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Healing thy mother's keeper

Posted Dec 08 2009 5:00am
I have found the book of my life. And I didn't even write it.

I'm not even half-way done with it, but I feel like it's my story already.

"My Mother's Keeper," by Tara Elgin Holley and Joe Holley, is storytelling that's so vivid that the scenes seem to jump off the page. The descriptions are so effective in stimulating the imagination that a movie seems unnecessary (but I'm sure it could be a great one).

It's the story of Tara's mother, Dawn, whose descent into schizophrenia ended a promising singing career. Tara grows up knowing her mother, but not really knowing her sickness - not until she was an adult, really, and she tried to care for her, and keep her from being known as the local "bag lady."

It's a book that speaks to the power of words, and how good writing can help heal the wounds of the soul. Writing can be therapeutic not only for the writer, but also the reader - like myself - who can identify with the plight of the characters. In my case, I know them very well: Dawn and Tara's family resemble my own, in a way.

In my case, my mother had severe obsessive compulsive disorder, and lived with it for much of her life. She inherited the family disease, the symptoms for which were evident with my grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother. Like Dawn, they battled their symptoms but never really found solutions.

Like Tara and Joe, I'm writing a book about it, and how I dealt with it all and learned from it. The book is entitled "Generations: A Portrait of a Family Struggling with Mental Illness," and I hope to have it done within the year.

In my book, unlike "My Mother's Keeper," the characters meet their demise too early. Suicide lingers in the shadows of my family, because it's how my great-grandfather, and possibly my great-great-grandmother, ended their lives. With my grandfather and mother, it was self-destruction through alcoholism and personal neglect.

But it's the kind of book that provides validation for your life. When you read about Dawn's impact on the family, you realize that you're not alone, dealing with the problems of finding care for a loved one when there really isn't any that is any good, or good enough.

You realize that you and your family, as well your children are susceptible to what seems like a family curse, and to think that is not the product of paranoia. If others suffer this way, so could you. If others could find a way to manage it, and address these issues before they manifest into something intolerable, so could you.

I've stopped writing over the past few days because I need to read this book. I need to see how Tara and Joe did it, and how they mastered the ability to write about how mental illness is not something that's only suffered by the homeless on the street.

It's something that affects people who live in California - where Tara's mother lived, and where Tara enjoyed a family life, and a sometimes stable one, being cared for by her grandparents before her mother was committed to a psychiatric hospital and her conditioned worsened.

It certainly affects people in Point Pleasant, N.J., a suburban bedroom community at the Jersey Shore, where I grew up, and dealt with my mother's symptoms of OCD most of my life.

There, in 2003, my mother passed away after a fall. She was heading toward the bathroom, worried that her chest felt tight and she was short of breath. The bathroom was where she often went in times of crisis, and she spent hours in there, washing her hands until they were red, and the skin peeled off. But she never made it; she collapsed on the couch, about 30 feet short of her goal.

In that same house, just two years earlier, she drank beer until she passed out in a reclining chair, uttering things that were incoherent before she, too, was committed to a psychiatric hospital. When she was committed, my father found cases of beer and boxes containing moldy pizza stuffed in the refrigerator.

Indeed, one of the opening scenes of the book made me feel like I was living it again. This scene was at Tara's apartment, and it was told by her husband, Joe:

It was a warm night, a beautiful night, but as we walked across the yard and stepped onto the porch, we could tell something was wrong. Empty beer cans were scattered about, and as we started to unlock the door, we could see that it had been forced open. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck prickle and my stomach tighten. Was the burglar inside? Did he have a gun? Should we hurry away and call the police?

As we slowly pushed open the door and peered into the darkness of the living room, I smelled the stabbing odor of urine and stale beer and an unwashed human being. In the darkness, I could barely make out someone sitting on the floor, someone mumbling incoherently.

I was scared, but Tara wasn't. She was angry and upset, not scared. She knew who had invaded her home, her well-ordered life. It was her mother waiting in the darkness. It was Dawn.

Like me, Tara loved her mother, and loved being with her, especially when she was young. In the book, she calls her "mommy," just as I did my mother, long after I wasn't supposed to call her that anymore.

But, when she was young, Tara went out for a car ride with Dawn one day, the door flung open, and Tara found herself on the pavement, with scratches and cuts. Or so her memories tell her.

When Tara played hide-and-go-seek with her mother, Dawn disappeared, and didn't reappear for a while. Instead of her mother coming out from behind the tree, and saying, "Here I am!" Dawn was gone.

Tara found herself in the police station, sitting on a counter top, eating ice cream, waiting for her grandparents to take her home.

The moment reminded me of the time I was 10, and I was chased in a department store by a woman who tried to stuff me in her overcoat. She chased me to the parking lot, and I hid between the cars while she looked for me. Finally, after looking for a good 10 minutes, she walked away and I warily walked back inside.

I found my mother looking at the clothes, the same clothes she obsessed over, and bought so many of them that she stuffed her closet, nearly breaking the sliding door. She had left me alone, in the book section, while she spent nearly an hour looking and trying on the same clothes, over and over. Each piece of clothing wasn't just the right fit....or maybe it was, she'd think, and she'd ask to try them on all over again.

I said to her, "Mommy! A woman just chased me around the store!"

"Oh, really. Wow," she said, half-interested. "Are you all right?"

"Yes," I said.

"OK, well I'm going to buy these clothes," she said. "You wait here while I try them on."

Then she left me along again, standing in the women's clothing section, feeling like I could be snatched at any second.

When Tara went to live with other relatives, she traveled with her mother from Hollywood, taking a long bus ride to Houston. It would be her last sustained experience with her mother, who would be taken away from her once they arrived.

From then on, Dawn would shuttle in-and-out of psychiatric care and institutions for the rest of her life, much as my mother did when her symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder worsened.

With every passing chapter, right up until Dawn grew old, and preferred living on the street, selling cigarettes, Tara offers a voice of frustration, but also a proclamation of love. She always kept her mother's within her grasp, and she was always ready to save her from whatever embarrassment she might cause, and she was ready to defend her whenever she was mocked or mistreated. She was always ready to commit her whenever she was a danger to herself, but she also realized that she could not always stop Dawn from being Dawn.

At the heart of my book is my mother, and how we showed our love in a similar way. In my mother's final years, we couldn't get close to her because she was afraid of our germs. She wouldn't let us kiss her unless it was all the way under ear, where her skin was red and chapped from the constant washing or her neck and face.

But we did the best we could, and like Tara, we tried to stabilize and comfort her life. We always wondered if we didn't do enough, even at the end, when we finally addressed my mother's battle with OCD after years of neglect, but it just seemed too late as her physical health declined.

Six years later, after reading Tara and Joe's book, I realize now that, perhaps, we did what we could do.

Neil Young/Heart of Gold

I want to live,
I want to give
I've been a miner
for a heart of gold.
It's these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.
Keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.

I've been to Hollywood
I've been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean
for a heart of gold
I've been in my mind,
it's such a fine line
That keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.
Keeps me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.

Keep me searching
for a heart of gold
You keep me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm growing old.
I've been a miner
for a heart of gold.

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