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Losing a Parent... and How Empty Spiritual Teachings Make It Worse

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By Chelsea Roff

There is a ghost where my mother used to be. She looks like my mother, sounds like my mother... But she is not my mother.

She calls every day. Every. Single. Day. Sometimes five -- but more often 10, 11, 12 times. The phone rings, and I shudder.

"Chelsea!"

"Hi mom. How are you?"

"I miss you, Chelsea!"

 "I miss you too. Did you go to the library today?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"It's hot. And Johnny won't take me. I had a McDonald's cheeseburger."

"Oh you did? Was it good?"

"Mmmmhmm.  When are you coming to visit me?"

"I don't know, mom. I live in California now, remember?"

"California? That's so far. Why are you in California?"

"This is where I live now."

...and on it goes.

She'll call two hours later and we do it all over again. She tells me about her McDonald's cheeseburger and asks me to come visit. I tell her I live in California, and she is surprised again... California? Why so far away? When will I come to take her home?

I'm not coming home, mom. This is my home now.

If I don't answer, she leaves me messages. Sad, confused, rambling voicemails, pleading for me to answer, to come pick her up. The messages always sound almost exactly the same. Listening to them makes me feel like I'm in the Twilight Zone.

"Chelsea, where are you? I went to McDonald's today. When are you coming to get me?"

Delete. Next message.

"Chelsea, where are you? I went to McDonald's today. When are you coming to get me?" 

...and on it goes.

About a year ago I stopped answering. Or I stopped answering as much, anyway. Talking to the ghost became too painful, agonizing really. But after a few weeks -- months, sometimes -- the guilt overtakes me and I answer. She doesn't even notice I've been avoiding her, speaks to me like we just had a conversation the day before. She says, "Chelsea," like a giddy little girl. My heart softens.

"You know I love you mom, right? You know I love you very much?"

I can hear her smile. "I know you love me, Chelsea. When are you coming to get me?"

Five years ago my mother was diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff's Syndrome -- a form of alcohol-induced dementia. That's when she became a ghost. I was living in Dallas at the time -- she in Austin -- when one day my little sister called me in a panic, said she couldn't find our mother anywhere. There's blood all over the house, she told me. It looks like a murder scene.

I got in my car and made the four-hour trip to Austin that night, calling hospitals and jails on the way. Finally, I got a hold of the attendant at the gas station near her house. Do you know where my mother is? I asked him. She's the little blonde lady, the one who comes in there all the time to get wine and a cup of ice. I think the police picked her up, he tells me. She walked in here with blood all over her face -- I think she fell.

The next day I find her at Williamson County Jail -- she'd been arrested for public intoxication. When the security guards finally take me in to visit her, I see the ghost sitting on the other side of a two inch pane of glass in a wheelchair -- eyes glazed over, drool seeping from the corners of her mouth.

"Oh, mommy." She stares blankly past me. "Mommy, are you okay?"

Silence.

"Please, talk to me."

No response. Nothing. Hollow gaze. Empty eyes.

A few months later, she was released from jail and a county judge awarded me custody and legal rights. I had just turned 18 and essentially become my mother's parent. With the support of my aunt (the rest of her family had disowned her), we were able to get my mom into a group home for people with mental disabilities. After several months of medication, she regained the mental capacities of a second-grader. Over time, she came to recognize me as her daughter again.

She knew her name, what city she lived in. But when I would ask her what year it is, she'd give me a ridiculous answer... like 1995. Sometimes she thought George Bush was president, would ramble on about how we needed to get that chimp out of office. That made me laugh. I told her a black man was president. Oh! It's about time, she would say. When are we gonna elect a woman?

Her doctor told me this was as good as it would get. Think of her like an Alzheimer's patient, he said.

Guiltily, I went back to Dallas, back to my life. I was a freshman in college, barely making ends meet with my financial aid -- I couldn't drop out of school and move down to Austin. The guilt paralyzed me. I was a bad daughter. I was selfish. I'd abandoned my mother and sister, left them behind. How could I just go back to my life like nothing happened? How could I be happy?

My therapist told me I needed to grieve the loss of my mother. Grieve? But she's not dead, I told her. "She's dead to you."

I didn't cry. I didn't shout, didn't get angry. I isolated. I hardened. I worried, I controlled, I tried to fix. But I didn't mourn. Touching grief felt too vulnerable, too weak. I would not be weak. I would not.

Yesterday in yoga class I was lying in pigeon pose, when I felt my mother sitting before me. Not the ghost mother, but my real mother. Holding my hand.

The yoga teacher started speaking: "Everything in life happens perfectly and synergistically so the soul can transform and know God."

I wanted to scream. "Bull$#!&! How the #%& did drinking until her brain withered away teach this woman about God? Where's the divinity in that?!"

The phone in my bag lights up. Mommy Dearest.

"Our challenges," the teacher continued, "are spiritual lessons that illuminate our disconnection from source and lead us toward awakening. This is karma. Spirit gives us the lessons we need to learn. This is how the soul wakes up."

Don't talk to me about karma, I wanted to tell her. Don't give me that crap about the Law of Attraction, about how if we just focus on our desires everything we want will come to us. Tell that to the ghost, I wanted to yell at her. Tell her all she needs to do is wake up and ask for what she wants to get better. Tell her she manifested this.

I used to believe that story. I used to believe that adversity inevitably becomes resilience, that the universe conspires to bring us toward transcendence, that if we don't learn the lesson this time... Well, there's always the next life. But I don't believe it anymore. I can't.

Losing a parent is something we all have to cope with sooner or later -- some earlier on, others later in life. It is a heart-breaking, earth-shaking, change-your-life-forever kind of experience. Some of us become our parents' parents, have the privilege of holding their hands as they become infantile again, kiss their foreheads like they once kissed ours. You survive it, but you come away with new eyes. Nothing looks the same.

Losing my mother did indeed teach me "spiritual" lessons. When I finally allowed myself to grieve, I discovered within me a newfound capacity for compassion, resilience, empathy, self-care. My mother, cliché as it sounds, became my one of my greatest teachers. She taught me to love without expecting anything in return, she taught me that I was stronger than I believed myself to be, she taught me to forgive.

But what about her... What spiritual lesson did she glean from all this? What will come of the woman who begs to go home, who cries for her daughter to come save her from the monsters in her mind? Where's the light in her darkness? Where's the divinity in someone drinking herself to death?

Sometimes, I think, suffering is just that... suffering. Sometimes, there's no pretty bow to tie around a tragedy, nothing beautiful or glorious about the grotesque. Spinning an optimistic story around the "spiritual purpose" of heartbreak, grief, trauma, etc no longer makes me feel better... in fact, it makes me feel worse.

The notion that God acts like a puppeteer behind the curtain of the universe, weaving elaborate narratives to teach human beings about the nature of love... It just isn't true. And that myth creates shame, blame, a sense that people are suffering because God willed it so -- or worse, because they (karmically) brought it upon themselves. People don't get cancer because God wants to teach them a lesson. Children don't starve to death to learn about universal love. Life includes suffering, simple as that. Feel it, endure it, and hopefully -- when you finally stop trying to make sense of it -- it will pass.

Thankfully, I was able to glean a few gems from my suffering. But she -- this ghost of a woman that I cannot help but love (she's my mother, after all) -- as far as I can tell, she will not. She got lost in the darkness. She won't emerge stronger, wiser, with a greater capacity for empathy. For her, this is it. This is all.

That's a much more honest approach to life.

And so, I accept. There is suffering. There is joy.  Both are temporary. This is life.

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Chelsea Roff is Managing Editor for Intent Blog. She is a speaker, survivor, and advocate writing about eating disorders, humanitarian issues, and the intersection of science & yoga. Follow her on Twitter.

More from Intent Blog:

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"I Don't Have a Disability, I have Different Abilities"

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photos by: Luigi Rosa, Chelsea Roff & h.koppdelaney