When Having a Bad Feeling is Having the Right Feeling
We were expecting a house full of people for the upcoming holiday and I was feeling overwhelmed. It was unrelated to getting the house ready for our guests, preparing huge quantities of food or trying to anticipate everyone’s needs.
My eighty-five-year-old mother had fallen and fractured her spine. She was admitted to a skilled nursing facility and after a one month stay, she was discharged. She moved in with me and required constant care and assistance as she slowly recovered.
I was feeling very affected by my mother’s fall, and I realized that it felt as if I was chewing on something acerbic which tasted vaguely familiar. I just couldn’t put my finger on it – when had I sampled this this bitter taste before?
I let my thoughts wander. Eventually, a memory of another day in another decade surfaced, and I realized that what I was feeling now was linked to that day so long ago.
My life had changed significantly from one day to the next after I became a mother. I had given birth to twin daughters and the morning we were scheduled to leave the hospital the nurse came into my room to let me know that the discharge forms were completed. She informed us that It was time for us to dress the babies, pack up, and be on our way.
I stared at my husband blankly, and the look on his face mirrored mine. I turned to look at my daughters. Then, I turned to looked back at the nurse. I was shocked by her directive and challenged her.
“Dress them? You want me to dress them? Why can’t you dress them?” I asked her. She laughed in response, clearly mocking me, as she turned to walk away.
We left the hospital and drove 60 miles to my parents’ house. It was a freezing winter day, but the babies were snugly wrapped in layers of pink bunting which my mother had bought them. When we pulled into the driveway, the babies were still sleeping soundly. We gingerly lifted each one out of her car seat, held them close against our chest, and raced to the front door. My parents stood inside the doorway with their arms extended, as if we were all in a relay race, and they were waiting for us to pass the babies to them for the next leg of the race. Instead of handing them over, we dashed through the house, down the hallway and into the bedroom. When we put the babies down on the bed to unwrap the bunting, the room was filled with four adults, and two howling, hungry infants. That was the moment I was ready to hand them over!
I felt as vulnerable as my newborn babies and didn’t know how I was going to take care of them. Later that evening, feeling drained of all my strength, I realized that we had a long night ahead of us. I felt weak,tired, and weepy. To put it in one word, I felt helpless.
My mother, with her typical take-charge approach knew what to do.
“I’ll sleep in the room with you,” she said. “We’ll each take care of one baby. That’s how we’ll get through the night”.
It was a long night and neither one of us got more than a short nap, but the girls were properly cared for. By the second night, we realized this was unsustainable, so my mother came up with a new plan. We hired a night nurse to care for the babies. When she arrived at 11:00 p.m. she was greeted by the three of us, the twins and their mother wailing in unison!
Although I was convinced that we were going to live with my parents until the girls went to college, we left when they were six weeks old. By then, I was back on my own two feet, feeling strong again and capable of caring for my family.
These feelings of being entirely overwhelmed, depleted, and helpless recurred when my elderly mother became the helpless one. After the fall, her pain was excruciating and her condition debilitating.
Until I was able to arrange appropriate home care, my mother needed me to do everything for her. She lay in bed, flat on her back and could not move so much as an inch without feeling acute pain. Even with my help, every move she made caused her to cry out. It felt like I was striking her even as I tried to help. It was difficult facing the degree of my mother’s debility.
More than 30 years ago, I and my babies were dependent on my mother and now she has become dependent on me; she is the vulnerable and helpless one. She is no longer the robust dynamo she once was. Things that were once effortless require her focus and concentration. As I observe my mother lift her fork, I realize that It’s a strain for her to synchronize the task of keeping the food balanced on the tines with trying to steer the fork towards her already open mouth.
Her reticent manner at the table is punctuated with grunts and moans, sounds she is unaware of making, yet plainly broadcast her infirmity. As we sit around the table, she attempts to follow the conversation, but it is nearly impossible for her to assimilate information not spoken directly to her. She often looks puzzled and confused. She frequently mishears what has been said and her comments are far afield of the topic under discussion - a stark contrast to the cogent remarks she often contributed to discussions. Clarifying the topic for her has been replaced with changing the subject to what she is commenting on.
My mother is unable to do her grocery shopping, pay her bills, manage her medications, schedule her doctor appointments, clean her house, or keep track of the days of the week. She can’t tell the difference between her cordless phone and the TV remote control. She doesn’t remember conversations that we had just moments ago. But she does know who I am, who my children are and who my grandchildren are. She also remembers, with great pleasure and satisfaction, the time she spent caring for my newborn twins.
This is the familiar taste that I remember - struggling with the overwhelming demands of caring for another who is helpless and vulnerable.
When I sit with these feelings, I tell myself that I can do this. I had an excellent role model, a master teacher. Still, the overwhelming feeling lingers. I wonder why.
Why do these feelings cling to me? Despite having done so much for my mother, why do I feel that my efforts are inadequate? The longer I allowed myself to sit with the feelings the clearer it became to me.
Sometimes, having a bad feeling is having the right feeling. Feelings of distress are appropriate, but because of my mother’s history of trauma, distress was something she could not tolerate. On Kristallnacht, my mother’s father was ripped away from his family and taken to Dachau, an extermination camp. My mother, a small child, escaped from Germany the next morning. She quickly learned that in order to survive, she must put the past out of her mind. She had to put one foot in front of the other, blocking out all her dreadful feelings – always, and no matter what.
This strategy of putting feelings and memories out of awareness helped people like my mother. It was a coping mechanism many used. It saved lives by helping survivors resettle, marry and raise families. By focusing on the present, they were able to confine the past to the past - banishing it from intruding and causing a level of emotional distress that would be debilitating.
To my mother, all emotional distress, no matter what it was linked to was more than just a feeling; it was experienced as a catastrophe. Any bad feeling she had was absolutely intolerable. That was the nourishment I swallowed with my mother’s milk. Now, I was gagging on it again, as I had done so many times in my youth.
As I sat with the bitter taste in my mouth, I realized that I was feeling my mother’s feelings, not my own.
I knew that my mother’s fall and her declining health warranted feelings of distress, angst and sadness. I was having all the right feelings. They were appropriate even if it felt bad. The reason I felt conflicted and uncomfortable with my feelings was clear to me now. My mother had taught me that bad feelings were intolerable, so intolerable in fact, they should not be felt. But I had discovered a different way to live. I knew that I could never be aligned with my mother’s pledge to suppress feelings. I knew that if I could embrace a full range of emotions, life would bring me more pleasure than pain. Embracing a full range of emotions allows me to live a full life.