She Wore Gardenias In Her Hair

by Paula Freda

I loved my mother. In her your youth she was free-spirited and spontaneous; she reminded me of a gypsy moth, and she wore gardenias in her hair. She was beautiful and kind, yet she bore a secret pain that would slowly yet relentlessly drain her mind and her spirit. For she was one of the many victims of OCD - obsessive compulsive disorder.

The day before she died in the hospital, my mother asked for my forgiveness for any hardships she'd caused me during the years I'd cared for her in my home, and offered me her forgiveness for any sufferings I'd caused her. I accepted willingly, hugging and kissing her.

If only we'd known years ago about this mind-devastating disease, she might have lived a fuller, more productive life and not suffered from the excruciating anxieties to which OCD victims are heir.

For those who don't already know, compulsive obsessive disorder can be described simply in one word: FEAR. In my mother's case, it was an extraordinary and overwhelming fear of germs, which would eventually lead to her becoming labeled "weird." As the condition went untreated she would become a recluse, constantly washing her hands with burning hot water, unable to do even the simplest task without the fear of becoming contaminated, and making life hell for anyone around her.

Funk and Wagnalls New Encyclopedia describes this illness as obsessive-compulsive neuroses and defines it as follows: "These disorders are distinctive reactions to anxiety. The obsessive pattern is made up of persistent, distressing ideas that afflict the patient constantly, while the compulsive pattern imposes invincible urges to repeatedly perform particular physical acts....In severe obsessional states, spontaneous disappearance of symptoms is unlikely, and psychotherapy, which is useful in mild and moderate reactions, may be disappointing." This latter information was to prove true in my mother's case, for when we finally learned what afflicted her, and turned to counseling and psychotherapy, it was too late. When her own mother died, the OCD intensified. No amount of counseling was able to fully penetrate her obsession. It drained her physically and mentally, totally frustrated everyone around her, bringing out anger and resentment on our part, until all she wished for was death. That last year of her life I remember her praying for it out loud. And subconsciously, and I say this with shame and undeserving guilt, so did we.

Despite all the anger and frustrations, I loved her, but living with her became unbearable. I could not even leave her in the back yard in the summer, seated for a few minutes of fresh air, without her frantically calling to me every minute about the insects that might bite her, or the breeze blowing in her face and giving her a cold. Yet, whenever a free moment from her anxieties allowed, she was the kindest, gentlest human being, ready to give of herself. I loved her then the most. I remember during the final year of her life, as I knelt down to help her dress, she suddenly kissed me on the cheek and thanked me for my aid. I treasure that kiss and those words, that single moment is burned into my memory as is the moment at the hospital during which we forgave each other for the tyranny OCD imposed upon us. There were so few of those moments.

The help of a nurse's aide only served to increase her anxieties about contamination. The final knowledge that we intended placing her in a nursing home took away whatever will she had to live. She became ill and had to be hospitalized. During that week I visited her every day for about two hours (I didn't drive and had to rely on bus schedules, plus a family to worry about). I tried to make her as comfortable as possible. But there again her inordinate fear of contamination made every moment in the hospital a drain on her health and mentality. Again she was classified by the nurses and orderlies as "weird." Each time I left, it was to her heartrending pleas for me not to go yet. It imposed a terrible burden of guilt. I will probably spend the rest of my life wondering what I could have done more to alleviate her sufferings.

Yet who could live with these (among many others):

- daily basketfuls of toilet paper and facial tissues, most of it absolutely clean

- toilet paper and facial tissues which had to be constantly replenished.

-exorbitant water bills - not to mention the grating, nerve-racking sound of tap water constantly being turned on and running and off - a type of Chinese torture.

- clothes unworn from previous washings constantly submitted for re-washing. And so on....

We reached a point where my family and I had to often lie to my mother - I would take the clean paper from the baskets, refold it and give it back, or close the water for a few hours in the bathroom to keep from going insane, or take the clean clothes and give them back a few hours later, saying I had washed them, and so on.... We were becoming "weird" as well.

It was a blessing and a curse when she passed away in the hospital. A blessing because we were at last free of the hell OCD bequeaths its victims and their families. It was a curse because I loved my mother and was denied the rich emotional experience and memories that a loving mother-daughter relationship can bring. A curse, because of the guilt and the pain her death left, with only a few moments of understanding in between. A curse, because it denied my mother the happiness she could have known if only her illness had been diagnosed and treated when it first, slowly, began afflicting her. If only we'd known....

Several years ago I wrote a poem that would unwittingly one day symbolize my mother's ordeal most adequately:

I once picked a rose, a lovely newborn flower,
And placed it in a sherry glass of the finest crystal
But alas, the glass was too slender,
And I'd cut the flower's stem too short.
My rose was trapped inside;
It could not spread its petals wider.
It remained a lovely flower
Until it withered and died.
But I thought,
If only it had been given freedom,
What memory of open-berthed, blossoming beauty,
It would have left behind.

I loved my mother. In her youth she was free-spirited and spontaneous, like a gypsy moth, and she wore gardenias in her hair.

by Paula Freda

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