a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
TW: death and grief, obsessive-compulsive disorder
Sometime during my sophomore year of high school, in the middle of one of our increasingly frequent fights, my mom said, “I lost my mother to fear; I won’t lose you too.” My father took it a step further.
“Think about Grandma Mary,” he said. Then, “And look what happened to Grandma Barb.”
A dichotomy between my grandmothers had officially been established, and I was pissed. I was also suffering. The concussion I’d received in freshman year gym class had stuck around for months at this point, totally derailing my life. Formerly a stellar student, I was now struggling through three non-Honors classes, wincing at fluorescent lights under the brim of my nurse-approved hat, and desperately missing my books and my computer, reading and writing. My OCD, a noticeable problem since I was eight or nine, had also taken advantage of the current mental and personal chaos, sinking its claws as deep into my brain as anything could penetrate. While trash cans, raw meat, and rabid animals had all inspired panic in months past, my current fixation was lead paint. Any place paint peeled in my house was a “spot,” a toxic site to be avoided at all costs. Conversations would go something like this:
Mom (noticing me cringe): What is it?
Me: Well, you just — you just-
Mom: I just what?
Me (gaining speed): Well — as you were coming out of the bathroom, your sleeve brushed against that spot in the doorway with the flaking paint, and then you put on a sweatshirt, and as you were doing that your sweatshirt brushed against (gestures to childhood favorite stuffed animal), and I don’t know...
Mom: So you won’t touch it now? Do you know how little risk that is?
But my brain already felt broken, and anything that could impair me further was a terror almost beyond imagining. I lashed out at my parents for their perceived negligence, their stubborn refusal to have the house inspected, tested, or at least repainted. Occasionally, my apparent inability to cross a threshold for fear of brushing up against a wall, my stubborn reassurance seeking (I didn’t touch that, right? But I really didn’t?) made my mother cry. It wasn’t like she didn’t have enough to deal with, between her radiation treatments for breast cancer, her difficult supervisor — and the constant struggles of her own mother, my Grandma Barb, newly living in a nursing home that had turned out to be far less nice than we’d been led to believe.
Because Grandma Barb and I were in similarly difficult situations, perhaps the comparisons were inevitable. It wasn’t as though I exactly disagreed with my mother; it wasn’t as though we hadn’t, in some fashion, lost my grandmother to fear. She had begun to have balance issues, to fall frequently, when I was in 6th grade. She had already endured several back surgeries as an adult, and by this point her knees needed replacement too — but, frightened of
dying under anesthesia, she put off looking seriously into surgery. My mother told her to at least use a cane in her apartment; too proud to admit she needed to, she continued to fall.
The summer between seventh and eighth grade brought for my grandmother emergency hernia surgery, something I can now look back on as the beginning of the end. Even then, forced to use a walker, she never really recovered in the way she could have — her back and knees prevented her from making any progress in physical therapy, and still she would not take steps to rectify them. Eventually, the at-home physical therapists and nurses stopped coming; there was nothing they could do. She and my mother fought, struggled to get her to the doctor’s appointments where medical professionals would tell her that the next step was a nursing home.
“I won’t die in a nursing home,” she said defiantly. But when on the way to a doctor’s appointment she found that she couldn’t stand, an ambulance was called and my mother was launched into the quest of finding a last-minute halfway-decent care facility. My grandmother couldn’t care for herself, and none of us had the time, the capacity, the skill to do the intensive work. This, my mother said, has said since, this was my grandmother’s downfall — always willing to complain about her circumstances, but never willing to take the necessary steps to change them. Blinded and guided by fear, she led herself into her own destruction. And so this, too, would be my fate — unless, according to my father, I began to develop some courage, to instead take after one of my other grandmothers — his mom, my Grandma Mary.
Grandma Mary had been diagnosed with breast cancer before I was born; by the time I was about six, it had returned, morphing into multiple myeloma. The last time I saw her, in March of 2014, she had been given less than a year to live; she was experiencing short-term memory issues (a result of the chemotherapy) and was weaker than I had ever seen before. But she accompanied me and my father to the airport for our flight home; at a little restaurant table, she told me that she always found something to look forward to, something to work towards — and in that fashion, one day at a time, she kept on living. A little over a month later, this method must have finally failed: she was dead, weakened by cancer and finally overcome by pneumonia. My father was still at the airport, waiting to board a last-minute flight when he got the news, but at least he got to be there for her funeral. I stayed at home, wept into my mother’s arms — this was the first major loss I’d encountered, and the first time I could recall losing my usually formidable appetite with grief.
That first year without her was, understandably, the hardest — filled up with new experiences I could never tell her about and memories of things we would never do together again. I recalled whole-family pillow fights (my father, my grandparents, my uncle, and myself). I remembered her mischievous smile as we both insisted on listening to the musical Oklahoma! in the car on the way to our various destinations — much to the annoyance of my father and grandfather. The last summer vacation we spent together, she had to be hospitalized for a hand infection a few days before we were supposed to drive up to the amusement park town Wisconsin Dells; she joked that if she wasn’t released in time we would just have to break her out and was highly amused when I conjured up our imaginary rescue attempt for a story-writing
assignment the next year in school. I knew, even as a child, that she was known for her force of will; I also knew that she and my mother had never gotten along.
Grandma Mary, at least in my father’s eyes, was my good example Grandma. My mother never verbalized the same thing, but at least they could both agree on who not to be: emulating Grandma Barb and her choices was equivalent to plunging over the edge of a crevasse, a full-on fall they were desperately trying to keep me from.
I resented this.
“Don’t turn my grandmother into a cautionary tale,” I said to my therapist, describing the situation with my parents. Didn’t they realize that this — this highlighting of Grandma Barb’s worst mistakes, this making her into the embodiment of her flaws — only enhanced the pain of losing her? Yes, at this point she was still alive — but she couldn’t be the same grandmother anymore either. This was the woman who had played pretend with me in a way my parents never had, the woman who had left her longtime home and boyfriend in Minnesota to be closer to my family, to pick me up and watch me after school when my parents could no longer afford to pay aftercare fees. When we moved into our latest house she had moved in with us, officially “renting” the finished basement apartment from my mother. In the evenings or on weekends, I would read her my favorite middle-grade fantasy books, some of which she became a genuine fan of. When I fought with my mother — at that point a relatively rare but always upsetting occurrence — I would flee downstairs, where Grandma Barb would hold me as I cried and complained. She was never more than a set of steps away.
I had always seen more of her than I had Grandma Mary. I loved Grandma Mary, of course, and losing her still hurt — but she was dead, fixed in my mind, changeable only in my perception when my mother began to reveal some of the ways she had scorned and mistreated both my mom and Grandma Barb. What was I supposed to make of that? Why would my father position as my “good example” someone who hadn’t been kind to my own mother?
For her courage, I supposed. I could emulate Grandma Mary’s force of will without taking up all of her characteristics; I could acknowledge her in all of her complexity. But if I could do that — had to do that — with Grandma Mary, then my parents needed to do the same thing for Grandma Barb. Grandma Barb, the kindest person I knew, who even in the nursing home would buy candy bars to give to my mother and try to be a good listener. Upon hearing another resident, almost certainly suffering from dementia, mourning a lost comfort object, she had asked me to give away one of her own beloved Snoopy stuffed animals to make the woman happy. I’d never met anyone else who always wanted to give so much. I’m not sure I ever will.
When my OCD and concussion, compounded, had reached a breaking point — when I had finally been made to attend an outpatient program at a Behavioral Health Center — I started hearing something interesting.
“You are not your fear,” the therapists would say, and my parents eagerly repeated it: “You are not defined by your fear.”
It took me a long time — into the beginning of the COVID pandemic, when my head finally began to heal and I could challenge my OCD — for me to seriously begin applying that
concept to myself. It took even longer for me to realize I had understood that mentality, that I already had it in place when it came to other people. This was exactly what I had been trying to say about Grandma Barb.
Grandma Barb never escaped from the place her fear put her in. After neglectful treatment at the first nursing home led to a fall and a broken hip, my mother managed to have her transferred into another facility. Though at first more promising, the level of care and attention given to my grandmother quickly declined following the onset of COVID. She survived the virus when it made its round of the nursing home — but she could not survive the bouts of pneumonia that followed, or the staff’s dismissal of her needs. My mother, who had been so often frustrated by my grandmother’s inability to act, did her best to be her fierce advocate — but even she could not be there during the early morning in July 2022 when, supposedly, my grandmother slipped into unresponsiveness. By the time my mother woke up to see the phone calls from staff, she was gone. I had seen Grandma Barb the day before; she sent me a text perhaps an hour, half an hour, before the onset of whatever finally came to pass: “so good to see you today and am looking forward to seeing you again tomorrow afternoon.” I have not yet been able to shake the feeling that one of the people who loved me unconditionally, extraordinarily, like no other, has passed beyond where I can reach.
Yes, choices have consequences. Yes, my grandmother’s inability to acknowledge the extent of her health issues, to take the necessary steps towards recovery, put her, at age 73, in a nursing home and led to her death at 76. But could she solely be defined by her mistakes — every time she stumbled, every time she gave in to fear, frustrated my mother or made her cry? Only if I am defined that way too.
She was imperfect, certainly, but she loved me, and I loved her. She was the kindest person I knew, and she was always so, so much more than her fear.
We both were.
Julianna Reidell is a 20-year-old writer currently studying at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania. Her work won Gold and Silver medals in the national Scholastic Art and Writing Awards competition during high school; her humor piece “Love with Romeo and Juliet: A Parody” was featured in the Scholastic publication Best Teen Writing of 2019. Her work can be found on the teen humor website The Milking Cat, as well as in Kindergarten Mag, the Moonstone Art Center's Spring 2023 New Voices Anthology and in former issues of Arcadia University's litmag, Quiddity.
Julianna Reidell (she/her)
"I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits" -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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