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When I Realized My Mother Wasn't Wonder Woman

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It’s a little embarrassing to admit this… but I’ve probably watched the newest version of “Wonder Woman” about 37 times now.

This is not an exaggeration.

I realize it may seem strange for a 33-year-old woman to be obsessed with watching a fictional superhero. I mean sure, superhero movies are fun, but surely not worth 5,513 minutes of your life.

Though “Wonder Woman” was clearly a hit with many women, it’s not simply the fem-powered storylines and stellar action sequences that caused my obsession with this film.

I saw “Wonder Woman” for the first time last summer around the one year anniversary of my mother’s suicide. The previous 12 months had been the absolute toughest of my life. I felt utterly defeated in every way… not only because of my grief, but because the one person in the world who I thought I could count on no matter what let me down in one of the most shocking and excruciatingly painful ways one can.

As my mother’s only child, she and I were very close when I was young. She had this unwavering confidence in me and my abilities — which helped me get through some of the more challenging times in my life. Her unconditional love and presence felt like a warm blanket I could wrap myself in whenever I needed.

She was a fiercely loyal person, incredibly generous and brave. She battled breast cancer and won. She survived divorce when I was just 2, and worked full-time to make sure I always had enough. As a child, I looked up to her and desired to live a life of helping others the way she worked so hard to do throughout her personal and professional life.

But the revere I held for my mother when I was young became complicated as she began to struggle more and more with mental illness. A persistent gambling addiction strained and eventually destroyed her second marriage. Her anxiety and depression created a widening wall between her and the outside world.

I watched my mother go through all of this from a distance. The woman I once idolized was struggling, and I didn’t know how to help her… or even how to come to terms with her mental illness. It scared me deeply. I tried to be there, but the wall between us seemed impenetrable. I didn’t know how to reconcile the two conflicting images I had of my mother: flawed human and superhero.

When my mother took her life, her flawed humanity burst through that wall. The perfect image of her from my childhood — the one that I clung to so tightly as an adult — shattered to pieces and took me with it.

This new world without my mother felt impossible. It made me question everything I had come to know and count on in the world. Fear and distrust were my new daily companions. My mother’s inability to live with mental illness even made me question whether I had the mental strength to survive the challenges and uncertainty that life would surely bring.

A year later, still just as raw and grief stricken as the day my mother died, a friend pulled me out of the rock I was hiding under and convinced me to go see the new “Wonder Woman” movie. At that point the only on-screen entertainment I’d been able to stomach were home renovation shows and “Survivor” (what can I say… Chip, Joanna and Jeff Probst are my jam).

As I watched “Wonder Woman” for the first time, there was something strangely awakening about Diana’s story. Watching it made me feel powerful… like I could persevere through any challenge. Like it’s possible to fight for what you believe in and possibly succeed.

I know, I know, it’s a stretch to get this kind of inspiration from a superhero movie. But you have to understand that these were feelings I hadn’t experienced since my mother passed. I clung to the movie like a small child clings to a parent after a scary dream.

Diana’s unwavering strength, bravery and kindness washed over me and I soaked it up. It reminded me of that superhero image of my mom that I so desperately needed to feel safe again. An image I needed to once again imagine a world where I could survive challenges and heartache.

The thing about superheroes though, is that they always have a weakness. They may have superhuman powers, but find their kryptonite and suddenly they are as vulnerable as Jane Doe.

A closer look at Diana Prince reveals a woman with an idealistic idea of the world and of humankind as being purely good. Though this same idealism fuels much of her bravery throughout her story, she experiences a rude awakening when she fights in a war to save the world and realizes that humankind has both good and evil in their nature.

This let down is almost the demise of Wonder Woman as she can’t reconcile her conflicting images of humankind. She begins to question everything she knew to be true — her own purpose even.

I won’t completely spoil the plot if you haven’t seen it, but ultimately Diana learns that accepting the flawed nature of humankind can actually set her free. It enables her to fully embrace her superhero powers, and gives her the solace she needs to continue fighting for good in the world.

At some point in our lives we each have that moment (and for some of us it’s a series of moments) when we realize that the world is not what we thought it was. That the people we hold onto the most can in fact let us down — sometimes tragically. This can make our lives seem unfamiliar, disappointing and even pretty scary.

What I’ve realized over time is that my mother may not have been the Wonder Woman I thought she was, but she still had superpowers. Her illness, addiction and suicide didn’t define her, nor did it negate the good she put out into the world.

Reimagining my mother as this complex human being — who both struggled and triumphed — has allowed me to begin the process of forgiving her. It’s enabled me to start being OK again with uncertainty in my own life. To see the strength and value in being vulnerable with people.

I’ll be honest though, the world without my mom can still be a pretty scary place. I imagine that it will be for quite some time. But lately when I’m having one of those moments where I feel completely overwhelmed by the world, I try to remind myself of all the ways my mom taught me to be strong… to fight for good… to believe in myself. When I experience a challenge, I try to imagine what she would say to me in that moment and it brings me a great deal of comfort and strength. I like to think that her memory has become my sword and shield.

Image provided by contributor

Originally published: November 16, 2018
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