Anchors, Aweigh

My mother was my anchor when I was growing up. She was the one I leaned on for nearly all of my emotional needs, for better or worse. Don’t get me wrong. My father was also very present in my life, but thankfully could not teach me anything about being a chronic patient. He was the booster and Mom was the safety net.

Mom had severe Crohn’s disease from the age of 12, although it was only diagnosed when she was 27. During the course of her condition, she went through four surgical intestinal resections, countless hospital stays, and some horrifically burdensome (then-)experimental drug treatments, like mercaptopurine (6-MP), a cancer drug which was just starting to be used to treat Crohn’s back then. She couldn’t have both a career and kids in her condition in the 1970s, so she chose us (me and my brother). Everyone should know what it feels like to be loved that much.

It was my mother who taught me how to exist with a chronic condition, even though I didn’t do very well for the first several years. She taught me the rules of hospital stays and that, if at all possible, you should never allow the drain of your symptoms to keep you from your day-to-day life. Do what you are going to do, and deal with a flare-up or a low blood sugar if the time comes. (This from someone for whom it was necessary to know the location of every clean restroom between our hometown and where my grandparents lived, some 600 miles.)

It's been 16 years since she died, and my anchor was cut out from under me. I floundered for a while, which is dangerous. Extreme emotions can have negative effects on diabetes, driving up blood sugars. In fact, stress -- including strong negative emotions -- can exacerbate symptoms of many chronic and autoimmune conditions, especially the ones in which parts of the body are inflamed. For my mother, stress could make her gastric issues almost as bad as eating the wrong thing, or make a flare-up worse.

Eventually, I had to choose. Sink or swim. Live or die. No one else was going to take care of the diabetes for me. So, I slowly allowed people in, something I do very badly. At first, it wasn’t on purpose. My family, of course, but friends who had weathered the storm with me, others who had gone through similar losses. Eventually, I distributed the weight of my emotional needs to enough anchors of varying sizes to feel my life stabilizing again. I still add anchors sometimes, with each new friend, and each new niece or nephew. Now if one fades or dies, there are enough to catch me before I go drifting out to sea.

Even so, this time of year is difficult. It varies, depending where I am in my head every May, but this year I’m struggling. I have done everything in my power to ignore the feelings I have, which is not healthy. I knew it wasn’t right and I let it take me anyway, that frantic need not to deal with it. I strategically blocked the commercials for flower bouquets, the promotions for spa treatments. It was weird. I heard them. I read them. But somehow, I never let them connect to my own mother. My way of refusing to acknowledge the hole that still exists. But ignoring it doesn't make it go away.

What I’m trying to say is that for all of you who struggle with the loss of a mother during this time of year, or a father (Father’s Day isn’t that far off), or anyone who was an anchor in your lives, it’s ok to let it come, the sadness. It feels like lying in wet sand at the edge of the ocean. Sometimes it, like the surf, eddies gently over me, and sometimes it crashes, blinding me, filling my nose, my ears, my mouth, until the rage of it is all that exists. But the only way over it is through it. It recedes eventually, as all tides do, and then you get up and walk away, exhausted and renewed.