In Which I Finally Get Around to Talking About My Mom
Warning: This is a seriously epic post. I don't think I've ever written so much without handing it in for grading. And it's heavy going - weighty personal blogging material ahead. If you're not in the mood or not into reading about this kind of stuff, I get it and that's fine. Scamper off, now.
For those that stay - as with some of my other serious posts about family issues, I would like to thank you, blogosphere, for giving me a means to explore and unload what has been a heavy weight. And again, it feels so much better to have let myself think about it, really feel my way through it, and shed some of the weight into pixel dust. I considered putting this in the basement, as I'm not used to talking about it, but I am trying to learn to be more open, to let myself acknowledge and deal with some stuff, so I thought it was important as part of that journey to put it on my own site, to be honest and forthcoming with it. I'm so glad to have found my little home here among you all. Thanks.
There is a platitude in library service that a good book should be there for when the right person comes along. Especially for children. Sometimes this means the person who needs it - we believe that we should have books that tackle tough subjects so that kids living those circumstances will know that they are not alone, while others may develop a greater sense of empathy and understanding for what others may experience. I believed it in an abstract way, as we librarians do, as a good theory to apply to our collections.
And then one day, I opened the book. Stop Pretending, by Sonya Sones. A new teen book, a novel written in free verse, something I usually find overdone and obnoxious. The topic, however, interested me, so I began to read. On the subway, as it happens, which was a bit of a mistake, although in New York, no one even noticed me reacting, given how many oddballs ride the 6 train.
The thing of it was, this author got it. She knew. She poured out every guilty, quickly-banished thought and well-squelched feeling I ever had about the same circumstance. I could have written the words myself, if I ever let myself access that stuff. But because I didn't, her words reached out, grabbed me by the throat, smacked me up a bit, and made me look at it square in the eye. There I was, bawling my head off on public transit, realizing that someone in the world knew exactly how it felt to deal with the sudden, shocking, devastating appearance of schizophrenia in your immediate family, among the people you love and live with, the ones you trust to be your rock.
When I was 18, the summer before I left for university, my mother lost the plot completely. She had been working hard, finishing up a degree, participating in the running of the family firm, mothering myself and my 7-year-old sister, running back and forth from our city to another for school as needed. And then, while my father and sister were away, she disappeared. After two days of calling around to her room there and the school, I finally located her. She sounded off, but swore she told me she would be there for a few days and I was just being touchy. My dad and sister returned, then she followed the next day. But she just wasn't quite herself.
Over the next week, things went from slightly odd to full-on hallucinatory, as she descended into a complete psychotic break. She refused food, did not sleep, walked the halls at night, began to accuse my father of stealing her work, responded nonsensically if at all. Finally, one night, she went over the edge and I called 911 as my father tried to calm her delusionary rage and keep her from hurting him or herself. She insisted her was abusing and trapping her, and that she had to leave, taking the car keys. Knowing that she was no more capable to drive or make decisions than someone wildly high, I blocked her way to the door physically. I have always been stronger than her, and told her she'd have to go through me. (This moment became a touchstone for me for many years. If I could do that, I can do this. It became a mantra of sorts, something to draw strength from.) By the time the police and ambulances showed up, she was somewhat calmer, and they managed to convince her to go to the hospital with them, her proviso being I come too. Grabbing some money and my keys, I was by her side as she convinced a doctor that she was entirely lucid, saw for the first time something that would frustrate us all for years to come - the ability of her disease to protect itself.
We didn't return home after that, but wandered all night, and I finally convinced her to go to see our long-time family doctor first thing in the morning only because she retained some trust in her care. Repeating myself constantly, soothing, coaxing, and calming her, buying us a small breakfast, I felt like I was taking care of a very young child. She became meek in our doctor's presence, went home and slept for a full day, and somehow - I don't know how or why - began to return to her normal self. And it was over. She was back to herself, apparently having come through a nervous breakdown of some sort. We heaved a collective sigh of relief, I went off to school, and the next year was fine. Until summer came around again.
The next summer, it happened again. And over the next few years, over and over and over. There was the night my father became so stressed while trying compel her to rest that he began to hyperventilate and suffer heart palpitations - that night I called 911 for him, not her, and the fire men climbing the stairs woke my frightened sister, now only 8. The night that he drove her to the hospital and noticed, then gently removed, a knife and a can opener from her coat pocket, apparently tucked away in case of a need for self-defense. The night that it took four orderlies to pin her down and sedate her. That mental image haunts me when I think of what she has suffered.
We came to know the psych ward, where she spent brief stints on a few occasions during her worst episodes. We and her doctors tried to convince her to get treatment, take medication. Eventually a diagnosis was attached - schizophrenia, with possible bipolar aspects, though there was some variance of opinion on the "bipolar" frill. Though it made no difference to her or what was happening, it allowed us to read up on it, recognize her classic symptoms, and better understand. Symptoms that included denial and a refusal of treatment, a consistent abandoning of any medication or therapy that she might be induced to begin.
It was, I believe, the denial that was the worst. There we all were, my father, my sister, my self, ready to help and support in any way that would help, but she was having none of it. Instead, she would turn every argument around, tell us that we were the ones with the problem, turn on my dad in occasionally vicious outbursts, always deflecting and avoiding, refusing to face what was so apparent to everyone around her. My father began to despair of ever seeing a solution - one night, another low and scary point for me, he broke down and cried in front of me. I could do nothing but hug him wordlessly, shocked by his first visible faltering, the first sign to me that this was frightening and incredibly hard for him, too. He must have envisioned years stretching ahead, years of trying to raise my sister in as normal an environment as he could manage, years of handling it on his own, for I was away at university and establishing my life. Though I helped when I could, came home for the worst crises, talked her down countless times, his greatest gift to me was to set me free, encourage me to go and get my education, follow my path.
The good news about schizophrenia, the cause for some hope, is that, in approximately 25% of cases, the sufferer can find some balance within roughly a decade. Most fortunately of all, for all of us, is that my mother fell into this "lucky" segment. We discovered, over the course of many episodes, how to recognize the symptoms of her going off the rails early on by merely looking at her face and listening closely to her. If we caught it on time and could convince her to rest a lot over a day or two, we could prevent her from heading down into the depths of a real break. Eventually, it seemed that she began to recognize what her body needed too, and would take some control in managing her own health and state of mind. She found that exercise made a huge difference, and took up running the track in the park nearby. She seemed to better understand her own body's messages, and in time, she stopped suffering the enormous ups and downs of past years.
This is not to say that she returned to normal, that she is as she was. Far from it. My mother was once an amazing woman. Dauntingly intelligent, a stunning artist, musical, sharp as a whip, fun and funny, she had a screaming laugh that I have heard only a handful of times in the last 15 years, ever since her illness came to settle on her like a grey veil, muting everything wonderful about her. She is now socially inept, a grade six in an adult world. Sometimes it seems like she is purposely clueless, maddeningly so. Word plays are now not a source of fun, but meaningful messages about how she should run her life. She fixates on things that make no sense in terms of the rest of the world's priorities, and not in the fun, free-spirited way that she might have long ago. She seems just now to be starting to find her fun, healthy spirit again, if fragmentarily, but she has been fundamentally altered as a person.
This for me is one of the hardest parts of the whole thing - I mourn for someone who is still alive, the mom who I once knew. I mourn that my sister will never know how amazing her mother was, what a truly cool person - she only knows her exasperating mom, crazy and crazy-making. She was too young to remember how my mother loved her, sang to her, played and painted and swam with her. The sense of loss I feel for us and for my father tears at me, reduces me to tears even as I type. I hate that my amazing mother has been taken from me and replaced with a shadow, a fraction of her. I hate mourning for what she was, and the odd times I ponder religion, I wonder why I can never have her back. I miss her, I hate that my sister and my daughter will never have the joy of knowing the mom I knew. It grieves me that one day, Pumpkinpie will ask me why her granny is so weird, that she will look at her in that way, as the kooky but harmless crazy relative. I hate that other people who haven't known her will look at her that way, will have no idea that she was so much more.
The other half of the equation for me, for my feelings about it all, is her refusal to face her tormentor. Had she but been willing, she would have had an enormous support from friends and family. Instead, her disease dictated that she deny its existence and place the blame on others, poisoning all of her relationships. Needless to say, my mother and father's relationship was eroded to nothing by this enormous and ongoing strain, and once my sister turned 18, they divorced in an amicable enough fashion, all passion having bled out long before. (I'm not really sure why it still hurt at the time for me, even knowing it was inevitable and quite the right thing for everyone involved - perhaps it was the last strand of the family being let go that made it all so permanent.) Friends, too dropped away, unable to handle not knowing what to expect from her and coming to understand that there would be no change in the foreseeable future as she refused all help.
I understand intellectually that the denial is part of the disease. But I am just starting to admit to myself that deep down, I feel angry and hurt that she let everything fall apart, lost everything, broke our close and happy family, rather than deal. It feels like she didn't put our family high enough on her priorities, didn't value it enough to fight for it. I realize that this is unfair, but I am speaking here of what pushes up from below, not of what I think on a rational level. I hate that she didn't have the strength to do what was needed to keep us together, and that she has lost so much for it. I feel for her that loss of her world as much as the loss of herself - it must be scary and devastating for her, too, to have had so much taken from her.
And this is why, when I read some other blogger moms talking about how they are struggling to keep their heads above water, that they suspect depression, that they worry that it is affecting their family, but they are hampered by the stigma associated with being "crazy" and seeking meds or therapy for it - I throw my full support behind them and tell them that seeking any help they might need is the bravest thing they can do. I know it's hard and scary to admit to having a problem, especially a "mental" problem, and especially in our society. I know they face a tough road in many cases - it's not like it's just antibiotics and it goes away. I know that they may have hard work ahead to get their relationships back on track and repair the damage done so far. But I also know how much there is to lose, so I tell them - tell all of you - it's worth it. I believe this passionately: It doesn't make you a weak person to admit you have a problem - it makes you a strong one to face up to it.
Labels: my family