Emma was always close to her mother – too close you might say. The only girl in a family of four, abandoned by their father, Reg, while they were still living at home, Emma supported Peggy after the break-up and during the long illness that followed. Not that there was any definite diagnosis; it was more of a collection of symptoms that came on whenever something upset her or reminded her of what had happened. For much of the time, Peggy was so tired, she would spend her time in bed or sat in a chair while Emma busied herself around her, but she never very appreciative. She constantly complained of how dreadful she felt, and how Emma never seemed to do things the right way. Her stomach and bowels were always giving her trouble and everything that Emma cooked seemed to upset her.
Emma’s only respite from her mother’s constant needs and complaints was her job as a receptionist in the local doctors. At least it gave her contact with other people, most of whom appreciated her kindness. In the early days, there was a young man she got on with and they had talked of getting married, but Peggy suffered another relapse and well; he soon got a job elsewhere and left.
It was after that that Emma begin to get symptoms of bloating and constipation. Peggy became very anxious, ‘Well I’m very sorry my dear, but what I keep thinking is: what will happen to me if you are ill? So Emma would cease to mention her own discomfort and try to reassure her mother she would be there for her. It was almost as if, by being ill herself, she stole her mother’s limelight.
On the rare times when her mother is well enough to do a bit for herself, Emma has learnt not to try to encourage her by telling her she looks better. It just provokes a dismissive remark and a return to bed.
Emma and Peggy have few visitors. Her brothers call occasionally, a neighbour will pop in and offer to go to the shops, there is a friend living round the corner but she too suffers. They all know not to ask Peggy how she is, because they will get the whole litany of misery. And nobody dare mention anything to do with Reg. It is little wonder Peggy feels excluded.
You might wonder why Emma doesn’t leave and get a life for herself. There was clearly a time when she might have done, but now she just cannot conceive of any life outside the family home. She feels responsible for her mother’s happiness and well-being. They are so enmeshed that whenever her mother is suffering, Emma feels it is her fault and becomes ill. Peggy’s illness is a kind of reproach. Friends try to point out how Emma is wasting the best part of her life on a mother who will never show any understanding or gratitude, but Emma just gets upset. ‘Yes, mother can be difficult, but she needs me and I can’t think of a life without her.’
I don’t know how helpful it is to comment. Emma and Peggy’s story speaks for itself; you will each have your own take on it. You might think it obvious that they both have similar symptoms. After all, they share the same food, they would have a similar microbiome, and they share half of the same genes. But I would be curious to learn more about Reg; what sort of person he was, why he and Peggy split up, what effect it had on Emma, how Emma’s abandonment by her boy friend mirrored her mother’s experience. But it seems that Peggy and Emma have woven a cocoon of silence around themselves. How helpful would it be to open it up? Is it best to stay on the diet?