My Dearest Daughter
A Mother's Letter from the Heart
It is Christmas time again and we are far apart. I miss you so much. Not so long ago, you were my best friend as well as my daughter. We always had so much to talk about.
Do you remember Christmas of 1990? Only five years ago. How could so much change? You had a beautiful apartment and an incredible Christmas tree with all the decorations I'd given you when we moved to Missouri. You had a credit card at Nordstroms and cupboards full of yuppie kitchen equipment to make dinner.
You were so beautiful, with your long, glistening hair, perfect skin (remember those Noxema treatments?), professionally manicured nails and salon-tanned body.
Now, you are homeless, and most of your friends from back then would not recognize you, you've lost so much weight. But inside, where it counts, you are still beautiful.
This will be the fourth Christmas since your illness took over your life. Maybe you don't have cancer or multiple sclerosis, but your dis-ease is real nonetheless.
What a perfect little girl I had! You could charm the birds out of the trees. And you were so smart! I remember when my sister discovered you could read at age five, before kindergarten or anyone trying to teach you.
Although you were incredibly intelligent, you were so tenderhearted and sensitive and fearful that you were unable to deal with the emotional environment you lived in. Your father was so involved with his own battle with alcoholism he couldn't be a father.
His frequent rages terrorized you so much you never learned to deal with normal unpleasantness, for fear it would escalate into violence. And I was unable to help you, because I was focused on just staying alive, just surviving it somehow, because I believed so strongly that your dad would win his battle and it would all be worth it. And he has, and it is! If only you and your brother can win your battles too.
From the time you were 13 you were being stalked by your schizophrenic step-uncle, terrified of him for years because he was constantly appearing out of nowhere at the strangest times and places. You couldn't feel secure anywhere.
No wonder you developed chronic headaches when you were 13! But you seemed so together! You had such a zany sense of humor. You were always able to socialize with adults and loved to meet new people. You were so good with all your little cousins. You are a gifted photographer, and used to correspond with all the relatives, keeping everyone up to date with pictures.
Remember the time you sent Grandma a letter with a photo of her face affixed to the body of a bikini-clad 20-year-old? On the outside of the envelope! There was always something silly arriving in the mail, and you never missed a birthday, anniversary, Valentine's Day - you'd even send Easter and Thanksgiving cards sometimes. You were the star of the whole extended family and everyone loved to hear from you and be with you!
I believe that life is about relationships and love and forgiveness. And your life, in spite of what it looks like on the surface - physically ill, impoverished, homeless, emotionally and spiritually bankrupt - is nevertheless a beautiful process unfolding. You are learning not only to survive in the most difficult circumstances imaginable, but you are learning how to love in spite of it all, and especially how to forgive.
Recently you were able to forgive and feel compassion for the pitiful uncle who stalked you all of those years. Because of your own illness you have even become his friend.
Watching this incredible process has convinced me there is truly a higher purpose in your struggle, that your suffering is not in vain but will bear fruit just as your father's has. You will win, and your experience will help others.
Your Dad and I try to be pleasant and kind to each other. We try not to talk about you very often, because we never know when the fear is so near the surface that one of us may react in a way that will hurt the other. We pretend to each other that all is well. But I know he is thinking of you constantly, just as I am.
Yes, the "poor choices" you have made have been every mother's worst nightmare. Trying to learn to control my fear thoughts has been the greatest challenge of my life. When your father was drinking, my feelings were so mixed up with anger at the ugly person he became when he drank that it tempered my suffering. I would read books about the Jews in German concentration camps and it would make my misery seem inconsequential by comparison.
But that doesn't work for me now. Your illness is so different from alcoholism. There is nothing I can do except to constantly pray to "let go and let God." The things that helped me with your father do not help now. Except the Bible. A lot of the promises I held onto then help me now to have faith for you.
I am a person who thinks in words. Night after night not knowing if you were safe or warm, (knowing you were probably in danger and cold) I would manage to fall asleep only to awaken shortly with the words "UNREMITTING HORROR," (where did I get that?) or, "Oh thou afflicted, tossed with tempest and not comforted," (from my favorite Bible passage). I'd fall asleep thinking of you and on each awakening realize you were in my dreams.
Every day I'd go through the motions of my life, doing what needed to be done, even swimming laps most days as I've done for 15 years. Often I'd find myself having to stop at the end of the pool and weep, my heart so full of grief that any time of solitary reflection would bring it to the surface. Sometimes I'd go on cheesecake binges. Sometimes I'd eat cheesecake and bawl at the same time. That fact should tickle your funny bone.
It didn't seem appropriate to go on anti-depressants, as if lessening my pain would be an invalidation of yours, disloyal in some way. (I finally did get some anti-depressants. They gave me diarrhea. Being a thrifty person, I'm hanging onto them to use as laxatives).
It's especially hard on your father because his feelings for you are all mixed up with guilt. Of course he feels responsible for his children's problems. But he has almost ten years of sobriety now. Yet I know he will never fully heal until you and your brother are in recovery also.
You know that his mother was drinking up until shortly before you were born. And even though she quit drinking, she never did any recovery work. So Dad has a lot of unresolved issues with her too. This is a family disease that goes way back, and maybe we'll need a few more lifetimes to work on it. We are all doing the very best we can with what we know now.
I love you so much. I have always tried to make everything right for you but it has never worked. It's as if you slowly and inexorably slid down into a slimy pit, and though your cries for help were always answered to the best of everyone's responsibility, with all the rope you were thrown you could never hang on long enough, or the rope would break, before you could be pulled out of the hole.
You know your father and I have tried to help you, but it was never the help you needed. You know we would go into debt to the limit of our credit experimenting with ways to "help" you, but you won't let us, and we have to trust that you are discovering the help you need in your own way. We know you are helping yourself now in the best way that you can. Our job is to trust.
In Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, this passage spoke to my heart:
We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if we always hold to what is difficult, then that which now seems to us the most hostile, will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that, at the last moment, become princesses. Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is, in its deepest sense, something helpless that wants help from us.
I know it would be only for my own selfish comfort that I would wish your life back the way it was five years ago. I believe you are where you are because you are forcing yourself to deal with your dragons, and make friends of them.
The thing that gives me the most hope is your selling the Real Change newspaper. Right after you found the paper, you sent me a letter and in two places you said, "I LOVE the Real Change paper." It was the first time you'd expressed a positive response to anything in so long. It gave me such hope!
And my hopes are coming true. You have been able to buy shelter, build relationships, and I believe you are beginning to climb out of the pit. Thanks to this paper, your life is no longer "unremitting horror," and I can sleep at night.
Remember, I love you more than you can know.
-Your Mom in Missouri
~originally published in Real Change