My mom drives me crazy and how I used the natural capacity of neuroplasticity to turn that around … mostly.

My mom turned 90 in September 2017. We had a small, close family party for her at her place in Toronto. Amazingly, she lives on her own, suffers from some, but stable, macular degeneration but generally is in pretty good health. I knew I was going to say a few words at the party and had a feeling the right message would come to me. I told my siblings I was going to talk about how she drives me crazy. I got blank, somewhat trusting stares. Well, not purely about how she drives me crazy, but a bigger message of how that perspective is such a narrow and unfortunate one. As the pralines and cream ice cake came out with some candles, my mom made a wish and blew them out. I’d bet her wish was that my youngest brother, who lives in British Columbia was there with her and my other brother and sister. And no doubt she would be thinking of my dad, who she loved dearly but died in 1997 of prostate cancer. With the 20 or so family members quickly digging into their melting cake, I announced I wanted to say a few words of recognition to my mom.

On June 28, 2010, I opened up my note system on my phone to enter more journal entries. I have for many years kept journals of my kids, life and thoughts on things. I had an active journal on all the challenging, hard, frustrating, stressful things going on in my life. In 1999, I got married to an amazing lady. We moved just before our first daughter arrived in late November 2000. My career was increasing in scope and responsibility. We had two more healthy daughters and moved again to a bigger house. Despite these awesome events I was increasingly stressed out. The stress caused two healthy issues that, although weren’t life threatening, were very unpleasant. One issue was an increasing frequency and magnitude of migraines with aura. In a meeting with a sales person I managed at the time, one of these migraines exploded in my brain and vision to the extent that I couldn’t see her and was overcome with nausea. With a stunning lack of self care, I continued with the meeting. One time, I was so stressed that when lying in bed, I thought there was a 50/50 chance I’d have a heart attack while sleeping. Another time, my stress affected me physically to the extent that I was wracked with pain and stopped to sit on a bench while walking 1500 metres to the subway. I only told my wife this stuff recently. I was just about to write more of this stuff in my journal on that day in 2010. I sat there looking at the previous entries. From somewhere good inside, I had a clear thought that I wasn’t going to write about this crap anymore. So on that day in June 2010, I started a new journal with the title, “Magical Moments”. Here’s my first entry, “Sunday night putting Taylor (4 yrs. old) to bed. She wasn’t moving quickly and I stayed calm (cause for recognition here just on that point!). She got her clothes ready for Monday and some gifts together for her teacher (end of school). Finally, teeth brushed, even that was fun and nice. She picked 3 short books to read, her “favourites” and we read them, snuggled up closely. Kisses and hugs, partly playing and reading. Great, really great.” Mostly, due to stress and fatigue induced madness, I saw a slow moving evening like that to be very frustrating and would just want her to go bed.

Many days I would make sure to write something that was magical, something great: a good meeting at work, a hug or smile, a nice sunny day, a good decision, time for me to exercise, a healthy meal. I began to see more and more amazing this things. These things were always there but how I saw them, how I seem to saw them from a new, fresh, grateful perspective was really noticeable. With this new habit, getting better sleep and making an easy fix to my diet, I began to feel better and better. The two health issues faded into being non-issues. I was happier more often. I was enjoying work more and doing better work. I was feeling more whole and healthy. I was realizing that dwelling on magical stuff was making it easier to dwell on magical stuff. I was seeing good stuff and not dwelling in the crap anymore nearly as much. I soon realized this was the natural power we all to have to change our brains which is called neuroplasticity. What we think about, we wire into our brains which creates thoughts based in that wiring. Good or bad, it works that way.

My mom was going to turn 90 in September. She would die one day and that would very sad. It occurred to me earlier in the year that I didn’t want to be at the funeral home when my mom died and be weighted by talk of how she drove me crazy. So what did I want? I wanted to feel amazing about our relationship, to feel proud that the time left was rich with discussions with her and that the life left was meaningful and wonderful. This is really what I wanted! How do I authentically get there? I decided that each time I spoke with her on the phone or was with her on a car ride somewhere, I would recall something afterwards that was great about the time together. My mom is highly social and desperately misses her 4 kids and when with us she talks and talks and talks, many times through meals. I almost always would feel the energy drain from me as she talked and talked, like a battery getting sucked of its charge. It was like she consumed the air and I was unable speak. So on some visists it was hard to find one thing! But I did it. And each time I dwelled on the good for 15 or 20 seconds (see the great work of Dr. Rick Hanson), really enriching it and bringing it back to the purpose of creating the outcome I wanted, I felt better and better. To support the journey, I’ve told my mom that I want a different and better relationship with her. This openess has been based in compassion and the love I have for her. Through this process, we are both getting loads more or what we really want, which is a rich and loving relationship that we both now (mostly, I’m not perfect!), thrive in, instead of slog through. In simple terms, the formula is envision what you want, notice and dwell on the micro steps to that vision by enriching them and enjoy the outcome!

So at the the party, I did say she drives me crazy because of few things, but how that is such a narrow perspective and how there are so many amazing things about my mom that I am impressed by and love about her. She is incredibly grateful for the health she enjoys and family and friends she has. She cares deeply for people and is super compassion for others. She is always curious and wants to learn new things. And she has strong opinions. She knows exercise matters and when her doctor suggested she might want to get a walker, she was highly disappointed in him that he should say such a thing. At 85 I asked her if there was anything she wanted to do before she couldn’t. She wanted to go dog sledding in the Arctic. So we did. It was awesome on so man levels. She’s up for just about anything. A few years ago on a visit to see my brother in BC, they took a road trip in his pick-up truck. One night, they couldn’t find a motel on a lonely back road. With a clear night they pulled over and slept in the back. She loved it and proud of that one!

The world needs more compassion for others. It’s too easy for us to see one narrow perspective in another. It doesn’t lead anywhere good. My mom isn’t perfect and neither am I. But we are both so much better off for my taking a broader perspective, with love and kindness. It’s good work, in progress.