My mother’s first mental breakdown occurred in our blue house in Rockland. I was almost eleven. She woke me from peaceful dreams to say that, because she was a bad person, God would kill her that evening. These words began a series of inconsistent breakdowns which would last for five years.
Mother and I had recently been inducted into the society of Born Again Christians at the church down the street. The day I accepted Jesus as my personal savior, I came home, locked my bedroom door, and skimmed my bible for all references to sex my ten year old eyes could absorb.
I wondered if God would decide to kill me, too. I had not exactly acted like the perfect Christian. I wanted to bolt out our door away from my mother’s frightening words. Visions of her lifeless body filtered through my mind, but I noticed her increasing terror, and I couldn’t leave her.
My mother’s crazy rantings and glazed over eyes were clues I learned to recognize as forecasts of all her future breakdowns.
My childish perspective viewed my mother’s occasional craziness as an irritating, inevitable part of my life. I accepted family explanations about my mother’s sickness, angrily urged her to take the medication doctors put her on, and enjoyed the new, spacious, beautiful house we had moved into.
The trouble started when my stepfather’s continuous drinking and refusal to get a real job forced us from my dream house and into my grandfather’s bare, filthy, dark house in Hull. I hated it there. The stagnant air reeked of the alcohol my grandfather consumed twenty hours a day; often the only toilet in the house would fill to the brim with grandfather’s daily puke, and obstinately refuse to flush.
After we moved, my mother’s sickness intensified. I blamed her for our move from wall to wall carpeting into grandfather’s pig-pen. Her sincere apologies increased my anger. She ceased taking her medication and resumed her conversation with those stupid voices. She attempted to hide her temporary lapses, but my ever critical eyes detected her cover-ups.
As I witnessed her deterioration, the loving part of me retreated and something horrible emerged. I yelled at her constantly, and she soon withdrew into her safe bedroom, away from my unfair accusations.
My mother didn’t move for days. She peed her sheets. I shook her and begged her to get up. I hugged her unresponsive form, watched her cold chapped lips mumble gibberish, and dripped frightened tears onto tightly closed lids which refused to acknowledge my presence.
Sometimes, when I was bored, I half-consciously hung my guinea pig (Midnight) by his scrawny neck because he refused to struggle and instead went limp under my fingers. My other guinea pig (Sunshine) was an energetic fluff ball. She always struggled and I immediately let her go.
I put Midnight in the back room which led to the attic. I ignored Midnight(except to feed him). He froze to death one night after he repeatedly begged me, with his hesitant squeals, to put him back into Sunshine’s warm cage.
I discovered Midnight’s stiff frozen body the next morning, and I heaved with tears.
One night, I managed to get my mother on my lap. She hung her limp arms around my neck, and closed her eyes while I rocked her gently. I wanted to comfort her, reach the bad place in her head, and make things better. I tried to forget the cruel way I had acted and focused on the warmth passing from her body into mine. Before I finished my lullaby, she suddenly twisted away from me and resumed her rigid position on her bed.
I lived with my aunt and cousins while psychiatrists probed my mother’s mind. Nobody had ever separated me from my mother during her mild breakdowns in our blue house; they had no choice when she refused to eat and digressed into an almost comatose state.
I learned how to deal with the knowledge of my mother’s imprisonment in a mental hospital. The first day at my new school I stared at the wall during homeroom, and the buzzing chatter of the eight graders around me barely penetrated my inner world.
Eight grade ended, and I returned to my recently released mother. She actually acted normal. She cooked dinner and cleaned the kitchen. I easily forgot about her unbalanced mental state and slowly began venting my anger on her again. Her constant need for love annoyed me. My feelings of betrayal could not dissolve that easily. My self-pity about living in grandfather’s house prevented my ability to show her love. I complained constantly and smugly watched her shrink back from my verbal attacks.
Two months later, my mother ventured downstairs, dropped to her knees, and proceeded to pound her head on the kitchen floor. I stood and watched.
The kitchen light glared in my eyes; absolute terror bubbled in my stomach. A bewildered expression lingered on my mother’s countenance, and her long brown hair hung in unwashed strands, over her face. I felt sorry for her. I screamed for help, and silently prayed that God would release my mother from her invisible tormentors.
My mother stopped pounding and wandered into the bathroom.
My aunt, who was visiting from Ohio, called the police. The sirens pierced my ears. Strangers arrived and coaxed my mother off the bathroom floor, where she lay, determined not to budge.
I instantly knew that I had caused her latest breakdown. My stepfather had left at the start of her last one. I knew she was lonely, yet I had still cruelly pushed her away when she had only tried to love me. I helplessly watched the police men carry her away on a stretcher.
My family pondered my future. Nobody knew what to do with me. My insecurity and uncertainty mounted , until my father called and invited me to move in with him and his girlfriend, Diane.
Several weeks later, my mother’s urgent phone call interrupted the new life I had established with my father and Diane.
“I’m all better now,” she said. “You can come home and live with me again.”
My father and his friend drove me to meet with my mother and discuss options with her and her psychiatrist. I cringed at the thought of crushing my mother’s unwavering belief that she and her baby girl would live together again. She gushed about how wonderful our future would be. With each word she uttered, the empty feeling expanded in my stomach. I said “no” and watched my mother’s hopeful expression dissolve.
Her tears of desperation prevented me from thinking clearly. She needed me. I was her only child. These thoughts zigzagged through my mind. Life with dad was not great, but I rejected the idea of living in a mentally ill atmosphere ever again. She had filled my mind with too many un-kept promises for me to believe things could change.
I got up to leave. She begged me not to abandon her, and the room spun.
Back in dad’s car, I shook uncontrollably. The tears dug into my gut and spilled down my shirt. A lump of guilt and pity embedded itself into my heart. I cursed both the power I had to hurt my mother, and the predicament her neediness had put me in. I ignored my father’s demands that I be quiet. I could not stop crying. All I could do was numb myself into the familiar, comforting mode of “it doesn’t matter,” “nothing matters,” “I don’t care.”
Gradually, I learned to let some of my guilt go.
When I look back on my mother’s illness, I realize that the difficult decision I made to only see her on occasional visits was better for both of us. She did get sick again, and I know that if I had gone to live with her, more of my anger and frustration would have erupted against her. This knowledge does not alleviate all of the guilt I internalized during my mother’s affairs with insanity.
I still shudder at my treatment of her. Rationally, I realize that she had, and still has, a chemical imbalance. Six years ago, the state put her on mandatory shots, and she has not gotten sick since then. But, I also know that my cruelty did aggravate her mental condition. Maturity has taught me that I should not blame a child for her desire to have a normal mother and a stable home-life, but the immature, non-rational little girl within me remembers the mother who needed constant reassurance of the love I was rarely able to give her, and sometimes guilt threatens to surface, and smash my rationale to pieces.
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