Tag Archives: parent without empathy

My Mother’s Fear Vortex

My mother is in a panic because her toilet is working just fine. The current condition of her plumbing is irrelevant to her fear that there could be a catastrophe at any time. Her confidence in the imminent disaster of her toilet refusing to flush properly is based on an incident the previous day. You know how sometimes the rubber flap thing in the tank does not properly settle down after a flush and just lets the water continue to circulate? Well, that happened to her, so now she is sure that the toilet has mutated into a source of volatility and distress in the form of ruthless unflushability.

She believes that her salvation can come only in the form of a visit from a plumber. And not just any plumber – the plumber she used when she still had a condo, before she moved into assisted living. The handyman at the assisted living center is not to be trusted with such a critical mission. If the center won’t bring in her plumber, I am supposed to call the center director and demand this service call for her. I am also supposed to devote as much of my time as she wants so she can relate every detail that led up to her view of this emergency (somehow this includes a tooth ache the week before…).

Both my sister, who lives a block away from our mother, and I have been called in on this crisis. I live almost 1500 miles away, but I got the call anyway because my sister was insufficiently alarmed and because I am already her top consultant on one of her passion topics: bathroom issues.

She cannot listen to messages that explain that her problem is minor or her fear is unlikely to materialize. Earlier this year, she was so adamant that she might get a blister from her orthopedic shoes that she spent $1000 on three different pairs of special shoes before she bought one she liked enough to silence the fear. One of those pairs of shoes, thick-strapped sandals with built-in orthotics, was rejected because she was afraid they might not offer enough support, and that might trigger a resurgence of arthritis in her feet.

With my mother, any fear is so urgent, so real, so devastating that everyone in her tiny circle must rush into action on her behalf. But here’s the thing: we rarely agree that she has a real problem calling for intervention, and we have learned that she won’t accept any solution other than the impractical one she has already etched onto the steel trap of her anxieties. Trying to talk her out of the fear is irresistible even though we know it is futile. We know that our reasoning never averts her fear.

For those of us who are regularly sucked into her fear vortex, the fears and her demands for feeding them are soul-sucking. They are love-sucking. They leave us with less compassion and her with more fear. I know that her fears and anxieties are an intrinsic part of her. I know it’s frustrating for both of us when I can’t resist trying to reason with her.

Today is the last day of 2015. I know it would be gracious and compassionate of me to make a resolution to be more understanding of her from now on. The thing is, it’s frustrating to always do all the understanding. I am not as sympathetic to her as she would like – and pieces of that limited sympathy come from the complexities of our relationship, from the old scars of having a mother who doesn’t understand her children’s needs or feelings or perspectives. I’m not prepared to surrender entirely to her. I’m not prepared to set aside my life because she might get a blister or her toilet might not flush. The best I can do with a resolution is to continue to try to be helpful to her without resentment, to try to be patient, to try to protect my heart.

Copyright 2015.

The Memory Vault

Like many people who have Aspergers Syndrome, my mother has a phenomenal memory. She remembers events and conversations and feelings and smells from an astonishingly early age. Though research indicates that most people don’t retain memories of the years before age five, my mother does. And her memories aren’t just vague images. She can roll the film and replay complete scenes, including what she was wearing, the weather, and often the exact date.

Her first memories are from when she was not yet two years old. She had an imaginary friend named Dorothy who existed in a mirror in the small house the family lived in until she was one and a half, when they moved to the large house where she spent the rest of her youth. She is sure about her age in the memory because of the house she was in; it had to be from before the move in 1932 to her grandparents’ house.

My mother’s interaction with imaginary Dorothy was limited to a single daily routine. She would stand in front of the hall mirror and tell Dorothy what color dress she was wearing that day. My mother remembers her mother smiling as she watched this daily ritual, and she remembers being pleased that her mother was amused. Make-believe Dorothy had no other role beyond receiving the day’s report on my mother’s dress color, and she did not move to the new house.

My mother wrote me an email with this account of her grandfather Henry’s last days in February, 1934, when she was 3¼ years old.

“My grandfather died on February 13. He had pneumonia and was sick only a few days. My mother said that she thought he had lost the will to live after the bank failure, which had cast a huge shadow on an otherwise pleasant life.

“[I remember that] a nurse was hired to come into the home to take care of him. What I see is that I am sitting at the breakfast table in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother on their feet in the room. The nurse comes in. She is a middle-aged woman, probably in her fifties, dark brown hair in a typical permanent fashion of the time, wears glasses, is wearing the traditional white uniform and cap. She has a very definite manner typical of nurses of that time, although in this instance she is not able to remember what her patient takes in his coffee. She must have been there several days at the time. After she left the room Grandma Amanda says, “Why can’t she ever remember that?”

“This sort of thing always amazed my mother when I would speak of it several years later, and it would be something that really had happened.”

My mother remembers a dream she had the night her brother was born when she was 6½. In her dream that night, my mother recalls that “I was in a courtyard of buildings that looked something like a picture that used to hang over the desk in the hall, a black and white etching. I was chasing a black and white cat around the courtyard. I had a wicker basket like Mother’s sewing basket and I wanted to catch the cat in it. I was having no luck when I woke up and heard Dad in the middle bedroom. The door between the bedrooms opened then and I went in. His first words were, ‘You have a little brother.’ I thought, ‘How interesting.’”

My mother can remember scenes from nearly every day of most of her early life, as though each has been filmed, indexed and stored for easy retrieval. This extraordinary ability is one of her few old-age interests. She is content to sit alone and replay her memory tapes. She’s delighted to narrate one if you ask.

“I’ve been told many times about my memory being unusually sharp, but to me it just seems ‘normal.’ I’ve always been accustomed to remembering a lot of what has happened in my life and am always surprised that many other people don’t remember such things! I don’t remember every day of my life, although when I was a teen-ager I thought that I could remember every day of my grade school years. It seemed to me that I remembered every day of kindergarten for a long time as it made such an impression on me as being a new way of life. Now I only remember parts of those days.

“I do remember Monday March 23, 1936 [she was 5 and in kindergarten]. It was one of those unusual balmy March spring days in Davenport after a particularly severe winter. I remember being out on the playground at recess and taking in the scene – everyone wearing lighter outdoor wear, balmy breezes.

“I don’t know how typical this is, but often I remember something that somebody said in my presence during my growing up years and it is so real to me that it is though they made the statement no longer ago than last week. Then I think to myself that it has to have been 60 or 70 years or even more since they said it.”

c 2015 Sarah Meyer Noel

The Sunrise Experience

I know that what I write about my mother is hard to read. I understand the desire for a silver lining or upbeat message to offset the negatives in my stories of having a mother on the autism spectrum. I keep looking for those miracles too.

So here are some positive stories about my mother.

One summer morning when her four children were very young (I can’t have been more than 5), she woke us up before dawn and ushered us to the backyard to see the sunrise. I still remember that morning. We sat quietly on the patio, listening in the dark to the birds narrating their search for breakfast. We ran to the front porch when we heard the milk man arrive to fill the metal box with glass milk bottles. We had never seen him before and had never thought about the man or the journey of our milk. We sat back down as the light colored the sky and the neighborhood began to issue the cadence of their awakening.

My mother wanted her children to share her interests. She read us the books she’d loved as a child and wanted us to love them too. She taught the first three of us to play bridge when we were in grade school and sometimes called us to the dining room table to play with her.

She volunteered to be the librarian for our grade school when they started a library. My sister and I would sit with her on her white bedspread covered with lists of books on long sheets of paper, discussing which books she should buy for the school. She let us feel that she respected our opinions.

She – and my father too – made sure we did not absorb the racist messages that were pervasive in the Southern city where we grew up. We heard from our parents that racism was wrong and that people should not be judged by skin color. We learned that we could hold a minority view and be proud to express it.

My mother cannot help her lack of empathy and her obsession with her stresses and needs. I know the world is a challenge for her, and I appreciate that the mysteries that confront her daily have not made her mean.

Copyright 2015 by Sarah Meyer Noel

Making us who we are

I know some people think my view of my mother is too harsh and unforgiving. I suppose I will always work on achieving a state of grace in my relationship with her.

But it isn’t just me who has noticed my mother’s unilateral engagement with her family. My son, who is a 20-year-old college junior, just sent me this email:

Hey mom,

So today Ryan came back from his evolution class and, as usual, had some awesome facts to discuss. He told me about what’s called “the grandmother theory” – that the elongated life of humans into one’s second generation of offspring is a genetic advantage because grandmothers can basically provide supplemental/additional mothering and teaching, which creates greater ability to expand the gene pool. It’s a pretty interesting idea you can read about here http://www.sci-news.com/othersciences/anthropology/article00678.html

The theory relies on grandmothers’ ability to stay alive long enough to mother their grandchildren, so I thought it was interesting to think about the psychological effects on people like me who have living grandmothers, yet don’t receive any additional mothering. To quote the article, “Grandmothering gave us the kind of upbringing that made us more dependent on each other socially and prone to engage each other’s attention.” And “grandmothering was the initial step toward making us who we are.”

I know she means no harm

My mother is pleasant when she is not stressed, and she can be sympathetic (as long as no action is required of her). But her lack of empathy, her absorption with her fears and anxiety, and her demands that we solve her most trivial problems – while she does little to nothing for us – were confusing and painful when we were young and draining now that we are adults.

Her children have come to realize that she just isn’t able to think of what’s best for others or what is too much to ask. She becomes anxious and irritable when she realizes that other people expect something of her or are annoyed by her demands. Other people are supposed to understand that her needs are always urgent.

I know what I am writing is harsh. I know she means no harm; she is just trying to feel safe. I know she cares about her children, but she didn’t know how to put her heart into nurturing us. Instead of empathizing with us, she has always used her energy and emotional stores to calm herself against the world. She had so little to give that we have always clung like boat-wreck survivors for just one sign that she would reach out and pull us to safety and warmth.

A Unique Awareness of Entropy

Solving my mother’s problems and calming her fears is only one aspect of being her child. We also are expected to want nothing from her, especially emotional support if it requires more than an expression of helpless sympathy. She feels compassion at times, but doesn’t connect this feeling to any action she might take on someone else’s behalf. She wants updates on a spouse’s or grandson’s condition if they have a medical problem – and she insists on acting as the hub of information to the rest of us, becoming annoyed if we have already been informed of things she wants to be the one to tell (in fact, she always seems surprised to hear that her children have relationships with each other, as if we live in suspended animation until she needs us and are tethered only to her). But she never offers to help. We know – we have always known – that we are on our own.

I wish I understood the workings of her brain better than I do. It occurs to me that perhaps the autism spectrum is about a constant and acute recognition of entropy, a threat state that the rest of us are wired to ignore. Perhaps people with this condition are emotional survivalists so hyper-aware of the relentless degeneration of the world that they react by excessively building bunkers against chaos and repairing what they understand to be the critical base order for their next breath.

Conducted under such intense pressure that the person is unable to economically borrow from conventional wisdom, or detect similarities in ambiguous information and generalize, or take conscious charge of their thought processes, this reactionary behavior consumes so much attention and energy and emotion that the person has no available capacity for understanding other people or balancing their own needs and those of anyone else. They are so occupied that there is no energy left for developing relationships or offering emotional reciprocity, which seem superfluous when it’s you against the crumbling world. How can you notice anyone outside this perpetual crisis of self?

Copyright 2015 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.

Turning Back

My mother had a wonderful childhood, but her close relationship with her mother turned bitter once Mother was an adult. The cause of this change was that my grandmother disagreed with some of my mother’s choices, and my mother does not tolerate anything she views as criticism. I have never heard my mother say one good thing about her mother.

After my grandparents retired to Florida, Mother visited them only twice. The first time was for her beloved father’s memorial service. The second trip occurred a few years after he died, when she went down to attend her mother’s second wedding.

She did almost go while her father was still alive. He was hospitalized with irreparable heart problems and wouldn’t survive the year. Since he was dying, Mother, who was living in St Louis and not yet a widow, decided to have my brother Dan drive her to Florida. Dan, her chauffeur, was on spring break from community college. They took a camper that my father had bought to tow his race car and sleep in on race trips.

Dan drove the whole way; Mother lounged in the back of the camper and expected Dan to stop every hour and a half for snacks and bathroom visits. The camper was selected as the mode of transportation not just for my Mother’s riding comfort, but also because she expected Dan to sleep in it during the stay in Florida since my grandmother’s condo had only two bedrooms. Mother never considered sleeping in one of the two single beds in her mother’s room so Dan didn’t have to sleep in the camper. She never considered flying to Florida so Dan didn’t have to spend his vacation driving her.

After driving for ten hours, they arrived in Atlanta to spend the night at my paternal grandmother’s house. After dinner, Mother called her mother, and they had a bitter argument on the phone. I don’t know how the dispute started, but the breaking point was that our grandmother complained that Mother hadn’t visited until her father was dying and suggested that she was coming now only out of guilt. Whatever the specifics, my grandmother had clearly breached her daughter’s no-criticism-will-be-tolerated threshold.

My mother was so furious that she insisted on going back home immediately. Her shocked mother-in-law tried to talk her into reconsidering, but Mother was adamant. She did reluctantly agree to wait until morning so Dan could get some sleep. Attempts were made to change her mind again in the morning, but Mother wouldn’t consider this, so they left right after breakfast. Mother never acknowledged that she had Dan drive her ten hours each way for nothing. Although I have never heard her discuss this trip or mention regret about it, she never saw her father again.

Copyright 2014 Sarah Meyer Noel. All rights reserved.