OPINION: Echoes from my mother
“I wasn’t planning on coming back, you know,” Mom told me over the phone, through radio waves reaching from Seattle to Brooklyn.
“Oh. I didn’t know that,” I said calmly, though her words echoed in my chest, waking the sleeping bats inside me, dangling upside down off of each rib. Until she said that, I didn’t know that nearly 10 years ago when she had moved to Spain she never intended on returning to her life in Seattle. To me.
When we got off the phone I walked to the edge of my bed to sit down. I pressed my palm into the comforter, spreading my fingers apart, pushing my hand to sink down into the blanket. My breathing turned into faint whimpers coming from my nose until my lips parted, allowing wails to escape through my mouth, the suppressed abandonment at the core of my being awakened. My fingers curled into my palm until I was grasping a wad of fabric in my fist. All I felt were the bats flying wildly in my chest, trapped in my ribcage. Their panic and shrieks and flying — I was gasping for air, trying to heave in air, trying to breathe, trying to function — I couldn’t function. All I knew was the desolate gaping black-hole-of-an-abyss inside, where all my love for everyone disappears into without any return.
My grief for the mother I needed versus the mother that was, was still as raw when I was 16 as it was after that phone conversation, at 26, living in Brooklyn independent from the dysfunctional Seattle household I grew up in, 2,400 miles away.
When I was 16, still living at home in Seattle, my mother said, “You understand, don’t you?” after explaining to me that she would be living in Spain for next year. I looked into her tired eyes and felt like I was finally seeing the woman facing me, the woman who was my mother but who was also a human, someone who could no longer bear to be confined as the person I so needed her to be — my mom.
“I understand,” I said. And I did.
I understood that by the time she was 26, she had two children. I understood that at 29, she had escaped a physically abusive first-husband and remarried her second, and had her third baby. I understood that she never could’ve imagined that her second husband would abuse her daughter — his stepdaughter. I understood that she eventually had to part with her two children from her first husband to appease her second husband. I understood how this tore her life into so many pieces that she felt she had to start a new one, in Spain, leaving behind her youngest child. Me.
But I didn’t want to understand.
I wanted to collapse my body on top of her foot holding onto her ankle with my legs hugging her calf with my arms pressing my face against her knee, to try to embrace her leg with the weight of my body. Just as I had always done when I was a child, afraid of being left in the house with my own father. I was still young, but age defined me as a teenager, as a young adult. The impulse was still there, only now I learned not to act on it. She always left for work because she didn’t have a choice. Except then, the time when it mattered most.
“I understand,” I repeated, and said nothing more.
If I had said something different, would she have stayed? If she had stayed, would I finally feel complete, having the unconditional maternal love I’ve always latently longed for?
Her voice from conversations past still echo in the cave of my chest, echoes of the same vibration — the one that signals, “you’re not enough.” Doubts that challenge my sense of self-worth begin to ring in my head, resonating throughout my relationships with boyfriends, coworkers and friends.
In my most recent breakup, my ex had highlighted all the positive qualities of our relationship, but ultimately told me, “It’s not enough.”
“It’s not enough; it’s not enough,” repeated again and again in my memory, until all I could remember was “you’re not enough.”
It was occasionally feeling underpaid and underappreciated at work, then I heard the same internal loop: “You’re not enough.”
It was having my best friend from Seattle visit and stay with me, until her vacation came to an end and I was left saying goodbye again. My body reacted in the same conditioned manner, synapses so dense that they no longer needed the words to elicit the response. The bats were triggered, and I was left feeling anxious and alone — a space where the logic part of my brain had no voice.
I wanted freedom from my own anxiety and occasional depression, but refused the thought of benzos and SSRIs, believing they would only suffocate the bats inside, leaving nothing but a graveyard at my core, a walking cemetery, half dead inside.
At 26, I knew I didn’t want to continue living my life imprisoned by mind’s depression — held captive by bats of anxiety. I was finally ready to seek out a mental healthcare professional.
And I did.
It’s been about a year and a half now that I’ve been seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist, a LCSW.
“Will I always feel like this?” I sometimes ask my therapist.
“How long do you think I’ll need to be in therapy?” I’ve asked my brother.
The answer is always the same: unknown. But I do know that small yet powerful inner shifts are happening — alternative interpretations of the past, chain smoking swapped for yoga, a new approach focusing on self-care and compassion — exercises testing my brain’s plasticity.
It hasn’t been until now, my 28 year of living, that I have learned to accept the love my mother has given me, the only love she was capable of — imperfect but perfectly human. Knowing that on May 10, Mother’s Day, I can genuinely celebrate and recognize my mother for loving, caring and providing for me in the only way she knew how to. Thankful that although I didn’t have an ideal upbringing, I am stronger and more self-aware because of it. While I can appreciate my mother’s love for me I am not defined by it; rather, it will help transform the love I will have for my own children, beyond the love I received.
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G. B. Figueras is a writer in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She graduated with a degree in psychology from the University of Washington.
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