You would think she had heard, for the very first time, that Santa was a phony. “Real Housewives don’t act like that. It’s made up drama...TV.”
I could tell I wasn’t reaching her, mainly because of her counter argument. “They may not be real friends, but if you throw that many women together in one room, you won’t have to invent drama, it will unfold naturally.”
I sighed deeply, my cousin luvvs reality television. Even though she works full time, maintains a household, and has raised four kids, she still finds ways to invest herself wholeheartedly into the guilty pleasure of reality fucking soap operas.
Real women don’t hurl things at one another from the other side of the room. They don’t kick and scream and cuss each other out. This kind of behavior is reserved for the men in their lives. You go all crazy cause you want a man to grab you, hold you, calm you down. It’s a strut, a dance, an attention getting scheme that only means, “I’m really, really horny. Come and get it while it’s hot.” But this behavior is not at all for girlfriends, especially if you’re heterosexual. I would have gone on believing my own point of view, but then my mother came to visit.
I like to think I am who I am because of my mother and in spite of my mother. She is not the worst mom ever. She’s not the best one either. On a normal day, there are about three thousand miles separating me from her. But on holidays and special occasions, we find ourselves within arms reach of one another. Some families use this proximity to offer hugs or pats on the back. My mother uses this closeness as a microscope to magnify her misery.
“Mom, we’re taking a picture. Can you smile for the camera?”
“What do I have to smile about?”
We’re dining over Italian when I attempt to stage this feel good family moment. “Fuhgetaboutit,” I tell her, then offer some unwanted advice. “Mom, they make very good anti-depressants these days. Maybe you should try one.”
“You want me to use drugs?” her eyes are resilient and defeated all at the same time.
“Yes, actually. There are good pharmaceuticals on the market that really could help you.”
This is probably my 999th attempt to convince my mother to get some help. I knew she suffered with depression before I knew what depression really was. Years ago when I had come home from college to find her camping out in the basement of our home (she had made this space her bedroom), I suggested to one of my aunts that my mother might be depressed. “Your mother is NOT depressed!” She said this like I had diagnosed mom with stage ten terminal illness. “OK, I guess it is “normal” to hide out in the dungeon away from any and all sunlight the entire summer. Sorry!”
My mom had visited a psychologist once, after her twin sister passed. She told me the shrink said it was quite normal to grieve the loss of a loved one so she didn’t go back. I’m sure the professional also offered grief counseling, but mom wouldn’t have heard anything after the expert affirmed living in the dumps was normal.
When my mom had a stroke, I asked the recovery nurse to send her to a psychiatrist. Maybe there was an ethical way to sneak an anti-depressant in with all of the other meds she was required to take. The nurse assured me that mom would see the doctor, but depression, after a stroke, was quite normal. There was that word again, normal.
This is Cleveland, a city with over 12,000 abandoned buildings. When brick and stone structures are literally falling around you, being down in the pits makes perfect sense, it may even feel normal.
But we’re thousands of miles away from the midwest. The sun is shining and my mother notices we haven't driven past a single dilapidated building. Yet and still a cloud of gloom hangs overhead, like Charlie Brown’s filthy friend who walks through the comic strip with a halo of dust. I know the kind of depression my mother has is not some geographical illness regulated to a city in ruins. I know it because I have it too. When I first took up residence in LA, I was a young thing in my twenties. I stared at the palm trees and the bright blue sky and wondered why, with all of these signs of joy, was I feeling so downtrodden? It took some time in mental health jail to understand everything I needed to do to maintain complete wellness. I take the pill. I exercise daily. I sleep uninterrupted. I eat food, the kind that grows from trees and bushes, and try my best to avoid the junkie stuff. I write or make art and shoot little films because these are the things that make me whole, that allow me to see a palm tree or a blue sky and smile at God’s gifts of nature.
My mother concludes our dinner with the speech where she explains how she loves us, but doesn’t really like us. I’ve heard this speech many times before. What she’s saying is that family is like a contract signed with blood. You have an obligation to be in the same room with people you don’t really care for, just like the housewives on reality TV. Remember my cousin’s argument? If you put a whole bunch of people in a room together who aren't really friends, some catastrophe is bound to unfold. By the end of the night my mother was staring me straight in the eye, “Fuck you!” she said. She pointed at my aunt and told her, “Fuck you too!”
Now according to my belief system, grown women don’t behave this way in the company of other grown women. I had just explained this to my cousin. So when mom walked away, I could have let the night end with “fuck you,” but she was in my house. There is one thing to know about my house...I am so committed to peace that I’ve escorted more than a few people out the front door. My mother was about to be one of them. I let her know as much, but this did not have the effect I was looking for. She continued shouting, “Shut up! Just shut up!” Full blown housewives craziness. I paused. All of the people I’ve put out before had somewhere else to go. They knew LA well enough to find another couch to crash or a shelter or something of that sort. This woman only knows how to get down the street and back, and that’s about it. If I showed her the door, I would be stepping into the reality TV role of Infamous Bitch, a character required to maintain the theatrics of reality programming. So instead, I did as mom requested and shut the fuck up. Otherwise this situation would escalate and the next thing you know, we'd be throwing each other across the room without the benefit of the paycheck provided to the ladies on television.
I’ve been processing this most recent family visit and the emotional circus that came with it. Could my cousin be correct? Is drama par for the course when grown ups are forced to gather together? How do you keep peace in the midst of multitudes?
Written by Malika Ali Harding
Header Photograph © Seph Lawless