Interviewing my aging mom as her “therapist” changed everything for me

Being back in school after a 12-year hiatus has brought back my procrastination. I enjoy writing, but I think my problem is I overthink everything, especially when it comes to my writing. Procrastination has nothing to do with laziness or lack of time management because I’m the most efficient multitasker I know who can juggle doing the most almost seamlessly. Still, I dread the process of overthinking and doubting myself. I’ll edit my words over and over until the very last minute before the deadline and sometimes past due, like this paper I had to write for my Contemporary Issues of Aging class.

I’ve realized that procrastination is a way of coping with challenging emotions. This grad school program I’m in for clinical psychology forces us to face our most challenging emotions head-on as we learn to process a lot of it through the endless amounts of reading and writing we have to do. I love this class because it’s very relevant to what I am going through now as a caregiver to my mother.

I have a difficult time labeling myself a caregiver. To me, I’m only my mother’s daughter, but I also know I’ve taken on the role of mothering my own mother. Mary Pipher described it perfectly in her book, Another Country. She said, “In America, we are xenophobic toward our old people.” We view older people as disabled and a burden to society, defined by their age and illnesses. In Asian culture, we are taught from birth to respect our elders and expected to take care of our parents and grandparents until their very last breath. The issues of aging hit very close to home for me as I wrote my paper on aging next to the subject herself. It doesn’t get any closer than that.

Yesterday, when I finally sat down in my office to tackle this paper (on the day it was due), my mom yelled for me from her room, saying her feet had gone numb and she couldn’t feel them. I ran to her side to massage her feet. Then, I grabbed my laptop, my cat Tofu recovering from his surgery (RIP kitty balls) along with his comfy new orthopedic bed, and sat down to write from her bedside. My mom started to lose a lot of her mobility six months ago, but she has been able to walk on her own very slowly with the help of a cane or me as her human walker.

Somehow, yesterday paralyzed her. Her Parkinson’s tremors were at their worst, where she couldn’t even pull herself up to stand on her own. It took me close to half an hour to help her to the bathroom each time. I almost grabbed a bucket because I did not know what to do. I couldn’t exactly pick her up either because she has a fractured spine, a herniated disc, osteoporosis, and severe scoliosis.

My mom is like a very fragile package of a human I must handle with extreme care. I told her to hold onto me tightly as we did this super slow dance inching our way to the bathroom. It’s like a baby learning to walk, except it’s my full-grown adult mother falling apart before my eyes. All I wanted to do was weep in her arms, but I had to stay strong. I had to hold it together, and I had to hold her up in my arms, just like how I’ve been holding it down by her side as she got diagnosed with one thing right after another this past year. On top of all her illnesses, she was recently diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that grows inside the bile ducts.

I’ve accepted the reality of my mom’s situation and in no way think I can cure her cancer or hope that any of her other illnesses can magically disappear. However, I am trying to learn everything I can about her conditions. I believe in taking a more holistic approach to give her the best quality of life possible with her remaining time left.

She has trusted her life in my hands, and I wake up and fight for her life every day. A few weeks ago, I had to switch her primary doctor because he refused to sign off on her cataract surgery, saying she might not even live for six months. I asked for a physical therapist, and he told me there was no point and that she probably won’t ever walk again. I asked him to refer me for home health services, and he told me to put her in a nursing home. I stormed out of his office in tears, fired him the next day, and filed a complaint. Even if my mom lives another six days, she deserves to live with dignity.

My mom deserves whatever healthcare she needs. Right now, we need her vision to improve, any chance for her to move again, and some support at home to help me take care of her. I’ve spent countless hours on the phone and on hold with insurance and doctor offices because everything is such an awful long-dreaded process. Luckily, all her important procedures have been sorted and confirmed. I’ll never understand how healthcare works (or doesn’t work) in this country, but I’m getting very familiar with navigating the system.

I spend my days not only fighting her battles but battling her demons as well as my shadows. I cry thinking about the agony she is experiencing with her deteriorating vessel, the excruciating pain and discomfort she has to endure, and the cancer growing inside her. I think about how numbingly painful it must be for her to hold everything in for 75 years. I cry when I think about the decades of her repression.

One of my assignments for the class was to interview someone over 65, so of course, I interviewed my mom. It was one of the best things ever to happen. I feel like it was such a huge breakthrough moment in my relationship with my mom. Most of the time, we can’t survive more than five minutes of real conversation without getting into some disagreement. I’m glad I have an audio recording of this interview, which clocked in at 59:59… a full hour of her talking about her experiences of aging.

My mother has never been to therapy, nor does she believe in it. There is such a cultural stigma with expressing our true feelings, let alone the idea of paying someone to talk about them. Although she seems very supportive of me going back to school to become a therapist, she still doesn’t truly understand how therapy works and the benefits of talking to someone who has been well educated, clinically trained, and licensed to listen and help us process our emotions and experiences. I have also never taken the time to listen to her for a full hour, uninterrupted.

While trying to keep up with all her health issues, staying on top of her 10 different doctors and specialists, taking her to countless appointments, and managing our day-to-day lives together, I have forgotten to see her for the whole human that she truly is. I’ve forgotten about a time when my mom could move freely at her will and do whatever she pleased. I am sure it’s hard for her to remember that now too because Ram Dass said in his book, Still Here, “It’s easy to see yourself as a collection of symptoms rather than as a total human being, including your spirit and thus to become your illness.”

My mom talked to me as if I was her therapist and referred to me, her only child, in the third person. The first thing she expressed about her experiences in getting old was losing her independence not driving. She knew her driving days were close to over when she didn’t feel confident sitting behind the wheel and people on the road were honking at her for going too slow.

“When I cannot drive, I have to depend on other people to drive me, so I lose my independence.”

She talked about how much she misses some of the simplest things like grocery shopping, volunteering as a Girl Scout leader, going for walks in the park, doing Tai Chi, seeing her friends, preparing her favorite meals to share. She mentioned older people losing their teeth, limiting what they can eat, and keeps them from smiling. Eating and smiling — that is something I definitely take for granted. The countertransference for me hearing all this has made my heart ache with tremendous compassion and empathy.

“It’s very hard. I used to be an active person, but now I cannot do anything but sit by my window and watch people passing by, passing the time, watching the world go by. I guess it’s the same feeling that most old people experience.”

I asked her how it felt to talk about all this. She expressed how glad she was to have someone to share her feelings with.

“Usually, the young people don’t understand the old people or don’t even take the time. Old people like me don’t socialize anymore, so we become very lonely.”

My mom has been dodging all her friends since she was diagnosed with cancer just a couple of months ago in November. I was so frustrated because everyone was blowing me up, and I had to lie to them and say she was sleeping, per her orders. After a couple of weeks, some of her very concerned friends showed up at the house with food and flowers, and I had to turn them away. Even then, my mom told me to tell them she was sleeping. Who is going to believe you’ve been sleeping for two weeks?! I couldn’t believe how she could selfishly add more stress onto my plate because she didn’t want to deal with her reality, but I learned to turn that anger into empathy. I had to acknowledge that these are some major life changes that are extremely difficult for her to experience, and people process things differently on their own time. I brought this up in our interview and got to hear more from her perspective.

“I don’t like anyone to take pity on me. I don’t want to see people. I don’t want to answer all their questions when I don’t even have the answers. I don’t want people to see me like this. I don’t even know how to talk to people anymore. I’ve lost my voice. I’ve lost my social skills. I know I am weird and retreat or withdraw, but I don’t want to show my wounds, my pain to the world.”

“There are many other feelings, but I cannot remember everything, and that’s part of getting old too. I feel so helpless and useless. I’m my daughter’s baby now. She gives me baths. She dresses me. She feeds me. She takes me to endless doctor appointments. Life comes full circle. I am lucky because I have my daughter to take care of me. Most people told her to send me to a nursing home, but she vowed she would take care of me for the rest of my life.”

My mom used to tour the local nursing homes to sing and do activities with seniors. I also volunteered with her at this adult daycare center until I moved away for college, but she continued well into her 60s. I made fun of her for volunteering at old folks’ homes as she was becoming a senior citizen herself. She talked about how the conditions of those in nursing homes are worse because they have no love. She recalled seeing them waiting and circling by the entrance in their wheelchairs, hoping for their family to visit.

I had been crying from the start of this interview, but this was the part where my always stoic mother started to tear up talking about her death.

“I think that besides passing my life with the remaining days, I will devote some time to have deep thoughts about the afterlife. As Buddhists, we believe in reincarnation. I just wish I can meet my relatives again in my next life.”

My mom is very loved and known to be a difficult person who often criticizes everything and everyone, especially family. I chimed in and commented, “You don’t even like your family.”

“That is my outside, but my deep feeling is different. I love them dearly. I’m very lucky to have all of you. We are all connected in past, present, and future lives. Love never dies. I consider each life that you live, your spirit is one step closer to reaching perfection.”

Always striving for perfection — such an Asian mom thing to say. Is there such a thing as perfection for a soul? Aren’t we already perfectly imperfect souls reaching one step closer to becoming our highest selves?

The best day of her life was when she gave birth to me because her wish for a child finally came true. She talked about how powerful she felt to grow a baby inside her womb. When asked about anything else that made her feel powerful, her answer was driving. Losing her ability to drive meant losing her power and her freedom. I knew she missed driving, but I didn’t know how much it had affected her until she shared all this.

“My daughter is such a blessing.”

Excuse me, what?! That is something she has never said. Maybe it was easier for her to talk to me as her “therapist” because the only validation I ever got from her growing up and even to this day is when she would brag about me to her friends, or now to doctors and nurses who take care of her, but she is always critiquing me to my face. In her eyes, I’ve never been good enough. Nothing is ever good enough.

“We have different points of view, and we fight often, but deep inside, we love each other.”

I know she appreciates me, but she would never say, “I love you. I’m proud of you. I appreciate you.” That kind of love language does not exist in our culture, but this groundbreaking moment wrapped me like a soft, warm blanket affirming me with unconditional love.

“I just hope, even though I know it’s not possible, I hope my health will improve. As you get old, everything becomes less, not more, even though I try very hard every day. I hope when it’s time for me to go, I can pass in peace and not struggle too much in pain.”

I asked if she was scared.

“Everyone is scared of death, but I pray every day that I can go peacefully and quietly. Every day I wake up and measure what I can do, but it’s always the same or less, never more.”

Hearing this made me very sad. People often ask me if she’s doing better, and that’s something I could never answer. I’m sure it would be so crippling for her to hear that question over and over, knowing it will only get worse, but never better.

“The worst day of my life for me was in the hospital. I felt very, very sad… not for myself, but for you. I imagined the day I pass away and you come home, and no one is there, but now you have Tofu.”

I’ll never forget Zooming in to my human sexuality class from the hospital last quarter with my laptop propped up on her bed as the doctors and nurses kept coming in and out. I was crumbling away with the heartbreaking news of her cancer. Meanwhile, my mom was the toughest cookie who wasn’t even fazed, but now I understand what was going on for her internally. She represses so well.

When asked about what she was most proud of in her life, my graduation day was her answer. I couldn’t possibly be her only accomplishment. What happened in the 41 years before I came along? She said nothing interesting happened before she came to America. As an immigrant who fled her homeland during the Vietnam War and raised me on her own after my dad passed away, I know my mom suffers from PTSD and depression she’ll never know or care to admit, which has probably manifested into many of her illnesses on the physical body and mental health. I cried, knowing my mom, whose world revolves around mine, will one day die without ever understanding self-love.

“Don’t work too hard. I’m very proud of your straight A’s first quarter, but I don’t want you to hold your diploma with a face full of wrinkles and a head full of gray hair.”

This leads me to think, “So what if I have lines in my face and grays in my hair?” My mom has been telling me not to laugh too much since I was a teen because my smile lines would create wrinkles, leading us into the topic of anti-aging. Why have we (womxn) been sold anti-aging shit all our lives? Not only that, but I was also part of the problem contributing to the messages that society reinforces about reversing the aging process. I used to work in marketing and knew keywords such as “anti-aging” would sell because we have been conditioned to worship our youth.

Even when I started my coconut catering business, I stressed the anti-aging benefits of cytokinins and lauric acid found in coconuts, which regulate our cell growth and their divisions, minimizing skin cells’ aging while balancing ph levels and keeping the connective tissues strong and hydrated. This keeps our hair and skin healthy and youthful while preventing wrinkles and age spots, helping you look and feel youthful. Coconut water serves as a natural antibiotic because of this lauric acid, which our body converts into monolaurin. This supports our immune system because of its great ANTI-viral, ANTI-bacterial, ANTI-fungal, and ANTI-parasitic activity, which helps fight against intestinal worms, parasites, and lipid-coated viruses, and other gastrointestinal tract infections. Why are we calling it ANTI-aging as though aging is a virus, bacteria, fungus, parasite, and so forth? And why is the global anti-aging market (estimated to be worth $58.5 billion USD) only violently targeting womxn?

This course has made me hyper-aware of the intersectionality of aging. School has activated a lot of new awareness for me. There is so much more to learn on this topic and how I can integrate human diversity and social justice into working with the older population, the people who care for them, and marginalized communities, as well as those who may need some help acknowledging their privileges. I know my personal experience will provide me with deeper insights into how I can best support caregivers and seniors as a future therapist.

“Everything has to come to an end. I have my happy days, and now I am content with the way my life has turned out.”

When asked about the happiest days of my mom’s life, she listed the day she arrived in the United States, her wedding day, the day she gave birth to me, the day I graduated from university.

“I never thought my daughter would finish school, and now she is working toward her Masters in psychology, but I’m afraid for her health. She’s working too hard and has a lot of responsibilities, her own business to conduct, she has me to take care of and I’m not an easy person, she even remodeled our house, and just adopted a cat she named Tofu she has to take care of.”

It took a school assignment of me interviewing my mom as her “therapist” to help me feel this seen by her. When you’re a caregiver to someone close, like in my case, my mom, who is quite popular but is choosing to retreat into complete isolation, you almost become invisible. Everyone is constantly asking, “How’s your mom?” I get bombarded with these well-intended check-ins, but I’m so overwhelmed with it all, I don’t even know how to answer. People rarely ask me how I’m doing, which is totally fine because I already struggle to answer that question regularly and now more than ever.

“Let me know if you need anything” is another tough one. As someone who is wildly independent, I struggle with asking for help. That’s why I started this campaign. As difficult as it was for me to do this, it was also the best solution I came up with to help you help me and help others, but even that’s only barely scratching the surface. What do I need? Well, we all need basic human needs like food and money. I’m living off of student loans with no income from my business because there haven’t been any events due to Covid, and getting ready to sell my car for money. A vacation would be nice. Hell, even a day off would be divine. I haven’t left my mother’s side for more than a couple of hours at a time, only to run errands and pick up groceries. I have her on a strict plant-based, low salt, no sugar diet, so I cook all her meals and make her fresh juices every day. There are always dishes piling in the sink and loads of laundry to be washed. I have an old house to maintain/renovate and bills that stack as high as the sky. I need time to study. I need time to sleep. I need time to breathe. I need a hug, but we can’t even hug because it’s Covid. I need everything and nothing. I know I am very fortunate and have more than most in the world. I just need a break.

Another very well-intended question is, “What are you doing to take care of yourself?” This always gives me anxiety because it reminds me of how I am not taking care of myself. “Make sure you carve out time for yourself.” I know. I’m slowly learning to give grace to myself.

It’s a privilege to learn how to intellectualize and process my own experiences. I’ve joined a very supportive academic community and have made some incredible new friends on this new path of discovery. I get to learn from and alongside some of the most empathic people. Therapy has done wonders for my healing and personal growth. Therapy has changed my life. I mean, look… I’m in therapy school, and school feels like group therapy. I’m also in group therapy, and I see my therapist 1:1. Full throttle healing in sport mode!

People often say, “I don’t know how you do it.” Well, the simple answer is that you just do it. It takes great strength to pull ourselves out of a dark place, but we look for the light and keep pushing through. You really don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re thrown into the fire. Will you let yourself burn to pieces or use that flame to ignite your power?

Being a first-generation Vietnamese-American, I aspire to bring the benefits of therapy to the BIPOC community that has traditionally shied away from it. I want to reduce the cultural stigma of therapy while normalizing conversations about life and death and the aging process in between, something we must all go through. My practice will incorporate my cultural values and belief systems with the diversity of my personal perspective and experiences to serve others in their journey to heal themselves.

As I looked over at my mother lying beside me, 75 years of her life has brought us here. I felt the heaviness of her aging body in retrograde and the weight of the world on my shoulders. Yet simultaneously, my heart was filled with so much joy and gratitude for this wondrous adventure of life. In the depths of my soul, I felt this karmic entanglement for the complexity of our interwoven lives. My mother will always be my greatest teacher and trigger. She is the life force that will forever power my existence.

Free spirit + trapped soul having a huemxn experience. I chop coconuts for a living and study psychology to chop up feelings. Always hungry. www.cocolily.us