Watching My Mother Hallucinate

“You look so much like your mom,” says the starched, very pregnant nurse at the rehab unit where Mom has been sent to recover from her hip surgery, “only younger.”

My pulse skips whenever someone says this. The first half of my life was devoted to being nothing like her. I thought we were not members of the same species, never mind the same family. Even now, decades later, when I feel close to her and am her primary emotional support, even now, when I have reclaimed her last name as part of my own, even now, when I no longer twitch after an hour in her presence, and do not bolt for the door as soon as I can, but stay as long as I am able, still the idea that our relationship shows on our faces makes me uncomfortable. When I hear her tones in my own voice, I want to take back whatever I said, for it will surely have been admonitory (“Be careful”) or blaming (“If you hadn’t done that—”) or authoritative (“I know all about it”) or high-handed (“You listen to me, mister-man”). It happens when I am tired and witless, and lately that’s a lot.

Which is when I am likeliest to slip in other ways. I felt scared and sad a few years ago when Mom first called me her mother instead of her daughter. “This,” she said with a grand introductory hand gesture involving the wrist, “is my mother, Alice Ruth.” That time, after saying hello to the health care worker and exchanging a secret look with her, I excused myself, went into the bathroom, and sat down on the toilet seat to have the briefest possible identity crisis. Mom was losing her grip, and I’d known it, but there’s nothing quite like that first time the role-reversal comes out of a parent’s mouth. It rips you up.

Now, though, I’m used to it, or I think I am. Reminded of how much I look like her (only younger), I extend my hand to introduce myself to the new doctor at this rehab center.“Hello,” I say, my grasp firm and in control of this institutional situation, “Janice is my daughter.” But I do not know that I have said this. It simply slipped out. He and the nurse glance at each other, then laugh. I hear the echo of my words and emit a mirthless chirp, do my best Gilda Radner eye roll, excuse myself, go into the bathroom, and kick the toilet. Too tired to choke up. I’ll do that later while I’m driving home from this place that I’ve left her, where I promised I’d never leave her, this rehab unit of a nursing home, to the residential wing of which I shall consign her permanently next week.

She’s my daughter, all right. I’m her mother, all right. And like her when the situations were reversed, I make arbitrary decisions to control and tame her, to confine and isolate her, to make her life miserable for no good reason, or so it must seem to her. She feels I am against her, even though I explain that it’s all for the best. Where have I heard that one before? I dust off the worn phrases she threw at me and I throw them back, moldy and lame.“This has to be done. It’s for your own good.”

The circle is unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by. I watch her like she used to watch me. I keep a zealous eye on her meds in particular. Last year I copyedited a book on the overmedication of the nation’s elderly. Seventeen meds is typical, one prescribed for the side effects created by another, created by another. That would never happen to my mom, not while I am in charge. (Even in this, I see her high hand upon my personality in my illusion of control.)

She’d been on only one med for the previous two years, a mild dose of an antidepressant. One time we upped it to see if it might affect her obsessive use of the emergency call button at her assisted living facility—up to twenty times a day she demands attention, wants the curtain open, no, shut, the window open, no, closed, the clock angle changed, the Chapstick located, the bottle of alcohol removed from the table occupied by the radio for fear of spontaneous combustion, the leftover milk shake disposed of because it undoubtedly has a high bacterial count from the hour it’s been unrefrigerated, the water level checked on her humidifier. The water is always at the same level, but that does not matter, she must have it checked to prevent fire. That window matter is crucial, for what if a deer jumped through the window (it is open three inches) into her room, perhaps biting her and spreading rabies? But when the increased dosage made no difference and caused her discomfort, I had it cut back. I mean to say, I am on top of this meds thing. Calcium, Tylenol for arthritis, an anti-inflammatory when her system can deal with it, mild laxatives when needed. No big bad pills with columns of side effects. I will not permit it. Or wouldn’t if I knew about it. But the medical people don’t always tell you what they’re doing.

Here’s what happened. When she fell down and was hospitalized needing X-rays and tests, my control over her medications dissolved. I didn’t know that the moment you enter a hospital, all bets are off and any meds the doctors order are on. Nothing was broken that time, but they decided to do other tests it would have been irresponsible of me to disallow. They also evaluated her psychologically and found her “mildly paranoid.” When I inquired as to how that diagnosis was reached, it emerged that they’d asked her if she ever felt people were against her, and she’d answered “Yes, sometimes.” How to tell them that this isn’t paranoia, it’s reality, because Mom’s an impossibly demanding person? Some of the aides are “against” her, with good reason—at minimum wage, perhaps her correction of their grammar is not welcome. “Don’t say I seen, say I saw,” she instructs them, and refuses to sign paperwork if it contains a misspelled word. “Write it over again,” she demands,“and then perhaps I shall sign it.”

Because of that diagnosis, one of her doctors ordered three psychoactive meds, and upped the dosages daily without informing me. Mom would take anything given to her by a man in a white coat—and it would have to be a man, because like many women in her generation, she does not trust women. On these new medications, she became truly paranoid. Moved from the hospital to rehab for her merely bruised hip, she became convinced she’d been drugged and kidnapped by a ring of evil people. Was she not spirited away in a car by strangers? Was she not placed in a bed with high sides, effectively imprisoning her? (A friend points out that considerable evidence supports her interpretation of events.) “By the way,” Mom whispers to me on the phone, “the kidnappers are homosexuals. Maybe that’s all right with you, dear, but it’s certainly not my cup of tea.” They were trying to involve her in their “shenanigans,” in which patients and staff disappeared behind closed doors, from whence issued both laughter and moaning.

“You’ve got to get me out of here. They’ve got me in a prison bed.”

“It’s for your protection, Mom. They’re trying to help you.”

“No one will receive any help in here. They’re trying to kill me. Maybe you’re in on it too. If you won’t get me out, I’ll have to escape myself.”