One of my earliest memories is the feeling that my cheeks were very, very hot. Everything was in slow motion, and the feeling that I’d done something really bad was stronger than ever. I’d opened my grandmother’s drawer, a well-stocked pharmacy, and eaten all the candy in there. I had a fever, gave my family chills, and my mouth tasted like chemicals for days.
My grandmother took — at least — eight aspirins a day. She downed them with a Coke and an endless chain of Raleigh cigarettes. It was her way of coping. Divorced mother of seven, victim of domestic violence, bored: the cliché of a Mexican housewife, through and through. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and, as one might expect, my mother is also addicted to pills.
There is an anecdote that perfectly sums up my mother’s predicament. When she was a teenager, as she was leaving on a school trip that involved traveling by night, her mom — my grandmother — opened her mouth and gave her two roofies. That way she wouldn’t have trouble sleeping. Yes, Rohypnol, the same drug Zach Galifianakis uses in The Hangover to knock out his out-of-control friends. After that, “Rohypnolating” became a common word in her life and, therefore, in mine.
Living with and accepting a mother with addiction problems is an extreme sport. If we learn about love directly from our parents, how could I learn about loving others — and myself — from someone who needed sedatives to get to sleep every night? How could I learn the true meaning of happiness, if happiness came unconsciously, with side effects? Plus, Rohypnol wasn’t the only permanent visitor in my household: There were pills for indigestion, migraine, and colic; Bach flower remedies for a more natural approach; and so on. Rx was a constant. Grandma’s pharmacy opened more branches. Fortunately, I implemented my own safety measures: No way would I ever take another candy cocktail again. The problem was that the pharmacy in my mother’s drawer was stocked with no oversight. Prescriptions were a joke. First-hand knowledge of the effects of drugs was worth more than the opinion of any doctor.
School helped. I could see how ~normal~ kids lived, and I secretly envied them. I wanted the type of relationships they had with their moms, with their families, the way they related to others: their confidence. I learned how to behave from them, from my teachers, and from the moments when I had functional parents. I floated through childhood, without really noticing that the steam was building in the pressure cooker of my life. As I neared adolescence, weekends brought reality into focus. “Mom’s tired because she couldn’t sleep,” my father would say. “Let’s take your little sister out and bring back some lunch for her.” Our afternoons were fairly uneventful, until we came home, a catastrophe unfolding, one we tried not to acknowledge with words. Emotions filled the silence instead. The memory of going into her room still feels like a punch in the stomach. The smell of stale sheets, closed curtains, speaking to her from the dark, sensing her tears without needing to see them. My fingers tremble as I write this even after all these years.
“Tired” was replaced by more grown-up terms like “insomnia” before arriving at “depressed.” Depression led to the psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist led to more pills. My family grew. Now I shared a home with Prozac, Xanax, Klonopin, Valium. Many came and went. They were there for the most complicated moments of my life. “Mom has to go to the psychiatrist.” “The psychiatrist makes me crazy.” “I need a prescription to get my pills.” “I’m going to have to see another doctor.” “Mom and Dad are getting a divorce.”
Like many teenagers, I found refuge in music. Heavy metal understood my anxiety. Guitars shredding, lyrics conjuring the suffering of war, anti-religious and always defiant messages were my best friends. My guitar and my amp managed to drown out the outside noise: yelling and suffering. I hid from my broken home under my headphones, in my black clothes and long hair. I buried all that resentment in a very deep place and decided to abandon my mother and my sister. I went to live with my father, and suddenly, everything seemed to get better: my relationship with my mom, my ability to relate to other human beings. My deep sadness was disappearing…or so it seemed.
As we grow up, we learn to judge. It’s inevitable. We do this on the basis of our newly acquired “personal” values. We develop an ethic, get better at choosing the people we surround ourselves with, and somehow we learn to see things in black and white. Distance allowed me to judge my mother by the harshest standards. It’s easy to judge someone who seems perfect on the outside, but inside is going through hell. I guess that's why depression is so complex. As much as people tried to explain it to me, I never fully understood. You have to learn the hard lessons for yourself.
The depression the psychiatrist had diagnosed was changing shape. A misstep in an aerobics class at the gym became a spinal injury. Diagnosis: herniated disc. My conclusion was immediate: She caused it herself, a pretext to stay depressed. It was logical, the perfect excuse to close the curtains, stay in bed, and make the whole world stop: “If anybody asks, I’m not here.” And in my simplest, most immature form, I responded with resentment and fury. It was a good thing we mostly kept our distance, but separation never breaks family ties. I’ve never been able to stop feeling for my mother. She never stops affecting me.
Naturally, the spinal injury brought more doctors, more pills, more reasons to stay in bed, shut the windows, dedicate her days to the TV lineup of El Canal de las Estrellas. The pharmacy expanded its inventory: muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, pills to go to the bathroom, antidepressants, medicines for gastritis, orthopedic braces, heating pads. Pains, laments, more depression. Her back problem lasted years. Every birthday, every Mother's Day, every Christmas served as a marker that she was getting worse. There was no way for us to help. The only way to make ourselves useful was to take her to the hospital so they could inject her spine with increasingly powerful muscle relaxants. That was the case until nothing had an effect anymore and the doctors determined they had to operate. Just a fairly simple surgery, and she would be “like new.” My sister and I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Finally her back would feel better. Her attitude toward life would change. We'd have the mother we always wanted. Blessed innocence.
Around that time I began seeing a psychologist. I had resisted going to therapy on more than one occasion, but halfway through my twenties it finally made sense. A place to talk to someone, to explain why I would suddenly feel so alone, why I was sabotaging my life, and why I had become this arrogant, negative person. The first thing my therapist asked about was — you guessed it — my relationship with my mother! And… you guessed it again: I considered abandoning therapy then and there.
“Thank you, but I’ve seen all those movies where you end up paying millions just for the therapist to insist that all your problems are your parents’ fault. Thanks, but no thanks.” I resisted the first few months, probably the hardest time. I talked about all the problems in my life, my desire to get out of radio and to leave my job, my resentment toward society in general. Gradually, my therapist was helping me to talk about what I didn’t address: my relationship with my mother. “Your mom is not going to change,” she repeated session after session. “You are not going to save her.” She demanded I say it to myself. “You cannot choose your mother, but you can choose how you're going to relate to her for the rest of your life. First, you need to resolve your relationship with her.”
I had to stop seeing her. One day I took her to lunch and explained that some time would pass without us seeing each other. Her eyes filled with tears, and she immediately offered me an apology for so many years. She opened the door to a long process of reconciliation and forgiveness. That day I cried all the tears I hadn’t cried as a teenager. To explain them, I yelled, scolded, and blamed her for everything blameworthy. I left, determined not to see her for months. But two events exacerbated the situation and put my relationship with my mother in shock. I had to take her to check herself into a psychiatric hospital. She was there a little over a month. For a week I didn’t go to work. The work of accepting reality became my priority. I started writing. I read Bret Easton Ellis like crazy. I faced it as well as I could. Months later I got a call from my sister. “Mom had an accident. She fell off her bike and destroyed her face. She’s stable.” You can imagine how hard it was for me to visit her, to confront a living metaphor.
It was not until some months after the accident that I finally realized how angry I was with her, and how badly I needed to put things into perspective. All the rage, the fury began to emerge. I went through all the moods and experienced all the feelings that a person can feel: from resentment to hatred, anger, frustration, indifference, enthusiasm, affection, empathy, fear, and, of course, sadness.
It took me months to understand that feeling sad for someone else is OK and that nothing we do or fail to do can change their situation. The process caused me dozens of emotional setbacks, ups and downs in my way of dealing with life, until I discovered the true meaning of one key word: acceptance. Finally, after so many years, I freed myself, I let go and learned to love unconditionally. Bit by bit, my hatred, frustration, and resentment were slipping away and disappearing. Along the way I found a love I’d forgotten, and a respect I’d lost.
Being able to discuss my family situation honestly was the first positive sign. Seeing my mother without feeling stressed or anxious about her behavior was the second. The third, and most important, was precisely what saved my life the first time: vomiting. Getting it all out. Speaking in a calm and orderly way, with confidence and assertiveness. Explaining the “why” behind my situation. Returning all the behaviors that didn’t belong to me. Phew. It really felt good.
When I took all my grandmother’s pills, they made me vomit. They made me bring up everything that didn’t belong inside me and which by accident — unavoidable accident — I happened to eat. This is precisely what acceptance is: knowing that things happen in spite of us. It is returning what does not belong to us. It is being responsible for our own lives. Today, I talk to my mother, I visit her from time to time, and we talk like adults, happy to see and embrace each other. As mother and son. She acts from her problems and I from mine, knowing that the pills will still be there until she finds a way to help herself.
This post was translated from Spanish by Kristina Marie Fullerton Rico.