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 their mouths. 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 eyeroll, 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 copy-edited 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: no one’s going to get away with this on my watch.)

She’d been on only one med for the previous two years, a mild dose of the anti-depressant Paxil. 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 20 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 milkshake disposed of because it undoubtedly has a high bacterial count from the hour it’s been unrefrigerated, the water level checked on her room-size 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 for 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 and 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, authority-identified, 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,” she 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.”

“Just hang on a bit longer, I’ll come and take care of you.” I live hours away, and with two jobs and a family, packing up to stay with her for a while will take a couple of days. But she does not wait. That night she tries to escape, a valiant act that involves squirming through the small gaps between the safety bars. She crashes to the floor hard, this time really breaking her hip.

Thus the hip replacement surgery that she bravely endures on an early Thursday morning, my brother and I and two grandchildren at her side. They’d taken her off the crazy-making meds prior to surgery, so she is once again sane. I’m now onto what’s happening, so mere minutes after surgery, when the supervising doctor orders resumption of all three psychoactive meds, I find it out from a nurse who checks the chart for me. I argue with him, the youngest in a practice whose senior member is Mom’s regular doctor, but the good Dr. Regan is not here and I’m dealing with this young guy full of good intentions and belief in the efficacy of pharmaceutical fixes, who clearly thinks it’s okay to put a person on medication without informing family. I’m not against psychoactive drugs, but I’m wary. Finally I resort to the colloquial.

“Look, bottom line here, she wasn’t nuts before, but she’s nuts now.”

“No, the medication doesn’t cause paranoia, we’re giving it to her to treat her paranoia.” Clearly he believes he’s dealing with an irrational daughter.

“Doctor. Everyone knows that some antidepressants cause a few people to become suicidal. And when I took pills for an ear infection that made me dizzy, the side effect was more dizziness. She wasn’t paranoid before, but now she is.”

“Yes, and that’s why we’re giving her anti-paranoia medication.”

“No, it’s the anti-paranoia drug that’s made her paranoid.”

“No, she was paranoid before. It says so right here.” He points to the psychiatric evaluation, which specifies mild paranoia, mild dementia symptoms, mild depression. So he’s put her on the anti-depressant, an anti-psychotic, and one of the new memory improvement drugs, also psycho-active. I don’t know a lot about them, just enough to know that they don’t know much about how the latter two work either, not the doctors, not even the researchers. Negative interactions are not uncommon. Friends with elderly parents who have been put on these new drugs are divided between those who swear by them and those who think they’re toxic. I don’t think this is the right time to experiment with my mother’s mind. She’s my mother, not his. But he’s not listening, and I can’t argue any more, because Mom needs me to be there when she comes out of the recovery room.

I abandon my protests for one mere evening, during which someone adds Demerol to the stew of post-operative drugs that now total fourteen, the names of which a nurse lets me copy down, unauthorized, in Mom’s hospital bathroom. By a day after surgery, she’s raving nonstop about plots against her to “brainwash” her, it being clear that I have already been “recruited,” and now the lesbians have been joined by the Pentecostal Christians, strange bedfellows if ever there were ones. All of this makes psychological sense to me—she’s always been homophobic and probably unconsciously attracted to the idea, like many homophobes, and both of her dead husbands were ministers. Of course her mind is full of fear of lesbians, and of strict-interpretation Christian sects.

If all of this were not so disturbing, it would be funny. Now and then I manage a weak laugh, like when some guy in a polyester bowling jacket and ballcap walks by and she sinks down, telling me I must save her from him. “He’s in on it, too, you know,” she says, shrinking under the covers, “don’t let him see me, he’ll try to exert…mind control!” She wags her gnarly index finger at me from under the covers as she says this, only her darting eyes and her finger peeking out.

But now the post-surgical Demerol starts to kick in, and she begins to hallucinate. I am alone with her in her room. I haven’t had a lick of REM sleep in days. We’ve been here together on and off for two days, the cafeteria is closed and the vending machine has maliciously stolen my last three bucks—who’s paranoid?—so I’m hungry and there’s no food. I am standing at the bottom of her bed when it begins.

“You have a fish flying through your hair, dear,” she points out. “Can’t you feel it? Who’s that man in the corner?”

“What man?”

“The one in the raincoat.” Her face darkens with suspicion. “You’re not going to pretend you can’t see him. Say there, missy—can you keep a secret?” She tilts her head and beckons me to her. There’s a strange look in her eyes. Oh no. She is going to—to—confide in me.

“Sure,” I answer. Uneasy. Curious, though. My mother does not talk like this.

“Well, it’s about Louis.” She refers to my step-dad, her second husband whom she divorced, who remained my dad until his death. When she married him, he brought his two kids, and she had her two. Together we formed a family that worked for us kids, though not for our parents, who went from being in love to being at each other’s throats inside of two years.

“I wouldn’t want him to know I’m telling you this,” she cautions.

“I won’t tell him, Mom.” He’s been dead for ten years.

 “Well, I always felt like such a perfect ass that I failed at that marriage. I failed to make a good marriage and a family.” In an instant, I understand what has never occurred to me before. For her generation, a failed marriage meant, in many respects, a failed life. I never knew she felt this way. In her normal state of mind with her defenses up (and they are always up), she’d never have said such things. “No, Mom, you didn’t fail—you and Louis couldn’t make it together, but your kids all did—we’re still family—we’re brothers and sisters, don’t you know that?”

“Really?” she says. “Does it feel like that?”

“Yes, believe me, we all care very much for each other. Don’t worry, Mom, you gave us a family and you gave us a dad. Louis was a wonderful father to us.”

“I hope so, because I have felt like an ass all these years.”

“But you mustn’t. Please try to let that go now. It’s sad that the marriage didn’t work, you and Louis lost out, but us kids did fine.”

“Well. Okay.” She is playing with the coverlet. She seems to be taking heart. I am trying not to cry, and I am not good at this pre-condition—I normally go years, decades even, without weeping. Lately I am a sniveling mess.

“We’re sisters, aren’t we?” she whispers. “You’re my very own sister, and you’re my mother and you’re my daughter.”

“Yes, Mom, yes I am, I’m all those things.” It’s all true, nothing crazy about this part.

“But mostly, we’re sisters now.”

“Yes, we are.” Now it’s not the possibility of tears that unnerves me. I fear I am going to skip that phase altogether and simply wail.

“And we can tell each other anything. Is there anything you want to tell me?”

“No, Mom, I think you know it all.”

“Is your, you know, relationship good with John?”

“Yes, Mom, it’s just fine.” Okay, she’s going for the smut now. I’ll be okay.

“He doesn’t have any…propensities I’d better be told about?” She’s hopeful.

“Nope. The guy is pretty much without propensities.” I am not stupid enough to tell my mother anything about sex, even under the influence of the most powerful drug of all, intimacy. And that’s what this is, it’s an end to the silence, it’s intimacy between me and my mother, and it has not happened like this before. For the next hour or so, she sees colors, hears voices, laughs, comes up with odd memories. She tells me more secrets, ones I intend to keep.

But then a nurse is at the door with afternoon meds. As nice as this interlude has been, it’s also been punctuated by flying animals, caves in the bathroom, the guy in the raincoat, and those kidnappers in their bowling jackets. Just before the nurse arrives, Mom has begun really raving again about the lesbian/Christian kidnap ring. Maybe I owe this rare moment to the machinations of the medical community, but I don’t want any more of it. Being fully psychotic and hallucinating can’t actually be good for a barely post-operative old person, Timothy Leary be damned.

“No, no more pills now,” I say, blocking the nurse’s entry.

“But these are her medications, she has to have them.”

“Not the ones making her crazy, she doesn’t.” I gesture at Mom, as if I were about to say, “Behold. See for yourself, a madwoman.” And Nurse Nancy does behold. Nancy has the same name as my lifelong best friend, the one Mom hated when we were girls, because she thought we were up to no good together. (Also not paranoid. We were up to no good.) Immediately Mom says she will not put up with this, that I am in league with this woman, this Nancy, this nurse, this ostensible nurse, in fact she does not think this is any nurse at all, she knows what we are up to and we won’t get away with it.

“I see your true colors now,” she says, pointing at me, her eyes pinched slits in her extraordinarily young face—young because, as she has told me, she learned how not to smile or laugh, because it gives you wrinkles and lines. Thus her almost impassive lifelong facial expression. “You’re not my sister at all, are you?”

            “Oooh,” says Nancy, who does remind me of my Nancy, “it’s payback time. What did you do when you were a kid?”

            “I hear you whispering,” Mom says. “Don’t think for one minute you’re fooling me, girls, I’m onto your tricks.” She nods and points from me to Nancy.

            “Lots,” I say to Nancy, “I did lots. I deserve this.” Nancy says she cannot discontinue the meds without a doctor’s orders. No medical man in sight. “Well, Nancy, you won’t be giving her any meds at all then.”

“But I have to, she really needs some of these. For clotting and inflammation.”

“Not before I talk to a doctor about some of them,” I say.

“Oh my Lord!” Mom cries. “What’s happening to your face?” She gesticulates in my general direction. “You’re a hundred years old!” I don’t feel far from that. I feel like Ursula Andress in that film called She, just before she dissolves into a crone. “Honey, get a doctor, your face is falling off in chunks!” I feel my face. It’s still there. I tell her so.

“No, no, no, you’re bleeding from the holes in your face!”

“I’m not bleeding, Mom, believe me.” I have not bled from any orifice in years. I have been prematurely post-menopausal for almost a decade.

“Hey! Hey, hey, HEY! Your forehead is coming off! Nurse, get her some help!”

“Yeah, Nancy, get me some help here. Can’t you see my face is falling off?” She leaves, in search, I can only hope, of a doctor.

Now Mom is raised almost straight up, propped on an elbow. “You’re a hundred years old, a hundred years old!” she keens. “You’re older than I am! And you’re bleeding, dear, you’re bleeding from the holes in your face, can’t you feel it?”

“No, I can’t,” I say, feeling my face, wondering if it might be true.

“Well, go in the bathroom and look in the mirror! For heaven’s sake, child!”

I oblige, peering through the fluorescent lights that always make me dizzy. What I see is my sleepless countenance, weary and genuinely frightened for her now. “Not bleeding, Mom. My whole face is right here. And I’m okay. I’m only in my fifties. See?”

“No, your skin is coming off in your hand and you’re a hundred years old and I hate to say it, dear,” she adds in a cattily lucid aside, such as could occur only in a woman of her generation, “but you have not aged well. Not nearly as well as I have.”

I laugh at this. She does not, for she was amused only momentarily before new horrors greeted her.

“Your right eye, it’s blowing up like a golf ball! I always hated golf, never saw the use of it. Your uncles played golf. Your father played golf sometimes. Can’t you feel that? It’s coming right out of your head.” I am standing in helpless fascination at the foot of her bed. She points, well to the side of my actual head. “It’s there, your eye is there now.”

“Exactly where do you see my eye?” Both of us are keenly interested in its migration.

“It’s a full foot to the side of your head, attached by that cord. Doesn’t that hurt? Oh!” She winces. “There goes another chunk of your face!” I’m now thinking of the corpse disintegration scene in A Teenage Werewolf in London. There seems little to do, while waiting for a doctor to appear, but to understand exactly what she beholds.

“So is my eye, what, about here?” I point to the empty space next to my face. Too appalled now for speech, she gestures more to my right, her left. “Here?” I move my finger another six inches. She nods. “Ah,” I say. “Well, what’s here then?” I point to my real eye, which I assume is a bloody socket.

“It’s empty, it’s just a bloody socket.” I have no idea what to do or say next, when suddenly my hero, Dr. Regan, her regular family doctor, appears at the door with his jaunty bow tie and his family-doctor bag of worn black leather that I always find comforting. He always looks like Marcus Welby.

“How are you, Janice?” he asks my mother, striding in and sitting on the edge of her bed. I think that soon all will be well, for he will see that she has taken leave of her senses. But in mere moments it becomes clear by the look on her face that she has decided he’s in on The Conspiracy, so with everything she’s got, she pulls herself together. My mother has considerable powers of performance.

“Fine, just fine,” she answers, “though I would like you to check this bandage.”

“Surely, Janice, I’ll do that as soon as I wash up here.” He heads to the bathroom. Mom beckons me close and whispers, “Be careful, he’s one of them now. Watch out.”

“No, Mom, it’s Dr. Regan, tell him the truth, tell him what you’ve been seeing.”

“No, no,” she hisses, “it would not be safe. They’ll kidnap me again.”

“So everything’s fine, Janice?” Dr. Regan resumes his position on her bed.

“Oh, yes,” she says. “I like your tie, you’re looking quite spiffy today.” Spiffy? The old girl is half flirting with the good doctor? Out of what hat did she pull this trick?

“Why, thank you,” he says. “Now tell me more about how you’re feeling,” he continues, getting out his gear.

“I haven’t had much pain at the surgical site, but it’s very uncomfortable.”

“Mom,” I say pointedly, “I want you to tell Dr. Regan what you see when you–”

Dr. Regan holds a hushing hand toward me. “I’m asking your mother how she feels.” This must be standard when adult children try to speak for their parents.

“My gown isn’t on straight,” she fusses, “but the meals are good.” It goes on like this. “The surgeon was skillful, and I told him that he has a rugged kind of good looks.”

No plots? No lesbians? No mind control? I’m twitching by the time he says, “Well, then, let’s give you your medications now.” They’re in a Dixie cuplet in his hand.

“No!” I squeak, lurching toward his hand as if it contained deadly poison.

Dr. Regan admonishes me again. “We will talk after she takes her medications.”

“No, just please wait a minute. Mom, I want you to look at me. I want you to tell Dr. Regan what you see when you look at me.” I am hoping against hope that my eyes are not back in my head. “And I want you to tell him the truth. Because don’t you think I need some help? And I can’t get help if you don’t tell the truth.” Dr. Regan is poised over her, a half-full cup of water for the pills in his hand. He’s clearly not going to wait much longer before dispensing them down her throat.

“Well,” she begins, “I do wish you’d take a look at my daughter, she clearly needs some help.” He looks at me. “As you can see,” Mom continues, “her right eye is over there, and don’t you think she has aged a great deal today? She’s at least a hundred.”

I smile broadly. I point to my eye. “Bloody socket here,” I note.

He hesitates, taken aback. He glances from her to me, a puzzled frown forming on his face. Mom continues.

“There’s blood running down her face, and part of her face is missing.”

Dr. Regan is staring at my face, processing her words, now registering a fair degree of cognizance that causes him to momentarily lose track of his wrist. He spills the little cup of water right down Mother’s hospital gown.

She yelps and he dabs at her chest.

“I’ll take care of this,” I say sweetly, grabbing a towel. “Perhaps you might want to take a look at the three psychoactives and the Demerol on her chart? The ones I wasn’t told she’d be put back on? The ones I keep asking for her to be taken off of? I have been trying to explain to your colleague for two days that she’s having an allergic reaction.”

Minutes later he and I are in the hall, speaking in low tones. Mom is inside the room behind the closed door, raving about the Christian lesbian kidnappers, of which she is now doubly certain I am one. He takes her off all psychoactives and strongly hints that he does not like their overuse. I am so relieved. When I ask how long they’ll take to get out of her system, he says it should be a matter of mere hours, especially the ones that could, in interaction, cause this. He tells me he won’t be here tomorrow, but not to worry, everything will be all right.

When I get back to the hospital in the morning, Mom is fully sane, already her old unpleasant self, complaining of underlings who are not giving her proper service. “Did you see that aide who was just in here? I want you to report her to the authorities. She did not perform her duties adequately. I know my rights.”

“Sure, Mom, right away.” The day-nurse arrives with the meds tray while I am in the bathroom. When I emerge, she is giving Mom her cup of water and is about to empty the pills into Mom’s hand. Glancing into the cup, I see a lot of pills.

“Excuse me,” I say, “I need to see the list of pills you’re about to give her.” She reads them aloud. All of the psychoactive medications are back on that list. “There’s been some sort of mistake,” I say, “Dr. Regan discontinued these.”

“Yes,” says the nurse, one I’ve never seen before, “but Dr. Regan is out of town today and his colleague re-ordered them this morning. And I see he upped the dosages.” She used the younger doctor’s name during this exchange, which I recognized immediately from my previous discussions with him, though I don’t recall it now, and I have refrained from looking it up in my records.

“No, you can’t give her these. I want to see the doctor.”

“He’s somewhere on his rounds, and I have to give these to her now.”

“No, you don’t, and trust me, don’t try to talk me into this because it will not work. Just report that an uncooperative family member is refusing to allow you to do your job.”

This brings the young doctor. We re-enact our scene from two days ago. I very nearly put my hand on his shoulder, so sincere is he, so much does he believe in the accuracy of the psychiatrist’s report. I’ve got enough friends in psychiatry to know how misplaced is his utter faith in this diagnostic language, based on one short intake interview. “I think you’re making a mistake here,” he opines and walks away, shaking his head. Such a nice man. Such good intentions. I am so angry I could smack him.

That night, alone in a hotel room, I begin to bleed, not from my face, but from the other end of my body for the first time in many years. I gaze at the unaccustomed sight of fresh blood, entirely foreign, nothing like the right blood of menstruation. This is wrong blood, I say aloud, to make myself know it. I might as well be bleeding from my eyes.

Two weeks later I have minor gynecological surgery. I react badly to the anesthetic, and my pulse slows to 20 in recovery. Conscious, I watch as nurses and doctors react to a crisis. I know that it involves me, and that it is life-threatening, but I am calm, even when I hear directives to get more atropine into my intravenous tube. Now I understand how my mother could have managed to be so fundamentally calm, even when her mind showed her such apparitions. Once, I feel my face, to see if it is all there. It is. I feel unspeakably old.

But once I get home and crawl into bed, I feel like a kid who wants to be taken care of. I would like oatmeal with bananas. I would like ginger ale, like Mom used to bring me when I was sick. I’m still in bed, post-operative and pouting, when I begin reading the typescript of a novel my mother wrote over thirty years ago. I encounter this barely disguised autobiographical scene in which the heroine, Celeste, visits her mother Alanna in a hospital, after Alanna has had a stroke. Celeste is a stand-in for my mother, and Alanna for my grandmother.

            There was her darling sick mother, pale and gaunt, sitting helplessly in a

bed with high metal sides all around it. This first time, Alanna recognized her

daughter. “Celeste, help me get out of here!” Celeste thought, We start in the

crib and sometimes we end up in it, too.” The steel sides looked forbidding.

            “Mom, I can’t – you were getting out of bed and hurting yourself. You

must stay in bed now – I’m sorry.”

            “Why, Celeste – help me!” Alanna protested pitifully.

            That was as lucid a moment as Celeste ever again saw in her mother.

My mother is lucid again now, at least some of the time. She corrected my grammar the other day, and I could kiss her for it. I have not told her that I was bleeding and needed a doctor. She already knows that.

About the Author

Diana Hume George

Diana Hume George is the author of The Lonely Other: A Woman Watching America, and author or editor of a number of other books of poetry, essays, and literary criticism. She teaches in the Creative Nonfiction MFA program at Goucher College and codirects the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival.

View Essays