My mother is hazardous to my health.
I’m not exaggerating when I say anytime I have contact with her, it affects my health negatively: my blood pressure and anxiety spike, and I have digestive issues, headaches, and chest pains.
Though she’s never been diagnosed, she shows all the signs of being a narcissist as she lacks empathy, is manipulative, requires constant attention, and is extremely controlling.
I should have remembered how difficult it was to be around her before I volunteered to take care of her for the weekend.
For some reason, her recent health changes didn’t register with me. I’d initially volunteered to play the part of caretaker before my mother fell and needed 24-hour care.
Before my mother’s fall, two sisters shared the job of taking care of her and worked Monday through Friday from 9 AM to 4:30 OPM. My mother had no weekend care because she could still walk, cook for herself, and use the bathroom.
Then one morning, before the caregivers started their shift, my mother stood by the kitchen counter and reached out to grab her glass of water and fell.
She crawled to her living room and waited for her neighbor across the street to come outside. Once the woman came out to get her morning paper, my mother banged on her window to get the neighbor’s attention. The neighbor came over and helped my mother get back into bed.
The fall wasn’t bad enough to injure my mother, but it was enough of a wake-up call for her to realize that her ability to care for herself was over. She could afford round-the-clock care, and that’s what she got. Now her two caretakers worked 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.
My mother didn’t see this as an extreme amount of hours, and since my mother is an extreme minimalist, she also didn’t get anything to make the spare bedroom more hospitable like an extra bed, TV, or fan for the very hot weather.
When my niece and my mother first hired the caregivers, they were upfront with them that they needed to have a particular weekend off. When that weekend approached, months later, substitute caregivers needed to be found.
Finding replacements proved to be harder than we thought it would be. Many professional care people didn’t want to drive out to my mother’s small town, and those who might normally be available were already booked.
Since I live a six-hour drive away from my mother, I often feel guilty that I’m not doing as much as my niece and two nephews, so to balance things out, I volunteered myself and my partner, Andy, to fill in for the caregivers knowing I don’t have the skills or patience to be a full-time caregiver to anyone, let alone my mother. How bad could it be?
Once I realized the full scope of our duties, including changing her diapers, I asked my niece, who handles my mother’s finances, that I get paid as if I was someone who’d been hired. It was a job, and I didn’t want to work for free.
My mother isn’t known for being child of other people.
At night, I was on high alert in case she required medication for pain management or needed to get to the bathroom. Instead, she woke me up at 2:00 am for a whiskey, to ask where her dog was, or to pull out the plug on her TV because the light was too bright.
Her method to get my attention was to turn her TV up super loud, and somehow, I was supposed to understand she was sending me a message rather than her normal inconsiderate high volume. One night, she screamed my name repeatedly, somehow even more alarming than the ear-splitting sounds of late-night commercials.
The third night she called me on the phone, which I’d asked her to do in the first place, and demanded I come to her room. I don’t think she’d intended to call me — not dramatic or disturbing enough, and since the phone is forever a mystery to her, she most probably hit redial by accident, but as long as I was up, she’d take advantage of it.
Overall, I got about six hours of sleep for all three nights.
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On the second day, after taking some Tylenol, I was lying down, dealing with a migraine with an aura, when my mother started screaming for me. I had a pounding headache and weird some vision issues that included spikey prisms at the corner of my eye and could barely function, but I got up to see what she needed.
When I got to her, she yelled at me even louder for not getting to her quickly enough—she needed help to lie higher up on her bed, and more importantly, her pillow needed fluffing.
When I wasn’t helping her in the bathroom, I served her meals, changed and washed her bedding, did household chores, and listened to her ultra-conservative, racist, sexist, and delusional rants.
I tried to convince her there wasn’t going to be a flood just on her street, an earthquake only in her house, that the government wasn’t controlling the weather, and that the son of her deceased friend wasn’t toying with her phone as a way to torture her.
However, she ignored or advised my ignorance with every logical argument I gave her. She had no interest in what I said if I didn’t agree with her.
For some people, taking care of their parents in their final years is a joy and an honor.
They see it as their duty and a way to pay back their parents for raising them. But not everyone sees caring for their parents in a positive light. I applaud those who care for the parents, whether out of love or a sense of obligation, but I can’t do it.
That weekend, it was challenging for me not to lose my temper. Age hasn’t mellowed my mother out; quite the opposite, it’s made her an angry, bitter, and mean old woman, and it would damage me to have to live with her permanently and be her caregiver.
She wasn’t a good parent and had the resources for excellent care. The best thing for me would be to go no contact with her, but there’s still a part of me that wants to be a good daughter.
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While I was her temporary caregiver, I should have ignored her criticizing me for doing a bad job at caring for her, being a terrible writer, and an overall worthless person. I let her words hurt me, and each time she said something, it felt like a knife stabbing me.
I had pains in my abdomen, chest, and knees. My blood pressure spiked when she screamed for me, even when it was something minor like a glass of milk, and the lack of sleep affected my mood and how I felt physically.
Being around my mother was making me sick.
I’ve never been so glad to see anybody as I was to see my mother’s caregivers that Monday morning. They don’t get paid nearly enough, and I’m happy my never hired an additional caregiver so that they can get weekends off. I’m sure they need it.
After making the trip back home, my stomach in knots, and my body in pain, I felt immediately better once I stepped into my house. It took me two days of relaxing and two nights to catch up on my sleep until I felt healthy again.
I’m grateful that I managed to survive caregiving for my mother without a catastrophic health event.
While I speak to my mother frequently on the phone and will probably visit her in the future, I will never again take on her caregiver duties. It’s not worth the stress it puts on my body, mind, and self-esteem.
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Christine Schoenwald is a writer and performer. She’s had articles in The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Bustle, Medium, and Woman’s Day. Visit her website or her Instagram.