Just how is a child cope when her mother goes off the handle in fits of rage, often leaving painful welts on her arms and legs, only to, days later, dress her up, buy her new clothes and take her to the theater? How is a young mother to cope when her mother regularly sends her three pages lists of her shortcomings? Questions such as these inspire Diane Dweller’s new book, Mom, Mania, and Me: Surviving and Changing a Volatile Relationship.
Dweller begins her story in hiding. Often hiding under the kitchen table, ducking behind doors, or simply trying not to be seen, she describes living in constant fear of the one person who should love her the most — her mother. And yet, Dweller’s mother is not the typical abusive mother. Her spells of anger are often followed by erratic, and often extravagant, behavior.
“How pretty we looked ranked high on Mom’s checklist…,” Dweller writes as she describes her mother sending her to a beauty salon for a perm which burned her scalp and, for Dweller, felt like torture that lasted forever. And yet try as she might, nothing Dweller does seems to please her mother and dinnertime becomes a nightly ritual of criticisms directed at Dweller.
When her father stands up for Dweller, telling her mother, “Dinnertime is not the place for correcting Diane,” Dweller senses a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak world. The criticisms, however, do not stop and only became more frequent and more severe. Finally, teen rebellion overwhelms Dweller and after defying her mother’s absurd demand that she not wear jeans to school, Dweller tells her mother that she hates her.
Still fuming with anger and yet not ready to be on her own, Dweller escapes into a marriage that she soon discovers is not much different from her relationship with her own mother. As her husband’s behavior evolves into a pattern of deceit, condemnation, and heavy drinking, Dweller vacillates between wanting to leave and hoping things will get better. When finally she gathers the strength to tell her husband that she is leaving, he quickly changes tone, begging her to stay. It is only years later, after her two children are born that Dweller discovers her husband has been hiding an affair for many years.
Finally summoning the courage to leave, Dweller faces a new challenge: how to explain her divorce to a community, and a mother that disapproves of divorce, and the single mothers it leaves behind. Yet her efforts are futile. Dweller is quickly reminded in one of her mother’s caustic letters that she is an embarrassment to the family, an expensive failure with two children and a costly education.
Just days later, Dweller finds a fateful letter that changes her life. Written in the unsteady hand of a seven year old, Dweller swears that when she is a mother she will not, “Whip my children, scream at them, make them cry, scare them, or tell them they do things all wrong.” Recognizing the many ways in which she had failed her seven-year-old self, and in fact, become like her own mother, Dweller vows to tackle the challenges in her life, and take back control of the one thing she does have control over — her behavior.
With renewed confidence, Dweller meets her second husband, a man who counters every one of her mother’s criticisms, with a simple, “You’re beautiful.” Shortly thereafter, Dweller has an epiphany. Her third child just born, she is taken off her thyroid medication. When she finds herself angry, irritable, and either screaming at everyone or flying off the handle, she realizes that her mother’s behavior may not be as under her control as she thought.
When Dweller’s father unexpectedly passes away, the extent of Dweller’s mother’s condition is revealed. After visiting a psychiatrist to help “keep (her) from going into a depression,” she is diagnosed with manic-depression, a mood disorder. “I understood firsthand how critical it was to get body chemicals that got out of whack back in balance,” she writes.
Dweller’s next challenge, however, is to keep her mother on her meds. After hope for stability soon turns into fear of her mother going off her meds and igniting an array of manic, often dangerous behavior, Dweller realizes that perhaps her mother “didn’t want to stay normal.” However, Dweller’s protective instinct takes over when she finds her mother criticizing her own daughter and finally tells her, “That’s it. No more. That is the last criticism you are allowed this trip.”
Then Dweller explains to her mother that her manic-depression is like diabetes and without staying on her meds, she will be placing herself at risk of harm. As her mother’s behavior finally stabilizes, Dweller realizes that while she may not ever receive the warmth and affection from her mother that she has longed for her entire life, she can, instead, give this affection to her mother. In a dramatic final scene Dweller’s mother attempts to push her feeble frame up off her chair and Dweller asks her what she wants to do. Dweller’s mother’s answer shocks her: “I want to give you a hug.”
With poignant and insightful writing, Dweller’s story is of one heart break, loss, and the power to endure as long as it takes to find compassion.
Mom, Mania, and Me: Surviving and Changing a Volatile Relationship
Writing Ink, L.L.C., August 2016
Paperback, 207 Pages