It is October 1999. I have just put down the phone on Mum after a furious row. It started, as family arguments do, with a slow simmer: the odd well-timed comment, the choice use of a sniff or a grunt of disapproval, building to a list of my shortcomings, tempered with soothing noises from me until a tipping point is reached and we are in the throes of a full-blown accusation-fuelled verbal fist-fight.
The house is quiet now. I am sitting in our one good armchair, staring at the pattern on an inherited rug, bathed in soft light from an inherited lamp. My husband and I have just started to build a life together in our first home; we have begun to build our own family. Our eight-month old daughter is in her cot upstairs. It is past ten o’clock and I should be going to bed. I have only recently gone back to work and I need to try and get some sleep before my daughter wakes me at 3 am. But sleep is far from reach now. My rage against Mum is at a rolling boil. If a stranger were to walk in now, they would think I had been the victim of an attack of some kind. I am hunched over, sobbing silently and hugging my knees. I could not begin to explain to anyone how I have got here in the course of a short phone call. It would take a full lecture course on the history of my relationship with my mother – accompanied by illustrated PowerPoint presentations – not to mention an in-depth analysis of how members of my family interact with and intercede for one another.
The fact is, at this point in my life, even I do not know how I have got here. I rarely argued with Mum when I lived at home – I actively avoided confrontation of any kind. I knew, implicitly at first, and then explicitly, that it wasn’t worth it. If ever I complained to Dad or Grandma I was told, ‘Just be a good girl.’ And so I was. And life resumed its ordered course.
Until now. Tonight I have had enough. I have had enough of playing this game, of being complicit in Mum’s strange behaviour, of pretending that her obsessions and paranoias are normal. I have had enough of the controlling, the haranguing, the bullying, the shouting, the accusations, the swearing. I am an adult now, a mother myself. I cannot be who my mother wants me to be. I have to be me.
Looking back at that night, with the benefit of hindsight and a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s for Mum, I can see this conversation as a key piece of a large, scattered jigsaw puzzle of which our family has tried making sense for years. Why was Mum such a controlling figure? Why did she seem to latch on to something which made her anxious and hammer away at it until either the problem went away or a bigger problem took its place? Why did unexpected, surprising acts or decisions make her agitated to the point of aggression? Why was she so damn rude at times? Why were we all so frightened of her?
Mum’s diagnosis came, initially, as a relief. It felt like validation – as though, at last, someone was listening to me and my sister and saying, ‘Yes, you’re right. Your mother sees the world very differently from most other people.’ We were able to rationalise her repetitive behaviours, her anxieties, her depression too. We could read up on it, consult with people who understood it, give it a name. We could step out on the first stretch of the road to forgiveness for all the pain Mum’s condition had caused.
But now, a year on, we simply feel sad. Especially now Dad has gone and never had the chance to hear the truth about Mum. Life could have been so different for Mum – for all of us – if she had been diagnosed earlier. She could have learnt coping strategies for her anxieties, ways of negotiating social situations which she found overwhelming. She might now not be lying on her bed, subdued by a cocktail of anti-anxiety medication, too closed-in to engage with the outside. She might not have been so frightened by the world and all the chaos it seemed to bring to her door.
Or maybe she would still be like this. But at least we might have been helped, as a family, to see the world through her eyes – and thus avoided furious rows such as that one over the phone seventeen years ago and the many that followed that night. We might have been able to forgive her more readily, and forgive ourselves too. We might have been able to love her more readily for who she was. Because now, love feels like the only answer we have to give – and yet it feels like too little, too late.