A Life of Quiet Resistance
By Martha Mosher
There was a time, not too long in the past, when mental illness was thought to be contagious and therefore hidden. There was a time, not too long in the past, when parental and domestic abuse happened only in poor families. We know that neither of these beliefs is true. Mental illness and abuse cross all sections of society and is still hidden. Generational legacy is a term few understand, even if you are standing in the middle of it, because families and society are still in denial of the pervasiveness of it all.
I spent 45 years as a pharmacist. I saw women with hollow eyes and too much makeup. I heard the unasked questions, “How do I get out?” “Where would I go?” I saw the subtle changes when a woman hit bottom and started making decisions to protect herself and not just her kids, when she realized her own resilience and started resisting the chaos to move forward and not only survive, but thrive, when she started to feel her own power. Then there would be an unspoken connection, a hug, a quiet statement that let both of us understand that we are sisters, we have each other’s back. There are benefits from living in chaos. One learns to adapt, one learns to be resilient, one learns to separate “self” from “other”, one learns how to make decisions early and stand by them in the face of opposition. Many of us live quietly, refusing to acknowledge our own power out loud. If told we are heroes we will deny it because we have been taught that we are nothing special and that quietly resisting the chaos takes no talent. It is for my sisters that I tell my story.
I have learned there is a history of mental illness that goes back generations in my mother’s family. Many of the men were alcoholics. Until 1933 there were no medications to treat mental illness. My mother was also hit by a Model A Ford in the 1920’s and sustained head trauma and most likely brain damage. She was also brilliant, graduating from high school early and earning a teaching certificate while in her teens. She taught at a one room school house on Reed Road just south of Geneva. My mother was my abuser. Starting shortly after my birth and continuing until I was in my early teens, Althea damaged my neck, repeatedly beat me on my lower back causing two vertebrae to fuse and burned me with cigarettes. It stopped when I threatened to shoot her with my father’s 0.45. (I was an NRA marksman.) Because of health issues at school, I was seen by radiologists who couldn’t explain the bone damage. My parents were professionals, everyone turned away because professionals aren’t abusers. What Althea taught me was perseverance and resilience, the difference between right and wrong. She also taught me to keep my head down and how to keep secrets. My father taught me I was expendable as I was to protect my brother whom she tried to drown.
At 21, I married my mother – someone who was not emotionally available to me or my daughters. At 42 I divorced him after I realized I had been a single parent for years and started to understand my own power.
In 1978, living on Grassy Hill Road, East Lyme, Ct. I contracted Lyme Disease. Not only did I have arthritis, I had meningeal encephalitis for 5 years. This means my brain swelled as well as the lining of my spinal cord. I couldn’t read, do math well, sometimes I couldn’t speak well or form a complete sentence. The pain in my head was excruciating even on high dose prednisone. If I hadn’t learned how to deal with pain during my childhood, I would have given up. I didn’t. Things slowed down, but I held down a full time hospital pharmacy job, took care of the house and kids, volunteered at school all while being part of the initial study at Yale-New Haven Hospital. 1983 saw the discovery of the bacteria that causes Lyme and I was admitted to hospital for IV treatment. The doctors said I was cured, except I still couldn’t read or do math. I fought my way back. The drive and the adaptability I had learned at my mother’s knee allowed me to keep pushing, to resist giving in, to get up and win.
I used all of this in my pharmacy practice because I could walk in my patient’s shoes when they had doubts or didn’t understand therapy. All of it gave me credibility. Even without going into detail, my patients understood that I knew what they were going through.
My message to women, who think they are nothing special, because you have been told that you are not, is simple. Look inside to who you really are. Look at your daily victories and celebrate them. It may be as simple as the laundry is finally done. It may be as wonderful as your child earning a good grade at school. You were part of that, you helped it to happen and you need to celebrate that for you. Quiet resistance changes society. It puts consistent pressure on every level to move forward. We, who practice it, are every day heroes and our stories are worth being told!