I once heard it said that professional comedians have often survived painful childhoods. I don’t know if that applies to writers of fiction but certainly it was true for me. Before I was born, my mother contracted severe rheumatoid arthritis. Until then she had been a vibrant young woman, attractive and athletic, popular among her friends. But the mother I knew from my first breath was a woman with inflamed joints, body bent, fingers gnarled, her every step agonizing.
My mother’s friends and acquaintances admired her courage and spoke often about how cheerful and uncomplaining she was. I couldn’t possibly count how many times I heard as a child what a remarkable mother I had. Yet I suspect many of us who have lived for years with a chronically ill family member understand that the view from within the household can be quite different, particularly for a child.
My mother rarely acknowledged her pain as if to do so meant surrendering to it. Certainly that required strength and resilience, what her friends so admired. But to live with someone in constant yet unacknowledged pain meant entering into a conspiracy of silence, the proverbial elephant in the room that we could never really talk about. It also required that my mother seem fully self-reliant even when she often wasn’t. During the years I was at home, I felt “on call” to fetch and carry and assist. “Where are you?” was a constant refrain of my childhood, whether I was needed or not. This meant my bedroom door must remain always open and for me to stop whatever I might be doing at any time. I experienced this as a kind of claustrophobia of the spirit, so that as I grew older I stayed away from the house as much as I could.
This need to be “away” continued even when I went off to college and afterward when I roomed with others, as if I feared being confined in any house for any length of time. Certainly, some of my roommates did not appreciate living with someone who was never there, was always somewhere else. But the real crisis for me came after I was married and at home with two children in diapers and once again “on call,” this time 24/7. When I found myself growing increasingly angry, my outbursts coming at times without warning, I finally understood that I needed professional help. With my husband’s support, I sought and received that help. Which changed my life.
My mother’s illness was the most formative influence of my life, and my fiction understandably manifests that pain in the lives of my characters and the events surrounding them. But my novels would not exist had I not years ago received professional therapy, for my vocation as a writer requires me to sit in front of a computer in my own home and stay there.