aodtoper.gifNancy Graham

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 Waking one Sunday morn in a cold sweat;
the eyes of her illness forever seared
in my memory...

Growing up in the shadow of a depressed mother conditioned me to be on the lookout for the telltale signs of her illness recurring.  Throughout childhood I would feel like a spy, scanning for clues that Mom was not far from relapse.  Before I was old enough to recognize the onset of depression in her pale blue eyes, as I would later become unnervingly skilled at doing, there were the missed appointments and an increasing number of chores left unattended to during the day.  By far the most obvious omen was when Mom would stay in bed longer than usual in the morning.  She would not be up to participate in the daily routine of making Dad's brownbag lunch and thermos of black tea; nor would she be lined up with my younger brother Barry and me for a dutiful hug and a peck on the cheek, as he went off to work.  When she was sick, everything suddenly screeched to a halt, like clothes that had jammed in the rollers of a wringer washer. 

When I tentatively entered her room in the morning after Dad left, she would ask me to set the buzzer on the kitchen stove, which we commonly used in the absence of an alarm clock.  When it shrilly echoed through our ranch-style bungalow, I would listen for sounds of her rousing up while I busied myself preparing for school.  As minutes passed with no audible sign of her rising, I pretended perhaps she just didn't hear the makeshift signal, and I would head down the hall to let her know it had sounded.  

Not budging, she would ask me to reset it, which I would obediently and repeatedly do, until, with a sinking feeling, I knew she would not be waving to Barry and me from the living room window that day.  We often left for school while she remained curled beneath the covers.

(April 1994)  Passing kids playing after school, I feel emptiness for a time I do not associate with such frivolity.  Rather, my 4:00 memories from childhood are clouded with shadows of uncertainty, which loomed over me as I made the dreaded walk home from school.  Would Mom be up?

That question naturally tormented me even more on the days when Mom was still hibernating in bed when Barry and I set out for school in the morning.   Dawdling to avoid going home, clinging to the security of a friend's company, sometimes stealing a few extra moments in the sanctuary of their home.  How I came to dread the 3:45 pm bell of freedom at the end of the school day.  The apprehension in the pit of my stomach when I would see the front drapes still drawn as I approached the house.  Dragging myself around the back, daring to look up to find her bedroom curtains also closed.   Entering that darkened house as still as death, to find the toaster still on the counter, breakfast dishes still in the sink and Mom still in bed.  No wonder Barry always took even longer than me to come home.

Slowly hanging up my coat on the hook beside the back door, undoing my shoes, placing them neatly on the rubber mat so as not to leave any mess.  Up the two steps into the kitchen and then automatically down the hall to Mom's room.  “Hi Mom”, I'd whisper toward the bed where she lay facing the wall as I had left her hours before, as if she hadn't moved at all.  As I stood in the doorway, she'd twist her body around to look up and murmur “hi” back.  
          “Aren't you feeling any better?” I'd foolishly ask, for obviously she wasn't.  “No,” she'd respond, eyes trying hard to focus on me.  “Did you take your pills?” I'd inquire, as if I had every right to do so.  Usually, she'd wanly respond that she had, though chances were she had not spoken with her doctor, which followed as my next question. 

Beyond that brief exchange neither of us knew what else to say.   Before I left her room, stinging tears welling up in my eyes, I'd ask if she needed anything, knowing by heart she'd just want me to start something for supper.  I would, of course, glad for a reason to turn away from the haggard, vacant face, which gazed back at me.   And which scared me.  When I could, I would then hurry to tidy up the kitchen before Dad arrived home from work at precisely 4:45 pm, in an attempt to make it seem like Mom had at least done something during the day.  I was not always successful.  Sometimes, Dad would arrive and catch me in the act.  He was barely in the door before he demanded where Mom was.  How I hated to confirm what he too must have wrestled with all the way home. 

Thermos slammed on the table; coat shoved into the front closet; footsteps storming down the hall to their bedroom where Mom remained fetal-like.  He would start by confronting her in a tone of voice laced with frustration, which gradually escalated in decibel.  Not surprisingly, his shouts were to no avail.  Those suffering from clinical depression do not respond in favorable fashion to any amount of verbal combat.  I could do nothing but desperately try to drown out that horrible, hollow wail as Mom tried to resist Dad's efforts to get her up.  “Let me beeeee!” she would scream out, often lapsing into a chanting-like rhythm as Dad became more aggressive toward her.  Some days, it was worse than others.  Lunging toward the bed, Dad would yank her up, pulling her toward the door, forcing her down the hall.   Ever so weak and wobbly, Mom would try desperately to press herself against a wall.  With her nightgown askew, eyes wild and hair matted, she would strike out at Dad as he tried to pry her away.  At some point during the melee, Barry would have wandered home and I'd motion him to stay with me.  Mom would cry out to us both from where we remained frozen in the kitchen.  With sickening apprehension, we could only inch toward the hall, pleading with them to stop.  Before long, Mom’s adrenaline would deflate, and she would revert to her previously withered state, exhausted by the forced exertion.

Eventually, Dad would withdraw, equally spent.  He would then resign himself to prepare supper, or take over what I had already started.  Monday, Wednesday, Friday were standard fare: bacon and eggs; chili con carne; fish and chips respectively.  Other days, it could be leftovers, or whatever was glumly sought out from the freezer.  Not that it mattered.  From an early age, mealtimes were generally unpleasant.  Mom's empty chair and the dismal mood which reigned made it a far from appetite-inducing occasion. 

Although Dad was often angry at meals, other times he was intensely sad, pleading with us kids to eat.  Despite the discomfort of choking down food past the lump in the throat and into a stomach riddled with knots, we were never allowed to miss a meal.  It sometimes took Barry and me forever to force-feed ourselves.  Which one of us discovered the nifty little trick of burying the impossible last morsels into our serviettes, I'm not sure.  Pretending to have obediently cleared our plates, we would then hide the evidence in the bottom of the garbage can, trying not to think about all the kids in the world Dad frequently reminded us were starving.  In retrospect, the stage was set for his daughter’s disordered eating patterns, which became full-blown many years later.

Around the dinnertime, I would venture down the hall to offer Mom something to eat.  She rarely accepted; usually all she would take throughout the day was a cracker or two to accompany her pills.  Periodically, she would come out to the kitchen to fetch the meager ration herself.  When she did surface, the tension was palpable; what bitter battery of words would combust between my parents?  With any luck, they ignored each other, and while I hoped each time she appeared she might stay up, I was admittedly awash with relief when she retreated back down the hall to the cocoon of her bed sheets.

More often than not, I had no choice but to take Mom in whatever she wanted, be it an arrowroot or saltine cracker along with a small glass of juice.   Torn by the desire to help her yet afraid of her, I lingered not in that room which oozed sickness and hopelessness.  Sensitive to Mom’s need for quiet, I would softly ask her if the TV or the music were too loud, offering to close her door before leaving.  Sometimes she did not mind if the sounds of another reality drifted in, and I would leave the door slightly ajar, which meant I would have to tiptoe past so she wouldn't hear me going into my bedroom.  How I envied Barry the position of his room, because he did not have to pass Mom's in order to reach his; he did not have to resist the urge to glance quickly toward the figure heaped on the bed when the door was left open. 

Other than those fleeting interactions, our contact with my mother through the duration of her cycles of depression was limited.  The only time we might see Mom again during the course of a day was before bed, when Dad would ask if we had said goodnight to her.  I think it was his way of reminding us that we were not to abandon our mother. 

Regrettably, sometimes I could only bring myself to call in to her darkened bedroom from the hallway between our rooms.  Wary of her by day, I was afraid to go near to her by night.  Seldom were there the hugs offered she so desperately craved.   How that must have hurt her terribly.  

What she needed most from my Dad, my brother and me was for us to be there for her: to sit with her and hold her hand, to reassure her of our love and our presence.  But we unwittingly isolated her within the confines of those four cream-coloured walls; trapped by our fear of an illness we didn't understand.

Such is how the days would pass, governed by this pattern that could last for weeks on end, until Mom was either hospitalized, or the shock treatments she received on an outpatient basis finally kicked in.  Before such relative calm prevailed, we would all be ripped through an emotional hell I would wish upon no one.  Each of my parents fought so desperately, with such misdirected energy, to surmount the impossible.   They simply had no idea how to cope with my mom’s repeated cycles of virtual incapacitation.  Sadly, our household was lacking some of the fundamental ingredients conducive to a successful healing environment for those suffering from severe clinical depression: patience and compassion. 

When a depressed person perceives that those closest may not care about them, it intensifies how despondent they already feel about themselves.  Unwittingly, our family dynamics fostered that sense of reality in Mom.   On some level, she must have been aware of her young children's fear and ambivalence toward her.   There was certainly no mistaking or escaping her husband's combustible temper, as the profound helplessness and frustration of having a chronically ill wife was often released as explosive fits of rage. 

              The yelling penetrates the seemingly cardboard-thin walls of my bedroom.  Finally, I can stand it no more.  I creep into the hallway, terrified of what I will see in the living room.  Mom is hunched in the corner of the couch, flailing up at my Dad as he tries to pull her up to get her to do something-anything.  I can only stand there trembling, sobbing,  “please stop, please don't”, fearing one or both of them will be injured, leaving Barry and me to deal with the aftermath...

             (Easter Sunday, late 1960's)  Sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, doing my best to assemble my newest acquisition: the miniature pieces of yellow plastic doll furniture spread before me on the coffee table.  Vainly trying to shut out Mom and Dad fighting in the kitchen.  Unable to take it anymore, I flee to my room, tears streaming down my face.  How could the Easter Bunny bring such bittersweet gifts?

Looking back, the frequency with which such verbal and physical altercations arose was alarming.  Even now, as those and other scenarios reappear in my mind, I must tightly blink them into obscurity.   Much as I may have wanted to, and as some kids actually do, I was afraid to run away.  With the exception of the neighborhood Terryberry Library where I would sometimes take refuge, there was nowhere to escape for any significant duration.  Fortunately, those were the days when a young girl could walk unaccompanied to and from the local library, even if it was a good twenty minutes away.  Once there, I could hide myself away between the shelves, where an intangible comfort settled over me.  How I loved that place.  I decided that if not a teacher, then I would definitely become a librarian when I grew up. 

Nonetheless, seeking solace in the security of books was also a lonely and time-limited experience.  Sooner or later, the library closed for the night and it was time to return home.  Though the walls were never thick enough, I spent most of the time in my bedroom.  Beneath the makeshift tent I would create, or in the back of my closet where I kept a little stool, the tears would flow.  And I would wish it all away. 

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...a needle plunges into a thread-like vein, bleeding muscle relaxant into her body...thin hands neatly folded over her sunken stomach fail to smother the rumbling hunger pains...she's not eaten for hours...chalky aftertaste of the sedative as it sticks to her parched mouth...melancholy eyes staring up in fear of the unknown...a tight-lipped nurse to her right in a seriously starched white dress rubs cool jelly-like cream on each temple-to hasten the current and prevent the burn... the grim-faced reaper on her left reaches for the headgear shaped like a huge wishbone, and lowers it into position, one electrode on either side of her forehead where the jelly marks the spot...a rubber gag placed in her mouth so the tongue will not be swallowed...or bitten off...the eyes of those above her meet and blink their accord...oblivious to her muted pleas to wait...she's still awake...with the flick of a switch on a gleaming metal box, the electricity peels through her brain...two seconds in time which last an eternity...her body surrenders to crudely choreographed spasms...fists clench and arms curl repeatedly up and down her torso...head rolls from side to side, eyes screaming in shocked white silence...the damage done...the rubber removed...the danger averted...her mouth left gaping, loosely opens and closes in a vain attempt to speak from the comatose state which sets in...the minutes tick by...she awakens to be wheeled out to the hall where she'll sleep for another two hours...and she'll remember nothing of this terror-at least so they say...
                                                                                     (page 34)

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06/18/10 01:45 AM