Living with My Mother's Mental Illness
My mother has struggled with mental health issues her whole life, but we don't discuss it.
Image by Katherine Killeffer
My earliest memories of my mother are of her on a train track. I am maybe three years old. I don't really know, actually, but my sister thinks I'm about three. I revisit this memory of her, my mother, when I'm eighteen and at a university psychologist because I've just had an abortion and I can't finish my courses. In order to be excused I need proof that I am psychologically traumatized, so I reluctantly go to this woman to talk about my problems. I am cumbersome; I am rational. She looks like Susan Sontag with her hair streaked grey, a geometric patterned stripe on both sides of her head. She asks me why I'm here. I sigh and pause. I'm sitting on a brown lacquered leather pouf and my posture is obdurately crooked; I tell her about my mother.
For my whole life I have lived in a family where transparency about my mother and her illness was elusive to us all. We've all managed to say so much about so little over the years--my mother has struggled with mental health issues her whole life, but we don't discuss it. Instead, we all try to ignore the great well of longing that she's submerged in, that she's pushed us into, too. This is our reality; I cannot comprehend a life better, or different, a life that wasn't teeming with imminent emotional warfare. Living with my mother has always been tantamount to living in constant fear. Most days, we (my father, sister, and I) didn't know what would trigger her. She wasn't cunning or evil--she was disarming in her innocence. So tender, and yet fraught with tension, like a rubber band around a razor. For this reason alone, I have, and always, always, always will be at the behest of my mother.
When I was younger I managed to transform myself, to be stronger and more patient, so that I could be a custodian of her dreams. Somewhere in the process of my own maturation, I realized that obfuscating my own happiness for hers would never end happily for either of us. My identity constantly shifted because of her--oscillating between the two halves of me--the one that was trying to please her and the one that was trying to live.
She had been violent from before I could remember, her anger moving through her like sharp waves. Her violence wasn't always physical, however. Sometimes, she'd use words like a weapon, cutting through the very fibers of my being. This would happen often, like a switch that goes off and on. My mother, like my very own Marvel super villain, could shift from good to bad in mere moments, from kind to diabolical in seconds. A hurricane of a deep blundering mess, she was hysterical and menacing, resolute in her actions because of how quickly she would transform. The smallest of things could trigger her temper. For all its impetuousness, though, it was powerful, heady and dangerous. Sometimes we'd joke, and she'd laugh along--or sometimes we'd joke and she'd start screaming and start hitting my sister and I with anything nearby; sandals, a rolling pin, a broomstick. One time she struck me with the end of a wire hanger seven or eight times because a friend I'd invited over was wearing short shorts. As she hit me I remember her saying, "Just you try and wear shorts like that." My back was scarred for months after.
I oscillated between the two halves of me: the one that was trying to please her and the one that was trying to live.
My most frightening memory of her occurred when I was twelve and my sister was nineteen. Here are the facts of the day that I still remember: I hear my sister's' screech: distinct like a scrawl, a litany of betrayals. As she screams, my mother, in turn, shouts, high pitched and relentless; a guttural yowl that's vicious and wrathful, pouring out of her like hot, hot lava. The soft hum--the light and welcoming spark which usually resides within her--is now gone. Her warmth has been overrun by her cruelty.
As I hear them both scream I come out from the backyard and enter clumsily into the dining room, where I sense them to be. I see my mother, her body cloaked in dissatisfaction, squeezing in her right hand one of our large kitchen knives. The handle is black and her knuckles are red and chalky. She suddenly sways like a block of lightning--sparring, colliding, ruthlessly, trying to stab my sister.
A day earlier I had sat with her at that very table that she now chased my sister around. I talked about boys, and she listened. There are many lucid beautiful moments like this that I can remember; when she was so perfect. I wanted so desperately to have that idealized kind of mother, and maybe she wanted to play that role, too. But now, she is full fury, her eyes wide and tyrannical. Her irises look like large black discs and the white, juxtaposed, stands out like cream white snow, big and manic. Her hair is a messy knot at the back of her head, bits of it flying like sparks around her face. Livid and bursting with ferocity, she lunges at my sister with an unkempt precision. My sister screams and screams and screams as she runs around the table, like she's on a track, a flat circle that keeps on going and going, the loop that never ends. As I'm watching, suddenly, out of nowhere, my mother is at me--cat and mouse. Now, I'm her prey; I'm the passerby who gets hit by the great amass of rubble. I start running, too, and the blade misses me a few times. I hear it hit the wood of the blunt table, then the wall. My sister just screams.
If I could pause that moment in time, pause it in the stillness where we're all just molecules hanging in the air, vibrating to the sound of fury. It's like a dream-like interruption of our reality, the one where we're all playing our part in our masterful charade--the one where we're a family. She's ruining that façade, cutting though the air around our bodies, and as it happens I realize that there's no going back. We've passed a certain threshold. You can't go back to trying to be normal when something like this happens. Where do you even begin to start?
I have played this memory over and over again, like a song I can't live without. The melody is familiar, but I hate the words. I play it over and over to try and remember the broken fragments. What have I lost all these years? Have I remembered it fully? Have I made some parts up? Is it still clear? Or is it blurry, like a diffraction of a kaleidoscope? Was it, really, all that bad?
In my recollection, she stops only when my father interjects, pushing her against the wall with the legs of a chair. I just remember him bellowing: "Stooooooop." Speaking in English, not in Bangla. That's it. She huffs, her eyes still wide, and I am cowering by the TV set, wishing that I could have had a better, less dramatic life at twelve years old.
When I was younger I felt consoled by the Greek dramas, Commedia Dell'Arte, Shakespeare, the echoes of Tagore. I felt comforted by them because I saw my own life as a tragedy. I once played one half of "The Lovers"--Gli Innamorati--on stage, and my drama teacher later came to me telling me that I had verve and life--and that I could, nay, that I should be an actor. The reason for that, I assume, is two-fold. Firstly, it's because I had seen the whole gamut of human emotions play out on my mother's face, never resting, always moving. Secondly, it's because I have had years of being a good actor. At times, I have struggled with what was my own reality--if I dreamt up a mother who wouldn't hurt me, or my father and sister, or herself, could I transform my life? Could I pull myself out of this box and escape her claws? Could I make that story a reality and save myself, and those I love?
Early on, I was taught to lie about my life because my mother's insanity was something I guarded constantly. She was always in a fugue state, and I was always chosen to safeguard her propriety, because I was somehow her favorite. Truly unaware of the plethora of my mother's secrets, the sad terrible places in which she'd resided, I began to see her illness only as a fraud, an inescapable burden--but not for her, just for me. I never thought of how her illness affected her own sanity, just mine. So, unaware of the true depth of her pain, I began to hate her. In retrospect, I think of her now as a person desperately trying to hold on, but back then, amidst the loneliness of my childhood, I confused her behavior for plain cruelty. Her erratic sensibilities were too volatile for me. She disgusted me. For years I rested on my anger and resentment, on my fear, because I hated her so much. I used to pray that she would die, my hands tightly locked in the hope that if I prayed enough, that she would die.
And I was obsessed with the thought of her dying.
I began telling stories to myself as a way of coping. It was my direct struggle and convergence with reality. Lying in bed with my sister for many months in the aftermath, I'd replay the memory over and over. Our bodies, my sister and mine, only just missing the blade. Our mother's beating motion, the hop and jump, the momentum pulling us back, the inertia failing our heavy bodies, out of breath like marathon runners. What if, after all that running, the blade had knicked us? As catharsis, I would play the many different versions of the many infinite possibilities that I could conceive of. As if I was in a parallel universe where she actually did kill me, and both of us.
I thought that maybe in death I would get the love that I deserved. I wanted my mother to suffer, to see how much she had hurt us. If she had our blood on her hands, maybe that'd be the revenge I needed for having such a terrible mother; a perfect ending for someone who played so perfectly the villain of my own personal tragedy.
Earlier this month, I Skype my mom and she tells me a strange, off-putting butt joke. My initial reaction is frustration. I'm eating as we talk, and the details are lewd, with sexually perverse undertones. This is my mother's humor, grotesque and absurd, her caged spirit resurrected into a depraved cloud of a woman, vying so fully for the attention of her daughter. I remind myself that she is a person, and I try to see her in the soft light of all of her misfortunes. In this moment she is a person, with no adjectives, no titles, nothing attached to her. In this moment, as she says this joke, she just is--nothing, no one, just a person. I've hated her for the mother she couldn't be, but what if I could love her for the complicated person she is?
She doesn't need my mercy, yet in that moment, I exonerate her of everything. Her eyes are glassy, like a weeping dog; an animal that has seen the weight of the world and has still managed to pull herself out of her turmoil time and time again, trying so desperately to be something of consequence. She wants to be seen for it all, for of all her foibles, and in the virtue of the shadows, and in the familiarity of our relationship--mother and daughter--she lets out all her peculiarities like a yawn that's been pulling at her insides her whole life. In front of us, my sister, my father, and I, she wants to be accepted for all that she is. Like me, she wants to be allowed to be complicated, but she can't; society won't let her. I realize this, so fully, as I see her, childlike. Her skin so taut, stretched over her face like a canvas. I look so much like her, even as the wrinkles around her eyes stand clear like diamonds.
If I dreamt up a mother who wouldn't hurt me, or my father and sister, or herself, could I transform my life?
She says something but I'm far away, wondering what my happiness would have looked like if not for her deterioration. I can't fathom a life where her words, her tricks, her hands, weren't hurting me. I've lived under her dictatorship, afraid to be my own person. Yet, now, we are calm, people-to-people. She smiles that half-wandering smile and asks, as if she senses my distance: "Why don't you love me?"
At first I'm impatient, I snap back a curt answer. Her eyes are dulcet, kind even in her pain.
Here's the thing: I do love her. I pulled back a long time ago to save myself. I didn't want to be adrift in the purgatory I resided for almost nineteen years of my life, so I ran away. Now, there's literally an ocean, or two, that separates us. I talk to her when I can. I ask her to take her medication, but always in a mild mannered way, never pushy, always as a 'suggestion.' I understand that the biggest fear for her is that she is crazy, and I can't blame her for that. So much of her life exists in the spaces designating who she couldn't be. So much of what she did to us when we were younger--and sometimes still to this day--was in a searching motion. While she was trying to hurt us, she was simultaneously trying to rediscover herself. She hurts us because we are the only things of value to her, self-destructively, because it hurts her as well. That's not a consolation prize, that's just my take, because in order for my own sanity, I need to reconcile her with the things she's done. In order to let go, I need to see her pain in the myriad ways she sees it.
For whatever reason, I don't have the rage inside of me anymore. Truth is, it could have been me. I see so much of myself in her--the way she listens to my stories of being a person, of traveling, working, writing, and, even though she gives me unhelpful advice, I see the way her eyes light up when I share myself with her. In those moments her humanity wins, and the painful, violent memories fade. They become ghosts that exist but don't linger. The fact of the matter is that growing older means letting go. Like Bertha Mason sitting in the gilded room with the rooftop view of heaths and green pastures, my mother's illness is stark and vengeful, and it has dictated her whole life. When you have parents that are ill, at a certain point you have to remove them from judgment--sometimes.
Then again. What do I owe her?
She is my abuser. And I love her anyway. It's complicated, and it's constantly evolving, but these days I hate her less and less because I see her for all that she is, not just as my mother. I see her as a failed adult, one that shouldn't have had children, but also as a victim of her time, of her own abuse, the abuse she never talks about. A self-hating artist, my mother became a monster in response to society's brutal expectations of what she should have become. She's never been happy, and that hurts. For me, delineating between my mother's goodness and her badness is a blurry line. Do I blame her for things? Of course, but I'm beginning to understand that my journey doesn't need to be defined by hers.
My mother always fidgets. Maybe it's to remind herself that she is alive; maybe it's because stillness is too terrifying, too close to death. When she's alone, she'll have to confront all her demons, and she's not ready for that end, not yet. She doesn't remember the things she's done to us. Sometimes she even accuses us of overreacting, of making up lies, but these days I need little from her. As I watch her through the screen of my MacBook, I remind myself that one day she will die. My heart swells up, pushing at my chest with an ache. My eyes begin to water, but I can never cry in front of my mother--so, patiently, I breathe in. I nod my head, and smile, and I listen to her butt joke.