On an Indian summer day in 1979, my 60 year old mother did the first independent thing she had done in thirty years. She went AWOL from the nursing home where her frustrated psychiatrist had believed she should live out her life, having diagnosed her as someone “who will never get well,” to get her hair done.
Despite how trivial this sounds, it was no small thing. Several months earlier, my father had died and I had come home from Minnesota where I had a burgeoning career as a poet, to take care of everything–my job in those days, the job I thought I owed my parents.
On the day in question, my mother, who had spent all of those preceding years before that day passed out in an armchair in our study where my father, dying of emphysema, tried to take care of her, slipped out of the nursing home when no one was looking, and began the 1/2 mile trek to the corner of local streets Lemay and Elizabeth and from Elizabeth about 1/4 mile to the beauty shop. As I reconstruct those moments, I see her coming in, frazzled, out of breath, elated, but feeling dizzy. I see her smiling at her beautician, getting seated in front of the mirror, then looking up at her, saying, as later reported to me, “I don’t feel well.”
Seconds later, her head slumped to her chest and then, she fell out of the chair to the floor. Her heart had stopped, and none of the beauticians, or the paramedics that came from the hospital across the street, ever got a pulse.
That this was merciful for someone whose life had been entirely problematic– to have dropped dead on a blazingly beautiful day– did not escape me even as I bent over her weeping in the ER and across the hours and days of making arrangements. I had lost someone I had begun to get to know in my early adulthood, as a fellow woman, not only my mother, but my champion.
I have now outlived her by eight years, as I will turn 68 in a few days. Externally speaking, I have spent most of my adult life becoming a teaching writer and a fancier of the Golden Retriever, a blogger and a lover of the West. I am fortunate enough to have not one but two collections of poetry due out in the next several years. But I have also been trapped in a script, a story with tentacles around me, as my mother’s daughter, from which I fight for a sense of autonomy and the right to be an adult woman on a daily basis–still.
Over the past few months, having begun to take up life with a new husband in a place all too rich with personal and collective history, I have found myself backsliding in that monumental effort to change the story written by a mother who did not model independence and confidence to me, but an inability to function without neediness, and a deep, profound sense of incapacity.
Just as she had succumbed to manifold forms of dependency and yet had within her that woman who arose from years of illness and drug and alcohol addiction that day, that one day, so that she was several people in one, I have in me a sad and lonely young person, perhaps an adolescent, who only recently, comparatively, got it that it is up to each of us to be responsible for ourselves and our own fulfillment, no matter how frightening a prospect this may be and no matter the setbacks.
I have had protracted times in my life when I was invested in being a victim, someone other people had to hold together, even though my gifts and achievements told a different and far more potent story. I have experienced terrible levels of anxiety when striking out on my own, afraid that there was nobody home inside me to take care of me. In fact, the biggest obstacle I faced was to come to believe not in God, not in love, not in a lover, but–in me.
That I, Jenne’ Rodey Andrews, am a worthy and strong person who has been tempered in the fires of codependency and loss on loss, by a saga of fractured relationships with lonely men who fled from the needy me. That despite a long and equivocal road, I am a whole person, and perhaps, a damn good writer, who doesn’t need to be cobbled together by others.
In my effort to break free of the script, I have scared myself into psychiatric units, off airplanes, off horses, off the highway, only to fall back into the chasm we women with dependency to overcome, know so well. And the hell of it has been that once you’re in a chasm, even if you’ve found some kind and similarly broken stranger to help you out, you have to do it yourself.
I have miles to go before I sleep– at 68 I remain afraid of having surgery on my right leg and knee even though I conceivably could walk again and end eight years of being housebound. Of letting go of the last of the soporifics for chronic pain that get pushed on us all by doctors with big case loads in denial about the addictive potency of such drugs. These things loom at me, yet there is nothing to do but face them.
My mother too had tremendous gifts that could have given the lie to her disabling and disempowering level of reliance on everything but herself. She was a beautiful and promising artist, earning her B.A. at the University of Mexico, which was founded by her grandfather, Bernard Shandon Rodey. She was the youngest of four multi-talented children and also, in terms of how these things seem so generational, the daughter of a very insecure mother.
She had been overly close to her own dying father at a time when most young women who dreamed big and wanted to use their gifts, were out on their own, coming to terms with themselves–that they were capable, and didn’t need a sugar daddy after all, even though they were programmed “to marry well.” That they were actually whole people, who perhaps didn’t realize it until one day and one bright epiphany, one overcoming and suddenly, ability to take root in the full light of being, where they stayed.
Sometime, shortly before the outbreak of WWII, as my mother began to venture away from the family home after my grandfather’s death, getting her own apartment in Santa Fe, working at the Santa Fe Girls’ School and the Museum there, and trying to face that paralyzing fear that dependent people feel, she met my father, a young forest pathologist, whom she married. Everyone rejoiced; she–they–were happy for a time. It’s just that if you try to go from where she was, inside, into a marriage, the scared little girl comes along too. And if you then have a daughter, you have two scared little girls–the one within, and the real one, who needs you. They were separated when the war broke out and he enlisted, to become a Captain and a medic in the Pacific Theater. She stayed with her oldest sister and her family, her life in suspension until Armistice Day.
I have a signature memory I have never understood until recently. I remember being very young–perhaps two, and finding myself alone in our living room of the adobe we rented in Albuquerque. My mother was drawing and drinking in a corner of the dining room. She had irritably told her toddler daughter to find something to do.
In that large and dark room, I remember feeling a terrible void inside me, welling up from my very depths until it was a lump in my throat. I had no idea how to rescue myself from that state, that experience of combined sadness and emptiness and abandonment.
I think now that she should have come to me, putting her own pursuits away,. that she should have said, “Honey, I see that you are very lonely and at loose ends. Would you like to do something with me?” Or, perhaps, “I see how upset you are. Let’s see how to make you feel better. Let me show you what I do when I feel this way to make myself feel better, and then we can do that together.”
As it stood, as she didn’t know how to do that herself except to slam back highballs and busy herself until my father came home from the office, and that it was not long before she would lose faith in herself all together, fall apart and be carted off to what passed for psychiatric care in those days– shock treatments, long hospitalizations, I think I just suffered, and tried to distract myself. But the lesson, that I could fill up my own emptiness, take responsibility for how I was feeling by consoling myself and giving myself something to do that made me feel better, even good about myself, was missing.
To me, this is the essence of insuring that a little girl is able to outgrow childhood and become an independent woman. Call it individuation in Jungian terms– anything you like.
But how fraught our experiments are, with getting derailed by a host of things. For instance, if you aren’t a whole person and if you know that and stop doing the things that reinforce the independent you rather than the little girl you, you are headed for trouble. Having a tender yet confused husband whose instincts are to comfort you, when you need to comfort yourself, to motivate you when you need to motivate yourself, is the danger zone–to let slip away the things you’ve learned you must do to continue to be an adult and not fall back into neediness, to grow down, becoming a child all too inappropriately in his arms, and not a woman.
. And, it is easy for a marriage, especially late in life, when two people are together throughout the day and evening, to become codependent, as my parents became, becoming a spectacle of two people holding each other up, clinging to each other on the rare times they ventured out in public.
For the past few months, as noted, I have experienced some backsliding. I got sidetracked from my writing life by getting reinvolved with golden retrievers, having and raising a litter only to have my beautiful mama dog struck down by cancer. I have taken refuge in my husband’s arms too often, turned to him to reassure me too often. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so empty and depressed, and angry. Then, I got very, very frightened, because I started to feel as I had for many years–stuck, in a Sargasso of helplessness–of being adrift, a castaway in my own life! Then, I really panicked, and my eyes flew open. I saw that I had dropped many balls.
I sat down and began writing, anything, to pick up the thread of that talent within me that helps me. I put my arms around myself, speaking encouraging words. I blogged about the campaign, and I worked on the dolls I make to get a little extra money for dogfood for our stunning pair of imported English Golden Retrievers. Perhaps, unlike many, many women, I don’t get to stop doing what defines me. I have to keep going.
I once took a therapist’s advice to get into what was then termed “Adult Child Therapy,” a hybrid offshoot of “transactional analysis” that required a great deal of willingness and courage. The idea was that we the broken were the way we were because our needs didn’t get met as children. That made sense to me; I was a believer. But, the therapy–to temporarily “grow down” and “be little” again, to trust the therapist to the extent that he or she let you ride around on a trike or ask to be held or given a bottle, of all the crazy-weird and humiliating things–was not for me. My inner girl knew damn well these crackpots were not her parents. She said, “I’m outta here,” and I’ve come to trust a great many of her instincts about such things. My willingness to try such a thing should tell you that I really wanted to get better, that I was hungry for transformation.
Especially in a relationship, remaining a whole self has many challenges. People like me lean too much on external things–anything to avoid sitting down alone with that frightened child inside and comforting her and saying to her, “Let me help you. Let me tell you what a brave and wonderful person you are and that you have been so very brave and done so many things. What a ridiculous idea that you are not someone who can do anything.” People like me have been labeled by those they sought help from. Labels are diminishing and generate a sense of shame, which in and of itself becomes a heavy coat of doubt one must cast off. It causes me deep grief to think of my mother in the New Mexico State Mental Hospital where she was subjected to very primitive ECT, my father having had to commit her because his insurance didn’t cover psychiatry or anything like therapy. My brother and I are deeply fortunate that she did not commit suicide, and kept trying, in her own way, until her last breath..
One reason that I want to see Hillary Clinton elected is that she models a strong womanhood to all of us. She is a wife and mother but most indelibly herself. She has known who she was since she was in her twenties. I wager that, missteps and all, she is a whole person–a fully actualized woman in command of herself and unafraid to live in all of her dimensions. It is immensely distressing to see her demonized, to realize that the very American institutions we venerate, i.e. the FBI, don’t “get” her, don’t understand who she is and buy into the Alt Right construct that she is “the Enemy,” resorting to an attempt to throw the election to Trump. How sad and tragic! And enraging!
I hope and pray that those who read this piece and identify know that we are not helpless. The mold has been broken, by many, many women. We can choose our identities–we can change our circumstances and we can mother our own inner daughters past their fears, one day at a time. Si, se puede.