Tuesday, December 22, 2015

An Open Letter to My Mother in 1965

Dear Annie,

I'm writing this to your 15-year-old self because that is when I believe these words might have meant something to you.  We met when you were 30 and I was born.  I think 30 was too late.  Fifty-something, when I tried to tell you some of these things for the first and last time, was far too late.  The last year we were in contact, you were generally drugged and sometimes barely lucid.  So I'm telling you these things in 1965, when you were old enough to understand but still young enough you might have believed you could change and choose your own fate.

Things are going to get rough.  I know they've already been rough.  I know you are the only girl among all your brothers and that you have to help out around the house in ways they aren't expected to, and I also know your dad is kind of an asshole.  Don't try to claim he isn't.  We both know he is, and it's as much my right to say so as yours, so deal with it.  I also know you're poor, but you'll be surprised to learn your family is doing better than the majority of American households fifty years in the future, and your parents are going to be just fine thanks to unions and pensions.  You're going to be just fine too -- physically and financially -- but you won't see it that way, which is the bigger problem.

You are smart.  You might have always suspected this and someone convinced you otherwise, or maybe you never even realized it, but you are smart and resourceful.  If you are willing to believe these facts, you can be unstoppable.  But you have to try.  Continually trying is the really hard part.  Perfection is not important.  It's not even possible, so forget about trying to be perfect and trying to avoid failure, and just do.  Stop taking all the remedial classes in school so that you can get the best grades.  Stop taking the jobs you think no one else wants.  You are smart enough to do more, and you will never be perfect no matter how low you aim.  Just do the best you can.  Take every opportunity you can.  Keep trying, and you'll be fine.  You know how I know this?  I'm really smart.  Trust me.

In a few years, you're going to marry an asshole who reminds you vaguely of your father.  Emotionally stunted, fits of rage, decent provider, all that same old comfortable bullshit.  Don't let him break you.  Just because the disability checks come in his name doesn't mean he is the only one of value in your relationship.  Your innate value isn't based in US currency.  Neither is your daughter's.  Try and remember that.

I know you're pretty hard-wired at this point to buy goods cheaply and avoid investing in nice things, either because you've grown up poor with parents who grew up even poorer or because of your low self-worth or both, but please know this deal-seeking tendency is not the most fiscally intelligent tactic.  You will have plenty of money soon.  You'll have more than you immediately know what to do with, which will prompt you to eat steak sandwiches every night, as you will tell me, because apparently this is a stupid and expensive thing to do.  Anyway, if you avoid seeking deals and shopping for thrills and hoarding because it makes you feel safe, you will continue to have more money than you know what to do with.  When you need a new pair of shoes, spend five times as much as you would on the cheapest possible pair and get something nice and comfortable and sturdy.  It took me years to learn to shop this way, but it's actually less expensive than buying a ton of cheap stuff you won't end up using.  You'll also have less of a hoard, which I realize is also something you're probably hard-wired for at this point based on what your childhood home looked like and the stories you told me. 

You are mentally ill.  I know those words sting, and I want you to understand that it isn't something bad about you.  It's just something that is.  You are too young right now at 15 for most decent professionals to diagnose you with what ails you, and it probably hasn't even occurred to you anything is wrong yet at this age.  You probably seem like a fairly typical teenager.  It will get worse, but it's not entirely out of your control, and a good portion of what goes down will be courtesy of prescription drug abuse.  Yes, it's still abuse even though they're prescriptions.  Remember that.  If you can effectively treat an ailment without a prescription drug, do it, even if it involves hard work like therapy or regular exercise.  I kind of doubt even your 15-year-old self would hear me out on that particular note, but seriously, even prescription drugs can be dangerous and you will have a tendency to get out of control.  Know thyself.

I'm not sure how you feel about control at 15.  I've always craved control over my own life and my own situation, but the version of you I know generally wanted people to take care of her so she could check out.  I hope you aren't like that already.  You are powerful when you try to be.  If you don't like something, you can change it.  Please don't check out.  Please don't expect other people to take care of you like the wilting flower you will pretend to be. 

It might be hard to believe that you could get a full-time job that would support you comfortably or that you could earn a college degree or seek help from a mental health professional until you start to feel good from something other than excessive doses of prescription drugs.  You could do those things though.  I know your parents "don't believe in therapy," but fifty years from now, most of your family will be dead, your parents included, and the rest won't speak to you.  You'll be left with very few options beyond stepping up to the plate and taking care of yourself.  Please rise to the challenge.  Please take care of yourself.  Please be the smart, capable woman I know you could have grown into.  It's not too late.  It's never too late. 

And when your family stops talking to you, it isn't because they hate you or because you're "bad."  It's because you behave in a cruel and crazy way and they choose to stop dealing with you because they have to take care of themselves too.  You are almost full grown, and you haven't been the baby of the family since the year after you were born.  I'm going to lay some ugly truth on you:  you will never again be someone's number one priority.  Ever.  I hope you got the bulk of your mother's attention in the months following your birth, but that was it.  No more.  I realize you don't even remember that time.  I'm truly sorry, but that's the hand you were dealt.  You have to be your own grownup now.  If you refuse, well... I guess someone in a nursing home might keep you alive, but it won't be all that pleasant, and you will still eventually languish and die.  You can be the capable, in control woman I know you can be, and you can choose your own happiness, or you can languish and die.  You don't get to be someone's baby.  You don't get to be the beloved golden child.  Not everyone gets a turn at that fate, and if you ever did, it's long done now.  Sorry.  Them's the breaks.

I hope this letter isn't too much of a downer.  I wonder -- do you ever cry anymore?  I know your dad was kind of a dick about that with the, "Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about!" line.  You said the same line to me, followed immediately by how much you hated when your father said it to you.  You don't cry much in the future, at least not in front of other people.  I do want you to know though that people see how you feel.  You're not going through it all alone.  They can't do for you the things you have to do for yourself, but people are there and they do care.  They just can't save you.  You have to do that part yourself.  It's really hard, but I know you can do it.  You're smart and capable.  You feel things deeply.  It's hard feeling like you're all alone, but there is help out there, even when you're eventually old and alone.  But you have to try.  You have to choose to be the one in charge of yourself.  If you give up, no one will rescue you.  If you hit rock bottom, you will hit it hard and it will hurt.  No one will scoop you up and save you.  Know that.  It hurts, but it's important to know that. 

The most important thing you can ever do is take care of yourself.  You have a tendency to want to rescue people, to be their savior.  It doesn't tend to go as well as one might hope, but you could save yourself.  That would be amazing.  I hope someday in the future, more than fifty years in the future, when all the time I've known you is done, these thoughts reach you.  I hope you realize it doesn't matter how old or ugly or fat or poor you think you are.  You can still choose to take charge of your own life and take care of yourself.  And I hope you do.  Because I love you and have always wanted the best for you.  I just can't tell you face-to-face anymore.  I have to take care of myself and my daughter and my family instead because that's how this was always supposed to work.  I can't save you, but I will always pray you decide to save yourself like I know you can.  That's the best I can do.  Now let's see your best.  -- C

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