Four years ago, my life changed. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course. I was used to chaos and trauma – so much so that I became numb to it. That had been my life growing up, and it was my life in high school and college. My life was predictably unpredictable. I knew to expect chaos, so most days, the twists and turns in life didn’t phase me.
Four years ago, my mother died. For the first few years, I was numb to that fact. I went through my day-to-day life not really thinking about my mother. I didn’t wonder what she’d think about the man I’d become. I didn’t ponder whether she’d be proud of me after I earned a promotion. I didn’t think about whether she’d like the woman I was dating and I didn’t mourn the loss of a potential grandmother for my children. I didn’t think about her much at all.
I buried myself in my work, working long hours until I finally arrived home and collapsed in bed, exhausted. Right after my mother died, I plunged into the middle of a huge project at work, so working day in and day out provided a much-needed distraction. I didn’t really have time to grieve, even if I knew how.
Grief is a tricky thing, though. I thought that if I stayed busy enough, I would be okay. After all, growing up, my entire life was chaotic, and if there was one thing I knew well, it was how to function in the absence of peace and calm.
In those rare instances where work didn’t consume every minute of my time, I would go to bars with friends. There, suddenly, it would hit me. I would look up and see a woman with a cocktail in her hand, drops splashing from her glass as she laughed in a carefree manner. That’s my mother, I would think. The life of the party, always larger-than-life, and always with a glass in her hand. Except, that can’t be her. My mother is dead.
It is in those moments where grief punched me in the gut so hard that I could barely breathe. Sadness would overcome me and I couldn’t think straight. This would go on for days, and sometimes even for weeks. I wanted so badly to go back to the time when I didn’t think about her, because remembering her hurt so badly.
Growing up, my life was chaotic and unpredictable. My mother was an alcoholic and had been one for as long as I could remember. I don’t think I ever saw her without a glass in her hand. When I was in kindergarten, I drew a picture of my mother, complete with a martini glass. The picture didn’t go over well with my teacher and principal.
I also remember the times where my mother went to a non 12 step rehab program. I didn’t have a father, so each time she went, I would have to pack my bags, leave my friends, and move in with my grandparents. This was my life. This was my normal.
Finding Ways to Cope
One would think that growing up with an alcoholic single mother, I would have developed a few coping skills to deal with stress and grief. However, my mother’s coping strategy consisted of a glass of tequila in one hand and a glass of merlot in the other. She never cried – not when my father left, not when she was at her sickest, and certainly not when I was moving in and out of my grandparents’ house.
Not crying must be genetic because for almost my entire life, I didn’t shed a tear. I would feel this horrible pressure in my chest. The pressure was so bad that I thought my chest would tear open to relieve the pain, but I could never cry. I just kept busy with work, hoping that the feeling would go away. This went on for three long years.
Finally, I met someone who suggested that I talk with a therapist. I didn’t even know that therapy was an option. I didn’t want to look weak or like I couldn’t handle things myself. After all, men don’t cry, and they certainly don’t talk about their feelings.
Eventually, I gathered the courage to see a therapist. He immediately recognized my pent-up feelings of grief, not only about my mother’s death, but also about being robbed of my childhood. My therapist helped me process my anger over my mother’s alcoholism and the embarrassment it caused me. He also helped me see that my mother had a disease, and that despite the chaos of my childhood, my mother did love me.
My therapist also told me what nobody else in my entire life had ever told me – it’s okay to cry. I remember that day vividly. I couldn’t keep my emotions hidden any more, and they just came out all at once. It was like a dam had burst.
For the first time in my life, I experienced relief from my grief and sadness and pain. Four years after my mother’s death, she had given me the gift of emotion.