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Final Days of Struggling After Losing My Mom to Cancer

The woman who grew up protecting her mom from domestic violence as a child has had to process the guilt and grief since her mom died of cancer at the age of 19.

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It’s as if my life has been split in two. All it takes is one day to change the course of these people’s lives: Friday, October 5th, 1990. At that time, my mom finally gave up her six-year fight against breast cancer. When he passed away at 4:27 p.m. on that Friday, a significant portion of the 19-year-old me also died. Everything about my life shifted.

It’s likely that the fact that I wasn’t adopted until I was 18 months old contributed to the complexities of my relationship with my mother. I was a product of the foster care system, where I suffered severe neglect and sexual abuse. No one ever shared any of that with my mom. She had no idea that my history of abuse was the root of my fear. She had no idea that being abandoned so frequently meant I couldn’t form instant bonds with new people. She nurtured me, exemplified patience and love, and taught me so much. That was something brand new for me.

Abuse at home began when I was 5 years old. Mom and I were having breakfast in the living room one morning after yet another terrible night. She was crying so hard that she had to stop to catch her breath. A few days after Christmas, she told me in a shaky voice what had happened the night before, as the tree lights flickered. All of those specifics were branded into my memory like a steak fresh off the grill. When that happened, I became a child who needed parents. I had to guard her as best I could. There were many late-night appearances in my room from her. To keep her in, we would wedge the door with furniture. When she was with me, the odds of me beating her down were lower. Many times, however, no matter what I did, it would not work. I had no control over it. At the age of 5, I realized that I was a helpless, useless failure.

From that moment on, I felt guilty.

My mother was abused until I was 13 years old, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Whenever my mother got sick, my father would yell at me and tell me it was my fault. He blamed the tension I’d caused between us over the years. As an adult, I still feel the effects of the guilt I felt back then. Over the next six years, I had to skip classes to accompany her to chemo and radiation treatments. After hours of being sick, I held her head while she threw up. Yes, it was my doing that she was fed. I pitched in with the washing machine, the dryer, and general cleaning around the house. So many times did I hear her sob that the basement should have been flooded by the time she was done. As much as a traumatized adolescent could, I did everything in my power.

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There were many ups and downs, surgeries, and remissions. At times, she even seemed to get a break from her cancer.

When I first learned about cancer, when I was 13, I learned that stress ranked right up there with smoking as a leading cause of the disease. The advice my dad gave me clicked into place in my mind. It was my fault that she got sick.

I had read quite a bit about cancer by the time she passed away, and most articles cited stress as the second leading cause of the disease, after smoking. Both of my parents were heavy smokers. Now that I knew that, perhaps I could release some of the guilt I felt. The burden of responsibility had been lifted from my shoulders, and I could now place it on something else.

On a bright April day, cancer came back for good. It metastasized, ravaging her body until it could take no more. Yet again, I had let her down. The internalized shame and disillusionment I experienced as a result of those experiences are now the source of my most persistent and pervasive personal flaws.

My new life began at 4:28 p.m. on October 5, 1990.

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It was as if my past were cut in half abruptly. Now, every recollection was divided into two time periods: before and after my mother passed away. To be clear, I didn’t do this on purpose; it was just how my mind processed that particular aspect of my profound loss. Even now, when I am asked a question, my mind immediately begins to look for answers on both sides of the argument. The date is either before or after October5, 1990.

As expected, the weeks following her death left me emotionally numb. A piece of me was glad that her suffering was finally over, and that I no longer had anyone’s life in my hands. Both the loss and the sense of responsibility felt like a weight on top of the world. The past pain I had caused began to leave my mind. They were no longer neatly stored away in a secret compartment of my mind. Now they were up front, in your face, and happening on the regular; and with each one came a fresh layer of guilt and shame. It was an insurmountable sum of blame on their shoulders.

Time seemed to slow down or something. I was experiencing a hollowness in my life that had never been there before. As much as I wanted to, I had to go back to my regular schedule and work to avoid facing my emotions. I attended both a university and a college. Approximately four or five times per week, I would play soccer. There were times when I experimented with alcohol and drugs. As a result, I acted irresponsibly. I went to extreme measures to ensure that I would never have to focus on anything. The feelings of loss, disgrace, pain, and guilt were too much for me to bear. Everything felt completely unbelievable.

Distraction’s ability to delay action gradually diminished over time. Depression had overcome me. I was able to get through the day but cried myself to sleep at night. After having nightmares and flashbacks, I started thinking about suicide again. I didn’t know how I could face the world with so much hatred and shame for myself. It was probably my just desserts for being unable to save my mother, but I was so disgusted by myself that I couldn’t bear to look at a mirror.

My entire worldview shifted as a result of the negative values I developed as a result of carrying such a heavy load. The world appeared hazy, as if viewed through a thick curtain. The destructive thoughts and words my inner critic kept reiterating, which I would never utter in front of a live human being, began to take root in my mind. But I accepted their characterization of me.

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In the past seven years, I’ve made the decision to put my health first. After another failed suicide attempt, I realized that neither life nor death had anything to offer me. As far back as I can remember, I have always felt like an outsider, and that feeling has never left me.

There is no direct line from sick to well. It’s not paved and has all the twists and turns and hills and valleys you can imagine. Don’t assume a straight line when it comes to recovery. It’s a process that will lead you in many directions, but you’ll eventually find a solution that works for you. Baby steps are when you put one foot in front of the other. Make yourself as small as possible and keep moving forward, even if that means crawling. Divide the task into manageable chunks of time, such as a day, an hour, a minute, or even a second. Whatever it takes to get you through the day, do it.

I encourage you to be kind to yourself. There is no doubting your worth.