An Orphan’s Memorial to Her Dying Mother
Sheri Heller is a clinical social worker who is in private practice as a psychotherapist, specializing in treating trauma and addictive disorders
Sheri’s mother, Pearl, lived with schizophrenia. As a result, her family lived in turmoil. She has spent much of her life living with the effects of her unhealthy relationship with both of her parents, sifting through wreckage of her childhood, and using her creativity to help her channel the hurt and the pain. A few months back, she sent us a moving piece of creative writing about their relationship titled “An Orphan’s Memorial to Her Dying Mother.”
“My mother was dying at the time that I wrote that. I hadn’t seen her in a number of years. She was dying of skin cancer, that was completely treatable had she received medical care. So I needed to discharge this energy, and I needed to give creative expression to what I was going through. I wanted to have a moment of being real with my mother, which I could never have in our relationship. I wrote this piece for her, and for myself, to honor our connection.”
I was intrigued by the intensity of the experience depicted in the essay. I was moved by Sheri’s strong resignation to end the relationship with her mother (one that had been so painful and destructive) in hopes of moving forward with her life. Her writing was filled with strength and sadness, and it touched me.
As a filmmaker, I was compelled to help lift this story off of the page. I thought there might be a way to adapt the story with animation. I contacted Sheri and she was supportive of the idea. I have worked in the past with the very talented animator Paul Fierlinger and his wife and colleague Sandra Fierlinger. I approached them and they, too, were game.
I met Sheri in a sound studio in a basement in Brooklyn (see transcript excerpts below) where she recounted many episodes from her childhood, and explored her relationship with her mother. I shared her story with Paul, who drew her story with such creativity and empathy.
Here are the results. Sheri Heller is a powerful survivor who now helps others who have experienced trauma. I admire her courage, and hope this short film honors her journey and may serve to inspire others.
Remembrances of My Lost Mother
Animation by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger
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Excerpts from interview with Sheri Heller:
My sister was about seven when my mother had her first psychotic break. She was coming in and out of psychosis until she completely descended into chronic schizophrenia. She was in treatment, my father was a journalist at the time, and he helped pay for treatment by bartering his paintings, his oil paintings.
From what I know about the treatment, my mother started sharing some pretty heinous memories from her childhood. Her brother was also diagnosed with schizophrenia. He died of toxicity to the blood from psychotropic use. He also was a victim of child abuse, as was my mother’s sister who ran away from home at 16.
The early years were in Queens, in Rochdale Village, from about the time I was two. Prior to that, I was taken care of by different relatives, some of whom were also abusive.
I wasn’t able to bond with my mother, my mother actually went into the hospital, was institutionalized, very soon after my birth, so there was a very profound rupture and bonding that affected me throughout my life. By the time we were in Queens, my parents tried to reunite. My mother was floridly psychotic, and that was probably the worst period I could recall. Things got pretty bad later on, but because I was so young, that period was particularly damaging.
We lived in complete filth and squalor. In fact, neighbors initiated a petition to get us out because we brought about a bug infestation. My mother stabbed a neighbor, I have a very vague memory of that because she was holding me. There was just a litany of traumas that occurred. My sister Dina and I were held hostage in the house. We weren’t allowed to go out at all, and sometimes we would try to escape — Dina was seven years older than me. If my mother would catch us, Dina would get a beating, and it was pretty brutal.
I really tried to understand. I read very young. I love reading. I devoured books. My father was a writer. He was a journalist, but he wrote creatively. He was also a painter. I became very enamored in the arts very young. He also loved music, so I was exposed to a lot of music. There was a strange juxtaposition because there was so much chaos and deprivation, and abuse, and yet there was so much beauty too.
He was very sick himself. He had a different brand of mental illness. He was extremely narcissistic, character disordered, inappropriate. He also ended up living in squalor, and was kind of schizoid. I mean really cut off from people. He had a raging sex addiction. It was a very complex relationship.
I was expected to know a lot very young. I understood what schizophrenia was, it’s a brain disorder, a psychotic disorder.
My parents would constantly lose me. They lost me in a museum once. I’m walking around in the stairwell and this lovely woman takes my hand and she says, “Let’s go find your mommy,” and I remember thinking, “No, no, no. Let’s not find her. Why don’t you take me home?” That was thematic of where I was at with all of it. I wanted out. I really, I wanted to be in a home that would provide me with the love that I needed.
My mother Pearl was a beautiful woman, but when she was very scary — really scary — when she was very sick. There was a time when she came back from the mental hospital, and she seemed lucid. She went out with my father one night, and she looked beautiful. She had makeup on, she was wearing this beautiful kind of vintage coat. She looked very elegant. I could smell her perfume. And I remember holding her, and I didn’t want to let her go. But she always left.
My mother’s first break was probably in ’59. She was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. Paranoid. She was at mental hospitals most of her life, and early on, particularly in the 50s and 60s, she would hide under the bed from getting electric shock. She was in a lot of very awful state institutions, so she has a real fear for the obvious reasons of psychiatry.
My sister said that when my mother first went to the hospital, she said that her mother died and a ghost came back.
When she was sick her eyes became wild and mad. She reminded me of Medusa. She wouldn’t clean herself. She used to wear the same outfit. This blue sequined skirt suit, that was completely inappropriate for day wear, and she would not take it off, and she wouldn’t bathe. I remember showing a picture to my first therapist, of me and my sister and my mother on the couch, and he said, “What was it like for you, for your mother to have been so ill, but to be so beautiful?” I said, “Is she beautiful?” Then I had to look at her and see the person.
She was put on Thorazine. There were times when my mother wouldn’t take the medication. She would always deteriorate when she would come home from the hospital, because of her relationship with my father. My father was constantly unfaithful. He was abusive. She would try to kill him. My mother would chase him around the house with hammers and knives. It was very crazy. You know as I think back on it, I really am astounded, at the lunacy that we all endured. That we all had to try to manage somehow.
I got to a point where I hated her, and I didn’t have really any place to put that, except through destructive acting out as I got older. While there was tremendous rage and despair in all of us, none of it was talked about in a truthful way. I think my sister and I tried to engage with one another. She started using drugs pretty young, and also introduced me to drugs and alcohol, so we both medicated and numbed out.
Sometimes she wouldn’t get out of bed. She didn’t really do much of anything. There was one point where I think she worked at Korvettes, but we struggled, we struggled. We got on welfare.
She needed help. She needed treatment. Many times when I would call up protective services for adults, and a psychiatrist would go out, diagnose her, and I would tell them, “Do not give her the paperwork, she will not file the paperwork. She doesn’t want anyone to know she’s schizophrenic, but she needs disability.” And lo and behold they would always give her the paperwork.
There was a period when she was homeless. This was a few years ago, where she was homeless, and I said I would take her to Payne Whitney, New York hospital, which was really the only way to get her housing. She was so petrified from her early experiences that she ran away. She got through the shelter system. I was amazed. My sister and I went to the Supreme Court to get a mental-health petition to see if they could find her. A psychiatrist then contacted me. He recognized my name because I had been working in the public sector in mental health. It was a very tragic meeting, and I stipulated. I said, “Never again. If you’re not going on meds, we’re done.” That was a turning point in a way.
My mother has had a tragic life and ultimately I ended my relationship with her, because I started recognizing traits in my mother that were not just about her schizophrenia, that had to do with her character. The jealousy, her refusal to allow me to exist as a human being who created a life for myself, who struggled to create a life for myself.
She left supervised housing, where she was doing much better, went into independent housing, and she really devolved by the time she died, which was last year. She was riddled with skin cancer. She had a hole in the side of her head, and she was living in squalor. Actually it was a super who intervened and got her in a hospital, and she was at Bellevue, and then in hospice, and they were really lovely, and took care of her. But there’s no resolution.
On the advice of a friend (“You know, you really give good advice, and you’re a really good listener”) I pursued a career in mental health.
Upon graduation from graduate school, I was offered a position at Coney Island Hospital where I did my internship in the addiction unit. I was working with a forensic population and I loved it. I really loved it. I related a lot to their histories. I related to their stories. I knew that, I felt it was there but for fortune, may go you or I. I really felt I made some different choices, but I definitely saw this is where I would have headed. I felt the work was deeper, and I really made connections, and I felt like the attachment piece was so critical. It was very illuminating for me, and it crystallized a lot.
Also in that program, there was a creative piece, so it was a wonderful program. All the clients had to do something creative, something expressive as part of their treatment. Also I was asked to do some teaching, because I was working a lot of with women who were sexually abused, since I was working with women who were trafficked, who were in prostitution. It really awakened things in me.
That has become kind of my trajectory, and working with very severe trauma.
I’m very humbled by the men and women I work with. I specialize in treating complex PTSD trauma, predominantly rooted in child abuse. I work a lot with addiction. I also work with a lot of artists. I often hear from my clients that I have a level of understanding of who they are that they hadn’t experienced before, and it makes me feel as if I did the right thing with what I was handed.
In a way that was my spiritual contract. It feels all the pain and the suffering that I went through has found … Is being given creative expression through my work. It’s finding the beauty and the ugliness, in helping others to heal. I feel very blessed in that way, but I’m also very aware of what it took for me to get here.
A lot of people say. “How do you do this work?” and it’s like, “Well it really inspires me, and it’s endless.”
In addition, the arts, my love of travel, and my ability to play and appreciate what is beautiful in life have been critical to my survival. I always encourage my clients to tap into that sense of wonder that got obscured and seemingly annihilated by traumatic abuse. Without it there is no purpose. We merely exist.
I guess I just want to say that I’m so glad I didn’t give up on myself, and I hope that others don’t give up on themselves. It’s a really hard road, but it’s why I do this work, and I do hope that this beautiful piece that you and Paul will be creating, will encourage others to persevere.
An Orphan’s Memorial to Her Dying Mother
by Sheri Heller
“Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”
Mother, you are dying a horrible death, a finale consistent with a tragic life. Plagued by paranoid schizophrenia prior to and subsequent to my birth, the nature of our relationship remains unfathomable and immeasurably heartbreaking. Your imminent loss is disorienting. I find myself floundering, still fearful of you, still enraged and yet also inextricably tied to you in inconceivably baffling ways.
After decades of pointless effort I walked away from you. That pivotal but necessary decision cut me to the core. I could no longer pretend. To this day you deny and refuse to acknowledge our harrowing history. It’s understood that we are to never approach what occurred between you and I. Oddly, that I could handle. What I could no longer permit was your blatant rejection of who I am. The inferred contract to shield you from ever being burdened by my needs, my traumas, my losses had to end. So on that night over eight years ago, I dared to be authentic with you. I laid bare the truth about my life, my sorrow, my triumphs, my struggles. Silence ensued. You retreated into psychotic reverie, deserting me, shutting me out and punishing me for daring to be real. That regrettable moment offered agonizing transparency. I saw the volition in your purposeful retreat, shielding yourself behind your cloak of insanity, to obliterate me in the most pernicious way.
Mother, in spite of it all I am haunted by your suffering. I cry for you now as I did as a child, but I refuse to be shackled by agreements that snuff out my spirit. I will not capitulate, even though it means parting forever devoid of the prescribed ceremonial rituals devised to honor one’s passing. Innumerable complex losses and intangible sources of grief permeate our connection. Persistent yearnings for the love and normalcy I never had clash with the reality of prolonged abuse, neglect and trauma. I was robbed of my birthright and I paid a staggering price.
To my dismay I am instinctively revisiting the past, returning to my vulnerable formative years when you were at the peak of your illness. It’s when the worst of the abuse occurred. I remember that house, permeated with filth, infested with bugs and garbage. There were so many fucking cockroaches that I thought the walls were alive. My body was a toxic wasteland. I was malnourished, slowly dying from an impacted rectum. Flooded by despair, by 3 years old I wanted life to be over. It only got worse. Throughout adolescence I resorted to violence to escape your grip. You would barricade the door, struggling to take me hostage, as you were able to do when I was too young and frail to fight. I’ve never forgotten you hauling me out of bed dragging me across the floor, tearing off my nightgown as I begged for mercy. You threw me out of the house naked, the allotted penalty for my expressing anger. I hid behind the milk box by the front door. Flashbacks of your knife and hammer complete the tableau of horror. Now I am angry, and the venom of hatred disturbs my composure. I am viscerally reminded of the crippling damage incurred from our bond.
Nonetheless I pressed on and stayed the course, ironically consummating weighty ambitions to become a psychotherapist and subsequently, an interfaith minister. I committed to years of therapy and sundry healing modalities, working multiple jobs to put myself through college and grad school. To say it was laborious and demanding does not do it justice. The arts, travel, and sundry relationships sustained me, but always that dysphoric loneliness brought me to my knees. That immeasurable chasm of intangible ravenous need will forever be my Achilles heel. It is a constant reminder of what I was denied.
Now the end is near and societal mandates advise me to offer absolution, irrespective of whether you’ve made any sort of genuine attempt towards restitution. The exalting of an illusory ideal of the mother-daughter dyad is to trump the preservation of my sanity if I am to ostensibly be set free and redeemed as a good daughter. With religious zeal this is considered a crowning achievement. Along with this cultural prescription, the legitimacy of my self-protective distance and detachment informed by an instinctual attunement to danger is deemed punitive and cruel. With despairing righteous indignation I challenge these badgering collective judgments. How am I to measure up to proclamations that have no bearing on my history or my reality, that fail to consider the enormous complexity and singularity of this surreal bond and this mystifying loss? How do I grieve for a mother I never had?
Mother, I am resigned. There is no formulaic pathway to rely on. My sorrowful search for cursory glimpses of you led me to finally accept that you are but a phantom to me. What I am to you continues to confound me. Playwright Robert Anderson wrote, “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind toward some resolution which it may never find.” While there is no compensation or opportunity for meaningful reconciliation, mother, for good or bad, as hackneyed as it sounds, you will always be a part of me, and I will do what I can to purposefully mourn and willingly carry on with what will forever be unsettled.
In addition to her therapy practice, Sheri Heller is an ordained interfaith minister, a freelance writer, and playwright. Sheri is also a travel enthusiast, a nature lover, and perennial seeker with an appreciation for the absurd. The arts in every medium, nourish her being. Sheri works in New York City, and lives in Brooklyn, NY.