The Intervention that Wasn’t

Lately I have been completely hooked (har har) on the show Intervention. I’d seen it a couple times on cable at my parents’ house, but I found it too depressing. But then it showed up on Netflix Instant, and I have been watching it serially. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s basically What Not to Wear for the soul—it involves a family staging an intervention with a drug-addicted, alcoholic, or mentally unstable family member, who (if they choose) will get 90 days of rehab paid by the show. The actual intervention doesn’t happen until the last 10 minutes of the episode, and it’s almost always completely nerve-wracking: will this week’s subject say yes to rehab? If they don’t, will their family members be able to stop enabling them from that day forward? Sometimes, the subjects straight up run away from the intervention; occasionally they end up in jail before rehab. It’s a surreal, heartrending mix of exploitation tv and serious documentary. And I’ve watched dozens of episodes in the last month.

It took me at least a dozen before I realized why the show haunts me: I tried to be part of a one-woman, long-distance, half-assed intervention myself. I didn’t think of it that way at the time, but that’s what it was. Around 2004, when I was living on the West Coast and my family was back East, my mother started acting very strange. She said things that didn’t make sense; she wrote letters addressed to the wrong people; she hung up the phone when my boyfriend answered, convinced she’d dialed a wrong number. For months I wondered what was happening; I would ask her if she was okay and she would insist nothing was wrong. I conspired with my stepfather to get her to go to the doctor, but she kept refusing, and from 3000 miles away, I couldn’t make her go. I wasn’t sure if I was exaggerating the weirdness out of paranoia—until one day in April, I got two birthday cards from my mom on the same day, one signed “Mom” and one signed with her first name. My birthday is in August. I called her to ask if she’d mixed up some envelopes, and she flatly denied that she’d sent cards to anyone, refusing to believe that I was holding them in my hands as we spoke. After I got off the phone, I cried for hours. I called and begged her to go to her doctor. I asked my stepdad if we could get her there without her consent. Neither of us knew what to do, and no one else knew how bad things were getting; she was still clever enough to hide her confusion from people who weren’t as intimately involved in her life.

If you know me from Shapely Prose, you probably know what I didn’t then: my mother was at the beginning of a rapidly progressing dementia. On Intervention, they say that the only way to make an addict choose recovery is to make them face their rock bottom; the only way to get my mom to admit her health was failing was for her to hit rock bottom, too—she collapsed at home and hit her head, which led to the ER, which led to neurologists, which led to a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. She died in 2009. Her autopsy showed that she also had Alzheimer’s. These diseases are currently incurable, but some people live for a long time before dementia completely takes over. I have no doubt that my mom’s insistence on maintaining the illusion of control hastened her decline; she didn’t start neurological treatment or occupational or speech therapy until she was very confused and scared. The weird blessing of dementia is that the more ill a demented person gets, the less their illness scares them: eventually my mom lost the desire to control her health, and thus lost the anxiety that came from not being able to. Part of the thrill of watching Intervention is seeing how different the subjects look after rehab—they’ve been reborn, and they know it. In our family’s situation, that was a fantasy, but it remains a stubborn one even after my mother’s death.

I’m not sure what I’m getting at, exactly, except that when I watch friends and family members on Intervention beg their loved ones to accept help, I think of how pitifully inept I was at convincing my mom to accept help. I don’t say this out of self-flagellation; I was a devoted daughter, and I was an important caregiver in the last years of her life. But she was so scared, and I was so scared, and neither of us knew what to do or how to stop what was happening. Even though my mom’s problem wasn’t addiction but a different disease, she desperately needed help beyond what our family could give her—and her disease made it impossible for her to seek it out. We really could have used Candy Finnigan, is what I’m saying. I think maybe I still could.

I have a deep, deep crush on Florence right now. This song is incredibly theatrical in its album cut, but this acoustic version is pretty fucking amazing too, even without the kettle drums and backup vocals and such. What a gift of a voice.

I got this album a month or two ago, and this song immediately became a sort of grieving anthem for me. I know it’s most easily interpreted as about romantic love, but the lyrics really crystallize something about being in the aftermath of loss:

And in the dark, I can hear your heartbeat
I tried to find the sound
But then, it stopped, and I was in the darkness,
So darkness I became

The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out
You left me in the dark
No dawn, no day, I'm always in this twilight
In the shadow of your heart

For me, that’s part of what grief feels like: a perpetual shadow, a darkness that seems preferable to the lonely day. The song’s loveliness makes the darkness beautiful and alluring, an acceptable tradeoff for the possibility of being with the person you love. But outside the song, there’s no trade: there is only the present, there is only twilight, there is only your own inexplicable self, alone and alive.

Let’s contemplate death with Santa and the baby Jesus

So, holidays. They are often happy occasions where you feel like you are part of something greater than yourself, because the world is celebrating with you. Tradition reminds you of where you came from and what your culture means to you; rituals bring comfort and a sense of timelessness.

All of the things that make the holidays joyful in a normal year become incredibly painful in a year in which bad things are happening to you. My mother died during last year’s holiday season; at the time, I was too involved in the day-to-day details of death to notice that it was Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or New Year’s. Time didn’t pass for me like it did for everyone else. What the rest of the world did when the calendar turned didn’t matter. This year, things are different: I’m in the world enough to notice the usual saturation of advertising, decorations, music, bells, and poinsettias. But all of that holiday cheer feels forced and tinny to me, because what I think of now, when I think of December, is counting the seconds after my mother’s exhalations just to have something to do while I waited to see if she would breathe again. I remember Christmas carols on the radio while the hospice nurses explained how to administer morphine at home. I remember my mom, and the last time I looked into her eyes before they took her body away. Now, when I hear bells ringing on the street corner, I see death in my mind.

I’m not posting this to be dramatic or self-pitying; I’m describing the experience because it is profoundly unsettling to be one of the people whom holiday cheer cannot, well, cheer. Even a gingerbread latte (ah, sweet gingerbread latte) can only provide a tiny moment of thinking “Christmas!” and picturing Rudolph before the grief muscles in. You probably know someone else who’s been having a hard time, whether from grief or depression or unemployment or stress, and that person is probably trying desperately to keep a smile on her face while sleigh bells jingle and sugar-plum fairies dance in all the store windows. No one wants to be Scrooge. 

This involuntary Debbie Downer makes a request to those who are feeling the holiday spirit: if you know someone like me, someone who might feel that cheer, let alone joy, is beyond her current capacity, let her know you get it. You don’t have to be maudlin about it; a little acknowledgment goes a long way. Here, I’ll even give you a line to use in your holiday card: "Hey, [Ebenezer], I’ve been thinking about you now that the holidays are on us—I know [this has been a tough year for you / you must miss (Jacob Marley) / (Tiny Tim) has been ill]. May the new year be better to you than the last." The key is this: don’t pretend. Those of us who are grieving during the holidays—and there is no statute of limitation on grief, by the way—are pretending every time we go outside, and it’s an indescribable relief to let down the mask, even for the time it takes to read a Santa card.