To this day, when I get the vibe that someone is lying to me, or not giving me the whole truth about something, I go into overdrive trying to figure out what the actual situation is.
It’s amazing, unravelling the nuggets of our past, how we are able to find the wisdom that maps our story of today.
For me, this started when I was six.
I was over at a play date at my friend Elizabeth’s house. I can still see the set up of the house. Foyer, white staircase leading upstairs, big playroom facing you right when you walked in. I was in the corner, getting my shoes on to go, and I remember noticing that my Dad had come with my Mum to get me, which wasn’t normal, since it was earlier than when he finished work. I saw the parents talking in hushed tones to Elizabeth’s mum in the corner, and immediately tried to listen in on what they were saying. I heard appointment, diagnosis, and a lot of things that I could only process at six years old as not good. I could tell people were upset. I remember for months gathering clues that things were not right, and hating not understanding what was going on.
My next memory was of sports day. I was in grade two, and there was a mother-daughter wheelbarrow race. My mum said she couldn’t do it with me cause she was sick. So I promptly threw a fit. I remember my friend Linda Bodi’s Hungarian mother coming over to me and kindly offering to do it with me instead. I remember how upset my Mum looked and the mental note I made to not do that to her again. It was the first time, I remember deciding that someone else’s feelings were more important than my own. A pattern that has resurfaced time and time again over the years.
Memory is a funny thing and what things stick out to you when you are dealing with trauma. And the thing with family illness is that it’s not something sudden. A death, where something obviously shitty happens and then you mourn and you grieve.
On the other hand, illness is a slow, painful process, knives stabbing every time with every traumatic situation, watching someone you love suffer. The lack of connection that you start to feel with your own emotions, because you become so worried about everyone around you. The lack of knowledge the damage it is doing because it is all so unpronounced. A slow drip that leaves an ocean you don’t notice until you are drowning.
While people’s childhoods are marked with birthdays, I can mark mine with situations surrounding my Mum’s illness.
I remember my morbid obsession with the newspaper obituaries when I was around fourth grade and reading that someone had died of MS. I remember the stress I carried around with me for days, wondering if my Mum was going to die.
Fifth grade I remember my Mum starting to use a walker. I can’t remember if it was before or after the night that her and my Dad came home from a night out at the pub upset. A bouncer had hassled my Mum and threatened to throw her out of the pub because he thought she was drunk because she was starting to have noticeable trouble walking. I could see how humiliated, defeated and upset she felt. It’s the first time I remember feeling deep anger and wanting to kill someone. But I remember feeling relieved that with my Mum’s walker that people would now be able to see there was something the matter with her and not make that mistake again.
Sixth grade I remember a teacher, seeing me be a normal bratty eleven year old, come up and scold me for not helping my Mum telling me I should be better behaved because she was sick and she needed my help. I remember wanting to punch sweet Miss Jacklin in the face, so angry, because she had no idea what it was like to have someone sick and how dare she tell me how to act. I just wanted to be normal and be able to act my age like the rest of my friends.
I used to babysit for a family, and to this day they tell me stories about how weird it was talking to me at 12 because of how mature I was. But by this age, my stress and awareness of what was going on around me, adults confiding their feelings around my Mum’s illness to me, and the awareness I had of illness and death made me accelerate far past the carefree concerns of those prepubescent years and into a dark place full of fear and worry, not just for myself, but for everyone around me.
I remember being at a bonfire when I was twelve, celebrating the end of elementary school, surrounded by my friends (weirdly enough, I don’t remember adults being there – were we really trusted to build and maintain bonfires and be on our own at that age? – but I digress.) But I remember just feeling like I was there in body and jealous at how carefree my friends all seemed and how disconnected I felt.
Besides the isolation that it made me feel, there was practical shittiness to my Mum’s situation. I remember in grade 8 feeling so jealous of girls that had Mum’s that could take them shopping, not only for the bonding time, but also for the sweet outfits that their Mum’s would buy them.
I remember feeling guilty every time I felt sad about something because it wasn’t my Mum’s fault, and I knew the guilt that she herself struggled with because of the things she wasn’t able to do.
I remember how my Mum held on til I turned 16 to drive us everywhere we needed to go, and how utterly scary some of those drives were. I don’t know if she was just a bad driver or her illness played a role (you have those kind of questions about everything), but I remember a rainy night getting driven to practice when I was 15, my Mum freaking out, and myself, just waiting for the car to careen off the road. I remember feeling relieved when I was 16 and could drive myself places, and how my Mum stopped driving shortly after.
I remember always feeling proud of what a fighter my Mum was.
I’d like to think the perspective I got from having a sick parent was a positive as well.
When I was fifteen, I used the newspaper delivery money that I had saved over the six years before and bought myself a plane ticket to go to Peru to visit my best friend that had moved there. I remember thinking to myself when I made the decision to go that maybe I would lose my health as well, so I needed to do this and see things before something happened to me.
I learned from a young age that health was not a given and was something to be appreciated and respected.
I remember the first time that I realized that my Mum’s illness outwardly upset me. I was in my second year of university, my roommate was sick and we were mandated by our Academic Dean to go to counseling.
As the therapist did background and I started crying talking about my Mum, he immediately said, “I think the situation with your roommate will be fine, but I think we’ve got bigger things to deal with.”
I remember starting to feel guilty realizing that I essentially used soccer as a springboard to run from home. Acknowledging for the first time I just didn’t know how to cope with how helpless it made me feel, seeing someone you cared so much lose their health bit by bit.
My grandma died right before my sophomore year and I went back to Ireland for her funeral. I remember crying hysterically at her wake. While most people would have maybe seen me as a grieving grandchild, it was in reality because, as I tried to comfort myself with the words you usually hear when someone dies, “she led a great life” I instead thought to myself, what will I say if I’m ever at my Mum’s funeral, she has had such a hard struggle. And it made me cry harder realizing I wouldn’t have that similar comfort.
I remember relief when I was in my junior year and I heard that she was finally using a wheelchair. She had fought it for so long and I remember being thankful that I’d no longer have to worry about her falling at home when she was alone.
My senior year I had to give my bio to my secret society at Yale (yes the movie Skull and Bones is kind of real) and talking about the connection that soccer had to my Mum’s illness, that it was my tool to give her hope that anything was possible, and how I started sobbing. And how I surprised myself in doing that. The heavy burden I had put on the sport I loved so much. The gift my Mum gave me to persevere through a sport that came so hard to me, because in doing so, I was trying to give her hope that good things could happen if she would just keep going. And in retrospect how fucked up it was to put such a burden on a sport that should have been a place that I could run free. It explained the anxiety that filled up so many years on the field. Emotions I didn’t know where to start working through.
I remember being in my kitchen in Oslo, Norway in 2009 and finding out that my worst nightmares had come true and my Mum had fallen in the kitchen when she was by herself, and lay on the ground with a broken hip for over an hour because she didn’t want to bother anyone. I remember how angry it made me that she would have to suffer like that and wondered if things would ever get easier. I felt guilty for being away.
I remember meeting a girl at a friend’s bachelorette that also had a mother with MS and her telling me how horrible and negative she was and that she knew it sounded horrible, but she just wished she would die and get released from her misery. I remember commenting to the therapist I saw later on that I was lucky that I had a Mum with such a great attitude, and it was enlightening when she said that it was two different crosses to bear.
I eventually learned that it was ok to put myself first, and did so without the extreme guilt and sadness that felt like it enveloped me right up until my early 30’s. I learned also that trying to get close to anyone and have a normal, healthy relationship is next to impossible when your emotions feel like they are churning, powerful and as indiscernible as the water of Niagara Falls.
Illness also tears families apart because of how differently we all grieve. While these are things I felt as the first born, my brother, perhaps because of falling second in the family, or perhaps his gender, is adamant that he didn’t notice a thing. When I asked him years later if my Mum’s illness affected him, he showed the Irish in our family, with the common Irish sentiment of, “what’s the point even thinking about it, just get on with it.” There’s moments you look at people you’ve shared your whole life with, but feel as though you are floating on your own island.
Over the last few years, I’ve started unravelling the emotion and pain that I became numb to, a “normal” growing up, that an amazing therapist had to stop me at one point, and say to me slowly, “you realize that what you went through as a kid wasn’t normal.”…to which I nodded my head slowly letting it sink in. For anyone that’s gone through something terribly hard, I want to take this moment to give EMDR a large shout out as an amazing form of therapy that unlocked so many things about myself and unhealthy patterns of behavior that I didn’t understand.
I don’t know the point of sharing all this besides the fact that it’s never talked about.
To this day I look up books on being a child with an ill family member, and the advice is bare.
I may be sharing so people know that sometimes high achieving people are driven by extreme pain. To share that people grieve differently. That its so empowering to unravel the secrets behind what drives what we do and that if you dig deep enough you can change behaviors. To make people realize that although people may look great on the outside, there may be some real struggle going on and to just make kindness a habit. And that through the pain we all get dealt in life at one point or another, we should also just be kind to ourselves. That we don’t choose the hand of cards we get dealt, but continuing to put one foot in front of the other is sometimes just victory itself.
Just like when I was six years old, and trying to solve what was going on with my Mum, and the lingering sense of discomfort I have to this day of when I don’t have all the information, I’ve found comfort in accepting that, in some things in life, both good and bad, there is no real explanation.