Thursday, July 26, 2012

"How are you?" as social etiquette is grossly irritating

I swear, if one more person asks me how I am, I think I'm going to have to gouge out my ear drums with a spoon. One of those cocktail ones with the long handles (might be a bit difficult, otherwise).

I hate "how are you?" as mere social etiquette. No one actually wants to know. And if you're not "fine" or "brilliant" or some other positive (the only socially acceptable answer), being asked it is just plain irritating. You don't want to answer positively, because it feels like a lie. Being asked how you are and answering in the positive just sort of rubs it in that you're not ok. But you know the person asking really doesn't care how you feel. But as a fellow human being, they should care, shouldn't they? Or perhaps we should all just stop asking "how are you?" if we really don't care to know the answer.

What's worse is when you've suffered a tragedy, and everyone who knows about it still asks "how are you?". What sort of response can you give? "Well, actually, I'm really shitty, and thanks for reminding me." People who know what has happened still don't want to hear the truth. That you're barely holding on to your sanity, and you just want to be left alone. They don't want to hear, "Of course I'm not ok! Why would you even ask?" They just want you to say you're fine, so they can heave a sigh of relief that you're not going to burden them with your issues.

My mother took her own life a couple of weeks ago. It was a selfish and stupid act, and one I doubt I will ever forgive her for. She had always had psychological issues, but my sister and I never tried to get her to seek help, because our stepfather seemed to handle her. He didn't seem to have an issue with how she was, so why try to fix what someone else doesn't consider broken? What we didn't know was that he wasn't handling her, and hadn't been for the last 3-5 years. She rejoined the workforce at that time, and her symptoms got a lot worse. I think the pressure of having to deal with deadlines and interact with a bunch of other people was obviously taking its toll on her mental state. Our stepfather hates confrontation though, so he'd just walk away and was obviously hoping her issues would magically fix themselves.

Mum's mental instability manifested itself in a few ways. She would often hear other people's stories and then tell them as if they were her own. She was convinced these things had happened to her, and you couldn't get her to admit otherwise. She would see individual events, and then link them together in her mind to form complex stories where she was often the target (in other words, she was paranoid and thought everyone was working against her). She was incredibly loud and had to be the centre of attention. She would force her way into a conversation and somehow make it all about her. You could also never convince her she was wrong about something. She was always right, even if you had empirical evidence. If confronted with something that meant she would have been wrong, she would flip it in her mind so that she was still right. For example (a minor one), she and I had a long running argument about which of two houses we used to live in had a trap door in my room. She would always say it was the green one, and I would always say it was the brown one. It was definitely the brown one. One day, she "slipped up" and said it was the brown one and that she'd found a photograph to prove it. I pounced and said I knew it, and that I knew I had been right all along! She flipped it around and started saying that I had been the one saying it was the green house, and that she'd always known it was the brown house. It was infuriating, but you could never convince her she was wrong, so you always just had to walk away.

It got too hard for our stepfather, but rather than give her a chance to change her behaviour and get help, he decided to be a coward and started sleeping with another woman.

Mum found out and took it very hard.  She said she couldn't live without him.  She didn't want to leave their home.  She didn't want to start her life over again.  She was only 52.  There were plenty of opportunities available for her.  I tried to convince her that pinning her entire self-worth on another person was a stupid thing to do, that she had so much to live for, that she could use this as an excuse to do the things she'd always wanted to do (finish her studies to become an accountant, go travelling, etc).  When I realised she was deadly serious about wanting to take her own life, I consulted with my sister and we had her involuntarily admitted to hospital.

Unfortunately, when she got there, she knew exactly what to say so that she'd get released.  She told them she was just a bit shocked, and also drunk.  She parroted back to them everything I had been saying to her - that she wanted to finish her studies, and go travelling, and watch me graduate from my third degree, and see my sister's new house, etc.  They didn't believe that she was a real danger to herself, despite what I told them, and despite the fact she had attempted suicide in the past (when she left our father, she swallowed a bunch of pills.  My then-9-year-old sister found her before it was too late).  They let her leave without even speaking to a proper psychiatrist.

She waited a week and then took a Friday off work.  She smashed up the house with a sledge hammer and did various other damage.  Then she took her life by way of carbon monoxide poisoning.

I found out via text message.  My stepfather found her when he got home from work.  I don't know why he texted me.  The language of it was quite harsh.  He had texted me on the way home to say he hadn't heard from her.  I had texted her to see if she would answer me.  When she didn't, I didn't think it was strange, because she was annoyed at me that I was telling her she shouldn't try to work it out with our stepfather.  I was convinced it wouldn't be a happy relationship, because she would always suspect he was up to something if he was 2 minutes late, or got a call from someone.  It wouldn't have been good for her to live in that environment.  I told her the best thing to do would be to leave, and start a new life.  Maybe they could rekindle the romance later on, when she had come to trust him again.  Our stepfather was saying similar things to her, and she therefore assumed that he and I were working together.  For what purpose, I don't know.  She was obviously convinced that we were conspiring against her.  So I wasn't that worried when she didn't answer me.

Then I get another text message from my stepfather.  "Just got here.  In car dead.  Ringing police."  What kind of a person tells someone their mother has died via text message?  I know he was in shock and probably didn't realise what he was doing, but still.  I still can't get that text message out of my head.  It haunts me, even when I'm awake.  So fucking brutal.  I can't even begin to describe to you what happened after that.  Obviously I had to drive the 1.5 hours (which was 2.5 hours by the time my friend, who drives like a freaking blind grandmother, got us out there) to the house.  When I got there, the police were still there, and they hadn't even taken her body out of the car.  She was still in the car, with all of the paraphernalia still attached to it.  I don't think I will ever get that image out of my mind.

My family are a bunch of weak people.  And they all abuse alcohol as a self-medicating process.  I can't abide that.  If you have issues, fine, but fucking deal with them, instead of trying to drink them away.  That shit is not going to solve anything.  No one wanted to do anything.  No one wanted to get their act together and plan a funeral.  My husband managed to rally everyone together to organise things.  We managed to pick a funeral director.  We had the meeting in a neutral place with no alcohol, and I could tell everyone was annoyed.  They had obviously wanted to come to my house so they could all drink while they were avoiding doing anything.  I was determined not to let that happen.  I wanted the meeting over and done with as soon as possible.  I wanted the funeral over and done with, so I could try to move on.

When we met with the funeral director, everyone else flat out refused to do a eulogy.  They wouldn't even agree to write anything for someone else to read.  "It's too hard" they all said.  Of course it fucking is!  But what's the alternative?  No one writes anything and we just send her off with some generic statement?  Wonderful.  Of course, they all knew that I would end up doing it.  They all knew that if they just sat back and did nothing, I would take charge and get things done.  I fucking hate my family for that.  They should not have left it up to the youngest daughter to write her own mother's eulogy.  Especially when it was that daughter who was trying her best to prevent this whole event from occurring, and no one would fucking believe her.  Not even my stepfather.  He just thought mum was trying to get attention.  He didn't think she'd do it.  I knew she would.  And I knew how she would.  I wanted to tell him to take all the car keys away, but I knew he wouldn't, because he didn't believe mum would go through with it.  But I knew she was mentally unstable, and I knew she was determined to do it.  If for no other reason than for revenge.  She wanted to make sure my stepfather never forgot what he did, and would always think it was his fault.

I don't blame my stepfather for what my mother did.  I believe she had many, many opportunities to stop what she was doing and seek help.  I do believe there is a correlation between what she did and the fact that he was too cowardly to actually speak to her and tell her that their marriage was pretty much over unless she sought help.  I do believe there is a correlation between him fucking another woman, and what my mother did.  But I don't believe there is fault.

While I was writing the eulogy, I was going through emails my mother and I had sent each other.  I realised what an awful daughter I had been.  I knew she was mentally unstable, and her behaviour drove me mad.  I literally could not stand to be around her for more than 2 hours.  Even at the end of 2 hours, I would have a headache from her shouting into my ears, even if I was standing right next to her, and would be wanting to tear my hair out from how frustrating it was to hear all of her lies, and not call her on any of them. I did my best to avoid her.  I moved far away.  I rarely called.  I rarely emailed.  I often said hurtful things, because let's face it, who of us thinks of our parents as actual people?  Of course they will be hurt by things their children say.  I never considered that.  I never considered her feelings at all.  I only ever thought of my own, and how frustrating she was.

She had a really tough childhood, and I think all she ever wanted to do was be successful, and show people that she was more than they thought she was.  She put far too much emphasis on what other people thought of her.  She had no self-esteem, no self-worth.  She cared too much about what I thought of her.  And I don't think I ever told her how proud of her I was for the things she had accomplished.  I think all she knew of what I thought of her was how frustrating it was to be around her.  How much I avoided being around her.  How much I never wanted to be like her.  I have some of her traits.  I can be loud (although I've never been as bad as her).  I have very strong opinions, and I stand up for them (although I can be convinced I'm wrong where I am, or that there is another point of view).  The difference is, I'm self-aware.  I know my own weaknesses.  I think my mother was in denial about hers.  She never sought help for her issues.  I don't think she considered herself mentally unstable.  I think the women in our family (there are only women, so it's impossible to make a comparison) are all mentally unstable.  I think it's hereditary.  I've asked my husband to make sure I get the appropriate help whenever I need it.  I don't want to end up like her.

I used to see a psychiatrist regularly (for Asperger's).  I'm now going to have to go back to try to deal with all of this shit.  The fact that I might have been able to stop her if I'd just tried hard enough.  The fact that my sister and I should have gotten her psychiatric help many, many years ago.  The fact that I was never a good daughter to her, and was entirely too selfish, and only thought of my own feelings.  That fucking text message.

I think it's going to take me a long time to get over this.  I'm so fucking angry at her for doing it.  She did it on her grandson's birthday, for fuck's sake!  She wrote messages all over the house, and smashed it up before she did it.  Her motive was revenge.  I know she was mentally unstable, but who the fuck thinks to themselves, "Ha!  I know what will really fuck him up!  I'll kill myself, and then he'll be sorry!"  What kind of a person can just shut out all the voices in their head telling them to live, and the voices of their children telling them to live, just so they can get revenge on another person?  I don't understand.  I don't think I'll ever understand.  It's just such a fucked up thing to do.  You're not supposed to do this to people you supposedly love.  And I think that's the bit that gets me the most.  If I'd been a better daughter, maybe she would have loved me enough to stick around.  I can't help but think my own behaviour contributed to what she did.

So, no.  I'm not ok.  I'm not fine.  I'm not doing great, thank you.  And if I have to hear one more person ask me, "how are you?", I think I'm going to scream.


Cath said...

I think you are doing fantastic. I think you are a wonderful person for rallying your family together, even though all you probably wanted to do was scream, shout and cry. I think we all have zillions of regrets, and you unfortunately, are currently feeling the remorse deeply of a regret. Be angry. Be sad. Be rude to old people who cut you off in cars. What happened to your mother will never happen to you, because you are aware of it and keenly know how it affects the people around you.

You might not be ok today, but you will be.

Anonymous said...

And I think that's the bit that gets me the most. If I'd been a better daughter, maybe she would have loved me enough to stick around. I can't help but think my own behaviour contributed to what she did.

I don't know exactly how you feel, exactly what you're going through or exactly how or when you'll get through it; but I think I know enough about guilt to say this much: Even if you're dead-set convinced that you've done something wrong and won't be told otherwise; absolutely nothing good will come from staying pissed-off at yourself. It's like trying to dig your way out of a hole.

I wish I had something more useful to offer.

Take care of yourself, Puss. I think you're awesome.

squib said...

Puss, I'm so sorry. You took her to a hospital - she wriggled out of it. This is not your fault, not remotely

She was impossible to be around (don't be too hard on your stepdad - maybe he wanted to leave a long, long time ago?). Impossible to be around, right? You know that (and anyone who has a mentally unstable, narcissistic mother knows that with you)

You couldn't fix it, Puss. No one could, except maybe your mother (and it doesn't sound like she wanted to) xx

Melba said...

I'm really sorry to hear this, Puss. xxx said...

So sorry you're going through this, Puss, particularly that you're being so hard on yourself. At risk of sounding insensitive, it seems you did all you could under the circumstances and knowing what you knew at the time.

Yes, regrets are sometimes extremely difficult to cope with... but it sounds like your mother was also extremely difficult to cope with and the things you did, such as moving away and limiting contact, were to essentially save yourself. And basically in reaction to her behaviours etc. And that's not selfish: it's simply self-preservation. So as extraordinarily hard as it is, continue to be brave and know that while it's OK to have regrets, it's not OK to relentlessly flog yourself for them.

This probably sounds awfully bossy and inappropriate - and I apologise for that if it does - but it's said (typed) with affection for you.

Ramon Insertnamehere said...

I've been waiting for the right words but I suppose there are no right words.

Look after yourself Puss.

Perseus said...

Puss - I too have nothing to offer by my sympathies (though check your email for an effort). All of it's horrible, but I echo what the others have said here - you'll be right. I'm sure of it.


Puss In Boots said...

Apparently I broke the blog.

Thank you to everyone for your kind words and support.

Please don't stop writing other posts because of this one. I only posted it here because I just really wanted to rant at something/anything.

I've been seeing a psychiatrist and I am doing better, although had a bit of a setback when I read the letter she mailed me - she blamed me for a lot of things (colluding with my stepfather was one of them). I just felt really sad that she died thinking those things. I wish I had taken the time on Thursday night to call her and try to get her to see sense. I know she wouldn't have listened to me anyway, because she was so ridiculously stubborn, but a small part of my brain says I don't know that at all, because I didn't try.

Anyway, I'll be ok. But please go back to your usual scheduling! I don't often comment anymore, but I have this in my RSS feed, and I like reading the posts. So get back to it, you slackers!

Ramon Insertnamehere said...

Don't worry about it Puss.

It's just me being slack.

I'll be writing something soon.