University of Baltimore MFA student Tyler Mendelsohn has always understood her various disorders and neuroses — less so, her self.
When I was a kid, I kept my parents alive by finding all the spots on my body I could feel a substantial pulse, and counting and counting. I still feel that the numbers 1 and 6 are neutral; 2, 4, 5, 7, 9 and 10 are lucky. Three and 8 are bad. Despite the overwhelming probability of anything I count ending on a lucky number, I often feel bombarded by 3s and 8s.
Both of my parents are psychoanalysts. So are an unbelievably large number of my other relatives, but that’s a separate story. When I was a kid, I realized that my parents were the most perceptive people in the entire world, especially my mom. There was not a thing that slipped past my mom’s radar. I always thought that all moms were like this, but I still believe that mine has a perception super-sense unlike anyone else’s in the world. Sometimes, I feel like she knows what kind of trouble I’m getting into all the way from New York to Baltimore. Over the span of my childhood, I was thought to have a cocktail of mental impediments to my highly praised and mythical potential: ADD, ADHD, Asperger’s, bipolar disorder, OCD, anorexia, body dysmorphia, narcissistic personality disorder, dissociative personality disorder, a whole host of learning disabilities, sprinkled with a healthy dose of paranoid delusions and separation anxiety.
Dinner discussions usually revolved around the psyche in some manner: that of my dad’s academic colleagues, that of family friends, that of the mailman. Patients—unless very heavily disguised—were the only ones off limits, as my parents took patients’ privacy very seriously. I don’t know if this is my altering history in retrospect, since my sister is now months away from a PhD in psychology, but I remember my sister taking more interest in those conversations. I remember feeling left out of them, bored even, but I seemingly picked up everything they were saying through osmosis. I started college as a psychology major before switching to English, and I essentially slept through Intro to Psychology and woke up to a bunch of As. I’d like to think I have a firm grasp on the inner workings of other people, but it’s almost impressive how little I managed to understand about myself until very recently. Self-conscious, yes: pathologically so (is it the narcissism?). Self-aware…well, not in any real way. Someone was always doing the self-analyzing for me.
How many conversations have I had about my mental state with either of my parents? God. 4,772 million? Is that a number? I picked it because it’s full of lucky ones. In any given period of my life, I’ve been able to hold the phone away from my ear and still respond correctly to the sentiment my mom or my dad is trying to get across. My mom thinks I’m just like my dad. She should stop getting so angry at both of us. My dad thinks I’m like him, too. He should stop getting so angry at me.
It’s November 2012. I’m sitting in the new apartment my mom basically picked out for me when my ex and I broke up in June. I’m on the phone with my mom, who is miles away in a Baltimore hotel. Her stated reason for coming is a casual visit, but I should have known that the real reason is to re-do the way I had everything set up, to strongly suggest I sit at a different chair when I do my schoolwork; my current chair will hurt my back. (I reply: “It’s a $%&@ CHAIR!”)
“Your closet is full of unpacked suitcases with clothes scattered everywhere,” she says on the phone.
“Why do you live that way? Do you want—no, need—me to help you put them in drawers?”
“No,” I respond, “I don’t need you. Obviously I don’t care about living this way, or I’d change it.”
“Yes,” she says, “But is it normal not to care? Do your friends live like that?”
I hold the phone away from my ear, and I play the hypothetical conversation in my head. She’s saying I can’t separate. She’s saying I’m torn between wanting to separate and still needing her help. I chime in to remind her that I’m 26; I don’t need help designing my apartment.
I hold the phone away again, not listening, but knowing. My mom is saying some variation of: But see, this is where you show your reluctance to separate. Anyone, of any age, may ask their mom for an opinion; it’s loaded for you because you still feel like a child in many ways. You think I am attacking you, but I am not.
She isn’t attacking me. She would never attack anyone. My dad’s daughter from his first marriage, my half-sister, recently had tumors removed from her uterus. There were severe complications: internal bleeding, pneumonia. My mom was at the hospital any time she wasn’t working, sacrificing sleep (she slept in the bed with my half-sister on nights she was most scared), making sure everyone stayed updated on her condition.
Imagine someone who loves everything and everyone so selflessly, and then imagine that selflessness amplified for you because you are her child. Now imagine that your older sister has always been sweet, and easy, and a lot like your mom. But let’s say you, her youngest child, had a difficult time as you grew up, in almost all ways: socially, academically, emotionally. Your mom would hover, be in an almost constant state of distress and anxiety, and you—a naturally anxious person (a trait you still think came from your dad, oddly enough)—would soak it in; you’d swallow it whole and let it overtake you. Sometimes, that would be too much, and you’d have to ignore your mom’s calls and texts for some time. You’d feel smothered. You’d want nothing more than to separate. But yes, you’d really feel like you couldn’t do certain things: successfully book your doctors’ appointments, put together a matching outfit… Sometimes you’d feel like you’d been rendered helpless. Helplessness would make you angry. You’d fight.
I don’t remember why my mom and I got into this particular fight. I must have been nine or 10 at the time. There was always this break when we argued, these 10 to 15 minutes in which my mom would leave the room. But I knew she’d come back in, having taken the time to collect herself, and try to apologize. And I knew that this is when the shit would really hit the fan, because her well-intentioned speech—about how little of my behavior I could control; about how there was this thing and that thing wrong with me and that it was unfair of her to expect me to do things I wasn’t capable of doing; about how she could get really frustrated and angry and that she had to understand my limits—would send me on the defensive in spite of any previous plans for civility, and then that would be it. I would become a monster. I would call her names and scream at the top of my lungs and tell her I hated her. Then there would be the one sentence my mom would say that she would regret for months, maybe even years. It would come out and immediately you could feel palpable guilt in the air. This particular sentence was, “Stop feeling your goddamn fucking pulse,” punctuated by a slam of the door.
My pulse, as I write this, is 62 beats per minute. It ranges from anywhere between 56 to 64 beats per minute. This calm, steady pace is because I run often. Both my parents have always run regularly. The last time my mom visited, she asked: “Are you going to run today?” I thought we could run together. I liked the idea, but she likes to run outside, and I don’t. So I went for a run while she played around with the furniture in my apartment, against my wishes. “Go run,” she’d said, “you don’t have to watch me do this.” Shortly after I returned from my run, we carried all of the stuff she had decided was falling apart and therefore extraneous outside to the dumpster. We had a big, long hug, and she left. I came back into my apartment and sat down on the chair my mom had suggested. My back was much more comfortable, and my house looked perfect.