When Your Mother Goes Missing

On my 19th birthday, my dad left. I remember my mother and brothers meeting me at our beach house to spend the day celebrating, but an unspoken heaviness hung thickly in the air. I walked down to the sand while my younger brother broke the news, and for a while I stood still, balancing on one foot on a small retaining wall near the water.  I thought that’s how my mom must have felt, trying to balance the unraveling of her marriage with the celebration of her only daughter’s birth. I won’t pretend to know the weight of her heart that day, but I remember the heavy disappointment in mine. Why couldn’t she have told me herself? Why did she feel the need to pretend that everything was fine when it wasn’t? Didn’t she know that we were on her side?

That day marked the first of many that I would spend trying to get inside of my mother’s head. She and I are different in many, many ways, so I put a lot of work into understanding how and why she became who she was.  And here are some things I’ve come to learn:

After twenty-three years in a toxic and abusive marriage, the only poisoned ground she knew crumbled below her feet. She came to know herself as the names she’d been called, but there was one she’d hold tightly to—“Victim.”  She’d do her best to maintain appearances for the sake of her kids, but on the inside, a war was being waged.

The next nine years after that day at the beach would bring threats of suicide, depression and hysteria, an eating disorder, a shopping addiction that plunged deep into debt, countless inappropriate relationships, and a general loss of all her hopes and dreams.

The mother I grew up knowing had gone missing, and so had any chance of us ever having the mother-daughter relationship I craved. The body that once housed a winsome woman who threw elaborate dinner parties and never missed a soccer game, now was a ship taking on water. And there were no buckets in sight.

My frustration grew as my patience dwindled, and I sought to set boundaries and maintain a realistic hope. But offers of counseling were met with scoffs, and the tears of my brothers and I were seen through glazed-over eyes. I bargained with God for redemption in her story, but deep within I knew that it wasn’t mine to buy.

Until December 26th, 2013.

We’ll never know everything that happened that morning, but the pieces we hold form this jagged picture: sometime in those early hours, a blood clot cut off oxygen flow to her brain, causing her to collapse on her bathroom floor.  Within the time that passed before she was found, over 30% of her brain had withered away, never to be used again.

New Year’s was spent rushing off to airports and praying in the sky, followed by sleepless nights in hospital chairs and decisions I never thought I’d face at twenty-seven.  My mom’s body was broken.  And so was my heart.

While we hoped my mom’s recovery would be a brand new slate, wiped clean of all the pain and tragedy she knew before, the reality that her depression and anxiety were only intensifying with her brain injury set quickly in.  If she couldn’t see through the haze of depression before, now she was thrashing around in a category 5 hurricane with no end in sight.

A year has since passed, and while the medications and therapy have quieted some of her storm, the mother I once knew is still missing. This is our new normal.  But our story doesn’t have to stop there.

Catherine Woodiwiss writes in her book, Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma: “In the end, the hope of life after trauma is simply that you have life after trauma. The days, in their weird and varied richness, go on. So will you.”

Maybe redemption is found in using our story to heal others. Maybe you and your mom are struggling to find common ground, and maybe the silence or angry words deafen the whispers of good intentions. Maybe you’ve never met your biological mother, or somewhere along the way, this world unfairly took her from you.  Or maybe you and you mom have a wonderful relationship.

Wherever these words find you today, I don't think grace shortchanges us for the lot we’ve been dealt.

Daughters, keep loving well, even in the face of loss, knowing that nothing is wasted.

And mothers, no matter how much distance your daughters put between the two of you, please know that we desperately still need you at every age.  Don’t give up on us.