Pathological Independence, a Family Trait?

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As the last of four kids in a seemingly normal (yet highly dysfunctional) family, I often felt forgotten or overlooked. Real or imagined, that was my perceived reality. On the bright side, I adapted by developing a pathological level of personal independence and an ability to keep a sharp eye on the ball.

My inadvertent independence has been the foundation for most of the good things and opportunity I’ve experienced in life... an unexpected blessing. I nurture it, employ it (often), and protect it fiercely – often to the point of others’ consternation.

In short, I respect independence for the helpful attribute that it is, but I often take it for granted; this fact being highlighted on a regular basis as the caregiver of my 91-year-old mother who loses more and more of it every day.

Growing up, my perception was that Mom was excessively dependent on Pop. He seemed to call all the shots... what time dinner was served, when it was time for a drink, when and where the family vacations would be, how much money Mom could have for groceries, whether or not company would come over, where we would live, how many more ski runs to take.... There were definitely outward signs that when Pop said “jump,” Mom asked “how high?”

Partially accurate, my perception had ample room for improvement. What I didn’t take into account all those years (and had to learn by walking in her shoes a few miles), was that it required a tremendous amount of energy and independence for Mom to make all those things happen for Pop and our family. I also didn’t consider the likelihood that Mom enjoyed the drinks, dinner, company, and skiing that Pop insisted she provide for, and partake with him. No doubt, a strong sense of self and a wicked case of autonomy were required to keep that show on the road.

Pop died in 2002 - Just. Like. That. He had a massive heart attack on the jetway between connecting flights after joyfully eating his way through Taipei. Mom was 76 years old. Her kids were long grown, she was financially secure with two mortgage-free homes, and not a technical care in the world. Of course she was a sad and grieving widow in the beginning, but she quickly got her footing and unleashed her previously harnessed independence.

This woman who had willingly taken direction from my father for fifty-two years was now on her own. Despite witnessing her outward dependence on Pop, I never once thought being alone would be a problem for Mom. She’d proven herself to be smart and capable. After all, raising four kids and moving an ever-growing family six times in twelve years takes more than a modicum of grit and ability.

But who knew Mom had so much independence. Right away, she:

1)    sold her home in Florida

2)    bought a new home

3)    packed and moved (an expert by now)

4)    hired a contractor to remodel an apartment

5)    moved out of her primary residence and into that apartment

6)    sold her primary home to her daughter (me!), and

7)    took over the mountain of bills and paperwork associated with managing all of the above

Once she settled into her “new” life as an 80-year-old widow, Mom did just fine. She joined a garden club, the Arts Association and the Lee Mansion docent troupe, all the while managing her physical life and maintaining connections with friends and family. In some ways, she was at the peak of her personal productivity.

Mom’s active lifestyle changed quickly when, at 85, she relinquished her driver’s license. Although a public safety measure for which we are all eternally grateful, her loss of personal mobility affected virtually every other aspect of her life; her independence completely thwarted outside the walls of her own home.

But inside those walls, Mom maintains her fierce independence and refuses to ask for help of any kind... at any time... ever. Phrases unuttered my Mom include: “I need to...” or “Can you...” or “Will you...” Jars with tight lids sit unopened on the counter for days; her new Cricket cell phone remains in the box until she can figure out how to “start” it; she reads instead of watching TV when her “remote doesn’t work.” On the very rare occasion Mom does ask a question, it comes in the form of a naïve request for clarification... “Do you hear that chirping in the hall?” (not to be confused with, “Will you please change the fire alarm battery?”)

For God’s sake, I live right next door! CALL ME and I’ll come fix it!

But she won’t.                                                   

She doesn’t want to bother me, and doesn’t really need to use her new cell phone or watch TV right now. She doesn’t ask me to do any of these tasks so I’m left to decipher, decode and determine exactly what it is Mom does need through little hints and clues left around the house. The onus is on me to remember tight lids, uncharged phones, and dead batteries.

Fortunately, Mom has an unlimited supply of patience... she’s got all the time in the world to wait for the lid, phone, remote, and alarm issues to be resolved. She would rather go without than flex her helpless-aging-mother muscle and get the jobs done.

Although frustrating at times, I get it... No one understand the obsessive need for independence more than me... It all makes perfect sense... Why depend on others when I can do it myself?

For a while, I believed Mom’s “independence” might be masking her fear that she’d have to move if she couldn’t do everything by herself. But the reality is that Mom has never asked for help, and I’ve come to believe it is more a stubborn character trait than a new phase of life.

Maybe I wasn’t forgotten or overlooked as a child after all. Maybe I came out of the womb kicking, screaming and demanding “me-time” from the beginning... Maybe my pathological independence comes directly from my mother. And maybe – that’s just fine for both of us.

Emily Gaffney