It Happened to Me: My Mom Is Mentally Ill (But Ketamine Helped!)

She became the official crazy lady in our town of 7,000; wearing mismatched neon knee socks with Eskimo boots, waving to people she didn't know and swerving between bewildered silences, profanity-laced outbursts, and racially insensitive nonsequiturs.
Publish date:
October 13, 2011
healthy, mental illness, ketamine, M

My mom is a brilliant, loving, and determinedly tough woman -- after graduating high school in 1969, she immediately got knocked up, married, started college, had another kid, went to nursing school, got divorced, went to law school, got remarried and welcomed a step-child into her family, had two more kids (one of whom was me, her finest achievement), and began working her way up the ranks as a high-powered environmental lawyer.

The whole time she was marching through life like the Terminator, she was known and loved for her ability to always keep a level head, maintain an active social life, run five-to-ten miles every day, and to always always always be there for her family, no matter how emotionally needy we could be, or how lazy we were in comparison. She would drop everything and come running to make sure everyone was happy. Everyone must be happy. All of the time!

And so she was the perfect wife and mother forever more, happily ever after.

Haha, just kidding! Maybe by some outmoded ideals, she was the perfect wife and mother, but as a woman, she was pretty miserable. She had just had years of practice of shoving her emotions and judgements waaaay deep down and paving over them with OCD tar.

Her first husband, Biff (Biff!? warning sign!) primed her by being a good-for-nothing jerk and leaving her to support their family. Her second husband, my dad, is and always has been a 100 percent great guy who got perfect marks in husband and father school, but her patented "coping mechanisms" had dug their claws in way too deep for him to make a difference in the path she was headed down.

Even though some things should have been obvious (my little sister and I thought for a long time that moms "just don't really eat"), she had her image so controlled and polished that the first signs of her complete mental breakdown didn't fully register with anyone except me, who had been waiting for years to "catch" her being crazy so I could prove I had been right all along. (I wish I hadn't been proved right.)

When she started racking up the billable hours at her new firm, she complained of not having enough energy to work 10 hours per day, plus two hour-long runs and a lunch break spent swimming laps, so she found a doctor to prescribe her Ritalin. She soon began to get painfully thin, to where her gums were protruding and her hairline receding, and had a bug-eyed look that went well with her newfound love of gangster rap.

But when it started to get so bad that she was asked to take a "break" from work so as to not scare all the clients away, we somehow convinced her to see a slightly more attentive psychiatrist, and that's when shit really started to go down. All of a sudden she was knocking back a million different psychotropic meds every day, all the SSRIs, the MAOIs, the antipsychotics, the sedatives... seemingly everything.

That was great; she became the official crazy lady in our town of 7,000; wearing mismatched neon knee socks with eskimo boots and multilayered band T-shirts (ahead of her time, fashion-wise), waving to people she didn't know and swerving between bewildered silences, profanity-laced outbursts, and racially insensitive nonsequiturs (my mom is not a racist!).

One day I called her up from college (I was then a sophomore in a nearby city), and she assumed I was not her daughter, but her childhood friend whom I was named for. Who had died years ago. Whose funeral we attended together. She didn't know who I was!

At this point I learned she had started what was to be a two-year-long bout of frequent, intense electroconvulsive therapy (like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") that rendered her demented for days at a time and erased much of her memory. When I came home to do my laundry one weekend, I found her thoughtfully starting it for me, only to realize she was putting cat food (dry, thank god) into the washer with my precious clothes! Why, mom?

"It's... for them... to eat."


Mom, would you like to see a movie?


Ok, what movie?

"Fuck George Bush!"

Ok, that one isn't playing (yet). Although it was reassuring that one of the few scraps of her personality she held onto was her progressive politics.

My sister and I and our three older siblings, along with everyone else who knew my mom, each had our own special moment wherein we realized that she was truly gone. When she visited me at my first apartment off-campus, her collection of wrist scrunchies (ew) slipped down and revealed that she had carved the word "die" into her arm repeatedly. She had a seizure in the grocery store.

We had to pry her off the gym stairmaster and take her to the ER for shock from dehydration several days before my dad's 56th birthday. My mom's best friend of 26 years told me that we "[were] all mourning mom."

Because it was like she was dead, and had been replaced with a pod person. My mom had been cool, witty and fun, and now she was like a spastic zombie. She had traveled the world and been close friends with the governor, and now she was cloistered at home on mental health disability indefinitely. (Coincidentally, that year was when Gnarls Barkley had that big hit song, "Crazy" which provided great comic relief for my little sister and me.)

Seeing my poor dad trying to grapple with what had happened to his true love still breaks my heart to think of, but to his infinite credit, he said to me (when I so delicately asked why he didn't divorce her and find a non-crazy wife), "I married your mother and promised to love her and take care of her no matter what." That still makes me cry.

The tipping point was when she "broke free" from my dad and sister in the middle of our (little) downtown -- she ran to the police station begging for help because she had no clue who her husband (of almost 30 years) and (20-year-old) daughter were and she thought she was being kidnapped. She thought she was back in the 70s, stuck married to Biff. This was almost three years into the shit.

When my dad arrived, it was pretty clear who the crazy one was, and shortly thereafter, her psychiatrist made the decision to try one last remedy before they turned to deep-brain stimulation (aaaaah!): a massive, in-hospital ketamine trip. That's right, a team of professionally trained maniacs sent my mommy down the k-hole. And wow, what a trip.

She was completely fucked out of her ever loving mind for a good while after that (she was obsessed with filling out insurance papers because she thought they were "a big contest"). And I was almost totally resigned to the reality of having a swearing, vacant-eyed alien in place of my mother for the rest of my life. But of course it didn't just end like that.

Against all odds, she has been slowly regaining bits of her old self in the four years since her big trip. She still can't hang with big crowds of people (my recent wedding was a challenge for her), and she is only now -- after 40 years! -- admitting to a dangerously severe eating disorder, but she is on significantly fewer meds. She is back to work at a less stressful job.

And she knows who I am, for real now.

The author was raised in the wilds of Vermont, where a steady diet of grade B maple syrup propelled her to the towering height of 5'2" (and three quarters!) and is now living in Portland, OR, acting like a grown-up in public and trying to make a living off her art. She remained anonymous to protect her mommy's identity.