When Cabot O’Callaghan befriended a young woman with borderline personality disorder, he wasn’t ready for the wisdom he’d receive.
I decided that the first chapter of my memoir was going to be about my mother. I got about a page worth of words before I shut down. I was describing how hard her life had been before I was born, not anything disturbing, so I was confused why I couldn’t write anymore. She’s been dead for three years. It’s not like she’d be upset about it. Still, to examine the emotional trespasses of an adored parent is a painful and mournful task.
The resistance felt like an involuntary response, like the painful recoil after touching something unexpectedly hot.
I’m feeling it now, my mind fighting to pull away from the memories.
I never considered that I have experienced emotional trauma to an extent that would leave me vulnerable to a trigger response. I thought I understood my past. I thought I was beyond denial. I thought I’d come to terms with my relationship with my mother.
I didn’t. I wasn’t. I hadn’t.
The fortune read: “Be prepared to receive something special.”
We were sitting in the back room of the Chinese restaurant when I opened the cookie—the words on the thin strip of paper inviting me to interpret them in the most benevolent way possible. Since I was sitting with a woman that I was attracted to, I did. But romance was not the fortune. I was going to receive an epiphany: my mother suffered from a serious mental illness that went undiagnosed her whole life.
My mother had a strange expression on her face when I confessed that an older boy had done things with me that I’d kept secret. It was fleeting, a hint of something hidden. I’d caught it but I was only seven or eight and too naive. When I wrote about the molestation as an adult, I described her look the same way. My editor wanted me to describe the emotion behind her expression in detail. I didn’t know how. As an adult, I interpreted her veiled reaction as suppressed fear, a distorted fear that I was a homosexual. But I wasn’t satisfied. It was more than that. I was missing something.
It was anger.
My mother had rages. Sometimes they happened during an argument and could be predicted as the fight escalated. Sometimes they were like a land mine, an explosive surprise disproportionate or mismatched to the circumstances at hand. Regardless, her tongue became an emotional whip, lashing out with hurtful curses and harsh judgmental absolutes.
Grays did not exist, just the starkest of blacks and whites.
With that arsenal, she didn’t need to lift a finger to cut a person down. She also had a singer’s lungs to project her punishing voice and dominate a verbal duel. During these times she was beyond reason and yelling back would only fuel her storm. If you fueled it too much, she had the potential to become completely unhinged. In those moments, mom ceased to exist. There was only her unbridled rage.
It didn’t just happen at home with family. It could happen anywhere, with anyone: with a clerk at the grocery store, the principal at my elementary school, a stranger at a gas station, in the middle of the street with the next door neighbor. That one ended in a fight, my mom losing badly even after throwing the first punch.
At home, sometimes the cops were called when things got really out of hand. Like when she grabbed a kitchen knife, eyes wide and crazed, and attacked my stepdad during an argument. He disarmed her and pinned her to the ground as my younger sisters and I screamed at them to stop. I called that time. Neighbors called occasionally because they could hear my mother yelling seven houses away. When mom called, it was to demand they remove someone from the house, usually my stepdad. The cops would say they couldn’t remove him because of an argument and then she’d yell at them too.
One time my stepdad refused to leave so mom piled my three sisters and I into the van and began to drive away. He jumped onto the front of the van, clinging to the windshield and begging her not to leave as tears ran down his hysterical face. Mom kept driving down the street screaming at him through the glass while my sisters cried.
If my stepdad kicked a hole in the wall, mom would kick and hit holes along an entire wall. Later they’d cover mom’s devastation, floor to ceiling, with mirrored tiles because it was cheaper than replacing the sheetrock. In another rage, she took an axe to my stepdad’s guitar amplifiers and other expensive musical equipment when he wasn’t home. When she got winded she handed me the axe and asked if I wanted to finish the job. I did.
She could be sad too, deep sobs spilling out of her throat. But that was usually after a rage had burnt itself out. This is when she would say she couldn’t stand it anymore. This is when she’d kick someone out of the house. This is when she’d cut someone from the family. This is when she’d threaten to abandon us. And sometimes, this is when she’d say she felt like dying.
All the while, a lit cigarette magically remained in her mouth. She’d justify her behavior by stating that it was the only way to get us to do what she wanted. There might be post-fight binging too. Like eating a whole tub of raw cookie dough or spooning cake frosting right out of the container. We’d help her do that. She rarely drank, thankfully.
Then, like a traffic light turning from red to green, things would be good for a while. Really good. It wouldn’t last.
For some reason it was accepted as “just how she was,” despite how traumatizing or inappropriate her rages would be. This was probably because she was capable of love and compassion just as extreme as her rage. It was healing, capable of filling the deepest hole in your heart. Like that feeling you get sitting next to a window on a clear winter day, the sun’s stare through the glass warming you from the inside out. I miss that.
Because I knew that love, I spent my early teens trying to shore her up during the troughs of her cyclical roller coaster pattern. I helped clean the house and take care of my sisters whom were much younger than I. I consoled her. I tried to fix her.
I was the child, she the adult. The chaotic push-pull between her rage and love continued and I stopped trying. To protect myself, I withdrew and rebelled. I couldn’t depend on her and I had no father to turn to.
I found myself sitting in the emergency waiting room next to the woman I had dinner with the week prior, her blue eyes all puffy and red from crying. Another friend of her’s sat on her left, like a matching bookend.
She’d been transported to the ER by the police for her own safety.
No one likes to talk about mental illness, especially those who suffer from it. If I break my arm badly, I can look down and see the injury that corresponds to the pain I’m feeling. Everyone can see the damage. The treatment is the same as for anyone else. Put it in a cast. Wait. Take off the cast, move on with your life. You, nor anyone else, is going to deny your arm is broken and say suck it up, quit complaining and do the push-ups like everyone else. Fucking simple. Recognizing and treating a fracture of consciousness on the other hand? That’s like trying to take a picture of smoke with x-rays.
We met by chance just before the holidays. She admitted that she was being treated for borderline personality disorder. Among mental illnesses, it is stigmatized more than most. I found her willingness to share that quite brave and admirable. Authenticity is my thing. I am dogged by depression, so I know the reluctance to reveal such things. Mental illness is met with a shit-ton of ignorance, fear and spiteful judgement. A friendship followed. We spent time together and overshared our paths through life.
After a talk with a social worker, she was released. Hours had passed waiting and it was after midnight. I drove her home and stayed the night to make sure she was safe.
As I went about my business the next day, I didn’t feel right. I was feeling a bit mopey that this woman I’d made friends with, and felt attracted to, was nowhere near to being available emotionally. I even started doubting my own availability. But that’s just what I was feeling on the surface. Something else was going on at a deeper level that had nothing to do with my friend. I was anxious, frustrated. I felt abandoned. I was sad. These feelings grew over the next couple of days. I didn’t run from the unwelcome emotions. I sat with them. I let myself feel.
I researched BPD online. I knew the characteristics of the illness already but I felt the need to read about it again. And as I did, memories of my mother surfaced. They weren’t new, they were familiar but recalled in a different light. A clearer understanding of my relationship with my mother revealed itself.
I’m no psychologist and my mother was never clinically diagnosed with BPD but I now believe she suffered from it.
But … so what?
It can explain volumes about the choices I have made in life. It can help me navigate emotional road blocks that I still struggle with. It can take some of the undue weight off my shoulders that I’ve carried all these years. I can forgive her with grace. And I can marvel at how much love my mother was capable of giving despite her suffering.
Photo courtesy of author