How Maria fixed the relationship with her poisonous mother and found her power in the process
The sun seeks a path through dense cloud, but gives up in disgust. Maria is vaguely aware of waves of water lapping at her window, the drum of a thousand liquid fingers. It's going to be another miserable day. Suddenly, the climb out of bed seems insurmountable; an unaided ascent of the north face of the Eiger. But, heroically, she scales the heights and finds herself vertical; she has risen for her day. Such as it will be.
A morsel of memory from some half-digested self-help manual, an affirmation, prompts her to say "yes" to the new day, to greet it like an eagerly awaited lover. The sound of her own tiny, tired voice expressing the affirmation sounds weak and fake against the now lashing roar of rain. She feels it's better to just accept her low mood for what it is; a semi-permanent, non-paying, sour house guest stealing her life from under her.
A copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway lies creased and defeated on her bed. It stares sullenly at her, as accusatory and disappointed as the mother who threatens to darken her whole day. How many times is she going to have to read the damn thing before it penetrates? When will she be able to face her fears?
"God, I hate my job"
Maria reflects bitterly how, lately, she's been feeling the fear but hiding away, like some frightened mole. And now, with sickening quickening pulse and sinking stomach, she recalls how yesterday's panic attack was the worst she'd had in months. She'd felt sick, ill, and now, having spent last evening drinking wine by herself, her head thumped like the bass from a teenager's bedroom.
"Thirty-five and look at me!" she reflects, an admin middle manager in an electrical firm. "What interest have I got in electronics? I want to add to the world, make it better, make a difference, help people, love, and laugh."
Maria has worked at local company Sam and Lacey's for three years, but it's her art and music that holds her heart. Not that she has done either for months.
It's Saturday, which would normally warrant a "Thank God!" But today is the day of her mother's visit and it's hanging over Maria like the executioner's guillotine suspended over Marie Antoinette's tender neck.
"I don't know whether I hate or love my mother. And I just feel so guilty!"
Maria's relationship with her mother is...difficult. Maria is sure that her mother's impending arrival triggered yesterday's panic attack. Maria and her mother have more mutually merged baggage than a mail room in a wind tunnel.
A year ago, Maria tried therapy. She'd sat in a comfortable living room with a kind woman who wanted Maria to talk endlessly about her mother, her father, the past. Maria had found the therapy useful to the point that it made her clarify a few things and the counsellor was kind and understanding, but never really said anything; it all seemed to be about listening to Maria.
When Maria asked what she should do, the kind woman with certificates on her wall said, "What do you think you should do?" The point was, Maria just didn't know. And here she was in her kitchen, twelve months later, still not knowing.
"Where is my life going?"
"Where is my life going? What's my purpose? Where's the cat food?" Moe, Maria's tabby, pads into the kitchen. It makes Maria feel better to stroke the cat's soft back, but the thought of her mother working her way towards her, even now - growing larger, getting nearer, coming for lunch - tortures her.
All the stale but biting feelings of anger, resentment, and, yes, fear arise whenever she thinks of her mother. The way she was toward Maria through her childhood and adolescence, the jealousies, put downs, and occasional physical beatings. Her father's early death from heart disease and how her mother had, to Maria's mind, used that to garner more attention for herself without troubling herself to feel genuine sorrow.
Was anything about her mother genuine? Although guilt tussles for her attention with the head pain, Maria can't help but think about her mother and how she finds it impossible to genuinely sympathize with the woman who brought her into this world, such as it is.
"Why does she come here?" thinks Maria. "Just to criticize, pick, and dig at me, tell me where I'm going wrong all the time."
"Time is running out for me"
The other taunting bully, her full-length mirror, demands her gaze. Are those faint lines around her mouth new? She despairs at the milk-white wobble of flesh around her middle. Her looks are fading before her eyes, it seems. Day by bleak day, she's sliding towards middle age. She wants to feel young again. There's so much she wants to do. Time is running out.
"I don't love him, so why can't I leave him?"
A text message flashes onto her cell phone, challenging her to be pleased by its arrival. It's Ted. Maria has been seeing Ted for three months. He's a sweet guy. Everyone tells her how lucky she is (not how lucky he is!), but secretly she feels they're worlds apart. He's professed love for her whilst she, unable to lie about such things, has expressed quite liking his dog, Alfie.
Her mother helpfully tells her not to let this one go, not to 'screw up like she usually does', that 'he's a keeper'. He has a good job, is decent, and his looks are...wholesome. "But...but we're so different, his take on life is not mine and never will be," Maria reflects. "Our humour is at odds." Sure, pieces of a jigsaw can be different shapes, but still fit together perfectly. But Ted, it seems to Maria, was formed for a whole other jigsaw than her own.
Maria wonders why, of all things, jigsaws come to mind whenever she thinks of Ted. Which isn't that often, she has to admit.
A little mother-like Wicked Witch of the West voice from inside tells her she is stupid and crazy and doesn't deserve Ted. But still, she can't make herself love him. She fears she'll never meet her soulmate and perhaps she should just heed/obey her mother's advice/order.
"Why do I crave my manipulative mother's approval?"
Why does she crave her mother's approval? Part of her doesn't care what her mother thinks, but another part cares desperately and she hates herself for this.
Dressed, washed, and mentally self-abused, Maria stumbles onto her couch and notices her phone again. Like a soulless PA, it informs her of a new message. This one's from her friend Kathleen, asking if she wants to come see some live music at The Brazen Bird tonight with some of the girls. Already feeling guilty for telling Ted she wouldn't be free tonight, Maria is tempted. A night out with the girls might be fun.
But she's sure she'll feel way too fragile after her lunchtime Mommie Dearest destiny date. She normally feels wiped out for days after these mother-daughter cozies. Her mother calls every day on the phone, that's bad enough, but a couple of times a month now she has taken to inviting herself over.
"I hate this feeling of dread and panic. What's wrong with me?!"
Three hours later, Maria has done little with her morning other than gaze through the window at the outside wetness and make a few token preparations for her mother's visit. Half a bitter smile plays across her face as she thinks 'visitation' might be a better word. "My mother doesn't 'visit', she ascends like a malevolent self-esteem-trashing spirit." She immediately feels guilty for comparing her mother to a malignant spectre, but the half-smile comes again.
Seconds tick and minutes tock. She notices how close the time is now. Right on cue, the panic begins to rumble like the stirrings of an angry distant thunder but, as in a nightmare, closing in supernaturally fast. The blood in her veins is like a runaway train. Maria half-wishes she'd accepted the drug prescription her doctor had eagerly proffered. But she'd tried them before and all they'd done was make her groggy.
Maria doesn't have long to wait.
The gun blast of her mother's self-righteous finger on the doorbell shoots an electric surge of horror through Maria. Fear and nausea seem to be drowning her from the inside. Her breathing has broken free of all restraints and gallops off without her.
Like a condemned felon, Maria walks slowly to the door.
How a little Uncommon Knowledge changed everything...
Kisses, caresses, laughter. Maria exits her dream as happy as a child, reluctant but satisfied, leaves the best fairground attraction. It amazes her how one part of her mind can hold secrets from another. Now what was the dream about? She thinks it was James.
Maria has only been out with James twice, but it feels there's so much between them. When they talk on the phone, minutes, hours, and sometimes time just fades altogether.
She recalls the last guy she'd been out with - Ted. Her mother had thought he was perfect, which should have, in itself, been enough warning.
But it hadn't been just that. What was the expression? "If something needs to be done, generally the time to do it is soon."
"Being assertive is so much easier once the anxiety is gone"
Assertively and clearly, she had told Ted what needed to be told as kindly as she could. He took it the way a poodle might take being kicked down a flight of stairs. But he took it. Maria had lived too many lies in her thirty-five years. But lies are no substitute for love. Rather than prolong the pain, she'd told Ted after three months of dating.
And now, as she ascends from her palace of delicious dreams, she hears it's raining. Fierce, proud, bold drops pound the window. Maria feels exalted; rain throwing itself passionately against glass feels wild and brave to her.
This makes her reflect on all the changes she's made lately. It's wonderful to have reunited with her painting. Living in the countryside offers so much beauty and she wants not just to record it, but to be part of it, and that's what it feels like when she paints.
"Pursuing my passion is making me happy in so many ways"
Just as exciting is her music. She and some friends have started playing for - Maria can hardly believe it - actual money. She plays fiddle in a folk band. Her mother calls it 'noise', but Maria loves what she does and it feels great to be part of this group of fun-loving friend musicians. They're starting to get so many bookings. Tonight, though, she is seeing James.
Maria breathes in and the world turns upside down as she commences her 'Sun Salutation' series of yoga poses. "I'm sure the sun knows it's being saluted," she reflects cheerfully, "even behind its army of clouds."
Feeling stretched and warm, Maria cuddles her cute tabby, Moe, and notices that her cell phone has come to life.
There's a goodnight text from James from last night, but the new one is from her friend Kathleen, suggesting live music at The Brazen Bird tonight. A few months back, Maria had neglected many of her friends, but not anymore! She's been seeing a lot of Kathleen and that circle, but not tonight. She taps her apologies and reason, then instantly gets a smiley wink emoticon back.
Next, she showers and, as she relishes water on skin, the roar of the shower merging with that of the rain outside, she reflects how she's changed.
"Knowing my needs was what changed everything for me"
She had sat down and really thought about what she needed to be happy. What she needed to include but also exclude from life.
Emotional enslavement to the past is to happiness what a jab in the eye is to clear sight. Maria had started to see clearly. Bit by bit, she had observed her emotional triggers - the situations that made her feel powerless, guilt-ridden, anxious, inadequate, and sad.
She had learned about her primal emotional needs and decided with total calm and clarity what she wanted - not how she should be or who she should please, but what she wanted. She had learned to try to change not just consciously (she had already read more self-help books than she could think about), but to work with her unconscious mind, the bit that had been making her miserable and the part that could make her feel better.
Working for an electrical company was, she'd decided, temporary. Okay, it had been a long temporary. But she now feels doing something more with her life is no longer a pipe dream, but a plan. A plan she can make real. She can't rely on her music for income yet, but she feels optimistic that she can now make changes and the future is a place she wants to visit. It wasn't always.
Before, Maria had been prone to bouts of depression and anxiety. She had learned about the way depression makes you think and feel and, bit by bit, taken back control of her emotions and her life.
She had overcome panic attacks through the use of self-hypnosis. But, biggest of all, Maria has recently found within herself the capacity and skills to leave her past behind her - well, the really bad bits. She is finally able to keep her mother at arm's length emotionally, if not geographically.
"Even my mother has sensed a change in me"
She'd forgotten. She's coming for lunch. Maria's mother has been so much more respectful of Maria over the past few months. For Maria, receiving respect and consideration from her mother is still brand-new. But she's getting used to it.
Maria had rehearsed - out loud and, more powerfully, during self-hypnosis - calmly being assertive with her mother, relaxed but strong, clear, and concise. Her mother had laughed, then tried crying, looked pained, shed more tears, yelled, screamed (which came more naturally to her), and finally, having exhausted the full emotional spectrum, come to terms with her daughter's adult status. Maria was and is a grown woman, able to manage her relationships and her feelings.
It took a while, but Maria was steadfast. Maria's mother accepted Maria's new status at first begrudgingly and even with a little fear, then with resignation, and now with respect.
For the first time in her life, Maria doesn't feel bad when her mother comes to mind - or even when she comes to lunch.