I put my mother in a headlock and broke her wrist

She was crazy, but I'm bothered that I lost control.

Published December 14, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary:

I participated, about four years ago, in an incident I still regret -- a physical confrontation with my mother. She was on drugs at the time, had had a stroke, had been diagnosed as a delusional schizophrenic and had threatened others with severe bodily harm. That, however, seems insufficient justification for my reaction.

She was 76 at the time. I was 45. After two days of abuse during which I visited her in her remote residence (cross seven rivers, look for the second waterfall on the right), she jabbed and poked me with a pen, trying to get me to react to a question that began and ended with "stupid." I had attempted to withdraw, but as I shrank back, she surged forward, poking me. I grabbed her wrist, she tried to bite my hand, I put her in a headlock.

Suffice it to say, we haven't been friends since. My problem is this: Even though it happened years ago, the idea that I reacted to her physically still gives me the uneasy sense that I lost control. I'm not a physically aggressive person, though I am large. I regard my reaction as a weakness and in moments of stillness still reflect sadly on the fracture that resulted and the subsequent loss of family that endures to this day as a legacy of that exchange. Any ideas on how to understand what happened, make a clean break and put it behind me?


Dear Hawaii,

I can see how it would be difficult to explain why you put your 76-year-old mother in a headlock and broke her wrist. But who among us is equipped to deal with the threats and taunts of a delusional schizophrenic who's stabbing at us with a pen? You were in a situation that you were not trained or prepared for, and things went badly. You should not have been in that situation in the first place. Your mother apparently required a level of care that she was not getting. Still, you did lose control, and you bear responsibility.

No matter what the details, this would be hard to get over. And to take the brunt of family criticism and be ostracized and condemned must be very painful too. You may have troubling realizations associated with the event -- that your actions were perhaps not entirely defensive, that you were enraged and in some way did mean to hurt her. However, this does not mean that you are an evil person. I think there are many of us who have lashed out in moments of family anger and done or said things we wish we could take back. Sometimes nothing comes of it. But fate plays a part, too. Fate can be cruel. Think of someone who gets in a bar fight in which someone dies, or someone who speeds in a moment of anger and causes an accident. So you have a burden of memory and consequence that you have to live with.

Can you make a clean break with this? I don't know that you can. But you can work to know this event fully and honestly, live with it knowing you are hiding nothing from yourself, while also acknowledging the extent to which it was a cruel accident. And you can do what you can to pay back or make amends for the harm that came from the event, by ensuring that your mother is well cared for now.

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