Naming the Problem Puts Everything Into Focus




When my mother called, I wasn’t expecting her to tell me that the house had been rented out, and that she and my father were now in their respective, separate homes. Her diamond ring was still missing, her shelves still overflowing with religious pamphlets she had received in the mail, and she was still convinced that my father was spying on her using the blinking cursor that popped up on her monitor whenever she booted up her computer.

They got divorced right around the same time I was making plans to see the psychiatrist. I wanted my mother to diagnose her dementia, not so much to avoid the divorce, but for the clarity I was hoping it would bring to her world. My mother had always lied to me, exaggerated, and exercised selective memory. I was finally able to see my mother in a completely different light once I learned that all of her character flaws, her darker side, her emotional manipulation, might have a name. That it was mental illness, not who she just was. Everything felt a little lighter, and my view of my own life in the context of my family background came more sharply into focus at that moment.

But even when you give a problem a name, it doesn’t mean that the problem is fixed. It just means that you have identified it. I think it makes it much easier to tackle the situation when you know exactly what you’re dealing with. But action of some kind is still necessary, if you want to resolve the problem.

My mother rejected the name we gave her problem. This is because she does not see it as a problem. She sees it as, simply, her. She made my younger sister cry. She told us my father took the ring, that he’s a criminal, that he harbors secret, devious aims, that he is malicious. She told us this, and we watched as things quickly deteriorated from there.

Watching my mother is like looking into an old mirror, one that is broken slightly, with a dark cloudiness that has marred the surface of the glass over many years. Watching my daughter, my firstborn, feels very different. It is more like gazing into the stillness of a pond’s surface.

I’m scared of water, though. And I suppose, to some extent, I’m also scared of my mother. I’m not scared of her the way my father is, and most of the others are. That is to say, I’m not scared of angering her. I’m scared of becoming her.

When I got to the psychiatrist, I somehow forgot to mention my mother. Or my father, for that matter. I just focused on myself. At this point, that’s really all I can do, anyway. Maybe it doesn’t matter where I came from. It just matters where I’m going. So I got the list of names – identifiers – for myself, my own problems. And now that I know what they’re called, it’s a little bit easier to try to fix them. But I still need to put in the work myself.

I’m not sure if this is a fair assessment, but I feel like this job is made much harder by my mother’s own inability, or unwillingness, to fix her own problem, the one whose name she never acknowledged. And with my father’s contributions, the job is further complicated. I didn’t exactly inherit a positive disposition, one well suited for the kind of hard work and indomitability necessary to take ownership of one’s mental health for the sake of her family. You would think I’d be angry about this, but somehow, I’m just not. Really, it feels more like clarity of purpose than anything else.

My daughter has pitch black eyes, a much deeper shade than my own brown. They are like the serene surfaces of two pools that conceal the danger of their depths.


image via wikimedia commons

3 thoughts on “Naming the Problem Puts Everything Into Focus

  1. This is an incredible piece Thank you for sharing this – so tough to acknowledge. Finding the name for a problem is one step in the right direction even if the road is very long. Good luck.


  2. What a wonderful piece, so open. I agree, I think once we have names for things it’s a little bit easier to put the work in. We’re here for you Mel. Brave of you to talk about this.


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