When I was little I remember thinking I was lucky to have a mommie who knew just what to do when I was sick. She always had the right medicine or took me to the doctor and it made me feel secure.
But then there were unsettling times that didn't seem quite right. I remember being in the hospital crib, old enough to miss my mommie and try to go and find her. I remember climbing out of the crib more than once, its white-painted metal bars being no barrier to my climbing skills. One night I climbed out and got into the rocking chair and rocked myself to sleep, crying for mommie who didn't come. Finally they put a net over the crib. I don't know what I was in the hospital for that time, but I didn't feel sick at all. Just lonely and scared.
Once I drank some sweet stuff I found in a bottle. It couldn't have been more than half the bottle but my mom freaked out and went over to Grandma's to call the doctor. Before she left she screamed and cried and told me that I could die. While she was gone I cried and cried, afraid of what was going to happen to me.
She came back, determined to purge the cough syrup from me. She made me drink hot salt water, and when that didn't work she put some raw eggs into a cup and made me drink that. I no sooner swallowed this vile concoction when I vomited. Satisfied, my mom put me back to bed and I was left alone with my fears.
She had a tumultuous marriage to my stepfather, Homer Cook. They started dating when I was 4 and he was very nice to me at first. That summer I was in the hospital recovering from a tonsillectomy when they had their blood tests to get married. After their wedding and honeymoon we moved to Illinois to live with him in his hometown, West Point. I missed my extended family dreadfully.
I remember having a bladder infection (one of the few things I know I had because of the pain involved) and had to take pills. I remember Mom mixing them with jelly to help me get them down.
For awhile Mom seemed happy but then the marriage started to deteriorate under the pressures of my stepfather's drinking and his jealousy of me. I was commonly referred to as "your brat." They separated for awhile during the summer between kindergarden and first grade, and got back together halfway through the school year. She left him again just before second grade (how I measured time back then), hitchhiking because he took the spark plugs out of her car. As soon as she got back into Keokuk I went off to relatives and she ended up in the hospital having yet another surgery on her "female organs" as I heard whispered.
In second grade I started experiencing nausea and had some tests done. Mom told me I had an ulcer. Later I found out that it was simply gastritis, an irritated stomach. My stomach was to be forever sensitive to my emotions, and living with my mother brought up a lot of feelings. She alternated between being downcast and unavailable, sleeping a lot in her room or reading, and flying into rages over little things that terrified me. She told me my ulcer could bleed if I was ever hit in the stomach, something the school bullies were only too happy to test out. I was sent off to school with medicine to take at lunch time, cementing my reputation as the sickly girl in my class.
In fourth grade I truly got sick--with chickenpox. Along with my bladder infection, it is one of the few illnesses I am sure I actually had. Later that year I had another surgery, to insert drainage tubes into my ears for infections that, again, I am not certain I really had. I remember going to a hospital in Quincy Illinois for that and hating the sickly sweet smelling gas they put me to sleep with. I fought against it and kicked a nurse in the stomach, but the doctors and nurses all held me down while they put the mask back over my face and told me to breathe in and I would fall asleep. It makes me angry to think I went through that for nothing.
In fifth grade I was told that I had strep throat repeatedly, and then rheumatic fever. Mom sent excuse notes to school to keep me from doing anything active in gym class or at recess. I was forbidden to run. According to Rachel, the medical records clerk, the notes say that my mother suspected rheumatic fever and that's why certain tests were done. Nowhere does the doctor say I had it. It wasn't long after this that we switched doctors again, as we often did when they stopped agreeing to whatever my mother suggested I needed to be treated for or when they balked at more treatments for her.
In 1973 I had my adenoids out. By that time I pretty much knew that it wasn't necessary but living with my mom had become unbearable and I felt like going to the hospital was a vacation among sane people in a clean and orderly environment. I had a favorite nurse, Mary Florence. She worked the night shift and we would hang out together after the smaller children were asleep. I remember one night we puzzled over the correct pronounciation for the technical term for blood pressure cuff (sphygmanometer). For this surgery I got to talk to the anesthesiologist and asked if I had to have that awful smelling gas. He gave me the option of sodium pentothal and I was happy to have some little control over the process.
The next year my mom decided I must have diabetes when one blood sugar test spiked. I was having regular blood tests for some reason I don't even know, and I had eaten chocolate cake just before the midnight fasting point. So they scheduled a glucose tolerance test. Before we even went for the test Mom showed me where I would be giving myself insulin shots, how I would have to alternate sites and test my blood sugar regularly, and she called up every friend and relative to tell them that I probably had diabetes. By then I had begun to understand that she was excited about such things and that this wasn't normal, but I had no name for this phenomenon. I figured that it was nothing, just the chocolate cake, so I tried not to get too worked up about it myself. Still, she seemed so certain that I had a tiny doubt that it might be true, and wondered how I would cope with needles every day.
When we went in for the test she told the technician in a resigned, martyred voice, "I've been expecting this." Being a teenager I wanted the ground to swallow me up, I was so embarrassed.
The test confirmed that I was normal and my mom seemed unhappy. I noticed that she wasn't so eager to call the family and tell them the good news as she had been to tell them I was sick. I filed that away in my growing list of things that were weird about my mom, a large list in which multiple suicide attempts seemed to loom much larger than her odd medical obsessions.
Her first suicide attempt that I experienced was during the summer I was 13. In the years that followed I lost count of how often she was hospitalized for overdoses. On one occasion I had to remove Aunt Gin's .22 pistol from under her pillow while my aunt kept her on the phone. I got used to monitoring the levels of her anti-depressant medications in the cabinet and to watch them more closely if she was upset about something.
So I had little time to ponder my medical history or the odd things she told me I had over the years. I simply wanted to get away from her depressions, her rages, and the chaotic nature of our home. I tried to have myself placed outside the home but the only place our county had to put me was the county home--a place for indigent elderly people and a few troubled teens. I didn't really fit in with either group and my few months there felt like prison. I decided the relative autonomy I enjoyed at home with my crazy mom was better than the rigid atmosphere of the institution. So back home I went.
During my early teen years I studied religion. I started out looking into various Christian denominations and going to church with friends. I gravitated to the Catholic Church with its rituals and structure, its certainty of the absolute truth. I took instructions from a local priest, Father Kempker, and was re-baptized and confirmed. I attended regularly and I prayed for long periods of time each night before going to sleep. I joined the choir and blissfully sang midnight Mass at Christmas. My lukewarm Protestant family was shocked but had to grudgingly accept my involvement and didn't say too much to my face about it.
After a couple of years I began to have some philosophical disagreements with Catholicism and began reading up on other religions, this time looking outside Christianity. I was listening to George Harrison's music and made a friend at this time, Carolyn Fader. Together we read about Hinduism and meditation, and discovered the International Society for Krsna Consciousness (ISKCON). Hinduism and Gaudiya Vaishnavism in particular made the most sense to us of anything we had read about. (And we had read through much of the world religion section in our library.) Karma, reincarnation, devotion to God as the path out of the suffering of this material world, all of this appealed to us. Carolyn had grown up with a sister who was brain dead and suffered a lifetime living in a crib, cared for by her family, moaning her distress. I had lived with my crazy mother for years. Both of us wanted to understand the nature of suffering, and this philosophy seemed to answer our questions.
At 16 I dropped out of school and during the summer my family (Grandma, Aunt and Mom) told me I could go to the Hare Krsna temple in St. Louis for the summer. If I liked it, they would sign over custody and I could stay there.
As it turned out, although things weren't ideal in the temple I liked it a great deal better than my home life and wanted to stay. My mom changed her mind and dragged me home. She made another suicide attempt that fall and we were headed towards another court appearance regarding my custody. So she moved us to Missouri, not realizing that by their laws I could leave home at age 17, just a couple of months away. And that's exactly what I did.
Later I was sent to Chicago where I met my first husband. We went out to Los Angeles together, and there I had my two children. I gave birth at home, wishing to avoid doctors as much as possible after my childhood. My husband was a natural health fanatic and viewed doctors as suspect also. So he reinforced my mistrust although I did get my children checked out and I took them in if they had high fevers or anything I felt we couldn't treat at home.