Dorothy Thompson, the “First Lady of American Journalism,” wrote that “peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict–alternatives to…violence.” In other words, at war’s end, enmity between factions is never eliminated, but instead transformed into “peaceful” guises.
In my experience, just as conflict persists after an armistice, so can mental illness after major symptoms disappear. Unless underlying causes are addressed, the disease can change into something that looks healthier, but is just as damaging.
The first big healing I ever witnessed was my mother Patty’’s recovery from alcoholism.
After years of failed psychiatric treatment and hospitalizations for various mental illnesses, she was finally diagnosed at Lutheran General Hospital. There Patty detoxed, and a month and a half later emerged an enthusiastic member of the fellowship of self-identified alcoholics, AA.
This all happened when I was 13. After a couple of early relapses, Patty’s membership sustained her resolve not to drink for her remaining fifteen years. And with alcohol and barbiturates no longer ravaging her liver and brain, our mom was suddenly shockingly present.
My sisters and I got to know the woman who made us, as God made her–in her sobriety. The AA healing worked! Or so it seemed.
Sarah, my younger sister, and I had had no real acquaintance with this woman for the past twelve years, so there remained in us a certain distrust. For her part, emerging into sober motherhood when, arguably, the greatest need for a mother’s love had passed, Patty felt keenly the tragic timing of her recovery. It happened too late.
In recompense, she lavished affection on me and became my greatest cheerleader. Still, I felt more embarrassed than comforted by her support, though I did appreciate her money gifts, and, when I was 16, her car keys.
The core of Patty’s disease, I now believe, was not the addictive pills and vodka she had becalmed herself with all those years. Instead, it was a core belief in her insufficiency, of being not good enough on her own, as God had made her.
This diseased thinking of hers persisted after AA, and probably killed her. For, after she was well ensconced in meetings, had found a steady job, and got divorced, and after she’d found a loving AA boyfriend, she was still unable to accept herself.
Not a feminist in 1970s and 80s America, Patty accepted the conventional body norms for women at that time. She took them to heart and became addicted to exercise and weight loss. With this compulsion, which ruled her body for her last ten years, came diet and diuretic pills that robbed her blood of vital electrolytes and made her moods erratic.
She died in her sleep on my sister Sarah’s birthday at age 59.
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