of emotions who sees and understands Human Feelings without needing to deal with them personally.

The other story that always sticks with me from the time that I spent with extended family in rural Indiana in the immediate aftermath of my mother’s death is that, one night, I fell asleep watching a movie with the other kids. I awoke to being carried up to bed by my dad’s cousin’s husband. Desperately embarrassed, I faked being asleep until he tucked me in, turned out the light, and left the room.

All I can see now is the kindness of it, how natural it would be for a father of two girls of his own to extend his care to poor, bereaved little me. The fact that this family had let me stay with them for however many days, cared for me, included me in their daily goings-on, attempted to give me some normalcy after the chaos of the previous days, all the while certainly managing their own grief, completely floors me with its generosity when I think about it now.

But at the time, I was obsessed with the idea that I needed to leave no trace of myself, and my human needs, behind me.  Over the course of my mother’s cancer treatment and multiple hospital stays, I’d clearly internalized that the highest virtue, my greatest contribution to the family, was self-reliance. Not being tough enough to stay awake while watching a movie meant I was a failure, that I was vulnerable. I hated that I needed help doing something as simple as going to bed. I would have preferred to have been shaken awake and told to walk upstairs on my own.

When I was in clairvoyant training, I once explained to my classmates that the way I psychically visualized my own emotional range was like a piano with all the middle keys missing. My feelings were all the high tinkly notes and low boomy ones–not so much in a manic depressive or bipolar way, as that I didn’t really know how to live into my own everyday humanity. It’s a combination of denial, and repression, and profound embarrassment.

The tears and yowls and hiccuping sobs and red-faced keening that I’ve unleashed on my boyfriend in this week leading up to the 30th anniversary of my mother’s death have been unavoidably human and horrifyingly embarrassing. They are also the long held-back truth of my life. I am slowly, painfully, necessarily learning to be OK with my own not-OKness. I am slowly, painfully, necessarily learning to let myself be carried.