The Nightmare Ends (sort of)

At least one part of it did. By this, I mean that the PhD was finally finished.

It didn’t come easily, of course. Nothing did, in those days. In the three years leading up to actually finishing the goddamn thing, my Mum talked about it all the time, at dinner, when she came home, at random intervals during the day. It was like a return to 14-15, just without the depression this time.

In the intervening years I must have asked my mother a dozen times why she didn’t just finish it up, write a crap piece of anything and just well, get it done! For goodness sake it’s only a PhD! It’s not the fucking Nobel Prize! I mean you’re a good researcher but don’t kid yourself!
Even as I said it I knew the answers. It had grown too important, and way out of her control. Like how she presented university to me (and many other things besides) it wasn’t just a piece of paper or a document, it was the salvation of her soul. It would validate her existence and prove that she was now Worth Something.

Once again Meimei with her customary insight explained it to me. Why did I always feel I was late? (a feeling that I have had for years) Because my mother was a girl who wanted her father’s love. She had to get the PhD before he died so that he could be proud of her, the way he was not when she met the ministers who had read her play at seventeen. But he died when I was six…and so she would always be late. Even if she got it now she would still be late. She would always, always, always be late.

She went through another major revision before it ended, with the same stresses and fears as before. As we were much older now (and in regular therapy) it was much easier to weather the second time around, but it was by no means easy. Every day was still filled with surveys and questions and edits. Today Chapter 2, tomorrow Chapter 3. But oh wait Chapter 2 really needs to be redone. Chapter 4 should be cut. No actually we just have to trim the last few pages. But then Chapter 5…you get the picture.

Then as usual she asked me for help. Was it the last time? I asked. She assured me it was, like the last 10 (20? 30?) times. I grit my teeth and buckled down for the last haul (yeah I know, I’m a sucker for punishment) So it was back to numbers and graphs (she was always bad at statistics) and late nights spent coding questionnaire replies under the yellow light of the dinner table lamp.

We finally got it done. Everything Would Be Ok. (as if!) Back to the supervisor with the final draft. Oh no Chapter 2 really needs to lead into Chapter 3 but…I tried as hard as I could to just block it all out. This was her show now. No more helping, no more intervention!

I should have known it was too good to be true. The final draft was turned down, more edits were needed. She asked for help AGAIN. THIS time was really the last time. To sweeten the deal she even offered me 3k to help.

I was all gearing up to play Shadow Hearts : From The New World when the offer came. Three thousand bucks? Surely I could put it on hold for that? It would just take a month…maybe a month and half? But no, no I couldn’t. I think for the first time in my life ever I turned down my mother’s request for help. I got a severe stomachache just from considering it, not to mention headaches. If you remember the earlier chapters you know how much of a milestone Shadow Hearts 2 was in my life, so its sequel meant a great deal to me. (not to mention it had Johnny and Shania! Another videogame romance for the ages!)

That was another point for me to wonder – did I do the right thing? Should I just have walked away? To be honest I couldn’t have. The shackles were still too strong at that time. My sister’s wisdom comes through once again. I did still love her then (as I do now) and I think I wanted her to be able to achieve her dream, even as she did nothing to help me achieve any of mine.

I played Shadow Hearts 3 (and what a game it was!) and coming out of it I think I had the first good night’s sleep I had in years. Oh did I mention that for the last 3 years I had trouble sleeping? It would get very bad. I even had a text document on my computer called “Sleeping – The Odyssey” because that is what it turned into. Same deal as with the rest of my life at that point – hours and hours research and research and research on sleep, none of which actually helped. (other than sweet dreams of Johnny and Shania that is)

So I edited the chapters so much that they all blended into each other. I helped one final time. And yes amazingly this final time was REALLY the final time. I think there were quite a few edits after my input but that was really all I could do – for myself as well as her.
That last year was heaven and hell. Oh, the draft had been accepted, things were going ok, angels had come into the house and the PhD was doing well. Her supervisor had accepted her revisions and it would be done by next week. She could be so smiling and cheerful that my sister and I even dared hope that our mother had returned from her long absence, to the kind and loving person we knew when we were ten and four respectively. Nope, nothing doing.

The moment anything bad happened at work it all came out at home again. No more scolding and screaming and shouting (we were apparently “too old” for that) but the black moods, the foul temper, the scowls and the glares – it all came back. She would sit in her chair for hours, unresponsive, with that fiercely inhuman expression we knew (and hated and feared) so well.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the most psychologically unhealthy of times.

At least half of the final product is mine. I was really quite pissed off when I discovered that the dedication in front was to “her family” and not me. The book should have rightly borne BOTH our names.

At the end, all it was going to do was collect dust in the National Institute of Education’s library. It still makes me sad. So much sacrifice for what amounted to nothing. I should have gone ahead and written my own novels, my own stories, the Evangelion fanfiction to end all EVA fanfics. All of them would have been worth more than this piece of trash – which given the nature of academia would most probably be outdated in a few years anyway. Whereas you can actually still find the few EVA fanfics that I did manage to write floating around the Net. I daresay more people have read those (and my game FAQs) more than have read her thesis.

While it’s tempting to say that, the truth (such as it is) is more layered. My sister and I loved our mother. We still do, despite everything that has happened. We wanted her to be able to fulfill her heart’s desire and I think at least some of our effort was born from that. Was that a waste? Yes…and no. Like everything in life it’s hard to pin it down.

The PhD…what a nightmare. Fifteen years of struggle and travail. Thousands and thousands of papers strewn here and there. Edit upon edit upon edit. My mother herself almost ruined one of her longest friendships by asking for help so many times that her friend told her point blank that one more time and they wouldn’t be friends anymore.

My Dad, I think, has the best and final say on the entire thing. What looked like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow instead turned out to be fool’s gold. She sacrificed my life, his job and almost my sister’s sanity, just so that she could put a Dr. in front of her name.

What were the real motivations for that book of nightmares? Wanting to get ahead? Needing to impress Daddy? The ego? All of the above? This was one of the rare things in my life that I did NOT psychoanalyze, because I knew I would come to no satisfactory conclusion. No use asking Mum, because the answer (if there ever was one to begin with) was buried in her subconscious.

We did as best as we could in those years, bearing all the pain and sacrifice, and when it was Finally Done, there was no fanfare, no applause, no celebration. We swept up our broken dreams and forged onwards as best we could. I remember wanting to shout at my Mum “SO WAS IT FUCKING WORTH IT? NO, RIGHT!” – but not doing so because I knew she knew that I was right.

I guess the only good thing to come out of it was that it WAS done. There would be no more edits or revisions or last minute rushes to the printer. No more discussions, of hearing how So-and-So also took ten years with hers, or how this and that colleague managed to get his years ago. Her oft-repeated (at least twenty times at last count) story of how she had to go to work every day and see all her colleague’s nameplates have a “Dr.” in front of it before hers. It was at long last over. At least one Sword of Damocles was lifted from our necks.

I can be a bit more distant now that I am writing this. What comes across the most clearly to me now is that being a Dr. meant well…everything to my mother. I felt such anger that she would sacrifice everything, and years later feeling such compassion that she had so little self-worth that would do so. I think she really believed that being a Doctor would make her Somebody. She would shamefacedly but still excitedly tell complete strangers (or try to drop hints to that effect) about how she was a Doctor! Maybe not an MD, but still a Doctor! A Doctor!

After getting the PhD it was a year or so later that my Mum quit. Yeah I know, she finally became a fucking Doctor (as well as having tenure, which is a Big Deal for academics) and then she quit. I think she just didn’t have the heart for it anymore.

She began to calm down a bit after that. No more rages, no more shrieking. Those had been dying down in the last few years as well due to her hyperthyroidism getting better. Also without the pressure of work things were easier for her as well.

She became almost approachable at some points. Still anxious, still needy and prone to panic attacks, but a whole lot better than the Mum of say, ten years before. I was angry in some ways but on the whole, relieved.

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