When you’re a kid, everyone else’s parents seem cooler than yours.
In my case, being “cooler” was more about mental stability than knowing the latest dance. For as long as I can remember, I knew that something was different about my mother, but I couldn’t have imagined how much those differences would ultimately impact our family.
I knew that she could be abnormally suspicious at times, but with me –- her baby girl, as she called me -- she was silly and loving and protective. We were very close until I got to middle school. Soon after that, she started to change.
The peculiar episodes that were once occasional became frequent. Then, frequent became daily. She had a persecution complex and her main antagonizers (in her mind) were my dad and I -- oh, and the whole congregation of our church.
According to her, she was being tormented for being a direct descendant of Abraham. Yes, biblical Abraham.
My world with her was a twilight zone. I never knew what to expect from one moment to the next.
She would wake me up in the middle of the night and rage on about this secret organization –- let’s call them the Goonies -- whose sole purpose was to oppress her. She accused me of conspiring with them. If I left the cabinet door open in the kitchen, she’d say that I intended for her to bump her head on it. If I had a friendly conversation with the cashier in the grocery store, she’d question me about who that person was and how they were affiliated with the Goonies. She would punish me for not responding to her when she asked me ridiculous questions that had no base in reality.
I would search for signs that my real mom was in there somewhere, but she rarely was.
She used religion to self-medicate. First we were Baptist, then Seventh Day Adventist, then Jewish. Eventually, I stopped identifying with religion at all.
At some point, reality and insanity started getting blurry for me.
I remember feeling out of place all the time. Like most teenagers, I just wanted to fit in with everyone else. I was always lying, covering up, hiding. I didn’t want to be associated with her in public, and yet I felt guilty for feeling that way. There was no one to talk to about my confusion. My family brushed it under the rug, saying, “You know your mother has her ways.”
Over the years, my mother essentially alienated herself from everyone -- her own parents, husband, siblings, friends, and extended family. Everyone was in cahoots with the Goonies.
Not long after I went to college, my parents divorced. They'd been unofficially separated for years. Dad moved in with his girlfriend and Mom moved to New York. She got a job and her own place and seemed to be doing well at first. But after a few months, her job let her go and advised her that she should get a psychological evaluation. She was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
During those years, I never knew where she was staying or what was going on with her. She was homeless for a while. I was always worried about her and simultaneously relieved to be away from her. I partied and smoked and drank and obsessed over boys –- you know, got a college education.
All the while, the self-loathing built up inside of me. I felt that I would never be normal and I couldn't relate to other people, who all seemed too traditional or too sheltered. I was attracted to dysfunction because it felt familiar to me.
For years under her distorted supervision, my most innocent actions were perceived as premeditated attacks. To overcompensate, I became a hopeless people-pleaser, always feeling that it was my job to make everyone feel comfortable and unthreatened.
I thought it was just a matter of time before I started to lose my mind like she did. Depression and anxiety were my everyday companions. I romanticized the idea of my own mental illness and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy that I actively relied on. It was my reason to be irresponsible and reckless.
Over the years and through lots of therapy, I've come to see the connections between my upbringing and the way I cope, the way I interact with people and the way I process the world around me. I’ve had to learn to love my mom from a distance. Obviously, this is not easy.
I feel guilty, resentful and helpless when it comes to her. I feel that she and I have failed each other in some way.
She was supposed to fight her mental illness, so that she could raise me and be my mom. I was supposed to be able to get through to her and make her want to be better, but I could never speak her language. During those surreal years, when things were at their worst; I was a deer caught in headlights -- too scared to fight, too scared to flee -– hoping that one day I would wake up from what had to be a bad dream.
One day, I did wake up and I realized that my past doesn’t have to define me. I’ve stopped telling myself that I’m doomed to succumb to mental illness.
Even still, I hear voices. Not the persecuting ones that my mother would often speak of, but there are murmurs of fear that linger in my mind that I have to constantly silence. They tell me that I’m broken and that I’m not strong enough to handle the life I want for myself. I know these are lies, but sometimes I lose my resolve and I don’t trust my own experience.
My biggest savior has been writing. When I write about the things that hurt me, scare me, intimidate me; somehow they magically lose their power -- allowing me to see clearly again. Maybe if my mother had had an outlet, she'd have been able to bridge the gap between her mind and the world. But you have to want it and fight for it.
Could it be that choosing insanity, for her, was the easier choice? Instead of exposing her inner suffering, she tucked it away because that’s what strong black women were supposed to do. Ultimately, the collateral damage of trauma and avoidance overtook her.
But not me. It’s time for me to break the cycle.