You might be done with the past, but the past ain’t done with you…

It can be easy to get through difficult times – traumas – feeling as if you’ve conquered them, or at least survived them. You pat yourself on the back, saying how good and strong you are. You tell yourself that you’ve made it.

You ought to feel so proud of yourself, but don’t be. In truth, you may have only won a single conflict – a skirmish. There may be more to come, and if it does come, it won’t be clearly-defined, like a battlefield scenario with easy-to-identify winners and losers. It will more likely be covert, like guerilla warfare, with values or outcomes that could remain ambiguous for years.

Basically, shit from your past will return and find you. It needs to be dealt with openly, honestly, and fully, or else it will continue to deal with you on its terms, and not on your terms.

The fact is, when you don’t understand, tame, and come to terms with (even befriend) your past issues, they will come back. Life can fight dirty, hitting below the belt, or hiding in the shadows, waiting for an opportune time to strike. Life seems able to hold off on its future plans for you until you are the least prepared.

Today, if you are vulnerable to the actions or reactions of certain types of people, it’s likely you were raised within that, trained by circumstance to respond a certain way, and rewarded either positively or negatively (both are effective teachers).Maybe you never managed to break out of the cycle of behaviour that you were born into.

The Mother Archetype.

For me, themes of guilt, helplessness, and shame were all connected to my mother, Angela Huntley Love. In her youth, she’d been a talented musician, singer and actor, and movie star beautiful. In her young adulthood, she was also diagnosed as manic-depressive (“bi-polar”, in today’s terms), and she began to self-medicate with alcohol. By the time I was old enough to know her, she was already a chronic alcoholic.

Angela had some good, happy times, but many more lonely, unhappy times. I feel that for most of her life, she was lonely, separated from her friends. Angela probably should have been surrounded by more caring people who could give her the love and support she needed. Throughout Angela’s life, mental illness still scared people.Very few people would have had the emotional tools to support her when she needed it.Nobody talked about it, except in hushed tones.

Certainly my Dad didn’t have any skills in that regard. Every talk that I remember my Mum and Dad having would degrade into a screaming fight. As kids, my sister and I could only cower, watching things unfold and get nasty. One time, maybe a shoulder got dislocated. Other times, blood flowed or furniture got broken. Sometimes bruises formed, and sometimes, thank god, the cops would arrive to calm things down. Those were the worst moments – when fear dried your mouth and you didn’t know what would happen next. The scars that  formed under our skin lasted years after the purple, green and yellow marks had faded from the surface.

Fear and self-doubt go hand in hand.

Loving, gentle moments were counted on one hand, across many years. We wondered what had happened to the smiling people from those wedding photos, the ones who looked at each other with such love and devotion? Why was nobody helping them now?

As a little kid, you find ways to blame yourself for someone else’s failings, and you project yourself and your meagre life experience into the empty void before you, trying to create a pattern in the place of a mystery, to fill the void with something, anything, that you can work with to try and understand someone else’s mind.

And so it was that my mother Angela Huntley Love remained a mystery to me, never telling me anything much about her life, and never demonstrating through her actions what a beautiful, angelic songbird she’d once been. She had been her Daddy’s little girl – the apple of his eye – and after he died in 1978, she completely gave up on life. She fell apart. Her nerves and her heart broke, and she didn’t even try to save herself. She probably didn’t want to live any more.

The fear of “I broke it but I can’t fix it”.

As a little boy, I would often take my toys apart to see how they worked, and as often, would not be able to put them back together. Until my parents clued in and started buying me Lego, I had “ruined” a nice train set and some other toys, and had been punished or at least severely yelled at for “breaking everything I touched”. This was sad and frustrating for me, and I developed a fear of breaking things that could not be repaired – irreparable damage was a great fear of mine. This kind of catastrophizing fear is easily re-opened in an alcoholic family where damage is emotional, not understood for years (if ever), and deeply, privately hidden. Once an emotional bond of love has been damaged by fear, it feels broken, and you may believe that it can never be repaired.

With Angela, I never felt particularly cared for or loved by her. I have photographs that show that she loved me as a baby (holding me or playing with me), but as I got older, we had few of those moments, it seemed. Maybe once every couple of months or so, Mum would become lively, animated and fun-loving, and take Kim’s tiny little bicycle for a ride down the block, or in a burst of creativity, create robot costumes for us out of cardboard boxes and coloured foil. A good deal of the rest of the time, she was emotionally flat or depressed, doing nothing and saying nothing – just smoking and not interacting with anybody.

So, I have come to understand her alcohol overdose and liver failure in 1977 as an attempt to drink herself into oblivion, perhaps to join her father in some kind of afterlife or final release from pain. Over the course of a year in 1977, she gave up eating meat, then gave up eating altogether. She drank nocturnally and either slept on the couch all day, or stayed in bed until one day, she couldn’t be roused.

After a transfusion and some kind of recovery in Burnaby General Hospital, she spent a year or two of being shuffled from private hospital to private hospital, and eventually ended up in Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, as a ward of the province, under long-term care. The liver failure and massive blood alcohol content had given her brain damage and memory loss. She was a different person than the mostly sullen, sometimes manic mother we’d gotten used to. She didn’t really recognize us any more, or seemed to have no connection to any past we’d shared. She had receded into herself even more, I thought at the time. Maybe she was a rebooted person. It was all beyond my control in any case. My mother was gone, replaced by this new, different Angela.

In the same room, a million miles away.

Over the span of the next 14 or so years, from about 1981 until 1995, I would periodically visit Angela, trying to reintroduce myself to her and rebuild some kind of familiarity with this evasive, quiet, strange woman. It was a long walk up the steep road through the Riverview grounds to the North Lawn Unit, not knowing what to expect or if she’d recognize me or even respond. I brought her chocolate every time, hoping we might bond over food. She loved it and would gobble it down like a greedy toddler, but it was no guarantee of any connection.

I would always ask her “Do you know who I am?” On a good day, she would make eye contact, as if she was trying to figure it out. She once called me her cousin Gene (I have no idea who that is or if they existed). Once, when I told her I was her son John, she protested, saying “No! John was blonde!” I reminded her that yes, back when I was nine or ten, I’d had dirty blonde hair, but my hair had darkened since then and I was indeed her grown-up son. It was heart-breaking to have to be so patient, to work so hard to try and rebuild such an elemental connection, but I did try, for a while anyway.

Over the years, I would bring my sketchbook and ask Angela to draw for me. The first time she tried, all I got was a cat that looked like a sausage, with stick legs. I knew she had more in her, and the next time we tried, she drew a very skillful profile of a human face in one continuous line down the page, from the top of the forehead down to the chin, without stopping. I’d watched her concentrate, moving the pen very slowly and deliberately down the paper, and I was amazed. It was the first indication I’d seen that there was still somebody at home in there.

Occasionally, she’d let me hug her and tell her I loved her, but I have no way of knowing if she really understood what was happening, really felt anything, or was just playing along with this nice, friendly young man who brought her chocolates and seemed to care about her. I tried to put into this relationship whatever I could, and to get out whatever I could. I accepted that she was no longer the same woman who’d once been my mother, and was now just Angela, a woman from whom I would try to raise a smile or a laugh, or just share a moment sitting together for as long as we could, watching the sun come in through the metal screened windows. She really didn’t have anyone else. We didn’t live together, we didn’t see each other very often, and we didn’t really know each other very well, but those little moments on the ward were still there for us to share, for whatever they were worth.

Detach, let go, and accept.

I gradually detached my feelings about Angela from the concept of “mother”, and got mothering from other people who really cared about me. I accepted that my Mum had left us years before she’d ever left our home on a stretcher, and this woman in front of me was just a ghost of that person, a pale reflection, reborn in a husk of skin that looked familiar. But hers was a different brain, probably just going through the motions of staying alive.

I don’t believe in an afterlife, but in some very real ways, Angela continues to haunt me. Her face, voice, silliness, mania, and cold detachment echo on for me in some people whom I’ve known since her death. It’s a reminder for me to keep learning from her life – that my relationship with her continues. It’s a reminder for me that while I thought I was done with her, she may not yet be done with me.

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