I realized that in order to change my family’s lineage I would not only have to forgive everyone who ever hurt me, I would have to learn to forgive myself.
It was early morning when the security guard at the cemetery came and used the weight of his shoulder to open the heavy gate. I drove in, making my way through a long tunnel of magnolias. The sun threw pillars of light through the canopy of trees while a gust of wind sent brown leaves spiraling along the roadside. Headstones and crypts were spread out like pop-tarts in rows across the lush green lawns. At the end of the road I turned left, driving all the way to the chain link fence where I parked my car.
After I turned off the ignition, I took a deep breath. I got out and walked with my flip-flops snapping against the bottoms of my soles. When I got to the curb I counted five graves in and froze when I saw my mother’s name etched in a stone: Nancy Adamson, 1922 to 1960.
Why is it, when you say “I will never be like my parents,” it’s almost like you’re giving the universe the exact coordinates for where you need to land?
My mother was schizophrenic. At 38, she had a psychotic break, cut her wrists, and pulled a large shipping trunk over her in the bathtub where she drowned. I was only seven at the time.
But, as if the universe had conspired against me, I was 38 and the mother of two young boys, 16 and 9, when I had my own drug-induced psychotic break. I shot my husband’s mistress in the arm and landed in jail on assault charges.
I recently attended a conference on trauma and addiction where a renowned clinical psychiatrist said, “As children, our relationships with our parents are unconsciously imprinted on our psyche.” So yes, we are destined to repeat the same mistakes unless, and I’m paraphrasing here, we wake the fuck up.
The process of waking up for me has been one eyelash at a time. It started 25 years ago when I was released from jail and went to live at a shelter for women and children. Up until then I had been extremely self-sufficient, but as I found myself leveled by the circumstances in my life, I started to ask for help. I was extremely fortunate to fall into a group of people who were kind to me when I needed it the most.
The image of my mother drowning under a trunk stuffed with photographs of her children haunted me for years. I couldn’t even tell people what she had done, let alone write it down for the world to see as I’m doing now. I was deeply ashamed that she had chosen to leave this world and me behind. By the time I was a teenager I was filled with rage and as I turned to alcohol and drugs for relief, I turned that rage loose on myself.
I blamed everybody for what was wrong with my life and became extremely fluent in Victimese. It was my mother’s fault, my father’s fault, and later it would be my husband’s fault. What I didn’t realize was this belief system that I had adopted was giving me the exact excuse I needed to use drugs and alcohol with abandon. All of my so-called justified resentments were the very things that were drowning me. And if I wanted to stay sober I would have to drop the rocks and swim to the surface.
After a lot of therapy and self-reflection, I wrote down a list of the resentments I had toward all the people who I believed had harmed me. As I unspooled the jumbled thoughts from my mind onto paper, a clear pattern emerged: While I had been busy blaming everybody else, I had also been giving away my own power. I knew, instinctively, I would have to change that.
And that’s how I found myself standing in front of my mother’s grave 45 years after she died.
A lump formed in the back of my throat as I reached for the letter. I looked both ways to make sure no one was watching me before reading it out loud:
It’s taken me a while to get here because I’ve been so angry that you left me like you did. I was resentful and those resentments defined my life, they defined who I became.
I missed having a mother and I was profoundly sad but no one talked about you after you were gone.
I wish you could have been there in my teenage years. I could have used some maternal guidance because dad clearly didn’t have a clue.
I wish you could have been there at my wedding day. I wish you could have been there when I was pregnant and when I gave birth to my two boys. I wish you could have watched them grow up into the men they are today. You would be so proud of them. I certainly am.
Every single thing in my life, large and small has echoed with the absence of not having you by my side. But I want you know Mom, I’m okay now. I want you know that I’ve finally learned how to move on with my life.
Getting sober was the hardest, yet, the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to reconcile things I was holding on to, including my relationship with you. It seems if I wanted to be free I had to let you off the hook. And so, Mom, I’ve come here to say I’m not angry at you anymore and want you to know, I love you very, very much.
Your Daughter Forever…
A soft rush or air escaped my lips. I stuffed the letter in my jean pocket and turned to leave. I wasn’t struck by a lightning bolt, there was no burning bush or chariot in the sky, but I did realize that in order to change my family’s lineage I would not only have to forgive everyone who ever hurt me, I would have to learn to forgive myself.
It didn’t happen overnight and it wasn’t easy. It took willingness combined with herculean effort, but over time, as I became more and more present for my boys, showing up for them through all their failures and successes, I eventually found the mother I had always wanted.
She was inside of me.