Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hitting the Mother Lode

When I was a teenager, I used to take long showers. 45 minutes, an hour; until the hot water ran out, I would sit in the tub under the slowly cooling spray. I did this up to 4 or 5 times a day. I wasn't OCD, and I was never sexually abused. It was just that in my mother's house, that bathroom was the only door with a lock on it. A lock could buy me a shower's worth of time where I wouldn't have to deal with her.

The very few people who know me closely know that there isn't a force in this world that can bring out the worst in me like my mother can. Since I left her house at the age of 16, roughly one out of every six or seven times we meet, one of us ends up leaving the conversation (often at a home dinner or restaurant) in a cold rage.

We just don't get along. Not since shortly after I started high school. And while I shudder to think it, our differences have probably come about as a result of our similarities. If someone I knew were to tell me that I'm just like my mother, I'd probably hit them in the face. I'm not a hostile person, but nothing angers me more than the fact that I can see her nature reflected in myself. She can be bitter, petty, deceitful, manipulative, and delusional; cognitive dissonance is a way of life for her. She's also unwilling to compromise when challenged. So was I. Needless to say, we did not get along well after I hit adolescence.

What follows is my composite recollection of the events leading up to and following my parting ways with my mother. Though the events I'm describing took place only four years ago, they constitute memories that I spent a lot of time trying not to think about. As a result, even I take my own recollections with a grain of salt. Some of the details may be slightly off; the timeline of events may be a little jumbled. I also don't think I've talked about this, in its entirety, ever.

I guess things started shortly after I began high school. I had always been a completely obedient kid, so there was never any conflict with my mother until I started to push the boundaries.

We'd fight over little things like being out late or cleaning up my room. She could say "clean your room," and I'd have no objections: I would do it as soon as I was done whatever I was busy with at the time. This would put her into an apoplexy. DO IT NOW! It wasn't about cleaning my room or being out late, or any of those things: it was about control - about doing what she wanted, on the immediate timescale that she dictated, in the way she decided was necessary. It was about never allowing herself to be in anything less than complete control her relationship with me.

I was a raging adolescent, and I pushed back. Her trump card was always the threat to take away my allowance. It was a $12 weekly pittance, but it was the only income I had access to at the time, so whenever we locked horns, I could either suck it up and toe the line, or stand on "principle" and suffer the consequence.

Still, from what I would imagine, an arguably healthy dynamic.

Until I turned 16. At that point, I could be legally employed. And that was the beginning of the end.

I got my first job - a shitty online call-center survey gig - without telling her. As soon as I got my first paycheque, I stopped ceding ground. The next time she told me to clean up, I told her that I would finish my phone call in 15 minutes or so, and then do it. She took it like a slap in the face and started screaming. If it weren't for the fact that my phone call with my friend had been about the freedom and independence that my new part-time job would afford me, her hissy fit would have been embarrassing. Instead, I felt vindicated.

She told me that I shouldn't expect any money at the end of the week, and I told her that I was okay with it. I had started a job and had my own source of income now. I was in the 10th grade.

If she was hysterical before, by now she was barely comprehensible. To fault myself, I was no mo mature about this kind of thing than she was, because I knew exactly which buttons to push.

I said goodbye to my friend on the phone, and waited for the next discernible repetition of "Clean your room NOW!"

"If you're going to be a child about this," I responded in the most dead-pan poker face I could muster, "I'm going to go take a shower."

This, for the better part of a year, exemplified the dynamic between my mother and I. We would get into constant screaming matches over the pettiest of shit, and avoid conversation for days on end until someone admitted to being petty, apologized, and things cooled down for a few weeks. I was the one who was 16, but as often as not, she was acting like an absolute child, going off into a rage at the slightest provocation. Living in the same house as her became an agony. She used to be a government lawyer, but had to end stop practicing law early because of her developing physical disability. She was always at home, and there was no respite but the shower. Living with her became an absolute agony.

And thus began my lifetime obsession with travel: any time I spend elsewhere was time I didn't have to spend under her roof. I would take any opportunity to go to my friends' cottages for a weekend. I would work after school for an entire month, and then buy a plane ticket to Winnipeg to visit my uncle and aunt there. It didn't matter if I had five essays due the following Monday; if I had the means to get out of her house, I would.

Every family, it seems, has the cool uncle. The one who manages to be responsible without being boring or a dick. He once suspended his undergraduate degree for two years to go fuck around working in the Canadian arctic, just because it was there. When he finally graduated, he proved to have a great sense for investment, and worked his way up the small-cap mortgage fund food chain. He made himself a lot of money, without ever having to be anything other than what he wanted to be. For a long time, he was the strongest role model in my life. (I'll save the daddy issues for another post.) My uncle was also the only person I'd ever seen "break" my mother's resolve whenever she got fired up.

My uncle Marty, my aunt Robyn, and my mother were all raised in the small Jewish subcommunity of Winnipeg. Robyn moved to California, got fake breasts and a lot of perscriptions, and divorced a successful doctor. She was also batshit-crazy in the same indescribable way as my mother: if my mother were dependent on perscription drugs and plastic surgery, I'd swear their personalities would be identical. My mother moved to Toronto's suburbs after meeting my father in Israel, and stayed in the suburbs until she and my father split up when I was 7. I have no idea what the split was actually over, but I have my suspicions that they just couldn't stand living with one another.

At least once a year, my mom's entire side of family would reconvene for Passover in Winnipeg, and at least once a year, my mother and her sister would have a bitter falling-out. When my mother was being completely irrational, my uncle would pull a magic trick that was nothing less than astonishing to me: he could make her shut up and leave the room. Even as my mother lapsed into screaming hysterics (you're taking HER SIDE?), he never raised his voice. Seeing herself being the only one screaming while the object of her rage spoke in nothing but ice-calm tones must have made her feel like a fool: it only served to infuriate her until she seemed to realize that she looked like a fool in front of an entire room-full of people. Then she'd leave. Sometimes, the same treatment would be applied to my aunt, always with the same devestating effect.

This was the lesson on dealing with my mother that I took home from my visits with my uncle: when she's screaming, a patronizing calm lets you keep the moral high ground. And if cold condescension stung coming from her brother, it must have absolutely burned to have the same response coming from her son.

As the next several months progressed, I began to adopt that tactic to deal with her rages. I stopped screaming back, and began to talk to her as if she were being a child. Often, she was. When things got really bad, I'd just go take a shower.

The household slowly became toxic.

There was a time when I thought of leaving for Winnipeg on a greyhound in the dead of the night. I called my uncle at 4am and asked if I could stay with him for a little while. He told me that I was always welcome in Winnipeg, but that I should stay in Toronto and try to resolve things things with my mother.

By the time I was in the 11th grade, things were become beyond unbearable. We'd vacillate between fighting and not speaking with one another in a near-continuous cycle. We would insult each other. I stayed up late at night, and in the mornings I skipped classes, just so I could buy a few more hours of my day when we weren't awake at the same time. My grades were already slipping.

When the fall term ended, those grades came in. That led to the last fight we had while living in the same house.

It was 3am on a Sunday night, and she screamed from her room to turn off my computer and go to bed. I promptly ignored her. School had a late opening the next day, and by that time it was none of her business anymore when I went to bed when there was no school the next morning.

Mom: Shut your computer off NOW and get to bed!

PR: We did away with that insipid bedtime crap ages ago.

Mom: It's back. And you're keeping me up until all hours of the night.

PR: You keep your bedroom door open so that you can listen for me being up late. If you intentionally keep your door open, you forfeit the right to complain about being kept up.
Mom: From now on, you're doing things exactly the way I say. You've lost any right to be treated as an adult until your grades are respectable.

PR: And you've lost the privilege to be treated like the adult in this argument until you stop screaming like a child.

Mom: You immature, stupid child!

PR: I'm 16 years old. What's your excuse?
It was exactly at this moment that she grabbed my lamp - my tiny, shitty, wire-necked, unpronounceably-named Ikea lamp - and hit me with it.

There had been a lot that I'd heard her say in the past year that I would call abusive, but that was the first time she'd ever hit me with something. I mean, it didn't hurt that much. A cane-bound woman hitting you with a cheap Ikea lamp hurts about as much as getting jumped on by an overeager puppy. What stunned me was the fact that she had just hit me with a lamp.

I looked at the lamp, broken and lying on the floor. I picked it up and pulled it back to my shoulder.

"Don't you hit me!" She screamed.

And I stopped dead in my tracks. I no longer wanted to hit her back. Just seeing her - the way she had been screaming at me, the fact that my stab had provoked her into physical abuse, and her terror at the threat of a response - became nothing less than pathetic.

I smashed the already-broken lamp against the wall between us and put on my jacket.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"For a walk. You're being a bitch"

I don't remember what she said after that, because I had stopped listening.

By the time I got back, the sun was on its way up. I went to bed.

She told me that I didn't get to skip the morning's classes just because I'd been out all night. Get changed and go to school.

I told her to fuck off: I'm taking a shower.

"You don't have time for a shower. You're not going to be late for class again."

I went towards the shower anyway. She grabbed me. I pulled her hand off and locked myself into the bathroom, my one safe place. I'd forgotten my towel, but I figured it was early, so there should be enough hot water to cover an hour's sleep.

When the screaming subsided from outside my door a few minutes later, I relaxed into the tub under the warm shower spray and got ready to sleep.

Just as I was falling asleep, the cold water hit me. I could hear her saying, "The hot water's off. Now get out of that bathroom and get to school!"

I threw my boxers on and charged down to the basement, where the hot water shutoff surely was. "You stupid child. Don't you dare turn that back on!" she screamed.


I had lost my temper again: the first time I'd yelled back at her in a long time.

"Well that's your fault!" She shrieked. "Now you'd better get dressed and get to school."

I went upstairs. I got dressed. I packed my schoolbag.

And when I left, I didn't come back.

1 comment:

  1. I witness everything you've said here. And can relate to much of it.

    Next time you're in the T-dot, we must have those beers.