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Several times I had offered my mother the airfare to come and visit for Christmas, or at some other time, but she always refused. She was always in my thoughts, as I knew she would be missing Kevin dreadfully; this son who’d been everything to her for most of her adult life.
I visited her a couple of times, as I longed to talk to her and ask her about her life, but she barely spoke. By then, her bipolar disorder, the drugs and the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), had taken their toll on her mental faculties. For, as any person with experience or knowledge of this disorder will tell you, the cure can be worse than the disease; vitality and creativity are sucked dry and emotions are flattened – their whole personality, the person they are, is suppressed.
Once when my daughter Gina and I visited my mother in her little council flat in Newtown, we just sat quietly with her. In an attempt to extract some response, I asked her mundane things like what she was eating, what pills she was taking, anything to make conversation with her, but it was very difficult. She did explain, however, that the pills she was taking ‘stop me feeling anxious all the time’. Her emotionless voice filled me with sadness; her response was to please me, a rehearsed phrase. My heart ached to just take her in my arms and cuddle her, but whenever I had tried to do so, it was like cuddling a piece of wood. Gina and I had planned to spend the day with her, but Gina left for about two hours to visit a friend nearby. My mother and I were left sitting in her pint-sized sitting/dining room, she chain-smoking all the while. I tried again.
‘Do you have any photographs we could look at?’
‘No’ was the soft reply, ‘I sent them all to my sister Betty in America’.
Whenever I think back to that day and her answer, I feel like weeping. She answered my question as though I was a stranger of whom she felt apprehensive. I always got the impression she was anxious I would suddenly confront her about her abandonment of me, so I tread very gently. As we sat on her couch, waiting for Gina’s return, she suddenly turned to me in a cloud of smoke and said in an unusually confident tone, ‘You have a lovely daughter, Anne’. That was it. She turned away again and reverted to her state of narcosis; her fallback position, puffing away while gazing fixedly at nothing in particular.
The years of ECT and powerful mood-control drugs had eliminated every shred of my mother’s vibrancy that I remembered as a child. That bright red hair, that dazzling smile that had once propelled me to obsessively search for her everywhere among the crowds was gone.
ECT was introduced into Porirua Psychiatric Hospital in 1944, where it was used without anaesthetic on patients suffering from acute depression or ‘over-excitability’. My mother was admitted there again and again from the late 1950s onwards, sometimes in the throes of psychotic delusions. Towards the end of her life she would admit herself, looking for comfort and safe haven from the relentless demons which never allowed her any solace in her life, not even at the end of it. When Gina returned from visiting her friend, my mother decided to make us a cup of tea, and as she pottered in her cupboard of a kitchen, Gina said to me gently, ‘Mum, she is never going to love you’. My heart broke again. I didn’t want to hear that, not even as a woman fast approaching middle age. But I knew in my heart that she was too terrified to love me, or anyone else for that matter, except Kevin. She knew the terrible cost and she’d lived her life with the overwhelming guilt of it all.
I loved my mother dearly, and if not her physical being, which, sadly no photographs of her and her children together can bear witness, and without remembered mother and daughter cuddles, then certainly, through a deep primal memory of her, which is still with me today and often overwhelms me. I emotionally clutch my childhood memories, of fleeting visits with her in Dunedin that my father secretly instigated, and the ones when she would creep somewhere to snatch a moment with me, no matter how fleeting. What haunts me is that radiant smile that had a way of spreading over her face and crinkling up her eyes, all framed in wild red hair. I wonder, how did she manage that smile while living in her hell? Those must have been the only fleeting joyful moments in a lifetime for her.